Oakland Raiders, San Francisco Giants tweet support after fatal Oakland fire

People place flowers near the scene of a warehouse fire Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. A deadly fire broke out during a rave at the converted warehouse in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Image: AP

Some of California’s major sports teams have pledged on Twitter to help the victims and families affected by a devastating fire that tore through an Oakland warehouse party Friday night, killing at least 33 people.

The Oakland Raiders said it would join Oakland Athletics to match donations up $30,000.

The NFL team also announced it would observe a moment of silence prior to its game against the Buffalo Bills at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on Sunday.

The San Francisco Giants said it would also support the fund, while the Golden State Warriors tweeted the NBA team would donate $50,000 to the Unity Council.

“When a tragedy of this magnitude hits this close to home, we feel it’s imperative to do our small part to help our community and those impacted,” Rick Welts, Warrior president and COO, said in a statement.

It’s unclear how the fire broke out in the warehouse, but authorities said at least two dozen people remain missing.

There were no sprinklers inside, and the flames left the crowded building dangerous to enter, delaying the relief effort. Search and rescue operations were expected to resume Saturday afternoon after firefighters tried to stabilize the structure.

“It was just a labyrinth of little areas. We knew people were in there, and we were trying to get them out. But it was just a labyrinth,” Oakland deputy fire chief Mark Hoffmann told reporters Saturday afternoon.

“Something as simple as a cigarette could have started this,” Alameda County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly said. “It appears that either you got out or you got trapped inside.”

The Associated Press contributed reporting.

BONUS: Drone view of Samsung San Jose headquarters

Read more: http://mashable.com/2016/12/04/california-sport-teams-oakland-fire/

You can pay someone to make a hashtag for your wedding #ofcourse

You can now pay someone to come up with your wedding hashtag.
Image: Zhong yang – Imaginechina

Millennial weddings come with a basically compulsory social media component these days, and one woman is taking advantage.

After dealing with wedding overload (19 ceremonies over the past two years), Los Angeles-based magazine editor Marielle Wakim had witnessed her fair share of bridal processions, wedding veils and best man toasts.

She’d also seen the rise of the wedding hashtag, a short phrase that’s usually an overly cutesy blend of the bride and groom’s names or a trying-too-hard nod to how they met.

If you’ve been to a wedding in the last few years, you’ll know it. The wedding hashtag can be found on everything, starting with invitations and the wedding website, and then plastered onto napkins, photo booth pictures and and centerpiece displays at the reception.

They’ve become as expected as a bouquet toss.

Image: Katie Kett Photography

Wakim started offering to help some of her many soon-to-be-married friends come up with something clever for the special day’s Instagram posts, and she realized she could monetize the phenomenon.

Last month, Wakim launched “Happily Ever #Hashtagged,” with package deals for her hashtag-making services. The simplest start at $40, while $115 gives couples three options, plus two more for any bachelor and bachelorette parties.

“People can’t think of that notch-more clever of word play,” she told Mashable in a phone call Friday. “That’s why they hire me.”

Today’s couples don’t want a generic #SmithWedding2016, but something that reflects who they are, whether that be super romantic, mega cheesy or more quirky.

“People are always trying to add a really personal touch to their day,” Wakim said, which she thinks makes her service that much more appealing.

Thanks to her magazine training, Wakim said she’s a prime punning expert, which she believes is a big part of building a catchy hashtag. (Wakim was the source of the viral asparagus water ridiculousness at Whole Foods, so she seems to know what resonates.)

For her clients she tries to avoid the obvious, because that’s why they’re paying her. She usually starts with rhyming and combinations of first and last names and working in any idioms. She has customers fill out a survey with nicknames, wedding details and back stories, which all help her process.

For one couple with the last name Ferris, a Ferris wheel proposal story and Ferris wheel decor planned for the event, she came up with #WheelyInLove. Another for sillier pair Maggie and Charlie became #CharMagweddon.

“They are deceptively difficult to come up with,” she said, since it’s not just what the hashtags sound like spoken aloud but how they look written down without any gaffes or unintended innuendo.

In the past week, Wakim’s received a flurry of media attention, and she claimed her business has since quadrupled. “I’m going to be hashtagging my face off,” she said about her side hustle.

As for her own wedding hashtag, if the 29-year-old one day decides to tie the knot, “How will I ever pick?” she mused. The pressure is on.

BONUS: Rare shark breach caught on camera

Read more: http://mashable.com/2016/12/03/happily-ever-hashtagged-wedding-hashtags/

Holiday travel season has begun, so stop leaving your laptop with the TSA

Laptops on top of laptops on top of laptops, all left behind at Newark Airport’s TSA checkpoints.
Image: TSAmedia_LisaF/Twitter

With Thanksgiving just past us and Christmas still to come, we’re right in the heart of the holiday travel season, so it’s a good time to remind you to stop leaving your laptop at TSA airport checkpoints.

This was underscored last week when a rep from the TSA shared a tweet (below), showing dozens of laptops stacked on a shelf, all left behind at TSA checkpoints at Newark International Airport in Newark, New Jersey.

In a 2014 story, Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, California, reported that roughly 20,000 items, each priced at $500 or more, were left at checkpoints around the country. Those items eventually get sent to TSA’s Virginia headquarters, while less valuable objects make their way to re-sale shops.

Among the more interesting items of recent note was a replica of Negan’s bat from The Walking Dead (the TV swag wasn’t lost, it was taken by the TSA as a potential weapon).

So if you’re one of the rushed travelers who take off with your belt, shoes, and carry-on but not with your MacBook Air, there is hope, though. The TSA has a searchable database of TSA headquarters for each airport online.

