Gourevitch and Langwiesche on GermanWings crash; play war and real war; Mad Men’s dark bright side.

A Bewildering Crash. Philip Gourevitch at The New Yorker.

Just as the brevity of the flight, and the apparent spontaneity of the captain’s decision to leave the cockpit—to stretch a leg? or take a piss? or have a chat? We do not know—tells us that Lubitz could not have planned before he flew that day to crash the plane that way; and just as the locking of the door, and the pushing of the button that brought the plane down, tell us that he acted consciously and deliberately, so Lubitz’s breathing, unbroken by any attempt at speech, tells us that he chose not to explain himself. He knew that he was on the record. What did he think he was doing? What came over him? What possessed him? And why?

Is It Premature to Blame the Co-Pilot for the Germanwings Crash? William Langwiesche thinks so. Interview by Kia Makarechi at Vanity Fair.

There’s the Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses (B.E.A.), which is the technical investigators—the equivalent of our N.T.S.B. They’re very cautious, when it comes to releasing information—too much so. But there’s also always, in France, a parallel criminal investigation, because deaths are involved, and a Napoleonic mindset requires this.

That’s who this prosecutor in Marseille is. These are not people who are experienced with airplane accidents. The quality of these criminal investigations varies, depending on the quality of the consultants they bring in. Sometimes they’re quite good, even better than the B.E.A. In this case, I don’t know.

Were this an N.T.S.B. investigation, we would see a very different kind of information release. I would expect that we would see a neutral release of what we found in the recorder, and not pointing the finger at the co-pilot. You can include that we heard breathing, and the pilot hammering on the door, and that the cruising altitude was reselected, but leave it at that at for a few days. Let others point fingers, I say.

Maybe the dark side of Mad Men is the bright side. By James Meek at London Review of Books.

Betty is on her second marriage. She broke with her previous husband, the Madison Avenue advertising executive Don Draper, when she found out he was lying about who he was, and was sleeping with another man’s wife; we saw him cheat on Betty with at least five other women: a commercial artist, a wealthy client, a 21-year-old Euro-drifter he met in Los Angeles, a flight attendant, and his young daughter Sally’s teacher. Betty suffers from chronic depression at a time when neither the diagnosis nor the pills to smother it are easy to come by. But what, here, is undermining what? What if, with or against our will, we aren’t shocked by the darkness beneath the surface, but childishly delighted by the prettiness of the surface shimmering over the darkness? What if the vintage fashion-shoot perfection of the Christmas scene leaves a more powerful impression on us than our awareness of the suffering of Betty and her children?

Real War: Yemenis Share Reports, Rumors and Wry Commentary Online as Bombs Drop. Robert Mackey at The New York Times.

"“there’s no electricity, we’re hiding in the hallway, can you tell me who’s bombing us?”

Play War: Homemade Recreational Battlefields. What you didn’t know about paintball’s landscapes. By Ruth Dusseault and Michael Shanks at Places.

Homemade recreational battlefields also draw heavily on the visual and spatial conventions of video games. Since Operation Desert Storm, 25 years ago, simulated war has evolved from the arcade into a vast subculture that comprises massive multiplayer online games as well as paintball and live-action role-play. Leagues and scenario championships have proliferated. Some organizers hold online “casting calls” where players sign up for roles ahead of an event. Myths and legends are sourced for designing missions and storylines. A war historian may be hired to stage the field.

Calvin and Hobbes walk into a bar. Grammar cop says Oh no they didn’t.

From today’s Read 2 You’d think a column arguing that Calvin and Hobbes is the best comic strip ever couldn’t start an argument. Yet it does. Also, Mary Norris rocks.

Why Calvin and Hobbes was America’s most profound comic strip. Christopher Caldwell at The Wall Street Journal.

Two things set the strip apart. First, the artistry of it, from its broad color palette (on Sundays) to the dynamism and physicality of its brush-drawn figures. Calvin and Hobbes have their conversations on a toboggan as it flies off the lip of a mogul, or stretching their arms to balance as they cross a wobbly log over a creek, or tumbling through frames at the reader as they fight. Calvin is drawn as simply as Charlie Brown, but the dinosaurs that pass through his mind are drawn in the heavily shadowed photo-realism of 1950s comic books. Calvin’s fantasies are always more vivid, more real than reality.

