What if the sun takes it all away?

It seems we really did dodge an apocalypse, of sorts, back in 2012. In one of those sleeper stories, known but to a few learned insiders (and they might as well keep such things to themselves since no one believes them anyway), an orbiting solar observatory recorded a series of the most powerful coronal mass ejections (CMEs—analogous to solar storms) ever encountered.

CMEs are more or less explosions shot outward from sunspots, which eject first X-rays and other forms of highly energetic radiation that travel at the speed of light, followed swiftly by charged particles, electrons and protons, moving nearly as fast. The sun is of course a sphere, upon which sunspots and CMEs can form pretty much anywhere. This means that the vast majority of such ejections shoot off harmlessly (from our perspective) into deep space. It’s only on those rare occasions that the CMEs line up with Earth’s orbit that we find ourselves in a pickle.

That happened memorably in 1989, when a solar storm damaged satellites, disrupted communications, and knocked out power all across Quebec, Canada. Solar weather-watchers use a complicated formula to gauge the severity of such events, determined in part by magnetometer readings at the equator. The baseline reading of the planet’s magnetic shield (when undisturbed) is zero; solar impacts knock it into negative numbers. The most routine events, the kind that produce the Northern Lights, register at about -50.

The 1989 storm registered -600. And the CME in July 2012 is estimated to have been around -1200. And yes, it was aimed directly at Earth’s orbit. It passed through an area in space that we’d occupied only about a week prior.

It’s only speculation to say what would have happened, or what would happen, if we were to be blasted by a solar storm of that magnitude. In 1859 an astronomer named Carrington witnessed an intense solar flare, that within days brought the Northern Lights as far south as Miami. The Carrington Event also actually triggered arcing, and in some cases even fires, along telegraph lines.

Our harnessing of the electron was of course in its infancy in those days, and is at this quantum level that solar-induced electromagnetic disruption is most keenly felt. We are dependent on the movement of the electron now, and a storm like the one we narrowly missed two years ago could potentially halt those movements, and devastate that dependency.

This scenario is potentially far worse than a simple power outage. To begin with, generating stations and transformers wouldn’t just be knocked offline, they’d be physically damaged. So this wouldn’t just be a matter of flipping the switch back on once the storm had passed. Repairs could take months or years.

In the meanwhile, an economy, a society, and a culture that is in no small part digitally based would simply cease to exist for an undetermined, and indeterminable, period of time. We’d be thrust back into a pre-electrical age, circa 1800, with no frame of reference or collective experience for surviving in such a world.

It almost hurts to wrap your mind around the implications.

As is my wont, I find myself personalizing such things. And amid practical considerations—would I have enough candles? could I protect my family?—I also narrow in on what might be a petty, self-involved issue. Sorry, but I can’t seem to help it.

My body of written work, such as it is, clocks in at I reckon about a half-million words (don’t know why but we writers have become obsessed in recent years in calculating lifetime word-counts). I estimate that nine-tenths of that, up to and including these words you’re reading now, exist in electronic form only, with no durable, CME-proof copies existent.

It’s a shamefully parochial thought, I know. But it’s emblematic of a problem that many of us, if not most of us, share. Financial and health records, much of the documentation of our very existence, are completely virtual—and evidently, completely vulnerable. Modern writers and digital artists personify the cultural side of this risk: our entire portfolios could disappear forever, in an instant.

Short of getting busy with my printer (and believe me, I’m considering that), I’m not sure where to take this new-found fear. I’m not even entirely sure how great the risk is—although one of the physicists who studied the 2012 near-miss extrapolated a 12% probability that we will get hit with a solar storm of this magnitude sometime in the next ten years.

I guess most of all I’ll just take it as prophecy, the kind that you tuck into a back corner of your mind and fret over occasionally, and occasionally take half-hearted measures against. Maybe I’ll buy extra candles from time to time, and take some opportunities to learn more about surviving, and maybe even thriving, in a low-tech world. Maybe I’ll take the initiative of seeing that some of the things I write, if I deem them worthy of preserving, are preserved.

Mostly I’ll just see this digital age of ours, this new era of unconscionably dependent culture, as a little less permanent than I once thought.

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World got you down? Just dance

If you’ve had any exposure to the news over the last week or so, you know things seem to have gotten very, very bad.

Tempting though it may be, escapism probably isn’t the answer. I’ve no proof of this, but I suspect each of us is equally responsible for whatever world-saving solutions might be in the offing. At the very least, each of us is responsible for staying engaged, and staying aware. If solutions are possible, I suspect that’s how we’ll find them.

But we’ve got our sanity to look after, don’t we? So just short of escapism, we might enjoy a temporary sort of disengagement; or rather, an alternative engagement in worthwhile distractions.