But you can also reach out on Twitter or Facebook if you notice your laptop didn’t make it with you.

And in case you want proof that you can potentially recover a lost laptop, one traveler, whose laptop was in the recently shared Newark stack, posted on Twitter that he was able to get in touch with Newark TSA after the photo was posted and got his device back.

On its Instagram page, the TSA offers one more tip: “If you havent already, tape a business card or a piece of paper with your name and contact info to the bottom of your laptop. This will allow us to attempt to contact you via a page or phone call before you board your flight. It will also allow us to contact you if youve already left.”

BONUS: Rare shark breach caught on camera

Read more: http://mashable.com/2016/12/04/laptops-left-at-tsa-checkpoint/

Drunk Dad Says Hes Going To Drive His Family Home On Their Boat But He Cant Even Walk Straight

Everyone seems to know the devastating and life-threatening repercussions of drunk driving, yet so many people still think that the worst won’t actually happen to them. What Would You Doknows how serious the drunk driving epidemic is, and they decided to make an episode about it in 2014.

This episode isn’t about driving a car, though, it’s about driving a boat.

Many people associate a boat with vacation, relaxing, or partying. Not everyone owns a boat, but apparently, many people drink and drive because it’s supposedly “easier.”

However, it’s important to remember it’s still illegal, and also still life-threatening.

And this dad who has been taking shots at the bar with his wife stumbles around, claiming to be ready to drive his family home on their boat.

His young child is with him the entire time at the bar, which is bad enough, but when he actually gets down to the dock and is falling all over himself? That’s when anyone around him should take initiative and step in.

Sometimes it’s understandable that people on this show claim not to want to get involved with something that isn’t their business. But, when their business starts putting other people’s lives in danger, that’s when there’s no excuse not to help.

What would you do in this situation?

Due to restrictions, this video cannot
be viewed in your region.

Read more: http://www.littlethings.com/wwyd-drunk-dad/

Camera Catches Rude Woman Verbally Assaulting Heavy Stranger On A Buffet Line

Our world is full of good people, but unfortunately, there are some bad ones in the mix too. This 2014 episode ofWhat Would You Do?shows, with actors, just how bad and good people can really be.

While a heavyset actress steps up to abuffet, two other actors take turns making comments ather expense.

They are so blatantly rude and disrespectful, and eventually take it to the point of verbal abuse.

The other buffet diners arenotactors, and the whole episode was made to hopefully find some Good Samaritans in the mix.

Thankfully, that’s exactly what happens.

Multiple groups and individuals standup for theheavyset actress! But some don’tinterfere, and a few only speakto the heavyset girl rather than confront the rude strangers.

What doyou think is the best way to react to a situation like this? Let us know in the comments below!

If nothing else, I hope everyone who watches this realizes that no one deserves to feel the way this woman was made to feel. No matter what your weight is,it’s no one else’s business and no one should ever be publicly humiliated by strangers.

Seeing this done with actors isbad enough, let’s help stop it from happening in real life!

Due to restrictions, this video cannot
be viewed in your region.

Read more: http://www.littlethings.com/heavy-woman-buffet/

‘Act now’ on Christmas debt worries – BBC News

Media captionNick Hill offers some financial tips to deal with Christmas costs

Debt concerns at Christmas can be alleviated by seeking advice well before the bills come in, a charity has suggested.

The Money Advice Trust, which runs the National Debtline service, said that less than a third of people it surveyed had a budget for the festive period.

It added that a third would be borrowing to pay for Christmas costs.

Various advice services say that building up a savings buffer is key to paying for expensive times of year.

Selling unwanted items can also raise some last-minute cash, they add.

“Money worries can have a huge impact on your life at any time – but the fact that they are putting Christmas at risk for up to five million people shows what an extremely difficult time of year this can be,” said Joanna Elson, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust.

“This is also, of course, a busy time of year – and it is easy to see why many people don’t want to deal with financial problems in December.

“However, our research shows there are millions of people worrying about Christmas finances who could benefit from seeking advice now, to start to resolve their financial problems. Three-quarters of callers to National Debtline tell us they feel less stressed as a result – and often that first step is the hardest to take.”

Recent research suggested that Christmas dinners and trees had been falling in price in real terms compared with previous years, but the Bank of England warned that “vigilance” was needed over levels of personal debt which have been accelerating recently.

Read more: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-38187698

Christmas Trees Are Dying From Drought

For 23 years, Curtis Abbott and his family have been growing and selling Christmas trees on their farm in the town of Charlton, Massachusetts. Photos from previous harvests show picture-perfect trees — towering evergreens with sturdy branches dusted with white snow.

But this year, Abbott Tree Farm has shared no photographs.

Instead, a couple of days before Thanksgiving, the farm posted an unexpected message on Facebook: “Sorry we are closed.”

Drought, said Abbott, had forced the farm to shutter its doors this year — only the second time it’s done so in over two decades. “We feel it would be best to keep the farm closed,” he wrote on Nov. 22.

Massachusetts has been plagued by drought for months. As of last week, more than 60 percent of the state was suffering severe drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The dry weather has wreaked havoc on the state’s wildlife, water and vegetation

But it’s not just the Bay State that’s parched. Swathes of the country, including parts of the south and southeast, have been impacted by drought since the summer. 

The nation’s farmers have been especially hard hit by the dry spell. Crops have failed, livestock has had to be sold and farmers like Abbott have been struggling to keep the iconic Christmas tree typically spruces, pines and firs alive.

In Alabama, ravaged by the “worst drought in memory,” Christmas tree farms “throughout the state are realizing they have no trees available this year,” farmer Roger Schwerman told The Huffington Post last week. Christmas tree farms in Tennessee are opening later in the season because of drought and in statesfrom Florida to New York, farmers have complained of dead seedlings, stunted growth and Christmas trees that are “stressed” andunusually dry.

