Stephon Alexander: Physics Dreams

I loved a lot of things about last week’s Story Collider podcast, on the feeling of not fitting in a new job (as a theoretical physicist) but one detail stood out. Apparently Wolfgang Pauli, one of the discoverers of quantum mechanics, and Carl Jung, a pivotal figure in the development of psychoanalysis, were good friends and exchanged letters over years. Those are published in Atom and Archetype. Both quantum mechanics and psychoanalysis were pivotal ideas in their fields, and I love that the titanic figures on both sides were talking to each other — and in this case were literally talking to each other about their dreams.

Read Two: Ferguson in arms, in photos, and at a diner. Plus TSA and ISIS.

It’s ridiculously easy to get weapons past TSA’s x-ray body scanners.  By Andy Greenberg at Wired.

“These machines were [originally] tested in secret, presumably without this kind of adversarial mindset, thinking about how an attacker would adapt to the techniques being used,” says Halderman, who along with the other researchers will present the research at the Usenix Security Conference Thursday. “They might stop a naive attacker. But someone who applied just a bit of cleverness to the problem would be able to bypass them. And if they had access to a machine to test their attacks, they could render their ability to detect contraband virtually useless.”

A Former Marine Explains All the Weapons of War Being Used by Police in Ferguson. By Lyle Jeremy Rubin atThe Nation.

What we’re seeing here is a gaggle of cops wearing more elite killing gear than your average squad leader leading a foot patrol through the most hostile sands or hills of Afghanistan. They are equipped with Kevlar helmets, assault-friendly gas masks, combat gloves and knee pads (all four of them), woodland Marine Pattern utility trousers, tactical body armor vests, about 120 to 180 rounds for each shooter, semiautomatic pistols attached to their thighs, disposable handcuff restraints hanging from their vests, close-quarter-battle receivers for their M4 carbine rifles and Advanced Combat Optical Gunsights. In other words, they’re itching for a fight. A big one.

Ferguson visits a diner. By Matt Zoller Seitz. h/t Digg

The boy asked his mother, “So I should just put my hands in the air?”

“Yes,” his mother said. “Just put your hands in the air.”

“If I put my hands in the air, will the police not shoot?” he asked.

“Probably not, but you can’t be sure. Some people say you should just kneel or lie down, don’t ask questions, just get down on the ground.”

“If I lie down on the ground, they won’t shoot?”

“Probably,” she said. 

Some of the best photos from the best photographer at Ferguson are hereJoe Coscarelli interviews Scott Olson, at New York Magazine.

“When I took that picture, I didn’t realize how heavily armed those police were. You don’t look at the details of it; you just shoot and move. When I was editing I said to myself, ‘Holy shit.’”

ISIS is so big and so nasty it’s making allies out of enemies. By George Packer at The New Yorker.

The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham controls … an area the size of Jordan. The self-proclaimed caliphate stretches from the newly conquered towns along the Syrian-Turkish border, through its de-facto capital of Raqqa, in northern Syria, across the obliterated Iraqi border into Mosul, Tikrit, and Falluja, down to the farming towns south of Baghdad—roughly a third of the territory of both countries. It is exploiting almost every oil and gas field in Syria; it has seized Iraq’s largest refinery, in Baiji, and its biggest dam, north of Mosul, which provides water and electricity for much of the country and could, if destroyed, submerge Baghdad. ISIS funds its operations by selling oil and electricity, emptying captured banks, and extorting money through kidnappings and “taxation.” Its highly skilled army fights with billions of dollars’ worth of stolen American- and Russian-made armored vehicles and heavy weapons. According to Janine Davidson, a former Pentagon official, “ISIS now controls a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations.”


This is from my daily “Read Two” Tinyletter. If you’d like to get these by email, you can  sign up here.

“Product Alert: This book does not contain a misprint on page 39. We have received complaints from customers that they have received misprinted editions because of the way the story changes direction in the middle of a word on page 39 (for Kindle readers, the end of the first section). This is not a misprint or error. It is the way the author has written the book. He returns to the seemingly abandoned storyline later in the book.”
“Your brain is trolling you.”
— My therapist (via amywhipple)

(via maudnewton)

Beautiful day for soaring in the #Vermont Republic.


William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness

Last night @craigmod tweeted:

If you cannot begin to empathize with someone taking their own life, I suggest reading Darkness Visible… Styron’s book is only 80 pages. Truly an important read

I picked it up last night and finished it today. Some bits, below.

On the inadequacy of the word “depression”:

When I was first aware that I had been laid low by the disease, I felt a need, among other things, to register a strong protest against the word “depression.” Depression, most people know, used to be termed “melancholia,” a word which appears in English as the year 1303 and crops up more than once in Chaucer, who in his usade seemed to be aware of its pathological nuances. “Melancholia” would still appear to be a far more apt and evocative word for the blacker forms of the disorder, but it was usurped by a noun with a blank tonality and lacking any magisterial presence, used indifferently to describe an economic decline or a rut in the ground, a true wimp of a word for such a major illness.

