Mike Daisey takes a bite out of Apple

Mike Daisey in 'The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,' created and performed by Mike Daisey and directed by Jean-Michele Gregory, running at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

This year, technology giant Apple Inc. may have finally met its David. By some estimates, it is now the most valuable company in the world. Yet it recently capitulated to public pressure when it tasked an independent investigation into one of Apple’s major subcontractors, Foxconn Technology Group, where popular electronic devices like iPads and iPhones are manufactured. For several years now, human rights groups and mainstream news organizations have have focused on the China-based Foxconn for its poor working conditions, highlighted by the recent plant explosion in Shenzhen that left dozens injured and a spate of employee suicides.

And these questionable working conditions are now getting the spotlight treatment in New York City.
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A portrait of the intellectual as a young woman

A scene from "Sontag: Reborn," running January 4-15 at The Public Theater as part of the Under the Radar Festival. Photo: James Gibbs.

Being called an intellectual in the U.S. is tricky business. In recent years, the word has become akin to a slur – just ask “Professor” Barack Obama. So it’s remarkable that such an undeniably esoteric thinker and writer like Susan Sontag achieved the celebrity status that she did in her lifetime. For many, Sontag’s role as a public intellectual advanced the conversation about taboo topics like AIDS, homosexuality and war. In her seminal “AIDS and Its Metaphors,” Sontag examined how military metaphors distorted the experiences of people suffering from the disease.

This month, her life and work take center stage in “Sontag: Reborn,” which is one of the star attractions of this year’s Under the Radar theater festival in New York City. Adapted and performed by Moe Angelos and directed by Marianne Weems, “Sontag: Reborn is a portrait of the intellectual as a young woman. The play is adapted from the first volume of Sontag’s recently published private journals, which were edited by her son David Reiff. The play spans the years of 1947 to 1963, and opens when Sontag is just 16 years old.
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Welcome to the new Need to Know website

Welcome to the new Need to Know website. We’re changing the focus of the show, as you can probably tell from our new look.

Need to Know will spend the next 15 months covering the campaign for president, but we’re going to do it differently. Here on the website, as well as on the broadcast, we’ll be covering the campaign from the voters’ perspective, not the candidates’. In cities and towns all across the country, we citizens are already dealing with the consequences of decisions our political leaders have made, or declined to make, in Washington.  The issues the candidates are debating are not abstract or theoretical to average Americans; they are what we are struggling to live with every day.

You’ll be hearing from citizens like you, as we continue to do the kind of reporting Need to Know has featured since its debut in May of 2010.  We will cover the issues of our day through the stories of our lives.

We’ll continue to bring you stories from the Watch List, in which we investigate what happens when industries are largely left to regulate themselves. We’ll meet Change Agents, private citizens who innovate, inspire and lead.  We’ll gather some of the brightest minds and ask what simple suggestion they have to Fix America.

We’ll have personal essays and op ed columns from fresh voices. We hope those voices will include yours. Post comments, offer us story ideas in our pitch room, follow us on twitter.  We’ll have fresh news and analysis every day.

Thanks for visiting and viewing Need to Know.

Walking through walls with Mark Rylance

Mark Rylance as Johnny "Rooster" Byron in the play "Jerusalem." Photo: AP/Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Simon Annand

What was Mark Rylance talking about last night when he accepted his Best Actor award at the Tonys? Something about walls? Wires? It was a detailed treatise, in fact, on the fine art — and perhaps lonely, pitfall-prone occupation — of walking through walls. To quote:

Unlike flying or astral projection, walking through walls is a totally earth-related craft, but a lot more interesting than pot making or driftwood lamps. I got started at a picnic up in Bowstring in the northern part of the state. A fellow walked through a brick wall right there in the park. I said, “Say, I want to try that.” Stone walls are best, then brick and wood. Wooden walls with fiberglass insulation and steel doors aren’t so good. They won’t hurt you. If your wall walking is done properly, both you and the wall are left intact. It is just that they aren’t pleasant somehow. The worst things are wire fences, maybe it’s the molecular structure of the alloy or just the amount of give in a fence, I don’t know, but I’ve torn my jacket and lost my hat in a lot of fences. The best approach to a wall is, first, two hands placed flat against the surface; it’s a matter of concentration and just the right pressure. You will feel the dry, cool inner wall with your fingers, then there is a moment of total darkness before you step through on the other side.

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What the frack is going on? Music video sums it up

If the idea of flammable groundwater doesn’t exactly make you want to bust a move on the dance floor, nobody will blame you – but “Fracking – The Music Video” might make you change your mind.

