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On Course for Certain Disaster

In this Aug. 21, 2017, file photo, damage is visible as the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain steers towards Changi naval base in Singapore following a collision with the merchant vessel Alnic MC. A number of sailors are missing. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Fulton/U.S. Navy photo via AP, File)

Nobody on the 8,300 ton destroyer USS John S. McCain — not even the captain — really understood how to use the new touch-screen steering system the navy installed in a bid to reduce the number of sailors required to safely guide the ship. As T. Christian Miller, Robert Faturechi, Megan Rose, and Agnes Chang report at ProPublica, the system was fraught with “false alarms” and problems, to the point where engineers called the system, which regularly encountered “multiple and cascading failures,” unstable. Then, the navy blamed Captain Sanchez and the sailors steering the ship for the accident in which 10 sailors died.

In August 2017, Sanchez and his crew steered the ship toward a naval base in Singapore, where technicians were waiting. The navigation system had indicated more than 60 “major steering faults” during the month.

“We were going to have the programmers,” Sanchez said, “give the system a full, a full check, a full clean bill of health.”

The McCain never reached its destination.

In the early hours of Aug. 21, 2017, the McCain was 20 miles from Singapore, navigating one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Sanchez was on the bridge to assist in the complex maneuvers ahead. He ordered Bordeaux to take over steering the warship while another sailor controlled its speed. The idea was to avoid distractions by having each man focus on a single task in the heavy maritime traffic.

To check that he had control, Bordeaux tugged the ship’s wheel slightly to the left. The McCain did not alter its course. Bordeaux rotated it slightly to starboard. Again, the McCain maintained its track. Bordeaux suddenly realized that the McCain was steaming uncontrolled toward the cargo ships sailing through the Singapore Strait.

“Loss of steering,” he called out.

The McCain began turning mysteriously to the left, slowly at first, and then faster. The ship drew closer and closer to the vessels plying the strait.

As Bordeaux remained glued to the screen before him, there was quiet in the dark of the bridge as sailors darted around, staring at gauges, flipping buttons, trying in one way or another to figure out what was happening. Sanchez’s eyes flew across the ship’s banks of screens in his own desperate attempt to avert disaster.

Three minutes and 19 seconds after Bordeaux’s cry, the McCain collided violently with a 30,000-ton Liberian-flagged oil tanker. Ten Navy sailors were killed and scores more were injured. It was the Navy’s worst accident at sea in 40 years.

Immediate responsibility, the Navy ruled, rested with Sanchez, his officers and senior sailors. They had been lax, even complacent, in their training of the sailors steering the ship. Sanchez had made a critical error in not adding more sailors to stand watch as the McCain navigated the treacherous strait. Sanchez was charged with homicide. A chief petty officer, responsible for training the sailors to use the navigation system, was charged with dereliction of duty. The chief petty officer had himself received less than an hour of instruction.

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How Rob Krar Helps Others Outrun Depression

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Rob Krar is an accomplished ultramarathon runner who has struggled with serious depression for decades. By leading ultramarathon camps with his wife, Christina Bauer, he’s discovered that more than a few of his campers struggle with their mental health. In this stunning and visceral portrait at Outside, Christine Fennessy discovers that while running for 100 miles can help keep the dark times at bay, being among those who understand helps even more.

When he first started his running camps, his main focus was the organizational component, making sure everything happened exactly as he planned it at exactly the right time. The camp and his role in them was simple: talk about training and nutrition and racing, and lead kickass runs. But then three men wept during a run at the very first summer camp in 2015, and Krar was completely taken by surprise. What’s going on here? he thought. He continued to market the events as running camps, but he began to realize that he was drawing runners who were coming for other reasons, too. That he was, however inadvertently, creating a safe place where people could open up.

..many of Krar’s campers…know about overwhelming hopelessness. How it has a weight to it that’s so immense they feel rooted to the ground. How life feels like it’s happening in slow motion, and the simplest tasks—­sitting up in bed, emptying the dishwasher, putting one foot in front of the other—are overwhelming. They know after they finish a race, or anything they’ve worked hard for, that they should feel happiness, a sense of accomplishment. Relief. Joy. Something. But all they feel is emptiness. And often, if they do feel something, it’s anger. Or sadness. Or shame. There’s nothing to point to, no trauma to blame. And so it becomes this terrible additional burden of feeling awful about feeling awful.

