Violence at the 2013 Boston Marathon

Impression Left Not by Feet

Lelisa Desisa has returned to run Boston and will defend his title on Monday. “I want to show that I am not scared,” he said. Credit John Tully for The New York Times
BOSTON — It was October, six months after Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia won the stricken 2013 Boston Marathon. He had returned for another race. On his way to dinner with friends, he had a request. He wanted to cross the finish line again on Boylston Street to reclaim in a private moment a triumph made irrelevant by tragedy.

“No one knows who I am,” Desisa, 24, said, according to Chris Gooding, a member of his management team who accompanied him.

Upon reaching the finish on April 15 last year, Desisa smiled and wore an olive wreath and held aloft a silver loving cup. He was champion of one of the world’s great marathons. But this is not the memory that endures.

Two hours later, his victory became supplanted by graver images: explosions, a gray-haired runner collapsing near the finish line, a man in a cowboy hat helping to wheel another man who had lost his lower legs.

The Norden brothers outside of Paul’s house in Stoneham, Mass.A Year After the Boston Marathon Bombings, Injured Brothers Endure.
Yet it is not true that Desisa has fallen into anonymity. If his victory became a footnote to a horrific afternoon, his response to the bombings resonated widely. It was one of the many gestures, large and small, generous and selfless, made to honor the dead and injured, to console grieving families and to reassure and galvanize and hearten a traumatized city.

Lelisa Desisa won the 2013 Boston Marathon, considered the oldest annual marathon, in 2 hours 10 minutes 22 seconds. Credit Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Last June, Desisa returned his first-place medal — gold-plated with a diamond stud and framed — to the city of Boston in a public ceremony on Boston Common. Privately, he gave his racing bib to a woman who lost her lower leg and her husband who was also seriously injured.

“Sport holds the power to unify and connect people all over the world,” Desisa told a crowd of more than 6,000 runners at the time, speaking through an interpreter. “Sport should never be used as a battleground.”

He has returned to run Boston again on Monday, to defend his title, to earn his living, to enhance his professional visibility and to demonstrate a sense of solidarity and defiance.

“I want to show that I am not scared,” Desisa said Wednesday night after flying 13 hours from Dubai.

In some ways, it will hardly matter whether Desisa wins or loses. He has already made an indelible mark. Not so much by winning the first-place medal, but by giving back the most evident symbol of his triumph.

“He showed his depth of commitment to the people who live around here and the spirit they displayed,” said Tom Grilk, the executive director of the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the marathon. “He knew that everybody was attacked and he will always be part of that community. There was no more deeper or more tangible way to express it than the way he did.”

Shortly after noon last April 15, there was no one happier in Boston than Lelisa Desisa. He had just won what is considered the oldest annual marathon in 2 hours 10 minutes 22 seconds. His arms swung wide and his legs seemed heavy near the finish, but he was resilient and broke his competitors with a final surge.

“The people are good, the weather is good, everything is good,” he told reporters after the race. He showered, ate and rested in his hotel room, awaiting the official medal ceremony in late afternoon.

Desisa gave his first place medal to the City of Boston as a tribute to those who were killed and injured in the bombings. Credit John Tully for The New York Times
Then he heard on television that something had happened at the finish line. He was confused. Ghastly details began to emerge. His hotel went on lockdown. The medal ceremony was canceled.

“I am the champion, and in a few hours my happiness is sadness,” Desisa said.

His coach, Haji Adillo, had remained in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, to watch the race on television. In late evening in East Africa, Adillo heard about the bombings and frantically tried to contact Desisa.

“Maybe the bombings are not only in one place,” Adillo said. “Maybe they are at the hotel.”

After 15 or 20 minutes, Desisa was reached by phone. He was safe. The next day, he and other elite runners flew out of a stunned and terrified city. Grim numbers began to be counted and confirmed: 3 dead near the finish line, 260 wounded, a police officer killed a few days later during a manhunt.

A week or so after the marathon, Desisa said he was training again in Addis Ababa when an Ethiopian journalist asked, “What are you doing for the people who lost their life in Boston?”

His first thought was one of helplessness: “I can’t do anything.”

Then, Desisa said, he considered giving his medal to the family of Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy who died near the finish line and whose younger sister, Jane, lost her left leg.

Surviving the Finish Line
“This kid was like a blank paper,” Desisa said Wednesday, with Adillo, his coach, serving as an interpreter. “No one knows what his reach could have been. Maybe he would have become a famous person in America or the world. He lost his life, his opportunity.”

After consulting with marathon officials, Desisa decided to return his medal as a tribute to all those who died and were injured. Larry Marchese, a spokesman for the Richard family, said Thursday that the gesture was “received very warmly.”

