The web at 30

The World Wide Web is celebrating a birthday today. Actually, on this date in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee (now Sir Tim, thank you very much) outlined a somewhat vague proposal for a new electronic information-sharing protocol.

But seeing as how the web is (ideally) a cybernetic agora of thoughts and ideas, then it makes sense to celebrate its conception as its date of birth.

To say that the internet and all its convolutions and offshoots have changed everything is so self-evident, I feel silly for typing the words. We all know it, no matter how ubiquitous information-sharing has become. Those of us who came up before this thing took over remember how different life used to be, and we won’t shut up about it. Those who have grown up in this brave new world have to listen to that—a lot. It’ll be a generation, maybe two, before the internet seems as timeless and invisibly normal as television has since the ’60s or so.

So the question isn’t really how much Sir Tim’s baby changed us, it’s whether those changes are, on balance, for the best.

I’ve wrestled with this. Most days the answer seems pretty clear—I perform my day job largely online. I write, blog, hustle, and side-gig likewise online. I see something shiny, I click, and it’s Amazon-Prime’d to me in hours, not days. At times like these I bless Berners-Lee’s name, and I’d knight him again myself if I could.

Then there are those other times. My connections are glitchy, so I can’t work or side-hustle and I realize, horribly, that I have no alternative tech to get the job done. Or I’m hacked or have some data stolen—it’s happened to all of us by now, hasn’t it?—and I stomp and roar because I didn’t sign up for this and it shouldn’t be happening.

But it is. Hate proliferates online. Elections are stolen. Misinformation spreads and grows sticky, and works its way into collective consciousness.

And even worse. Ever venture downstairs to the Dark Web? Do so at peril to your sanity; it’s ugly down there. It’s supposed to be some anonymous, libertarian Eden…but it’s largely what you’d expect when libertines can be anonymous and they can (largely) dodge repercussions. They’re selling guns, drugs, and people there, and it’s all enabled by the same concepts and infrastructure that gave us Nyan Cat.

I’ve wondered, more than once, if we all wouldn’t be better off if we just shut the damn thing down (isn’t there a big red button in Sir Tim’s basement?), and we schlepped back into the analog. But that’s fantasy, right? This genie has gorged, and its big ass won’t fit back in the bottle.

So what have we got? Well, we’ve still got Tim Berners-Lee. He’s marking this anniversary by calling for a new international compact to address the worst ways in which our mutual connectivity is being abused. He’s got some good ideas, as he’s always had, and we can only hope they’ll gain some traction.

Because yes, this thing is here to stay. Best we hope for is that it goes back to being a blessing, somehow, and stops being such a burden.

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AI-generated art as an economic commentary

Imagine if you will an algorithm, an AI, employed in the creation of chimerical floral forms—all as a dual exegesis on one of the world’s first economic bubbles, and one of its most recent.

And if that’s all too heady for your imagination, then chillax, you needn’t conceptualize it; it’s an actual creation (in the form of a video installation), designed and presented by London-based machine-learning artist, Anna Ridler.

It’s called Mosaic Virus, an evolving animation of an array of pseudo-tulips. They look like they could be cultivated variations, for the most part, but none have ever existed in nature…and some of them, occasionally, mutate into far-out formations that could never grace this earth.

Why? The AI that paints and repaints the flowers, that governs their growth, is slaved to the sine-like fluctuations of the bitcoin market—the crypto-currency that’s busy creating a few fortunes, but mostly draining away thousands of others.

Why again? Because this all hearkens back to a much earlier bubble, arguably the world’s first.

Tulip Mania” was the investing and collecting craze that overcame Europe in the 1630s. Less than a half-century after the tulip flower was introduced from Ottoman Turkey, it became the target of an unhinged buying binge, pumping up prices until the cost of a single bulb might surpass 10 years of wages for an average worker. Much of this was due to a mosaic-virus infection, after which Ridler’s work is named, that resulted in never-before seen color patterns in the tulip fields in and around Amsterdam.

Just as tulip mania reached fever pitch, and tulip bulbs had become currency-like commodities in their own right, the market collapsed, erasing millions of guilders worth of wealth overnight.