“This is not normal. This is drought damage. You can see the needles falling off,” Mark Harnett, owner of Mistletoe Christmas Tree Farm in Stow, Mass., told WFXT-TV in November, pointing to one of his yellowing trees. “It’s not very healthy. It’s not doing well.”

Fortunately for Christmas tree shoppers, the drought will likely not impact this year’s supply of festive conifers. Even in the driest states, there will likely be enough trees to go around though some may be drier and less robust than in previous years. Christmas trees are hardy plants and are usually only sold when they are eight to 10 years old. It’s the younger trees that tend to be the most susceptible to drought.

Because of this, however, farmers warn that the future of the Christmas tree is less assured. Many farms across the country reported losing a significant chunk of their seedlings or young trees this year due to drought. This could mean weaker harvests in the years to come, threatening a quintessential part of a billion-dollar industry.

This year’s drought will have a long-lasting effect,” said Schwerman, whose own trees have been left dehydrated by the dry weather. “It might drive many farms out of the tree business.”

Eric Miller/Reuters
In drought-stricken states across the county, Christmas tree farmershave complained of dry and dying trees this year. Real Christmas trees are a booming business in the U.S. In 2015, more than $1.3 billion worth of trees were sold.

Schwerman’s Christmas tree farm is the oldest in Alabama, originally established in the 1970s. Schwerman and his family purchased the farm in 2002. In the years since, the farm, located in Laceys Spring, has endured spells of drought but none has been nearly “as severe or widespread” as this year’s, Schwerman said. 

The entire state of Alabama is currently suffering drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, with more than 80percent of the state in extreme or exceptional drought.

The dry weather has desiccated parts of Schwerman’s farm. Most of his mature trees have not grown an inch this year, he said, while many of his young plants have “dried up” completely.

“Two years ago, with plenty of water and perfect conditions, [the trees] went up eight, nine inches. This year, they did not grow at all. In fact we can see them over there and they are the same height they were last year,” Schwerman told WAAY-TV.

Stunted growth of Christmas trees is a phenomenon that’s been reported across many drought-stricken states.

In New York, farmer Suzanne Stoke said that some of her trees had lost about four to eight inches in height.

“A tree we thought would be seven foot this year may only be six and a half foot this year,” she told WHEC-TV.

Bloomberg/Getty Images
Fir Christmas trees stand at Brown’s Tree Farm in Muncy, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016.There are close to 15,000 farms growing Christmas Trees in the U.S. and over 100,000 people are employed full or part-time in the industry, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

Young Ones Dying En Masse

A Christmas tree is most vulnerable to drought or other weather changes when it’s 1 or 2 years old, said Bert Cregg, a horticulture expert at Michigan State University. “This is because the new transplants are still establishing their roots systems and their roots do not extend very deep into the soil,” he told HuffPost.

In Massachusetts, a 100 percent failure rate of Christmas tree seedings has been reported, and other states have seen similarly grim numbers.  

Austin Ayers, a lifelong Christmas tree farmer in Johnson City, Tennessee, told WJHL-TV that 75 percent of the seedlings he’d planted this spring had died. 

Ayers said he’d “never seen a year this dry.” 

In New Hampshire, farmer David Wheeler said the state’s severe drought had wiped out a year’s worth of seedlings. “Everything we planted this year died,” he told WMUR-TV.

Boston Globe/Getty Images
A deadChristmas tree seedling in a field of dead seedlings at Smolak Farms in North Andover, Massachusetts, that died during this summer’s drought.

Future Harvests Uncertain

Farmers say they don’t yet know how this year’s drought will threaten future harvests, but they worry that impacts could be felt for years to come. 

“Farmers are going to have to take measures in the future because seedlings that were planted this spring, which would grow and be sold, did come in very poorly,” John Lebeaux, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, told the Boston Globe last week. 

In North Carolina, 2016’s drought and wildfires could “threaten” next year’s Christmas tree crop, reported WRAL-TV. The state’s Christmas tree industry is valued at $134 million, making it the country’s second-largest producer of the festive trees.

But according to Cregg, the outlook may not be so dire. The rains just have to fall and keep falling. 

“Since Christmas trees are grown on an 8 to 10 year cycle and growers have the ability to adjust their inventories over time, they can re-plant young transplants that were killed this year,” Cregg said in an email. “As long as this year’s severe weather is not repeated in the next couple of years, it’s unlikely to have a major impact on future supplies.”

Climate change, however, promises to bring more frequent and intense extreme weather events including drought and wildfires to the United States in the coming years.

“One of the most likely impacts of climate change on tree crops in the near future will be late frosts as ironic as that may seem,” said Cregg. “As temperatures begin to warm earlier in the spring, trees will begin to break bud earlier and then are susceptible to damage from freezing weather.” In 2012, for instance, the eastern half of the U.S. experienced the warmest March on record followed by an unusually cold April marked by a series of freezes. Cherry, apple and peach crops were destroyed that spring, said Cregg. “This weather cycle also severely impacted new growth on many Christmas tree species.”

David Bukach/Getty Images
Dry Christmas trees can bea fire hazard. People have been warned to keep their trees amply watered this year, and to follow fire safety guidelines.

Stressed Trees Mean Fire Hazards

If you’re going out to buy a real Christmas tree in a state that’s suffering from drought, be aware that the trees may be “stressed,” said Leo Collins, the owner of Bluebird Christmas Tree Farms in Heiskell, Tennessee.

