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05 Oct 08:21

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26 Sep 06:37

Hooverball

by Greg Ross

http://hoover.archives.gov/education/hooverball.html

Herbert Hoover weighed 200 pounds when he entered the White House in 1929. He couldn’t spare time for golf or tennis, so physician Joel Boone invented a game called Hooverball that could give him a strenuous workout in the minimum time.

On a tennis-like court, two teams of three players throw a 6-pound medicine ball back and forth over an 8-foot net. Sports Illustrated noted, “This cannot be accomplished graciously.” Rules:

  1. The ball is served from the back line.
  2. The ball must be caught in the air and immediately thrown back from the point where it was caught. It cannot be carried or passed.
  3. Points are scored when a team fails to catch the ball, fails to throw it across the net, or throws the ball out of bounds.
  4. A ball caught in the front half of one team’s court must be thrown to the back half of the opponents’ court. If it doesn’t reach the back court, the opponents score a point.
  5. Scoring is exactly like tennis. The serve rotates among one team’s members until a game is won, then passes to the other team.
  6. A ball that hits the line is good.
  7. A player who catches the ball out of bounds can return to the court before throwing it back.
  8. A ball that hits the net but passes over is a live ball.
  9. Teams can make substitutions when the ball is dead.

Hoover played with his friends at 7 a.m. every day, even in snow. The regulars included the president, Boone, Supreme Court justices, Cabinet members, and journalists such as Mark Sullivan and William Hard. Talking shop was forbidden, and after the game they gathered on the White House lawn for juice and coffee.

“The regimen worked well for the president,” writes biographer Glen Jeansonn. “By the end of the term he had firmed up and slimmed down to 179 pounds. … Hoover looked forward to the games and the camaradarie, although he did not like rising quite so early. But the games were energizing and he began each day refreshed and relaxed.”

The Hoover Presidential Foundation, which co-hosts a national championship each year, has a complete set of rules.

20 Nov 19:11

Self-Portraits: True Identity vs. Reflective Identity

by RCardoso
The eighth grade classes discussed the concept of identity and the difference between their true identity versus the identity that is reflected upon them. "Does the image that I have of myself match the image that others see?" While contemplating this question, students wrote out two lists, one for "reflective" and one for "true". They found the reflective identity list much more difficult to write because it involved putting themselves in others' shoes. Naturally, the true identity list included words that described their personalities and life stories while the reflective identity list focused mostly on physical appearance.
Before beginning their self-portraits students had the opportunity to see work by artists who use various styles and media. After being introduced to the concepts of proportion and value, students began their portraits using mirrors. Some students decided to include both identity lists in their final drawing while others chose just one. The following are examples of the amazing work.


28 Oct 20:28

Ark

by admin

ark8

For the NYT “Private Lives” blog. It’s about a woman whose husband has died and has felt abandoned by friends and society.

AD Alexandra Zsigmond.

25 Dec 21:19

"5000 friends on Facebook, 1500 on twitter, 1000 on Tumblr, 1000 on Instagram, 500 at your wedding, 5..."

“5000 friends on Facebook, 1500 on twitter, 1000 on Tumblr, 1000 on Instagram, 500 at your wedding, 5 during hard times, 2 at your burial, and alone in your grave. Reality.””

- moeyhashy (via perfect)
26 Dec 23:33

akio: BEAUTY OF MATHEMATICS - Video clip By Yann Pineill &...





















akio:

BEAUTY OF MATHEMATICS - Video clip By Yann Pineill & Nicolas Lefaucheux

op:kuvaton:

07 Dec 23:54

"And it has been one hell of a year. I have worn the seasons under my sleeves, on my..."

“And it has been
one hell
of a year.
I have worn
the seasons
under my sleeves,
on my thighs,
running down my cheeks.
This is what
surviving
looks like, my dear.”

- Michelle K., It Has Been One Hell of a Year (via awelltraveledwoman)
11 Nov 17:30

Running traces

by Nathan Yau

Copenhagen

The Endomondo app lets you keep track of your workouts, namely running and cycling, so it records your location, and then estimates your speed, calories burned, and elevation changes. And workouts are set to public by default. Nikita Barsukov used the public traces to make some quick and dirty maps of workouts in major European cities. Above is Copenhagen.

I'm curious about how these compare to car traffic or social media usage. Are they opposites or are they roughly the same, corresponding to number of people who live in an area? And, of course, I want to know what this looks like for American cities.

15 Nov 11:09

Bourbon family tree

by Nathan Yau

Bourbon family tree

Colin Spoelman for GQ illustrated an educated guess of the bourbon family tree.

This chart shows the major distilleries operating in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana, grouped horizontally by corporate owner, then subdivided by distillery. Each tree shows the type of whiskey made, and the various expressions of each style of whiskey or mash bill, in the case of bourbons. For instance, Basil Hayden's is a longer-aged version of Old Grand-Dad, and both are made at the Jim Beam Distillery.

This is important.

20 Nov 10:05

Global forest change

by Nathan Yau

Global forest change

Hansen, Potapov, Moore, Hancher et al. produced high-resolution maps of global forestry to estimate change between 2000 and 2012.

Quantification of global forest change has been lacking despite the recognized importance of forest ecosystem services. In this study, Earth observation satellite data were used to map global forest loss (2.3 million square kilometers) and gain (0.8 million square kilometers) from 2000 to 2012 at a spatial resolution of 30 meters. The tropics were the only climate domain to exhibit a trend, with forest loss increasing by 2101 square kilometers per year. Brazil’s well-documented reduction in deforestation was offset by increasing forest loss in Indonesia, Malaysia, Paraguay, Bolivia, Zambia, Angola, and elsewhere. Intensive forestry practiced within subtropical forests resulted in the highest rates of forest change globally. Boreal forest loss due largely to fire and forestry was second to that in the tropics in absolute and proportional terms. These results depict a globally consistent and locally relevant record of forest change.

Be sure to select the various data products and zoom in on example locations via the dropdown menus on the right of the map.

21 Nov 14:31

Going Down

by Greg Ross

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SanFranciscoErdbeben1906.jpg

One last, almost unbelievable, anecdote from the San Francisco earthquake:

When the quake struck at 5:12 a.m., William Stehr was in his room on the top floor of the Nevada House at 132 Sixth Street. At first he considered jumping from his window onto a roof below, but “as I was waiting to make up my mind the house I was looking at collapsed with a deafening roar.” He was dressing himself hurriedly when he heard another crash and saw that the Brunswick House had also collapsed “and was tumbling into a heap of ruins in a smother of dust.” He leapt to his door but found that the quake had jammed it shut.

As I was tugging at it I felt the floor tilting and sinking under me, and I knew that the house was going down like the others. So I hung on instinctively to the door handle while the whole floor dropped. As it sank I felt three distinct bumps as the lower floors collapsed in turn under the weight of the roof and the top story. With each bump came a frightful crash and cracking of timbers and glass and the cries of other people in the house who were being destroyed. …

The cries of these people who were being killed, especially the women, were dreadful to hear; even to me, in my own peril, thinking every instant that I would be crushed, they were the most dreadful part of the experience.

Then came another bump, very sudden and very severe. The place fell in on top of me, the breath seemed to be knocked out of my body and I went unconscious.

He had survived. Of the 50 people in the Nevada, only seven had escaped. “On all sides, where the Nevada, the Ohio, the Brunswick and other lodging houses had been, there was nothing but a big pile of debris.”

(From Malcolm E. Barker’s Three Fearful Days, 1998.)

