Sunday 03.15.2015 New York Times Digest

TED Talks

1. The Church of TED

“I grew up among Christian evangelicals and I recognize the cadences of missionary zeal when I hear them. TED, with its airy promises, sounds a lot like a secular religion. And while it’s not exactly fair to say that the conference series and web video function like an organized church, understanding the parallel structures is useful for conversations about faith — and how susceptible we humans remain. The TED style, with its promise of progress, is as manipulative as the orthodoxies it is intended to upset.”

2. Brian Sutton-Smith, Scholar of What’s Fun, Dies at 90

“Why do we study play? We study play because life is crap. Life is crap, and it’s full of pain and suffering, and the only thing that makes it worth living — the only thing that makes it possible to get up in the morning and go on living — is play.”

3. A Frontier Land Dispute, Circa 2015, Pits Modernization Against the Past

“Everybody looks at it and says it’s just one house, or it’s just three houses. But once you add them up, we start losing enough of that historic fabric to where we really don’t have the identity anymore.”

4. A Chess Master Tries to Turn Rabbits Into Wolves

“He can recite Shakespeare sonnets upon request, as well as the poetry of Robert Frost and of Langston Hughes, in whose old Harlem brownstone Mr. Times lived for nine years, while writing poetry and teaching writing to at-risk students and in homeless shelters and drug rehabilitation programs in the 1990s.”

5. Wet Wipes Box Says Flush. New York’s Sewer System Says Don’t.

“Often, the wipes combine with other materials, like congealed grease, to create a sort of superknot.”

6. For Tech Titans, Sharing Has Its Limits

“Some people requiring nondisclosure are the very ones who have built an industry on its opposite, the disclosure of personal information.”

7. How Many Mutual Funds Routinely Rout the Market? Zero

“Most people shouldn’t even try to beat the market: Just pick low-cost index funds, assemble a balanced and appropriate portfolio for your specific needs, and give up on active fund management.”

8. How to Survive the College Admissions Madness

“For every person whose contentment comes from faithfully executing a predetermined script, there are at least 10 if not 100 who had to rearrange the pages and play a part they hadn’t expected to, in a theater they hadn’t envisioned. Besides, life is defined by setbacks, and success is determined by the ability to rebound from them. And there’s no single juncture, no one crossroads, on which everything hinges.”

9. A Christian Nation? Since When?

“Back in the 1930s, business leaders found themselves on the defensive. Their public prestige had plummeted with the Great Crash; their private businesses were under attack by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal from above and labor from below. To regain the upper hand, corporate leaders fought back on all fronts. They waged a figurative war in statehouses and, occasionally, a literal one in the streets; their campaigns extended from courts of law to the court of public opinion. But nothing worked particularly well until they began an inspired public relations offensive that cast capitalism as the handmaiden of Christianity.”

10. What My Friends Mean to Me

“The whole enterprise is exhausting. And yet, one needs friends.”

11. Birth of a Freedom Anthem

“‘We Shall Overcome’ has roots in the antebellum period, when slaves sang ‘No More Auction Block,’ a spiritual with a similar message and tune. By the late 19th century, black churchgoers across the South embraced ‘I’ll Be All Right,’ a song almost identical in rhythm and melody to the civil rights anthem. And in 1900 a black Methodist minister, Charles Albert Tindley, published a hymn titled ‘I’ll Overcome Some Day,’ which included the line, ‘If in my heart, I do not yield, I’ll o-vercome some day.’”

12. Slavery’s Enduring Resonance

“If by some method of time travel the former slaves and slaveholders of Limerick plantation could be brought face to face with us, they would not find our world entirely alien. In place of the rural incarceration of four million black people, we have the mass incarceration of one million black men. In place of laws that prohibited black literacy throughout the South, we have campaigns by Tea Party and anti-tax fanatics to defund public schools within certain ZIP codes. And we have stop-and-search policing, and frequently much worse, in place of the slave patrols.”

13. Visiting Le Corbusier’s Grave

“She was cremated at her funeral. Corbu rescued the backbone from the ashes and showed it to stunned guests. For the rest of his life he kept the bone in his pants pocket, except when it was placed on his drafting table, so he could look at it as he worked.”

14. For Poorer and Richer

“In a substantially poorer American past with a much thinner safety net, lower-income Americans found a way to cultivate monogamy, fidelity, sobriety and thrift to an extent that they have not in our richer, higher-spending present.”

15. Sex and Violence, Beyond the Script

“While sexual misconduct and harassment policies have become more stringent in places from university campuses to dot-com start-ups, theater remains largely unregulated. And it is a unique work environment, one that asks employees to flirt and kiss, argue and fight, strip naked and simulate sex eight times a week for what can be months on end. After hours, sexual encounters are common among cast members; actors date one another, and directors sometimes date their actors. When powerful people behave badly, they have agents to protect them.”

16. Life or Movie? Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter and The Wolfpack Blur Lines

“As playfully asserted by the new film Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, a fantasia inspired by an urban myth, the title character (Rinko Kikuchi) has the power to make something real out of something fake — to remake and refashion the movie in her own image. It’s just the latest exploration of how modern humans have adapted their imaginations and identities in response to the recorded image. Movies play host to our fantasy lives and can even transform and define our day-to-day — at least according to the movies themselves.”

