The strange brain of the world’s greatest solo climber  

“Alex Honnold doesn’t experience fear like the rest of us.”

From Nautilus:

Honnold is history’s greatest ever climber in the free solo style, meaning he ascends without a rope or protective equipment of any kind. Above about 50 feet, any fall would likely be lethal, which means that, on epic days of soloing, he might spend 12 or more hours in the Death Zone. On the hardest parts of some climbing routes, his fingers will have no more contact with the rock than most people have with the touchscreens of their phones, while his toes press down on edges as thin as sticks of gum. Just watching a video of Honnold climbing will trigger some degree of vertigo, heart palpitations, or nausea in most people, and that’s if they can watch them at all. Even Honnold has said that his palms sweat when he watches himself on film.

All of this has made Honnold the most famous climber in the world. He has appeared on the cover of National Geographic, on 60 Minutes, in commercials for Citibank and BMW, and in a trove of viral videos. He might insist that he feels fear (he describes standing on Thank God Ledge as “surprisingly scary”), but he has become a paramount symbol of fearlessness.

He also inspires no shortage of peanut-gallery commentary that something is wrong with his wiring. In 2014, he gave a presentation at Explorers Hall, at the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C. The audience was there to hear from climbing photographer Jimmy Chin and veteran explorer Mark Synnott, but above all they had gathered to gasp at tales about Honnold.

Synnott got the biggest response from a story set in Oman, where the team had traveled by sailboat to visit the remote mountains of the Musandam Peninsula, which reaches like a skeletal hand into the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Coming upon an isolated village, they went ashore to mix with the locals. “At a certain point,” Synnott said, “these guys start yelling and they’re pointing up at the cliff. And we’re like, ‘What’s going on?’ And of course I’m thinking, ‘Well, I’m pretty sure I know.’ ”

Up came the photograph for the gasp from the crowd. There was Honnold, the same casual dude who was sitting on stage in a grey hoodie and khakis, now looking like a toy as he scaled a huge, bone-colored wall behind the town. (“The rock quality wasn’t the best,” Honnold said later.) He was alone and without a rope. Synnott summed up the villagers’ reaction: “Basically, they think Alex is a witch.”

When the Explorers Hall presentation concluded, the adventurers sat down to autograph posters. Three lines formed. In one of them, a neurobiologist waited to share a few words with Synnott about the part of the brain that triggers fear. The concerned scientist leaned in close, shot a glance toward Honnold, and said, “That kid’s amygdala isn’t firing.”

Once upon a time, Honnold tells me, he would have been afraid—his word, not mine—to have psychologists and scientists looking at his brain, probing his behavior, surveying his personality. “I’ve always preferred not to look inside the sausage,” he says. “Like, if it works, it works. Why ask questions about it? But now I feel like I’ve sort of stepped past that.”

And so, on this morning in March, 2016, he is laid out, sausage-roll style, inside a large, white tube at the Medical University of South Carolina, in Charleston. The tube is a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scanner, essentially a huge magnet, which detects activity in the brain’s different regions by tracing blood flows.

Months earlier, I had approached Honnold about taking a look at his much admired, much maligned brain. “I feel totally normal, whatever that means,” he said. “It’d be interesting to see what the science says.”

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Belgian boy Laurent Simons heads off to university aged 8

From the BBC:

A Belgian boy has graduated secondary school aged eight after completing six years’ study in just a year and a half.

Laurent Simons, whose father is Belgian and mother Dutch, and has an IQ of 145 according to his parents, collected a diploma with a class of 18-year-olds.

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Raccoon released into wild after successful skyscraper climb  

A heartwarming story that would have been heartbreaking, but for the good ending.

From the Guardian:

A daredevil raccoon that became an online sensation when it spent almost 20 nail-biting hours scaling a 25-storey office tower in Minnesota has been safely rescued and released back into the wild after making it to the top of the building unscathed.

The animal’s ascent on the outside of the UBS building in downtown St Paul city was watched across the world on social media on Tuesday, with updates on its progress posted regularly by the Minnesota Public Radio under the hashtag #MPRraccoon. Crowds also gathered at the scene to watch.

Despite widespread concern for its safety – as well as Spider-Man and Mission Impossible jokes – it reportedly reached the roof at 3am local time yesterday, where cat food was waiting inside a humane trap.

Read the whole thing and watch the video …

French President Emmanuel Macron rewards migrant hero who saved dangling child  

From USA Today:

PARIS – President Emmanuel Macron on Monday lauded as a hero a migrant from Mali who scaled an apartment building to save a young child dangling from a balcony, and rewarded him with French nationality and a job as a firefighter.

