Readings: Skydiving from Space, Beethoven in Kinshasa, Google in Antarctica

Here are some interesting articles I’ve read over the last few days:

1) “Skydiving from the Edge of Space” [The Guardian] – this is a fantastic profile of two daredevils, Felix Baumgartner and Michel Fournier, who’ve long had plans to travel to the edge of space, skydive from there, in order to try to break the sound barrier. The introduction of the piece sets a thrilling pace:

At around 120,000 feet, on the fringes of space, the air is so thin that a falling human body would travel fast enough to exceed the speed of sound. A skydiver, properly equipped with pressurised suit and a supply of oxygen to protect against the hostile elements, could feasibly jump from that height and, about 30 seconds later, punch through the sound barrier – becoming the first person ever to go “supersonic” without the aid of an aircraft or space shuttle.

The two daredevils have been plotting their jumps for years:

Baumgartner has been plotting his space jump for four years, Fournier for 20, and this autumn both projects are coming to a head – 50 years exactly since anyone even came close to leaping from such heights or plummeting at such speeds. That was Colonel Joseph Kittinger, a test pilot, who completed a series of high-altitude jumps from a helium balloon in August 1960, part of an equipment-testing project for the agency that would become NASA.

The jumps cannot take place from an airplane and must be done via a balloon:

It can’t be done from an aeroplane (even a spy plane can only ascend to about 80,000 feet), nor from a rocket (any hopeful parachutist opening the hatch to jump out would be torn to pieces). Ballooning directly up is the only realistic option, but an option still fraught with difficulties. A helium balloon launched into the stratosphere needs continually to enlarge because of the changes in atmospheric pressure, and so must be made of a special expandable material that is less than a 1,000th of an inch thin; clingfilm thin. It also needs to be huge, about the size of an office block.

2) “Playing Beethoven in Kinshasa” [Der Spiegel] – this is actually a two part series (part one | part two) on a story about central Africa’s only orchestra. A new German documentary film, “Kinshasa Symphony,” tells the story of the orchestra’s most recent major performance and how it came to be. I want to see this film. A trailer below:

3) “Explore the World with Street View, Now on All Seven Continents” [Official Google Blog] – Google is making its presence felt, once again. This time, they sent an expedition to Antarctica and came back with views like this. The question: how much do penguins care about privacy?

Lost in Translation

Imagine this scenario. You go on a date with someone for the first (or even the second time). You’re making lovely conversation, asking the usual: what do you do? What are your hobbies? What are your favorite movies? If you’re the really nerdy type, perhaps the conversation turns to math and you’re able to massage a timely trivia question into your conversation.

As you’re asking these questions, there is that one nagging question that you want to ask, but don’t. And based on the looks of things, your date wants to ask this question as well. What you and your date really want to ask each other is this: your thoughts on marriage. You sense it in your date’s body language and facial expression: the way the eye twinkles, the brow furrows, the nose twitches. Is there a word to describe how you’re feeling about this situation?

The Word

Turns out, there is no one English word to describe how you and your date feel. But there is such a word in at least one language of the world: the Yaghan language of the Tierra del Fuego (in Chile). The word is Mamihlapinatapai and can be roughly translated as “a look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that they both desire but which neither one wants to start.” Pretty amazing, huh?

Wikipedia cites Mamihlapinatapai as one of the hardest words to translate (that’s a link to a fascinating article in Wikipedia).

I liked this tidbit from that article:

A similar construction occurs in Russian, where “I have” translates literally into at (or by) me there is. Russian does have a word that means “to have”: иметь (imet’) — but it is very rarely used by Russian speakers in the same way English speakers use the word have; in fact, in some cases, it may be misinterpreted as vulgar slang for the subject rudely using the object for sexual gratification, for example, in an inept translation of “do you have a wife?”.

Can you think of any other words/phrases in foreign languages for which there is no (simple) English equivalent? My favorite has to be Schadenfreude, which is a German word which doesn’t have an English equivalent but roughly translates to “pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.” Feel free to share your favorite non-translatable word in the comments.