The students of New York University’s Studio 20, a journalism course that focuses on blending reporting with new media, collaborated with the investigative unit ProPublica to create a new kind of explainer to introduce the public to ProPublica’s three-year investigation on hydraulic fracturing – “fracking” – and the potential dangers it poses to communities’ drinking water supply. Need to Know has collaborated with ProPublica in the past in a report on fracking’s impact on groundwater. The result of Studio 20’s work is “My Water’s on Fire Tonight (The Fracking Song)” – a song that packs a surprising amount of information in just over two and a half minutes through rap and a funk-laden chorus.

Studio 20 emphasizes that the video is not meant to be a substitute for ProPublica’s years of in-depth investigations. “While we hope that you enjoy the song,” they write at Explainer.net, “what we really want you to do is read more about hydraulic fractured drilling, so you can truly understand ‘what the frack is going on.’”

On a reel and a prayer: Q&A with ‘Jesus Henry Christ’ director Dennis Lee

Toni Collette, Michael Sheen and Jason Spevack in "Jesus Henry Christ"

One of the most buzzed-about films at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival was Dennis Lee’s “Jesus Henry Christ.” The film centers around a 10-year-old prodigy, Henry James Herman (Jason Spevack), who was conceived in a petri dish. Raised by a single hippie mother (Toni Collette), Henry embarks on a quest to find his biological father. And it is on this pilgrimage that the film takes off in a wildly different and modern direction.

“Jesus Henry Christ,” distinctive for its snappy dialogue and quirky humor, features veteran actors Collette and Michael Sheen alongside newcomers like Spevack and Samantha Weinstein. Julia Roberts served as the film’s executive producer.

I recently talked to Lee about his film, working with Hollywood’s most bankable star and life inside the Hollywood fishbowl.
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Bill Cunningham, man on the street

Bill Cunningham photographing in the street. Photo:First Thought Films/Zeitgeist Films

One of my favorite memories of interning at The New York Times was having Bill Cunningham greet me in the morning with a kindly, “Hello, child.” Cunningham, the legendary fashion photographer, is now the subject of a documentary that recently premiered to very favorable reviews.

“Bill Cunningham New York” chronicles the octogenarian photographer’s peripatetic bike rides throughout the city as he scouts for “birds of paradise” to showcase in his columns in the Sundays Styles section. According to director Richard Press, it took eight years to win Cunningham’s consent. “I think he’s truly humble and modest and he’s allergic to any kind of attention,” said Press. “So he just really did not understand why anyone would want to make a movie about him.”

I recently caught up with Press to discuss the work that went into making this documentary and the subject who inspired it.

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The power of the sun

In “Beyond the Light Switch,” a two-hour, two-part documentary series that is being broadcast on public television stations across the country, David Biello, energy and environment editor at Scientific American magazine, walks viewers through a series of scenarios that outline what the nation’s energy future might look like. What if America invests in carbon capture? Could we see a nuclear power renaissance? Is wind power possible? What is a super grid, anyway?

In this excerpt, Biello explains how solar panels work and concludes that solar energy might not cost as much as we think it does.

To see the documentary series, check you local listings. Read more about it at:  beyondthelightswitch.com.

Documenting documentary film

“I hate it because I know my future is ruined.” These are the words of the 14-year-old Haitian earthquake survivor-turned-prostitute, Lauretta, in the documentary, “Little Girls Lost,” by Lisa Armstrong and Andre Lambertston. This gripping film about a young girl’s descent into prostitution and poverty was one of the highlights of the City University of New York’s first annual “Global Documentary Film Series.”

The two-day event showcased projects from Nigeria, Liberia, Nepal, the DRC, Brazil and Afghanistan, with the common theme revolving around international women’s human rights. “The idea for the film festival came to us when we were trying to inspire students to explore ways of storytelling when the business end of journalism lets you down,” said Lonnie Isabel, director of International Reporting Project at CUNY and the chairman of the film festival. And why women in conflict? “Well, women in war is the most important under-reported story of the world,” said Isabel.

In addition to screenings, the first day of the event featured three panels: “The Documentarian as a Journalist,” “Women in Islam” and “Women in Conflict.” Panelists discussed strategies for reporting in hostile situations and the importance of debunking stereotypes set by the mainstream media with students, activists and journalists.

A still from Marcus Bleasdale's "Dear Obama: A Message from Victims of the LRA."

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