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Michael O'Hare is a public policy researcher. He teaches at UC Berkeley and specializes in the arts and the environment. He does not sound like a very threatening guy. But, since the early 1980s, Michael O'Hare has been the subject of another man's obsessive quest to find the true identity of the Zodiac Killer.
Let's be clear. Michael O'Hare is not the Zodiac Killer. He's got a pretty good alibi—namely the fact that he was nowhere near California when the murders happened. In fact, his name only entered the field because an enthusiast named Gareth Penn analyzed some of the famous Zodiac cryptograms and somehow came up with the name "Michael O". How that led Penn to O'Hare isn't exactly clear, but however it happened, Penn has spent the last 30 years telling anyone who will listen that Michael O'Hare is the Zodiac Killer.
And that has made O'Hare's life rather ... interesting. This weekend, I ran across a 2009 essay, written by O'Hare, describing his experience as the unwitting subject of somebody else's conspiracy theory. This is old, but I wanted to share it because it's such a rare perspective on this kind of thing. In the age of the Internet, it's easy to read up on conspiracy theories covering just about any topic. For most of them, you can also find extensive debunking sources. It's much less common for somebody at the center of the story to talk about what that experience has been like. Totally fascinating.
The decades since Penn fixed his sights on me have not been a living hell, much as that would spice up this story. They have been an ordinary life, punctuated by one or another flurry of fuss from Penn, sometimes involving pages of numbers (for example, the data pages from my PhD thesis) with this or that sequence picked out, circled, and "decoded" into words that fit somehow into Penn’s model of the crimes.
My favorite episode was the phone calls. Sometime in the 1980s, I started getting them at two and three in the morning. When my wife or I answered, a male voice would say something vaguely threatening like "I’m coming north, and I’m going to get you soon!" .... The calls were supposed to be transmitting coded messages via numbers—in particular, the time of the call! Apparently, Penn’s assumption was that when the average person is aroused by the phone in the middle of the night, the first thing he does, before woozily answering, is to note the time of the first ring on the digital clock he keeps by the bed—which is, of course, synchronized with the clock in the Naval Observatory. If your clock (or his) is off by just a couple of minutes, the call that was supposed to register as "2:14"—code for "Got you dead to rights this time"—will be misinterpreted as "2:16," which I think means "The Sox can’t make the playoffs without a closer." (Sadly, I’ve lost the magic decoder ring I got in exchange for cereal box tops as a child, so I can’t be sure.) The story got even better years later, when I discovered that a Penn skeptic had been calling him at home at times that figured into Penn’s theory, whereupon Penn assumed the calls came from me and "returned" them to my house, so he thought he was having a conversation with me, all in three-digit numbers.
For those of us who saw Mark's post on the train simulator game and thought, "Man, I want that," here's a couple more bits of train-related goodness.
First, back in February, I rode Amtrak's Empire Builder from Seattle to Minneapolis and did my best to live-tweet the whole, multi-day adventure. It's an amazing route, full of buttes, mountains, and some truly dramatic prairie landscapes. This video by YouTube user domtak doesn't quite capture how great the view out the window of the Empire Builder truly is, but it does give you a nice overview of how varied the geography of the United States really is. This 6-minute video covers a whole Portland-to-Minneapolis journey on the train. (With thanks to Thanland!)
Second, I didn't realize this until my friend Andrew pointed it out to me, but did you know that Reddit has a Train Porn page? Prepare to lose approximately five days of your life.
The Frisian Islands are barrier islands off the coast of the Netherlands. Between these islands and the mainland, there is an area called the Wadden Sea. This sea is only wet in some places, at some times. Instead of being a proper body of water, it's speckled with shallow pools, wetlands, mud flats that flood and dry up depending on storms and changing tides.
