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Inside the Bizarre, Unregulated World of Debt Collection

Mother Jones - 5 hours 39 min ago

One evening a few years ago, a wealthy former Wall Street banker and a convicted armed robber walked into a fancy club in Buffalo, New York—the fading industrial city that, oddly enough, has become America's debt-collection capital. The banker, Aaron Siegel, and the ex-con, Brandon Wilson, were there to meet with Jake Halpern, a hometown boy turned New Yorker writer. Halpern wanted to know what was up with these strange bedfellows, and how they managed to recover a huge bundle of consumer debt—an Excel spreadsheet packed with debtor data that they'd dubbed "the package"—they believed had been stolen from them.

Halpern turned the tale into a book titled, Bad Paper: Chasing Debt From Wall Street to the Underworld. In the book, which published earlier this month, he follows how credit card balances, payday loans, even plastic-surgery debts, move down the food chain from the big banks to ever-smaller, ever-sketchier collection firms that scrap and claw to wring every last penny out of those in hock. I caught up with Halpern to talk about his adventures in this lawless realm. (I also asked him to provide some tips for people who are worried about debt collectors.)

Mother Jones: How did you get interested in this story?

Jake Halpern: My mother was being hounded by a debt collector over a debt that she didn't owe, and she eventually just paid it because she wanted the calls to stop. I was very surprised. It sounded so strange. I started poking around on the internet and found this was extremely common. There was this world where these debts were sold off by the banks for pennies on the dollar and bought and sold.

I was really interested in the idea that these debts were out there in the form of Excel spreadsheets. I wrote up a brief pitch for the New Yorker and sent it over to my editor, Daniel Zalewski, and he wrote back and said "Remnick greenlighted it. When can you get us 5,000 words?" I had really puffed up my chest and said I was a Buffalo boy and could get all of these people to talk to me, and now I was on the hook. So I went back to Buffalo and no one would talk to me! Then I sent Facebook messages to everyone I knew in high school and everyone my brother knew in high school, asking who would let me in the door.

At the time, Brad Pitt's production company wanted to turn this idea into an HBO show. So I set up all these interviews and there were all these people who didn't want to speak with me for the magazine but were happy to talk for the TV show. Among them were Aaron Siegel and Brandon Wilson. As I heard them start to tell their story my eyes lit up. I spent the next year and a half trying to get those guys to cooperate. And that's the genesis.

I hope [readers] just enjoy a rollicking good tale about a banker and an armed robber who become friends and go into business to track down this debt that's stolen from them and takes them into the underworld of the buying and selling of debt. There's an element of this story that felt like a Quentin Tarantino film, and that's what drew me in. That was my concept from the beginning—a crazy caper that's a parable for what happens in the absence of regulation.

MJ: It seems as though you really liked your main characters.

JH: The very first time I saw those guys interact, I knew that was a book. I was interested in this relationship between the armed robber and the banker who were from different worlds but had similar goals. It was kind of a metaphor for this larger marriage of the banks selling off their debt and these street guys scrapping over it.

They needed each other. Aaron needed Brandon for someone who could get good deals on paper and Brandon needed Aaron because he needed someone to be the respectable face of the operation. But they didn't fully trust each other. Then there's the personal dynamic. Aaron thinks it's cool to be friends with an armed robber, and Brandon feels good that he's being invited to Clinton fundraisers.

MJ: Your sources really opened up to you. I loved the scene in which Jimmy, an ex-con-turned-debt-collector, talks about his drug-dealing days and how, when he saw his heroin-addicted father for the last time, his gold chain dangled down and blocked his view of his passed-out father's face. How did you get people to talk to you like that?

JH: There were a number of people who were just extremely candid. I don't know. Sometimes I found myself mystified that they were so open. I think part of it was that no one ever asked them—there was no one there to witness their pain and their struggles, and it just kind of gushed out. I would just leave the recorder on and [Jimmy] would just talk. It's almost easier to tell someone who's so different from you.

MJ: I also enjoyed the scene in which a judge told you that you couldn't use a court hearing in your book, and a lawyer for a creditor threatened to have you prosecuted for "practicing law without a license." What was your reaction to that?

JH: I was genuinely spooked—even though I'm the son of a law professor and a journalist. Looking back, it seems so comical, or absurd. It wasn't until two weeks later that I realized that that was probably one of the more important moments in the book.

MJ: I also loved the part about Tony Scott, who runs a buy-here-pay-here car lot in Georgia: You write, "Tony's business model, I realized, existed at the rock bottom of the credit market. It was what existed in the complete absence of trust: a marketplace where creditors had lost faith in debtors and debtors had lost any sense of obligation—or ability—to pay..... With him, it was back to basics. There was a guy named Tony. He was your last resort. He charged you 24 percent interest, and, if you wanted a car, you paid it. If you didn't pay, Tony took the car. And if you caused trouble, Tony made it known that he was only too happy to whip out his Ruger LCP .380 compact pistol and add some ventilation to your shirt." Did you just trick me into reading a book about poverty?

JH: It's difficult to write about poverty in a way that doesn't feel clichéd. In one version of this book I started the book out with Joanna and Teresa, [two debtors listed in the stolen "package"], and my editor suggested I not do that, because as important as their stories were, they felt really familiar. I had to find a way to put the stories about poverty in there in a way that slipped them in—if it's expected, you just kind of gloss over it.

When we were selling the proposal, we got a response back from a very reputable publishing house saying, "Basically this is a book about poor people, and poor people don't buy books, so 'No.'" The trick then becomes: How do you tell this story in a way that doesn't turn people off before they're really into it?

