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Four in Five Parents Considering Homeschooling Kids This Fall

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*The following is excerpted from an online article posted on Study Finds.

As autumn nears and the coronavirus outbreak wears on, the next school year is becoming more uncertain for many parents. A new survey finds four in five parents are thinking about homeschooling their school-age children this fall. Of those parents, nearly half say they’re seriously considering keeping their kids home in 2020 and 2021.

The poll, commissioned by Crispy Green and conducted by OnePoll, spoke with 2,000 parents to see how families are adjusting to the “new normal” created by COVID-19. Researchers reveal if given the choice to open or close all schools this fall, one in four parents would not allow children back into the classroom.

The vast majority of respondents say the risk of infection is the biggest driving force in considering homeschooling. Among the parents thinking about virtual education, 81 percent point to increasing health concerns. Eighty-two percent admit they’re more scared to send their kids into a school than ever before.

Parents also worry that once children are back in class, hygiene issues will quickly put schools at risk. About 60 percent of respondents don’t believe their children will properly wash their hands in school. Nearly half the respondents say they’re trying to teach their kids about proper hygiene during the pandemic.

Despite all the preparations families are making, 77 percent say they won’t be fully prepared for schools to reopen. Many parents have a long list of demands for education officials before they begin to feel comfortable with the idea of going back to school.

Over half, 55 percent, want increased COVID-19 testing and regular temperature checks on school premises. Nearly the same number of parents want smaller class sizes in the fall. Fifty percent want plenty of hand sanitizer available for children, while four in ten parents want schools to use more digital textbooks too.

Source: Study Finds
https://www.studyfinds.org/scared-for-school-parents-homeschooling-kids-covid-19/

‘Caste’ Explodes The Myth Of American Exceptionalism

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In her new book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” Isabel Wilkerson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, recalls once seeing a small, barely noticeable welt in the corner of a room in her home and deciding it was nothing. But over the years, the welt “became a wave that widened and bulged,” until the ceiling was bowed. The tiny flaw in the home’s structure could only be ignored for so long before it threatened the integrity of the whole. 


America is like that old house, Wilkerson observes, and “the owner of an old house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away.”


For many Americans, the country now seems to be in that catastrophic phase. The rot cannot be ignored. Tens of thousands have died from the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19; the economy has been devastated by the pandemic, and millions have lost work and face eviction due to the lack of government aid. Protesters have filled the streets of American cities, decrying police brutality against Black people, while police and federal agents respond with rubber bullets, tear gas, and beatings. 


The interlocking systems that structure American life no longer seem stable ― but why?


Some may say it’s the advent of President Donald Trump, a destructive aberration from our usual political leaders. Others believe the roots lie far deeper. Wilkerson, for example, argues that a caste system “as central to [our nation’s] operation as are the studs and joists that we cannot see in the physical buildings we call home” has both structured American society and led inexorably to its decay. 


Wilkerson, the author of the acclaimed “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” traces this caste system back to the colonization of America and the creation of the American slave trade, which arose out of the demand for cheap, virtually limitless labor. Unlike white indentured servants, she writes, African slaves lacked ongoing ties to family or organized labor movements back in England, which could provide aid in eventually seeking wages and freedom. Over time, colonial law began to privilege white indentured servants, at first exempting Christians (at the time roughly synonymous with Europeans) from lifetime enslavement. 


As enslaved Africans began to convert to Christianity, however, the rationale evolved and hardened into one of racial difference. America’s rigid caste system, Wilkerson argues, was developed to justify and perpetuate a brutal form of chattel slavery. “It made lords of everyone in the dominant caste,” she writes. “Slavery so perverted the balance of power that it made the degradation of the subordinate caste seem normal and righteous.”


After the abolition of slavery, the caste distinction remained vital to the white population who feared losing the psychological wage of a superior rank ― a fear that has remained powerful in American politics and daily life. Jim Crow enshrined caste into law, but caste, as Wilkerson describes it, is not strictly legal; it also plays out in unequal application of criminal law, or widespread perceptions of Black people as poor or uneducated that shape how they are treated by medical workers, teachers, banks, employers, and police. 


This is not exactly new, of course; what “Caste” proposes is a framework for understanding it ― not as America’s odd preoccupation with race, but as just one example of a caste system much like others we are familiar with. 


Wilkerson turns again and again to metaphors to pin down what caste means exactly, arguing that it’s not exactly race (though in the U.S. it is inextricable from it), nor is it class. It is, she says, “the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance.” Or it is the play itself, in which “the actors wear the costumes of their predecessors and inhabit the roles assigned to them. The people in these roles are not the characters they play, but they have played the roles long enough to incorporate the roles into their very being.” Caste is “like a corporation that seeks to sustain itself at all costs.” 


Wilkerson focuses most of her attention, rightly, on the tremendous suffering inflicted by caste on the lowest subordinate group in a system, and on Black Americans in particular. Using studies, historical research, and anecdotes from daily life, she argues that it is caste expectations that frequently exclude Black people from high-status jobs and that scapegoat them for crime and other social ills. These expectations inflict stress especially, she argues, on Black people who defy caste by climbing into higher social classes, which has profound health implications. 


“Socioeconomic status and the presumed privilege that comes with it do not protect the health of well-to-do African-Americans,” she points out. “In fact, many suffer a health penalty for their ambitions… The stigma and stereotypes they labor under expose them to higher levels of stress-inducing discrimination in spite of, or perhaps because of, their perceived educational or material advantages.”


In the current moment, with rioters protesting police killings of Black people, and the coronavirus tearing through Black and brown communities, Wilkerson’s caste opus is often clarifying. She traces how caste relegates most lower-status people to the type of essential work that forces them to leave home, endangering their health, even as many predominantly white office workers remain safely isolated while working remotely. She examines how it undergirds every interaction between people of different castes, especially as the election of Barack Obama, and then Donald Trump, drove a resurgence of caste policing. 


