Thursday, January 06, 2011


Mostly posting at Copyculture these days.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Final Scratch--The Analog Hack: New York Times Year in Ideas 2001

THE YEAR IN IDEAS: A TO Z.; Final Scratch
Published: December 9, 2001

Electronic music has always been a paradox of sorts. Though the D.J.'s who produce it love digital technology, they continue to rely for their source material on what many consider an archaic item: the analog vinyl record. Digital files have obvious advantages -- they don't scratch or skip, they're virtually weightless and they're easy to distribute and share -- and over the past decade, many machines have appeared on the market that allow D.J.'s to manipulate sound digitally. But digital interfaces ignore the physical facts of D.J.'ing -- the comfortable feel of a record moving back and forth under a D.J.'s hand, the responsiveness of vinyl and the spatial and visual clues D.J.'s use to remember and find tracks and beats.

FinalScratch is an attempt to solve the D.J.'s quandary. The mixing system, developed this year by a group of hackers in the Netherlands, is the first invention that allows D.J.'s to use their preferred analog materials -- two turntables, a mixer and a vinyl record -- to manipulate digital music files.

A 12-inch vinyl disc, known as the FinalScratch record, is encoded with digital signals instead of a song; when it is played on a normal turntable, it functions something like a computer modem, sending information, instead of music, through the stylus. FinalScratch then uses that information to manipulate a digitally stored piece of music. When the D.J. manually speeds up or slows down the turntable, or ''scratches'' the vinyl, the digital music file is instantly altered in exactly the same way a real record would be. It is a marriage of high and low technology -- 21st-century digital music, tweaked and massaged by the D.J.'s old-fashioned hand. Margie Borschke

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Goth Talk: Margie Borschke talks to Robert Smith, Nylon, February 2000

Published in Nylon, February 2000
(This may be a different edit than the published article.)

Goth Talk
by Margie Borschke

Robert Smith looks unhappy. He is posing for a photo outside his house in England, wearing a baggy tracksuit top, dark trousers, a mop of limp black hair and no makeup. His smile is forced. Next to him stands some blonde kid from Germany, beaming like a maniac. The picture is posted on the website, the Holy Hour, under the heading My Cure Holidays. It was snapped early last fall shortly after Smith finished recording Bloodflowers, the latest (and rumored to be last) album from The Cure.

When I meet up with Smith at the Chelsea Hotel in downtown Manhattan he looks somewhat less beleaguered. Just slightly. As lead singer, chief songwriter and the Cure’s key fixture (12 different musicians have been a part of the band’s 23 year history; Smith and guitarist Simon Gallup are the only constants), he is the band’s obvious though reluctant spokesman. He hates fans that show up on his doorstep and finds interviews and photo shoots almost as tedious. Smith, despite having never worked any other job, save a week with the post office (sacked) and a month as a gardener, is still uncomfortable with pop stardom. He blushes when asked for an autograph and is genuinely upset by fans who camp out on the beach near his house, smoking dope and playing Cure songs.

Robert Smith is forty now, married for 11 years to his long-time girlfriend Mary Poole, and most definitely grown-up. He lives in a quiet seaside town near Brighton and speaks more often of afternoons with his young nephews and nieces than of wild nights on the town. He has a tidy fortune tucked away. He seems happy. Even content. Actually, he’s very much the sensible Englishman. Yes, his hair is lightly teased, his lipstick is smeared, he’s wearing eyeliner and enormous club-kid black boots, but we should all be so outrageously mature at mid-life. And yes, he can still find beauty—and a moody pop song—in melancholia

Elektra, the Cure’s US record company, has rented a suite at the Chelsea Hotel to give the interviews some “atmosphere”. There are more models around than junkies these days, but the Chelsea remains as eccentric and downwardly fashionable as ever. Smith, who spends enough time in hotels to value comfortable beds over hip quotients, isn’t staying here. Actually, he doesn’t seem the least bit enchanted with the place. “It’s all very Elvis Costello, isn’t it,” he deadpans, poking about the sunny suite, whose cracked plaster walls are painted a jarring lime green. He sinks into an armchair covered in mauve velvet. “Fun-kay.” He says, sarcastically. It seems Robert Smith, onetime innovator of freakish streetwear trends, is suspicious of down-market glamour.

The Cure are not just a success, they’re a phenomenon. In over two decades they have recorded 23 albums and sold millions, all with next to no help from commercial radio. They’re among the most bootlegged bands of all time, up there in Grateful Dead territory, a distinction that speaks volumes about their fans’ devotion. Yet they have never succumbed to commercial pressures—they don’t chase trends and they will not allow their music to be used in advertisements. “We’re so morally right,” Smith laughs. “I am protective about the music. I never let anyone get in the way of it or tell me what we should be doing.” Hence the band does not employ a producer or a business manager. Smith is content to do the dirty work himself. He even has a hand in their website. Smith doesn’t come off as a control freak so much as someone who stayed true to his DIY roots. (Long before Jarvis bared his bottom at the BRITS, Smith declared the ceremony a farce after being named band of the year in 1990.) Success has made him neither arrogant nor jaded. What other Platinum selling band would place a Melody Maker ad when they needed a new drummer? “Famous band needs drummer,” read Jason Cooper, the band’s current drummer, in 1994. “No metalheads. ” The man is so damn grounded.

The Cure started out as a high school band in Crawley, a sleepy suburb 30 Miles outside London. His childhood friend Laurence “Lol” Tolhurst played drums and Simon Gallup, the town’s only other punk, guitar. Smith sang and played keyboards. It was 1976. They were The Easy Cure. Their first gig was at a school-sponsored jazz/fusion festival. They played nothing of the sort. “We played a Bowie song, a Thin Lizzy song, and a Hendrix song,” Smith remembers, smiling. “The rest of it was our sort of punk stuff which was really quite bad, although we did do Killing an Arab.”

“We actually had a singer for that concert,” He continues. “His older brother had a van [and we needed transport] so he got to sing the covers. It was peculiar. He was so scared about the audience that he actually did his bit of the show wearing a crash helmet. He thought they would throw bottles.” Mostly they smashed chairs and scratched cars out in the parking lot. “It was the dawning of punk in the suburbs.” Smith shrugs. His non-jazz/fusion playing ass was temporarily suspended.

England in the late seventies and early eighties was most definitely not swinging. There was no work. London was mired in riots. Thatcher came to power. But from the hopelessness, emerged an underground youth scene that found inspiration in everything falling apart around them. There was nothing else to do, they thought, so why not make some art. Smith looks back on these days fondly. “The climate was pretty bad but the advantage was that when I left school there was no work and I was able to go on the dole for over a year. You had to attend one job interview a month and everyone used to go barefoot so they’d get another month. I bought a second hand fur coat to wear to interviews. Just one look—Bare feet and a fur coat and people think DRUGS!.” He laughs. “[I sat] home and wrote songs.” The support bought the band the time they needed to get a demo tape together. Now a foursome with Michael Dempsey on bass, they played the clubs and developed a following. By 1979 they’d released their first record, Three Imaginary Boys (1980’s Boy’s Don’t Cry in America.)

Their first single, Killing an Arab, a bit of punk-pop based on Camus’ novel the Stranger, charted and Boys Don’t Cry, a new wave-ish pop song, was a minor hit that same year. But it was the single A Forest (1980) a minimalist atmospheric song that hearlded the darker mood that came to be associated with the band. This gloomy sound, dubbed post-punk, struck a chord with the youth in the UK. After all, they were all on the dole.

The Cure remained underground—famous to a few. They lived hand to mouth—they couldn’t even move to London until 1982. When they missed the last train, they slept on the studio floor. If the record company gave them cash for a hotel they spent it in the pub. They played in clubs, drank heavily, dressed like inspired freaks, and did things on their own terms. “We didn’t really sell that many records then.” Smith remembers. “When we were doing Faith (1981) and Pornography (1982) no one ever came to see us. We only kept going because we didn’t really need anything [except] the opportunity to make another record. We always sold just enough in order to pay for the next record.”

The US didn’t pay much attention. The cheerier singles Let’s Go to Bed and the Lovecats made some waves in 1982 but it wasn’t until 1985’s Head on the Door, a melodic pop album, that the band’s popularity gelled. Both their accessible lighthearted follow-up, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987) and 1989’s Disintegration, described by one critic as “a monumentally depressing album that mentioned death in almost every song”, garnered more commercial and critical attention stateside. After Disintegration, however, Smith was worn out. He had just turned thirty, spent much of the Disintegration tour smashed and had to fire Tolhurst for being drunk since 1982. He told reporters it was over. 5 albums followed. Each one purportedly the last. By 1997, there was enough material for Galore, a second collection of singles, starting where the first retrospective Standing on a Beach (Staring at the Sea on CD 1986) left off.

The Cure has a far more varied sound than the band is given credit. Just think, they are simultaneously known for their minimalist pop (the Lovecats, Close To Me), their brooding atmospherics (almost all of the Pornography and Faith) and, of course, their layered rolling guitars (In Between Days). The Cure, themselves, have never been that gloomy—making something beautiful out of hopelessness and despair is itself an optimistic act. And there are far more upbeat and whimsical songs, both in spirit and lyrically, than their dour reputation would have you imagine. (After all, Smith is a man who sang “The Sun is up/I’m so happy I could scream.”) The tie that binds it all together is Smith’s vocals. His voice is a paradox—at once piercing and deep and passionate to the point of effortlessness, there’s always a moment where it sounds as if he might lose control. That’s the joy of it.

