Fast forward: our high-speed chase to nowhere.
That's why coming down a freeway off-ramp finds us an overexcited traffic hazard, a portrait of unwilling deceleration still craving those now impossible seventy miles an hour. Or makes for the night of white-line fever following a daylong drive, the inside of our eyelids relentlessly patterned with oncoming dashes, one after the other, in an insomniac fugue of speed-jockey withdrawal. It is this sensation of speed that we desire, the impressionable meat inside our skulls lit up by that increase in sensory information. We want to be velocitized.
Speed is a drug, and not just in the old-time hepcat high of Dexedrine or bennies, those ingested, on-the-road amphetamines; or even in the newer, hi-tech crystal meth to be found, probably, in some corner of a schoolyard near you. The experience of speed itself releases into the electrochemical soup of our heads a cascade of naturally occurring drugs, not the least of which are epinephrine and norepinephrine, the hormones that course through the brain in the bone-melting, stomach-clenching high of sexual attraction.
I have flown perhaps five or six hundred miles an hour while traveling in a commercial airliner. But the now banal insight about this now banal experience is that ... there is no speed here. A slight pressing into my seat on takeoff, insulated from the engine's roar and cloaked in the unreality of carpeting and suit bags and laptops; a brief, fierce application of brakes and a reversal of engines on landing, especially if the airport is old and the runways are short. But otherwise, obviously, nothing. A sense of floating--music in my ears, a drink in my hand, peanut salt on my fingers, and not much in my head. A toboggan ride is faster, and more thrilling.
It would be different in a real plane. I grew up in an air force family. My father, a navigator, pounded around the skies of the Maritimes in big four-prop patrol planes called Arguses, which, like their hundred-eyed namesake in Greek mythology, were ever-vigilant, searching for the conning towers of Soviet submarines or suspicious Grand Banks trawlers out of Baltic ports. The base where we lived wasn't home to any really fast planes, but they came through every now and then, hulking F-101s and insectoid F-5s slung with weaponry and wickedly slicked back from their forejutting needlepoints. Top speed: Mach 1.72. We looked at them with awe, the fast planes, observing their promise of barriers broken and limits overcome, the transcendental potential glowing on the matte-painted panels as visibly as the Day-Glo NO STEP and AIR INTAKE warnings. They said: speed transforms, speed kills, speed will make you free. I hung pictures of these jets around my room, glued together miniature simulacra of them, and dreamed of speed, of velocitization.
I start to read Milan Kundera's novel Slowness one snowy Sunday afternoon. I do it with the television on, a Bulls-Rockets game bouncing away in the background, "A picture-perfect fast break," Isiah Thomas says to Bob Costas. Like many people, I often read while watching television. I'm not especially proud of this habit, but somehow I'm not appropriately ashamed of it either. Like most of us, I am also capable of simultaneously listening to music, carrying on a conversation, and eating--all while driving fifteen miles above the speed limit, scanning the horizon for signs of authority. Am I the proud owner of a parallel-processing new brain? Could I go even faster with smart drugs?(1)
I have my laptop open to take notes, so I won't have to mark up Kundera's text. The laptop is a PowerBook 5300/100; it runs a 100-megahertz PowerPC 603e chip. This machine was considered pretty fast when I bought it eighteen months ago--not scary fast, just high-end quick. But now it feels Slow, because I know there are so many faster machines out there, working at speeds closer to parallel. In fact, my 5300 has been placed in the "discontinued archive" by the Macintosh product developers, destined for quick-time oblivion in the big boneyard of machine death.
"Speed is the form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man," writes Kundera on his book's second page. He is decrying the false "ecstatic" speed of the man in a machine--the artificial annihilation of time--as compared with the bodily speed of the runner. The man behind the wheel feels nothing but a mindless, futureless impatience, a desire to go faster that exists only in the present, obliterating all other modalities of temporality in a literal ek-stasis. The running man, by contrast, feels the many past, present, and future costs of speed, the bum in his lungs, the fatigue in his legs. Unlike the driver, the runner must resist the constant urge to quit, to slow down and rest. He must play mind games with himself, set intermediate goals, and then set new ones, knowing that eventually he will reach a point where the pain slips away, a fragile, short-lived euphoria of pure human speed.
