The Big Winners Of Climate Change

by Jessie Roberts


Outside of government agencies, the insurance industry is the primary funder of climate-change research.

A trade group is sponsoring studies on how climate change affects tornadoes and hail. Another is backing university research on land ecosystems in a warming world, especially forests and crops. A British company is focusing on hurricane intensity and temperature rise while an insurer in Bermuda researches cloud seeding to see whether the storms can be stopped before making landfall. A.I.G., for example, just released a climate report of its own, noting “a disproportionate increase in the number of extreme weather events” in North America. [Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren] Buffett is right: in ten years, if not sooner, calculations are bound to change. Those paying for the best research will get it first and, when they see an immediate risk, they’ll immediately price it in. For their own survival and for the sake of their shareholders, they will have to. Insurance rates will go up. And, if the risk is deemed too high or regulators block massive rate increases, as took place in coastal Florida some years ago, insurers will exit the market.

If profits equal progress, however, the insurance industry is on the right track. While researching a book that I wrote on the topic, I found that, when Hurricane Andrew landed in Florida and Louisiana, in 1992, insurers were caught unprepared, disbursing $1.27 in claims for every dollar of premium earned, for a total of twenty-three billion dollars. Those insurers started paying attention, and raised rates accordingly. Total claims were almost twice that when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana thirteen years later—but insurers still came out ahead, losing just 71.5 cents per dollar of premium. Industry profits were forty-nine billion dollars that year. We continue to gamble with our environmental policies. But the insurance industry, year after year, keeps winning.

8-Bit Art

by Jessie Roberts


Christopher Jobson captions the charming work of Adam Lister:

Inspired in part by the 8-bit graphics of old Atari and Nintendo video games from his youth, artist Adam Lister paints quirky watercolor interpretations of pop culture icons, art world happenings, and famous paintings. Trying to describe his style can be difficult as it’s not quite digital and it’s not quite Cubism (though maybe it’s a tad Etch A Sketch?). While all of Lister’s works are distinctly humorous, many are also strangely nostalgic, recalling moments from the recent past including comic book characters, Star Wars references, and even numerous interpretations of iconic TV painter Bob Ross

See more of Lister’s work here.

Make It Rain … Animals?

by Jessie Roberts

Apocalypse isn’t the only explanation for creatures falling from the sky:

Reasons for animals hurtling from the sky range from signs of the apocalypse (dating back to the Bible) to an everyday — or at least every-few-yearsish — act of meteorology. One of the most confusing parts of this persistent phenomenon is the notion of “falling.” For instance, when dark-brown snakes filled streets in Tennessee in January 1877, it wasn’t that they came from the sky.

Rather, torrential rains that morning may have dislodged the serpents from underground and flushed them to the surface. Similar deluge events may also explain some of the worm rains, some of the fish rains and the snails. New Year’s Eve fireworks exploding near blackbird roosting sites may have caused the 2011 Arkansas bird fall. And as wonderfully frightening as a rain of Brazilian spiders sounds (as was reported in the town of Santo Antônio da Platina last year) the phenomenon has been attributed to the species Anelosimus eximius, which spins massive group webs that can span trees and telephone poles and be scattered into a rain in strong winds. And the suspected deer or sheep meat that fell over Kentucky in 1876? Vomiting buzzards, or, as jokingly reported in the New York Times, a “meat meteorite.”

But what about the fish and frogs?

“It is certainly within the realm of possibility that fish and frogs could rain from the sky,” says Greg Carbin, a severe weather expert with the National Weather Service. “Especially when you look at the power of some thunderstorms and tornados, there’s a tremendous vertical component to the wind that can suck things up and deposit them far from where they were picked up.”