11 Nov 11:16

Opening Invocation

Jean-Paul de Dadelsen, Marilyn Hacker

Translator’s Note: Marilyn Hacker

‘Opening Invocation’ grew from a short text in prose written and broadcast by Jean Paul de-Dadelsen for the BBC French Service on 11 November, 1950, in which he began by questioning why on that date the dead of World War I were memorialized, but not those of World War II. He then went on to remember his own comrades who had died, not in the war, but soon afterwards, of illness, or suicide. It was transformed into a poem of contrapuntal despair and spiritual questioning, whose movements are extravagant and musical. It shocks the reader that Maurice, the painter, identified as Jewish, ‘turned on the gas’ himself one night. The horrors of war do not end when the war ends.

The Invocation led the poet into his Jonah sequence, written in 1954-5: the poet-Jonah is in the belly of war, of sexual hypocrisy, of profound religious doubt, of death’s certainty. It was one of the few poems published in a literary magazine during Dadelsen’s lifetime.

  • Marilyn Hacker

They lived with us in the belly of the whale.
The whale spit them out on the other shore :
                                                                             The shy ones.
                                                               The left-handed.
                                               The one who was albino and stammered.
                                The nearsighted. The distrustful, the cunning.
                                And that tall boy who was always hungry,
      always sleepy.

Do they sometimes look over our shoulders?
                  Since they’ve gone, we’ve seen no one.
                       Are we blind? Or
                 ‘spiritualism, that negro religion’, writes,
             in some delightful periodical, a Reverend Father.
                                                             And yet
if they were looking, sometimes, over our shoulders?

Or otherwise, leaving the shore of the intermediate sea,
                 has it been a while since they’ve gone ahead
                             into the interior of lands of the spirit?
The black sorcerer knows how to call, knows, even when they want
                 to depart, how to call back shadows, souls.
                        Who among us would know how to call,
                                   know how to bring back
                                        the shadow of John,
                                        of Bernard,
                                                   of Maurice?

                      In honour of Monseigneur Saint Maurice
                      Roman colonel who commanded the Theban legion,
                                                   martyr, his feast on September 22,
the abbot of St-Maurice-en-Valais, bishop of Bethlehem
                         wears a ribbon of scarlet moiré.
                                                                                         But Maurice,
who no longer went to the synagogue, no longer painted flowers,
painted only a patch of wall, an open door, a bit
                         of the studio’s light through a half-open door,
                         verticals, the floor’s horizon line,
                         Maurice, who deprived himself of green, of blue,
who among our dead will serve as guide for Maurice?
                     Who among our living will know to light a flame for Maurice ?
                                                What will we burn of ourselves
                                                to feed the spiritual flame that will be able
                                                to warm, to deliver Maurice?

           (A tradition, do you remember, claims that suicides ,
           imprisoned in mental mirrors, suffer at length
           from seeing everything, never able to act, avert, aid.)■

Translated by Marilyn Hacker

To read more from ‘Opening Invocation’ you can buy the issue or subscribe.

For more After the War, read an excerpt from Lindsey Hilsum’s ‘The Rainy Season’, and listen to her talk on the Granta podcast, read Frances Harrison on a survivor of the Sri Lankan Civil War, new fiction from Valério Romão and an excerpt from Hari Kunzru’s ‘Stalkers’.

19 Nov 11:17

Interview: Justin Jin

Justin Jin, Francisco Vilhena

Justin Jin is a documentary photographer whose work has been published in the Sunday Times Magazine, Der Spiegel and Geo. His most recent reportage piece, ‘Zone of Absolute Discomfort’, won a Magnum Foundation grant and is featured in Granta 125: After the War. Here he talks to Granta’s Francisco Vilhena about the Russian Arctic, ethnographic approaches to photography, pollution and staying warm on vodka.

FV: What took you to the Zone of Absolute Discomfort in the first place?

JJ: I lived in Moscow for five years in order to document Russia, and during that time I was exposed to many different issues that would lead to this final project. But it was specifically one night in 2008, when a friend who was a Guardian correspondent came to my apartment to discuss this idea of working together, that we decided to do a pilot project in Vorkuta as a possible precursor to the broader Arctic region.

These photographs have an eerie quality to them. Do you think this happens because of the overlapping of several historical narratives converging in the same place?

The Russian Arctic is a physically eerie place. We took a train from Moscow heading north; a forty-hour train ride to Vorkuta. You look out the window, it’s the middle of the winter and you see these tall birch trees become smaller as you go further north and the small birch trees become shrubs and finally, when outside the train window there’s nothing but ice and snow and darkness, you know you’ve arrived deep inside the Arctic Circle. It’s the pure isolation of the place that makes it so magical and melancholic.

One of the things that struck me the most was that the Nenets, the nomadic people, were forced to move, were confined to Soviet estates built for former prisoners. I felt a sense of urgency from the idea that industrial progress is too rapid and that people end up forgotten or left behind. There is a concern in your work for how people live in these places. Was this piece a comment on the negative effects of industrial growth?

It’s also a comment on the monstrous effects of state policy. It wasn’t only through industrial growth that the Nenets were displaced; it was Stalin who decided to build concentration camps in Siberia, and upon his death many inmates had nowhere else to go. They had no option but to stay, put their roots down and grow the cities. The Soviet Union found it convenient to populate these areas and used them as military-industrial complexes – so there are many forces at play as history unfolds.

You develop a strong relationship with the landscape. One of the consequences of the ‘monstrous effects of state policy’ you spoke of earlier is that this region is being exploited without any form of regulation. Were you also trying to convey this sense of environmental hazard through your work?

The work didn’t set out to be controversial. However, on the way to Nikel, miles before arriving, you see trees beginning to contort and wilt. When the bus pulls up in the city – the epicentre of industrial air poisoning – every blade of grass, every tree is burnt by acid; it’s quite a sight. When I saw this I just felt like crying.

The Nikel kombinat produces five times as much pollution as the entire country of Norway, seven kilometres away, across the border. This disaster has been going on for decades. I want to protest against this as loudly as I can through photography.

I got the feeling that being granted access was a very complicated process. How did you manage to get around the bureaucracy?

It was a matter of sheer persistence. Cold calling, meeting people, showing up at governmental offices and just building connections there – flying in a helicopter above a sensitive area in the Arctic to photograph the LUI oil terminal was a task I thought I would not accomplish, but after three months of trying, I did.

You went there six times altogether. Was it difficult to return back there, to experience this bleakness, this deserted landscape?

It was very difficult to go back. It wasn’t so much the physical challenge but the sense of isolation and loneliness. On our third trip I almost gave up – my wife had just given birth and all I wanted was to be home. When I returned to Amsterdam (we were living in the Netherlands at the time), while still in the airport I received news that I had been awarded the Magnum Foundation EF Award, a substantial grant to continue this work. It gave me strength to know someone on the other side of the world was with me on this.

How did you start out as a photographer?

I started out as a graduate trainee correspondent at Reuters and soon ran a bureau in southern China. I gave up that career to walk my own path, using an intimate and personal photographic style to reflect on wider issues. I learned a lot from great documentary photographers such as Gueorgui Pinkhassov and Steve McCurry, and also from the talented author-reporters I’ve collaborated with. My training in philosophy taught me critical thinking too.

Most of your photographs appear to be dealing with change, with how people adapt to their changing surroundings and how these changes have an irreversible impact on the lives of the people you are documenting. How do you engage with the people you photograph?

I see myself as an anthropologist and philosopher, questioning concepts, questioning people and going out to test my theories on the communities. That’s the key part of my work. So the kind of photographer I am is not so important; the only thing I can tell you is that the photography is truthful and that I try my best to reflect the complexity of the issues I encounter. Now, how do I engage with the people I photograph? I treat everyone as equal. whether they are the president of Russia or an alcoholic in a run-down Arctic town, I would be as neutral as possible to explain my interest is purely in observing them and spending time with them, be as close and truthful as possible in my approach. What I tend to do is spend extended periods of time with people in order to build an emotional and intellectual trust.

