Friday, December 18, 2015

Yuletide Phishing and other Seasonal and Unseasonal Scams

I got an email from Amazon, which happens a lot in the weeks before Christmas. This one looked very much like a normal Amazon mail, but it was from Amazon.UK.

"We thought you'd like to know that we've dispatched your item(s). Your gift order is on the way."

The gift is a £68.93 ($103) "Garmin Forerunner 10 GPS Running Watch." And it was "Paid by gift card."

As I did not recognize the item and could not imagine that anybody in my family would buy or want a GPS Watch I mailed my wife who answered that "we've been scammed!"

I opened my Amazon account, but not through the email, and changed my password and removed my credit cards that were linked to the account.

Then I checked out the email purporting to be from Amazon.UK., but it was actually linked to a URL with "goodtogreatgolf" as its centerpiece.

The scam was clever on several levels, but that URL pops the bubble. Many who get an email from Amazon that looks real, but tells them that they have bought something strange will probably be upset and want to log in immediately to find out what's going on. If they do, they will give the crooks their login information, and then the next email about something they "bought" may be matched with real charges on their credit cards.

I reported the phishing expedition to Amazon and deleted the email.

*
An hour later we get a phone call:

"Hello, this is the technical department of Windows," says the guy calling from Bangalore or wherever. Not the first time. This must be one of the more stupid scams out there.

Computerworld wrote about this type of scams in May 2014:
Aggressive, persistent Windows tech support scammers continue to stalk consumers

I've gotten similar calls before, sometimes claiming to come from "the Windows operating system."
“I am calling you from Windows”: A tech support scammer dials Ars Technica

Knock, knock...

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Populism in Europe, Russia and America - Berlusconi, Putin and Trump

, a brilliant and very knowledgeable columnist for the New York Times had a column in today's paper where he compared American populists with their European siblings.
Here are a couple of quotes from his article:

Euro-Trump 

Long before the destruction and death in France last week, Trump’s presidential campaign was following the path of right-wing working class parties in Europe. Over the past decade, these parties have capitalized on animosity to immigration and the perceived threat it presents to Europe’s autonomy, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” its “postwar economic model,” and its Christian identity.” 
Further down, he writes:
In an effort to place Trump in an international perspective, I asked Herbert Kitschelt, a professor of international relations at Duke, for a more encompassing view of Trump:
A populist leader ventures to establish a personal, intimate relationship with his followers, unmediated by political organizations. Populists have an aversion against organizations and are conspiracy theorists. Consider when Trump invokes that he is in “no one’s pocket” financially. His aversion against the Republican Party establishment. This idiom of the little guys against the machines, with a heroic leader coming to the rescue of the powerless underdogs, is a procedural template in politics that has, of course, inspired many political movements, particularly in times of crisis and economic decline: Think of Latin American populism (especially Juan Perón in Argentina in the 1940s), but also European fascism (Hitler, Mussolini), to Hugo Chávez in the 1990s and 2000s.
Kitschelt added, however, that he associated Trump most closely with Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister of Italy:
You have there the same swagger of the self-made billionaire, even if they are not self-made, the womanizer suggesting unlimited sexual prowess and appetite, the slayer of organizational dragons, the Manichean contrast of good and evil, as well as the substantive programmatic vacuity.
Right behind Berlusconi, “I probably would nominate Vladimir Putin,” Kitschelt said.
For an interesting take on Trump and how he attracts low-educated white racist and fascist supporters, read Evan Osnos' article The Fearful and the Frustrated in The New Yorker,
On June 28th, twelve days after Trump’s announcement, the Daily Stormer, America’s most popular neo-Nazi news site, endorsed him for President: “Trump is willing to say what most Americans think: it’s time to deport these people.” The Daily Stormer urged white men to “vote for the first time in our lives for the one man who actually represents our interests.”

Hannah Arendt would have recognized what's going on. Highly frustrated people with little knowledge and little political experience are starting to listen to charismatic protofascist demagogues who plays the game as it almost always is played. Attack minority groups. Promise a return to the "good old days" when only white lives mattered, and not even all of those.

Read more about Arendt here:

Does history repeat itself? Does this sound familiar? On the origins of Trumpism...

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Headlines that ask questions about the future

Too many people for the future job market...