This very much ‘analog’ bust is mirrored in the digital one that’s looming just ahead. There’s the same illusion of rationality that’ll seem insane in retrospect, when the newly destitute recognize the ethereality of the perishable asset on which they’re pinning their hopes and dreams.

Anna Ridler captures not just that, she also captures–and subjugates–the ghosts-in-the-machine that pump up the bubble and will surely make it burst.

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Jay Inslee, the issue candidate

The 2020 presidential field is already crowded, and growing ever more so, so it’s probably far too early for any earnest handicapping. Even a modest “meet the candidate” effort becomes a frantic two-step, with more hopefuls announcing, forming exploratory committees, or being speculated upon and about, by the hour, by the day.

I won’t even try. But I will tip an admiring hat to the 23rd governor of the great state of Washington, Jay Robert Inslee, who formally declared his candidacy today.

I make this exception—which I insist on distinguishing from an endorsement—because Inslee makes clear in his announcement video (embedded below, or found here if my embed eludes you) that he’s coming to the race with a laser focus on a single, defining issue: climate change.

We’re the first generation to feel the sting of climate change, and we’re the last that can do something about it.- Jay Inslee, March 1st, 2019.

Inslee is a baby boomer—he was born in 1951—but I believe he speaks here for all our cohorts, everyone alive today, or at least those of us who accept the overwhelming evidence before us and recognize the existential threat we face.

This all positions him as an issue candidate, and he’ll probably be (erroneously) framed as a single-issue candidate. That’s a tricky proposition—it risks an illusion of irrelevancy on the stump when the kitchen-table issues, or any other issues, are debated. Inslee might own the climate-change battlefront, but the pundits will tend to turn to Sen. Sherrod Brown, for example, for the blue-collar connection; or to Sen. Elizabeth Warren to discuss economic justice.

And while that’s not necessarily good for a candidate, I’d argue it’s good, maybe even vital, for the race. Precisely because this field is so crowded, we need aspirants willing to stake their entire claim, or at least the lion’s share of it, on an issue they’re willing to designate as the defining one.

Now is indeed the time to make climate change that issue. Collectively, we’re fiddling…and Rome is most assuredly burning. Jay Inslee’s candidacy is an urgent plea to stop the music, and to get busy saving ourselves.

That may or may not win the presidency, but on the first of March, 2019 that matters not at all. What matters is getting that issue where it belongs: at the center of our debates and in the forefront of our consciousness. Jay Inslee’s announcement today seems sure to make that happen. Regardless of where his run takes him, for this alone we’re in his debt.

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Damned fools and poets

Sometimes the words only flow in the form of verse. And oftentimes that’s very much appropriate….


All these impulses behind the wheels.
All those ganglia in motion, under instinct;
afloat on chemistry and wetware mechanics:
self-deluded unto autonomy
yet lizardly aware of all substrate -
and so content in retrograded detail.
Just a little more virus in Gaia’s time-sick vein.

Inhale a bit too much of that spark.
Too much of any history poisons you
but a sip sets you soaring.
And the taboo taste of your granddad’s grave dirt
surely tastes a lot like your own. Because…

tall things topple; we’re in an era of overbalancing:
fissures fizz out and transoms go missing.
Artifice appends the advance of geology.

For there’s no choice but to
drift down one muddy stream
or another
or to disdain the breath
while spanning the depths
whilst the sea pulls you home
like your mother.

Every damned fool and poet shouts a warning.
Not a damned one stays til morning.


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Deconstructing the art and spectacle of Ivanka Vacuuming

Performance art can be a challenge to interpret. By its very nature it represents a forfeiture of control—by relocating the creative process from the studio to the stage, and by producing and reproducing iterative art before a mutable audience, the artist-performer engages in a constant collaboration that can’t help but result in an ever-shifting message. Observers are left to wonder how much of that is part of the artist’s original intention, how much is serendipity, and how much is unintended static and unwanted noise.

That ambiguity is on display (and was apparently written into the script) with Jennifer Rubell‘s conceptual performance piece, Ivanka Vacuuming, presented by Washington’s CulturalDC at the Flashpoint Gallery through February 17th.

