The Weekender, March 1, 2019

1) “The Congressman Who Went Off the Grid ” (Politico, 11 minutes, January 2014). This was easily the most fun thing I’ve read all week.

When Roscoe Bartlett was in Congress, he latched onto a particularly apocalyptic issue, one almost no one else ever seemed to talk about: America’s dangerously vulnerable power grid. In speech after late-night speech on the House floor, Bartlett hectored the nearly empty chamber: If the United States doesn’t do something to protect the grid, and soon, a terrorist or an act of nature will put an end to life as we know it.

Bartlett loved to conjure doomsday visions: Think post-Sandy New York City without power—but spread over a much larger area for months at a time. He once recounted a conversation he claimed to have had with unnamed Russian officials about how they could take out the United States: They would “detonate a nuclear weapon high above your country,” he recalled them saying, “and shut down your power grid—and your communications—for six months or so.”

Bartlett never gained much traction with his scary talk of electromagnetic pulses and solar storms. More immediate concerns always seemed to preoccupy his colleagues, or perhaps Bartlett’s obsessions just sounded more like quackery than real science, even coming from a former Navy engineer who had worked on the space race. Whatever the reason, Congress’s failure to act is no longer Bartlett’s problem. The octogenarian Republican from western Maryland—more than once labeled “the oddest congressman”—found himself gerrymandered out of office a year ago and promptly decided to take action on the warnings others wouldn’t heed, retreating to a remote property in the mountains of West Virginia where he lives with no phone service, no connection to outside power and no municipal plumbing. Having failed to safeguard the power grid for the rest of the country, Bartlett has taken himself completely off the grid. He has finally done what he pleaded in vain for others to do: “to become,” as he put it in a 2009 documentary, “independent of the system.”

2) Win an awesome trip. Airfare, 8 days on a river in Europe, and it’s free to enter. Hit that link to sign up.

3) “The Trauma Floor” (The Verge, 30 minutes, February 2019). The subhead: “The secret lives of Facebook moderators in America.” It’s not a very good life.

4) The Now I Know Week in Review:

Monday: When a Baseball Team Traded for Runs — hint: the title is a pun.​

TuesdayThe Writing Was on the Wall — how to get a crossword puzzle very, very wrong.​

Wednesday: Arresting the Rooster — why a golden statue of a rooster was placed under arrest​.

ThursdayNew York City’s Secret (Tiny) Subway — A bookmobile, with a one-track mind.


5) “The Dog Who Took the Witness Stand” (Narratively, 77 minutes, December 2018). Yes, it’s a long one. But that’s what weekends are for, right?

“And now call the dog,” said Judge Edward Kimball to the bailiff. Did he smile when he said it? Did he look embarrassed? Judge Kimball was a serious man — a graduate of George Washington University and Harvard Law, appointed to the District of Columbia municipal court by President Wilson in 1914. He was a well-respected judge and a fixture of D.C. society. So why was he putting a dog on the stand?

The case was a pet ownership battle. The plaintiff, Maj. Gen. Eli Helmick, said that the dog was Buddy, purchased in 1920 from Brockway Kennels in Baldwin, Kansas, which had advertised 75 “white, intelligent, shaggy, handsome trick Eskimos.” For almost two years, the family raised the pup, until one day in November 1921 it went missing. Months later, Florence Helmick visited Keeley Morse’s hat shop, where customers were greeted by a fluffy, friendly white dog that Florence insisted was her Buddy. She demanded Morse hand over the animal. When he refused to surrender the dog, which he called Prince, the Helmicks brought him to court.

Animals and the law have been linked since the Code of Hammurabi declared, “If the ox gore a free-born man and kill him, the owner shall pay one-half a mina in money.” Throughout the medieval period, similar laws were made to govern animals as property, and courts even punished animals accused of hurting humans. It was not until the 1860s, however, that the law began to view pets as something separate from livestock. On April 12, 1867, due to the lobbying of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the New York legislature passed an act “for the more effectual prevention of cruelty to animals,” which forbid unnecessary “maiming” and banned cockfighting and dogfighting. This law set the legal framework for pets, now protected from unnecessary violence, to be seen as the legal property of their owners.

However, “there is no distinction between a companion animal and any given piece of inanimate personal property,” writes Tabby McLain, a lawyer specializing in animal custody disputes. When pet owners sue to recover an animal, judges consider the same things they would for any piece of property: purchase records, market value, as well as expenditures made on its care. But that is starting to change, as states pass laws to take the animal’s well-being into account in these decisions — an attempt to treat pets in the courtroom with the love we give them everywhere else, which has its roots in the day the dog was called to testify.

6) “What I learned from trying to live like a genius” (Medium, 17 minutes, November 2018). A guy tries ten “extreme creativity hacks” to try and become smarter. Here’s what happened.

Have a great weekend!