Last Sunday I literally was clueless about a New York Times crossword puzzle clue: "Menace named after an African river." The answer was five letters long. WHAT WERE THEY?!?!
I finally did figure out the answer from the crossing words: Ebola. And that's how I learned the origin of the name of this frightening virus, which is making headlines this year because of an outbreak in West Africa.
I was curious whether other infamous global health ailments have appeared in the Times crossword. So I asked puzzle editor (and NPR puzzle master) Will Shortz. "Crosswords tend to avoid unpleasant subjects like diseases — but occasionally the names do slip in unavoidably," he wrote in an email.
Shortz graciously provided a list of all the New York Times crossword clues he's published for Ebola and other diseases on a short list I sent.
Here they are, with the number of times they've appeared. They're kind of like a haiku of disease — and they definitely are enlightening. So that's what malaria means!
Vaccine target 
Challenge for F.D.R.
Salk vaccine target
Bygone epidemic cause
Salk's conquest 
Modern term for "Roman fever"
Tropical woe 
"Bad air," literally
This has never appeared in a New York Times crossword because answers must have at least three letters.
Also a no-go because MERS is plural French for "seas." So that's what the clue would be.
Outbreak of 2003
2003 disease scare
Headline-making illness of 2002-03
Menace named after an African river
African virus 
Virus that arose in the Congo
"The Hot Zone" virus 
Virus named for a river 
"The Hot Zone" topic 
Deadly virus 
Dangerous strain 
I'm standing on a beach and I see, a few hundred yards out, a mound of water heading right at me. It's not a wave, not yet, but a swollen patch of ocean, like the top of a moving beach ball, what sailors call a "swell." As it gets closer, its bottom hits the rising shore below, forcing the water up, then over, sending it tumbling onto the beach, a tongue of foam coming right up to my toes — and that's when I look down, as the wave melts into the sand and I say,
"Hi, I'm from New York. But what about you? Where are you from?"
Yes, I'm asking a wave to tell me where it was born. Can you do that? Crazily enough, you can. Waves do have birthplaces. Once upon a time, one of the world's greatest oceanographers asked this very question.
His name is Walter Munk, now in his 90s and a professor emeritus at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. About 60 years ago, he was anchored off Guadalupe Island, on Mexico's west coast, watching swells come in, and using an equation that he and others had devised to plot a wave's trajectory backward in time, he plotted the probable origins of those swells. But the answer he got was so startling, so over-the-top improbable, that he thought, "No, there must be something wrong."
His equations said that the swells hitting beaches In Mexico began some 9,000 miles away — somewhere in the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean, near Antarctica.
"Could it be?" he wrote in an autobiographical sketch. Could a storm half way across the world produce a patch of moving water that traveled from near the South Pole, up past Australia, then past New Zealand, then across the vast expanse of the Pacific, arriving still intact - at a beach off Mexico?
He decided to find out for himself. That is why, in 1957, Walter Munk designed a global, real life, wave-watching experiment.
Professor Munk was not the first scientist to study swells. It was already well-established that weather moves water. When winds blow, energy from the sky gets transferred to the sea. On a quiet, sunny day, of course, the ocean is flat.
But, as I learned from Gavin Pretor-Pinney's The Wavewatcher's Companion, when breezes start to blow, "tiny ripples dance across the surface, each no higher than a centimeter or so." As the wind grows stronger, moving air pushes against these teeny mounds of water, making them taller, so the sea begins to rise, then fall. Energy is now passing from the sky into the water ...
As the wind stiffens, the peaks grow even taller, troughs even lower ...
The wilder the storm, the wilder the sea, with waves now crashing together, tumbling over each other, turning the sea a foamy white. These waves, says Gavin Pretor-Pinney have "badass written all over them."
From Forced To Free
When the storm passes, you'd think the water would calm, settle and return to a quiet equilibrium, but the energy, oddly, doesn't dissipate. The storm has become a wave that now lives in a patch of sea, moving along with no need for a push from above. It is, says Pretor-Pinney, what scientists call a "free wave," no longer driven by wind (those are "forced waves"). Now it is a moving bit of history, an old sea storm moving on, free to roam. It has become a "swell."
