Weekend Reading: Fight the ship

Weekend Reading is a collation of 3-5 articles that have caught my attention, published on Saturday mornings. Previous editions can be found here.

Only one article this week instead of the usual list — partly because it is a very long read, but also because this is a Pulitzer-prize-winning piece of reporting that, I think, deserves to stand on its own. Writers T. Christian Miller, Megan Rose and Robert Faturechi report on the June 2017 collision between the USS Fitzgerald and a cargo ship three times its size in the South China Sea. It’s gripping stuff.

Part 1. Fight the Ship: Death and valor on a warship doomed by its own Navy (ProPublica)

Underneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean, 12 miles off the coast of Japan, the tidy world of Berthing 2 had come undone. Cramped bunk beds that sailors called coffin racks tilted at crazy angles. Beige metal footlockers bobbed through the water. Shoes, clothes, mattresses, even an exercise bicycle careered in the murk, blocking the narrow passageways of the sleeping compartment.

In the dim light of emergency lanterns, Vaughan glimpsed men leaping from their beds. Others fought through the flotsam to reach the exit ladder next to Vaughan’s bunk on the port side of the ship. Tens of thousands of gallons of seawater were flooding into the compartment from a gash that had ripped through the Fitzgerald’s steel hull like it was wrapping paper.

As a petty officer first class, these were his sailors, and in those first foggy seconds Vaughan realized they were in danger of drowning.

Part 2. Years of Warning, then Death and Disaster: How the Navy failed its sailors (ProPublica)

In the early 2000s, the Navy embarked on a quest for so-called efficiencies. Vern Clark, the Navy’s top military officer during much of the Bush era, brought an MBA to the job and pitched his cuts to the force using the jargon of corporate downsizing. Smaller crews were “optimal” crews. Relying on new technologies to do the work sailors once did was described as “capital-for-labor substitutions.”

The efficiencies even included eliminating a requirement for ship captains to post lookouts on both sides of ships, a cut that would later prove crucial when the Fitzgerald’s crew failed to see a fast-closing cargo ship until it was too late.

In an interview with ProPublica, Clark said these reforms were intended as experiments for a more streamlined and ready Navy and should have been regularly re-assessed.

“Only a nitwit of the highest order would continue down this path without seeing if it’s working,” he said.

Weekend reading: coffee, bees, blogs, faith

Weekend Reading is a collation of 3-5 articles that have caught my attention, published on Saturday mornings. Previous editions can be found here.

The flowers are from my garden and don’t have anything to do with the articles this week. But aren’t they nice?

1. How the world’s first webcam made a coffee pot famous (BBC)

“It didn’t vary very much,” explains Dr Stafford-Fraser. “It was either an empty coffee pot, or a full one, or in more exciting moments, maybe a half-full coffee pot and then you’d have to try and guess if it was going up or down.”

Word got out, and before long millions of tech enthusiasts from around the world were accessing images of the Trojan room coffee pot.

Dr Stafford-Fraser remembers receiving emails from Japan asking if a light could be left on overnight so that the pot could be seen in different time zones.

2. You’re Worrying About the Wrong Bees (Wired)

Honey bees will be fine. They are a globally distributed, domesticated animal. Apis mellifera will not go extinct, and the species is not remotely threatened with extinction.

The bees you should be concerned about are the 3,999 other bee species living in North America, most of which are solitary, stingless, ground-nesting bees you’ve never heard of.

3. Back to the Blog (DanCohen.org)

It is psychological gravity, not technical inertia, however, that is the greater force against the open web. Human beings are social animals and centralized social media like Twitter and Facebook provide a powerful sense of ambient humanity—the feeling that “others are here”—that is often missing when one writes on one’s own site. Facebook has a whole team of Ph.D.s in social psychology finding ways to increase that feeling of ambient humanity and thus increase your usage of their service.

When I left Facebook eight years ago, it showed me five photos of my friends, some with their newborn babies, and asked if I was really sure. It is unclear to me if the re-decentralizers are willing to be, or even should be, as ruthless as this. It’s easier to work on interoperable technology than social psychology, and yet it is on the latter battlefield that the war for the open web will likely be won or lost.