Bloodflowers, out this month, is a serious record. One of the songs is based on an Iain Banks novel; many others are preoccupied with loss. Smith is the first to admit there is not a single radio-friendly tune on the album. Apart from the melodrama of the title track (“These flowers will always die!” he screams, surely to the delight of some sullen chick wearing too much kohl) the album is populated by assured contemplative songs, all written in a noticeably mature voice. “Over the last three albums I’ve written songs that expressed more questions that come with experience,” Smith says of the record’s tone. “ There is a kind of world weariness that it probably rings truer [now] because I am older and more experienced.“

But don’t file it under Adult contemporary. “ I really fucking hate adult rock,” says Smith. “ For this album I wrote a few songs on more ‘adult’ things but when I sang them I didn’t feel comfortable. I think that the idiom that I work in doesn’t lend itself to [so called] adult themes. We do well with a particular kind of song and music. Beyond that, why bother? I read books. I talk to people. Putting everything I think about into songs would be kind of stupid really. It would be living my life out in song.”

But with lyrics like “the last day of summer” and “one last time before it’s over” one can’t help but wonder if this is the fond farewell? Smith seems indecisive. ”When I turned thirty I promised myself that at forty I would do something else. I would like to hold true to that. I want to do is a solo album. The songs are done and I’m desperate to do it. [I’ve told the band] it won’t include them and I suppose we’ve never done that before. But in a few years I might think it would be cool to do another Cure album.

“I think [Bloodflowers] is the best album we’ve ever done,” he adds. “I had more fun making it [than any other record.] It would be really hollow if in the same breath I say “I’m never doing it again.” [If] I enjoyed it so much and think it’s so good why wouldn’t I want to do it again? Never say never.” Smith says, trailing off. Right now he’s more concerned with getting through the months of touring they have scheduled through the end of summer.

The Cure play bigger shows today than in the post-punk days. They will play some eighties favorites live, but their concerts are dominated by newer material. The Cure is not a nostalgia act. Their fanbase is diverse, much of it young and rabid. The World Wide Web is crowded with Cure fan sites where tapes, photos and paraphernalia are swapped, lyrics are analyzed, guitar tabs are posted and brushes with the band recounted. (Even meeting former band mate Laurence Tolhurst’s brother merits an essay.) It’s not quite a teeny-bopper set but many Cure fans were in diapers when the band began recording its most innovative work. “After about 1989 the audience, [which until then] was about the same age as us, started to get younger,” Smith says noting that graying temples are also not unusual at their shows. “The things I write about, the things that bother me, are things that people start worrying about in their teens and twenties. [A lot of people] kind of forget about them [they think they’ll] never get the answers so why worry about them. It’s a notion of growing up. I’ve never been able to grow up and out of questioning things.” And contrary to popular perception, Smith points out, their audiences are not entirely dominated by Robert Smith look-alikes.

And that brings us to the Goths: something about the underground fashions of Smith and his contemporaries circa 1983 took root. Today, the look, together with suitably dark music and a couple of Anne Rice books, has become an entrenched teen sub-culture populated by the dramatic, disaffected and pseudo-suicidal. “I think we appeal to people who don’t fit in,” says Smith. Both Smith and Siouxsie Sioux (whose style Smith is said to have one-upped when he toured with the Banshees in 1983) have disputed that they were “goth”. However, Smith will admit that he has always delighted in using fashion to get a rise out of people. He tells me he often wore “weird second hand clothes” to school just to see what the teachers would do. “As the group’s become popular and as I’ve become more known I’ve had less desire to do it,” says Smith dressed today in black cargo pants and a baggy black shirt. “ When I was younger and unknown I probably did want to be noticed. But when I started getting notice I thought I don’t need to do this anymore.”

So, how does he account for the hair? The face-paint? “It always comes across slightly ludicrous [when I say this] because of what I look like and what I do,” he admits. But Smith is notoriously stage-shy. He usually needs a drink or two for courage (A taping of VH1’s Hard Rock Live in New York City was the first show Smith had ever done sober) and he must wear makeup. “It’s a ritual. When I put the makeup on then I can perform. It affects me psychologically. It makes me louder. I use makeup and the whole look in the way that thousands of people have through thousands of years –[I use it to perform]. It liberates [me].”

Smith will not be freed from his designation as King Goth anytime soon. His clones and the media will make sure of it. No matter how many ecstatically happy songs he sings he will always be the mopey English guy with the weirdo hair and smudged make-up who pens soundtracks for depression in the popular mind. It drives him crazy. When he shaved his head ten years ago MTV ran hourly news stories. (“It was like completely insane. “) In Mike Leigh’s film Career Girls, he was the unchanged man in a changed world. (“I resented that.”) But he’s beyond ridicule. In South Park’s first season, he saved the world from a mechanical Barbra Streisand. It’s who we want him to be. Robert Smith is iconographic.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Hooked on a Feeling: How to Make Decisions like an Expert

(This piece was written in September 2005; see bottom of page for links)

by Margie Borschke

Ten years ago, on a sunny Sydney afternoon, Shawn Callahan caught up with an old friend at a Darling Harbour cafĂ©. Callahan had a lot on his mind: over the years he had become increasingly interested in what made organizations tick and a little voice was telling him to make a leap into the unknown, to start a management consulting company of his own despite the solid career he’d built for himself in the IT sector. It was a major personal decision. He was looking for advice. Instead, his friend started asking questions.

“They were really open, exploratory questions about myself, what I valued and what was important to me,” says Callahan. “I’d been mulling it over but it wasn’t until I had to say what I thought that everything changed. That was a turning point.” In almost an instant, Callahan says, his answer was clear. He’d made up his mind: he would quit his job and start his own consulting company from scratch. That was that. There was no endless chronicling and ranking of options. No decision trees. No charts. No invoking of cute acronyms like PrOACT or trying on of colourful hats. In short, none of the methods that the biz school gurus and effective decision making experts advise. Instead Callahan relied on less quantifiable techniques: storytelling, mental simulation and most of all his gut-feeling, his intuition that he was onto something big.

Today, Callahan’s Melbourne-based company, Anecdote works with corporations to manage tacit knowledge- using innovative narrative techniques and his list of clients includes major players such as IBM and BHP Bilton. “It was an excellent decision,” he says, “but it wasn’t an easy one.” Personal decisions never are. No matter how many tough decisions you make at work, big life choices always seem more arduous and more agonizing. Should you have another child? Get Married? Break up with your partner? Quit your job? Retire early? Buy a new house? Renovate? Move to another country? Sometimes even choosing what to have for dinner can seem overwhelming. Some of us put big decisions on hold, often indefinitely. Others let fate (or usually other people) make choices for us. Neither is really a good approach. We wouldn’t make judgments and choices like this in our professional lives so why are we so sloppy when comes to our own happiness, in the part of our life that matters the most?

No one has been more preoccupied with perfecting effective decision making techniques than the business world where good decisions save millions and bad ones defile the bottom line. A thriving training industry attends to the demands of commerce and government to churn out better decision makers, advocating the teaching of formal decision making techniques that are based on economic theory which sees us all as rational actors attempting to maximize utility (be it profit, happiness etc.) and behavioral psychology. The approach goes something like this: Identify your objectives and your options, gather information, evaluate and rank your options according to your objectives, take into account every uncertainty and consequence you can think of and then choose based on which option comes out ahead once you do your sums. Maximizing utility is the name of the game and while no one claims the approach is foolproof, its proponents say it can be relied on to produce good outcomes for any kind of decision be it a billion dollar business deal or where to go on your annual fishing holiday.

There’s just one problem, says Gary Klein, an American scientist who runs Klein Associates, a consulting firm in Ohio. “There’s no evidence that I’m aware of that having people apply those rules improves the quality of their decisions.” Klein’s research, chronicled in Malcolm Gladwell’s entertaining best seller Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking as well as in his own books Sources of Power and The Power of Intuition, flies in the face of traditional thinking about decision making. Structured formal decision making methods are prescriptive–they tell us how we ought to make decisions–and they’re designed to correct what is thought to be our propensity to make interpretive errors- by misreading cues in our environment–by quantifying preferences and keeping our emotions and enthusiasms in check. Klein decided to take a different tact. Rather than concern himself with how we should make decisions, he looked at how experts under stress actually do it, working not in the lab with subjects attempting unfamiliar tasks, as is often the case in cognitive and behavioral psychology, but in the field, as the action unfolds. “I realized that what was missing [from the psychological research] was expertise,” says Klein, a leader in the field of naturalistic decision making, the study of how people make decisions in real life. His first study, in 1985, looked at firefighters–it was full of surprises.