I think the community was really surprised to find this Chinese guy from Hong Kong walking around the streets at minus forty-five degrees, frozen stiff, so I often felt very welcomed by the locals whether they were Nenets or oilmen. Many of them invited me home to warm up over a few shots of vodka. As we would eat together, drink together, my photographing them became a natural extension of our brief encounters.

What are your future projects and where would you like to go next?

I am working in China right now, doing something of a similar scale, trying to understand a new and colossal change that is underway in China.

See more of Justin Jin’s work at www.justinjin.com.

For more After the War, read an excerpt from Aminatta Forna’s ‘1979’ on the Iranian Revolution, new fiction from Valério Romão and an excerpt from Hari Kunzru’s ‘Stalkers’.

Images courtesy of Justin Jin

31 Oct 22:42

Think Piece

by Greg Ross

In 1953 Robert Rauschenberg obtained a drawing from Willem de Kooning, erased it, and presented the blank paper in a gilded frame titled Erased de Kooning Drawing, Robert Rauschenberg, 1953.

“I wanted to create a work of art by [erasing],” he said. “Using my own work wasn’t satisfactory. … I realized that it had to be something by someone who everybody agreed was great, and the most logical person for that was de Kooning.”

Rauschenberg said de Kooning was annoyed at first by the request, but “would not have wanted to hinder me in my work, if that’s what I wanted to do.” But he chose a particularly dark drawing in charcoal, ink, pencil, and crayon, saying, “We might as well make it harder for you.”

07 Nov 14:05

Out of This World

by Greg Ross

Tunisia has an unique tourist draw — its southern desert contains the abandoned sets of five Star Wars movies, in which the Sahara stood in for the planet Tatooine.

A list, complete with photos and geographical coordinates, is here.

They’re popular with European tourists, but they won’t last — the 20-building set of Mos Espa, Anakin Skywalker’s hometown, is being engulfed by sand dunes.

16 Nov 06:44

Well Bounded

by Greg Ross

In the Indian state of West Bengal lies a district known as Cooch Behar which is curiously merged with its neighbor, Bangladesh. The Indian land contains 92 Bangladeshi enclaves, and the Bangladeshi land contains 106 Indian enclaves.

The largest Indian enclave itself contains a Bangladeshi enclave, and that Bangladeshi enclave contains a bare hectare of Indian farmland known as Dahala Khagrabari. That makes Dahala Khagrabari the world’s only instance of an enclave in an enclave in an enclave.

See Concentric Landmarks.

31 Oct 19:00

Drone Makers Gather to Defend Their Much-Maligned Machines

by Cora Currier
scout-drone

"I have some d-word difficulty," said Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group for makers and enthusiasts of robots of air, land and sea.

The d-word, of course, is drones.

"Just when I say that word, ‘drrrrone,'" he intoned, waving his hands, "it has a negative connotation. Drone bees: they're not smart, they just follow orders, they do things autonomously, and they die. When you think of a drone it's just that, it does one thing and it blasts things out of the air."

Toscano and I spoke over lunch at the Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference at New York University. Why was "drones" in the name? For one, it's an attention grabber. For another, DARC is a "cool acronym," said an organizer, even if it doesn't help dispel the spooky associations that give Toscano a headache.

The conference was one part industry showcase, one part academic gathering, and one part workshop, reflecting the various camps of drone defenders and disparagers. Machines whirred around a stage in a demonstration, and their makers showed off a stream of videos of mountaintops, biking stunts, and cityscapes set to thumping music.

"If Martians came down to Earth and said we will cure all of cancer on the globe, and for doing it, you have to give me 100,000 of your people for me to cannibalize, to eat, would we do the deal?"

Far beyond their military uses, drones could pollinate crops, help firefighters—even accompany "a family on vacation in Hawaii," said Colin Guinn, CEO of a company that makes drones for photography.

"There's a reason we make the Phantom white, and not black. It's not creepy. Look how cute it is!" said Guinn, referring to the small drone hovering at his side, flashing lights to charm its audience. (A researcher from Harvard arguably failed the creepy test, explaining to the audience what to consider "if you want to build a swarm of robotic bees.")

The tech geeks, though, were almost outnumbered by those of another stripe: philosophers, lawyers, and critics who propose that drones are "a different ontological category," of "social machines," as Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington, put it.

I asked Patrick Egan, president of the Silicon Valley chapter of Toscano's group and editor at an industry blog, if drone manufacturers lay awake at night contemplating the ethics of technology, the brave new world that their products represent?

"The hyperbole is out of control," he said. "It is transformative technology, but not in the way people think."

The conference brought out some "different perspectives," said Egan, who also does consulting for the military. "I'm on this panel with a women's studies professor. She wants to say I'm a Randian. I don't even get that. Hey, I've read a little Ayn Rand; right now I'm reading Naked Lunch! It wasn't the industry that inspired me to do that."

The U.S. has virtually no commercial civilian drone market, as the Federal Aviation Administration has been slow to approve the widespread use of drones. In the past year, the public has increasingly pushed back against the drone war overseas and surveillance at home. ProPublica has covered the secrecy that surrounds the administration's drone war, from signature strikes to civilian casualties. The lack of transparency (the government still won't release documents related to its targeted killing program) has helped contribute to wariness about the pilotless craft.

But industry line at the conference was that drones are merely a technological platform, with a range of possibilities. They don't spy, or kill; the people ordering them around do.

A panel on "life under drones" in Pakistan and Afghanistan turned tense when the presenters said they couldn't show images of drone victims. (The organizers said it was a technical issue.)

"I don't understand the hostility," one young engineer said in reaction.

Toscano hates that critiques of U.S. airstrikes zero in on drones. "It's not a drone strike unless they physically fly the aircraft into whatever the target is. It is an airstrike because it launches a Hellfire missile or a weapon."

Journalists in Yemen have made the same point about media using "drone" as a shorthand for U.S. military action in that country. But Toscano—who spent years involved in research and development at the Pentagon—also defends the use of military drones: "If they fly manned systems, some of them could be shot down. Would you want those pilots to be shot down?"

Domestic, unarmed drones were also scapegoats for the public's concerns about privacy, he said. Other, more common technologies have already eroded privacy. The public lost privacy via "cellphones, they lost it on GPS, they lost it on the Internet. They can't get that genie back in the bottle." The difference with drones is that "we don't have these systems flying."

John Kaag, a philosopher at University of Massachusetts-Lowell, had asked the audience at his lecture to stare into the eyes of the person next to them while he counted out five awkward seconds, to feel "the human" concern with surveillance. He advised the drone industry, "Make people know that you feel that." Humans "are responsible, drones are not responsible."

Toscano said he was fine with staring at the man beside him. "I'm an extrovert! The only thing I said to the guy is, ‘I don't mind this at all but if you were a woman I'd probably enjoy it more.'"

And what about the concerns—both ethical and practical—that autonomous machines take humans out of the equation in novel and dangerous ways?

Cars already do a lot of things autonomously, Toscano offered. Car crashes kill thousands every year, but we consider the technology indispensable to modern life.

"If Martians came down to Earth and said we will cure all of cancer on the globe, and for doing it, you have to give me 100,000 of your people for me to cannibalize, to eat, would we do the deal? Most people would say no. Our society does not believe that cannibalism is acceptable."

"Right now, in human nature, it's unacceptable for a machine to kill a human being," he said.

That's why people are uncomfortable with driverless cars or drones, Toscano said. He's confident the "risk acceptance" will change, and that fears about the technology will become as quaint as 19th-century concerns about elevators.


