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In the News 20.11.15 : Today’s Articles of Interest from around the Internets

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The Story Trap

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It’s a movie classic. The lovers are out for a walk when a villain dashes out of his house and starts fighting the man. The woman takes refuge in the house; having seen off his rival, the villain re-enters and chases after her. Yet the hero returns, pulling open the door so that the heroine can escape. The villain chases the lovers, until they finally flee, and he smashes his own home apart in fury.

Who are these characters? None of them ever made another movie, and you won’t find them in any directories of famous actors. They are, in order of appearance, a large triangle (villain), a small triangle (hero), and a circle (heroine). The animated film was made in 1944 by the psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel of Smith College in Massachusetts, whose paper ‘An Experimental Study of Apparent Behaviour’ is a milestone in understanding the human impulse to construct narratives.

At one level, their movie is just a series of geometric shapes moving around on a white background. It appears to lack any formal elements of story at all. Yet study groups (of undergraduate women) who saw the film in 1944 were remarkably consistent in their judgment of what it was ‘about’. Thirty-five out of 36 decided that the big triangle was a mean, irritable bully, and half identified the small triangle as valiant and spirited.

Read the rest of this article at aeon

President Obama and Bill Simmons: The GQ Interview

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There’s the president of the United States, and then there’s the person who happens to be the President of the United States.

Bill Clinton served for eight years, but we were always more intrigued by Bill Clinton the Person—a magnetic charmer once described by Chris Rock as “a cool guy, like the president of a record company.” Clinton’s charisma defined his presidency, for better and for worse. He couldn’t always harness it. He couldn’t stop trying to win everyone over, whether it was a 60 Minutes correspondent, 500 powerful donors in a crowded banquet hall, or a fetching woman on a rope line.

If Clinton acted like someone who ran Capitol Records, Obama—both the person and the president—carries himself like Roger Federer, a merciless competitor who keeps coming and coming, only there’s a serenity about him that disarms just about everyone. At one point during the hour I spent interviewing him at the White House this fall, he casually compared himself to Aaron Rodgers, and he wasn’t bragging. Obama identified with Rodgers’s ability to keep his focus downfield despite all the chaos happening in front of him. That’s Obama’s enduring quality, and (to borrow another sports term) this has been his “career year.”

Obama lives in America’s most famous museum and uses it to his advantage. You’re sitting there in some ancient tearoom waiting for him to show up, surrounded by portraits of former first ladies and framed maps from battles that America won over the centuries. Everyone is friendly but suspicious. Everyone talks in hushed tones. You feel like you’re intruding at all times. You’re just…waiting. Suddenly, ten anonymous security guards pop out of hallways and doorways that you didn’t know were there. The energy shifts. And then, there’s Obama—big smile, big handshake, some ball-busting comments to put everyone at ease. Within seconds of greeting me, he was poking fun at my shoes and teasing me for not writing anymore.

“It’s really aggravating not having you on Grantland,” he said, almost like I betrayed him. “I go to the site and there’s no Simmons. Come on, man, it’s not the same.”

Read the rest of this article at GQ

Biography of a Face

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For the moment, the face belongs to no one. It floats in a bowl of icy, hemodynamic preserving solution, paused midway on its journey from one operating room to another, from a 26-year-old Brooklyn bike mechanic who’d been declared brain-dead 48 hours earlier to a 41-year-old Mississippi fireman whose face had burned off in a blaze 14 years ago. The mechanic’s face, though nearly flat, still bears a few reminders of its former owner: a stubble of dark-blond hair, pierced ears, a hook-shaped scar at the spot where surgeons had entered his skull trying to save his life. A surgeon reaches his gloved hands into the blood-tinged liquid and kneads the face, draining the last of the mechanic’s blood. Then he lifts the face up to a camera, showing off his handiwork. As he raises it, it seems to inflate and take the shape of a face again, one that no longer resembles the cyclist. The forehead is shorter, the cheeks puffier. The lips have fallen into a crescent, as if smiling. The face looks like it will when, an hour later, it is fitted over the raw skull of the fireman waiting in the next room.

Read the rest of this article at New York Magazine

Quantum Mechanics Is Putting Human Identity on Trial

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Have you ever heard the story of Martin Guerre?

He lived with his bride and newborn son in Artigat, a small village in the Pyrenees foothills of Southwestern France. In 1548, at the age of 24, after being accused by his own parents of theft, Martin Guerre disappeared, leaving his family behind. Eight years later, after his parents had passed away, Guerre returned home, reuniting with his wife, son, and fellow villagers.

Over the next three years, Guerre and his wife, Bertrande, had two more children. All was going swimmingly until a foreign soldier came through town and claimed that the man who had returned was not the real Martin Guerre, but an imposter named Arnault du Tilh. The accuser claimed to have fought alongside Guerre in the Spanish army, and said that Guerre had lost a leg in battle. Bertrande ignored the accusation, certain that the man with whom she was living was, and had always been, her husband. But soon Guerre’s uncle and Bertrande’s stepfather joined the foreign soldier in accusing the man of forging Guerre’s identity, and took him to trial.

Read the rest of this article at Nautilus

Albert Einstein’s Sci-Fi Stories

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By the time that Felix Eberty, a German jurist and amateur astronomer, anonymously published “The Stars and World History,” in 1846, it was well known that light had a finite speed. Ole Rømer, a Danish scientist working in Paris, had proved as much more than a century and a half earlier. It took the sun’s rays a little over eight minutes to reach Earth, Jupiter’s up to fifty-two minutes, and Uranus’s more than two and a half hours. Eberty was particularly fascinated by what this delay meant for a faraway observer of our planet. Perched on a distant star, he wrote, such a person might “see the earth at this moment as it existed at the time of Abraham.” Furthermore, by hopscotching across the cosmos, “he will be able to represent to himself, as rapidly as he pleases, that moment in the world’s history which he wishes to observe at leisure.” Eberty had witnessed great gains in the speed of transportation and communication during his lifetime, and he believed that humanity might soon be travelling even faster than light.

Later authors continued the thought experiment. The French astronomer Camille Flammarion, writing in 1873, envisioned a remote planet with a light-sensitive surface. “We may imagine this world to be not spherical but cylindrical, and to stand in space like an imperishable column on which the events of terrestrial history engrave and enroll themselves,” he wrote. Lovers separated by time or circumstance could replay “the dear scenes they enjoyed together on earth,” perhaps including “views of very secret things.” Criminals would find themselves incapable of eluding justice, because each of their misdeeds would “transmit itself eternally into infinity,” carried by light. Death would lose its finality; if we wanted, Flammarion suggested, we could watch the Battle of Waterloo in reverse, “a Waterloo of the afterlife.” The popular-science writer Aaron Bernstein joined in. The great cosmic postal service, he wrote, knew neither past nor present: “Alexander the Great is still conquering the world.”

Read the rest of this article at The New Yorker

P.S. previous articles & more by P.F.M.