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Ben leads the Editorial team at / Automattic, and contributes to Longreads, Discover, and The Daily Post.

Walking the Line in the Bekaa Valley

Syrian refugee children in the eastern town of Bar Elias, in Bekaa valley, Lebanon, Thursday, May 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

When every single day seems to contain ten distinct — and equally dramatic — news cycles in North America, it’s all too easy to forget that one of the biggest humanitarian crises of our time continues to unfold in and around Syria. In Popular Mechanics, Bronwen Dickey follows a small group of slackliners as they criss-cross the Bekaa Valley, in eastern Lebanon, where hundreds of thousands of refugees reside in makeshift camps. Their mission is to give as many refugee children as possible a chance at a literal balancing act, a fleeting moment of controlled fear — and, hopefully, joy — in a daily life that’s full of the chaos of displacement.

If tightrope-walking, with all its sober elegance, is the classical violin, then slacklining is the country fiddle, full of mischief and improvisation. Though some do it competitively, for most enthusiasts there is nothing to summit or “win” in slacklining. The same line you crossed (or “sent”) yesterday could very well defeat you today. The aimlessness of it, the lack of scorekeeping, is part of its appeal. What’s more, it does not require fancy gear or exceptional fitness. It is a test of patience, not of strength. It is also a flawless barometer of the practitioner’s state of mind. “Fear and stress turn into muscle tension,” Sonya says, “which makes the line shake, which makes you shake, and it all comes back to you. It’s like talking to a mirror.”

Three hours after setting up in Nasser’s field, the Mediterranean sun hangs low in the sky, and the Crossing Lines team is ready to start teaching. Three twenty-foot lengths of one-inch-wide flat nylon webbing have been propped up on wooden A-frames, cinched into clove hitches, and tightened with heavy metal ratchets so that they can support weight, yet still have some give. Each line is suspended about twelve inches off the ground and radiates outward from The Rock. Encircled by color-blocked tumbling mats, the ClimbAID truck shines like a beacon in the dusty white rock-yard.

“I never know if anyone will show up,” Beat says, scratching nervously at his dark beard. The problem for him, and for Sonya, and for anyone hoping to organize diversions near the settlements is that in Lebanon, Syrian youth as young as ten are encouraged, sometimes forced, to find jobs as soon as they can physically handle them. Basic survival doesn’t leave much time for extracurriculars. “It’s very hard to plan ahead,” he says. “For these kids, there is only now. There is no tomorrow. There is no five minutes from now.”

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To Be a Lexicographer Is to Surrender to Folly

Image by GCShutter (via Getty Images)

The arrival in the past 30 years of search engines and vast databases of electronic texts has made dictionaries far more comprehensive, but also much more complicated to compile and update (not that the task was easy to begin with). Andrew Dickson’s Guardian piece on the history of the Oxford English Dictionary focuses on the tension between the cumulative, decades-long process of updating the OED and a world in which few people still pay for hard copies and Google reaps most of the ad revenue from online queries. What is it that keeps this endeavor chugging along? There’s institutional inertia at work, no doubt, but also something even more amorphous: the vocational resistance — one might call it love? — of lexicographers who have embarked on a journey whose end they know they’ll never see.

It takes a particular sort of human to be a “word detective”: something between a linguistics academic, an archival historian, a journalist and an old-fashioned gumshoe. Though hardly without its tensions — corpus linguists versus old-school dictionary-makers, stats nerds versus scholarly etymologists — lexicography seems to be one specialist profession with a lingering sense of common purpose: us against that ever-expanding, multi-headed hydra, the English language. “It is pretty obsessive-compulsive,” Jane Solomon said.

The idea of making a perfect linguistic resource was one most lexicographers knew was folly, she continued. “I’ve learned too much about past dictionaries to have that as a personal goal.” But then, part of the thrill of being a lexicographer is knowing that the work will never be done. English is always metamorphosing, mutating, evolving; its restless dynamism is what makes it so absorbing. “It’s always on the move,” said Solomon. “You have to love that.”

There are other joys, too: the thrill of catching a new sense, or crafting a definition that feels, if not perfect, at least right. “It sounds cheesy, but it can be like poetry,” Michael Rundell reflected. “Making a dictionary is as much an art as a craft.”