MJ: What policy changes could help improve debt collection in America?

JH: I think the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is on the right track. There are issues I point out in the book—they're policing the largest companies, but there are something like 9,000 debt-collection companies in the US. I think that you need more policing on the state attorney general level. The CFPB's budget is just 2 percent of what JPMorganChase set aside for litigation and fees for 2014.

One other huge problem is there's no system in place for tracking who owns these debts. Imagine a system where there's no chain of titles for cars, no VIN numbers, and no DMV. There'd be total chaos! But that's basically the system for debt. There are signs it will continue to improve but it's not fixed.

MJ: Anything else you think our readers should know?

JH: The guy that ended up with the stolen debt, I identify him simply as Bill. He didn't want to talk to me at first, and then just before I finished writing the book, he talked to me at length, a three-hour taped interview. At the end of it, I asked him the same question you just asked me. And he said, "I just want to make it clear in no uncertain terms that when Brandon came down and visited my shop, he didn't punk me off. I didn't back down." His main thing was he wanted to make sure that his tough-guy credentials were intact. I guess it made sense, but it just goes to show that you never know why someone will talk.

Olympics to Crack Down on Human Rights Abuses…After 2022

Mother Jones - 6 hours 24 min ago

Following widespread allegations of wrongdoing in both the Beijing and Sochi Olympics, human rights protections will be added to the contracts signed by future Olympic host cities. The International Olympic Committee's president presented this change to Human Rights Watch at an October 21 meeting.

The new language will contractually require host countries to "take all necessary measures to ensure that development projects necessary for the organization of the Games comply with local, regional, and national legislation, and international agreements and protocols, applicable in the host country with regard to planning, construction, protection of the environment, health, safety, and labour laws."

These changes make the human rights requirements for Olympic host cities more explicit than ever before, particularly with the mentions of health, environmental, and labor concerns. The new "international agreements and protocols" rule makes it clear that hosts will be required to abide by laws like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits forced labor, arbitrary arrest or detention, sentence without trial, and protects freedoms of assembly, religion, and opinion.

Beijing, China and Sochi, Russia floundered on some of these protections during the 2012 and 2014 Olympic Games. The international community criticized both host countries for corruption and exploitation of migrant construction workers: Sochi contractors cheated workers out of wages, required 12-hour shifts, and confiscated passports to keep laborers from leaving. In both countries, authorities regularly forced evictions and silenced media and activists. A Russian law passed in the months leading up to the Games that criminalized gay expression garnered global outrage.

Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, says the planned wording will make it easier for the IOC to take official action if a host country breaks contract—through litigation or "the thermonuclear option," termination. Even before such extreme consequences, she is optimistic the explicit wording will give the IOC more power to "put the scare in any host country that is not playing by the human rights rules."

"This is a real rebuke to Russia," she says. "The IOC wants to avoid a repeat."

Since host cities for the next three Olympic Games have already been selected and signed contracts, host countries will be held to the new clause beginning with the 2022 Winter Olympics. Worden says this is particularly timely, as two of the finalists—Almaty, Kazakhstan and Beijing, China—have repressive governments. (The third finalist is Oslo, Norway.)

The human rights clause expands on another impending addition, previewed in a September letter from the IOC to the 2022 candidate cities. That statement promised that future host city contracts will have "an express reference…to the prohibition of any form of discrimination."

Technically, host cities like Sochi and Beijing were already broadly obligated to steer clear of human rights violations and discrimination: The Olympic Charter calls for a respect for "human dignity" and bans discrimination "with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise." But, "we've clearly reached a moment when the words of the Olympic Charter are not enough," says Worden. "You have to put these guarantees in a contract and force the host country to sign it."

Worden hopes the IOC's action will be adopted by organizers of other mega-sporting events at risk of mishandling human rights, such as FIFA. Sharan Burrow, the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, estimates in an ESPN documentary that, at current rates, 4,000 people will die in preparation of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

There's an International Soccer Tournament Where All the Players Are Homeless

Mother Jones - 6 hours 39 min ago

"A homeless soccer team? What?"

That's what Shane Bullock, 26, recalls thinking when a coach came by his San Francisco shelter last fall to recruit players. Now, a year later, he's in Santiago, Chile, representing the United States against teams from 49 countries at the 12th-annual Homeless World Cup.

The Homeless World Cup—which is actually just what it sounds like—draws a total of 100,000 spectators to cheer on teams of homeless (or, like Bullock, recently homeless) men and women in highly competitive four-on-four soccer matches, which are played on a basketball-sized court with walls and mini-goals. 

When he first heard of Street Soccer USA (the Homeless World Cup's US affiliate), Bullock had recently fallen into homelessness. He had moved out of his brother's Sacramento apartment to be closer to another brother in San Francisco, but he found himself on the street and then in a shelter. When he was first approached about joining the team, "I told them I'd take a rain check."

"Finally I decided to go out," he says, although he initially didn't realize that it was a part of a league. "I thought we were just going to play pickup soccer in the alley around the corner. That caught me off guard, but it's been pretty fun."

Bullock was announced as a member of the World Cup men's squad in August at the closing ceremony of the Homeless National Cup, which brought Street Soccer USA (SSUSA) teams from 16 cities to compete in San Francisco. Eight men and eight women were selected, based on off-field achievements, soccer ability, and leadership.

Shane Bullock (in sunglasses) and other members of the San Francisco SSUSA team Street Soccer USA

Regional partners like SSUSA fields (and funds) each team. At practice, SSUSA coaches help players set goals—such as creating a résumé, obtaining identification, earning a GED, or securing housing—and refer them to preexisting social-services agencies. Says SSUSA national director Rob Cann, "They know that when they come to the next practice, we're going to say, 'Hey, you said you were going to go to the DMV this weekend. Did you go?'"

