TIL (thanks to Ed West)

Alexander Kerensky, the leader of the Provisional Government in 1917, was born in 1881 and lived until 1970, having escaped Russia following the Bolshevik takeover. He died in New York where he held a chair in War, Peace and Revolution Studies and would see anti-Vietnam protests outside his office.

Obsolescence

My Powerbeats headphones broke apart today.

I wanted to get a replacement, but I found it isn’t made any more.

I looked for the closest equivalent and didn’t find one 1.

I found this comparison recent products, and while they are better in many ways (active noise cancellation, spatial audio, etc) they all have a lower battery life (the Powerbeats had a battery life of 15 hours!)

I will end up getting one of the new ones, but not without some grumbling.2


  1. The Beats Flex counts if you neglect the over-the-ears-ness and focus on the connecting-wire-ness of the Powerbeats ↩︎

  2. I remembered a talk I had heard many years ago, during a phase of watching everything by Neil Postman I could find, where he had described how, wanting to buy a new car, he had been unable to find one where he could simply roll the windows up and down (i.e. without “power windows”). I’d like to believe my case is different, but I’m aware I’m probably sounding like a grumpy old fella right now. ↩︎

What’s in a name

Three years ago, the New York Times published this article.

It was about “the fourth spy” at Los Alamos (in addition to the previously known ones, Klaus Fuchs, Theodore Hall, and David Greenglass)

What’s funky here is this line, right out of a movie:

In July 1945, the study reported, he was “part of a unit monitoring seismological effects” of the first detonation of the atomic device. His Soviet code name was Godsend, and he came to Los Alamos from a family of spies.

In case the “family of spies” bit seems far-fetched:

In 2012, Mr. Klehr obtained newly declassified F.B.I. files on informants who had successfully penetrated the Communist Party of the United States. Suddenly, he started seeing references to the Seborers, and major parts of the atomic puzzle fell into place: Oscar was Godsend, Stuart was Godfather and their older brother Max was Relative.

There you go. Like the Incredibles, just the … opposite, I guess.

Long 90s

While I was browsing the selection of streaming movies recently, and looking at the year each was made, I realized that in some subjective sense the kind of movies changed around 2011-13.

For example, there were these campy comedy movies with Jack Black that I cannot imagine being made today (and ditto for “simple story” movies, or “niche & interesting” movies).

Some of the changes are likely related to the “changed economics” of movies these days, some to the expectations to make money, and some to others.

It feels like there was a period that began with the end of the Cold War, and that ended with … perhaps the rise of ubiquitous social media and the present stage of big-budget mono-culture movies.

Of course, this might just be me over-thinking things.

On Citizenship, and the Republic

I was reflecting on a process which began fifteen odd years ago and recently came to a conclusion.

There is a mixture of feelings about what constitutes “America”.

On one hand, I feel a broad agreement with “values it historically represented” and with “the thoughts and works of Americans” in science and technology and literature, over the years.

On the other hand, I feel a broad disagreement with various bits of foreign policy, as well as a few “recent trends”.

It hasn’t been clear to me how I should resolve these conflicting sentiments.

Are they just intertwined parts of the same? Is it Like “the case of Jekyll and Hyde”, except writ large over a country?

It felt schizophrenic.

One way of reconciling this that occurred to me, and since then feels quite natural to me now, is to separate out two elements of America: Republic and Empire.

Of these, the “Empire” is what exists in a practical sense across the world, and then feeds back in various ways into policy and culture, national and domestic.

And of these, the “Republic” is what people (claim to) owe allegiance to, which “owns symbols” like the flag and the constitution, and which has formal (or, moral) claim in turn over institutions of government.

Both exist at varying levels of significance, at the same time, and with lesser or greater amount of symbiosis.

I will noodle about this over time, but this does seem to be a useful way of looking at “what America is“.

Hyper-tapping

There is a bewildering variety of niches in the world. Competitive Tetris play is one of them.

Reading through an article like this one makes me giddy.

Almost all players at the time maneuvered pieces into place by holding the directional keys down on the retro NES controllers. Instead of opting for this method, Saelee learned to “hypertap” from another player named Koji “Koryan” Nishio. 

… Saelee learned to flex his arm and manually press the directional buttons more quickly than the classic game would automatically shift the pieces, enabling him to react faster at the game’s highest speed …

And … I know we live in the Twitch era and even twenty years ago I came across Starcraft tournaments staged with fanfare, but who buys tickets to sit in a hall and watch two teenagers play Tetris? These guys do:

The 2019 Classic Tetris World Championship. Yes, there is such a thing.

Martinez told Saelee that he had something in the works. It was a new method of playing classic Tetris that he called “rolling.” Instead of hypertapping, which was rather difficult to learn and punishing on the body, Martinez’s new method of rolling involved drumming his fingers on the back of the NES controller, putting pressure on the buttons on the other side.

I’m telling you, this is an optimistic story right here.

If people can put this much effort into getting super-human at Tetris — Tetris! — there is no limit to human potential.