“They’re still green, they’re still shaped fine, they look good in the field, but we know they’re stressed,” he told WATE-TV. This means the trees may not remain fresh for as long as previous years and may also be drier than usual. 

To check if a tree is dry, pull back its needles, said North Carolina farmer Julian Howell. “If you get a handful, you’ve got a dry tree,” he told WTVD-TV. 

Keep your tree well hydrated by keeping enough water in your tree stand. Also ensure that your Christmas lights bear the certification mark of an accredited safety certification organization such as UL, CSA International, or ELT; and keep your tree a good distance away from heat sources, including fireplaces and candles. 

The American Red Cross has published a list of holiday fire safety guidelines. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, heat sources cause 1 in every 4 Christmas tree fires. 

Read more: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/christmas-trees-drought_us_583e8c80e4b0c33c8e130d1f

Sean Penn: Hollywood, Havana and Me

Trying to discern common sense and common humanity through the fog of sensation and anger.”>

Deep breath. Exhale. Out with the bad

I was an American abroad, working overseas on this recent election night 2016. By midnight Dublin-time, having watched tidbits of news coverage, I was able to put myself to sleep, confidently, arrogantly, supremely certain that the election would go to Hillary Clinton, if not the Democrats at large.

When I woke, I woke to thenew norm. Donald Trump, a petty, narcissistic, hate-mongering, reality show star who had spent his entire business life ripping off the less-privileged had prevailed. I went numb, then got up and like many, I suppose, dragged myself through a day of utter bewilderment.

Somewhere deep, deep inside though, I knew I shouldve known better. Id spent much of my October promoting a book by author Pappy Pariah that predicted Trumps victory. Its protagonist is seemingly defeated and in an imagined post-election epilogue, checks himself into a retirement home branded with the new presidents name. The implication was clear. Yes, Pariah knew what I couldnt. Wouldnt.

Now, Ive just returned to the United States and the dark reality is settling in. But this is less an article from a defeated liberals view of American politics, pollsters, premonitions, or the decline of journalism, than it is a musing on the state of our countrys mental health.

One need not look far to see the delusional go-tos of a human nature that will always first seek comfort. I know what my colleagues in the movie business are doing. Most of them anyway. Those who lean left and care little. Some will say, Maybe this will be a good thing after all. It wont. For others, the election of Donald Trump will be an opportunity to bitch about how stupid our hick country is. Some may even take the Monday morning opportunity to bitch about Hillary Clinton, a woman who offered her exceptional mind and experience, and bravely took a bashing like no other simply to serve the American people. And then there will be the worst of the lot. The self-righteous liberals who refused to back Clinton if only to block Trump. (Noam Chomsky had some choice words for them.)

So now, settling back into the United States, getting over jetlag, I lie in my bed and flip the channels wondering what anybodywon. A climate change denier is running the EPA transition for the president elect. A White House counsel will come into the new administration so burdened with conflict of interest issues, lawsuits and the fear of depositions, that the only remedy may be to count on the new Attorney General and a right-leaning Supreme Court, to whitewash and bend us away from American principles simply so that this incoming Commander in Chief may politically survive his four years. A scent of impunity fills the air.

Winning trumps all, and regressing to Americas great again happy place wins for Trump. What have the 75,000 coalminersyup, thats the total they number in the U.S.won in a world that will die without clean energy? In a competitive job creation scale, in which in California alone there are already 550,000 jobs in renewables? (Subsidized re-training, anyone? Or is brown-lung a romantic tradition we cant live without?)

This is way too out-there to be about stupid hicks. To be simply about stupidity at all.


We are as healthy as our planet, and man, thats an alarming thing. Case in point: I just flipped on CNN. The president-elect is dancing, or tweeting actually, Fidel is dead! I can hear him singing it to the tune of Ding Dong the Witch is Dead. Cut to an image of mostly third-generation Cuban Americans (not munchkins) in front of the Versailles restaurant, a place that caters to the likes of Luis Posada Carriles, a right-wing anti-Castro ex-CIA activist and alleged terrorist often named as the architect of the 1976 Cubana DC8 bombing. Thousands dancing in delight at the restaurants faade, perhaps Carriles among them. Indeed, dancing at the death of another human being. Of Fidel Castro. Unlike thedancing at deaththat Donald Trump falsely claimed of New Jersey Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11, this grotesquerie is actually happening.

CNN centers its reporting on the death of Castro in the bastion of right-wing Cuban conservatism. Not in Cuba, but rather in the United States. Would they have polled the Birmingham Etiquette Society for comment in the aftermath of Martin Luther Kings assassination?

They have brought in one of their Spanish affiliate commentators for hisexpertanalysis. He offers a comparison between what is going on in Miami and what happened in Madrid upon the death in 1975 of Spains Generalissimo Francisco Franco. I dont need my map. Madrid is a cityin Spain! The Spanish whod suffered directly under Francos oppression did indeed dance with delight, and understandably so. But whats wrong withthispicture?

Surely, in any revolution, in any fog of war, there will be those who suffer unfairly. Surely it was not only the elite collaborators of the dictator Fulgencio Batista, his corruption, and oppression who would suffer in the settling fog of the Cuban revolution. Surely atrocities and tragedies occurred whether directly or indirectly attributable to Castro or the revolution. Just as certain are the nuances of military and economic interventions and acts of terrorism against Cuba that arguably sustained a continuation of tragedies and atrocities. It is in regard to these nuances that the objective among us have the highest responsibility.

We will be moved when we look into the eyes of a mother or a father in Miami who lost their child to the sea from a collapsed refugee raft; an elderly immigrant whose brother was killed by firing squad, or one who simply lost home and profession. No one would expect them not to cast sole blame for their heartache and loss on the actions of a brutal dictator.

