Monthly Archives: November 2014

For One Essayist, ‘The Unspeakable’ Isn’t Off-Limits


Daum has written several other books, including Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House, and is also a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.i
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Daum has written several other books, including Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House, and is also a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

David Zaugh/Farrar, Straus and Giroux


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David Zaugh/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Daum has written several other books, including Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House, and is also a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

Daum has written several other books, including Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House, and is also a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

David Zaugh/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

How much is it OK for a human to love a dog? Is it really necessary to know how to cook? Why do women want to have children?

Meghan Daum’s new collection of essays considers those questions, among others — and also grapples with what it means to be part of Generation X.

“I guess technically we’re middle aged, if you’re in your mid-forties,” she tells NPR’s Arun Rath. “But that just doesn’t sound right.”

“It’s almost like, are we in the twilight of youth? That sounds almost worse. That sounds not good.”

She tells Rath about how much she didn’t learn from almost dying, and how her mixed feelings about sentimentality tie the book’s essays together.

Click the audio link above to hear their full conversation, including Daum reading an excerpt from her book.

Interview Highlights

On Generation X

In my view, our sensibilities are more closely aligned with the boomers than the millennials, a lot having to do with technology. We remember a time pre-digital era. We were sentient beings during that time. We were not using the Internet in junior high school. And we had junior high school and not middle school!

On sentimentality as the central theme

I started off thinking that really what linked these essay was sentimentality. I wrote a couple inspired by experience that I had had personally over the last couple years and then I started to think about what was theme, and the theme had to do with the way our culture is really wedded to certain ideas about taking meaning from experiences that might not necessarily be there. The idea that you have to be redeemed after some traumatic event or you have to learn a lesson or you have to come out a better person from a crisis.

More On Meghan Daum

On societal expectations around death and dying

In about an 18-month period my mother got sick and died, and then I had a freak illness less than a year later and almost died myself. And I found in both of those situations that there was this expectation to have a kind of transformative experience. We expect things of the dying that are really unreasonable. … When I started to get better friends were saying, “Oh, you know, we were praying or we were thinking about this in a certain way and we want to know what you think about it now. We want to know, is there some secret out there?”

And all I could really say was, “You know, not really.” Like, I’ll probably go back to my shallow, whiny ways. And that’s actually recovery, though, right? That actually is a success, I think: staying the same person, rather than becoming a different person, which is what they wanted.

It was as if they couldn’t believe that I had actually recovered unless I was transformed in some way.

For One Artist, Colorblindness Opened Up A World Of Black And White


Peter Milton often includes famous artists in his work. In this etching and engraving, called Train From Munich, the doorman is modeled after Marcel Duchamp. Click here for a closer look.

Peter Milton often includes famous artists in his work. In this etching and engraving, called Train From Munich, the doorman is modeled after Marcel Duchamp. Click here for a closer look.

Courtesy of Peter Milton


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Courtesy of Peter Milton

In 1962, Pop Art was taking off in a frenzy of color: Andy Warhol debuted the Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s soup can silkscreens that would revolutionize the art world, and Roy Lichtenstein was at work on his giant paintings in the mode of comic strips. That same year, artist Peter Milton, then 32, went to get his eyes tested.

At the time, Milton was teaching at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, and he’d had a show of some of his paintings. “It got reviewed and someone referred to how warm and sort of pinky the landscapes were,” he says, “and I was horrified.”

Peter Milton was a painter when he was diagnosed with colorblindness.i
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Peter Milton was a painter when he was diagnosed with colorblindness.

Angela Evancie/Vermont Public Radio


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Angela Evancie/Vermont Public Radio

Peter Milton was a painter when he was diagnosed with colorblindness.

Peter Milton was a painter when he was diagnosed with colorblindness.

Angela Evancie/Vermont Public Radio

Pink was not what Milton thought he’d been laying down on the canvas. So he made an appointment at Johns Hopkins University. “It was a brutal test because what they do is they give you 25 — I think that’s the number — 25 discs.”

Each disc was a different color of the spectrum, from red to violet, and Milton had to put them in order. So he did, and he thought it was fine — until the lab technician started correcting his work.

“She started moving all the pieces around and substituting, putting some farther down the scale and others up,” he says. “It was a massive redoing.”

The diagnosis: red-green colorblindness, or deuteranopia. That was on top of the nearsightedness that Milton had known about since he was a kid.