Note: there’s an article I read relating to the date scenario described in this post, but I can’t find it at the moment. When I do, I’ll update this post…

Readings: Titanic Sinking, The Freedom World, Zuckerberg’s Generosity

Some interesting reads this week:

1) “The Truth about the Sinking of the Titanic” [The Telegraph] – we’ve all seen the movie, but this article suggests that the reason for sinking of The Titanic is because of a “schoolboy” steering error. Louise Patten, who is coming out with a novel, Good as Gold, reveals the truth about her grandfather:

‘My grandfather was the Second Officer on the Titanic,’ Patten explains. ‘He was in his cabin when it struck the iceberg. Afterwards, he refused a direct order to go in a lifeboat, but by a fluke he was saved.’ Astonishingly, he jumped into the ocean as the boat sank, was being sucked down into the depths – but was then carried back to the surface by the force of an explosion beneath the waves and was rescued by a passing lifeboat.

So why did the steering error happen? After the First Officer, William Murdoch spotted the iceberg, he gave a “hard a-starboard” order, which was misinterpreted by Robert Hitchins, the steersman:

‘Titanic was launched at a time when the world was moving from sailing ships to steam ships. My grandfather, like the other senior officers on Titanic, had started out on sailing ships. And on sailing ships, they steered by what is known as “Tiller Orders” which means that if you want to go one way, you push the tiller the other way. [So if you want to go left, you push right.] It sounds counter-intuitive now, but that is what Tiller Orders were. Whereas with “Rudder Orders’ which is what steam ships used, it is like driving a car. You steer the way you want to go. It gets more confusing because, even though Titanic was a steam ship, at that time on the North Atlantic they were still using Tiller Orders. Therefore Murdoch [First Officer] gave the command in Tiller Orders but Hitchins [the steersman], in a panic, reverted to the Rudder Orders he had been trained in. They only had four minutes to change course and by the time Murdoch spotted Hitchins’ mistake and then tried to rectify it, it was too late.’

If you’re still confused, check out a simplified explanation at Discovery News.

2) “The Freedom World” [The Smart Set] – in my previous post, I titled my post as a must-read. Jessa Crispin has come out with a timely post regarding must-reads, and she bases her argument on Jonathan Franzen’s latest book, Freedom (which I haven’t read). This is an interesting argument:

The idea that as a literary person there are a certain set of books you must read because they are important parts of the literary conversation is constantly implied, yet quite ridiculous. Once you get done with the Musts — the Franzens, Mitchells, Vollmanns, Roths, Shteyngarts — and then get through the Booker long list, and the same half-dozen memoirs everyone else is reading this year (crack addiction and face blindness seem incredibly important this year), you have time for maybe two quirky choices, if you are a hardcore reader. Or a critic. And then congratulations, you have had the same conversations as everyone else in the literary world.

And what of the must-read books?

Of course there is no such thing as a must-read book. Maybe you should read some Tolstoy, but then again maybe not, if overly long descriptions of fields don’t really do anything for you, or if you have some problems with the whole woman-has-a-desire-and-so-must-die thing. Maybe you should check out some Jane Austen, but then again, Jane Austen is pretty boring and the whole marriage-as-life thing, I mean who really cares. There is Shakespeare, but you could spend a day arguing Hamlet versus King Lear versus Julius Caesar and never have a clear winner.

I may come back to this argument later, as I do think there are must-read books out there. Until I read Jessa Crispin’s essay, I had no idea some critics were labeling Freedom as the book of the century:

“Best book of the century” is the statement of someone who has given up. That is an incredibly pessimistic viewpoint to have, don’t you think? That 10 years into the century, this is the best we can possibly do? Or perhaps he means the last hundred years. Maybe the guy really didn’t like Ulysses; it’s hard to tell.

It’s not that the guy didn’t like Ulysses; it’s that he never actually read it.

3) “Facebook Founder to Donate $100 Million to Help Remake Newark’s Schools” [New York Times] – Zuckerberg, who recently opened up to The New Yorker, is opening up in a different way: through a very generous contribution:

The $100 million for Newark is the initial gift to start a foundation for education financed by Mr. Zuckerberg. This would be by far the largest publicly known gift by Mr. Zuckerberg, whose fortune Forbes magazine estimated last year at $2 billion.