That’s how I found myself under the stars Friday night, thoroughly entranced by dance.

Culture junkie that I am, I have to admit that dance has never particularly been one of my delights. I suppose my own ineptitude on the floor might be partly to blame. But we’ve got a young dancer in the house, and we live in a city that values and promotes culture in its many forms, and when we learned that Ballet Hispanico would be performing in a park just a short walk from our home, the decision to attend was a pretty easy one. Even if it was ballet, I figured; even if it was boring ballet—well, it was a lovely evening, out of the house in the company of family and neighbors, and removed (if only temporarily) from the swirling global madness that has been monopolizing my attention.

Ballet Hispanico is not boring. I learned that almost immediately. And it’s not ballet, or at least not the sort of ballet I’d built up my prejudices against. How to describe it? To call it modern dance is probably accurate, but an almost too trite and predictable label. It is thoroughly modern, yet still thoroughly mindful of the ageless Latin dance roots from which it draws inspiration. Clearly I lack the experience and expertise to play dance critic, so I’ll probably have to admit that a legitimate analysis is simply beyond me. Besides, I was, as I’ve said, entranced. Analysis would have been beyond me in any case.

In any medium, I think, there should be a story. I’m a sucker for agile storytelling. And that’s where Ballet Hispanico won me over—with the story-in-motion unfolding on stage. I won’t pretend I grasped every nuance of every figurante vignette; Ballet Hispanico and I are, in more than one way, worlds apart. But their story, and their storytelling, invited me in to their world. And for that I’m grateful beyond my ability to express.

I’m grateful most of all for that distraction, albeit temporary, of which I already spoke. It’s meaningful and gratifying all the more since it came in the form of an artistic movement that until that beautiful Friday evening had always sadly eluded me. Am I a dance maven now? Probably not. But I’ve moved closer than ever to being an appreciator of dance, which leads me to share with you below a couple glimpses of dance I’m sure you’ll enjoy. That’s enough of a departure, for me and the Deconstruction, to make the world seem like a slightly less scary place.

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Children make the saddest refugees

In your heart of hearts you know that if a child runs onto your property begging for help, you need to help. If you’re not willing to help, you’d better have a compelling reason why not—if only to ever be able to look at yourself in the mirror again.

I suppose one of the only acceptable reasons not to help a child in distress is: “I can’t. I don’t have any way to help.” I don’t think America or Americans have ever been able to honestly make that claim, but I suppose two of the only times it’s been close to being true was during the Great Depression, and maybe (just maybe) the Great Recession.

Luckily the recession has been over for years, and every economic indicator has been indicating for a while now that the economy is strong and growing stronger. We’re in a better place right now, economically, to absorb immigration than we were, say, during the Mariel Boatlift, or nine-tenths of the years Ellis Island was bustling.

That sounds like I’m saying ‘open the borders,’ and in a narrow way, at least, that’s more or less accurate. If we were to do that—do I not think it possible that a further, bigger (maybe much bigger) flood of children, mothers with infants, whole families, might follow? Yes, that’s a real, undeniable risk.

It’s also true, I think, that our country, like any country, is responsible for our borders. We must have full and final say over who may cross them. I recognize that as part of the definition of nationhood.

And as a nation you absolutely can turn away children in need, if you want to. But how could you ever want to?

So short of making it our absolute policy to deport every kid who crosses over, I think the only hope of slowing this tide is somehow communicating to the people who are sending them that their understanding of U.S. immigration law is incorrect, and that a coyote-led trip north is far too dangerous and expensive to risk for the almost certain outcome of heartbreak.

The Obama administration is trying to send that message, or hopefully something very like it. I hope it works. I suggest we give them time and support, and see if it helps. If it doesn’t, we’ll have to try something else.

Meanwhile we have to deal with the tens of thousands that are already here. Once upon a time we would have greeted young travelers like them with a message about huddled masses, and yearning, and being free.

Short of telling them that, why can’t we open our hearts, spend a few billion, and greet them with a message that goes something like this:

Welcome. Some of you are going to have to go back home.

Some of you will be able to stay. For a while, longer than you’ll like, you’ll be staying in a dormitory. It’ll be clean and reasonably comfortable, but it won’t exactly represent the American lifestyle you came here for.

If the dormitory part goes well—you made it. The doors will open for you. We’ll make sure someone is looking after you, but most of how well you’ll do here is completely up to you. We hope you won’t make us regret letting you in.

Go to school. Learn everything you can, including English. When you’re old enough, and as long as it doesnt slow your education, get a job. Pay taxes. Become a contributing member of our society.

Most of all, please remember – although our welcome to you hasn’t been the most gracious, know that we still consider you a guest. Please be the best guest you can be, and we’ll let you stay as long as you like.