4. Composer Steve Reich on turning 80, writing live music, and finding faith (The Globe and Mail)

Oh that’s very, very valid. I was brought up a secular, Reform Jew, which means I didn’t know Aleph from Bet. I knew nothing, and therefore I cared nothing. My father cared culturally, but that’s all. So when I came home from Africa, I thought to myself, there’s this incredible oral tradition in Ghana, passed on from father to son, mother to daughter, for thousands of years. Don’t I have something like that? I’m a member of the oldest group of human beings still known as a group that managed to cohere enough to survive – and I know nothing about it. So I started studying at Lincoln Square Synagogue in midtown Manhattan, an Orthodox temple, that had an incredible adult-education program for the likes of me – and I asked whether they would teach a course in biblical Hebrew, and they said sure, and they brought a professor down from Yeshiva University to teach that, and I studied the weekly portion – I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a weekly portion and commentaries thereon.

So this whole world opened up for me – it was 1975, at about the same time as I met my wife, Beryl, and so all of this sort of came together and it did occur to me – isn’t it curious that I had to go to Ghana to go back to my own traditions because I think if you understand any historical group, or any other religion for that matter, in any detail, then you’ll be able to approach another one with more understanding. So the answer to your question is yes. The longest yes you’ve ever heard.

Weekend Reading: Couches, Flour, Attention Muggers

Weekend Reading is a collation of 3-5 articles that have caught my attention, published on Saturday mornings. Previous editions can be found here.

1. It Came from the ’70s: The Story of Your Grandma’s Weird Couch (Collector’s Weekly)

But there’s so much more going on with these sofas than the country-home themes, the shabby barns, red and brown leaves, mantel clocks, or horses on the prints. While Kueber and I weren’t able to nail down an exact year or a maker, she was able to help me put the Grandma Couch into context.

“This couch is a hat tip to Early American or Colonial Revival décor, which was massively popular through most of the 20th century—married to an indestructible, essentially plastic Space Age fabric, which our grandparents would have found appealing because our grandparents didn’t tend to redecorate constantly,” Kueber explains. “They had one sofa. They bought their furniture on a layaway, and by the time they found enough money for a sofa, they wanted it to last forever. So the good news was that fabric was going to last forever—but the bad news was that fabric was going to last forever.”

2. Inside the Flour Company Supplying America’s Sudden Baking Obsession (Medium)

Within hours, a simple truth became clear. Flour was flying off grocery-store shelves, propelled by a sudden and seemingly insatiable demand that was carrying into King Arthur’s much smaller online business, too. It was as if half of America had decided all at once that they needed to bake. A lot.

At first, it seemed like a complete mystery. It’s not that Colberg and others at the company were unaware that outbreaks of a nasty new virus had struck China and Italy, and that concerns were rising about flare-ups in the U.S. But in the sleepy New England village of Norwich, the disease felt a million miles away. No one was thinking about lockdowns.

Of course, the lockdowns were already starting in New York, and other parts of the country were just days away from following. And tens of millions of people were looking to stock up on whatever sorts of items might become essential if they were trapped in their homes for weeks or even months. Toilet paper was high on the list, as was hand sanitizer. And in a twist that almost no one saw coming, baking supplies were a high priority, too. Cakes, cookies, and most of all, fresh-baked bread would serve as balms for the anxiety, boredom, and alienation sure to follow on the pandemic’s heels. In a sense, baking was the first treatment to emerge for the coronavirus.

3. Not So Much (Snakes and Ladders)

Human beings have overwhelmingly powerful cravings for novelty and unanimity. We want new problems to face, because we’re tired of the old ones: they bore us, and remind us of our failures to solve them. And, especially in times of stress, we crave environments in which dissent is silenced and even mere difference is erased. We call that “solidarity,” but it‘s more like an instinctual bullying. You must attend to the thing I am attending to. I despise both of those tendencies. They’ve turned everyone into attention muggers.

If three months ago you were primarily focused on addressing sexism in the workplace, it seems to me that you ought to be allowed, indeed encouraged, to keep thinking about and working on that now, when everyone else is talking about police brutality. If your passionate concern is the lack of health care in poor communities, here or abroad, I think you should feel free to stick with that, even if it means not joining in protests against police racism. If you’ve turned your farm into a shelter for abused or neglected animals, and caring for them doesn’t leave you time to get on social media with today’s approved hashtags, bless you. You’re doing the Lord’s work.

Weekend Reading: good writing, bad reading, and a hermit

Weekend Reading is a weekly collation of 3-5 articles that have caught my attention, published on Saturday mornings. Previous editions can be found here.