The gift is many times larger than any the system has received, officials said — an extraordinary sum not only for a district with an $800 million annual operating budget, but also for any publicly financed government agency. It is not yet clear how the money would be used, or over what period.

This is Zuckerberg’s first major act of philanthropy, and no doubt it’s huge. He would have made the headlines had he contributed even a tenth of his $100m pledge.

A Must-Read: Pelé as a Comedian

Every once in a while you come across writing so good, you can’t sit still as you’re reading it.

There are moments where you think: “Wow, I wish I had written that.” But thinking like that is selfish, and the next thought is this: “I must share this writing with others.”

I came across such a piece of writing last week, and it was Brian Phillips’ masterful essay, “Pelé as a Comedian.” As I was reading through the essay, I felt chills go down my spine. This is how incredible the writing is. I don’t often say that something is a must-read, but this is an absolute must-read. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of football (soccer); it doesn’t even matter if you like sports. You should read this essay if you appreciate beautiful and compelling writing. So do yourself a favor, head over to the Run of Play blog, and read it.

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Readings: Shrinking Cities, Oldest Federal Judge, Exercise

A few interesting articles I’ve read over the last couple of days…

1) “How To Shrink a City” [Boston Globe] – many American cities are shrinking in size:

Over the last 50 years, the city of Detroit has lost more than half its population. So has Cleveland. They’re not alone: Eight of the 10 largest cities in the United States in 1950, including Boston, have since lost at least 20 percent of their population. But while Boston has recouped some of that loss in recent years and made itself into the anchor of a thriving white-collar economy, the far more drastic losses of cities like Detroit or Youngstown, Ohio, or Flint, Mich. — losses of people, jobs, money, and social ties — show no signs of turning around. The housing crisis has only accelerated the process.

And so what is to be done? This article offers a glimpse of what some cities, like Detroit, are doing:

In Detroit, a city that now has more than 40 square miles of vacant land, Mayor Dave Bing has committed himself to finding a way to move more of the city’s residents into its remaining vibrant neighborhoods and figuring out something else to do with what remains. A growing number of cities and counties are creating “land banks” to enable them to clear the administrative hurdles that previously prevented them from taking control of blighted blocks of abandoned homes.

2) “At 103, a Judge Has One Caveat: No Lengthy Trials” [New York Times] – an intriguing look into the life of Judge Brown (no, not that Judge Brown), who is the oldest federal judge in the United States:

Born on June 22, 1907, in Hutchinson, Kan., Judge Brown, who had become a prominent local Democrat, first sought appointment by President Harry S. Truman to the federal bench while serving as a lieutenant in the Navy during World War II (at 37, he was the oldest man in his unit). He failed, but in 1962, after a stint as a bankruptcy judge, he was appointed to the district court by President John F. Kennedy He earned a reputation as a pragmatic jurist whose middle-of-the-road rulings reflect a desire to apply rather than make the law.

Judge Brown is still working, probably because he loves his job (or is totally dedicated to it).

The Constitution grants federal judges an almost-unparalleled option to keep working “during good behavior,” which, in practice, has meant as long as they want. But since that language was written, average life expectancy has more than doubled, to almost 80, and the number of people who live beyond 100 is rapidly growing. (Of the 10 oldest practicing federal judges on record, all but one served in the last 15 years.)

You can thank Judge Brown for this gem of a quote:

“At this age, I’m not even buying green bananas.”

3) “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin” [The Guardian] – perhaps a heretical perspective on trying to lose weight, but worth highlighting:

Most of us have a grasp of the rudiments of weight gain and loss: you put energy (calories) into your body through food, you expend them through movement, and any that don’t get burned off are stored in your body as fat. Unfortunately, the maths isn’t in our favour. “In theory, of course, it’s possible that you can burn more calories than you eat,” says Dr Susan Jebb, head of nutrition and health research at the Medical Research Council and one of the government’s go-to academics for advice on nutrition. “But you have to do an awful lot more exercise than most people realise. To burn off an extra 500 calories is typically an extra two hours of cycling. And that’s about two doughnuts.”