“Peter Milton does not have total colorblindness, but it’s fairly severe,” says Michael Marmor, a professor of ophthalmology at Stanford University and co-author of The Artist’s Eyes: Vision and the History of Art. “We see color because we have three types of cone cells, or receptors, in the retina, one of which is mainly blue sensitive, one is red sensitive and one is green sensitive. Some people are born with abnormal red or green sensors. If they’re somewhat abnormal, a person doesn’t quite discriminate colors on the red-green end of the spectrum as well, but they may see them if they’re bright.”

For Milton, greens look more like a neutral gray with some yellow, and the color maroon looks like mud.

The Elegance Of Black And White

Colorblindness isn’t that uncommon — about 1 in 10 men has some form of it — but Milton was a painter. He studied art at Yale under Josef Albers, who wrote the book on color. Literally. It’s called Interaction of Color.

“I was told at one point … that he thought very highly of my work,” Milton says. “And this is very bizarre because I’m the colorblind person, he’s the color guru.”

Milton wasn’t going to abandon art, but he did feel he had to abandon color. And so he embraced black and white. In 1969, he and his family moved to a big yellow house in Francestown, N.H., and in the four decades since, Milton has been making extraordinarily intricate black and white prints. You almost need a magnifying glass to take them in: ballerinas, dogs, children and men on bicycles float in and out of ornate train stations and cafes. They’re visual puzzles in which past and present seem to merge, but looking closely won’t yield an answer. Milton says it’s all about invoking a sense of mystery and a mood.

Take the engraving called Mary’s Turn. It was inspired by a 1908 photograph by artist Gertrude Kasebier which shows a woman lining up a billiard shot. In Milton’s version, the woman is the painter Mary Cassatt, and the billiard balls are floating in the air.

Milton's Mary's Turn also features Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas paintings hanging on the wall. Click here for a closer look.i
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Milton’s Mary’s Turn also features Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas paintings hanging on the wall. Click here for a closer look.

Courtesy of Peter Milton


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Courtesy of Peter Milton

Milton's Mary's Turn also features Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas paintings hanging on the wall. Click here for a closer look.

Milton’s Mary’s Turn also features Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas paintings hanging on the wall. Click here for a closer look.

Courtesy of Peter Milton

“She’s playing this magical game and characters from her paintings have all assembled and come and watched her play the game,” he says. The painter Edgar Degas, who had a fraught relationship with Cassatt, is also looking on with a puzzled expression. The whole thing has a sort of graininess to it, almost like an old black and white photograph.

“It’s really an examination … of not having color anymore,” Milton says, “of using tonal and texture as your medium. Black and white is almost more elegant; maybe it’s fully more elegant than color, unless color is used … with great elegance in itself.”

Milton's The Ministry (Second State) was inspired by the story of Marcel Proust and James Joyce sharing a Paris taxi in 1922. Click here for a closer look.i
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Milton’s The Ministry (Second State) was inspired by the story of Marcel Proust and James Joyce sharing a Paris taxi in 1922. Click here for a closer look.

Courtesy of Peter Milton


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Courtesy of Peter Milton

Milton's The Ministry (Second State) was inspired by the story of Marcel Proust and James Joyce sharing a Paris taxi in 1922. Click here for a closer look.

Milton’s The Ministry (Second State) was inspired by the story of Marcel Proust and James Joyce sharing a Paris taxi in 1922. Click here for a closer look.

Courtesy of Peter Milton

‘I Don’t Miss Color’

Of course, Milton isn’t the first artist to have worked through eye problems. The two subjects of Mary’s Turn, Degas and Cassatt, also had compromised vision.

“Degas probably had a congenital retinal problem,” says Stanford’s Michael Marmor, “and he had progressive visual loss spanning about 40 years. Mary Cassatt had a different problem: She developed cataracts fairly late in her life.”

Claude Monet also had cataracts, eventually losing his ability to tell colors apart. And the 19th-century artist Charles Meryon, who was famous for his etchings of Paris, was colorblind. You might have heard the theory that Vincent van Gogh was colorblind — that one’s actually not true.

“He used vibrant greens in many paintings,” Marmor says, “and green is a dangerous color for a colorblind person because it lies right between yellow and blue, and to their perception it actually greys out — it loses color.”