“Everything [about that study] surprised me. Nothing happened the way it was supposed to,” says Klein. (Sources of Power is the rare book that begins by chronicling all the mistakes the author’s team made and follows up with the important lessons learned.) “First, the firefighters said that they didn’t make decisions, that they just knew what to do [when faced with a situation]. Then they said that in most cases they didn’t generate more than one option and that surprised me. A decision, [by definition] means you have to prepare at least two options and they weren’t even doing that. And then, the fact that they could evaluate an option without comparing it to another one surprised me.” Experience was often the only explanation the firefighters could give (although there was one commander who claimed to have ESP.) They just knew. Says Klein, “I had to abandon my preconceptions and try to see what were they doing and how were they using their experience.”

Experts, Klein found, were not exceedingly fast at following rational rules of decision making, as some believe, instead they made their decisions in an entirely different way. They draw upon their experience, looking for recognizable patterns, to quickly assess if a situation was familiar or not. Then, based on that, they chose the first workable option they came up with, often the first thing that sprung to mind. Evaluating the effectiveness of a course of action didn’t involve gathering information and weighing the advantages and disadvantages of one approach as compared to another–there was no time for that. Instead, they evaluated the decision based solely its own merits by imagining how it would play out. If they foresaw a problem with their solution they modified it or moved onto the next idea; if not, it was full steam ahead. As Klein wrote in Sources of Power, “the emphasis is on being poised to act rather than being paralyzed until all the evaluations have been completed.”

Klein has since studied many experts who work in stressful conditions including nurses, intensive care unit teams and military strategists and time and again he has found that they all seem to break almost every rule that formal decision making advocates set forth and yet they manage to make good decisions the majority of the time. More impressive still, they manage to do so in less than optimal conditions, in situations where the stakes are high (often life or death), where their access to information is limited and while they are under a great deal of stress and time pressure.

When it came to how experts made decisions, intuition rather than reasoning, seemed to lead the way and techniques such as simulation and storytelling seemed to be far more important than rational analysis. “I realized what a tremendous strength this was,” says Klein. “And here the research community had been studying people in ways that disqualified their strengths, in ways that separated them from what makes them so effective and then they sneered at them for being so flawed.” Rather than study the weaknesses and limitations of the human capacity to make decisions, Klein set out to study the many strengths that didn’t seem to be accounted for in the dominant models of decision making and to figure out how to better train decision makers. If experts, the people who made the most effective decisions, weren’t using these techniques to make choices, Klein asked, should we really be training novices to use them?

Experts, of course, have that certain something that novices don’t: experience. Though Klein doesn’t believe that personal decisions are fundamentally different to those that experts make he admits that the issue becomes trickier because people are usually making decisions about areas where they don’t have a lot of expertise or experience. So while classic methods might be a waste of time for experts, might they be of some use to the rest of us? When we’re on unfamiliar terrain, as we often seem to be in our personal lives, surely a little rigor and reasoning could come in handy.

David A. Welch, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and the author of Decisions Decisions: The Art of Effective Decision Making thinks so.

“We’re all normal human beings and normal human beings suffer from particular kinds of traps and our intuitions lead us into those traps. If at the end of the day what you really care about is maximizing something, these traps are going to lead in the wrong direction,” says Welch. An expert on international relations, Welch became interested in decision making while studying international security. “I wanted to understand why smart people make dumb decisions,” he says. He also realized how useful the information could be when individuals were faced with tough choices such as buying a house or choosing where to go to school so he sought to translate the technical jargon of rational choice theory into a language the average person who wanted to make smarter decisions could understand.

“People make bad decisions all the time because they are over hasty, they fail to consider some of the implications of what they do or they wrongly judge one alternative favorably because it reminds them of something unrelated,” says Welch. “The way the brain works leads us down the wrong path a huge proportion of the time. It doesn’t mean all your intuitions are wrong. It means that if you’re making a really important decisions and you want to be really sure you’re making the right choice then ideally what you want is to have is your intuitions agree with a more structured approach. A good proportion of the time your intuition and your exercise will agree and you will have the satisfaction of being even more confident.” Though the technique he advocates could theoretically be used for any kind of decision, even matters of the heart, Welch says you have to consider the time it takes to go through the exercise. (Plus, he says, you risk being labeled unromantic if you start charting out your intimate relationships.) “You don’t do this every day,” says Welch. “I will go through the formal exercise maybe twice in a busy year.” Buying a house and a car were both occasions where Welch personally made the effort.

Klein, on the other hand, sees these technical exercises of limited use, even for novices.
“One reason people run to these methods [in the corporate sphere] is because they want to avoid responsibility,” says Klein. “People are very desperate to find an analytical method that gets them off the hook. They don’t want to say I made that decision. They want to say look, I followed the steps so nobody can blame me.” (The rigour of this kind of analysis, he points out, can make it beneficial in situations where justifying a decision is important, for example in the political sphere where there are often many competing interests to account for and accommodate.)

“If you’re going to improve somebody’s decision making skills you’re not going to do it by improving the quality of their procedures and their analytical methods,” he says. “The advice people usually give you is don’t form any conclusions until you’ve gathered all the data. That’s bad advice because it makes you passive,” he says. But before you start counting your chickens before their hatched, think again. “Even worse than waiting, is jumping to a conclusion and sticking to it no matter what.” Klein is by no means advocating snap judgments or indulging prejudices nor does he believe you should abandon rational thought, another powerful human strength. On the contrary, he believes that deep, thoughtful reflection will improve your decision making skills. Says Klein, “The way you’re going to improve [a person’s] decision making and judgments is by improving the quality of their intuitions and that means having them reflect on decisions that they’ve made that turned out right or wrong. It means giving them more experiences. It means having them take a more active stance in developing their expertise.”

Part of developing expertise is being honest with yourself about when you’re dealing with the unfamiliar. “Novices should be less confident in their intuitions and they should explore alternative options but not in the classical way by setting up common evaluation dimensions, assigning weights to these dimensions, filling in squares all those sorts of things,” says Klein. “Instead of comparing options on a set of dimensions that is rigid, novices should imagine each option, how it might go well and how it might go poorly. They need to see how they feel about the best cases and the worst ones.” Klein trains his clients to conduct so-called pre-mortems, a sort of simulation of what would happen if everything went wrong. “You don’t just go with your enthusiasm,” he warns. “It’s about actively exploring the data and discovering relationships that allow you to learn more about a situation so that when you do have to make a choice it will be better informed because you have a deeper understanding of the dynamics.”

We need to take our intuition more seriously. Shawn Callahan believed in his in the face of difficult odds. Had he dismissed those feelings that were difficult to articulate and analyzed the situation along more traditional criteria, a career move, he thinks would have appeared to be foolhardy. Novices should be more wary of their gut-feelings, says Klein but they should not dismiss them. “Be aware that if you have to think of different options there’s a good chance that the first option you think of is going to be the best,” says Klein. “It may not be. But hold onto that. That initial impulse, when you have some basis of experience is usually pretty good and if you start analyzing too quickly, the analysis can confuse you and you will have lost your intuitive sense of what you really want to do. Pay attention to what your intuition is telling you and then do the analysis rather than vice versa.” Listen to your heart: your head will follow.

Getting Out of the Zone of Indifference

Some of us are plagued by indecision but could it be that we place too much value on choices that don’t really matter much?

“In most cases we’re faced with pretty obvious choices: Do you want to buy a really good car at a very low price or do you want to buy a mediocre car with terrible repair records at a high price? That’s not hard,” says Gary Klein, a leader in the field of naturalistic decision making. “However, the closer together we make the options the harder it gets. The toughest decisions are those where the strengths and weaknesses are almost perfectly balanced.”

“They’re also often the decisions that matter the least because the choice will be almost inconsequential. This is the zone of indifference. At this point it doesn’t matter what you choose but we are so conditioned to want to find an advantage for one option over another that we drive ourselves crazy trying to do it,” says Klein. If the goals are well defined and only the best will do–and there are such occasions-–then this is exactly the sort of task at which formal decision making methods excel. They will help you tease out the best option if you have the time. But Klein advises otherwise. “If you think you’re in the zone of indifference rather than spending another few hours or days or weeks trying to [find the optimal choice] just admit that you’re in the zone of indifference, admit that you don’t want to be trapped there and you can’t think yourself out of it. Flip a coin or something.” Move on.

Books & Links

Klein Associates

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions (Paperback) by Gary Klein
Decisions, Decisions: The Art of Effective Decision Making (Paperback) by David A Welch

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

EXTRAORDINARY ALIEN: Techno DJ Richie Hawtin challenges borders

First published in Saturday Night, February 1, 1999

By Margie Borschke

Richie Hawtin is driving his late-model silver BMW down familiar streets,
through the modest tree-lined neighbourhoods of Windsor, Ontario. As we turn
onto Huron Church Road, heading north, the maple trees give way to fast-food
joints, and we cruise towards the Detroit River, past the strip malls and
the Assumption CathoLic Church. Hawtin and I are on our way to the United
States, which around here isn't really that big a deal, for most people. The
border between Michigan and Ontario is a line that the residents of Windsor
cross often, to shop, to work, to go out for dinner. But for Richie Hawtin,
the border has proved more complicated.

