Author: Seth Winger

half engineer, half scientist, half writer, three-quarters badger

Magnetism

I live in a world of circuits and currents, electrons and wires, where the only flow is charge and the only ebb is time.  My name is Lazlo Kor.  I am thirty-eight years old.  I am an electrical engineer at the Integrated Dynamics Corporation.  My job is to design the electronic control boards for washing machines, intricate mazes of copper that trace geometric paths across FR-4 glass-reinforced epoxy laminate planes, bouncing from component to component.  It is a good job.  Straight, predictable.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about magnets recently.  I’ve been thinking about invisible lines and eddy currents, hidden lines that guide and push, wide sweeping lines that arc across the universe to end up right across from where they started.  I’ve been thinking about dipoles that cannot bear to be apart yet hold each other at a distance, like a couple married thirty years teetering on the edge of divorce.  A push, a break, and the magnet is gone, replaced with two smaller, lesser magnets, with their own invisible lines, their own paths looping out into the void until they circle back in on themselves.  The two magnets are never really separate.  They tug on each other, maybe imperceptibly, but always there, a whisper in the dark.

The earth has a magnetic field.  Compasses and pigeons and all that.  It is a field that guides people home.  It is a good field.  Do I have a field now that will guide me home?

These lines, these looping invisible lines that shepherd and shove — I am starting to see them when I close my eyes.  I see them when I dream, long arcs of inevitability bending back in on themselves, slouching towards their beginnings.  I wonder if the Greeks who dreamed up the Fates knew about magnets.  Those three women, spinning and measuring and cutting the invisible threads of life, weaving intersecting webs of life and death — they created lines that created lives, they made courses that made corpses.  And they drew arcs that drew us closer and closer and closer, tighter and tighter and tighter, indiscernible hands pushing at our backs, sliding us along the thread like beads of dew in the morning light.

Magnets always come in pairs: north and south, positive and negative, yin and yang.  They cannot exist in isolation, or the lines would have nowhere to go.  Those lines only exist together, and only together do they have an end point, a destination.  It is a balance.  It is a dance.  It is, and nothing more.  But yet — the pairs are lonely things, never truly able to unite, never truly able to be one.  No matter how close they get there will always be more space between them.

Maybe this is why I like the electronic control boards of the washing machines made by the Integrated Dynamics Corporation.  The copper traces have direction on their own.  Their paths are known and clear.  They do not sulk or lurk or loop or venture off, radiating to infinity.  They know themselves.  They do not have to find themselves in other traces’ eyes and arms.  The work is good.  It is straight, predictable.  There are no invisible loops.  And the copper paths can meet.  They can merge.  They can become one path, one flow, with no unbridgeable space between them.

But we are magnetism, orthogonal potential walls dividing us.  I don’t know why we are not copper traces.  It would be easier that way.  It would be straight, predictable.  I am thirty-eight years old.  My name is Lazlo Kor.  I live in a world of hidden circuits and invisible currents, where the only ebb is time.

*  *  *

Violent Ends

Cross-posted from Medium


In November, I saw my first all-out brawl.

It was late on a Saturday night in San Francisco, the weekend after the election, and as I stepped out of the bar in the Mission where I had spent the last two hours drinking pilsners, eating grilled cheese, and talking about the country’s new direction, there were four or five guys just going to town on each other in the street.

Someone yelled, I heard that sickening thud of a punch that really connects, and one of the fighters dropped to the ground. Someone yelled again, and everyone else in the fight was on top of him, kicking him in the ribs, the back, the head — and then they scattered, disappearing down the street or into alleys. The only coherent thing I heard as people ran by me was an American accent muttering something along the lines of he’s racist; he told me to leave this country.

I don’t know who started the fight, the accused racist or the person who suddenly felt unwelcome in his home. To be honest, I don’t even know which side of the argument the very blond and very white dude now face-down and motionless on the pavement had been fighting for. It took a couple of seconds, but the man on the ground pulled himself up, shirt ripped and nose bleeding but looking like he was going to be okay after a few days with an ice pack and a steady diet of ibuprofen, and stumbled off into the night.

I walked away in disbelief. It had been fast, bloody, tense. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and I have to admit the timing, so close to the election, was suspicious — and inauspicious. Walking out of that bar into the San Francisco night really felt like walking into the next chapter of America, where the story had taken a sudden turn and the ending I no longer could predict.

* * *

I’ve written this entire post four times now. The first time, a day or two after the election: a fuming fulmination condemning the people who sentenced this country to death because they couldn’t pull their heads out of their asses long enough to say the word “email.”

The second time, a week or so after the election: a contrite apology to the millions of people in this country that I’ve misunderstood or marginalized, and a vow to listen, to collaborate, to strive together to build solutions because the system isn’t working for everyone, and all of our viewpoints are equally valid.

The third time, right before the inauguration: a defiant stand for my principles and my beliefs, and the vision I have for the America of the future, the America where I want to live, the America we have the potential to be.

The fourth time, now, a little bit of all of the above.

* * *

Oh, and one other thing this time around: it may seem like a roundabout way to get to talking about the future of our country, but I have to tell you here that I watched the first season of Westworld religiously last year, every Sunday from episode one to the finale in November. (If you haven’t seen the show, I recommend watching it all right now. It’s only ten and a half hours. I’ll wait.) Westworld is half Jurassic Park, half The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, half Blade Runner, and 150% captivating. In the show, Anthony Hopkins runs an immersive and infinitely-accommodating western theme park staffed by android hosts, indistinguishable from humans, where ultra-rich guests pay unfathomable amounts of money to dress up like cowboys and say, shoot, or screw absolutely anything they want.

