Cocktail Chatter

Trippy Nakedness at Burning Man, Bears That Sell Toilet Paper, and R.E.M.’s Music Revolution

The week’s most interesting Slate stories.

Permanent Record: A trove of 1920s report cards and the stories they tell,” by Paul LukasLukas spent more than a decade tracing the personal stories of nearly 400 New York City students’ whose 1920s-era report cards were found in a box bound for the trash at a Manhattan high school. The report cards detail the lives of women who attended Manhattan Trade School for Girls, a vocational institution that attempted to “rescue young girls from poverty” by teaching them real-world job skills. The faculty helped students snag jobs so they could be self-sufficient wage earners until marriage.  In his five-part series, Lukas reveals the often touching, and sometimes surprising, results of his research.

Why Would Anyone Go to Burning Man?,”by Seth Stevenson. For one week every summer since the late 1980s, there has been one place art freaks, unshowered vegans and Goldman Sachs investors can all come together. That place is Burning Man. The festival in the Nevada desert—one part commune, one part performance art, two parts massive party —is an attempt at creating a temporary, new egalitarian society with “the nicest, nakedest people on earth.” Stevenson, a Burning Man virgin, relays his hilarious experiences in a five-part series. After adjusting to the bunny suits and omnipresent drugs, he explains how Burning Man accomplishes its mission of “radical inclusion.”

What Do Bears Have To Do With Toilet Paper?: A short history of bathroom-tissue marketing,” by Daniel Engber. Bears and toilet paper might seem like a bizarre marketing match. But bears are just part of a long lineage of weird bathroom-tissue mascots, a group that includes elegant aristocrats in horse-drawn carriages and an Abraham Lincoln doppelganger.

The Slow Death of Certainty: Will the Troy Davis case be the one that finally turns America against the death penalty?” by Dahlia Lithwick. After a temporary last-minute delay by the Supreme Court, Troy Davis was executed in Georgia on Wednesday for a murder many still say he didn’t commit. Davis’ case is not the first to raise questions about capital punishment. Lithwick explains how DNA exonerations, high profile debates on controversial executions, and an expanding field of research on wrongful convictions just might sway long-entrenched public opinion on the matter. 

There’s Something I Need To Tell You, Sarge …: A gallery of service members who came out the day ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was repealed,” by Katherine Goldstein. After years of protests, government studies and often-hostile political debates, the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on openly gay service members was officially lifted on Sept. 20. Slate compiled a slideshow documenting some of the dozens of current servicemen and women who came out publicly this week in OutServe Magazine to mark the occasion.

Here Be Dragons: A history of map monsters,” by Ken Jennings. It may come as little surprise that the winningest jeopardy competitor also happens to possess a wealth of obscure knowledge about geography. As a corollary to his new book on the subject, Maphead, Jennings shares a history of the bizarre map monsters—from elephant-like land roamers to massive sea creatures—that were once a fixture on maps for adventurous explorers.   

Beyond Oktoberfest: There’s more to German brewing than Munich’s lagers. Five delicious styles from the rest of the country to sample this fall,” by Mark Garrison. Oktoberfest, with its weisswurst and lederhosen and overflowing steins of beer, began Sept. 17 and will put Munich—and Munich-style lagers—in the spotlight for a few weeks. Garrison says this creates a “pernicious misimpression” about Germany’s brewing accomplishments. ” It’s as if everyone in Germany thought American culture and cuisine begins and ends with the Iowa State Fair,” he writes. As an alternative, he offers up five great German beers that aren’t lagers.

Who Is Warren Buffett’s Secretary? Debbie Bosanek is not the talkative type, especially about tax reform,” by Annie Lowrey. Warren Buffett’s secretary became a national symbol for tax reform after the unveiling of President Obama’s new debt reduction plan this week, but she doesn’t want to talk about it. Despite her subject’s resistance, Lowrey delves into the often-discussed issue of whether secretaries really do pay higher taxes than their millionaire bosses.

R.E.M.’s Revolution:How a post-punk band from Georgia changed rock ’n’ roll forever,” by Bill Wyman. After 31 years and a career spanning musical genres from punk to grunge, R.E.M. officially broke up this week. They got their start as an obscure Georgia band that didn’t quite fit the musical scene of the moment, but Wyman explains how R.E.M.’s complex and varied discography, coupled with commercial success in the nineties, ultimately made them much more than “a goddamned ‘80s band.”  Alliance for Christ:Rick Perry’s pledge to stand with Israel ‘as a Christian’ is a gift to Islamic extremists,” by William Saletan. An American presidential candidate vowing to stand by Israel is not particularly groundbreaking. Vowing to do so “as a Christian,” however,is amove only Rick Perry has made. In addition to jeopardizing peace for Israel, Saletan argues that Perry’s declaration could put the U.S. in danger by confirming the narrative of religious war often promoted by Islamic extremists.