‘War increases the love in the world’

Two quotes — of many, many to mull — in Max Hastings’ “Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War” (p. 118-119)…

Observing the sudden unification of previously opposing factions within Germany as war neared, a young German girl:

“wrote with a mawkish sentimentality typical of the moment in Germany, that war increased the store of love in the world, ‘for it taught one to love one’s neighbor more than oneself.'”


The Economist, meanwhile, as troops mobilized in August 1914:

“Since last week millions of men have been drawn from the field and the factory to slay one another by order of the warlords of Europe. It is perhaps the greatest tragedy of human history.

In the opinion of many shrewd judges, a social upheaval, a tremendous revolution, is the certain consequence. It may perhaps be the last time that the working class of the Continent will allow themselves to be marched to destruction at the dictates of diplomacy and by the order of their warlords.”



The Solar Glitch

In one of those lovely “This could happen to YOU!” stories, my favorite astronomer says 2012 really could have been bad. Like, “global disaster” bad:

In July 2012 the Earth dodged a bullet. Or more accurately, the bullet was misaimed. But had it hit, we’d have been in big trouble.

The bullet in this case was a solar storm, an eruption of a billion tons of plasma exploding outward from the Sun. This kind of event—called a coronal mass ejection, or CME—is actually relatively common. But this particular CME was a monster … in fact, it may have been the most powerful one ever seen.

People sometimes ask me if anything in astronomy actually worries me. Something like this is near the top…

What’s this? A “space weather expert” explains:

Coronal mass ejections are caused when the magnetic field in the sun’s atmosphere gets disrupted and then the plasma, the sun’s hot ionized gas, erupts and send charged particles into space. Think of it like a hurricane — is it headed toward us or not headed toward us? If we’re lucky, it misses us.


What went wrong in the 1989 storm?

In the U.K., there were two damaged transformers that had to be repaired. But no power cuts. The worst thing is what happened in Quebec. In Quebec, the power system went from normal operation to failure in 90 seconds. It  affected around 6 million people. The impact was reckoned to be $2 billion Canadian in 1989 prices.

We had lots of disruption to communications to spacecraft operations. The North American Aerospace Defense Command has big radars tracking everything in space, and as they describe it, they lost 1,600 space objects. They found them again, but for a few days they didn’t know where they were.


A serious concern would be whole regions losing electrical power for some significant time. Here in the U.K., the official assessment is that we could lose one or two regions where the power might be out for several months.


And then, the toughest lament of the scientist:

We had a recent flare-up of publicity in March thanks to a solar storm that didn’t really amount to much. Is this sort of coverage a good thing or a bad thing?

It makes such a good scare story, and it’s entertaining. It was a mildly interesting event, certainly, but not at all big-league stuff. It makes people think, “Oh it’s nothing really,” so experts like myself are in danger of being in the crying-wolf situation. That’s something that is a concern to me, personally.

Of course Killing Joke covered this. Of course it was in the album called 2012 (well…MMXII):

Cities on blackout, satellites are knocked out
I-phones, laptops, it’s one big belly flop
Servers, TV, alarms and security
Everything’s gone in seconds

Cars are all crashing, planes are all grounded
Everyone knows it’s over

Borders on lock down, everything’s on shut down
Everyone knows it’s over

The solar storms have come and chaos rules outside
The freezer’s broke, the food is off, the GPS has died

Communications have all gone down, the world is flying blind
Everyone’s at boiling point — and noone’s got the ice


No one saw it coming (Or: Miami was a place)

“What should I tell her?
She’s going to ask.
If I ignore it, it gets uncomfortable
She’ll want to argue about the past.”

–“If I Were Going,” Afghan Whigs

Well this is a fine how-do-you-do:

Two scientific papers released on Monday by the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters came to similar conclusions by different means. Both groups of scientists found that West Antarctic glaciers had retreated far enough to set off an inherent instability in the ice sheet, one that experts have feared for decades. NASA called a telephone news conference Monday to highlight the urgency of the findings.


Those six glaciers alone could cause the ocean to rise four feet as they disappear, Dr. Rignot said, possibly within a couple of centuries. He added that their disappearance will most likely destabilize other sectors of the ice sheet, so the ultimate rise could be triple that.

As usual, the believed causes are complex and multi-layered. Bu that doesn’t make for good sound bites.