“Bravo,” Macron said to 22-year-old Mamoudou Gassama during a one-on-one meeting in a gilded room of the presidential Elysee Palace that ended with Gassama receiving a gold medal from the French state for “courage and devotion.”

Gassama’s feat went viral on social media, where he was dubbed “Spiderman” for climbing up five floors, from balcony to balcony, and whisking a four-year-old boy to safety Saturday night as a crowd screamed at the foot of the building in Paris’ northern 18th district.

The young man said he has papers to legally stay in Italy, where he arrived in Europe after crossing the Mediterranean, ending a long, rough stay in Libya. But he came to France last September to join his older brother, who has lived in France for decades.

Gassama, dressed in tattered blue jeans and white shirt, recounted his experience which took place at around 8 p.m. Saturday when he and friends saw a young child hanging from a fifth-floor balcony.

“I ran. I crossed the street to save him,” he told Macron. He said he didn’t think twice. “When I started to climb, it gave me courage to keep climbing.”

God “helped me,” too, he said. “Thank God I saved him.”

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Sex, lies and payday loans: The parachute murder plot  

From the BBC:

A soldier has been found guilty of trying to murder his wife by sabotaging her parachute. This is the story of how Emile Cilliers’ lifetime of deceit ultimately led to his unveiling as a would-be killer.

As Sgt Emile Cilliers drove home on the afternoon of 30 March 2015, he knew his plan to kill his wife Victoria by causing a gas leak had not worked. So he pulled out his new iPhone – bought with his wife’s money – and sent her a text. The wheels were once again set in motion. Surely nobody could survive what he’d planned for his wife next?

He wasn’t to know that as Victoria Cilliers plummeted to earth after a catastrophic parachute failure, his own life would steadily unravel.

Cilliers had hoped to kill his wife in their own home. He’d done all the preparation: opening the gas valve in the kitchen before heading off to his ex-wife and current lover Carly’s house, safe in the knowledge his toddler, newborn baby and exhausted wife were tucked up in bed.

Once his tryst with Carly was over, he sent a saucy text or two to his girlfriend Stefanie, checked an adult website “for thrills” and drove the 45 minutes to his barracks in Aldershot.

The following morning, Victoria Cilliers woke and went to the kitchen to fetch some milk for one of her children.

She smelled gas.

She texted her husband, asking if he’d altered the valve in the kitchen as there was blood around it.

“Are you trying to bump me off?” she joked.

And of course he was.

Things weren’t rosy in the Cilliers marriage, but Victoria was unaware of most of what was going on behind her back.

She was a woman in love. But although Victoria was suspicious of Emile’s fidelity, she would never have suspected he’d attempt to take her life not once, but twice.

But Emile Cilliers was a man used to getting his own way.

When he wanted money, he borrowed large sums from his wife, colleagues and payday loan companies.

When he wanted sex, he used prostitutes, had casual flings, and had affairs with his ex-wife and a girlfriend who lived abroad.

When he wanted to go on holiday with that girlfriend, he told his wife it was a work trip.

And when he wanted Victoria out of his life, he tried to kill her.

He suggested they jump together over the Easter weekend.

They went to Netheravon airfield on the Saturday, but bad weather prevented them from jumping. Cilliers had collected a parachute rig from the kit store for Victoria.

Before heading home, rather than return Victoria’s rig to the store, Cilliers put it in their locker. He said it was so Victoria could save time the following morning.

She felt uneasy. She would not ordinarily put kit that did not belong to her in their locker, but she acquiesced. It was preferable to squabbling over something minor, especially when they’d been getting on so well.

In reality, her husband had taken the equipment into the toilet and sabotaged both chutes. He twisted the lines on the main one and then removed parts of the reserve. He had to keep her kit separate or someone else would be his victim.

Victoria returned to the airfield on Easter Sunday. She texted her husband to say she was tempted to go home and “eat her choc egg” as the weather was poor again, but he encouraged her to stay until jumping conditions improved.

All of a sudden he was putting her first. He was looking after their children while she enjoyed a hobby she said was “her life” before she married and had children.

So she put on the parachute rig and went up in the plane to the cloud layer – about 4,000ft (1,200m).

Witnesses told the court she was happy and excited to be jumping again. She fist-bumped other skydivers in the aircraft with her.

She was the last to jump.

She stepped out of the aircraft, free fell for about three seconds and then pulled the cord.

Immediately, she knew there was something wrong.

“It just didn’t feel right. The lines were twisted. I was spinning.”

Victoria had completed more than 2,500 jumps. She knew what to do, so cut away the main chute and deployed the reserve. It did not work.