I look up from Kundera's novel. Whatever the state of their lungs or feet, the Rockets and Bulls are in the dying moments of the fourth quarter and time is now being measured in tenths of a second, a precise charting that has the irritating effect of slowing it to a stutter. On an in-bounds play the ten young giants dash quickly around the court, squeaking and grunting, even as no time at all passes on the game clock. The player with the ball, suspended in this artificial absence of duration, can't find an opening--he can't make time start again--and another time-out is finally called. The last three minutes of the game take twenty-five minutes to play.
"There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting," Kundera says, introducing a figure who captures something essential about the politics of speed. In a world forever overseen by television cameras, a world of instant forgetting, we witness the triumph of a particular character, the dancer. The dancer is that person who, through some expansive moral gesture witnessed by a TV crew, succeeds in putting his rival in an untenable position. The genius of the dancer is knowing when to make bold, skipping maneuvers that seize the political high ground. What is crucial is that the dancer creates an image that instantly defines his opponent; a recent example of the dancer's art is Noel Godin's assault on Bill Gates with twenty-five cream pies, an image that within hours appeared on millions of television screens around the world, where it will be repeated endlessly. By choosing precisely the right moment to attack, Godin permanently inserted the image of Gates with pie on his face into our culture's image reservoir.
The dancer bears some resemblance to another character who was decisively labeled by a Parisian intellectual not long ago. In an essay called "Sur la television," the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu lambasted the media-age creature he called "le fast-thinker": the person who grinds out what appears to be intellectual discourse under the glare of the klieg lights. Le fast-thinker is not an intellectual, only the simulation of one; he is adept at the snappy phrase, the blustery and authoritative opinion, and, of course, the unanswerable statistical put-down. In the hurly-burly of talk television, on programs as disparate as Meet the Press and Jenny Jones, the most successful performer is not the person with the truth but the one with the sharpest tongue and the handiest numbers.
Meanwhile, we sit at home and click nervously from one image to another, gazing at the disembodied heads of our televisual oracles as they flash across the screen. The medium, here, is the message, and the rapid-fire jump cuts seem to define not only our politics but our experience as well.
Alexander the Great and Napoleon moved through their respective worlds of overweening ambition and conquest at precisely the same speed. Top velocity for them, or anyone, was the gallop of a horse.
Machines change everything. Between December 18, 1898, when Comte Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat set the first land-speed record in an automobile, his 36-horsepower Jeantaud achieving a top speed of 39.24 miles per hour on an open road near Acheres, France, and October 15, 1997, when Richard Noble's ThrustSSC jet car broke the sound barrier in a car traveling 763.035 miles per hour (Mach 1.01) in the Nevada desert, the arc of human speed has bent its curve more and more steeply. Millennia of steady-state velocity have passed, and now in this crazy century of upthrust records limits are set and shattered in days, hours, even minutes. Chasseloup-Laubat held his record for less than two months, his Belgian archrival Camille Jenatzy taking it from him in January of 1899 by hitting 4992 miles per hour. The Frenchman managed, with some elementary streamlining, to respond by getting his car up to a respectable 57.6 miles per hour. But Jenatzy was more obsessed. He designed a new streamlined electric car, the first expressly built to break records, and shot to 65.79 miles per hour that April.
The name of this new car? La Jamais Contente. "Never happy." Here we have modernity in a nutshell, the same joyful fascination with speed--the same celebration of the sleek beauty of the machine age and its ceaseless imperatives--to be found a decade later in Emilio Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's original Futurist manifesto, published in Le Figaro in 1909. "Hoorah!" Marinetti wrote of the speedy machines he loved so much, the race cars and biplanes and swift war machines. "No more contact with the vile earth!" But Marinetti's happy paean to "dynamism," his love of machine speed, reached its apotheosis, its own terminal velocity, only when he declared himself a fascist another decade later, in 1919. The speed of modern life had found its perfect political complement. Faster things for faster living. Get with the program! Right now!