It is these dreams that are the real subject of the strips: the city of Stupidopolis that Calvin builds out of sand castles and destroys, the Transmogrifier (actually a cardboard box) that will turn him into a tiger like Hobbes, the efforts of Stupendous Man to duck schoolwork and of Spaceman Spiff (“poised precariously over a percolating pit of putrid pasta”) to avoid the inedible meals that Calvin’s mother serves. (Calvin’s own preference is for a breakfast cereal called Chocolate-Frosted Sugar Bombs.)

It is these dreams that are the real subject of the strips: the city of Stupidopolis that Calvin builds out of sand castles and destroys, the Transmogrifier (actually a cardboard box) that will turn him into a tiger like Hobbes, the efforts of Stupendous Man to duck schoolwork and of Spaceman Spiff (“poised precariously over a percolating pit of putrid pasta”) to avoid the inedible meals that Calvin’s mother serves. (Calvin’s own preference is for a breakfast cereal called Chocolate-Frosted Sugar Bombs.)

An argument about grammar breaks out in the comments.

Charles Klaniecki, 14 hours ago:

I write to the author re “From these situations emerges a social and a philosophical vision…”. Should it not be the following?: “From these situations emerge a social and a philosophical vision…” Otherwise, great essay.

Anna Chodakiewicz Wellisz 13 hours ago:

No, “vision” is the subject of the sentence, not “these situations,” which is why “emerges” is the correct verb; “these situations” is the object of the preposition. To see the syntax more clearly, try rearranging the word order: “A social and a philosophical vision emerges from these situations.”

Bruce Margolius 13 hours ago:

Anna would be correct if there were not a second “a”. But there is, so she’s wrong. If I have a red and a blue truck, I have two trucks, not a red and blue truck.

Anna Chodakiewicz Wellisz 13 hours ago:

>No, it’s really the subject, not the number of attributes, that matters in subject-verb agreements. The subject is “vision,” and the two adjectives that describe it do not make it “visions.” I suspect that is why the WSJ editors left the sentence be. At the risk of creating a verbal comic strip of sorts, I give you another example of a sentence, also with two attributes and two independent articles: “A brave and a wise man he is.” The syntax may be archaic, even awkward, but the man who is the subject of my sentence remains only one man, just as the vision, both social and philosophical, remains only one vision (the word “vision” rather than “visions” is our clue left by the writer). It is a somewhat pretentious sentence, but it is nevertheless grammatically correct. Signing off–

JEFF SWAIL 11 hours ago:

A brave and a wise man walk into a bar……

Anna Chodakiewicz Wellisz 10 hours ago:

If you want to have two men, or, technically speaking, a compound subject, here is how you would write it: “A wise man and a brave man walk into a bar…” Your sentence, as it stands now, has only one man, both brave and wise, doing the walking, and therefore, you have a subject-verb agreement error.

Despite the two modifiers (“brave” and “wise”), there is a simple third person singular subject (“man”), and so there needs to be a third person singular verb to match (“walks,” not “walk”): “A brave and a wise man walks into a bar…”

Whatever your intentions in writing this sentence, two modifiers really do not turn that particular man into two. Only adding another man could do that. I can’t ask you to trust me on this because there is no reason why you should, but I suggest that you look it up.


This particular grammar cop does not do humor.

The New Yorker’s grammarian, Mary Norris, does:

Even something as ostensibly simple as the serial comma can arouse strong feelings. The serial comma is the one before “and” in a series of three or more things. With the serial comma: My favorite cereals are Cheerios, Raisin Bran, and Shredded Wheat. Without the serial comma: I used to like Kix, Trix and Wheat Chex.…

[t]he Internet is busy with examples of series that are absurd without the serial comma:

“We invited the strippers, J.F.K. and Stalin.” (This has been illustrated online, and formed the basis of a poll: which stripper had the better outfit, J.F.K. or Stalin.)

“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

And there was the country-and-Western singer who was joined onstage by his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings.