Street Soccer USA meets some of its costs by operating coed, recreational soccer leagues, filled primarily with teams of young professionals. San Francisco's league, I Play for SF, has 85 teams, including the one with homeless players. "It's kind of cool to see our homeless folks assimilate with people from different strains of society," says Bullock's coach, Benjamin Anderson. SSUSA estimates 2,700 homeless participants have played on its teams since 2009.

Bullock says the World Cup trip isn't the first time soccer has helped him off the field. "I'm not very outgoing, so it's allowed me to open up a little," he says. "And just getting out and moving. That has done wonders just for clearing my mind alone."

Since joining the team, he's been hired by I Play for SF to help set up for games twice a week, allowing him to move from the shelter to a single-room occupancy apartment.

"That's the nice thing—to see it go full circle," Anderson says. "A guy who was kind of lost and confused and lonely, not only became a part of a community that he contributes to, but has a job and has his own place."

Cann says the goal of helping homeless people gain structure and meaningful relationships doesn't necessarily have to be achieved via soccer. Although some aspects of the sport do work particularly well—it's cheap to play and can be set up anywhere—what's important is that "it's a platform and a humanizing activity."

Of course, only a tiny fraction of the world's estimated 100-plus-million homeless population is competing this week in Chile, and critics may wonder whether flights across the globe are the best use of funds. (Cann says the trip is funded through designated donations, specifically for the HWC.) Still, the Homeless World Cup maintains one of its main goals is to "change people's attitudes to homelessness."

And even though Bullock's US men's team has struggled this week, starting out with a 2-4 record, there's much more to the event than what's happening on the pitch. During the trip, US players spend downtime in leadership training sessions, where Cann says participants like Bullock are encouraged to remain with the organization as mentors and role models for newer players.

"It's always been a thing of mine, helping people," says Bullock, who is considering staying on with Street Soccer USA. "Being with this program, it pushed me toward wanting to find ways that I can help people in whatever way I can."

You can watch a live stream of the action at the Homeless World Cup website.

An American Doctor in Sierra Leone Explains How to Fight Ebola

Mother Jones - October 24, 2014 - 5:49pm

With Ebola's arrival in the United States, some health care workers are questioning how prepared their state-of-the-art hospitals are for the disease. Despite these problems, and some serious missteps in Dallas that led to the infection of two nurses, it's unlikely that there will be a widespread outbreak here.

More MoJo coverage of the Ebola crisis.

But in the Ebola-ravaged countries of West Africa, where the disease has infected more than 9,900 people and killed more than 4,800, health workers are facing a much more daunting task. They aren't simply adapting an existing health care system to deal with the crisis—in many ways, they actually have to build one from the ground up.

Sierra Leone, which has a population of 6 million, only recently emerged from a 10-year civil war and has been rebuilding ever since. From 2009 to 2013, the country spent just $96 per person on health care, according to the World Bank. (The United States spent $8,895 per person during the same period.) So when the virus struck in March, a health system that hardly existed to begin with was stretched to the point of collapse.

Dan Kelly, an American doctor with the University of California, San Francisco, has been working in Sierra Leone for eight years at a health organization called Wellbody Alliance that he co-founded. And he's been fighting Ebola there since shortly after the start of the outbreak. In an interview with Indre Viskontas on this week's Inquiring Minds podcast, he said that the first order of business in fighting the disease has been the creation of a "pseudo health care system" with support from international aid groups and agencies like the World Health Organization.

But that new system has to be managed by skilled health care workers—often from developed countries—and Kelly says there simply isn't enough manpower to go around.

"The crux of this crisis is the human resource issue and staffing," Kelly explained from Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital. "We don't have enough people on the ground here to mentor Sierra Leoneans to show them leadership, to accompany them on the way forward, to even provide our own expertise to manage Ebola patients and staff these treatment units."

Kelly says that as the disease has overwhelmed efforts to control it, doctors and other health workers have been reluctant to come to West Africa to help out. As the outbreak gives way to panic, he says, some worry that border closings or other obstacles could leave them stranded. With so many cases in the region today, would-be volunteers are also fearful of being infected themselves. (On Thursday, several days after Kelly spoke to Inquiring Minds, Craig Spencer, an American doctor who had been working with Ebola patients in Guinea, was diagnosed with the disease after returning to New York.)

Kelly's organization is teaming up with Partners In Health, an NGO that provides health care to poor people around the world, to recruit medical professionals who are willing to accept the risks of treating Ebola patients in West Africa. Potential volunteers can sign up on the recruitment page of the Partners In Health website. After an interview and training with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they are sent to the Kono District of Sierra Leone or Grande Gedeh County in Liberia to help fight the disease.

"We've thought through, carefully, a lot of the challenges in getting staff," Kelly says. "It's not like I'm just sitting here saying, 'Oh, we need staff, we need boots on the ground, we need technical expertise, but I have no idea how you're going to get there.' We know, it's just that other people need to know as well."

You can listen to the full interview with Kelly below (starting at roughly 2:40).

Friday Cancer Blogging - 24 October 2014

Mother Jones - October 24, 2014 - 4:27pm

A few of you have probably cottoned onto the fact that people don't usually spend a week in the hospital for a broken bone, even a backbone. So in the long tradition of releasing bad news on Friday afternoon, here's my first-ever Friday news dump.

