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.

[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


Just reminded myself that the distance between NYC and Chicago is almost exactly that between Beijing and Shanghai, and that the 1st is served by 1 train/day that takes 19 hours, and the 2nd is served by 35 trains/day that take as few as 4.5 hours.

Also, the Beijing—Shanghai route carries about 180 million riders a year, about as many as rode on all of Delta Airlines' network in 2017.

@yfreemark, 21 December 2018

And yet we feel sad

Where slowness comes from:

  • Input devices
  • Sample rates
  • Displays and GPUs
  • Cycle stacking
  • Runtime overhead
  • Latency by design
  • User-hostile work
  • Application code

…There is a deep stack of technology that makes a modern computer interface respond to a user's requests.

There is reason for this complexity, and yet we feel sad that computer users trying to be productive with these devices are so often left waiting, watching spinners, or even just with the slight but still perceptible sense that their devices simply can't keep up with them.

Why software feels slow, Mark McGranaghan, 2018

Contradictory, confusing, overlapping and innacurate

The destructive power of the press becomes even more marked when spread with new technologies. In the 1850s, the telegraph confronted Americans with a steady stream of virtually instant information: contradictory, confusing, overlapping and inaccurate, it scrambled and intensified the political climate. Today, social media is doing the same. At its heart, democracy is a continuing conversation between politicians and the public; it should come as no surprise that dramatic changes in the modes of conversation cause dramatic changes in democracies themselves.
The Violence at the Heart of Our Politics, by Joanne B. Freeman, 7 September 2018
…All I’m seeing is the same problems/mistakes of 20 years ago, but with more CPU resources.
— Developer Russell Keith-Magee, @freakboy3742, 6 September 2018

Full quote,

42 year old me wishes 21 year old me hadn’t been talked into doing a PhD in AI and machine learning. I’d really like to be excited about all the AI/ML work going on at the moment, but all I’m seeing is the same problems/mistakes of 20 years ago, but with more CPU resources.

It takes decades

It takes decades for significant change to be realized. This has serious implications for urban policy and leadership because the timescale of political processes by which decisions about a city’s future are made is at best just a few years, and for most politicians two years is infinity. Nowadays, their success depends on rapid returns and instant gratification in order to conform to political pressures and the demands of the electoral process. Very few mayors can afford to think in a time frame of twenty to fifty years and put their major efforts toward promoting strategies that will leave a truly long-term legacy of significant achievement.
Geoffrey West, Scale, 2017


I first came to the United States in September 1961 to attend graduate school in physics at Stanford University in California. I took a steam train from King’s Cross Station in London up to Liverpool, where I boarded the Canadian steamship the Empress of England and sailed for almost ten days across the Atlantic, down the St. Lawrence River, eventually disembarking in Montreal. I stayed overnight before taking a Greyhound bus that deposited me in California four days later, having spent one night at the YMCA in Chicago, where I changed buses. The entire journey was an extraordinary experience that transported me across many dimensions, not least of which was anamazing introduction to the variety, diversity, and eccentricity of American life, including an appreciation of its immense geographical size. Fifty-five years later I am still trying to process everything I experienced on that road trip as I continue to grapple with the meaning and enigma of America and all that it stands for.
Geoffrey West, in his book 'Scale', 2017

Everything nowadays is ultra

Everything nowadays is ultra, everything is being transcended continually in thought as well as in action. No one knows himself any longer; no one can grasp the element in which he lives and works or the materials that he handles. Pure simplicity is out of the question; of simplifiers we have enough. Young people are stirred up much too early in life and then carried away in the whirl of the times. Wealth and rapidity are what the world admires…Railways, quick mails, steamships, and every possible kind of rapid communication are what the educated world seeks but it only over-educates itself and thereby persists in its mediocrity.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1825 From Goethe's Letters to Zelter, London: George Bell & Sons, 1887 (as quoted in Scale by Geoffrey West, 2017)

Seven thousand years in 90 minutes

A few hundred thousand years ago in early human (or hominid) prehistory, growth was so slow that it took on the order of one million years for human productive capacity to increase sufficiently to sustain an additional one million individuals living at subsistence level. By 5000 bc, following the Agricultural Revolution,  the rate of growth had increased to the point where the same amount of growth took just two centuries. Today, following the Industrial Revolution, the world economy grows on average by that amount every ninety minutes.
… It is impressive that an amount of economic growth that took 200 years seven thousand years ago takes just ninety minutes now, and that the world population growth that took two centuries then takes one and a half weeks now.
From Superintelligence, by Nick Bostrom
Life generates energy from microscopic electrical motors that are embedded in cell membranes and run off electrical currents driven by pH gradients across the membranes. It is impossible for words to do justice to these amazing molecular machines.
Astrobiology: A Very Short Introduction by David C. Catling, Oxford University Press, 2013

The past and the future

The Cascadia subduction [earthquake] zone remained hidden from us for so long because we could not see deep enough into the past. It poses a danger to us today because we have not thought deeply enough about the future. That is no longer a problem of information; we now understand very well what the Cascadia fault line will someday do. Nor is it a problem of imagination. If you are so inclined, you can watch an earthquake destroy much of the West Coast this summer in Brad Peyton’s “San Andreas,” while, in neighboring theatres, the world threatens to succumb to Armageddon by other means: viruses, robots, resource scarcity, zombies, aliens, plague. As those movies attest, we excel at imagining future scenarios, including awful ones. But such apocalyptic visions are a form of escapism, not a moral summons, and still less a plan of action. Where we stumble is in conjuring up grim futures in a way that helps to avert them.
The Really Big One—An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest, The question is when. Kathryn Schulz, New Yorker, July 20, 2015–

All in acceleration...all at once

…The three largest forces on the planet — globalization, Moore’s law and Mother Nature — are all in acceleration, creating an engine of disruption that is stressing strong countries and middle classes and blowing up weak ones, while superempowering individuals and transforming the nature of work, leadership and government all at once.
— Thomas Friedman, New York Times, January 13, 2015 (link)