One Year Later: Deepwater Horizon Explosion

Today, April 20, marks the one year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. Over the last year, we’ve seen hundreds of headlines depicting the disaster and BP’s recovery efforts to clean the oil. But there’s one article I want to highlight which strongly resonated with me since I first read it. It is “Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours,” published in New York Times Magazine the day after Christmas, 2010. I didn’t highlight the article in my blog as I was traveling at the time, but it’s one of the most riveting pieces I read the entire year. The 2011 Pulitzer Prices were recently announced, and if I had any say in it, I think David Barstow, David Rohde, and Stephanie Saul should have won the prize for investigative reporting.

On paper, experts and investigators agree, the Deepwater Horizon should have weathered [a] blowout.

This is the story of how and why it didn’t.

It is based on interviews with 21 Horizon crew members and on sworn testimony and written statements from nearly all of the other 94 people who escaped the rig. Their accounts, along with thousands of documents obtained by The New York Times describing the rig’s maintenance and operations, make it possible to finally piece together the Horizon’s last hours.

What emerges is a stark and singular fact: crew members died and suffered terrible injuries because every one of the Horizon’s defenses failed on April 20. Some were deployed but did not work. Some were activated too late, after they had almost certainly been damaged by fire or explosions. Some were never deployed at all.

At critical moments that night, members of the crew hesitated and did not take the decisive steps needed. Communications fell apart, warning signs were missed and crew members in critical areas failed to coordinate a response.

The result, the interviews and records show, was paralysis. For nine long minutes, as the drilling crew battled the blowout and gas alarms eventually sounded on the bridge, no warning was given to the rest of the crew. For many, the first hint of crisis came in the form of a blast wave.

I hope you read it. This is truly a must-read piece, and I think it was (significantly) overlooked when it was published right after Christmas late last year.

Roberto Bolaño on Exile and Writing

I enjoyed reading Roberto Bolaño’s essay Exiles in The New York Review of Books. Exiles was drawn from Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches (1998–2003), and translated by Natasha Wimmer.

Here is how Bolaño describes exile:

To be exiled is not to disappear but to shrink, to slowly or quickly get smaller and smaller until we reach our real height, the true height of the self… Exile is a question of tastes, personalities, likes, dislikes. For some writers exile means leaving the family home; for others, leaving the childhood town or city; for others, more radically, growing up. There are exiles that last a lifetime and others that last a weekend. Bartleby, who prefers not to, is an absolute exile, an alien on planet Earth. Melville, who was always leaving, didn’t experience—or wasn’t adversely affected by—the chilliness of the word exile. Philip K. Dick knew better than anyone how to recognize the disturbances of exile. William Burroughs was the incarnation of every one of those disturbances.

I also really like the thought process here (especially the part I emphasize below):

Probably all of us, writers and readers alike, set out into exile, or at least a certain kind of exile, when we leave childhood behind. Which would lead to the conclusion that the exiled person or the category of exile doesn’t exist, especially in regards to literature. The immigrant, the nomad, the traveler, the sleepwalker all exist, but not the exile, since every writer becomes an exile simply by venturing into literature, and every reader becomes an exile simply by opening a book.

But the passage below is my favourite, about how writers are different from other professions:

No one forces you to write. The writer enters the labyrinth voluntarily—for many reasons, of course: because he doesn’t want to die, because he wants to be loved, etc.—but he isn’t forced into it. In the final instance he’s no more forced than a politician is forced into politics or a lawyer is forced into law school. With the great advantage for the writer that the lawyer or politician, outside his country of origin, tends to flounder like a fish out of water, at least for a while. Whereas a writer outside his native country seems to grow wings. The same thing applies to other situations. What does a politician do in prison? What does a lawyer do in the hospital? Anything but work. What, on the other hand, does a writer do in prison or in the hospital? He works. Sometimes he even works a lot. And that’s not even to mention poets. Of course the claim can be made that in prison the libraries are no good and that in hospitals there are often are no libraries. It can be argued that in most cases exile means the loss of the writer’s books, among other material losses, and in some cases even the loss of his papers, unfinished manuscripts, projects, letters. It doesn’t matter. Better to lose manuscripts than to lose your life. In any case, the point is that the writer works wherever he is, even while he sleeps, which isn’t true of those in other professions.

Would you agree with Roberto Bolaño’s comparison? Note that you may sympathize with Bolaño’s description of exile (first quoted passage), but disagree with his assessment of writers.

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Aside: on my reading list is Roberto Bolaño’s 2666.

Incredible Time Lapse Video from El Teide, Spain

I don’t usually post non-reading items on this blog. But when something as beautiful as Terje Sorgierd’s “The Mountain” comes along, I cannot resist not posting it. It’s one of the most astounding time lapse videos I have ever seen. Witness for yourself:

From Terje himself:

The goal was to capture the beautiful Milky Way galaxy along with one of the most amazing mountains I know, El Teide (the highest mountain in Spain). I have to say this was one of the most exhausting trips I have done. There was a lot of hiking at high altitudes and probably less than 10 hours of sleep in total for the whole week. Having been here 10-11 times before I had a long list of must-see locations I wanted to capture for this movie, but I am still not 100% used to carrying around so much gear required for time-lapse movies.