“He accomplished something absolutely incredible and immediately thought of the victims and put his own success aside,” Marchese said of Desisa. “Gestures like that have happened repeatedly by friends and strangers throughout the last year and have been an uplifting source of strength for all the families affected, the Richards included.”

Last June 23, Desisa officially returned his medal, set in a frame, presenting it before a large crowd at a 10-kilometer race to Thomas M. Menino, then the mayor of Boston.

At the ceremony, Desisa also asked to meet privately with two of the victims of the bombings, Adrianne Haslet-Davis and her husband Adam Davis. He gave them his marathon racing bib, also encased in a frame, and inscribed this message: “To Adrianne and Adam, your courage is an inspiration to me.”

Adam Davis, 34, a major in the Air Force, had returned only days earlier from a deployment in Afghanistan when he and his wife spent a lazy morning in their apartment, watching on television as Desisa won the marathon.

“This guy has already run the Boston Marathon, and I’m still in my pajamas,” Haslet-Davis, 33, recalled telling her husband. “I’m feeling very lazy. We’ve got to do something with our day.”

They showered and headed out the door. They had lunch and shopped and wandered down to Boylston Street to see the four-hour marathoners pulsing toward the finish line. They were standing there for three minutes, Haslet-Davis said, when the first bomb exploded.

Desisa gave his marathon racing bib to Adam Davis and his wife, Adrianne Haslet-Davis. Both were injured in the bombings. Tully for The 
The couple grabbed each other. The second bomb exploded, this one nearby. Haslet-Davis, a dancer, lost her lower left leg. Davis, home from war without a scratch, now had legs full of shrapnel on a city sidewalk.

Two months later, when she met Desisa, Haslet-Davis sat in a wheelchair on Boston Common. Everything was still raw. Crowds made her nervous. At times during her wrenching recovery, she has said, she wondered whether everyone carried a bomb. When Desisa presented her with his bib, she began to cry.

A year later, the framed bib hangs on the wall of her living room.

Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story

“I was so moved,” Haslet-Davis said of Desisa. “He’s not a Bostonian but he felt such a draw to this city after his experience and how the city pulled together and cheered for him. He wanted to come back and cheer for us.”

On Monday, if they can muster the emotional energy, Haslet-Davis and her husband plan to be at the finish line. They will watch for Desisa, hoping he can win again.

“When he’s halfway around the world, he’s still there with us and encouraging us and saying you can do this,” said Haslet-Davis, who has recently begun to dance again using a special prosthetic leg. “He’s inspired by our bravery just as much as we’re inspired by him winning the race that morning.”

After winning Boston, Desisa won a silver medal in the marathon at the 2013 world track and field championships in Moscow. Last October, he set a course record to win the Boston Athletic Association Half Marathon in 1:00:34. If Monday’s race is fast from the start, he said, he is fit to run under 2:05, five minutes faster than last year.

The prize for first place is $150,000. And for Desisa there is the possibility of something else. A chance for everyone to know who he is. An opportunity to run a marathon would be a tribute and a celebration instead of a tragedy.

“I only want to make happy, not mix happy and sad,” Desisa said. “I want to show that for the Boston people.”



Holding Back the Tides

Floods: Holding back the tide
With the Ganges–Brahmaputra delta sinking, the race is on to protect millions of people from future flooding.


Espen Rasmussen/Panos

Bangladeshis attempt to rebuild a flood barrier destroyed by Cyclone Aila in 2009.
In the wake of Cyclone Aila in 2009, swollen seas washed over the delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers. The storm surge breached the embankments surrounding a small island that was home to 10,000 families, turning the land into a muddy hell. The deluge of salty water washed out fields, homes, roads and markets just as people had begun to recover from the damage caused 18 months before by Cyclone Sidr. Many migrated to nearby cities. And thousands more took shelter on what remained of the embankments, where lack of sanitation and privacy would soon spur disease and crime.

Rising sea could displace millions from Ganges delta
Funders punish researchers for open-access violations
When Steven Goodbred, an Earth and environmental researcher at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, came across this site during a field trip in 2011, he and his students were shocked to find the land still badly flooded and thousands of families living in tents and ramshackle huts. The broken embankments had been poorly repaired and the homesteads that they were supposed to protect remained uninhabitable. “It looked as desolate as the Moon — mud everywhere,” says Goodbred. “I’d never seen anything like it.” He made it his mission to determine how the embankments around the island, called Polder 32 after the Dutch word for land protected by dikes, had been eroded and undermined enough for a relatively small storm to wreak such havoc.