Artificial intelligence: ‘Homo sapiens will be split into a handful of gods and the rest of us’

Too few people for diverse reasons... 


Or maybe it's a matter of how the spoils of progress are divided...

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Does history repeat itself? Does this sound familiar? On the origins of Trumpism...

No, I'm not comparing Donald Trump to Hitler or his supporters to the Nazi movement, but there are similarities between the social forces that drove the popularity of yesterday's demagogic and charismatic leaders and today's political clowns like Trump (who has quite a few things in common with Mussolini, but even more with Berlusconi.) Below is a long quote from a classic analysis of the rise of totalitarianism in Europe. Read and reflect.
"It was characteristic of the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany and of the Communist movements in Europe after 1930 that they recruited their members from this mass of apparently indifferent people whom all other parties had given up as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention. 
The result was that the majority of their membership consisted of people who never before had appeared on the political scene. This permitted the introduction of entirely new methods into political propaganda, and indifference to the arguments of political opponents; these movements not only placed themselves outside and against the party system as a whole, they found a membership that had never been reached, never been "spoiled" by the party system. 
Therefore they did not need to refute opposing arguments and consistently preferred methods which ended in death rather than persuasion, which spelled terror rather than conviction. They presented disagreements as invariably originating in deep natural, social, or psychological sources beyond the control of the individual and therefore beyond the power of reason. This would have been a shortcoming only if they had sincerely entered into competition with other parties; it was not if they were sure of dealing with people who had reason to be equally hostile to all parties. 
The success of totalitarian movements among the masses meant the end of two illusions of democratically ruled countries in general and of European nation-states and their party system in particular. 
The first was that the people in its majority had taken an active part in government and that each individual was in sympathy with one's own or somebody else's party. On the contrary, the movements showed that the politically neutral and indifferent masses could easily be the majority in a democratically ruled country, that therefore a democracy could function according to rules which are actively recognized by only a minority. 
The second democratic illusion exploded by the totalitarian movements was that these politically indifferent masses did not matter, that they were truly neutral and constituted no more than the inarticulate backward setting for the political life of the nation. Now they made apparent what no other organ of public opinion had ever been able to show, namely, that democratic government had rested as much on the silent approbation and tolerance of the indifferent and inarticulate sections of the people as on the articulate and visible institutions and organizations of the country.
Thus when the totalitarian movements invaded Parliament with their contempt for parliamentary government, they merely appeared inconsistent: actually, they succeeded in convincing the people at large that parliamentary majorities were spurious and did not necessarily correspond to the realities of the country, thereby undermining the self-respect and the confidence of governments which also believed in majority rule rather than in their constitutions. 
It has frequently been pointed out that totalitarian movements use and abuse democratic freedoms in order to abolish them. This is not just devilish cleverness on the part of the leaders or childish stupidity on the part of the masses. Democratic freedoms may be based on the equality of all citizens before the law; yet they acquire their meaning and function organically only where the citizens belong to and are represented by groups or form a social and political hierarchy . . . "
(Hannah ArendtThe Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951)

Friday, October 9, 2015

"Knausgaard transcribes; Ferrante transforms. Her prose is wine to Knausgaard’s mop water."

I was already thinking of reading Elena Ferrante when the latest issue of The Nation arrived with William Deresiewicz's essay about Ferrante's Neapolitan suite. It's brilliant and made me move Ferrante to the top of my reading list now that I have finished re-reading James Michener's novel about the 1960s - The Drifters (which as one can expect from Michener is exhaustively long, complex and highly analytical, but often woody and laden with stereotypes).

Then, in the third paragraph, he delivers this terrific comparison between Ferrante and Knausgaard:

The obvious comparison is to Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian author of My Struggle, another multivolume first-person epic that has burst upon the literary scene in recent years. Knausgaard assures us, in prose of aggressive banality, that every word is accurate to his experience. Ferrante, in The Paris Review, offers a direct (and perhaps deliberate) rejoinder. “It’s not enough to say, as we increasingly do, These events truly happened, it’s my real life, the names are the real ones, I’m describing the real places where the events occurred. If the writing is inadequate, it can falsify the most honest biographical truths.” Knausgaard transcribes; Ferrante transforms. Her prose is wine to Knausgaard’s mop water. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

On the InterRail Way of Travel

The InterRail Pass was introduced in 1972 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the International Railway Union (Union Internationale des Chemins de Fer). Youth under 21 years old were offered to travel for one month in 21 member countries at a very low cost, less than 30 British pounds or about 50 U.S. dollars.