(Video: A scene from Magnolia)

Seeing The Light Inside

by Jessie Roberts

Rose Eveleth explores why people sometimes hallucinate during meditation:

Buddhist literature refers to lights and visions in myriad ways. The Theravada tradition refers to nimitta, an vision of a series of lights seen during meditation dish_lights that can be taken to represent everything from the meditator’s pure mind to a visual symbol of a real object. In one Buddhist text, called The Path of Purification, the nimitta is described this way:

It appears to some as a star or cluster of gems or a cluster of pearls, […] to others like a long braid string or a wreath of flowers or a puff of smoke, to others like a stretched-out cobweb or a film of cloud or a lotus flower or a chariot wheel or the moon’s disk or the sun’s disk. …

What is it about meditation that opens the brain up to these kinds of hallucinations?

To answer that question, [researcher Jared] Lindahl and his team looked for occasions where the descriptions he gathered from meditators intersected with descriptions of neurophysiological disorders. They found that both the first-person accounts and the Buddhist literary descriptions of these lights intersected pretty well with the experiences of people undergoing the intentional practice of sensory deprivation.

Hallucinations are relatively well-documented in the world of sensory deprivation, and they dovetail with the lights seen by meditators. Where meditators describe jewel lights, white spots and little stars, those under sensory deprivation sometimes describe dots and points of light. Where meditators see shimmering ropes, electrical sparks, and rays of light that go through everything, the sensory deprived might see visual snow, bright sunsets, and shimmering, luminous fog. Neuroscientists think that when the eyes and ears are deprived of input, the brain becomes hypersensitive and neurons may fire with little provocation, creating these kinds of light shows. Lindahl suspects that the lights that meditators see are the result of the same phenomenon—that meditating is itself a mild form of sensory deprivation.

Read more about the research of Lindahl and his colleagues here.

(Image via Alan Levine)

Is Hypocrisy Necessary?

by Jessie Roberts

Clancy Martin suggests it may be unavoidable. He draws on Robert Kurzban’s book Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite:

Here’s the good news from Kurzban, if you can call it that: we’re all hypocrites. We’re hard-wired for it, in much the same way we’re hard-wired for self-deception and other forms of cognitive dissonance. In his straightforward and elegant book, Kurzban explains how contemporary neuroscience regards the structure, psychology, and evolutionary benefits of hypocrisy. Briefly, the self, as Nietzsche once helpfully described it, is a kind of oligarchy wherein different sets of beliefs can be entertained (and even committed to, cherished, defended) depending on the needs of the self in different situations. A brutal tyrant can still be a loving father, because those roles require different and incompatible belief sets.

How on earth does this work? Well, the brain — and thus, on Kurzban’s account, the self — is partitioned. The coordinated brain structures that function to “govern strangers well” or to “hunt deer well,” let’s say, are not fully accessible — and are sometimes completely inaccessible — to the brain structures that function to “raise one’s children well” or “love one’s spouse” or (in contrast with the deer-hunting example) “care for one’s beloved deer hounds.” This partitioning develops not merely because the brain can only focus on and master certain kinds of tasks at particular times, though that’s part of the account. It’s also because the evolved human brain has to become skilled at activities that require incompatible sets of beliefs. To be a brutal warrior demands beliefs and attitudes that are fundamentally different from the beliefs and attitudes needed to be a loving parent.

Face Of The Day

by Jessie Roberts


Alyssa Coppleman captions:

Austin-based Sandy Carson has been photographing bands professionally for eight years, and being that he is based in “the Live Music Capital of the World,” he’s had his fair share of slogging through the pit, camera in hand, to capture many famous and lesser-known bands that have played at SXSW, Fun Fun Fun Fest, Austin City Limits, and the hundreds of shows happening year-round. Carson’s new series, We Were There, features photographs not of the bands but of the crowds—those most dedicated fans who shove themselves to the front to be as close as possible to the show.

In an interview last year, Carson explained his thought process while shooting:

I think, like all photographers we all have little subconscious alarm bells that go off when we see potential photographs depending on what we have trained our eyes to pick up on due to our influences. I’m definitely drawn to ironic and humerous juxtapositions, characters and really banal social landscapes that are often jaundiced, so I’m told.