Scenes of disaster are not unusual in Bangladesh. About 6,000 square kilometres of the massive Ganges–Brahmaputra delta, the largest delta in the world, lies less than two metres above sea level. On average, 6,000 people in Bangladesh die each year in storms and floods. In April 1991, a single cyclone, the worst in recent decades, wiped out well over 100,000 lives in the delta and left millions of people homeless.

Risks are expected to climb. Global warming is raising sea levels around the planet by 2–3 millimetres each year. That only adds to bigger problems in the Ganges–Brahmaputra delta, which is sinking so rapidly that the local, relative sea level may be rising by up to 2 centimetres each year. And Bangladesh’s population of more than 150 million people is projected to grow by a further 50 million by 2050, putting more people in harm’s way.

Gloomy forecasts warn that millions of Bangladeshis might be displaced by the end of the century. Yet scientists such as Goodbred see a ray of hope. Last month, the country joined with the Netherlands to launch the Bangladesh Delta Plan, to protect the area’s people from flooding. To shore up the specifics, researchers are now scrambling to provide basic data on just how fast the delta is sinking and why, and how best to guard against or even stop it.

Going under
The Ganges–Brahmaputra delta is the dumping ground of the Himalayas. As wind and rain erode the mountain range, massive rivers carry more than a billion tonnes of sediment into the Bay of Bengal each year; in some places, the layer deposited since the most recent ice age is more than one kilometre thick. As in all deltas, this loose material compacts easily, causing the land to sink slowly and the relative sea level to rise. In the past, sediment carried downstream each year would have refreshed the delta. But agriculture, industry and hydroelectric dams have diverted water and choked the flow of sediments, so the land is no longer being rebuilt. A 2009 study found1 that 85% of the world’s largest deltas suffered severe flooding in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Under current projected rates of sediment sinking and sea-level rise, the area of land at risk on deltas globally is expected to increase by at least half by 2100.

Sources: Satellite: Ref. 1; Temples: M. H. Sarker; GPS: M. Steckler; Tide: Ref. 2; Kilns: Ref. 3; Salt: Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan 2009
Previous efforts at flood defence in Bangladesh have not solved the problems. In 1990, the first flood action plan called for barriers to be built along main rivers: in less than 10 years, some 3,500 kilometres of embankments sprang up. In 2000, the country’s focus shifted towards constructing more storm shelters and improving warning systems — but even so, about three-quarters of Bangladesh’s population remains exposed to severe flooding.

A big part of the problem is a lack of understanding of how the delta’s behaviour differs from one place to another. Embankments might work to some extent to protect the capital, Dhaka; but as Polder 32 demonstrates, they do not always do their job elsewhere. “Everyone who says something simple about a big delta has never been to one,” says James Syvitski, a geologist at the University of Colorado Boulder. For subsidence rates in Bangladesh, he says, “depending on how and where you measure, you might get 15 different values”.

Things are dramatically different between the west and east sides of the delta, for example. Over the past several centuries, geological forces and erosion have shifted the lower stretch of the Ganges steadily to the east, leaving the western parts of the delta especially starved of sediment. That makes the southwest particularly vulnerable to both seawater flooding and intrusion of salt into groundwater, which can make the water unfit to drink (see ‘A sinking delta’). Researchers need to quantify and map that complexity if policy-makers are to stand a chance of addressing the problems, says Catharien Terwisscha van Scheltinga, a water-management researcher at Wageningen University in the Netherlands who is helping to prepare the Bangladesh Delta Plan.

Syvitski’s work with satellite data1 suggests that the delta is sinking below sea level by between 8 and 18 millimetres per year. But those numbers need to be checked against ground-based measurements — which are now on the way. Michael Steckler, a geologist at Columbia University’s Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, has been installing a network of Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers to monitor subsidence since 2003. He currently maintains around 20 sites, including one established on Polder 32 last year. So far, the results suggest subsidence rates of some 9 millimetres per year in the southwest, and just 2–4 in the southeast. But the sites are still few and far between, and there are not many in the most vulnerable locations.

Some flood-control efforts might exacerbate the problems. UK geographers John Pethick at Newcastle University and Julian Orford at Queen’s University Belfast reported2 last year that water levels at some spots in the most vulnerable southwest are much higher than expected. They concluded that embankments along hundreds of tidal channels, some of which reach hundreds of kilometres inland, have vastly reduced the area of land covered by water at high tide. Because the water is less able to spread out, it shoots farther inland where it can. The result is a huge increase in tidal range in less-protected areas. Tide-gauge records from three locations in the southwest suggest a mean rate of relative sea-level rise of about 5 millimetres per year over the past 30 years, but some local spots have experienced an average annual high-water-level increase of 15–20 millimetres.

