All the little Harveys

Harvey Weinstein

Harvey Weinstein arrives for a morning session during the Allen & Co. Media and Technology conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, U.S., on Wednesday, July 12, 2017. Photo credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg.

The big news over the last couple of weeks has been the spectacular downfall of movie producer and Hollywood player Harvey Weinstein, after the New York Times revealed that he had been sexually assaulting women for decades and using his money and power to cover it up. That story opened a floodgate, as dozens of women, including such famous actresses as Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie, came forward one by one to recount their personal experience of being molested by Mr. Weinstein. (As of today, more than 40 women have reported such assaults.)

The reaction was swift — Weinstein’s wife has left him, he has been fired from the production company he co-founded, and he has been expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Producers Guild of America. Even if he never faces any legal consequences for his loathsome actions, his career, reputation and family all lie in ruins, which seems only fair given the pain he inflicted on so many for so long.

So: good riddance to bad rubbish.

But, while it’s satisfying to see Weinstein finally reap what he has sown, I worry that the focus on him is obscuring the deeper crisis he represents. Because the problem isn’t one rich, powerful man using his money and power to abuse women for his own gratification. The problem is that there are lots of men doing that.

Just keeping our eyes on the entertainment industry, for instance, the last few months has seen the exposure of many other offenders besides Weinstein:

And these men are not the only ones, of course. There are some we already know about, like Bill Cosby. There are others who, the way Cosby used to be, are followed around by persistent but so-far unproven rumors, like Louis C.K. And there others whose names we’ll never know, uncountable small-timers who aren’t famous enough for their crimes to make the news, little men with little hearts who used what little power they could claim to force women to bend to their will.

There’s a bright red thread running through all these stories, too. Inevitably, when the truth about the disgraced man finally comes out, other men start coming forward and admitting that they knew what was going on. Maybe not knew knew, as inevitably it was never explicitly discussed; but everyone around the predator understood that he was periodically going to make some new woman among them his prey, leaping upon her and dragging her off into the underbrush. None of them followed, of course; they didn’t want to know too much about the gory details of what happened after that. But in a general sense, they knew.

Everybody knows what predators do with their prey.

Some might argue that this epidemic is specific to the entertainment industry, but I have trouble believing that. We have a President who proudly bragged of using his power to get away with assaulting women, after all, along with an ex-President who spent his entire career dodging allegations of sexual abuse. It’s hard to argue that either of them is Hollywood’s fault.

What’s happening here, I think, is different. And I think what’s happening in Hollywood is the proverbial canary in the coal mine — a preview of what we’re going to be seeing in lots of industries, lots of communities, all across America.

One of the reasons harassers get away with it so often is that their victims feel isolated; they fear that, if they do go public and report their attacker, nobody around them will believe them. And for a long time that has been true, because the faces those victims saw when they looked around were overwhelmingly male. They feared that, when the crunch came, the men who lived behind those faces would choose to believe their attacker instead of them, simply because the attacker was a man too. That men would stick together, regardless of how much evidence piled up.

This may seem like a dim view for these women to take of men. But it turns out that it was absolutely correct! In case after case after case, after the predator is unmasked we meet all the men around him who knew what was going on and chose to do nothing. Every Harvey Weinstein turns out to have his entourage of Scott Rosenbergs and Quentin Tarantinos and Kevin Smiths, of men who became masters at the art of averting their eyes. They all have their own excuses, of course — It was her word against his! He had power over my career, too! He never victimized any women I knew personally! — and after the unmasking we get to listen to them all, ringing hollowly, too little and too late all at once.

What’s different now is that, when women in entertainment look around themselves today, fewer of those faces belong to those men and more belong to other women — many in positions of real power. Women have been making inroads into all avenues of American business for decades now, but the entertainment business opened up to them earlier than most. (Mary Pickford was a co-founder of United Artists in 1919; the first woman president of a Hollywood studio, Sherry Lansing, was hired in 1980.) So the professional network of women working in entertainment has been growing for longer than the comparable networks in most industries.

We’re seeing now, in other words, a maturation of that network; a collective statement that women have finally achieved enough power in entertainment to not have to put up with the Weinstein treatment anymore. The women in that network know how many of the others, unlike their male colleagues, have suffered quietly through similar experiences of their own.

They know that finally there are people around them, people who matter, who will believe them.

(It’s worth noting here that of the three reporters most associated with breaking the Weinstein story, the two from the Times, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, are both women.)

But that’s entertainment. In lots of other industries, women in positions of power are still rare, still exceptional, still isolated. But there’s lots of women farther down in all those industries, working diligently, moving forward. What happens when the networks of women in those industries become as robust and confident and powerful as the network of women in entertainment?

I think what will happen is this: we will discover that America’s workplaces are, and have been for a long time, full of little Harveys. That in all kinds of industries, men with power and money have been using those resources to abuse women they work with — and, more disturbingly, to get away with it. That too many of the men around those predators have chosen to let them run wild, to not rock the boat, to take the easy dollar and keep their mouths shut. And that generations of working women in all walks of American life have been suffering silently, burying their stories of abuse down deep, taking them all the way to the grave, for the simple reason that they didn’t think anyone would believe them.

And then, once all the little Harveys and their enablers have finally been forced out into the sunlight, lots of us — especially lots of us men — are going to have some difficult questions to answer.

Movie review (kinda): “The Neon Demon”

I finally got around to seeing the most recent film from director Nicholas Winding Refn, last year’s The Neon Demon, a couple of days ago. And I’ve been thinking about it ever since, so it seemed like a movie worth writing about.

Unlike Refn’s previous films, 2011’s Drive (which was universally admired) and 2013’s Only God Forgives (which was nearly universally panned), The Neon Demon turned out to be the kind of movie that polarizes people — you either really, really loved it, or you really, really hated it. I went in curious as to which camp I would end up falling into, and came out even more curious because I found myself squarely in the middle. There are things in The Neon Demon that I really admired, things that I would even argue approach virtuosity; and there are also things in The Neon Demon so clunky and amateurish that they would even be embarrassing in a student film, much less one made by a major director with a real budget. It’s a great film and a terrible film, all at once.

But first, for those of you who haven’t seen it — which, given that its domestic theatrical release only grossed $1.3 million, is almost certainly all of you — a brief plot summary. The Neon Demon is the story of Jesse (Elle Fanning), an aspiring model who has come to Los Angeles to pursue her dreams of stardom. It turns out that she is so beautiful that she achieves these dreams in something like a week, which must be nice. But her meteoric rise changes her, and brings her to the attention of a range of predators, who all want to carve out a piece of her “It factor” for themselves.

If the above plot summary sounds kind of thin, that’s because it is. The plot of The Neon Demon is a gossamer thread, not so much a story as a reason to hang scenes together in a particular order.

But those scenes!

Refn has always been a filmmaker with a strong visual aesthetic, and he reinforces that reputation in The Neon Demon, which is a gorgeous film to look at. Refn’s worlds are made of shiny plastic; everything is glossy and reflective, modern “minimalist” style taken to absurd extremes, and the soundtrack is full of chilly electronic music. This style can make his films feel a bit clinical, a bit distant, but that works here, because he wants us to feel distant from his subjects. Everybody in The Neon Demon is reprehensible in some way or another — even Jesse, eventually. They’re all part of a perverse, sick system that feeds on its young, and Refn wants us to observe them the way we’d observe a bacillovirus through a microscope, or a shark through a pair of binoculars. We aren’t intended to empathize with these people so much as we are to marvel at how evolution has produced such marvelously efficient killing machines.

And Refn knows how to use the tools of the filmmaker to make scenes that are about more than just what the camera is observing. There’s one scene in particular I’m thinking of here, about halfway through the movie, where Jesse goes to her first real professional photo shoot. The room is full of people, with one wall draped with a huge white backdrop for the photographer to shoot his models against. But when Jesse walks in, the (male) photographer brusquely dismisses everyone else from the room, leaving only himself and Jesse. As the two float dreamily against the white backdrop, completely isolated from the rest of the world, the photographer begins to consider her — and both Jesse and the viewer realize, our stomachs sinking, that it’s not clear if he intends to photograph her or assault her. The light in his hungry eyes could be interpreted either way. In this age of Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein, this scene is maybe the best visualization I’ve ever seen of how terrifyingly vulnerable it must feel to be on the receiving end of what feminists call the male gaze. As a dude, that’s not something I’ve had to confront in my own experience, so it was fascinating (and a little sickening) to be taken through it vicariously.

So that’s what’s good about The Neon Demon. What’s bad, then? Hoo, boy. Where to begin.

Let’s start with the third act. If the first two acts of the movie are social commentary, the last one veers into horror-movie territory, as the figurative predators that surround Jesse become actual ones. I won’t go into much detail to avoid spoilers, but let’s just say this: if I asked you to imagine the most thuddingly literal way to tell a story about how the fashion industry eats its young, you would come up with something very much like Refn does here. It’s overwrought and underthought, and I imagine it’s where a lot of people who hate this movie fell off the train.

There’s also a problem with the central performance by Elle Fanning as Jesse. I don’t mean to say that it’s a bad performance, per se; Fanning is a good actress and does good work here. The problem is that it’s not the performance the script calls for.

The movie is constantly telling us that Jesse is a thermonuclear sex bomb, so beautiful that she blows her competition — professional models — out of the water the instant she walks into the room. Everyone who looks at her is instantly and visibly affected by her charisma; one casting director’s face makes it looks like he’s having an orgasm, just from looking at her (!). She’s supposed to be magnetic, an unstoppable force. But Fanning’s Jesse never really comes across that way. Even in the third act, when she’s been relieved of her naïve small-town innocence and has fully embraced the power she possesses, we never see in her what everyone in the movie keeps telling and showing us they see; Jesse is beautiful, but not so beautiful as to make grown men and women fall to their knees and weep. The script calls for Helen of Troy, but that’s not what the movie delivers.

(Note that I’m not blaming Fanning for this — I’m not sure any actress could live up to the promises The Neon Demon’s script makes for her character. It writes checks that even the greatest actress would have trouble cashing.)

Should you watch The Neon Demon, then? I dunno. If you like Refn’s modernist aesthetic and are willing to put up with some undercooked writing to get it, then you will find a lot to like here. If you don’t like that aesthetic, or if you expect social commentaries to come to the table with deeper ideas than “boy the fashion industry sure is screwed up, huh,” then you won’t. And if you have a partner or friend you enjoy arguing about movies with, you should definitely see it, as it will give you plenty of things to argue about.

“The Neon Demon” is available for streaming now on Amazon Prime.

Book review: “The End We Start From”

The End We Start FromDisclosure: I was provided a free pre-publication review copy of this book by the publisher via NetGalley.

The book reviews will continue until morale improves. This one’s for The End We Start From, the upcoming debut novel from new author Megan Hunter.

Told in the first person, The End We Start From is a tale of motherhood at the end of the world. It opens with its protagonist, a woman living in a near-future London, giving birth to a child. Her maternal bliss is short-lived, however, as a distant catastrophe fills the city with flood waters and forces her, her partner and her child to flee to the countryside. They head north, initially finding refuge with her partner’s parents, only to have to move on even further as food and safety become scarce. As civilization strains and finally collapses around them, the bonds connecting the protagonist to the other people in her life fray and snap, until finally it is just her and her child, hanging on for dear life.

The End We Start From is a difficult book to summarize, due at least in part to the way Hunter chose to write it. Her prose style is austere enough to at times approach willful obscurantism. The book’s characters are only ever referred to by their initials, for example, the protagonist’s partner going by “R.” and her child by “Z,” which can give some parts of the narrative an alphabet-soup quality. And, since its perspective is first-person and the protagonist copes with the ever-increasing turbulence of the world around her by focusing her attentions more and more tightly on her child alone, it can feel like the real action in the story is always happening offstage somewhere, in places we’re not allowed to see.

But you shouldn’t let these challenges stop you from reading it, because The End We Start From is a wonderful book. The shelves are groaning with apocalyptic narratives these days, but Hunter makes her tale feel fresh by keeping her focus not on the gory details of the crisis but on the evolution of the relationship between a mother and her newborn son who just happen to be caught up in it. Her interest is not in apocalypse porn, but in the way her characters react and change when put to a difficult challenge. I’m a big believer in the idea that the best stories are the ones that put characters first, so Hunter’s approach here put the book squarely within my personal wheelhouse. And while the tight first-person perspective might strike some readers as constricting, I thought it put a tingly frisson on the story’s developments; nothing’s scarier than something scary you can’t quite make out the dimensions of, and by distancing us from the story’s worst events Hunter encourages us to let our imaginations run wild.

So, even if you’re heartily tired of end-of-the-world stories, you should not let this one pass you by. It has a lot to offer: an apocalypse plausible enough to be terrifying, characters who are firmly grounded and believable, and some real insight into both parenthood specifically and human behavior in the large. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.

“The End We Start From,” by Megan Hunter. Available on November 14, 2017 from Grove Atlantic.

What to do with the Confederate monuments

Jefferson Davis monument, Richmond, VA

Jefferson Davis monument, Richmond, VA. Photo credit: Wikipedia user Billy Hathorn. Distributed under the Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 license.

As you are almost certainly already aware, this weekend’s “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee turned violent on Saturday when one of the protesters, James Alex Fields, pointed his car at a group of peaceful counter-demonstrators and stepped on the gas. His terrorist act, which resulted in the death of counter-demonstrator Heather Heyer and injuries to 19 other marchers, has put the question of what to do about Confederate monuments across the country on the national agenda.

Everyone else is now offering their opinions about what the right thing to do with Confederate monuments is, so I thought I would join in and offer my own.

I believe that both sides in this controversy are making a valid point. Advocates for taking the statues down point out that they are fundamentally racist because they memorialize men who took up arms against the legitimate government of the United States in order to keep other human beings in bondage based on their race, which is true. And advocates for keeping them up argue that they mark an important piece of American history that shouldn’t be airbrushed out of public memory, which is also true, though not for the reason they think it is. (The vast majority of Confederate monuments went up decades after the war, their intent to send the message that whites still reigned supreme in the South. This makes them historically significant symbols of the South’s vile hundred-year struggle after the war to deny African-Americans their rights under the law — a legacy of shame that should never be forgotten.)

So what do we do? How do we balance purging racism from public spaces with preserving the memory of that racism so that we might never repeat it? My proposal is simple.

Our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., is a city of monuments. Let us therefore take down the Confederate monuments, all of them, and bring them all to Washington, D.C. And let us build a great building in that city, an edifice of marble and stone large enough to store and display them all. Let us put this building somewhere in Washington where the public can easily find it, somewhere close to Metro stations and parking. Let this place be somewhere prominent, somewhere the great building  cannot possibly be missed. Let us arrange the Confederate monuments inside this building so that visitors can browse them all, each displayed with signs and placards providing background information on the monument itself, the figure it memorializes, and the community it was originally erected in.

And then let us paint this building black. Deep, flat black, with no ornaments or decorations to enliven it save two. One will be a bronze statue upon its top, a version of the Statue of Freedom that crowns the Capitol dome, only with Freedom shorn of her sword and garlands and weeping, her face buried in her hands. And the other will be an inscription across its front, slashed into the marble in deep red, informing the visitor that here is a new kind of American museum: the Museum of Treason.

Let us make the experience of visiting the Museum of Treason equal to the crimes the traitors fought for the right to commit. When a family enters the Museum of Treason, let us separate them physically, and keep them separate for as long as they stay within. Let us force the visitor to surrender their personal property at the entrance, with no guarantees they will get it back at the exit. Let us replace the visitor’s clothing with rough, harsh rags, their fine shoes with cheap ones that pinch and split. Let us organize the visitors randomly into groups and chain the members of the groups together; let us shackle their feet with iron, each pair of fetters linked to the next, so they must shuffle past the exhibits in the beaten-dog manner of the chain gang.

Let us fill the halls of the Museum of Treason with the sound of the lash. Let us surround these would-be masters with the crack of the whip they blasphemously claimed a God-given right to wield, and with the cries and whimpers of real human beings on the other end of that whip. Let the visitor experience the world these marble men would have built with their ears, as well as eyes.

Let us, in other words, take these dishonest monuments and create from them an honest one, a true telling of the cause their subjects fought and died for. Because the root of the American experiment is liberty, and the cause they fought for a nightmarish perversion of that ideal. Freedom to enslave another is no freedom at all; it is just the law of the jungle, the abuse of the weak by the strong; it is the opposite of freedom, the negation of justice; it is prejudice elevated to the status of law, a debasement, a defilement; it is sick; it is wrong.

These monuments belong in hell. Let us therefore make a hell, and consign them to it. And let us give this hell a place of honor, so that by its presence it may inspire us to never have to make another.

Book review: “To Die in Spring”

To Die in SpringDisclosure: I was provided a free pre-publication review copy of this book by the publisher via NetGalley.

Let’s end the week with another book review! This one’s for To Die in Spring, the upcoming novel by German author Ralf Rothmann. (I can read a little German, but not enough to be reading fiction in the original, so I read the English translation by Shaun Whiteside.)

To Die in Spring is set in the German countryside in the spring of 1945. Allied armies are closing in on Nazi Germany from east and west; bled dry from six years of total war, Germany’s armies are desperate for men. So the story begins with our protagonist, Walter Urban, a seventeen-year-old milker on a dairy farm, and his friend Friedrich being tricked into “volunteering” for the Waffen-SS, the military arm of Hitler’s notorious political enforcers. This launches Urban on a harrowing journey through the collapsing German East, a kaleidoscope of desperate rear-guard actions and sadistic, meaningless violence. It all proves too much for Friedrich, who attempts to desert and gets caught — and the consequences of his capture force Walter into the most difficult decision he will ever have to make.

I’m struggling a bit with how to describe my feelings about To Die in Spring. On one hand, it is a very good novel. Very good. Rothmann presents Walter’s story as a series of vignettes, little scenes sketched out in a diary Walter leaves to his son when he dies decades after the war, and this gives the book an appealingly impressionistic quality. In Whiteside’s translation Rothmann’s language is spare but expressive, setting up scenes and characters efficiently and then effortlessly putting them in motion. And he has a sharp eye for detail, finding unexpected poignancy in small human moments and unassuming objects. Walter tells his story dispassionately, but it’s hard to read it without your heart breaking for him, a simple man doomed to live in terribly complicated times.

There’s a dimension to Walter’s war story that goes beyond the average grunt’s, though. As noted above, Walter doesn’t get impressed into just any fighting force; he gets impressed into the Waffen-SS, an extramilitary army whose objectives and motivations were expressly political. The Waffen-SS existed not just to win battles but to exterminate peoples, to clear out anyone unfortunate enough to be living on Hitler’s coveted lebensraum. So any story about a soldier in Walter’s position is going to have to wrestle with larger questions than just the details of life on the front line.

But To Die in Spring never does. It never steps back and interrogates itself about the underlying nature of the enterprise that Walter has gotten sucked into.

I’m of two minds about the effect of this decision. I can see some possible justifications for it. It’s certainly reflective of the character of Walter himself, a raw boy with no notion of politics whatsoever. If he was seventeen in 1945, Walter would have lived nearly his entire life in National Socialist Germany, so things that strike us as shocking would strike him as just part of everyday life. He joins the Waffen-SS more or less at gunpoint instead of under his own free will, so he’s hardly the kind of True Believer whose motives would be ideological. And by the spring of 1945 the war was so obviously lost that Waffen-SS units were mostly doing what everyone else in Germany was doing, which was to try desperately to survive and maybe make it far enough west to surrender to the Americans or British instead of the more brutal Russians. All of these strike me as plausible rationales.

But they all jar uncomfortably against a single fact. Almost immediately after the war ended, a line of argument emerged among some Germans that argued that responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi state could be laid at the feet of a relative few Germans instead of all. In this “clean hands” interpretation of history, since most ordinary German soldiers and the German public at large had no direct involvement in the Nazis’ crimes, they thus carried no blame for them. Blame could only be allotted to those leaders who ordered the crimes, and those functionaries who carried them out.

Even the most dogged adherent of the “clean hands” school, though, would include the SS in their short list of Germans who deserved a share of blame. And it’s the SS, after all, that Walter joins in To Die in Spring. Not the regular German army (the Wehrmacht); the SS.