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RIP Tommy Ramone (Jan 29 1949 – July 11 2014)

Correct me if you must that he was born Erdélyi Tamás. Insist if you must that he and Johnny and Dee Dee and Joey weren’t really brothers.

I won’t start believing that now, because I never stopped believing that Rock & Roll High School was a true story. (I shouldn’t need to add that I Wanna Be Sedated is unquestionably a true story. Because it’s a true story about all of us.)

The true story about the Ramones is that they showed the Clash’s audience in America that they didn’t have to pretend to give a shit about the queen, and that they have plenty to be pissed off about right in their own red, white and blue backyard. The Ramones reminded the world that America had invented the bored-and-shat-upon lower-middle class, and that a select few of that downtrodden number are talented enough to rock about it, forcefully and eloquently, in three and a half minutes or less.

The other eternal truth about the Ramones is that they helped save rock and roll from itself. American rock was going down a dark road when the Ramones appeared, and although it’s probably stretching it to say they reversed that course themselves, it’s a lot less controversial to say that punk rock, every wicked bit of it, was a decisive factor in slowing that sucky saccharine slide that popular music was taking.

All of the Ramones, or at least the elder (eldest) brothers, are gone now. It’s self-evident that means the Ramones are gone now. If there’s a rock and roll heaven, then you know that their hell of a band needs to step aside, because the Ramones are about to go on.

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July 4 2014 – Celebrate…something

Today is not the anniversary of representative democracy. It’s the birthday of revolution.

To which I say—aw yeah. Revolution is something I can celebrate. It’s something I can emulate, with fire and long fuses and banshee screams.

More than a decade after the revolution they began talking about proportional representation and division of powers and…yawn. Sorry. The Constitution just isn’t anywhere as exciting as the Declaration. They brought in the second-string writers for that one. It lacks the soul and enthusiasm, and the class-war confrontationalism, that makes that inaugural document ripe for celebrating. And celebrate it we do.

We may or may not be aware that we’re celebrating a class war that that went in the guise of a revolution. We may or may not be aware that unlike the contemporary class wars we know and love, this one was landed gentry vs. landed gentry—colonial rich men against the aristocratic rich men back home.

It was about taxes. About rich people not wanting to pay taxes. That’s at the heart of a lot of class wars.

It’s apostasy, I know, to cast the revolution as anything except a Divinely Inspired and Sanctioned Fight for Liberty. And it’s apostasy to suggest that anything but perfection came of it.

So here’s my apostasy, all of which happens to be true: the American Revolution was a product of, in equal measure, the Enlightenment and parochial self-interest; engineered by men who seemed to believe in liberty but weren’t willing to extend it to second- and third-class citizenry which, in the final tally, accounted for the majority of their newly minted constituency. And it was fought largely by common folk whose lives didn’t change much once their allegiance was shifted from king to president.

Two hundred and thirty eight years later we have ample evidence that the nation they created, the form of government they finally settled on, really doesn’t work so well.

If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. And you should laugh. And you should have yourself a Happy Fourth of July. And you should enjoy a bit more revolutionary apostasy with me, thereby celebrating your right to be snarky, all over this day that someone, before sundown, is sure to tell you is Patriotically Sacred. Enjoy:

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All hail the Theremin

Whether or not you enjoy the electronic oscillating tones of the twentieth century’s weirdest contribution to musical invention, you have to admit: the rise of the horror film wouldn’t have been possible (or at least wouldn’t have been the same) without it.

And rightfully so. Name for me another instrument, if you will (if you dare), powered by gesture, voodoo, and evil thoughts alone. Inventor Leon Theremin (point of fact, that’s a westernized version—he was actually Lev Sergeyevich Termen) trained as an electrical engineer, and the “official” explanation of his 1920 creation is that it’s a proximity sensor with two antennas; one controlling frequency, the other amplitude. Hogwash. One short listen makes it clear that a Theremin performer preps for his dark arts by sitting in a windowless room contemplating the unspeakable. One long listen pries open the mouth of unredeemable madness.

Having said all that, let us now pay our puzzled props to Japan, where they somehow, consistently, find the cuteness in the most diabolic devices.

Japan, what have you done with the mighty, morose Theremin? Why, you’ve nestled it inside a Russian nesting doll (matryoshka) and called it a Matryomin. Because why not.

Contemplate that, please. That means that the gesturing and gesticulations we’ve all come to associate with Theremin-playing (and really, to date, all that’s been missing in these performances are some wizard hats), now takes place over and around ovoid, garishly painted Slavic folk art. Cthulhu weeps, people, and He weeps hard.