17. In Backcountry and Other Movies,
a Bear Makes a Mean Co-Star

“From horror films to thrillers to even the occasional Hollywood comedy, bears have been a fearsome, growling force to be reckoned with.”

18. Remembering Lisa Adams

“On the social network, she showed a particular interest in writers whom she would engage in chatter on Twitter and then suggest, at least among those in the New York area (since Lisa lived in a Manhattan bedroom community), a coffee or lunch get-together. Both to these local friends, and those who lived farther afield or even abroad, she would send letters in the mail. The letters took note of holidays, birthdays and new jobs. They sometimes transmitted information, often were funny (she had a wicked sense of humor and a throaty laugh) and always conveyed admiration and support. The letters bore the hallmark of her gorgeous penmanship — perfectly slanted cursive T’s and uniformly looped L’s. She loved beautiful stationery and Sharpies, and she wielded them well.”

19. Abandonment Issues

“The older I get, the more preoccupied I become with the number of things I’ve given up on over the years. I’m fond of the line, often attributed to Paul Valéry, about how ‘a work of art is never finished, merely abandoned,’ but as I look back with mounting unease at a path strewn with half-started and half-finished projects, I wonder if I might have taken this counsel too much, and too literally, to heart.”

20. Religious History

“Tried before the Roman Inquisition in 1859, the case revolved around a pious German princess who entered Sant’Ambrogio, one of Italy’s strictest convents, only to learn that its inhabitants were not as holy as they appeared. Instead of worshiping the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the princess said, they were a mystical lesbian cult, and Sister Maria Luisa, their beautiful, deviant novice mistress, had attempted to have her poisoned.”

21. A Manners Manifesto

“In the democratic present, perhaps the way to distinguish useful etiquette from frippery is to discern which rules help us be good rather than seem good. Serving others first is plainly charitable. Filling companions’ glasses, waiting to eat, giving another the last of the stew, chewing with a closed mouth — each is a basic acknowledgment of togetherness. Perhaps the consequential lesson in the matter of holding your fork, etc., is that customs differ at different tables in different lands, and that there is a certain intelligence in doing as is done. In other words, whatever unites merits keeping, and what divides can be folded and stored away with the linen too old and ornamental to use.”

22. The Last Volunteer

“I became a switchboard operator in the Army during the Second World War and was part of the effort to defeat Fascism. After the war, I worked with the United Farm Workers, and later was elected vice president of the local chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. It bothers me a little that at 99 you’re going to die any minute, because I have a lot of other things I want to do.”

23. The Heart-Stopping Climbs of Alex Honnold

“Honnold could afford to buy a decent home, if that interested him. But living in a van — a custom-outfitted van, in his case, with a kitchenette and cabinets full of energy bars and climbing equipment — represents freedom. It also represents a commitment to the nomadic climber’s ideal of the “dirtbag,” the purist so devoted to climbing that he avoids any entanglement that might interfere, stretching every penny from one climbing area to the next. Honnold, who graduated from high school with a 4.6 grade-point average and who has big ears and wide-set brown eyes — “cow eyes,” his mother calls them — has been the king of the dirtbags for the last decade. When he’s not climbing overseas in places like Patagonia, France or Morocco, he lives an endless road trip through the Southwestern desert, Yosemite Valley, British Columbia and points between. Along the way, he has turned himself into the greatest living free-soloist, meaning that he climbs without ropes, alone.”

24. Jane Goodall Is Still Wild at Heart

“Goodall’s first book, My Friends, the Wild Chimpanzees, was published by National Geographic in the mid-’60s, making her a star among the public, though it was regarded dimly by academia. Goodall recalled for me an episode at Cambridge, after the school made the exceptional decision, on the recommendation of Leakey, to admit Goodall into a Ph.D. program despite her lacking an undergraduate degree. When her book appeared — before her Ph.D. was even completed — her Cambridge mentor sputtered with rage: ‘It’s — it’s — it’s for the general public!’ She told me she was nearly expelled from the program. That Goodall was a woman and attractive made her an easy object of the ethologists’ derision. How could she give the subjects of her research names? Think they had emotions? A social life? What was she doing out there?”

25. From Jamaica to Minnesota to Myself

“In creative writing, I teach that characters arise out of our need for them. By now, the person I created in New York was the only one I wanted to be. Over the next two years, I came and left often, pushing the limits of a student visa. I’d make friends but never get close enough to have them ask me anything too deep, playing at being aloof when I was really just shy, and I’d walk past gay bars, turn and walk past again, but never go in. Back home I fell back into church, knowing I didn’t belong there anymore. Once I forgot to code-switch in time and dashed to the bathroom in J.F.K., minutes before my flight to Kingston, to change out of my skinny jeans and hoop earrings. Eight years after reaching the end of myself, I was on borrowed time. Whether it was in a plane or a coffin, I knew I had to get out of Jamaica.”

26. My Saga, Part 2

“If there is something to be gained, if it is gainable, no power on earth can restrain the forces that seek to gain it. To leave a profit or a territory or any kind of resource, even a scientific discovery, unexploited is deeply alien to human nature.”

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