The movement of our century can be plotted on a parabolic curve, a violent calculus of progress and quickness and neuronal excitement that is never, finally, happy, because it still has not achieved the pure limit-speed of infinity over zero. The upgrade imperative of the parabola is buried deep in the logic of speed, where machines not only go faster with each generation but also move from generation to generation at a brisker pace. The speed of personal computers, dutifully conforming to Moore's Law, now doubles in eighteen months or less. Technology's genius is that it plots its upgrade ambition on this striving curve, carrying us ever and ever more sharply upward. When it comes to our machines, nobody has to plan obsolescence. There is no military-industrial conspiracy to keep the eternal light bulb out of your hands, as suggested in a famous tiff in the middle of Gravity's Rainbow. Obsolescence just happens.
Why? Well, consider gravity's rainbow itself It is the other parabola dominating our era's span, the ballistic curve first plotted in the sixteenth century, when mathematicians brought forth the scribbles that could help them deliver cannon payloads more accurately. The two curves of speed and ballistics, the true golden arches, have never been far from the heart of war, our miserable keynote.
Speed, said Sun Tzu, is the essence of war. "History progresses at the speed of its weapons systems," adds the French philosopher Paul Virilio. "War has always been a worksite of movement, a speed-factory." It took ancient Greek warriors over a decade to reach, and then destroy, a targeted city; we can now do so, from anywhere, in a few minutes. A single nuclear submarine can quickly reduce dozens of distant cities to molten glass and twisted metal. In the 1940s, the speed of naval "strike power," still the dominant form of military might, was measured in knots: in nautical miles per hour. By the 1960s, when the astronauts of Apollo 10 achieved a record speed of 24,791 miles per hour, it was measured in Machs: thousands of miles per hour. Now operational velocity inches ever closer to light speed itself. Speed's annihilation of time and place means, finally, speedy annihilation of places--and times.
The inner logic of technology is not technical but commercial, and within the logic of commerce location is an increasingly meaningless concept. We confront, now, a new topology, a world of instant and direct contact between every point on the globe. The world's business, the totalizing globalization project, takes place at the speed of light, the speed accommodated by fiber-optic cable. Today there are 228,958 miles of such cable on the ocean floor. By the end of the century that number will almost double. The dominant material of our speedy world is not metal but glass: the glass pulled in phone connections, the silicon of chips and processors, the glass of the screen on which I am typing these words. In this silicon world, money flows ever faster, urged on its way by bulk-trading programs and electronic interfaces that replace the too-slow communication of the human voice. A million transactions a minute now pulse through the New York Stock Exchange alone; in 1900, there were fewer than 2,000 trades per minute. The old-style trader, talking into his headset--or, still more primitively, shouting from the trading floor--is being replaced by a man watching the screen of his computer as representations of wealth and poverty, bar graphs and Cartesian plots, fluctuate up and down, wiping out South Korea's economy in hours or plunging Indonesia into international penury with the press of a key.
Everyone says: go faster. Everyone says: upgrade. Everyone says: be more efficient. We all hang on the curve, afraid to fall off. But the curve itself is not just a parabola; it is a paradox. It can never reach its ultimate goal, can only ever approach it more nearly by minute increments, because the end point of this insistent arch does not really exist. We know that Achilles must catch the tortoise in Zeno's famous riddle, but when we try to think about it logically he seems always thwarted, this famously fleet warrior, getting closer to the lumbering tortoise but never reaching him, no matter how quickly he runs.
In 1995, the science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling, whose body resides most of the time in Austin, Texas, posted a message on the Web inviting people to write what he called "The Handbook of Dead Media," an exercise in "media forensics" or (varying the metaphor) "a naturalist's field guide for the communications paleontologist." The idea was to track the history of the once-vibrant but now forgotten, the junk store of silenced communications along the road of obsolescence: the phenakistoscope, the teleharmonium, the stereopticon, the Telefon Hirmondo, the Antikythera Device, and a thousand more gadgets and extensions of human experience that once lived and do so no more.
The point of the Dead Media Project, beyond its surface technoanthropology, is to counter the hype of Net gurus, their tendency to champion nonexistent "vaporware" in terms otherwise reserved for the Second Coming and to load all technological change into the operating system we might call Progress 2.0. This "Whig version of technological history," as Sterling calls it, not only generates unspeakable hype but spins off into aggressive, upgrade-or-die evolutionary imperatives--as if we're going somewhere in particular, as if technology really is teleology. Aging techies and watered-down McLuhanites can make a lot of money packaging and selling that brand of fear to the rest of us, but this is a phantom economy.