When I checked in to the hospital Saturday morning, the first thing they did was take a bunch of X-rays followed by a CT scan. These revealed not just a fractured L3, but a spine and pelvis dotted with lytic lesions that had badly degraded my bones. That's why a mere cough was enough to send me to the ER. It was just the straw that broke an already-weakened camel's back. Later tests showed that I also had lesions in my upper arm, my rib cage, and my skull—which means that my conservative friends are now correct when they call me soft-headed.

The obvious cause of widespread lytic lesions is multiple myeloma, a cancer of blood plasma cells, and further tests have confirmed this. (The painful bedside procedure on Tuesday was a bone marrow biopsy. Bone marrow is where the cancerous plasma cells accumulate.)

I know from experience that a lot of people, especially those who have been through this or know a family member who's been through this, will want to know all the details about the treatment I'm getting. I'll put that below the fold for those who are interested. For the rest of you, here's the short version: I'm young, I'm not displaying either anemia or kidney problems, and treatments have improved a lot over the past decade. So my short-term prognosis is pretty positive. Treatment involves two to three months of fairly mild chemotherapy, which has already started, followed by a bone marrow transplant. My oncologist thinks I have a very good chance of complete remission.

The longer-term prognosis is less positive, and depends a lot on how treatments improve over the next few years. But I figure there's not too much point in worrying about that right now. Better to stay focused on the current regimen and see how I respond to that. Wish me well.

Continue Reading »

Taylor Swift's New Album, "1989," Just Leaked. Here Are Our Instant Reactions to Every Track.

Mother Jones - October 24, 2014 - 4:23pm

After Taylor Swift's album leaked online today ahead of schedule, we came to the important editorial conclusion it would be a disservice to our readers if we didn't review her latest offering.

What follows is a transcript of the live conversation between Mother Jones engagement editor Ben Dreyfuss and Climate Desk senior producer James West as they listened to the songs for the very first time; this was the only way we could think of to get this important cultural event to you in the quickest possible manner.

This conversation has been edited for clarity—it needed it.

Track 1: "Welcome to New York"

James West: Okay. That synth beat. You were saying, Ben, that this song was pilloried. But I actually like it. It has a big, banner sound full of deep, pulsing synth; a happy beginning to the album.

Ben Dreyfuss: Right. People hate it. Actually New York hipsters hate it. But New York hipsters hate everything.

JW: And who cares if it's a little uncool, like she thinks she's the only one who's ever lived here before?

BD: That's the way people act when they come to NYC! People are stupid. It's easy to laugh about it years later when you consider yourself a jaded Gawker reader but you were once romanticizing the city on a bus from Des Moines too.

JW: (Or on a plane from Sydney, Australia!) But also, importantly Ben, I do like how gay-friendly it is. "Boys and boys and girls and girls." Good one, Taylor. Stick it to the homophobes.

Track 2: "Blank Space"

JW: "You look like my next mistake"—hey, that's one helluva line. Taylor's grown. Now that she's in New York, she's having some kind of bad first romance, right? That's the narrative? It all smacks of a jealous, no-holds-barred love affair: "Fuck it," she's saying. And this beat is totally infectious again.

BD: The Story of Taylor's Big Move to the Big City.

JW: That cassette click is super cheesy. But now we're into the pared back "spoken wordy" wisdom bit. What Taylor Has Learned of Love.

BD: "I love the players. You love the game." LOL. "Boys only want love when it's painful" or something? That is, in my personal experience, true.

JW: I really liked that one.

Track 3: "Style"

JW: Oh, now here it comes. Instant fave this one.

BD: The beat is so good. So '80s.

JW: It's twilight. We're driving on a long road trip. Blondie is definitely nearby, on a cassette tape near my feet.

BD: Michelle Pfeiffer is there.

JW: Suddenly, we're in a truck stop, refilling the car with gas in some kind of epic, knowing way. Top Gun is playing inside on a TV. The Sunday Night Movie.

BD: "James Dean..." what was it? That is a catchy hook. Although I clearly can't even remember it two seconds later.

JW: She's comparing herself to a classic movie star, I think. "I got that red lip classic thing that you like."

BD: That's basically Lana Del Rey's entire shtick, no?

JW: This feels better than that for some reason. Kind of.

Track 4: "Out of the Woods"

JW: Okay, here's another single prereleased. Again, this depressed, haunting minor key thing that she's got going on the other tracks. Incremental, darker verses, leading to loud, washy choruses. I like it.

BD: She's doing the "here's a story that is emotionally evocative from your teen years" thing.

JW: This is the bit about Harry Styles right?

BD: I assume so. The imagery in this song is so deliciously meaningless.

JW: This breakdown bridge bit is nice. And then the final chorus to bring it right home. Wow. There it is. That was fast.

Track 5: "All You Had To Do Was Stay"

JW: Okay, this sounds a bit more generic now. This song sounds like a first cut of one of the other tracks, to be honest.

BD: It sounds like one of Katy Perry's lesser songs.

JW: Yes. But there's a nice "Stay!" vocal higher up there in the mix from the backing singers.

BD: Yeah, it's a nice refrain, but in the earlier songs some of the totally meaningless imagery worked. Here it seems like fluff that exists because the song needs some words.

JW: Totally. In fact, it's almost a bar-by-bar formula-copy of the first four songs, just worse. Don't get me wrong, Ben. It's still the best thing I've ever heard.

BD: HAHAHA. It is catchy. By the end "Stay" does have you moving with it.

Track 6: "Shake It Off"

BD: I love this song. It's the perfect pop song.

JW: The single! Alright, Tay Tay. I love this song, too. It's almost too good. It's been in my brain for weeks and weeks like a tapeworm.

