The Last Word

black and white etching, magical being on the left, rabbi on the rightFebruary 6-10, 2017

This week, Craig unplugs from the wired world during his travels, and it’s not the blissful state of nature he imagined it to be—at least, not entirely. “I’d like to tell you it was sweet silence, but I could feel the Pavlovian side of myself wanting to drool. The limb ached.”

Ann interviews Mike Lemonick, whom she’s known for yonks, about his new book. It tells the story of a woman who lost her memory but—interestingly—not herself. ‘If you asked [H.M.] what he’d be doing the following day, he’d usually reply: “whatever is beneficial.”’

Meteors are usually shooting stars that make a pretty streak across the sky, except in the disturbingly frequent instances when they are huge fireballs whose sound cracks your windows. Cassie has videos. “The meteoroid was about the size of a minivan when it entered the atmosphere. The meteorite that splashed down was about the size of a lunch box.”

Michelle’s parenting duties include delivering a feminist education, enveloped in an age-appropriate spoonful of sugar. She has some bedtime story recommendations for parents who want more non-traditional female exemplars for their families, including “several fascinating subjects who are not what you’d call role models, such as suspected double agent Mata Hari and bloodthirsty pirate captain Ching Shih.”

Speculation about the perils of AI has been preceded by centuries of Jewish folklore about golems, writes Rose. The golem concept informs our ideas of what a robot is. “And the fears here are the same as well: what happens when the creature no longer wants to obey. What happens if it falls in love and is rebuffed?”

Image: Rabbi Loew and Golem by Mikoláš Aleš, 1899.

What Golems and Robots Have in Common

In Jewish folklore there’s a thing called a golem — a creature created by magic to serve its creator. There are lots of variations on the golem story, but the way I learned it goes like this: to bring a golem to life you form it out of dirt and then walk around it several times while chanting certain letters of the alphabet. Walking the other way around, saying those same letters and words backwards, kills the golem.

A few months ago I was listening to a podcast I love called Spirits Podcast which is all about mythology, legends and lore. And buried amidst their discussion of golems with Eric Silver, he mentioned that the modern version of the golem is the robot.

This totally blew my mind! I still think about it. So I’m here to share this idea with you.

Continue reading

Good Night, Patriarchy

I am a feminist, and I’ve raised my daughter to be a feminist. But lately, I’ve been administering feminism like it’s a damn inoculation. (The shot is metaphorical. The disease is not.)

One of my favorite prophylactics against the patriarchy—suitable for girls and boys alike—is the feminist bedtime story, and happily, the selection is expanding quickly. My eight-year-old and I have read and reread several collections of women-centered folk and fairy tales from around the world—including Tatterhood, The Serpent Slayer, and Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters—and we’ve put women in the lead of many classic stories by genderswapping their central characters. Recently, we’ve added three excellent books to our nightstand stack: Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, Bad Girls Throughout History, and Rad American Women A-Z all use short, accessible biographies and cool art to introduce kids (and the rest of us) to powerful, creative, famous, and not-so-famous women from the past and present. Continue reading

Great Balls of Fire

Early Monday morning, a fireball lit up the night sky over Wisconsin. For a just a second, dark became light. And then there was an explosion followed by a terrifying sonic boom.

Loretta Brockmeier, a resident of Random Lake, Wisconsin, a town about 40 minutes north of Milwaukee, got up to use the bathroom and happened to catch a glimpse of the blaze, “a bright green flash that lit up the outside like the sun,” she wrote on Facebook. Brockmeier went to the window to see if she could puzzle out the cause, but nothing seemed amiss. A minute later, she heard a thunderous blast followed by rumbling. It sounded “like a boulder hitting the roof and rolling down the side,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, I was fast asleep. But I heard the news the next morning on Wisconsin Public Radio. And it was the term “fireball” that gave me pause. Fireball sounds like the kind of thing that might precede the apocalypse. But the reporter offered no explanation. No definition. As if fireballs are commonplace. Continue reading

Conversation: Mike Lemonick & the Perpetual Now

I’ve known Mike Lemonick for several thousand years, ever since he assigned me to write a news story.  And I was then, as I still am, congenitally unable to write news stories.  All I remember is that I blew the news story and Mike had to completely rewrite it. I don’t remember the story, I don’t remember the magazine, I’m not even entirely sure it was Mike. Obviously, this post is going to be on memory, about which Mike has written a new book.

