We still have slaves, they’re just invisible to us now

Chinese prisoners can be so thoughtless, scrawling their desperate pleas for help on scraps of paper and smuggling them into our beautifully oblivious American homes, hidden inside the cheap, disposable products that we so desperately need… Not even for a moment do they consider the temporary sadness that might result as we’re forced to reflect on the consequences of our insatiable gluttony.

About a year ago, as you may recall, we were talking about a political prisoner in China who had ruined an Oregon family’s Halloween when he decided to slip an “SOS” message into a “Totally Ghoul” toy set purchased at Kmart for $29. “Please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right(s) Organization. Thousands people here… will thank and remember you forever,” the selfish son-of-a-bitch risked his life to write, when he should have been conserving his energy and resting for his next 15-hour shift. And, today, there’s yet another story in the news. This time, the recipient was a woman in New York who had innocently purchased a pair of boots at Saks Fifth Avenue, only to find a heartbreakingly-manipulative letter, which triggering a unwelcome moment of introspection… And I’m living in constant fear, always worried that my next dollar store purchase could be the one with the inevitable, “I hope you like this porcelain figurine, I’ve lost vision in one eye due to the beatings” letter inside.

Here’s the most recent letter in the news. It was sent by a man named Tohnain Emmanuel Njong, a native of Cameroon who had somehow found himself serving a three year term for fraud in a prison factory in China’s eastern Shandong Province. “HELP HELP HELP,” he wrote. “We are ill-treated and work like slaves for 13 hours every day producing these bags in bulk in the prison factory.”

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In his defense, he does end by saying, “Sorry to bother you,” which makes up for his thoughtlessness to some extend.

Njong, by the way, is out of Chinese prison now, and living in Dubai, where he was recently interviewed. Among other things, Njong, who had been teaching English in China proir to his arrest, says that he was not guilty of the charge that he was imprisoned for, and that the note found in New York was one of five that he wrote late at night, under his blanket, so that his captors couldn’t see. Some of the letters, which he’d written in French, he put into bags with French lettering. The others, written in English, got put into the Saks Fifth Avenue bags. Of the five sent out, only this one seems to have been found and reported. (The prisoners had been supplied pens and paper to record their productivity.)

Apparently, it would seem, it’s legal for American corporations to make use of forced prison labor abroad under certain circumstances. The following comes from DNA Info.

…Two U.S. laws make it illegal for products made using slave, convict or indentured labor to be imported into the United States, according to (Department of Homeland Security senior policy adviser Kenneth) Kennedy. However investigations are difficult with DHS required to prove how much a company knew about its own supply chain.

“Was there actual knowledge (of slave, convict or indentured labor)? Or was there knowledge that they avoided knowing or seeing?” Kennedy said. “All that plays into the investigation.”

A legal clause known as the consumptive demand exemption, which Kennedy referred to as “the Achilles heel of these laws,” can also greenlight imports regardless of the type of labor used if domestic consumption cannot be met otherwise…

So, if I’m reading that right, it’s OK for us to use forced prison labor as long as it’s done outside the country, and we really, really, really want whatever it is that they’re making, and can’t make it as cheaply any other way.

The bottom line is that our entire system is fucked, and, as much as we might like patting ourselves on the back, and explaining to other countries how we got rid of slavery 150 years ago, the truth is that we’re still the beneficiaries of slave labor. We just make sure that we don’t see it any longer.

Happy May Day to all the people in Chinese labor camps making the plasticware we’ll use today, as we picnic in celebration of the advances we’ve made for American workers.

Posted in Civil Liberties, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 14 Comments

Free Comic Book Day to be celebrated at Vault of Midnight this Saturday

Every year, on the first Saturday in May, all the people of the earth drop their weapons for a few hours, put aside their considerable differences, and come together to celebrate Free Comic Book Day. As I tend to observe the holiday at Ann Arbor’s Vault of Midnight, I reached out the award winning comic shop’s owner, Curtis Sullivan, and his Global Director of Results, Nick Yribar, to discuss what they have in store for this year.

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MARK: Why, in your opinion, is Free Comic Book Day so much better than Record Store Day?

NICK: I reject the premise of your question… And I won’t be party to your journalistic trickery! Hasn’t the age old feud between Comic Shop and Record Store gone on far too long?

