October 6, 2018

Posted by orrinj at 4:16 AM


The Squid Hunter: Can Steve O'Shea capture the sea's most elusive creature? (David Grann, 5/24/04, The New Yorker)

On a moonless January night in 2003, Olivier de Kersauson, the French yachtsman, was racing across the Atlantic Ocean, trying to break the record for the fastest sailing voyage around the world, when his boat mysteriously came to a halt. There was no land for hundreds of miles, yet the mast rattled and the hull shuddered, as if the vessel had run aground. Kersauson turned the wheel one way, then the other; still, the gunwales shook inexplicably in the darkness. Kersauson ordered his crew, all of whom were now running up and down the deck, to investigate. Some of the crew took out spotlights and shone them on the water, as the massive trimaran--a three-hulled, hundred-and-ten-foot boat that was the largest racing machine of its kind, and was named Geronimo, for the Apache warrior--pitched in the waves.

Meanwhile, the first mate, Didier Ragot, descended from the deck into the cabin, opened a trapdoor in the floor, and peered through a porthole into the ocean, using a flashlight. He glimpsed something by the rudder. "It was bigger than a human leg," Ragot recently told me. "It was a tentacle." He looked again. "It was starting to move," he recalled.

He beckoned Kersauson, who came down and crouched over the opening. "I think it's some sort of animal," Ragot said.

Kersauson took the flashlight, and inspected for himself. "I had never seen anything like it," he told me. "There were two giant tentacles right beneath us, lashing at the rudder."

The creature seemed to be wrapping itself around the boat, which rocked violently. The floorboards creaked, and the rudder started to bend. Then, just as the stern seemed ready to snap, everything went still. "As it unhooked itself from the boat, I could see its tentacles," Ragot recalled. "The whole animal must have been nearly thirty feet long."

The creature had glistening skin and long arms with suckers, which left impressions on the hull. "It was enormous," Kersauson recalled. "I've been sailing for forty years and I've always had an answer for everything--for hurricanes and icebergs. But I didn't have an answer for this. It was terrifying."

What they claimed they saw--a claim that many regarded as a tall tale--was a giant squid, an animal that has long occupied a central place in sea lore; it has been said to be larger than a whale and stronger than an elephant, with a beak that can sever steel cables. In a famous scene in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," Jules Verne depicts a battle between a submarine and a giant squid that is twenty-five feet long, with eight arms and blue-green eyes--"a terrible monster worthy of all the legends about such creatures." More recently, Peter Benchley, in his thriller "Beast," describes a giant squid that "killed without need, as if Nature, in a fit of perverse malevolence, had programmed it to that end."

Such fictional accounts, coupled with scores of unconfirmed sightings by sailors over the years, have elevated the giant squid into the fabled realm of the fire-breathing dragon and the Loch Ness monster. Though the giant squid is no myth, the species, designated in scientific literature as Architeuthis, is so little understood that it sometimes seems like one. A fully grown giant squid is classified as the largest invertebrate on Earth, with tentacles sometimes as long as a city bus and eyes about the size of human heads. Yet no scientist has ever examined a live specimen--or seen one swimming in the sea. Researchers have studied only carcasses, which have occasionally washed ashore or floated to the surface. (One corpse, found in 1887 in the South Pacific, was said to be nearly sixty feet long.) Other evidence of the giant squid is even more indirect: sucker marks have been spotted on the bodies of sperm whales, as if burned into them; presumably, the two creatures battle each other hundreds of feet beneath the ocean's surface.

The giant squid has consumed the imaginations of many oceanographers. How could something so big and powerful remain unseen for so long--or be less understood than dinosaurs, which died out millions of years ago? The search for a living specimen has inspired a fevered competition. For decades, teams of scientists have prowled the high seas in the hope of glimpsing one. These "squid squads" have in recent years invested millions of dollars and deployed scores of submarines and underwater cameras, in a struggle to be first.

Steve O'Shea, a marine biologist from New Zealand, is one of the hunters--but his approach is radically different. He is not trying to find a mature giant squid; rather, he is scouring the ocean for a baby, called a paralarva, which he can grow in captivity. A paralarva is often the size of a cricket.

"Squid, you see, hatch thousands of babies," O'Shea told me recently, when I called him at his office at the Earth and Oceanic Sciences Research Institute, at the Auckland University of Technology. "Most of these will get eaten up by larger predators, but during periods of spawning the sea should be filled with an absolutely fantastic amount of these miniature organisms. And, unlike the adults, they shouldn't be able to dart away as easily."