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The Unexpected Reemergence of an Elusive Strain of Rice

The rice mill at Middleton Place Plantation, South Carolina. Photo by Brian Zinnel (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The history of the African diaspora in the Americas is a patchwork of oral traditions and cultural practices that had to endure centuries of slavery and oppression. Major chunks of it might be lost forever, but then, unexpectedly, some elements might make an unlikely reappearance. Such is the case of hill rice — a strain that was a staple of slaves’ culinary tradition in South Carolina and elsewhere, before disappearing around the turn of the 20th century. At the New York Times, Kim Severson retraces the recent, surprising discovery of hill rice on the Caribbean island of Trinidad by B.J. Dennis, a Charleston-based Gullah chef.

Mr. Dennis had heard about hill rice — also known as upland red bearded rice or Moruga Hill rice — through the culinary organization Slow Food USA and the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, the group that brought back Carolina Gold in the early 2000s. He’d also heard stories about it from elderly cooks in his community. Like everyone else, he thought the hill rice of the African diaspora was lost forever.

But then, on a rainy morning in the Trinidad hills in December 2016, he walked past coconut trees and towering okra plants to the edge of a field with ripe stalks of rice, each grain covered in a reddish husk and sprouting spiky tufts.

“Here I am looking at this rice and I said: ‘Wow. Wait a minute. This is that rice that’s missing,'” he said.

It is hard to overstate how shocked the people who study rice were to learn that the long-lost American hill rice was alive and growing in the Caribbean. Horticulturists at the Smithsonian Institution want to grow it, rice geneticists at New York University are testing it and the United States Department of Agriculture is reviewing it. If all goes well, it may become a commercial crop in America, and a menu staple as diners develop a deeper appreciation for African-American food.

“It’s the most historically significant African diaspora grain in the Western Hemisphere,” said David S. Shields, a professor at the University of South Carolina and chairman of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, who works with Mr. Dennis on historical culinary projects and was with him that rainy day in Trinidad.

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The Placeless and the Privileged

I last read about the startup Roam, which caters to affluent digital nomads seeking a ready-made community whether they’re in London, Tokyo, or Miami, in Jessa Crispin’s Outline story from last summer. Based on her experiences in the company’s compound in Bali, she questioned the possibility of an authentic communal experience in a place that depended on the cheap cost of living and stark income gaps between Roam patrons and the local labor force.

In the New York Times Magazine, Kyle Chayka revisits Roam, this time in Miami, where he observes different nuances of satisfaction and alienation — from the real, if temporary connections that people seem to make during their stays, to the growing sense that this was more “immersive group therapy” than a travel experience. Some of the most interesting moments in Chayka’s piece, however, go beyond the (easily parodied) surface of the wealthy-tech-nomad lifestyle. He also examines the deeper forces that have made a concept like Roam not just attractive to a subset of (mostly young) professionals, but almost a logical, necessary outcome of the current economic moment. As Roam founder Bruno Haid tells it, the startup is “a means of letting human capital find the path of least resistance, wherever it may be.”

There is a vicious plausibility to Haid’s vision. The macroeconomic pressures he describes in the urbanized West — a lack of affordable housing and linear careers — are particularly tough on millennials, who are also, incidentally or not, a historically unattached generation, with low rates of marriage, homeownership and childbearing. If the usual trappings of adulthood don’t seem attainable, and a permanent sense of precariousness seems unavoidable, why not embrace impermanence instead? Already there are partial nomads all around you; you just might not think of them that way yet. There’s the writer who spends a few months of every year in Berlin, making up for diminishing freelance wages with cheap Neukölln rent; the curator bouncing between New York and Los Angeles; the artist jumping from Tokyo residency to Istanbul fellowship. In the competitive freelance economy, geographic mobility has become a superficial sign of both success and creative freedom: the ability to do anything, anywhere, at any time.