While the article is UK-centric, it’s worth reading. Are we confusing cause and effect in the relationship among dieting, exercise, and weight loss?

Readings: Goldman Partners, Atlanta’s Offices, The Wire at Harvard

Here’s what I’ve read recently:

1) “At Goldman, Partners are Made, Unmade” [New York Times] – the article begins with a bold introduction:

On Wall Street, becoming a partner at Goldman Sachs is considered the equivalent of winning the lottery.

And then goes on to explain that while achieving partner status at Goldman is joining the elite, the status may be taken away:

As many as 60 Goldman executives could be stripped of their partnerships this year to make way for new blood, people with firsthand knowledge of the process say. Inside the firm, the process is known as “de-partnering.” Goldman does not disclose who is no longer a partner, and many move on to jobs elsewhere; some stay, telling few of their fate.

I find this fact fascinating: I knew that Goldman had partners at its firm (even though the company is public), but I had no idea that partners could have been unmade. This is in stark contrast to academia, where a professor who has attained tenure usually will not be stripped of the status unless he does something completely stupid.

And while being de-partnered sounds bad, I find it hard to agree with the claim made by Michael Driscoll:

“Being partner at Goldman is the pinnacle of Wall Street; if you make it, you are considered set for life,” said Michael Driscoll, a visiting professor at Adelphi University and a senior managing director at Bear Sterns before that firm collapsed in 2008. “To have it taken away would just be devastating to an individual. There is just no other word for it.”

What do you think?

2) “Atlanta Awash in Empty Offices Struggles to Recover From Binge” [Bloomberg] – an insightful piece explaining how the recession is still deep, especially in my hometown, Atlanta.

The gist:

Atlanta is no longer showing robust population and job increases. Unemployment topped 10 percent for most of the past year and exceeded the national rate for most of 2008, 2009 and 2010. While Atlanta’s office space increased 5.8 percent in the past five years, office jobs shrank 9.8 percent

I was surprised to learn that Bank of America (the company) was not the largest tenant in the Bank of America Plaza:

Bank of America Corp., the largest tenant in the 55-story tower, plans to reduce its space to 13 percent from 30 percent and cut its rent to about half the current $36.65 a square foot, according to the watch-list data.

The homebuilders in Atlanta are idle as well:

Atlanta’s homebuilders, who had led the nation in single- family construction permits from 1995 to 2005, have been largely idled. Permit volume declined 91 percent from 2005 to 2009, according to the Census Bureau.

A lot more sobering statistics in the Bloomberg piece.

3) “Why We’re Teaching ‘The Wire’ at Harvard” [Harvard Kennedy School] – one of the most compelling, gritty, and moving television shows of all time is HBO’s The Wire. One Harvard course in urban inequality is embracing this television show:

Of course, our undergraduate students will read rigorous academic studies of the urban job market, education and the drug war. But the HBO series does what these texts can’t. More than simply telling a gripping story, “The Wire” shows how the deep inequality in inner-city America results from the web of lost jobs, bad schools, drugs, imprisonment, and how the situation feeds on itself.

Powerful. Certainly a strong testament that education can go beyond the textbook.

The Face of Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg, Revealed

If you’re reading this post, then chances are you’re probably on Facebook. Or at least have heard of it.

The latest piece in The New Yorker, “The Face of Facebook,” offers an intimate, revealing look into the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg. It’s definitely a piece worth reading, not least because it goes on to show how Zuckerberg has changed since his younger days at Harvard. I highlight some passages which I found interesting below.

With whom is Mark friends with on Facebook? And what are Zuckerberg’s favorite artists? (More about his favorites in a moment).

