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WHAT YOU CAN SEE FROM SPACE

And now this. "It has become a space-based myth. The Great Wall of China, frequently billed as the only man-made object visible from space, generally isn't, at least to the unaided eye in low Earth orbit," NASA reports. "It certainly isn't visible from the Moon." James Fallows, blogging for the Atlantic, finds the celestial sphere half full. He points out that a great variety of manmade objects are visible from space: "By far the easiest structures to pick out are ones with perfectly regular - and therefore 'unnatural' contours. Airports. Malls or stadiums surrounded by huge parking lots." He suggests using Google Earth to see for yourself.

David Brooks as

"A Reasonable Man"

In a piece entitled "A Reasonable Man," New York magazine profiles New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks. Read it in full at nymag.com/news/media/67010. Here's an excerpt.

All current trends in public life point away from people like him. In the media world, his brand of good-natured, low-heart-rate, quasi-academic analysis, disseminated twice a week on the New York Times' op-ed page and in weekly appearances on PBS and NPR, has been supplanted by spluttering hyperbole IV-ed directly into America's arteries 24 hours a day. In the Republican Party, visceral tea-party populism has overwhelmed Brooksian intellectual centrism; on the Democratic side, (David) Brooks sees overreach. The result is political gridlock of historic dimensions. Meanwhile, a never-ending series of crises from Afghanistan to the financial collapse to the oil spill make the world seem impervious to rational solutions. If you can't beat it, the thinking goes, yell at it.

"It's not the best time for people like me," says Brooks.

And yet it is. Brooks' charming, levelheaded optimism may be out of style. But he gets to play the voice of reason against a chorus of doomsayers. His moderate conservatism - a synthesis of conservative giant Edmund Burke and Ur-centralizer Alexander Hamilton that has earned him the label of "liberals' favorite conservative" - may be anomalous, but it allows him a kind of freedom that other, more partisan pundits lack. He's a party of one, without followers. This is Brooks' central paradox: He's both the essential columnist of the moment, better than anyone at crystallizing the questions we face - ones for which there are often no good answers - and also, somehow, totally out of step.

When your ancestors were ax murderers

Neuroscientist Jim Fallon had for 20 years studied the brains of psychopaths. Then his mother told him he was related to Lizzie Borden. And he made a startling discovery about his own brain - and the relative importance of nurture versus nature. Read the National Public Radio story in full at tinyurl.com/25whtcb, but here's how the story begins.

The criminal brain has always held a fascination for James Fallon. For nearly 20 years, the neuroscientist at the University of California-Irvine has studied the brains of psychopaths. He studies the biological basis for behavior, and one of his specialties is to try to figure out how a killer's brain differs from yours and mine.

About four years ago, Fallon made a startling discovery. It happened during a conversation with his then 88-year-old mother, Jenny, at a family barbecue.

"I said, 'Jim, why don't you find out about your father's relatives?'" Jenny Fallon recalls. "I think there were some cuckoos back there."

Fallon investigated.

"There's a whole lineage of very violent people - killers," he says.

One of his direct great-grandfathers, Thomas Cornell, was hanged in 1667 for murdering his mother. That line of Cornells produced seven other alleged murderers, including Lizzy Borden. "Cousin Lizzy," as Fallon wryly calls her, was accused (and controversially acquitted) of killing her father and stepmother with an ax in Fall River, Mass., in 1882.

A little spooked by his ancestry, Fallon set out to see whether anyone in his family possesses the brain of a serial killer.

The bookshelf as "memory theater"

In an essay entitled "In Defense of the Memory Theater," Nathan Schneider wonders if we misunderstand the purpose of a book. Read it in full at openlettersmonthly.com/in-defense-of-the-memory-theater. Here's an excerpt.

What concerns me about the literary apocalypse that everybody now expects - the at least partial elimination of paper books in favor of digital alternatives - is not chiefly the books themselves, but the bookshelf. My fear is for the eclectic, personal collections that we bookish people assemble over the course of our lives, as well as for their grander, public step-siblings. I fear for our memory theaters.

- - -

Ever since the habit of writing first took hold of me as a teenager, I knew precisely why I did it, and why I did it so compulsively: to hedge against the terror of having a terrible memory. Though still young enough to expect no sympathy, I constantly feel the burden of this handicap. Confirmation of it, and that writing is its cure, I discover every time I pick up something I wrote years, or even months ago. Reading those things puts me in an uncanny state, like a past-life regression. Meanwhile, unrecorded impressions, sayings, old friends, and good books vanish without warning or trace. Some read and write to win eternal life; I would be happy enough just to keep a hold of this one.

One of the books that I used to habitually pick up from my college library, and which, recently, I finally bought used, is Frances Yates's classic The Art of Memory. First published in 1966, it chronicles lost mnemonic techniques, passed down from the ancient orators to the Renaissance humanists: spaces people would conjure in their minds to help them remember all the precious accoutrements of civilized knowledge.

800 years of economics history

Writing about the lives of the two authors of the economics best-seller (yes that's not an oxymoron) This Time Is Different, the New York Times gives a fascinating perspective on their personal backgrounds that led to the way they think about economics. Read it in full at tinyurl.com/2a4btzz, but here's an excerpt.

"Everyone wants to think they're smarter than the poor souls in developing countries, and smarter than their predecessors," said Carmen M. Reinhart, an economist at the University of Maryland. "They're wrong. And we can prove it."

Like a pair of financial sleuths, Reinhart and her collaborator from Harvard, Kenneth S. Rogoff, have spent years investigating wreckage scattered across documents from nearly a millennium of economic crises and collapses.

They have wandered the basements of rare-book libraries, riffled through monks' yellowed journals and begged central banks worldwide for centuries-old debt records. And they have manually entered their findings, digit by digit, into one of the biggest spreadsheets you've ever seen.

Their handiwork is contained in their recent bestseller, This Time Is Different, a quantitative reconstruction of hundreds of historical episodes in which perfectly smart people made perfectly disastrous decisions. It is a panoramic opus, both geographically and temporally, covering crises from 66 countries over the last 800 years.

The book, and Reinhart's and Rogoff's own professional journeys as economists, zero in on some of the broader shortcomings of their trade - thrown into harsh relief by economists' widespread failure to anticipate or address the financial crisis that began in 2007.

"The mainstream of academic research in macroeconomics puts theoretical coherence and elegance first, and investigating the data second," said Rogoff. For that reason, he says, much of the profession's celebrated work "was not terribly useful in either predicting the financial crisis, or in assessing how it would it play out once it happened."

"People almost pride themselves on not paying attention to current events," he said.

The book is still a faster way to read than the e-reader

The book is still easier - or least faster - to read than an electronic e-book reader for the same short story, according to a study cited by The Unofficial Apple Weblog (TUAW.com), a site dedicated to news about Apple computers and electronics devices such as the iPhone and iPad. Here's what the blog says:

A study conducted by usability consultant Jakob Nielsen claims that reading on e-book readers like the iPad and the Kindle still doesn't match up to the reading speed of good old printed paper. The test chose 32 people (admittedly a small sample, but one that was felt to be representative of an e-reader audience), taught them how to read on both the Kindle and the iPad, and then clocked their speed in reading through an Ernest Hemingway story on both devices, a PC-based reader, and the printed word.

It turns out, according to the study, that the iPad was generally faster than the Kindle at reading speed - about 6.2 percent slower than reading a normal book, compared to the Kindle's 10.7 percent slower than the printed word. The way it all worked out, there was no actual significant difference between the iPad and the Kindle, so the study can't say officially which one of those is faster. But the difference between the Kindle and the book was significant, so reading print is faster than e-readers so far.

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