The astonishing thing is, you'd think it would bump into a million other waves that are coming at it from every direction; that it would pass through other storms, spreading, bumping, traveling, that all this travel would sap its momentum. But, as Walter Munk would discover, that's not what happens.
When two different swells approach each other, instead of, "Uh oh, there's going to be a crash" ...
... "they simply pass through each other, like friendly ghosts, before continuing on their way without having experienced any lasting interference," writes Pretor-Pinney. "The sea surface can look confused as the two swells cross, but they emerge on the other side, unaffected by the encounter."
To be fair, swells will eventually lose a small bit of energy from white-capping (from air blowing against them), but can still travel largely intact across enormous distances — even distances that left Munk and his colleagues stupefied. But what they saw in 1957 is still good science today. It was also fun to do.
Walter took his wife and two daughters to Samoa, where they lived in a house built for them by a friendly island chief. Meanwhile, another member of the team went to Cape Palliser, in New Zealand, another to an uninhabited island in the south Pacific, another to Hawaii, another to a research ship up north. And his only grad student he sent (Walter says the guy "volunteered") to a beach in Yakutat, Alaska.
There they wave-watched. Or, rather, swell-watched.
This wasn't an eyeball experiment. From a beach you can't see an old set of swells go by. They aren't that noticeable. Walter and his team had highly sensitive measuring devices that could spot swells that were very subtle, rising for a mile or two, then subsiding, with the peak being only a tenth of a millimeter high. Swells from a big storm travel in herds or groups. Long waves go faster than short waves. So when a group goes by, the fast ones come first, the shorter ones follow, getting shorter in a very characteristic way. That way you can say, "That's our guy!" And when all six scientists reported in, Walter wrote, "the results were spectacular."
The swells they were tracking, when they reached Yakutat, Alaska, had indeed traveled halfway around the world. Working the data backward, Walter figured that the storm that had generated those swells had taken place two weeks earlier, in a remote patch of ocean near a bunch of snowy volcanic islands — Heard Island and the McDonald Islands, about 2,500 miles southwest of Perth, Australia.
It must have been a wild storm, with enormous waves like the ones you can see in Jan Porcellis' classic 1620 painting, Dutch Ships in a Gale ...
In a talk he gave at Scripps a couple years ago, Walter told an audience that the southern Indian Ocean has a reputation for producing the highest waves in the world, with storms so violent that even two weeks later, when the imprint of that day had made its way across half the planet, and landed quietly on an Alaskan beach, it was still intact.
Had I been there to greet it on that day, asking my "Hi, I'm from New York. What about you?" question, I can imagine the swell sighing, "Ah, I was born far, far away ..."
"Tell me about it," I hear myself saying.
And I see the wave looking at my 5-foot-elevenness, and my little body, and murmuring, "Take it from me, you wouldn't want to have been there."
Often, when people ask me what I read as a young girl, I lie. Or, I should say, I lie by omission. I tell them about my brilliant fourth-grade teacher, Miss Artis, who assigned us Johnny Tremain and Where the Red Fern Grows and Tuck Everlasting, all books that made an impression on me. And people nod in approval.
But the answer I don't usually give is that my favorite books, the ones I read and re-read until the covers were creased and the pages were loosed from the spine, were Sweet Valley High.
I was in fifth grade when I discovered the books, although I don't remember how. Maybe I was attracted to the fact that it was a series, the promise of infinitude in those ivory spines lined up along a shelf, the promise that I could not only escape into the world of a book, but that I could escape for a long time, as long as the series kept expanding. However it happened, once I entered the sunny world of Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, I didn't want to leave.
Because I've always been one to follow the rules, I started with #1, Double Love, where both Jessica and her twin sister Elizabeth are vying for the same guy, Todd Wilkins, the star of the basketball team. I saved babysitting money to buy #2, and all the rest after that, each time ravenous to rejoin the escapades of the Wakefield twins. I still remember feeling scandalized when Bruce Patman unties Jessica's swimsuit top in #3, Playing with Fire. And I still remember crying — actually sobbing in bed — when Elizabeth winds up in a coma after a motorcycle accident in #6, Dangerous Love.
