Evan Osnos Wins the 2014 National Book Award for Nonfiction

The National Book Foundation recently announced its winners for 2014. Of interest to me is the winner for nonfiction, Evan Osnos (he is one of my favorite writers at The New Yorker). I haven’t read Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China but I have read his fantastic piece in The New Yorker titled “Boss Rail,” published in 2012:

Until now, China’s trains had always been a symbol of backwardness. More than a century ago, when the Empress Dowager was given a miniature engine to bear her about the Imperial City, she found the “fire cart” so insulting to the natural order that she banished it and insisted that her carriage continue to be dragged by eunuchs. Chairman Mao crisscrossed the countryside with tracks, partly for military use, but travel for ordinary people remained a misery of delayed, overcrowded trains nicknamed for the soot-stained color of the carriages: “green skins” were the slowest, “red skins” scarcely better. Even after Japan pioneered high-speed trains, in the nineteen-fifties, and Europe followed suit, China lagged behind, with what the state press bemoaned as two inches of track per person—“less than the length of a cigarette.”

In 2003, China’s Minister of Railways, Liu Zhijun, took charge of plans to build seventy-five hundred miles of high-speed railway—more than could be found in the rest of the world combined. For anyone with experience on Chinese trains, it was hard to picture. “Back in 1995, if you had told me where China would be today, I would have thought you were stark raving mad,” Richard Di Bona, a British transportation consultant in Hong Kong, told me recently. With a total investment of more than two hundred and fifty billion dollars, the undertaking was to be the world’s most expensive public-works project since President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, in the nineteen-fifties. To complete the first route by 2008, Minister Liu, whose ambition and flamboyance earned him the nickname Great Leap Liu, drove his crews and engineers to work in shifts around the clock, laying track, revising blueprints, and boring tunnels. “To achieve a great leap,” he liked to say, “a generation must be sacrificed.” (Some colleagues called him Lunatic Liu.) The state news service lionized an engineer named Xin Li, because he remained at his computer so long that he went partly blind in his left eye. (“I will keep working even without one eye,” he told a reporter.) When the first high-speed line débuted with a test run in June, 2008, it was seventy-five per cent over budget and relied heavily on German designs, but nobody dwelled on that during the ceremony. Cadres wept. When another line made its maiden run, Liu took a seat beside the conductor and said, “If anyone is going to die, I will be the first.”

Well worth the re-read.

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Also by Evan Osnos published in 2014: China’s “Web Junkies”

The Future of Atomic Clocks

strontium_clock

Tom O’Brian is the Chief of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST’s) Quantum Physics Division (QPD). O’Brian oversees America’s master clock. In an interview with NPR, he discusses what the future of atomic clocks is going to be. A bit mind-bending:

Right now, on the top of Mount Everest, time is passing just a little bit faster than it is in Death Valley. That’s because speed at which time passes depends on the strength of gravity. Einstein himself discovered this dependence as part of his theory of relativity, and it is a very real effect.

The relative nature of time isn’t just something seen in the extreme. If you take a clock off the floor, and hang it on the wall, Ye says, “the time will speed up by about one part in 1016.”

The world’s most precise atomic clock is a mess to look at. But it can tick for billions of years without losing a second.

That is a sliver of a second. But this isn’t some effect of gravity on the clock’s machinery. Time itself is flowing more quickly on the wall than on the floor. These differences didn’t really matter until now. But this new clock is so sensitive, little changes in height throw it way off. Lift it just a couple of centimeters, Ye says, “and you will start to see that difference.”

So, this new clock would be able to sense the pace of time speeding up as it moves inch by inch away from the earth’s core.

What’s the point of having such high precision clocks? The extreme level of sensitivity to gravity might allow scientists to map the interior of Earth or help scientists find water and other resources underground.