Related NPR Stories

Marmor says that, like Milton, most artists who found out they were colorblind just switched to printmaking or sculpture. And Milton says his diagnosis kind of took a weight off his shoulders: “I don’t miss color. It helps to have a disability — I use that word; it’s a strong word — but it helps it have a disability because when you can do anything, which of all the things you can do are you gonna choose? So something has to help you make the choice.”

Or, as Degas put it, “I am convinced that these differences in vision are of no importance. One sees as one wishes to see. It’s false, and it is that falsity that constitutes art.”

Today’s Fairy Tales Started Out (Even More) Dark And Harrowing


A postcard from the 1800s shows the seven dwarves finding Snow White asleep in their bedroom.i
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A postcard from the 1800s shows the seven dwarves finding Snow White asleep in their bedroom.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images


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A postcard from the 1800s shows the seven dwarves finding Snow White asleep in their bedroom.

A postcard from the 1800s shows the seven dwarves finding Snow White asleep in their bedroom.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It’s well-known that our favorite fairy tales started out darker than the ones Disney animators brought to life. But you might be surprised by how much darker the originals were.

For the first time, a new translation of the Brothers Grimm’s tales reveals exactly how unsanitized and murderous the bedtime stories really were. Jack Zipes, author of The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, is the only person who has ever translated the first edition of their tales into English.

“Some of them are extremely dark and harrowing,” Zipes tells NPR’s Rachel Martin. “Many are somewhat erotic and deal with incest. Most of them are not what we call fairy tales; they tend to be animal tales or warning tales.”

Take, for example, Snow White. In the modern version of the tale, the Evil Queen is Snow White’s stepmother. But in the first edition, Snow White is only seven years old, and it’s her biological mother who wants to murder her for her beauty.

The stories are hardly appropriate for children by today’s standards, and at the outset, they weren’t intended to be. The Grimms “collected these tales to show what life was like,” says Zipes. “And they wanted to reveal what they considered the divine truths of the tales.”

And the tales endure. Zipes says that’s because they resonate in every era. “I think they speak to the human condition … They also provide hope. For the most part, there is social justice in these tales and … we need that. We need the hope that these tales provide.”

Back To The Future — The Grim, Grimy, Chrome-Coated Future


Metrophage is not a new book. That’s important to understand right from the start.

Metrophage is, in fact, 26 years old. Published originally in 1988, it was Richard Kadrey’s first novel. If you know Kadrey today, it’s likely from his much more recent Sandman Slim books — which tread some (slightly) similar turf, but this is a reprint. A relic. Almost like a time capsule buried and half-forgotten and, now, just brought out into the light again all chromed and bullet-holed, dripping acid rain and goop. A freshly-jacketed re-issue from a techno-literary past almost impossible to comprehend unless, as the cool kids say, you were there.

And brother, I was there. 1988? That was prime mind-blowing time for me — just a nerdy kid still a little motion-sick from gobbling down all my dad’s freaked-out new wave sci-fi and fantasy books, just then discovering new wave’s junkie cousin, cyberpunk. I wore my mirrorshades proudly, and yet somehow, despite spending years with Brian Aldiss, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling and Charles Stross, I’d missed Metrophage completely.

A cult classic is what they call it now — an early vision of dystopian L.A. which seems to brilliantly adopt (and occasionally prefigure) all the tropes which came to define cyberpunk — until you read the included interview between Kadrey and Cory Doctorow where he admits to unabashed thievery from every big name working at the time.

Which is cool. Which is, in a warped way, expected, since cyberpunk, as a splinter genre, deals primarily with characters who are doing you a favor if they’re only stealing your ideas — because that means they’re not also taking your wallet, your boots and the fillings out of your teeth.

Kadrey’s characters are certainly no exception. With Metrophage, he’s like a painter working in shades of scumbag. His main man, Jonny, is a killer and a smuggler, an ex-cop turned drug runner and thief whose primary life skills seem to be smart-assery and a gutter rat’s instinct for survival.

His compadres are anarchist revolutionaries, murder artists and underground clinic doctors (handy since Jonny gets injured on about every other page) — street level hustlers for the most part, working the fringes of a dying Los Angeles where food riots, gunfights, catching leprosy, dog fighting, alien invasion and getting shot in the face are all just what you do on a Tuesday night.

