Good Reads: From climate reporting, to Romas in France, to an ancient board game

This week's roundup of Good Reads includes the long tail of a 'cooling trend' article, how a Flemish town cares for the mentally ill, the rise of petty crime in France, a board game older than chess, and humor in politics.

Arno Balzarini/Keystone/AP
Cars are dug out from beneath snow in Zuoz, Switzerland.

In 1975, Newsweek science editor Peter Gwynne wrote a nine-paragraph story that ran on page 64 of the magazine. It noted that average global temperatures had gradually decreased since about 1940, and it rounded up some climate scientists predicting that the planet could move toward the colder temperatures of several centuries ago.

Doug Struck, writing for The Daily Climate and appearing in Scientific American, revisits the long tail of that minor article, and several similar ones that followed it in other publications. It is prominently cited today as Exhibit A in arguments against the existence of global warming.

Mr. Gwynne didn’t see it as a big deal at the time. He told Mr. Struck: “It was just an intriguing piece about what a certain group in a certain niche of climatology was thinking.” That cooling trend is now long over and has been dwarfed by the rise in global temperatures since the Newsweek article appeared.
Gwynne is philosophical about writing science for popular audiences. “I’ve been willing to accept that some of that is misused and misinterpreted.”

Community care for the mentally ill

For more than 700 years, the Flemish town of Geel, Belgium, has been a haven for people termed elsewhere, though not here, “mentally ill.” After a medieval Irish princess was killed there by her maddened father, the town became a pilgrimage site for praying for the mentally afflicted. The townspeople began a tradition of taking them in as “boarders” – both out of Christian charity and as an extra set of hands on the farm.

Writing in Aeon magazine, Mike Jay describes how a very unmodern and nonmedical tradition that has never regarded itself as therapy had by the early 20th century come to be regarded as a model of progressive therapy, widely studied and emulated. A boarder is treated as a member of the family and the community and expected to behave as such, “though it’s also understood that he or she might not have the same coping resources as others.”

The Geel system currently backstops its traditional family care system with modern pharmaceutical treatment when deemed necessary. Demand for what Geel families offer has not waned, but modern life and rising prosperity is eroding the number of families who can or will provide it. One boarder, who recently died at the age of 100, “had spent 80 years with the same family, in the care of successive generations to whom she had been first like a daughter, then a sister and finally an aunt. Who would not wish to live in a community where such extraordinary resources of time, attention and love were available to those who needed them – but who these days can imagine being in a position to offer them?”

The return of petty crime in France

Public sentiment in France seems to be tied in knots these days over its tiny but increasingly visible Roma population. Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker delves into French attitudes toward this population, formerly known as “gypsies” in English, with his usual combination of nuance and clarity.

That attitude is one part fear and impatience with what is perceived as an epidemic of petty crime by young Roma – mainly pickpocketing and purse snatching. A Roma was recently convicted of running one of the largest pickpocket rings ever in Paris. And it is one part sympathy for poor immigrants without much support system.

The case of a high school age Roma girl pulled from a school bus and expelled, with her family, from France drew an outpouring of popular support. In the end, Mr. Gopnik suggests that the French obsession with the Roma is about their own fear of economic falling, finding echoes of Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables,” as standards of living drop for the first time in 30 years.

Lessons in an ancient war game

Games can be a reflection of how people see the world. If the Western world, reared on chess, wants to understand the Chinese worldview, one way is to understand the strategies of Go.

Then there’s Hnefatafl, an ancient Viking game at least 600 years older than chess. Robert Beckhusen, writing in War is Boring for, describes a game that is fundamentally asymmetrical: One side begins the game surrounded and outnumbered. He cites Kristan Wheaton, a former Army foreign area officer and ex-analyst at US European Command’s Intelligence Directorate: “I don’t know of a better analogy for post-Cold War conflict.”

Never a dull moment for political satire

For a 30-second read, try humorist Andy Borowitz’s take on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s self-defense over the snarling-traffic-as-political-revenge scandal in The New Yorker. The governor argued, of course, that he knew nothing about what his aides were up to. We’re guessing from the brief dispatch “Christie unaware he was governor” that Mr. Borowitz isn’t buying it.

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