Philosophy instructor, recreational writer, humorless vegetarian.
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Two Years of Amazing Images From the James Webb Space Telescope

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Last week marked the second anniversary of when the first images were released from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The telescope was launched in December 2021 and remains in orbit around a point in space about 1 million miles from Earth. In the past year, JWST has continued to fuel new discoveries, as well as returning more spectacular views of the universe around us. Gathered here is a collection of images from JWST’s second year in space.

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istoner
22 hours ago
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Saint Paul, MN, USA
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Now Keir Starmer Has to Decide if He’d Use Nukes

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Following a landslide victory for the Labour Party, Britain has a new leader. The moment Keir Starmer is officially made prime minister of the United Kingdom, he will be given a flurry of briefings, piles of documents, and the urgent business to run the country. Lurking among those papers is a moral land mine.

Starmer will be given a pen and four pieces of paper. On each paper, he must handwrite identical top-secret orders that—hopefully—no other human being will ever see. The previous set of orders, written by outgoing Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, will then be destroyed, unopened. These top-secret papers are called the “letters of last resort.”

Since 1969, Britain’s nuclear deterrent has operated at sea, with nuclear missiles that could be launched from at least one continuously deployed submarine. Destroying those vessels would eliminate the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent, so the secrecy of the patrolling submarine’s location is paramount. Once deployed, the submarine may not transmit messages, only receive them, to maintain its crucial cloak of concealment.

Today, there are four submarines—one always on patrol—which is why there are four identical copies of the letters. Each handwritten letter is placed inside a safe, which is housed inside another safe, on board the nuclear-armed submarine. Right now, one of those submarines is patrolling the world’s oceans, its location known only to a tiny number of people at the highest levels of the British government.

[Read: The nuclear question America never answers]

During the Cold War, British authorities constantly feared that London could be wiped out in a surprise nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. If the British government ceased to exist in a blinding flash of atomic light, and everyone in the civilian chain of command was dead, who would have the authority to launch a counterattack? Without the credible threat of a “second strike” in response to a nuclear assault on the capital, Britain lacked a deterrent.

The letters of last resort are the solution to that dilemma: They allow the prime minister to issue orders for a counterattack from beyond the grave. If the submarine captain has reason to believe that London has been destroyed in a nuclear blast (one of the cues is said to be that the BBC has stopped broadcasting), then the captain is to make every attempt to verify that the British government no longer exists. Once satisfied that the worst has indeed taken place, only then may the captain open the two safes, unseal the letters, read their contents, and execute the order from the now-deceased prime minister. Should the United Kingdom release its nuclear arsenal and retaliate—or not?

The briefings with the prime minister are secret, but four main options are typically presented to the incoming leader: retaliate, don’t retaliate, put the submarine under the control of the United States Navy, or leave it to the commander of the submarine to decide. Because it’s impossible to forecast what has occurred, the letters must be elastic enough to respond to the annihilation of the British government, whether caused by Russia, North Korea, or a rogue terrorist group that has somehow acquired weapons of mass destruction. There is just one letter per submarine.

“The prime minister can write on that piece of paper anything that he likes,” Robin Butler (also known as the Right Honourable Lord Butler of Brockwell) told me when I met him in his flat in Westminster a few years ago. He had served as the private secretary to five prime ministers, briefing the newly elected ones on the responsibilities they’d assumed. During the Cold War, the very existence of the letters was top secret—nobody outside the highest echelons of the British government knew of them—so the need to draft them came as a shock to incoming prime ministers still riding the euphoria of being elected. Even though the letters are not a secret today, writing them is still daunting. A new prime minister must decide whether he or she is willing to engage in nuclear warfare. (Liz Truss may have failed to outlast a lettuce, but she did decide whether she would use nuclear weapons.)

[Read: Goodbye to Tory Britain]

After explaining the protocols, Lord Butler would tell incoming prime ministers to write down what they had decided. “All I did was to leave successive prime ministers with a piece of paper and a pen to write out what those instructions should be,” Butler told me. “But it must be, above everything else, the thing that brings home to them what the weight of their responsibility is.” Britain has, by accident, designed a protocol ensuring that new prime ministers cannot come to office thinking only of themselves, but must contend psychologically with the burden of power, too.

If the worst were to happen, the letter on board the patrolling submarine would be opened. If the prime minister had given orders to retaliate, the crew would immediately fire as many as eight Trident missiles comprising up to 40 warheads, with a payload that would make the Hiroshima blast look comparatively minor. The trigger mechanism incorporates a handle from a modified Colt 45 revolver. (The training trigger is black, whereas the real one is red.) It will operate only when the captain has turned a key to the “Fire” position, ensuring that two people are required to initiate a launch.