Why did they mean so much to me? Elizabeth and Jessica were blonde, all-American, "perfect size 6" twins driving their Fiat Spider to the Dairi Burger. I was an awkward, half-Panamanian girl with giant red Sally Jessy Raphael glasses and black hair cut into a bob so blunt and triangular that kids at school called me Darth Vader.
But back then I didn't think of myself like that. Sure, I was a little awkward, but I identified with Elizabeth because she wrote for the school newspaper; it sounded like something I might want to do one day. And I'd never been to a school dance, but I believed that Jessica and Elizabeth had a lot to teach me about them. As for being half-Panamanian, that was a fact, but it was not, for me, a definition. I was American. As American as Jessica and Elizabeth. I didn't realize there was any difference between us.
If that sounds naive, maybe it was. But it's also true. No, Jessica and Elizabeth didn't sing "Happy Birthday" in Spanish, and no, they didn't hang out at the Panama Canal during summer vacation, and no, they didn't eat arroz con pollo for dinner. But in other ways — they were young girls who were close to their family, girls who had best friends and lost best friends, girls who were trying to navigate daily dramas at school — they seemed a lot like me.
Besides, there were no books I knew of with half-Panamanian characters, so I learned, not only in Sweet Valley High but in every book I read, to see my reflection in shards, to recognize parts of myself if never the whole, and to accept that as good enough.
By the time I got to high school myself, I had given up the series. I left behind the homogeneous Southern California town, the elaborate plots, the relentless boy-chasing. One day, I carried all my Sweet Valley High books down to the basement.
But my parents, who have trouble throwing anything away, kept them, and on a recent visit home, I spotted the faded ivory spines lined up neatly on a different shelf. I picked one out and thumbed through. As soon as I saw some of the character names — Lila Fowler and Winston Egbert — all my memories of Sweet Valley came flooding back.
I didn't re-read the whole book, but I made my way through a few chapters, smiling at the antics, which struck me as more over-the-top than ever. All those plots about falling for boys! Despite that, Sweet Valley High taught me what it felt like to fall for something else — a book. It's a feeling I haven't gotten over to this day.
Cristina Henriquez's latest novel is called The Book of Unknown Americans.
Impulse Records is the legendary label that proudly delivered the "new thing" in jazz in the 1960s: avant-garde records from the likes of John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders. It also helped jazz cross over to a larger audience; quite a few flower children bought Impulse albums.
But over time, the new thing got old. Impulse went dormant for nearly a decade. When it was time for the label to come out of hibernation in 1986, New Orleans pianist Henry Butler sounded the wake-up call. In the 1990's Impulse went on hiatus a second time, and now, once again, Henry Butler has been called upon to help reboot the label.
Viper's Drag, out this month, is Butler's collaboration with arranger and trumpeter Steven Bernstein. The two joined NPR's Arun Rath to talk about the new record, and the importance of the Impulse name to jazz history. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read their edited conversation below.
It sits in an imposing building just across Lafayette Square from the White House. Yet the Export-Import Bank, which has been offering credit to foreign purchasers of U.S. goods for 80 years, could start shutting down operations within a matter of weeks.
"There's about a 50-50 chance," says Dan Ikenson, who directs a trade policy center at the Cato Institute.
The bank has become a prime target of the Tea Party movement and other conservatives who view it as practicing the worst kind of government interference in the marketplace.
"There is probably no better poster child of the Washington insider economy and corporate welfare than the Export-Import Bank," Jeb Hensarling, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation — itself among the groups pushing for the bank's demise.
With Hensarling and other top House Republican leaders ready to kill the bank, it may be difficult for the bank to get the votes it needs to stay in business.
Virginia Republican Eric Cantor, the recently ousted House majority leader, was a major backer of the bank. His successor, Kevin McCarthy of California, says it's time for the bank to go.