How part of the problem with depression is that it’s somewhat beyond description, and almost impossible to fathom for those of us who haven’t experienced it:

Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self—to the mediating intellect—as to verge close to being beyond description… it has to be emphasized that if the pain were readily describable most of the countless sufferers from this ancient affliction would have been able to confidently depict for their friends and loved ones (even their physicians) some of the actual dimensions of their torment, and perhaps elicit a comprehension that has been generally lacking; such incomprehension has usually been due not to a failure of sympathy but to the basic inability of healthy people to imagine a form of torment so alien to everyday experience.

Styron, however, does what he can to describe it to us:

The pain is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come — not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute. If there is mild relief, one knows that it is only temporary; more pain will follow. It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul. So the decision-making of daily life involves not, as in normal affairs, shifting from one annoying situation to another less annoying- or from discomfort to relative comfort, or from boredom to activity- but moving from pain to pain. One does not abandon, even briefly, one’s bed of nails, but is attached to it wherever one goes.


Salk. I miss the place.

Salk. I miss the place.

“After dark on Monday, police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. The ironies of race and policing were readily apparent: law enforcement using force to suppress outrage at law enforcement’s indiscriminate use of force.”
Jelani Cobb reflects on the violence in Ferguson in the wake of Michael Brown’s death. (via newyorker)

(via newyorker)




I survived in New York City working full-time at an independent…

Holy shit.

“When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.” Because nearly everyone in the world believes their job to be difficult. I once went to a party and met a very beautiful woman whose job was to help celebrities wear Harry Winston jewelry. I could tell that she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt, but when I told her that her job sounded difficult to me she brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson. She kept touching me as she talked. I forgave her for that. I didn’t reveal a single detail about myself, including my name. Eventually someone pulled me back into the party. The celebrity jewelry coordinator smiled and grabbed my hand and said, “I like you!” She seemed so relieved to have unburdened herself. I counted it as a great accomplishment. Maybe a hundred times since I’ve said, “wow, that sounds hard” to a stranger, always to great effect. I stay home with my kids and have no life left to me, so take this party trick, my gift to you.”
— Paul Ford, “How to Be Polite” (via austinkleon)

(via austinkleon)


“If you enjoy old movies, mourn the passing of the Golden Age of Hollywood, want to be able to watch Mutiny on the Bounty, or have a soul, I beg you not to open this book.”

Sadie Stein on Scotty Bowers and the secret sex lives of old Hollywood.

Read Two: From severed heads to art cut to the bone

How to Take a Picture of a Severed Head Or not. IS is working very hard to manage its media presence, and it’s working. By Sebastian Meyer and Alicia P.Q. Whitmeyer at Foreign Policy. H/t Alex Horton. Photo via Reuters via Foreign Policy.

Mirwan was recruited to document IS’s recent attack on the town of Sinjar, he says – the same takeover whose aftermath has prompted U.S. airstrikes in Iraq. There, he was photographing fighting until a few members of ISIS called him over. Thirty men lay waiting facedown on the ground, hands bound behind their backs. Three or four women were standing by, watching. It was an execution.

Take the pictures, he was told.

Speaking of PR, the pay gap between journalism and public relations is growing. But the scarier part is how badly journalists are outnumbered.

The salary gap between public relations specialists and news reporters has widened over the past decade – to almost $20,000 a year, according to 2013 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data analyzed by the Pew Research Center. At the same time, the public relations field has expanded to a degree that these specialists now outnumber reporters by nearly 5 to 1 (BLS data include part-time and full-time employees, but not self-employed.).

Google’s autofill algorithm seems to think women can’t teach themselves calculus. But this woman wrote the book on it. By Ben Lillie.

Google’s algorithm is based on cues from what other people are searching for and uses context to try to figure out what an user meant. But algorithms, “are never as neutral as they appear.” So while no one thought “only men would teach themselves calculus,” it’s also true that that’s what the culture as a whole has decided, at least in aggregate. Whether we like it or not, we associate something about that phrase with men more than women. This has happened before, and will likely happen many times again. One of the wonderful things about relying on computers to help us is that if we’re not careful they’ll tell us who we really are. In this case that we’re living in a quite deeply sexist culture.

The deep irony, though, is that while people are responding to this quite strongly, Ouellette’s name isn’t in the tweet that’s going viral. The same algorithm that held up this rather unfortunate mirror ensures that neither Jennifer Ouellette’s name nor the name of her book, The Calculus Diaries, is getting attached to that mirror.

Two essays examine how artists — Hemingway and Beethoven — cut things near to the bone:

Hemingway’s Hidden Metafictions in “The Sun Also Rises”. Ian Crouch, at The New Yorker.