  Watch a 2012 documentary celebrating the 40th anniversary of the InterRail Pass. 
 

About 5,000 young people bought the InterRail Pass in 1972, and it was so popular that it was repeated in 1973, when about 85,000 young travelers bought the card. Over the years, the InterRail Pass had expanded its reach to more and more countries, while the travel offers has become more varied and even includes First Class travel. Outside Europe the card is known as the Eurail Pass.

For most young people traveling with the InterRail Card/Pass in 1973 was very, very different from how you travel today. Most kids traveled without credit cards, cellphones, Internet, Web, Facebook, WiFi, guidebooks and with very little money. If you couldn't find a campground or a bed in a youth hostel, you had to sleep on a night train, on a beach, with a friend, on a railway station or wherever you found a place to rest your head. It was not always safe, but kids who had come of age in 1968 didn't worry much about safety. They were naive and willing to take risks. And most of them made it home alright.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Falling in Love while Staying True to Self

Auguste Rodin's "The Kiss". Photo: Hans Sandberg
The Italian sociologist Francesco Alberoni wrote that falling in love is “the first stage of a collective movement consisting of two people.”

A single person can do whatever he or she wants, but that freedom is limited to what it is physically and biologically possible. (A human being cannot fly on its own, unless we consider falling towards the Earth a form of flying).

When God created Eve out of Adam’s rib, he created the first society. (Let us for a moment ignore the fact that both men and women normally are born to women who have been impregnated by men. The whole idea of God creating Eve out of Adam’s rib is certainly weird, almost like the Greek myth, where Athena springs fully armed from the head of Zeus.)  

When two people enter into a relationship, they are simultaneously entering into a power relation; a power structure. Many options are possible here: The most likely is that one person –  the strongest, smartest, shrewdest – becomes the dominant actor. It is of course theoretically possible that the two reach an equilibrium where they can work towards a shared goal, whether it is protection against a threat or solving a critical task that can only be achieved by collaboration between equals. When everybody is poor, it is easier to be equal, but once society and production technology allows for creation of a surplus, society is likely to split in some who dominate and others who are dominated. This split can be done along many lines, gender, race, culture, family, tribe etc.

Nobody is truly independent. No couple, family, tribe, society lives alone. When Aristotle wrote that human beings are political, he meant that they are social beings by nature. We are born into a specific social, biological and cultural setting. We are born into a historic setting.

When a man meets a woman he will be doing this in a social and historic context built on established facts, traditions, social structures, prejudices etc. Knowing what we know about human history, chances are that the relationship is complex, reflecting a long history of power, inequality and injustice. (One man and one woman is of course not the only possible combination, but the dominant type due to the Darwinian process of evolution.) 

How should we deal with the pain and inequality inherited from the past?

Jesus supposedly died on the cross for our sins. That is one way to deal with history. We are all sinners, an insight that reflects the fact that there is something fundamental in humanity that makes us want to do the right thing (as defined by the time and society we live in). Unlike the big apes, we belong to a collaborative species where empathy is an essential trait. We suffer if we don’t do what we deep down feel is the right thing.

Sacrifice is one way to deal with this and to build societies that stay together. Religion is one way to address the problem of “free riders,” and one that humans have practiced for a very long time. Humans tried to relieve themselves of guilt by sacrificing either other people or animals. The Christian innovation was to have one historic person sacrificed for all our sins, making further human sacrifice unnecessary. Once could say that this was a step in the right direction.

Every man who meets a woman will face a similar dilemma. He will enter a historic moment where he will have to navigate his own life and responsibility, and the heritage left by history. Even though love is a great equalizer that has the potential to put two individuals on an equal footing by making them strive for a shared goal, this does not eliminate the past. As beautiful and intoxicating as love is (love’s madness) there is no escaping reality other than for a short moment. At some point, the lovers will have to face reality and come to grips with the nature of their relationship, the history of their beings and relations. They carry history with them, and it is unlikely that they are equal or equally passionate or that their goals are perfectly aligned.