This post originally appeared on ProPublica, a Pacific Standard partner site.

31 Oct 23:38

There Are Hundreds of Practicing Exorcists in the U.S.

by Michael Todd
the-exorcist-still

This Halloween, just shy of the 40th anniversary of the movie The Exorcist, has seen the novel’s author and the movie’s producer, William Peter Blatty, get an extra dollop of the attention he sees around this holiday. Not that people aren’t already obsessed by the subject—The Exorcist remains, in inflation adjusted box office, the most popular R-rated film ever.

At my own Catholic high school, the Christian Brother teachers (yeah, the brandy guys) could be remarkably post-Vatican II flip and modern about most things doctrinal, but they got sober really fast about not messing around with demon-y things. Their sudden seriousness always made me wonder if they knew something. Every once in a while, I still wonder about that.

I’m not the only one. Writing last year in The Journal of Christian Ministry, University of Kentucky psychometrician Kenneth D. Royal described his survey of modern American exorcists.

Those last three words, outside of Hollywood, might sound like an oxymoron. Beside the odd story about some loony parents whose child dies while the ham-handed cast out demons, surely any instance of demonic possession is just a certain kind of psychological malady, and exorcism just a ridiculous exercise. If somebody’s better after an exorcism, light a candle to Saint Placebo. Plus, garden-variety evil seems to be doing a damned good job without extra-curricular shenanigans.

Graham H. Twelftree, himself a biblical scholar of no mean repute, wrote in his 2007 book, In the Name of Jesus: Exorcism Among Early Christians: “For the vast majority of biblical scholars and theologians [belief in physical possession by evil spirits] is tantamount to belief in such entities as elves, dragons, or a flat earth.”

So thought a team of Spanish psychiatrists who recently encountered a patient they diagnosed as schizophrenic. Officials of the Roman Catholic Church, however, weren’t so sure. As the shrinks wrote two years ago in British Medical Journal Case Reports:

In such cases good communication with priests is recommended, but we are surprised that in 21st century and in Europe, there are still experts and clerics who believe that some types of schizophrenia are due to demonic possession. Our intention was to ask an expert cleric from the Madrid archdiocese to try to convince the patient that her symptoms were due to a mental disorder, in an effort to improve her insight. To our surprise, clerics assumed that the patient's psychotic symptoms were due to a malign presence.

The cleric’s response may be a minority review, Royal suggests, but he sees it as the correct one. “Instead of pretending spiritual sicknesses are always psychological in nature,” he writes, ”considering the possibility of demonization and offering deliverance ministry may potentially benefit a number of demonized persons. … Not only is exorcism a common practice, this study shows the number of commonalities among practitioners indicates that it is a fairly well-developed art.”

In the U.S., exorcism takes on a mostly Christian cast, although even non-Abrahamic religions recognize the practice. The bias here is probably because culturally we’re mostly Christian and the New Testament is chock full of demons being cast out, usually by Jesus but sometimes by his followers in his name. But there are demons in the Old Testament, too, and in Jesus’ day casting them out was a recognized job in the Jewish community. Professional exorcists also were acknowledged in the early days of the Christian church.

Two millennia later, in 1972, Pope Paul VI abolished the minor order of exorcist, but that was more of a human resources reshuffling of roles (porter and catechist also got the papal boot) than a statement that exorcism was passé. Nonetheless, in 1999 the Vatican updated its 300-plus-year-old exorcism regulations and said an allegedly possessed person should be given a thorough medical and psychological exam before phoning the Jesuit hotline.

Exorcism is a way of ridding someone of their demons, and Royal breaks down demonization to three gradually more involved states—influence, oppression (outside the body), and/or possession. Possession, or course, with or without pea-soup projectile vomiting, spinning heads, and speaking in strange voices, offers a delicious patina for filmmakers. The latest edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia defines exorcism as “the act of driving out, or warding off, demons, or evil spirits, from persons, places, or things, which are believed to be possessed or infested by them, or are liable to become victims or instruments of their malice.” (The Encyclopedia is put out by a private company and not the church of the same name.)

Probably thanks to Hollywood and Blatty’s own influence, exorcism often appears as a peculiarly Catholic pastime, loaded with secret and arcane rites (drawn from the Rituale Romanum of 1614) and lots of holy water and holy oil splashing around singeing the unclean. In his paper, Royal identifies that as a “sacramental” exorcism, and contrasts it with “word” and “spiritual” models more in vogue with Protestant traditions. Nonetheless, he writes, modern exorcisms do have many similar traits: “These include prayer, commands, love, preparation for the exorcism team, preparation for the person needing the exorcism, and follow-up.”

Between talking with Christian leaders, authors of texts on exorcism, and an Internet posting, Royal was able to reach out to 316 (!) American exorcists. Some 170 answered his survey. Fifteen of these 170 took part in an additional personal interview. Most of the larger set were men, most were Protestant (all the big denominations, including the so-called mainline ones, were represented), and most had “set demonized people free” between 11 and 1,000 times.

One of the big messages from Royal’s study is implied in that last finding—if you’re doing 1,000 exorcisms, they can’t all be the kind of knock-down, drag-out struggles you see on the big screen. “Instead, demons typically obey the command of the exorcist when Jesus’ name is used” and depart more-or-less peaceably; “rarely are water, oil, crucifixes, and other objects used, unless otherwise directed by the Holy Spirit.” (Nor, he notes, are consent forms generally obtained.)

Furthermore, most practicing exorcists (but not Catholic ones) believe that “any mature Christian” has the necessary authority to cast out demons.

Nonetheless, fasting, along with being patient and humble, were seen as necessary or at least useful preparations for the casting out. “Satan," One interviewee told Royal, "has no equipment to fight humility.” That might be a useful prescription for fighting any sort of devil these days.

04 Nov 12:01

Dynamic Marketing Firm Seeks Greatest Mind of Your Generation (Unpaid) by Chris Partridge

Calling all social media rockstars! Cataclysm PDX is one of the hottest PR/Marketing/Branding/Thought-Leadership firms in the webosphere representing a stable of top-tier international clients. We are alchemists of innovation, the Rumplestiltskins of branding, spinning the straw of conventional digital marketing into paradigm-shattering gold.

We’re looking for a supernaturally gifted social media intern, the Faulkner of Facebook, who is Oscar Wilde witty, as smart as Stephen Hawking, and as organized as a cyborg on the autism spectrum, with the social aplomb of Sawyer from Lost—you know, Season 1 in the flashback when he’s duping that woman out of her inheritance—if he was always in that two-beers-deep charisma sweet-spot.

We need a literal social media junkie, a real addict! If you haven’t jeopardized the closest relationships in your life for just a few more minutes browsing Pinterest, don’t bother applying. If you haven’t woken up after a two-day Twitter-bender in an unfamiliar hotel room with bleeding thumbs and a shattered iPhone, this job might not be for you.

Applicant must be a multi-talented ninja dynamo with Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Friendster, Grindr, Craigslist Missed Connections, Pennysaver musings, Goofus and Gallant comics, and even Google+.

We need a digital media Rain Man proficient in CSS, XML, HTML, SEO, Drupal, WordPress, obfuscating jargon, Spanish, Esperanto, and semaphore, who can solve riddles from both Trolls and Sphynxes (not optional!).

This is an entry-level internship, so naturally we’re looking for someone with at least 2-4 years experience managing social media accounts and who has negotiated at least one Super Bowl ad-buy.