This weekend, Keir Starmer, like all prime ministers for the past five decades before him, will write his orders for what to do if the British government is wiped out. Unlike American presidents, who must only contemplate the terrifying nuclear power they control, British prime ministers must actually decide—definitively—whether they would use that power.

Prime ministers are hesitant to discuss the letters of last resort, and none of the handwritten orders has ever been seen. That’s understandable, because if the letters included any orders other than for a full-blown second strike, Britain’s adversaries would know that, and it could heighten the risk of a nuclear attack.

Nonetheless, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke with me in 2020 about the letters of last resort. On taking office in 1997, Blair told me, “Whereas everyone else was euphoric, I really wasn’t. I was oppressed by the weight of the responsibility that was descending upon me and very conscious of it—very conscious of the fact that campaigning for office and governing in office are two very different things.”

The letters themselves didn’t weigh that heavily on Blair, however, because he took power during a period of comparative peace and prosperity, when the prospect of nuclear war seemed far-fetched. “Yes, of course, I paid a lot of attention deciding how I drafted the letters,” he said. “But it didn’t seem to be anything other than an extraordinarily remote possibility, so I can’t say it occupied my thoughts greatly.”

The same is unlikely to be true for Starmer, who takes office at a moment of global peril. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised concerns that nuclear weapons could again be used in warfare. North Korea’s eccentric dictator continues to test his arsenal. Iran is more openly flirting with acquiring nuclear bombs. And one of the options prime ministers usually consider—turning over Britain’s nuclear arsenal to the United States Navy—could soon mean putting even more nuclear firepower in the hands of Donald Trump.

If the letters are opened, and they call for the awesome power of Britain’s nuclear arsenal to be unleashed, a deafening sound will follow—of missiles traveling at 18,000 miles an hour before exploding in a cacophony of death. This weekend, Keir Starmer must contemplate the destructive capability he now wields, while listening to a much quieter sound: the scratches of his pen on four pieces of paper that could determine the future of humanity.

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istoner
11 days ago
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"Britain has, by accident, designed a protocol ensuring that new prime ministers cannot come to office thinking only of themselves, but must contend psychologically with the burden of power, too."
Saint Paul, MN, USA
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Occasional paper: On the curious diet of the Speckled Mousebird

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So my wife took this picture in our garden yesterday, here in Kigali, Rwanda:

May be an image of bird

Take a close look.  This little bird — about the size of an American cardinal, or a European robin — is facing us.  It’s also facing the sun, though you can’t see that.  It is holding two twigs with its little claws, and… it’s puffing out its breast feathers in a very weird way.  It looks like a breeze is ruffling them.  But there is no breeze.

So we did a quick look-up and found: this is Colius Striatus, the Speckled Mousebird.  Long tail, “scruffy” crest, check.  Thin, rather hairlike breast feathers, check. Very common across tropical Africa, okay.  And then this:  

“Speckled mousebirds… can often be spotted roosting in groups where they’ll buff up their feathers. They do this to allow more sunlight to hit their bodies which helps speed up the fermentation process.”

Wait, what?


Okay so let’s talk for a moment about “folivory”, which is the fancy term for “eating leaves”.

If you want to eat leaves as your major food source, well, there’s good news and there’s bad news.  The good news is, leaves are everywhere!  And you don’t have to be stealthy or clever to sneak up on them, and they’re not going to run away.

The bad news is, leaves don’t have a lot of energy.  Your typical leaf is mostly water and cellulose with a bit of starch thrown in.  In terms of calories per kilogram, it’s one of the least energetic foods you can get.  So, an entire kilogram of lettuce only has about 150 calories.  That compares to about 550 calories for a kilogram of apples, or about 2,700 for a kilogram of beef. This is why we eat salads to lose weight, yes?

Now leaves as an *occasional* food source are fine.  They do tend to contain useful vitamins and minerals, which makes them very useful as part of a varied diet for an omnivorous animal.  But if leaves are all of your diet, or a lot of your diet, then you’re going to encounter some issues.  Leaves are such a low-energy food that either you have to eat a lot of leaves, or you have to just digest the heck out of the leaves that you do eat, so that you extract every possible calorie of nutrition.  Or both. 

This is why cows have four stomachs, yes?  They’re eating grass — grass is leaves — and then they’re sending it through a digestive system that is much more complex than yours or mine.  One thing they’ll do along the way is ferment the grass, which lets them crack energy out of all that cellulose, getting more calories per kilogram.  But fermentation is complicated:  it needs either a big complex digestive system filled with symbiotic bacteria, or heat and lots of time — preferably both.

Okay so if you’re an animal that’s going to eat a lot of leaves, that generally gives you three options.

