The Hunker Mindset

Drew Harwell never joins the bread and milk frenzy:

Everyone’s shopping list is different — toilet paper, eggs and booze fill many carts — but bread and milk stand out as long-time staples of the panicking pre-storm bustle. A report from Pittsburgh during “The Big Snow” of 1950 said that milk “was the one shortage that has hit all sections,” and that bread was being “doled out” in some grocery stores, a Pittsburgh Magazine writer found last year.

It’s not just that bread and milk work poorly as emergency rations, critics say; they don’t even work well with themselves. Twitter users have even criticized the un-versatility of the combo with a hashtag called #milksandwiches.

A more reasonable alternative?

Bottled water’s not a bad choice. Neither are foods with more nutrients or longer shelf lives: canned goods like tuna, vegetables or soup; peanut butter and crackers; nuts, trail mixes or granola bars. They may break the routine or give less of a feeling of control. But at least you’ll have something to eat.

Daniel Engber tries to diagnose the urge people feel to panic-shop:

[T]his is a different kind of frenzied state than you’d find during a genuine catastrophe—less frightened than nervously excited, not so much survivalist as shopaholic. In fact there’s a name for such behavior, which takes prudence as a beard for gluttony. The word is hunkering, in the specifically American sense of digging in and taking shelter. It’s the anxious form of self-indulgence, where fear is fuel to make us cozy. The end is nigh let’s eat!

Official weather warnings feed this hunker culture. They talk in terms of quantity, not quality—an implicit exhortation to go shopping. Meteorologists say that a crippling and historic storm will dump several feet of snow or more. “More”—that’s what drives the hunkered mind: The weather will be so excessive, with so much snow on top of snow, that we should take excessive action. Politicians gin up excessive numbers, the bigger the better: We’ve got 700 pieces of equipment at the ready, says Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh, and more than 35,000 tons of salt. On Sunday, New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio rallied local hunkerers with a call for immoderation: “Whatever safety precautions you take in advance of a storm,” he said, “take even more.”

Got that? It doesn’t matter what you do, exactly, as long as you do as much of it as possible.



Becky Ferreira explains how lucky we are to only have to deal with a massive blizzard today:

[Yesterday] morning, an enormous space rock missed Earth by a narrow margin of 745,000 miles, or about three times the distance from the Earth to the Moon. With a diameter of 550 meters and a velocity of about 35,000 miles per hour, the asteroid, known as 2004 BL86, will be so bright in the evening sky that it will be visible through binoculars. Scientists don’t expect another object of this size to pass so closely to Earth until August 7, 2027.

What you’re seeing above:

NASA has released radar observations of the 325 meter-wide asteroid that flew safely past Earth [yesterday] at 8:19 a.m. PST (11:19 a.m. EST), but in those grainy observations, asteroid 2004 BL86 appears to have company — a small moon.


Bob King has more on that exciting find:

Among near-Earth asteroids, about 16% that are about 655 feet (200 meters) or larger are either binary or triple systems. While that’s not what you’d call common, it’s not unusual either. To date, we know of 240 asteroids with a single moon, 10 triple systems and the sextuple system of Pluto (I realize that’s stretching a bit, since Pluto’s a dwarf planet) – 268 companions total. 52 of those are near-Earth asteroids.

With a resolution of 13 feet (4-meters) per pixel we can at least see the roughness of the the main body’s surface and perhaps imagine craters there. No details are visible on the moon though it does appear elongated. I’m surprised how round the main body is given its small size. An object that tiny doesn’t normally have the gravity required to crush itself into a sphere. Yet another fascinating detail needing our attention.

Circling back to Ferreira, she imagines how bad today could have been:

What if [2004 BL86] hurtled towards us just a little earlier, and instead of flying freely through the wake of Earth’s orbit, it collided with us head on? How bad would the damage be?

Fortunately, there is an online tool for calculating the apocalyptic potential of various impact scenarios. Run by Purdue University, Impact Earth allows users to input details about asteroids, comets, and other cosmic death traps, then crunches the numbers on the fallout. I gave the calculator the known details about asteroid 2004 BL86, including its diameter and velocity. I entered a hypothetical mid-range angle of 45 degrees, and specified that the asteroid hit sedimentary land, not water. Then, I asked it to tell me what the damage would be like one kilometer away from the impact site. After a dramatic animation of an asteroid hitting New England, Impact Earth gave me a rundown of the designer catastrophe.

Naturally, it wasn’t pretty. “The projectile begins to breakup at an altitude of 49,800 meters (16,3000 ft),” Impact Earth predicted. It would be fractured by the time it hit the ground, striking the surface at a velocity of about 7.95 miles per second. The energy released would be about 5,120 megatons, which is 100 times more powerful than the strongest nuclear bomb ever detonated. It would leave behind a crater with a diameter of 3.64 miles and a depth of 1.26 miles—similar dimensions to Alabama’s Wetumpka crater. But as the calculator noted under the “Global Damage” category, the impact would not be enough to disrupt the Earth on a global level by altering its orbit or its axial tilt.