The performance consists of a smartly dressed woman, said to be an Ivanka Trump lookalike (debatable), vacuuming a pink rug in a sparse, pink-shaded back lit room. A table is prepared for the audience, set with a mountain of homogeneous white crumbs, which they’re invited to sprinkle on the carpet, thus queuing up yet more hoovering chores for “Ivanka.”

CulturalDC calls the piece “boundary-pushing,” which is apt enough, without directly addressing the messaging or subtext. Ivanka Trump herself did so obliquely, responding to news of the performance by tweeting, “Women can choose to knock each other down or build each other up. I choose the latter.” Other members of the first family also took exception by tweet, with varying levels of indignation.

The umbrage might be appropriate, if the artist’s intention was to demean. Interestingly, that’s not at all clear. Rubell seems to lovingly embrace the confusion, calling the work both “complicated,” and “icky.” Her public comments on the piece make no effort to clarify what, exactly, she’s trying to convey with Ivanka Vacuuming. “It’s funny, it’s pleasurable, it makes us feel powerful, and we want to do it more,” she said. “We like having the power to elicit a specific and certain response. Also, we know she’ll keep vacuuming whether we (throw crumbs) or not, so it’s not really our fault, right?”

The fact that the creator asks the question is indicative of the layers of meaning we might infer here—and whether or not she can answer her own query almost becomes irrelevant. At the most pedestrian level it’s pure schadenfreude: we who have cleaned countless floors can symbolically engage with an icon who has likely never cleaned anything—and not just that, we can even make it worse for her.

Or maybe we, the audience are the damnable elites here? With all that pink—could Rubell have been positioning ersatz-Ivanka as the anonymous, ubiquitous feminine? She could have chosen any manner in which her subject could have been puppeteered—why vacuuming? It’s an epitome of domestic drudgery, and has a 1950s aura of benign repression. Every male audience member who tosses down crumbs just might be hearkening back to that. And every female who does so might ponder the other ways in which she girds the patriarchy.

We’re left with a number of questions, all centering around this one: Is Ivanka uber-woman, or every woman? And we’re given no answers…possibly because it’s not for us to know.

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Brazen art theft in Moscow

We’ll say it again: we in no way condone art theft, but we can’t help giving a little hat-tip to the more ballsy art thieves out there.

On Sunday, Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery fell victim to perhaps the most direct, no-nonsense sort of pilferage, when a man braved a bustling crowd of art lovers and helped himself to a 1908 mountainscape by Russian artist Arkhip Kuindzhi, titled “Ai-Petri, Crimea.” The painting is valued at $182,000. The heist was uncomplicated: the as-yet unidentified man approached the painting, which was not fitted with alarms but was covered by CCTV surveillance, he removed it, and calmly walked off with it. Bystanders barely reacted, and are said to have assumed he was a museum employee. The thief made good his escape, but was later betrayed by a police tip-off, and is currently in custody. He has denied culpability, and says he doesn’t remember where he was on Sunday. The painting has been returned to the museum.

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Government shut-down and the slow-motion assault

As I write this, the ongoing shutdown of the U.S federal government, sparked by a budget impasse over border-wall spending, is in its 26th day. It is the longest government shutdown in history.

You can choose your fallout, in terms of resulting (or impending) damage. Furloughed federal workers and contractors have gone without one paycheck and are well on their way to a second lapse in pay. Today it was announced that members of the Coast Guard will not be getting paid, making this the first shutdown that has impacted service members in that way. Other vital job descriptions, including federal law enforcement personnel, air-traffic and air-safety workers, and even the president’s own bodyguards, are being forced to stay on the job, without pay. It’s likely that at the end of this shutdown, as has been customary in the past, congress will vote to provide back pay for these workers, but there’s no guarantee, and of course that’s little help with expenses and contingencies they’re facing right now. And if the shuttering goes on much longer, say more than another two or so weeks, looming federal income-tax processing—and refunds—will undoubtedly be delayed. That’s when this standoff will come home for most of us.

