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the column of lasting insignificance: Jan. 12, 2013
by John Wilcock

The items that follow were extracted from January columns of the past five years…

THERE ARE MORE CCTV cameras (an estimated 4.2 million) keeping an eye on Brits than all the rest of the EU countries combined, a fact about which critics are beginning to express alarm. The all-seeing eyes have proliferated in the past few years with the public scarcely noticing. They scan most major streets in towns large and small and are monitored in a Big Brotherly way by the police and other security agencies. In addition, reports the Daily Telegraph, Britain also has the world’s largest DNA data base containing about 3.6 million profiles with 400,000 more added every month. A surveillance society, wrote Henry Porter in the Guardian, is “one that necessarily reduces us all from citizens to subjects”. The government has plans to extend the snooping by introducing a biometric identity card system and computerize medical records making them available to police and security services.
[Jan 13, 2007]

THE SWITCH TO corn-based ethanol has been described as “about as smart as switching from heroin to crystal meth" writes Richard Conniff in a Smithsonian piece amusingly titled Who’s Fueling Whom? Referring to an article in Foreign Affairs he points out that growing corn requires large amounts of nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides and fuel as well as making us dependent on a crop vulnerable to drought and disease. Its already well known that making ethanol from corn requires almost as much energy as it produces, in contrast to sugar which is much more efficient. Almost willfully stupid, the US places a tariff on Brazilian ethanol (made from sugar) thus making it uncompetitive. And already the vast subsidies given to corn-growers has doubled the price of corn—causing riots in Mexico. It’s unlikely that Congress, long weaned on bribes from agribusiness, will take a longer view. Ethanol made from cellulose—such as cornstalks instead of the kernel—makes even more sense both economically and ecologically but, says the University of Minnesota’s C. Ford Runge, “corn and soybean interests haven’t spent 30 years paying campaign bills for national politicians to give the game away to grass”.
[Jan 19, 2008]

IN WHAT MAY BE “the driest place on earth”, the Salar de Atacamar in Chile, holds more than one-quarter of the world’s reserve of lithium, increasingly in demand for the rechargeable batteries that power cell phones and laptops.Calling it “the Saudi Arabia of lithium”, Forbes says demand has skyrocketed and this, the lightest of metals, will be increasingly needed for the hundreds of thousands of lithium-ion batteries for hybrid cars of which Nissan, alone, plans to produce 65,000 in the next couple of years. The new Tesla Roadster is equipped with batteries studded with almost 7,000 lithium-ion cells. The magazine quotes William Tahill, a French technology consultant as saying there isn’t enough recoverable lithium on the planet to support the auto industry’s ambitious plans.
[Jan 10, 2008]

TAPPING INTO PEOPLE’S BRAINWAVES is currently chic in scientific circles with several companies about to peddle their sensor-filled head sets which allow the wearer to instigate action merely by thinking it. The ability to manipulate video games is an obvious early target, but Inc. magazine’s David H. Freedman checked out a device offered by the Emotiv company and found that with a little practice, assisted by the 16 electrodes pressing lightly on his scalp, he could move the image on a computer screen. The eventual aim of the scientists, he reported, is for users to be able to control all electronic devices in a similar manner. The challenge is “figuring out how to present its breakthrough device…in a way that will transform it from a slightly scary gadget to the next must-have consumer technology”.
[Jan 17, 2008]

THE SEARCH FOR a new kidney, the body part most in demand, has prompted scandals all over the world with a recent ban in India resulting from the discovery that peasants from poor countries had been lured there with promises of $2,000—often unpaid—to give one up. These were then transplanted into rich clients from America, Saudi Arabia and other wealthy countries. In an earlier scandal, 109 recruits from Romania, Brazil and Israel were paid a few thou to visit South Africa where rich visitors paid $120,000 for “transplant holidays”. In the U.S. health system, such an operation would cost around $500,000, and contributing to the high cost is the shortage with 100,000 Americans currently on the organ transplant waiting list.
[Jan 24, 2008]

WRITING IN FORBES, the chief partner in one of Manhattan’s top law firms, Evan R. Chesler, suggests that maybe it’s time to abandon the much-reviled method by which attorneys are rewarded—the “billable hour” when “the clients feel they have no control, that there is no correlation between cost and quality”. Comparing the way in which customers hire a contractor, Chesler proposes that once the price has been agreed upon, “the billable hours should be irrelevant”. But because litigation is often predictable, the price should be periodically revisited.