We do at times in the story get glimpses of the sort of things Waffen-SS units were doing during the war to earn themselves inclusion. We see them torturing and murdering civilians suspected of partisan activity; we see them herding concentration-camp Jews on the infamous death marches that marked the end of the war. We see these things through Walter’s eyes, which means he sees them too. But to him, these events aren’t anything remarkable; they’re just more examples of the common horrors of war, not evidence of a line crossed, a new depth reached.

So how are we to interpret all that? Is it just an accurate depiction of the character that Rothmann set out to create? Or is it a throwback to the old “clean hands” thinking, the thinking that tried to separate the ordinary German grunt from the crimes he helped make possible?

I don’t know enough about the context of this book and how it was received in Germany to answer that question. Personally, I’m willing to extend Rothmann the benefit of the doubt here; his depiction of the relevant scenes in the book is unsparing and harsh, leaving little doubt that what we’re witnessing are terrible things. And while we never see Walter put a stop to them, in at least one case we do see him object; and as a low-ranked conscript, he doesn’t have the power to give orders to halt.

(He does have a gun, of course, and a man with a gun can always do something. But since the people committing the crimes outnumber him and have guns too, he’d have to be a real hero to take action — to offer up his life in an attempt to save another’s. And blaming someone for failing to be a hero is one of the less damning categories of blame.)

As you can probably tell, this book gave me a lot to think about. I still don’t know if I can endorse it unreservedly. But I do know that, if you’re looking for a tightly crafted, expertly written novel that will both move you and challenge you, To Die in Spring should probably be on your reading list.

“To Die in Spring,” by Ralf Rothmann. English translation by Shaun Whiteside. Available on August 29, 2017 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Movie review: “Dunkirk”

Dunkirk - the mole

I had some free time Saturday afternoon, so I swung by a local theater to check out the new movie by Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk.

Unlike a lot of people, I’m not a huge fan of Nolan’s work. I thought Memento and Inception were OK, but I found Interstellar not nearly as smart as it thought it was, and his Dark Knight trilogy ranging in quality from acceptable (Batman Begins) to dire (The Dark Knight Rises). But Dunkirk has gotten rave reviews, and it tells an important story that American audiences should be more familiar with than they are, so I figured I’d roll the dice and see how he’d done this time.

The short answer: he did OK, but not nearly as good as the reviews would have you believe.

Let’s start with the one thing that is undeniably good about Dunkirk: the presentation. It’s a gorgeous movie to look at, beautifully shot and rich in period detail. Scenes range from breathtaking wide shots to claustrophobic close-ups, and Nolan’s smart enough to use these techniques to advance the story — scenes below-decks in a ship are tightly framed to emphasize the smallness of the space, scenes of a group of soldiers who have gotten separated from the main army go wide to play up how alone they are. And the sound design is spectacular, making battle scenes appropriately terrifying and using some smart, subtle techniques to ramp up the tension in scenes that would otherwise be a little limp.

(Sidebar: I’m not sure if I saw it in its best presentation, as there are way too many ways to see Dunkirk, and they are all named so confusingly that keeping track of them all requires its own Vox explainer. I had wanted to see it in 70mm, but ended up seeing it in “IMAX 2D”, which I take it is a digital format instead of film. This was frustrating, but I found the IMAX 2D presentation to be plenty impressive on its own terms.)

The big problem with Dunkirk is that nothing else lives up to the quality of the presentation. The story, for instance, is told in a way that I think many viewers will find intensely confusing. It’s divided into three basic threads — “the mole,” (i.e. the beach), “the sea,” and “the air” — each with its own sets of characters and plot elements. By itself that would be bad enough, but it then goes a step further and tells the individual stories in each thread in a non-linear way, so we can’t be sure when the film cuts from one thread to another if what we’re seeing now happened before what we just saw, or after.

I get the sense that Nolan’s intent here was to set up developments early in the film that can pay off dramatically later; for instance, by having a pilot see men bailing out of a sinking boat, and then later having us spend time with a group of soldiers and see them try to escape the beach by climbing into what we realize is the same boat.  The callback is supposed to add dramatic punch to the scene we saw earlier, but it only works if you can keep all these plates spinning in your head during the duration of the entire film, and that’s a lot to ask of a general audience.

More disappointingly, Dunkirk is a story without characters. Oh, there are plenty of actors running around doing things, but because there are all these separate stories going on we never spend enough time with any of them to really connect with them on an emotional level. And, not content to keep us at arm’s length from his characters in this fashion, Nolan doubles down by never having any character refer to any other by their name. All of which means we start identifying the characters in our heads just by which actor is playing them — “oh, that’s Cillian Murphy, and over there’s Mark Rylance” — which is just hot death for our suspension of disbelief.

Nolan did manage to assemble an all-star cast for Dunkirk, and they give it their all, but in many cases the screenplay doesn’t match their effort by giving them good stuff to work with. Kenneth Branagh gets lots of screen time, but all he’s given to do is stare off into the middle distance and say foreboding things. Tom Hardy plays a Spitfire pilot, but he spends 99% of his screen time with an oxygen mask strapped to his face, which both obscures the fact that we’re looking at Tom Hardy and makes it extremely difficult to make out what exactly he is saying. (Sadly, this isn’t even the first time Nolan has done this to Hardy.) Why hire actors of this quality if you’re just going to waste their talents like this? It’s baffling.

So yeah, I have a hard time understanding why Dunkirk is getting the overwhelmingly positive reception it is getting. It’s undeniably beautiful to look at and listen to, but at the level of the story and the performances it’s broken in deep, fundamental ways. Of course, the same could be said of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, and that quickly entered the canon of Movies Beyond Criticism too, so who knows.


Book review: “The Revolution of Marina M.”

The Revolution of Marina M.Disclosure: I was provided a free pre-publication review copy of this book by the publisher via NetGalley.

Hey, let’s do another book review, huh? This one’s for The Revolution of Marina M., the upcoming new novel by Janet Fitch.

The Revolution of Marina M. tells the story of the coming of age of a young Russian poet, Marina Makarova. That coming of age happens to take place between 1916 and 1919, however, and since Marina M. lives in St. Petersburg her coming of age story is more eventful than most.

At the book’s start Marina is 16 years old, the elegant daughter of a bourgeois Kadet politician and his statuesque spiritualist wife. She’s published her first book of poems, and her future seems mapped out for her in advance: marriage to some suitable young man, and a comfortable life spent in the world of letters.

But Marina isn’t the type to fall languidly into that kind of predetermined track. She recognizes the injustices the Tsar inflicts on his people, and recoils at the horrible slaughter that Russia’s involvement in World War I (which her father still supports) has become. Prompted by her radical friend Varvara, she’s ready for things to change.

It’s 1916, so change comes quickly to Marina’s world, and once it starts coming it never really stops. The February Revolution starts out hopeful, but soon devolves into bread lines and ineffectual governance. Rejecting her father’s liberal politics, she gravitates towards the Bolsheviks, joining a circle of radical artists who meet in grubby, underground cafés. An early attraction to a dashing Army officer yields to a new relationship with one of the men in this circle. Then comes October, and suddenly the Bolsheviks are actually in power, actually running things — a development which throws the vague, dreamy politics of Marina and her friends into an arena where people deal only in steel. The choices they all make in that arena send their lives spiraling off wildly from each other, some grasping with increasingly bloody hands for the heights of power, while others scrabble desperately just to stay alive.

I get the impression that Janet Fitch will be most familiar to readers from her 1999 novel White Oleander, which was selected for Oprah’s Book Club and later turned into a movie. But I’ve never read any of her work myself, so The Revolution of Marina M. was my first introduction to her. I’m pleased to say it made a very positive first impression; The Revolution of Marina M. is a fine novel, and Fitch creates both a compelling, grounded cast of characters and a rich milieu for them to maneuver through.

Let’s start with the characters. Marina M. herself is the fulcrum on which the entire story turns, and she’s a delightful creation, a completely believable portrait of a girl forced into womanhood in a hostile, difficult world. She evolves before our eyes from a naïve young debutante into a canny survivor. Each step in that process is both logical enough to feel inevitable and grounded enough in her character to preserve her agency; we can imagine alternate worlds, alternate Marinas making different choices, while understanding completely why this Marina makes the choices she does. Those choices can sometimes be frustrating to the reader, since unlike Marina we know how the Russian Revolution is going to end. But even that frustration helps establish the character;  Marina is after all a young girl, and young people are not known for being particularly resistant to impulsiveness and self-absorption. She sometimes makes bad decisions, but she never makes unbelievable ones.

The novel’s supporting characters are memorable too, particularly Varvara, Marina’s hard-edged friend who joins the Bolshevik cause early and whose commitment to that cause brings disastrous consequences to Marina. This character could have been a cardboard cutout, but Fitch is deft enough to give her unexpected dimensions; she never has doubts, but she has plenty of regrets, and these humanize her even when her actions make her difficult to sympathize with. Marina’s first love, the dashing Army officer Kolya, is compellingly drawn as well. He is a man whose first and only real loyalty is to himself, but as we see his charisma reflected off Marina and watch his ever more desperate attempts to find a way to stay alive in Red Russia without committing himself to any faction, we understand at least a little of what she sees in him.

And then of course there’s the setting, Red Petrograd at the gaudy height of its revolutionary fervor, which is fantastic. Any reader of Ten Days That Shook the World will recognize and appreciate the bold, wild colors that Fitch uses to portray the city. While it’s easy to imagine such a rich setting tipping the story over into melodrama, though, Fitch resists such temptations; she keeps her story grounded in keenly observed little observations of day-to-day life, of communal water pumps and abandoned houses and public bathhouses. She drinks deeply of the setting without letting it intoxicate her, and the book benefits from it.

I have some minor nitpicks I could make about The Revolution of Marina M. — it’s a little bit longer than it probably should be, for instance, and there are some minor characters whose motivations are puzzling (I’m looking at you, Avdokia). All in all, though, it’s a very strong piece of work, a big fat novel that I found myself reading in compulsive gulps. It’s a great read. If any of the above sounds even remotely interesting to you, you will enjoy it.

“The Revolution of Marina M.,” by Janet Fitch. Available in hardcover on November 7, 2017 from Little, Brown and Company.

Twelve classic computers I wish I’d owned

I’ve owned a lot of computers over the years, but there’s been plenty of machines that I’ve only been able to admire from afar. We were talking about some of these on Mastodon the other day, and it made for a fun, nostalgic conversation. (Yes, I’m a nerd. Shut up.)

I thought it might be worth pulling my list together into a single place here. So, without further ado, here are some of the computers I wish I’d been fortunate enough to have owned.

#1: Commodore Amiga 500

They made beefier Amigas, but they never made one as cheap or as cheerful as the legendary 500. A multimedia computer before the term had even been invented.

PCs eventually caught up with it, but it sure took them long enough.


BeBox. Photo credit: Wikipedia user Mazzmn.

#2: BeBox

The one machine ever designed to run BeOS, which if there was any justice in the universe would be running on umpty zillion Macs today. A dual-core machine in an age when nobody understood why they’d want more than one core.

Came complete with “Das Blinkenlights” on the front, which lit up to show how hard the two CPUs were working.

#3: Macintosh SE

History remembers the original Mac as revolutionary, but at the time it was notable mostly for what it was missing, like enough RAM and storage to actually do anything with it.

The SE added a hard drive and an expansion slot, while still retaining the iconic industrial design that made the Mac the most personal personal computer ever.

Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh

#4: Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh

Yeah, yeah, it was crazy overpriced for what you got back when it was actually a product you could buy. But nobody ever designed a computer that said “I am from the 1990s” more loudly than this one.

I mean, just look at the damned thing.

NeXT Cube

The NeXT Cube. Photo credit: Wikipedia user Rama and Musée Bolo.

#5: The NeXT Computer

The doomed product of Steve Jobs’ big, splashy attempt to prove he could create another company just as big as Apple. A classic Jobs product, in that it was simultaneously lust-inducing and completely impractical.

We actually had a bunch of these in my department’s computer lab, back in college. A liberal arts department’s computer lab. Imagine a group of 1990s liberal arts majors trying to make sense of a serious UNIX workstation, and you will have some sense of how the world at large received Jobs’ gleaming cube.

Cobalt Qube

#6: Cobalt Qube

“Every home needs its own server,” said a group of mad geniuses who called themselves Cobalt Networks back in the late ’90s. In an age when servers were forbidding and remote, the Qube was cheerful and accessible.

I periodically look at my crappy home NAS box today and ponder how far ahead of their time Cobalt actually was.

TRS-80 Model 100

Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100. Photo credit: Wikipedia user NapolRoma.

#7: Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100

A netbook from 20 years before the netbook was invented. A true road warrior, the Model 100 had a word processor, a built-in modem and could run for ages on four cheap, easily replaceable AA batteries. Bill Gates called it “my favorite machine.

There are journalists out there who had to have their long-obsolescent Model 100s pried from their unwilling fingers.

Psion Series 3

Psion Series 3. Photo credit: Wikipedia user Snowmanradio.

#8: Psion Series 3

They called it a personal digital assistant, but that was a filthy lie. It was a digital organizer, yes, but it was also a totally capable real computer that just happened to fit in your pocket.

Psion, a British company, made a bunch of these types of devices, but while they picked up a core of devoted enthusiasts over the years none of them ever really found the mass market they deserved. Which is a crying, crying shame.

IBM ThinkPad 701

#9: IBM ThinkPad 701

A lust object for its legendary “butterfly keyboard,” which let IBM cram a near-full-size keyboard into a mid-1990s laptop.

When you opened the lid, the keyboard would fold out of the case and extend out past the sides. Close it, and the keyboard folded back up again. It was a simple, elegant, brilliant solution to a problem we still have today.

There’s a 701 in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, though it’s not currently on display.

Vadem Clio

#10: Vadem Clio

The first real convertible, it had a screen cleverly mounted on a pivot. Swing it one way and it stood at an angle, like a laptop; swing it back and it snapped flat against the bottom of the keyboard, turning it into a tablet.

The big downside was it ran Windows CE; which, ugh. But the industrial design was brilliant enough to earn it a place in the collection of the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt Design Museum.

Canon Cat

Photo of the Canon Cat desktop computer. Photo credit: Grant Hutchinson, Splorp.

#11: Canon Cat

The Mac didn’t begin as a Steve Jobs project; it began as a project of usability guru Jef Raskin. Jobs muscled him off the project, which is why the first Mac had a split personality, approachable tool and chilly art object.

Raskin left Apple for Canon, where he tried to make a usability-first computer. It wasn’t a hit. But it was full of interesting ideas.

Treo 270

#12: Handspring Treo 270

iPhone before the iPhone was the iPhone. Five years before the appearance of Apple’s segment-defining smartphone, Handspring was selling a smartphone with a color display and not just one, but multiple app stores.

The 270 wasn’t the first Treo device, but it was the one that pointed most clearly to what the future would look like.

So there’s my list.

What’s on yours?

Getting older

The Cryptkeeper

Turns out it sucks.

Last month, I bent over to tie my shoes and was struck with a pain in the small of the back that felt like some malevolent spirit had hit me there with a sledgehammer. I collapsed to the floor, and then stayed there for quite some time because trying to get up just resulted in more hits from the hammer.

Eventually I managed to get up on my feet and to a doctor, where I was informed that I had slipped a disc in my back, probably during one of my routine workouts at the gym. No need for surgery, the doctor informed me cheerfully as he sent me hobbling back to the front desk to get worked over by the vultures from the insurance company, it’s just the sort of thing that happens as you get older.

He was right; the pain had already started to subside by the next day, and a few more days after that it was gone completely. Today it’s like it never even happened.

But it did happen. You know?

The last couple of years have not been great for me. Beyond the slipped disc, I’ve been dealing with a bunch of other health issues as well, which have annoyingly come along in a kind of constant trickle — just when I have one nailed down and dealt with, along comes another to start the whole process over again. I like to think of myself as a person driven by ideas, but the ideas I believe in are (as of this writing, anyway) marginal and unpopular, which makes carrying their banner feel more like work than it should. Work is steady, but my ambitions have always been for something more than just steady work, so it’s easier than it should be for that to feel like failure too.

It’s now been 20 years since I left school and entered the workforce, and I have trouble shaking the thought that I haven’t used that time as well as I should have. I’ve participated in a lot of projects; most of them were not successful. I’ve written some things that nobody ended up reading; I’ve created some software that nobody ended up using.  If you believe, as I do, that it is the duty of human beings to repair the world they are born into, repeatedly trying and missing the mark in that way can be difficult. I never expected to be rich or famous, so not being rich and famous doesn’t bother me much. But seeing the world get worse on my watch, despite my best efforts? That does.

(And of course I’m depressive, too, which doesn’t help with any of the above.)

So why bother writing all this down? I dunno. I fear it’s just whining, and when it comes to whining, I’m with Pope Francis.

A placard reading, "No Whining" is seen on Pope Francis' room door in this undated picture posted on the Vatican Insider website.

A placard reading, “No Whining” is seen on Pope Francis’ room door in this undated picture posted on the Vatican Insider website. Under the explicit warning, the red-and-white Italian language sing goes on to say that “violators are subject to a syndrome of always feeling like a victim and consequent reduction of your sense of humour and capacity to solve problems”. REUTERS/courtesy Vatican Insider-La Stampa

But this is my blog, and what is the point of having a blog if you can’t use it to gripe about things that bother you? That’s right, there is none.

So that concludes my gripe about getting older. If you and the Pope don’t like it, you can each get your own blog and use it to gripe about mine.

Better know an apocalypse: Korean peninsula edition

Political map of the Korean peninsula.

Political map of the Korean peninsula. Map prepared by the Central Intelligence Agency; part of UT-Austin’s Perry-Castañeda Library
Map Collection.

North Korea’s successful test this week of a long-range ballistic missile has put the long-simmering, on-again-off-again conflict on the Korean peninsula firmly back into the “on again” column, at least for the moment. So it seemed like this might be an opportune time for another episode of everyone’s favorite series on all the ways the world could come to a fiery end, Better Know An Apocalypse!

Where it is

Jutting out of the Asian mainland, the Korean peninsula is west of Japan and east/southeast of China. To its east is the Sea of Japan; to its west, the Yellow Sea. The Korea Strait separates it from the Japanese home islands.

Who’s quarreling over it

Since the end of World War II, the peninsula has been home to two states. The democratic, capitalist Republic of Korea (ROK, colloquially South Korea) occupies the south, while the north is the territory of the insular, communist “hermit kingdom” called the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK, colloquially North Korea).

Since its founding the DPRK has been allied with China, its neighbor to the north, while the ROK has been allied with the United States. These great powers each guarantee the independence of their respective Korean partners. These guarantees brought them into direct conflict when the DPRK attempted in 1950 to unify the peninsula by force, leading to the Korean War of 1950-53.

What’s in dispute

The fundamental dispute is over whether either of those states should exist at all.

Historically speaking, it is unnatural for there to be two Koreas. While the peninsula suffered periodic foreign invasions, since the establishment of the Koryŏ dynasty in 918 AD the Korean people themselves have generally been unified politically.

What changed that was World War II, when the peninsula was first occupied by the Japanese and then liberated in 1945 by the Allies. Liberation came in two prongs, with American forces liberating the south and Soviet forces the north. The intention was for those forces to govern the territory they’d liberated temporarily while a new Korean government was sorted out, but the emergence of the Cold War turned that temporary division into a permanent one. By 1948 the two separate states had emerged, though the sponsors of each insisted that its Korean partner was the one legitimate government of all Korea.

The original boundary between the two states was the 38th parallel, but this was adjusted after the Korean War to reflect the territory held by both sides as of the time of the armistice that ended the fighting. The armistice also established a four-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone (“DMZ”) between the two states, to provide neutral ground on which the two sides could meet and to reduce the risk of future clashes by preventing the two sides’ forces from facing each other directly.

Since the end of the Korean War, the fates of the two Koreas have diverged sharply. The ROK emerged from a long period of autocratic and military rule to become a remarkably prosperous liberal democracy. The DPRK turned inward instead, fostering a cult of personality around its leaders to hold the country together in the face of ever-increasing poverty and famine.