Hawtin is a DJ, and a world-famous one. It's a job title that has gone
through as many evolutions and permutations as popular music itself: think
of Wolfman Jack spinning platters in "American Graffiti," then Shep
Pettibone keeping the disco beat alive at Studio 54, then Terminator X
scratching and mixing for Public Enemy. Hawtin, who performs around the
globe and can command thousands of dollars for a single night's work,
represents the latest incarnation of the DJ; as "Plastikman," he's become
one of the world's most successful practitioners of the musical style known
as techno, the fast-paced, funky electronic dance music that was born in
Detroit's decaying downtown and spawned a revolution in youth culture in
Britain and Europe - and to a lesser extent in North America - in the late
'80s and early '90s.

Right across the river, Detroit was like a second home to Hawtin when he was
growing up. Now, as we pull up to the tollbooth on the Canadian side of the
Ambassador Bridge, we can see across the water the towering Renaissance
Center, a gasp of architectural optimism that looms above the abandoned
streets of Detroit's inner city. Hawtin, twenty-eight, dressed in a T-shirt,
Carhart work pants, and his trademark Belgian-designed black plastic
glasses, pays the toll, and we roll onto the bridge towards America.

High above the icy chop of the Detroit River, Hawtin points eastward to an
elegant but crumbling neoclassical structure on the opposite shore. "That's
the old train station," he says. Abandoned by Amtrak in 1988, the station is
typical of the faded glory and tragic neglect for which Detroit is now
infamous. But Richie sees more there than just a faded past; he sees the
potential for a raucous, heartthumping present. This is the sort of deserted
building that is ideal for a really loud rave, the huge, all-night dance
parties that are the signature event of the techno world. "Someone tried to
have a party there once," he says, "but it got shut down before it even

Hawtin arrived in Windsor with his parents in 1979, an immigrant from a
small town near Oxford, England. Coming to Canada, nine-year-old Richie had
expected more mountains and bears and less American-style industrialization.
"As soon as we came out of the airport in Windsor it was big cars, concrete,
and wires seemingly everywhere," he remembers."I didn't really see a
difference between Canadians and Americans then. It was all kind of one
thing in my head."

As a boy, Hawtin would lie on his bed in his parents' house in LaSalle, a
suburb just south of Windsor, and listen to cutting-edge music on Detroit
radio. Eclectic shows hosted by the Electrifyin' Mojo and the Wizard
featured proto-techno bands like Kraftwerk, European industrial bands like
Nitzer Ebb, as well as electro, funk, and early house music. It was music
that suggested a world unlike anything he had experienced, and Hawtin knew
he wanted in. His earliest stabs at DJing were at an underage club in
Windsor, and even as a teenager he was frequenting now-legendary Detroit
clubs like the Music Institute. Soon he was working both sides of the
border, and he quickly became a presence in Detroit's underground party
scene. By the time he was eighteen, he had a weekly DJ gig at the Shelter,
another dub in downtown Detroit. "If you want anything that is a bit out of
the ordinary or different around here, you've got to go to Detroit," Hawtin

It was also in Detroit that Hawtin met fellow Canadian John Acquaviva, a
London, Ontario-based DJ who is his sometime collaborator and long-time
business partner. Together they launched Plus 8, an independent record label
that, along with Hawtin's new label, Minus, owns Hawtin's catalogue - four
albums and twenty-five singles, many recorded under the names of various
alter egos, like F.U.S.E., Robotman, Up!, and Xenon. Hawtin and Acquaviva's
first release, in 1990, "States of Mind," sparked some controversy: printed
on the white label was simply the slogan "THE FUTURE SOUND OF DETROIT." Some
members of the Detroit techno community - which was then predominantly black
- resented a couple of white kids from Canada making such a bold assertion.
"To us, it was our future sound of Detroit," Hawtin explains. "[Detroit] was
where I DJ'd, where I drew my inspiration from, and where it really started
to happen for me. [We took] the sound of Detroit and mutated it into our own

In his early years, it was illegal for Hawtin to DJ in the United States
because he lacked the required work visa. When he tried, at eighteen, to
sort things out, an immigration lawyer told him he didn't qualify. Anyone
could be a DJ, the lawyer said; wasn't it just a matter of playing one
record after another? If Hawtin played a party in Detroit, he added, he
would be taking away an American job.

For years after that, every time Hawtin crossed the border into the U.S., he
didn't mention that he was going to DJ or host a party on the other side. He
was always "visiting friends," "going to dinner," "catching a show." And he
always made it across with a smile and a wave. Then, on April 28, 1995, on
his way to New York City to perform live for 2,000 people at the base of the
Brooklyn Bridge, Hawtin was stopped at the border. Perhaps his shaved head
and car full of electronic equipment prompted suspicion. (After all, the
Oklahoma City bombing had happened just a week before.) Maybe the city's
anti-rave task force was onto him; or maybe the officer was just in a bad
mood that day. But during the ensuing search the U.S. border guards opened a
letter that Hawtin had forgotten to post, in which he noted the date he was
to appear at the rave in Brooklyn. Hawtin, of course, hadn't mentioned it to
the guards; he had told them he was going to see a friend.

U.S. immigration officers questioned Hawtin for over three hours. "It was
pretty nasty," Hawtin says. "This guy was like, 'Tell us the truth and maybe
we can work this out.' They threatened to throw me in a cell. So, the stupid
thing I did was, I told them the truth. I wrote it down in a statement and
as soon as I'd done that they were all smiles. They told me to go home, and
that I shouldn't ever expect to get back into the States again."

The ban was a huge blow to Hawtin. Detroit was more to him than a place to
have good parties. It was also his muse. The Plastikman records, Hawtin
says, were reflections on experiences he'd had in Detroit, and without
access to the city - its diversity, its underground life, its youth culture,
all thriving in a place that everyone else seemed to have written off -
Plastikman didn't exist. "It was a very strange time," he says. "Besides my
family, I didn't have that many people in my life from Windsor. Everyone I'd
been doing parties with was in Detroit. My girlfriend was there. My friends
were there. Everything. Access to all these different things, all my
inspirations - I was cut off from it all. My world got a lot smaller that

The situation forced Hawtin to re-examine his artistic ideas and goals.
"Richie had some profound moments," says Acquaviva. "He got a lot wiser and
his perspective changed." So did his music. Before the incident Hawtin had
begun recording material for what was to be his final Plastikman album, but
afterward, he lost interest. "Being banned gave me time to look to other
things for inspiration," he says. His music became more spare and
contemplative; it was still electronic, but now was increasingly
experimental and less danceable. He began a series called "Concept 1,"
releasing a new single each month for all of 1996. The results were nothing
you'd hear on a dance floor. Then, in 1998, he released two more moody
albums: "Consumed," a composerly minimalist soundscape without a single
dance beat; and "Artifakt [BC]," a more pared-down continuation of his
earlier work. Both were heavily influenced by what Hawtin describes as his
"exile" from Detroit." Artifakt' is about the exile," he explains, "whereas
'Consumed' is a product of that exile. It wouldn't have happened without
[my] getting thrown out of the States."

The treatment Hawtin received at the hands of the American government and
the subsequent support he discovered in his hometown also aroused a
nationalistic pride in Hawtin that he was unaware he possessed. It's part of
the reason that, for the first time, a Plastikman record received a Canadian
release. (The others, though recorded in Canada, were available only as U.S.
imports.) "It was one of the worst experiences of my life," he says of the
ordeal. "I wouldn't want to go through it again. But it really made me who I
am today. Maybe without it, I would still just be doing parties and making
dance tracks. I wouldn't want that either."

In 1996, one and a half years and thousands of dollars in legal fees after
it began, Hawtin's exile came to an end. With four critically acclaimed
Plastikman albums under his belt and his face on the cover of just about all
of the world's major dance-music magazines, the U.S. Immigration and
Naturalization Service agreed that Hawtin was "an alien of extraordinary
ability," or a "non-immigrant, status O-1." He is now free to enter the U.S.
to visit his girlfriend, to hang out with friends, and even to work.

Today, as we approach the American side of the bridge, Hawtin adjusts his
glasses and surveys the possibilities. There are no lines painted on the
pavement at U.S. Customs. Cars and trucks cut erratically across the
would-be lanes, each driver choosing the queue that seems both most likely
to move and least likely to result in a strip search or the dismantling of
one's car. Hawtin veers a couple of lanes to the right. He's placed his bet.

The car ahead of us pulls away from the customs booth, and Hawtin, taking
his foot off the brake, pulls up to be questioned. He sticks his head out of
the window and hands his passport, which is British despite his twenty years
in Canada, to the inspection agent. The plan today is that I will tag along
with Hawtin while he goes about his business, visiting his sound engineers
to master some tracks, meeting with his event co-ordinator, and doing
various label-related chores - all perfectly legal, legitimate pursuits
under the terms of Hawtin's visa. Still, when the middle-aged officer looks
up from Hawtin's passport and asks, "Where are you going?" Hawtin's answer
has the ring of experience.

"To have lunch with a friend," he says.

The guard waves us through.