And that’s a shame, because there’s harm being done right now that, while invisible to the vast majority of Americans, is destroying much of the precious heritage we own in common.

National Parks Traveler, among other outlets, is covering this story, and it’s a distressing one indeed. With National Parks workers and rangers for the most part furloughed (although not, interestingly enough, at the clock tower attached to the Trump Hotel on the Washington National Mall), park visitors are unchecked as to their behavior and impact upon the landscape. The damage so far is gut-churning—in addition to overflowing trash bins (not to mention overflowing toilets), there are numerous reports of illegal off-roading, hiking, and four-wheeling in prohibited, biologically sensitive areas, graffiti damage, and even plundering of protected relics and artifacts in normally restricted areas like New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon. In California, at the Joshua Tree National Park, several of the namesake endangered yuccas have actually been cut down—in some cases apparently to make illegal roads, in others, seemingly, for simple, mindless vandalism.

It’s not just heartbreaking, it’s also commentary. It belies many of the claims of libertarianism—those who say that rules and regulations are the diktats of the nanny state should look around, and finally admit that not a few of their fellow citizens are in dire need of nannies.

This shutdown is a national disgrace, and it disgraces us all. It needs to end now, although in truth its “end,” in terms of its repair and cleanup, won’t be seen for years, if ever. May the administration and the congress get on with their jobs, get the government back to work, so we can get started fixing this mess.

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Brian May’s new space rock

It’s surely a stellar time (so to speak) to be an alumnus of the legendary arena-rock four-piece Queen. Not that they’ve ever wavered much from their atmospheric fame, the recent (and ongoing) success of the band biopic Bohemian Rhapsody has reignited a fervor not seen since we were learning to stomp-stomp-clap way back in 1977.

As exciting as that must be for Queen guitarist Brian May, it seems that he’s found the last several days even more exciting.

That’s because he’s Doctor May to you, bub. He’s not just a six-string maestro (and make no mistake, he’s good—he uses a sixpence coin for a guitar pick, for goshsakes), he also pursues a bustling alternate life in academia, with a Ph.D in astrophysics.

Thus the last several days, as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has been approaching then beaming back pictures of the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule, Prof. May has been growing positively giddy.

Accordingly, he has once again strapped on his axe—and picked up his sixpence—to bestow upon us all his first solo release in years: a tribute to this record-shattering mission and to our first glimpse of a strange and stunningly distant world. Enjoy.

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The end of the year, and a climate debate (hint: there is no debate)

Kudos, respect, and thanks to Chuck Todd and NBC for today’s extraordinary edition of Meet The Press. The entire hour was dedicated to discussions of critical climate issues and the onrushing impacts of a warming earth. In a ground-breaking departure, MTP’s panel consisted entirely of scientists and climate experts—climate-change deniers were not invited. “We’re not going to give time to climate deniers. The science is settled, even if political opinion is not,” Todd said.

“We’re not going to debate climate change, the existence of it. The Earth is getting hotter. And human activity is a major cause, period.” – Chuck Todd, Meet The Press

This stance from the major media is long overdue, and it’s even (dare I say it?) a little encouraging. Most Americans, in line with the vast majority of scientists, are convinced that anthropogenic climate change is both a reality, and an existential threat to our species. The deniers, a vocal minority, tend to be religious fundamentalists, conservative politicians, shills for the fossil-fuel industries, or some bastardized combo of the three. Their arguments are contrived, self-serving, and easily collapsible. Yet the media has all too often given them a platform, whenever the subject is discussed, apparently in the interests of some wobbly idea of editorial balance.

This morning, Chuck Todd said fuck all that.

Henceforth, let that be so. We’ve got work to do, people. We have a planet to save. We haven’t the time or bandwidth to entertain the fiddling of these latter-day Neros. Sure, some of them are in power, and more’s the pity…but a countervailing powerbase is on the rise. There’s an understanding now, among smart people who not only understand the problem but also have some pretty good ideas for coming to terms with it, that we should, can, and will just step around the deniers, and get cracking on this thing without and in spite of them.