According to his Facebook profile, Zuckerberg has three sisters (Randi, Donna, and Arielle), all of whom he’s friends with. He’s friends with his parents, Karen and Edward Zuckerberg. He graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy and attended Harvard University. He’s a fan of the comedian Andy Samberg and counts among his favorite musicians Green Day, Jay-Z, Taylor Swift, and Shakira.
I like this description of Mark provided by his girlfriend, Priscilla Chan, who met Mark at Harvard party:
He was this nerdy guy who was just a little bit out there. I remember he had these beer glasses that said ‘pound include beer dot H.’ It’s a tag for C++. It’s like college humor but with a nerdy, computer-science appeal.
On the inevitability of Zuckerberg becoming a billionaire:
If and when Facebook decides to go public, Zuckerberg will become one of the richest men on the planet, and one of the youngest billionaires. In the October issue of Vanity Fair, Zuckerberg is named No. 1 in the magazine’s power ranking of the New Establishment, just ahead of Steve Jobs, the leadership of Google, and Rupert Murdoch. The magazine declared him “our new Caesar.”
On Zuckerberg’s mannerisms:
When he’s not interested in what someone is talking about, he’ll just look away and say, “Yeah, yeah.” Sometimes he pauses so long before he answers it’s as if he were ignoring the question altogether. The typical complaint about Zuckerberg is that he’s “a robot.” One of his closest friends told me, “He’s been overprogrammed.” Indeed, he sometimes talks like an Instant Message—brusque, flat as a dial tone—and he can come off as flip and condescending, as if he always knew something that you didn’t.

There are revealing and embarrassing instant messages that Zuckerberg sent regarding Facebook when he was still at Harvard. Zuckerberg seems apologetic, regretful:

When I asked Zuckerberg about the IMs that have already been published online, and that I have also obtained and confirmed, he said that he “absolutely” regretted them. “If you’re going to go on to build a service that is influential and that a lot of people rely on, then you need to be mature, right?” he said. “I think I’ve grown and learned a lot.”
What is Zuckerberg’s ultimate goal?
Zuckerberg’s ultimate goal is to create, and dominate, a different kind of Internet. Google and other search engines may index the Web, but, he says, “most of the information that we care about is things that are in our heads, right? And that’s not out there to be indexed, right?” Zuckerberg was in middle school when Google launched, and he seems to have a deep desire to build something that moves beyond it. “It’s like hardwired into us in a deeper way: you really want to know what’s going on with the people around you,” he said.
Regarding favorites, such as artists and books: what Zuckerberg lists may not necessary be his favorites (I sympathize with his explanation):

I asked Zuckerberg about “Ender’s Game,” the sci-fi book whose hero is a young computer wizard.

“Oh, it’s not a favorite book or anything like that,” Zuckerberg told me, sounding surprised. “I just added it because I liked it. I don’t think there’s any real significance to the fact that it’s listed there and other books aren’t. But there are definitely books—like the Aeneid—that I enjoyed reading a lot more.”

I think The New Yorker piece paints an honest portrait of Zuckerberg. While he may have been slightly immature in his teens and earlier twenties, he has grown up considerably over the last few years. I have a feeling that if I were to meet Mark in person, we’d get along.

Readings: John Grisham on Writing, Lying Pants, Frog Census

A few short reads for today:

1) “Dreams of a Desk Job” [New York Times] – from laying asphalt to selling underwear, John Grisham explains how, one day, he just started writing:

Writing was not a childhood dream of mine. I do not recall longing to write as a student. I wasn’t sure how to start. Over the following weeks I refined my plot outline and fleshed out my characters. One night I wrote “Chapter One” at the top of the first page of a legal pad; the novel, “A Time to Kill,” was finished three years later.

This is a fascinating op-ed. I really like John Grisham’s conclusion:

I had never worked so hard in my life, nor imagined that writing could be such an effort. It was more difficult than laying asphalt, and at times more frustrating than selling underwear. But it paid off. Eventually, I was able to leave the law and quit politics. Writing’s still the most difficult job I’ve ever had — but it’s worth it.