What’s causing conflict

At a deep level, the cause of conflict is that the Korean War never really ended. The armistice established a cease-fire which stopped the violence, but it did not resolve the underlying issues — the DPRK did not abandon its claim to be the one legitimate government of the entire peninsula, and while the ROK has never pursued a policy of reunification by force, it has long held reunification under a democratic government as a key policy goal. So the same disputes that brought the two Koreas to blows in 1950 are alive and simmering today.

The immediate crisis, however, has come from the DPRK’s project over the last two decades of developing an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Faced with the reality that it lacked the military strength to take on the South and its allies directly, and with the ROK’s ever-increasing prosperity providing an attractive contrast to the grinding poverty the North has suffered for most of its existence, the DPRK’s ruling Kim dynasty needed a way to ensure their hold on power would not be threatened. That way, it was decided, was to build an arsenal of WMDs with the range to strike directly at the larger powers whose support underpins the ROK’s security: Japan and the United States.

It’s clear that the Kims perceive this project as a key to their continued hold on power, because they have pursued it doggedly and consistently even when it posed serious risks. Their attempts to build the capability to make nuclear bombs almost caused a war in 1994, and their long, slow program to build a rocket with intercontinental range to carry such bombs has frequently provoked threats of sanctions or direct military intervention from Washington. And while no such direct intervention has yet taken place, the U.S. has found ways to intervene short of dropping bombs; the New York Times last year revealed, for instance, that the Obama Administration had launched a program of cyber-sabotage against the DPRK’s missile program to slow its progress.

Why it matters

This week’s launch indicates that, while the DPRK’s missile program may have been slowed down by sanctions and cyber-war, it has not been stopped. And it brings the DPRK one step closer to their ultimate goal, which is a missile that can deliver a nuclear weapon to a target in the continental United States.

Such a weapon would allow the Kims to drive a strategic wedge between the ROK and the United States. Part of the reason why the DPRK cannot conquer the South militarily is because the South is able to call on the formidable military might of the U.S. in its defense. But if the DPRK possessed the capability to nuke American cities, it could pose the U.S. with a terrible dilemma. Come to the aid of the ROK, the Kims could plausibly threaten, and you will suffer an attack on your homeland that would make 9/11 look like a footnote to history. It would force the American president to decide if he or she cares enough about the independence of South Korea to be willing to trade Los Angeles or Seattle or Portland for it.

Such an attack would be suicidal, of course; America has plenty of nuclear weapons of its own, and if it suffered a nuclear attack its leaders would be under tremendous pressure to use them in retaliation. North Korea would end up a radioactive wasteland. But the Kims are betting that we don’t have the stomach to fight such an apocalyptic war, so if they can threaten us with the prospect of one we would rather back down and leave the ROK to fend for itself than call their bluff.

All of which in turn creates strategic pressure on the U.S. If having these missiles will let the DPRK put it into such a difficult diplomatic position, it becomes imperative for American policy to prevent the DPRK from having them. For a long time now Washington has been able to avoid confronting that pressure directly, because the missiles the DPRK was testing were too short-range to reach American targets and therefore the problem was mostly theoretical. The missile tested this week has the range to reach targets in Alaska and Hawaii, however, which for the first time puts U.S. states inside the potential danger zone. As the DPRK’s missile ranges inch closer and closer to the “lower 48,” American policymakers will feel more and more pressure to do something to remove or blunt the risk.

What happens next

The problem is that, no matter how much U.S. policymakers may want to shut down the DPRK’s missile program, they don’t have a lot of options for actually doing that.

One option would be to fall back on missile defenses — weapons that can shoot down an incoming missile before it reaches its target. The U.S. does have some weapons that could potentially fulfill that mission, but they are still in the testing stages and even there their track record has been inconsistent at best. Deployed missile defense systems like THAAD and Patriot, meanwhile, have a decent record of reliability against smaller, slower-moving missiles, but their capability against intercontinental-range missiles (which can reach speeds of 20,000 miles per hour) is questionable.

Another would be to strike at the missile program militarily. Such a strike could be limited in scope — blowing up a missile on its launch pad, for instance, to demonstrate willingness to use force to resolve the conflict — or larger and intended to degrade the DPRK’s actual capability to build,  transport and launch such missiles. The problem here is that even in the smallest-scale version it would be a clear escalation; the party that resorts to violence first usually ends up ceding the moral high ground when they do so. And if the intent is to completely destroy the DPRK’s missile program, that would be a really hard thing to do with air strikes alone. You can blow up missile factories and launch pads, but at the end of the day all that stuff can be rebuilt if the people with the knowledge of how to do so remain alive, and a “decapitation strike” that takes out key individuals is a very difficult thing to pull off successfully. People are small targets that can hide in lots of places, including places packed with civilians, which makes them harder to kill with a 2,000-pound bomb than you might assume.

Escalating the conflict also carries another risk, which is that the DPRK might decide to answer in kind. Even if they restricted their response to conventional weapons only, the DPRK has a huge military; its weapons are old and its soldiers undertrained and hungry, but they could still do a lot of damage before higher-quality ROK and US forces could bring them to heel. Even worse, the Southern capitol of Seoul is just 30 miles away from the DMZ; that’s close enough for DPRK artillery to be able to shell the city with impunity, without even having to cross over into ROK territory. 24 million people live in Seoul and its greater metro area, which is half of the entire population of the ROK overall. A concerted attack on the capital could thus cause a human tragedy on a nearly unimaginable scale; even if the DPRK lacks the capacity to capture and hold the city, they could raze it to the ground without much trouble.

The wild card: China

And beyond the DPRK itself lurks the great wildcard in all of these scenarios: its patron and guarantor, China.

China’s interests in this matter have been remarkably consistent, going all the way back to the 1950s. They see the DPRK as a valuable buffer zone separating their territory from a potentially hostile U.S. ally, and they want to avoid having to deal with the tidal wave of Northern refugees that would flow towards them if the Kim regime collapsed. So they prop up the DPRK, giving it enough of a lifeline to keep it from collapsing under the weight of its own internal contradictions. None of which is to say that the Chinese are particularly enthusiastic about the DPRK’s behavior, of course; just that from their perspective, the ideal state of affairs on the peninsula is the status quo we live with today.

If a shooting war broke out with the DPRK on one side and the U.S. and ROK on the other, the Chinese would be placed in a difficult spot. They’d want to ensure their client state wasn’t completely eliminated, since that would mean the end of the buffer zone. But they’d also want to limit their own exposure to the fighting, or at least make sure that they engage with it on terms and in places they consider acceptable.

All of this was just as true in 1950 as it is today, and when the last Korean War broke out, the Chinese made an attempt to reconcile these various pressures. They didn’t oppose the Northern invasion of the South, but they didn’t overtly support it, either; and when United Nations forces began driving the DPRK out of Southern territory, they didn’t step in to stop that either. It was only when General Douglas MacArthur, in one of the most truly boneheaded decisions in American military history, chose to drive all the way to the Chinese border and attempt to unify the peninsula that Chinese forces finally intervened, inflicting a staggering reverse on MacArthur and turning what seemed like an imminent victory into a stalemate that would drag out for two more long years.

What policy would the Chinese take in response to a modern-day MacArthur? Nobody really knows. But modern China is a growing world power, looking for excuses to show off its new strength; and if Chinese forces should meet American ones directly in battle, the world would finally find out what happens when two nuclear-armed world powers go toe to toe. Which isn’t a lesson I think anyone is enthusiastic about learning first person.

In which I lose patience with the vapid amorality of our discourse

Detail from Edvard Munch, "The Scream." 1893.

Detail from Edvard Munch, “The Scream.” 1893.

This is just a brief note to express my disgust at the state of American political discourse today.

You are probably familiar with Quote-Unquote “President” Trump’s latest Twitter outrage, in which he said some pretty nasty things about MSNBC Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski.

This outburst is completely reprehensible. Not just reprehensible for the President of the United States, but for anybody. Any man who lashed out at a woman with this kind of vicious, fact-free, casually misogynistic attack would be condemned, and rightly so. And the media has been quick to condemn Trump for it in the strongest possible terms, which they should.

But I want to contrast this episode with another outrage coming out of the White House that has attracted a much more muted response. That outrage is the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which has been passed by the House and is currently within an inch of being passed by the Senate.

I call it an outrage because it has been estimated that both of these repeal bills would leave more than 20 million people without health insurance, and cost many of those who don’t lose their insurance thousands of dollars more per year in medical expenses.  And those estimates don’t come from some granola-crunchy liberal think tank or Democratic politician’s office; they come from the Congressional Budget Office — an agency that is part of Congress, which, remember, is at the moment entirely controlled by Republicans. See for yourself: here’s their analysis of the House bill, and of the Senate version. So there’s not really any doubt that this is going to be a disaster for lots of low-income and middle-class people.

(So why are they doing it, you ask? Because it lets them give the richest Americans a trillion-dollar tax cut. But I digress.)

On this, however, the media response has been much more muted. There’s no outrage to be found, just all the standard horse-race political nonsense. Will Mitch McConnell be able to pull together a majority in the Senate to pass the bill? Will throwing 24 million people into a completely avoidable personal financial crisis help or hurt the Republicans’ chances in the upcoming midterm elections? What would the passage or failure of repeal mean for the fate of Trump’s other legislative priorities?

It’s being covered like just one more everyday political story, in other words — despite the fact that it is very much not an everyday political story. It’s a story of huge and immediate consequence for a large slice of the American population! But you’d never know that from the coverage.

Which raises the obvious question: why? Why is the insult to Brzezinski covered as a serious moral transgression, while the insult to the millions of Americans ACA repeal would impact is not?

Allow me to suggest a hypothesis: the media takes the insult to Brzezinski seriously because Mika Brzezinski is somebody they know. They know her personally, she is part of their peer group, so an attack on her feels like an attack on them.

But the millions and millions of low-income Americans whose literal lives and deaths may hinge on whether health reform is undone or not? The people in the press doesn’t know those people, except as an abstraction. And they’re not worried about their own health insurance going away. So the issue becomes remote, impersonal — just another horse race.

Which is, or at least ought to be, an outrage all its own.

The end of the atomic interceptors

An operational test launch of an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., is seen from nearby Lompoc, Calif., Sept. 26, 2013. The ICBM safely launched and traveled the approximately 4,200 nautical miles to its target in the Marshall Islands. Photo credit: Lt. Col. Andy Wulfestieg, U.S. Air Force.

An operational test launch of an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., is seen from nearby Lompoc, Calif., Sept. 26, 2013. The ICBM safely launched and traveled the approximately 4,200 nautical miles to its target in the Marshall Islands. Photo credit: Lt. Col. Andy Wulfestieg, U.S. Air Force.

The strategy of defending America’s cities from atomic attack by detonating nuclear weapons over them wasn’t abandoned because of its seeming absurdity. It was abandoned because new technology made it obsolete.

Nike, Bomarc and Genie had all been designed under the same assumption: that, when atomic weapons came flying towards American cities, they would be carried by manned bombers. And even though the new jet engine had made manned bombers faster, they were still slow enough to be detected long before they reached their targets, giving missiles and fighters plenty of time to reach them.

All those assumptions were overturned on October 4, 1957, when a Soviet rocket launched the first artificial satellite (“Sputnik”) into Earth orbit.

The ballistic missile age arrives

If a Russian missile could lob a satellite into space, defense planners realized, it could also lob a nuclear warhead into the heart of an American city; and that meant that shooting down the carrier of an atomic bomb had suddenly gotten much, much harder.

A cutting-edge 1950s Soviet jet bomber like the Tupolev Tu-16 could reach speeds of 650 miles per hour. That was fast, but the enormous distances between Russian territory and American meant that it would still take many hours for such a bomber to reach U.S. targets. For a rocket intended to reach space, though, 650 miles per hour was nothing; such a rocket had to go much, much faster than that simply to have enough velocity to counter the enormous pull of Earth’s gravity. So now defense planners had a very different problem: shooting down a vehicle carrying an atomic bomb at them at speeds closer to 18,000 miles per hour.

And shooting down a vehicle moving at 18,000 miles per hour, it turns out, is hard. Really hard. So hard, in fact, that even today it’s a problem that nobody has really been able to solve. Using 1950s technology, it was effectively impossible. The intercontinental ballistic missile quickly established itself as a weapon against which there was no practical means of defense.

Overnight, Sputnik had rendered Nike, Bomarc and Genie utterly obsolete.

Winding down

In the world of defense procurement, however, just because a weapons program doesn’t make sense anymore doesn’t mean money will stop being thrown at it.

The first of the three atomic interceptor projects to succumb to the new realities was Bomarc. The Air Force hadn’t even been able to get a single Bomarc installation up and running before Sputnik robbed the project of its reason to exist. Buffeted by budget overruns and safety problems, Bomarc soldiered on throughout the 1960s, but by 1972 all ten Bomarc sites had been decommissioned. The SAGE ground control system held on for a little longer, finally being replaced in 1983 by the Joint Surveillance System.

Unlike the Air Force, the Army had at least been able to get Nike into service while it still had some relevance, but the post-Sputnik world was no kinder to its ambitions for Nike than it had been to the Air Force’s for Bomarc. As Nike Ajax had been succeeded by the more capable Hercules, the Army planned to replace Hercules itself with an even more advanced system, dubbed “Nike Zeus.”  Recognizing that the nature of the threat had changed, Zeus’ designers tried to give it the capability to intercept not just bombers, but missiles and even satellites in space.

But testing of the system was inconclusive as to its effectiveness, and, more damningly, reports by two panels of experts found that the economic logic of the system was flawed — it would cost an adversary less to build more missiles than it would cost the U.S. to build enough Zeus capacity to shoot them down. Whether or not to continue with Zeus became a hotly debated subject in Congress in the early 1960s, which in turn made it one of the major defense issues considered by President John F. Kennedy and his defense secretary, Robert MacNamara. MacNamara eventually concluded that Zeus would cost more than it was worth, and when he convinced Kennedy of the logic of this position in 1963, the program came to an end.

The end of Zeus was not quite the end of Project Nike, however. Work continued through the mid-1960s on yet another system, “Nike-X,” which would further evolve through the late ’60s and the 1970s into the Sentinel and Safeguard projects. None of these would be deployed on a national scale the way Ajax or Hercules had been, however, so effectively the dream of a comprehensive system of defensive missile systems died with Zeus.

Ironically, the simplest and least ambitious of the three atomic interceptor projects, Genie, would be the longest-lived. Genie didn’t require extensive networks of ground-based launchers and guidance controls; all it needed was planes that were fitted to carry it. And the primary plane fitted to carry Genie, the F-106 Delta Dart, served for quite a long time — F-106s were in service with active-duty Air Force units through the early 1980s, and with Air National Guard units until 1988. Interceptors armed with nuclear-tipped Genie missiles were patrolling the skies of North America until almost the final moments of the Cold War.

The future is conventional

The end of the atomic interceptors didn’t mean the end of the dream of a defense against nuclear attack, of course. As noted above, Nike evolved into a series of anti-ballistic missile (ABM) projects, though the ABM Treaty of 1972 effectively closed them down. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan would famously revive the dream with his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly known as “Star Wars”; it focused on shooting down missiles using laser weapons based in space rather than missiles based on the ground. And while SDI research failed to ever produce a workable system, research continued through the Clinton Administration under the reorganized Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO). President George W. Bush would shuffle the deck again, dismantling BMDO and replacing it with the new Missile Defense Agency (MDA), which still works on these problems today.

And that work really does continue: just three days ago, the MDA made headlines by announcing that it was able to successfully shoot down a ballistic missile in a test scenario. This was hailed as a breakthrough in anti-missile defense, though more skeptical observers noted that a single successful test result is still a long way from a comprehensive defense against missiles. But what’s worth noting here is that, while decades of research has in one sense brought the Department of Defense right back to the ground-based missile solution they started with, in another sense the projects they’re working on today are very different. Because, unlike Nike and Bomarc and Genie, today’s anti-ballistic missiles aren’t armed with nuclear warheads of their own, and no serious proposals exist to make them so.

If the problem is still hitting a bullet with another bullet, today’s solutions seek to refine our aim, rather than to build bigger bullets.

Bomarc and Genie: the Air Force’s atomic interceptors

The Army was not the only branch of service planning to fight a nuclear war above Americans’ heads.

Military aviation was a part of the Army from its earliest days through the end of World War 2. At the end of that conflict, though, America’s airmen — imbued by the atomic bomb with a new sense of the importance of their discipline — pressed to be reorganized as an independent service, and in 1947 they got their way. The old U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) became the new U.S. Air Force, trading their “pinks and greens” for new uniforms of sky blue.

Splitting the air arm out into an independent service opened up lots of questions about where the Army’s responsibilities ended and the new Air Force’s began. Among these was the question of which service would retain the fledgling anti-aircraft missile program.

That jurisdictional fight was won by the Army, which is why the Ajax and Hercules missiles ended up under Army command. The Air Force had one last trick up its sleeve, though. They could not develop anti-aircraft missiles of their own, but they could develop aircraft, and this provided a loophole big enough to fly the Air Force’s ambitions through. An anti-aircraft missile, they argued, was really just an aircraft that happened to lack a pilot. Under that logic, they contracted with Boeing to develop an anti-aircraft missile the Air Force could call its own.


Boeing partnered with the University of Michigan’s Michigan Aeronautical Research Center (MARC) to fulfill the contract, and while the Air Force initially called the resulting system the F-99, the name that would stick came from a portmanteau combining the names of the two organizations that built it: “Bomarc.”

(The F-99 designation didn’t last; “F” was the letter used in their naming system for manned fighters, and even the Air Force couldn’t pretend that Bomarc was just a manned aircraft without the man forever. Eventually the designation of Bomarc settled at IM-99, with “IM” standing for “Interception Missile.”)

The weapon that emerged from the Bomarc design process was technically very impressive. The original production version, the IM-99A, first flew on February 24, 1955; it could reach a top speed of Mach 2.5 and carry a 10 kiloton atomic warhead out over a range of 250 miles. It combined two different engines, using a liquid-fueled rocket motor at takeoff for a quick boost to supersonic speeds, then switching over to a more fuel-efficient ramjet engine for long-range cruising.

And the technical innovations of Bomarc didn’t stop with the missile itself. The ground control system that would guide Bomarc to its targets was revolutionary. Called the “Semi-Automatic Ground Environment” (SAGE), it applied cutting-edge technology from the new field of electronic computers to the problem of missile guidance. SAGE ground stations were built around a new computer, IBM’s AN/FSQ-7, which was at the time both the largest and the fastest computer in the world. (Before the invention of the transistor kicked off the Moore’s Law-driven miniaturization of computers, a fast computer was necessarily a large one.)

The power of the AN/FSQ-7 allowed it to provide its operators with an unprecedented degree of user-friendliness. SAGE operators could pull up information on incoming targets and guide missiles to them in what we today would call “point and click” fashion, using a built-in light gun.

A SAGE operator interacting with his command console through its light gun. Photo credit: MITRE Corporation.

A SAGE operator interacting with his command console through its light gun. Photo credit: MITRE Corporation.

(Designed in an age when everybody smoked, SAGE command consoles also thoughtfully included a built-in cigarette lighter and ash tray.)

All that advanced technology, though, caused Bomarc as many problems as it solved. Bomarc development was slow, and the slow pace gave ammunition to critics in Congress, who doubted the need for the entire system when the Army already had Nike. This created budget pressure that forced the Air Force to continually scale back its plans for Bomarc, from 52 sites at the outset to eventually just ten. Tests of the high-tech SAGE system between 1960 and 1962 revealed that its expensive, computerized wizardry could be easily and cheaply defeated by planes scattering aluminum chaff — a conclusion that led NORAD to keep the test results classified until 1997.

Most disturbingly, as with the Nike Ajax which also used a liquid-fueled rocket booster, the IM-99A’s use of highly explosive liquid rocket fuel eventually led to a catastrophe. On June 7, 1960, a nuclear-armed Bomarc missile at Fort Dix, New Jersey exploded on the ground, scattering radioactive material and starting a fire that burned for fifteen hours. Despite cleanup procedures that included sealing up to 10 acres of the launch site under concrete, radioactive particles were still being discovered in the vicinity of the explosion decades later.