But you’re not going to stop there, are you, Japan? Oh no. You’re going to gather 167 Matryomin players together, and have them execute a boogie-woogie version of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from his immortal 9th Symphony. Nothing is sacred, Japan. We already know this, yet you persist in reminding us.

Here it is. Don’t watch it. Of course you’ll watch it, but you were warned.

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Dark Enlightenment – the thinking man’s neo-fascism

What do you make of a movement that purports to be intellectual, neo-reactionary, anti-democratic, and — wait for it — in favor of feudal restoration? You might think them confused, with good enough reason. Then you dig deeper and find them salting their net-grown philosophy with references and ideas from Star Wars, Tolkien, and The Matrix—all the while arguing in favor of eugenics and against egalitarianism, and (because they’re twenty-first century laptop warriors) they throw in some meme cats. At that point you’re tempted to dismiss them, aren’t you?

Don’t.

This self-described Dark Enlightenment, only a few years old now but spreading fast, seems to grasp these historical facts about fascism: people will embrace a movement that transfers their self-determination to an unelected elite, so long as their attention is deflected against some undesirable “other;” so long as doctrine is formulated by inner-circle pseudo-intellectuals; and so long as that doctrine, and the marching orders that always follow, are easily communicated.

In those terms, it becomes clear that modern technology was tailor-made for the resurgent fascist.

The Dark Enlightenment is overwhelmingly made up of white anglo-saxon males (with the UK and the US disproportionately represented), they’re tech-savvy, with quite a few of them, including members of the leadership, coming from the tech industries. They credit their own individual levels of success to biological superiority, while blaming every societal failure on what they see as the lesser races, and on the democratic and progressive ideals that enable them. They trace all loss back to the Enlightenment, to the Age of Reason, to the supposedly faulty logic that all people are created equal and are equally entitled to freedom and respect. Their dark enlightenment seeks to undo those historical tides and strides.

And I say again, don’t dismiss them.

I think they’re ridiculous, shallow, and transparent. I think anyone who follows them must be a basement-bound sheep with a thirst for a movement, any movement. And I think a lot of forward-minded people were just as dismissive of Hitler and Mussolini, in their ridiculous formative days.

These neo-reactionaries seem to believe what they say, and hold faith in the righteousness of their mission. They’re persuasive, they’re well-funded, and they’re multiplying. They’re scary.

The Dark Enlightenment, as both a collective and an ideal, seems to be the opposite of enlightenment…just as the opposite of the Age of Reason has to be a dark age. Dark ages are borne on their own historical tides—they ebb and flow, and inflict themselves on humanity when it’s at its weakest. Tech-enabled fascists seek to hasten that process, and return us to our darkest days. They just might, if we let them.

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Banksy took Manhattan – the movie?

Has it really been nearly a year since enigmatic Brit street artist Banksy steamrolled NYC? New Yorkers aren’t likely to forget the experience any time soon, but just in case the rest of us have, his website is now hosting an intriguing video that brings it all back into focus.

But the question, as it always is with so much of Banksy’s work, is—why? And how much should we read into the fact that the video is labeled: “Better Out Than In – The Movie” …?

Banksy (and what is this guy’s real name, anyway?!) has already been involved in a few film projects, including a couple turns as documentary director in 2010 and 2011. Is that what we’re seeing a preview of today? Is another Banksy movie, one concentrating on his 2013 NYC assault, in the offing?

Or is this yet another Banksy pranksy?

Beats me. Click play below, and take your best guess….

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Pay no attention to the existential threat behind the curtain

There’s a phrase you hear over and over in the debates, such as they are, that American chatterers and politicos engage in on the subject of climate change:

Perpetrating a Fraud

Here’s the context: a minority of my countrymen have decided, with a moral certainty, that the science and scientists confirming that carbon pollution is heating the planet are not only wrong, but are also maliciously deceitful. I’ve never been exactly clear as to the motive of this fraud (“redistribution of wealth” is another bandied phrase—but it’s still a puzzle why a climate scientist in Europe, for example, would be incited to enrich the Third World at the First’s expense)…but the climate-change deniers insist that what we have here is nothing less than a massive conspiracy to sow fear while picking pockets.

Here then is my question: why are these fraudsters walking free? We are a nation of law and order, and the least among us wouldn’t hesitate to call the authorities if we knew some slick-talker was trying to bamboozle the old lady down the street out of her retirement savings. According to people like Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, climate science is a fraud designed to drain entire national treasuries. If he’s right then it must surely be the largest ongoing criminal conspiracy in history. Doesn’t he have a duty to intervene?

