Now the war

“Now the war has come to Walmart. And Hooters. And Sam’s Club and McDonald’s, and an unnamed but homey looking restaurant that has a $7.99 Lunch Special. If this doesn’t look like war, that’s only because we so reflexively resist the idea of a war on American soil that we refuse to see the obvious.”
What perpetual war looks like in America, by art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott, Washington Post, 4 August 2019

Kennicott's essay, in reaction to this week's mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, begins with a reflection on a photograph by Joel Angel Juarez of police in paramilitary gear outside a Hooter’s restaurant in El Paso.

Kennicott continues,

This convergence of our commercial landscape with violence is what the 21st century, ­slow-motion but persistent American war looks like. It also looks like the underside of a child’s school desk, people hiding in closets and wailing into cellphones, SWAT teams in parking lots, nightclubs with overturned bar stools and tables, piles of shoes abandoned outside a bar, and movie theaters soaked in gore. If we have the courage to do what we must do and look at the facts, we will also see that in one essential way, the American war looks like every other war everywhere on the planet, full of bodies riddled with bullets, bloodied, broken and dead.

Some wars are over in a day, or a week, and others go on for years. If there are opportunists and profiteers and cynical actors who are willing to fuel the mayhem for a tiny bit of personal or political advantage, then they can go on for decades. If war takes root in a society slowly, or by stealth, it can come to seem the ordinary state of affairs.

What sort of place?

Screen grab of

Screen grab of

“A new place is emerging.
The question is, what sort of place?
And this is the immediate problem with Hudson Yards.”

It is, at heart, a supersized suburban-style office park, with a shopping mall and a quasi-gated condo community targeted at the 0.1 percent.

A relic of dated 2000s thinking, nearly devoid of urban design, it declines to blend into the city grid. […]

[T]he whole site lacks any semblance of human scale…as if the peak ambitions of city life were consuming luxury goods and enjoying a smooth, seductive, mindless materialism.

It gives physical form to a crisis of city leadership, asleep at the wheel through two administrations, and to a pernicious theory of civic welfare that presumes private development is New York’s primary goal, the truest measure of urban vitality and health, with money the city’s only real currency.

Hudson Yards Is Manhattan’s Biggest, Newest, Slickest Gated Community. Is This the Neighborhood New York Deserves? by Michael Kimmelman, Architecture critic, The New York Times, 14 March 2019

In Defense of Gerontocracy?

I have come to see the moral clarity and conviction of young people and the wisdom and pragmatism of the old not as adversarial forces but as two elements in a dynamic system that need to be designed for as parts of a whole.

Here are two reactions to Frank Bruni’s column In Defense of the Gerontocracy: Maybe older is better. Just look at Nancy Pelosi, about US Senator Dianne Feinstein [age 85] apparently scolding of a group of young constituents who pressed her for action on the Green New Deal. The two comments below, from Micah and Paul B., are not directly responding to each other’s posts, but the effect is the same.

From Micah in NYC,

I usually love Frank Bruni’s columns, but this one infuriates me. Sure, yes, there are good Boomers. Fine. But, fundamentally, that’s not what the Feinstein kerfluffle was about. It was about a powerful woman condescending to terrified children who will inherit an Earth rendered uninhabitable by her brutal timidity long after she is dead. I am 23; if we don’t act now to demolish the structures that enable climate change, our planet will be in catastrophe long before I am Dianne Feinstein’s age, or Frank Bruni’s. Acknowledging that is far, far more important than a fragile generation’s ego.
Micah, NYC, 26 February 2019

From Paul B. in New Jersey,

You miss the whole concept of this essay. Ms. Feinstein was not dismissive of the children’s concerns; anything but. What she was saying is that large problems deserve passionate attention but also deep thought and planning. The devil is indeed in the details. The passionate intensity of youth insists upon immediate solutions without thinking deeply on the nature of the problem and the construction of complex solutions, essentially saying, “wouldn’t it be great if... or it is terrible that...” It is only through life long painful experience that anything remotely resembling wisdom is gained and one possesses it only at the apex of life and only briefly. Even though passion may seem to have dimmed, commitment remains. You would do well to listen to the elders while you can, rather than charge into what you know little about. Decent manners would not hurt, either.
Paul B, New Jersey, 26 February 2019

While I do see these two views as connected parts of a whole I will place my bets with Micah — with the the young and the young at heart. At this moment in history, with the ticking bomb of climate change, there is simply not enough time to rely on the slow, wise processes of the past.