This can be a painful discovery. Love’s slate is not clean, but love cannot survive unless the couple acts as if it is. They must learn to take each other for what they are and be ready to forgive and accept. If Eve tells Adam that it is not fair that he came first, then she has already given up on love. If Adam tells Eve that he owns her, as she came from his body, then he does not love her.

Love is new. A person falls in love with another person. In Greek mythology, mankind originally had two heads, four arms and four legs, but was cut in half and since then the two have chased each other. That is kind of silly, but also sweet. The lover wants the other person to be part of him (her). Love seeks unification.

In love we feel complete. When we fall in love, we forget about ourselves, about our needs, and we are willing to sacrifice our identity, but love cannot be sustained unless we remain true to ourselves; unless we hold onto our identity. There has to be an I that enters into a relationship. If that I evaporates, there can be no relationship. It takes two to tango. If we forsake ourselves, love maybe complete, but we are gone. This works for some insects, but not for human beings.

The scars of inequality will always be there, but unless you have committed a crime, you are not guilty. We don’t inherit the sins of our fathers and forefathers. It is I that enter a relationship with another human being. I will treat you as an equal and you must treat me as an equal. It doesn’t matter if you or I am rich or poor, black, brown, yellow or white, gay or straight, man or woman or something in-between. We must both be proud of who we are. I must be proud to be a man and you should be proud to be a woman. (The same goes for other combinations and variations.)

Love is unselfish, but it is an act that requires two strong people who maintain their strength and independence. Love may succeed or it may die, but you and the person you loved will live on even if your particular love affair fails or dies. In fairytales and romantic novels, lovers face death together, or as in the case of Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” – alone. But that has more to do with the needs of storytelling than life.  

A person who is unable to love himself/herself cannot love another person. The torturer knows that to break a person, you must first make them feel bad about themselves; stop loving themselves. Initiation rites often involves acts that makes the person sacrifice its pride; its humanity. Once you stop loving yourself, you will obey orders. Emotional blackmail works the same way. If a person believes that its worth is tied to somebody else or a tribe or gang, then that person can be manipulated.

Whoever you are – man, woman, gay or straight, mainstream or side-stream – you need to protect your dignity. If your lover hurts your feelings, or puts you down in word or action, you need to defend yourself for the sake of your capacity to love. If you allow the loved one to say or do things that makes you uncomfortable, then you are allowing your ability to love to evaporate. You may feel that it is a necessary compromise, and that it is only a temporary thing, but you should not let go of yourself or doubt your own feelings. If it hurts, it hurts. As much as a lover wants to please the one her or she loves, fear of the other is the beginning of the end. If a relationship that starts out as being equal tilts so that it can only be sustained by one person bending over backwards, than it is not love anymore, but a power relationship where one person dominates another. The person being dominated often responds by begging for love (sometimes in words, but mostly in deeds), but such a relationship is already unhealthy and domed. The dominant partner often threatens the dominated by threatening to withhold love. Once the relationship becomes based on fear of losing the love, fear of saying no, then love is gone.

When a man loves a woman, a woman loves a man or a person loves another person, they all need to know who they are, where one begins and the other ends. If you lose your sense of self, you lose your ability to reason and make decisions. Then love is lost.

Trust yourself. Be open and honest. Then love is possible. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Afghanistan Before All Hell Broke Loose

Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, links Afghanistan and the Grateful Dead in his latest column and the connection goes way back.

"We had not planned to be in Afghanistan for the 1973 coup. In fact we had not planned much of anything. But that’s the way it turned out. When the Afghan king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, was ousted after a 40-year reign, we were in Kandahar in the courtyard of some hotel trying to learn how to ignore the flies. Another guest, who’d mastered the fly trick and attained imperturbability, had a short-wave radio. It picked up the BBC World Service news. 
A coup? My two friends and I were on the hippie trail." 
(Roger Cohen, Afghanistan, Empires and the Grateful Dead, NYT, July 20, 2015)
I traveled through Afghanistan a year later, when the king's first cousin and successor, Mohammed Daoud Khan, had been in power for a year and a couple of months. This was despite the coup a relatively peaceful time in Afghanistan's history.

If you want to read more about my 1974 journey, follow the link below:

Taking the Bus from Stockholm to New Delhi.