The big event in Richie's life this week, as is often the case, is a party.
This one is called "M1," and it's going to take place Friday night. As late
as Thursday, M1 remains shrouded in mystery. As we drive around Detroit and
Windsor throughout the week, doing errands - cutting records here, dropping
off files for the printer there - Hawtin hands out flyers, invitations that
list only a date, time, Web address, and phone number. Who, what, and where
are conspicuously absent. Hawtin's parties are famous, and the organizers
want to keep this one intimate. At his last big party he played host to
1,500 people; the space they've rented out for Friday will hold only 400.
Despite the secrecy, the party is already being talked about, albeit
cryptically, on e-mail lists and among local scenesters. Some kids will
drive hundreds of miles to attend; others will fly in from places as distant
as San Francisco and Las Vegas for the night. "Show up early," Hawtin tells
everybody he hands a flyer to, though in the rave world, "early" is a
relative concept: the party is scheduled to begin at midnight and go until 6

At 10 a.m. on Friday, the venue is announced on the information line and Web
site of Minus, one of Hawtin's two record labels. M1 is to be held at Better
Days, an after-hours club on Woodward Avenue, Detroit's main drag. We show
up late that afternoon to prepare. Hawtin retires to the DJ booth, where he
fiddles with his equipment and begins downing a steady stream of caffeinated
drinks. His set-up is complicated, as it has to be: when the rave starts,
he'll not only be mixing back and forth between records - like a regular
club DJ - but also playing his own, unreleased electronic tracks that he's
had cut into single-edition vinyl records. Over these tracks, he'll mix in
rhythms that he's programmed into his Roland 909 drum machine, adding the
occasional sample or warping the sound with his effects boxes.

Better Days has certainly seen some. Next door to the Scorpio Book Center
and its twenty-five-cent peep shows, Better Days is little more than a
thirty-by-sixty-foot cinder-block box. Its only concession to decor is a
day-glo mural of the Manhattan skyline, painted, apparently, by someone
unfamiliar with the real thing - the Brooklyn Bridge appears to cross the
wrong river, into the wrong part of town. Party-goers, however, will be
spared this bit of creative geography. Hawtin's crew is busy along long
pieces of burlap to the walls and ceding. Every inch of the room will be
covered in the stuff. It's an organic twist on a Plastikman theme: Hawtin's
nom de spin was inspired by a party space he once covered entirely in black

Hawtin describes the parties he hosts as a reaction against the excesses
that have come to characterize the American rave scene: the ubiquitous
drugs, the long lists of big-name DJs who play short sets, the silly clothes
(think giant pants), and the even more ridiculous accessories (pacifiers,
stuffed animals, surgeons' masks, glowing wands, and hats of cartoonish
dimensions) favoured by some teenage party-goers. "I saw so many fuckin'
flowery hats and Dr. Seuss shit when I toured with Prodigy and Moby in
1992," says Hawtin, "that I just wanted to be sick. In America it's always
'More! More! More!' Flashing colours. Hats. Glo-sticks. We just wanted to
strip things back to the essentials." Hence the burlap.

Just after midnight, the scheduled start time for the party, the $ 2,000
customized quadraphonic sound system is silent. Outside, a few hundred kids
are getting antsy. The doors aren't open yet and Tim Price, Minus's event
manager, insists that they go back to their cars and wait. The police were
here at 9:30, hours before the event was to begin, responding to an
anonymous complaint (about what they wouldn't say). Someone from the Minus
crew - an American, at Hawtin's insistence - is down at the precinct sorting
out the problem. Things are tense.

Price's cell phone rings. The Detroit police have given them the go-ahead
and the crew scrambles to get things started. The tension is replaced by an
air of excitement. The gates open at 1:40 a.m., and security guards begin to
check IDs - you must be eighteen or over to enter - and search everyone for
drugs and other contraband. (A sign posted outside the gate reads, "No glo
sticks, alcohol, weapons or attidude [sic] . . . just dancing.") The drugs
long associated with the rave scene are barely in evidence: party-goers on
Ecstasy, the chemical that has defined the rave scene for a decade, are the
exception tonight, not the rule.

By 5 a.m., the room is a mass of swaying, sweaty bodies. Averaging 140 beats
per minute, twice as fast as the average heart rate, techno's pounding bass
and lack of a traditional song structure can, on first listen, seem a bit
like an assault. But the crowd at M1 wouldn't have it any other way. A man
in his late twenties, dancing a few feet away, suddenly stops, holds his
head in his hands, and screams as if he can't take it any more. Just as
abruptly he begins dancing again, only faster and harder this time, lifting
his head towards the ceiling, a beatific smile spreading across his face. A
woman who appears to be asleep on a couch by the entrance suddenly jumps up
and starts to dance, inspired by a new bass-line that Hawtin has mixed in.
The dance floor is a writhing stew of vaguely familiar repetitive movements:
a boy tugs on his baseball cap and hops back and forth in a sort of sped-up
jig; a girl waves her finger in the air, Charleston-style; and a whole bunch
of kids appear to be directing air traffic or sizing windows, their hands
cutting through the air with semaphoric precision.

By 7 a.m., the crowd begins to thin. A few exhausted party-goers rest
against the burlap-covered walls. Hundreds of cigarette butts and colourful
flyers litter the floor. Hawtin spins his last record around 7:30, and there
are still more than 100 people on the dance floor. The lights finally go up.
Everyone looks tired, their faces wan and blotchy and their eyes bleary;
nonetheless, as they exit the club, they seem satisfied. The Minus crew
jumps into action, motivated by the promise of breakfast in Detroit's
Eastern Market district. Giddy with success and sleep deprivation, Hawtin
and the crew members gossip about the party. Narrowly averted disasters are
recounted - the visit of the fire marshal at 2:30 a.m., pop spilled on a
turntable - and celebrity appearances are noted, including those of techno
pioneer Eddie "Flashin'" Fowlkes and, weirdly, Tommy Lee of Motley Crue.
They are a rather dishevelled group; covered in burlap hairs and dub filth,
they'll certainly stick out among the Saturday morning brunch crowd.

Hawtin has not slept in over twenty-four hours, nor will he until many hours
later. But rest is not a priority. His mind is already on his next project:
he needs to scout locations for the film crew he's hired to shoot the
demolition of Detroit's famous Hudson's Building, scheduled for that
afternoon. He won't go home until late tonight, after Hudson's is another
pile of downtown Detroit rubble. Then he'll cross the line again, back into
Canada, to the building that he bought a few years ago, across from the
Hiram Walker factory. He'll lie down to sleep at last, and if he dreams,
he'll probably dream of Detroit. "Even when I couldn't come to the U.S.," he
says, "I liked the view of Detroit from Windsor. I liked the idea of it."

GRAPHIC: Illustration; 1


IAC-CREATE-DATE: March 4, 1999

LOAD-DATE: March 05, 1999

Thursday, November 24, 2005


This piece was written for YM in 2001 but did not run. A similar story crediting reporting from this piece ran in 2001. Many thanks to the many teenagers who I talked to for this story and thanks to Norwell Middle School for allowing me to attend the sex ed classes. All statistics are from data available in 2001. New data is now available.

by Margie Borschke

Ashley Ferguson just sat there. Every other girl in the classroom, including her good friend Carolee, stood next to their desks smiling nervously and looking left and right to see who else was standing. Ashley, on the other hand, looked down at the Limp Bizkit scrawls on her blue Trapper notebook and wondered what everyone else was thinking of her. Anne Munson, a cheerful 32 year old woman with curly dark hair, smiled broadly and handed anyone who was standing (that is to say, everyone but Ashley) something that looked like a credit card. "It's kind of cool," Munson squeaked. Ashley knew this was coming. This was the climax of a mandatory five-day course for eighth graders at Norwell Middle School. "You can make a stand for abstinence," said Munson, an instructor from True Life Choices, a group contracted by the public school board to teach "Creating Positive Relationships." And yet Ashley was sitting.

Ashley is 14 and lives in the nearby city of Fort Wayne, Indiana. She's wearing jeans, like every other girl in the class, a t-shirt and strappy platform sandals with no socks despite the frigid mid-western winter day. Her toenails are painted dark blue. She's into cats and hip-hop (not necessarily in that order) and watches a lot of MTV. She hangs out with more boys than girls but doesn't have a boyfriend and worries about what the more popular kids think. According to Ashley, she and her friends are 'known' but not popular. They sit in the back part of cafeteria in between the preps and the freaks. The nerds try to sit close by but they'd rather they didn't.

"Signing this card means you know that you don't want to have sex until your married, " Anne continued solemnly and read aloud the 'terms' printed on the back of the "ATM" (Abstinence 'Til Marriage) card. They included "drawing the line" at kissing and "creat[ing] positive peer pressure by choosing friends with the same values." She also emphasized the expiry date-your wedding day. "That's the day you'll be able to make love to your husbands," Anne promised and the girls who had been silent and reverent for most of the class giggled and blushed. A few looked back at Ashley before they bent over to sign their cards. A girl with bobbed blonde hair mouthed something to Ashley. Ashley stayed put. Ashley didn't take the pledge.

Vanessa Schafer did. She signed a similar pledge card last October in front of her Junior girls Phys Ed. class at Highland High School, a public school in sunny suburban Gilbert, Arizona. She carries the card in her wallet next to her school ID, a picture of her boyfriend Nate and her lunch money. "I see it everyday. It's a little thing to remind me that I'm not going to [have sex,]" she says. The card is white with black and purple lettering and it was given to her by Karie Hughes, a woman who runs a local group called Passion and Principles. It says, "Save Sex For Your Mate: Believing that true love waits I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, those I date and my future mate to be sexually pure until the day I enter marriage." Underneath Vanessa's signature is a quote from the New Testament, "Love is patient, Love is kind." Vanessa is thinking of getting it laminated.

