New to our Pinterest page of storytelling wonders: mosquitoes, BASE jumpers, war crimes, gas leaks, cadavers, white noise, a self-policing ex-NFL player and the “problem” with narrative interactivity.
From Recommended Reading:
In “Murder on the Mekong,” with support from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, former Nieman Fellows Jeff Howe and Gary Knight look into a drug lord in the Golden Triangle of Burma, Laos and Thailand, for The Atavist. The setup:
At first, what happened on the Mekong River on October 5, 2011 seemed like a simple matter of rough frontier justice. A detachment of Thai military commandos reported that they had confronted a band of drug runners smuggling methamphetamines out of the Golden Triangle, the famously lawless borderlands between Burma, Laos, and Thailand. A gunfight ensued, the smugglers fled, and the commandos seized two barges and a haul of nearly a million pills. The story appeared to be over—until the bodies started washing ashore. There were thirteen of them, all Chinese merchant mariners—not hardened criminals. And they appeared to have been executed in cold blood.
It was the largest massacre of Chinese civilians outside of China in over half a century, and Beijing quickly named the culprit: Naw Kham, a mysterious former guerrilla warrior turned river pirate who had haunted the Golden Triangle for years. Regarded as a feared terrorist by some and a local Robin Hood by others, Naw Kham was undoubtedly a skilled criminal—but was he a mass murderer? In Murder on the Mekong, Jeff Howe travels to the scene of the crime that transfixed East Asia and finds a tale of adventure, deception, and political intrigue.
Rolling Stone asks some tough questions about U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan, by Matthieu Akins:
Last winter, tensions peaked and President Karzai ordered an investigation into the allegations. Then on February 16th, a student named Nasratullah was found under a bridge with his throat slit, two days, his family claimed, after he had been picked up by the Green Berets. Mass demonstrations erupted in Wardak, and Karzai demanded that the American Special Forces team leave, and by April, it did. That’s when the locals started finding bodies buried outside the American base in Nerkh, bodies they said belonged to the 10 missing men. In July, the Afghan government announced that it had arrested Zikria Kandahari, a translator who had been working for the American team, in connection with the murders, and that in turn Kandahari had fingered members of the Special Forces for the crimes. But the American military stuck to its denials. “After thorough investigation, there was no credible evidence to substantiate misconduct by ISAF or U.S. forces,” Col. Jane Crichton told The Wall Street Journal in July.
But over the past five months, Rolling Stone has interviewed more than two dozen eyewitnesses and victims’ families who’ve provided consistent and detailed allegations of the involvement of American forces in the disappearance of the 10 men, and has talked to Afghan and Western officials who were familiar with confidential Afghan-government, U.N. and Red Cross investigations that found the allegations credible. In July, a U.N. report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan warned: “The reported disappearances, arbitrary killings and torture – if proven to have been committed under the auspices of a party to the armed conflict – may amount to war crimes.”
An “urban naturalist” hunts America’s cities for gas leaks, by Phil McKenna, Matter:
Ackley, who is 53, has lived in working-class neighbourhoods around Boston all his life. He has a hard-bitten manner and speaks with the local nasal drawl. His politics are libertarian and his preference for president last year was Ron Paul, a Republican who pledged to disband the Environmental Protection Agency. His first car, bought at age 16, was a gas-guzzling Chevy Impala, and he has ridden the subway just twice in his life.
None of this makes Ackley the model of an environmental champion. But it’s not what he believes that makes him so important to the green movement: it’s what he knows.
Over the past few years, Ackley, a community-college dropout with no formal scientific training, has been amassing data that could answer a key question in energy policy. Since the early 1980s, western governments have been moving away from coal and embracing natural gas, a supposedly more environmentally friendly fuel. It’s a big bet, with huge consequences for global warming.
But as Ackley crisscrosses urban America, he is discovering that the country’s cities are peppered with gas leaks. So many, in fact, that some scientists now believe that natural gas may be accelerating climate change in a way that few had suspected.
BASE jumpers take the New River Gorge, by Jeremy Markovich, SB Nation:
… The cattle gates at either end of the bridge open, and the spectators stream through, heading toward the platform at the center. The ones that get a good spot, right on the railing, can see it all. They can look down and see the New River below, the frothy rapids so far away that they barely seem real. Train whistles echo through the gorge — the engine and coal cars are so tiny that they seems like they belong under a Christmas tree. The people at the bottom are mere specks. There is a bull’s-eye on the small beach made of chalk and a piece of carpeting. The people who lean out far enough can make out some of the arch of the bridge, or at least see some of the brown steel that’s holding the whole thing up.