Sunday, March 15, 2015

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Lonely American Journey to the Center of his World

I don’t quite understand America’s persistent infatuation with most everything Nordic (i.e. Scandinavia plus Iceland and Finland). Things had just returned to a relative calm after a couple of years when you couldn't open a newspaper or turn on your TV without facing Stieg Larsson’s ghost when the editors of the New York Times Sunday Magazine decided to ask Karl Ove Knausgaard, the great Norwegian explorer of the mundane, to spend ten days in search of real and imaginary Viking landmarks and Scandinavian descendants.

Knausgaard began his journey in L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland in Canada, the desolate piece of land where a group of Vikings landed about 1,000 years ago. It was cold, a storm was approaching, but a friendly newfie, husband of the receptionist, took Knausgaard to the historic site, which he however found underwhelming, quite contrary to the locals he saw at Jungle Jim’s restaurant in St. Anthony (pop. 2,418). 
“Everyone in the place, except the waiter, was fat, some of them so fat that I kept having to look at them.“
The first half of Knausgaard’s 21,000-word essay gives us a close up (CSI style) retelling of the author’s general incompetence at handling life’s little things: 
“I use top-up cards because no Swedish phone company will let me open an account, I have too many late payments on my credit report. Nor will any bank lend me money to buy a house or a car. I have to pay everything in cash.” 
If you are planning a road trip in North America, actually, in any country, it helps to have a driver’s license. He did not, as he confesses in the opening paragraph of his personal saga. 
“I lost my driver’s license over a year ago. I lose stuff all the time. Credit cards, passports, car keys, cash, books, bags, laptops. It doesn't worry me, they usually turn up eventually.” 
Not only did he not have the license, he never applied for a new one, and he left for America without it. Once in St. Anthony, it hit him that he had a problem: 
“I lay back in bed and stared at the ceiling. I should email The Times and explain the situation. Maybe they had a solution. But I couldn't. I just couldn't bring myself to tell them that I’d undertaken this great road-trip assignment across the U.S. without my license. They’d think I was a complete idiot.” 
But maybe he was too hard on himself. 
“These things happen often; in my experience they always turn out fine. There is a saying in Norway that he who loses money shall receive money, and I think that’s true, because when you lose things, it means you’re not on your guard, you’re not trying to control everything, you’re not being so anal all the time — and if you aren't, but allow yourself to be open to the world instead, then anything at all might come to you.” 
Say what you want about our author, his flow is hard to stop once it gets going. 
“When I came back in, I went to the toilet. I hadn't gone since I arrived in America, so the result was significant. I wiped myself thoroughly, then flushed.” 
But this particular toilet was not ready for such a significant download, and initiated an upload of its own, leading to a long hand–to–bowl battle that the author relates blow-by-blow.

That was a low point for our hero, and things could only get better from then on. He found his way to Cleveland in the United States, where he met his assigned photographer, who offered to do the driving. That was a nice gesture, but Knausgaard was concerned about something else. 
“I didn't really enjoy talking to people that much, at least not to strangers, and the thought of spending the next five days in a car with someone I didn't know was a bit unsettling.” 
He overcame his hesitation and the pair set out westwards, smoking a lot, staying in dingy hotels and eating among the locals. 
“So what’s your plan?” he asked.
“I don’t really have a plan,” I said. “Drive up toward Minnesota, that’s all. And then maybe rent a car myself tomorrow or the day after. If you don’t mind, that is.”
“No problem.”
“I’m a little shy,” I said. “I don’t usually talk very much. Just so you know what’s in store for you.”
“I don’t think you’re that untalkative,” he said. “But it’s fine with me. I can talk, and I can be quiet.”
We ate on in silence, he checked something out on his cellphone. Then he looked up at me.
“So your idea is to drive across America and write about it without talking to a single American?”
“Yes,” I said.
“That’ll be a challenge,” he said.
“I know,” I said. 
Having been driven through Detroit, a city that imploded after the near-death of the U.S. auto industry, Knausgaard compares it to “the slums outside Maputo, in Mozambique.” 
But Detroit was worse. 
“If what I had seen tonight — house after house after house abandoned, deserted, decaying as if there had been disaster — if this was poverty, then it must be a new kind poverty, maybe in the same way that the wealth that had amassed here in the 20th century had been a new kind of wealth.” 
This sounds profound, until you reread it and realize that it is an pompous setup for a reflection on contemporary America. 
“I had never really understood how a nation that so celebrated the individual could obliterate all differences the way this country did. In a system of mass production, the individual workers are replaceable and the products are identical. The identical cars are followed by identical gas stations, identical restaurants, identical motels and, as an extension of these, by identical TV screens, which hang everywhere in this country, broadcasting identical entertainment and identical dreams. Not even the Soviet Union at the height of its power had succeeded in creating such a unified, collective identity as the one Americans lived their lives within. When times got rough, a person could abandon one town in favor of another, and that new town would still represent the same thing.” 
Almost exactly the same thought returns a few pages later in the article. 
"Nowhere in the world has shared culture been a more imperative requirement than in America. More than 300 million people live here, and they had descended over the course of a very few generations from a huge number of disparate cultures, with different histories, ways of behavior, worldviews and experiential backgrounds. All of them, sooner or later, had been required to relinquish their old culture and enter the new one. That must be why the most striking thing about the United States was its sameness, that every place had the same hotels, the same restaurants, the same stores. And that must be why every American movie was made after the same template and why, in this sense, every movie expressed the same thing. And that must be why all these TVs were hanging on the walls, unwatched; they created an immediate sense of belonging, a feeling of home." 
Albeit his editor at the Sunday Magazine suggested that he write as “a tongue-in-cheek Tocqueville,” this is more like a warmed over New Left critique of late capitalist alienation. It’s an as stale as stereotypical view of America, which it would be hard to maintain unless you like Knausgaard make it your business not to talk to people. (And I bet he never listened to “The Prairie Home Companion.)