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But if in our compassion we blindly submit to classifications as defined by the broken-hearted or the bitter, then we better damn well be ready to accept the NRA, too, as a brutal dictator when we talk to the mothers and fathers of Newtown. We better submit to declaring all voters who supported a candidate owned by the NRA, as brutal dictators of the ballot box. And, lest we forget, the twisted disgrace of vitriolic adults submitting a motherless child named Elian Gonzalez to the trauma of a violent SWAT team extraction in order to hype their own cause.

In truth, we are humanly, morally obliged to clarify an intellectually honest history, the kind that if learned, might not repeat itself. But we invest in these cyclical myths on behalf of the powerful and political who cash in on the blood, pain, and rage of others.

Im reminded of Steven Weinbergs suggestion, If you want to make good people do bad things, youll need religion. In this case, thatreligionis the denunciation of a leader who was far more a profound symbol of revolution than he was a boogeyman or beast.

So, to see fellow Americans in the year 2016 dancing at the death of this formidable and complex man, Fidel Castro, and to see American news stations focusing their attention, not on the actual history of the Cuban revolution, not even on the country or the people who live there, but on this grotesque reaction, well


I traveled to Cuba the first time on a family trip in December 2005. The United States was two years deep into the Iraq war. I had traveled twice to Iraq. The first time, simply out of curiosity to discover for myself the origins and nature of a conflict independent of its reporting in my own countrys media outlets. The second time, in 2003, I went to Baghdad as an essayist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Following that trip, my young children had expressed interest in joining me on one of my exploratory travels abroad. Clearly, taking them to a warzone was not under consideration. (Though they did request that.) So, I suggested Cuba.

I shared several documentaries about the Cuban revolution with them. My then 14-year old daughter had school chums who were already openly gay. Among the indictments of Castro and the Cuban revolution had been the treatment of Cuban homosexuals. My daughter was appalled. Dad, Iknowyou, she said. And if we go to Cuba, youre going to want to meet Fidel Castro. She continued. Im interested in going to Cuba. But Iwill notshake that mans hand. This is Claire Underwoods daughter, after all. A very tough chick.

Dylan, I said, I just want to eat cool food, listen to cool music, meet the Cubans on the street, and see the old American cars before they go.

She looked me straight in the eye. I knew she didnt believe me. I will not shake that mans hand, she repeated.

Cool! I said. So were going to Cuba.

And we did, securing a travel waiver under the religious tourism clause.

Through some connections, we had an extraordinary week in Havana, meeting largely with artistspainters, sculptors, musicians, and poets, most of whom from what we could tell constituted the metaphoric opposition. They were the ones who registered their complaints toward the system in balanced expression and coded creativity so that they may speak and yet be spared a prison sentence. Indeed, Castro made no bones about the penalty for dissent, later telling me that the choice of Cuban citizens was to support the revolutionor to bring their own. And yes, for that, there would be sacrifices.

After a culture and culinary rich week, it was our sixth and last full day in Cuba, we would be leaving the following morning. A call came from the Ministry of Culture. The great writer Gabriel Garca Mrquez was in town, they told me.

I had worked with Garca Mrquez briefly some years before on a film project wed never gotten off the ground. The person from the Ministry told me that Garca Mrquez would like to host a party in the diplomatic zone in honor of my familys visit to Cuba. Many who would attend would be from among the artists wed met, but also, there would be some representatives of the Cuban government, principally from the Culture Ministry and Ministry of Tourism. I checked with my family and we accepted the invitation. That evening, we hired a car and traveled from the Hotel Nacional to the diplomatic zone.

We joined the party graciously hosted by Mr. Garca Mrquez. It was about six oclock. By eleven oclock, with our children fading, my then-wife and I were about to say our goodbyes. Garca Mrquez himself had left some 20 minutes earlier. As I stood from a couch in the center of the main room, I noticed that the novelist had returned. He was standing at the doorway leading to the street and trying to keep out of sight from the other guests. He indicated for me to join him with a stealthy wave. I had a feeling I knew what was happening. But a daughter cannot punish her father for a feeling.

I had no certain knowledge, and had played no direct role in what was about to happen. I collected my family, we said our goodbyes and joined Garca Mrquez outside in front of the house.

Id like to introduce you to someone, he said. Dylan, I thought, was tired enough that her radar for such things might be diminished. And after all, she had been charmed by the very charming and extraordinary author. He walked us across the dark and empty street to a small, single-level house, where an old Daimler-Benz sat in the driveway. Behind the wheel, a solitary soldier. He nodded at Garca Mrquez as we approached. We moved to the front door of the house. Garca Mrquez opened the door, and there before us on the living room couch, accompanied only by a female translator, Fidel Castro himself in his indelible green khakis and cap.

It was less to me the reveal of a man than the living sculpture of so much intertwining history between my own country, Cuba, and the world.

The day I was born, Eisenhower was a sitting president. So was Castro. Nearly half a century later, here he still was. He stood, removed his cap, and offered me his hand. As I took it, I could feel my daughters eyes burning through the back of my head. My son, a shy 12-year-old and my then wife greeted him politely. My daughter avoided a handshake or a hello and sat on the couch opposite where Castro had been sitting. I played off her rigidity toward the Commandante to gloom of teenage years, knowing it in fact, to be a silent explosivity.

Fidel Castro was many things. His shift from the socialist advocate of democracy to a form of totalitarian communist is one worthy of great study, and has provoked significant debate. (Worthy also of consideration from outposts beyond Miami, Florida.) His enemies today, the rational and the irrational, the knowledgeable and the unknowledgeable, have a podium that is speaking loudly enough for itself.