MARK: As a tabloid journalist, it’s my job to stir shit up… And nothing would make me happier than if I could instigate a West Side Story-like dancing knife fight between the Vault of Midnight crew and the folks at Encore in that little alley next to the Michigan Theater.

NICK: I don’t know what your stake is in keeping the feud going, Mark, but we’re all about finding a peaceful resolution to these non-existent hostilities.

CURTIS: If things were to heat up, I’m pretty confident we could out-dance, or at least out-rhythmically snap Encore under the table.

NICK: With that said, yeah, I’m comfortable throwing down that gauntlet.

MARK: I just never felt that it was fair that you, the comic book store guys, were supposed to give things away on your holiday, whereas, with theirs, people were expected to buy stuff… You should demand that they make it Free Record Day, and level the playing field.

CURTIS: Don’t worry, Maark, in addition to being a huge marketing event for us, Free Comic Book Day is also our biggest sales day of the year. From a cost versus return point of view, it’s a huge win for us.

NICK: And, with the exception of the “free” element, the two events are pretty similar. Both Record Store Day and Free Comic Book Day are about setting aside an afternoon to appreciate something you love, to stand in line and hang out with other like-minded enthusiasts, and to acknowledge the benefits of shopping in a real-life, brick and mortar shop staffed by real-life nerds.

MARK: When did the holiday start, and how’d it come about?

NICK: Way back in the murky past of 2001, a retailer out in Concord, California by the name of Joe Field came up with the idea in a column he wrote about the state of the comic book industry. Essentially he wanted to coordinated a national promotional event to capitalize on all of the publicity the medium was receiving in anticipation of the first “Spider-Man” movie, which was about to be released at the time. So he suggested that shops give away free comics in hopes of catching new readers who might be intrigued by the movie.

CURTIS: The first one is free, if you will.

MARK: It’s always gratifying when you can put lessons learned in the drug trade to good use… So, how’s Free Comic Book Day evolved since its launch?

CURTIS: Every year has been bigger than the last. This year we’ve teamed up with a bunch of other local businesses in the downtown area to offer complimentary deals and free stuff in the spirit of the holiday. We also refined the layout of the shop and added door prizes, door buster deals, a downstairs sale grotto, and a costume contest. We’re trying to compete directly with the University of Michigan graduation in terms of turnout.

MARK: Can you give us an example of what we might expect to see from other businesses in the area? Will Orbit be offering Wolverine haircuts? Will the U-M be irradiating spiders and letting them bite people?

NICK: A lot of local businesses are involved this year. The Wafel Shop around the corner from us is offering “Captain Midnight’s Waffle of Doom.” Literati is offering a discount to anyone with a Vault of Midnight shopping bag. And different restaurants will be handing out samples and snacks to people in line. It goes on and on. We want to turn Free Comic Book Day into a city-wide event that benefits our neighbors as much as it benefits us.

CURTIS: And VG Kids is doing a Vault FCBD 2014 canvas bag.

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MARK: Is there competition between our nation’s comic book stores to outdo one another on Free Comic Book Day? Do you feel a lot of pressure?

CURTIS: Yes, of course. We want to crush all who stand before us.

NICK: With that said, though, our industry is constantly expanding, and the room to grow is staggering. Events like Free Comic Book Day just serve to make the pie a little bigger for everyone. Getting more people into comics, and introducing more readers to the medium, just means more customers for everyone.

As for pressure, there is some, but it’s internal. We want to do a better job every year. Last year was absolutely nuts… like “line-around-the-block” nuts. We had thousands and thousands of people. So, this year, we’re trying to up our game, expanding the width and scope of the event as much as we can.

MARK: What do you have planned for this year that we haven’t already discussed?

NICK: In addition to giving out free comics, the door-buster sales, and the dozens of deals and freebies being offered by local businesses, there will be costume contests, spontaneous trivia contests (in cooperation with our buddies at Nerd Life Productions), and lots of swag.

MARK: What kinds of free comic books are we talking about? Do you know yet what you’ll be putting in people’s hands?

