feature writing

Knowing when to fold them…

This story of an addictive personality manifesting itself in the form of degenerate gambling and the lure of the poker table is quite incredible. It has the hallmarks of gonzo style essay writing where the writer is the story, and a few insights into the mind of the gambler, and society more broadly. Check it out.

As a literary society, we have long since gotten over our modesties. The literature of addiction, once the exclusive territory of imbalanced, suicidal poets, has now come to dominate the market. We no longer recognize self-indulgence as self-indulgence. The term itself has fallen out of use, relegated mostly to protests from bitter Amazon.com reviewers and the curmudgeons of the weekly book reviews. Stylish women in New York write chatty columns about how much of their paycheck they spent on the latest “must have” designer handbag. The bestseller shelves are flooded with the memoirs of 30-year-old alcoholics. Sex addicts write 200-page books, complete with sex-cougar dust jacket photos.

Pain in poker comes in many forms. There is the loss you feel about living off of the dregs of a societal illness. There is the gambler’s moment of clarity when you realize you have become just like the old, sad men that you ridiculed in your younger, luckier days. There is the tedium of sitting at a filthy felt table for hours, sometimes days, feigning a studied intensity. There is the anxiety over explaining to a loved one exactly how you lost $30,000 in the course of a weekend. There is searing unease that comes from watching that same loved one twist uncomfortably whenever you give them a gift bought with the spoils of gambling. But none of poker’s daily pains are deadly or instructive, really. What’s more, all of guilt’s iterations can be cleansed by one monster score. Hit a set of 6s on a J-6-2 rainbow flop against the Donkey at the table, the one who is wearing a fake Versace rayon shirt whose outrageous patterning is the only thing taking attention away from his Dolce and Gabbana sunglasses and the poor, doting, usually underage girlfriend who sits behind his right shoulder, awash in the illusion that her boyfriend is Paul Newman from The Hustler—well, win $5,000 off a guy like that and you stop worrying about ethics and your misspent youth.

Patents are a virtue

This is a fascinating feature on the guy who invented the intermittent windscreen wiper and sparked decades of patent lawsuits against major motoring companies. It delves into the murky depths of patent infringement and what does and doesn’t constitute intellectual property in the United States (and globally).

Copyright and Intellectual Property stuff gets really murky. And I think is a product of selfishness. On both the part of the infringer and the producer.

“In the last decade or so, the boundaries of what is patentable have expanded. In 1972, a molecular engineer named Ananda Chakrabarty applied for a patent on a microbe he had engineered that would help break down crude oil. The Patent Office rejected his application, citing a clause in the patent code which says that life forms are not patentable. Chakrabarty appealed, and in 1980 the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, 5-4, creating a brand-new sector of intellectual property: life. Last February, the National Institutes of Health applied for thousands of patents on human genes. The prospect that the United States government may soon own the gene that causes, say, green eyes has naturally created a certain amount of controversy, with some people predicting a kind of land grab at the cellular level–the Japanese patenting brown eyes, Swedes patenting blond hair, Italians patenting Roman noses.”

The story of Ford’s (and plenty of other motor companies’) infringements of Robert Kearns’ windscreen wiper patent is a sad one. He lost his marriage and possibly his sanity in the singleminded pursuit of justice. And what Ford did was wrong.

“Roger Shipman, a Ford supervisor, announced to Kearns that he had “won the wiper competition.” He told Kearns that his wiper would be used on the 1969 Mercury line. Kearns was given the prototype of a windshield-wiper motor to commemorate the occasion. The other engineers welcomed him aboard Ford’s wiper team. Then, according to Kearns, Shipman asked him to show his wiper control to the rest of the team. Wipers were a safety item, Shipman explained, and the law required disclosure of all the engineering before Ford could give Kearns a contract. This sounded reasonable to Kearns, so he explained to the Ford engineers exactly how his intermittent wiper worked.

About five months later, Kearns was dismissed. He was told that Ford did not want his wiper system after all–that the other engineers had designed their own. Kearns remembers that one of the engineers taunted him as he was leaving. “

But that was possibly the result of a systemic flaw in Ford’s thinking – from the founder himself.

“Henry Ford loathed patents. One of Ford’s lawyers once boasted, “There is no power on earth, outside of the Supreme Court, which can make Henry Ford sign a license agreement or pay a royalty.” Ford thought that the patent system should be abolished, because, he said, it “produces parasites, men who are willing to lay back on their oars and do nothing,” and because patents afford “opportunities for little minds, directed by others more cunning, to usurp the gains of genuine inventors–for pettifoggers to gain a strategic advantage over honest men, and, under a smug protest of righteousness, work up a hold-up game in the most approved fashion.””

Inventors are cool though.

“The lawsuit against Ford became Kearns’ life. He put every penny he had into it. He was driven by an uncynical, almost spiritual belief in justice and an equally pure hatred of the automobile industry. At a hearing in 1980, Kearns said, “I want you to understand that I am wearing a little badge here, and that badge says that I am an inventor, and it says I am a net contributor to society. And it is like maybe you can’t see the badge, and these other gentlemen can’t see the badge, and I don’t think anybody is going to be able to see the badge until my trial is finished in this courtroom and I will find out whether I am wearing the badge or not.”

The inner workings of a bank robber

This is a fascinating account of the life and times of a successful bank robber from Wired. It’s fascinating. It’ll doubtless become a movie one day. Unless Oceans 11 is this guy’s story played by 11 characters (which it’s not, because it’s a remake of a rat pack movie).

Blanchard also learned how to turn himself into someone else. Sometimes it was just a matter of donning a yellow hard hat from Home Depot. But it could also be more involved. Eventually, Blanchard used legitimate baptism and marriage certificates — filled out with his assumed names — to obtain real driver’s licenses. He would even take driving tests, apply for passports, or enroll in college classes under one of his many aliases: James Gehman, Daniel Wall, or Ron Aikins. With the help of makeup, glasses, or dyed hair, Blanchard gave James, Daniel, Ron, and the others each a different look.

Over the years, Blanchard procured and stockpiled IDs and uniforms from various security companies and even law enforcement agencies. Sometimes, just for fun and to see whether it would work, he pretended to be a reporter so he could hang out with celebrities. He created VIP passes and applied for press cards so he could go to NHL playoff games or take a spin around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with racing legend Mario Andretti. He met the prince of Monaco at a yacht race in Monte Carlo and interviewed Christina Aguilera at one of her concerts.

Read the whole thing, it’s worth it.

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