Snowpocalypse Now

The historic storm is peaking. So far four governors have declared states of emergency, more than 7,000 flights have been cancelled, and road travel is banned in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, and NYC, where the entire public transit system has shut down – a first for a snow-related event in the city. Eric Holthaus checks in on the dire forecasts, which all seem to agree that New England is going to get the worst of it:

In an epic and at times even giddy technical forecast discussion, the NWS office in Boston warned of an “unprecedented” storm. The storm’s central pressure will explosively deepen on Tuesday, at a rate twice that of a “bomb” cyclone. Invoking the technical term for rapid strengthening of these kinds of storms, the NWS forecaster exclaimed, “it’s bombogenesis, baby!” The NWS Boston office also alternately referred to the storm as “historic” and “crippling.” For New England, there may be two separate intense snowfall bands, one in Western Connecticut and one just south of Boston. Exactly where those bands end up will determine which areas receive the most snowfall, but isolated totals exceeding three feet won’t be surprising.

He also notes concerns that the storm could permanently alter the Massachusetts coastline, “boosted by about three feet of storm surge and 20-foot waves.” Whether it ends up a blizzard for the history books or not, don’t let Harry Enten hear you calling it “Winter Storm Juno” – part of The Weather Channel’s storm branding scheme:

A lot of other weather outlets don’t approve of the Weather Channel’s policy. In fact, the National Weather Service and the Weather Channel’s chief private competitor, AccuWeather, appear to hate it. AccuWeather’s founder and president, Joel Myers, has said, “The Weather Channel has confused media spin with science and public safety and is doing a disservice to the field of meteorology and public service.”

Previous Dish on the controversial subject here. But “Juno” doesn’t seem to be sticking:

So over to you, :

The Most Quoted Experts


Justin Wolfers charts the recent dominance of economists:

There’s an old Bob Dylan song that goes “there’s no success like failure,” and it’s a lesson that’s been central to the rise of the economics profession. Each economic calamity since the Great Depression — stagflation in the 1970s, the double-dip recession in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the 1991 downturn — has served to boost the stock of economists. The long Clinton boom that pushed unemployment down to 3.8 percent was good news for nearly all Americans, except economists, who saw their prominence plummet. Fortunately, the last financial crisis fixed that.

Today, the profession is so ubiquitous that if you are running a government agency, a think tank, a media outlet or a major corporation, and don’t have your own pet economist on the payroll, you’re the exception.

The Expiration Date On That URL

Jill Lepore discovers that the “average life of a Web page is about a hundred days”:

No one believes any longer, if anyone ever did, that “if it’s on the Web it must be true,” but a lot of people do believe that if it’s on the Web it will stay on the Web. Chances are, though, that it actually won’t.

In 2006, David Cameron gave a speech in which he said that Google was democratizing the world, because “making more information available to more people” was providing “the power for anyone to hold to account those who in the past might have had a monopoly of power.” Seven years later, Britain’s Conservative Party scrubbed from its Web site ten years’ worth of Tory speeches, including that one. Last year, BuzzFeed deleted more than four thousand of its staff writers’ early posts, apparently because, as time passed, they looked stupider and stupider. Social media, public records, junk: in the end, everything goes.

Which is why the Wayback Machine exists:

The Wayback Machine is a Web archive, a collection of old Web pages; it is, in fact, the Web archive. There are others, but the Wayback Machine is so much bigger than all of them that it’s very nearly true that if it’s not in the Wayback Machine it doesn’t exist.

The Wayback Machine is a robot. It crawls across the Internet, in the manner of Eric Carle’s very hungry caterpillar, attempting to make a copy of every Web page it can find every two months, though that rate varies. (It first crawled over this magazine’s home page,, in November, 1998, and since then has crawled the site nearly seven thousand times, lately at a rate of about six times a day.)

The Internet Archive is also stocked with Web pages that are chosen by librarians, specialists like Anatol Shmelev, collecting in subject areas, through a service called Archive It, at, which also allows individuals and institutions to build their own archives. (A copy of everything they save goes into the Wayback Machine, too.) And anyone who wants to can preserve a Web page, at any time, by going to, typing in a URL, and clicking “Save Page Now.”

The Exaggerated Benefits Of Bilingualism

Maria Konnikova examines the research of Angela de Bruin:

De Bruin isn’t refuting the notion that there are advantages to being bilingual: some studies that she reviewed really did show an edge. But the advantage is neither global nor pervasive, as often reported.