Steven Goodbred
Life on Polder-32, an island of sub-sea-level land protected by dikes but breached by Cyclone Aila in 2009.
That tidal amplification has big implications for coastal protection, says Goodbred: for areas with long tidal channels, building more embankments could actually cause higher tides and exacerbate saltwater intrusion. But others warn that it is hard to say whether Pethick and Orford’s findings will hold true across the southwestern coast — it might depend strongly on the steepness of the channel walls, for example. Extrapolating is “misleading”, says Maminul Haque Sarker, a geologist and deputy executive director of the Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services in Dhaka.

Sarker points to parts of the delta that seem to be sinking much slower. In 2012, he and his colleagues took measurements to see how far the bases of ancient mosques and temples have been buried beneath incoming sediments. The present plinth levels suggest a subsidence rate of just 1–2.5 millimetres per year. Sea-level rise would have to be added to that to get a relative sea-level change. But Sarker thinks that the entire delta is sinking less significantly than researchers such as Syvitski have proposed.

Whatever the current rate of subsidence, it may not reflect the full scale of the problem. In 2010, Till Hanebuth, a geologist at the University of Bremen in Germany, excavated3 more than a dozen ancient kilns in the Sundarbans, a coastal region of mangrove forests renowned for its population of royal Bengal tigers. The kilns were built for salt production some 300 years ago, just above the winter high-tide level of the time. Today they are buried 1.5 metres beneath the mud and the modern sea level, indicating an average sinking rate of about 5 millimetres per year.

Hanebuth thinks that the drop happened not at a slow, constant pace, but in a succession of abrupt events related to big earthquakes or cyclones. Mud-filled stumps in the area show that mangrove trees died from flooding around 1676 and 1762, when strong earthquakes hit the region. The quake in 1762, estimated at magnitude 8.8, caused land around the southeastern city of Chittagong to sink by several metres; in the Sundarbans it seems to have caused at least a 20-centimetre drop, says Hanebuth. Seismologists think that another major quake is overdue in the tectonically unstable region, and that when it comes it will devastate poorly built high-density cities such as Dhaka and Chittagong. It could also cause patches of the delta to drop more in one fell swoop than they have over decades of slow sea-level rise and sediment compaction.

Other complicating factors are easier to assess and guard against. A year after their initial observations, Goodbred and his team returned to Polder 32 armed with GPS receivers and survey tools. They found that the embankments that protect the land from the river and sea had also robbed it of fresh supplies of sediment: during the five decades of its existence, the polder had sunk by a full metre relative to the land outside the embankments because it was not being replenished. On top of that, Goodbred found, local shrimp farmers had drilled holes into the dikes to pipe salt water from coastal rivers into their hatcheries, weakening the barriers.

Although Cyclone Aila brought much suffering to the people, it helped to rescue the land a little. During the two years in which the dikes were broken, the polder rebounded with tens of centimetres of sediment deposited by daily tides. The mud caused havoc in the short term by flooding peoples’ floors and gardens, but offers the possibility of long-term sustainability for delta ground.

All this information will feed into the Delta Plan, which will be written over the next 2.5 years by a Dutch–Bangladeshi consortium of government departments, research organizations and engineering consultants. The Netherlands has pledged an initial €7 million (US$9.7 million) to develop the strategy. “Having the Netherlands and their invaluable treasure of experience on board is a big push for our flood-defence efforts,” says Shamsul Alam, head of the general economics division of Bangladesh’s planning ministry, which coordinates the Delta Plan.

The uncertainty in the science makes it difficult for policy-makers to see how much investment is justified, and what kind, says van Scheltinga. But at least some of the problem is coming into better focus. “We’re only beginning to understand how the delta works — but we know enough to do a bit better,” says Goodbred.

“We’re only beginning to understand how the delta works — but we know enough to do a bit better.”
In rural coastal areas, Goodbred adds, one solution might be to return to the kind of low, flexible embankments that people in this region built before the 1960s. Locals could raise them in the dry season to keep salty water away, and cut them down in the wet season to allow sediment in. Hugh Brammer, a UK geographer who consulted on Bangladesh’s 1990 flood action plan for the World Bank, agrees that flexible barriers are needed. Tidal water must, from time to time, be allowed to flush embanked land, he says, to deposit sediment and thus prevent the polders from sinking over the long term. Homes in these polders, he notes, tend to be on land that sits half a metre or more above the polder basins, so would be protected from the influx.

The most urgent step, says Brammer, is to divert water from the Ganges to the western parts of the delta, so that the people there have access to fresh water in the dry season. In 2008, the Bangladesh government promised to consider one diversion scheme. But the costs and feasibility of such a major engineering project have yet to be properly examined; Alam says that such a diversion is unlikely to happen any time soon.