— Be big.  Cows, elephants, gorillas.  You have lots of room for a massive digestive system that can extract all your caloric needs.
— Be cold-blooded.  Insects, slugs, iguanas.  Cold-blooded animals need a lot less energy!  So, it’s easier to get your energy needs from leaves.
— Be slow.  Sloths, koalas.  

There are some interesting edge cases and exceptions (ask me about rabbits, or better don’t) but broadly speaking those are the options.

Okay so if you think a moment you’ll realize that all of these make it challenging for a bird to survive on leaves.  Birds generally have blowtorch metabolisms, with base body temperatures quite a bit higher than most mammals’.  Birds are generally small.  And birds can’t usually afford to be slow.

There’s exactly one (1) bird that lives on leaves and nothing but leaves:  the hoatzin.

Creature Feature: Hoatzin

Briefly, the hoatzin is nature’s attempt to evolve a sloth again, starting with a bird.  They live in South American tropical forests and they spend most of their time crawling slowly through the tree canopy.  And they can fly, but just barely — it’s an awkward flapping scramble, just enough to escape a predator.  

Okay, so the hoatzin is the only bird that lives entirely on leaves.  What about birds that eat a lot of leaves, but other stuff too?

Well, that gets you geese.  Geese typically get between a quarter and half their calories from grass and other leaves.  But geese are also perfectly good fliers and they don’t lack energy; as anyone who’s ever confronted one can tell you, geese are horribly strong and quick.  They can make this work because they are (for a bird) quite big, so they have room for a relatively large digestive system.  That said, geese can’t live on grass alone, and will aggressively seek out other food sources — as anyone foolish enough to offer one bread will quickly realize.


Canada Geese - LEAP for Biodiversity

All right then, some big birds can eat a lot of leaves.  But a small bird couldn’t manage it.  Right?

Until yesterday, I would have agreed.  But I would have been wrong.  The mousebird gets about half of its calories from leaves.  

How?

It cheats.  The mousebird uses a trick called “heterothermy” — the ability to change its resting body temperature.  A few warm-blooded animals can do this, usually for purposes of hibernation or torpor.  So for instance, when bears hibernate, their core body temperature drops from about 99 degrees F (38 Celsius) to around 88 degrees f (31 Celsius).  And it stays that way for months at a time.  Bears have a metabolic “low gear” that most mammals lack.

And so does the mousebird.  But the mousebird can drop its body temperature /much/ lower.  They can go all the way down to around 75 degrees F (24 C) — room temperature, more or less.  That is crazy low for a warm-blooded animal!  That’s reptile territory.  But the mousebird makes it work.  And that means the mousebird no longer has that hot, fast, high-energy bird metabolism that needs vast amounts of calories.  It can live on the limited energy it gets from leaves.

TBC, the mousebird doesn’t eat leaves alone.  They’ll eat all sorts of plant material — seeds, fruit.  In our garden, we see them drinking nectar from the flowers of the big yucca plant by the garden gate.  But the mousebird’s ability to drop its body temperature means that when high-quality plant food is scarce — for instance, during Rwanda’s dry season, which is right now — it can switch to eating low-energy leaves, slow down its metabolism, and survive just fine.

Okay, but there’s still one problem left: the mousebird wants to get maximum energy from its leafy diet.  To do that, it needs to ferment its food.  That requires either a big cow-like digestive system, or — at a minimum — heat and time.  But the mousebird has lowered its body temperature!  So, where will the heat for fermentation come from?

From the hot tropical sun, thank you very much.  The mousebird will eat a belly full of leaves, and then it will fly up to a sunny perch, and then it will just… bask.  It lowers its metabolism, conserving energy, but its body temperature stays high because of the sun.  Its belly is covered with long, hairy feathers that help it absorb solar heat.  So its digestive system stays hot and can ferment the leaves aggressively.  If you go back to the top of the post, that’s exactly what the mousebird in our garden is doing in the photo. 

Meanwhile the mousebird is torpid, but awake. Presumably it’s just alert enough to drop off its perch and flutter into cover if danger should approach.

“Basking in the sun to digest a meal” is a behavior that we associate with reptiles: a turtle on a log, a snake by the side of the road.  You really don’t expect to find it in a bird.  But the mousebird is pretty successful.  It’s not a weird one-off like the hoatzin.  There are half a dozen species of mousebird, spread all across Africa.

— That whole “cold blooded / warm blooded” thing we learned back in grade school?  Basically correct, but the details get infinitely complicated.  There are some reptiles that are kinda warm blooded.  There are birds and mammals that vary their body temperature.  There are insects that can warm themselves up.  Heck, there are a couple of plants that produce internal heat. 

The world is wide and full of wonders, you know?  And sometimes they’ll come and perch in your garden.

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istoner
16 days ago
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I can't get enough of this series of posts from Muir. What an amazing world it is that we are wrecking
Saint Paul, MN, USA
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Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Pro

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Click here to go see the bonus panel!