Rival hunters once viewed his plan skeptically: if no one could find the animal when it was sixty feet long, how could anyone discover it when it was barely an eighth of an inch? Lately, though, many have come to see O'Shea's strategy as a potential breakthrough. "It offers several advantages," Clyde Roper, an American who is perhaps the world's foremost expert on squid, told me. Roper is a giant-squid hunter himself, who once descended underwater in a steel cage, in search of his quarry. "First, you could find the juvenile at shallower depths. That makes it a lot easier to catch. Furthermore, there are more of them around, because at that stage, even though mortality is high, the adult female will release up to four million eggs. That's a hell of a lot of baby giant squid running around." He added, "It's a matter of a numbers game, pure and simple."

Posted by orrinj at 4:09 AM


The Tag Team: These ten friends have been playing the childhood game for decades--and each year, the stakes get higher. Now, their contest is being immortalized on film. (Darryn King, 6/6/18, Hazlitt)

On a Saturday afternoon in February in downtown Seattle, Chris Amman, a neatly dressed fifty-two-year-old financial services professional, had the strange feeling he was being hunted.

After spending the morning attending to a few things in the office, Amman had a one o'clock meeting in a bar named The Brooklyn, on the ground level of his building. He'd chosen the location knowing it would be relatively quiet at that hour, all the better for detecting anything out of the ordinary. The day before, he'd paid a visit to get the lay of the land, suss out its blind spots and points of entry. He spent some time looking online for more information on the person he was scheduled to meet. His story checked out, but Amman remained suspicious.

Entering The Brooklyn a few minutes after the hour, he scanned the space, gazing past a man at the bar with a mullet, eyeing the group in the back.

He spotted the journalist, whose picture he'd seen online, and walked over to take a seat. Niceties were briefly exchanged. He ordered a beer.

And then, just as Amman was beginning to relax and feel safe, the man with the mullet rose from his barstool and stalked purposefully over. "Hey, aren't you--" he began. Amman looked up at the approaching figure. It took a moment for recognition to dawn. Then he made a run for it.

He didn't get far. The man with the mullet gave Amman a light but effective whack on the upper back. "Tag!" he said. "You're It." 

In all the usual ways, they are just like ten normal middle-aged guys. Mostly scattered around Seattle and Spokane in Washington, they have wives, children, jobs, grown-up responsibilities. When they get together, they drink a few pints, smoke cigars, watch basketball, regale each other with stories and call each other by time-honored nicknames (Amman is Lepus, Rick Bruya is Bruiser, Joe Caferro is Beef).

Unlike most adults, however, they have been playing an unprecedentedly epic and continuous game of "tag," the beloved children's playground game (called "tig" or "it" by some), for more than thirty years. They call themselves the Tag Brothers.

Posted by orrinj at 4:07 AM


Did Thomas Kuhn Kill Truth? : A debate on the nature of truth turns into a squabble over whether the father of the "paradigm shift" threw an ashtray at Errol Morris's head. (David Kordahl, Spring 2018, New Atlantis)

The preface to The Essential Tension (1977) -- Thomas Kuhn's first essay collection published post-Structure -- offers advice for students working to interpret primary sources in science. "When reading the works of an important thinker, look first for the apparent absurdities in the text and ask yourself how a sensible person could have written them." Kuhn continues, "When those passages make sense, then you may find that more central passages, ones you previously thought you understood, have changed their meaning."

Whatever your views on Kuhn, this seems like good advice. It's also the exact opposite of Errol Morris's approach to Kuhn in The Ashtray. Of course, if Morris directly experienced Kuhn as a violent maniac, this is understandable; few of us are eager to consider our abusers as important thinkers. On the other hand, with over a half-century of continued appeal, Kuhn must offer something beyond dogmatism and a halo of ash. So what, in his anger, has Morris left out?

Let's start with how well Kuhn was able to capture the way science is actually done. Unlike Kripke, Kuhn was one of us, a Ph.D. physicist whose firsthand knowledge of "normal science" allowed him to document scientific investigations in sensitive detail. To fellow scientists, many of Kuhn's claims seem less perverse than they are self-evident. When Kuhn discusses how paradigms define the way scientists approach the world, most of us will nod along, remembering the difficult years spent in reproducing classic experiments and solutions. The description of normal science as puzzle-solving within a paradigm certainly resonates with those of us actively searching for problems to tackle. By contrast, you'd be hard pressed to find a single working scientist who is out to discover necessary a posteriori truths.