A study of ancient temples suggests that some parts of the delta may be sinking by only millimetres per year.
There are cheaper options, he says. Scientists with the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute in Gazipur have developed salt-tolerant rice to grow in flood-prone plains. In large coastal cities, new homes and public infrastructure could be built on artificially raised land. Near the coast, conserving and planting trees could create a buffer against storm surges.

In its 2011–15 economic plan, Bangladesh earmarked more than 120 billion taka (US$1.5 billion) — 4% of all public expenditure — for climate adaptation and disaster management. Furthermore, it is currently channelling a $170-million multi-donor climate-change-resilience fund, set up in 2010, into projects including flood protection. More money could come from the multi-billion-dollar international Green Climate Fund. To enact a fully fledged Delta Plan, says Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow in the climate-change group at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London, will require several billion dollars over the next few years. Bangladesh currently gets about $2 billion per year from donors for everything from economic development to food relief, so Alam says that it is not unreasonable to hope that it will be able to redirect funds to achieve the flood goals.

Meanwhile, life on Polder 32 is slowly returning to normal. Not all of the destroyed embankments have been repaired or replaced, but hundreds of homesteads and businesses are being moved to higher land both inside and outside the polder. Goodbred trusts that the delta and its people have a future. “Bangladesh is blessed by options,” he says. “But time is short and the issues are substantial.”

Nature 508, 164–166 (10 April 2014) doi:10.1038/508164a

Facebook Might Finally Be Getting It

(CNN) — Everyone has that friend or family member who unwittingly still posts publicly on Facebook. It’s not that they’re over-sharers, they just haven’t bothered to keep up with the social network’s ever-changing and often confusing privacy settings.
Facebook highlighted some of its minor new and future privacy features on Tuesday, including one aimed squarely at the people left behind by complicated settings.
A new pop-up message featuring a cartoon dinosaur will appear for Facebook users who haven’t tinkered with their privacy settings in a while. When someone who always shares publicly posts a link or update, Facebook will double check that they really want to share it with that audience.
The company’s privacy team is also testing other tweaks, including updating mobile and Web designs with more prominent audience controls, a new default privacy setting for cover photos (old images used to be public, now they’re private), and a message clarifying who can see an image you post when your friends re-share it.
In its 10 years, the social media company has amassed more than a billion users. That’s a lot of people to please, but one area that has received consistent cries of dissatisfaction is privacy.
When Facebook updates a setting or adds a feature, there is often a privacy backlash, especially when new sharing settings make information public by default. The company’s motto, “Move fast and break things” led to broken trust with users.
To counteract that sense of wariness, Facebook is making sure future privacy considerations aren’t just part of a settings screen, but also taken into account by engineers making new features and at the infrastructure level.
“We understand that some people have felt that Facebook privacy has changed too much in the past,” said Mike Nowak, a product manager on Facebook’s privacy team.
Not changing settings ever again isn’t an option, so Facebook is searching for new ways to improve the experience that won’t anger or alienate users. The company has been running extensive surveys to find out what kind of privacy experiences people are having on the site and in the app. It currently runs 4,000 surveys a day in 27 languages.
Squeezing useful information out of these surveys can be difficult. Facebook engineering manager Raylene Yung said people will commonly just write in the word “privacy” when asked what they want to improve. However, enough users have managed to articulate what situations upset them. People said when they share things on Facebook they feel their info is shared with more people than they wanted. Facebook knows giving those people a sense of control is key to keep them from leaving the service.
“At the end of the day … when people have an unpleasant surprise like this it’s bad for them and it’s bad for us,” said Nowak.

Short Review on the Luminaries


Short Read: our literary editor, Maggie Fergusson, recalls three days last summer spent reading “The Luminaries”

Philip Gwyn Jones at Granta told me “The Luminaries” was one of the most thrilling books he’d ever worked on. When a proof thumped onto my doormat, and I saw its girth and felt its weight, my heart sank. I thought I’d probably give it a miss, but then I had a blank weekend and I read it solidly for three days. I think part of the reason I loved it so much was because I went at it hard, and without distraction. If I hadn’t tackled it like this the complexity of the plot would certainly have become a problem. As it was, I really had to keep my wits about me, and took detailed notes to ensure that I didn’t get completely lost. You may not think this sounds like an appealing way to read a book—and in principle I’d agree—but it seemed to work with this one.