“After the 2016 election,” she writes, “the surveillance of black citizens by white strangers became so common a feature of American life that these episodes have inspired memes of their own.” White people calling the cops on Black people entering their own homes or waiting at a Starbucks, she argues, is “a distant echo of an earlier time when anyone in the dominant caste was deputized, obligated even, to apprehend any black person during the era of slavery.” 


In an era of increasingly widespread anti-capitalism, it can be surprising how matter-of-fact Wilkerson is about class hierarchy. Class mostly appears in the book as either a function of caste or a foil to it: Black people are mostly confined to low-wage labor and lower social classes, while some rise to the upper classes but face frequent assumptions that they are unfit to be in upper-class spaces. To limn the precise reach of race-based caste, Wilkerson focuses on those who defy caste-assigned class, especially wealthy Black people. In several anecdotes, including some drawn from her own life, Wilkerson remarks on a Black person being treated rudely despite being expensively dressed, owning a house, or participating in a white-collar professional gathering. The episodes are revealing; they speak to the reality that class does not account for all racial disparities, and that caste functions with and through class rather than being identical to it. 


This makes sense, as the project of the book is to tease out what caste is. But the question of class hierarchy lingers tantalizingly. Wilkerson often suggests that hierarchies are natural, provided that the sorting happens through personality, grit, and intelligence rather than caste. She devotes one rather eccentric chapter to the concept of “alphas,” digging into the science of wolf pack hierarchies to argue that one harm of caste is to force people from dominant castes to behave as alphas and to suppress natural alphas from lower castes into subordinate roles. In her disproportionate interest in the individual experience of upper-class people from lower castes, like herself, and her apparent acceptance of class as a reasonable hierarchy, Wilkerson neglects to explore the full implications of how the intersection of caste and class disadvantage poor Black people. As long as class hierarchies are embraced, one is left wondering how injustices like those inflicted by caste might ever be fully eradicated. 


If a future utopia fails to materialize in Wilkerson’s dissection of caste, her macro-level analysis of the caste system itself is more fruitful. Her exploration of why caste provides a rickety framework for society as a whole is particularly illuminating, exposing how America’s vulnerability to the pandemic is rooted in the neglect and vilification of the lower castes. Both the Ebola and the coronavirus pandemics, she argues, exemplify the dangers of creating scapegoat lower classes on whom to offload societal anxieties. By treating these illnesses as exotic diseases faced by poor, underdeveloped nations populated by lower-caste people, white Americans failed to realize that they could easily fall victim to the same virus. “This was a problem for Africa, seen as a place of misfortune filled with people of the lowest caste, not the primary concern of the Western powers,” she writes of the anemic involvement of the U.S. in finding treatments for Ebola during the epidemic in West Africa. This dynamic continues to play out today, as white Americans defy masking and social distancing guidance ― perhaps partly because COVID-19 originated in China and has disproportionately sickened Black and brown people, allowing white people to dismiss it as a disease of the lower castes ― very likely fueling outbreaks that leave Americans of all races dead.  


The myth of American exceptionalism is enduring though frequently debunked. The nation’s centuries-old pattern of imperialism and violent racial subjugation has always been presented to the world as natural and inescapable, where other countries’ systematic oppression and genocide of certain groups are framed as human rights violations, a function of the United States’s wealth and influence rather than its morality.


Wilkerson matter-of-factly punctures this inflated image not just by examining the unique cruelties of American caste, but by refusing to present it as utterly exceptional. She compares the American racial caste to the “lingering, millennia-long” Indian caste system and the “accelerated, chilling, and officially vanquished” caste system implemented in Nazi Germany. The similarities between the systems are clearly laid out and convincing; Nazis, as she notes, even researched Jim Crow law as a model for instituting legal restrictions on Jews.


Yet the comparison has already drawn outrage. Bari Weiss referenced the argument, which Wilkerson advanced last month in a New York Times feature adapted from the book, in her public resignation letter as an example of the hostile working environment she claimed she faced at the Times. “The paper of record is, more and more, the record of those living in a distant galaxy, one whose concerns are profoundly removed from the lives of most people,” she wrote. “This is a galaxy in which, to choose just a few recent examples, the Soviet space program is lauded for its ‘diversity’; the doxxing of teenagers in the name of justice is condoned; and the worst caste systems in human history includes the United States alongside Nazi Germany.”


For immigrants separated from their children and held in detention centers, or Black people funneled into the prison industrial system at hugely disproportionate rates, this characterization of American caste may not seem distant from their own lives at all. But it is distant from the American self-mythology, honed over centuries, which positions the United States as a country uniquely devoted to freedom, tolerance and justice. 


People bridle instinctively at stigmatizing comparisons. Wilkerson points out that “[t]he dominant caste resists comparison to lower-caste people, even the suggestion that they have anything in common or share basic human experiences, as this diminishes the dominant-caste person and forces the contemplation of equality with someone deemed lower.” Many may balk, as Weiss did, at the idea that America’s racial caste system can be put in the same category as that of Nazi Germany. But Wilkerson’s brutal accounting of the unimaginable cruelty inflicted under slavery, Jim Crow and the following decades makes a powerful case that white Americans resist being shocked and a bit peeved and acknowledge the truth revealed by her comparisons.


American exceptionalism is a lie. To fix our broken country, we have to learn not just from our own crimes, but from how much like other evil-doers we actually are.










‘I’ll Be Gone In The Dark’ And The Psychological Ramifications Of A True Crime Obsession

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In a passage from “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark,” true crime author Michelle McNamara comes out with it: She’s fixated on tragedy. 


“Violent men unknown to me have occupied my mind all my adult life — long before 2007, when I first learned of the offender I would eventually dub the Golden State Killer,” McNamara writes in the 2018 book, released posthumously following her death in April 2016.


“The part of the brain reserved for sports statistics or dessert recipes or Shakespeare quotes is, for me, a gallery of harrowing aftermaths: a boy’s BMX bike, its wheels still spinning, abandoned in a ditch along a country road; a tuft of microscopic green fibers collected from the small of a dead girl’s back,” she continues. “To say I’d like to stop dwelling is beside the point. Sure, I’d love to clear the rot. I’m envious, for example, of people obsessed with the Civil War, which brims with details but is contained. In my case, the monsters recede but never vanish. They are long dead and being born as I write.”