This has set up a confrontation between the Tea Party and the GOP's business backers. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers are putting on a full-court press, calling on small business owners around the country to convince their members of Congress of the bank's continuing importance.
"The business community is pushing this very hard right now," says Christopher Wenk, senior director of international policy for the Chamber of Commerce. "What really matters is members of Congress hearing from their constituents."
What The Bank Does
Since 1934, the Export-Import Bank has been doling out loans and guarantees to foreign entities that want to buy American products. If a Russian car company wants to buy steel from the U.S., say, the bank might step in to help with credit when private lenders won't.
"Banks do not want to lend for Caterpillar to sell tractors to Nigeria," says Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, which supports the Ex-Im Bank, as it's sometimes called. "You don't have to Google very much about Nigeria to know how unstable that country is."
The Ex-Im Bank does a tiny amount of the lending involved in exporting U.S. goods — maybe 2 percent. But Hufbauer says it helps fill crucial gaps, aiding in sales of heavy equipment such as power turbines and MRI machines.
Such goods last a long time and private banks are sometimes dubious they'll be paid back through the 30-year life of a tractor.
"If you look most recently, $37 billion worth of U.S. exports in 2013 were supported by Ex-Im," says Wenk, the Chamber official. "That may not be a whole lot in an economy with $2.3 trillion worth of exports, but at the end of the day, that's $37 billion worth of exports that wouldn't have happened if it weren't for the Ex-Im Bank."
If the bank's boosters consider it an important tool for keeping U.S. companies competitive in the global marketplace, critics say it's an example of the government playing favorites in ways it shouldn't.
"You can't allocate resources to certain firms and industries without diverting resources from other firms and industries," says Daniel Boudreaux, an economist at George Mason University.
Helping foreign competitors buy U.S. goods at a discounted rate gives them an unfair advantage over U.S. companies that might use the same products or raw materials, Boudreaux says.
The example critics often site is Delta Air Lines, which competes with Air India on certain routes and is angry that Air India gets favorable terms through the Export-Import Bank when it buys Boeing aircraft.
The fact that Boeing itself accounts for an outsized share of Ex-Im lending is also seen by critics as an unwarranted subsidy. Boeing says Ex-Im help will support $10 billion worth of sales this year.
"In my camp, the Export-Import Bank has always been a prime example of unjustified, inefficient corporate welfare," Boudreaux says. "The fact that there's a Tea Party movement now, that's what gives opposition to the Export-Import Bank some legs to stand on now."
Supporters of the bank have one big advantage. They have been arranging news conferences all across the country with restaurant equipment makers and medical office designers and other small companies whose owners can talk about specific numbers of workers they've hired thanks to help from the bank.
The idea that some companies worry foreign competitors might be gaining a slight advantage through financing help is a bit more abstract.
The fact that the Export-Import Bank has been self-supporting since 2008 — taking in more through fees from borrowers than it costs to run — has also led most editorial writers to call for its continuation.
But opponents of the bank have an ace up their sleeve. Killing the bank isn't like trying to abolish the Affordable Care Act, say, or funding highway construction — decisions that would require all the political branches to agree and then take action. The bank's authorization will simply expire on Sept. 30, unless Congress takes an affirmative vote to keep it going.
It's not like its building would then be padlocked on Oct. 1. It would continue to service existing loans, without issuing any new ones. It would be like a single-agency shutdown, with a skeleton crew hanging around to oversee the bank's slow death.
The business lobby is pushing hard to prevent that. A Senate bill to keep the bank in business is expected to be introduced any day and should have enough support to pass.
A group of 41 House Republicans last month signed a letter calling for the bank's reauthorization. But many members of their caucus are bound to resist holding a vote to extend the bank, which would likely pass with largely Democratic support.
"I believe it is a defining issue for our party and our movement," Hensarling said in his Heritage speech.
And, if Congress has shown itself capable of anything lately, it's not voting on something.
"It's action through inaction," says Ikenson, the Cato scholar.