We cannot offer any sort of payment or college credit at this time, and actually, with public transportation costs and fun/mandatory (fun-datory!) team-building happy hours, you’ll more likely be hemorrhaging money by taking this job. But the experience will be priceless. Hey, maybe you should be paying us. ;)

If this sounds like the job for you, send in a resume like none we’ve ever seen, with six (6) professional references, three (3) personal references, and four (4) references to ’90s pop culture (no Heavyweights references, please), two (2) writing samples, two (2) history-making ideas, something of your grandmother’s that cannot be replaced, and a cover letter addressing the following questions:

  • Why do you want to work at Cataclysm?
  • What aspect(s) of Google AdWords gets you physically aroused?
  • Is it pronounced gif or jif? (We are, of course, referring to the peanut butter here.)
  • How are you?
  • No, really, how are you?
  • What were the causes of World War I, and how did the Treaty of Versailles seek to rectify these issues for the international community? As a follow-up, tell us about a time you had a conflict with a co-worker and how you resolved it.

After uploading your resume to our website (cataclysmpdx.biz), please manually fill the same information into our cumbersome, buggy online application form. After hitting “submit” you will be taken to a 404 error page, unable to go back or confirm that your materials have been received.

Apply now!

04 Nov 14:10

The Christmas War

by Greg Ross

In 1964, Larry Kunkel’s mother gave him a pair of moleskin pants for Christmas. He found that they froze stiff during the Minnesota winters, so the following Christmas he wrapped them up and gave them to his brother-in-law, Roy Collette. Collette returned them to Kunkel the next year, and the pants began oscillating between the two as a yearly joke. This was fun until it escalated:

  • One year Collette twisted the pants into a tight roll and stuffed them into an inch-wide pipe 3 feet long and gave them to Kunkel.
  • Not to be outdone, Kunkel returned them the following year compressed into a 7-inch cube and baled in wire.
  • So Collette gave them back immured in a 2-foot crate full of stones and banded with steel.
  • Collette next had them mounted inside an insulated window with a 20-year guarantee.
  • Kunkel soldered them into a 5-inch coffee can and sealed that in a 5-gallon container filled with concrete and reinforcing rods.
  • Kunkel locked them in a 225-pound homemade steel ashtray made of 8-inch steel casings.
  • Collette returned them welded inside a 600-pound safe decorated with red and green stripes.
  • Kunkel put them in the glove compartment of a 2,000-pound 1974 Gremlin crushed into a 3-foot cube.
  • Collette put them inside a tire 8 feet high and 2 feet wide and filled it with 6,000 pounds of cement.
  • Kunkel hid them inside one of 15 identical concrete-filled canisters, which he loaded into a 17.5-foot rocket ship filled with concrete and weighing 6 tons.
  • Collette put them in a 4-ton Rubik’s cube fashioned from kiln-baked concrete and covered with 2,000 board-feet of lumber.
  • Kunkel put them into a station wagon filled with 170 steel generators welded together.
  • Collette returned them inside a cement-truck tank delivered by a flatbed truck and accompanied by a crane.

Here it ended. In 1989 Collette planned to encase the pants in 10,000 pounds of glass and leave them in Kunkel’s front yard. “It would have been a great one,” Kunkel admitted. “Really messy.” But the insulated container failed during pouring and the molten glass reduced the pants to ashes. They reside today in an urn on Kunkel’s mantel.

04 Nov 19:02

The Herbal Supplement Industry Is Not A Very Funny Joke

The regulatory system we have in the US for selling herbal supplements is screwed up. I've thought so for many years, and we're not the only country that fits that description, either. The system is screwed up in so many important ways that it's hard to know where to start, but how about back at the very basics - quality control?

Try this paper from BMC Medicine out (open access) and see what you think. The authors, from the DNA barcoding initiative at Guelph, tested 44 different brands of various herbal supplements, purchased in both the US and Canada. They found ridiculous levels of contamination. In fact, contamination is not the right word: one-third of the samples had no detectable amounts of the herb on the label. Instead, there were invasive weeds, ornamental plants from China, ground rice, soybeans, what have you. 10 of the 12 companies whose products were tested had at least one in this lovely category; 4 of them had nothing but.

This brings up several interesting questions: for one, how come this garbage continues to sell? Could it be that many of these preparations are of no benefit other than the placebo effect, which means that lawnmower scrapings will indeed work just as well? Second, who's ripping off whom? I would assume that some of these companies are buying from middlemen and repackaging, in which case, they're getting hosed (and passing the hosing along to you!) Doesn't anyone have even a passing interest in seeing if they've been sold the right material, or do they just not care, since it sells anyway?

When drug companies sell products of poor quality, the roof should come down on them, and I'm glad when it does. But these sleazeballs - is there even a roof to bring down? Now, I realize that some people will look at my background, and say, sure, this is someone who works in the pharma industry, of course he's going to put down these safe, natural, effective herbal medicines. Why, those would put his kind out of business if people just realized how wonderful they were! But I'm not denying that some herbal preparations can be used as medicines. If they can, though, they should have to prove it (the way we do in the drug industry), and they should have to actually sell what it says on the label, the way we do. Selling people a bunch of ditch clippings from a Chengdu compost pile is not acceptable, and if you're a big proponent of herbal remedies, you should be even more upset about this crap than I am.

More: Here's the New York Times on this story.

03 Nov 02:34

Gérard de Villiers, 83, French Spy Writer, Dies

by By ROBERT WORTH
Mr. de Villiers was a French popular novelist whose long-running spy-thriller series, S.A.S., sold more than 100 million copies.
    






03 Nov 18:50

Storm Surge

by Greg Ross

Victor Hugo’s 1829 poem Djinns is a syllabic snowball — its lines grow progressively longer, then shorter, to reflect the passing of a storm of demons:

Murs, ville,
Et port,
Asile
De mort,
Mer grise
Où brise
La brise,
Tout dort.

Dans la plaine
Naît un bruit.
C’est l’haleine
De la nuit.
Elle brame
Comme une âme
Qu’une flamme
Toujours suit!

La voix plus haute
Semble un grelot.
D’un nain qui saute
C’est le galop.
Il fuit, s’élance,
Puis en cadence
Sur un pied danse
Au bout d’un flot.

La rumeur approche.
L’écho la redit.
C’est comme la cloche
D’un couvent maudit;
Comme un bruit de foule,
Qui tonne et qui roule,
Et tantôt s’écroule,
Et tantôt grandit,

Dieu! la voix sépulcrale
Des Djinns! … Quel bruit ils font!
Fuyons sous la spirale
De l’escalier profond.
Déjà s’éteint ma lampe,
Et l’ombre de la rampe,
Qui le long du mur rampe,
Monte jusqu’au plafond.

C’est l’essaim des Djinns qui passe,
Et tourbillonne en sifflant!
Les ifs, que leur vol fracasse,
Craquent comme un pin brûlant.
Leur troupeau, lourd et rapide,
Volant dans l’espace vide,
Semble un nuage livide
Qui porte un éclair au flanc.

Ils sont tout près! – Tenons fermée
Cette salle, où nous les narguons.
Quel bruit dehors! Hideuse armée
De vampires et de dragons!
La poutre du toit descellée
Ploie ainsi qu’une herbe mouillée,
Et la vieille porte rouillée
Tremble, à déraciner ses gonds!

Cris de l’enfer! voix qui hurle et qui pleure!
L’horrible essaim, poussé par l’aquilon,
Sans doute, ô ciel! s’abat sur ma demeure.
Le mur fléchit sous le noir bataillon.
La maison crie et chancelle penchée,
Et l’on dirait que, du sol arrachée,
Ainsi qu’il chasse une feuille séchée,
Le vent la roule avec leur tourbillon!