Hovertext:
Pro Wrestling is the most realistic form of entertainment, in that nothing means anything, but everyone still gets hurt.


Today's News:
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istoner
21 days ago
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Perfectly bleak hovertext on this one
Saint Paul, MN, USA
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2 public comments
ReadLots
21 days ago
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"You better believe all things are impermanent brother!"
- Hulk Hogan
GaryBIshop
21 days ago
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Deep!

Swallowing: I Was Mike Mew’s Patient

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Francisco de Goya, “Out Hunting for Teeth,” 1799. Public domain. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I named her Holy Jemima when I was nine, or thereabouts. I liked the way the words sounded and it was meant cruelly. Holy Jemima was two years older than me, and her family—her mother, father, two sisters, and brother, making six—were in a cult.

I did not know they were in a cult. I just thought they were crazy Christians. The turbo type. I was forced, occasionally, to interact with Holy Jemima, because her little sister, Jessica, was friends with mine.

The whole family had this shark-eyed stare. Holy Jemima would fix me with it and tell me that Harry Potter was evil, that they did not celebrate Halloween in their house because of Satan, and that the school church was getting it all badly wrong.

“You’ve got to come over,” she told me once, “and watch these videos. You have no idea about the world. The school is not telling you about the real miracles that are happening. There is a preacher in Africa, a Black guy, and he is curing people. His name is TB Joshua.”

“You watch videos of church?”

“He has cured AIDS. On video. Exorcisms too. Have you ever seen a demon leave someone’s body? They go like this.” She rolled her eyes back in her head and waved her arms about as if having a seizure and started going aghnaghnahgnghgnghgnhgnhgn.

A thing about growing up: you do not know what is strange until after. This was suburban England and the Holy Jemima’s hobby seemed about the same, to me, as my parents’ doctor friends’ African masks mounted on the walls above their CD towers of world music. Six streets down from them was Bellybutton Man, whose hobby was watching us leave school whilst silently smiling and lifting his blue T-shirt to finger his navel. And Bellybutton Man seemed about the same as Andy, eight minutes across town, who ran a pub and was a chess savant, who showed you newspapers and explained where the grandmasters were making mistakes. And Andy seemed about the same as Jake, whose hobby was that his parents let him drink as much Sunny Delight as he wanted. When you’re a kid it’s all just flora and fauna. You learn prejudices slow, like which plants are poison.

***

I met Dr. Mike Mew at the house next door to Jake’s. This house had been a house, but now it was a dentist. It was called the Smile Centre. Outside was a laminate board that said so, accompanied by a fading photo of a perfect and disembodied grin.

Mike Mew is the head of the closest thing dentistry has to a cult. This was not true when I was nine but it is now. Mike and his father, John, believe that in humanity there is currently an epidemic of ugliness. They promise that you can build yourself a new and strong and masculine jawline, basically just by swallowing different. They call this mewing. His New York Times profile calls him a “celebrity to [the] incels,” but girls like him too. He has obtained adoration on both 4chan and TikTok. Mewing is a big thing, a real phenomenon.

Mike Mew also has, at time of writing, an ongoing misconduct hearing for, among other things, making a six-year-old boy wear head, neck, and inside-mouth appliances that allegedly led to the child being in so much pain he had “seizure-like episodes.” I was Mike Mew’s patient from ages nine to fifteen, or thereabouts. This all started in 2005.

Over Christmas last year, I showed my new fiancée around where I grew up. All the sights: Bellybutton Man’s spot and Jake’s house too. We then passed the Smile Centre, which has changed its name now.

“Oh my God,” she said, “you saw Mike Mew? Are you serious?”

This was how I learned that he was famous, that he had a Netflix documentary, and that my fiancée had seen him on TikTok and had been secretly mewing the whole time.

***

The waiting room of the Smile Centre subscribed to the most boring magazines in the world. Titles I remember being like “Interior Design for the Middle-Aged Wives of Small Business Owners” and “Regional Tatler.” There were leather sofas which were somehow always hot. There was a fish tank I once saw blue food coloring being added to.

Behind the desk was the person responsible: a sixtysomething white South African woman whose hair oscillated wildly between visits from gray to jet black and back again. She would say “Gibri-il Smitt” meanly, unsmilingly, and then I would go into the examination room, where her son was waiting for me.

The son was called Jeff, pronounced “Jiff.” It was a family business and Jeff was the main onsite dentist. I think I was there for a routine NHS visit when Jeff noticed my teeth were misaligned.

“His teeth are very misaligned,” I remember him telling my mother, who came into the examination room with me. I remember her saying: “Oh, dear.”

There was a second dentist present. This was Mike Mew.

