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(art by Daniel Martin Diaz)Earlier today, we published my story "By His Things Will You Know Him," which is from the forthcoming Institute for the Future anthology "An Aura of Familiarity: Visions from the Coming Age of Networked Matter." I've read the story aloud for my podcast, if that's how you prefer your fiction.
In the fog of war, it's not easy to figure out how many people die. Even in the cleanest combat, accurate records are not really a common military priority. Worse, there are often incentives for one side or the other to play up the death counts (or play them down), alter the picture of who is doing the killing and who is dying, and provide evidence that a conflict is getting better (or worse).
All of that creates a mess for outside observers who want to see accurate patterns in the chaos — patterns that can help us understand whether an evenly matched war has turned into a bloodbath, or a genocide. The Human Rights Data Analysis Group is an organization that takes the messy, often conflicting, information about deaths in a warzone and tries to make sense of it. Today, they released an updated version of a January report on documented killings in the Syrian civil war.
They say that there were 92,901 documented deaths between March 2011 and April 2013. That number is extremely high, and tragic. But the number alone is maybe not the most important thing the data is telling us.
Read the rest
In 2008, Caitlin GD Hopkins collected 101 euphemisms for "died" from early American epitaphs. The epitaphs came from tombstones pre-1825, to qualify, the euphemism had to appear in the main text of the tombstone ("Here lies Fred; born 1801, laid himself to rest 1824"), not in the verse below it ("He was a nice guy"). It's quite a list:
Part 1: Died
Part 2: Departed This Life
Part 3: Deceased
Part 4: Entred Apon an Eternal Sabbath of Rest
Part 5: Fell a Victim to an Untimely Disease
Part 6: Departed This Transitory Life
Part 7: Killed by the Fall of a Tree
Part 8: Left Us
Part 9: Obit
Part 10: Slain by the Enemy
Part 11: Departed This Stage of Existence
Part 12: Went Rejoycing Out of This World
Part 13: Submiting Her Self to ye Will of God
Part 14: Fell Asleep
Part 15: Changed a Fleeting World for an Immortal Rest
Part 16: Fell Asleep in the Cradle of Death
Part 17: Fell Aslep in Jesus
Part 18: Was Still Born
Part 19: Innocently Retired
Part 20: Expired
Part 21: Perished in a Storm
Part 22: Departed from This in Hope of a Better Life
Part 23: Summoned to Appear Before His Judge
Part 24: Liv'd About 2 Hours
Part 25: Rose Upon the Horizon of Perfect Endless Day
All 101 of them are linked to photos of the headstones in the actual post:
Google's rolled out an "Inactive Account Manager" -- a dead-man's switch for your Google accounts. If you set it, Google will watch your account for protracted inactivity. After a set period, you can tell it to either squawk ("Email Amnesty International and tell them I'm in jail," or "Email my kids and tell them I'm dead and give them instructions for probating my estate") and/or delete all your accounts. This has a lot of use-cases, from preventing your secrets from being tortured out of you (before you go to a protest, you could set your dead-man's switch to a couple hours -- if you end up in jail and out of contact, all your stuff would be deleted before you were even processed by the local law) to easing the transition of your digital "estate."
No one wants to think about their own death, but not thinking about it has a zero percent chance of preventing it. The Inactive Account Manager (great euphemism) can send your data from many Google services to your digital heirs, alert your contacts, delete the accounts, or do all or none of the above. It affects Blogger, Contacts/Circles (in Google+) Drive, Gmail, Google+ profiles, Pages and Streams, Picasa albums, Google Voice, and YouTube.
It also serves as a useful self-destruct button. Don’t want anyone watching your stupid YouTube videos after you’ve long forgotten that you had an account? Don’t want your kids to find your password notebook years after you’re gone and read your dirty chat sessions with their dad? You can have your account auto-destruct after trying to reach you using other e-mail addresses and by text message. You know, in case you just get tired of Gmail and wander off somewhere else.
Sad news: Iain M Banks, beloved author of brilliant science fiction novels and (to my taste), even better thrillers, has terminal gall bladder cancer that has spread to his liver, pancreas and lymph nodes, and is unlikely to live for more than a year (and he may live for less time). He posted the news early today, in a statement that's bravely and darkly humorous, as befits his work and his reputation:
As a result, I’ve withdrawn from all planned public engagements and I’ve asked my partner Adele if she will do me the honour of becoming my widow (sorry – but we find ghoulish humour helps). By the time this goes out we’ll be married and on a short honeymoon. We intend to spend however much quality time I have left seeing family. and relations and visiting places that have meant a lot to us. Meanwhile my heroic publishers are doing all they can to bring the publication date of my new novel forward by as much as four months, to give me a better chance of being around when it hits the shelves.