In the six-part HBO docuseries of the same name ― which culminates on Sunday ― the idea that monstrous individuals continue to affect the lives of not only their victims, but a seemingly endless ecosystem around them, rings heartbreakingly true. Viewers learn about the Golden State Killer, a man now known to be Joseph James D’Angelo, who committed upward of 50 sexual assaults and at least 10 murders in California in the 1970s and 1980s. They also dig into McNamara’s obsession with the case and how it ultimately affected her mental state.


While in the process of finishing her book, McNamara’s husband, comedian Patton Oswalt, found her dead in their Los Angeles bedroom. Her death was attributed to a mix of prescription drugs, including Adderall, fentanyl and Xanax.


The 46-year-old, who was also discovered to have an undiagnosed heart condition, was the youngest of six siblings and the mother of a 5-year-old daughter, Alice. In “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark,” some, including Oswalt, consider whether McNamara’s desire to identify the Golden State Killer led to her accidental overdose.


“Michelle’s obsession gave us an opportunity to explore our cultural fascination with true crime,” said Elizabeth Wolff, the producer and co-director of the series who worked alongside filmmakers Liz Garbus, Myles Kane and Josh Koury. “This was a story within a story about a woman who struggled to be a writer and express herself and discovered a fascination with unsolved crimes, becoming obsessed with one in particular. So, whether it strays from the [true crime] genre or not, we sort of knew that it was always going to be unique.”


Below, Wolff talks about diving into McNamara’s life, facing harrowing subject matter and understanding darkness truly invades those who step into it.  

Cinematographer Thorsten Thielow and director Elizabeth Wolff working on "I'll Be Gone In The Dark."  

What was it like to collaborate with three other directors on this project? And how did you go about putting your own personal stamp on the series?


From the beginning, Liz [Garbus] and I had a sense of where the major plot points would fall, but it wasn’t really until we went and filmed the material and got it in the edit that the documentary was fully written. In addition to four directors, we had an incredible producer Kate Barry and three outstanding editors [Erin Barnett, Jawad Metni and Alyse Ardell Spiegel] who each took charge of a couple of different episodes. It was a lot of personalities, but the great thing about documentaries is that it is collaborative. It’s not one woman alone in a room writing a book and what that isolation and solitude can do to you. It was constantly comparing our own feelings about the material with each other. So, pairing all of our strengths really filled out and created this whole big project that I don’t think would have been the same if any one of us did it alone.


Josh and Myles really have an incredibly visual eye. They made a great film called “Voyeur” where one of the challenges was a lot of coverage and how do you tell a complicated story with with visual motif? Liz, I mean, her background [“The Farm: Angola, USA,” “A Dangerous Son,” “What Happened, Miss Simone?”] speaks for itself. It had been a longtime goal of mine to work with her. She’s one of the more prolific female documentarians working today. And as a first-time director on this project, it was a dream to work with her and she provided very important boundaries, both ethically and visually. She has a mastery of telling complicated, humanistic, empathetic stories.


What a project to work on as a first-time director. What did you learn from directing a series like this, and what do you hope to take from it and use in your work moving forward?


That’s such a good and big question. I learned the importance of collaboration. I learned the importance of self-care. These were two things that, in many ways, delving into Michelle’s life, we learned that she didn’t really have much of. It was always something that I was aware of: how grateful I was to be able to go to work every day and work with a team of people that could get me out of my own head. By working together, we would make progress.


And I hope that’s what would viewers take away from their viewing experience, which is that if you don’t talk about and face the dark things in your life, they will consume you. It is hard work, but it has to get done.


The thing with audiences these days is when they see anything true crime-related, they go into it thinking one thing. What I loved about this docuseries is viewers who were not aware of Michelle or her book were taken off guard. They are grabbed by Michelle’s story rather than just trying to solve or figure out every in and out of the Golden State Killer’s case. 


If you feel that way, then I think we did our job well. From the beginning, we knew we wanted to draw audiences in with the allure and the intrigue of this unsolved ― or unsolved when Michelle was working on it ― crime. But over the course of [the series], there’s this weave of Michelle’s story and the Golden State Killer’s story. In the edit, something we would always feel was, “Wow, the darkness of this Golden State Killer story is becoming so much. I need a bit of a reprieve.” And we realized that in the course of telling the story, the roles of the Golden State Killer story and the Michelle’s story would reverse. As you got more sucked into Michelle’s inner world and her inner struggles, she would become the dark story that you would need a break from. The roles flipped. 


When you mention the weaving these stories, I think about your use of the “Creature from the Black Lagoon” footage, which is a thread throughout the episodes. What did that mean for you all in terms of the theme or the thesis? As a viewer, I saw it as a way to illustrate that darkness is always bubbling up under the surface.


We were inspired by a line or two in Michelle’s book about “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” She references it as being something that Patton and her bonded over early on, but she always threaded the book with references to how the hunter feels like the hunted. And as we were dissecting it, [we saw] this imagery of dark and light and above water and underwater was something we realized was really braided throughout the stories.

Michelle McNamara and her husband, Patton Oswalt.

There was beauty in having actor Amy Ryan speak Michelle’s words and narrate her story, as well as the crimes of the Golden State Killer. Did you always know you wanted Michelle to be the “narrator”? 


We had hundreds of hours of [tape] of Michelle in her own voice, [but] we knew we were going to need to have literary Michelle. You don’t really hire a voiceover artist until you’re basically locked, so for the two years we were working on it, I scratch tracked Michelle’s voice. Every time an editor was working on a scene and we needed to use literary Michelle, we would figure out the lines of her emails or her book or rough drafts and things that we found on her computer and put together a Michelle VO scratch track script and I would go into a closet in the production office and record it. With Michelle’s voice as mine, it became life imitating art in so many ways. It was very hard to hear my own voice while also creating the material. [Laughs] I needed some distance.