"We live in the Golden Age of Dead Media," Sterling writes on his Web site. "Our entire culture has been sucked into the black hole of computation, an utterly frenetic process of virtual planned obsolescence. But you know--that process needn't be unexamined or frenetic. We can examine that process whenever we like, and the frantic pace is entirely our own fault. What's our big hurry anyway?"
The Dead Media Project has a deeper lesson than historical awareness, though. It doesn't simply unsettle the fallacies embedded in technorhetoric; it doesn't just hint that the speed of technological "progress" has far more to do with money, power, markets, and politics than with simple technical efficiency. It also, more importantly, undermines the essentialism of speed, the dangerous and false idea that media themselves have an internal desire to go faster. Media don't crave speed. We do.
Extreme speeds are not available to most of us. They are the preserve of the elite who get to rise above the slow yet frenetic plodding of the urban lifescape. Sitting in traffic these days, watching the dollars count themselves off in the red numerals of the taxi's meter as helicopters take off from distant office buildings, I realize that speed is the ultimate luxury good. Our cities' momentous flow of corpuscular traffic, pumping and squeezing in the arteries (physical and virtual) of our movement, our progress, is more and more sclerotic, slowing with the sludge of its own success. More than 700,000 cars enter Manhattan every day, joining the estimated 176,000 that are already there, along with the delivery trucks that block narrow streets and nearly 12,000 yellow cabs. Traffic crawls along in midtown at seven miles per hour. Mad cabbies honk and speed through the gaps and help maintain the average pedestrian injury rate at about 250 per day. The bicycle couriers are the ones on speed.
The traffic stops, again. The meter in the taxi doesn't. I think: I can run a mile in seven minutes, but I have only a 14.4 modem and operating system 7.5 in my laptop. Am I fast? At what point, I wonder, do I get out and walk?
"Reading," says Virilio, "implies time for reflection, a slowing-down that destroys the mass's dynamic efficiency." Like Kundera, we feel we should resist speed by engaging in activities, like reading or gardening or ambling, that are perforce slower. We feel we should make ourselves slow down. Indeed, there is an underground of this resistance in the culture, a theme of sundial slowness set against the overarching digital quickness of life--a theme that grows more obvious, and somehow more oddly frenzied, as we near the socially constructed limit of the millennium.(2)
But notice the paradox. Time for reflection, the indispensable precondition of reading or any other "slow" activity, is possible only with the prior benefit of speed. Leisure time is a luxury good, too, the flip side of being able to move fast when you want to. Those idyllic gardens, so conducive to rest and restoration, are mostly found in rooftop condos or in the leafy confines behind million-dollar brownstones. For most of us, precious moments at the golf course or at a tropical island resort are purchased only at the cost of long, harried hours on the expressway or waiting for connecting flights in Dallas, Texas.
Anyone who believes that the current young generation thinks and works faster than people in some notional, low-tech past hasn't been paying attention. And those who accuse kids today of a generalized attention deficit disorder, a compulsion to whip their heads around like distracted cats at the profusion of jump-cut images in our world, are also missing something crucial. Certainly there are more images and information now, more advertisements in our lives--three thou sand "marketing messages" a day, according to some estimates--and kids seem to grow up faster, to be faster, than ever before. But it has yet to be proved that our enormous investment in computer technology in recent years has resulted in increased productivity, or that the ability to "process" hundreds of images and millions of bits of information has anything to do with thinking--with constructing or analyzing an argument, with making good decisions--much less knowledge in the strong sense. And the sum total effect of this explosion of velocity is not a feeling of speed but one of boredom; the frustrating truth about the World Wide Web is that it is slow.(3) Worse, it's often slow to no purpose, the seconds and minutes ticking away only to reveal that there is after all nothing of interest on the downloaded page. We are here approaching the metaphysical limits of speed, where the fast becomes the slow, and vice versa. In such moments, the newspaper as delivery system is state of the art.
Media have rates of speed, but not essential ones. Action movies get faster, and more kinetic, all the time--a sharp acceleration of retinal-nerve stimulation from the wide-screen scenes of old epics like Spartacus. But some movies are now, Titanically, longer than ever; and John Woo, perhaps the best action-film director alive, has a fondness for extended slow-motion sequences, protracted exercises in the instant mythologization of anti-speed, that rival, in sheer unreality, the massed, from-every-angle replays of a televised professional football game.