Vanessa and Ashley's classmates are not alone: Well over 2.5 million young people in America have made similar public pledges to abstain from sexual activity until marriage during the past decade. Most have done so with church groups like the Southern Baptists' well publicized True Love Waits program but more and more kids like Ashley and Vanessa are being given the opportunity to take virginity pledges as a part of mandatory sex ed classes at their public schools. True Life Choices and Passion and Principles are just two of hundreds of community based groups who received some of the $450 million in federal and state funds earmarked for abstinence until marriage programs, a peculiar spin-off of welfare reform. The money is currently being spent by all but two states (California and New Hampshire turned it down) and president Bush has said he wants to spend even more.

In the place of condom demonstrations and information about birth control and STD prevention, Ashley and Vanessa's classes talked about church weddings, romantic honeymoons and happy families as the expected way for teenagers to prevent pregnancy and STDs. About a third of high school sex ed classes now emphasize this "abstinence until marriage" message over what's known as comprehensive sexuality education-classes that say teenagers should wait to have sex until their older but if they don't they should use birth control, practice safer sex and get tested regularly for STDs-an approach supported by 81% of Americans. A report by the US Surgeon general David Satcher was similarly wary of the abstinence-only approach, saying there was no evidence such programs were effective.

The abstinence until marriage crowd, a loose knit collection of community-based groups predominately led by evangelical christian parents, feels that comprehensive sex ed classes sends kids the message that they can't control themselves and gives them too much faith in contraceptives, none of which are foolproof. What both sides agree on is that STDs and teen pregnancies are a problem: about 3 million teenagers contract a STD every year and 4 out of 10 teenaged girls get pregnant at least once before their 20th birthday. Though the rate of teen pregnancies has declined steadily throughout the nineties (a trend both sides want to claim responsibility for) the US still has the highest rate in the industrialized world. That's right, number one. America has a problem.

But are virginity pledges the answer?

Vanessa's school district thinks so. Passion and Principles was hired by her school to teach their abstinence-only program. Vanessa, a soft-spoken honors student who lives with her who parents and two brothers said she really liked the class. "I thought it was good. [Miss Karie], showed us virginity rings and stuff," she said. After the class she and a few friends from her cheerleading squad agreed that they'd all get one, although Vanessa is the only one who did. Her ring, bought at a Christian bookstore, is silver etched with a heart, a cross and a key and she wears it everyday on her ring finger on her left hand.

"I don't want to have sex until I'm married because I don't want to get a disease and die or have it for the rest of my life," says Vanessa, adding that pregnancy was also a concern. Her mother got pregnant with her half-brother Chris when she was still a teenager and was unable to go to college because of the responsibilities. Vanessa, who wants to be a dental hygenist and looks forward to living in the dorms at Northern Arizona University, feels that sex, could jeopardize her plans. "Miss Karie told us that [your virginity] is a special gift that you can only give away one time," she said with confidence. Her friends and family, she says, are behind her as is Nate, her boyfriend of a year and a half.

"I think its great," said Nate who is 19 and works assembling circuit boards at a local electronics company and wants to join the marines. "I think you should wait until marriage to have sex because there are so many diseases and you don't want to give them to your spouse." Nate, however, is not a virgin. He says he changed his mind about sex because of the emotional pain he experienced in his last relationship. "I'm a recycled virgin," he laughs adding that he hasn't taken a formal abstinence pledge but says he would if he had the opportunity. Almost all pledges encourage kids who aren't virgins to stop having sex and embrace what they call 'secondary virginity'. "I had sex before and it was a big mistake," Nate continues. "When you're young and you have sex, your whole relationship is based on sex. You can't base a relationship on sex so you might as well not have it."

Vanessa didn't exactly go it alone–pretty much every one who took the Passion and Principles course at her school signed a card. Things were similar at Ashley's school. "I don't know anyone who wouldn't sign them," Ashley told
me a couple weeks before this year's class. She’d signed one every year since the fourth grade. "I didn't want people to think I was easy, " she says of her pervious pledges. This year she and a couple boys were the only kids in the eighth grade who didn't sign. "There are people at my school who are sexually active who sign pledges because they think it might help their reputation," she says, adding that she knew kids who signed the pledges but continued to have sex. "People are going to do what they want. I know some people who are sticking to it but a lot of people are really pressured into doing stuff." Including signing pledges, as it turns out.

Ashley did feel pressured to sign and she worried that deciding not to pledge might give some of her classmates the wrong idea.

"I decided I didn't really care what they thought of me," says Ashley, confessing that she did worry about being called a slut by the more popular kids. "My friends know I'm not having sex and I don't plan on it." And while one such popular girl did a broadcast Ashley's decision around the cafeteria no one seemed too concerned and they continued comparing notes on their sex ed classes over luke warm pepperoni pizza and fried fish sandwiches. Ashley decided to confront the girl: "I said straight up,'You shouldn't be talking about me because I was standing up for what I believed in.'” A couple of her male classmates told her they admired her and said they thought she should be proud of herself. And that was that. A few friends asked her why she didn't sign that weekend, but come Monday, everyone seemed to have forgotten about the pledge entirely.

A recent study by the National Institutes of Health found that kids who took virginity pledges did wait longer to have sex than kids who didn't. But it also found that the more kids in a school that signed them, the less effective they were in delaying sex. Taking a pledge, the researchers explain, creates a clique of sorts, just like being a jock or a raver or whatever. If the majority of kids take a pledge it's no different than if no one took one because pledging is no longer special. This means that Ashley's classmates are no more likely to wait to
have sex until marriage than she is. For that matter, they're no more likely
to wait than kids who took a comprehensive sex ed class are. (Research shows that teaching teenagers about contraception and STD prevention does not make them have sex. Some studies even shows that it decreases the chance a teenager will have sex.)

Plenty of teenagers, pledges or no pledges, are happy to be virgins–more than
half of those 17 and younger to be precise. Including Ashley.

"I know I'm not ready to have sex right now. I'm not ready to settle down if
something happens and, you know, we're still kids ourselves," she says. Pregnancy is something she's seen happen to older teenage friends and relatives and she knows that if that were to happen to her, her plans to go to college, perhaps to study to be a veterinarian would have to be put on hold. Ashley, however, like most kids her age, is pretty curious about sex and while she isn't usually too fond of school she paid close attention to her TLC instructor, taking careful notes and answering questions. Unlike in her science and history classes where she sometimes goofs off, Ashley was quick to raise her hand and was pleased that her questions about sex and relationships were answered first.

This the third year that True Life Choices has come to her school. The group is a non-profit organization run by a veteran of the local Crisis Pregnancy Center, the anti-abortion arm of Focus on the Family, an evangelical Christian group with whom many of the abstinence educators contacted had ties. None of the TLC instructors are public health professionals nor do they have teaching credentials. Over the course of a week they go over basic male and female anatomy, the role of respect and commitment in relationships, the consequences of sex (pregnancy, STDs, emotional scars), how to say no to sex and safe dating situations (message: avoid being alone with your love interest and draw a line at sexual activity before what they call "the underwear zone.") Students played a game about STDs (the answer to most of the questions: “abstinence until marriage”) , watched videos about why to choose abstinence ("Just because some of our parents had no self control doesn't mean we don't" scowled the Multi-culti teens in an episode on STDs) and watched demonstrations that likened premarital sex to unwrapped candy bars (message: those who have premarital sex are used and dirty.) TLC also mentions marriage about every five minutes complete with talk of church weddings, string quartets, white dresses and fabulous parties.

"I don't think they really should have been talking about marriage as much," Ashley said. "We're teenagers– we're a long way from getting married." Romance may be TLC's secret weapon but Ashley wasn't buying it.

TLC also says that kids should "check their signals" which mostly means that girls are told to dress in a way that makes boys think they have chosen abstinence. (Tell that to Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson, both publicly professed virgins 'til marriage who will wear what they like, thank you very much!) According to Ashley's instructors this is because guys are turned on by sight whereas girls are turned on by touch. Vanessa's instructor also talked about supposed difference between the sexes. According to Vanessa, "Miss Karie said that guys don't really care much about love they just care about sex and girls are the opposite," a claim that curiously didn't come up in the boy's class.

Possibly the most controversial element of these classes is what they teach kids about condoms. Proper use is tossed out in favor failure rates and the instructors seem preoccupied with HPV, an STD that condoms aren't so good at preventing over the infections they can help prevent such as the deadly HIV virus. As a result many kids who take abstinence until marriage classes are left with the impression that condoms don't work. "[Passion and Principles] talked to us about condoms," Vanessa reports. "They told us that they have
tiny holes in them and you can still get a disease or get pregnant with a condom on." Vanessa's class workbook says that “condoms are only 70-90% effective", "They leak!", "They break!", "They deteriorate!" and, cryptically "Naturally occurring defects in condoms are 5 microns-50 times larger than HIV."