This will be the final dispatch of 2018 for this intrepid font of Deconstruction. It’s been comin at ya more or less weekly (probably mostly less, but hey) since early 2011. Under the admittedly amorphous rubric of ‘culture critique, current events, and commentary,’ we’ve taken license to poke around a gamut of subjects—art, culture, politics—and more often than not a frisson of pessimism has tended to creep in. Ends-of-years, particularly since that chancre-sore of an election in 2016, have been especially glum in this regard.

But in the words I insist on attributing to Chuck Todd, fuck all that. I’m not promising unrelenting cheer from here on (in fact I’m pretty sure we can rule that out), but I can at least strive to ring out 2018, and welcome 2019, with as positive a mindset as possible. I hope you can too.

Just cleave to that momentum, that driving will to leverage good thoughts and good deeds, and turn them into the progress we need going forward. Know there are millions, maybe billions, of others just like you, who are toiling to make this world better, fairer, more welcoming and accepting for us all.

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” – Juliana of Norwich

Happy New Year 2019 to you and yours, and do not fear. We got this.

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The Poor Man of Nippur – Babylonian language short film

I’m just giddy to present here, in its entirety, The Poor Man of Nippur—a 20-minute short film created by the University of Cambridge Department of Archaeology. It is the first feature produced in the Babylonian language, which has been extinct for more than 2,000 years. The Cambridge team has painstakingly resurrected the lost tongue, an effort spanning more than twenty years, to the ends of narrating and performing an ancient Akkadian folk tale first recorded in cuneiform as early as 2100 BCE.

Three fragmented tablets are known to exist, each telling the story of an impoverished goat herder, Gimil-Ninurta, from the Mesopotamian city of Nippur, which flourished during the Sumerian and Akkadian cultures. Gimil-Ninurta attempts to better his fortunes by making a gift of his prized nanny goat to the mayor of the city, but is cheated and insulted, and thrown from the palace. He vows revenge (“Gimil-Ninurta” translates to “Vengeance of the god Ninurta,” one of the patron deities of Nippur), and sets out to lay the mayor low—not just once, but three times (karma compounded). No spoilers here, but if you’re one to root for the little guy, you won’t be disappointed.

The film was produced in and around Cambridge’s Trinity College, with Archaeology Department students conversant in the revived Akkadian language handling the roles of Gimil-Ninurta, the mayor, palace officials, and various hangers-on. Cleverly enough, the film stutters and skips in a couple spots—an inspired way of addressing the portions of the story that are missing, owing to breaks in the tablets.

All in all, it’s a fascinating effort and an engaging tale, and well worth your twenty minutes. In a hurry? I’ve also embedded the 50-second trailer. Enjoy one or both (be sure to enable subtitles/closed captioning); either way you’re about to hear a language last heard in the time of the Caesars….

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Orson Welles and his self-indulgence from beyond the grave

Orson Welles died in October of 1985. His last film, The Other Side of the Wind, was finally released in latter 2018. The late director worked intermittently on the project from 1970 until his death. It was unfinished and stuck in legal limbo until Netflix took on the sizable task of assembling a final cut from Welles’ 100 or so hours of raw footage. The result might not be the cinematic masterpiece so long anticipated, but it is an interesting look at the mindset of a Hollywood legend as he tilted at his final windmill.

The Other Side of the Wind presents an intermingling of plots, or in some cases mere estimations of plots. Its outermost layer is the last day in the life of esteemed filmmaker Jake Hannaford, a role so blatantly autobiographical that it’ll be an enduring mystery why Welles tapped John Huston instead of playing it himself. This drama is interspersed with scenes from Hannaford’s unfinished swan song, an experimental film perhaps inevitably titled The Other Side of the Wind.

This recursive self-reference becomes a metaphor, quite possibly an unintended one, for Welles’ own struggle to produce a coherent film structure out of a collection of snippets. It’s said that throughout the long life of the project Welles’ scope and intentions were constantly changing—early on, apparently, the “star” of the film-within-the-film was to be the 1970s impressionist Rich Little, in his first dramatic role. He grew frustrated with Welles’ amorphous direction and walked off the set; as a result his presence is cut to a single, incongruous scene in which he’s inexplicably arguing why “it’s not my movie.” His character is unnamed and is never seen again.