When it was time to actually get Amy to voice Michelle, we were still finishing the edit and the [coronavirus] pandemic hit. We set up these remote voice recording sessions and had a voiceover specialist basically send equipment to Amy’s house and then a technician came, put on a mask and set everything up. We would beam in ― Liz from her house, me from my house, Amy from hers ― and we would record and see each other via Skype. I’m so grateful for Amy’s flexibility and willingness to go on that journey with us. 


I’m curious how you felt reading Michelle’s words and living with them for this yearslong process. She was a wife and mother, trying to have a writing career and be successful, all while balancing her obsession with this case. Each of those pressures mixed together can ― and did, it seems ― bring her into a dark place.


Judith Warner’s “Perfect Madness” was required reading on our production. It was a book that Liz read many years ago when it came out and recommended. One of the things that was very important to us was to recognize that it wasn’t any one thing, you know? It wasn’t necessarily just Michelle’s obsession with the Golden State Killer, but that there is a culture in America that demands so much of mothers. They are pulled in ever-competing directions and the demands and expectations are so high to do everything, and do everything superlatively. One of Judith Warner’s conclusions is that there’s so much being thrown at you that the way you’re dealing with it is avoidance and short-term fixes, like self-medication or escapism through television like true crime or avoiding your family issues or the stresses of family by diving into work.


As [our show] builds toward the end of Episode 4, Patton says, you know, Michelle was a mom and she was a friend, but she was trying to solve this case and she was trying to write this book and it really pulls you under. How can she do it all? The reality is, she can’t. 


The series had become a meditation on the ripple effects and consequences of trauma.
Elizabeth Wolff

That feeling comes across, for sure, as does the theme of grief. The victims’ grief, Michelle’s grief over her own mother or time spent away from her daughter, Patton’s grief after Michelle dies…


It’s interesting you use the word grief because I remember watching all the episodes in the rough cuts and coming away from it and our conversation as a production really feeling like the series had become a meditation on the ripple effects and consequences of trauma. And I think this idea of of grief is very similar to that. [Golden State Killer victim] Gay Hardwick in Episode 4 talks about how learning to live with this trauma is like the loss of a loved one: It doesn’t go away. Hopefully one day it gets better and you start to move forward and live a fully functioning life.


The survivors were special role models for us in making this series. Their resilience, but also their willingness to speak about their own process of learning to get through grief and live with the trauma. I look at the series and see it as sort of cumulative. Even in Episode 6, when you spend time with D’Angelo’s family members, you start to see a new kind of trauma ― a trauma that perhaps they haven’t quite yet dealt with.


We’re all dealing with shit, right? We’re all dealing with hard stuff. And when you interact with somebody or when you pass them on the street, you have no idea the hard stuff they’re going through. If there’s any lesson in this series, it’s everyone is going through their own stuff ― they’re either going through it or they’re avoiding it. I mean, it is so powerful how well-spoken Patton was publicly about his grief and how if you don’t let it out in the light, it will fortify itself in you. It’s quite tragic that this was a lesson that perhaps Michelle needed to learn and, unfortunately, Patton had to learn it through grappling with her death. 


Grief stays with you, sort of like the creature under the surface we mentioned. Monsters like D’Angelo affect people’s lives long after they’ve committed crimes. You see that throughout every frame of the series. 


Episode 5′s title is “Monsters Recede But Never Vanish,” which is a line in Michelle’s book. It’s such a beautiful line. Think about the survivors and the victims’ family members, and their family members and their friends and their neighbors and the law enforcement and law enforcement families and the people who covered it in the media and their families. You recognize how damaging bad behavior is and how it has such a ripple effect on the world.


Melanie [Barbeau], our citizen sleuth who worked very closely with Michelle, expresses what I think a lot of people express, which is how does somebody become bad? What happens in their life? A person must have been affected by trauma and instead of dealing with it, turned into this bad actor and brought trauma on other people. It really does seem endless sometimes.


“I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” is available on HBO platforms. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 










The Bellhop Hotel is a Joyful Place to stay in Rotterdam

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The Bellhop Hotel is a Joyful Space [Rotterdam] – ready

Words Marta Knas

The Bellhop Hotel located in Rotterdam’s old town hall is an energizing, joyful space conceived by Elida Mosquera and Jerome Picard from local – an architecture studio working between Bergen and Paris.

Therme Vals : A Sensory Experience Hotel in Switzerland

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Therme Vals Peter Zumthor Helene Binet photographer

Words TL Team

Built over the only thermal springs in the Graubunden Canton in Switzerland, the Therme Vals is a hotel and spa designed by legendary Peter Zumthor.

Guide To a Better Day by MR PORTER

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Guide To a Better Day by MR PORTER – ready

Words Marta Knas

Guide to a Better Day is a brand new publication from one of the most famous luxury retailers, MR PORTER, created in collaboration with Thames & Hudson and B.A.M.

Paradiso Ibiza Art Hotel is reminiscent of Miami Art Deco Architecture

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Paradiso Ibiza Art Hotel is reminiscent of Miami Art Deco architecture [DRAFT]

Words Mariana Bettinelli

Miami Art Deco and Archizoom, the Italian design group of the 70’, are the inspirations behind the project of the Paradiso Ibiza Art Hotel by Ilmiodesign studio.

Dream Villa Open for Booking in South Africa

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Dream Villa Open for Booking in South Africa

Words TL Team

Winner of Best Guest Houses 2019 in South Africa, the modern and stylish Olive Tree Villa was designed by Gavin Maddock Design Studio.

More than convenience

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One sunny Sunday morning, in London, my wife and I were having coffee and making plans for the day. We both had some shopping to do – she needed a dress from a store she likes, I had looked up some shoes and jeans online but wanted to try them on in person. We thought of having brunch in a park with friends and doing something fun in the afternoon. We left the house and walked through our neighbourhood to Upper Street, the nearest ‘high street’, as they call main streets in the UK.