I felt bowled over after finishing it—and I still find myself asking: “HOW did she do it?” The writing is highly intelligent, elegant and slightly quirky without ever being showy or sassy. It has a very strong sense of place, and of weather (that endless rain!), and a tension between savagery and civility—the new world and the old. I confess I didn’t get the astrological elements at all. Initially I was concerned about this, but I decided that I was enjoying the book so much I’d stop thinking about it. As I haven’t met a single person who seems to have understood this aspect, my best piece of advice is DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE STARS!

Maggie Fergusson is literary editor of Intelligent Life and director of the Royal Society of Literature

Robert Macfarlane will be in conversation with Eleanor Catton (both pictured above) on April 3rd in London at an event co-hosted by I

Understanding What Makes Things Funny

APRIL 1, 2014

What would happen if Communism were introduced to Saudi Arabia? Nothing—at first. But soon there’d be a shortage of sand.

This—one of many political jokes circulating inside the Soviet Union during the late Cold War—is Joel Warner’s favorite. Warner is the co-author, with Peter McGraw, of “The Humor Code,” which was released on April Fool’s Day. “It can be analyzed all sorts of ways,” he told me. “Did Soviet citizens tell jokes like this as a form of coping, of using humor to lessen their psychological distress? Or was it a reflection of changing attitudes and growing unease among the populace? Or was the joke actually planted by the K.G.B., allowing folks to make light of their plight instead of fighting against it?”


Warner and McGraw recently travelled the world in an attempt to answer a question that has eluded us for millennia: What makes things funny? Laughter is thought by evolutionary biologists to be an indicator, in pre-historic tribes, that all was well. Comedy has long been a source of relief for sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder and for the terminally ill. In 2010, Raffi Khatchadourian wrote about an international laughter-yoga movement. And, recently, a Northwestern University professor named Jeffrey Burgdorf found that “tickling” rats to the point of inducing “laughter” might help make them resilient to depression and anxiety. But a scientific explanation for humor has been hard to pin down.

Many academics consider their humor-researching counterparts unserious, McGraw said. “It’s just by nature not a serious thing,” he told me. “So that association carries over.” And yet, in March, Salvatore Attardo, the dean of humanities, social sciences, and arts at Texas A&M-Commerce, published a two-volume, nine-hundred-and-eighty-four-page sledgehammer called the “Encyclopedia of Humor Studies,” meant as an introduction for the growing number of humor-research students in today’s universities. “It’s become respectable,” Attardo said. “There is an explosion of research, and in many disciplines.”

As with other psychological experiences, like happiness or regret, scholars have long hunted for a formula that can explain humor. The oldest known humor theory, known as Superiority Theory, dates back to Plato and Aristotle. It says that we find humor in others’ misfortunes and shortcomings. This may say more about Ancient Greek social dynamics than it does about modern humor—when one gets past “The Three Stooges” or YouTube, that is. It fails to explain, for example, knock-knock jokes. Freud one-upped Superiority Theory with Relief Theory, which posited that humor is a sort of release valve for our inner desires. The theory explained dirty jokes, but not others, like puns. In the seventies, linguists rallied behind a more palatable idea, called Incongruity Theory: essentially, that we laugh at surprises, violations of our expectations. This explained verbal punch lines, slapstick, and other humor, like April Fool’s pranks. But Incongruity Theory had a hard time explaining why we laugh when tickled. And it managed to mispredict things that aren’t funny. The death of a very young person, for example, is surprising and incongruous, but hardly humorous.

These days, many scholars still champion versions of Incongruity Theory, including such prominent figures as Victor Raskin, a linguistics professor at Purdue University and the founding editor-in-chief of the journal Humor, who refined Incongruity Theory into the Script-Based Semantic Theory of Humor, in 1985. Raskin and Attardo expanded this, in 1991, into the General Theory of Verbal Humor. “The idea is that every joke is based on a juxtaposition of two scripts,” Raskin said. “The punch line triggers the switch from one script to the other. It is a universal theory.”

McGraw doesn’t buy it. He claims that, while linguists rely on thought experiments to back up Incongruity-based theories, researchers have used the scientific method to disprove it. In 1974, for example, two University of Tennessee professors asked undergraduate students to watch Bill Cosby videos. Before each of Cosby’s punch lines, the professors paused the tape and asked the subjects to predict the joke. Then they monitored other groups whose members watched the same tapes, and recorded which jokes they laughed at the hardest. It turned out that the jokes that had been rated by the first group as easier to predict generally drew more laughs than the unexpected punch lines.

McGraw found his preferred universal theory in a 1998 journal article by a Stanford University researcher named Thomas Veatch. Veatch proposed that humor emerges when something seems wrong or unsettling but is actually benign. (His favorite joke was the following: Why did the monkey fall from the tree? Because it was dead.) Nobody paid much attention to Veatch’s theory, until McGraw, with a graduate student named Caleb Warren, dug it up a decade later and dubbed it the Benign Violation Theory.

