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Friday, August 11, 2017

Nobody Knows What Lies Beneath New York City, by Greg Milner, Bloomberg

When Hurricane Sandy arrived in 2012, barreling up the Eastern Seaboard and heading straight for New York, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projected a massive surge in New York Harbor. “I realized it would hit the flood maps that FEMA produced,” Leidner says, “which meant East 13th Street was about to be flooded.” He churned out memos, with maps attached, urging the response community to prepare. Con Ed (as the utility is known) workers hastily constructed barriers around the transformers that connected to buried wire ferrying current for blocks. But when the water breached the river wall and spilled across FDR Drive toward the substation, the barriers weren’t enough.

Leidner called up some images on his laptop: a white-hot nova as the transformers exploded; and in the aftermath, an overhead shot of Manhattan, dark below 34th Street (save for a sliver of light in Battery Park City), a blackout that lasted three days. The damage included the shutdown of NYU Langone Medical Center and Bellevue Hospital—their backup generators failing, Leidner notes, because critical components were located in basements, subject to the same East River flooding that swamped the substation.

Walter Benjamin’s Last Hike, by Gwen Strauss, Catapult

I have so much to ask Benjamin and so I talked my friend M. into the hike even though it is rated difficile with three little hiking boots and a warning that one needs proper footwear, food, and water. Halfway through the day I admit to myself: Three boots is at least one too many for someone like me who is middle-aged and overweight. Someone like Walter Benjamin. In fact my companion, M., with his asthma, and I are both a little like Walter Benjamin.

Before Benjamin set off on this trail, which was his final attempt to escape the Nazis, his health had deteriorated from years of exile. Having been stripped of his German nationality, Benjamin tried unsuccessfully to get French naturalization. Like my own grandfather, he was stateless, making it almost impossible for him to get travel documents. And few countries were accepting Jewish refugees. Short of money and a stable address, he relied on the kindness of friends. For most of this desperate time he took refuge in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, surrounded by what he loved most: books.

Wipe Out: When The BBC Kept Erasing Its Own History, by Jake Rossen, MentalFloss

For much of the 1950s, television in the UK was viewed in much the same way as the radio programming it was beginning to replace: Live newscasts, teleplays, and other series were intended to be consumed in the moment. If viewers really liked something, then it would be “repeated” by reassembling the actors and performing it for a second time.

“Television meant being live, over, and done with,” says Richard Molesworth, a BBC historian and author of Wiped!, a detailed chronicle of how the channel discarded a large chunk of Doctor Who history. “When videotape came about in the late 1950s, it wasn’t seen as a means of preservation or as an archival format," he tells Mental Floss. "It was in case a program was to be repeated in a short period of time—days or weeks.”

If You Want To Know What It’s Like To Die, Ask Writers, by William Grimes, New York Times

Writers of fiction face many unknowables. But death presents a special case. As the universal final chapter, it is an unavoidable subject, but by definition it resists investigation. As Edwidge Danticat asks, common-sensically, in “The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story,” “how can we write plausibly from the point of view of the dying when we have not died ourselves, and have no one around to ask what it is like to die?”

But we do ask. We ask writers.

Why English Is Such A Great Language For Puns, by The Economist

Last week’s issue of this paper contained the following headlines: “Rooms for improvement” (in a story about British housing); “Though Mooch is taken, Mooch abides” (on the firing of Anthony Scaramucci); and “LIBOR pains” (on interbank loan rates). The Economist is not alone in its taste for wordplay. Our colleagues at the Financial Times routinely sneak subtle jokes into their headlines (July 17th: “Why China’s global shipping ambitions will not easily be contained”) while those at the tabloids indulge themselves more obviously. On the arrest of a famous golfer for drink-driving: “DUI of the Tiger”.

These authors are fortunate to work at English-language publications. For English is unusually good for puns. It has a large vocabulary and a rich stock of homophones from which puns can be made. It is constantly evolving, with new words being invented and old ones given fresh meanings. And it is mostly uninflected, allowing for verbs and nouns to switch places.