An improved version of Bomarc was eventually developed in response to these issues. Designated the IM-99B “Super Bomarc,” it replaced the A model’s liquid-fueled rocket with a new one that used more stable solid fuels; this both removed the risk of explosion on the ground and cut the missile’s time to launch from two minutes to thirty seconds. 269 IM-99A and 301 IM-99B missiles were built for the Air Force between 1957 and 1964.


F-106A fires Genie missile

California Air National Guard F-106 Delta Dart aircraft after firing an ATR-2A missile. Photo credit: United States Air Force.

The Air Force did not limit its interest in incepting nuclear-armed bombers to nuclear-armed ground-based missiles, however. It had another project running at the same time that would bring nuclear-tipped missiles to its fleet of interceptor aircraft.

The missile that would eventually be designated AIR-2 Genie began as a research project at the Douglas Aircraft Company in 1954. Unlike Bomarc, which was packed with sophisticated guidance systems to lead it to its target, Genie was comparatively simple: a “dumb,” unguided rocket with a nuclear warhead that would be carried to and launched at its target by an aircraft in flight. Once launched it would fly (at speeds exceeding Mach 3) in a straight line, which made it less sophisticated than both Nike and Bomarc, both of which could make course corrections to follow evasive targets. But, the argument went, bombers were not particularly maneuverable targets anyway; and besides, the explosion from Genie’s 1.5-kiloton nuclear warhead would be big enough that all the missile would have to do is get close.

The operating concept for Genie was straightforward. Incoming bombers would be detected by U.S. radar networks; Air Force fighters armed with Genie missiles would be scrambled to meet them; somewhere in between, the Genies would be fired at the bombers. The only guidance systems the Genies would have would be the pilots of the aircraft that fired them — a concept that greatly appealed to the Air Force, which has always valorized the pilot and viewed unmanned aircraft with a mixture of contempt and suspicion. (Which is why, in our modern wars, it was the CIA and not the Air Force that created the first armed drone.)

The relative simplicity of Genie meant that Douglas could turn it from a concept to a finished product relatively quickly; test firings of unarmed Genies were underway by 1956, and the first production models made their way into Air Force arsenals by 1957. (The midair Operation Plumbbob explosion described in the first part of this series was the result of a live Genie being fired — as of this writing, the first and only time a nuclear air-to-air missile has been fired.)

The Genie used solid fuels from the beginning, which meant it avoided the safety dangers Nike Ajax and Bomarc suffered from by using more volatile liquid fuels. But firing a live Genie posed a risk of its own; the missile only had a range of six miles, and the blast area of its explosion could cover nearly 1,000 feet, so once the missile was on its way it was imperative that the firing aircraft turn sharply to avoid getting caught up in the blast. Genies were launched from high-speed interceptor aircraft such as the F-106 Delta Dart, which could travel at speeds beyond Mach 2; Boeing’s Web page on the Genie politely describes making such sharp turns at such high speeds as “a challenging feat.”

Still, despite its limitations, the Genie’s simplicity made it a successhe longest-lived of the atomic weapons designed to shoot down Soviet bombers. More than 3,000 were produced to be fielded by both the United States and Canada, and the system was not withdrawn from service until the 1980s.

Tomorrow: the end of the atomic interceptors

Project Nike: the Army’s atomic interceptors

The Army started working on the anti-aircraft missile problem in 1944, before World War 2 had even ended.

Startled by the appearance in European skies of fast-moving Nazi jets, the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) — the Air Force would not become an independent service until 1947 — put out a request for proposals from private industry for an anti-aircraft missile system to counter them. The proposal they accepted, from Bell Laboratories, would grow into what was known as Project Nike.

Named for the Greek goddess of victory, Project Nike was an ambitious effort to defend America’s cities from atomic attack by ringing them with batteries of high-speed, long-range anti-aircraft missiles. Guided by radar stations on the ground, the missiles would knock enemy bombers out of the sky long before they could reach their targets.

The Nike effort moved fast. By 1951, a test rocket had shot down its first target, a remotely-guided B-17 Flying Fortress.

Construction of missile batteries in 40 “defense areas” surrounding major cities followed. By 1960, more than 250 Nike launch stations had been erected around cities across North America.

(While these sites are now abandoned, many are still accessible to visitors; one, outside San Francisco, has been preserved and incorporated into a national park.)

The first missile produced to fill all those batteries entered service in 1954: the MIM-3, christened at first “Nike I” and then later “Nike Ajax.” Nike Ajax seemed at first like a potent solution to the fast-bomber problem. The missile flew at speeds greater than Mach 2, over ranges as far as 30 miles and altitudes as high as 70,000 feet. It carried three warheads, each filled with conventional explosives. And it was affordable enough to be purchased in great numbers — when the Ajax production lines finally closed down, 13,714 missiles had been delivered.

This optimism proved illusory, however. Improved jet engines meant bombers could speed across distances faster and faster, making Ajax’s 30-mile range seem less comfortable than it first had. While Ajax’s conventional warheads packed enough punch to bring down a single bomber, that wasn’t good enough when combined with the limited capabilities of radar sets of the time (which had trouble picking out single targets from within a group flying in formation) and the possibility of raids by hundreds of bombers. And Ajax rockets were liquid-fueled, which created new sets of problems; liquid-fueled rockets have to be fueled immediately before launching, which slowed down Ajax’s response time, and liquid rocket fuels require extremely delicate storage and handling to avoid causing accidental combustion.

Furthermore, the reputation of Ajax suffered serious blows from two high-profile accidents. The first came at Fort Meade on April 14, 1955, when an Ajax missile was accidentally launched during routine maintenance, exploding high in the atmosphere between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. No fatalities or property damage were caused by the launch; the main damage was to Ajax’s (and the Army’s) reputation, since the accident occurred right on the doorsteps of Congress and the national media.

A more serious accident occurred on May 22, 1958, when an Ajax missile exploded on its pad outside Leonardo, New Jersey. The explosion set off a chain reaction among other nearby missiles; by the time it was all over, eight missiles had exploded, and six servicemen and four civilians had lost their lives.

Bell Labs responded to these criticisms in the late ’50s with an improved missile, the MIM-14 “Nike Hercules.”

Hercules was everything Ajax was not. It replaced Ajax’s liquid fuel with safer, more stable solid fuel. It could reach out 90 miles to knock down its targets, rather than just 30. And its bigger frame meant it could replace Ajax’s conventional explosives with an atomic warhead packing as much as 20 kilotons of explosive force. (“Little Boy,” the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, was a 15-kiloton weapon.)

Recognizing how advancements in technology had reduced the effectiveness of Nike Ajax, in 1958 the Army began a concerted push to phase out Ajax installations and replace them with Hercules. By 1963, 163 Hercules batteries had been set up, and Ajax almost completely phased out.

But by the time Hercules came along, Project Nike was not the only game in town. The U.S. Air Force, newly established as an independent service separate from the Army, had made its own plans to seize the mission of defense from atomic bombing away from the Army and claim it for themselves — and those plans would come to fruition in two projects that would directly challenge the primacy of Nike.

Tomorrow: Bomarc and Genie

The nuclear war America planned to fight over her own cities

In 1957, five volunteers wait for a 2 kiloton atomic bomb to detonate directly above them. Photo credit: screen capture from U.S. government film footage.

In 1957, five volunteers wait for a 2 kiloton atomic bomb to detonate directly above them. Photo credit: screen capture from U.S. government film footage.

On July 19, 1957, six men — five volunteers and one photographer — gathered in the vast, empty desert outside Las Vegas, Nevada. They were there to wait for an atomic bomb to go off directly above them.

Their gathering was part of Operation Plumbbob, a series of nuclear tests carried out by the U.S. government between May and October of 1957. The Plumbbob tests had been ordered due to a recent shift in American nuclear doctrine. Earlier tests had focused on the impact nuclear weapons would have on enemy targets — foreign cities and military forces that found themselves on the wrong end of the American nuclear spear. Those tests had yielded a wealth of data, but they were silent on one point: what the effects would be if America set off a nuclear bomb over a friendly target — her own troops, her own cities. And now, for the first time, setting off a atomic bomb over a friendly target was something the United States government was planning to do.

Most people are familiar with the basic narrative of the Cold War: a nearly fifty-year atomic arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, with each side stockpiling huge arsenals of nuclear weapons to deter attack from the other.

This doctrine of “deterrence” — of frightening off potential adversaries by wielding enough nuclear might to make your potential retaliation devastating — is familiar because it’s the pattern the Cold War eventually settled into. But it was not the way people thought at the beginning. When the Cold War was young, generals thought about a nuclear war as something you could fight and win. And fighting a nuclear war, to them, meant using the only tool they had at hand that could stop a nuclear weapon: another nuclear weapon.

“The bomber will always get through”

The first nuclear attacks by one nation against another took place in August 1945, when the United States dropped the bombs known as “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Little Boy and Fat Man both reached their eventual targets in the same manner: they were hauled there in and dropped from a manned bomber aircraft. This was not an accident. The first atomic bombs were huge, heavy things — so heavy that even the biggest bomber in the American inventory, the B-29 Superfortress, could not carry Fat Man and Little Boy without extensive modifications. But the modifications were made, because in 1945, if you wanted to haul a heavy payload to an enemy city and drop it there, manned bombers were the only tool available that could do the job.

After the war’s end, this key fact remained true. The United States already had a few atomic bombs, and the Soviet Union was racing to catch up. But those bombs couldn’t be dropped without bombers, and defending against bombers was a tricky proposition.

Stanley Baldwin

British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, 1920.

Before the war, it had been widely believed that bombers were a sort of irresistible force — that no defense in existence could turn determined bombers away from their target. British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin put forward the most eloquent expression of this opinion in a famous speech in 1932:

That is the appalling speed which the air has brought into modern warfare; the speed of the attack. The speed of the attack, compared with the attack of an army, is as the speed of a motor-car to that of a four-in-hand. In the next war you will find that any town within reach of an aerodrome can be bombed within the first five minutes of war to an extent inconceivable in the last War, and the question is, Whose morale will be shattered quickest by that preliminary bombing?

I think it is well also for the man in the street to realize that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed, whatever people may tell him. The bomber will always get through.

Then came the war, and it fell to the airmen of Baldwin’s own nation to demonstrate just how wrong he had been.

The Royal Air Force invented the strategy that would defeat his assumption, combining high-performance fighter aircraft, ground-based anti-aircraft cannons, and a top-secret tool called “RADAR” to defeat Hitler’s bombers in the Battle of Britain. Then the roles reversed, and it was Nazi aviators using the same tools to inflict appalling casualties on British and American bomber forces.

Baldwin’s prediction was technically correct; some bombers always did make it through the new defenses. But the defenses could inflict such fearful casualties that attackers would lose bombers and crews faster than they could be replaced. That made the strategy of trying to knock an enemy out of the war through non-stop bombing  — “strategic bombing,” the air planners called it — a Pyrrhic strategy.

Baldwin’s fear realized: A-bombs and jets

The introduction of the atomic bomb, however, changed the calculus. Suddenly the damage that had previously taken hundreds of bombers and thousands of bombs to inflict could be inflicted by one bomber, with one bomb.

That created a new dilemma for those who would defend against such attacks. Before the A-bomb, shooting down five percent of the enemy’s bombers each mission was sufficient to bleed them into inactivity. Now, though, every bomber had to be shot down. If even a single one made it through, tens of thousands of civilians on the ground could pay with their lives.

The situation was made even more complicated by the arrival near war’s end of another new technology: the jet engine.

The jet made it possible to imagine bombers, which had always been slow, lumbering beasts, that flew faster than the fighters tasked with shooting them down. (The Boeing B-47, whose design was begun late in the war, could fly at 607 miles per hour; the Convair B-58, a few years later, more than doubled that speed. The B-58 flew so fast that a special escape capsule had to be designed for it, to allow its crewmembers to survive bailing out.)

Here was the specter facing the defense planners of the early Cold War: bombers flying too fast to be shot down, of which every single one had to be shot down in order to avoid catastrophe. Clearly, something new would be needed to meet this threat.

The rocket revolution

There was a candidate to become that something new, at least in theory.

During the war, the Nazis had experimented extensively with unmanned rockets in a variety of military roles. Even the most successful of their efforts were crude, but they did prove that the idea of guiding an unmanned vehicle from a remote location was practical.

Given that, strategists wondered, what if you could use such a system to guide a small rocket, launched from the ground or from an aircraft, into an enemy aircraft?

In theory, such a missile would have advantages that made it better suited to the demands of the atomic age than more traditional weapons like manned fighters. Manned fighters were expensive, and their speed and maneuverability were both limited by the physical limitations of the human body. Missiles would be cheaper than bombers, allowing them to be deployed in greater numbers; and since they carried no pilot, they could travel even faster than the jet bombers they hunted.

However, as the scientists started to work on the problem, they discovered that a workable anti-aircraft missile would have to overcome some very difficult challenges, not least of which being that its targets would be aircraft — small targets, moving very fast. (Or, as this type of problem has been described, “hitting a bullet with another bullet.”)

With the technology of the 1940s and 1950s, these problems were hard to solve. Radar could warn of an approaching bomber, but it was too bulky to load directly onto a missile, and too imprecise to guide a missile into a fast-moving target. Human operators could guide a missile remotely, but they didn’t have the reaction times necessary to guide a missile traveling as fast as Mach 3 into a collision with a small target.

But these problems, they eventually decided, all stemmed from the same basic fact: for a missile with a conventional explosive warhead to knock down a bomber, the missile had to physically collide with the bomber itself. A near miss would not be sufficient. Which led logically to a question: what if the missile didn’t use a conventional explosive warhead? What if it used a warhead that produced an explosion so big that even a near miss would not just knock down the target, but every aircraft in the vicinity?

If you want to your missile to make a bang that big, there’s only one choice: a nuclear warhead.

So, for two decades, the American military stood ready to counter a Soviet nuclear attack with a defensive nuclear barrage of its own, right above the heads of the American people. And the Army and Air Force fought a bitter bureaucratic battle over which of them would have the privilege of setting it off.

Tomorrow: The Army’s atomic interceptors, Project Nike

People met in hotel lobbies

One of the pleasures of digging through old newspapers is the way you occasionally stumble across something that illustrates just how foreign a country the past really is.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Washington Post ran a regular column under the charmingly Victorian title “People Met in Hotel Lobbies.”

"People Met in Hotel Lobbies"

(Or “Heard in Hotel Lobbies,” or “Men in Hotel Lobbies,” or just “In Hotel Lobbies.” The title floated around a bit over the years. But you get the idea.)

The premise of the column was pretty simple. Back then, before travel became a thing that the unwashed masses did on a regular basis, coming and going through hotel lobbies was the sort of thing that marked a person out as someone of significance, as a Man of Affairs. So the Post had reporters whose job was simply to hang out in the lobbies of the city’s fashionable hotels, interviewing anybody who happened to walk by, on the theory that if you were the sort of person who would be walking through a hotel lobby your opinions were probably worth recording.

Was that theory right? Having read through a fair few of these columns, I can report to you, Dear Reader, that it was not. This was before two World Wars made Washington the capital of the free world, and the people who pass through “In Hotel Lobbies” are for the most part dreary bores pursuing the sorts of business one would pursue in the provincial capital of a provincial nation: businessmen seeking adjustments to this law or that tariff, boosters of development projects trying to drum up backing for their latest scheme, local political nabobs come to kiss their party leaders’ rings.

They’re not all dross, though. Digging through the archives, every now and then you stumble across a story that jumps out at you. Some feature confident predictions that we in the far future know will turn out to be spectacularly right (or spectacularly wrong); others say more about their subject than either the reporter or interviewee realizes; others are simply warm, relatable human interest stories. Taken together, they provide a fascinating portrait of Washington life in the long, slow sunset of the Gilded Age.

I haven’t been able to review them all — the column ran for many years, and at its height was a daily feature, so there simply hasn’t been enough time. I wanted to give you a sample, though, so I’ve read through the “In Hotel Lobbies” columns published in 1889 and 1890 and picked out a few to highlight here. (If you’d like to read more, ask your local library if they have access to ProQuest’s Historical Newspapers database, which includes all issues of the Post published between 1877 and 2000.)

November 28, 1889: Chicago tailor A.M. Denny wants you to understand that American-made clothes are every bit as good as those made in England, thank you very G-D much.

Excerpt from “Heard in Hotel Lobbies,” The Washington Post, November 28, 1889.

“After all there is nothing superior to American-made clothing,” said Mr. A. M. Denny, a Chicago merchant tailor, as he sat in one corner of the Ebbitt House lobby and watched the busy throng of politicians. Mr. Denny has just returned from abroad and it was but natural for him to investigate the clothing trade and make comparisons during his absence. “We Americans not only make better and cheaper clothing, but our styles are more graceful and comfortable. It used to be thought that a certain class of Americans thought they were not properly dressed unless they had English-made garments, but they are fast getting over that idea. The English, too, are coming to our ideas of cutting and making. Quite frequently in London I would see signs which read: ‘American-made clothing here,’ or ‘The latest American fashions in clothing.’ This would indicate that our styles are becoming popular abroad. And why shouldn’t they? We employ the best workmen and offer every inducement to our designers, and in the ready-made line it would seem that we are ages ahead of our English cousins. I am not trying to make a tariff argument out of these comparisons, but rather attribute our superiority to American genius and business tact.”

November 29, 1889: M.L. Parvin, “a bright mulatto” of New Orleans, argues a way forward for African-Americans that would be echoed in Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” six years later.

Excerpt from “Heard in Hotel Lobbies,” The Washington Post, November 29, 1889.

“What do I think of the proposed national movement for the protection of the rights of the colored people?” repeated Mr. M. L. Parvin, a bright mulatto who is a prominent man among his race at New Orleans. “I hardly know what to say, as I have not given the plan that attention I should have done. However, I am not a great believer in these race movements. If there is a wrong being done American citizens, and I think all will admit that such is the case with our people in some sections, the remedy should be provided in some general measure. What I mean is that it should not be framed especially to meet the cases of the colored people. Such laws only lumber up our statutes.

“Take the civil rights law, for instance. It is almost useless for any man to institute proceedings under it. People look on it as a ‘nigger’ law, and I really believe it has been a detriment to our race. It was no doubt well intended, but its effect has been far from satisfactory. After all, the only thing that will secure our rights is healthy public sentiment. The American people have a strong sense of right and wrong, and if there is to be an organization of any kind I am in favor of using it in that direction. Let us demonstrate that we are entitled to be placed on an equal footing with our fellow-citizens, and then I will have no fears as to the result.”

January 24, 1890: Telegraph engineer T.P. Dowly explains one of the major challenges that had to be overcome to build a nationwide telegraph network — the tendency of buffalo to view the poles as heaven-sent scratching posts.

Excerpt from “In Hotel Lobbies,” The Washington Post, January 24, 1890.

Col. T. P. Dowly, a ’49er, Pike’s Peaker, of ’56; a Black Hill’s boomer, of ’76, and a Leadville hustler, of ’78, is among the guests of the Ebbitt. Colonel Dowly is a telegraph genius and labored upon the construction of the Union Pacific telegraph line west from Omaha in ’69. “The greatest difficulty we encountered,” says the colonel, “was from the buffalos. They used the poles for scratching posts, and rallied from all parts of the bare plain to these — what they regarded — Godsends of comfort. A young Yankee with us invented a sharp brad-awl about three inches long to run into the poles with the points outward. It was thought sure that these ugly spikes would fend off the uneasy buffalo. It proved that the sharp points only made the sensation more grateful to the lordly bison, and down went every pole for fifty miles out of Omaha that night.”

January 29, 1890: James O’Beirne, Civil War veteran of New York’s “Irish Rifles” (and a guy who led a pretty interesting life) explains his personal cure for the flu.

Excerpt from “In Hotel Lobbies,” The Washington Post, January 29, 1890.

Gen. James R. O’Beirne was just going up the Riggs House elevator last night after having dispatched a lot of letters for the Spanish mail. “I got back from Venezeuela,” said he, “in time to catch a slight attack of the grip. But I cured it with a little invention of my own.”

“What was it?”