Benign Violation explained why the unexpected sight of a friend falling down the stairs (a violation of expectations) was funny only if the friend was not seriously injured (a benign outcome). It explained Jerry Seinfeld’s comedic formula of pointing out the outrageous things (violation) in everyday life (benign), and Sarah Silverman’s hilarious habit of rendering off-color topics (violation) harmless (benign) in her standup routines. It explained puns (benign violations of linguistic rules) and tickling (a perceived physical threat with no real danger).

And it explained something that had particularly vexed Incongruity theorists: humor’s ability to help people cope with stress. Transforming actual violations into benign violations also explained the famed hospital clown Patch Adams’s ability to cheer up terminally ill children, Chris Rock-style racial humor that manages not to be racist, and political satire.

Questions about McGraw’s theory remain. “It’s a perfectly decent piece of work,” Raskin says. But, he adds, “It’s not at all universal.” Attardo tells me he’s “not a fan.” First of all, he believes that a unified theory of humor is impossible—“much like you can’t have a supertheory of poetry or justice that answers everything.” And he finds Benign Violation’s simplicity underwhelming. “These are basic, not that exciting things,” he said. “The question is what kind of violation? How do you know it is benign?”

McGraw admits that Benign Violation Theory has some holes. (“I really haven’t nailed why things that are absurd are funny,” he admitted.) And yet he feels that a unified theory is within reach, and that skeptics will come around to Benign Violation Theory in time. I had been asking him to tell me his favorite joke, and, on a recent evening, he called me on the phone and said, “Ask me the secret of good comedy.”

I replied, “What’s the sec—”

“Timing!” he blurted.

It’s an old joke. McGraw fell flat when he tried standup himself, as he and Warner document at the beginning of the book. Armed with a sweater vest and a handful of well-crafted benign violations, the only guffaws the fumbling professor elicited at Denver’s Squire Lounge occurred when the m.c. took back the mic and said, “He has this theory, see … well, who cares. Obviously, it’s wrong!”

Shane Snow is a technology journalist in New York City.

Photograph by Wayne Miller/Magnum.

Around the World in the Graf Zeppelin


The Graf Zeppelin was the first aircraft to fly passengers around the world, and this map shows its route. Samantha Weinberg unearths the drama behind it.

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2014

This map begins in Lakehurst, New Jersey, after dusk on August 7th 1929. The Graf Zeppelin rose gracefully into the air to begin its attempt to become the first passenger-carrying aircraft to circumnavigate the globe.

It was the world’s largest flying machine at the time—a 776ft, gas-filled silver lozenge. In the glassy gondola fixed to its belly were 60 men and one woman, Lady [Grace] Hay Drummond-Hay, who had been hired by William Randolph Hearst, of “Citizen Kane” fame, to cover the trip for his newspapers. As she gushed: “We passed from a symphony of silver to golden glory as the lights of New York city scattered themselves beneath us like grains of golden stardust, tracing patterns strange and fantastic, set with the jewelled brilliancy of ruby, emerald and topaz electric signs…”

Hearst had underwritten half the costs of the endeavour in return for exclusive media rights. Every rise and bump of the journey were to be conveyed to the paper-reading world by Lady Hay and her former lover, Karl von Wiegand, who had broken off the affair six months earlier, out of respect for his wife.

His continued admiration, however, was evident. As Time reported, quoting him: “Lady Drummond-Hay, in knickers and leather flying coat, clambered squirrel-like along the girders of the ship’s hull. She carried a Boston Bull pup, who was cold and, she decided, lonesome…Her cloth cat mascot remained in her cabin.”

The negotiations between Hearst and the Zeppelin Company had not been easy. Both parties insisted that the flight begin and end in their country. After extensive wrangling, a compromise was reached: there would be two start and finish points—Lakehurst first and then, eight days later, Friedrichshafen in southern Germany—which accounts for the two red lines across the Atlantic in the top right-hand corner of this map.

The first leg of the journey, the more southerly of the red lines, took the Graf north of Bermuda, south of the Azores, over Bordeaux and on to Friedrichshafen. The 4,391-mile trip lasted 55 hours and 22 minutes. There is film footage of the inside of the gondola, showing a comfy central clubroom where the passengers spent their days, eating, talking, reading and writing, before repairing to the ten cabins aft to sleep at night. Her ladyship is seen behind her typewriter, smiling, while Von Wiegand sits on the other side of the room.