Those in less artsy careers who chase that same sort of freedom may find it illusory. The new technologies that have liberated us from place have also made employers more comfortable with remote workers, but only because we can be so easily monitored. Combine this interconnectivity with an increasing population of freelancers — over a third of the American work force makes money in the so-called gig economy — and you have the makings of a nomad boom. Haid estimates his target customer base to be around 1.2 million people who make over $80,000 a year and could live anywhere. Pieter Levels, creator of the social network Nomad List, believes there to be a nomad population in the high hundreds of thousands.

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Translation is Messy, Which is Why Google Translate Will Never Be Very Good at It

Pieter Breughel the Elder, The Tower of Babel (Public Domain, via the Google Art Project)

If you want to make a staid, over-anthologized poem more interesting, just cycle it through a handful of languages on Google Translate. Case in point:

She started shaking with her
Age and age everywhere:
Two ways,
I was moving slightly
And this has created a difference.

The last verse likely gives it a way — yes, it’s Frost’s “The Road Less Taken,” having been translated into languages including Maltese, Tajik, Hebrew, and Bengali, and then back into English. From past experience, the longer you extend the process, the more satisfyingly Dada the results.

This is, of course, a problem for a tool whose stated goal is to facilitate communication across linguistic barriers. As cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter explains in his Atlantic essay on Google Translate’s (many) shortcomings, the problem isn’t that the software doesn’t have large enough databases or sufficient computing power. It’s that Google designed it to swiftly decode and replace words and phrases, but not to attempt to extricate meaning. That is why, according to Hofstadter, human translators don’t need to panic just yet about the imminent ascendency of our robot overlords.

To me, the word “translation” exudes a mysterious and evocative aura. It denotes a profoundly human art form that graciously carries clear ideas in Language A into clear ideas in Language B, and the bridging act not only should maintain clarity, but also should give a sense for the flavor, quirks, and idiosyncrasies of the writing style of the original author. Whenever I translate, I first read the original text carefully and internalize the ideas as clearly as I can, letting them slosh back and forth in my mind. It’s not that the words of the original are sloshing back and forth; it’s the ideas that are triggering all sorts of related ideas, creating a rich halo of related scenarios in my mind. Needless to say, most of this halo is unconscious. Only when the halo has been evoked sufficiently in my mind do I start to try to express it—to “press it out”—in the second language. I try to say in Language B what strikes me as a natural B-ish way to talk about the kinds of situations that constitute the halo of meaning in question.

I am not, in short, moving straight from words and phrases in Language A to words and phrases in Language B. Instead, I am unconsciously conjuring up images, scenes, and ideas, dredging up experiences I myself have had (or have read about, or seen in movies, or heard from friends), and only when this nonverbal, imagistic, experiential, mental “halo” has been realized—only when the elusive bubble of meaning is floating in my brain—do I start the process of formulating words and phrases in the target language, and then revising, revising, and revising. This process, mediated via meaning, may sound sluggish, and indeed, in comparison with Google Translate’s two or three seconds per page, it certainly is—but it is what any serious human translator does. This is the kind of thing I imagine when I hear an evocative phrase like “deep mind.”

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The Only Downside to Lower Infant-Mortality Rates? All Those Baby Books

We typically think of narcissists as people with an inflated sense of their own uniqueness. If you’ve been around a parent in the past, say, century, you will have been subjected to a more peculiar type of narcissism: the one that assumes the universality of their highly anecdotal experience. (As a parent myself, I’m certainly part of the problem.) In the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman shows how the baby-advice literary-consumerist complex has capitalized on this tendency, producing book after book filled with often-useless, self-contradictory insights.

It’s no surprise, argues Burkeman, that this publishing explosion came about just as newborns’ chances of survival increased dramatically. The removal of most life-threatening circumstances from the experience of giving birth and raising an infant opened up the space for anxiety around the more trivial aspects of parenting.

Child mortality began to decline precipitously from the turn of the century, and with it, the life-or-death justification for this kind of advice. But the result was not a new generation of experts urging parents to relax, on the grounds that everything would probably be fine. (Books informed by 20th-century psychoanalysis, such as those by Benjamin Spock and Donald Winnicott, would later advise a far less rigid approach, arguing that a “good enough mother”, who didn’t always follow the rules perfectly, was perhaps even better than one who did, since that helped babies gradually to learn to tolerate frustration. But they were still half a century away.)

