The Atlantic’s business vertical, Quartz, decided to take a look at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in January, as it neared its 70th birthday. I think the writer, Leo Mirani, did a good job of amassing a lot of historical material and winding it together with comments from me. And, as you know, I don’t go around praising journalists for no reason, even if they’re smart enough to write nicely about me. Another way to know Mirani’s a good one: The Quartz piece ran ahead of the Bulletin’s announcement on January 22 that its Doomsday Clock would move forward to a very scary three minutes to midnight. That announcement generated tens of thousands of tweets and retweets and some 2,000 news articles, going out toward a potential audience that was in the neighborhood of half a billion readers/viewers. But Mirani was first, and I bet his piece was accessed for background purposes a lot, all around the world.
I thought I knew something about Picasso and Guernica before I started editing this piece, “Guernica: Horror and inspiration,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Rhodes. I was wrong. By way of explanation, a sample of Rhodes’ prose:
Most of the buildings in Gernika were constructed of wood above the ground floor. For that reason, the Junkers had been loaded with both high-explosive bombs and incendiaries—the HEs to make kindling, as Kurt Vonnegut once explained to me from his similar experience in Dresden, the incendiaries to light the fires. The HEs were 100- and 500-pounders. The lightweight incendiaries—tubes 14 inches long and 2 inches in diameter, made of Elektron (an alloy of 92 percent magnesium, 5 percent aluminum and 3 percent zinc) filled with thermite—were packed in droppable dispensers, each holding 36 bombs.
Thousands of Elektron incendiaries fell on Gernika that night, skittering down like icicles broken off a roofline. Pure metal burning at 2,200 degrees Celsius, they were almost impossible to quench.The Australian journalist Noel Monks describes the aftermath (Monks, 1955: 97):
[On arrival] I … was immediately pressed into service by some Basque soldiers collecting charred bodies that the flames had passed over. Some of the soldiers were sobbing like children. There were flames and smoke and grit, and the smell of burning human flesh was nau-seating. Houses were collapsing into the inferno.
In the Plaza, surrounded almost by a wall of fire, were about a hundred refugees. They were wailing and weeping and rocking to and fro … . Most of Guernica’s streets began or ended at the Plaza.
It was impossible to go down many of them, because they were walls of flame. Debris was piled high. I could see shadowy forms, some large, some just ashes. I moved round to the back of the Plaza among survivors. They had the same story to tell, aeroplanes, bullets, bombs, fire.
This one is worth reading all the way through. It’s part of a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists‘ special issue on art and destruction that is also worth taking a look at. As is the exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, which collaborated with the Bulletin on parts of its Doomsday Clock Symposium in November.
This is the best explanation of a tennis forehand I’ve ever seen. And it’s about Rafael Nadal’s forehand, and Rafa rocks, so I’m just going with it.
I’m sharing this Texas Tribune post in hopes my various journalism-professor friends will also share it, so baby journalists across the land encounter the real-life example of how acronyms ruin stories, and why journalists need to step out of their enclosed little worlds and remember that no one is assigned to read what they write. Here’s the headline of the story:
House Committee Pushes CPRIT Reforms.
Of course, we all know what CPRIT means, right? But that’s not the extent of the sin. The story below the headline uses the CPRIT acronym 11 times in 454 words. Not to mention two uses of CTNeT. The story looks like ants are crawling through it. Capitalized, poisonous, illiterate, unidentified ants that don’t want you to read … one … word … further.
ADDENDUM: The Texas Tribune has updated this story with information on testimony before a legislative committee, adding four CPRITs and three CTNeTs and possibly setting a new world record for acronym misuse by a digital nonprofit news enterprise.
In the early 2000s, I had the joy/honor of working with Ron Russell, a writer who’d come out of the Los Angeles Times to work in the alternative weekly world. Ron was a consummate pro and a genuine bulldog. He’d chased the Catholic Church pedophile coverup in Los Angeles before he worked for me in San Francisco; there, he did many a wonderful (meaning horrifying) story about the church’s refusal to own up to its past and treat the victims of priestly pedophilia with the decency they deserved. I will not reveal what Ron told me about the situation in Los Angeles — the writer/editor relationship being roughly equivalent to penitent/priest — but I can tell you that in my not very humble opinion, God will need to make a new, lowest level of hell for Los
Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony to reside in. Read this. Try not to vomit.
In the second of a three-part series in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, leading world experts look at the possibility that France — which gets three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear power — might phase out of its commercial nuclear sector. The cultural angle is, in my opinion, the most interesting. The primary obstacle to a French nuclear exit, it seems, may well be France’s national notion that being a world power is inherently linked to its civilian and military nuclear efforts. The whole package. My intro.
Twice previously, while driving back to California from Arizona, I’d stopped for coffee at a nowhere-ville exit called Chiriaco Summit, way out in an unlovely part of the Southern California desert. Except for a Foster’s Freeze, a convenience store and a truck-stop-style gas station, the only thing at the exit is a very lame-looking museum in honor of Gen. George Patton — a sad little one-story building, with eight or 10 sad-looking WWI-vintage tanks rusting outside.
But on New Year’s Day 2013, I was driving back from Arizona with my 15-y-o son, the complete history freak, and my 9-y-0, brilliant-as-white-diamonds daughter when I needed the coffee. And this time, they demanded that we pay the admission and go inside the Patton museum — only to be completely blown away. I was expecting an ironic, can-you-believe-this-tourist-trap experience. Instead, the museum is larger than seems possible, and the memorabilia it throws in front of you is fascinating, voluminous, almost overwhelming in its evocation of Patton and WWII. I don’t have time right now to give a full explanation of the wonder of the place, but I’ll try describing one artifact that gives a sense of the detail that pervades: Walking into the dim depths of the musuem, I notice an extremely detailed map of the port of Cherbourg, which the Allies had to take if they were to supply their invasion of continental Europe after D-Day. So I’m staring at the map, fascinated, without much noticing what seems to be a copper-topped table, at about my mid-chest level, below the map. Then I look down and notice there are markings on the copper. Then I see that the copper “table” is actually the reverse-etched copper printing plate that the Allies used to produce the maps of Cherbourg they distributed to the troops tasked with taking the port. The museum is full of these kind of “oh my God” wonders, one after another, and if you’re ever driving through on I-10, it’s not just worth the stop. It’s a required stop. You’ll never watch Patton, the movie, in the same way again.
So why is this wonderful Gen. George Patton museum at the Chiriaco Summit exit off I-10 in an absolutely nowhere part of the godforsaken Southern California desert, anyway? The full explanation is here, but the short version: This is where Patton established a desert warfare training facility, so US forces would have half a chance fighting Rommel’s Afrika Korps in North Africa.
You know, when a Texas meat-packing company gets indicted for sending a torrent of pigs blood down the Trinity River — and I do mean a torrent, i.e. enough for it to be documented by an amateur’s drone aircraft — what are you going to do? You’re going to go with it.
Hey, shoppers! It’s an almost-half-off sale on zero-calorie noodles. You can pay a mere $39 (instead of the original $72) for the privilege of eating the near-equivalent of air for a long, long time. (And I do mean long: This would get you 24 eight-ounce packets.) I’d choke down a bowl of eels first, so a bonus prize of a six pack of Diet Coke goes to the first person who actually eats these ephemeral strings and tells us what they taste like.