See more pictures from the series here.

(Photo by Sandy Carson)

The Gift Of Piero’s Paintings

by Jessie Roberts


Sanford Schwartz reviews the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit on the devotional works of Piero della Francesca, writing that his “figures can be strangely contemporary in their sexiness, and there is nothing dated about the way they encounter and judge one another, or appraise us”:

The most impressive work in the show is Madonna and Child with Two Angels…. With her downcast eyes, gentle demeanor, and small features set in a large, wide-nosed face, the Madonna is a choice example of a kind of woman, at once regal and rustic, that Piero created. Her quiet strength is reiterated in the work’s painted surface, which has an enamel-like density.

The angel in pink is an attentive young person, but the angel in blue (who is possibly the same model seen in a different way) is, along with the suggestion of a room behind him, transfixing.

Piero’s angels, whether attending a Nativity, a baptism, or a Madonna, can be guarded or genuinely sweet. They almost always have a distinct presence. The angel, or seraph, in blue here, whose arms are crossed before his chest and who might be blocking entry to the background space, would seem to be Piero’s last word on the subject. His baby-blue outfit is exquisitely touched with bits of white and gold, and his white-blond hair is set in little electrified ringlets. Kenneth Clark, in his book on the artist, called him “daunting,” and [curator Keith] Christiansen says he is “implacable.”

But surely his protectiveness has something sensual and brazen about it, and the glimpse we have of the bare space behind him, where all we see are shadows of window blinds and a patch of strong sunlight on the wall, is uncannily of our day and age. Am I alone in thinking that this part of the picture might be set in Palm Springs? The angel and the mysterious area he is linked with form almost a painting within the painting. It is kind of a gift within the larger gift that is Piero’s art.

(Image of Madonna and Child with Two Angels (ca. 1464–74?), also known as the “Senigallia Madonna,” via Wikimedia Commons)

Night Frights

by Jessie Roberts

Vaughan Bell recommends the above short film:

The Devil in the Room is a fantastic short film about the experience of hallucinatory sleep paralysis – a common experience that has been widely mythologised around the world. Sleep paralysis is the experience of being unable to move during the process of waking – when you have regained consciousness but you’re brain has not re-engaged your ability to control your muscles. The reason the experience has been widely associated with mythological creatures is because in some people it can lead to intense emotions and hallucinations.

Drinking And Droning

by Jessie Roberts

Last week, Minnesota’s Lakemaid brewery launched a drone delivery system for beer. The FAA was quick to can the idea:

While the agency technically doesn’t forbid drone delivery, it does have a set of very precise and strict regulations for unmanned aerial devices (UAVs). For example, drones are to remain below 400 feet and cannot fly over populated areas. Furthermore, anything weighing more than 25 kilos may not be used for commercial purposes. Unfortunately, Lakemaid beer violates each one of these rules. Consequently, Lakemaid has been slapped with a cease and desist order and is under the watchful gaze of the FAA. For now, the project will no doubt be grounded, unless of course the brewers intend to intentionally break the law.

But take heart, beer lovers — the future probably contains flying alcohol. The FAA intends to review its restrictions, which could potentially change some of the laws surrounding UAV delivery as early as 2015. However, it won’t be straightforward. Specific flight training would be required for those interested in using drones for the purposes of delivery, which would ultimately necessitate a special drone licence. What’s more, larger commercial uses will no doubt be prioritised over the delivery of beer. Things like UAV-managed agriculture and medical supplies could vastly improve the lives of many in society, whereas beer probably won’t.