As Bill McKibben wrote in Rolling Stone, “If we don’t win very quickly on climate change, then we will never win.” Or as Alex Steffen has said, “Winning slowly is same as losing.”


In the article If Americans Can Find North Korea on a Map, They’re More Likely to Prefer Diplomacy (New York Times, 5 July 2017) Kevin Quealy unpacks several studies that show that when people know more about the geographic location of geopolitical hotspots — when they know where North Korea and the Ukraine are, for example — they tend to favor diplomacy over military engagement.

The people who had the most geographical knowledge were, by-and-large, highly educated, but the next most knowledgeable group was…older people.

“Nearly half of respondents 65 and older found North Korea. The Korean War, which ended in 1953, may be in the memory of today’s older seniors,” wrote Quealy.

From these studies it might be fair to conclude that the lived experience of older people may give them quantifiably different starting points for decision making than the young — which seems uncontroversial when I put it that way, but given Americans’ general state of ignorance regarding geography and history I would want more people in the proverbial “room where decisions are made” who had a living, working knowledge of where things are and what happened there in the past, than not.

A Donkey Kong 64 Benefit Twitch Stream, Or, Too Old to Lead the Charge

"Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) Dropped in to a ‘Donkey Kong 64’ Benefit Twitch Stream to Help Raise Funds for Transgender Children"

A member of congress doing a ‘Donkey Kong 64’ benefit twitch stream fundraiser for transgender kids is about the most now thing I’ve ever heard, with the possible exception of the difficult-to-describe scenario of the difficult-to-describe pop group Marshmello doing a difficult-to-describe virtual concert inside of Fortnite’s battle royale (see A live concert inside a video game feels like the future by Nick Statt in The Verge).

About the @AOC Donkey Kong twitch stream, @RaygunBrown observed,

Bloody hell @AOC is a genius. Supporting trans rights on a video game livestream is something that will hit bang on with young voters while her boomer critics won’t even be able to understand what’s happening, much less know how to criticise it.

Researcher and investor Marty Madrid quipped, about the Marshmello/Fortnite concert, “The future of events ... is confusing. I’m getting too old and potentially out of touch to help lead the charge?” The comment applies to both events equally I think.

UPDATE —This is a better, more thorough article about the Marshmello/Fortnite concert: Fortnite's Marshmello Concert Is The Future Of The Metaverse by Peter Rubin, Wired, 5 February 2019.

We were looking in the wrong place

I love this article, The ‘Future Book’ Is Here, But It's Not What We Expected by Craig Mod (Wired, 20 December 2018), for how it opens up a new way of thinking about, and looking for, change.

Mod looks at the case of the venerable printed book and argues that while we’ve all been waiting for the physical platform of the book to change — and wondering why it hasn’t — everything else in the stack around, under, and on top of funding, writing, printing, distributing, and promoting books has changed dramatically.

We were looking for the Future Book in the wrong place. It’s not the form, necessarily, that needed to evolve […] Instead, technology changed everything that enables a book, fomenting a quiet revolution. Funding, printing, fulfillment, community-building — everything leading up to and supporting a book has shifted meaningfully, even if the containers haven’t.
Our Future Book is composed of email, tweets, YouTube videos, mailing lists, crowdfunding campaigns, PDF to .mobi converters, Amazon warehouses, and a surge of hyper-affordable offset printers in places like Hong Kong. For a “book” is just the endpoint of a latticework of complex infrastructure, made increasingly accessible. Even if the endpoint stays stubbornly the same—either as an unchanging Kindle edition or simple paperback—the universe that produces, breathes life into, and supports books is changing in positive, inclusive ways, year by year.

Mod’s observations seem to me to be a kind of ninja move for understanding the ways in which the most obvious and highly scrutinized components an ecosystem or piece of infrastructure can seem to remain stubbornly stagnant while in fact all of the unconsidered enabling elements around them are being transformed.

We tend to look at the surface of things, the indicator species, show stoppers, and divas, at the expense of the rest of the ecosystem — and those ecosystems can be fascinating.