As we sat down that night, the practiced, brilliant, and philosophical Castro began the conversation, engaging my young son, Hopper. For a straight half hour, he was quizzed on the distance between the sun and the moon, and other bits of knowledge hard-won for the average American grade-school student, unlike his better-educated Cuban counterparts.

Sitting between my children on the couch was the diminutive, cherubic Garca Mrquez, his feet not touching the carpet.

Castro moved on to conversation with me. He was very interested, or at least said so, in my trips to Iraq. He spoke very specifically to what I had written in the San Francisco Chronicle. What we can say about Saddam Hussein is that hes a brave man, Castro said. But he has oppressed his people too much. He has not learned to let the steam off the kettle. The contrast with himself was left implicit. Perhaps his attribution of the word brave to Hussein was meant diplomatically? Whatever the case, I thought, yes, courage came easily to Husseins madness.

Our conversation as a group went on for hours. My daughter sat silent throughout. At 1:30 a.m., Castro finally turned to Dylan, the volume of her silence now deafening.

Something is bothering you, he said.

Yep! she curtly responded.

Tell me.

Boy, did she. This 14-year-old wonder-whip snapped into an extraordinary riff, virtually documenting one human rights abuse after another toward Cuban homosexuals throughout the history of the revolution.

I watched Castro as he listened, often silently nodding, absorbing as she went through her disquisition, which lasted for about fifteen minutes. The room was left silent.

Then, Castro replied, We did not invent homophobia in Cuba, but we are of a lineage of Latin machismo. A quality of sometimes blinding superficiality. We have made many mistakes, including the ones youve spoken about. We are continuing to make some mistakes, but we are also continuing to learn.

There was nothing in his tone or demeanor that one could call defensive. He was disarmingly matter-of-fact. His attitude of respect for my daughter and her criticisms was clear, and that seemed to offer her an opportunity to consider him anew.

My wife and I talked to Dylan and Hopper at some length once we had returned to the United States, cumulatively processing the dark and light of what we had seen in Cuba, the kind and gracious spirit of its people, the color and music of its culture, the high regard most Cubans, and even many of his greatest opponents seemed to hold for Castro.

No matter their position towards their leader, the basic nature of Cubans is so alive with pride and community that once again, in recollection, I am struck by the arbitrary terminology brutal dictator being attributed to Castro. Just take one look at the brainwashed robots of North Korea, and perhaps even the critics of Castro may temper their words and contextualize their emotions.

Ive thought since then about the state of countries such as Haiti, which perhaps may have done well to have had its own sustainable revolutionssomething to prevent the gross interventions that had added to the plagues upon that society and its sovereignty.

Cuba is a poor country, but it lives without road rage, and with healthcare. It lives without raging lawlessness and with literacy, a country that exports more doctors worldwide than any other.

We should look very hard at the pride of Cubans who live in Cuba, so much of it built on their own commitment to an ideological revolution and its leader, to its sovereign resilience, as well as those sober critics in search of their greater dreams. And we should compare that to the pride now absent in so many Americans today toward our own incoming leader and what has become such an abhorrent abuse of our system and our language.

As for Castro, he himself has said that history will absolve him. I do not overlook the difficulty of my circumstances. Or the complex of cowardice, confusion and the mediocrity that infects the environment, he once said. We will see.

As we left the house that night, my son and daughter took a picture with the Commandante. Its a treasured memory of the opportunity wed had, if only briefly, to meet Cuba, its people and its leader. In the picture, Castro stands between them, arms over shoulders, green cap on.

Commandante, people will see this picture and accuse me of raising my children into revolutionaries, I said in good humor. He smiled, looked me in the eye and said, Better to raise them into the white coats of doctors. Fidel Castro and I had a couple of exchanges of letters in the years that followed. Id returned several times after, but never saw him again.


Im back in the U.S. post-election 2016, and watching CNN, its pundits for the most part regurgitating propaganda, putting most of the attention on the opposition, and I catch myself feeling badly for the reporters, for the journalists, many of whom are talented and deeply caring. But I understand it. They have an impossible job that reminds me of my own and that of my colleagues in film.

The near impossibility today of nuanced filmmaking in a business that backs creative dreaming and open expression into a self-censoring mind-fuck of budgets based on the statistics of their stars past box office performance, and the genre friendliest to a current audience. And what do we do? Do we fight it? Really fight it? Or do we tell ourselves theres a breath of deeper meaning as a justification to be the pawns of human adding machines and therefore, promote their mind-and-soul poisoning corruption of the spirit.

Film can be powerful medicine, but only if its integrity is preserved by those respecting their own vocation. So it is in journalism where journalists are backed into a 24-hour news cycle, rendering them incapable of the processing or the diligence necessary to fulfill the extraordinary service that journalism begs to be. Its now so much a make-it-up-and-sequelize-it as you go along business. Sound like Hollywood to anybody?

Growing inured, accepting of emptiness, and an all-pervasive madness fills the void. Too many of the practitioners of film, journalism, and advertising have contributed to the sickness of our senses, and they have done so just as much with their greed and hunger for personal acceptance as any stupid hick may have through their need and pre-ordained ignorance.

Any solution has to be counter-intuitive. Maybe we have to just slow down. To just stop. To reboot our factual and moral navigation systems. Listen. As Fidel Castro listened to my daughter. I am not dancing at the death of Fidel Castro. Nor am I celebrating him. Im remembering him. Im thinking. Trying to protect the clarity of my own thoughts against this fog of pervasive simplification and anger.