How you read, Alice Munro writes, and war comes home


Here are three of the five items on today’s edition of my semi-regular “Read 2 of these and call me in the morning” mailing.

The life, death, and resurrection of Alice Munro’s stories. By Alice Munro. I’m having a delicious time reading Munro’s Selected Stories, 1968–1994 (Vintage, 1997), which I picked up a couple weeks ago while browsing a used bookstore in San Francisco. One exquisitely wrought tale after another. But the book is worth the price just for the introduction, where she talks about how she works and how some of the stories came together. Here, having written about beginnings, she writes about endings (to first full drafts) and what they reveal, or not, about whether the story is really done.

[Beginnings are] the easy part. Endings are another matter. When I’ve shaped 4the story in my head, before starting to put it on paper, it has, of course, an ending. Often this ending will stay in place right through the first draft. Sometimes it stays in place for good. Sometimes not. The story, in the first draft, has put on rough but adequate clothes, it is “finished” and might be thought to need no more than a lot of technical adjustments, some tightening here and expanding there, and the slipping in of some telling dialogue and chopping away of flabby modifiers. It’s then, in fact, that the story is in the greatest danger of losing its life, of appearing so hopelessly misbegotten that my only relief comes from abandoning it. It doesn’t do enough. It does what I intended, but it turns out that my intention was all wrong. Quite often I decide to give up on it. (This was the point at which, in my early days as as a writer, I did just chuck everything out and get started on something absolutely new.) And now that the story is free from my controlling hand a change in direction may occur. I can’t ever be sure this will happen, and there are bad times, though i should be used to them. I’m no good at letting go. I am thrifty and tenacious now, no spendthrift and addict of fresh starts as in my youth. i go around glum and preoccupied, trying to think of ways to fix the problem. Usually the right way pops up in the middle of this.

A big relief, then, Renewed energy. Resurrection.

Except that it isn’t the right way. Maybe a way to the right way. Now I write pages and pages I’ll have to discard. new angles are introduced, minor characters brought center stage, lively and satisfying scenes are written, and it’s all a mistake. Out they go. But by this time I’m on the track, there’s no backing out. i know so much more than I did, I know what I want to happen and where I want to end up and I just have to keep trying till I find the best way of getting there.

Reading is all about association. Nancy Andreasen on association cortices, “Secrets of the Creative Brain,” The Atlantic.

[T]he most extensively developed regions in the human brain are known as association cortices. These regions help us interpret and make use of the specialized information collected by the primary visual, auditory, sensory, and motor regions. For example, as you read these words on a page or a screen, they register as black lines on a white background in your primary visual cortex. If the process stopped at that point, you wouldn’t be reading at all. To read, your brain, through miraculously complex processes that scientists are still figuring out, needs to forward those black letters on to association-cortex regions such as the angular gyrus, so that meaning is attached to them; and then on to language-association regions in the temporal lobes, so that the words are connected not only to one another but also to their associated memories and given richer meanings.

You just did all that.

The things they carry home. By Thomas Gibbons-Neff at The Washington Post.

Even on the short overnight ops, sometimes we talked about things we knew we’d carry home. On a cold night in March 2010, Jeff brought up the kid he’d shot a month earlier, when the battle for the Afghan city of Marja was hot and there was no shortage of 15-year-olds picking up Kalashnikovs off the ground. Jeff had killed one of them with four shots from a heavy-caliber semi-auto that made a soft thud when the bolt released. The kid had a rifle, and even kids with rifles can kill Marines, Jeff had figured.

A few weeks later, we were on the side of the road watching for Taliban fighters digging bombs into the ground, and Jeff was telling me about it. He described the way the kid fell and how he wasn’t sure he’d done the right thing.

That was five years ago.

