New on F&O: From Peak Civilization to Birdman


The end is nigh, writes Chris Wood: at least of the capitalist consumer cornucopia world where daily trillions of de-substantiated dollars flitter across global server networks and ships the size of islands slip into Rotterdam and Long Beach and Vancouver and disgorge every lust-object of the 21st century imagination—from Nissans to mantel-piece tchotchkes to backyard drones. Photo of ships waiting for berths at the Port of Vancouver, Canada, by Deborah Jones, © 2014
Chris Wood contends in his new column that we’re nearing the end of the capitalist consumer cornucopia world, where ships the size of islands slip into ports like Vancouver “and disgorge every lust-object of the 21st century imagination.” (Paywall) Photo Deborah Jones © 2014

 Are We at Peak Civilization? By Chris Wood (subscription required)

Will 2015 be the end of our capitalist consumer cornucopia world? That world cannot go on. And as some bright person once said (the words are variously attributed to Henry Ford and economist Herb Stein): “What cannot go on, will stop.” The ultimate foundation of that world, just as it was for the worlds of the Greeks, the Ming and the Maya, is our natural security: the supply of ecoservices like food, water and air — to name only the crudest — which constitute our biological habitat, which keep us alive, and which thus underwrite everything else in the human experience more complicated than bare survival. And, thousands of observational data sets show that our natural security is crumbling.  Click here for Chris Wood’s Natural Security column page.

Birdman speaks of cinema’s capacity not just to move, but to move between fantasy and reality as if they were the same thing, writes William Brown. Michael Keaton in Birdman. Publicity photo by Atsushi Nishijima, Twentieth Century Fox.
 Michael Keaton in Birdman. Publicity photo by Atsushi Nishijima, Twentieth Century Fox.

Birdman and the intoxicating alchemy of cinema. By William Brown

Birdman speaks of cinema’s capacity not just to move, but to move between fantasy and reality as if they were the same thing. Cinema’s power over society also comes through: theatre might well add gravitas and credibility to a performer, but these days no one at all is anything unless mediated by the screen, whether that be at the movies or on Twitter. The fear of being irrelevant has now become the fear of fading from our screens.

Bucking Hollywood’s commercial trend: John Frankenheimer, by Brian Brennan (subscription required)

For the 59-year-old John Frankenheimer, The Fourth War offered another opportunity to re-establish his place in the American mainstream after an up-and-down 32-year directing career. During the 1970s and 1980s his career had stumbled because of his problems with alcohol. It ascended in 1988 with the hit re-release of his 1962 classic, The Manchurian Candidate, but then dipped again with the disappointing Dead-Bang, a thriller in which Don Johnson played a Los Angeles homicide detective pitted against a neo-Nazi killer.

Saudi Arabia succession struggle looms as king ails, by Jonathan Manthorpe (subscription required)

It’s been a long time coming, but the looming crisis in Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy is finally in clear sight. What has brought matters into focus was the dispatch to hospital in Riyadh this week of 91-year-old King Abdullah, who is suffering from pneumonia. The king’s months of evident ill health come after his attempt to embed some political stability in the country of 29 million people and the world’s largest oil producer by appointing not only his successor, but also his successor’s successor. Far from providing security and continuity, Abdullah’s action is more likely to set off a potentially disastrous contest for the throne among Saudi Arabia’s princely families.

In case you missed it:

Check our Contents page for new stories as we roll them out. Here are some recent items:

The pen is not always mightier than the sword. Ten journalists and two police officers were slaughtered Wednesday in Paris, as extremists yelling Allahu Akbar attacked the officers of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. You can read Je Suis Charlie, F&O’s report on the carnage, and concerns about its implications, here. 

In Let the Good Times Roll, economist and F&O Thoughtlines columnist Jim McNiven predicted the American and Canadian economies will do well this next year, especially the American.  

The ProPublica/New York Times report by Charles Ornstein,  A Man Dies on Reality TV, and Privacy and Permission Collide, investigates how America’s reality television show NY Med filmed Mark Chanko’s final moments without the approval of his family. Even though his face was blurred, his Anita wife recognized him on the show. “It was the last clip before the commercial … or as I put it, ‘Watch this man die, now we’re going to sell you some detergent.’”

Eyeing that bottle of fine wine received as a holiday gift, wondering if it will increase in value? Just drink it: wine is rarely worth an investment, advises Karl Storchmann.

You might also consider just when you use your new eReader – or many other light-emitting electronic devices. At least some eReaders are the enemies of sleep when used in the hour before bedtime, scientists concluded. They may also  have a long-term impact on health, performance and safety.

One of the most significant developments in Canada was last year’s decision by the country’s top court recognizing aboriginal rights over a vast swath of land and resources. Read the report, Canadian Court Expands Aboriginal Rights, about the case,  Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia.

Watching Homeland? Check out our story in Arts, Homeland, Carrie Mathison, and mental illness on TV, by academic Meron Wondemaghen. In our books section Ex Libris, you will marvel at  Ursula K. Le Guin’s call to action, in video and text, as she takes the U.S. publishing industry’s “ignorance and greed” to task and issues a cri de coeur on behalf of artists in a world where “hard times are coming” and writers will be needed who offer hope and freedom, and “see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being.”  


 Look up, far up, into the night sky this month and seek Comet Lovejoy, now visible in the night skies as it nears earth.

"Sungrazer" Comet Lovejoy in 2011, from the International Space Station. (NASA photo)
“Sungrazer” Comet Lovejoy in 2011, from the International Space Station. NASA


The ball of ice and rock has a plucky past. In 2011, when astronomers first discovered it, it dove into the roaring inferno of the sun’s atmosphere, where scientists predicted it would meet its demise. Instead, it emerged on the other side.

“It’s absolutely astounding,” said Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab in Washington, at the time.“I did not think the comet’s icy core was big enough to survive plunging through the several million degree solar corona for close to an hour, but Comet Lovejoy is still with us.”

You can watch the comet emerge, unscathed, in this video (it loops three times):


Also worth a look:

CES: Security Risks From the Smart Home, by Molly Wood, New York Times

LAS VEGAS — THE Internet of Things arrived in force at this year’s International CES, the huge trade show here. But while manufacturers at the event painted a rosy picture of connected grills, coffee makers, refrigerators and door locks, security experts and regulators warned that the Internet of Things could be a threat to both security and privacy.

How much are words worth? by Scott Carney

Last but not least, two American writers did a rough estimate of the pool of money currently available for magazine work, and discovered it is only enough to employ 72 scribes full time. ” The total market for long form journalism in major magazines in America is approximately $3.6 million. To put it another way: the collective body of writers earned less than Butch Jones, a relatively unknown college football coach, earned in a single year,” concluded Scott Carney. 

“As a writer, this state of affairs horrifies me,” wrote Carney. “I feel strongly that writers contribute more than just 0.6% of value to the overall magazine industry. Yes, magazines have a host of expenses–printing, distributing, editing, fact checking, office overhead and marketing all have a cost. But there is also something deeply sick in how little writers’ work is actually valued by the industry.” Read his blog post, How much are words worth? …. and weep.


Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.