Instead, the anxiety that had formerly attached itself to the risk of a child dying took a more modern form: the fear that a baby reared with too much indulgence might grow up “coddled”, unfit for the new era of high technology and increasing economic competition; or even, as at least one American paediatrician warned, ripe for conversion to socialism. “When you are tempted to pet your child,” wrote the psychologist John Watson in 1928, in his book Psychological Care of Infant and Child, which was hardly idiosyncratic for its time, “remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument. An instrument which may inflict a never-healing wound, a wound which may make infancy unhappy, adolescence a nightmare, an instrument which may wreck your adult son or daughter’s vocational future and their chances for marital happiness.”

Thus began the transformation that would culminate in the contemporary baby-advice industry. With every passing year, there was less and less to worry about: in the developed world today, by any meaningful historical yardstick, your baby will almost certainly be fine, and if it isn’t, that will almost certainly be due to factors entirely beyond your control. Yet the anxiety remains – perhaps for no other reason than that becoming a parent is an inherently anxiety-inducing experience; or perhaps because modern life induces so much anxiety for other reasons, which we then project upon our babies. And so baby manuals became more and more fixated on questions that would have struck any 19th-century parent as trivial, such as for precisely how many minutes it’s acceptable to let babies cry; or how the shape of a pacifier might affect the alignment of their teeth; or whether their lifelong health might be damaged by traces of chemicals in the plastics used to make their bowls and spoons.

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Why Do Millennials Love Horoscopes? (Hint: It’s Not Only Because They’re Free)

Diamonds, home ownership, beer. “Things millennials killed” was easily the most tedious meme of 2017. Luckily, we can begin the new year with a celebration of the one branch of pseudo-knowledge this beleaguered generation has embraced: astrology. In The Atlantic, Julie Beck explains why an otherwise-skeptical group is happy to take a semi-earnest leap of faith into the world of charts, zodiac signs and, of course, a perennially in-retrograde Mercury.

It might be that Millennials are more comfortable living in the borderlands between skepticism and belief because they’ve spent so much of their lives online, in another space that is real and unreal at the same time. That so many people find astrology meaningful is a reminder that something doesn’t have to be real to feel true. Don’t we find truth in fiction?

In describing her attitude toward astrology, [software engineer Nicole] Leffel recalled a line from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods in which the main character, Shadow, wonders whether lightning in the sky was from a magical thunderbird, “or just an atmospheric discharge, or whether the two ideas were, on some level, the same thing. And of course they were. That was the point after all.”

If the “astrology is fake but it’s true” stance seems paradoxical, well, perhaps the paradox is what’s attractive. Many people offered me hypotheses to explain astrology’s resurgence. Digital natives are narcissistic, some suggested, and astrology is a navel-gazing obsession. People feel powerless here on Earth, others said, so they’re turning to the stars. Of course, it’s both. Some found it to be an escape from logical “left-brain” thinking; others craved the order and organization the complex system brought to the chaos of life. It’s both. That’s the point, after all.

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An Ode to Sichuan’s Singular Sensation

Photo by Ragesoss (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons.

We tend to think about regional cuisines in terms of flavor, texture, or signature preparation; sometimes it’s a specific combination of ingredients — think Basque piperade, or Old Bay Seasoning in Maryland. In Sichuan, it’s a sensation: the numbing, tickling heat of the region’s beloved peppercorn, zanthoxylum. (Calling it a peppercorn is actually an entrenched misnomer: it’s closer to the citrus family than to hot chilis.)

At Roads and Kingdoms, Taylor Holliday, a purveyor of Sichuan ingredients, takes readers along the peppercorn’s path from rural farms and Chengdu markets to the USDA bureaucracy that has made it extremely difficult to bring to the States. At its core, though, this is an ode to a spice that etches itself onto your memory within seconds of your first taste.

Even more than other spices, endowed by evolution with defensive odors and tastes, Sichuan pepper seems designed not to be eaten. Once you get past the thorns, the taste of a fresh or freshly dried berry leaves your mouth, tongue, and lips buzzing and numb for several minutes. It is literally electric: The active ingredient, sanshool, causes a vibration on the lips measured at 50 hertz, the same frequency as the power grid in most parts of the world, according to a 2013 study at University College London.

