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Torrence Otten

See more by Torrence Otten

'A road trip is full of infinite possibilities'

Easier Rider, The Era Of Packaged Road Trips Has Arrived

LAUSANNE — "We struck off, heading for the horizon with a fever we thought could be cured by accumulating kilometers. But it just riled us up even more. Still, moving quenches something. It eases our melancholy at not having done anything with our lives, at having been born too early and having failed at everything. We weren't gamblers, we missed the boarding time for pirate ships, we never met up in Sherwood Forest. What's left? Motorbikes, my friend."

So begins writer-adventurer Sylvain Tesson's new book, En avant, calme et fou (Forward, Calm and Foolish), published by Editions Albin Michel. The book recounts a quarter century worth of road trips, illustrated with photos from his companion, photographer Thomas Goisque. The travel buddies rolled through India, Russia, Mongolia, Siberia, Finland, China, Serbia, central and southeast Asia, Bhutan, Chile, Nepal, and Madagascar. And on Nov. 5, the Travel Channel aired a documentary about one of their motorized misadventures on a Royal Enfield, the legendary Indian motorcycle, on frozen Lake Khövsgöl Nuur by the Mongolian border.

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'Emphasizing liberty'?

Of Dresses And Women’s Liberation, A Brief History

The historian and sociologist Georges Vigarello recounts the evolution of the dress, which tells the story of female representation and liberation in society.

GENEVA — Women were long limited to a kind of immobile beauty, with designs constrained by laws and regulations. French historian Georges Vigarello chronicles this past in his new book of paintings, engravings and historical photographs, La robe : Une histoire culturelle — du Moyen Age à aujourdhui (The Dress: A Cultural History — From the Middle Ages to Today).

The dress "espouses a worldview," Vigarello writes, and the world has long been dominated by men.

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Pansori performers
South Korea

Young Passion For Pansori, Reviving A South Korean Tradition

Youth performers revive pansori, the folkloric art of musical storytelling, a South Korean cultural heritage.

TOKYO — In South Korea, pansori, the art of musical storytelling, is synonymous with tradition. Its name comes from the words pan, which means "room" or "meeting place," and sori, "singing."

Declared a cultural heritage by Korea in 1965 and by Unesco in 2008, pansori is part of the country's national folklore, passed orally from generation to generation since its age of glory in the 19th century. The singing of secular stories accompanied by a janggu, a traditional percussion instrument, at village festivals, had for a long time mainly attracted an older audience. But now the style is seeing a renaissance, with young interpreters mixing it with modern sounds, or evoking current themes.

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In Vancouver, real or fake?

From Around The World, 8 Real Ways To Fight Fake News

By 2022, disinformation could completely replace real facts online. So what are we supposed to do about it? Sharp ideas from France to Denmark to the U.S. and beyond.

PARIS — This video of Barack Obama is both real and not real. It's an excerpt of the former U.S. president during an official appearance, and the words he utters are things he really did say, albeit in an entirely different speech. Researchers at the University of Washington, in Seattle, used artificial intelligence to perfectly sync the movement of Obama's lips in one appearance to the words he used on a previous occasion. Moral of the story? It's now possible to create a "fake" video as perceivably real as the original one.

Gartner, Inc., an American research and advisory firm, estimates that by 2022, people living in developed countries will have more exposure to false information than to real news. Welcome to a world where "the average citizen is no longer in a position to know if a piece of information is serious or not," says David Glance, director of IT practices at the University of Western Australia.

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That looming sensation?

When You're Swiss But Hate The Mountains

Mountains are as integral to Switzerland as beaches are to Tahiti. But that doesn't mean every Swiss person likes the rising surroundings.

LAUSANNE — Walking for hours under a late autumn sun. Climbing steep slopes with a backpack. Camping on a mountaintop with the fresh wind in your face. Skiing the open slopes with fresh powder. Sounds like a dream, right?

Not if you're someone who doesn't like mountains. Believe it not, they exist — even in Switzerland! And for them, all that traipsing around at elevation sounds more like a nightmare. So how do they survive? How, in this day and age, with forest hikes and other bucolic excursions regaining popularity, do they manage to say no?

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At SF's Museum of Ice Cream

Museums For Selfies: A New Kind Of Culture Or Pure Commerce?

Exhibitions in the U.S. are held specifically to allow visitors to take pictures of themselves. European museum curators cringe, but competition for the attention of the social-media generation is real.

SAN FRANCISCO — In the center of San Francisco, an elegant building with columns attracts attention. In the 1900s, the massive structure housed a bank. Today, its facade is covered with pink stripes and a large inscription: "Museum of Ice Cream." A new cultural spot dedicated to the history of ice cream and other sweet summer treats? Absolutely not.

This museum is a temple for selfie enthusiasts. Inside, visitors pose amid a brightly colored decor. In the center are astonishing installations: a unicorn, a pool of rainbow noodles, or giant candy. People wait patiently to get the perfect shot, to be posted right away on Instagram. More than 100,000 photos have already been uploaded with the hashtag #museumoficecream.

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ABBA member Bjorn Ulvaeus spending his money money money

In Cashless Sweden, Even Panhandlers Accept Credit Cards

In Stockholm and around the country cash has disappeared from businesses and banks. Everyone, except the elderly or those without digital access, pays with credit cards or mobile apps.

STOCKHOLM — When Victor goes out to lunch with friends in Stockholm, he no longer needs to worry about carrying enough cash. "If someone else pays the bill, I pay him back with the Swish app on my phone."

Same kind of calculation goes for Victor, a 23-year-old wine salesman. "I use my card for everything, regardless of the amount. This is my sixth year without any cash in my pocket," he says.

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How bad is it?

AI Enters Medicine, But Can Doctors Be More Human?