Public health officials including the World Health Organization, disagree. While not having sex (as in no intercourse, no oral sex, no anal sex and no genital contact) is obviously a teen's best bet if they want to avoid the question altogether, for teenagers who do choose to be sexually active using a condom as a form of protection is clearly better than nothing. According to the World Health Organization Condoms are 99.9% effective in preventing pregnancy and STDs when used consistently and correctly, something teenagers aren't so good at if they haven't been instructed on how to use them. Not surprisingly, neither Vanessa or Ashley's class showed them how to do so. In fact, when questioned about condoms, the head of TLC told a classroom full of eighth grade boys that the FDA allows 3 out of every 1000 condoms to go to stores with a hole in them, a claim which is simply not true. It's no wonder then that some health providers have reported that sexually active kids are turning down condoms saying that they were taught at school that they don't work. A boy who took the Passion and Principles class said he thought the most effective way to prevent pregnancies and STDs during intercourse was to pull out before ejaculating.

Critics point out that teaching teenagers only about abstinence is not realistic-there are teenagers who are having sex and they need to know how to prevent pregnancy and STDs. Pledges might help some kids avoid sexual activity but, well, promises can be broken. And studies have found that by the time pledgers leave their teens, only about half are still virgins.

"It was on July 28th," says Kirsty Douglas* [not her real name], a 17 year old junior in Greenville, South Carolina. "My parents were at work and we got caught up in the heat of the moment." Kirsty and Taylor* [not his real name], her 19 year old boyfriend, had been dating for 6 months. They were both virgins. "We had talked about it before about how we didn't want to [have sex until we were married] and, I don't know, things just carried on each time we were alone and then it just happened." Kristy was walking on air for the rest of the day. "It was fun," kristy giggles.

But the next day Kirsty felt badly about what she and Taylor had done, not so much because of the sex itself-she loves her boyfriend deeply and expects that they might marry after she finishes college–but because she, along with everyone else on her cheerleading squad, had pledged at a True Love Waits rally at her school. Kirsty told her mom-they're very close-and they decided it wasn't something she should do again. But they found themselves alone again and, well, they did it again. And again. Today, Kirsty seems ambivalent. She and Taylor continue to have sex but not very often (about once a month) and it is by no means at the center of their relationship. Kirsty is happy about this. Still, she says she is disappointed that she broke her pledge.

"Ever since I knew what sex was I always said that I was never going to have sex until I was married, " says Kirsty, an honor student and a cheerleader, who adds that it is also what her church, the Southern Baptists, believe in. "That was my goal. I pledged because I wanted everyone to know that I wasn't going to [have sex] and I was going to stand up for what I believed in."

Kirsty's best friend who also pledged at the rally didn't wait for a wedding ring either. And she has reason to suspect that most of her teammates on the cheerleading squad, all virgins when they pledged, have changed their minds as well. Although more teenagers are putting off having sex until their older by the time their 20, less than a quarter of girls are still virgins.

Kirsty and Taylor used a condom.

"I was kind of surprised that he had one," says Kristy. She now takes birth control pills and they use condoms every time they have sex. But her best friend didn't use anything and the same study that found that pledge takers waited longer to have sex also found that kids who broke their pledges were much less likely to use protection when they had sex than kids who didn't pledge. Some weren't prepared, others didn't know how to get or use contraception and still other's thought that romantic love (the kind they'd heard so much about in their abstinence classes in the place of real information on contraception) would save the day.

"I think that if somebody wants to have sex, for any reason–if they have a long-time boyfriend, say - then they should know where to get protection and how to use it," says Kristy.

Ashley also points out that marriage is simply something that not all adults choose to do.

"At first I was going to stand up and pledge but then I thought, no, go with what you believe," she explains. "I thought about it a lot. I even thought about it at the Kid Rock concert last night. You know, my mom wasn't married when she had me [and she still isn't.] I don't plan on getting married for a long time. I don't think I'll have sex [as a teenager] but I think I'll probably have sex before I get married." Given that only 7% of men and 21% of women were virgins on their wedding night, Ashley's probably being realistic. "I didn't want to look back and say yeah I signed that [virginity pledge] but I went and had sex anyway. Then I
probably would feel bad."



An edited version of this story appeared in Details Magazine, November 2001. All facts were checked with data available circa August 2001. I'd like to update and annotate someday soon.

Rob Kampia is standing next to the hors d'oeuvres, clutching a bottle of beer, and edging up to a multimillionaire. It’s classic Washington D.C.: Kampia's buttoned into a lobbyist-issued dark gray suit with a crisp white shirt and a silk tie emblazoned with the American constitution. The multimillionaire is in dress-down mode because he can get away with it, even here at the prim Cato Institute, the conservative think tank who is hosting this cocktail party. There in the glass enclosed lobby, beneath palm trees that optimistically and improbably spout from the tile floor, the two carry on in hushed, serious tones. Tax cuts? Hardly. Energy policy? Wrong again. Kampia, 32, is the executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, a small non-profit he co-founded in 1995 that seeks to reform marijuana laws. In order to do so his group needs money, and this is where the cocktail party and the multimillionaire come in. This is what the frontline in the war against the war on drugs looks like? The rebel forces have gone mainstream.

These are by no means halcyon days for the anti-prohibition troops especially in light of President Bush’s choice of John P. Walters, a lock-em up conservative, as drug czar. Nevertheless, activists across the country continue to be invigorated by the recent successes of state medical marijuana initiatives and the public dialogue spawned earlier this year by Steven Sonderberg’s film Traffic. There are now dozens of national organizations pushing the cause–many funded by prominent straight-laced business people such as George
, Peter Lewis and John Sperling–whereas in 1990 there were just two. Though still dominated by the baby boomers who got the ball rolling, the younger generation of activists is a far cry from the flaky hackey-sack spiritualists that are generally associated with the anti-prohibition movement. The new activists are clean cut, middle class, and professional-and their approach tends to be much more conservative than their forebears. They want to change bad laws-not "the system."

Kampia, 32, a committed libertarian, dropped in at the Cato Institute for a reception honoring Gary Johnson, the 48-year-old, apple pie-faced governor of New Mexico, a Republican who freely admits that he is one of the more than 70 million Americans who have smoked pot. More radical still, he thinks it shouldn't be a crime.

Across the room is Allen St. Pierre, the 35-year-old director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws who together with Cato organized the bash for the governor, who is one of the first elected officials in recent years to come out in favor of legalization. (President Carter came close to reforming laws in the 1970s but since then politicians have been wary of the topic, lest they be labeled soft on crime.) St. Pierre has neatly cropped hair and he wears round wire rimmed glasses and a tweed jacket that betrays both his New England upbringing and his young fogeyish tendencies. A small green leaf is pinned to his lapel. It is possibly the only pot leaf at the event, a marijuana rally of sorts, circa 2001. Though the room isn’t entirely free of the tie-dyed cotton or unkempt hair that is expected of marijuana activists, the crowd—a mix of activists, medical researchers, libertarians, democrats, republicans, rich people and policy wonks sipping on martinis and Merlot–is predominately white and male and middle aged dressed in suits and ties. The women wear power suits or twin sets. No one, I repeat, no one is smoking pot and St. Pierre and Kampia stand out only because of their relative youth. When the governor (a tri-athelete who gave up pot and alcohol years ago and encourages others to do the same) addresses the crowd and declares America's war on drugs a "miserable failure," everyone cheers. They're ecstatic that an elected official is finally on their side. "I just had a gush of warm feeling," says St. Pierre. “It’s great to hear someone speak the gospel of reform.”

The new ‘Legalize It’ crew spans the political spectrum and few of the younger agitators have had anything to do with radical politics, or even other political issues. They may have made careers out of drug policy reform but they are not career activists. Sophisticated strategists, they are media savvy and tend to specialize, working on small parts of the drug policy puzzle such as medical marijuana, harm reduction or mandatory minimum sentences. And perhaps most surprisingly, some of the younger activists say they've never used drugs of any sort. Marijuana prohibition, they believe, is simply bad public policy– ineffective, inefficient, racist, and causing more harm than it prevents. Like alcohol prohibition in the twenties, the ban on cannabis has created a criminal black market that has ravaged inner city neighborhoods, they point out. And while African Americans aren’t anymore likely to use drugs they are far more likely to go to jail on drug charges. This is the first generation who has known nothing but the drug war; they are the children in whose name all those new prisons were built. This is their generation's anti-war movement.

Twelve years ago, Kampia was a prisoner of that war. He spent three months in the county jail for "manufacturing marijuana with intent to distribute." He was a junior at Penn State living in his first apartment, a furnished three bedroom that he and his two roommates decorated by tacking blue mesh to the ceiling and a few posters to the walls. He studied engineering and posted straight As. The closest he came to counter culture was his taste for heavy metal and, in sharp contrast to his clean-cut business-like look today, he wore his thick blonde hair long, had a fondness for ripped jeans and a big silver cross hung from his left ear. “I dressed terribly,” he laughs. “It was beyond fashion.” Perhaps, but hardly radical.