Mike Mew’s practice was in London. Not the suburbs. He was the glamorous dentist. He had descended,

Jeff explained, a guru in the field of “orthotropics” (a word he made up), and I was very lucky that he was visiting.

At the next appointment, in a different room in the dentist house, Jeff filled my mouth with putty while Mike watched. At first, Mike mostly just watched. The bottom half first, then the top half. I had to bite down hard. I remember gagging on it, and the clay taste. It had to stay in my mouth for the longest time.

When Jeff took the top half out, one of my teeth came with it. This was very painful but I didn’t show it because I’m really brave.

Jeff pulled the tooth from the clay and inspected it, then handed it to Mike, who did the same.

“Don’t worry,” Mike said, to my mother, who was worrying. “It’s just a baby tooth. It would have come out in the next year or two anyway.”

“If you’re sure,” my mother said.

“We’ll have to redo the mold,” Mike said, smiling at the tooth, “once he stops bleeding.”

***

After this, Mike took over. Mike Mew made us look at some before-and-afters. He narrated these. He had a big laminated photo album and flipped through it.

“Look at this one. His face is long and thin, like Gabriel’s. His mouth was too small and his teeth were too crowded. Now look. His face is short and square and handsome. Look at the jawline. More handsome, right?”

“Uh,” I said, not wanting to say some gay shit.

“More handsome, right, Mum?” said Jeff.

“More square, definitely,” said my mother.

“That’s right!” said Mike, and he put the book down and smiled with lips closed, because he thought he’d convinced us.

***

Later, in the bathroom, I inspected my teeth in the mirror, and wondered why I was meant to care about which way they pointed.

Then I looked at some family photo albums, at photos I was in. Then I looked at myself in the mirror again to compare my current head with my previous head.

I wondered if the two dentists were right—whether my body was becoming ugly. And if it was, why it would do that to me.

This was something I had not thought about before.

***

Alongside the cast of my ugly teeth, and promises that I’d look that way forever unless action was taken, a bill was presented to my mother. I remember the number two thousand. I remember that we were broke. We couldn’t afford a car sometimes. Researching this, I asked my mother recently how we’d paid for it.

“We didn’t,” she said. “Your grandmother did.”

The clay version of me was used to shape the first appliances. They were made from translucent blue plastic and metal wire. One sat in the roof of my mouth and the other sat underneath my tongue. The metal wire was wrapped around my teeth on either side so that each appliance would stay in place.

Neither of them fit right at first. I lay on the hydraulic chair with my mouth open. Mike placed his hand in my hair and tried to force the upper appliance around my teeth.

When it didn’t go in, he handed it to Jeff, who went at it with pliers. Then Mike tried again.

They kept doing this until it did.

Both appliances had a miniature cog inside, right in the middle. Mike gave me a tiny key and some instructions.

“Give the key a quarter turn every night, before bed. The appliance will get wider, very slowly, with each turn. It will force your teeth apart. It will make your mouth wider. Got it?”

I nodded but didn’t say anything because my mouth was full of plastic and tiny cuts from being poked by the wires. It hurt to move. In my head, I called it the Crank.

My main memory of this period of my life is being unable to eat because my teeth and jaw hurt so much. And the appliance was so disgusting—it felt so embarrassing to remove before a meal—that I made up increasingly bizarre excuses to avoid eating in public. I did not want to look like a nerd.

In 2005 they hadn’t really invented anorexia for boys. So no one minded.

***

I gave up turning the Crank pretty quick. By this point Mike Mew had taken a special interest in me, or acted as though he had. He would say how perfect it was that I was starting puberty. Because my face was still growing—not fixed, like an adult’s—he could mold it to his desired proportions. And so he was coming to town for all of my sessions.

Mike became increasingly confused at the lack of progress. It didn’t seem to occur to him that I might be cheating, that I was a preteen boy, and might, on some fundamental level, not care enough about which direction my teeth went in.

He and Jeff tried removing some of my back teeth to make more room inside me. He operated. I was delighted to be fucking up their system, to be making them do exciting, unnecessary, time-consuming procedures.

It felt like revenge for the Crank.

I had just learned about communism from a cassette of a Clash album. I’m Che Guevara, I thought. I am the Che Guevara of Dental Appliances.

 When the teeth were removed from my head I spat so much blood. My mother made a gasping sound.

“Don’t worry,” Mike said, “the blood mixes with the saliva. It looks more dramatic than it is.”

He turned on the miniature dentist tap and the blood began to wash slowly down the tiny sink.

The spiraling water turned from red to pink, then to nothing. I remember watching it, equal parts benzocaine-curious and horrified.

***

The operation, of course, did not work either. They changed tack, Mike and Jeff. They decided my chin was too far back in my head.