On Janitors and Doctors of Philosophy

Did you know that in the United States, there are 5,000 janitors who hold a PhD? I didn’t know either until I stumbled on this post on Quora. The most popular response comes from Joseph Wang, PhD, who posits two credible explanations:


3) I’ve known people that have worked as janitors, and they say it’s an easy job. You get paid eight hours of wages for work that usually only takes two or three, and you spend the rest of the night just chatting. You work in the middle of the night so your manager isn’t going to be looking over your shoulder, and as long as everything is clean the next morning, no one cares how many hours you “really” worked.

4) You can do janitorial work and theoretical physics at the same time. You are pushing a broom, you can think about quantum field theory. This is *not* true for a lot of other jobs. You can’t think about QFT while taking orders at McDonalds, selling shoes, flipping burgers, or driving a cab. If the janitor has a blank vacant look, no one cares, whereas being absent-minded while dealing with hot cooking oil or customers can get you fired or cause a fire.

On Masters in Old Age, Loving the Work, and Never Retiring

In a remarkable piece in The New York Times, Lewis H. Lapham (founder of Lapham’s Quarterly), reflects on his work ethic and experiencing failure:

I’ve written many hundreds of essays, 10 times that number of misbegotten drafts both early and late, and I begin to understand that failure is its own reward. It is in the effort to close the distance between the work imagined and the work achieved wherein it is to be found that the ceaseless labor is the freedom of play, that what’s at stake isn’t a reflection in the mirror of fame but the escape from the prison of the self.

The context of the piece then goes on to short interviews with influential individuals in their 80s and 90s.

Here is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, age 81:

Q: What has been the most surprising thing for you about moving into your 80s?

A: Nothing surprised me. But I’ve learned two things. One is to seek ever more the joys of being alive, because who knows how much longer I will be living? At my age, one must take things day by day. I have been asked again and again, “How long are you going to stay there?” I make that decision year by year. The minute I sense I am beginning to slip, I will go. There’s a sense that time is precious and you should enjoy and thrive in what you’re doing to the hilt. I appreciate that I have had as long as I have. . . . It’s a sense reminiscent of the poem ‘‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.’’

On the persistence of Carmen Herrera, age 99, who sold her first painting at age 89:

Q: You painted for decades, but didn’t sell your work until just 10 years ago. What kept you going?

I do it because I have to. I have my ideas. I do my drawings. I make my paintings. It’s my love of the straight line that keeps me going. This has not changed.

Q: What was your reaction when you sold your first painting at 89?

I was never bitter. I always wished others well. I thought maybe the market would be corrupting. Without commercial success you can do what you want to do. There is freedom to be working alone. But, oh, when my work began to sell! I thought, Damn it, it’s about time!

Christopher Plummer, actor, age 84 on loving the work you do and never retiring:

Q: I keep hearing that staying in shape is crucial past a certain age. Anything else?

A: Yes. And so is doing the work. It uplifts you. The idea that you’re doing what you love. It’s very important. It’s very sad that most people in the world are not happy with their lot or with their jobs and they can’t wait to retire. And when they retire, it’s like death. . . . They sit at home and watch the television. And that is death. I think you’ve got to continue. We never retire. We shouldn’t retire. Not in our profession. There’s no such thing. We want to drop dead onstage. That would be a nice theatrical way to go.

I really appreciated the quote from The Once and Future King, quoted in the piece, on always learning:

You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.

The whole piece is a must read and worth the click for the photographs as well.

Building the Largest Ship in the World

Maersk-Triple-E-c-Alastair-Philip-Wiper-110

The Maersk Triple E is the largest ship ever built. Photographer Alastair Philip Wiper was commissioned to photograph how the ship is being built, and shares his experience on his blog:

The Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME) shipyard in South Korea is the second largest shipbuilder in the world and one of the “Big Three” shipyards of South Korea, along with the Hyundai and Samsung shipyards. The shipyard, about an hour from Busan in the south of the country, employs about 46,000 people, and could reasonably be described as the worlds biggest Legoland. Smiling workers cycle around the huge shipyard as massive, abstractly over proportioned chunks of ships are craned around and set into place: the Triple E is just one small part of the output of the shipyard, as around 100 other vessels including oil rigs are in various stages of completion at the any time. The man in charge of delivering the Triple E’s for Maersk is Søren Arnberg, and the Matz Maersk is the last ship he is delivering before his retirement. Søren started his career with Maersk as an engineer in 1976 and has travelled the world since, contributing to the construction of hundreds of ships. Søren is hard-boiled of Dane with a glint in his eye and a dry sense of humor, who is not impressed by much.”It’s just another container vessel, it’s just a bit bigger” he says. “I’ve never been in a project with so much focus. Discovery Channel even made 6 episodes about it. It’s just a ship.” Søren, who is one of the stars of the Discovery Channel series, still hasn’t even watched it. “What are you going to do when you get home?” I ask. “Ask my new boss” he replies, referring to his wife.

Maersk-Triple-E-c-Alastair-Philip-Wiper-110

Click here to see the original story (photo gallery) in Wired.

Sarah Marquis, Modern Day Ultra Adventurer

The New York Times has an incredible profile of Sarah Marquis, an uber-adventurer who’s walked more than 10,000 miles, solo:

But then there’s Sarah Marquis, who perhaps should be seen as an explorer like Scott, born in the wrong age. She is 42 and Swiss, and has spent three of the past four years walking about 10,000 miles by herself, from Siberia through the Gobi Desert, China, Laos and Thailand, then taking a cargo boat to Brisbane, Australia, and walking across that continent. Along the way, like Scott, she has starved, she has frozen, she has (wo)man-hauled. She has pushed herself at great physical cost to places she wanted to love but ended up feeling, as Scott wrote of the South Pole in his journal: “Great God! This is an awful place.” Despite planning a ludicrous trip, and dying on it, Scott became beloved and, somewhat improbably, hugely respected. Marquis, meanwhile, can be confounding. “You tell people what you’re doing, and they say, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” Marquis told me. “It’s never: ‘Cool project, Sarah! Go for it.’ ” Perhaps this is because the territory Marquis explores is really internal — the nature of fear, the limits of stamina and self-reliance and the meaning of traveling in nature as a female human animal, alone.

I’ve read before about the human ability to become hyper-aware in severely stressed environments, but this is on another level:

Eventually, however, Marquis passed out of Mongol territory. The washing-machine cycle ended. Her body changed, and her mind changed, too. Her senses sharpened to the point that she could smell shampoo on a tourist’s hair from a mile away. “One day you walk 12 hours, and you don’t feel pain,” Marquis said. The past and present telescope down to an all-consuming now. “There is no before or after. The intellect doesn’t drive you anymore. It doesn’t exist anymore. You become what nature needs you to be: this wild thing.”

Worth clicking through for the read and the embedded videos.

State of the Photoblog Industry, Photo Friday Edition

I was curious about the state of the photoblog industry recently, and was interested to find out what kind of people still post on an active basis on their blogs. Some of my favorite photobloggers over the years are still publishing (albeit very infrequently), while others have quit photoblogging altogether (yours truly included).

As a fan of data, I went to the Photo Friday website and decided to see how many people are entering the Photo Friday contest these days. I pulled the data into Excel and plotted the number of entries into the contest since the contest’s inception in 2002 to present (September 2014). The plot appears below, with the red line highlighting a 14-week moving average in number of entries to the contest:

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 9.41.00 PM

 

A few observations:

  1. Peak number of entries to the Photo Friday contest occurred between 2004 and 2006, when an average of more than six hundred entries were submitted on a consistent weekly basis.
  2. The number of entries to Photo Friday contest has been on a gradual decline since late 2008, with no rebound in sight.
  3. There has not been a single week in 2014 in which more than 200 entries were submitted to the Photo Friday contest. By contrast, there was not a single week from February 2004 until April 2009 where fewer than 200 entries were submitted to the Photo Friday challenge.
  4. If an extrapolation can be made, the last year in which more than 100 entries would have been submitted to the Photo Friday contest  would be in 2014.

One of my other, biased proxies regarding the state of the photoblogs? When one of the best photoblog out there, Daily Dose of Imagery, decided to call it quits on July 4, 2013—after ten years of daily photoblogging.