If he did, he’d be in luck. These clumsy conspirators aren’t even trying to hide their culpability. If we’re swearing out international arrest warrants, we can start with this list of hubristic international bunkos:

Christopher B. Field (USA), Vicente R. Barros (Argentina), Michael D. Mastrandrea (USA),

Katharine J. Mach (USA), Mohamed A.-K. Abdrabo (Egypt), W. Neil Adger (UK), Yury A.

Anokhin (Russian Federation), Oleg A. Anisimov (Russian Federation), Douglas J. Arent (USA),

Jonathon Barnett (Australia), Virginia R. Burkett (USA), Rongshuo Cai (China), Monalisa

Chatterjee (USA/India), Stewart J. Cohen (Canada), Wolfgang Cramer (Germany/France),

Purnamita Dasgupta (India), Debra J. Davidson (Canada), Fatima Denton (Gambia), Petra Döll

(Germany), Kirstin Dow (USA), Yasuaki Hijioka (Japan), Ove Hoegh-Guldberg (Australia),

Richard G. Jones (UK), Roger N. Jones (Australia), Roger L. Kitching (Australia), R. Sari

Kovats (UK), Patricia Romero Lankao (Mexico), Joan Nymand Larsen (Iceland), Erda Lin

(China), David B. Lobell (USA), Iñigo J. Losada (Spain), Graciela O. Magrin (Argentina), José

A. Marengo (Brazil), Anil Markandya (Spain), Bruce A. McCarl (USA), Roger F. McLean

(Australia), Linda O. Mearns (USA), Guy F. Midgley (South Africa), Nobuo Mimura (Japan),

John F. Morton (UK), Isabelle Niang (Senegal), Ian R. Noble (Australia), Leonard A. Nurse

(Barbados), Karen L. O’Brien (Norway), Taikan Oki (Japan), Lennart Olsson (Sweden), Michael

Oppenheimer (USA), Jonathan T. Overpeck (USA), Joy J. Pereira (Malaysia), Elvira S.

Poloczanska (Australia), John R. Porter (Denmark), Hans-O. Pörtner (Germany), Michael J.

Prather (USA), Roger S. Pulwarty (USA), Andy R. Reisinger (New Zealand), Aromar Revi

(India), Oliver C. Ruppel (Namibia), David E. Satterthwaite (UK), Daniela N. Schmidt (UK),

Josef Settele (Germany), Kirk R. Smith (USA), Dáithí A. Stone (Canada/South Africa/USA),

Avelino G. Suarez (Cuba), Petra Tschakert (USA), Riccardo Valentini (Italy), Alicia Villamizar

(Venezuela), Rachel Warren (UK), Thomas J. Wilbanks (USA), Poh Poh Wong (Singapore),

Alistair Woodward (New Zealand), Gary W. Yohe (USA)

Those are the authors of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s just-released Fifth Assessment Report. It’s grim reading. But as Lamar Smith and others would have it, it’s fraudulent reading. It can be dismissed as a sham, it’s signatories are liars, and those of us who believe it are dangerously naive; and also, probably, unpatriotic.

If I’m unclear on the motives of climate-change fraudsters, I don’t have any such confusion as to the motivation on the other side. Those who deny the overwhelming weight of evidence on this subject are either willfully ignorant, or blatantly greedy.

Greed? Not much needs to be said on that score. All is needed is a little research as to which billionaires and corporations are funding the climate-denial machine.

And willful ignorance? That’s become an existential threat in its own right. Let me be as clear as possible: you may have a right to your own opinion, but your opinion doesn’t compete with the scientific method. The scientific method has created the modern world. Its faults are self-correcting—which is precisely why it works. Your ignorance is both willful and alarming if you feel free to reject the scientific method if and when its findings conflict with what you wish were true, what you want to believe, or the dogma of your religion.

That last point is a huge one, so permit me to drive it home: If your faith forbids you from recognizing and resisting a threat to your species’ existence, when the impact is clearly already upon us, then you’re not a follower of a religion. You’re a member of a suicide cult.

There have always been existential threats. There probably always will be. There have been diseases and cataclysms that have toppled cultures and reduced populations so thoroughly that human repopulation was, in the aftermath, a damned close-run thing. There might one day come a threat we can’t overcome, and that will be that. As near as we can see, that’s just the way of the universe.

But maybe, just maybe, this isn’t that threat. Science has identified it, confirmed it, and if we’re very, very lucky, has shown us ways we might survive it.

I’ll try not exaggerate. The remedies for climate change are expensive and uncertain. We’ve gone past a tipping point where, it seems, our best hopes are mitigation and adaptation. It might not work, and it might not be enough.