We figured we should be able to take care of all our shopping there. There was plenty of choice, given the numerous clothing stores and a small urban shopping centre at Angel station. Sure enough, after checking Google Maps on our phones, we found a number of stores that she trusted for dresses and I for jeans and shoes. We walked past an eclectic mix of businesses, including a flower store, a local ice-cream maker, and a pop-up designer boutique – as well as several pubs filled by Arsenal fans, whose home stadium wasn’t far away. We browsed and, within half an hour, had both nailed what we were looking for.


To celebrate our success, we met up with some friends who lived close by for brunch. At some point, the conversation drifted to a new Russian film our friends had recently read about. It was called Leviathan and had just won the Palme d’Or award in Cannes. We wondered if it was being screened anywhere in London. As a film recently shown at a French international film festival, we didn’t expect to find it in cinemas like Odeon, Vue, or AMC. Reaching into our pockets again for Google, we found to our amazement that five different cinemas were showing it in London that very afternoon.


We picked the Curzon in Soho, which we’d never visited before, but which had a screening in 45 minutes. This seemed perfect. We walked to the Central Line, and within thirty minutes or so, got off at Tottenham Court Road, a few hundred yards from the cinema, and made it just in time for the opening credits.


It was a good film. Afterwards, it took us some time to leave because we’d been so deeply immersed in the plot, which addresses the intractable scale of corruption in post-Soviet Russia. As we finally made our way past the bar and out onto Shaftesbury Avenue, my wife remembered that she also wanted to get some Erik Satie scores for piano. ‘Should we look up music stores in Soho or head home?’ she wondered. We had guests coming over for dinner soon, so we decided to head home. The stop for the number 38 bus, which would take us to our doorstep, was just down the block. Around the corner, we came across Foyles – a popular London bookshop. It was right next to the bus stop, so we decided to pop in and ask if they had any piano scores.


The lady behind the counter pointed us to the music section on the third floor. We took the stairs, walking past two floors packed with world literature, and arrived on the third, displaying music-related publications. Another clerk pointed us to a set of large-format metal drawers at the end of the room, which looked promising. I walked over and opened a drawer. It was full of Bach and Brahms scores. The next one was full of Chopin. A few cabinets down, there were Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and Tubin. Then, under ‘S’, I discovered a collection of Satie scores. This was completely unexpected. My wife had only thought of Satie five minutes earlier and neither of us imagined coming across an entire collection right there. She chose her favourite pieces and, scores in hand, we went back down to Charing Cross Road and caught the bus home.


Through the front window on the upper deck, we saw tree-lined streets bustling with businesses and people of all ethnicities and backgrounds. We shared our amazement that we’d been able to find all we needed within a few hours – we had both found the garments we wanted; Leviathan was playing not only at the Curzon, but in four other venues; we had stumbled upon a store selling Satie scores; we’d encountered interesting people and businesses we hadn’t seen before along the way; each bus or train we had taken was no more than a couple of blocks away; and we still planned to stop by a vegetable stall near our house to pick up tomatoes, peaches, and fresh dates from Iran for dinner. We wondered whether all this had anything to do with London’s claim to be the greatest city in the world.


Wealth beyond variety


Napoleon is said to have called England a nation of shopkeepers. London’s shops and services, and the convenient way they are connected on foot and by public transport, palpably capture the accessibility, diversity and all-around quality of life the city offers. In London, I have seen a shop dedicated entirely to umbrellas – hundreds and hundreds of them, all different. I have found a store selling only hats, and a taxidermy shop selling full-scale mounted animals. There are restaurants that specialize in Georgian, Burmese, Ethiopian, Nepalese, or Singaporean cuisine, as well as fancy department stores such as Fortnum & Mason or Harrods that attract people from all over the world.


But this variety of merchandise and services is not all that street commerce offers. That morning, our stroll along London’s streets, so rich in people and enterprises, had allowed us to run our errands quickly and efficiently but also offered a range of experiences we could not have planned for: contact with people of different backgrounds and interests, encounters with businesses selling odd things, pungent smells from colourful restaurants, unexpected sights and conversations… While having brunch in Victoria Park, we had overheard an exchange at a neighbouring table about someone inheriting a trust fund. Walking through our neighbourhood, we had peeked into other people’s houses and admired kitchen furniture and tall ceilings. On the way out of the cinema, we’d had a brief conversation with someone from Russia.


Bustling streets, rich in amenities, are social condensers that draw people together regardless of race, class, age, or religious belief, even if the encounters are very brief. Unlike workplaces, families, political organizations or faith groups we are born into, or choose to be part of, the people and businesses we come across as we walk down city streets are unconnected to our kinship ties, pastimes, or beliefs. Bustling streets put us in touch with ‘others’ who do not necessarily share the same convictions, interests or values as ourselves. Fostering dialogic social exchange and discourse, streets form part of the glue that holds an urban society together. The more they make us interact, the more we understand and appreciate each other.


Evaluating weak ties


In a famous sociological article published in 1977, Mark Granovetter demonstrated the importance of ‘weak’ ties in urban societies. By strong ties he meant the connections we have through families, colleagues, or other groups we meet on a daily or weekly basis. Weak ties, on the other hand, refer to our interactions with people we may meet or talk to just a couple of times a year – at a conference, an event, or serendipitously in the street. Granovetter argued that weak social ties are more important for social mobility and for spreading information across society than strong ties. He showed, for example, that people are more likely to find a job through someone they meet once or twice a year than through somebody they see on a daily basis.


Experiencing a city on foot helps generate weak ties – the streets provide the opportunities for serendipitous encounters with peripheral members of our social networks, people we don’t see very often. Equally, a walk down a street full of diverse amenities and people produces what might be called ‘latent’ ties – social connections that do not preexist, but which can emerge from casual encounters, unplanned conversations, or simply from eye contact. Some of these first-time encounters can lead to exchanges that, over time, may develop into weak ties, and perhaps even strong ones. Think of conversations you have started with strangers in a store, restaurant, hair salon, or out in the street. This is likely to happen on main streets, and in other urban retail clusters, more commonly than in quiet residential streets, because these environments attract many more users and offer public spaces already configured to encourage interaction. Streets lined with commerce and amenities produce a double benefit for city dwellers – they serve the utilitarian function of supplying the urban consumer class with shops, amenities, and services, while also helping to spur latent ties and social awareness.