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Changing Styles in the Meta-Narrative of Science

J.S. Zerbe's 'multi-plane' in 1910, when, Thompson tells us, 'aircraft' was one of the most common words in patents. (Wikimedia Commons)

J.S. Zerbe’s ‘multi-plane’ in 1910, when, Thompson tells us, ‘aircraft’ was one of the most common words in patents. (Wikimedia Commons)

From Derek Thompson at The Atlantic:

In a series of papers studying the history of American innovation, Packalen and Bhattacharya indexed every one-word, two-word, and three-word phrase that appeared in more than 4 million patent texts in the last 175 years. To focus their search on truly new concepts, they recorded the year those phrases first appeared in a patent. Finally, they ranked each concept’s popularity based on how many times it reappeared in later patents. Essentially, they trawled the billion-word literature of patents to document the birth-year and the lifespan of American concepts, from “plastic” to “world wide web” and “instant messaging.”

The overall story, Bhattacharya told me, follows the shift from “atoms to bits”—from the loud world of trains and cars in the 19th century to the invisible life of software. But within that meta-narrative (and this is where the colors come in handy), you can see moments where one industry dominated the patent literature—like chemistry (black) in the 1930s, medicine (red) in the 1980s, and computers (green) in the last few decades.

And the serious winners are medicine and computers, which, Thompson says, “have reigned over patents like no two categories have dominated any previous period of invention in U.S. history.

This is a fun read and a good reminder (we can’t get them too often) that not just patents but science tends to reflect the cultural obsessions of an age.


Putin has Asperger’s? Pete Etchells says Now wait just a goddamned minute here


Vladimir Putin looks skeptical. But maybe it's just Davos. Photo courtesy WikiMedia, creative commons license.

Vladimir Putin cannot believe this bullshit. Though maybe that’s just Davos.

On Wednesday, USA Today ran a report about a US Naval College researcher’s conclusion that “movement pattern analysis” indicated that Vladimir Putin has Asperger’s. The fabulous Pete Etchells, over at the Guardian, shows why we should wonder not only about this idea, but, yet again, about how the Pentagon spends its money.

I’ve not seen the original study, but the contents reported in the news bear similarities to a 2005 patent from Connors. You can see the patent for yourself here. The swamp-like prose makes for difficult reading, but the basic idea goes like this: first, get a video of the person in question. Next, strip out the audio, and ‘examine’ the video to establish ‘a baseline pattern’ of the speaker’s movements. In case you’re wondering, here’s the definition of baseline:

Baseline style is composed of: The universal— what gets passed down through evolution, and, the individual—the scaffolding of what gets stamped through our families, our culture, and social factors such as gender, class, social convention, region, etc. … It is the hardwired DNA of your communicative expression. It is composed of both “quantity,” the mass of self (the posture, body parts, the subsystems) and “quality,” the glue or dynamic energetic organization of weight and how that integrates it all together in expression.

Good, that’s cleared that up then. So once you’ve established this baseline, you examine the video again – this time with the audio back in – and decode “said person’s emotional, cognitive and performance processes”. Finally, you need to get hold of other videos of the speaker, to see whether the patterns you’ve established crop up repeatedly. This isn’t an analysis method specifically designed to test for Asperger’s syndrome – much the opposite, in fact. It’s so generic as to be meaningless.

You can’t make this stuff up. Or maybe you can. Get the rest at  The “Putin has Asperger’s” story highlights the stupidity of psychological diagnosis from a distance.

Photo courtesy WikiMedia, creative commons license.

Brian Williams might well be misremembering rather than lying

It seems incredible that someone might misremember whether they were in a chopper crash. Ford Vox, a physician who specializes in spinal and brain injuries and has treated many people with memory problems, explains how it could happen:

You may wonder how its possible that Williams tricked himself into such a vivid false memory told in such detail. He did experience some aspects of the events.

Though he wasnt in the Chinook that took a hit, he landed in that forward position with it and spent three days on the ground without communication with NBC or his family. He formed bonds with the servicemen around him. He felt vulnerability and stress during that period.Williams has told his story many times before, and each time he tells it, he is retrieving it.

Errors happen during memory retrieval all the time, just as errors happen in cell division; biology isn’t computer science. Furthermore, he is subtly modifying his memory with his every retelling. Revisions occur as the memory is re-encoded based on whats going on at the time he tells the story. Circumstances like a gabby, friendly free-wheeling interview with David Letterman.The emotions he’s feeling when he’s retelling the story also infect the original memory. The NBC videos of the downed Chinook that hes viewed repeatedly are dredged up as well.