BD: And here the lyrics totally work as coming from Taylor but also in their appeal to everyone. Everyone thinks everyone else is a fuckup BUT THEY DON'T SEE, well, me landing on my feet. BUT MAYBE I'M JUST PROJECTING.

JW: This is the whole "Taylor as outsider" theory advanced by, well, almost every critic under the sun. And I think it's true. I don't know how she's managed to be perpetually marketed in this way. She is, well, quite a pretty, conventional singer. And let's face it, the song is pretty bland in the sense that it recycles a lot of old stuff: the horns, the hand claps, this cheerleader thing; but the sum of Tay Tay's parts are bigger than the individual components for sure.

BD: The cheerleader thing is the low point for me.

JW: It's silly.

Track 7: "I Wish You Would"

BD: We're in a car again.

JW: Ha. We are. (Did we ever leave?) Another road trip through the late '80s landscape.

BD: The funny thing is we don't actually drive a lot in New York.

JW: Zipcars, I suppose.

BD: This whole thing is actually just an ad for Zipcars over Uber.

JW: Musically, I like the switch between the fast, double-time verse, then the slower beat in the chorus; and this synth wash is again reminding me of watching Back to the Future as a kid.

BD: I like the "You always knew how to push my buttons" bit. The lyric isn't great but she delivers it pretty nicely.

JW: That's the thing. She's really meaning all these pretty generic emotions. But that's when the generic becomes universal, right? When you mean it?

BD: I'm impressed with her handling of the faster delivery.

JW: This song is faster than the rest, for sure. All of these songs are super-short.

Track 8: "Wildest Dreams"

BD: This is different.

JW: This reminds me a bit of Britney, actually. Dark, breakdown Britney. Sad Britney. Or the girl I saw crying on the L train the other day, with her mascara smeared.

BD: It's funny. The image that comes to my mind is a sad Britney with smeared mascara but not on the L. I really don't get a NY vibe from most of these. She's sitting on the top of her beat up car at night overlooking some football field by her high school in Texas, I think.

JW: Do you think she's ever been here to New York City?

BD: For shows. Straight from LaGuardia to MSG and then the Standard.

JW: This anthemic chorus is nice. But then, you know, these bits are my least favorite parts of her songs, these whimsical "meaningful" broken-down vocal bits, where she tries to tell you the truth. I like the "I'm not a girl, not yet a woman" vibe of the songs, rather than when she delivers half-baked truths in these bridges.

Track 9: "Bad Blood"

BD: "Bad blood" lyric to "Bad Blood" song. Is it interesting that all of these songs are her breaking up with someone?

JW: Harry?

BD: Has anyone checked on him? Is he okay?

JW: Again, her looks are really important in the lyrics: standing in a dress, rosy-cheeked, red lips.

BD: Yeah, it fits further into the Taylor as Film Star. It's all told in a very cinematic way.

JW: Did she listen to Fiona Apple and Annie Lennox on loop before this song, with a little bit of...I don't know...Sia Furler?

BD: I feel like Fiona Apple fans are not going to be pleased with that comment.

JW: Oh god. I don't want Fiona Apples after me. [Doesn't delete earlier comment].

BD: It's too late anyway. I am one of those fans. "THE CALL IS COMING FROM IN THE HOUSE."

JW: Is she putting on a weird English accent in this bit?

BD: YES, a little.

JW: Frankly, I didn't really like that song. A bit of a filler. Some pretty sighs but nothing that I'll be drawn back to immediately.

BD: The sighs were the best part but yeah, no, it was maybe the worst so far.

Track 10: "How You Get The Girl"

JW: Oh, is this our first acoustic guitar? Are we back on the plane to Nashville?

BD: God, I hope we're not on that plane. She has come so far.

JW: I've almost immediately written off this song half way through the chorus. This is maybe the most generic pop thing on the record so far. Twee, cloying, too cutesy; doesn't have the heightened emotions of the first couple of tracks.

BD: I have not absorbed any of these lyrics because these lyrics aren't meant to be absorbed.

JW: A runny slick of silliness.

BD: "Pulled your heart out, put it back together." Wait, when did the heart break? Did it break when she was pulling it out? Was it already broken? He had a broken heart from an earlier relationship? What the hell is this song even about?

JW: I'm confused too.

BD: Is this about Ebola?


BD: Hahahaha.

JW: I'm disappointed a bit. I have to say.

BD: Yeah I really liked a few of the earlier new ones.

JW: I'm getting a beer. Want one?

BD: Yes, please.

Track 11: "This Love"

JW: Okay. Ready to start again? Only six more songs. Go go go. Moody. This is going to be a torch ballad for sure.

BD: What is this. Is this slam poetry?

JW: It's so...stereo. She's coming at me in both ears.

BD: It's like a song I remember being forced to listen to on the radio in 1993.

JW: Okay, now I'm back, Taylor. I'm so back. Are you in New York yet, Ben? I'm closer. Definitely not Texas.

BD: That's true. She's sitting on a stoop with a Parliament hanging out her half-gloved hand.

JW: Tay and some boy just listened to "Papa Don't Preach" together. Now she's by herself—

BD: —wondering if that Tisch major friend of hers who just sang that Madonna song so well?

JW: Gay? Probably. But it's first year Tisch, so...?

BD: He hasn't even chosen if he wants to act or direct yet. He just knows he wants to express himself.

JW: But don't we all want that? He just want to love. Tay knows that.

BD: Five hundred twenty-five-thousand six-hundred minutes...

JW: Haha. Aaaand. Scene.

Track 12: "I Know Places"

BD: I actually hear a bit of that angry fast Fiona in this one...Wait, well I guess I did before this silly hunting hook.