Nymphomaniac Mania

by Katie Zavadski and Jessie Roberts

Nymphomaniac, the third installment of Lars von Trier’s Depression trilogy, opened in theaters this weekend (and is available on demand here):

The smut in question involves Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a woman who’s found lying beaten and bruised in an alleyway by nearby resident Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). Taken back to his apartment where she gets into bed, she recounts, over the course of both volumes, the erotic adventures of her life: her early days trawling train cars with her friend looking to see who can screw the most men (the prize: a bag of chocolates); her recurring encounters with Jerome ([Shia] LaBeouf), the man to whom she lost her virginity; her juggling numerous lovers a night; and her eventual frigidness and subsequent career as a criminal debt collector. Joe is a self-professed nymphomaniac, and her story is of alternately embracing and struggling against her “dirty, filthy lust.”

Will Leitch praises von Trier as “a beautiful lunatic”:

The movie is ostensibly a look at a lifelong nymphomaniac (played by Gainsbourg as an adult and newcomer Stacy Martin as a younger woman) telling the story of her life and her addiction to an academic named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) who finds her in the street. That’s not what it’s really about, though: It’s about von Trier, as always, exorcising his personal demons in plain view, in the most over-the-top, lunatic ways as possible. If you take a step back from it and realize that von Trier is essentially filming sex shows with Hollywood actors and having them do horrible things to each other and occasionally showing two-minute montages of flaccid penises, and he’s doing all this to let us know he feels lonely a lot and wonders if maybe he’s a bad person … it’s sort of the most insane thing in the world. Fortunately: He’s so, so good at it. Von Trier is an idiot, but, you know, the genius kind.

David Denby finds the film best when it’s “bookish and artificial”:

Von Trier links his hungry woman to philosophical ideas, mathematics, digressions of all sorts. Sex, it turns out, is meaningless without interpretation. The character has only one way of experiencing her life; the director has many ways of telling it. He gives us a catalogue of male members belonging to Joe’s lovers, and, in medical-textbook mode, drawings and photographs of female genitalia. However profane, “Nymphomaniac” is a modern variant of illustrated seventeenth-century books of miscellaneous erudition, like “Angler” or Robert Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy,” and of such eighteenth-century libertine texts as the Marquis d’Argens’s “Thérèse Philosophe”—a volume in which the sexual “education” of the heroine gets interrupted by discourses on the truth of philosophical materialism and the falsity of religion.

But Eric Sasson isn’t impressed:

I suspect that von Trier, like many of his European counterparts, views American sexual mores as fairly puritanical. And yet there’s something awfully retrograde about a film which offers us a nymphomaniac only to have a man defend her. For all the talk of Nymphomaniac being a “shocking” film from a “radical” director, von Trier’s depictions of a woman incapable of enjoying sex and despising her sexuality are fairly conventional. A truly novel film would star a sexually adventurous woman, not devoid of love and compensating for her lack of it, not hating herself, but instead embracing her sexuality and feeling content with her decisions.

Lindy West isn’t sold either:

I’m not wholly certain that woman-as-sexually-compulsive-cypher is a thought experiment new enough or true enough to bother undertaking. I didn’t hate it and I didn’t love it and I wasn’t scandalized in the ways I expected (this much explicit sex becomes mundane—by design, I expect); Nymphomaniac just feels like a slightly tedious and under-justified art film. Like American Apparel Ad: The Movie—long on the male gaze and short on female humanity; long on self-importance and short on meaning.

Andrew O’Hehir is split:

I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece or a failure; it’s a thrilling, uproarious visual and intellectual journey that doesn’t always connect and surely will not please every viewer, but along the way breaks free of all established notions about what a respectable movie is and how it’s supposed to behave. Von Trier sometimes writes awkward lines of dialogue for Joe, where she speaks all too obviously for his political or philosophical views. He also creates episodes of brilliant verbal repartee, ludicrous slapstick comedy and piercing emotional power, often overlapping. Arguably “Nymphomaniac” has way too much sex, but isn’t that the point? The most intimate, most transcendent and most liberating of human experiences is also a commodity, an unquenchable cultural obsession and an incurable addiction.