1. Where writers write when they can’t write where they like to write (Nieman Storyboard)

Pearson finished all of the writing on his book before the pandemic hit. Now he’s working on edits, and trying to get future freelance assignments lined up. He does that from his kitchen table, often while watching his 3-year-old and 8-month-old. His wife, an attorney, also is working from home now.

They both work whenever they can. Their older child still spends three hours in her room for quiet time during the day, and if they can get the baby to take a nap during that time, well, that’s golden.

2.  At a Loss for Words: How a flawed idea is teaching millions of kids to be poor readers (APM Reports)

Woodworth had stumbled on to American education’s own little secret about reading: Elementary schools across the country are teaching children to be poor readers — and educators may not even know it.

For decades, reading instruction in American schools has been rooted in a flawed theory about how reading works, a theory that was debunked decades ago by cognitive scientists, yet remains deeply embedded in teaching practices and curriculum materials. As a result, the strategies that struggling readers use to get by — memorizing words, using context to guess words, skipping words they don’t know — are the strategies that many beginning readers are taught in school. This makes it harder for many kids to learn how to read, and children who don’t get off to a good start in reading find it difficult to ever master the process.

3. Into the woods: how one man survived alone in the wilderness for 27 years (The Guardian)

His final gesture, leaving his keys in the car, was particularly strange. Knight was raised with a keen appreciation of the value of money, and the car was the most expensive item he had ever purchased. Why not hold on to the keys as a safety net? What if he didn’t like camping out?

“The car was of no use to me. It had just about zero gas and I was miles and miles from any gas station,” he said. As far as anyone knows, the car is still there, half-swallowed by the forest. Knight said that he didn’t really know why he left. He had given the question plenty of thought but had never arrived at a specific answer. “It’s a mystery,” he declared.

Weekend Reading: Reboot

Weekend Reading is a weekly collation of 3-5 articles that have caught my attention, published on Saturday mornings. Previous editions can be found here.

Okay, so “weekly” may be a bit of an exaggeration, considering that I missed, hmm, the entirety of 2019. But that’s ok; after we stop, we begin again. Here are some pieces that have recently caught my attention.

1. The Weirdly Enduring Appeal of Weird Al Yankovic (New York Times Magazine)

The crowd was rolling through tantric nerdgasms, sustained explosions of belonging and joy. It felt religious. Near the end of the show, during the chorus of “Amish Paradise,” as the entire stadium started swinging its arms in rhythm, I unexpectedly found myself near tears. Weird Al was dressed in a ridiculous black suit, with a top hat and a long fake beard, and he was rapping about churning butter and raising barns, and everyone was singing along. I could feel deep pools of solitary childhood emotion — loneliness, affection, vulnerability, joy — beginning to stir inside me, beginning to trickle out and flow into this huge common reservoir. All the private love I had ever had for this music, for not only Weird Al’s parodies but for the originals — now it was here, outside, vibrating through the whole crowd. Weird Al had pulled off a strange emotional trick: He had brought the isolated energy of all our tiny rooms into this one big public space. When he left the stage, we stomped for more, and he came back out and played “Yoda,” his classic revision of the Kinks’ “Lola,” and then he left again, and I decided that this was the single best performance of any kind that I had ever seen in my life. Weird Al Yankovic was a full-on rock star, a legitimate performance monster. He was not just a parasite of cultural power but — somehow, improbably — a source of it himself.

2. Why the Coronavirus is so Confusing (The Atlantic)

The confusion partly arises from the pandemic’s scale and pace. Worldwide, at least 3.1 million people have been infected in less than four months. Economies have nose-dived. Societies have paused. In most people’s living memory, no crisis has caused so much upheaval so broadly and so quickly. “We’ve never faced a pandemic like this before, so we don’t know what is likely to happen or what would have happened,” says Zoë McLaren, a health-policy professor at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County. “That makes it even more difficult in terms of the uncertainty.”

But beyond its vast scope and sui generis nature, there are other reasons the pandemic continues to be so befuddling—a slew of forces scientific and societal, epidemiological and epistemological. What follows is an analysis of those forces, and a guide to making sense of a problem that is now too big for any one person to fully comprehend.