Deep breath. Exhale. Out with the bad

Read more: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/12/03/hollywood-havana-and-me.html

Zo Valds on the Most Terrible Things About Life Under Castro

The legendary Cuban writer who was exiled to Paris will shed no tears for the late dictator, and has slim hope for her home island’s future.”>

The moment exiled Cuban novelist and poet Zo Valds learned of Fidel Castro's death last Saturday she felt ecstatic.

"I was joyous," she told The Daily Beast during an interview at her home in Paris. However, her euphoria was short-lived.

"Immediately afterwards I began to remember all the people who died in exile, as well as all of the people he murdered," she said. "And then my thoughts turned to his victims."

She specifically names fellow Cuban artists, including writer and activist Lydia Cabrera, who died in exile in Miami in 1991, as well as singer Celia Cruz, often referred to as the "Queen of Salsa," who died more than a decade ago in New Jersey. She thought also of her late parents who never returned to Cuba. Her father, she added, was jailed for five years under the Castro regime before fleeing the country.

The author of over 20 novels and the winner of the prestigious Azorn Prize for Fiction, Valds was born in 1959, the same year Castro came to power. She relocated to Paris in 1995 following the publication of her debut novel, La nada cotidiana (published in English in 1999 as Yocandra in the Paradise of Nada), a sad, humorous, and sexually frank tale of a young woman in revolutionary Cuba. Castro, unsurprisingly, was none-too-pleased with her candid account of life under the regime, and Valds was sentenced to exile. She has lived in the French capital ever since.

Valds is She has a warm smile, dark hair. She is 57 years old, but looks younger than her years. She was wearing Ugg-type boots inside, which I thought was funny and charming.With a trace of melancholy in her voice when she recalls, in heavily accented French, her early memories of Havana. This tranquil demeanor belies her reputation as one of the Castro regime's most outspoken critics, whose novels are known for their emotional intensity and highly graphic sex scenes. We chatted in her Right Bank living room that overlooks the Seinea spacious room with classic bohemian touches, from the garnet-hued drapes framing the tall windows, to the haphazard stacks of paperbacks on the floor. A corpulent calico cat dozed nearby on a red Persian carpet.

Valds never knew pre-Castro Cuba, but she told The Daily Beast that she was about six years old the first time she sensed something amiss in her country.

"My family told me, 'You must not repeat at school what you hear at home about Castro,'" she recalled. "And it was something that really left an impression on me because at home my mother and grandmother were against Castro, but at school everything that I heard was pro-Castro. So from a very early age I was taught two opposing ways of speaking and two opposing value systems."

"I learned that if I thought differently (from the government's party line) I was not to say it or to express it, and to be discreet," she added.

Adolescence was a different story, however, and Valds, a self-described rebel, began writingfirst in a personal journal before trying her hand at fiction. She was particularly affected by the sudden departure to the United States of three close friends, sisters whose father had been imprisoned by the regime. Immediately upon his release, the family fled the countrya loss that was painful for Valds.

"I began a period of revolt," she remembered. "My mother kept telling me to stay calm, telling me that I too could be jailed."

In the 1980s, Valds was arrested at Havana's storied Plaza de la Catedral for chauffeuring two Spanish tourists around the city, which violated a regime law forbidding Cubans to associate with foreigners. She was detained for three days. The experience, Valds told me, was among her worst memories of her home country.

"The thing that was worse than the fear itself, was the acceptance of the fear and the way living in fear became a normal part of daily life," she said. "That was the most terrible thing."

When I asked her to recall her fondest memory, her voice softened as she described a reoccurring image from her girlhood of her mother on the balcony of their home in Havana.

"In the evenings she would wait for me to come back from a party or an outing with friends. My mother on the balcony. That is my most beautiful memory."

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Indeed, the themes of love, sorrow, the feminine experience, and the pain of exile permeate Valds' novels, as do florid, gritty descriptions of her home city. Open one of her books, and Havana itself emerges on the page as a living, breathing entity in equal parts sensual and vulgar, but always alluring.

"A saline mist draped the night in mystery. Only the yellow lights shining from the majestic and imposing lamps extending down the center of the avenue lit up the darkness," Valds writes in the first chapter of her 1996 novel Te di la vida entera (I Gave You All That I Had in English), which takes place both before and after the revolution. "She was thinking of her family and the desolate darkness of the countryside where they lived, which suddenly seemed so dark compared to the luminosity of Havana, so beautiful and new and radiant to her eyes."

Later in the book, she writes: ''Havana, saline, maritime city, clasping one and all in its clammy grasp. Havana, city of the freshly bathed and perfume doused and talcum powder dosed and eternally sweaty. Havana, city of eyes in heat and bump and grind and skin skimming skin like flames."

Even after the country has collapsed under the weight of Castro's brutal regime, Valds' central character, Cuca Martinez, is unwavering in her love of the Cuban capital. "The surf has swallowed up the Havana of my youth," Valds writes. "Havana flinches like flesh, smarts like a sore or a scraped knee. But even like this, hurting and steeped in pus, she is beautiful."

Evoking Cuba on the page, Valds said, enables her to live there once more.

"When you are in exile, your writing changes immediately," she said. "You are afraid to forget things about your country, and you are afraid to forget the people who you left behind, as well as your country's literary tradition."

However, she also noted the positive aspects of life in her adopted country, where reading is revered rather than viewed as an act of political dissidence.

"For me there is also a richness to exile both as a writer and a human being," she said. "I learned about other realities and other struggles, and read many books that I was forbidden to read in Cuba."

Like many in exile, Valds dreams of one day returning home, and she holds out hope that the dictatorship will collapse and that democracy will eventually arrive in Cuba. However, she does not foresee such a homecoming in the near future. Although Castro's demise certainly marks the closure of a dark chapter in the island country's history, she believes it will be business as usual in her homeland for the time being.