Implementation is what may bedevil Barack Obama as it has presidents before him. His policy mandate is clear—to get the economy moving and get us out of Iraq—but how to make these happen is the hard part….Increasingly the government causes things to be done, and pays for things to be done but it no longer does those things itself”—Elaine C. Kamarck reviewing The Next Government of the United States: Why Our Institutions Fail Us and How To Fix Them in The American Prospect
[Jan 31, 2009]

BANKS SEEM SUSPICIOUS to many people. Some folk have never trusted them, and now it seems that more and more skeptics have been burying their money in the ground for safekeeping. David Latham, a 45-year-old Alabama cattle farmer told Smart Money that even if his bank collapsed and the FDIC paid off, it might be a while before he got his cash, so he put $8000 into a Ziploc bag and a waterproof tube and buried it on his 300-acre property. And a Sarasota builder, Earl Snyder, is advertising his Midnight Gardener—a foot-long watertight pipe with a capacity for $4,000 in gold, silver or paper money.
[Jan 3, 2009]

Impossible War

“Obama probably believes that the war in Afghanistan is ‘necessary’, in his words ‘for the defense of the people’. Unfortunately, impossible missions do not become possible Because they have been dubbed ‘necessary’; on the contrary they become quagmires”
—Jonathan Schell in the Nation


REVIEWING A NEW BOOK by Barbara Ehrenreich, the Columbia Journalism Review endorses her belief that positive thinking has become “the opium of the American masses.” In her book, Bright-Sided—How the Relentless Promotion of Thinking Has Undermined America the author emphasizes that the real problem with positive thinking is not only its “misguided optimism” but its focus on the lone individual. It’s a “supremely irrational creed” says CJR reaffirming Ehrenreich’s argument that “instead of laboring so hard to change ourselves, we should be laboring to change the world”.[Jan 9, 2010]

Impossible War

“Obama… has turned reality on its head by embracing the Pakistan myth that stabilizing Afghanistan is the key to stabilizing Pakistan. But U.S. pressure on the Taliban in Afghanistan is pushing more militants into Pakistan with the potential for upsetting the delicate balance there…”
—editorial in The Nation


THE ONLY PRESIDENT who ever made a living as a writer was Teddy Roosevelt says historian Douglas Brinkley who believes “Obama’s in a league with TR. He created his political reputation through the written word”. GQ says that although Obama’s talent with words is widely acknowledged, his writing has gotten surprisingly little attention.
    “Obama believes more strongly in the magic of words, especially his own, than perhaps any of his predecessors”.
[Jan 16, 2010]

“A lot of times you’re on flights for two or three hours. No one wants to sit there and look at each other, so a lot of the time you play cards, different games”—Knicks forward Al Harrington bemoaning the recent NBA ban on gambling during flights ”***Well, there is this thing called a book you might have heard about…

IF YOU OWE MORE on your mortgage than the house is worth, stop paying and walk away. Don’t feel guilty about it, or think you are morally wrong. That’s the message to 15 million American in-debt homeowners from Brent T. White, a University of Arizona law professor, who says that emotions turn people into ‘woodheads—individuals who choose not to act in their own self-interest” because of shame or embarrassment. Understandably it’s not a message much appreciated by CEOs of mortgage companies, one of whom, Lewis Ranieri, calls White’s argument “incredibly irresponsible and uninformed”.
[Jan 23, 2010]

Impossible War

If I had my wish we would be on our way out of Afghanistan not in, we would be letting Pakistan figure out which Taliban they wanted to conspire with and which ones they want to fight… If they’re not ready to take the lead, to speak out and fight the madness in their midst, for the future of their own societies, there is no way we can succeed… Al Qaeda threatens: ‘We will bankrupt you’. And they will.
—Thomas L Friedman in the New York Times. [Jan 30, 2010]


A LOT OF PIOUS TALK about how peasants in Third World countries are exploited while stitching garments for rich U.S. companies, hasn’t actually produced much change, according to a Harper’s piece titled ‘Shopping for Sweat’. The magazine quoted a Chinese jeans exporter that American buyers were “getting more and more tough on bargaining for lower prices”. Pay for Cambodia’s 350,000 apparel workers has stagnated at 33c per hour (only Bangladesh, at 22c, is lower) and there is scant chance of them bettering themselves. “The entire model” Harper’s explains, “depends on weak unions, few labor rights and persistent autocracy”. One solution, offered by Singapore economist Richard Duncan, is a “trickle-up” philosophy establishing a $5-per day minimum , raising the wage $1 a year, for ten years. “If you sell a pair of tennis shoes for $101 instead of $100, no consumer in Chicago will notice the difference, but it will totally transform villages in Vietnam”. [January 30, 2010]