That was the last thing she remembered.

Airfield ground staff watched in horror as she spiralled to the ground. She looked “like a rag doll”, being flung about underneath a malformed canopy.

They were so certain she had died they took a body bag to collect her.

Her survival was described by experts as “a miracle” and was put down to her small size and the fact she landed on a soft, recently-ploughed field.

She suffered a broken spine, a smashed pelvis, fractured ribs and internal injuries.

It is unusual for a main parachute to fail, and almost unheard of for the reserve to do so as well. In fact, no equipment anywhere in the world had ever failed in this particular way, experts told the trial.

The British Parachute Association inspected the chutes and concluded they had been deliberately sabotaged.

Apparently, someone wanted Victoria dead.

The investigation was passed to the police.

Read the whole thing …

We must go back to the moon, and this time to stay  


Settlement and colonization of the moon is a ‘must’ if the human race is to survive, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has said.

‘We must go back to the moon, and this time to stay,’ Bezos said.

Bezos, the world’s richest man, told a space development conference in Los Angeles on Friday that he is ready to help pave the way for further lunar exploration and eventual settlement with his rocket startup, Blue Origin.

The way Bezos sees it, the Earth will be zoned for residential use as well as light industries, while heavy industries that are the biggest polluters will be conducting their operations extraterrestrially.

He spoke before a meeting of the National Space Society, a non-profit group that advocates for building human colonies in space.

Ideally, while he would like to venture out into space together with the cooperation of the US government and the European Union, Bezos says he is willing to go it alone, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Bezos insists that lunar settlement isn’t a matter of choice, but one of necessity.

Read the whole thing …

The untold story of Robert Mueller’s time in combat  

“Robert Mueller’s job is to make sense of how Russia hacked the 2016 election. But to make sense of Mueller, you have to revisit some of the bloodiest battles of Vietnam.”

From Wired:

ONE DAY IN the summer of 1969, a young Marine lieutenant named Bob Mueller arrived in Hawaii for a rendezvous with his wife, Ann. She was flying in from the East Coast with the couple’s infant daughter, Cynthia, a child Mueller had never met. Mueller had taken a plane from Vietnam.

After nine months at war, he was finally due for a few short days of R&R outside the battle zone. Mueller had seen intense combat since he last said goodbye to his wife. He’d received the Bronze Star with a distinction for valor for his actions in one battle, and he’d been airlifted out of the jungle during another firefight after being shot in the thigh. He and Ann had spoken only twice since he’d left for South Vietnam.

Despite all that, Mueller confessed to her in Hawaii that he was thinking of extending his deployment for another six months, and maybe even making a career in the Marines.

Ann was understandably ill at ease about the prospect. But as it turned out, she wouldn’t be a Marine wife for much longer. It was standard practice for Marines to be rotated out of combat, and later that year Mueller found himself assigned to a desk job at Marine headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. There he discovered something about himself: “I didn’t relish the US Marine Corps absent combat.”

So he headed to law school with the goal of serving his country as a prosecutor. He went on to hold high positions in five presidential administrations. He led the Criminal Division of the Justice Department, overseeing the US investigation of the Lockerbie bombing and the federal prosecution of the Gambino crime family boss John Gotti. He became director of the FBI one week before September 11, 2001, and stayed on to become the bureau’s longest-serving director since J. Edgar Hoover.

And yet, throughout his five-decade career, that year of combat experience with the Marines has loomed large in Mueller’s mind. “I’m most proud the Marines Corps deemed me worthy of leading other Marines,” he told me in a 2009 interview.

Today, the face-off between Special Counsel Robert Mueller and President Donald Trump stands out, amid the black comedy of Trump’s Washington, as an epic tale of diverging American elites: a story of two men — born just two years apart, raised in similar wealthy backgrounds in Northeastern cities, both deeply influenced by their fathers, both star prep school athletes, both Ivy League educated — who now find themselves playing very different roles in a riveting national drama about political corruption and Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The two men have lived their lives in pursuit of almost diametrically opposed goals — Mueller a life of patrician public service, Trump a life of private profit.

Those divergent paths began with Vietnam, the conflict that tore the country apart just as both men graduated from college in the 1960s. Despite having been educated at an elite private military academy, Donald Trump famously drew five draft deferments, including one for bone spurs in his feet. He would later joke, repeatedly, that his success at avoiding sexually transmitted diseases while dating numerous women in the 1980s was “my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave soldier.”