So they gave up on the Crank and recast my teeth and made a single appliance. This new appliance sat at the top of my mouth, its wires wrapping around my remaining back teeth. It had two long teeth of its own, the appliance, almost like fangs, which came down from the roof of my mouth, around my tongue, then curved, so that the pointed end of each was aimed at the inside of my gums.

Mike Mew explained this above my head. He would never raise the chair to speak to me.

“He’s a mouth breather. So he holds his jaw like this.”

He opened his mouth and retracted his chin and made a duhhhhhh sound.

I wanted to explain to Mike Mew that it was hay fever season. But his finger was in my mouth.

“So when he opens his mouth too wide, or doesn’t hold his jaw correctly, the appliance will give him a little prick on his gums.”

***

“Little prick” is an understatement: Mike Mew is a small and bizarre-looking man. He has a perfectly square head which, when Mike was a child, his dentist father molded using prototypical orthotropic methods. He is very short, and very slim, which gives the impression of his skull being about the same width as his waist. He wore, during our sessions, a tight shirt tucked into tight trousers, paired with square-framed glasses. He is bald, but fashionably so, and his manicured remaining hair frames the top of his strange little head very neatly. The impression he leaves is of an almost total cubeness, like a minor antagonist in a PlayStation game. He undoubtedly believes that his own physical format is somehow inherently correct, and in what he is selling: he has made himself into an example of it. “Look at your lips,” he said in one session. “Too big, too droopy, ugly. Now look at mine.” He turned to my mother. “This is how lips are meant to look. Firm and tight. Attractive.”

***

A few years passed. The fangs did work. I watched my face change. My chin went forward by the millimeter. I forced my teeth to stay together as long as I could, even while talking. I held my lips open to breathe when I had to. And each time I went to see Mike Mew and Jeff, they got out a tub of some kind of air-drying molten plastic and made the spikes on the fangs slightly longer, to force my chin farther and farther forward.

At the same time I had become six foot and skinny. I cycled everywhere and was tan all the time from the sun. I could buy cigarettes and lie on the grass and smoke them with my friends and people would sort of slide up and speak, then retreat. And once I worked out what was happening—which took a very long time, because I had never previously been cool, let alone attractive—all I could feel was a great unearnedness, a fraudulence of self, a deeply troubling sense that I was an accomplice in some great dental scam, and that anyone who was nice to me was being fundamentally misled, and that the only recourse I had was to make my personality as abrasive and unpleasant as I knew my body secretly was.

But also, when I stopped thinking about all that—when I could just let good things happen to me—life ruled. It ruled so much lol.

***

Mike Mew was delighted with my new fourteen-year-old face, and I thought that would be the end of it. But he didn’t stop there. Having fixed my jawline, he became concerned about my cheeks.

“His face is still very round,” he said. He put his gloved hand across my mouth and squeezed my cheeks so hard it hurt. “It feels like there’s too much muscle there.”

“He’s a bit mixed-race,” my mother said. She still came to the appointments, mostly. “He is kind of meant to look like that.”

Mike Mew looked at Jeff and said, “We need to give him cheekbones.”

***

The next part I can’t remember so well, partly because what Mike Mew says about mewing now is different from what I remember and partly because I had just discovered smoking weed and most long-term memories I’ve committed since are dreamlike and intangible, and trying to lift them from my brain feels, in a very pleasurable way, like lifting sand from a shimmering ocean I’m standing in.

Aside from their chemical effects, the suburban obtainment of drugs provided perhaps the first hint that my world was not what it seemed, of how it might be recast, of the impending strangeness of adulthood.

When buying drugs, you are asked to wait at street corners whose names you never knew. You see, for the first time, the insides of houses that do not belong to people with children. You learn fresh words, like ten-bag or cro, and find that language is the admission fee to new parts of your universe. You learn that all things have many secret sides to them, which were there all along.

***

Amid all this I remember Mike Mew and Jeff becoming very confused—again—even more so than before, about why there was too much muscle in my face. They theorized I was slacking in my sleep. They tried taping my mouth shut at night. Nothing worked.

There is a certain kind of depression that strikes people who reach the limits of a sales pitch they’ve treated as gospel. Mike Mew became distracted, grayer, more desolate. Less hyperactive and talkative. He trudged in his shoes that I remember as orthopedic. I remember feeling really bad for him.

But eventually, after some months, Mike Mew came into a session elated. He was engaged and curious. He had what seemed to be a new idea. When he was like this, he was charming, in his way. Boyish.

He gave me a tiny plastic dentist cup with water in it. He asked me to swallow while he watched.

He made me repeat this so many times. With my mouth open and his face very close to it. With my mouth closed. Until I could barely swallow any more.

“The problem is,” he said, “that you’re swallowing wrong. You’re swallowing with your tongue in the bottom of your mouth. It’s working the muscles in your cheeks. It’s making them too strong. Your tongue should be at the top, firmly. Watch me.”