But I can’t fathom a world where we wouldn’t at least try. The survival instinct is supposed to be one of our defining characteristics. Another is intelligence—and we should be intelligent enough to realize that any level of mitigation is at least a partial victory, and that transitioning away from fossil-fuel economies is desirable under any circumstances, and that the expenses involved here simply don’t matter. Either we’ll pay them anyway as coasts drown and crops fail, or worse: we’ll reach a stage where money is a memory.

That’s the future we’re headed toward, unless we act and act now. “Existential threat” is a term I use advisedly, and literally. It’s one of the scariest I can think of, except perhaps “climate-change denier.”

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RIP Ann B. Davis (May 5, 1926 – June 1, 2014)

You just know she made the best PB&J ever.

It would have been tough under any circumstances to say goodbye to the one and only Alice: She helped raise a couple hundred million of us. She was pretty damned good at it too.

It’s tougher all the more that we had to lose her in, maybe, an all too avoidable way. Ann Davis wasn’t a young lady, but by all accounts she was a sprightly and lively one. She fell in her bathroom and never woke up.

Everyone able to do so values their independence and rightly so. Makes it hard to cede independence—that’s surely what it feels like—when the body becomes a bit less nimble than the mind. To admit that’s so, to ask for help to compensate, has to be one of the hardest things any of us has to do.

There comes a day when surroundings and environments that you’d navigated without thought, for half your life or more, become deadly. Things change in an instant.

Seventy years ago the world exploded in war and when it was over people fucked like bunnies. Seventy years on we’ve got maybe the largest generation of senior citizens the world has ever seen.

They’re stubborn as hell and they don’t want to listen. To us, most of all, because they raised us—sure as Alice did. They don’t want to listen when we tell them we don’t want them to trip and fall.

I don’t know how the hell we’re gonna do it, folks, but we need to ornery-senior proof the planet.

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Every other year – the art world lets its hair down

Doesn’t seem easy for the arts to do the unexpected. Or rather, artists themselves thrive on the unusual and the risky, but the arts establishment does its best to steer them, and their production, right back toward the mainstream. This can’t be healthy.

But an equilibrium, or at least a compromise, seems to be in the offing. If the artists can’t come out to play every day (if they want to maintain a career, that is), then perhaps their reins can be slackened a bit every once in a while. Every other year, maybe.

They’re calling it the Biennial. It’s a series of events, held in alternate years, wherein established art institutions veer a bit off track and spend some time (not too much of course) playing in some unfamiliar sandboxes.

Noted examples include the Whitney Museum’s contemporary art Biennial; the Venice Bienniale (exploring an exciting if unconventional amalgam of modern art, film, dance, and architecture); and the Bienniale of Sydney, one of the longest running, most celebrated, and widely attended arts festivals in the world.

Now comes the New York Philharmonic‘s “NY Phil Biennial,” currently underway, bringing biennial daring to the sonic arts.

And it is daring. The world of classical music is, well, classical. It’s a world where Wagner is grudgingly accepted as a johnny-come-lately.

According to classical-music aficionados, if it ain’t Baroque, don’t fix it.

But Mozart and Beethoven were johnny-come-latelies themselves, once. All music, at some time or another, was new. New and stirring music is being composed all the time. And even in the staid and very classical milieu of the Philharmonic, new music is worth exploring. Occasionally, at least. Every other year, for an 11-day stretch.

Even at that hesitant pace the NY Phil is to be commended. That less-than-a-fortnight run will include 21 concerts, dozens of guest conductors, and some startling original performances—including operas based on Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, and a social-climbing pig named Gloria.There will also be symphonies and new-music premiers that while decidedly un-Baroque, are nonetheless likely to become classics in their own right.

All music starts somewhere, and the same can be said for art movements. This is the New York Philharmonic’s first Biennial, and their first serious foray into twenty-first century composition. May it not be their last.

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Memorial Day 2014 – Recognition and Thanks

Memorial Day. It’s the unofficial start of summer, a pre-solstice revelry of warm weather and outdoor fun. For many of us, myself thoroughly included, it’s a long-anticipated 3-day weekend, a barbecue bacchanalia, a day to relax and unwind.

But we all know it’s quite a bit more than that, don’t we? We find ourselves in the thirteenth year of war, and although we, Americans, often accuse ourselves and each other of forgetting or ignoring the young men and women who’ve gone to combat in our names, who are there right now, I don’t think they’re ever really far from our minds.

Especially on Memorial Day.

Americans’ relationship with their military is complex and complicated, and all too often contemptible. We fetishize heroism to the point of absurdity—not particularly for the benefit of anyone we send to the point of the spear, but rather to salve our own guilt; either for sending them there or for not going with them. Then, not content with true, unalloyed heroism, something that occurs in abundance—we create heroic fictions designed to further a narrative or an agenda. We feign hurt and confusion when the principals don’t play along.