And while the cause of the stronger winds is somewhat unclear, many researchers consider human-induced global warming to be a significant factor. The winds help to isolate Antarctica and keep it cold at the surface, but as global warming proceeds, that means a sharper temperature difference between the Antarctic and the rest of the globe. That temperature difference provides further energy for the winds, which in turn stir up the ocean waters.

Sorry, Mother. Sorry, daughter.

Babies and Immigrants and Uncomfortable Things

They have babies; not sure about immigrants...
They have babies; not sure about immigrants…

Ross Douthat’s Op/Ed this weekend advocates for babies, more of them, covering a couple of topics I love because they are overlooked as reasons for why the United States can enjoy being “Amurrica!”

Namely, babies and immigrants.

He begins:

IN the eternally recurring debates about whether some rival great power will knock the United States off its global perch, there has always been one excellent reason to bet on a second American century: We have more babies than the competition.

It’s a near-universal law that modernity reduces fertility. But compared with the swiftly aging nations of East Asia and Western Europe, the American birthrate has proved consistently resilient, hovering around the level required to keep a population stable or growing over the long run.

America’s demographic edge has a variety of sources: our famous religiosity, our vast interior and wide-open spaces (and the four-bedroom detached houses they make possible), our willingness to welcome immigrants (who tend to have higher birthrates than the native-born)

His point is that the U.S. birthrate has remained high, except for a recent downturn that coincides with the 2008 recession, and so he hopes we get, uh, producing and don’t fall prey to the comforts of modernity that keep us from going forth and multiplying. (The latter, when I think about my mother somehow raising six children, rings true when I consider the burden simply taking the dogs out imposes on my lifestyle.)

But I like that he brings up two keys to a society’s success — keys that are pretty divorced from the national pride points of independence and hard work and smarts and all that — that don’t get much attention. They’re demographic and sociological details, not nationalist or patriotic ones.

What’s more, they straddle two of the extremes of our present political and philosophical divide:

Proud and crazy “love it or leave it” nutjob conservatives tend to treat immigrants as an unwelcome menace, all to happy to pretend their lineage comes from immigrants too (immigrants who built the country, incidentally).

On the other hand, navel-gazing and self-righteous home-brewing, coffee-bean-parsing liberals tend to have children with great hesitation (if at all) lest it overpopulate the world and contribute to all the problems that fit on Starbuck’s cups. (Meanwhile, bountifully-producing religious people make them nervous, though it’s quite likely they came from the same stock before liberalizing.)

Finally, one component Douthat mentions — the thought of a child-friendly tax code — could make both sides nervous (the right, for having the nerve to use government to enact social policy; the left, for encouraging babies and babies).

Issues like this are good. It’s good to look at data and reality (*cough* “reality based community” *cough*) rather than let emotion or mythology (“America was built by people like me working all by myself! Government has never done anything for me! Now, why isn’t this park/bridge/road open?!”) get in the way.

Debates are good. Questioning assumptions is good. Reflecting on facts that make us uncomfortable…that’s how we find greater truths and, in theory, conceive (no pun intended) of better policy. In theory.

Accepting death as a part of life, again

Headed to the “death cafe.”

I probably wouldn’t go so far as to preserve a loved one’s head, but yes we could all do with a little more realistic, more accepting view of death even as we daily try to fight it off.

From “The Dead Have Something to Tell You” (timed for Halloween):

We tune in to television shows about serial killers, but real bodies are hidden from view, edited out of news coverage, secreted behind hospital curtains. The result, as Michael Lesy wrote in his 1987 book “The Forbidden Zone,” is that when death does occur, “it reverberates like a handclap in an empty auditorium.” It wasn’t always this way. Death once occurred at home, with friends and family gathered around. Local women were responsible for washing the body and sewing the shroud. People sometimes slept in the same room as corpses, because there was nowhere else to go.


The erasure of death also allows us to imagine that our mortal trivialities and anxieties are permanent, while a consistent awareness of death — for those who can stomach it — can help us live in the here and now, and teach us to treasure what we already have. In fact, a study by University of Missouri researchers released this spring found that contemplating mortality can encourage altruism and helpfulness, among other positive traits.