All of this was cut at the suggestion of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who, after reading the version that Hemingway had sent to Perkins, wrote a long, dismayed-sounding letter to Hemingway, in which he said, “I think that there are about 24 sneers, superiorities, and nose-thumbings-at-nothing that mar the whole narrative up to P. 29 where (after a false start on the introduction of Cohn) it really gets going.” Though Hemingway would later downplay Fitzgerald’s editorial influence, the published novel begins with the sentence: “Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.”

In the letter, Fitzgerald also criticized Hemingway for injecting his own writerly persona into the text: “That biography from you, who allways believed in the superiority (the preferability) of the imagined to the seen not to say to the merely recounted.” With this fragment of a sentence, Fitzgerald gives Hemingway the familiar writing-class advice—show, don’t tell; less is more; and what is left out can sometimes be more meaningful than what is included. Earlier versions of the novel contained even more of this “biography”; Fitzgerald had caught the remnants of nervous self-consciousness that Hemingway himself had curtailed as he wrote.…

Jeremy Denk, writing on a new Beethoven biography, considers some dangers of minimalism that apply to writing too.

In Mozart and Haydn, these same units, these triads and scales, are lurking behind the surface; but generally there is a film or veil concealing the girders from view. In Mozart, the ends of phraselets are often decorated with little dissonances, elegant deflections; in Haydn, the same role is often played by witty cross-accents, or unusual figurations. But you can notice, more and more, in later Beethoven — for example the slow movement of the last violin sonata, or of the “Archduke” Trio, both of which should be on any essential listening list — the way he purges his music of these artifacts of elegance, and prefers having harmonies on the main beats without decoration or deflection.

There is a danger in relying on rudimentary materials. They can be felt as an emptiness, a skeleton, a mere outline — Beethoven sometimes uses this expressive effect, calling our attention to the flesh that isn’t there. But more often they are felt as a strength, a frame, something to hold on to. By the late years, an uncanny duality develops: On the one hand, the sense that Beethoven might do anything, harmonically, that he would venture to the far ends of the musical earth; on the other, always there, rock-solid, the triads, the tonic and the dominant, the familiar landmarks of classical harmony. The sense of the world dissolving into the modern, the ground disappearing beneath your feet, and yet … the ground reassuringly remains. Beethoven somehow gets to have it both ways — absolute liberty and total control.

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A few nights ago I was talking to Emily McManus, editor of, about math. I mentioned my friend Jennifer Ouellette, an english major who taught herself calculus, which is no mean feat. From that she wrote the wonderful book The Calculus Diaries, and I thought Emily would like it.




E. B. White writing in his boat shed overlooking Allen Cove, 1976, using a portable manual typewriter. Photo by Jill Krementz

My favorite photo of E.B. White.




E. B. White writing in his boat shed overlooking Allen Cove, 1976, using a portable manual typewriter. Photo by Jill Krementz

My favorite photo of E.B. White.




The Iraqi soldier died attempting to pull himself up over the dashboard of his truck. The flames engulfed his vehicle and incinerated his body, turning him to dusty ash and blackened bone.

In a photograph taken soon afterward, the soldier’s hand reaches out of the shattered windshield, which frames his face and chest. The colors and textures of his hand and shoulders look like those of the scorched and rusted metal around him.

Fire has destroyed most of his features, leaving behind a skeletal face, fixed in a final rictus. He stares without eyes.

On February 28, 1991, Kenneth Jarecke stood in front of the charred man, parked amid the carbonized bodies of his fellow soldiers, and photographed him. At one point, before he died this dramatic mid-retreat death, the soldier had had a name.

He’d fought in Saddam Hussein’s army and had a rank and an assignment and a unit. He might have been devoted to the dictator who sent him to occupy Kuwait and fight the Americans. Or he might have been an unlucky young man with no prospects, recruited off the streets of Baghdad. Jarecke took the picture just before a ceasefire officially ended Operation Desert Storm—the U.S.-led military action that drove Saddam Hussein and his troops out of Kuwait, which they had annexed and occupied the previous August.

The image and its anonymous subject might have come to symbolize the Gulf War. Instead, it went unpublished in the United States, not because of military obstruction but because of editorial choices.

It’s hard to calculate the consequences of a photograph’s absence. But sanitized images of warfare, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf argues, make it “easier … to accept bloodless language” such as 1991 references to “surgical strikes” or modern-day terminology like “kinetic warfare.”

The Vietnam War was notable for its catalog of chilling and iconic war photography; Some images, like Ron Haeberle’s pictures of the My Lai massacre, were initially kept from the public. But other violent images—Nick Ut’s scene of child napalm victims and Eddie Adams’s photo of a Vietcong man’s execution—won Pulitzer Prizes and had a tremendous impact on the outcome of the war.

The War Photo No One Would Publish - The Atlantic

Read that Atlantic story.