It is true that most products in the United States are standardized, but this is certainly true for most products in most countries, and I’m quite sure that cars in Norway looks pretty much the same and so does its gas stations, TV screens and hotel rooms. And if a worker leaves his job or is fired, he or she can be replaced there too.

What is confusing to many foreign observers of America is that you have such a blend of people, and that they still basically get along with each other, smile when meeting strangers, and say “Hello, how are you?” Something the Swedish anthropologist Åke Daun explained decades ago in his book "Swedish Mentality."  But for Knausgaard, it seems unfathomable that you can have a shared shallow culture that makes it easy to fit in and get along, at the same time as you have a subculture with deeper roots that you share within your ethnic group and your family. (What most foreigners see as America’s superficial culture is actually a cultural user interface that by necessity must be shallow.) 

The fact that he thinks American’s form a “unified, collective identity” that “not even the Soviet Union at the height of its power had succeeded in creating” leaves me dumbfounded. And his claim that people in America have been “required to relinquish their old culture and enter the new one” reveals an ignorance and lack of perception that is amazing.

The only occasions when Knausgaard allows himself to venture outside his safety zone is when he reflects on books he read, music he likes and people (preferably Norwegians) that he can trust and empathize with. He tells about his mother’s uncle Magnus who migrated to America but left his heart back in the Old Country. 
“When I saw Bergen and Bygstad, Flatråker, etc., I felt such a powerful longing that I could not hold my tears back,” Magnus wrote home from Grafton, N. D. back in 1928. 
The second part of Knausgaard’s "My Saga" had the subtitle "On the Road in the American interior" and ran on March 15, but a better choice would have been: “A meandering exploration of the author’s interior.”  