Krar thanks them all for coming. Then, as most of the campers start getting up, Krar walks over and sits next to Ben Kammin, who is trying hard to hold it together. Kammin, 45, is a Ph.D. student in ethnomusicology in Boulder, Colorado. He’s lean, with a bald head and a graying goatee. He’s thoughtful and not much of a talker, and right now, with Krar sitting quietly beside him, he can’t say a word. If he opens his mouth, he’ll lose it. And there’s so much he suddenly wants to say.

He wants to say he’s struggled with manic depression for around 15 years. That when he’s going into a bad place—“absolute hopelessness”—he can feel the darkness crawl down the back of his neck. That hardly anyone knows this about him, even friends he’s had for 25 years. That a year ago he started running, and while it’s not a cure or a substitute for his meds, he calls it his miracle drug, because it gives him hours of clarity and productivity. He wants to say that sometimes he weeps when he runs. That he just gets overwhelmed with gratitude for this thing that does so much for his body and mind. He wants to say that he thinks his illness is getting worse, but he’s doing everything he can to be healthy, because he knows his time is precious. He wants to tell Krar that after just three days, he feels like he found his people. That the runners he met are imperfect just like him, and that they are the most amazing, beautiful people because of those imperfections. And that soon he will start thinking of life before camp and after camp.

But he doesn’t have to say these things. Because Rob Krar gets it.

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Who was Behind the First State-Sponsored Computer Attack? The Russians, Quelle Surprise

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At Wired, Andy Greenberg visits with Clifford Stoll, 30 years after he wrote the original book on computer hacking, The Cuckoo’s Egg. Stoll discovered what is believed to be the very first state-sponsored computer hacker.

He starts reminiscing, telling a story about his hacker hunting that isn’t in the book.

After Stoll helped German police trace the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab’s hacker to an address in Hanover, they arrested the intruder—a young man named Markus Hess. The police found that Hess, along with four other hackers, had together decided to sell their stolen secrets to the Soviets.

What he didn’t mention in the book is that he later met Hess in person. When Stoll was called to the German town of Celle near Hanover to serve as an expert witness in the case, as he tells it, he ran into Hess in the courthouse bathroom, coming face to face with the hacker he’d chased online for a year. Hess recognized Stoll, and began asking him in English why he had so doggedly pursued him. “Do you know what you’re doing to me?” Hess asked, according to Stoll’s 30-year-old memories. “You’re going to get me sent to prison!”

Stoll says he simply told Hess, “You don’t understand,” walked out of the bathroom, and testified against him.

At this point in the story, Stoll becomes silent and his face twists into a pained expression. Slowly, I realize that he’s angry. Then Stoll tells me what he really wanted to tell Hess: “If you’re so smart, if you’re so brilliant, make something that will make the internet a better place! Find out what’s wrong and make it better! Don’t go screwing with information that belongs to innocent people!” Stoll says.

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The Guy who Ordered a Hit On His Stepmother for $5

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Unsurprisingly, you can order a murder online, using forums on the dark web geared toward undertaking any heinous task for money. Jurisdiction is tricky and as Brian Merchant reports at Harper’s Magazine, law enforcement is either too overwhelmed or unequipped to deal with the problem. Strangely, targets usually don’t believe the threat is genuine. Some of these sites are known scams, designed to fleece the hit orderer for whatever amount they’re willing to pay. Others are, sadly, for real.

Monteiro started scrolling through messages he had cached from Yura’s previous sites. The markets may have been scams, but the desire for violence was real. Monteiro had amassed a running list of people who had been singled out for death; people who’d had bounties placed on their heads, and a log of detailed conversations about how and why their would-be killers wanted them beaten, tortured, kidnapped, and murdered. It was like a Wikipedia entry for the outer extremes of human cruelty. Before I left, Monteiro gave me the password so I’d be able to keep tabs on it myself.