2) “Are Your Pants Lying to You? An Investigation” [Esquire] – a short, but informative piece explaining that not all brands of pants fit the same. I like the author’s frustration:
This isn’t the subjective business of mediums, larges and extra-larges — nor is it the murky business of women’s sizes, what with its black-hole size zero. This is science, damnit. Numbers! Should inches be different than miles per hour? Do highway signs make us feel better by informing us that Chicago is but 45 miles away when it’s really 72? Multiplication tables don’t yield to make us feel better about badness at math; why should pants make us feel better about badness at health? Are we all so many emperors with no clothes?
3) “Is That the Croak of the Pickerel?” [Wall Street Journal] – could a frog census be really important? This finding seems a bit haphazard:
A good frog census is important. Frogs have sensitive skins, so their changing population helps scientists track pollution, disease and other ecological maladies. Other research has indicated a sharp and somewhat mysterious decline in amphibians around the world, which helped spur the American census.

The Art of Non-Conformity: Book Review

Have you ever thought “I don’t like where I am in life right now,” that there must be something more to life than what you’re currently experiencing?

If your answer to the above question is yes, then Chris Guillebeau’s new book, The Art of Non-Conformity, might be the book you need to read next. The book is subtitled “Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World” — admittedly a grand series to accomplish (especially the last part), but Chris Guillebeau sets you on the right track…

Before I begin this review, a disclosure: I’ve been following Chris Guillebeau online over the last two years or so. I am a big fan of his blog and have been for a number of years. His Brief Guide to World Domination is a must-read. I was one of the 99 people to receive an advance copy of this book by leaving a comment in this post. Onward!

The Art of Non-Conformity on my desk...

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Readings: Highest Paid Athlete, Trying Again, Usain Bolt

Some short (but interesting!) reads over the last few of days:

1) “Greatest of All Time” [Lapham’s Quarterly] – who is/was the highest paid athlete of all time? Hint: it’s not Tiger Woods or LeBron James. According to Peter Struck, associate professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, that honor goes to a Lusitanian Spaniard named Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who worked as a charioteer in Ancient Rome. According to Struck:

Twenty-four years of winnings brought Diocles—likely an illiterate man whose signature move was the strong final dash—the staggering sum of 35,863,120 sesterces in prize money…His total take home amounted to five times the earnings of the highest paid provincial governors over a similar period—enough to provide grain for the entire city of Rome for one year, or to pay all the ordinary soldiers of the Roman Army at the height of its imperial reach for a fifth of a year. By today’s standards that last figure, assuming the apt comparison is what it takes to pay the wages of the American armed forces for the same period, would cash out to about $15 billion.

2) “At First She Didn’t Succeed, but She Tried and Tried Again” [New York Times] – teachers: this is the story you forward (or discuss in class) to your students…How one lady in South Korea didn’t give up after repeatedly failing to pass the driving exam. Remarkable:

This diminutive woman, now known nationwide as “Grandma Cha Sa-soon,” has achieved a record that causes people here to first shake their heads with astonishment and then smile: She failed her driver’s test hundreds of times but never gave up. Finally, she got her license — on her 960th try.

Talk about motivation:

For three years starting in April 2005, she took the test once a day five days a week. After that, her pace slowed, to about twice a week. But she never quit.

3) “Usain Bolt: Fast and Loose” [The Guardian] – the world’s fastest sprinter sits down for an interview and explains that he actually wants to play football (soccer):

Ultimately, he [Usain Bolt] says, he’d love to make a go of playing football professionally. He’s being deadly serious. One of the perks of being Usain Bolt is that sporting stars love to meet him, so whenever he’s travelling and there’s time, he tries to train with a top football team. Last year it was Manchester United, a few days ago it was Bayern Munich. He’s still carrying a copy of the French sporting newspaper L’Equipe, which features a spread on his football skills and praise from Bayern manager Louis van Gaal. He shows me a photo of himself with his arm wrapped round the dwarfed 6ft German forward Miroslav Klose. “If I keep myself in shape, I can definitely play football at a high level,” he says.

A question I asked recently: will the 100m sprint be ever run in under 9 seconds? When do you think it will happen? In the next ten years? The next twenty? In other words, I am wondering if we’ll see the 10 second barrier become the nine second barrier…