That geography makes the Frisian Islands, including the island of Texel, a great place to go beachcombing. During high tides and storms, water from the North Sea flows into the Wadden Sea through inlets. Not all of this water flows back out again, some evaporates. And water isn't the only thing in the North Sea. Wander the mud flats after the tide goes back out and you'll find all manner of random things washed up on Texel's shores—from buckets and signs, to bottles stuffed with anonymous letters.
On a more practical level, current patterns in the North Sea push whatever is in the water towards Texel. That means when a container ship loses something like a box full of luxury coats, the beaches of Texel are a great place to find it again. All that flotsam and jetsam (both the useful and the whimsical) helped create a culture of beachcombing on Texel. For generations, people went down to the shore and finders-keepers was the name of the game.
You can watch a new 14-minute documentary on Texel beachcombers and the goodies they've found. It's called Flotsam & Jetsam and it's available on Vimeo and it's really interesting—a great example of how the realities of nature and science can shape the way culture develops.
Read a geosciences master's thesis that explains in more detail how the tidal mud flats at Texel work.
Check out this cod piece. Author William Gibson found it in Masset, BC, Canada. The head of a 145-pound cod, meant to be worn as a great helm. Nothing intimidates your enemies quite like wearing the head of a fish on your head.
EDIT: Mr. Gibson emailed to say that the photo comes from a local bed and breakfast ... "That thing is in the very excellent Copper Beech House bed & breakfast in Masset, BC, run by the Canadian poet Susan Musgrave. We're here because Doug Coupland recommended it, and it's awesome."
Languages come and go and blend. It's likely been that way forever and the process only accelerates under the influence of mega-languages (like English) that represent a sort of global means of communication. But, increasingly, people who are at risk of losing their native language entirely are fighting back—trying to encourage more people to be bilingual and save the native language from extinction.
At Discover Magazine, Veronique Greenwood has a really interesting story about a mathematician who is helping to preserve Scottish Gaelic. How? The researcher, Anne Kandler, has put together some equations that can help native language supporters target their programs and plan their goals.
Some of the numbers are obvious—you must know how many people in the population you’re working with speak just Gaelic, how many speak just English, and how many are bilingual, as well as the rate of loss of Gaelic speakers. But also in the model are numbers that stand for the prestige of each language—the cultural value people place on speaking it—and numbers that describe a language’s economic value.
Put them all together into a system of equations that describe the growth of the three different groups—English speakers, Gaelic speakers, and bilinguals—and you can calculate what inputs are required for a stable bilingual population to emerge. In 2010, Kandler found that using the most current numbers, a total of 860 English speakers will have to learn Gaelic each year for the number of speakers to stay the same. To her, this sounded like a lot, but the national Gaelic Development Agency was pleased: it’s about the number of bilingual speakers they were already aiming to produce through classes and programs.
British people! Did you know that it is Railfest Week at your National Railway Museum? And did you know that that means you can get up close and personal with (and even go for a ride on) an amazing variety of vintage and modern trains, plus special talks, music, and theater shows? Among the attractions: Giant, rail-based snow plows, a sail-powered rail car, and beautiful historic engines that have gone through extensive restoration.
This, for instance, is Sir Nigel Gresley (of course he is), a steam train from 1937.
If you go, submitterate some photos!
Randy Wolford made the news this week. A pastor in a Christian sect that promotes holding and carrying venomous snakes as a way of expressing faith in God, Wolford died from a snake bite. Just like his father had.
Lauren Pond, a photojournalist with the Washington Post, was at the church service when Wolford was bitten and she stayed with him and his family, taking photos, during the long hours before Wolford's death. In the wake of the experience, Pond has written a thoughtful essay about both journalistic and personal ethics. When a journalist documents someone's death like this, what should be done with the photos? If someone refuses medical help that you know they need, are you under obligation to help them anyway ... or to respect their decisions?
Some of the people who attended last Sunday’s service have struggled with Mack’s death, as I have. “Sometimes, I feel like we’re all guilty of negligent homicide,” one man wrote to me in a Facebook message following Mack’s death. “I went down there a ‘believer.’ That faith has seriously been called into question. I was face-to-face with him and watched him die a gruesome death. . . . Is this really what God wants?”