“Raw onions and milk.”

April 25, 1890: Thirty years before the Eighteenth Amendment brings Prohibition to the entire nation, S.W. Rathbun explains how it is going to go down.

Excerpt from “In Hotel Lobbies,” The Washington Post, April 25, 1890.

Maj. S. W. Rathbun, of the Marion (Iowa) Register, is in Washington. He is a six-foot figure in Iowa Republican politics, and knows Iowa men and measures from the river front to the Nebraska line. “Prohibition,” said he, “has produced mixed results. It works in small towns and rural districts, but there is more or less open sale in the large towns, and in the cities on the river the saloons are open and undisguised. When there is any effort to suppress the saloons the ‘boot-legs’ and ‘holes-in-the-wall’ do a big business. It would have strengthened the Republican party if the last legislature had adopted a local option law. A majority of the Republican party is in favor of prohibition, or thinks it is, but a very strong and determined minority is in favor of a return to the law which permitted the sale of beers and light wines.”

May 3, 1890: Meet Ira Barnett of Louisville, Kentucky. He’s a pretty big wheel down at the cracker factory.

Excerpt from “In Hotel Lobbies,” The Washington Post, May 3, 1890.

“I am here,” said Ira S. Barnett, of Louisville, last night at Willard’s, “with some ten others in connection with the cracker industry. We have been in conference to-day, talking matters over and giving our experiences. The object chiefly is to put better goods on the market without asking any increase in the prevailing prices. In the South we have succeeded, and understand each other thoroughly. I don’t know as there is much in what we are doing to interest the public, except the price of the article, and, as I said before, that will remain unchanged.” Mr. Barnett is much pleased with the city, and intends to make a good inspection of it before taking his departure for home.

June 1, 1890: Have you heard Confederate veteran J. L. Vandiver’s Civil War stories? Don’t worry; if you bump into him in a hotel lobby, you are going to.

Excerpt from “In Hotel Lobbies,” The Washington Post, June 1, 1890.

A typical Virginian — six feet three and slender, with a long hickory stick and the beautiful blue and gold badge of Winchester Camp, No. 4 — was in the lobby of the Metropolitan last night. He wore a full beard and his trousers were tucked into his boots. He was Col. J. L. Vandiver, of Millwood, Va., on his way home from the Richmond unveiling. He took from his coat a pocketbook and a diary torn by a minnie bullet. “They helped save my life,” said he. “I was trying to saber a Yankee soldier, who fired at me point blank. His bullet passed through my arm, these books, and a hunting-case watch and broke two ribs.

“At seventeen I was a member of the company which formed the guard at John Brown’s execution.

Then he opened his diary and read:

February 21. ’65 — With fifty-seven men from McNeill’s command and Company F, Rosser’s brigade, I rode from Staunton, Va., ninety miles to Cumberland, Md., and captured in their hotels Gen. John B. Crook and General Kelly in the midst of 8,000 Federal troops. The roads were supposed to be picketed for six miles out. The next night we went into camp on the south fork of the south branch of the Potomac, seven miles above Moorfield, a march of forty-two miles. The next night we camped at Harrison, thirty-two miles. The next day we arrived at Staunton and reported to Gen. Jubal A. Early. On the 25th I turned my prisoners over to Castle Thunder, at Richmond.

“When we surrendered,” continued Colonel Vandiver, “I didn’t. I broke through and joined Johnston. I never surrendered, and am a rebel still. I have six bullet wounds and a scar on my head from a piece of a shell.”

June 12, 1890: The manager of Willard’s Hotel explains that what Washington most desperately needs is a hotel that doesn’t suck.

Excerpt from “In Hotel Lobbies,” The Washington Post, June 12, 1890.

“If the business men of Washington would unite,” said Proprietor O. G. Staples, of Willard’s, “and build a hotel capable of accommodating 1,500 guests, and in keeping with the public buildings and beauty of this city, it would do more to bring people here than anything or any one enterprise for the benefit of this city. Money is plenty here, and if all would help a little this scheme could be carried out, and it would bring to this city a class of wealthy people who are strangers here now.”

July 9, 1890: Charles A. Gordon of Mississippi offers an explanation for why African-Americans in his Jim Crow state don’t vote: they are lazy.

Excerpt from “In Hotel Lobbies,” The Washington Post, July 9, 1890.

There are sections of the South where a Federal election law might be cordially welcomed even by the dominant and Democratic whites simply on the ground that it would save them labor and expense and would not affect the result. Mr. Charles A. Gordon, of Port Gibson, Miss., is at Willard’s. He is a son of President Gordon, of the Port Gibson national bank, and though young is an alderman in that thriving town, and president of the local Democratic club.

“The Federal election law cannot change results with us,” said he. “In our district the negroes outnumber the whites five to one, but we poll 1,800 votes and they only poll about 100. The reason is that they are indifferent and tired of voting and prefer to remain at home and tend to their crops. Nothing could induce them to go to the polls.

July 16, 1890: Moses Handy came all the way from Philadelphia just to get his booze on.

“In Hotel Lobbies.” The Washington Post, July 16, 1890.

Col. Moses P. Handy ran over from Philadelphia yesterday to escape heat and ennui. He stops at Chamberlin’s, where large stocks of coolness and ennui-dispellers are kept constantly on ice.

July 20, 1890: J.C. McKibben of Florida predicts that, one day, growing oranges in that state will be big business.

Excerpt from “In Hotel Lobbies,” The Washington Post, July 20, 1890.

J.C. McKibben, of Pomona, Fla., is at the Ebbitt. He is an extensive fruit-grower. “We are experimenting with new varieties of oranges,” said he, “and in a few years will supply the country with oranges all the year round. At present the season lasts from October to May. Our early fruits, peaches and such, have been hurt by the frosts.

August 13, 1890: Never share a hotel suite with a political opponent, no matter how much you like him personally.

Excerpt from “In Hotel Lobbies,” The Washington Post, August 13, 1890.

Mr. G. C. Tharp, of Brtton, S.D., was at the Metropolitan the other day; so was his friend, L. G. Johnson, who likewise hails from the new State. Mr. Tharp is a Republican; Mr. Johnson a Democrat. They occupied communicating rooms, and when a reporter sent up his card to Mr. Tharp, in the latter’s absence Mr. Johnson told the bell-boy to “show him up.” Then the rollicking Mr. Johnson proceeded, by impersonating Mr. Tharp, to enjoy the novelty of having himself interviewed. He told the reporter that the Republicans in South Dakota were “all broke up;” that Mr. Gifford would be renominated, but Mr. Pickler would have a hard time of it, and that the Farmers’ Alliance, in all probability, would sweep the State. All this was very funny in print to Mr. Johnson, but not so amusing to Mr. Tharp, whose acquaintances at home were amazed at his seeming change of front politically. Hereafter Mr. Tharp will not be caught at a hotel in company with a friend who is likely to take liberties with his name in this questionable manner.

August 19, 1890: Caleb Walton West, former governor of the Utah Territory, explains that the days when the Mormons ran Utah are pretty much over.

Excerpt from “In Hotel Lobbies,” The Washington Post, August 19, 1890.

Ex-Gov. West, of Salt Lake City, Utah’s chief official during the Cleveland administration, described the status in the country of the Latter Day Saints to THE POST reporter at the Ebbitt last night. “There are only two parties in Utah,” he said, “Mormon and anti-Mormon. The antis are rapidly getting in the ascendant all over the Territory. In Salt Lake we have entire control of the municipal offices and all but two of the county offices. The Edmunds-Tucker law was the death blow of polygamy. Since it was enacted the change that has come over the country has been marvelous. Under the new order an era of prosperity has set in; our cities have grown at a rapid rate, and the transforming touch of a better civilization has infused its spirit among the people. I don’t say, mind you, that polygamy is entirely broken up, but its votaries are so hemmed in by the law that the practice of it is carried on in the most secret way and under the most unfavorable circumstances.

“A receiver is winding up the affairs of the Mormon Church as fast as it can be done. Of course a great deal of property was hidden away, or put out of reach, but I think that something like $1,000,000 will be realized. This will go to the public school fund, and the Mormon children, being the most numerous, will get the greatest benefit.”

August 23, 1890: “Leading lawyer” James Hamilton of Mississippi assures the reporter that, while Mississippians naturally want to keep African-Americans from voting, they would never do anything to achieve that end as outlandish as extending the vote to women.

Excerpt from “In Hotel Lobbies,” The Washington Post, August 23, 1890.

Hon. James A. Hamilton, of Jackson, Miss., ex-Senator and a leading lawyer of the Mississippi capital, when interrogated at the Riggs touching affairs in his section, said: “Great interest centers in the work of our constitutional convention, now in session. I opposed the convention, for it was hard to see where any good could come of it. The fear of negro domination is the underlying motive of those who advocate it. I hold somewhat different views. The negro will never dominate the whites, even if numerically in the ascendancy. He is naturally docile, easily controlled, and as a laborer in our State is indispensable.

To eliminate the blacks in our State politics seems the chief end of the constitution framers, but nearly every member has a different method of solving the question. Somebody has gone so far as to propose female suffrage, but that will hardly be adopted. An educational qualification for suffrage wouldn’t do because there are about 16,000 white illiterates in Mississippi. Besides, in a few years the negroes would all have learning enough to vote, so that this would only be a temporary expedient. A property qualification would disenfranchise hundreds of young white men in the towns and cities, who work in stores and at various trades, but possess no real estate. The subject is full of difficulties, but I think the two races can get along in amity with the fullest justice to every citizen. A national elections law would not mend matters, but tend rather to solidify the people strictly on race lines.”

September 2, 1890: Jacob Augustus Geissenhainer, Congressman from New Jersey, loses his hat. And the Post is on it.

Excerpt from “In Hotel Lobbies,” The Washington Post, September 2, 1890.

Mr. Gessenhainer Loses His Hat at the Arlington.

Congressman Gessenhainer afforded a good deal of amusement for those who happened to be in the lobby of the Arlington last night about 8 o’clock because of the fact that when the doughty representative from the Third district of the Jersey State, after having partaken of a good dinner, searched for that very necessary covering for his noticeably shining bald pate — his hat — he found himself in the vocative. The hat, his new, shining, and glossy silk one, was not to be found, but in its place was left an old and battered straw one which would have done honor to that eccentric and certainly not dudish character in Dickens’ “Curiosity Shop,” Quilp. Mr. Gessenhainer, to say the least, did not accept the matter in the light of a joke, but, on the contrary, very seriously. Little gleams of concentrated rage and animosity shot out from that usually calm and serene blue eye, for which the Jersey statesman is noted, and for a time it looked as though somebody was going to be visited with such an ebullition of spleen and venom as would have, had he been on his native heath, carried consternation and boundless terror throughout the length and breadth of that great and only cranberry State. He swelled and swelled, and stalked furiously up and down during the interim in which several bell boys, the hotel clerk, and the cigar clerk, were busily endeavoring to locate the missing part of the great statesman’s apparel. Everybody laughed, of course, (in their sleeves, however) because it was apparent that any audible manifestation of mirth would be the occasion for that gentleman to display, like our great John, his pugilistic powers. It was only a little while, however, before the great head was once more covered with a good and becoming chapeau, and his great legislative eminence stalked forth, clothed in his right mind again. Notwithstanding the brief period which elapsed before this necessary result was accomplished, the hand organ man was around and made the circumambient air resound with that popular refrain, “Where Did You Get that Hat?”

September 3, 1890: The appearance of a foreigner in a Washington hotel lobby never goes without mention.

Excerpt from “In Hotel Lobbies,” The Washington Post, September 3, 1890.

A stout gentleman of fine appearance walked up to the clerk’s desk at the Ebbitt yesterday morning and asked if the “tram” would take him to Congress. His accent bespoke the Briton, and being a stranger he wanted to know if the street cars running by the door would bear him to the Capitol. He was Mr. W. F. Bishop, a wealthy brewer of Burton-on-Trent, who is taking in the sights of America for the first time.

“I am infatuated with this city,” he said. “It is beyond all comparison the most beautiful place I have ever seen, and I have done a good bit of traveling in my time. What I like best are your magnificent roads. They are not equaled in the world.

“I listened to a portion of the debate in the Senate yesterday, and was interested in it because such frequent allusion was made to England. I am a free-trader, but see no reason for alarm on the part of English manufacturers in the event the McKinley bill passes. There will always be a demand for British goods, but of course the time is coming when the United States will be our great rival in things that we have now but little competition to meet from this side of the Atlantic.”

September 20, 1890: Thomas Jones, newly elected Governor of Alabama, tells an antebellum hotel lobby story of his own.

Excerpt from “In Hotel Lobbies,” The Washington Post, September 20, 1890.

A man six feet high, straight as an arrow, jet black hair and piercing dark eyes, with rather a stern countenance that changes into an attractive one when he smiles, is Hon. Thomas B. Jones, of Montgomery, who was elected governor of Alabama the other day by over 90,000 majority. The governor-elect can certainly lay claim to being a very handsome man, and though his years are five-and-forty, he doesn’t look that old by half a decade. An interesting episode of his visit here was the meeting yesterday between him and Senator Daniel, of Virginia. The two were school boys together, and both served in the Confederate army, the Virginian on Early’s staff, his friend on Gordon’s. At the battle of the Wilderness Daniel was shot down, severely wounded, and Jones helped to bear him from the field. Their meeting was for the first time since the stormy days of internecine strife, and it can well be imagined how pleased they were to look on each other again.

“I shall never forget,” said the governor, “one incident connected with a visit to Washington. I was a youngster attending school in Virginia, and on my way home for a vacation passed through the Capital for the express purpose of getting a glimpse of President Buchanan. Standing in the National Hotel I remarked to a friend that I hated to leave the city without seeing the President. An elderly gentleman, who was reading a paper near where we stood, looked up with a smile and remarked: ‘So you want to see the President, do you? Meet me here at 10 o’clock to-morrow and we will pay him a visit.’ It is needless to say I kept the engagement. The gentleman was on hand and we got into a carriage, but I didn’t know I was riding with the President of the United States till after we had reached the White House and I heard him addressed by his title. Then my modesty got the better of me and I wanted to retire, but the President kept me quite awhile, and I went away thoroughly happy.”

October 11, 1890: The Post throws some shade at visiting writer Laura Jean Libbey, the E.L. James of her day.

Excerpt from “In Hotel Lobbies,” The Washington Post, October 11, 1890.

Miss Laura Jean Libbey, the author of “Miss Middleton’s Lover” and several other works of fiction equally remarkable, wrote her autograph on the Arlington register in a bold, round hand, and after it in parenthesis the word “novelist.” The young lady has a keen eye to business. Her productions have enjoyed a tremendous run among a certain class of readers, and have brought the fair author solace for unkind reviews in the shape of a steady stream of American coin. Miss Libbey lives in elegant style in New York, and her pen, if not polished, is prolific, as she is constantly engaged in the manufacture of romance, and if she keeps up the pace will yet get ahead of “The Duchess” in the number of her books.

November 14, 1890: Spoiler alert — as of the 2010 census, the current population of Buena Vista, Virginia is 6,650.

Excerpt from “In Hotel Lobbies,” The Washington Post, November 14, 1890.

S. M. Donald, real estate man, Buena Vista, Va., is at Willard’s. “We have the livest, most thrifty, and progressive young city in the Shenandoah Valley. In a year’s time — I am stating facts now — we’ve grown from 300 people to 3,000. The capital secured and invested in industries at Buena Vista aggregates $2,211,000, and the plants include pulp and paper mills, fire brick works, wagon and wire fence factories, planing mills, and woodworking shops, an electric light plant, and others, not to speak of eight miles of water mains. I think no town in the Old Dominion has more solid foundation for rapid growth than Buena Vista.”

November 15, 1890: A former House member laments the tendency of modern voters to think for themselves. (Some things never change.)

Excerpt from “In Hotel Lobbies,” The Washington Post, November 15, 1890.

Ex-Representative Harry Libbey, of Virginia, leaned up against a pillow in the Ebbitt House and commented on the elections. Mr. Libbey still dabbles a little in politics, although he is far more interested in the success of the new line of steamboats between this city and Norfolk. One of these vessels is to be launched next week.

“The time has passed,” said Mr. Libbey, “when the voters can be accurately counted before they vote. The American citizen is becoming more and more independent. He is his own master and he likes to vote as he thinks. There was a time when the party in power was supposed to have the inside track, because the office-holders could pull the wires. That day seems to have gone by. The power of the office-holder is decreasing, and the dispensation of patronage is now a source of weakness instead of strength.

Riding the Mastodon

Fluffy elephant friendHang around with nerds enough and you will eventually hear some version of the following sentiment:

What the world really needs is a decentralized social network.

The reason is simple. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter are absurdly popular way for people to use the Internet. For a lot of people, Facebook is the Internet. But unlike most Internet things, which break themselves up into lots of little bits of software running on different computers operated by different people, social networks tend to operate as single, unified corporate entities that run the entire network themselves.

Why? Well, son, sit right down and let me tell you about this little thing called money. Money money money money money money money money monnnnnneeeeeeyyyyy!!!!

You see, if all the activity that happens within a social network happens within a set of systems that a single company owns and controls, that company now has all sorts of different ways to make money. They can monitor everything you do (even after you leave the network) and sell information on your behavior patterns to advertisers. They can modify what you see in the network to boost the interests of parties that pay them. They can require you to pay them in order to deliver your messages to the audience you want to see them.

Once you’ve inserted yourself as an indispensable middleman to the entire world’s interpersonal communications, the moneymaking opportunities are endless!

Which, the nerds know, is great for the company, but not so great for the users. And the nerds also know something else, which is that systems that centralize everything under one roof tend to be systems that aren’t very reliable. In a centralized system, if something goes wrong at the center, the system goes down for everybody until that problem gets fixed; when you spread the work out, an outage in one corner of the system only affects people in that corner. Decentralized systems are resilient and reliable. The Internet itself is a decentralized system, as is the World Wide Web that runs on it, which is a big part of why those systems were able to grow from academic projects to the beating heart of the world’s economy in just a little over two decades.

So, once it became clear that social networks were going to be an actual thing, the nerds started to make attempts to build one that worked the way Internet services are supposed to work. But after more than a decade of trying, those efforts have universally failed.

Until now, maybe?

Mastodon works…

A few weeks ago I heard that a new Don Quixote had started tilting at this particular windmill: an open-source package called Mastodon. I was skeptical, since, as noted above, the dream of a decentralized, open-source social network is something that I’ve seen rise and fall many times before. But as a professional online community-type person I feel a responsibility to keep on top of developments in this field, even if they seem doomed from the moment they leave the gate, so I started playing around with it anyway.

And what I found surprised me. Mastodon… works. It’s a decentralized, open-source social network that is actually pleasant to use, and provides the same features as you’d get from an equivalent centralized, corporate service. From the user’s perspective, you’d never know the difference — and that’s good! The user doesn’t care about what’s going on under the hood, all they care about is how the car feels to drive. And Mastodon feels good.

If you’ve ever used Twitter via Tweetdeck, the Mastodon user experience will be very familiar to you. It’s very Twitter-ey, focused on the exchange of short messages. But it improves on Twitter in several important ways, including addressing several of the complaints I made about fundamentally user-hostile decisions baked into Twitter’s core design in my “I kind of hate Twitter” piece four years ago. (Scorekeeping behavior, for instance, is discouraged by having things like follower and re-tweet counts only displayed in obscure, visually non-prominent places.) It also allows messages of up to 500 characters, which is remarkably freeing if you’ve spent time in the past wrestling with your prose to fit it into Twitter’s increasingly absurd 140-character limit.

One of the biggest problems with Twitter is that its lack of community management and tools for users to defend themselves against abuse has turned it into a wretched hive of scum and villainy, which Mastodon tries to solve as well. The big innovation here is that your user account belongs to a specific Mastodon “instance” (a unique copy of the Mastodon software, running on a server somewhere), and while all Mastodon instances are capable of interoperating with each other, there’s no requirement that they actually do so. Instances that generate lots of abusive users, in other words, can effectively be cut out of the network by having other instances simply refuse to connect to them. (Which in turn means that you could imagine lots of little clusters of instances, all full of like-minded people flocking together to talk about whatever weird thing they have in common without bothering the rest of the world.)