On August 10th, the Graf Zeppelin touched down in Friedrichschafen, where it spent five days revictualling its larders before starting the German-centric circumnavigation with the longest leg of the trip, 7,297 miles across continental Europe and Siberia to Tokyo. The map shown here appeared in “Zeppelin-Weltfahrten”, a book published in 1932 and dedicated to the memory of the crews of German airships lost in the first world war. While the journey it records was monumental, the map itself is little more than a snapshot, reducing the distances travelled to fit on a single page, and ignoring the danger, the emotional and political dramas that took place within and without the Graf Zeppelin.

The map doesn’t show Josef Stalin’s fury when the captain, Hugo Eckener, refused the Soviet request to fly over Moscow, citing the need to “take advantage of the tailwinds and remain on the straight airline without deviation or halt”. It doesn’t show the concern on the deck as the zeppelin approached the uncharted Stanovoy Mountains in Siberia. It was travelling along a high canyon when it was suddenly forced to ascend 6,000 feet. It cleared the peaks with 150 feet to spare.

Following a four-day stop in Tokyo, the third leg took the Graf Zeppelin 5,986 miles across the Pacific. After floating over the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, it made a difficult landing in Los Angeles the next morning. Then it headed back across America. The map, again, is unable to note the summer turbulence that buffeted it over the deserts of Arizona and Texas, or the crowds that gathered across 13 states to cheer and gasp at the wonder of the silver flying machine.

The Graf Zeppelin landed at Lakehurst on August 29th 1929. The first passenger-carrying round-the-world trip had taken three weeks, of which 12 days, 12 hours and 13 minutes were spent in the air.

This map ends in Friedrichshafen on September 4th 1929. Seven weeks later, the American stockmarket crashed, effectively silencing the roar of the 1920s. Eight years later, the Graf’s sister ship, the Hindenburg, crashed into its mooring mast at Lakehurst, killing 36 people and ending the age of the zeppelin.

Samantha Weinberg is our assistant editor and the author of six books, including “A Fish Caught in Time”

Image Bridgeman Archive, Getty

The Most Profitable Gas in the World

The Most Profitable Gas in the World

By Robert Bensh | Tue, 01 April 2014 23:29 | 0

There is only one certainty in Ukraine: The energy sector must and will be transformed, and how long this takes will depend on who ends up in the driver’s seat and how serious they are about becoming a part of Europe and reducing dependence on Russia. But by then, investors will have missed the boat.

The driving factor for any energy investor in Ukraine is the pricing environment. There is nowhere else in Europe—or some would even argue in the world—where you are going to get significant access to resources and potential resources for the price. Gas is selling at $13.66/Mcf, while it costs $4-$5 to produce and operate. That means producers are netting anywhere between $8 and $9/Mcf.

Whether it likes it or not, kicking and screaming, Ukraine will have to transform its energy sector, if it hopes to see promised IMF money. Kiev will have to start selling off assets and making the industry much more transparent. Greater transparency coupled with an already-favorable gas price environment, will make Ukraine one of the best places to be over the next 5-7 years.

While everyone is now closely watching the campaigns unfold in the run-up to 25 May presidential elections, in the end who wins the presidency—and even the energy ministry—will determine not if, but how fast the country moves to transform its energy sector.
The crucial next step is a psychological one: Ukraine’s new leaders must come to the realization that their energy assets, particularly the pipeline system, are not strategic assets, rather they are valuable commercial assets. Privatizing these assets could raise $50 billion.

Right now, the pipeline system is nothing but a conduit for Russian gas into Europe. It could be much more. The pipeline system, and the state-run company that manages it, should be turned into a transparent public company in London, for instance. The sale of 50% of the company could generate sizable profits—half of which could be used to pay down debt to Russia, while the other half could be invested in modernization, turning a potentially valuable assets into a commercially realistic one.

Without the right people in place in the new government, we could perhaps lose a year in getting the necessary reforms in place. And continued talk about the “strategic” nature of these assets could cause investors to lose faith in Ukraine’s seriousness about reducing its dependence on Russia. Eventually, it will happen, and what elections will tell us simply is how long it will take.

There are a lot of resources to be developed in Ukraine, and there are also quite a few companies who have assets they cannot development, primarily due to lack of funding or marginal management teams. These companies will now be seeking to transact with larger players.

Historically, the most significant red flag for new investors in Ukraine has been working with the government. It’s too early to determine whether that will change. Bureaucracy generally kills deals more than anything, and foreign companies coming in will never be able to understand how the bureaucracy works. The smart investor will employ capital through a Ukrainian private entity to maximize investment dollars. Western management teams, without help from local partners, won’t be able to operate in this venue even if they are top-notch managers.

The smart investor will also realize that there is no better time to invest in Ukraine’s energy sector. Once it is transformed, the best opportunities will have been seized.

By. Robert Bensh for


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