And worse, far worse. When they return they’re treated in ways that are inexcusable, that are a stain on our society. This is currently in the news, but it’s far from new.

On Memorial Day, and hopefully every day, we can and must see how wrong this is. We can and must do better. As long as we send people to war, we can and must keep our collective promises to them once we bring them home.

Memorial Day began in 1868 as Decoration Day, a day to honor 620,000 who died in the U.S. Civil War. We still observe it as day to thank and reflect upon those who suffered the ultimate sacrifice. In a larger sense we observe thanks and reflection today in honor of everyone in uniform, and everyone who has worn a uniform, knowing that it was probably just fortune or circumstance that separated them from that same sad and extreme outcome.

Not coincidentally the U.S. Civil War is also the origin of another solemn tradition, one that’s just as emblematic of non-Hollywood heroism, just as indicative of the valor of the combat soldier. The Congressional Medal of Honor is, of course, our highest military award, one given only for “uncommon” bravery. But since the first recipient—Pvt. Jacob Parrott in 1863—and until the most recent, Spc. Kyle White on May 13th of this year, the Medal of Honor has been awarded 3,488 times. A number like that suggests that bravery might not be so uncommon after all.

On Memorial Days past here I’ve tended to tell individual stories, like those of Medal of Honor recipients Freddie Stowers and Charles J. Berry. I still believe that in individual stories a larger truth lies, and for that reason, along with respect and appreciation, I think those stories should go on being told.

But in reflecting on that fact that 3,488 Congressional Medals of Honor have been issued to date, I’ll take this Memorial Day as an opportunity to tell a more extensive tale.

The Civil War remains, by far, the conflict in which the most Medals of Honor were awarded. Nearly 44% of all the recipients earned their Medals between 1861 and 1865. The only woman thus far to earn the Medal, Dr. Mary E. Walker, won hers in 1861.

Like most instances of American combat, the Civil War was never officially declared a war, as the Constitution demands, by an act of Congress. The first declared war in which the Medal of Honor was earned was the Spanish-American War (1898). There were 110 Medals of Honor earned in that conflict.

Nearly 80% of all Medals of Honor awarded have been earned during undeclared wars. This includes all fourteen thus far earned in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It also includes conflicts you’ve likely never heard of. Did you know that the military mounted an armed expedition to Korea in 1871? There were fifteen Medals of Honor earned in the fighting there. The U.S. took part in the Samoan Civil War (1899; four Medals of Honor), the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901; 59 Medals of Honor), and occupations of Vera Cruz (1914; 63 Medals of Honor); of Haiti (1915-1934; six Medals of Honor); and of the Dominican Republic (1916-1924; three Medals of Honor). The long, bloody subjugation of the Philippines (1899-1913), one of the most ignominious lost chapters of American history, was the occasion for 86 Medals of Honor to be awarded.

Nineteen Medal of Honor recipients have actually earned that honor twice. One president and two sons of presidents have earned the award. Fathers and sons have earned it.

Subjectively, meaning I don’t have the data or citation to prove it, I’m certain that many, many more men and women have earned the Congressional Medal of Honor, but never received it. There’s a good chance that right now, as I write this and later, as you read it, the Medal is being earned. Whether or not it’s ever received is ultimately irrelevant.

Regardless of how we feel about the conflicts that set the stage, every recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor have earned our respect, thanks, and admiration. This is equally true of every member of the armed services who now serve, and who have ever served.

Happy Memorial Day. Thank you, Specialist White. Thank you, soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and veterans. This day is for you.

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World Cup 2022 – Qatar’s and FIFA’s shame

This is not a world without misery, squalor, servitude, and slavery. These things, as much as they should be stamped out, remain tenaciously with us. We shouldn’t resign ourselves to them, but sometimes it seems like we might as well.

But when such evil is propagated not only for the usual reasons (religion, greed, ignorance, religion…religion…) but also for the very mindless, the very unnecessary—for entertainment, for sport—then we need to take a hard look at our world’s priorities, and ask what the hell is the matter with us all.

FIFA, World Cup fans, I’m looking at you.

In 2010, the executive committee of FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) announced that the 2022 World Cup tournament would be held in Doha, Qatar. The Persian Gulf emirate at once began building the infrastructure, and the dozen new stadiums, that FIFA deemed necessary for the world’s largest sporting event.

But you see, Qatar is the world’s wealthiest nation, on a per capita basis. The average income among their 280,000 citizens is nearly two hundred thousand dollars. Qataris don’t get their hands dirty.

Ninety-four percent of the manual workforce in Qatar is migrant, non-citizen, and subject to a brutal, medieval employment system called kafala, whereby the employer is considered sponsor, even quasi-owner. Employers can seize workers’ passports, withhold exit visas, and can reinterpret employment contracts at will. Workers have no recourse to the Qatari legal system. Once they arrive in the country, they are at their employers’ mercy.