JW: Yes. Wow. This is pretty stupid.

BD: "Lights flash." What's with her and this whole car motif?

JW: This is as close to performance art the album has seen (and only glancingly so). But this is Tay as "artist" for sure. Those Tisch classes are really rubbing off. Maybe she recently learned about this woman called "Kate Bush" and thought she was pretty dope.

BD: Oh God, that is so true. You know they are going to be playing this in dorms around Washington Square tonight and someone is going to call this the best song of the album because it's so "meaningful."

JW: At least those other ones we didn't like weren't pretentious like this. URGH, THAT CASSETTE CLICK THING DRIVES ME MAD.

BD: It's a cassette player in a car. It's all part of the same awful confusing element.

Track 13: "Clean"

JW: Drought! She says the word "drought!" Climate change! Taylor Swift, Climate Activist.

BD: Did global warming hurt you, Tay?

JW: Can I report on this, somehow, in my real job?

BD: Remember when Beyonce single-handedly stopped climate change?

JW: [Adds link].

BD: Hahahahahaha.

JW: Okay, back to the song. We're definitely in the softer part of the album now; the slower torch songs bunched right up at the end here.

BD: "I punched a hole in the roof." I am Taylor. I feel things very strongly.

JW: I am nothing but feeling, and I give voice to what you feel, too.

BD: I am a feeling robot. *does robot movements* Ten months sober!

JW: "Ten months sober!" is she pretending to have had a...drinking problem?

BD: This is her song for the people who are wondering if they have a drinking problem. Tay, can do Lifetime drama too!

JW: The drought again! I'm taking this literally, I don't care what people say. Gov. Jerry Brown listen up! Taylor's climate album.

BD: That's our headline.

JW: Gov. Jerry Brown Listen Up! Taylor's Climate Album.

BD: "I think I am finally clean!"

Track 14: "Wonderland"

JW: IN THAT FUCKING CAR AGAIN. Flashing lights, take a wrong turn...spinning out of control.

BD: She seems mad.

JW: Is this the inevitable come down after the Tisch kids made her take molly?

BD: Hahahaha. "Tay, Tay, babe, you need a Xanax."

JW: This is actually just a Rihanna song. This "eh, eh, eh" is just "Umbrella"...the chorus is pure "Umbrella."

BD: Yeah. The truth is a lot of this album seems like a hodgepodge from a recent NOW CD. I don't mean that in a necessarily bad way.

JW: Even this "Wonderland" refrain sounds like 'Yonce at the end of the visual album.

BD: IT DOES. Also, like, is this song even about the Val Kilmer movie Wonderland? I don't think so.

JW: God, it's so MDMA-ish. Tay's gripping her bestie's hand rolling down the street. It's not going to end well. "I never felt worse, but never better." Yikes.

BD: They were in the top of some parking garage all together each with a pill in hand. "Let's watch out for each other!" DRIVE.

Track 15: "You R In Love"

JW: These are all sounds from my '80's youth.

BD: Who produced this? I think when it works it really works, but when it misses it's awf.

JW: Right. This one is working. There's some inherent longing in this.

BD: Oh I like this bit. We're getting back to the good Tay.

JW: Oh god. I just got chills. A little rush of truth and happiness mixed with uncertainty and... optimism?

BD: Cautious anticipation?

JW: Yes. Things are going to be okay, as long as I can master this "living" thing, you know?

BD: Oh that is good.

JW: That quiet moment before it hits the chorus kills me.

BD: It plays so well off "You can hear it in the silence."

JW: Right. The most real stuff on the album is about falling in love. The break up songs don't ring true. Am I onto something here?

BD: Agreed. The breakup songs sound like an act? Like a show. Like something she knows she needs to do but isn't quite sure how to do it.

JW: Yes. Obligatory. But these long train rides home, feeling lost and sad and...urgh...it's good. And Ben, Ben. We're now really in New York.

BD: Yes! I'm listening to that on the F train in the winter.

Track 16: "New Romance"


BD: You never realize it's going to be the last one until it's too late.

JW: But this is worthy, I think. We've got this big chorus again. Happy. Shameless.

BD: I like this. I'm feeling it. This is the one song that sort of would make me want to take some molly. NOT THAT I EVER WOULD.

JW: "We're the New Romantics"...that's a big claim, don't you think?

BD: Aim for the stars.

JW: And certainly, this is the most unadulterated dance-floor calling capital-A American song. Like Miley Cyrus's "Party in the USA".

BD: "Please take my hand and take me dancing and leave me stranded. It's so romantic." Oh there is so much to unpack in that last bit. So sick. So true.

JW: I keep mishearing, and instead thinking she's singing "Everyday is like bath salts..." Which is really horrible.




BD: Now she's talking about how to write a song.

JW: Urgh, I just switched off. What a mood killer that was.

BD: What's happening? She had gotten me there. Now it's gone.

JW: Turn it off. Turn it off!

BD: Okay, off. It's off. It's dead. God, never include those voice memo things after dance molly anthems.

JW: So Ben. Overall takeout assessment?

BD: I have to say: I had pretty high expectations going into this and I'm not sure this whole album really met them.

JW: Right. My question going in was: Now that we've heard some high-water marks in the pre-releases, what will the album fill out about Taylor herself? And on that front, I did get some more from her than I expected. This whole "living, learning, loving" narrative was quite compelling, even if musically there was a rough patch in the middle.

BD: Exactly. I mean, the beginning has some real highlights and then it hits a sad monotonous valley for a bit and recovers towards the end and the last song is a smash. But I could have done without a lot of the stupid bullshit in the middle.