Street commerce can also generate economic and environmental benefits. Smaller or locally owned shops lining urban streets tend to produce greater economic benefit for a town than national big-box chain stores. A significant share of revenue generated by small, locally owned businesses reverberates back into the local economy via subcontracting from local providers, payments to local employees, and improvements in public infrastructure, as well as through indirect investments into employee health and retirement benefits. By purchasing food products from local suppliers, furniture and office supplies from local sellers, or by using local public transport, construction and maintenance services, contractors can produce a strong, positive multiplier effect on a local economy. One study comparing the economic multiplier effects of local bookshops, versus chain stores, found that for every dollar spent at a local store, 45 cents circulated back into the local economy. A chain store, on the other hand, returned three times less – just 13 cents – to the local economy. Retail transactions typically represent around 7% of a local economy,

The Annelinn city district in Tartu (around the Kaunase pst street), 1990s
Photo from Toomas Paaver’s Collection


Besides residential units, Annelinn housed a limited number of centrally planned stores, about 500-1000 square metres each. The area was ultimately served by four grocery shops, which were gradually added as the district expanded, and a single household-goods store that sold pots, pans, and so on. No street-corner bodegas, greengrocers, or cigarette kiosks. Given the scarcity of retail space, most families had to walk considerable distances to get to a store, and once you got there, not much was on the shelves. Like countless other dormitory districts throughout the vast territory of the USSR, Annelinn had a clear deficit of retail facilities.


The district was rapidly transformed after the Berlin wall fell in 1989, and when Estonia regained independence from Soviet occupation in 1991. Almost overnight, the country had to make the leap from a centrally planned socialist economy to a capitalist system with free markets, private property, and commercial entrepreneurship. For retail space in Annelinn, this meant that a market correction was in order to make up for the underprovision which marked the Soviet era. Residents were eager for new shopping opportunities and more diverse products, and a nascent entrepreneurial market responded.


The first signs of new retail space appeared in the form of flea markets and kiosks. Setting up a table at an open-air flea market or a roadside kiosk required little startup capital and allowed merchants to try their luck. Kiosks were produced economically in underutilized metal factories left behind by the oversized Soviet industrial economy. As cheap alternatives to more durable construction, they imposed little risk on business owners and multiplied by the hundred all over town. Their mobile and temporary character also enabled kiosk operators to avoid paying property taxes to the city.


About six different kiosks appeared within five minutes’ walk of my house, more than tripling my family’s choice of retail outlets. Welded together from sheet metal and boasting a large acrylic window in the front, kiosks sold a surprisingly large variety of groceries and other supplies – milk, bread, cheese, meats, juices, sweets, cigarettes, and alcoholic beverages. Some also prepared sandwiches and hamburgers with French fries. The kiosks were small, but their selection of merchandise was as good as in any Soviet-era grocery store. The illustrious social life that developed around such kiosks has been colourfully captured in fiction by the post-Soviet writer Viktor Pelevin.



Clothing and wearable accessories were rarely sold in kiosks. These were offered at flea markets, where 50–100 vendors would compete side by side on tabletops covered with piles of clothes. One flea market, with makeshift wooden tables, was set up in a parking lot not far from my house. Plastic sheets were pulled over the tables to protect the merchandise from rain and snow. The range of available shirts, pants, winter coats, and other garments mushroomed following an influx from bigger markets in Poland and Turkey. People had never seen such variety and choice before and swept up the available offerings with a newfound thirst for consumer products. Traders dealt in cash and avoided paying taxes. The profits they earned attracted more vendors to the market.


Both the kiosks and flea markets were models of temporary retail typology – cheap to establish and flexible in terms of location. But the shopping experience they offered was not on par with the street commerce or shopping malls we see in Estonia today. Goods and money were exchanged outdoors, in a climate that can be cold, through a little window or over a market counter. Prices were often negotiable. There were no returns or exchanges – what you bought was what you got.


Next came the slightly more durable basement stores. The residential building blocks in Annelinn were highly rationalized, prefabricated concrete-panel structures. First floors were raised off the ground by half a floor to enable basements to have strip windows at ground level. In a typical five-storey block, 15 apartments shared a single staircase, with 3 units on every level and a series of small basement stalls below. As a fire precaution, basements also had a back exit.


The architectural typology and site plans of these residential blocks both made it difficult to introduce commercial spaces into the buildings. First-floor units were off-limits since they shared a staircase with 14 other households. With privatization, tenants in most buildings quickly formed tenant associations, and were inclined to lock their front doors to prevent thieves, loiterers, and vandals from entering. The idea of keeping the staircase door open for retail customers flew in the face of this preference. In addition, raising the level of first-floor units cut off sightlines so that passersby could not see into windows, making it difficult for stores to display their merchandise even if residents permitted shops to open.


Photo by Vladimir Ljadov Project “Commercial Lasnamae”


Basement spaces offered a somewhat better opportunity. But their sightlines were almost as bad as first-floor units – a small strip window a couple of feet above the ground was far from ideal for displaying merchandise. The size of basement spaces was also problematic – stalls were subdivided by load-bearing panels into 10–20 square meter spaces that were small, even for mom-and-pop shops. But the fact that basements had a second entrance in the back of the block, which the residents upstairs didn’t use, made it possible to separate shop visitors from people who lived in the building, while also resolving an important security issue. Any diminished fire protection that came with taking away a second exit was of little concern during these turbulent years. Some food kiosks moved to more permanent spaces in basements, under residential slabs. A few clothing, shoe, and apparel stores, as well as bars, also took up basement spaces.