Mastodon is built around an open protocol called OStatus, and this provides another reason to be optimistic about its future — that future is bigger than Mastodon itself. Anyone who wants to can write their own social software, and as long as that software speaks OStatus its users will be able to talk to Mastodon users without any problems. (There’s actually another OStatus implementation that predates Mastodon, GNU Social, and its users are happily chatting with Mastodon users right now.) Developers can compete with Mastodon for users by making OStatus-compatible software with an even better user experience, which in turn will put pressure on Mastodon itself to continually improve.

… and it doesn’t just work, it is fun

And then there’s the biggest advantage I’ve found, which is that participating in the Mastodon network is just fun. I have had so many great conversations on Mastodon over the last few weeks, all with people I’d never met before I met them through the network. Part of this is just that the Mastodon audience is very much early adopters at the moment, of course, and early adopters tend to be interesting people. But it’s also due to the nature of the network itself; a decentralized, open-source social network attracts people who care about things like decentralization and open source, so the network is full of people working on cool little projects infused with the same grassroots, bottom-up spirit. The result is an online community that feels more like, well, a community than anything I’ve experienced in a long time.

(It also means that it attracts an international audience, so conversations on Mastodon tend to have a less provincial feel than conversations on other networks. I’ve had conversations that have led me to dust off my childhood French and German, for instance, and a little clicking around will bring you to thriving sub-communities chatting away happily in Spanish and Japanese and Russian as well.)

None of which is to say that Mastodon (or OStatus more broadly) are guaranteed to succeed. I can see more than few roadblocks in their way. Decentralization means that new users who want to join the network start by choosing an instance to sign up with, for instance, which can be confusing. There isn’t great information available yet on what makes certain instances better than others, or more appropriate for people with particular interests than others, which can lead to users having to bounce around between one instance after another until they find one they feel comfortable with. (I was fortunate enough to find a great instance on just my second try, but that was sheer luck.) And running an instance isn’t free, so as the network’s popularity grows it’s going to have to find ways for instance operators to get compensated for their time and expenses.

But none of that takes away from the Big Story about Mastodon, which is that this is the first attempt at a decentralized social network that actually feels like it’s got staying power. New instances keep popping up, existing ones keep adding new users, the developers keep adding new features. There have been lots of similar systems that also got a big burst of interest when they launched, but after that big burst they generally faded pretty quickly. This one is not fading, at least not yet. It’s growing, growing like a weed. And that by itself means it’s something unusual — something worth paying attention to.

So check it out! The official list of instances is here, to give you a place to get started with your instance shopping. And once you’re settled in, be sure to say hi — I’m

Blowing the dust off

Kaiserbahnhof Halbe Interior 2010

Kaiserbahnhof Halbe Interior 2010. Photo credit: Wikipedia user petermacky. Licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0.

Is this thing on?

Oh, you’re back.

Yeah. Try to contain your excitement.

So. Um.


It’s been, like, six months. Where’ve you been?

Well, you may have noticed that my last post is timestamped right before the 2016 election…

Oh. Right.


Hey, remember when you predicted that Donald Trump was going to lose?

This is why nobody likes you.

Oh, snap!

Of course I remember. What can I say? I was insufficiently capable of grasping just how screwed up things could get.

Well, it’s been six months. Where’ve you been?

Twisting in the wind, just like everyone else.

Tell me more.

I just looked at the way the world was going and thought, what difference am I making? Are all these words I write here actually contributing to some positive outcome? Or are they just a pacifier for me to suck on, a way for me to distract myself from my personal role as part of the problem?


I still don’t know. I just got embarrassed by how old the post on the front page was getting.



Five (more) podcasts I recommend

People seemed to appreciate my last post rounding up a few great podcasts I recommend, so what better way to mark the end of a long week than to do another one?

Beef and Dairy Network

In this bizarre, pitch-perfect comedy podcast, British comic Benjamin Partridge brings you “the number one podcast for those involved or just interested in the production of beef animals and dairy herds.” It’s a straight-faced parody of the kind of niche public interest broadcasting the BBC has done over the years, in which a cheery host brings you the news from the perspective of some insanely narrow part of society. In this case that part of society is people who raise and slaughter cattle, so you get episodes with discussions like a frustrated scientist from the European Space Agency being asked if any hoofprints have ever been found on Mars, interspersed with ads for ridiculous farm products.

Good place to dive in? Episode 3, “Gareth Belge,” in which “Beef and Dairy Network” goes Hollywood to interview a “bovine actor wrangler.”

Rational Security

Every week, Shane Harris of The Daily Beast talks over the latest developments in defense, intelligence and national security with Benjamin Wittes, Tamara Cofman Wittes, and Susan Hennessey of the Brookings Institution. These are establishment voices with establishment biases, but they’re smart and well-informed on the stories behind the stories, so if you’re looking for sharp observations on national security this is one of the few places to turn.

Good place to dive in? Try Episode #82, where the entire panel’s heads explode at the idea of pardoning Edward Snowden.

Blank Check with Griffin & David

Griffin Newman and David Sims started this one out as “The Phantom Podcast,” the only podcast dedicated to obsessively dissecting the many, many flaws in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. That resulted in some great comedy, so when they’d finished with that mission they evolved the podcast into “Blank Check,” in which they obsessively dissect the careers of directors whose early success gave them a Hollywood “blank check” — funding and support to make basically any movie they wanted to from there on out, which usually results in them taking on wildly ambitious projects that fail dismally. So far they’ve tackled George Lucas, M. Night Shyamalan, the Wachowskis, Cameron Crowe, and James Cameron.

Good place to dive in? Go back to the beginning, the very first episode of “The Phantom Podcast,” which is hilarious.

War Stories

In this new-ish podcast, Adin Dobkin and “Angry Staff Officer” look into military history, picking up one key historical development and tracing its story from its origins through its obsolescence. They’re in the middle of the first such arc now, covering tanks and armored warfare. The stories are well-told, and they have a good eye for historical details that even a nerd like me is unfamiliar with.

Good place to dive in? It’s a new podcast, so why not start at the beginning? Episode 1.1, “High Wood (Prologue),” takes you into the moment that led to the end of the horse cavalry and the beginning of armor  — the charge of the Deccan Horse in World War I’s Battle of the Somme, when elite Indian cavalrymen charged machine-gun nests on horseback.

The Flop House

Yes, it’s another “let’s make fun of terrible movies” podcast, but this is one of the funnier ones. Elliott Kalan, Dan McCoy, and Stuart Wellington are witty and engaging, and they mix up high-profile flops with obscure indies you would never have discovered on your own.

Good place to dive in? Episode #187, “Fateful Findings”, which takes on one of my favorite weird indies of recent years: director-from-another-planet Neil Breen’s Fateful Findings, which you really need to see if you haven’t already.

A well-regulated apocalypse: inside the Code of Emergency Federal Regulations

Code of Emergency Federal Regulations

A few days ago, I mentioned that (with the assistance of the National Archives) I had unearthed a bit of Cold War history previously unavailable to the public: the Code of Emergency Federal Regulations (CEFR), a secret set of official regulations that were to go into effect in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States.

I couldn’t say much at the time about the actual contents of the CEFR, because it is a binder-full of long documents written in dense governmentese and I needed time to parse them all. But now I’ve put that time in, so I’d like to take you on a guided tour of this remarkable set of documents.

My original post includes a link where you can download the complete contents of the CEFR, and the Archives are already working on converting these PDFs into more accessible formats, so I’m not going to try and summarize every single rule to be found within them here. Instead, I’m going to call out the points that struck me as the most important and/or surprising; the things that will give you the best sense for how America’s regulatory agencies were grappling with the problem of how to deal with a mandate to lay down rules to govern a literally unprecedented situation.

As you read through these documents, you realize just how monumental that challenge was, and how variably those agencies approached what these documents call “the emergency.” Some came at it with bureaucratic gusto, laying down thick volumes of regulations to cope with any possible circumstance. Others took a simpler tack, granting sweeping powers to their leaders and establishing long chains of succession to try and ensure at least that leaders killed in the attack would be replaced. Still others did nothing, becoming conspicuous by their absence. Together they illustrate the ebbs and flows of American enthusiasm for civil defense during this period.

For context, let’s look a little at where the CEFR came from, and then we’ll dig into the documents themselves.

A brief history of the CEFR

The history of the Code of Emergency Federal Regulations begins on June 25, 1956.

On that day, an act of Congress was approved by then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower, becoming Public Law 84-619. This law (which you can read online here) gave the President the power to suspend the requirement that new regulations be published “in the event of an attack or threatened attack upon the continental United States, by air or otherwise,” and directed that

The President shall establish such alternate systems for promulgating, filing, or publishing documents or classes of documents affected by such suspensions… as may be deemed under the then existing circumstances practicable to provide public notice of the issuance and of the contents of such documents.

This mandate would not be acted upon by the executive branch until February 26, 1963. On that day, just four months after the Cuban Missile Crisis had reached its climax, President John F. Kennedy issued a series of executive orders directing various Federal agencies to “develop a state of readiness… with respect to all conditions of national emergency, including attack upon the United States.”

One of these orders, Executive Order 11093, regarded the General Services Administration (GSA).  The GSA provides administrative support services for Federal agencies; a mission which, at the time, included the publication of Federal regulatory activity through the Code of Federal Regulations and its daily sister publication, the Federal Register.

Executive Order 11903 directed the GSA to

Develop emergency procedures for providing and making available, on a decentralized basis, a Federal Register of Presidential Proclamations and Executive Orders, Federal administrative regulations, Federal emergency notices and actions, and appropriate Acts of Congress during a civil defense emergency.

This order would be carried out on July 1, 1965, with the issuance of the first edition of the Code of Emergency Federal Regulations.

First edition: July 1, 1965

This first edition of the CEFR contains a prologue, titled “Explanation,” that explains why the document exists:

The Code of Emergency Federal Regulations (CEFR) is designed to provide continuity in the publication of Federal statutes and regulations during a condition of enemy attack or threatened attack. It provides a vehicle for the prepositioning of emergency measures on a stand-by basis for implementation…

The emergency measures published in the CEFR are not intended to supplant all existing law. Rather, when called into effect, these measures would amend and supplement existing law to the extent necessary to meet the emergency. The CEFR, therefore, would be used in conjunction with normal sources, such as the United States Code and the Code of Federal Regulations.

And it laid out a structure through which additional emergency regulations could be promulgated, in the event such became necessary:

In such event, a serial publication designated the Emergency Federal Register (EFR) may be issued. Documents published in the EFR would then implement by reference, amend, or supplement the material carried in the CEFR.

It then set out 21 chapters, each reserved for regulations affecting a different Federal agency, starting with the President and working all the way down to the Railroad Retirement Board.

Of these, most on initial publication were simply empty sections set aside to accommodate future regulations should any be issued. But a few departments did have some emergency regulations in place at this early date.

The Treasury Department

Chapters 12 and 12A contain “Emergency Banking Regulation No. 1,” along with several supplementary rules. It is dated January 10, 1961 and issued over the signature of Eisenhower’s Treasury Secretary (and close advisor) Robert B. Anderson.

Highlights include:

  • All banks are ordered to remain open and “permit the transaction of business during their regularly established hours,” except those located “in an area which is unsafe because of enemy or defensive action, or if essential personnel or physical facilities become unavailable.”
  • Banks and bank branches are given wide discretion to act on their own authority in the wake of a catastrophic attack, including operating without guidance from pre-war head offices, changing locations if pre-war facilities are rendered “wholly or partially unusable,” and making loans and borrowing money as they deem necessary.
  • Withdrawals of cash are to be prohibited, “except for those purposes… for which cash is customarily used,” and even in those circumstances banks are authorized to refuse cash withdrawals if they would result in a shortage of cash on hand.
  • Credit is to be frozen entirely, except in extraordinary circumstances directly related to the war effort. Checks (“and other evidence of transfer of credit”) in the amount of $1,000 or more are to be held back until Federal authority to release them has been furnished.
  • Broad discretion is also provided to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, and the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare to do whatever they deem necessary to keep the financial system operational.

The Post Office Department

Chapter 15 contains several regulations related to postal operations, issued over the signature of Kennedy and Eisenhower Postmaster General John A. Gronouski.

Highlights include:

  • Detailed instructions on the line of succession to the office of Postmaster General are provided, should the incumbent holder of that office be killed, and whomever ends up holding that office is vested with all the “powers, functions and duties” it would come with in happier times. Similar lines of succession are established for various Assistant Postmasters General and other high-level officers of the department.
  • Surviving Post Office personnel are charged with “formulat[ing] ways and means of preventing any attempt at sabotage or subversive activities,” reporting “suspicious characters” to the nearest officer in charge, and making sure they keep the doors of their facilities locked so as to prevent sabotage.
  • Postal authorities in remote locations such as Alaska, Hawaii and various U.S. overseas possessions are given authority to destroy stamps, currency, and other postal property “if, in the judgment of the military authorities, the military situation so requires.” Personnel charged with carrying out such destruction are instructed (“as far as possible”) to keep a detailed inventory of the property destroyed, and to forward copies of these inventories to their Regional Director.
  • Should an executive order instituting “censorship of communications crossing the borders of the United States, or any of its territories or possessions” be issued, instructions are provided as to which postal facilities would be responsible for carrying out such censorship for the different regions of the country. As regards how censorship would be carried out that these facilities, their postmasters are told to consult instructions issued to them outside the CEFR.
  • “The head of each postal installation, or, when that official is unavailable, the highest ranking official in line of succession” is authorized to “take any action the emergency demands” to keep the mail moving.
  • Should a nuclear attack take place, domestic and international mail is to be restricted to “letter mail in its ordinary form, not exceeding 8 ounces in weight.” Mail from government agencies, as well as shipments of money by banks and shipments of medicines, surgical implements and other disaster relief supplies are exempted from this limitation. Letter mail will be delivered free of charge for the duration of the emergency; “no such mail shall be withheld or returned for lack of postage.”
  • Registered mail, certified mail, C.O.D. mail, and special handling/special delivery services are to be suspended completely, with the same exemptions as listed above for letter mail.
  • On the fifth day after any nuclear attack, postmasters in “devastated areas” are granted authority to spend up to $10,000 “for contractual services necessary to the continued operation of operating equipment” and up to $1,000 for “supplies, equipment and services.”
  • Postal employees required to work overtime or on weekends “during the present war or national emergency… and for sixty days thereafter” will be paid overtime compensation if they cannot be given compensatory time off.

Civil Service Commission

Chapter 31 contains “Part M-12 — Standby Regulations For Use in a National Emergency,” laying out a range of rules for Federal workers and other civil service employees. It is issued over the signature of David F. Williams, Director of the Bureau of Management Services.

Highlights include:

  • Regulations prohibiting any one person from holding multiple Federal offices at the same time “are hereby suspended for the duration of the present national emergency.”
  • Agencies are given the discretion to waive requirements that workers in executive branch offices be U.S. citizens “when such exceptions are in the interest of the emergency effort.”
  • A special category of “emergency-indefinite” employment is created, and all new appointments for continuing positions are to be placed into this category unless specifically exempted. The first year of employment for “emergency-indefinite” workers would be classified as a trial period, and the length of their employment would be limited to “the duration of the present national emergency and not to exceed six (6) months thereafter.”
  • Positions for custodians, elevator operators, guards and messengers are to be filled exclusively with veterans, “as long as qualified veterans are available.”
  • All procedures for taking “adverse actions” (punishments, such as a reduction in pay) against employees are to be suspended, with the one exception that the employee must still be provided with a written explanation of why the action has been taken.
  • Personnel decisions made during the emergency will not be subject to appeal afterwards, unless “they involve matters of substance.”
  • Workers in Federal agencies will be expected to work a 48-hour work week, unless the head of their department deems it impractical. Compensation for the extra time will be determined by standard pay schedules.
  • Requirements that workers who have retired under age 60 due to disability report for annual medical evaluations and detail any wage or self-employment income they have earned during the year will be suspended.

Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System

Chapter 32 includes  a series of “Emergency Regulations” regarding the operations of Federal Reserve banks. It is dated January 15, 1962 and issued over the signature of Merritt Sherman, Secretary of the Board of Governors.

Highlights include:

  • All Federal Reserve banks and branches are to remain open for the transaction of business during their normal business hours, regardless of the status of the rest of the network. As with the emergency regulations for private banks (see “The Treasury Department,” above), exceptions are provided for those Federal Reserve banks located in areas rendered unsafe or whose essential personnel are killed or missing.
  • Any Federal Reserve bank or branch that survives the initial attack is empowered to perform the functions of any other bank or branch that has been shut down, with the provisos that the Board of Governors is to be notified of the takeover “as soon as practicable,” and that the functions are to be handed back to the shuttered bank “when the cause of disability has been removed.”
  • Each Federal Reserve bank is authorized to impose any restrictions on the distribution of bills and coins that it deems necessary “to assure the effective and equitable use in the public interest of all available supplies.”
  • Federal Reserve banks are to make credit available to both member and non-member banks. They are authorized to waive the standard paperwork associated with such transactions, if doing so is necessary to keep money flowing; “considerations of formality of contract, security, and maturity of advances should be regarded as secondary to the problem of meeting the obvious essential needs of banks.”
  • Parties who wish to borrow from Federal Reserve banks are to be allowed to do so on the basis of a promissory note (secured or otherwise). Parties borrowing against assets that have been rendered temporarily inaccessible are permitted to hold those assets in trust for the bank pending such time as they can be secured and delivered.
  • Requirements that Federal Reserve banks maintain a particular amount of gold certificates in reserve are waived, with the proviso that the Board of Governors is to be notified when the amount held falls below 25% of the reserve requirement.
  • Commercial banks which can no longer obtain loans or sell securities “on reasonable terms,” and whose management concludes that “it will be unable to meet foreseeable demands for withdrawals, transfers, or other payments,” are entitled to pay their obligations to other banks with promissory notes payable to a Federal Reserve bank. These notes are to be secured by the bank’s holdings of U.S. securities, and are to bear no interest. Parties who receive such notes in payment are required to honor them.

Housing and Home Finance Agency

Chapter 33 contains several orders describing the organization and operation of this agency (which was shortly to be folded into the new Department of Housing and Urban Development) “in the period immediately after an attack upon the United States.” They are dated variously between 1959 and 1965 and signed by several different officials.

Highlights include:

  • An “HHFA Emergency Field Service” is to be established, to coordinate agency operations at the local and regional levels during a time when it is assumed central guidance from Washington will be unavailable. Nine regions are established, with a headquarters city designated for each, and existing offices from which Emergency Field Service offices are to draw staff and resources are listed.
  • Regional and state directors of the Emergency Field Service are authorized to exercise “all powers now or hereafter vested in or assigned to the Housing and Home Finance Administrator” within their jurisdiction.
  • A line of succession for the office of Housing and Home Finance Administrator is established, to go into effect “in the event the Administrator is unable to act by reason of his absence, illness, or other cause.”
  • Several pre-written orders, needing only to be dated and signed by the Administrator (or Acting Administrator, in his absence) in order to go into effect:
    • An order suspending all “nonessential programs and activities” within the agency;
    • An order directing all Federally-owned or controlled housing (“and related facilities”) be used for the lodging of refugees, save for those facilities operated by the Department of Defense, the Atomic Energy Commission and other agencies directly related to the war effort;
    • An order authorizing agency leaders (including those of the Emergency Field Service) to let contracts on their own authority, and to waive the normal procedural steps such contracts require;
    • An order authorizing agency leaders (including those of the Emergency Field Service) to “requisition survival supplies, equipment and facilities or real property to provide housing and related facilities for dislocated persons and employees of essential industries”; and
    • An order authorizing agency leaders (including those of the Emergency Field Service) to spend money on the agency’s behalf, and, when available funds are exhausted, to “pledge the credit of the United States.”

Interstate Commerce Commission

Chapter 34 contains several orders relating to transport and other economic activities regulated by the ICC (which was closed down in 1995). They are variously dated between 1962 and 1964, and issued over the signatures of ICC Chairmen Rupert L. Murphy and Abe McGregor Goff.