[By 2018] the transmission of pictures and texts and the distant manipulation of computers and other machines will be added to the transmission of the human voice on a scale that will eventually approach the universality of telephony. What all this will do to the world I cannot guess. It seems bound to affect us all.
— J. R. Pierce, Bell Labs, 1968. From “Toward the Year 2018”, edited by Emmanuel G. Mesthene, as quoted in What 2018 Looked Like Fifty Years Ago, New Yorker, 7 January 2019

Uncontrolled Space

Historically, the GRU has been Russia’s main agency for operating in uncontrolled spaces, which has meant civil wars and the like. In some ways, the Internet is today’s uncontrolled space.
Mark Galeotti, Institute of International Relations in Prague, as qoted in How Russia's military intelligence agency became the covert muscle in Putin's duels with the West, by Anton Troianovski and Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post, 28 December 2018

The article continues,

“What the GRU demonstrate very consistently is profound innovation with available resources,” said Joe Cheravitch, a Russia analyst with Rand Corp., a nonprofit, federally funded research institute. “That’s what really makes them dangerous.”

Americans just want a shortcut

We may be missing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s real message when he wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Maybe he wasn’t saying that we can never recover from early failures.

In a 2010 column in The Atlantic, writer Hampton Stevens pointed out that Fitzgerald wrote for the theater at Princeton and later Broadway (and Hollywood). “With ‘no second acts,’ he was almost certainly referring to a traditional, three-act drama, in which Act I establishes the major conflict, Act II introduces complications, and Act III is for the climax and resolution.”

Fitzgerald may have been saying that, as Americans, we grasp for premature resolutions, impatient with complications along the way. During the second act, the protagonist is unable to resolve the complications because they don’t have the right tools yet. Our lead character must grapple against the odds—often paying a big price along the way. But Americans? Usually, we just want a shortcut.

Second Acts: Was Fitzgerald decrying American shortcuts?, by Terry Gallagher (undated, probably 2013)

They never got to the second paragraph

"Now, if everybody wants to sit around and wait until the world warms up more than it has warmed up since there have been humans around — fine. But I would like to have a shot at avoiding it," said Pomerance.

Most everybody else seemed content to sit around.

When the group reconvened after breakfast, they immediately became stuck on a sentence in their prefatory paragraph declaring that climatic changes were “likely to occur.”

“Will occur,” proposed Laurmann, the Stanford engineer.

“What about the words: highly likely to occur?” Scoville asked.

“Almost sure,” said David Rose, the nuclear engineer from M.I.T.

“Almost surely,” another said.

“Changes of an undetermined — ”

“Changes as yet of a little-understood nature?”

“Highly or extremely likely to occur,” Pomerance said.

“Almost surely to occur?”

“No,” Pomerance said.

“I would like to make one statement,” said Annemarie Crocetti, a public-health scholar who sat on the National Commission on Air Quality and had barely spoken all week. “I have noticed that very often when we as scientists are cautious in our statements, everybody else misses the point, because they don’t understand our qualifications.”

These two dozen experts, who agreed on the major points and had made a commitment to Congress, could not draft a single paragraph. Hours passed in a hell of fruitless negotiation, self-defeating proposals and impulsive speechifying. Pomerance and Scoville pushed to include a statement calling for the United States to “sharply accelerate international dialogue,” but they were sunk by objections and caveats.

They never got to policy proposals. They never got to the second paragraph. The final statement was signed by only the moderator, who phrased it more weakly than the declaration calling for the workshop in the first place.

The scene at the 'Pink Palace' conference, 1980, "the first rehearsal of a conversation that would be earnestly restaged, with little variation and increasing desperation, for the next 40 years," from Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change, by Nathaniel Rich (lightly edited for context), New York Times, AUG. 1, 2018
The first suggestion to Rafe Pomerance that humankind was destroying the conditions necessary for its own survival came on Page 66 of the government publication EPA-600/7-78-019.
Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change, by Nathaniel Rich, New York Times, AUG. 1, 2018

The year was 1979. Rafe Pomerance, trained as a historian, was the deputy legislative director of Friends of the Earth, and this moment marked the beginning of a political and scientific effort that tragically, almost, saved the world.

The quote continues,

It was a technical report about coal, bound in a coal-black cover with beige lettering — one of many such reports that lay in uneven piles around Pomerance’s windowless office on the first floor of the Capitol Hill townhouse that, in the late 1970s, served as the Washington headquarters of Friends of the Earth. In the final paragraph of a chapter on environmental regulation, the coal report’s authors noted that the continued use of fossil fuels might, within two or three decades, bring about “significant and damaging” changes to the global atmosphere.

Pomerance paused, startled, over the orphaned paragraph. It seemed to have come out of nowhere. He reread it. It made no sense to him.

He proceeded as a historian might: cautiously, scrutinizing the source material, reading between the lines. When that failed, he made phone calls, often to the authors of the reports, who tended to be surprised to hear from him. Scientists, he had found, were not in the habit of fielding questions from political lobbyists. They were not in the habit of thinking about politics.