Prophète! si ta main me sauve
De ces impurs démons des soirs,
J’irai prosterner mon front chauve
Devant tes sacrés encensoirs!
Fais que sur ces portes fidèles
Meure leur souffle d’étincelles,
Et qu’en vain l’ongle de leurs ailes
Grince et crie à ces vitraux noirs!

Ils sont passés! – Leur cohorte
S’envole, et fuit, et leurs pieds
Cessent de battre ma porte
De leurs coups multipliés.
L’air est plein d’un bruit de chaînes,
Et dans les forêts prochaines
Frissonnent tous les grands chênes,
Sous leur vol de feu pliés!

De leurs ailes lointaines
Le battement décroît,
Si confus dans les plaines,
Si faible, que l’on croit
Ouïr la sauterelle
Crier d’une voix grêle,
Ou pétiller la grêle
Sur le plomb d’un vieux toit.

D’étranges syllabes
Nous viennent encor;
Ainsi, des arabes
Quand sonne le cor,
Un chant sur la grève
Par instants s’élève,
Et l’enfant qui rêve
Fait des rêves d’or.

Les Djinns funèbres,
Fils du trépas,
Dans les ténèbres
Pressent leurs pas;
Leur essaim gronde:
Ainsi, profonde,
Murmure une onde
Qu’on ne voit pas.

Ce bruit vague
Qui s’endort,
C’est la vague
Sur le bord;
C’est la plainte,
Presque éteinte,
D’une sainte
Pour un mort.

On doute
La nuit …
J’écoute: -
Tout fuit,
Tout passe
L’espace
Efface
Le bruit.

04 Nov 02:05

In Praise of Organic Chemistry

Here's something that you don't see every day: an article in the New York Times praising the sophomore organic chemistry course. It's from the Education section, and it's written from the author's own experience:

Contemplating a midlife career change from science writer to doctor, I spent eight months last year at Harvard Extension School slogging through two semesters of organic chemistry, or orgo, the course widely known for weeding out pre-meds. At 42, I was an anomaly, older than most of my classmates (and both professors), out of college for two decades and with two small children. When I wasn’t hopelessly confused, I spent my time wondering what the class was actually about. Because I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just about organic chemistry. For me, the overriding question was not “Is this on the test?” but rather “What are they really testing?”

That's a worthwhile question. Organic chemistry is a famous rite of passage for pre-med students, but it's safe to say that its details don't come up all that often in medical practice, at least not in the forms one finds them in most second-year courses. Of course, there's a lot to the viewpoint expressed by Chemjobber on Twitter, that if you can't understand sophomore organic, there are probably a lot of other topics in medical science you're going to have trouble understanding, too. The article touches on this, too:

But the rules have many, many exceptions, which students find maddening. The same molecule will behave differently in acid or base, in dark or sunlight, in heat or cold, or if you sprinkle magic orgo dust on it and turn around three times. You can’t memorize all the possible answers — you have to rely on intuition, generalizing from specific examples. This skill, far more than the details of every reaction, may actually be useful for medicine.

“It seems a lot like diagnosis,” said Logan McCarty, Harvard’s director of physical sciences education, who taught the second semester. “That cognitive skill — inductive generalization from specific cases to something you’ve never seen before — that’s something you learn in orgo.”

Or it's something you should learn, anyway. Taught poorly (or learned poorly) it's a long string of reactions to be memorized - this does that, that thing goes to this thing, on and on. Now, there are subjects that have to be given this treatment - the anatomy that those med students will end up studying is a good example - but you'd think that students would want to put off as much brute-force memorization as possible, in favor of learning some general principles. But sometimes those principles don't come across, and sometimes a student's natural response to new material is just to stuff it as it comes into the hippocampus. That's not a good solution, but in some cases organic chemistry gets to be the course that teaches that lesson. I don't suppose that knowing the Friedel-Crafts reaction helps out many physicians, but having to learn it might.

There's still a case for (future) physicians to know organic chemistry for the sake of knowing organic chemistry, though. You can't have much of a grasp of biochemistry without learning organic, and it comes in rather handy for pharmacology and toxicology, too. Depending on what kind of medicine a person's practicing, these may vary in utility. But I'd rather not have anyone as a physician who doesn't give them a thought.

04 Nov 10:01

Six decades of U.S. migration

by Nathan Yau

Net migration patterns

We know that millions of Americans move to different counties every year, and when you look at the net totals, you see a pattern of people migrate from the midwest to the coasts. However, look at migration across demographic categories, and you see more detailed movement. This was the goal of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and they recently released their estimates, in map form.

Every year, about 10 million Americans move from one county to another. Migration rates vary by age, race, and ethnicity and with local and national social and economic conditions over time. Still, individual counties' patterns of age-specific migration tend to be consistent over time telling demographic stories about local places. This website highlights these stories by providing reliable estimates of net migration broken down by age, race, Hispanic-origin, and sex for all U.S. counties each decade from 1950 to 2010.

For example, the map above simply shows net migration totals during the 2000s. Deeper orange represents more people who moved away than moved to a county, and deeper purple shows the opposite.

Now here's the map for Hispanic migration during the same time period. As you'd expect, you see a large shift north.

Hispanic net migration

This is what migration looks like for people aged 55 to 74. It's similar to the first net totals map, but there's a stronger net positive in the southeast for this age bracket.

Age 55 to 74 migration

The highlight of this project is the data though.

The estimates for the 2000s are readily available in several formats, and it includes more breakdowns than the browser does, namely age categories combined with race. Estimates for previous decades can be downloaded from ICPSR. Finally, you can also download data from the browser. Select a map view via the dropdown menus, and then click on the link to "Download map data" in the top right of the sidebar.

29 Oct 12:13

First Sentence: A.L. Kennedy

A.L. Kennedy

The sixth in a new series where we ask authors to revisit the opening sentences of their stories. Here, A.L. Kennedy talks about Adam and Eve.

‘Eating figs is different for girls.’

I do like figs. I like slightly unusual fruit in general – it’s something inherited from my mother who spent a few years in Australia, just before she gave birth to me. She never got over a time rich with guavas, mangoes, custard apples, passion fruit – when everyone had trees laden with good things they couldn’t even give away when they had too much. Everyone had too much. Fruit everywhere. Dishes and preserves and pavlovas celebrating fruit. As a child, in my mind, it became a kind of paradise. And now I make happy trips to Chinatown to buy sweet tamarinds and rambutans, mangosteen.

There were probably figs in Australia, too, although my mother never mentioned them.

They may induce shyness.

I have never seen anyone eat figs in the street and feel I am unsurprised. They induce privacy – possibly because they are so soft, so velvety, so dusty purple that they qualify as anatomy and not food. They can create a pause before consumption.

I came to them quite late, at an age when I was able to notice that their shape and size were reminiscent of something else and that biting into them felt wrong, although also extremely right. And there’s the biblical element, of course – Adam’s figs suddenly becoming a source of unease for him and being covered by fig leaves. And the shape of those leaves themselves a glossy and green reminder of precisely the shapes they were concealing. It’s as if the lovers suited themselves in aprons which advertised what they concealed, over and over. Which is the kind of joke you might make once you had the knowledge of good and evil, but hadn’t yet understood sex – the way it advertises and repeats and looses ambivalent snakes in your previously quiet garden.

From the moment I ate my first fig and enjoyed its kind of masculine tenderness I wanted to write a short story that involved them. Sometimes I wanted to write a hard woman, who did eat them in the street, who devoured them without sympathy. But that didn’t seem quite right. At other times they would cross my mind more vaguely. . . I couldn’t quite find the right person or people to enjoy them. I think I was misunderstanding the figs as something solitary, rather than shared. I think I needed a couple I particularly liked and who deserved them.