In it we learn that it is cold in Minnesota in January, that the author doesn't know how to drive an automatic, but is reluctant to reveal his incompetence by asking for instructions, that Target stores are big (“at least 50 feet high”) and that they probably would not have been there if Columbus like the Vikings had left the continent alone and just returned home.
“It’s inconceivable” he writes, only to conceive it a few paragraphs down. “Leaving America and yet keeping it under watch would have turned the continent into a kind of vast human nature reserve, the people there following their own path of development, without knowing they were under observation.”
The road trip continues and we are treated to half a page about the challenges of smoking in a rental car when it is so cold that you freeze if you keep the windows open. Knausgaard loses a burning cigarette butt and can’t figure out how to push the button so that the seat moves back and reveals the cigarette.
"When we continued north, I felt depressed. What Peter had said, about the burning cigarette being the most exciting thing to happen so far on our trip, was actually true. If this had been just any old trip, it wouldn't have mattered. But I was supposed to write something about this trip, and not only that, I was supposed to use this trip to grasp something essential about the U.S., perceive something with my foreign gaze that Americans couldn't see for themselves. Instead, I saw nothing. I experienced nothing."
Back on the  road, the pair pulls over somewhere to take a look at a big Jesus statue, which makes our foot-in-the-mouth Tocqueville ponder on religion in America.
"The statue of Jesus was obviously not the work of a modern caricaturist or intellectual, toying with the fundamentally childish nature of faith. It had been made, I assumed, in a sincere attempt to represent what is finest and most important in the world. Over the course of the past two days, I had seen many images of Jesus, all of them cartoonish stereotypes, yet they must have been genuine expressions of something many people considered deeply significant.”
Once again, the Americans come up short in comparison with Russia.
“The contrast with, say, Russia, was striking: Had I been driving there, I would have come across a very different caliber of representations of Christ, given the nation’s many monasteries, churches and thousand-year-old tradition of icon painting. Throw Dostoyevsky into the bargain, and Russian Orthodox Christianity becomes something you could spend your entire life studying, because it seems so close — with its notions of guilt, grace and redemption — to the enigma of existence itself, touching the core of what it is to be human.
How do you compare that to a billboard with a line drawing of a good-natured, bearded man and a phone number to dial for salvation?”
So the American Jesus expresses “the fundamentally childish nature of faith,” while “you could spend your entire life studying” Russian religion. But wait, there is more, as they say in TV commercials.
“I gloated a little over that thought as we drove north through the empty, darkening woods, until it struck me how wrong I was. The depth of American religion lay not in visual art, not in representation but, obviously, in music. I had some gospel records at home; some of the recordings were from the 1920s, and their raw force, their fervor, heartfelt and ecstatic at the same time, was like a fire, brutal yet beautiful, no less exquisite than a Russian Orthodox icon."
Thank God for Gospel music! Without it, America wouldn't have a chance to touch the core of what it is to be human. 

This far in, I have all but given up any hope of finding America in this saga, which is about Karl Ove Knausgaard, a rather sad and lonely fellow in need of the talking cure. An evening at Izzy’s BBQ Lounge and Grill in Duluth, Minnesota, provides an opportunity to try just that.
"When I woke up the next morning, I had an anxiety attack. I lay there for a long time, staring out at the empty room. The last thing I could remember was that I had gotten into an elevator. I had no recollection of seeing the room before. Everything was terrible, everything was diseased and I was a ridiculous, laughable character. Oh, God, what an idiot I was.
I had talked.
To total strangers, I had babbled away. With no dignity whatsoever, happy and enthusiastic over every little thing. I had given compliments! My eyes had filled up with tears at my own human warmth and goodness.
Oh, Jesus, was I an idiot."
Knausgaard did also get a chance to visit an American home and talk soberly to an actual American, since he – prodded by the photographer – located Mark Hatloy, a second cousin living near Grafton, North Dakota. They met and the author was suddenly at ease.
"It felt odd, getting so close to a man whom I had met for the first time a few hours ago, who was so American in everything he said and did. And yet somehow I felt as if I knew him. Why the feeling of intimacy? Because our grandfathers were brothers?"
Knausgaard hates to be among strangers. It’s understandable, but the contrast to Bob Dylan, who he admires couldn't be any bigger:
“…there was nothing about Bob Dylan to remind one of a statue, nothing about his music or his role had become rigid or clearly defined, no final form enclosed him. In fact, it was as if he weren't really a person at all, but had somehow dissolved into his music. His old songs were constantly in motion, and the new songs emerged from the same stream. As he traveled around, permanently on tour, you couldn’t tell what came from him and what belonged to the American song tradition; he was just playing the music.” 
“All writers, artists and musicians know the feeling: when you disappear into what you are doing, lose yourself in it and are no longer aware that you exist, while at the same time the feeling of existing is profound and total and what you make is never better. Work created in this state really shouldn't be published in the artist’s name, because it has been created precisely by the artist’s nonpersonal, nonindividual, selfless side. Bob Dylan is the master of the selfless self, the king of the not-one’s-one, a deeply paradoxical figure who lived and breathed the music of this deeply paradoxical country.”
Which makes me wonder if Bob Dylan would have written anything like "My Struggle" or “My Saga”? Would his story be about him, and him alone?