Mueller, for his part, not only volunteered for the Marines, he spent a year waiting for an injured knee to heal so he could serve. And he has said little about his time in Vietnam over the years. When he was leading the FBI through the catastrophe of 9/11 and its aftermath, he would brush off the crushing stress, saying, “I’m getting a lot more sleep now than I ever did in Vietnam.” One of the only other times his staff at the FBI ever heard him mention his Marine service was on a flight home from an official international trip. They were watching We Were Soldiers, a 2002 film starring Mel Gibson about some of the early battles in Vietnam. Mueller glanced at the screen and observed, “Pretty accurate.”

His reticence is not unusual for the generation that served on the front lines of a war that the country never really embraced. Many of the veterans I spoke with for this story said they’d avoided talking about Vietnam until recently. Joel Burgos, who served as a corporal with Mueller, told me at the end of our hour-long conversation, “I’ve never told anyone most of this.”

Yet for almost all of them — Mueller included — Vietnam marked the primary formative experience of their lives. Nearly 50 years later, many Marine veterans who served in Mueller’s unit have email addresses that reference their time in Southeast Asia: gunnysgt, 2-4marine, semperfi, ­PltCorpsman, Grunt. One Marine’s email handle even references Mutter’s Ridge, the area where Mueller first faced large-scale combat in December 1968.

The Marines and Vietnam instilled in Mueller a sense of discipline and a relentlessness that have driven him ever since. He once told me that one of the things the Marines taught him was to make his bed every day. I’d written a book about his time at the FBI and was by then familiar with his severe, straitlaced demeanor, so I laughed at the time and said, “That’s the least surprising thing I’ve ever learned about you.” But Mueller persisted: It was an important small daily gesture exemplifying follow-through and execution. “Once you think about it — do it,” he told me. “I’ve always made my bed and I’ve always shaved, even in Vietnam in the jungle. You’ve put money in the bank in terms of discipline.”

Mueller’s former Princeton classmate and FBI chief of staff W. Lee Rawls recalled how Mueller’s Marine leadership style carried through to the FBI, where he had little patience for subordinates who questioned his decisions. He expected his orders to be executed in the Hoover building just as they had been on the battlefield. In meetings with subordinates, Mueller had a habit of quoting Gene Hackman’s gruff Navy submarine captain in the 1995 Cold War thriller Crimson Tide: “We’re here to preserve democracy, not to practice it.”

Discipline has certainly been a defining feature of Mueller’s Russia investigation. In a political era of extreme TMI — marked by rampant White House leaks, Twitter tirades, and an administration that disgorges jilted cabinet-level officials as quickly as it can appoint new ones — the special counsel’s office has been a locked door. Mueller has remained an impassive cypher: the stoic, silent figure at the center of America’s political gyre. Not once has he spoken publicly about the Russia investigation since he took the job in May 2017, and his carefully chosen team of prosecutors and FBI agents has proved leakproof, even under the most intense of media spotlights. Mueller’s spokesperson, Peter Carr, on loan from the Justice Department, has essentially had one thing to tell a media horde ravenous for information about the Russia investigation: “No comment.”

If Mueller’s discipline is reflected in the silence of his team, his relentlessness has been abundantly evident in the pace of indictments, arrests, and legal maneuvers coming out of his office.

His investigation is proceeding on multiple fronts. He is digging into Russian information operations carried out on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms. In February his office indicted 13 people and three entities connected to the Internet Research Agency, the Russian organization that allegedly masterminded the information campaigns. He’s also pursuing those responsible for cyber intrusions, including the hacking of the email system at the Democratic National Committee.

At the same time, Mueller’s investigators are probing the business dealings of Trump and his associates, an effort that has yielded indictments for tax fraud and conspiracy against Trump’s former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, and a guilty plea on financial fraud and lying to investigators by Manafort’s deputy, Rick Gates. The team is also looking into the numerous contacts between Trump’s people and Kremlin-connected figures. And Mueller is questioning witnesses in an effort to establish whether Trump has obstructed justice by trying to quash the investigation itself.

Almost every week brings a surprise development in the investigation. But until the next indictment or arrest, it’s difficult to say what Mueller knows, or what he thinks.

Before he became special counsel, Mueller freely and repeatedly told me that his habits of mind and character were most shaped by his time in Vietnam, a period that is also the least explored chapter of his biography.

This first in-depth account of his year at war is based on multiple interviews with Mueller about his time in combat — conducted before he became special counsel — as well as hundreds of pages of once-classified Marine combat records, official accounts of Marine engagements, and the first-ever interviews with eight Marines who served alongside Mueller in 1968 and 1969. They provide the best new window we have into the mind of the man leading the Russia investigation.

Read the whole riveting thing …