One doesn’t want to overdo the Adam and Eve thing, either – that is, again, something special that I only hand out to men and women who are particularly meant in some way and who wouldn’t mind being given a garden of some kind and having responsibilities, along with a terrible future, of course. They lose everything. But before the wilderness Adam and Eve get to share paradise and to have the first pleasure of humanity, an entirely writerly one, the joy of naming reality. Companionship and sex come second. I am assuming that Adam hadn’t finished all the naming when he requested Eve. I like a version of the story where they garden together, make words together, where the casting out doesn’t give an eternal excuse for misogyny. Even in the authorised version Adam doesn’t have a problem with Eve, they still live together in the wilderness and make children. that shows a degree of unity and could be taken to imply love.

The figs – having waited decades – arrived as an early element of the story and quickly developed the first sentence. They were there with the initial idea of threats of injury perpetrated against softness and the part of a woman’s decision to love – any decision to love – which must acknowledge that the object of one’s affection may leave suddenly and irrevocably. She also makes, as true lovers they must both make, a decision to protect each other. The soft figs seemed to help with that. I suppose that writers are always looking for apparently innocent objects that can arrive with additional baggage, hints that mean writing can stay light but have depth. I hope the figs do a good job in that respect. They seem to.

I’m sorry to have finally used them, of course. But I like the people they belong to now.

To read A.L. Kennedy’s ‘Later in Life’, you can subscribe or buy the issue.

For more first sentences: David Searcy the dentist, Héctor Abad on testosterone gel, Miroslav Penkov on his formula and Ange Mlinko on meter.

Image courtesy of Angies

30 Oct 10:32

What It’s Like

Anya Yurchyshyn

I hadn’t been on a bus for a year, but it only took a few minutes to feel like I’d been riding straight since then. The air was laced with freshener that smelled like the sherbet I threw up every summer when I was a kid. It felt like summer again, heading out to see my father, but it was already well into fall, and cold.

I’d been telling myself I would get there and get through it. I’d been telling myself I was doing the right thing, that no one could escape doing this thing and that was why the thing was right, not wrong. Everyone had to do it. Everyone agreed. Except me. I disagreed. I was disagreeable. My father was supposed to feel angry and he did. He was performing to his pamphlet. My pamphlet didn’t get it right. I was supposed to feel sad but grateful – unburdened – but instead, I felt heavy and confused.

I slept through the first night and woke during sunrise when we stopped in a town where the only people waiting to board were two grubby teenagers. They refused to check their bags, so we all had to breathe fumes while they argued with the driver.

The girl mothered the boy down the aisle, giving angry instructions to the back of his head in Spanish. The same scowl fixed their faces and the patches on their jackets were sewn by the same crude hand. The boy threw himself into the seat in front of me and the girl threw herself on top of him.

I’d been avoiding nausea by staring through the space between the seats, but they filled it with their bickering and glossy hair. They fell asleep as the morning progressed and were tame when they eventually woke up. Once we hit Indiana they were giggling and gnawing on each other. By the time we stopped for lunch, I was pretty sure the boy had gotten a hand job.

I called my dad while scanning a wall of vending machines. He didn’t pick up. I wanted to call my husband but I was still bothered by what he’d said when he dropped me at the station. He’d handed me my bag and said, ‘Susie, we can’t help what happens to us, all we can do is help other people when bad things happen to them. That’s life. There’s no point fighting it.’

When I tried to say something he hugged me and said, ‘Your father was not the man you pretend he was. You can’t change your relationship now.’

That’s life.

The police found my father sitting naked on his porch last week. A social worker called and said he was no longer able to take care of himself and probably hadn’t been for a while. Was I aware of this? she wanted to know. Was there a plan? Were there arrangements?

I called his neighbour’s daughter, Helen, and asked for her help. His stuff needed to be packed and someone needed to keep an eye on him until I could get out there. I offered money when she hesitated. She didn’t take it because she knew the offer meant I was desperate, and that meant she’d be tacky to take it.

We’d been friends when we were little, pairing off whenever I visited. Then there was high school and college and I only visited during the holidays. Whenever I tried to get together she said she wasn’t around, though it was easy to tell that she was around because she’d moved back in with her parents years ago and her car was always in the driveway. We became comfortable with each other again once we knew we weren’t friends.

She called yesterday to tell me I’d better get there soon. Not only had my father unpacked the few boxes Helen had managed to fill, but he was taking people’s pets out of their yards.

I said, ‘So what?’ and then, ‘I know, I know,’ before she could answer. ‘But where’s the dignity? Where’s the justice? We all end up in last place no matter what. He’s young. How is this fair?’

She sighed. ‘Well, you don’t have to kill the messenger.’

‘Sorry,’ I said.

‘Do you need a ride from the airport?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m taking the bus. But thanks.’

I could hear Helen turning this information over. She was so happy to have something on me. ‘Are you still afraid to fly, Susie?’

‘Yup,’ I said. ‘I am still afraid.’

An elderly woman got on the bus that night. She tucked her cane under her arm and steadied herself against the seats until she got to the one next to me. She took a while to settle in, buttoning her cardigan, adding a sweater and fussing with a hairnet. We nodded at each other and said hello, then looked away – me out the window, her straight ahead.

I woke with the sun stinging my neck. The woman was sitting up straight and polishing her glasses. Without looking at me she said, ‘A cup of coffee would be nice, don’t you think?’ I said we should be stopping soon. We didn’t stop for another hour and only then because she yelled at the driver.

I ate my breakfast sandwich on a bench, and the woman sat next to me and blew on her coffee. The teenagers sat against a cement planter on the edge of the restaurant parking lot. The girl smoked a cigarette and stared at the ground. The boy stared at her.

The old woman looked at the girl. ‘My granddaughter uses cigarettes like smoke is the only thing she can breathe.’

‘I know some people like that,’ I said.

‘You don’t know anyone who’s like what she’s like. She is one messed up lady.’ She cracked herself up with ‘lady’. ‘Her parents think no one can help her. They think I’m wasting my money and my time going to her, but they don’t know anything.’

I said her granddaughter was lucky to have her.

She said, ‘She will never be lucky.’

When we all got back on the bus, the teenagers took seats in different parts of the bus. The boy threw balled up pieces of paper at her but stopped after he hit other people too many times. The woman pulled out a book of crossword puzzles that was intended for middle-schoolers and worked on it for hours. The puzzle included words like hazel, column and aft. She dozed off sometimes, but she never let go of her pencil.

I couldn’t tell if the trip was flying by or taking forever. There wasn’t much to look at. Occasionally there were long grids of cows.

I counted aeroplanes. They crossed in and out of view, and though I knew their white trails weren’t smoke, I expected all of them to explode.

We stopped at Friendly’s for dinner. The woman stayed on the bus. When I offered to bring her something, or buy her a snack, she rolled her eyes and shooed me away.

I ate a burger at the counter and watched the waitresses clean their nails. The driver stayed outside on his cellphone. He ordered right before we left by walking up to the drive-through window.

When I got back on the bus, I saw the old woman had changed her clothes and was drinking a juicebox. She said, ‘There’s no reason to live like animals,’ and picked up her crosswords again.

The next morning I was only ten hours away from my father. I called him and he picked up without saying hello. I guessed he was standing naked in his kitchen with the long phone cord pooled around his slippers.

‘Hi Dad,’ I said. How are you feeling today?’ He didn’t say anything. ‘I’ll be there tonight. If you can’t stay up, please leave the door open. Would you like to write that down? Wednesday night, leave the door open for Susie?’ When he still didn’t say anything, I said, ‘OK. OK. I can’t wait to see you. Bye.’ I waited for him to hang up but he didn’t. I said, ‘I’m hanging up,’ and I did, but he probably stayed on the phone.