In the end, there was no finalized screenplay, and no direction other than what existed in Orson Welles’ imagination. Assembling a completed film, then, decades after his death, could only be a hit-or-miss proposition. So it’s unsurprising that’s exactly what we got.

Or maybe that’s what would have resulted anyway. Welles was designated a genius at the dawn of his career—such a mantle could only become a burden as he grew older. His first feature film was widely acclaimed as the absolute acme of American cinema (I’ve always felt Citizen Kane was vastly overrated, but that’s neither here nor there). He spent the rest of his life slowly descending from those plateaus. And unfortunately, it shows.

The Other Side of the Wind was where Orson Welles’ genius became an affliction. It very well could be that he never really intended to finish it—maybe he just wanted to keep filming until he died. If so, he got his wish. But if so, he’d be sorely irritated with what Netflix has cobbled together.

In no way am I saying don’t watch The Other Side of the Wind. If you’re a fan of Old Hollywood, or even if you’re merely curious what this legendary filmmaker was up to in his last decades of life, by all means give it a watch.

Just don’t expect transcendent cinema. If you expect instead a little weirdness, and a whole lot of self-indulgence, you won’t be disappointed.

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A climate of despair

It’s no surprise that the latest U.S. climate assessment report dropped on Black Friday. Can you think of a better day to bury a report that presents, quite literally, an inconvenient truth?

The report is volume 2 (vol. 1 was released more than a year ago) of the fourth congressionally mandated National Climate Assessment—a quadrennial (since 1989) effort to integrate climate-related research conducted by 13 federal agencies, including NASA, the Department of Defense, the EPA, and the National Science Foundation.

The politics of climate change, throughout the lifetime of this program, have become increasingly complicated. The program’s findings, on the other hand, aren’t complicated at all. They have consistently shown that anthropogenic (human caused) climate change is real. They’ve shown that the widespread, industrialized combustion of fossil fuels has led to an increase of atmospheric carbon that, when compared to air bubbles found in ice-core samples taken from around the world, is exponentially higher than anything our planet has experienced in hundreds of thousands of years. The research shows, definitively, that this carbon traps terrestrial heat—in other words, solar radiation passes through the atmosphere as it’s always done, but when it’s reflected off, or absorbed then released by the land and seas, its wavelength is altered to a band that can’t pass through the atmosphere. At sustainable levels of carbon in our skies, planetary temperatures are regulated, with excess heat bleeding off into space. At our present carbon levels, we’ve effectively placed a blanket around the earth.

Since the first Climate Assessment Report was completed in 1990, the interagency panel has warned that increasing global temperatures will lead to drought, wildfires, more frequent and more destructive oceanic storms, coastal flooding, mass migrations of climate refugees, conflicts over disappearing land and resources, and increasing risks to every foundation of civilization itself.

Although these warnings have been taken seriously by a plurality of Americans and by most of the world, the politics as I’ve said are complicated, and climate deniers have (here at least) remained influential. So in the U.S. very little action has been taken. Presently, and Friday’s report notwithstanding, the administration’s stance toward climate change (and the mitigation thereof) is actively hostile. Political appointees and leadership at those aforementioned agencies seem to take climate denial and regulatory rollback as their prime mandates. And Trump himself, beginning with the his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Treaty, has led the way.

The report released on Friday is the most dire warning yet. Its driving conclusions: carbon levels are increasing much more quickly than previously forecast, impacts of a heating planet are already upon us, and it’s almost too late to do anything about it.

On that last point—only a concerted, unified effort by every government on earth could now cut back carbon pollution to the level mandated by the Paris accord. And even at that level the world will continue to warm, albeit at a slower pace.

Such an effort seems vanishingly unlikely. U.S. leadership in this realm has disappeared. China is embracing renewable energy but still burns more fossil fuels than any other country, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Other emerging economies express concern, but are understandably reluctant to curtail their own growth for the sake of a seemingly unengaged First World.