I began calling, emailing, and reaching out on social media to massage therapists and managers of Chinese restaurants and right-wing bloggers and I.T. guys and aerospace engineers and sex offenders and web developers. Some I couldn’t track down at all; others never answered their phones or returned my messages. I didn’t blame them. There is no easy way to say, “Hello, I found your name on a kill list on the dark net, and while the site is a scam the order is not; someone you likely know wants you dead badly enough to pay thousands of dollars to an impossibly shady website. Give me a ring back anytime,” though I tried every imaginable permutation. I was blocked on Twitter, hung up on, and, occasionally, kindly received.

In June 2018, news came of a second death from the kill list. Twenty-one-year-old Bryan Njoroge was found dead in Indiana, shot in the head on a baseball field. The police ruled the death a suicide. Weeks earlier, a user with the alias Toonbib had paid around $5,500 to order his murder and provided details of his upcoming travel. Njoroge was a U.S. military serviceman who, before he died, had made a female friend the beneficiary of his life-insurance policy. His father questions whether the death was a suicide, but the local police department has said that it is aware of the dark-web assassination order and stands by its conclusion.

So far, according to Monteiro, eight people have been arrested for ordering murders through Yura’s websites, on the basis of evidence Monteiro passed to law enforcement. One of them, a young Californian named Beau Brigham, had paid less than $5 toward a hit on his stepmother. Nevertheless, he was found guilty of soliciting murder and sentenced to three years in prison.

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They Were Extortionists and the Calls Came from Inside the Prison

Razor wire protects a perimeter of the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

Jared Johns, a former soldier and father of two, thought he was swapping text messages with a pretty girl from a dating site. After getting calls from a spoofed police number and texts from outraged “parents” wanting to press charges against him for allegedly communicating with an underage girl, Johns — despite the fact he had done nothing wrong — was terrified that any resulting legal troubles could prevent him from seeing his two young sons. As Vince Beiser reports at Wired, what Johns didn’t realize was that he was the victim of a scam that would cost him everything.

Jared could never have been prosecuted for propositioning Caroline, for the simple reason that she didn’t exist. The pretty teenage girl Jared thought he was flirting with was, according to charges later filed by local authorities, two thickset, middle-aged, male inmates working contraband cell phones. Jared, it turns out, was just one of hundreds of US military service members and veterans suckered by a massive wave of catfishing scams launched from South Carolina correctional facilities over the past few years.

In May, Greenville’s chief of police convened a press conference to announce they had cracked the case: They were charging Dobbins and Smith with the blackmail and extortion of Jared Johns. Those charges could get each of them an additional 10 years behind bars. In a video posted to Facebook later that day, Kathy said through tears, “He may have been holding the gun, but it feels like they were the ones who took his life.”

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Naming the Psychological Effects of Climate Change: Solastalgia

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In this essay at The Believer, Ash Sanders considers the heavy psychological cost of climate change and society-at-large’s strangely dismissive view of those who routinely make personal sacrifices in order to help the planet survive.

On a bright fall day in 1991, Chris Foster left his differential equations class at the University of California, Davis, bypassed students lounging on the quad, and headed toward the Domes, an on-campus co-op housing development. Although it was November, he was wearing his usual uniform: pink shorts, no shirt, no shoes. At the Domes, he harvested mesquite in a grove of trees and picked wild radishes and mallow in a nearby field. He then walked three miles west to Village Homes, another co-op, which he knew would be a scavenger’s cornucopia: full of late-season figs, apples, nuts, and wild grapes. Chris harvested only fallen fruit—he felt this was less invasive than picking from trees, and his aim was to tread lightly on the earth, to be almost invisible, in order to cause as little harm as possible.

Chris was a philosophy and math major, and he liked to think of himself as the Diogenes of Davis, a reference to the fourth-century BCE Cynic philosopher who renounced wealth and slept outdoors in a large ceramic jar. Chris had made a habit of trying to last the night outside without a sleeping bag. “I couldn’t accept the privileges of humanity when I didn’t want any part of humanity,” he told me. Eating fallen fruit and sleeping outside, however, didn’t provide him relief from his feelings of guilt and foreboding. He began to feel a dread that was inescapable and all-consuming. A devastating depression that he had suffered a few years before that fall semester returned. Normally a math phenom, Chris started failing his tests. In his apartment, he would sit in the dark—he didn’t want to waste electricity—listen to records, and cry. “I felt like I was slowly dying,” he said.