He'd tried pot twice in high school but nothing happened. Then as a college sophomore, a friend passed him a corn cob pipe she called “the superbowl.” "It worked," he recalls. "Once I experienced it I really enjoyed it. I found it preferable to alcohol, so I bought my first bag." He smoked on the weekends and bought exclusively from other students in the dorm.

Then, in his junior year he had the kind of brilliant idea thrifty college students specialize in–he would grow his own. He outfitted his bedroom with incandescent bulbs and planted some seeds in pots on the unused bunk bed and in his closet. But someone “narced.” The narc was a guy about his age; A bicycle thief who had been offered a reduced sentence if he could lead the police to three individuals committing drug offenses. When Kampia was busted most of the 96 plants weren't more than two inches tall and none had ever been harvested. "I wasn't a skilled botanist," he says with a laugh. The police said it was their biggest bust that year and even though Kampia had no prior record, he got three months. He considers himself lucky–if the federal authorities got to him he could have served years. He was kicked out of school, dumped by his girlfriend, and missed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Eve, and his 21st birthday. He was very angry. "I was in jail with people who were in there for either hurting others or hurting property and I did neither," Kampia explains, his voice laced with lingering rage. "That's how my political activism got started. Sitting behind bars.”

"Stop Arresting Responsible Marijuana Users" reads the slogan printed on a banner that hangs across the entry to the conference area in D.C.'s Renaissance Hotel. This is NORML’S annual conference: three days of panel discussions and speeches that attracts drug policy wonks and NORML members from across the country. One floor below Hardee’s franchise owners are fluttering about the hotel’s carpeted depths wearing Uncle Sam hats and Perdue Chicken is holding a luncheon. St. Pierre runs around warmly greeting panelists and desperate to get the 350 attendees to settle in so they can stay on schedule. C-Span is airing Gov. Johnson's luncheon speech and live TV doesn't run late.

The gathering is similar to the one at the Cato Institute-–straight laced and almost entirely white–but with a higher granola factor. There are more 40-somethings who look like they stumbled out of a VW van and a handful of cute girls with blonde dreadlocks and baby faced boys who are probably mourning the breakup of Phish. Jokes about cottonmouth and short-term memory loss are popular as is setting the ringer on your mobile phone to play a tune. The pungent aroma of pot can occasionally be smelled –usually emanating from one of the handful of medical marijuana patients at the conference, including a woman whose MS is so advanced that she's confined to a gurney.

St. Pierre consciously tries to keep hippie stuff to a minimum (the anti-authoritarian youth culture of the 1960s is commonly used to dismiss reformers arguments) but outside the auditorium a few cultural stereotypes prevail. One guy sells hemp products and blasts seventies rock on a boom box; a super-laid-back type sells bike shirts to benefit NORML's mountain biking team. "Pretty much everyone who races smokes pot," he tells me. But near him is a table crammed with weighty policy papers from the Soros-backed Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation led by intellectual powerhouse Ethan Nadlemann. Next door, a young libertarian mans his party's table, looking as young libertarians so often seem to, like a Jehovah's Witness on casual Friday. It's a very open, non-partisan atmosphere. For St. Pierre, who almost single handedly revived NORML in the mid nineties, this makes perfect sense. "It's a non-partisan issue," he shrugs. "The drug war cuts across every strata of American life. It doesn't matter if you're rich or poor, black or white, male or female. Its tentacles now reach out so far that every group and sub-group has been affected by it."

Marijuana comes from the flowering tops and leaves of the hemp plant Canabis Sativa and was legal in the US until 1937. It is a mild hallucinogen, that heightens the senses and has been known to make users introspective, euphoric, hungry and prone to watch late night television. It was banned, in part, because it was thought to be highly addictive and a "gateway" drug, but government studies–most recently a 1999 study by the Institute of Medicine–have shown otherwise. No one has ever overdosed–it's
virtually impossible according to that same study–and its use is not associated with increased crime, violent or otherwise. (The legal drug alcohol can’t make the same claim.) It is illegal under the Controlled Substances Act, which classifies it as schedule 1; this means it's considered a dangerous drug that is highly addictive and has no accepted medicinal use.

Yet according to an ACLU poll three out of five Americans do not think marijuana smokers should be sent to jail and other studies have found that about 75 percent think it should be available for medical use. According to the Department of Health and Human Services about 11.1 million Americans smoke pot at least once a month. (By contrast, fewer than two million are regular users of all other illicit drugs combined.) Pot-related arrests have almost doubled in the last decade, but use rates remain stable and joints are passed casually at Upper East Side dinner parties and surreptitiously in big-city nightclubs. Marijuana users span all socioeconomic backgrounds and include hundreds of thousands who use it on recommendation of their doctors, primarily AIDS and cancer patients. In the eyes of the federal government they are all criminals.

"People picture the drug war as federal agents breaking into big meth labs in Montana and spraying the fields in Colombia," Kampia points out. "That's a war, right? Those are 'big bad drugs.' But the war on drugs is primarily a war on marijuana users." Indeed, nearly half the drug-related arrests in this country are for marijuana and the vast majority-almost 90 percent-for simple possession. A system of regulation and taxation, much like the one we have for alcohol, Kampia argues, would not only eradicate the crime associated with it but do a better job of keeping it out of the hands of kids. (According to government studies, teenagers say it's easier to obtain illicit drugs than alcohol and access to drugs of all sorts has remained unchanged throughout the drug war.)

Two blocks away, 33 year old Dave Fratello, political director for the Campaign for New Drug Policies, is sequestered in his room at the Grand Hyatt. He just flew in from L.A. to give a talk at the conference on how to mount a state initiative but unfortunately he is in the middle of one such effort and the deadline is looming. In a plaid shirt tucked neatly into Dockers, Fratello personifies the cautious suburban voters who feel safe with such initiatives. For Fratello, the image of the new, fresh-scrubbed activist is a political necessity for a mature movement. "The counterculture image is counterproductive," explains Fratello. "It doesn't make sense to go with a high profile marijuana enthusiast. We benefit a great deal by running against that image." He admits that for those who have worked on this issue for decades, the new strategy can be a slap in the face. "People feel like you're harvesting the fruits of their labor," says Fratello who also spent six years at the Drug Policy Foundation. "It's hard to look someone in the eye and say ‘If I put you on TV we're going to lose half the votes.’” Proposition 215, the 1996 California campaign that Fratello worked on, made marijuana legal for limited medical purposes in that state (patients still must obtain cannabis on the black market, according to the recent Supreme Court ruling that found a non-profit buying club that operated like a pharmacy in violation of federal law. ) Despite the Supreme Court setback, the passing of prop 215 is still considered a turning point, the moment when the movement went mainstream.

"It changed the zeitgeist," comments Kampia, who unsuccessfully ran for congress in DC last year and is now working on medical marijuana campaigns in Maryland and Massachusetts. "It makes it O.K. for anybody to talk about marijuana, whereas before if you brought it up in certain circles you might have been suspected of smoking it."

Back at the Renaissance, Fratello's friend Dave Borden is nibbling on a crab quesedilla at NORML's opening night fundraiser. Borden is a soft-spoken 34-year-old who holds an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Princeton and a Masters in Jazz Composition from the New England Conservatory of Music and is the man who sat down at his home computer in 1994 to created the Drug Reform Coordination Network. "The idea was to provide this flow of information that supports and promotes the work of all the other groups," explains Borden whose sharp intellect and dry wit makes the newsletter a must-read. Identifying the power of the Internet to unite activists in those early days of its existence was truly innovative. The mailing list has grown to 25,000 and DRCNet was instrumental in organizing the new student group Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Borden also happens to be representative of the many young drug policy reformers who have never inhaled. He's never tried an illicit drug of any sort. "I never had the inclination,” he says, and tells me he clued his parents in on his interest in Drug policy by showing them an editorial he wrote on the subject. “I established an intellectual basis for the cause,” he explains. Did his parents think this meant he was a drug user? “I think at this point they assume I’m not interested,” he laughs. “The great majority of American recognize that what we're doing isn't working. One need not have tried cocaine to understand how the cocaine trade is destabilizing Colombia," he says. The effects of a drug, he explains, are not relevant to understanding the effects of a criminal trade.

"It's a hard issue to organize around," says Kampia, who is trying to get celebrities to join MPP (Angelica Huston became MPP’S most recent celebrity supporter) and was co-hosting a fund-raising party in LA with Michelle Phillips that weekend. "Your most obvious constituents–people who have either been arrested or those who use marijuana–don't want to speak out because they're actually criminals." And while NORML isn't afraid to defend marijuana users, most organizations including MPP shy away from talking about drug use and stick to drug policy. "People ask me if I'm for or against marijuana and I say neither," says Kampia (he no longer smokes pot, he says, because it makes him anxious. "Our position is we're against jail. We convict prohibition."

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

There were three new pieces I wrote for Harper's Bazaar Australia in the September 2005 issue.

"Get the Picture" Ten Australian artists to watch.
"Singapore Fling" A travel feature on Singapore's hot spots.
"Local Knowledge" Where to stay at "the snow" in Australia and New Zealand.

Artists in "Get the Picture" include:
David Jolly
Shaun Gladwell
Madeleine kelly
Nick Mangan
The Kingpins
Kate Rohde
Alex Davies
Yukultji Napangati
Sangeeta Sandrasegar