Nevertheless, I suspect that beyond the fetching jargon and neat anecdotes, most scientists would in fact disagree with Kuhn's more radical claims. For instance, many physicists will agree that the world really is a certain way -- that, to the best of our knowledge, everything really is made of relativistic quantum fields. For such physicists, Einstein superseded Newton not for any sociological reason, but because he got closer to the truth.

Kuhn, however, was adamant that conflicting paradigms couldn't be compared so directly. To him, Einstein and Newton described genuinely different worlds, not simply better and worse renditions of the same one we all inhabit. The clearest articulation of Kuhn's final position can be found in The Road Since Structure (2000), a posthumous miscellany. While the presentation rehashes many of Kuhn's trademark concepts, it also acknowledges and addresses many of the usual concerns. Discussing incommensurability, Kuhn allows that we can always adopt the lexicon of a competing paradigm (listen up, Mr. Morris: this is how histories are written!), but he still maintains that we can only speak a single language at once, and hence still can't exactly translate old into new terms.

In the title essay -- a sketch for a future, never-completed book -- Kuhn calls his final view "a sort of post-Darwinian Kantianism." Kuhn's theory had always been recognized as "post-Darwinian" in the sense that he argued that the development of science, like biological evolution, is "driven from behind, not pulled from ahead." Scientific theories are accepted because of how well they solve the problems facing scientific communities at particular historical moments, rather than how well they correspond to the absolute truth about the world.

As he was working on his final book, Kuhn realized another sense in which biological evolution could provide a model for the development of science. The diversification of living things into different species, each with a specialized environmental niche, has an analogue in the diversification of science into narrowly specialized fields. And much as organisms from different species are unable to interbreed, the specialized lexicons of different scientific fields make it ever more challenging for different scientific specialists to understand one another.

The Kantian aspect of Kuhn's view has to do with Kant's notion that our experiences are inevitably filtered through certain categories of understanding, such as the concept of cause and effect. In Kuhn's words: "Like the Kantian categories, the lexicon" -- the way scientists talk about the world within a given paradigm -- "supplies preconditions of possible experience." In other words, the concepts we project on the world inextricably shape how we experience it, and scientists' paradigmatic lexicon shapes how they see the world.

Kuhn is sometimes described as a relativist, full stop; but this isn't quite right. Kuhn admits there's something objectively out there. But he qualifies that this thing-in-itself (as Kant put it) is "ineffable, undescribable, undiscussable." So what can we do?

Mostly, we talk, casting our nets over the dark sea. Once we settle on a stable way of talking, we can evaluate claims as objectively true or false. When a seemingly more useful way of talking arises, that's a scientific revolution. In this new way of talking we can once again evaluate claims as objectively true or false, even if, using the same words as before, claims that were true in the old way of talking might be false in the new way, and vice versa.

The issue here is not the denial of reality, but the denial of an absolutely preferred way of talking about it. Statements can be true or false, but not whole languages. As Kuhn puts it, "The ways of being-in-the-world which a lexicon provides are not candidates for true/false."

This is a "coherence theory" of truth, where truth applies not to the world but to statements about the world -- and even then only in a given language, only with a given use. This idea is perhaps disturbing, but it doesn't amount to what critics like Morris think. Morris charges Kuhn with claiming that the world is however we want it to be, but Kuhn in fact claims the opposite. In Kuhn's view, reality is out there, but it doesn't speak our language. It remains forever alien, non-linguistic, regardless of how well we seem to describe its various parts.

Posted by orrinj at 4:02 AM


Escaping to opportunity: Leaving impoverished public housing projects has profound long-term consequences for children, especially if they're young.  (Chris Fleisher, 10/02/18, aMERICAN eCONOMIC aSSOCIATION)

"We don't really know what's happened to the people that have been affected by (public housing demolition) at all," said Eric Chyn, assistant professor at the University of Virginia, in an interview with the AEA. "One of the hopes was that children and adults would benefit by getting out of those areas because these areas were very very difficult environments."

Chyn's paper in the October issue of the American Economic Review examines what happened when Chicago razed some of its roughest projects and forcibly relocated families.

Chyn found that children who left public housing for more stable communities were 9 percent more likely to be employed as adults and earned 16 percent more per year. The impacts were even larger for kids who were young when they moved. The findings underscore the long-term consequences that living in impoverished communities has for children and offers important insights for housing policy.    

Public housing policy ought to be based, almost entirely, on getting the urban poor out of cities and into homes of their own.