Plot? That’s funny … I mean, sure. There is one. It’s a double-triple-quadruple-cross noir clone that deals with an engineered plague that’s about to kill everyone unless anti-hero Jonny can get his act together long enough to stop it. But the plot exists (where it exists) as only a frail armature on which to hang a series of muscular, sharp and explode-y action sequences that exist in jagged syncopation with long, frenetic runs of joyous world-smashing where septuagenarian cannibals occupy abandoned dive hotels, space aliens threaten the world economy and teenaged cops from the Committee For Public Health police the streets with switchblades and neural disruptors.

Kadrey does cognitive dissonance like Gibson on acid, like Stephenson with his frontal lobe removed. He is shameless and frantic and, in places, completely amateurish (Metrophage is a first novel that reads very much like a first novel), but in the best possible way.

Because the book is just go-for-broke fun. Like a cyberpunk Repo Man. Like Kadrey wrote it in constant fear that no one would ever allow him to publish another word; like he had to jam in every idea he’d ever had (or borrowed) with no room for breath between them.

Every corner Jonny turns, there’s another sharp jolt of weird. And taken all together, it’s got a gleeful, anarchic edge to it that keeps you turning pages, even if only to see how long this crank-jangled mess can keep going before the wheels come completely off.

Yes, you kinda have to be a devotee of the chromed ’80s masterpieces to like Metrophage as much as I did. There’s so much in it that’s house style turned on its head, so much detail that’s informed by the stylistic devices and quasi-culture Kadrey was working with, that your mileage may vary depending on how much you geek out over hovercars and smoke-filled arcades.

But if you can open wide enough to swallow the thing whole and accept it for what it was when it was bright and young, Kadrey’s 26-year-old debut still has a magnetic, psychotic charm. And for those of you who come to it just for Kadrey’s name on the cover, look close and you can see, buried under the clutter of floppy disks, AK-47s and CRT monitors, hints of the writer he was striving to become.

Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his newest book.

‘Operation Sea Lion’ Is A Flawed But Fascinating Look At WWII


During the summer of 1940, the Third Reich occupied most of Europe. If Britain fell too, the complete Nazification of the continent seemed like a real possibility.

And the German High Command had a plan for the invasion: Operation Sea Lion. But the mission never materialized into action.

After the war, many surviving Reich commanders claimed Sea Lion was merely a psychological game meant to demoralize Britain, and that Hitler never believed a full scale invasion was necessary.

British historian Leo McKinstry claims this is nonsense; his new book Operation Sea Lion is a scrupulous examination of the period between June and November of 1940, and a recognition of the importance of the British public — inspired by the poetic words and optimistic spirit of their Commander in Chief, Winston Churchill — in resisting Nazi forces throughout that year.

The Home Guard was central to that resistance: A large force of volunteers who earned the nickname “Dad’s Army.” Years later — mainly because of the the popular 1970s TV comedy series with the same name — these men became a national joke, lampooned as faux soldiers lacking rifles or uniforms, performing pointless drill routines with broomsticks and pitchforks up and down Britain’s coastlines.

But McKinstry argues that Britain was actually far more organized than this farcical mythology suggests. And in parts, his well researched and cleverly crafted book really is a compelling read.

McKinstry reminds readers how almost every aspect of British society during this period was dictated by the state. Churchill’s government implemented an autocratic approach to public affairs: Absolute obedience to authority was the norm, the free market ceased to function, and emergency powers were introduced. The government rounded up foreign nationals in internment camps, and there was even an official plan in place to use chemical weapons against German troops, in the event they actually landed on British shores.

But Hitler’s hubris and poor strategic thinking ensured this never happened. McKinstry contends that three major mistakes cost Hitler dearly: his underestimation of Britain’s naval power; his lack of understanding of the British political system, and his failure to recognize that a team of intelligence operators at Bletchley Park were decoding key information about the Luftwaffe’s plans for aerial bombings.

While McKinstry’s writing is exceptionally lucid, the book has several major issues. Firstly, it sinks into sentiment too often, pining for the glory days of the British Empire.

At one point McKinstry quotes a British soldier describing an England of “Cornish fields, little white cottages [and] small roads running into coves by the sea.” Constant references to a “spirit of patriotism” that gripped the nation create a mawkish, jingoistic feel in places.

Furthermore, McKinstry’s great man theory of history — which portrays Churchill in messianic terms and as a savior of western civilization — fails to recognize the Prime Minister’s major flaws, both as a military commander and a politician.