JW: There was some filler for sure. But, you know, on balance, I think I'm probably a little bit more of a fan than I was before (which, frankly, wasn't that much), and I'll definitely put on that lovesick song next time I'm drunk.

BD: Agreed. She's definitely matured as an artist away from the Nashville nonsense that she was known for a few albums ago. I mean, this is clearly her best album.

JW: Let's get this on the web.

To preorder Taylor Swift's album, please visit your favorite music retailer, like iTunes.

Joni Ernst Wants to Make English the Official Language

Mother Jones - October 24, 2014 - 4:23pm

Joni Ernst has latched onto pretty much every idea favored by the tea party. On Thursday afternoon, while campaigning in western Iowa, Ernst endorsed another concept favored by the grassroots right: officially declaring the United States an English language country. "I think it's great when we can all communicate together," Ernst said when a would-be voter at a meet and greet in Guthrie Center, Iowa, asked if she'd back a bill making English the official national language. "I think that's a good idea, is to make sure everybody has a common language and is able to communicate with each other."

Ernst spent the day campaigning with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the main architects of the comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Democratic-run Senate, but not the GOP-run House, in 2013. Ernst has opposed Graham's bill to put some undocumented workers on a path to citizenship, and regularly attacks President Barack Obama's possible use of executive authority to allow immigrants to remain in the country as "amnesty."

Making English the official language is a longtime cause of Ernst's fellow Iowa Republican, Rep. Steve King (Guthrie Center is just outside King's congressional district). As a state senator in 2002, King pushed a law that made Iowa an English-only state. In 2007, King and Ernst, then a county auditor, sued Iowa's then-secretary of state, Democrat Mike Mauro, for offering voter forms in languages other than English.

Gawker: The internet bully

Columbia Journalism Review - October 24, 2014 - 3:49pm
Earlier this week Gawker lost "thousands of dollars" in advertising after a poorly worded tweet was posted by one of its writers. Sam Biddle, one of the more sarcastic employees among the sarcastic throng at Gawker Media, tweeted out a joke: Ultimately #GamerGate is reaffirming what we've known to be true for decades: nerds should be constantly shamed and degraded...

Another Day, Another School Shooting

Mother Jones - October 24, 2014 - 3:47pm

A school shooting took place inside the cafeteria of Marysville-Pilchuck High School in Washington state on Friday. The suspected gunman, a student at the high school, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to CNN. Federal officials say up to five people were shot. Roughly 50 people were present in the cafeteria at the time. At least one student has been killed, four others injured.

If you feel like you're stuck watching some kind of awful repeat programming, it's because you are: According to data gathered by the reform group Everytown for Gun Safety, Friday's is the 87th shooting incident at a school since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary nearly two years ago.

For a detailed look into the rise of mass shootings in America, see our latest coverage here.

What's next for Ferguson?

Columbia Journalism Review - October 24, 2014 - 3:42pm
The story of Ferguson, MO, roils on. On Tuesday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published Michael Brown’s leaked autopsy report, and The New York Times and Washington Post featured unnamed sources implying that a grand jury may accept police officer Darren Wilson’s account of the confrontation which left Brown dead. Fresh protests of over 200 people followed outside the Ferguson Police Department, as well...

We Spent Millions so Afghans Could Film Live Sports With Headless Goat Carcasses—And Screwed It Up

Mother Jones - October 24, 2014 - 3:25pm

In August 2011, the State Department purchased broadcast trucks for Afghan TV stations, for $3.6 million (206 million Afghanis), to help them tape live sporting events, like "buzkashi, soccer, cricket, and other sports." (Buzkashi, Afghanistan’s national sport, translates to "goat grabbing" where horse-mounted players drag a headless goat carcass towards opposing goals.)

But no one has been able to watch any goat carcasses filmed by those trucks in the past two years, because those trucks didn't show up until late July. And now, they're sitting around under tarps, unused—because the State Department could cancel the contract whenever it wants.

A scene from Buzkashi Boys depicting men playing buzkashi. Buzkashi Boys

John Spoko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), sent Secretary of State John Kerry a letter demanding an explanation for the delayed TV trucks on Friday.

According to the letter, in addition to the late delivery, the price of the television trucks "more than tripled" since the original order date. And, one of the trucks "was damaged in transit." As of September, the trucks are still sitting under tarps as the SIGAR staff waits for the State Department to accept delivery.

Spoko claims that, because the trucks were delivered so late, the State Department may elect to end the contract and take the trucks back. After the late delivery, the tripled unit cost and several contract modifications, Spoko is wary of how aboveboard this deal really is: "If this information is accurate, it suggests that something is seriously wrong with the way this contract was managed."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that SIGAR had "teamed up" with State to purchase the trucks. SIGAR is investigating the arrangement. It was not involved in it.

5 New York Epidemics That Were Way Worse Than Ebola Will Be

Mother Jones - October 24, 2014 - 3:18pm
An 1865 cartoon from Harper's Weekly ridicules the incompetence of the New York City Board of Health, first established to fight yellow fever. US National Library of Medicine

Ebola has arrived in New York City. So should residents here be worried about a widespread outbreak? Almost certainly not: The disease is not airborne, and infected patients are only contagious once they show symptoms. Craig Spencer, the infected doctor in New York, has said he didn't have symptoms Wednesday night when he rode the subway between Manhattan and Brooklyn and went bowling. Three people he came into contact with, who have not shown symptoms, have been placed in precautionary quarantine. And unlike West Africa, where health care is sparse and low-quality, the US is well equipped to handle cases of the virus; the hospital where Spencer is being treated has been preparing to treat Ebola patients. (Public heath officials in the city expected cases of Ebola to turn up sooner or later.)