Clever studies tell us just how powerfully words and images can manipulate memory to the point of inserting false memories. In one, researchers interviewed the parents of their experimental subjects, all college students, and collected true stories about events each of the studies had experienced.After presenting these true stories mixed with false ones, researchers were able to trick 25% of the perfectly healthy students into thinking they had experienced one of the false stories just by having had them imagine any connections they might have to what they couldn’t remember.

Brian Williams had plenty of connection to the downed helicopter. He was trapped right there for several days.

In another study demonstrating the disturbing ease with which the human mind can create a false memory, researchers doctored a photograph to show adult subjects as children in a hot air balloon, and 50% of the adults ultimately believed they really took the balloon ride. Mr. Williams has been saturated in photos and video of the downed Chinook for many years now.

via Cut Brian Williams a break on Iraq claim – CNN.com.

The gassy dead. A million-genome march. How to do science.

Highgate cemetery

What to do with the dead? This timeless problem took extra urgency in Victorian London. Excerpted from the book Dirty Old London, by Lee Jackson, in the Guardian.

The existence of such gases was undisputed – sextons and undertakers were often called up to “tap” coffins in church vaults, drilling a hole to prevent them breaking open with explosive force. Walker dutifully recorded the effects of leaking miasma on the constitution of gravediggers, ranging from general ill health (“pain in the head, heaviness, extreme debility, lachrymation, violent palpitation of the heart, universal trembling, with vomiting”) to sudden death. Gas could, indeed, prove fatal: graveyard workers who broke into bloated coffins were occasionally suffocated by the release of “cadaverous vapours”.

Ken Weiss is not too thrilled with the million-genome project. At The Mermaid’s Tale.

In desperate need for a huge new mega-project to lock up even more NIH funds before the Republicans (or other research projects that are actually focused on a real problem) take them away, or before individual investigators who actually have some scientific ideas to test, we read that Francis Collins has apparently persuaded someone who’s not paying attention to fund the genome sequencing of a million people! Well, why not? First we had the (one) human genome project. Then after a couple of iterations, the 1000 genomes project, then the hundred thousand genomes ‘project’. So, what next? Can’t just go up by dribs and drabs, can we? This is America, after all! So let’s open the bank for a cool million.

John Hawks likes the small questions: How do we make science better?

Simply, we have to begin to expect failure. Ideas are like mutations: Most of them will be bad or neutral, and only a few good. A grant panel of experts may be able to eliminate many of the bad ideas. But we know from the history of science that most good ideas are not obvious at the time, and that it’s hard to distinguish the neutral ones from the good ones. We should be funding science where the outcomes cannot be easily predicted, putting ideas to the test. To do that we need to accept that a high proportion of these ideas will be dead ends. But we need to fund a broader range of creative people to increase the chance of finding a really good idea, the kind that can give rise to new fields of inquiry.

These items are 3 of the 5 in today’s edition of my Read 2 newsletter. .

Photo by dani0010 at flickr, creative commons, some rights reserved. 


Alice Munro has some very bad news. Plus consciousness and Brits on the dole.

Three of thefive reads from today’s edition of my Read Two newsletter. You can get the other two here or sign up for more.

Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? They don’t call it the hard problem for nothing. By Oliver Burkeman at The Guardian.

The brain, Chalmers began by pointing out, poses all sorts of problems to keep scientists busy. How do we learn, store memories, or perceive things? How do you know to jerk your hand away from scalding water, or hear your name spoken across the room at a noisy party? But these were all “easy problems”, in the scheme of things: given enough time and money, experts would figure them out. There was only one truly hard problem of consciousness, Chalmers said. It was a puzzle so bewildering that, in the months after his talk, people started dignifying it with capital letters – the Hard Problem of Consciousness – and it’s this: why on earth should all those complicated brain processes feel like anything from the inside? Why aren’t we just brilliant robots, capable of retaining information, of responding to noises and smells and hot saucepans, but dark inside, lacking an inner life? And how does the brain manage it? How could the 1.4kg lump of moist, pinkish-beige tissue inside your skull give rise to something as mysterious as the experience of being that pinkish-beige lump, and the body to which it is attached?