“This is how we roll

Egregore

I’ve been “on the internet” for about two-and-a-half decades now, and … I like to think that I’ve seen it all.

Still, these are strange times. Neologisms abound. Confusion reigns. The future is murky. Etc. etc.

So, I do encounter genuinely new things roughly once every month, if not every week at times.

One of these is the title of this post.

I’ve seen it mentioned in conjunction with recent political trends, recent cultural trends, and unfortunately, more on the junky side of forums.

Without mentioning anything else, here’s an “Ngram history” (I’m curious what that blip in the early 1800s was !):

And just for fun, a comparison with a random word:

Costs of war

Amid the recent spate of numbers being thrown around (a few hundred million dollars for these weapons, forty billion dollars for some more stuff), I was casting around for “how to put these numbers into perspective“.

I found this great article, from the Project on Government Oversight, that covered a lot of bases, and led me to look for more.

This is the first resource, from the Pentagon itself.

This is pretty terrible in itself; if you multiply the two numbers on the bottom line, the DoD estimate comes to $1,497,006,000,000, which is a large amount of money.

This is the second resource, which indicates that the DoD estimate is about a third of the total cost.

Additional factors include the interest on the money borrowed, and veteran care, and bring it to 6.4 trillion over 19 years.

Even if we take the “lower” estimate of $5.4 trillion, it’s still hard to viscerally make sense of it.

One way is to divide it by the number of days: 19 * 365 = 6935.

$5.4T / 6935d = $778.659M/d

Let’s be generous and round down.

The “burn rate” comes to $750 Million dollars, every single day.

Now that’s a lot of money.

As a fun (well, darkly fun) aside, you probably can’t even burn money that fast.

  • Caveat #1: literally burning money is illegal, don’t try this.
  • Caveat #2: there is a way of destroying large amounts of cash, but only the Fed gets to do it, by shredding it (Again, not as fast as $750M a day)

This does make for a good unit of comparison (“DWOTS”, or “Daily War On Terror Spend“).

Here are some things worth “1 DWOTS”:

Resisting the virtual life

A book from the 1990s on “resisting the virtual life”.

An endorsement of sorts:

“At last, a defiant radical critique of the information millenium. . .. A burning barricade across the highway to the total surveillance society.”

A review from the turn of the millenium gleefully putting the book down as a party-pooper.

But this is the best (IMO) part: an article about it from two years further on, written (twenty years ago!) in 2002 (still in publication), excerpts below, with my remarks in parentheses.

No one can deny that our lives have been changed in just a few, short years. Only seven years after this book was published, the Internet has become commonplace in industrialized countries, and is making inroads into developing countries as well

(This is almost cute in its naïveté … “our lives” were going to change far, far more)

This book is an interesting snapshot of the way people thought in 1995. Some of what the authors discuss and predict has come true, and some has not. 

(and these articles are interesting snapshots of how people thought they were “done changing” back then, that the “impact of the internet had been absorbed”, and so on)

Technologies engender new values, and lead to shifts in existing value systems, causing instability and a risk of societal implosion. The oft-cited example of the Luddites, English weavers who destroyed the machines that would replace them, is used as a metaphor for those who question these new values. But the Luddites acted out of corporatist, economic fears – they saw a technology that was going to cut them out of the system of production, and eliminate their gainful employment. Today’s Luddites are different – they try to raise awareness of the hypocrisy and complications that may arise from these new technologies.  

(twenty years later, “today’s luddites” would be right once again to worry about being “cut out of the system of production”)

… sometimes, the authors are way off the mark. Herbert I. Schiller equates the NII with a system designed for “none other than transnational corporations.” But, while the Internet has become a marketplace, at least in part, its greatest influence has been on individuals. E-mail remains the killer app of the Internet, peer-to-peer has usurped traditional distribution models, and instant messaging (and its cell-phone sibling, SMS) have surprised even those companies who have developed these applications. 

(Written before e-mail had centralized providers, messaging had centralized providers, and the quality of the “marketplace” is less of a charming bazaar and more of … something else)

Well, so what?

If nothing else, it shows how cyclical these trends can be, and how it can take time, sometimes a good deal of time, before the full implications of a given technological change are known.

On catastrophe

From the blurb of a book by John David Ebert

Disasters, both natural and man-made, are on the rise. Indeed, a catastrophe of one sort or another seems always to be unfolding somewhere on the planet. We have entered into a veritable Age of Catastrophes which have grown both larger and more complex and now routinely very widespread in scope.

The old days of the geographically isolated industrial accidents, of the sinking of a Titanic or the explosion of a Hindenburg, together with their isolated causes and limited effects, are over. Now, disasters on the scale of Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill or the Japan tsunami and nuclear reactor accident, threaten to engulf large swaths of civilization.

These efforts are breaking down. Nature and Civilization have become so intertwined they can no longer be separated. Natural disasters, moreover, are becoming increasingly more difficult to differentiate from “man-made.”