Yeah, I’d also venture it would make us a little less selfish in our intra-family dealings and — imagine this — would allow us to have a more honest conversation about national healthcare without some idiot smearing the debate with terms like “death panels.” (So much healthcare money is wasted on the final six months of life, when there’s little to do that has any effect, versus the rest of life, when some preventative care goes a long way.)

Philosophically, though no one has been outright ripped from my life in tragic and sudden circumstances, I notice my view of death settles somewhere like this: They’re not gone — the effect of their lives remains with us long after their death — but they’ve stopped adding chapters to their story.

It happens to all of us.

That Kind of Experience Will Change a Man

I was told that I can better relate to (and sometimes write for) a colleague because of some shared Eastern European heritage. (The colleague is directly from there, as was my father.)

I didn’t disagree. “They are more direct,” it was suggested — and this too I generally find to be true. Eastern Europeans tend to possess a more blunt approach, or at least one that doesn’t tiptoe around other people’s feelings. (This does not describe me, yet I somehow appreciate it in others.)

Anyway, I’ve long theorized that part of this tendency, as well as — in Czechs, at least — a more fatalist, absurdist sense of humor, stems from generations and generations of being tread on by forces (invading empires, usually) well beyond their control.

I compare it to family members who had lived through the Great Depression in the U.S. “They’re different,” people would say, whether referring the tendency to save paper bags and twist ties and anything else, or to a generally more cautious outlook on life. And that’s just one generation that lived through the Depression. Imagine if generation upon generation lived through Turkish invasions, Austro-Hungarian domination, the occasional German occupation, and throw in a World War or two for good measure. Maybe even a mass human rights atrocity or two.

Anyway, I’ve been reading “The 900 Days” by Harrison Salisbury, the definitive (and uplifting!) book about the German siege of Leningrad, when they literally attempted to blockade, freeze and starve all of Leningrad into submission. (As we would later learn about the Germans in World War II, slaughtering an entire block of civilians was just part of the playbook.) The book is also a major source for the excellent fictional novel, “City of Thieves.”

In the middle of the winter siege, a radio man showed up for duty to find a new T-shaped broom handle, which his boss told him was to support him at the microphone in case he was too weak to stand. “And you must read,” the director said. “In thousands of apartments they are awaiting your voice.” (More on this in a moment.)

‘The First Violin is Dying’

The following is descriptive of what I’m talking about in many ways, and reminiscent of any random, casually melodramatic health update my father ever gave me:

“The wooden T was not just a gadget. Vladimir Volzhenin, the poet, had collapsed in the studio from hunger after reading his verses to the Leningrad public. He died a few days later. Aleksandr Yankevich, his face black, and breathing with difficulty, read Makarenko’s “Pedagogical Poem” over the radio, although he was so ill [a colleague] stood by in case he was unable to finish. Ivan Lapshonkov sang a role in Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Snow Maiden’ … he was so frail he had to support himself with a cane. By nightfall he was dead.”

That passage goes on and on. The dedication is admirable, the description almost amusingly matter-of-fact. (Maybe it’s only amusing if you’ve had your dad describe a cough and two broken femurs with equal levels of passive it’s-fine-but-no-it’s-horrible.)

Another echo of my father’s matter-of-fact approach to jarring news (as long as it wasn’t news that shamed the family; then it was avoided like a censor), is when they would dictate the:

“…regular weekly report on the condition of the orchestra: ‘The first violin is dying, the drummer died on the way to work, the French horn is near death.'”

When power was finally cut to the radio transmission in this city populated by an ever-decreasing population of starving, freezing, dying people:

“People from all ends of the city began to appear at Radio House, to ask what the matter was and when the station would be back on air. An old man tottered in [from the other side of town]: “Look here,” he said. “If something is needed, if it is a matter of courage — fine. Or even if it is a matter of cutting the ration. [Note: They’d cut rations repeatedly all winter. People resorted to eating wallpaper to supplement their daily slice of bread.] That we can take. But let the radio speak. Without that, life is too terrible. Without that, it is like lying in the grave. Exactly that.”

‘Nothing-to-Do Was More Terrible Than a Bombing Raid’

Okay, one more excerpt that really gets to the heart of art and human response under such repressive conditions, which was sadly just a different kind of repression than they faced under Soviet totalitarianism:

The surviving writers of the city would spend days planning a “Leningrad Speaking” or “One Day in Leningrad” kind of book that would depict all the people went through during the siege. Merely conceiving the book helped them survive. When it became apparent no censor would approve of actually creating the book, one writer said:

“Tell him that writers are dying without this work, that they cannot live without it.