Where learning another language does pay dividends:

One of the areas where the bilingual advantage appears to be most persistent isn’t related to a particular skill or task: it’s a general benefit that seems to help the aging brain. Adults who speak multiple languages seem to resist the effects of dementia far better than monolinguals do.

When Bialystok examined the records for a group of older adults who had been referred to a clinic in Toronto with memory or other cognitive complaints, she found that, of those who eventually developed dementia, the lifelong bilinguals showed symptoms more than four years later than the monolinguals. In a follow-up study, this time with a different set of patients who had developed Alzheimer’s, she and her colleagues found that, regardless of cognitive level, prior occupation, or education, bilinguals had been diagnosed 4.3 years later than monolinguals had. Bilingualism, in other words, seems to have a protective effect on cognitive decline. That would be consistent with a story of learning: we know that keeping cognitively nimble into old age is one of the best ways to protect yourself against dementia. (Hence the rise of the crossword puzzle.) When the brain keeps learning, as it seems to do for people who retain more than one language, it has more capacity to keep functioning at a higher level.

Air Travel Gets A Little Less Entertaining


SkyMall, surely the most interesting thing to read in your seat-back pocket, looks like it’s folding. Roberto Ferdman sums up the news:

SkyMall made its business over the past 25 years by entertaining commercial airline passengers and, occasionally, persuading them to purchase whimsical, often expensive products, including a $1,000 serenity cat pod, a $2,250 garden yeti statue and a $16,000 personal sauna system. But the company has suffered at the hands of recent changes to airline policy, which have given passengers alternative means of entertainment and flooded them with different avenues for online purchasing. The permitted use of smartphones on commercial flights has usurped the magazine’s place as the de facto way to pass the time while cruising at 30-some-odd thousand feet in the air. And the growing number of airlines providing in-flight Internet service has not only further eaten into the catalogue’s bread and butter but also paved the way for more competition in the form of online retailers.

A nostalgic Emily Dreyfuss reflects on the end of an in-flight era:

SkyMall was a tradition. An absurd, capitalistic embodiment of everything that was shallow and wrong with our lives, and yet it also brought us comfort. No matter if the plane was delayed, or we were stuck alone on a layover, missing whichever parent we were leaving, missing the friends and the life we were leaving behind each time we went between homes, it was there to make us laugh. To let us roll our eyes. To surprise us with a new level of novelty and frivolity.

SkyMall, that stupid wonderful completely American wonder that, with its insistence that you take your own free copy, announced it was your right as a human in the ‘90s to never not be shopping. Never not be consuming.

Joe Pinsker thinks through the value SkyMall has provided for businesses:

It’s essentially a classified section, with pictures. Manufacturers, retailers, and lone-wolf inventors could pay for space in the catalog—with a full page reportedly costing $129,000 per issue—and then give a small cut of any sales to SkyMall. While it lasted, this was a pretty sweet deal: Sellers, some of them amateur inventors, saw big leaps in sales after their products were exposed to nearly 700 million flyers. And SkyMall got access to a well-off demographic: Their average customer was a college grad earning more than $75,000 a year.

Either way, the catalog’s demise makes sense to McArdle, who’d much rather browse her iPad than flip through eclectic junk:

Skymall was something that frequent flyers all over this great land had in common, like getting groped by the TSA. [But aficionados] of the catalog shouldn’t fret too much; you can still buy the Zombie of Montclaire Moors from Amazon.

But, paradoxically, Danielle Kurtzleben points out that other dead-tree catalogs are actually seeing a mini-renaissance:

In 2013, retailers sent out 11.9 billion catalogs in the US, the first uptick since 2007, but also down from nearly 20 billion sent out in 2007, according to the Wall Street Journal. And that’s in part because retailers have increasingly figured out how to use catalogs to their advantage.

For an example of this, look no further than one resurrected catalog: JC Penney. That retailer announced just this week that it’s bringing its catalog back from the dead. Yes, catalogs take money to print and distribute, but they also bring customers in. In a recent report, retail consulting firm Kurt Salmon found that eliminating catalogs in an effort to cut costs can backfire for a retailer, because it engages customers so much less. Meanwhile, customers engaging with a retailer on multiple platforms (online, with catalogs, in stores) also spent a lot more. This is part of what retailers call an “omnichannel” strategy — using several mediums simultaneously to attract customers. And it makes intuitive sense: encourage customers to find your goods in a variety of ways and places, and they’ll both remember you and keep coming back.

In the end, Barro feels a little guilty:

I’m sorry to report that even I have been a free rider. Like a Times reader who clears his cookies daily to avoid the paywall, I have enjoyed the SkyMall catalog hundreds of times without ordering so much as a single inflatable body pillow.

(Image: A collection of SkyMall products)