Then he made me stand up and go to a mirror with him. And we took turns swallowing until he decided I was swallowing the way he wanted me to. This is the thing—the seed of the technique—that became known as mewing.

The Mews’ literature tells it differently. They say that Mike’s father invented the technique in the seventies. My guess is it’s somewhere in-between: based on the amount of time I spent lying open-mouthed in the hydraulic chair while Mike and Jeff hypothesized and pontificated about my teeth, Mike Mew was doing what is known in medical terms as throwing shit at a wall to see what stuck, and “swallowing different” was, when he was treating me, a semi-forgotten trick that he dusted off. That mewing was simple and cheap enough to preach online, thus catapulting Mew to viral dental superstardom, strikes me as a happy half-accident. Or, less than happy, depending on your view of Mike Mew.

***

Mike Mew cast my mouth in clay once more and made a new appliance that would allegedly force me to mew—to swallow correctly—the whole time. This time its fangs pointed at the insides of my cheeks.

I did not bother wearing it. I did my assigned at-home in-front-of-mirror swallowing practice maybe once if ever. I was fifteen and I did not want to become more of a cube. I was so bored of thinking about my own face. I had visions of being about to kiss girls and pausing to remove the blue plastic from my mouth, strands of my saliva following it like cheese on an advertisement pizza. This would not do.

So I told my mother that I’d had enough. And I never saw Mike Mew again.

***

I’ve not seen a dentist since. I tell myself that I’m English, that my teeth are meant to be terrible. For example, I did not go when, during a particularly dark heroin winter, my mouth began   to fill with blood from an unknown source every couple of days. And I will not go for the tumor-shaped thing currently growing on my lower gums, either.

Once, in a particularly philosophical moment, Mike Mew told me: “Everything is discipline. You can apply what I’m teaching you now to anything you choose.”

I do not hate Mike Mew, because how could I? He was right. I love to grind away at my mouth, which was his work. To yellow it, to watch it chip. To make my body   fat and flabby and then to bring it back to the bone. This, the learned and painful discipline of writing or sculpting a differently mangled self—of becoming compelling in spite of, or even because of, an ugliness—this is what I am grateful for. And the nicer jawline, too. Obviously.

***

Showing my beautiful new high-cheekboned, correctly swallowing fiancée around my hometown after she told me about Mew’s fame, I learned other things too. All the parts of the past that fresh eyes and hindsight had cast strange.

I learned that Andy the Savant’s pub had closed down during COVID. And that Bellybutton Man, who was actually harmless, had died some time ago.

And that the African church of the Holy Jemimas’ had been some kind of cult compound, and that TB Joshua had been faking exorcism seizures and miracles on video to obtain donations from gullible Europeans, and then raping a good deal of them, until the compound   burned down in a potentially godsent fire. And that Fitzcarraldo had put out an acclaimed book by a reformed cultist, which the BBC was turning into a documentary.

And that perhaps my own face had once been strange enough to launch two billion TikTok views, from all the incels and looksmaxxing boys and girls who wanted to stop looking exactly like I had. And I was going to have to process that, somehow.

But what I’m actually saying is: it’s not that deep. It’s all about perspective. How much you see depends on what face you’re looking out of. And how much time you’ve had to look into it.

 

Gabriel Smith is the author of the novel Brat.

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istoner
23 days ago
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Saint Paul, MN, USA
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Why Job Training Doesn’t Work

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Even in the 1990s, at the peak of free-trade fever in Washington, Congress knew that globalization would be rough on some folks. Opening the economy up to cheap imports from Canada, Mexico, and China was bound to undercut domestic industries and cost many American workers their jobs. On top of that, welfare reform eliminated or sharply cut benefits for many families. To soften the blow, Congress offered one of its favorite solutions: federally funded job training to help laid-off workers and destitute parents find a new source of income.

It made sense in theory. Manufacturing workers would “re-skill” for the Information Age economy—perhaps moving from the factory floor to an exciting career in, say, computer science—and impoverished moms would get a hand up instead of a handout. In practice, it was a failure. A 2017 study by Mathematica Research compared people who had received job training under the 1998 law, now known as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, with a randomly selected control group. Thirty months later, the training had zero effect on earnings.

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Labor published a comprehensive study of the WIOA and a host of similarly structured federal job-training initiatives. The programs did manage to put a lot of people through training, the researchers found. And many of those people were then hired in so-called in-demand jobs. But in the first three years after training, their wages increased only 6 percent compared with those of similar workers who didn’t receive training—from an average of about $16,300 to $17,300 a year—and the effect didn’t last. In the long term, their relative wages didn’t increase at all.  