CURTIS: This years selection is the biggest yet, with comic books from a ton of publishers. Guardians of the Galaxy from Marvel, Simpsons from Bongo, Hip Hop Family Tree from Fantagraphics, Buck Rodgers from Hermes Press… There will be over 60 titles to choose from, and each attendee can choose up to three.

MARK: How’s Grand Rapids been treating you? Are people liking the new Vault?

NICK: It’s been outstanding. I couldn’t be happier with how it’s gone.

CURTIS: We feel the love, and we’re happy to be part of another cool downtown. It’s been gratifying as hell to grow our little company and land in a city that fits our style. Vault of Midnight is the next logical step for Beer City USA.

MARK: Would I be correct to assume that you’ll be celebrating the holiday there as well?

CURTIS: Absolutely. Same sorts of stuff; free comic books, costumed people, insanity, etc. WGRD, a local Grand Rapids radio station, will be broadcasting live from the event, and we’re doing a special Free Comic Book Day at the Helen Devos Children’s hospital on Friday. We’ve also partnered with a bunch of local businesses for deals and freebies, and we’re super excited to see the response to our first Free Comic Book Day in G-Raps.

MARK: One last thing. Assume someone comes out to celebrate Free Comic Book Day at Vault of Midnight, and you’re too swamped to make personal recommendations, can you give us an idea of three or four relatively new things on the shelves right now that you’re excited about?

NICK: Oh goodness, yes. We’re actually stuffing our lower-level-sales-grotto with tons of books that fit that bill. Everyone that is a living, thinking person should read Saga by Brian K. Vaughn as soon as possible. Also Letter 44 from Oni Press, written by Charles Soule. And our Tactical Book Quest Club book of the month for April is Snowpiercer, a kick-ass French graphic novel that was printed in English for the first time a couple of months ago. And there’s just so much more.

FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO STILL AREN’T SOLD ON FREE COMIC BOOK DAY, HERE’S A WORD FROM STAN LEE.

Free Comic Book Day will be celebrated at Vault of Midnight on Saturday, May 3, between 10:00 AM to 10:00 PM. Additional detals can be found here.

[note: If you’d like to know more about Vault of Midnight, check out this inveterview with Curtis that I did not too long ago.]

Posted in Ann Arbor, Art and Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

May Day festivities planned for Water Street

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Remember how, last year, we all got together on May Day and launched a few thousand seed bombs onto Water Street? Well, if you’re up for it, quite a few of us will be gathering there again on Thursday. There won’t be seed bombs, but my sense is that we’ll have a pretty good time in spite of it. (Some of our native wildflowers are already starting to come up.) The potluck will begin at 5:30, but there will be events on Water Street throughout the day. As of right now, here’s what’s on the agenda.

1:30 PM Anti-racist reading group, discussing “Who is Oakland: anti-oppression activism, the politics of safety, and state co-optation

2:30 PM Eco-Justice workshops coordinated by the Ypsi Free Skool:

“Michigan’s Getting Fracked Up” with the Sierra Club

“The Basics on the AATA Bus Expansion” with Partners in Transit

“System Change, Not Climate Change”

3:30 PM “The History of May Day” puppet show with Momo & Blake

5:30 PM Potluck

7:00 PM Our Local Native American History walking tour with Matt Siegfried

Everyone is welcome.

[As events are subject to change, check YpsilantiMayDay.org for updates.]

Also, as in years past, Billy Bragg will be with us in spirit.

Posted in Uncategorized, Ypsilanti | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Douchey or Deadly: which Uber do you use?

Ever since the upscale alternative transportation startup Uber made the announcement a week or so ago that they’d be rolling out service in Ann Arbor, my Facebook stream has been overflowing with anti-Uber ads and articles. (See below.) Well, I just did a little poking around in hopes of finding out why, and it would appear that it’s part of a national campaign launched not too long ago by the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association. Apparently, they aren’t ready to cede the taxi market to the likes of Uber, Lyft and Sidecar just yet, and they’ve decided to make a stand… by telling people repeatedly that, if they use these services, they could very well end up in a ditch, with their throats slit.

“Are you an ex-con? No problem. Become an uberX driver today!”, says the most recent headline on my feed.

It’s probably worth noting at this point that there are two sides of the Uber coin. There’s the relatively cost-effective ridesharing platform, which the company calls uberX. (That’s the one where riders are ferried around by ex-cons who want to kill them.) And then there’s Uber Black, the premium, high-end taxi service they operate. (Which appears to be mostly for douchebags.)