Even the extremely conservative British historian Lawrence James, in his book Churchill and Empire, admits that Churchill was stuck in a Victorian mindset; he believed in the delusional notion that Britain was still a global superpower and the strongest military nation on the planet. Like Churchill, McKinstry appears to believe in this romantic idea also. But it’s incorrect.

Operation Sea Lion: The Failed Nazi Invasion That Turned the Tide of War is a fascinating insight into a definitive moment of World War II. But the version of history that we are presented with here is narrowed down considerably to suit a heroic story that’s more sentiment than substance.

J.P. O’ Malley is a freelance journalist based in London who writes mainly on books. Follow him on twitter: @johnpaulomallez.

Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’ Isn’t Just Another Black Superhero


Marvel's Black Panther.i
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Marvel's Black Panther.

Last month Marvel Studios announced the roster for some upcoming features. In addition to Ant-Man and a female-led Captain Marvel film, Marvel’s Kevin Feige confirmed that on November 3, 2017, the studio planned to release one of its longest-rumored projects: The Black Panther.

We in the nerdier parts of the Internet promptly lost our minds.

Origins of the Black Panther

Introduced, issue #52 of the Fantastic Four as a would-be for, the Black Panther would come to be a long-time ally.i
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Introduced, issue #52 of the Fantastic Four as a would-be for, the Black Panther would come to be a long-time ally.

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Marvel Entertainment

Introduced, issue #52 of the Fantastic Four as a would-be for, the Black Panther would come to be a long-time ally.

Introduced, issue #52 of the Fantastic Four as a would-be for, the Black Panther would come to be a long-time ally.

Marvel Entertainment

In issue #52 of the Fantastic Four, Reed Richards receives a cryptic message from the Black Panther. The message is an invitation, offering the team a chance to visit Wakanda, his secluded home country hidden away in the jungles of east Africa. After the Foursome proves their worthiness in a fight, the Panther counts them amongst his allies and asks for their assistance in defeating the nefarious Ulysses Klaw. In time, the Black Panther would come to join the Fantastic Four and other American heroes like the Avengers and the X-Men on a number of their adventures.

Created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in 1966, the Black Panther was a first for mainstream American comics. Unlike the few black comic book characters that preceded him, T’Challa (the Black Panther) was a bona fide superhero with powers, plot lines, and an origin story that permanently expanded and altered Marvel’s comic book universe.

It’d be easy to chalk up Marvel nerds’ excitement about the movie to the fact that the Black Panther, as his name suggests, is black. That’s only part of it, though. In fact the Black Panther is the latest in a long line of black superheroes Marvel has brought to the big screen.

Wesley Snipes portrayed Blade in 1998 and later in the film’s two sequels. Halle Berry has reprised her role as Storm in every X-Men film since 2000. Depending on which of the Iron Man films you’re watching, either Terrence Howard or Don Cheadle is moonlighting as War Machine. Most recently, Anthony Mackie played sidekick to Captain America as the Falcon.

The thing that makes the Black Panther exciting isn’t really his race, it’s where he’s from – the great nation of Wakanda.

Coming to Wakanda

Depictions of Wakanda have shifted over the years in the hands of different writers.

A secretive and isolationist country, Wakanda possesses the world’s largest deposit of vibranium, a vibration-absorbing metal that is exceedingly valuable for its technological applications. (It’s also the substance that composes Captain America’s shield.)

Wary of conflict and foreign exploitation, Wakanda shut out the rest of the world, choosing instead to become a largely self-sustaining society. Through Wakanda, Marvel toyed with and subverted stereotypical depictions of Africa as “wild” or “exotic.” Instead, Wakanda was a futuristic African nation that had never been conquered or touched by colonialism.

Depictions of Wakanda have varied over the years, but the country is consistently described as a technological mecca built on a foundation of magic and metal. Disease and poverty are eclipsed by scientific innovation and economic prosperity. Put simply, Wakanda is the perfect example of Afrofuturistic science fiction.

Afro Sci-Fi Visions of the Future

Truth: Red, White & Black tells the story of the black test subjects used to recreate Captain America's supersoldier serum.