There is a possibility that it might be worth undergoing a course of chemotherapy to extend the amount of time available. However that is still something we’re balancing the pros and cons of, and is anyway out of the question until my jaundice has further, and significantly, reduced.
Lastly, I’d like to add that from my GP onwards, the professionalism of the medics involved – and the speed with which the resources of the NHS in Scotland have been deployed – has been exemplary, and the standard of care deeply impressive. We’re all just sorry the outcome hasn’t been more cheerful.
I've never (to my recollection) met Banks, but I am a huge fan of his works. As I wrote some years ago in Wired, his novel Dead Air is the first truly post-mobile-phone thriller I ever read, one where all the suspense comes from characters being in constant contact and knowing what the others are about, rather than the uncertainty of not being able to reach one another. There's a scene in that book, where someone is trapped in a closet when the killer comes home unexpectedly, and is texting to a confederate outside, that is nothing short of genius. Where the traditional mystery would have put the confederate through the stress of wondering what might be going on, in a position of total ignorance, Banks delivers a complete, minute-by-minute SMS set of updates to the confederate, and shows that knowing is infinitely more scary than ignorance, if handled by a master. Which he is.
Growing up, my whole circle of friends doted on his debut novel, The Wasp Factory, whose toe-curlingly, wonderfully macabre gross-out climax still makes me go a little sweaty-palmed when I think of it. And his novel Complicity was the book that set me on the path to giving up cigarettes.
I haven't even touched on his science fiction novels, the incredible Culture series, but they are worthy of your attention, too. In short, the field is losing one of its greats, and Scotland is losing one of its great champions for independence, and the world is losing one of its great campaigners for justice.
I wish Iain and his family a calm and loving and graceful time, and thank him sincerely for the hours of pleasure and the years of insight he's given to me and all of us.
Ken Murray, Clinical Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at USC, writes about his experience of how his peers in medicine tend to handle end-of-life issues.
It’s not a frequent topic of discussion, but doctors die, too. And they don’t die like the rest of us. What’s unusual about them is not how much treatment they get compared to most Americans, but how little. For all the time they spend fending off the deaths of others, they tend to be fairly serene when faced with death themselves. They know exactly what is going to happen, they know the choices, and they generally have access to any sort of medical care they could want. But they go gently.Zócalo Public Square :: How Doctors Die.
I really like this. I've lived through a couple sudden, unexpected deaths of friends in the past year, and it's got me thinking about how I can arrange my own affairs to ensure that things go smoothly as possible if I get hit by a bus or similar. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the things you do when you plan for your death and incapacity are really just about getting your shit together -- putting your life, your data, your commitments, and your finances in resilient and well-organized shape. If your life is pulled-together enough such that your family could run it if you disappeared, it will also be pulled-together enough that it contains as few unpleasant surprises for you lurking in its depths and snares.
Doing your will is a hassle, collecting passwords is a pain in the ass. I know, I get it. But so is going to the dentist, changing the oil in your car, and getting an annual mammogram. And, we manage to do that stuff anyway.
So, Get Your Shit Together was born. Out of scribbles in notebooks, hours and hours making phone calls and tracking stuff down. There was an unbelievable amount of help from friends. Not to mention numerous messy late nights, some very dark thoughts, and more than a handful of moments too unbearable to repeat. I (mostly) have my shit together. Now it’s your turn. I want to help.
This interview with "author, photographer, and ossuary expert" Paul Koudounaris is a trove of weird stories about the things people get up to with their local mummies, haunted skulls, and other "miracle-performing" remains:
They’re not all like that. One of the more outlandish stories is about a guy who got to be called “pene grande,” which means “big dick.” He was a mummy famed in life for having a big penis. People would go down to the Palermo Catacombs and treat him as the patron saint of big cocks. Finally a newlywed woman came to see him because she was married to a guy who was not well-endowed. She took a cloth and rubbed it on the mummy’s dick, and then rubbed it on her husband’s dick. The next time she had sex with her husband, his penis seemed larger and fuller and she was about to orgasm except that at that moment she looked up and saw it was actually the ghost on top of her. Everyone thought she was crazy, but then it happened again the next time she had sex. They had to set up an exorcism for this ghost.
...They had a blacksmith make a tight-fitting sheath made of metal, and once the husband got erect the ghost came out and got caught in the codpiece. They threw holy water at him.