In late June, the Sichuan pepper harvest in Qingxi, the Hanyuan town at the heart of pepper production, was still at least a couple months away, generally “during the seventh lunar month,” according to Di. But the berries getting direct sun are already plump and red and releasing some very potent, intensely numbing oil once you bite into them or squeeze the little bumps covering the surface of the peppercorns. After the berry clumps are painstakingly harvested, the farmers sell them to a processor who dries them until the little pods open, releasing their unpleasantly brittle black seeds, at which point their shape resembles a flower, earning them the name hua jiao, or flower pepper, in Sichuan dialect.

The best hua jiao are fully open with few seeds or stray twigs, and certainly no thorns—though some have been known to sneak through in lower-quality product, which is one reason premium peppercorns are not only picked but also cleaned and sorted by hand. They deliver not only the tingly sensation prized in Sichuan food, often paired as a one-two punch with chili peppers, but also a strong citrusy perfume and taste that adds intrigue to the heat. Outsiders think of Sichuan food as spicy hot, or la, but the more prevalent and unique characteristic of the cuisine is ma, the citrus tingle of Sichuan pepper. The combination of the two, mala, is what we typically think of as Sichuan flavor.

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The Digital Age Won’t Kill Paper

Historians of early print culture have long noticed a peculiar phenomenon: Not only had the invention of print not destroyed handwriting, it actually generated the need for more of it. The vast majority of printed matter hasn’t been novels and newspapers; it’s forms, certificates, and other types of ephemera that call for information — dates, signatures, place names — to be entered by hand. Paper seems to be going through a similar dynamic: as David J. Unger points out in The Guardian after attending a paper-industry convention, the stuff you order on Amazon still requires lots and lots of paper packaging, and your smartphone can do many things, but wiping your nose isn’t one of them. Read more…

The Volcanologist’s Dilemma

Photo via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Just across the Gulf of Naples from Pompeii, the Campi Flegrei volcano — a caldera that stretches as wide as 15km across — threatens some 700,000 people living within its red zone. As Helen Gordon shows in her 1843 Magazine story on the volcanologists tasked with predicting an eruption, managing a natural disaster in a dense metro area like Naples is going to be daunting, and made even more complicated by the skepticism of many residents and the region’s aging infrastructure. Scientists like Francesco Bianco, the director of the Vesuvius Observatory, are caught in an impossible dilemma: if they sound too alarmist, people could end up not heeding their warnings; but if they stay too laissez-faire, thousands might perish.

For Bianco and the observatory staff, one of the greatest challenges will be deciding when to trigger the final red alert. There are currently no set criteria for deciding this. (Kilburn’s model may explain crust failure but even that does not guarantee an eruption.) “A lot still involves considerable amounts of expert judgment. What have you seen before?” Donovan explained. Because major eruptions are relatively rare, it can take a lifetime to build up that knowledge. The United States Geological Survey, for example, is currently facing the retirement of a tranche of experienced volcanologists and must consider how best to preserve their expertise.

The stakes are incredibly high. In the L’Aquila earthquake in Italy in 2009 (a low-probability event with high stakes, much like an eruption), more than 300 people died. Some of the victims’ families claim that reassuring statements by the then-deputy head of the Civil Protection Department fatally prompted their relatives to stay indoors when the quake struck. At the other extreme, volcanology is still haunted by the example of the 1976 Guadeloupe eruptive crisis, when 72,000 people were evacuated for between three and nine months at huge economic and personal cost. A major eruption never occurred.

When the Campi Flegrei red alert is finally triggered, the heads of the emergency services and the scientific and technical advisers will meet at the CPD’s headquarters in Rome. Here, a belt-and-braces approach to safety is observed: there is plenty of gleaming modern technology but also a crucifix on the wall and, in the small vestibule, a richly painted gold icon. “We have calculated that 72 hours is the minimum amount of time we need to complete the evacuation,” David Fabi from the emergency management office told me when I visited. This breaks down as 12 hours for organization, 48 hours for exfiltration and an extra 12-hour security margin. It will require a mammoth feat of logistics.

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