The Importance of Self-Deception

Posted in Clips, Science on August 2, 2015 by frankbures


From The Rotarian:

One evening, sitting in the back seat of the car, our two girls, ages six and eight, were discussing the show we were on our way to attend. Called The Illusionists, it featured seven of the world’s top magicians. The debate consisted of whether there would be real magic involved, or just tricks.

“When they cut the man in half,” our younger daughter asked, “how do they keep the blood in?” She was convinced there was true magic. Her older sister, a little wiser, wasn’t buying it.

“Easy,” she said. “R-o-b-o-t.” She rolled her eyes at how obvious this was.

During the show, sure enough, we came to the part where a man – standing up, no less – was sawed in half. His torso fell onto a table, while his legs walked offstage. His top half was wheeled around before us, perfectly animate, perfectly alive.

It was clearly not a robot. Yet what it was, none of us could imagine. And even if we could have found out how it worked, I’d almost rather not. Because in a sense, both girls were right: There was real magic and there were tricks. The magic is in wondering how you were tricked. That’s why we go to see performances like the Illusionists’.

Humans are not hard to deceive. If we were, most political careers would be much shorter.

Read the rest here.

Deadly Odyssey: Migrant Journeys

Posted in Africa on May 24, 2015 by frankbures

Wonderful video from

On Vaccines, Fear and the Islands We Create

Posted in America, Clips, Science on April 30, 2015 by frankbures

cover_MayFrom The Rotarian:

Not long after our first daughter was born, I remember seeing her on the exam table in the doctor’s office, lying on her back, with the white paper crinkling underneath her. She was soft and small and fragile. I remember watching the needle pierce her leg, and feeling a strange mix of guilt and relief. There was a slight delay before her face changed and her scream filled the room. As a father, I cringed.

In 2006, there were rumors about mercury in the injections, and some possible link with autism. My wife and I had heard them. With the anxiety of all new parents, we wanted, more than anything, to keep our daughter from harm. But sorting through the opinions and anecdotes and research was overwhelming. We were torn between fear, belief, and trust.

Fortunately, we had a good doctor whom we did trust, who assured us that the shots didn’t contain mercury and that they posed no risk of autism. We believed her. We were too exhausted to do much more than that. Things might have been harder if we’d felt differently about our doctor, or about Western medicine, or about the world. But we didn’t. We just did our best. Today our daughter is healthy and thriving. For that we’re grateful. Yet a surprising number of new parents in my generation don’t feel the way we did. They don’t believe their doctors. And they haven’t come to see vaccinations as an obvious, logical, low-risk choice.

Read the rest here.

Blue Highway: A journey down the Mississippi

Posted in America, Clips, Travel on April 7, 2015 by frankbures

BHCoverFrom Minnesota Monthly:

Early one morning last summer, JD Fratzke and I met on the banks of the Mississippi River. The light was dim. The water was calm. Fish were making rings on the surface. JD and I had grown up together on this river, further south in Winona. We’d both spent much of our young lives swimming in it, boating on it, and hanging out at parties in its backwaters. Now it was time to follow it.

I had biked down it. I had driven down it. But I had never floated down on its surface. I had the idea of kayaking from Minneapolis to Hastings, a 33-mile trip, which I thought I could make in a day if the river was fast. When I mentioned this to JD, his reaction was instant: He’d always wanted to do the same. He came from a family of hunters and fishermen and spent nearly every weekend growing up on the river. He remembers one morning out fishing with his dad when he turned and asked why they never went to church. His dad looked at him and said, “Don’t you feel like you are in church?”

Rope SwingFor those of us who grew up on the river, it flows through our minds and our lives, even though we can’t spend aimless days on rope swings any more. For his part, JD spends most of his time running his restaurant, the Strip Club Meat & Fish in St. Paul, where he turns dead things into delicacies. For my part, I spend too much time in my office staring at a screen. To both of us, the river feels like a kind of refuge.

Read the rest here.

AWP Minneapolis

Posted in Art, Books, Events on March 24, 2015 by frankbures

imgresBefore long, some 12,000 writers and 2,000 presenters will descend on this town (Minneapolis) for the annual AWP Conference & Bookfair. Officially, it’s the largest literary conference in the country. Unofficially (I’m told) it’s a big party for writers. Whatever it is, the number of panels and speakers is mind-boggling, and I don’t know how anyone could choose between them. Fortunately for me that choice is easier, since I’ll be on two panels, both related to travel writing. Both should make for great conversations on important issues.

The first, is called, “Can Literary Quarterlies Save Travel Writing?” and features some people I’ve known for a while, and others I haven’t: Jim Benning, Tom Swick, Pamela Petro and Sally Shivnan. I’ll be standing in for the moderator, Evan Balkan. I expect we will answer this question definitively.

The other is “Wild v. Into the Wild: X and Y Chromosomes in Travel Writing,” featuring Eva Holland, Brian Kevin and Kelly Ferguson moderating, with a focus on the differences between men’s and women’s travel writing.

If that wasn’t enough, there will also be a travel writing-themed reading called “Notes From the Road” on Saturday at 4pm at Honey, featuring many of the same writers, as well as Leif Peterson, Annie Scott Riley and Doug Mack, who kindly organized the event and who is busy finishing his new book about the U.S. Territories.


The Language of Food

Posted in Books, Science, Travel on February 25, 2015 by frankbures

LOFFrom The Rotarian: Sitting in a pub and ordering a basket of fish and chips may feel so British that you can practically hear “God Save the Queen” playing in the background. Asking for a side of ketchup might feel rebellious, as if you are Americanizing your meal. Yet what you’re really doing is putting a Chinese fish sauce on a favorite delicacy of the Persian kings: Fish and chips is the direct descendant of a dish known as sikbāj, which became ceviche in Spain, aspic in France, and tempura in Japan. Ke-tchup means “preserved-fish sauce” in the southern Chinese language of Hokkien. In his new book, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu (W.W. Norton & Company, 2014), Dan Jurafsky takes us on a journey tracing culinary words across cultures. This is great fun if you want to win the next round of dinnertime trivia, but there are serious lessons here too. As Jurafsky points out, common wisdom has it that China closed itself off from the world around 1450. But the linguistic evidence of ketchup’s spread shows this wasn’t the case. Read the rest here.

Many Globes, Many Hits

Posted in Music on January 26, 2015 by frankbures

Came back from Mexico humming this tune. Can’t believe this wasn’t on every radio station in America. (A little context here.)


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