In the late Seventies I used to listen to punk-rock singles that made it a point of pride to last no longer than two minutes, while my brother listened to prog-rock double albums with symphonic backing tracks and hour-long running times. The contemporary novel spans the continuum of speed from Elmore Leonard to David Foster Wallace, from Kundera's Slowness (which can be read and pondered in a single evening) to Don DeLillo's Underworld (which, suffice it to say, cannot). Short books sometimes demand many readings, however, and it is often necessary to read long books quickly. Is there more philosophy in John Rawls's A Theory of Justice (weighing in at 607 pages and more than two pounds) than in Donald Hall's poem "The First Inning" (three pages and as weightless as the limned parabola of a high fly ball)?
I have a new channel on my television now. It arrived late last year along with the Food Network and the Golf Channel and the History Channel and the Family Channel. (The package is called, amazingly, "MeTV.") The new channel is called Speedvision. It is all about motor racing: F-1 cars, NASCAR cars, top fuel cars, funny cars, midget cars, sprint cars, Indy cars, as well as boats and planes. The commercials are dominated by spots for crash videos, those technological snuff films so popular lately, in which fast boats and cars and motorcycles explode off the track or spin into the air, one after the other, amid hails of flame and smoke and flying metal debris.
Here is the secret of Speedvision: It is incredibly boring. There is no real tension, no suspense, because its creators have ignored the ancient narrative techniques that we use to manipulate speed and create drama. The speed-reading infomercials, on another channel, A which play on our fear of being "overcome" by all the information that needs to be "mastered," are scarier. The Golf Channel, with its whispered commentary and endless instructional videos, is more exciting.
The sensory overload of speed leads necessarily to saturation, to senselessness, which is what the Greeks really meant by ek-stasis. Not a singular rapture now but rather a digital version of the Rapture: the chosen ones carried into technoheaven, the rest of us left behind. A human body can tolerate no more than about seven g's of acceleration, the sort of load shouldered by an F-16 pilot pushing his ride to the limit in a sharp turn or power climb, a curve. After that, consciousness comes apart. The pilot blacks out, and the plane, still carrying his body, his fragile wetware, crashes.
The fastest man in the world right now is a Canadian sprinter named Donovan Bailey. In 1996 Bailey ran 100 meters in 9.84 seconds to set a world record. How do we know this? Because we measured it with a clock that tracks time to the level of one-hundredth of a second, an Omega or a Finishlynx or a Seiko--a clock that can, in short, model Zeno's paradox in machine terms, in increments of time invisible to the naked human eye. Is Donovan Bailey the fastest man in the world without that machine? Is anybody? Is a world record compelling, even intelligible, absent the slow-motion clock that can measure the man's incremental progress? At the limits of speed, not even the simple running human is free of the inbuilt upgrade logic of our machines.(4)
But the imperatives of speed, like those of utility and efficiency more generally, are crazily self-defeating. Speed's upper limit is found not in the laws of physics but in those of production: when the volume of movement, the rush of molecules or bits or consumer durables, decelerates, slows, and then stops. When nuclear war is so fast and so efficient and placeless that it surrenders to the frozen logic of Mutual Assured Destruction, then we see not futurism's promise but rather the seized-up engine of material progress. War now has to be slowed down, artificially, to make it interesting.(5)
Faster and faster can only mean, in the end, stasis. The logical outcome of efficiency is uselessness: solving problems has no point but the ultimate elimination of problem-solving itself. What is the point of being able to read a page every three seconds? To read every book ever written? Then what? Meanwhile, the vehicles of our speed ruin the planet as fast as we move around it.
Speed, we might admit, is our preeminent trope of control and domination. But even as speed excites us, we are drugged into a narcolepsy of cheap contentment whose danger we don't even recognize. The Canadian political scientist and performance artist Arthur Kroker labels ours "a crash culture," one in which we are always speeding up to a standstill, a spasm of useless speed that masks the coercion of "contemporary society as it undergoes a simultaneous acceleration and terminal shutdown." Not Marinetti's pure modern speed worship anymore but rather a curious postmodern double movement of velocity and lethargy.