Highlights include:

  • Operators of intercity rail and road transport services are ordered to accord privileged status over “all other traffic” to military personnel, government officials and U.S. mail. If necessary to provide such status, operators are authorized to limit or restrict the access to their service they provide to other passengers and types of cargo.
  • For 48 hours following the declaration of a state of emergency, rail operators are prohibited from shipping any cargo into an area “which is being or has been subjected to enemy action.” Cargo shipped by the Department of Defense, the Atomic Energy Commission, or which is shipped “under civil defense symbol” is excepted from this ban. After the 48 hour period expires, cargos are only to be delivered into these areas if approved in advance by a Federally appointed agent.
  • Similar to rail transport, motor carriers (i.e. trucking services) are to initially be prohibited from transporting goods into attacked areas, but for them the prohibition will last 72 hours instead of 48. After that period they are to be allowed to resume shipping into these areas, but under a different permitting system than that described for rail.
  • Carriers by water on inland waterways are also prohibited from shipping anything into attacked areas for 72 hours. When that period ends, the approval process for their cargos is the same as that for motor carriers.
  • Nine types of cargo are specifically listed as having priority over all other goods when being shipped into areas that have been attacked. These are military/AEC/civil defense shipments; food, for human consumption only; medical and hospital supplies; supplies needed for restoration of transportation and utility services; fuel; shipments assigned “emergency ratings” by the U.S. Department of Commerce; first class U.S. mail; newspapers; and “other shipments when transportation conditions permit.” Among these, the highest priority is to be accorded to military, AEC and civil defense cargos.
  • Should a carrier’s cargo be rendered undeliverable due to enemy action, the carrier is ordered to store the cargo in any convenient facility “and to request further shipping instructions.” In the case of perishable goods, if such instructions are not received within 72 hours, the carrier is authorized to sell the cargo to whomever they can find to buy it; any profit from that sale, however, must be handed over to the shipper.
  • Persons owning railroad tank cars, motor vehicles used for commercial transport, and liquid transport vessels are notified that they must comply with any directives received from the ICC as to the use of these vehicles for the duration of the emergency. ICC requests are to take precedence over any other tasking, including previously established contracts. Payment for usage of these cars will be at the ICC’s discretion.
  • Bus services providing intercity service within a radius of 100 miles of any attacked community are ordered to transport any persons who ask out of the affected area to destinations up to 300 miles away from the attack zone. They are authorized to charge these passengers “at the carrier’s lawfully published rates, fares or charges.”

Federal Home Loan Bank Board

Chapter 35 sets out a set of emergency regulations for this agency. Dated November 16, 1964, they are issued over the signature of Secretary Harry W. Caulsen.

Some highlights:

  • Savings and loan institutions are to refuse to permit any withdrawals or to issue any loans for the duration of the emergency, except in cases related to reconstruction expenses, essential living costs, tax payments, and payrolls. A signed certificate attesting that the purpose of the transaction is one of these approved purposes is to be considered sufficient proof to authorize the transaction.
  • Savings and loan institutions “in an area directly affected by military action” are authorized to borrow money from any Federal Home Loan Bank without any restrictions based on amount or security.
  • Should a debtor to a savings and loan institution suffer the destruction of the assets or property from which they derive income, or their earning power be reduced through injury or death, the institution is authorized to defer repayment of their debt “until the Federal Home Loan Bank Board shall otherwise provide.”

Railroad Retirement Board

Chapter 36 lays out emergencies regulations for this agency. Dated November 20, 1964, they are issued over the signature of Secretary Lawrence Garland.

Highlights include:

  • A detailed line of succession is established for the office of Chairman of the Board, should the incumbent become absent or incapacitated.
  • Regional directors who can no longer communicate reliably with the Chairman of the Board (or his successor) are delegated complete authority to act on personnel matters. Fiscal authority is to be more restricted, passing only to “emergency certifying officers” who could be appointed by either the national leadership or local/regional leaders.
  • Applications for retirement, disability, and survivor benefits, as well as claims for sickness and unemployment benefits, are to continue to be processed “to the extent possible” throughout the duration of the emergency. Standards of evidence in evaluating these applications are permitted to be relaxed, however. In cases where the standard forms for these processes are not available, “any writing that contains substantially the necessary information shall be acceptable.”
  • Employers are still required to pay their contributions into RRB retirement plans, and to report the hiring of new employees, unemployment and sickness claims, and so forth to the RRB. In cases where the emergency renders it impossible for them to do so, they are required to resume payments and reporting “as quickly as possible in the post-attack period.”

Ch-ch-ch-changes: 1968-1981

No volume of regulations can sit unchanged forever, and the CEFR was no exception. Periodic updates were issued to the document over the years it was in effect, with the first coming in 1968 and the last in 1981.

Many of the changes involve updates and edits to older documents, so a full accounting of how they changed the state of the CEFR over time will need to wait for the raw text to be extracted from the PDFs so we can apply textual analysis to them. Still, I wanted to call out some of the more obviously important modifications that the changes brought, so I will attempt to do so below. (Note that these are based on my first impressions upon reading the documents only, and are subject to change should my understanding of the scope of a given change alter later.)

Change No. 1, dated October 1, 1968, adds sets of regulations for two agencies not included in the original CEFR: the Office of Emergency Planning (OEP) and the General Services Administration (GSA).

A new Chapter 3 concerns the OEP. Highlights include:

  • Procedures are established for releasing critical strategic materials (ranging from cobalt to castor oil) from various national stockpiles. In cases where communications between OEP regional offices and the national office are not operable, OEP Regional Directors are authorized to release materials stored within their area of jurisdiction.
  • Pre-written forms authorizing the release of strategic materials from these stockpiles are provided.

A new Chapter 39 concerns the GSA. Highlights include:

  • In cases where demand from other agencies for items from GSA inventories will exceed supply, a hierarchy of orders is established to allow requests to be triaged. Military and defense requests are prioritized highest, followed by requests for civil defense or recovery operations, requests “in support of essential programs for the maintenance or reestablishment of Government authority and control,” and requests in support of essential communications and transport services.
  • GSA is authorized to provide “usable substitutes” in cases where a requested item is not available.
  • Agencies will be billed for goods requested from GSA inventories at rates listed in the most recent GSA stock catalog prior to the attack.

Change No. 2, dated December 1, 1968, adds a new Chapter 38 for an agency not included in the original CEFR: the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB).

Highlights include:

  • An Air Priorities Board is established to set priorities for use of limited air transport resources to move passengers and cargo. To head this board, an Administrator of Air Priorities is to be appointed from the staff of the CAB.
  • A set of five priority levels are established: Class 1 (“utmost urgency”), Class 2 (“essential”), Class 3 (“important”), Class 4 (“eligible”), and “non-priority.”
  • Cargo and passengers considered essential to the prosecution of the war effort are to be accorded priority status, so long as a deadline exists by which they must be at their destination and their transit has been authorized by a “competent authority.”
  • Cargo and packages over five pounds per package in weight will not be permitted to be transported by air before priority and clearance for their transport have been established.
  • Passengers wishing to travel by air will need to apply to have each leg of their travel prioritized before traveling. Applications are to be accepted by mail, by telephone or in person, and must include the name of the sponsoring agency or individual, the name of the person who will use the priority, locations to and from which they are traveling, the earliest time they can be available to depart, the latest time they can arrive and still achieve the objective of their travel, and justification both for the trip itself (relative to the overall war effort) and any baggage they intend to carry.
  • Mail designated for air freight, along with mail parcel post weighing under five pounds, is to be automatically designated as Class 3 (“important”) priority.
  • Various pre-written forms (application for priority, notice of approval/denial of application, etc.) are provided for use as needed.

Change No. 3, dated March 1, 1969, adds two new chapters: one (Chapter 12B) for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and another (Chapter 21) for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The new regulations for HUD replace the regulations in the original CEFR for the Housing and Home Finance Agency.

Highlights of Chapter 12B include:

  • A Memorandum of Understanding between the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of the Treasury is included, outlining the places where their agencies would cooperate “in connection with the production and distribution of alcohol under conditions of national emergency.”

The new Chapter 21 mostly recapitulates the regulations established in the original CEFR for the Housing and Home Finance Agency, changing the names of offices and titles from “HHFA” to “HUD” as appropriate.

Change No. 4, dated June 1, 1969, includes major revisions to Chapter 12A (Treasury Department/Fiscal Service).

Highlights include:

  • A new “Emergency Disbursing Plan,” covering how funds for government agencies are to be provided during the emergency. It specifies that
    • Lines of succession have been defined for regional disbursing officers across the country, should they be killed or incapacitated. These officers (or their successors) are also authorized “to perform emergency functions independently and without direction” should communications with national leadership be severed.
    • Primary and alternate emergency relocation sites are defined for all regional Treasury offices. If an attack is deemed imminent, some staff from each office will relocate to the primary relocation site in order to provide a backup presence should the main regional office be destroyed. Even after this dispersal, however, main regional offices are to continue operating “as long as conditions permit.”
    • Emergency relocation sites have been stocked with “emergency disbursement kits,” containing “a supply of Treasury Department paper checks assigned emergency disbursing symbols, plus certain pieces of essential equipment such as typewriters, adding machines, check signers, etc.” Symbols on the checks are unique to the relocation site they were provided to. Staff are instructed that these resources are to be used “only in an emergency for on-the-spot payments to meet the requirements of administrative agencies.”
    • Printing materials for official checks have also been stockpiled in various locations, to ensure that new checks can be printed even if all pre-war stockpiles have been destroyed.
    • Each regional office that manages payroll records electronically has established an off-site storage location for backups of its magnetic tape and punched-card records. The data stored in these locations are updated monthly.
    • Under current law, payments can only be made on vouchers that are “certified by the head of the department or agency or by an official or employee thereof duly authorized in writing to certify such vouchers.” It is noted that this could cause problems in an emergency, when department heads may not be available. Agencies are urged to make plans in advance of the emergency for how they intend to certify their vouchers so that payment is not interrupted.
  • Instructions for how checks drawn on the Treasury are to be paid during the emergency are provided. Federal Reserve banks are to pay all such checks, without “examin[ing] such checks for genuineness of drawer’s signatures or for alterations.”

Change No. 6, dated June 1, 1970, includes significant changes to Chapter 39 (General Services Administration).

Highlights include a new “Emergency Contracting Regulation.” It:

  • Authorizes agencies which have been delegated contracting powers during the emergency to “enter into contracts and into amendments or modifications of contracts… without regard to the provisions of law relating to the consummation, performance, amendment or modification of contracts whenever such action would facilitate the national defense.”
  • Authorizes contracting parties to award contracts without the usual process of advertising the opportunity.
  • Authorizes contracting parties to award contracts to bidders other than the lowest-cost one, “where a showing is made that the national interest is best served.”
  • Authorizes the use of oral requests for proposals and price quotations, but instructs that requests for proposals should be in writing “to the extent practicable.”

Change No. 7, dated March 1, 1971, includes significant changes to Chapter 39 (General Services Administration).

Highlights include a new “Emergency Requisitioning Regulation.” It:

  • Requires any representative of the government commandeering real property (e.g. houses, buildings, etc.) for public use to provide the owner(s) of that property with a kind of receipt, a new form called an “Order of Taking.” A draft copy of this form is provided. “All feasible efforts” are also to be made to file another copy of the form at the appropriate location where local real estate records are maintained.
  • Instructs requisitioning authorities that an offer for a fair amount of compensation for the use of the requisitioned property is to be made to the owner(s) “[a]s promptly as practicable.” A process is outlined for the property owner(s) to appeal the amount of this offer. Final judgment is to be made by “a board or official formally designated by the requisitioning authority.”
  • Exempts military commanders, civilian defense personnel and local emergency authorities from having to follow these rules in the performance of military, civil defense and reconstruction missions.

Change No. 8, dated August 1, 1971, includes significant changes to Chapter 38 (Civil Aeronautics Board).

Highlights include a new “Air Transport Mobilization Order ATM-2.” It:

  • Notes that the existing priorities system defined by earlier CEFR regulations “may not be possible to implement immediately” during the emergency.
  • Establishes a new set of priorities for air carriers to follow when shipping passengers and cargo “at the onset and during the initial period of a declared national emergency”:
    • For passengers, priority is to be given to military personnel with authorized air travel transportation requests, military personnel bearing orders authorizing them to travel by air, and Federal, state and civil officers bearing travel requests or orders authorizing air travel.
    • For cargo, priority is to be given to any armed forces cargo, government cargo, or industry cargo which is certified on its bill of lading as “shipment by air authorized.”
    • Passengers and shippers of cargo who do not have the appropriate documents to qualify for priority travel can apply for such status on the grounds that their activities are “essential to the national emergency.” To aid carriers in evaluating such requests, a list of fourteen activities which would qualify as “essential” is provided; it includes military missions, law enforcement, firefighting, reconstruction and repair of communications systems, and radiological decontamination. Sample forms for such application are provided.

Change No. 11, dated June 1, 1973, includes a new Chapter 22 with regulations for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

Highlights include:

  • The establishment of an “Emergency Highway Traffic Regulation” (EHTR) program. Each state is instructed to assemble a plan for highway traffic management during the emergency. These plans are to be activated “when highway users must be protected from fallout resulting from a nuclear attack”; “when traffic demand exceeds highway capacity”; and “when unauthorized traffic should be excluded from a specific area.”
  • A standby order establishing procedures for highway repair and reconstruction “immediately following an attack upon the United States.” In situations where communication with national authorities have been cut off, Regional Federal Highway Administrators are granted wide authority to spend money, let contracts, requisition property and employ people for the purpose of “the emergency clearing, repair, or restoration of highways, bridges, streets and roads deemed essential in view of the emergency.” A form is provided to enable the Federal Highway Administrator to put this order into effect.
  • A standby order requiring state highway departments to collect estimated resource requirements for repairing highways within their jurisdiction in the event of a national emergency, and to periodically provide these estimates to the FHWA. A form is provided to enable the Federal Highway Administrator to put this order into effect.
  • A standby order defining the scope of FHWA powers to requisition private property for highway reconstruction during the emergency. A form is provided to enable the Federal Highway Administrator to put this order into effect.
    • This power, “one of the most drastic powers exercised by the Federal Government,” is to be used “only when necessary in support of military operations or survival of the population of the country.”
    • The power to authorize requisitions is restricted to the Federal Highway Administrator, except in cases where regional offices are cut off from communicating with national leadership. In such cases, authority to requisition is delegated to Regional Federal Highway Administrators and Division Engineers.
    • In cases where property is requisitioned, owner(s) of the property are to be issued an Order of Taking. Copies are also, “where feasible,” to be filed wherever local property records are maintained.
    • Owner(s) of requisitioned property are to be provided with an offer of compensation, and given the opportunity to appeal this offer, as outlined in the CEFR orders for the General Services Administration (see “Change No. 7,” above).
  • A standby order stopping all highway construction throughout the United States, so that materials can be used for reconstruction and recovery. A form is provided to enable the Federal Highway Administrator to put this order into effect.

Change No. 12, dated March 1, 1977, includes a new Chapter 17 with regulations for the Department of Agriculture (USDA). They are issued over the signature of Ford Administration Agriculture Secretary John A. Knebel.

Highlights include:

  • “Defense Food Order No. 1,” outlining the procedures for affected parties to appeal USDA decisions made during the emergency.
  • “Defense Food Order No. 2,” empowering the “Order Administrator” — defined as “the Secretary of Agriculture or any employee to whom authority has been delegated” — to “control the processing, storage, and wholesale distribution of food,” with authorization granted to take any actions necessary to impose and maintain such control.
  • “Defense Food Suborder No. 2A,” imposing several requirements on processors of food:
    • They are to “continue their normal processing operations to the extent practicable,”with two exceptions:
      • Use of sugar and other natural sweeteners is to be restricted to no more than 50% of “normal recent or seasonal use”;
      • “All reasonable precautions” are to be taken to ensure that products produced are fit for human consumption; products that do not meet this standard are to be either held back from distribution, or processed again into something that does.
    • They are to distribute their products to existing customers “as equitably and consistently as possible.”
    • They are to distribute their products to “other potential customers in need of food” as well, though such distributions can be made contingent on agreement upon “financial arrangements.”
    • They are to limit their distribution of products to either the rationing levels defined in Appendix 1 (see below), or to state or local rationing levels, whichever is less.
    • They are not to distribute their products “outside of established trade channels,” except in cases of special distribution locations set up by state and local authorities or where authorized by the Order Administrator.
    • They are not to distribute their products “directly to ultimate consumers,” except where authorized by the Order Administrator.
  • “Appendix 1 of Defense Food Suborder No. 2A,” defining a rationing regime for distribution of foodstuffs:
    • Table 1 defines the maximum amounts of various types of food allowed to be distributed per person per week for the duration of the emergency.
      • Meat: 3 pounds boneless, 4 pounds bone-in.
      • Eggs: 6.
      • Milk: unlimited.
      • Cereals: 4 pounds.
      • Fruits and vegetables: 2 pounds (frozen).
      • Food fats and oils: ½ pound.
      • Potatoes: 2 pounds.
      • Sugars, syrups and honey: ½ pound.
    • Table 2 defines acceptable substitutes for foodstuffs should some part of an individual’s allowed ration not be available.
    • Table 3 defines rates at which canned, dry and concentrated foods can be substituted for fresh within an individual’s ration.
  • “Defense Food Suborder No. 2B,” regulating the terms under which food processors are to provide food to the military:
    • Processors with existing military contracts are to “make every practicable effort” to fulfill those contracts.
    • Food processed under such contracts but undelivered to the military is to be held by the processor for 30 or 60 days (depending on type) before being released for civilian consumption.
    • Processors not currently under military contract, but which had military contracts in place up to a year before the emergency, are to set aside for military use an amount from both existing inventories and future production equal to the percentage of their overall production their military production represented over the last year. This food is to be held for military pickup for up to 30 days.

Why Apple doesn’t care about professional Mac users anymore

PraySo last week Apple rolled out its newest version of the venerable MacBook Pro, and the world of creative professionals who use Macs promptly freaked out as it became clear that the revision wasn’t going to address any of the concerns over Apple’s product direction that have been simmering in that world for a few years now.

The Mac has long been the computer of choice for what might be referred to as “creative professionals” — graphic designers, artists and animators, music engineers, video editors, 3D modelers, writers and publishers, software developers. In many cases, this bond goes all the way back to the release of the original Macintosh back in 1984. These people have always been willing to pay a premium for tools that made their work easier; catering to that market is what kept Apple alive through the dark days of the 1990s, when it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.

Lately, however, those bonds have frayed as Apple has shown an increasing willingness to ignore the things pro-level users want from their products. These users need two things: power (beefy CPUs, lots of fast memory and disk space for storage, high-end graphics cards) and flexibility (lots of ports to plug specialized hardware into, room inside the case to add expansion hardware and replace defective parts).

For most of the Mac’s history, pro-level hardware delivered those things (if at an eye-watering price level). Over the last few years, however, Apple has chosen to make pro-level Macs smaller, lighter and simpler instead. Power has mostly been stagnant — the Mac Pro desktop and MacBook Pro laptop haven’t seen significant processing increases since 2013, even after last week’s announcements — while flexibility has actually gone backwards, with ports that used to be standard disappearing and parts that used to be replaceable and upgradeable becoming fixed and soldered in place.

All of which has these creative professionals feeling abandoned, and understandably so. What’s less understandable, though, is why any of them would be confused as to why this abandonment is happening. Because Apple is a very different company today than it was ten years ago.

The difference between the Apple of then and the Apple of now can be summed up in one word: iPhone. The iPhone changed Apple’s business model forever. It created a gushing fountain of money so much greater than anything the Mac business ever produced that it was probably inevitable that Apple would stop caring about that old business and start focusing on the new. The only real questions were when that would happen and how bumpy the transition would be.

I’ve seen some of the disappointed creatives make a nod in this direction, but none of them seem to really understand just how completely Apple’s new business has eclipsed the old one. So I decided to run some numbers in an effort to help communicate the scale of the change.

Like all public companies, Apple has to perodically publish information about its finances, which means we can easily get a reasonably accurate high-level look at how its various products are doing at any moment in time. I pulled its annual reports for the last ten fiscal years (2007-2016), found those numbers, and pulled them together into a spreadsheet.