In his 1994 essay “Black To The Future,” Mark Dery first coined the term “Afrofuturism.” As a style, the term refers to art that explores the experiences of black people through science fiction. Dery describes it as a way of remixing reality. An Afrofuturist reading of the transatlantic slave trade becomes an epic tragedy about alien abductees. Truth: Red, White, and Black reimagines the Tuskegee Experiments as tests for the same supersoldier serum that created Captain America.

Janelle Monaé's Archandroid drew much of its inspiration and aesthetic style from Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

Janelle Monaé’s Archandroid drew much of its inspiration and aesthetic style from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

Wondaland Studios, Bad Boy Records,


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Wondaland Studios, Bad Boy Records,

Artists like Octavia Butler, Sun-Ra, and George Clinton all incorporated Afrofuturist themes into their writing and music. Their stories of alien peoples and interstellar travel paved the way for contemporary artists like Outkast and Janelle Monae. Almost every one of Monae’s songs tells the story of Cindi Mayweather, a time-traveling android on a mission to liberate her people. The cyborgs in her music videos not only have black faces, but also a recognizably black relationship to a society that views them as soulless automatons.

As a subgenre of science fiction, Afrofuturism has never enjoyed the same kind of widespread popularity as steam- or cyberpunk. In 1976, Richard Pryor famously riffed on Logan’s Run, a dystopian vision of the future, that was conspicuously devoid of black faces. That absence in mainstream sci-fi, according to comic book historian Adilifu Nama, is due mainly to the cultural implications of seeing black faces in fantasy worlds.

“Afrofuturism creates a space in which blackness is equated with futurism, cybernetics and super-science,” he explained. “All of these ideas undermine the trope of the urban, or the subservient, or the criminal.”

Science fiction often envisions worlds where race and ethnicity have given way to one dystopian threat or another. Seeing black people in space, fighting robots and saving the world can break that fantasy for audiences.

“Blackness in sci-fi is political,” Nama continued. “Rather than challenge the audience it’s just easier to not depict.”

And that same challenge to the audience is what makes a Black Panther film something worth getting excited about.

Unlike the fantasyscapes seen in Guardians of the Galaxy, Wakanda is grounded within a familiar, if slightly fictionalized, world. Africa (being, you know, an actual continent) fits neatly into Marvel’s ever-expanding universe, and that’s a big deal. We’re still three years out from it, but the promise of seeing Chadwick Boseman as the sworn protector of Wakanda is cause for cautious anticipation.

Not only could Black Panther stay true to its sci-fi narrative roots, but with the full power of the Marvel hype machine, it could easily become the first truly mainstream Afrofuturist film.

Family Film Offers Glimpse Of ‘Three Minutes In Poland’ Before Holocaust


During a 1938 vacation to his hometown, Glenn Kurtz's grandfather filmed the townspeople of Nasielsk, a Jewish community in Poland, just before World War II.i
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During a 1938 vacation to his hometown, Glenn Kurtz’s grandfather filmed the townspeople of Nasielsk, a Jewish community in Poland, just before World War II.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum


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United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

During a 1938 vacation to his hometown, Glenn Kurtz's grandfather filmed the townspeople of Nasielsk, a Jewish community in Poland, just before World War II.

During a 1938 vacation to his hometown, Glenn Kurtz’s grandfather filmed the townspeople of Nasielsk, a Jewish community in Poland, just before World War II.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

In 2009, Glenn Kurtz stumbled across some old family films in a closet in his parents’ house in Florida. One of the films, shot more than 70 years earlier by his grandparents while on vacation in Europe, turned out to include footage of his grandfather’s hometown in Poland.

“I realized it was 1938,” Kurtz tells NPR’s Rachel Martin. “And there are all of these beautiful images of children and adults in this town, one year before World War II begins. I was just haunted by these faces. They’re so happy to be filmed, they’re so excited to see these Americans coming to visit the town. And of course I know something that they don’t know — which is what’s about to happen.”

Kurtz set out to restore the film (which you can watch here) and find the people in it. The book based on this journey is called Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film.

Interview Highlights

On what you can see in the video

There’s this extraordinary, beautiful detail of the people — their faces, the clothing that they’re wearing. There’s lots of kids who kind of mob my grandfather and jump up and down and wave their arms and try to get into the frame. It’s just this sort of commotion of these visitors coming to visit the town, and everybody wants to see what’s going on and be in the picture.