A fascinating subject that many stories manage to make boring. Burkeman lights it up nicely.

“The slow-burning fuse that is a Munro story frequently hides, then exposes, something violent, shameful, or sensational.” Hermione Lee on Alice Munro, at NYRB.

Down-and-out characters struggling on the edges, psychopathic killers, vindictive children or vengeful old people, abused women, passionately self-abnegating lovers, irresponsible adulterers, horrible acts of cruelty, startlingly show up inside these domestic, realistic narratives. “Southern Ontario Gothic,” this gets called, though the luridness of “Gothic” doesn’t quite fit the remarkable mixture of savage extremes and formal control.

The mixture is at full blast in the first story in the selection, “The Love of a Good Woman” (1996), which follows one of Munro’s favorite structures, or plots, the slow uncovering of a secret act of violence, emerging from an environment where there is too much surveillance, too much unspoken knowledge, too many collaborations in silence, too much shame. In this story, the corpse of a small-town optometrist is found in his car in an icy river by a gang of boys, and the secret story of his murder is revealed, as unpleasantly as possible, to the nurse of a malevolent dying woman. The vindictiveness of the characters in this story can take your breath away:

Once a woman had asked Enid to bring her a willow platter from the cupboard and Enid had thought that she wanted the comfort of looking at this one pretty possession for the last time. But it turned out that she wanted to use her last, surprising strength to smash it against the bedpost.

“Now I know my sister’s never going to get her hands on that,” she said.

Euro-freeriders are not the problem some Brits may think. Vice-versa as well. The Guardian.

About 2.5% of Britons in other EU countries are claiming unemployment benefits – the same level as the roughly 65,000 EU nationals claiming jobseeker’s allowance in the UK. Dr Roxana Barbulescu, researcher on international migration at the University of Sheffield, said the numbers claiming unemployment benefits were minuscule. “Thirty thousand people, or 2.5% of all British nationals, in other EU member states means that the overwhelming majority of Brits abroad as well as European citizens in Britain are not an undue burden for the countries in which they live.”

The war on Billie Holiday; happy marriages; racist Oregon


Billie Holiday and her dog, Mister, in NYC, 1946. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.


The War on Drugs started with Billie Holiday. – Johann Hari, POLITICO

Jazz was the opposite of everything Harry Anslinger believed in. It is improvised, relaxed, free-form. It follows its own rhythm. Worst of all, it is a mongrel music made up of European, Caribbean and African echoes, all mating on American shores. To Anslinger, this was musical anarchy and evidence of a recurrence of the primitive impulses that lurk in black people, waiting to emerge. “It sounded,” his internal memos said, “like the jungles in the dead of night.” Another memo warned that “unbelievably ancient indecent rites of the East Indies are resurrected” in this black man’s music. The lives of the jazzmen, he said, “reek of filth.”

He wanted to bring the full thump of the federal government down upon that scourge of modern society, his Public Enemy #1: Billie Holiday.

Happy Marriages Hint at Horrors of Middle Age. by Maya Dusenbery at Pacific Standard.

No wonder people whose spouses also happen to be their best friends get such a greater benefit from marriage than others. For some, this particular “super-friend” may well be one of the only close friends they see with any regularity—it helps to really, really like them.

Looked at from that angle, the fact that marrying your best friend seems to make middle age “slightly less terrible” (as the headline of the Washington Post’s coverage of the study sardonically boasts) seems less a ringing endorsement of marriage than an indictment of the way many of us spend our middle age—in socially isolated domestic units, each consumed with the nearly impossible task of balancing work and family, made bearable only by having a close friend in the trenches with us.

Oregon Was Founded As a Racist Utopia by Matt Novak at Gizmodo.

The constitution was put to a popular vote in the state in 1857 and included two referendums that were to be voted on independently. The first was whether they should reject slavery. Roughly 75 percent of voters opted to reject the adoption of slavery. The second measure was whether or not to exclude black people from the state. About 89 percent of voters cast their vote in favor of excluding black and mixed race people from the state. And thus, the exclusionary aspects of the state constitution were adopted.

These were 3 of the 5 links in today’s edition of Read 2. You can sign up here or in the form at right.