...That expelled the ghost from the guy’s body. So forever he had a small penis, but he was free of the ghost. As for the ghost, he gained a great following among older ladies, and eventually so many were coming to see him that they had to lock the mummy in a back room, which is where he remains to this day.
...There is an old and very weird story about a ghost of a guy who had lived in the monastery there — apparently the "devil got into him" and he masturbated and had a heart attack at the moment of ejaculation. That's why, they claim, he has that look on his face. Anyway, people said his ghost would visit boys who masturbated and scare them into stopping. One boy didn't really believe this, though, and dared the ghost to appear while he was masturbating. When the ghost showed up, he apparently grabbed the boy by the cock and squeezed him so hard that the boy passed out, and while he wasn't exactly castrated, he was rendered sterile for life.
...There’s a really bizarre story from the 20th century, about a guy who had severe diarrhea and chronic flatulence. He stole a skull and started saying prayers to St. Roch and St. Sebastian, the patron saints of plague and suffering, and also shitting on the skull daily. He had a theory that by crapping on the skull he could switch intestines with the body the skull had been attached to. The ghost kept warning him, quit shitting on my skull. But he kept at it and he succeeded in transferring his intestinal problems to the ghost. The problem was that the ghost had died of testicular cancer, and in return he gave that to the guy. That’s how he died. One of the dangers of necromancy is you don’t really know who’s on the other side or what they’re going to give you in return.
From the always-great Order of the Good Death's "Ask a Mortician" video series, "Talking to Your Children About Death."
My latest Locus magazine column is "The Internet of the Dead," which discusses the collision course the Internet is on with death. It was inspired by my work to preserve the personal data of my old friend Erik "Possum Man" Stewart, who died unexpectedly and tragically in June:
It was while I sat in Possum’s room that I began to think about his computer. It was a homemade Franken-PC that sat under his desk, its wheezy fan making a racket like an ancient refrigerator. After I’d left Possum’s house and headed back to the airport, I got to thinking about that computer. I strongly suspected that Possum would have copied over all the data of his life – all the e-mails and lists and photos and movies and programs and essays and stories and, well, *everything* – onto each new machine, keeping it all live and handy. After all, hard-drives are cheap – especially if you’re building your own tower PC with lots of full-height drive bays – and their capacity increases exponentially, year on year. It’s been a long time since it made sense to keep your archives in a shoebox full of Zip cartridges or floppy drives. If you buy a PC every couple of years, your new machine will almost certainly have more than twice the hard-drive space of your old one. Keeping your data on your live, spinning platter means that it will get saved every time you do your regular backup (assuming you perform this essential ritual!), and if the drive starts to fail, you’ll know about it right away. It’s not like dragging an old floppy out of a dusty box and praying that it hasn’t succumbed to bitrot since it was put away.
Possum never uploaded his consciousness to a computer, but he approximated such a transfer, one keystroke at a time, year after year, filling those noisy, full-height drives with all his secrets, all his creative outpourings, all his minutiae and mundane trivialities and extraordinary profundities. It’s a transfer we’re all effecting, but Possum got a head start on most of us, kicking off the project in the 1980s. That homely, rackety tower under Possum’s desk was him, in some important sense – in the same sense that my laptop holds a good deal of what it means to be me.
This is possibly one of the weirdest things I have read this year.
You (yes, you) are more likely to die around 11:00 am than any other time. That is, provided your death is the sort that happens in old age, as opposed to, say, being hit by a bus.
That's because of circadian rhythms — the biological processes that, among other things, regulate when we get tired and when we wake up. For most of our lives, we consistently manipulate these cycles — setting alarms, enforcing bedtimes, getting just tipsy enough that we don't notice it's 1:00 in the morning. But for the elderly and the very sick, those socially mandated sub-routines no longer apply. Over time, your body starts slipping into patterns that are governed internally, rather than externally.
And, it turns out, the majority of humans have an internal cycle that makes them more likely to die at 11:00 am. At The Atlantic, Megan Garber explains:
Because, just as circadian rhythms regulate things like preferred sleep periods and the time of peak cognitive performance, they also regulate the times during which we're most likely to experience an acute medical event like a stroke or heart attack. As study co-author Clifford Saper -- who is also the James Jackson Putnam Professor of Neurology and Neuroscience at Harvard Medical School, and also the chairman of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Department of Neurology -- explained to me over email: There is a "biological clock ticking in each of us."
In an interview with the lead author on the paper this information comes from, Garber gets into a much-more-detailed explanation — including the genetic variants that seem to control this timing. While the majority of us are most likely to die at 11, a minority is most likely to die around 6:00 pm.