The final stop on his journey was Alexandria, Minnesota, (pop.  11,070), which sports Big Ole, a 25 feet tall Viking statue built for the World’s Fair in New York 1964, but is more known for the Kensington Runestone, which Olof Olsson Ohman, a Swedish immigrant, claimed to have discovered in a field back in 1898.

The inscription on the controversial stone goes:
“Eight Goths and twenty-two Norwegians upon a journey of discovery from Vinland westward. We had a camp by two skerries one day’s journey north of this stone. We were out fishing one day. When we returned home we found ten men red with blood and dead.
Ave Virgo Maria, save us from evil. Have ten men by the sea to look after our vessel, fourteen days’ journey from this island. Year 1362.”
Here he is facing a rather typical piece of American fakery, created by immigrants eager to make a mark and extend their roots, and he finds nothing childish in this. In fact, he draws a line to a literary God, Vladimir Nabokov:
"I loved it not only because I had finally seen something in the United States that Humbert and Lolita could have seen — a fabulous entry for Nabokov’s catalog of American monuments, wonders and reconstructions — but also because it struck me that the image of reality that this particular reconstruction presented was, in a curious way, absolutely true.
It was liberating to see how small and insignificant each separate part of this history was, compared with our notions about its grandness. It felt liberating, because that is what the world is really like, full of insignificant trifles that we use to blunder on as best we can, one by one, whether we happen to be 19th-century immigrants building a log cabin in some forest glade, cold and miserable, longing to sit motionless for a few hours in front of the fire; or a local museum director in a Norwegian children’s sweater; or a crafty Swede, carving runes into a stone and burying it in a field in an attempt to change world history. Or for that matter, an inept Norwegian writer who has spent 10 days on assignment in the U.S. without discovering anything, apart from this."
That is his excuse for having wasted ten days, 21,000 words and too much of our time.

Monday, March 9, 2015

New York's Mayor Bill de Blasio Spoke at the March 6th Memorial for Deborah Darrell



Deborah Darrell was a dear friend who suddenly passed away this past December. My wife Lisa became friends with Deb soon after becoming U.S. Press Director for H&M back in 2004.

Deborah Darrell in 2009.
I had actually first met Deb several years before, at a party back in the 1990s when she was working for the U.S. Foreign Press Center, but it was after she became Lisa's friend and mentor that I really got to know her. We often met at Niles Bar across the street from Penn Station to discuss business ideas, since we were thinking of starting a consulting agency together. (Lisa would collaborate with Deb in her agency Cue several years later.)

It was always fun to meet with Deb as she had this ability to make everything sound possible and just around the corner. Which in a way made her a soul mate of Barack Obama, whom we heard speaking at Coopers Union in New York on March 27, 2008.

Bill de Blasio and guests at a fundraiser
Deborah Darrell held in her home in 2009.
Deb would campaign for Obama in 2008, holding fund raisers and knocking on doors, doing what she could to help him win.

In April 2009, she invited us to a fundraiser for Bill de Blasio in her new apartment on 110th street, which overlooked the northern edge of Central Park. We were not sure about who he was then as he was fairly unknown and running for Public Advocate in New York.

But we trusted Deb and we drove in to Manhattan from our home in the Princeton area. It was a great party and a nice mix of people. Bill de Blasio had his entire family with him. I remember Bill not only because he was so tall, but because of his intensity and for exuding honesty and uprightness. He was unabashedly progressive and spoke with clarity and force.

And he would win the election for the job as Public Advocate. Three years later he would become Mayor of New York City in a landslide election. I don't know if Deb or anybody else had any idea back then, but one thing I know and that is that she did her part in helping him move forward.

Lisa remembering Deborah Darrell.
Hence it was fitting that Bill de Blasio and his wife Chirlane McCray showed up at the memorial for Deborah at the Snapple Theatre in New York this past Friday. They arrived up a bit late, which according to Deb's and Bill's friend Monsignor Kevin Sullivan is his habit, so he missed both Sullivan's, Bethann Harding's, my wife Lisa's and Benita Gold's reflections on their respective friendships with Deb.

The ceremony continued with Carol Levin singing "They Can't Take That Away From Me" accompanied by Nick Moran on guitar. Then Bill and Chirlane entered the stage.

I captured their reflections with my cellphone camera, so be patient if it gets a bit shaky now and then.

Hubble Telescope Images