Even in Europe the outlook is bleak, despite the EU’s lead on renewables and climate initiatives. France itself gave us the Paris treaty, but is as we speak roiled by the so-called “yellow vest” protests, a response by drivers and low-income workers to onerous fuel taxes designed to drive down carbon consumption. One protester was just quoted as saying that the taxes were imposed by those concerned with the end of the world. “We’re just worried about getting through the end of the month,” he said. It’s a point that’s hard to contest.

More than anything, though, it’s inertia and intransigence that almost guarantee inaction. Human institutions—human nature itself—aren’t equipped to engineer the epochal pivot that’s needed to mitigate climate change. Nearly everything about the ways we live, work, travel, and grow would be impacted—in most cases, drastically. We’re hard-wired to resist that kind of change. And consider this: such change could not (arguably) happen absent American leadership, and that leadership would have to begin immediately; 2020 would be too late. This would require, at the starting block, a tacit admission by Donald Trump that he’s been wrong all along on this subject, and that Barack Obama, among others, was right. Such an admission just might be the unlikeliest scenario of all these.

So what’s left? There’s this: climate change isn’t coming. It’s here. Global average temperatures have been and will continue to rise. The forecasted droughts, storms, fires, and flooding are already upon us. Global warming and everything that comes with it is the reality we’re living.

The watchword now is adaptation. We as a species have to come to terms with a world and an environment that is frighteningly different from the one we evolved to thrive in. We need to adapt to a different climate, different landscapes and coastlines, an altered food chain, and vastly divergent modes of civilization.

There’s a glimmer of hope there—homo sapiens is a vigorously adaptive species. We’ve flourished in environments ranging from the tropics to the arctic circle and everything in between. We have reason to believe that climate adaption is a viable strategy.

It had better be. It’s becoming more and more likely it’s the only one we’ve got.

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RIP Roy Clark (April 15 1933 – Nov. 15 2018)

Guitar heroes can come from any background and can play in any style. Roy Clark was a country gentleman, best known for playing country and western, but I don’t believe he was acquainted with the concept of ‘limitation.’ He was one of the first six-string virtuosi I was ever aware of (it was the seventies; there were three TV channels; even if you didn’t like country music you were going to watch Hee Haw). The passing of years hasn’t dimmed my admiration for the man and his breathtaking talent. Mr. Roy Clark passed away at home today in Tulsa, aged 85. May he rest in peace.

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World War I – a century behind us

When I was about nine years old, I had the privilege of meeting an American veteran of World War I. I’m not sure I realized then what a privilege that was, but I think I knew it was quite unusual. This would have been the late seventies, there were plenty of Second World War veterans about, hitting their upper middle ages around then, but I believe I was aware that this elderly gentleman visiting our fourth-grade class was the only I’d met who’d lived through that first Great War. I doubt I would have foreseen this, but as it happened, he was to be the only such veteran I’d ever speak with.

And now all of them—every last first-hand witness to that epochal conflict—are gone.

Today is November 11th—the day we in the U.S. celebrate as Veterans Day. But it’s important to remember that the holiday was originally known as Armistice Day, and it commemorated the day that the Guns of August, as Barbara Tuchman called them, went silent.

A century on, with no living witnesses to the horrors of 1914-1918, it falls to us, to all of us, to remember that war, its victims and its causes and its aftermath, because there are lessons to be learned there and I fear they’re more critical now than ever.

It’s remembered as, among other things, the first modern war. It saw the first large-scale use of tanks, airplanes, and machine guns—all the more amazing when you consider it was barely a century removed from the Napoleonic Wars. And then there was the gas—seen as a solution to the stalemate of trench warfare, all sides resorted to poisonous gas. It’s been said that where WWII was won by physicists, WWI was won by chemists—except it won nothing, it just killed and blinded and maimed. It was so horrific that throughout World War II, despite all other excesses and despite all sides stockpiling chemical weapons, none deployed them on the battlefield. That would be a lesson, then, that was once learned but too soon forgot.

