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Happy Birthday, James Agee

Lauren Kirchner   November 26, 2014
James Agee, photographed by Walker Evans in 1937

Tomorrow is not only Thanksgiving Day; it’s also the 105th anniversary of the birth of one Mr. James Agee, a reporter and essayist who is very dear to the hearts and brains of The Baffler.

In the summer of 1936, when Agee was a 26-year-old writer at Fortune magazine, he went on assignment for that magazine to Alabama, to the homes of three families of cotton tenant farmers. He wrote a 30,000-word report that documented the families’ lives in painstaking, raw detail. But for reasons unknown, Fortune rejected it. (There are some theories.)

Five years later, Agee expanded the essay and finally published it, together with portraits by Walker Evans, as the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. But the original version that had been meant for Fortune remained dormant in a Greenwich Village basement until fifty years after his death. A few years after that, Baffler editor-in-chief John Summers heard about the papers when he met one of Agee’s family members. He published the essay in book form with Melville House last spring—along with thirty Evans photographs, an introduction by novelist Adam Haslett, and with Agee’s “romantic moral outrage” fully intact.


Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   November 26, 2014
A vigil for Ferguson at McGill University on Wednesday. / Photo by Gerry Lauzon.

• “It would have been powerful to see charges filed against Darren Wilson. At the same time, actual justice for Michael Brown—a world in which young men like Michael Brown can’t be gunned down without consequences—won’t come from the criminal justice system. Our courts and juries aren’t impartial arbiters—they exist inside society, not outside of it—and they can only provide as much justice as society is willing to give.” —Jamelle Bouie for Slate. (Via Bijan Stephen.)

• Here’s Baffler senior editor Chris Lehmann at In These Times about First Look Media: “for all the feverish speculation surrounding First Look‘s troubles, the most obvious culprit is hiding in plain sight: the reliance on truckloads of money from Silicon Valley.”

• Today in Billionaires: Courthouse News Service reports on a curious lawsuit filed by one wealthy investor against his  brother. Rick Sanberg allegedly registered websites under Joseph Sanberg’s name and used them to write “sexist and racist content,” also under Joseph’s name. When Joseph tried to buy the sites and shut them down, he found that they had been registered by Rick, and that Rick was demanding $750,000 for the sales. Joseph is suing his brother for cyberpiracy, false light, and defamation.


Hollybaba’s Blockbusters

Willie Osterweil   November 25, 2014
Photo by leighklotz

If movies can tell us anything about the internal lives of typical film industry executives, it’s that they like to feel like the most important people in any room, like they’re doing everyone else a favor by granting a meeting. So it takes truly special circumstances to have Hollywood honchos visibly courting someone else’s attention and throwing tantrums in the press when they don’t get enough face time—as they did a few weeks ago, when the richest man in China, Jack Ma, came to do a little window shopping.

Ma is the founder of Alibaba, the e-commerce site originally founded to connect Chinese manufacturers and exporters with foreign companies, which has since grown to be not only the major marketplace in Chinese exports, but also the world’s biggest wholesaler and retailer, and the fourth largest tech company in the world, after Apple, Google, and Microsoft. This year, Alibaba is also making big moves into the entertainment business; it bought a film production studio this summer, and has been busy poaching talent for Alibaba Pictures Group.

As Alibaba moves into the movie making business, it encounters a Hollywood particularly eager to find ways into the exploding Chinese film market, now the second largest in the world after ours, and growing rapidly. As Shawn Wen has argued, this is already beginning to transform the content of major Hollywood films, which are increasingly appealing directly to Chinese audiences. Thus far, it has mostly meant the token inclusion of Chinese stars (like Fan Bingbing with a non-speaking role in X-Men: Days of Future Past), specific Chinese edits of films (like four extra minutes of footage spliced into Iron Man 3), and, nominally, setting more films in China and Hong Kong. But it will spell more fundamental changes—in both ideological and narrative content—down the road.


Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   November 25, 2014
A solidarity protest at Howard University after the shooting of Michael Brown in August. / Photo by Debra Sweet.

• A former U.S. attorney writes in the Washington Post about why it’s so difficult to prosecute a police officer: it’s all about the officer’s state of mind. “Federal law sets a very high bar, and essentially requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that an officer intended to deprive a person of his civil rights,” explains Jenny Durkan. (Via The Marshall Project.)