[Read: The false promise of worker retraining]

This poor track record is often attributed to ever-growing skill requirements for jobs in the fast-paced global economy. In fact, the programs fail because they’re designed with potential employers rather than employees in mind. In the case of the WIOA, the local workforce boards that decide which jobs qualify as “in-demand,” and therefore which are eligible for federal funding, are dominated by business interests—and what business wants is a steady stream of low-wage workers trained by someone else.

“In-demand” jobs aren’t necessarily good jobs. They might be the opposite, because, from an employer’s perspective, “in-demand” is another way of saying “lots of vacancies,” and sometimes employers can’t fill jobs because they expect grinding, potentially dangerous work in exchange for bad pay, meager benefits, and little room for advancement. In 2022, for example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a $25 million grant for meat-and-poultry agriculture-workforce training. The poultry industry, which is notorious for its unsafe working conditions, has so much trouble finding workers that it sometimes relies on migrant child labor. A 2023 New York Times investigation found that Virginia chicken factories had employed migrant children to clean “blood, grease, and feathers from industrial machines.” (The factory owners denied knowledge of child labor. In response to the Times article, Hobart “Hobey” Bauhan, the president of the Virginia Poultry Federation, suggested that federal immigration officials were to blame for allowing migrant children into the country in the first place. Bauhan is also the chair of the state committee that sets performance standards for Virginia’s job-training programs.)

The most common WIOA training program, by far, is truck driving. From 2022 to 2023, more people completed trucker training through the WIOA than for the next nine job categories combined. Although the trucking industry has argued for decades that it faces a shortage of drivers, its hiring difficulties are arguably a function of brutal working conditions that make it difficult for trucking companies to retain their workers, resulting in annual turnover within the industry above 90 percent. Trucking firms operate this way because it’s more profitable to just keep hiring new drivers. WIOA training programs—many of which are measured in weeks, not months—provide a steady stream of workers to churn through.

The law’s defenders claim that WIOA-style training programs really do steer graduates into good jobs. They point to seemingly successful programs that train “certified nursing aides” in as little as six weeks. Certified nursing aide does sound like the entry point to a solid middle-class health-care profession. It’s not. Only 6 percent of low-income people who went through a federally funded CNA training program from 2015 to 2021 advanced up the nursing career ladder, according to an Urban Institute study. Many earn near-poverty wages.

A better way to think about certified nursing aides is as a cheaper alternative to actual nurses, who command high salaries. Many CNAs work in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, a growing share of which are owned by private-equity firms focused on generating short-term profits by slashing costs. Elder-care investors can maintain large profit margins by keeping facility staffing levels and salaries low, but that leads to burnout and turnover. It is very much in their interest to have a steady supply of new CNAs for these “in-demand” jobs.  

Unfortunately, Congress is currently considering a pair of bipartisan updates to federal job-training that would double down on the WIOA’s shortcomings. In April, the House of Representatives passed a new version of the law by a 378–26 vote, giving a bipartisan stamp of approval to the failed status quo. Meanwhile, a Senate bill introduced by Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Braun, with dozens of co-sponsors, would allow federal Pell grants for low-income students to be spent on short, WIOA-style training programs instead of on traditional college degrees. Taken together, the bills, if they become law, seem poised to expand the federal government’s investment in funneling unemployed workers into low-wage, high-turnover jobs.  

[Read: Why is the US so bad at worker retraining?]

If Congress wanted to actually fix the broken system, it would make sure that federal training programs prepare workers for jobs with living wages, benefits, and the opportunity for career advancement. Some models exist at the state level. California’s state-funded High Road Training Partnerships initiative, for example, matches workers with employers who meet standards for wages and job quality, and who commit to collaborating with workers in the design of their training programs. Many of the jobs are unionized. The UC Berkeley Labor Center studied one High Road program developed in collaboration with major health-care providers and the statewide health-care workers’ union. It found that workers who came through the program were 40 percent more likely to get promoted, with an average wage increase of 36 percent.

Labor unions are the one force that might be able to persuade Congress to reform the WIOA system instead of doubling down on it. Last month, the AFL-CIO sent a letter to Bernie Sanders in his capacity as the chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, demanding changes to the House bill. Jody Calemine, the union’s director of advocacy, told me that the legislation should give workers equal power with businesses in running local workforce boards, and ensure that the WIOA trains people for authentically high-quality jobs. Whether union advocacy succeeds at changing the bill will shed light on just how reinvigorated the American labor movement is.

The 1990s approach failed to achieve its stated goal because its focus on short-term training for “in-demand jobs” was always designed to benefit employers, not workers. The Biden administration has pushed an expansive agenda to support unions, expand antitrust enforcement, and give workers more power to demand better wages and benefits. A newer, better WIOA could bring job training in line with those ideals.

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istoner
24 days ago
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Saint Paul, MN, USA
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