I then used that spreadsheet to create a chart showing the evolution of Apple’s business over that period. Here are the results.

Apple Net Sales (2007-2016)

The blue box at the bottom of each column represents all Mac sales, desktop and laptop. The orange box above that is iPods; yellow, iPhones; green, iPads; red, software sales and media (music, video, apps) sold through Apple’s online stores; and light blue, accessories and miscellaneous hardware. Sales amounts are in millions of dollars.

To see what I’m talking about, look at how that yellow box changes compared to practically everything else. In 2007, it doesn’t even exist. By 2009, it’s the same size as the blue Mac box; and from there, it’s off to the races. By 2011, that one product is throwing off more money than everything else Apple sold that year combined. Four years later, it’s throwing off three times as much money as everything else Apple sold that year combined (if you leave iPad sales out of the “everything else” column, since that device is far more iPhone-like than Mac-like).If you narrow the focus to just that year’s sales of Macs versus iPhones/iPads, you find the iDevices generating seven dollars for every one generated by Macs.

None of which is to say that the Mac business is a bad business to be in. Apple sold nearly $23 billion worth of Mac hardware in FY 2016, which is nothing to sneeze at; and those sales have grown substantially since 2007, when Mac sales were only (only!) around $10 billion. Just about any other company would be thrilled to have a business like that.

But, and here’s the important bit, Apple isn’t any other company. They’re a company with another line of business so phenomenally successful that it makes a $23 billion product line that doubled in sales over ten years seem downright dowdy — especially when most of its growth happened in the first half of that decade, with sales being more or less flat in the second half.

If you find that hard to understand, imagine this: Apple splits into two companies, one holding the mobile business (iPhones/iPads) while the other takes the Macs and all the other products in the portfolio. You have the opportunity to invest in one of those companies, but not both. Look at that chart and answer honestly: which would you put your money into?

So it’s no surprise that Apple’s attention has grown more and more fixated on its mobile devices, and the consumer market that fuels their sales; or that, when Apple looks at the other products it sells, it increasingly does so with an eye towards how to sell them into that enormous consumer market they’ve tapped into, rather than how to sell them into the much smaller markets they sold them into in the past. Because the Apple that made the systems pros love has been dead for a long, long time.

Presenting a bit of history: the Code of Emergency Federal Regulations

Code of Emergency Federal Regulations

Each year, the workings of the American regulatory system are chronicled in print. A series of volumes, titled the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), lay out the current state of all the regulations promulgated by the Federal government’s executive branch. Within them can be found the rules that govern every sector of society that is touched by Federal regulation — from taxation to tobacco, highways to housing, parks to pensions to postal delivery.

All of which is well known. What is less well known, however, is that for nearly three decades the government maintained a second, secret set of regulations — regulations that were only to go into effect if the United States were struck by a devastating nuclear attack.

Titled the Code of Emergency Federal Regulations (or CEFR for short), this set of rules was never published in handsome hard-bound volumes for distribution to law schools and libraries the way the CFR is. It was instead distributed in loose-leaf notebooks, copies of which were distributed only to the agencies that their contents affected. And in the bowels of those agencies it moldered away, periodically updated but mostly forgotten as the apocalypse it was designed to regulate never arrived.

With the end of the Cold War, the rationale for the existence of the CEFR disappeared, and it has spent the time since making small steps out into the light. Its existence was declassified in the 1990s, and copies have been made available to researchers via some legal databases and expensive publications. But to the best of my knowledge, no copy of the CEFR has ever been made available free of charge to the general public.

Until now.

With the invaluable assistance of the National Archives, I am pleased to offer a complete electronic download of the original 1965 edition of the Code of Emergency Federal Regulations, along with the 14 updates it received during its lifetime, in PDF format:

To simplify downloading, the documents are bundled together into a compressed ZIP archive. The change documents contain only those pages that modify the CEFR as it existed when they were issued, so to generate a complete copy of the “final” CEFR, you would start with the original document and then apply each set of changes in order.

This is not the final official release these documents will see; the team at the Archives are working on them further, with an eye towards improving their accessibility and eventual publication in their Electronic Reading Room. There they will be available to the public alongside many other important documents from American history. What I’m providing here is more modest: just a raw set of scanned pages derived from an original printed copy of the CEFR. But, since even that could be of interest to students of American history and Cold War ephemera, I felt that it was worth releasing this limited version in the meantime.

I’m going through the contents of the CEFR and its various updates now, with an eye towards pulling out the most interesting bits. There’s a lot to say on that front, so these will follow in a separate post.

UPDATE (Nov. 3, 2016): Here’s that separate post I promised on the details of the CEFR.

Book review: “The Insurrectionist”

The Insurrectionist: A Novel

Disclosure: I was provided a free pre-publication review copy of this book by the publisher via NetGalley.

If you wanted to pick one singular figure to express all the contradictions wrapped up inside the American experiment, it would be difficult to choose a better one than John Brown.

John Brown: an apostle of Christ who carried a sword drenched in blood, an Old Testament figure brought to life in the age of steel. He sought not just to free the slave, but to make black Americans truly equal to whites — a cause whose justice is as universally accepted today as it was bitterly controversial in his own time.

His methods, however, are every bit as divisive today as they were in 1859, when he and a small band of fellow travelers took up arms against the Federal government in a rebellion that was probably doomed from the moment it began.

Even now, Brown’s story raises all sorts of questions for the conscientious citizen. When is violence an acceptable means for overthrowing injustice? How much innocent blood spilled in the name of a greater good is too much? Where precisely is the point at which revolution becomes simple murder?

These are all questions that would seem to make fertile ground for novelistic exploration. So it was with interest that I picked up Herb Karl’s  The Insurrectionist: A Novel, an upcoming fictionalized treatment of Brown’s life by Herb Karl.

It pains me, therefore, to report that it is not very good.

The problem with The Insurrectionist isn’t that Karl has chosen to apply the novelist’s tools to an historical subject. This kind of thing can be controversial, but generally speaking I’m supportive of it as a method for advancing an argument about a subject in ways that conventional narrative history cannot. The novelist’s ability to take us inside a character’s mind, to let the reader listen to their inner monologue, opens new frontiers for exploration.

No, the problem here is that, despite having all those tools right at hand, Karl bafflingly chooses never to really use them. Readers of The Insurrectionist will come away with no greater insight into what made John Brown do the things he did than they had before picking it up.

Oh, all the familiar episodes of Brown’s life are here. Bleeding Kansas and the massacre at Pottawatomie Creek; the Battle of Black Jack and the defeat at Osawatomie. The retreat to the East and the gathering of the Secret Six. The arguments with Frederick Douglass over which course to take next. The disastrous raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry. And finally, in swelling climax, the gallows at Charles Town which Emerson said Brown made “glorious like the cross.” Karl faithfully takes us through all of them, as he should.

But what he doesn’t do is give us any comprehension of why Brown followed his meteoric course. He starts his narrative late in Brown’s life, after he’s already arrived in Kansas, so we don’t see his early days and how they may have shaped his character. (He alludes in several places to one specific incident from Brown’s youth in partial explanation, but by doing so manages to reduce it to something too simple, too pat to carry the weight he hangs on it.) We never see Brown doubt his purpose, or his own capacity for carrying it out. Everything plays out as if it could go no other way, which is fine for history but fatal for a novel.

Brown’s eccentricities and bad decisions go unexplored as well. Here was a man who believed a valley was a better defensive position than a hilltop; who, in the age of gunpowder, planned to arm the slaves he believed would flock to his banner with medieval pikes. Rather than keep his tiny force together after marching them into Harpers Ferry, he spreads them out across town in even smaller groups, making them easy for the authorities to pick off one by one. Why? Why did he believe these were good ideas? The Insurrectionist makes no argument. It simply reels them out for us to puzzle over, which we could have done with any 9th-grade history book.

Even Brown’s personality is shrouded from us in this book. Contemporaries frequently remarked on his charisma, so electric that even many of the slaveholders he set out to murder in their beds ended up admiring his courage. And electric it must have been, for how else could he have convinced people to follow him into what was obviously the valley of death? But the Brown we get here is stern and dour to a fault; even his sons are to him just soldiers for his crusade. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would follow this version of the man unless they were zealots themselves.

From a stylistic perspective, The Insurrectionist isn’t terrible; Karl’s prose is functional, if sometimes clunky. But his unwillingness to get inside his subject’s head makes the whole exercise feel somewhat disposable. Why bother? Why bother fictionalizing the life of such a man, if you’re not going to really grapple with what made him such a man in the first place? Add that to the list of questions to which The Insurrectionist offers no answer.

“The Insurrectionist: A Novel,” by Herb Karl. Available on February 1, 2017 from Chicago Review Press.

The Dyn attack: what non-nerds need to know

Eye of SauronIf you live on or near the East Coast of the United States, the odds are pretty good that you had trouble accessing one or more of your favorite Web sites this morning. That’s because of a massive cyberattack launched this morning against a popular provider of network services (a company called “Dyn“), which resulted in companies that depended on those services getting knocked offline. The attacks have been ongoing all day, and indeed may still be underway as you read this.

This story is more significant than just some inconvenienced users, however. If early reports are true, it is actually the latest and most serious manifestation of a threat that began to emerge a few weeks ago — a threat which, if left unchecked, could potentially pose a mortal threat to the viability of the Internet itself.

That threat comes from a new type of malware. The latest iteration (which has been implicated in today’s attack) of this type has been given the name “Mirai,” but Mirai isn’t unique; it’s an evolution of a strain of malware that emerged this summer, and which has been growing in strength and danger ever since. Today’s attack indicates that it’s now gotten so pervasive that it could pose major risks to critical online services. So it’s officially a Big Deal — and one that’s only getting bigger.

Given that, I wanted to use this space to try and explain to the general public, in non-technical language, exactly how this new type of malware works, and why it poses a new type of threat that’s much bigger than anything that’s come before.

The new target: the “Internet of Things”

Mirai, and the other malware packages that preceded it, are tools that allow a user to take command of a botnet. A botnet is simply a group of computers that have all been infected with a virus which allows an attacker to take control of them remotely. The more systems that get infected with the virus, the more total computing power the attacker has at their command.

What can a bad guy can do with lots of zombie computers all lashed together like that? A common use for such a network is to launch a denial-of-service (DOS) attack.

Any online service, even the biggest, can only cope with as much traffic as the server and networking hardware behind it is able to handle. Once the limits of those systems are reached, any new requests will automatically fail because there’s simply no capacity left to respond to them. So, by taking all those zombie computers and directing them to do nothing but hit a service over and over again non-stop, the operator of a botnet can crowd out legitimate traffic through sheer weight of numbers.

So far, so usual; botnets and denial-of-service attacks are nothing new. What is new, however — the novel twist that the authors of Mirai and its predecessors brought to this attack — is that Mirai isn’t interested in infecting computers. Instead, the virus that builds its botnet goes after a completely different class of target: the so-called “Internet of Things.”

As Internet access to homes and businesses has gotten faster, cheaper and more reliable, makers of lots of devices have started adding features to those devices to connect them up to the network. Smart TVs and DVRs, security cameras and baby monitors, even refrigerators and light bulbs are connecting to the network in ever-growing numbers.

That’s a problem, because once a computer is hooked up to the public Internet, it becomes a tempting target for hackers. And you can’t hook anything up to the Internet without putting a little computer inside it, to tell it what to do with the data flowing in and what data it should be flowing out.

What makes Mirai and friends so special is that they turn all those little computers into their botnet zombies. And they do it in an absurdly simple way — they simply try to log in to those devices using the default usernames and passwords that are programmed into them at the factory. They’re betting that the people who bought them didn’t bother to change those credentials when they took their shiny new gizmo out of the box and hooked it up.

Which, it turns out, is a really, really good bet.

There are literally millions of these devices out in the wild today still using their default credentials. And that has enabled the operators of Mirai-family botnets to put together zombie armies of unprecedented size — which, over the last few weeks, they have begun turning against increasingly visible and high-profile targets.

The software Eye of Sauron

One such target was security researcher Brian Krebs, whose research, published on his influential blog “Krebs on Security,” has led to the arrests of hackers in the past. “Krebs on Security” was hit late last month with what was at the time the largest denial-of-service attack ever seen.

A Mirai botnet turned its army of zombie devices on Krebs’ blog, flooding it with a huge volume of malicious traffic — tens of thousands of compromised devices worldwide, flooding his site with 665 gigabits of traffic per second! —  for days. The weight of the attack was so great that the company that hosted his blog, Akamai, eventually gave up trying to filter it all out and just took “Krebs on Security” offline.

It eventually came back up, days later, but only because Google stepped in and applied their massive resources to protect it. (Google’s “Project Shield” is slowly making similar protection available for other journalists and news organizations, but even Google can’t afford to protect every site on the Web from onslaughts of this size.)

So what Mirai & company provide the people who use them is a sort of software Eye of Sauron; if its terrible gaze happens to fall upon your site, any site, that site will be utterly obliterated.

Krebs calls this “the democratization of censorship“:

Akamai executives said the attack — if sustained — likely would have cost the company millions of dollars. In the hours and days following my site going offline, I spoke with multiple DDoS mitigation firms. One offered to host KrebsOnSecurity for two weeks at no charge, but after that they said the same kind of protection I had under Akamai would cost between $150,000 and $200,000 per year.

Ask yourself how many independent journalists could possibly afford that kind of protection money?

The answer, of course, is: not many. Forget independent journalists; not many businesses could afford to stand up to a threat that could potentially cost them that much.

So this morning the gaze of that software Eye of Sauron landed on Dyn, and that company has been thrashing in pain ever since — along with every other service that depended on Dyn to keep themselves online.

It’s unclear as of this writing (7:00 PM EST) what the eventual cost of this attack will be, both directly from Dyn trying to defend against it and indirectly from lost sales at Dyn’s clients and damage to Dyn’s reputation as a reliable provider.

But two things are not unclear: the armies of zombie devices that marched on Dyn today are still out there. And the source code for the software to control them is open for anyone to download.

Which means that the question isn’t whether there will be another attack the size of today’s, or even bigger. The question is when.

Oktoberfest in Winchester

I took another little road trip this weekend, this time to Winchester, Virginia.

Founded in 1752, Winchester is a town of about 27,000 people located in the northwest corner of the state, up in the Shenandoah Valley. It’s about a ninety minute drive from Washington. As with my last day trip to Charlottesville, I went there mostly because I’d never been there before.

Historic downtown, Winchester, VA

Water feature in Winchester’s historic downtown

I spent most of my day there walking through old town Winchester, the downtown area which mixes together modern shops, restaurants and cultural attractions with historical buildings and monuments. It was a beautiful fall day, clear skies and warm weather, so the historic downtown was buzzing with activity.

Girl enjoying water feature

Girl enjoying water feature in Winchester’s downtown

Out for a stroll

People strolling in downtown Winchester

If you appreciate architecture, there are some striking buildings to see, ranging from colonial-era to contemporary.

First United Methodist Church

The First United Methodist Church, erected in 1873.

Handley Regional Library

Handley Regional Library, a Beaux-Arts structure erected in 1913.

There’s also plenty of history…

Admiral Byrd Memorial

Monument to Admiral Richard Byrd, pioneering polar explorer born in Winchester

George Washington lot

Marker on lot once owned by George Washington

… some of which, viewed from the perspective of 2016, is, shall we say, problematic.

Confederate monument

Confederate monument in Winchester’s historic downtown

The centerpiece of Winchester’s historic downtown is the Old Court House, and right in front of the Old Court House is a monument to the men from Winchester who fought for the Confederacy.

This type of marker has become increasingly controversial in communities here in Virginia (and across the Old South) in recent years; activists from #BlackLivesMatter and other movements have been doing good, important work in highlighting how offensive such monuments are to these communities’ African-American residents.

In my own town of Alexandria we’ve been grappling with this issue ourselves recently, with results that I think have been positive. I don’t know if similar conversations are happening in Winchester, but I hope they are.

If you’re willing to hike a few blocks from the historic downtown, you can find another monument with similar issues: Stonewall Jackson’s headquarters.

Jackson's Headquarters marker

Historic marker at Stonewall Jackson’s Headquarters

Stonewall Jackson's headquarters

Stonewall Jackson’s headquarters

It’s an unassuming-looking little house, notable because it was commandeered during the winter of 1861-62 by the Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson for use as his personal command center. When the weather warmed, it was from this house that he marched to launch the Shenandoah Valley campaign that would ensure his place in the history books.

Looking at this house, I had some complicated feelings. Jackson was undoubtedly a significant figure in American history, and I don’t believe in airbrushing people out of the historical record.

Jackson is significant, though, because he did things that were really bad. He took up arms against a rightfully elected government of the United States. He enlisted in the service of an army pledged to defend the institution of human slavery. In that service, he won victories that prolonged the bloody agony of the Civil War, perhaps by years. Because of those victories, and because Jackson had the good taste to get himself killed in battle before he could be forced to capitulate, after the war he became a key figure in the Southern cult of the “lost cause.” And that cult helped fuel the continuing injustices against black Americans that went on long after the last Confederate battle flag was furled.

Keeping up one of Jackson’s temporary headquarters as a sort of living monument to the man isn’t the weirdest manifestation of that cult; that would have to be the gravestone honoring the burial of his amputated left arm, which you can still go see at the battlefield of Chancellorsville. But, let’s be honest, it’s pretty weird. If it’s going to be preserved into the 21st century and beyond, I feel like some pretty serious work would need to be done to put his history into context.

Maybe they actually do that work inside the house. I don’t know; they charge $5 for admission, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay one cent to honor the legacy of a man who took up treason in the defense of slavery.

In one way, though, it does feel like this monument is fitting. On the day I was there, a beautiful day, Winchester was alive and thriving; but all that life and activity was happening in the modern downtown, blocks away. Meanwhile Stonewall’s shrine sat forgotten, visited by nobody except me, on a distant side street far away. Physically separated from the happiness the residents of the modern town were experiencing.

It is, one might say, segregated.

Welcome to Oktoberfest

Welcome to Oktoberfest

The reason for all that joy and life was the Old Town Octobeer Fest, which was happening back in the historic downtown. Brewers from all over the Mid-Atlantic had come to town to let people sample their wares, and there was German music food to enjoy as well. I hadn’t had any idea this was going on when I decided to come to Winchester, so running into it on my arrival was a pleasant surprise.

Brewer's tent

A brewer’s tent

For $5, you could get a tasting glass and tickets to try up to three different brews. I sampled a cream ale from Winchester Brew Works, a kölsch from Blue Mountain Brewery, and an Irish red from Tröegs Independent Brewing. All three were very good, though I think the cream ale was my favorite.

Beyond the beer there was music, and plenty of people in traditional Bavarian costume out enjoying the day.

Traditional Bavarian costume

In traditional Bavarian costume

As the day waned and I left the fest, I wanted to find a place where I could sit down for a little while and sort through the pictures I’d taken. I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you about the place I ended up, because it was a lot of fun.

Hopscotch Coffee & Records is a cool little coffee shop a few blocks from the historic downtown. It’s small enough that it’s easy to miss if you’re driving by, but keep your eyes peeled, it’s worth a stop.

Upstairs at Hopscotch

Upstairs at Hopscotch

First off, the coffee is good. Like, really good. They have a variety of drinks available, from espresso-based to pour-overs. The service is fast and friendly, too.

Second, while the space looks tiny when you first walk up to it, those appearances are deceiving. Because once you have your coffee, you walk through a door to a big, roomy downstairs lounge that’s kitted out like the funkiest basement rec room ever.

Downstairs at Hopscotch

Downstairs at Hopscotch

There’s plenty of comfortable places to sit, lots of wall outlets so you can charge your phone or laptop, a record player stocked with a library of vintage LPs, and a fun, welcoming vibe. There’s a college a little ways down the street, and Hopscotch feels like the sort of place that would be hopping on a Friday night.

So anyway, that’s my story of Oktoberfest in Winchester. Want more pictures? You can access my complete, raw camera roll from the day on Flickr; all photos are Creative Commons-licensed, so you easily re-use them if you want to.