But when it comes to climate grief, the experience can be hard to define, and thus harder to understand and demonstrate. If climate sickness exists in the overlap of the physical and the emotional, we need words for those feelings, a dictionary of sorts that allows us to see patterns in the experiences of individual people. Fortunately, that’s exactly what a group of motley philosophers, artists, and doctors are currently working to devise.

Maybe the word we need is not one for a sickness. Maybe we need a word for a difficult truth: that when the world is ending, our health depends on closing ourselves off to awareness of this fact. Where you choose to draw your boundaries is arbitrary, not rational. If you draw them wide—if you include trees and refugees and animals and whole nations—you will be sick from overwhelm and will be seen as crazy. But if you draw them narrowly, you’ll suppress more and admire yourself less—which is its own sort of sickness.

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‘The American People Have Been Constantly Lied To’

ARLINGTON, VA - MARCH 28: U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld (R), gestures as he speaks while Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace (L) listens during a media briefing at the Pentagon March 28, 2006 in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

It took three years and two court battles, but The Washington Post prevailed in obtaining “a confidential trove of government documents” that revealed the U.S. government has repeatedly lied to the American public about military progress in the war in Afghanistan. As Craig Whitlock reports, during the past 18 years the U.S. government has spent nearly one trillion dollars on the war in which 157,000 people have died. What proliferates amid this abject failure? Rampant Afghan government corruption and opium farming in the region.

Several of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public. They said it was common at military headquarters in Kabul — and at the White House — to distort statistics to make it appear the United States was winning the war when that was not the case.

“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Bob Crowley, an Army colonel who served as a senior counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military commanders in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers. “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.”

“Our biggest single project, sadly and inadvertently, of course, may have been the development of mass corruption,” Crocker, who served as the top U.S. diplomat in Kabul in 2002 and again from 2011 to 2012, told government interviewers.

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In Death, A Champion for Life Well Lived

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 05: Marieke Vervoort of Belgium celebrates as she wins gold in the Women's 100m T52 Final on day 7 of the London 2012 Paralympic Games at Olympic Stadium on September 5, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

For the New York Times, writer Andrew Keh and photographer Lynsey Addario spent three years interviewing Belgian gold-medal winning paralympic sprinter Marieke Vervoort to learn about how she lived with a debilitating and painful degenerative muscle condition that began when she was a teen with a tingling sensation in her feet. At age 40, over 11 years after she applied and was granted the right to doctor-assisted euthanasia in Belgium, she chose to end her suffering.

What had begun for Vervoort as a happy childhood — loving parents, a younger sister, long days playing sports on a dead-end street — had grown complicated by her teen years, when the pain that plagued her for the rest of her life first appeared. It emerged initially as a tingling in her feet. The tingling over the years turned to pain, smoldering up her legs, sapping their strength. She spent her teens on crutches. At 20, she was in a wheelchair.

The right to end one’s life with the assistance of a doctor has been legal in the country since 2002, available to patients who exhibit a “hopeless” medical condition with “unbearable” suffering, including mental illnesses or cognitive disorders. No country has more liberal laws for doctor-assisted death than Belgium, a country of 11 million people, where 2,357 patients underwent euthanasia in 2018.

But she kept the appointment with Dr. Distelmans, and he, after a close examination, granted her the preliminary approval to end her life. He added, though, that she did not quite seem ready to follow through with it.

She agreed.

“I just wanted to have the paper in my hands for when the time comes that it’s too much for me, when, day and night, someone has to take care of me, when I have too much pain,” she said in one of a series of conversations we had over three years of reporting. “I don’t want to live that way.”