3. Meet the ‘jiggle daddy’: inside the weird world of niche Facebook culinary groups (National Post)

Albala’s fascination with the quivering medium started last summer when a friend dared him to join Show Me Your Aspics. With nearly 40,000 members, the four-year-old Facebook group caters to a very specific community: people with a shared passion for all things gelatinous. It’s a rabbit hole of slo-mo jiggle videos, glossy objects of gelatin flower art, disconcerting vintage finds, and wiggly experiments savoury and sweet. It’s also the perfect example of how delightful it can be to surrender to a far from serious pursuit in very serious times.

Weekend reading: standardized testing, nostalgia, TV’s worst dinner party, surprise siblings

Weekend Reading is a weekly collation of 3-5 articles that have caught my attention, published on Saturday mornings. Previous editions can be found here.

1. I Can’t Answer These Texas Standardized Test Questions About My Own Poems (Huffpo)

Oh, goody. I’m a benchmark. Only guess what? The test prep materials neglected to insert the stanza break. I texted him an image of how the poem appeared in the original publication. Problem one solved. But guess what else? I just put that stanza break in there because when I read it aloud (I’m a performance poet), I pause there. Note: that is not an option among the answers because no one ever asked me why I did it.

These test questions were just made up, and tragically, incomprehensibly, kids’ futures and the evaluations of their teachers will be based on their ability to guess the so-called correct answer to made up questions.

Then I went online and searched Holbrook/MIDNIGHT/Texas and the results were terrifying. Dozens of districts, all dissecting this poem based on poorly formatted test prep materials.

2. Maybe the People Would Be the Times (Vice)

You get your poetry in snatches now, because it shows up as croaked lines deep inside the groove or buried in the mix or mumbled through a sleeve. You might register them only subliminally, maybe pick them up in daylight sometime later and wonder where you caught that sentence. Mostly you recall single barked chorus phrases that rattle around your head while the rest of the number might as well consist of doos and dahs, “She’s lost control again” and “The cassette played poptones” and “Tanz’ den Jesus Christus.” But lately poetry has been filtering down from the Bronx on stray 12s you can sometimes buy in that place on Union Square where they seem to rotate the stock every other day. “I was spanking and a-freaking in a disco place,” says Spoonie Gee, who is the smooth talker, the midnight stalker, the image of the man they call the J.D. Walker, bouncing to the Patty Duke riddim as it shuffles from side to side, his voice track intermittently so flanged it hurts your ears, and that phrase takes on a power and significance you can’t account for except by reference to its reminiscent tense, somehow a harbinger of how all of this will one day fade into sepia, since golden lads and girls all must, as chimney sweepers come to dust. But that won’t come anytime soon, since you are young and have been young all your life and live in the land of the young and have made no arrangements to ever be anything but young.

3. That One Night: The Oral History of the Greatest ‘Office’ Episode Ever (Rolling Stone)

Taking the action away from the Dunder Mifflin office, “The Dinner Party” provides a rare glimpse into the home life of regional manager Michael Scott (Carell) as he hosts an impromptu get-together for three couples: salesman Jim Halpert and receptionist Pam Beesly, salesman Andy Bernard and accountant Angela Martin, and party-crasher Dwight Schrute and his former babysitter/current lover, Melvina. The previous season had seen Jim and Pam finally get together after years of flirtation; Michael had also found love – with Jan Levinson, his former boss. Despite some huge differences with her new boyfriend – she was an accomplished, Type-A corporate executive, he an affable doofus – Jan moved from New York to Scranton and into Michael’s cheesy condo. The dinner party was Jan and Michael’s attempt to show off their happy home; instead, they showed off how utterly dysfunctional their relationship was. The result was a master class of dark comedy that few other shows would dare attempt, as well as 22 of the most brilliantly cringe-inducing minutes in TV history.

4. A Family Portrait: Brothers, Sisters, Strangers (New York Times)

I knew a lot of other children whose parents had used donors to conceive because every summer we went to a camp for same-sex families. Last summer, news traveled through the community that two kids from two families who attended the camp for years had independently gone on to a registry for family members trying to connect with donors or donor siblings. The two discovered that they shared a donor — that they were half siblings.

Until that moment, it had not really occurred to me — or my mothers, even though one is an ObGyn — that I might have half siblings out there. It makes no sense that we didn’t think about that, because my parents deliberately chose a donor whose sperm had successfully produced at least one live birth, whose sperm had, in a sense, “worked.” I think they were just so focused on thinking about the new family they were creating that they never stopped to think about the implications of the huge, inadvertent social experiment they were joining.