They’re all here to see people jump.
A troubled NFL player walks away from football and resets his life, by Seth Wickersham, ESPN the Magazine:
He read about himself on the Internet, each story cranking him up another notch. In his second season, McClain first tried to cope by hitting harder on the field. It didn’t work. A film rat in college, he all but stopped studying for opponents. On the field, he seemed listless, unmotivated. Off it, he felt targeted—by his old crew, by people texting at all hours for money, by Decatur cops in the offseason. Though he had 246 tackles in three years, he was basically checked out: He hated the endless meetings, the required media sessions, the losing, the collective toll of not living up to expectations at a job that he resented. At one point, McClain told safety Michael Huff, one of his few friends on the Raiders, “I don’t want to play.”
Lapham’s Quarterly brings back a Mary Roach visit to Tennessee’s famous “body farm:”
This pleasant hillside is a field-research facility, the only one in the world dedicated to the study of human decay. The people lying in the sun are dead. They are donated cadavers, helping, in their mute, fragrant way, to advance the science of criminal forensics. For the more you know about how dead bodies decay—the biological and chemical phases they go through, how long each phase lasts, how the environment affects these phases—the better equipped you are to figure out when any given body died: in other words, the day and even the approximate time of day it was murdered. The police are pretty good at pinpointing approximate time of death in recently dispatched bodies. The potassium level of the gel inside the eyes is helpful during the first twenty-four hours, as is algor mortis—the cooling of a dead body; barring temperature extremes, corpses lose about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit per hour until they reach the temperature of the air around them. (Rigor mortis is more variable: it starts a few hours after death, usually in the head and neck, and continues, moving on down the body, finishing up and disappearing anywhere from ten to forty-eight hours after death.)
A doctor races to find an “impossible” vaccine, by Luke Mullins, Washingtonian:
As with all malaria victims, the girl’s crisis began with a tiny bug bite. When a malaria-infected mosquito pierces human skin, it shoots a handful of microscopic parasites into the bloodstream. The parasites squirm into the liver, where they quietly multiply. About a week later, a violent mob of 3 million parasites explodes back into the bloodstream, savaging red blood cells and overwhelming the immune system. The incursion triggers fevers, headaches, chills, and fatigue. In severe cases—like the young Indonesian girl’s—the disease chokes off blood flow to the brain, causing coma or death.
When Hoffman and a colleague examined the girl, they found that her blood sugar was dangerously low—a malaria-related complication that can send patients into shock. The doctors injected her with a large dose of sugar solution. Almost immediately, the girl’s condition improved; her blood pressure increased, her body warmed, and she returned to consciousness.
Walking out of the hospital, Hoffman felt like a hero. If we hadn’t been here, he thought, that girl would have died.
Hours later, he received another phone call. The girl was dead.
From Narrative News: In a new Fast Company piece, Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal, explores the future of narrative by laying out the “problem with interactivity.” We have a longer post on this coming up, but in the meantime have a look at his latest:
Here’s the problem with interactivity: There’s no evidence people actually want it in their stories. No one watches Mad Men or reads Gone Girl yearning for control of the story as it unfolds. Interaction is precisely what most of us don’t want during story time. The more we interact with a story, the more we have to maintain the alertness of the mind operating in the real world. We can’t achieve the dreamy trance that constitutes so much of the joy of story–and the power. And the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that Finnegan’s Wake, for all its splendor as a kind of impressionistic word painting, repels readers because of its interactivity. Most critics think that Joyce was trying to get away from what he called “wideawake language” to re-create the chaos of dreaming life. Paradoxically, however, the sheer difficulty of Finnegan’s Wake forces readers to maintain a “wideawake” frame of mind as they attempt to puzzle their way through. They can’t slip into the waking dream of story time.
Long-form is a little like documentary-making, and films are built around scenes that draw the viewer through. So what scenes are going to be important in your tale? What pictures can you draw for a reader that illustrate a larger theme in the story? New scenes will obviously develop as you report and write—don’t restrict yourself to a few set-pieces that you know will happen in advance — but keeping the big picture in mind is useful.
From Gear: Maybe you need this? Simplynoise.com, our favorite producer of ambient sound, can deliver distraction-busting white, pink or brown noise, plus rain, with thunder, directly into your brain. For free, people. Peace out.