I’d felt the old woman eavesdropping during the call. Now that I was done she was calmly smoothing the creases in her pants.

She said, ‘Going to visit your daddy?’

I said that I was.

She turned to me and smiled. ‘Well, that’s nice.’

There was something in her stare, a glint that made her look like she already knew everything and wanted to hear me say it. ‘I’m moving him into a home,’ I said, without being able to stop myself. The words flew out of my mouth.

She gave a few clucks of dispproval. ‘My kids keep on telling me I have to move. I tell them the only way they’re getting me out of my house is if they burn it down.’

‘He’ll probably burn down his house if I don’t move him.’ We both knew I was the enemy. It was stupid to explain.

She said, ‘If he’s going to hurt himself then you have to do it.’ I could tell she didn’t believe it.

I said, ‘I didn’t have much choice.’

She asked where I was coming from.

‘Maine,’ I said.

Her laugh was rough. ‘California’s a long trip,’ she said.

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but it gets shorter every time.’

She looked me up and down. ‘Why didn’t you fly?’

‘Flying isn’t really for me,’ I said and went for a magazine in my purse.

She went back to smoothing her pants and then moved on to picking the lint on her sweater. After a bit she asked, ‘Is it like how it looks in movies?’ Her face was as eager and sincere as a kid’s.

‘You’ve never been on a plane?’

‘No, but I dream about it. I did last night.’ She wasn’t mad at me any more. She wanted my full attention. ‘I’m floating through the sky, going somewhere special. Everyone’s acting civilized.’

I told her that buses were just as good a way to travel.

‘Oh please,’ she said. ‘I decided that if I can cure my granddaughter I will take myself on a trip. I’m not telling anyone. They don’t know what I have left in me.’ She didn’t wait for my questions. ‘I’m going to Ireland. My people were from there.’

The teenagers had reconciled. They were back in the row in front of me but on the other side of the aisle. The girl was clowning for affection, laughing and making faces. Their fights were play. They were still optimistic. They liked making up so much that they weren’t worried about what would stick.

The woman cleared her throat. ‘What’s it like?

‘What’s what like?’

‘Flying.’

‘It’s like you’re floating, like you said.’

‘No. I want to know everything. Tell me from the beginning.’ She closed her eyes and put her hand on mine. Her spotted fingers were miniatures of my father’s.

My stomach hardened. ‘Airports are always really busy. There are people everywhere, and they’re all in terrible moods. You have to wait in a ton of lines, but security is the worst. They make you take off your shoes. When you’re finally at your gate you can see your plane, and a lot of other planes, out the big windows, but when you walk down the hallway to the plane itself you can only see into its belly. Once you’re on, it takes a while to get to your seat because the aisle’s really crowded and everyone’s fighting over luggage space. It’s always way too hot and there’s at least one baby crying.’

The woman’s eyes were still closed, but her face was tense. She was concerned and distracted. I understood that I was shitting on her dream.

I looked down and expected to see that I was trapped under an airline seatbelt. I untucked my shirt. ‘Once you’re sitting you get to relax,’ I said. ‘The seats are very comfortable and trays fold out from the back of the seat in front of you. The flight attendants are very friendly and pretty. The captain makes an announcement and he usually makes a few jokes. The plane starts moving very slowly, then it picks up speed and goes faster and faster down the runway until suddenly you’re in the air, just like that. The plane climbs very high very quickly.’

The woman’s eyes darted back and forth beneath their lids. ‘What’s out the window?’

‘The windows have shades,’ I said. ‘You don’t have to look.’

‘Tell me,’ she said.

The woman squeezed my hand.

At first,’ I said, ‘you see everything you know get smaller and smaller. Once you’re above the clouds all you see is white below you and a bright blue sky that’s bigger than you could imagine everywhere else.’

She took her hand away from mine and tilted her chin to the sky.

My neck hurt and I was sweating. I shook myself to the ground by thinking about my father and a dog and his porch, waiting for what was coming.

‘After a while the plane levels out. You’re up there for a long while and you get food and drinks. You can even get a cocktail. You watch movies or read magazines and chat with other passengers. Eventually you have to land, so you slowly begin your descent.’

‘Don’t tell me about landing,’ she said. ‘I want to stay up here.’ ■

Image courtesy of jeffschwartz

For more After the War, read an excerpt from Lindsey Hilsum’s ‘The Rainy Season’, and listen to her talk on the Granta podcast, read Frances Harrison on a survivor of the Sri Lankan Civil War, Justin Jin’s ‘The Zone of Absolute Discomfort’ and Paul Auster’s ‘You Remember the Planes’.

28 Oct 22:20

An Invisible Map

by Greg Ross

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iceal_gene_hambleton.jpg

Shot down over South Vietnam in 1972, Air Force navigator Iceal Hambleton needed to reach the Cam Lo River but was surrounded by enemy forces who might intercept any radio messages sent to him. After some consultation, rescuers told him to play the first hole at the Tucson National Golf Course. “Before you start be damned sure you line your shot up properly,” they said. “Very bad traps on this hole.”

Hambleton was bewildered at first but came to understand. As an avid golfer he was familiar with a number of American courses, and he had a photographic memory of each hole’s length and layout. The first hole at Tucson was 430 yards long and ran southeast, so he set off accordingly across country, following an imaginary fairway.

This worked. By invoking additional holes from three Air Force bases, as well as a par 3 from Augusta National, rescuers led Hambleton to the river, where a Navy SEAL picked him up.

“Two things kept me alive,” he told Golf Digest in 2001. “The will to live, and my wife. And we’re playing golf Friday.”

29 Oct 06:45

A Pleating Feat

by Greg Ross

kiechle paper man

In 2011 Australian architect Horst Kiechle created an entire human torso from paper, as a geometric sculpture, for the science lab at the International School Nadi in Fiji.

He’s made the templates available for free — you can fold your own paper man, complete with removable organs.

29 Oct 14:47

Junk Mail

by Greg Ross

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aftermath_of_San_Francisco_earthquake,_1906.jpg

After the San Francisco earthquake, James Jones wrote this letter on a detachable shirt collar and mailed it without postage to his son and daughter-in-law in New York:

Dear Wayland and Gussie: All safe but awfully scared. Frisco and hell went into partnership and hell came out winner — got away with the sack. Draw a line from Ft Mason along Van Ness Ave. to Market St., out Market to Dolores to Twentieth, thence to Harrison, 16th & Portrero Ave. R.R. Ave. to Channel St. and bay. Nearly everything east and north of this boundary line gone, and several blocks west of it, especially in Hayes Valley as far as Octavia St. from Golden Gate Ave. east. Fire is still burning on the northside but is checked in the Mission. I and a band of 40 or 50 volunteers formed a rope and bucket brigade, back-fired Dolores from Market to 19th, pulled down houses and blanketed westside Dolores and won a great victory. More with paper & stamps. James G. Jones. April 21st, 1906.

It was delivered. The post office had resolved to handle “everything, stamped or unstamped, as long as it had an address to which it could be sent,” remembered William F. Burke, secretary to the city postmaster. When he made the rounds of camps, “the wonderful mass of communications that poured into the automobile was a study in the sudden misery that had overtaken the city. Bits of cardboard, cuffs, pieces of wrapping paper, bits of newspapers with an address on the margin, pages of books and sticks of wood all served as a means to let somebody in the outside world know that friends were alive and in need among the ruins.”

At the close of the first day, “95 pouches of letters carrying mail composed of rags and tatters and odds and ends — and burdened with a weight of woe bigger than had ever left the city in a mail sack — were made up for dispatch. … It came to our knowledge later that not one piece of this mail that was properly addressed failed of delivery.”