The workers building the World Cup infrastructure are mainly from South Asia: India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka. Many say they are being paid a fraction of what they were promised before they left home. They are working in triple-digit heat and living in conditions that reporters and human-rights activists alike describe as squalor. And they’re dying like flies.

Qatar has denied that any migrant workers have died working on World Cup projects. They’re playing a language game there: defining  “World Cup projects” as the stadiums only, and not counting any deaths that occurred during the infrastructure projects. Also, they’re don’t count “natural causes.” Like when a previously healthy twenty-something man dies of cardiac arrest—that’s natural causes.

There have also been suicides, scores of them. Those don’t count either.

Despite increasing attention to this ongoing human-rights calamity, both FIFA and Qatar have done next to nothing. The emirate has promised to make some changes, nearly universally characterized as “cosmetic” by human-rights watchers, to the kafala system. And FIFA? The president of that body, Sepp Blatter, hasn’t addressed these allegations at all; he has instead insisted as recently as a few months ago that it would be “impossible” to change the 2022 World Cup site. More recently, he admitted that awarding the tournament to Qatar was a mistake—but only because it will be too hot there for a summer series.

Sepp Blatter clearly has no conscience, nor shame. So the rest of the world has to be his conscience, and has to supply the shame.

Soccer fans: hundreds of workers have already died to bring you your 2022 World Cup. The International Trade Union Confederation has projected that at the present rate. the death toll will reach at least 4,000 before the games begin.

If the 2022 World Cup is held in Doha it will rightly forever be known as the Death Cup. It will be a stain on FIFA and the “beautiful game” for all time.

The only alternative is to stop this, right now; to rescue the workers trapped in Doha, to punish the Qataris responsible, and to turn FIFA into an organization that doesn’t place picayune sport above human life.

Shame on Qatar, and shame on FIFA. Their shame is monumental, and every day it grows.

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Vince McMahon’s financial smackdown

How was your day, last Friday? Was it better than WWE founder Vince McMahon’s? When McMahon woke up on May 16th, he was a billionaire. When he (presumably) drank himself to sleep that night, he wasn’t.

I had a $20 bill fall out of my wallet once. That hurt. And once I dropped a little over fifty bucks on scratch-off lottery tickets, without a thing to show for it. Mister McMahon, it’s reported, lost about $350 million in the course of one day.

So what happened? McMahon’s entertainment empire, cornerstoned firmly in the “wrestling” realm, is losing fans at precisely the same time it’s investing heavily in streaming media, and in a new deal with NBCUniversal for the Raw and Smackdown broadcast shows. The online services have picked up a paltry 700,000 subscribers and have been operating at a loss since launch. And the take from the TV shows ended up being less than half of even the most conservative projections. The result was a 40% loss in stock value before close of market on Friday, and a roundhouse punch to Vince McMahon’s bottom line.

Of course, the man’s still worth about $750 million. We probably don’t need to weep for him.

Say what you want about entertainment wrestling (what else would you call it?), or McMahon’s outsized personality, or his wife’s avaricious political ambitions. You can even make a pretty reasonable argument that Vince McMahon and the WWE offer nothing constructive to society, and that what happened on Friday was some long-overdue comeuppance. Fake wrestling does nothing for me, so I might be inclined to agree with you.

WWE fans, though—dwindling though they may be—would probably beg to differ. And since they’re the ones voting with their dollars (or lack thereof) then I suppose theirs are the only opinions that matter.

I think I’m giving McMahon some slack here, probably much more than I’d be tempted to otherwise. Because although his strange, strange enterprise doesn’t thrill me in of itself, it has launched some interesting careers. Some of those I shake my head at (there’s no accounting for taste). But in other cases, one in particular, I think Vince McMahon’s talent as a talent scout has done us all a great service.

In 1987 one of the most classic, enduringly enjoyable movies of all time was made. I don’t think it would have been half as good, though, if some years earlier Vince McMahon hadn’t recognized and rewarded the towering potential of one awesomely talented gentle giant.

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Simon Smith’s stunning London

Director and filmmaker Simon Smith has just given us one of the most stunning short films of the year—collaborating across nine decades to create Wonderful London in 1924 & 2014 (link).

Here are Smith’s own words on how he captured this juxtaposition that’s outside of time, in a timeless city:

“In 1924, Harry B. Parkinson and Frank Miller documented London in a fantastic series of short films, known as “Wonderful London”. Over the last few months, I have stood in their foot-steps, recapturing their shots exactly, and have blended the two together creating a window through time.”

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