Ketlinskaya knew this. Living in the cold, hungry, dark city, people themselves together by the consciousness of being needed. They began to die when they had nothing to do. Nothing-to-do was more terrible than a bombing raid.

But try as she would she could not get permission for the book. She became convinced that though no one really opposed the book, no one wanted to take responsibility for approving it; the old Russian problem: bureaucracy.

Yeah, and for many Eastern Europeans, that was just the peacetime problem.

When you sound more ironic than you probably intended

The Trump administration has quickly established itself as one that denies objective reality, proudly creates “alternative facts,” and even lies about what we’ve all plainly seen in front of our own eyes.

That’s why statements like this about the Holocaust — the administration broke with tradition by failing to even reference Jews or anti-Semitism on Holocaust Remembrance Day — cut a little too close to, well, their reality:

“If we could wipe [the Holocaust] off of the history books, we would. But we can’t.”

I bet you would, Reince Preibus. I bet you would.


You Don’t Say: Dow Hits 20,000

Much has been made, with excited anticipation and finally realized jubilation, of an index of stocks from 30 companies reaching a round number like 20,000.

And then over here you have:

People should also be aware, Mr. Kelly said, that expected cuts in capital gains taxes has kept many investors from taking profits during the rally. The thought being, that if they were to wait several months, they could dump their stocks and face a lighter tax bill in the process.

There’s more, but… oh I can’t even.

‘He is a man of action’

So here we are trying to digest the first few days of life under “President” Donald Trump, Der Groppenfuhrer.

Trump’s advisers say that his frenzied if admittedly impulsive approach appeals to voters because it shows that he is a man of action.

Such voters, to the extent that they exist, are men and women of horrific ignorance.

To act without knowledge, to react without insight, to spontaneously opine (and effectively enact policy) without restraint, is the behavior of a narcissist madman.

In 2017, that’s our president.

He sits in the White House at night, watching television or reading social media, and through Twitter issues instant judgments on what he sees. He channels fringe ideas and gives them as much weight as carefully researched reports. He denigrates the conclusions of intelligence professionals and then later denies having done so. He thrives on conflict and chaos.

Oh, also: He lies. Repeatedly. And then lies again when he denies every uttering his previous lies.

Ironic and sad, that his general election opponent was ridiculed for supposed dishonesty.

All of this was predicted during the campaign, as he revealed the unhinged insecure reality TV star and huckster many knew he was.

But we get the government our uninformed citizens deserve.

Eyes in the Stars

I was born to see two thousand years
Of man’s effect upon the planet
Extinction seems to be a plausible risk
Whatever happens I’m a part of all this

–“Pandemonium,” Killing Joke

Is freedom so great
To fight for food?
Compete for shelter?
Who is the top dog?
Is this the winter of humankind?
What has become of us?
What made us blind?

After disclosure comes
Man takes his rightful place
Amongst the stars
The celestial barge awaits

One by one, we embark
To the sun behind the sun

–“Into the Unknown,” Killing Joke

I got to know my wife under the gaze of Orion. I wooed her under nods to Caseiopea and the “seven sisters” of Pleiades. I spend winter nights soaking in the hot tub staring at all of these, enjoying the clear sky in the crisp winter air.

Pleiades resonates almost universally with stargazers for being visible “from virtually every place that humanity inhabits Earth’s globe. It can be seen from as far north as the north pole, and farther south than the southernmost tip of South America.”

There is something wonderful about staring at these parts of our universe so far away knowing people so relatively close — yet so far — are staring at them with me.

In these settings I get humanity’s historical fascination and attachment to the stars, its projection of irrational meaning and attachment to them. They are constant in a world that is not. They offer some form of structure or packaging to the vast chaos that is our home.

As I sit in the hot tub pondering the infinite — or is it a vanishing point? — horizon of life and time, I think of these visuals that draw us together across physical space, time zones, generations, time.

As I watch a plane’s lights far up in the night sky literally fly in between me and Pleiades long enough to briefly block the constellation of stars 425 light years (!) away, I think of the frightening fragility of life, the relatively brief window in time of our civilization, and the many ways we can destroy ourselves in an instant.