PARIS — With breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence promising to revolutionize all aspects of our lives, the field of medicine is far from immune. Radiology will be one of the first medical fields to be transformed by AI, French daily Les Echos reported earlier this month, with algorithms on the verge of being able to establish diagnoses on their own. Meanwhile, a robot in China just took the national medical exam — passing with a top score, and in one-tenth the time as the living-and-breathing doctors-to-be.

Of course, one thing a robot doctor could never do is be human — though it looks like some humans are having trouble with that, too. It turns out that doctors today are struggling with the side effects of "hypertechnicity;" that is, with all the technological advances to keep on top of, they are falling short when it comes to bedside manner and emotional support of their patients. The Swiss daily Le Temps reported this week on Alexandre Wenger, a literature professor at the University of Geneva, who is trying to combat this problem by encouraging medical students to take literature and writing courses — part of a movement called "narrative medicine" that traces its roots to Columbia University in the 1990s.

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Shigeru Yokota, father of kidnapped Megumi

Japan Haunted By Chilling History Of North Korean Kidnappings

For years, Pyongyang kidnapped hundreds of people from neighboring countries, in order to train spies in foreign languages and cultures, or to steal identities. Today, their families are still looking for them.

TOKYO — When Rumiko Masumoto, a 24-year-old secretary, left home the evening of August 12, 1978, she told her parents she'd only be gone a few minutes. She and her fiancé Shuichi Ichikawa were going to take photos of the sunset on Fukiage Beach in Kagoshima. It was muggy out that evening in the southern Japanese town, but the sky was clear. She would come back quickly so she could spend time with her brother Teruaki, a student at Hokkaido University who was home for a few days on school holiday.

"That was the last time we saw her," the brother recalled recently.

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Statue of Liberty replica on the Île aux Cygnes in Paris

Thanksgiving In Paris, A Serving Of American Optimism


When you're living abroad, Thanksgiving can sneak up on you. So when my dad sent me a message Wednesday night — "About to run my last errand for Mom (hopefully)" — I had absolutely no clue what he could be talking about.

Then, it hit me. He was out grocery shopping for the big meal.

Thanksgiving is a truly all-American holiday. It's not a religious import, pagan or Christian, like Halloween and Christmas. It comes without the political implications of July 4th, as many of us tend to gloss over the historical baggage of colonialism. Originally, Thanksgiving was a celebration that the pilgrims had survived the harsh winter. It's a time for families to gather and stuff themselves silly with turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie — foods whose main ingredients are native to North America.

Normally, I go home Tuesday night, prepare all day Wednesday, and then spend Thursday in an eating frenzy. But this year in Paris, it's a little different. You could argue that one of the perks of being abroad for Thanksgiving is that I get to miss the moment where dinner conversation shifts to politics. Thanksgiving's proximity to Election Day always makes for interesting (to say the least) political discussions. But I actually don't get to escape that. The French people and other foreigners around me have plenty to say about the current state of politics in the United States. Conversations inevitably shift that way, and I'm usually the only American present. When that happens, I always find myself torn.

Thanksgiving is a national reset button.

There is no denying that America is in crisis. The country is divided, at times seemingly beyond repair. White supremacists have taken to the streets. Women and LGBT rights are under attack. The new tax plan will cripple everyone but the top echelons of society. We might lose net neutrality. And the content on a certain high-profile Twitter account makes my country harder and harder to defend.

And yet, I find myself strangely optimistic about my native country. One look at my house on Thanksgiving might explain why. My mother, a Korean immigrant, makes the best cornbread stuffing I've ever had. I make broccoli casserole, a decidedly Southern dish. My cousins and I, all biracial kids, organize dessert: pumpkin pie (classic) and then something experimental and chocolate. My dad puts on the Charlie BrownThanksgiving special, while my Jewish uncle talks about the latest bonsai he's been cultivating.

Yes, we talk about politics, and I lecture the one teenage boy in the family about feminism. But the point is not to shut out the world in a tryptophan-induced coma.

Thanksgiving is a national reset button. It's a moment to embrace, rather than critique, the weird traditions, the differences, the chaos that make up my country. From over here, I can see that more clearly than ever — and I haven't given up on America just yet.

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A man in Israel holds all the cards when it comes to divorce

Domestic Violence And Israel's Sexist, Orthodox-Driven Divorce Law

Israel's sexist family law is bent to demands of the country's Orthodox community, including divorce requiring the man's consent. But what if the husband is violent?

JERUSALEM — "Past events." The expression seems neutral, factual, distant. But for S., the words — as they appear in the religious divorce documents granted her by the rabbinical court in Jerusalem — are excruciating. The "past events' refer to violence, specifically sexual, of which the young Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) woman accused her husband. The woman was his victim until their official separation in February 2016.

Jewish law holds that a husband's consent is necessary for the divorce to proceed, even if the court can compel him to grant it, under threat of imprisonment. In the case of S., whose identity is protected, her husband only agreed to offer consent on one condition that was approved by the rabbinical court: His wife had to withdraw all criminal complaints she had filed against him. Her freedom in exchange for immunity for a violent man.

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Piling up
food / travel

Au Pair Or Indentured Servant? Globetrotting Babysitters Face Exploitation

Taking care of a stranger’s children in exchange for food and housing is a popular way to see the world, but many young women find themselves in tough situations.

PARIS — Young women marched in London last month in memory of Sophie Lionnet, a young French au pair who had been murdered and whose charred remains were discovered on Sept. 20 in her employers' backyard. The au pairs were also protesting their own living and working conditions, the endless hours and the feeling of exploitation.

Every year, thousands of mostly young women travel abroad to work as au pairs, taking care of local families' children and receiving food, housing and some spending money in exchange.

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