I’m admittedly not their target demographic. The mere mention of taking a cab in Ann Arbor causes me to roar with laughter. I mean, I know I lead a somewhat sheltered life, but, in recent memory, I can only remember seeing local cabs used in three instances; old people buying groceries, old people getting sent home from a bar, and old people going to see the doctor. (None of these scenarios, by the way, can be seen on the Uber website, which is filled with glamorous young people dashing back and forth between fabulous parties and high-end cocktail lounges.) I realize there are other reasons one might want to take a cab, even in a town as painfully small as Ann Arbor, but most people I know would, if they were able, either walk, take a bus, or ride a bike. But I guess Ann Arbor is changing, and these new young professionals we keep hearing so much about don’t like wearing heavy, unflattering jackets and walking outside in the cold. No, they’d rather push a button on their iPhone and have a warm car waiting.

Here’s a little of what I’m seeing on Facebook these days. Are you experiencing the same thing?

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So which kind of Uber user are you? Are you the uberX user with the death wish, or are you the Uber Black douchebag who wants to pay more to travel in class?

For those of you who would like to know more about Uber, GQ’s Mickey Rapkin recently did a stint as an uberX driver. Here’s a clip:

…Here’s how it works: Download the app and enter your credit card information. When you need a ride — in anything from a town car to a Prius — open the app and press a button. That’s it. Drivers in Uber’s network are circling your neighborhood, and by the magic of GPS, the closest one is arriving at your door, oh, right about… now. The fare is calculated by some algorithm of distance and time. No cash is ever exchanged… Late last year, a snapshot of what appeared to be Uber’s financials was leaked to the website Valleywag, and though Uber declined to confirm the numbers, they told the story of a company in mid-boom. Over one month last fall, Uber averaged 1.1 million requested rides per week, with upwards of 430,000 active weekly clients. Based on those figures, Valleywag estimated Uber could be raking in $213 million in annual revenue. The company’s reported valuation: $3.7 billion dollars.

Anecdotally, though, there seemed to be something vaguely, well, douchey about the way people talked about Uber. Last summer, the company experimented with helicopter rides on demand to the Hamptons; it was a stunt, but one that seemed to speak volumes about its ambitions. I wondered if Uber was aiming to become the ride-on-demand equivalent of bottle service in Vegas: It’s for people who want to feel like Jay Z for a night.

At the same time, uberX is oddly egalitarian: It offers rides for the people, by the people. What’s more democratic — and capitalistic — than giving a lift to a stranger for a small fee? Though I did wonder what kind of fool would climb into a stranger’s car. Even more worrisome question: What naive idiot would invite a stranger into his car? I was basically picking up hitchhikers and trying to convince myself: Murderers don’t use iPhones…

So, who’s in more danger, the uberX driver or passenger? And who will be the fist to meet their end in Ann Arbor at the hands of Uber?

Posted in Ann Arbor, Other, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 32 Comments

Do cock-blocking babies have an evolutionary advantage?

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According to the research of Harvard’s David Haig, it’s conceivable that babies evolved to cry at night not necessarily because they need to be fed, but because, by doing so, they could well delay the arrival of siblings who would invariably compete for scarce resources.

In an attempt to explain why babies, especially those that are breastfed, begin crying more at night upon turning 18 months of age, Haig, an evolutionary biologist, has suggested that it might be in order to wake their mothers, thus prolonging lactational amenorrhea – the temporary postnatal infertility that is known to occur in nursing mothers.

As others have pointed out, there may be other factors at play. For instance, it could be argued that young children kept closer to their parents at night my have a better chance at survival, irrespective of whether or not the side effect is fewer siblings. Regardless, though, I just love thinking about this stuff. And Haig’s theory makes total sense to me… Of course, it also makes total sense to me that babies may just scream at night in order to keep their parents from having intercourse, in hopes of breaking them up, so that, in subsequent years, they might have twice the number of birthday parties, and Christmases with their birth parents and their respective new mates.

[Haig’s work, which was recently published in the journal Evolution, Medicine and Public Health, can be found here.]

Posted in Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

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