As it turned out, basement stores didn’t perform as well as the kiosks. One problem was that housing blocks were scattered in large open spaces, not aligned with streets or popular footways. In modernist housing districts such as this, built ground coverage usually comes to around 15–20% . The remaining land area is open space, covered with patches of grass, dirt, and a web of pedestrian paths. There are few roads suitable for vehicles because Soviet planners never anticipated that many residents would own cars. But in the 1990s, when cars were no longer centrally rationed and car ownership was swelling, much of this open space was turned over to parking. This meant there was hardly any pedestrian flow close to the basement shops. Pedestrians used the well spread network of footpaths and would walk in front of a particular building only if they lived there or in one of the adjacent blocks.



With no jobs or commercial activities nearby, and only housing units upstairs, pedestrian activity was minimal, except at morning and evening peak times and weekends, when residents were home. Occasionally children and older adults would use nearby playgrounds or benches during business hours, but their numbers were insufficient to sustain the basement stores, which had to cover monthly rent payments to the apartment associations upstairs. Unlike kiosks, which were generally in good locations, basement stores suffered from poor patronage.


Soviet-era microdistricts (equivalent to neighbourhood units) also included designated sites for schools and childcare centres. In the 1990s, a number of these schools were converted to retail spaces. Former school buildings were typically 2–3 stories high and meticulously standardized, offering large interior spaces attractive to newly formed stores, game parlours, hair salons and, occasionally, bars. The size and number of spaces in these buildings allowed the formation of small retail clusters that attracted a far larger clientele than any single basement store or kiosk. But the school buildings were not ideal for retail activities either. They did not have floor-to-ceiling windows for window shopping and, to circulate between stores, customers had to navigate double-loaded corridors or staircases between floors. In terms of location, schools had been built in areas easily accessible from nearby homes, but not necessarily close to bus stops or footpaths.


During this period of nascent market capitalism, developers in Annelinn also found it difficult to build between existing buildings. As part of privatization, ownership of the open space between residential blocks was allocated to apartment associations so that land between the buildings was owned by several households. Obtaining this land for development required agreement from all households with a stake in it – which was not an easy task. Second, the modernist ‘free plan’ layout of the town included very few sites where stores could find sufficient pedestrian flow and space for vehicular access and parking. The available building spaces were typically too small or had poor access for deliveries.


Kiosks, flea markets and occasional basement shops aside, no real street commerce emerged in Annelinn during the post-Soviet transformations, even though the demand was clearly there. Instead of adapting and reusing existing residential buildings or infilling developments between existing housing blocks, new commercial space appeared in more historic and central town streets with buildings of a more malleable type. The ground floors of these older perimeter blocks, which faced busy sidewalks, were quickly and successfully converted for retail use. Big-box shopping appeared on the edges of housing districts, close to traffic arteries and bus stops. But, in Annelinn, the inflexible structures originally optimized for residential use have resisted conversion and adaptation for commercial purposes to this day. ‘We shape our buildings, and then they shape us,’ Winston Churchill once said. Even though the necessary economic preconditions were in place – purchase frequency, density, low fixed costs, and a high pedestrian and public transit mode share – cumbersome building typologies and site plans discouraged stores from coming in.


The story of Annelinn hints at a number of ways in which the form of buildings and street typologies can affect the viability of retail trading. The size of indoor spaces, ground-floor height, the relationships between buildings and sidewalks, the characteristics of internal circulation systems and the design of building facades are all crucial to the success or failure of shopping developments. Similar examples of ways in which street commerce is affected by the design features of a built environment can be found in cities and streets the world over.

Understanding the silent war

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I have been researching Russian cyber warfare and intelligence capabilities for more than a decade, and for all that time its significance and soft power was underestimated in Georgia. In order to assess the nature of ongoing Russian cyber operations against Georgia, we should start with the basics to better understand the role of cyber-security in today’s global security environment.


For decades, the world’s most harmful threats were radical groups, terrorists and criminal organizations, intelligence agencies and military regimes. The weapons feared around the globe were weapons of mass destruction: chemical, biological, radioactive and nuclear. But there has been a significant shift in the global security landscape: after decades of a nuclear arms race between Russia and the United States, both shifted from being nuclear powers to cyber powers.


Cyber capabilities are mostly hidden and can be used by anybody, and are thus more dangerous than traditional weapons. New threats are emerging as technology advances and we are now facing a fifth-dimensional warfare: the silent war.



Russian capabilities


Cyber operations are cheap, easily accessible, inconspicuous – sometimes even stealthy – and have the element of plausible deniability. Cyber capabilities currently play a crucial role in collecting intelligence information and even conducting military operations. Threats from cyberspace can also create real, lethal damage in real life.


The first thing to know about Russian cyber capabilities is that most of them are not that cyber at all. State-sponsored cyber-crime involves almost every law enforcement agency and special services, because of a ‘securitization’ scale in the Russian government. It also involves private companies, criminal organisations, NGOs, media, academia, the expert community, activists and individuals who have a key role not only in cyber operations, but in the extensive propaganda campaigns.


Russia, obviously, has a huge intelligence collection system, which was underestimated for many years. It has been growing and sharpening since the days of the KGB, which was once the strongest intelligence agency.


What exactly are Russia’s cyber offensive capabilities? Some examples are the very popular Cozy Bear / APT29 and Fancy Bear / APT28, the youth activists Nashi, one of the world’s biggest anti-virus company Kaspersky, the private company Russian Business Network (RBN), and many others. Some IT companies implanted in countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) can also be tools for Russian intelligence services, gathering useful real-time data.


One more example is Russian internet service providers (ISPs), which are both defensive and offensive tools. They can stand as an alternative and compelling communication channel with lots of features in case something goes wrong. They serve as an offensive tool since, through its structure, the ISP’s customers can act as individual bots, which can be used to launch powerful cyberattacks such as ‘Layer 7’, with new innovative forms of technical manipulation. During the years of my research, I have found hundreds of organisations, but the above-mentioned ones are the key players and, more importantly, the most relevant existing Russian cyber-offensive operations.