For the citizens of a decadent techno-utopia, boredom, not failure, is the great enemy of human happiness. And fear of boredom is the heart of the gentle domination of our new speed-driven regime. Yet there is no simple equation here, and the calculus of boredom's vectors and variables is more complex than we know. It is possible, even easy, to be bored at five hundred miles an hour. It is also possible for an instant to expand to fill the available space of consciousness, to watch a household accident or botched layup decelerate into the brain-jamming significance of heroic narrative, a real-time slow-motion sequence a la John Woo. We experience both hasty leisure and deliberate speed, moments that never end and decades that pass in a blink. How fast you move is not the same as how fast you are going.
Where, then, are we going in our fast-forward drive toward the future? Whence this urge, this speedy imperative? Is "technology" to blame? We might derive some solace from distancing ourselves from the principle of our rapidity, from blaming our machines and repeating the mantra that the medium is the message--but this would be too easy. And it would be a lie. Our machines do not make us forget. Our quick vehicles do not cause our panic, our wretched drivenness. The motor of speed, the transcendental impulse, lies buried not in the engine or the microprocessor but within each one of us, in our mortality. Speed was born of death, of both the desire to inflict it with weapons and the desire to transcend it. We are forever dividing more and more space by less and less time, yet we cannot escape time except in the liminal ecstasy of death. We love speed, because it means we can leave our unhappy consciousness in the dust--can for an instant pull apart the Cartesian mind-body confection with these superb machines. That's what the overload of sensory volume and pulsing adrenaline achieves: a minute and thrilling breach in the mostly impregnable union of mind and matter. We don't just risk death in speed; we press the limits of our mortality.
The final irony of our speed mania is that death, when we finally get there, may not be a kind of escape velocity at all but instead something like what was imagined by the ancient Greeks, a dull impatient wishing to be elsewhere. Hitting the wall, crashing into the ground, we may dissolve, not into sweet unconsciousness but rather into a bleak waiting room of forever thwarted speed, a shadowy endgame in which nothing ever happens. And even when it arrives after a long, painful illness or years of institutional dullness, death almost always comes too soon. It takes us from the hurly-burly of this quick life and seizes us, suddenly.
The Bastard in Shakespeare's King John says, "The spirit of the time shall teach me speed." But while the velocities go up, our mortality remains unchanged. No matter how quickly you move, death drives the fastest car on the highway. In the end, death always does the overtaking. Our desire to escape the vile earth necessarily ends with us buried in it.
(1) Smart drugs have been with us for thousands of years, in the form of caffeine and nicotine, stimulants we use to push our consciousness every day. Who among us is unaware, at any given moment, of exactly where he lies on the curve of his daily caffeine regimen? Americans spend well over $10 billion on coffee, tea, and their accoutrements every year.
(2) The urgent apocalypticism of neo-Luddites, members of food co-ops, deep ecologists, quasi-unabombers, and other denizens of the environmental fringe is matched only by the ingenuity with which they design their ever-proliferating Web sites.
(3) Those who can pay for the privilege, of course, benefit from T1 lines, cable modems, and high-speed fiber-optic connections. And even in the world envisioned by companies such as Lucent Technologies, which recently announced a new fiber-optic cable that will transmit 10 million calls over a single fiber, it is probable that our data needs (for video, audio, and as yet unheralded marvels) will simply expand to fill the available bandwidth, in much the same way that the volume of traffic quickly grows to exceed the capacities of newly constructed freeways.
(4) Of course, Bailey isn't really the fastest man ever. In 1988 Ben Johnson ran 100 meters in 9.79 seconds at the Olympic Games in Seoul. He was later disqualified after officials discovered that he was using performance-enhancing steroids. Johnson was perversely in tune with the spirit of the times. He was just trying to upgrade his hardware.
(5) The horror of the Rwandan genocide was amplified by the speed with which some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered with old-fashioned, low-tech machetes. If they had been murdered slowly with mortar and sniper fire--proper weapons, civilized weapons--as the Bosnians were, perhaps our shock would not have been so acute.
Mark Kingwell teaches philosophy at the University of Toronto. His writings include A Civil Tongue and Dreams of Millennium. He has just completed a book on happiness.
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|Title Annotation:||pace of life|
|Date:||May 1, 1998|
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