Ann:  Here’s how Mike begins his book:  he’s walking down a street in his home town, Princeton, and he runs into a woman he’s known since the time they both played in middle school orchestra.  He remembers, instantly and almost uncontrollably, playing the bugle call on his trumpet every morning before assembly, screwing it up every time, and how the other kids in his class got on his case about it, also about his clothes and haircut.  He’s reminding us what we know: how memory normally works.

The woman, whose name is Aline, asks him if he knows about what happened to her sister, who’s a few years older than Mike and Aline.  Aline tells Mike that several years ago, her sister, Lonni Sue, got a brain infection that more or less wiped out her memory.  That is, Lonni Sue remembers almost nothing of her past and the present for only a few minutes and then that’s gone too.  Mike goes to visit Lonni Sue, says, “Hi, I’m Mike.”  And she’s delighted to see him and they talk for a minute about her drawings, then she says, “Hi, my name’s Lonni Sue.  What’s yours?”  The title of Mike’s book is The Perpetual Now. And I have questions.

Mike: Before you ask those questions, the magazine was Science Digest, which was (mercifully) put out of its misery in 1986. The story had something to do with quantum uncertainty; you used the analogy of a pitcher throwing a baseball—I no longer remember why. But I do remember that you didn’t “blow” the story in any sense, and that I was intimidated to be editing you. OK, on to your questions.

Ann:  Was the story about macroscopic quantum effects, like the pitcher threw the baseball at the wall and the baseball couldn’t go through the wall but appeared on the other side anyway?  Maybe I remember that — we’re talking 30 years ago.  But I did blow the story, and thank you anyway.  

The first question which comes up the minute the reader understands what’s going on with Lonni Sue, that she has no memory of the past and no sense of the future — wait, I don’t remember, does Lonni Sue have a sense of the future? Continue reading

No Rings, Pops, or Bells

I don’t know what to do with my phone. It makes noises that I don’t understand. Sometimes it sounds like a jackpot machine and I want to throw it as far as I can.

The last few days I found myself out of range while driving across southern Utah, trying to call my boys to say goodnight, arranging pickup and drop off times down the road, contacting people to be interviewed, banks, congress people, the usual. Instead, there was silence. I hate to say it, but I missed the damn thing. I could feel its emptiness, palpating around the negative space of zero bars and finding nothing. It was like a ghost limb, something familiar defined by absence.

I am used to silence in the backcountry. I love weeks of being unaccountable. But not in my car or kicking around a pull out, waiting for my gas tank to fill at the station in Hanksville, tapping the screen to see what’s up with the world. This was my magic space box, and it said nilContinue reading

The Last Word

January 27 – February 3, 2017

Helen, who also sings and writes, set out on a mission to draw every day in hopes that she’d get better.  After a year of this, she reports on the state of her art.  I personally think she should leave a couple things for the rest of us to do.

Cameron, who’s never been to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, takes us to the ocean-bound Norwegian island and deep under a mountain, where she’s certain we’ll find warmth, comfort, and safety, bar the polar bears.

Sarah takes us to another magic place, the Tongass National Forest — so rich and diverse and seemingly endless, it’ll never go away.  Which is typical idiot human thinking for, why protect abundance when you can protect the places you’ve almost killed off?

The toughest, strongest, bad-ass hard-core macho guy Erik knows isn’t a climber or hiker or mountaineer or cage fighter, it’s this skinny jungle-bugs entomologist.

Some time ago I fell in love with the Capital Weather Gang and took them for my personal meteorological saviors.  Do we go ahead with the block party with a forecast of rain? I mount my pulpit; I read the moving fronts, the CAPE, the probabilities, the certainty; we go ahead and it doesn’t rain.


Drawing by Sarah G.


Redux: Love Song for the Capital Weather Gang

imrsThat’s a screen shot of the Capital Weather Gang’s excited tweet. I’d just finished explaining to our own Erik Vance what a derecho was — he said it meant “straight ahead” and was a dumb name for a weather phenomenon — and that the mid-Atlantic, which he was then visiting, wouldn’t be getting the derecho the Midwest was having.  I referred him to the Gang’s thorough and authoritative post on the subject, when the Gang itself tweeted that it had just that minute finished installing its own weather station on the Washington Post’s roof.  Taking its own data! analyzing that data its own self! combining data and models to make a prediction! along with a confidence level!  I’m so happy for them I can’t write any more and will just have to send you back to the original: Love Song for the Capital Weather Gang.