"The internal repression against dissidents and artists is still same," she said. "I think with Ral Castro it will continue as before. After which his children will take over the regime, plus the military is still there. So it is difficult to say that things will change immediately."

She believes the impact of Castro's death will be more symbolic, but significant in its own way.

"When one has lived almost 60 years under a dictator, the fact that he is gone is very important," she said.

She explained: "The fact that physical presence of the dictator is no longer there, that in the minds of Cubans that presence is finishedThat is a preliminary step towards freedom."

Read more: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/12/04/zo-vald-s-on-the-most-terrible-things-about-life-under-castro.html

Trumps Rep With Russian Gambling Bosses

When the president-elect set out to build towers and casinos in Moscow in the 1990s, he had some pretty racy friends. Now they root for himbut dont really trust him.”>

MOSCOWThe casinos here in the 1990s saw their share of bloody brawls, dirty scams, and murders. Most of the best known were controlled by organized-crime groups that fought each other for money and power.

Just one example: In the early 1990s, a leader of the Solntsevo criminal group, Valery Vlasov, ran Valery, one of Moscows most popular casinos, where shadowy businessmen and Russian Mafiosi laundered money through the gambling business while they spent their leisure time looking for prostitutes and making connections. It was a favorite venue for the post-Soviet golden youth to meet with pop stars or mid-level politicians. Then, in 1993, Vlasov was shot down right at the entrance to Valery.

Russian millionaire Igor Ballo, the president of the Russian Gambling Business Association, could share volumes of memories from the wild 1990s. He founded the first ruble casino in Russia, owned several casinos in Moscow, Iraq, and Egypt, and donated a lot of his money to charities.

But Ballo is especially fond of one memory: that day in early November 1996 when he says he predicted the future for Donald Trump.

That day the door to Ballos luxurious Beverly Hills casino flew open: A huge man with orange hair, an American businessman and a casino owner, Trump, walked in to talk business, Ballo told The Daily Beast in a recent interview. He was taller than me. I looked at him with interest. In fact, he impressed me so much from our first meeting that I later told him that he was the future American president, but Trump just waved his hand. He was not interested in politics back then, Ballo recalled. Moreover, He sounded frustrated, even angry with our rules.

The two sat down for a frank conversation; they had common interests in making money. In his five visits to Russia, the now U.S. president-elect had various businesses and entertainment agendas in Moscow, where he offered authorities investments of more than $300 million.

Trump was furious that by our law he could not privatize Moscows land, Ballo told me: This is wrong! Say I build towers and then they ask me to get out of Moscow! he complained to me.

Yury Luzhkov, who was Moscow mayor in 1992-2010, confirmed to The Daily Beast that Trump did have meetings with Moscows city hall and discussed major investment and development plans.

I regret that Trump did not build the Park of Wonders for children in Moscow, but that was not his fault. It was our laws and our competition that did not allow him to construct the cultural center, which Moscow still does not have, by the way, said Luzhkov, who spoke with The Daily Beast on the phone from London.

Nobody in todays Russia seems surprised that Trump looked for powerful Moscow friends around the gambling business. Moscow casinos had a reputation as brothels, but Trump did not seem disgusted, Moscow millionaire Aleksei Kozlov told The Daily Beast. He is a pop star himself, a player, who has capitalized on his name.

Today, when Kremlinologists are competing to predict Russias future relationship with Trump, maybe some of them should listen to the leader of Russias gambling business: Ballos sense was that Russia should welcome Trump but still be aware of his core priorities.

As with many others in Russia today, Ballo sees Trump as somebody who could restore warmer relations with the United States, and he celebrated Trumps election victory as Russias victory.

The businessman posted photographs of himself with Trump on Facebook with proud notes about his old predictions coming true. But as a professional gambler, Ballo warned: No player should relax.

When I looked at him, I realized what a typical American he was, Ballo said, that he would always put his own and Americas interests as a priority, playing the game with his mind, while most people in Russia let everything out through our hearts and emotions.

Last week, the Kremlin had its first Trumpian disappointments. The president-elect discussed the sensitive issues of Crimea and Donbas with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

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Trump should not even talk with that junta leader. He should have ignored Kievs criminal leadership, a member of the Public Chamber, Sergei Markov, told The Daily Beast.

By the weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump had made their first strongly contradictory statements. While Putin paid tribute to Fidel Castro, saying Russia had lost a reliable and sincere friend, Trump insisted that Castro was a brutal dictator who violated the freedoms and human rights of the Cuban people.

Would Trump treat the Kremlin with respect, as an equal? Would Trump make the U.S. State Department forget about its criticism of Russian authorities for violating the Russian constitution and human rights? Those were the unanswered questions Russian politicians discussed today.

Trump has already made his first international priority clear by holding his first meeting with Japans Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and not with Vladimir Putin, Grigory Golosov, a professor at European University in St. Petersburg, told The Daily Beast. The president-elects first priority will be trade issues with Asia and making Japan pay more for its own defense.

Markov, an adviser to the Russian presidential administration, told The Daily Beast that Trumps relations with Moscow are still up in the air.

President [Putin]s adviser for international affairs Yury Ushakov, Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu will be the key figures establishing relations with Trumps administration, Markov said. I just spoke with Kremlin officialsnothing is clear; there still have been no orders, no instructions for us, the experts in Russia-U.S. relations; but we are full of joy at the thaw with the U.S. and of hopes that Trump will not allow a nuclear war with Russia, Markov added.

Yes, one hopes! But one cannot be sure. It all feels like an enormous gamble.

Read more: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/11/30/trump-s-rep-with-the-russia-s-gambling-bosses.html