It is also important to understand the philosophy behind Russia’s cyber capabilities since eastern and western players have a different attitude when it comes to cyber operations. Cyber operations conducted from the West are government and military-affiliated, while in the East they are mostly non-state players, such as the Russian business network (an online cyber mafia) or the Syrian electronic army. The point is that non-state actors have no proven link to a governmental entity. The West is, therefore, using cyber capabilities as a governmental asset, while the East maintains plausible deniability.


Simple methods


The first and most important event in Russia’s cyber attacks against Georgia can be traced to the 2008 war, which was the first real official cyberwar in history. This is an issue of special importance for me as I had the opportunity to witness the events up close. This war strongly inspired me to lay the foundation for pioneer cyber-security institutions in the Caucasus region through the Caucasus Academy of Security Experts (CASE).


In August 2008, Russia was preparing for a military invasion in Georgia, laying its foundations through propaganda and cyberattacks to position itself as a ‘peacekeeper’. While the whole world was shocked by Russian aggression and the actual military warfare taking place on Georgian soil, the war was also unfolding in cyberspace.


Damaged wall of the residential building in downtown Gori after Russian bombardment with cluster bomb during 2008 war. Photo by Giorgi Balakhadze from Wikimedia Commons.


First were the massive cyberattacks against important targets that were clearly strategically chosen: information agencies, blogs and media outlets. Then came governmental agencies and institutions which were the focal endpoints of the Russian strategy – the Georgian ministry of foreign affairs, consulates, embassies and foreign missions, as well as the official website of the president’s administration. It became clear that the attacks were about disabling our information resources in order to minimise the ability to fight Russian propaganda during its offensive.


Even though Russia successfully executed cyber attacks against well-defined targets, analysing the targets is not enough to see the bigger picture – timing and methodology are equally important. Interestingly enough, and despite the complexity of the campaign, the methods used were not so innovative.


At first, Russia needed tactical planning to conduct the campaign in a way to maintain plausible deniability: the attacks could therefore not originate from government infrastructure. Russia had extensive target lists, only a short period of time, and a need for machine power – they needed to find an alternative to government centres. What the Kremlin had, though, was a large population connected to the internet. Instead of running a network from powerful government servers, they used hundreds of thousands of internet users and their computers by infecting them with the ISP’s and FSB’s help.


This way the Kremlin was able to maintain plausible deniability. The network of zombie computers had even more machine power than the government’s infrastructure, and could also provide them with time, since it was very difficult to track the source of attacks. A special system designed to intercept and manipulate local Russian networks, called SORM, came in handy during such operations.


The botnet was launched and all the above-mentioned targets were attacked successfully. It is important to note that the aim of this campaign was to not steal information, but to disable it. Russian intelligence officers and affiliated groups on social media were sharing special software along with a list of targets to attack Georgian resources. One of the tools that I have retrieved and analysed from the Russian forum is explicitly designed for denial of service (DoS) attacks, which disables websites from functioning.


Lessons


The campaign against Georgia was similar to the attacks against Estonia in 2007, when Russian intelligence services started aggressive cyber operations amid a disagreement related to the relocation of the Soviet monument of the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn. Yet the operations monitored in Estonia in 2007, in Lithuania (2008), and in Iran (2009) were never officially declared cyberwars.


In order to define cyber attacks and cyber war as such, countries must either have legislation defining the specific character of such operations, or cyber-attacks must be conducted along with actual conventional military operations. In the case of Georgia, the second one applies, as we had an ongoing military war following the Russian invasion.


The 2007 events in Estonia were a wakeup call for that nation, after which they took cybersecurity extremely seriously and became one of the leading countries in the domain. Students at the Tallinn University of Technology studied the Georgian case for cyber warfare and a book titled Georgia 1.0 was published. Yet even after 12 years, Georgia has not learnt its lesson.


Shortly after the 2008 war, the Georgian Computer Emergency Response Team discovered cyberattack incidents coming from Russian security services designed to collect sensitive and confidential information from Georgian and American sources. The malicious software, designed by Russian intelligence agencies, was able to steal documents and had features to take snapshots of desktops, activate webcams and gather collected data on shadow servers.


Starting from 2008 and still to this day, the Russians have used several approaches, including launching sophisticated attacks on specific websites or hosting providers, using satellite IT companies to retrieve sensitive information, spreading malware and especially Remote Access Trojan as a tool of cyber espionage.


Valuable experience


Cyber espionage, indeed, remains one of the main problems in the field. It is the most useful tool in the hands of criminals, intelligence agencies, corporate espionage, and even politicians and the media. These activities successfully gather information, fabricate facts and make an impact on certain informational campaigns.


Cyber espionage can provide a strong advantage both to governments and the private sector. Tools for spying are cheap, most of them are anonymous and very effective. Every intelligence agency is made to gather intelligence, be it classic human intelligence (HUMINT), signals intelligence (SIGINT) or cyber-intelligence (CYBERINT). We should not be surprised that these actions are conducted however we rather need to think about the new ways to counter these strategies.


Russia continues to attack and Georgia is still under occupation. Protracted conflicts have become a handy tool for the Kremlin to disrupt our development. Georgian citizens from regions near areas of conflict are under constant pressure, and hybrid warfare is as active as ever.


Cultural and economic expansion as a tool of Russian intelligence is exercised on a daily basis, and cyberspace is not an escape. A few months ago, the Russians attacked Georgia’s major hosting providers and more than 2,000 resources were defaced with the picture of the former president, Mikheil Saakashvili.


Both the political situation and the pandemic have given an upper hand to Russian intelligence services interested in spreading disinformation. For me, everything that happens in Georgia seems to be a cyber exercise, which, after calibration and prototyping, will be exported to the West and elsewhere. In essence, Georgia has become a test field for designing more sophisticated cyber and intelligence operations.


Today the international community is confronted with volatile, unpredictable threats. These challenges need to be faced adequately, and that is why now, more than ever before, there is a demand and dependence on information security and cybersecurity.

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