• Meanwhile, across the pond, Britain is introducing a new antiterrorism law that will expand police powers, making it easier for authorities to seize travelers’ passports and track suspects online.

• The Republic of Zuckerstan grows: read this in-depth piece from the Boston Globe on the “families living in the shadow of the innovation economy,” where Cambridge’s poorest neighborhood abuts Kendall Square’s high-tech towers and new start-up labs. (Via Zachary Davis.)


Hacking the Planet: What Could Go Wrong?

Dale Lately   November 24, 2014
A science-fair volcano by Ryan Dickey

You remember this science fiction story, right? Faced with the threat of extinction on a warming planet, an advanced race flies gigantic mirrors into the stratosphere to create a giant “space umbrella” that will bounce the sun’s rays back into the cosmos. But it doesn’t work. Undeterred, the race devises a huge artificial volcano to spew ash into the atmosphere, in order to create a permanent fog in the sky that will dampen the damage from the rays. That doesn’t work either. Desperately, the stricken race pours millions of tons of iron filings into the sea, hoping that it will stimulate phytoplankton to suck the warming gases out of the atmosphere….

You remember that? No, me either. That’s because it wasn’t sci-fi–the above is actually a selection of serious proposals being made to “geo-engineer” our way out of global warming. These proposals are gaining increasing political ground and regularly discussed at symposiums such as the 2014 Berlin Climate Engineering Conference. The bizarre-sounding ideas being discussed include creating giant mechanical honeycombs or seaweed farms to fertilize the oceans (through a process of carbon dioxide reduction, or CDR), and more grandiose projects such as building cloud-spewing ocean drones and space mirrors (through solar radiation management, or SRM—like a dimmer switch for the sun).

The planet hackers are getting busy. Start-ups and patents already abound–as do their creators. Nathan Myhrvold, founder of “Intellectual Ventures,” proposes a “garden hose to the sky,” which aims to fight pollution with more pollution by spewing sulfur into the stratosphere. Russ George is the guerrilla geo-engineer who thoughtfully dumped 100 tons of iron sulfate into the sea in 2012 to try and save the oceans. Lowell Wood’s previous atmospheric tinkering credits include the Star Wars program. But the idea on the SRM side currently gaining most traction seems to be that of a “Giant Sunshade,” which would simulate the cooling effects of a volcanic eruption like Pinatubo back in in 1991 by giving the stratosphere a sulfur injection to bounce back warming rays. In other words, it’s like a giant volcano in the sky. What could possibly go wrong?


Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   November 24, 2014
Photo by Jason Newport

• Find your Silicon Valley job title with this handy generator. Ours is “collaboration sherpa.”

• Um, why is everyone making fun of our folded-cardboard virtual reality masks?

• Quote of the Day, from the Business section of the Portland Press Herald: “Portland Mayor Michael Brennan’s plan to create a citywide minimum wage is both constitutional and a cause for concern, according to a memo from the city’s top attorney.”


Q&A: Erwin Chemerinsky on What’s Broken in the Supreme Court, and How to Fix It

Lauren Kirchner   November 21, 2014
The Case Against the Supreme Court, by Erwin Chemerinsky

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the School of Law at the University of California at Irvine, has written a new book in which he carefully lays out The Case Against the Supreme Court (Viking, 400 pages, $30). It’s a polemic that is both rooted in history and looks ahead to the future—and it’s not nearly as cranky as the title makes it sound.

I spoke with him recently by phone about the biggest problems he sees with “the most pro-business Court we’ve had since the 1930s,” and where he thinks we can go from here.



Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   November 21, 2014
Photo by thefixer

• Today in Millionaires: Japanese millionaire Chisako Kakehi has been the beneficiary of almost $7 million in insurance money after the death of seven husbands and boyfriends over twenty years, reports the Guardian. Her latest husband died of cyanide poisoning; she was arrested this week “in what appears to be Japan’s latest ‘black widow’ case.” (Via Deborah Blum.)

• Today in Harbingers: Eric Cantor has moved on from public service, of course, but now so has his old crew, reports Bloomberg; a trio of his former Congressional staffers have started a lobbying firm called Harbinger Strategies. (Via Jack Shafer and David Dayen.)

• Tuition-hike protests have been getting heated this week, in both California and London.

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