Perhaps most striking, in the face of all that hostile modernity, is the decidedly 19th-century fashion in which the war began. Tuchman’s book and others detail it much better than I can, but one envisions a continent-wide maze of diplomatic tripwires, set by bewhiskered old men, almost all of whom, it seems, were related in some way to each other and to Queen Victoria, no matter which side of the conflict they were on. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Serbia was almost irrelevant—if that hadn’t been the trigger, something else would have been. It was inevitable. Once one side began mobilizing, the other was obliged to. Alliances were activated, war plans initiated, and the thing took on an unstoppable trajectory of its own.

What followed was four years of hell. It often gets overshadowed by the even more horrific world war that came after, but there’s a strong argument to be made that both were, in fact, a single protracted war, with a 20-year hiatus in the middle. Regardless, both after November 11th 1918 and after 1945 the world changed. Maps were redrawn, treaties signed, empires and cultures and class structures reshuffled. After both wars solemn ‘never again’ vows were made. It’s tempting to look around, to war-torn regions like Africa and the Middle East and to see folly in those vows, but that might be hasty. Our wars since the mid-20th century have been awful, but they have been (to reluctantly use an inappropriate adjective) limited. We do seem to have learned a lesson—we do seem averse to reliving that wrenching past.

But now World War I is a century behind us. In a generation World War II will be equally distant. Will we forget?

That’s the danger, and the only solution I can see is to keep telling these stories and to keep reliving that past. They should never be far from our consciousness, but on days like today, the consequential anniversaries, we should strive to think of little else. As I said, we in the USA have chosen to transform the 11th of November into an annual recognition of our armed-forces veterans, and that’s well and good. They have earned our thanks and recognition. But November 11th 2018 is unique—it’s the hundred-year anniversary of the end of the War to End All Wars. Just for today, let’s focus on that.

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My ballot speaks for me

I voted today. Could’ve done it earlier; could’ve dodged the crowds, could’ve filled out a ballot at home and mailed it in at my leisure. These are valid choices, and if they were yours I salute them and you.

But I enjoy the semi-ceremony of waiting until the appointed day, of visiting the neighborhood polling place, of casting my ballot in this strangely regimented way. I enjoy greeting and thanking the volunteers, of shuffling first through this line and then that one, then finally secluding myself in that three-quarters way, with the patriot-themed curtains that put the “secret” in secret ballot.

A republic votes, and it seems to me that the more honor and dignity it bestows on the process, the more precious that process becomes. Citizens and senators alike voted in the old Roman Republic (before a populist dictator pissed all over that), in a way that wasn’t just a civic function, it was a religious act. We can argue in due course about the virtue and place of religiosity in the public forum, but for good or ill that invasion has already taken place. Maybe a positive outcome might be to lend some spiritual fervor to the responsibilities of citizenship. Maybe then more of us might participate.

Because the sad fact is, no matter the hue and outcry, no matter the hype, we’ll be lucky if half the electorate casts a vote before polls close today. It makes a mockery of the otherwise valid issues of voter suppression, of fraud, of the merits of showing identification…of the whole sordid history of suffrage and suffering and of fighting for the right to vote. In too many respects those who marched and fought and died for this right fought for nothing, when we consider it’s voter apathy that’s winning the battle. That’s unforgivable, and it has to change.

We’re no Rome, when it comes to the mechanics of our vote. It makes no sense that it happens on a Tuesday, a workday for most of us. And it makes no sense that voter registration is a distinct process, something to tend to and to very often stress over, when our status as citizens should be registration enough. These are barriers to voting, in other words, and although they should be knocked down, they’re with us for now, for the foreseeable future. But they are by no means insurmountable barriers—ask any of we 30 or 40 or 48 percent who turned out this cycle. We chose to vote, and in so doing we resolved to work our way round any barriers that might come  between us and the ballot box.

So I’d urge that literally silent majority, the eligible non-voters, to reject their own apathy, to overcome all those barriers, and to see days like this as I do, as the high holy days of democracy.

We don’t often ask, as JFK urged us to, what we can do for our country. So maybe it’s time our country instead demands: Your minimum duty as an American is to participate on these infrequent Tuesdays, to speak your piece by way of the ballot box. So do it. Vote.

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