What is most spectacular, I think, is the way the Milky Way dances with the golden-orange sky, as evidenced at around 0:32 in the video. There was a large Sahara storm as Terje was filming, the winds of which carried the sand particles to the northern hemisphere. The result is mesmerizing.

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A question for the reader/viewer: If this isn’t the most amazing time lapse video you’ve ever seen, could you please point me to one that is?

The Assassin in the Vineyard and the Story of the La Romanée-Conti Vineyard

I’m not much an oenophile (or not at all). But I loved this story in the May 2011 edition of Vanity Fair, “The Assassin in the Vineyard.” Maximillian Potter does an astounding job of going behind the scenes to explain the history of the fabled vineyard, La Romanée-Conti.

The gist of the story: La Romanée-Conti is a small, centuries-old vineyard that produces what most agree is Burgundy’s finest, rarest, and most expensive wine. But when Aubert de Villaine received an anonymous and sophisticated note, in January 2010, threatening the destruction of his heritage, unless he paid a 1 million euro ransom, he did not treat it seriously at first. Who was the mastermind behind this crime? And did the criminal get caught? All is revealed in the article…

Previously, I had never even heard of La Romanée-Conti. But Potter describes it as a “mecca-Xanadu,” and explains the significance of the wine coming from this vineyard:

Indeed, whatever superlatives can be ascribed to a wine apply to the eponymous wine from the Romanée-Conti vineyard. It ranks among the very top of the most highly coveted, most expensive wines in the world. According to the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s exclusive American distributor, Wilson Daniels, acquiring or purchasing a bottle is as simple as calling your local “fine-wine retailer.” However, because D.R.C. is produced in such limited quantities, and because the high-end wine market is such an intricate and virtually impenetrable web of advance orders—futures—and aftermarket wheeling and dealing, it’s not as simple as the distributor suggests. Wilson Daniels’s own Web site points would-be D.R.C. buyers to wine-searcher.com, which is a worldwide marketplace for wine sales and online auctions. There, the average price for a single bottle from 2007 (excluding tax and the buyers’ premium) is $6,455—and that’s the most recent vintage available.

On the storied history of the vineyard (or how the Conti name came to be):

The Benedictine monks of the medieval Catholic Church were the original obstinate ones who civilized Burgundy’s Côte. They were the défricheurs, or “ground clearers,” who married the fickle Pinot Noir grape to the ostensibly inhospitable terrain. They discovered that a narrow strip of land about halfway down the gently sloping hillside produces the very best wines—the grands crus. “The Slope of Gold,” it was called. While the monks first cultivated the vineyard that would become Romanée-Conti, it was the Prince de Conti, centuries later, who gave the wine its name and infused it with nobility and naughty.

The worthless forest and fallow land that the Duke of Burgundy had deeded to the monks in the 1100s were by the late 1500s profitable climats, and the monarchy wanted in. Taxation compelled the priory to sell a “perpetual lease” on their finest climat, the first incarnation of Romanée-Conti: Cros des Cloux. Between 1584 and 1631, Cros des Cloux had three owners, before it was transferred to the Croonembourg family. Under this owner, Cros des Cloux blossomed in the marketplace. As it did, for reasons historians can’t fully explain, the family changed the name to La Romanée. By 1733 the Croonembourgs’ La Romanée was going for prices as much as six times those of most other reputable growths of the Côte. Still, when the Croonembourg patriarch died, in 1745, the family over the next 15 years slipped into debt and La Romanée was sold to Louis-François de Bourbon—the Prince de Conti.

There’s so much more in the piece, but I leave with this quote, describing the ransom letter. You now know that the mastermind of this devious plan knew much about La Romanée-Conti:

It was not so much a note as it was a package, delivered to his private residence. (A similar package arrived at the home of Henry-Frédéric Roch, who holds the title of co-director of the D.R.C. and represents the Leroy family’s interest in the Domaine.) Inside the cylindrical container, the type an architect might use for blueprints, was a large parchment. Unrolled, the document was a detailed drawing of Romanée-Conti. While the 4.46-acre vineyard is essentially a rectangle, there are nuances to its shape. De Villaine noticed that whoever had sent this letter and sketched the vineyard knew its every contour, and what’s more, the author had noted every single one of its roughly 20,000 vine stocks. In the center of the vineyard sketch this person, or persons, had drawn a circle. There was a note, too, which conveyed that the vineyard would be destroyed unless certain demands were met…

Continue reading the entire thing to find out what happens next. You won’t regret setting aside half an hour for this riveting read.