That’s a good question.
I know many photojournalists have been in situations similar to mine. Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Carter photographed an emaciated Sudanese child struggling to reach a food center during a famine — as a vulture waited nearby. He was roundly criticized for not helping the child, which, along with the disturbing memories of the events he had covered and other factors, may have contributed to his suicide. As photojournalists, we have a unique responsibility to record history and share stories in as unbiased and unobtrusive a way as possible. But when someone is hurt and suffering, we have to balance our instincts as professionals with basic human decency and care.
Revellers attend the Wave and Goth festival in Leipzig, on May 25, 2012. The annual festival, known in Germany as Wave-Gotik Treffen, features up to 150 bands and musicians playing Gothic rock and other styles of the "dark wave" music subculture attracting a regular audience of up to 20000, according to organizers. The festival runs through May 28.
I'm not sure how, but I'd never seen any clips of young Richard Feynman speaking until physicist Walid Younes posted this video to Google+.
The talk itself is great and covers some important stuff. (Of course, it's Feynman!) The key thing here is the connection between theoretical understandings of how the universe works and practical observations. Theories are used to make predictions. When the predictions turn out to be correct, we get some more evidence that the theory is on the right track. Here, Feynman talks about how the theory of gravity led to the discovery of the speed of light, and how knowledge of the effect of gravity on planetary orbits led to the discovery of the planet Neptune. Very cool stuff.
But what stood out to me—and what makes this different from all the old!Feynman videos I've seen—is the persona his younger self projects. Born and raised in Queens, the young Feynman comes across, at least in accent and physical mannerisms, like some big mafia palooka straight out of central casting. Most likely, my startled reaction to this is due to Midwestern bias and being raised in an era where American regional differences in accent and culture have been largely flattened out. But it's still fascinating ... and amusing as hell to hear a guy who looks and sounds like he should be guarding hostages or threatening shop owners instead talking about gravitational theory.
This playlist from YouTube user hideyasann features more than 100 short clips of trains and train restrooms in Japan. Most of the train videos are of trains pulling into a station, or changing tracks. Most of the toilet videos emphasize the flushing mechanisms—of which there are a surprising variety.
As a rail fan, it's interesting to see what so many different Japanese stations and trains look like. And there's no narration, so it's also interesting to watch these very matter-of-fact clips and think about the visual context they trigger in your head. Men in suits waiting on a platform for a train to change tracks—that's a scene from a serious drama about the inner psychology of a businessman. A shakey clip where the videographer walks towards an arriving train, and a station agent, while breathing heavily—that's totally a scene from a horror movie. I'm honestly not sure what to make of all the toilets.
It's also kind of awesome to just think about the level of obsession that went into this playlist. I'm not really sure what hideyasann is trying to document—Train variety? Train cleanliness? Is he or she just collecting the same footage from as many trains as possible? Whatever the goal, you can clearly see the love and fascination here. There's totally a Happy Mutant at work.
Photographer Glen E. Friedman, widely known for his work chronicling the intersection between punk rock and hiphop in the 1980s, has posted some beautiful shots of MCA, Ad-Rock, and Mike D from that era: "why A you see H".
Earlier this morning, Pesco posted the awful news that Adam "MCA" Yauch died this morning at age 47. Words here can't express how sad I am, reading that news. Hits home in part because I'm fighting the same disease, and in part because the Beasties were such a formative part of my subcultural education as I grew into my teen years.
The first time I heard them, and Adam Yauch, was when a friend from middle school handed me a home-copied dupe of this cassette tape EP [YouTube, and you can still buy copies on Amazon]. I played it over and over until that little black ribbon wore right out. Some of you may not know that the Beasties were a hardcore band before they became a hiphop band. Now you do.
I've embedded some Beastie videos from that era below. Fuck you, cancer.