When I found the film, it was not in playable condition. It had fused into, essentially, a hockey puck. So I started hunting around, and I ultimately donated the film to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. And they were extraordinarily helpful. They gave the film to a film laboratory in Maryland … and they spent four months restoring the images.

In a still from the 1938 film footage, 13-year-old Morris Chandler appears on the left, among other town children.i
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In a still from the 1938 film footage, 13-year-old Morris Chandler appears on the left, among other town children.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum


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United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

In a still from the 1938 film footage, 13-year-old Morris Chandler appears on the left, among other town children.

In a still from the 1938 film footage, 13-year-old Morris Chandler appears on the left, among other town children.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

On finding survivor Morris Chandler, who appears as a 13-year-old boy in the film

Once the film had been restored and digitized, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum put it on their website. It was part of their collection and it was there with all of the other home movies that they have. And I received an email one day, from a woman I’d never heard of, out of the blue. And she said that someone had brought this film to her attention and that she was sitting, watching it with her father; camera pans across the crowd, there are all these children jumping and waving, and suddenly, a boy’s face looked out and she saw her grandfather as a 13-year-old boy. And in this email that she wrote to me, she said, “He’s still alive, and he’d very much like to talk to you, because I believe he knew your family as a child.”

On watching the film with Chandler

A few weeks later, my family and his family gathered in Florida and we watched the film together. And Mr. Chandler has a prodigious memory. I sometimes feel like he’d been waiting his whole life to talk about this town. And we sat for hours, looking at these few minutes of film and he was able to identify a number of people who he recognized immediately. There were stories about those people, and then, of course, about his life, about people who didn’t appear in the film. And it was just one of the most extraordinary experiences in my life.

Glenn Kurtz is also the author of Practicing: A Musician's Return to Music. i
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Glenn Kurtz is also the author of Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music.

Franziska Liepe/Farrar, Straus and Giroux


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Franziska Liepe/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Glenn Kurtz is also the author of Practicing: A Musician's Return to Music.

Glenn Kurtz is also the author of Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music.

Franziska Liepe/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

On what it was like for Chandler to watch the film

Yeah, in fact, one of the things he said to me on the phone when we first spoke was, “You’ve given me back my childhood.” And I think, for someone who survived the Holocaust — the tragedy of that, the loss of it, the intense fear of that experience — just overshadows everything that came before it and makes what came before, in a sense, almost incomprehensible. And when we were sitting and watching the film, one of the things that he said was, “I just can’t believe that I was a kid.” It was a part of his life that he couldn’t even relate to anymore. But here it was, in these beautiful color images, and one of the things that he said to me was, “Now, I can show you that I’m not from Mars.” He had felt that isolated in his family, as if he had come from Mars.

On the impact of the Holocaust on that town

When my grandparents visited in 1938, there were approximately 3,000 Jews living in the town, and by the end of the war, fewer than 100 were still alive.

On the stories the survivors shared with him

When I started to research the project, I thought that I was going to try and recreate what the town was like. But 75 years later, what you’re left with are these fragments — not only documents, but also these memories. Some of these memories which the survivors have been willing to share with their families, you know, have become stories that are fairly polished. And they tend to share with their families stories that aren’t too scary — things that are even amusing or things that have, you know, a happy ending.

I was fortunate that the survivors were willing to share with me, I think, more, actually, than they’d shared with their own families. As an outsider, they were willing to talk with me and weren’t trying to protect me, although they were still trying to protect themselves in some ways. And it took many, many times of speaking with people, sometimes, to get behind the polished stories that they were willing to share. And, of course, everything that they remember is intimately bound, inextricably bound, with loss.

Soldiers, Spies, Cyberwarriors: ‘@War’ In The Internet Age


Imagine it’s the year 2022. Across the Pacific Ocean, a small country — an American ally — has provoked a big adversary nearby. Call them Red. Red’s size and military capabilities are near those of the United States.

Red responds aggressively to its neighbor’s provocation. Within days, the big adversary has crippled the smaller country’s power grid, communications networks and other infrastructure through cyberwarfare. Then, Red launches a preemptive cyberattack against the small country’s big ally: the United States.

If you were the U.S. military, how would you respond?

That was the scenario faced by a group of high-ranking officers huddled together at an Air Force base in Colorado for the 2010 Schriever Wargame.