But the prospect of a deadly disease outbreak in the Big Apple is still pretty scary, and the city hasn't always dodged the pathogen bullet. Here are a few epidemics in New York that were far worse than Ebola is likely to be.

Yellow fever (1795-1803):

The wharf in Philadelphia where yellow fever cases were first identified. Wikimedia Commons

The city's first health department was created in 1793 to block boats from Philadelphia, which at the time was in the grips of a yellow fever epidemic that left 5,000 dead. The tactic didn't work: By 1795 cases began to appear in Manhattan, and by 1798 the disease had reached epidemic proportions there, with 800 deaths that year. Several thousand more died over the next few years. (The disease causes victims' to vomit black bile and their skin to turn yellowish, and the fatality rate without treatment is as high as 50 percent.) This was no small blow for a city that at the time had only about 60,000 residents. As is the case today with Ebola in West Africa, misinformation was a big part of the problem: Doctors at the time had only just begun to speculate that the virus was carried by mosquitoes (other theorized sources included unsanitary conditions in slums and rotting coffee). Little effort was made to publicize the epidemic for fear of a mass exodus from the city, according to Baruch College. Today yellow fever is extremely rare in the United States but still kills 30,000 people every year, 90 percent of whom are in Africa.

Cholera (mid-1800s):

An 1865 poster from the New York City Sanitary Commission offers advice on how to avoid contracting cholera. Wikimedia Commons

By the 1830s New York was a booming metropolis of 200,000, with swarms of newcomers arriving daily on boats from Europe. When word of a raging cholera epidemic in Europe reached the city's Board of Health, it instituted quarantines on incoming ships and tried to clean up the filthy streets. But again the board was reluctant to make public announcements, this time to avoid disrupting trade, according to city records. One resident claimed the board was "more afraid of merchants than of lying." By June 1832, the disease, which causes severe diarrhea and can kill within hours if untreated, arrived in New York via boats traveling down the Hudson River from Quebec. Within two months, 3,500 people were dead—mostly poor Irish immigrants and blacks living in the city's slums. Outbreaks occurred again in 1849, with some 5,000 deaths, and in 1866, with 1,100 deaths

Polio (1916):

A physical therapist works with two children with polio in 1963. Charles Farmer/CDC

New York City was the epicenter of an outbreak of polio in 1916 that began with a handful of cases reported to a clinic in Brooklyn. The disease, which advances from feverlike symptoms to paralysis and sometimes death, ultimately spread to 9,000 New Yorkers and caused 2,400 deaths. Across the Northeast, the infection toll climbed to 23,000 by the fall. The disease remained prevalent in the United States until the 1954 introduction of Jonas Salk's polio vaccine. Polio is now extremely rare here. But worldwide, it still infects 200,000 people every year, particularly in Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan.

Influenza (1918):

In 1918, soldiers with influenza are treated at an Army hospital in Kansas. Wikimedia Commons

In August 1918, a Norwegian ship called the Bergensfjord pulled into New York Harbor carrying 21 people infected with a new and virulent strain of the flu. Over the next several weeks, dozens more arrived, mostly on ships from Europe, and sick passengers were quarantined in a hospital just blocks from the modern-day Bellevue, where Spencer is currently being treated. Those unfortunate sailors were just the first in what would become the deadliest disease outbreak in the city's history to that date. Over 30,000 deaths were recorded by November—the actual number was likely much higher—including 12,300 during the first week of November alone. One health worker visited a family in lower Manhattan and found an infant dead in its crib and all seven other family members severely ill.

Other nearby cities fared even worse: The death rate in New York was 4.7 per 1,000 cases, compared to 6.5 in Boston and 7.3 in Philadelphia, according to the National Institutes of Health. That may not sound like a lot, given that the Ebola death rate is closer to 50 percent, but because influenza is so easily spread it can infect a much greater number of people. Globally, the 1918 flu killed between 50100 million people, the worst public health crisis in modern times. Today, the flu is still considered the greatest infectious disease risk for Americans, killing between 3,000 and 50,000 every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In other words, it's possible that more people could die from the flu this year in America than have died worldwide from Ebola during this outbreak. And yet only 1 in 3 Americans get a flu shot. Get a flu shot, people!

HIV/AIDS (1981-present):

An AIDS poster from New York City in the 1980s US National Library of Medicine

The scourge of HIV/AIDS is the most familiar epidemic for modern New Yorkers, beginning with the June 1981 discovery of 41 cases of a rare cancer among gay men across the country. Throughout the 1980s, campaigns by the city encouraged New Yorkers to use protection during sex and not to share needles or use intravenous drugs. By 1987, according to city records, $400 million had been spent on AIDS services. But activists for AIDS rights groups like ACT UP accused city officials, led by Mayor Ed Koch, of dragging their feet and ignoring the true scale of the crisis. It took until the mid-'90s for anti-retroviral drugs to become widely available. Today, for people who have access to adequate health care, HIV is often manageable. But to date, more than 100,000 New Yorkers have been killed by AIDS-related maladies, according to state health statistics. Despite recent advances in medical treatment, infection rates are still high in New York, disproportionately affecting racial minorities and gay men.

Must-reads of the week

Columbia Journalism Review - October 24, 2014 - 2:50pm
Culled from CJR's own stories, plus the frequently updated "Must-reads from around the Web," our staff recommendations for the best pieces of journalism (and other miscellany) on the internet, here are your can't-miss must-reads of the past week: The ethics of The Guardian's Whisper bombshell (CJR) - "It was bizarre to see a bit of backlash develop against The Guardian...


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