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The Octopus’ Branding Makeover: From Devil-Fish to Brilliant Invertebrate

BOSTON - APRIL 17: The giant Pacific octopus in the Olympic Coast exhibits is the newest exhibit at the New England Aquarium, seen here on Sunday, April 17, 2016. This octopus is 10 feet from tentacle to tentacle. (Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

At Seattle Met, James Ross Gardner explores the Pacific Northwest’s evolving relationship with the octopus and how they’ve gone from dangerous “devil-fish” bent on drowning unsuspecting sea goers to intensely curious, suction-cupped wonders. With nine brains — one in their head and one in each of their eight arms — octopuses are thought to be the most intelligent invertebrates on earth, capable of deep connection with humans.

OUR LONG, SOMETIMES TUMULTUOUS RELATIONSHIP with octopuses in Seattle has settled into something nearing reverence. We once called them ugly monsters. Now we plaster their likeness on our restaurants and tattoo it onto our arms. We once bludgeoned them with oars and brawled with them for sport. Now we’ve elevated octopuses to what in this secular era passes for gods: extraterrestrials.

But mostly she admires their cunning. She once led guests into the back room where the Aquarium holds the octopuses not on display, and set food on the closed lid of an adjacent tank while she introduced the guests to an affable tenant. The visitors marveled at the octopus as it latched onto them with its tentacle suctions, the coin-size feelers octopuses use to taste and smell. The animal kept Kathryn and the guests busy with seven of its arms. With the other it surreptitiously reached out to the food, sneaking it away until Kathryn finally wised up.

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The Traffic Jam on Mount Everest that Cost 11 Lives

Indian Everest climber Ameesha Chauhan speaks during an interview with AFP at a hospital in Kathmandu on May 27, 2019. - Ameesha Chauhan, a survivor of the Everest "traffic jam" who is in hospital recovering from frostbite, said climbers without basic skills should be barred to prevent a recurrence of this year's deadly season on the world's highest peak. (Photo by Gopen RAI / AFP) (Photo credit should read GOPEN RAI/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite bitterly cold and harsh conditions, the prestige associated with summiting the tallest mountain in the world continues to make Mount Everest a dangerous lure for many, regardless of their climbing skill and experience. As Joshua Hammer reports at GQ, Nepal and China handed out nearly 500 pricey climbing permits during the 2019 season. Partly due to a massive logjam of over 100 summit hopefuls crowding the ascent during a rare break in the weather on May 22nd and 23rd, over 11 people died on the mountain.

Grubhofer looked down toward Nepal and could see gray clouds sweeping across the southern face of the mountain. There was something else down there too: a line of a hundred or so climbers in brightly colored suits snaking up the side of the mountain. The crowd seemed incredible—like a bag of Skittles had been scattered down the slope. On the north side, Grubhofer knew, more climbers were tracing his trail up the mountain from Tibet too.

And then there are the growing crowds. For this year’s climbing season, Nepal handed out 381 permits to scale Everest, the most ever. The Chinese government distributed more than 100 permits for the northern side. According to the Himalayan Database, the number of people summiting Everest has just about doubled in the past decade. And in that time the mountain has become accessible even to relative novices, thanks to a proliferation of cut-rate agencies that require little proof of technical skill, experience, or physical fitness. “Some of these companies don’t ask any questions,” says Rolfe Oostra, an Australian mountaineer and a founder of France-based 360 Expeditions, which sent four clients to the summit this year. “They are willing to take anybody on, and that compounds the problems for everyone.”

In Katmandu in August, long after the last mountaineers had returned home, I found the local climbing community consumed by a debate about what had gone wrong. At least four climbers died in the 24 hours that followed Grubhofer’s moment at the top—casualties of interminable lines and tragic miscalculations, victims of one of the deadliest seasons the mountain has ever seen. In all, 11 would die on Everest in May. By the time I visited, the Nepalese government had proposed a new set of rules requiring, among other things, that prospective climbers provide proof of high-altitude experience. But skeptics doubted that the government would seriously enforce such reforms and risk reducing its millions of dollars in permit-generated revenues. “At the end of the day, the changes that Nepal talks about never happen,” Rolfe Oostra tells me. “At the end of the day, money talks.”

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