End the UnWinnable War

CLASS WARFARE is the title of a show we’ll never see on television because the elitist crowd who prepare the schedules think that audiences are not interested in viewing a discussion of the issues most on people’s minds. These, of course, include the greed of banks, corporation rip-offs and the unceasing need to bribe politicians. Politics, oddly, is rarely the subject of a group discussion on television, apart from the bland punditry of the same old, same old, tired group that bore us every Sunday morning.
    What an interesting show Class Warfare would be on the new liberated (detached from PBS) independent KCET in Los Angeles. What a golden opportunity to make so-called “public” TV genuinely public. It would be easy to assemble a rotating panel of interesting……… (read more) [Jan 15, 2011]

THE OVERALL CHILDISHNESS which has been creeping into every aspect of American life marks a 50-year journey that has been gradual but unrelenting declares Gerald Nachtman. “In (an earlier era) before adults tried to emulate teenagers, the world was run by grownups who were content to act their age” he writes. Men wore suits and ties to work; women skirts, not pantsuits and boots. “Many women now seem to be dressing like their teenage daughters”. Spouting off in The American Spectator, Nachtman dates the time when the country first began to “split apart at the seams” (which was) when adults wore Levis in the 1960s; when teenagers seized the country in a bloodless coup, led by Elvis and the Beatles holding everybody hostage to 15-year-olds’ tastes. Every other adult barrier fell: fashion, food, four-letter words in songs, films, fiction, plays. ”A sort of Stockholm syndrome occurred…adults tiptoed away, vanquished, too exhaustive to battle massive teen power and finally caved in completely. The former youth culture became the reigning culture of the land…(now) even the New York Times regularly review video games, most of whose players are 14 years old and don’t read newspapers.
    “Part of the populace is into baby talk…Facebook is just junior high school run amok…Movies have pretty much turned into comic books…Ninety per cent of all comedies—all movies, really—seemed to be aimed at teenagers”, Nachtman concludes. “It’s almost as if much of the country’s grownup population can’t wait to grow down”. [Jan 21, 2012]




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Bagan, Myanmar (Burma):
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A Guide to Occult Britain

Forty years ago the second of my three books about magic was published, A Guide to Occult Britain (Sidgwick & Jackson) covering a wide range of sites from Stonehenge to Loch Ness and King Arthur country to the witches of Pendle Hill. It is now available as an eBook on amazon.com.

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The New York Years
October 27, 2010

A Budget Travel Pioneer on a Time When $5 a Day Was Real (Frugal) Money
nytimes.com: Frugal Traveler

by Seth Kugel
John Wilcock at the New York Times

It was the first handwritten letter I’d received in 5 years. Or maybe 10. Signed by John Wilcock, a man I’d never heard of, and postmarked Ojai, Calif., it was waiting for me when I returned from my São Paulo-to-New York summer trip. Mr. Wilcock wrote that he had been an assistant editor at The Times Travel section back in the 1950s, and had written the first editions of “Mexico on $5 a Day,” “Greece on $5 a Day” and “Japan on $5 a Day” for Arthur Frommer in the 1960s.

By George, I thought. This man was the original Frugal Traveler.

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The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol

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Village Voice and Interview cofounder John Wilcock was first drawn into the milieu of Andy Warhol through film-maker Jonas Mekas, assisting on some of Warhol’s early films, hanging out at his parties and quickly becoming a regular at the Factory. “About six months after I started hanging out at the old, silvery Factory on West 47th Street,” he recalls, “[Gerard] Malanga came up to me and asked, ‘When are you going to write something about us?’” Already fascinated by Warhol’s persona, Wilcock went to work, interviewing the artist’s closest associates, supporters and superstars. Among these were Malanga, Naomi Levine, Taylor Mead and Ultra Violet, all of whom had been in the earliest films; scriptwriter Ronnie Tavel, and photographer Gretchen Berg; art dealers Sam Green, Ivan Karp, Eleanor Ward and Leo Castelli, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Henry Geldzahler; the poets Charles Henri Ford and Taylor Mead, and the artist Marisol; and the musicians Lou Reed and Nico. Paul Morrisey supplied the title: The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol was the first oral biography of the artist. First published in 1971, and pitched against the colorful backdrop of the 1960s, it assembles a prismatic portrait of one of modern art’s least knowable artists during the early years of his fame. The Autobiography and Sex Life is likely the most revealing portrait of Warhol, being composite instead of singular; each of its interviewees offers a piece of the puzzle that was Andy Warhol. This new edition corrects the many errors of the first, and is beautifully designed in a bright, Warholian palette with numerous illustrations. The British-born writer John Wilcock co-founded The Village Voice in 1955, and went on to edit seminal publications such as The East Village Other, Los Angeles Free Press, Other Scenes and (in 1970) Interview, with Andy Warhol.