Your Weekend Reader for Oct. 21-22

by | Oct 21, 2023 | Weekend Reader | 1 comment

Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans — and spent the rest of eternity having an eagle gnaw each and every day on his liver for his trouble — is back in the news, at least according to A.O. Scott at The New York Times. In this new piece with the headline “Are Fears of A.I. and Nuclear Apocalypse Keeping You Up? Blame Prometheus,” Scott writes about the resurgence of interest in J. Robert Oppenheimer, fueled by Christopher Nolan’s riveting biopic. Nolan’s film (which begins with by noting Prometheus’ fate) was inspired by a gripping biography of Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin — a book that’s actually titled “American Prometheus.”

Now, Scott says, the Chilean writer Benjamin Lababut has a new novel, “The Maniac,” about Hungarian-born polymath John von Neumann, a pioneer of artificial intelligence. (Both Oppenheimer and von Neumann worked at Los Alamos to develop the atomic bomb; this is not really a coincidence.) Lababut has written an earlier work of fiction about the lives of real scientists — the book is called “When We Cease to Understand the World,” and it’s a chilly, provocative work. In his new book, Lababut has von Neumann reflect on how scientific discoveries sometimes make the world a more dangerous place: “It is not the particularly perverse destructiveness of one specific invention that creates danger. The danger is intrinsic. For progress there is no cure.”

I’ll be reserving a copy of “The Maniac” from the library. In the meantime — in an offer I can make only to Weekend Reader readers — I’d be happy to lend you my copy of “American Prometheus.” Just leave a note below, in the comments section.

Speaking of fire: Exploding lithium batteries are sparking an increasing number of fires in Oregon landfills (and even in the back of garbage trucks). You’re not supposed to toss lithium batteries into the garbage, for this very reason, but hey, this is America. OPB’s Joni Auden Land has the story.

Tim Henderson of Stateline has an unexpected story that caught my eye: Henderson reports that the United States is in the midst of an unprecedented boom in new housing construction (mostly apartments). As supply increases, Henderson reports, that could help moderate increases in rent prices. Nationally, more than 1.7 million housing units were under construction throughout the United States in September. The story reports that Oregon added 168,512 housing units in the years between 2012 and 2022 — but that still wasn’t enough to make much of a dent in the state’s housing shortage.

You might have noticed that Oregon State University has received $2.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to study the attitudes of coastal residents toward potential off-shore wind-energy projects. This news follows the announcement in August that two areas off the Oregon coast near Coos Bay and Brookings would be ideal for generating clean wind energy. But some coastal residents and tribal leaders fear such projects would disrupt culturally and economically valuable ocean views, marine ecosystems and fishing industries. Alex Baumhardt of the Oregon Capital Chronicle had the story.

Weather experts say that the West Coast appears to be headed into an El Niño weather pattern this year — and so the National Weather Service is predicting a drier and warmer winter than average in Oregon. But there’s a proviso, a Weather Service meteorologist told Lizzy Acker of The Oregonian/OregonLive: They could be wrong.

I’m happy to report that Portland has received a reprieve from all its recent bad publicity: The town has just been rated as the 11th best in the entire United States for surviving a zombie apocalypse.

Just be careful if you’re flying into PDX: Federal authorities are investigating an incident from earlier this week in which an airborne Alaska Airlines jetliner trying to land veered toward the flight path of a SkyWest aircraft that was just taking off. The Oregonian/OregonLive estimates that the two planes came within 1,800 feet horizontally and 250 feet vertically. Federal officials define a near midair collision as when a plane is within less than 500 feet of another aircraft. The Alaska flight diverted to the Redmond airport.

Surprisingly, there wasn’t much news this week from the continuing collapse of the Pac-12 Conference. There might be some news next week about the lawsuit filed by Oregon State University and Washington State University seeking control of the remaining assets of the conference after all the other conference schools depart (the other schools in the conference are seeking to intervene in the lawsuit) and, last I heard, a hearing on that motion might be coming on Wednesday.

In the meantime, the Pac-12 media day for women’s basketball was held on Tuesday, and the pending breakup of the conference loomed large. The dean of the Pac-12’s coaches,, Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer, was reasonably clear about what she thought about the demise of the conference: “It’s heartbreaking. I’m in a bad dream. This is a nightmare.” Stanford will be joining the Atlantic Coast Conference next year, where its conference foes will include regional rivals like Miami (the Florida school, not the one in Ohio) and Boston College. The media day coincided with the annual release of the coaches’ and media predictions for how the women’s basketball season would play out: Utah was tabbed the favorite by both the coaches and the media. And — while I never would count out Oregon State women’s basketball coach Scott Rueck — the Beavers were ranked in the lower third of the conference in both polls.

Finally this weekend, a pair of entertainment news items that both involve 80-year-old men:

Martin Scorsese, 80, is enjoying some of the best reviews of his career (which is saying something) for his new film, “Killers of the Flower Moon.” In this interview with The Associated Press, he calls “Killers” (now playing in Corvallis) an “internal epic” and also says that he feels he’s just realizing now the possibilities of cinema — and this, somehow, is news that I find encouraging as another birthday approaches.

Meanwhile, The Rolling Stones — with 80-year-old lead singer Mick Jagger — played a club show Thursday night in Manhattan for a few hundred invited guests. The band is promoting its first album of new material in 18 years, “Hackney Diamonds,” due out next week. And this, somehow, is news that just makes me feel older.

That’s it for this weekend. I’ll see you next weekend — after I take the walker into the shop for a tune-up.

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