“It was a really instructive and, I think, very scary war gaming exercise for people in the military,” writer Shane Harris tells NPR’s Arun Rath. “The adversary in this game really got the advantage very quickly and won pretty decisively, because the American side really hadn’t developed a playbook for how you would go to war between two large militaries in cyberspace.”

Harris recounts that 2010 Schriever Wargame in his new book, @War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex.

The book looks cyberspace as war’s “fifth domain” (after land, sea, air and space). Harris covers topics like the NSA, the role of cyber warfare in the Iraq troop surge of 2007, China’s “rampant” espionage on American corporations — and the U.S. government’s strategy of playing the victim.

Harris tells Rath that after that alarming war game, the U.S. military’s cyberforces became much more organized and sophisticated — but that China, the real-life country that parallels the imaginary Red, also is believed to have impressive capabilities.

Interview Highlights

On what Obama might have been told on his first day in office

He actually got a little bit of a taste of this on the campaign, because his campaign email system was hacked, presumably by spies in China.

When he comes in on the first day, what he’s presented with is the knowledge that the computers that control portions of the electrical power grid in the United States have been probed by foreign intelligence agencies. He is told that espionage, particularly by China, against American corporations is rampant, and that billions of dollars in intellectual property and in trade secrets are being lost every year. And that basically, there is no really coherent organized system in the U.S. government for how we’re going to defend the internet, how we’re going to defend the cyberspace and all of the businesses and the people that depend on it.

What he decides to do very early on in the administration is to, in his words, start treating cyberspace as a national asset, a strategic asset, and protecting it as such.

Shane Harris is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. Harris was previously a senior writer for Foreign Policy, a staff correspondent at The National Journal and contributed to The Washingtonian.i
i

Shane Harris is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. Harris was previously a senior writer for Foreign Policy, a staff correspondent at The National Journal and contributed to The Washingtonian.

Joe De Feo/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


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Joe De Feo/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Shane Harris is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. Harris was previously a senior writer for Foreign Policy, a staff correspondent at The National Journal and contributed to The Washingtonian.

Shane Harris is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. Harris was previously a senior writer for Foreign Policy, a staff correspondent at The National Journal and contributed to The Washingtonian.

Joe De Feo/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

On China’s cyberwarfare capabilities

The thing that China has going for it that we do not have is people. The number of people within the People’s Liberation Army, within the sort of intelligence apparatus of China, which is a very opaque system in its own right, is believed to be thousands of people, who are basically hired hackers who spend much of their day aggressively trying to penetrate the computer networks of U.S. corporations especially. China is sort of gathering information that they can then pass on to Chinese businesses and corporations that give them a leg up in negotiations and in the global marketplace. They’re trying to advance their economy very quickly and stealing information to do it.

Less clear is how sophisticated their sort of military offensive apparatus is compared to ours. For instance, if China ever went to war with us in the South China Sea, let’s say, how sophisticated and how good would their hackers be trying to break into our naval systems and confuse our ships? We know less about that but I think the conclusion we have to reach is that because they’re having so many more people doing this than we do — I mean, we have a few thousand — that China is a really formidable force. And that makes a lot of sense that they would put so many resources in this. China will never be able to, at least in the near future, challenge us in a conventional military way. They can’t go head-to-head with us on land or on the sea. Cyber is a place where they can gain an extraordinary advantage and do a lot of damage.

On the U.S. government positioning itself as a victim

The United States government loves to come out and talk about how relentlessly we’re being hacked and how our intellectual property is being stolen from our businesses. And that’s true.

More With Shane Harris

But what that covers up is that we are also one of the most aggressive countries going out there breaking into other countries’ systems and spying on them. And we are one of the few countries that we know of that has launched offensive operations in cyberspace. We have used computer viruses to break infrastructure, physical things that are connected to computer networks. Very few countries are known to have done that.

I think one of the reasons why U.S. officials have been keen on showing how we’re victimized is because they believe that U.S. businesses have not done enough to secure their own computer networks. From the government’s perspective, they can’t go in and necessarily force those companies (at least not yet) to improve their defenses, so it’s been sort of more of a strategic, rhetorical calculation on the part of the government to come out and say, “We’re victimized, it’s terrible, lots of information is being stolen, and the only way we can stop this is you corporations have to do better security and work with us and let us help you do that.”

So there’s a reason why the U.S. has tried to play that victim card so repeatedly: It’s because they want to get results from private businesses.