Donald Trump, climate change denier, reality TV-emboldened narcissist and oblivious friend to all those who too easily place their own lifespans above everyone who might follow, is president-elect.

It gives one pause.

We are (letting them) make the Web worse

Don’t over-complicate the web. Don’t hinder it with data-munching add-ons. Please.

Some kind of brain parasite infected designers back when the iPad came out, and they haven’t recovered. Everything now has to look like a touchscreen.

Really interesting piece (or transcript of a talk, with visual examples), with funny (and flooring) examples in the beginning and great points toward the end.

The kicker is actually in the tongue-in-cheek footer for the fake (and improved, and much less memory-heavy) Google AMP site he made:

Dozens of publishers and technology companies have come together to create this unfortunate initiative. However, it is 2015, and websites should be small and fast enough to render on mobile devices rapidly using minimal resources. The only reason they are not is because we are addicted to tracking, surveillance, gratuitous animation, and bloated, inefficient frameworks. Requiring a readable version of these sites is a great idea. Let’s take it one step further and make it the only version.

Combined with this lament by Iran’s “blogfather” Hossein Derakhshan about what happened to the Web — now it’s social media- and app-driven, and the flow of ideas seems hindered — while he was in prison, and we have different aspects of the same problem: as this “democratic” medium is increasingly commercialized and dumbed down…where does it leave us?

Are we witnessing a decline of reading on the web in favour of watching and listening? The web started out by imitating books and for many years, it was heavily dominated by text, by hypertext. Search engines such as Google put huge value on these things, and entire companies – entire monopolies – were built off the back of them. But as the number of image scanners and digital photos and video cameras grows exponentially, this seems to be changing. Search tools are starting to add advanced image recognition algorithms; advertising money is flowing there.

The stream, mobile applications, and moving images all show a departure from a books-internet toward a television-internet. We seem to have gone from a non-linear mode of communication – nodes and networks and links – toward one that is linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.

The Door: On keeping your house, and letting others go

I’m reading “The Door” by Magda Szabo, a book from the 1980s that was only recently translated from Hungarian into English.

So far, a great slice of life from that country, and that period (inclusive of the decades leading up to it) centered around an educated writer and the eccentric and opinionated anti-intellectual woman who becomes her housekeeper. Great tastes of “peasant” perspective vs. educated citizenry during tumult in Eastern Europe. Their relationship is wonderful in its complexity and its mutual challenges.

Anyway, I’ve been poor at recording favorite things about books as I read them, so here are a few snippets of lovely language and concepts I wanted to save (all emphasis mine).

On Keeping Your House As You like

“So extreme was the overall impression created by the apartment that our visitors reacted in one of two ways. Either they were paralysed with amazement, or they were overcome with laughter. Even the walls of our kitchen were something else. Instead of wallpaper or paint, we had oilcloth covered in squirrels, geese and other poultry.

Most of our visitors were artists. For them, the place was a familiar world of gentle lunacy. My ultra-correct relatives, with no fantasy life of their own, I had written off long ago.”

On Letting Others Go

The housekeeper, Emerence, explaining herself after the writer is shocked to realize Emerence knew their elder mutual friend Polett was going to commit suicide after years of feeling lost:

“Have you ever killed an animal?”

I said I had never killed anything.

“You will. You’ll put Viola [their dog] down. You’ll have him injected when the time comes. Try to understand. When the sands run out for someone, don’t stop them going. You can’t give them anything to replace life. Do you think I didn’t love Polett? That it meant nothing to me when she’d had enough and wanted out? It’s just that, as well as love, you also have to know know how to kill.”


Best description of Missouri I’ve heard in a while

“It is a funny sort of state — a couple of big cities and then the Ozarks.”

–Colin Gordon, a historian at the University of Iowa and author of Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City

That pretty well explains our bizarre bifurcated politics, too.

The quote is from a Huffington Post article on how Missouri is at the center of two of the nation’s most pivotal recent racial tension events.

But Gordon’s “Mapping Decline” work, one I recommend to all newcomers to St. Louis — well, those who can handle critical thinking — an awesome history and interactive map of the policies that helped make St. Louis so segregated over the last century, to the point we are now…where we are.

"Now that I know the final conflict is within…"