Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sunday Reading

Stop Watching the News — Farhad Manjoo offers a respite from the breaking news.

Inspired by the events of the past week, here’s a handy guide for anyone looking to figure out what exactly is going on during a breaking news event. When you first hear about a big story in progress, run to your television. Make sure it’s securely turned off.

Next, pull out your phone, delete your Twitter app, shut off your email, and perhaps cancel your service plan. Unplug your PC.

Now go outside and take a walk for an hour or two. Maybe find a park and sit on a bench, reading an old novel. Winter is just half a year away—have you started cleaning out your rain gutters? This might be a good time to start. Whatever you do, remember to stay hydrated. Have a sensible dinner. Get a good night’s rest. In the morning, don’t rush out of bed. Take in the birdsong. Brew a pot of coffee.

Finally, load up your favorite newspaper’s home page. Spend about 10 minutes reading a couple of in-depth news stories about the events of the day. And that’s it: You’ve now caught up with all your friends who spent the past day and a half going out of their minds following cable and Twitter. In fact, you’re now better informed than they are, because during your self-imposed exile from the news, you didn’t stumble into the many cul-de-sacs and dark alleys of misinformation that consumed their lives. You’re less frazzled, better rested, and your rain gutters are clear.

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We get stories much faster than we can make sense of them, informed by cellphone pictures and eyewitnesses found on social networks and dubious official sources like police scanner streams. Real life moves much slower than these technologies. There’s a gap between facts and comprehension, between finding some pictures online and making sense of how they fit into a story. What ends up filling that gap is speculation. On both Twitter and cable, people are mostly just collecting little factoids and thinking aloud about various possibilities. They’re just shooting the shit, and the excrement ends up flying everywhere and hitting innocent targets.

For a lot of people, it’s exciting to get caught up in a fast-breaking story. I’d like to tell you that the next time something big breaks, I’ll stay away from Twitter. I hope that I do. But I worry that’s just my news hangover talking. For all the blind alleys, I do have a lot of fun following the news in real time, and I find it hard to stay away. Maybe you do, too. If you’re that sort of person, feel free to stay glued to Twitter and cable. Just be sure to exercise caution about what you tweet and retweet—after last night, I know I’ll be able to do at least that much. And just remember, for all the time you spend online, you won’t be any better informed than a guy who spent all day cleaning his gutters.

A Balanced Approach to Fear — Zachary Karabell at The Atlantic looks at how America reacts to mass destruction.

In the reaction to the Boston bombings, we are seeing, at least for now, an outburst of balanced outrage. I lived in Boston for seven years in the 1990s. It was a tough place — not threatening, just tough. Removed from the years of busing that had brought out the us-versus-them worst, it wasn’t yet as gentrified and reborn after the multibillion-dollar Big Dig. The DNA of cities takes a while to change, and you could feel in the many reactions from Bostonians that they were hurt, angry, and determined to catch whoever did it. But they were equally determined to keep going without making too many compromises about their lives. The city was shut down on Friday to make it easier for law enforcement to do their job, but for a very specific reason, not some generalized fear.

It’s been said for years that we have ample tools via law enforcement agencies to guard against attacks and pursue those who undertake them. The Boston response is classic law enforcement, with the FBI leading the way, the police doing the vital work, and untold numbers of volunteers and responders adding to the mix.

Terror is not an act per se; it’s the creation of fear via an act. It’s been said that Russia is relatively immune to terror, even after a number of gruesome and far more lethal episodes in recent years. In 2004, a school in Beslan was seized by Chechen fighters. When Russian troops stormed the school, nearly 400 people died. Yet that had little discernible impact on Russian attitudes or behavior. Russians are largely impervious to the effects of terror attacks because they don’t expect perfect security. They expect a world fraught with peril, and probably too much, though their history suggests that peril is the norm. Hence random acts of terror don’t terrorize.

For the Birds — Brian Kimmerling on what birds tell us about the world we live in.

A bird-watcher is a kind of pious predator. To see a new bird is to capture it, metaphorically, and a rare bird or an F.O.Y. (First of the Year, for the uninitiated) is a kind of trophy. A list of birds seen on a given day is also a form of prayer, a thanksgiving for being alive at a certain time and place. Posting that list online is a 21st-century form of a votive offering. It’s unclear what deity presides.

There was prestige in knowing birds in ancient Rome, and there is prestige today. There are also competitive insect enthusiasts and tree connoisseurs and fungus aficionados, but they lack the cultural stature and sheer numbers of bird-watchers. There are 5.8 million bird-watchers in the United States, slightly more than the number of Americans in book clubs or residents of Wisconsin. That’s a huge army of primitive hunter-mystics decked out in sturdy hiking boots and nylon rain gear, consulting their smartphones to identify or imitate a particular quarry.

There is nothing especially new about them except for their gear. Two hundred years ago the heartland teemed with second sons of wealthy European families who could have stayed home dissipating in traditional style, but chose to go to the New World and find a new animal instead. Reporting your sightings to the Audubon Society is decidedly less glamorous than dispatching a new specimen to a museum in Paris or London, but it’s a kindred enterprise.

Today’s birders are not exploring new territory geographically, as the early naturalists did; rather, they are contouring the frontiers of climate change. It’s April, and the kitchen-window bird observer is limbering up, too. Are the birds nesting early, nesting late? (Do they know something we don’t?) The reporting such observers do is crucial.

And what are today’s birds telling us? The Audubon Society estimates that nearly 60 percent of 305 bird species found in North America in winter are shifting northward and to higher elevations in response to climate change. For comparison, imagine the inhabitants of 30 states — using state residence as a proxy for species of American human — becoming disgruntled with forest fires and drought and severe weather events, and seeking out suitable new habitat.

The Audubon Society’s estimates rest largely on data supplied by volunteers in citizen-science projects like the Christmas Bird Count (first proposed in 1900, nine years after the first known use of the word “bird-watcher,” to set the hobby apart from the more traditional Christmas pastime of shooting birds). The birds in question have shifted an average of 35 miles north over a period of about 40 years — seemingly insignificant in human terms, but a major move ecologically.

[Ed. note: I still have my well-worn, well-used copy of Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds from 1962.]

Doonesbury — Social media is the enemy.

One bark on “Sunday Reading

  1. I saw a bird in my neighbor’s yard several weeks ago that just blew my mind. It was a red phalarope! SE Minnesota is NOT its normal habitat. The closest body of water is a small creek 3 blocks away. I watched it till sunset and kept checking my bird books and Google image. No doubt about it. What a pleasure to see this gorgeous red bird! Got a laugh out of it too: it was bobbing up and down like it was doing deep knee bends. Really silly-looking.

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