The Longevity Project: Happiness and Unhappiness

According to a new book, The Longevity Project, authored by Howard Friedman and and Leslie Martin, the basic premise behind happiness is this: sadness does not make you sick any more than happiness makes you well…

The Longevity Project is based on the results of a longitudinal study started by psychologist Lewis Terman (which became known as the “Terman Study”). The Terman study followed a group of 1,500 Californians over eighty years, beginning in 1921. All of the children selected for this study were judged to be of high IQ  (presumably because with high IQ are more predisposed to live longer, happier, and more successful lives). A snippet from The Atlantic provides the findings (I’ve bolded the two most interesting/important points):

All three researchers concluded that one of the biggest factors in both a happy life and a long life was having strong and healthy social connections. Beyond that, the people who tended to have “happy-well” outcomes were conscientious, emotionally healthy individuals who set and actively pursued goals; who incorporated strong social networks, exercise and “healthy” eating/drinking habits organically into their everyday lives; who were optimistic but not to the point of being careless or reckless; social enough to form strong networks, but not so social as to pursue unhealthy habits for peer approval; and who felt engaged and satisfied in their careers, marriages, and friendships.

According to Friedman and Martin, however, there’s one area where unhappiness does seem to play a causal role. It may not directly sicken or shorten the life of the person experiencing the unhappiness. But it [unhappiness] apparently can be toxic for people who have to live with that unhappy person. Unlike the Grant Study, which interviewed only the Harvard men, the Terman study also interviewed the spouses of the people in the study, to gauge their impact on study participants’ lives. And in the Terman study, women married to unhappy men tended to be unhealthier, and live shorter lives, than women married to happy men. Oddly, the reverse was not true. The happiness of the woman had very little effect on the lifespan or happiness of her husband.

I haven’t read The Longevity Project, but it does look quite interesting. The best book I’ve read on the topic of happiness is Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss – it’s about one man’s search for the happiest countries on Earth.

Paul Graham on Wealth

I can’t remember how I stumbled upon Paul Graham’s classic 2004 essay on wealth, but I am glad I re-read it last night. Excerpt below:

Wealth is the fundamental thing. Wealth is stuff we want: food, clothes, houses, cars, gadgets, travel to interesting places, and so on. You can have wealth without having money. If you had a magic machine that could on command make you a car or cook you dinner or do your laundry, or do anything else you wanted, you wouldn’t need money. Whereas if you were in the middle of Antarctica, where there is nothing to buy, it wouldn’t matter how much money you had.

Wealth is what you want, not money. But if wealth is the important thing, why does everyone talk about making money? It is a kind of shorthand: money is a way of moving wealth, and in practice they are usually interchangeable. But they are not the same thing, and unless you plan to get rich by counterfeiting, talking about making money can make it harder to understand how to make money.

Highly recommend reading the whole thing. It’s long, but it’s worth it.

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Question of the day: What is wealth for you?

Readings: Sleepless Elite, Montessori Mafia, AirTran, Online Cremations

A few good reads from this week. I’ll post some longer reads later this week.

1) “The Sleepless Elite” [Wall Street Journal] – why do some people function so well on little sleep? This article explores (albeit marginally) the “sleep elite,” those of us that can survive on two to four hours of sleep per night:

Here’s an interesting tidbit to remember: most of us actually need at least seven hours of sleep per night. Some of us, sadly, think we can get by on less:

Out of every 100 people who believe they only need five or six hours of sleep a night, only about five people really do, Dr. Buysse says. The rest end up chronically sleep deprived, part of the one-third of U.S. adults who get less than the recommended seven hours of sleep per night, according to a report last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Also fascinating is determining the biological basis for these “sleep elite.” Ying-Hui Fu at University of California-San Franscisco with the research:

Dr. Fu was part of a research team that discovered a gene variation, hDEC2, in a pair of short sleepers in 2009. They were studying extreme early birds when they noticed that two of their subjects, a mother and daughter, got up naturally about 4 a.m. but also went to bed past midnight.

Genetic analyses spotted one gene variation common to them both. The scientists were able to replicate the gene variation in a strain of mice and found that the mice needed less sleep than usual, too.

Read the rest of the article here. The most fascinating thing to me about sleep (ever since I found out about this fact in ninth grade in high school): despite decades of research, we still don’t have conclusive evidence of why we need to sleep.

2) “The Montessori Mafia” [Wall Street Journal] - interesting blog post briefly profiling Google’s Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales, and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos:

The Montessori Mafia showed up in an extensive, six-year study about the way creative business executives think. Professors Jeffrey Dyer of Brigham Young University and Hal Gregersen of globe-spanning business school INSEAD surveyed over 3,000 executives and interviewed 500 people who had either started innovative companies or invented new products.

A number of the innovative entrepreneurs also went to Montessori schools, where they learned to follow their curiosity…To paraphrase the famous Apple ad campaign, innovators not only learned early on to think different, they act different (and even talk different).

The inclusion of this line (which is sadly true) makes me wonder how we can change things in our schools to at least make the Montessori method more accessible to others.

We are given very little opportunity, for instance, to perform our own, original experiments, and there is also little or no margin for failure or mistakes.  We are judged primarily on getting answers right.  There is much less emphasis on developing our creative thinking abilities, our abilities to let our minds run imaginatively and to discover things on our own.

3) “AirTran Tops Annual Airline Ranking” [Atlanta Journal-Constitution] – can someone explain this one to me?

4) “Basic Funerals Bets Baby Boomers Will Arrange Cremations Online” [Bloomberg] – proof that there’s a market for (almost) everything online. Kudos for outside-the-box thinking here, even if the thought/idea is, well, morbid.