It’s HBO, of course, but in between the arterial blood spatter and golden orgy circus, it manages to touch on some profound themes and questions. The central mystery driving the season (thar be minor spoilers ahead, ye been warned) is the evolution of consciousness in the robot hosts. The hosts roam the park in pre-programmed loops, acting out minor improvisations on otherwise scripted paths, resetting every few days with their memories wiped for a new batch of guests. Yet the hosts are not made of pistons and metal but ersatz flesh and bone, with skeletons extruded from the nozzles of articulated robot arms and skin deposited in some kind of industrial bath. So when some of the androids start remembering their past experiences, start questioning the roles they’re programmed to play, start wondering about altogether very human things like free will and predestination and wait-just-a-minute who is this god fellow anyway and why does he sound like Hannibal Lecter, well, things go off the rails about as quickly as you’d expect for a theme park dreamt up by Michael Crichton.

Because with bodies that are the same inside and out as humans, the only difference is the mind — a few hundred billion neurons versus a few thousand lines of code. Westworld dives right into it, asking you almost point-blank: what really is sentience? What is consciousness? Why are these hosts so different from the guests, so different from you? What makes you unique?

Maybe another way to frame this is simply what is truth? Are the hosts’ experiences worth less than the guests’, are they less true, just because they perceive them differently?

* * *

I found it almost too perfect this year to watch a show about truth and subjectivity in the midst of a brouhaha of an election cycle — and a show about truth and subjectivity told through the eyes of cowboys, no less, characters plucked straight from the rich tapestry of American myth: the virtuous gunslinger, the equanimous desperado, the inebriate gambler. America sees itself in cowboys, those lone heroes silhouetted against the sunset and triumphing against impossible odds. Teddy Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush all channeled the cowboy, and turned it into electoral success. Donald J. Trump, with his French cuff shirts and Florida golf courses, didn’t exactly capture the cowboy image — but he did, I think, capture the cowboy ethos.

Trump was a renegade, a wrecking ball, a renunciation of politics-as-usual. In other words, a go-it-alone, gunslinging cowboy. And America eats that shit up like beans at a campfire.

To me, this election seemed to hinge on three things, three veins in American politics, that Trump really tapped into — and that I had no idea existed. It’s taken me a long time to try to wrap my head around this, all the way from election night and on past inauguration day. But I can’t help think about it, and I don’t think I’m done, so I want you to think about it with me.

Those veins, in no particular order:

  1. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN
  2. REAL AMERICA
  3. FAKE NEWS

Part I: The Re-Greatening of America

I am beyond sick of the phrase MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN. This is probably because I am a sore loser.

But it was everywhere this election — on hats, on bumper stickers, on billboards, blogs, headlines, hashtags… And I every time I saw it, I dismissed it immediately.

Because for me, America was already great. I grew up in an upper middle class home in a Los Angeles suburb. I had a phenomenal public school education. I was accepted into a fantastic private university. I voted for a president — twice — who believed in the things I believed in, who talked like me, who thought like me. I studied hard in college, waited out the economic downturn by going to grad school, built some cool robots, drank a lot of beer, screwed around in Europe for a quarter, and just two years and one raise after graduating, I was already making more money annually than over 90% of American wage earners.

Why would anything ever need to change?

What this worldview is missing, clearly, is an understanding that America wasn’t and isn’t great for everyone.

In my day job — when I’m not writing blogs — I make factories. I’m an engineer, and I’ve designed robotic manufacturing tools for three different companies now (six, if you count acquisitions). Every time, there’s a delicate balance between creating good, challenging, fulfilling blue-collar manufacturing jobs, and buying a robot the price of a nice Cadillac.

I don’t actually make factories that make Cadillacs, but I’m sure the same is true across the automotive industry sprawl in the Midwest. What was in the 1950s a necessity — hand-welded steel frames, hand-stitched leather steering wheels — is now bespoke, a luxury. There’s always a complaint that outsourcing and foreign manufacturing is stealing American jobs from American patriots, but that hides the real problem: it’s hard to convince a company to pay a welder $50,000 a year, every year — plus benefits, insurance, retirement fund matching, sick leave, office coffee — when a robot that does the same thing, ten times faster and with sub-millimeter accuracy, sets you back $200k initially and works for nothing but acetylene and spare timing belts for ten years after that.

The face of manufacturing in the United States — in the world — is changing to something that doesn’t have a face, something that’s mostly joints and gears, motors and oil. But it’s harder to blame something instead of someone, and so when the factory is shuttered, where does that anger go?

To be fair, I’m not trying to say that robots and automation kill jobs. I think they make a lot of jobs — technical jobs servicing and repairing machines, logistical jobs supplying them with raw materials and carting away finished goods, construction jobs building bigger and better factories, new and novel jobs revealed only when the old ones are swept away. But I do think robots kill a very specific kind of job. A kind of job that America romanticizes, in a way: that of the hard-working, oil-stained man who spends his days at a factory building, constructing, creating.

If I had to pick a trope to follow the cowboy in the American pantheon, it’d be the factory worker. But even the robot cowboys in Westworld are made by other robots.

Maybe the main problem is that usually the less technical skill a job requires, the easier it is to automate. Don’t get me wrong here — I’m consistently impressed by the skill of the machinists and welders I work with. They’re artists, able to do things no machine ever could. But when you’re putting together ten thousand cars a day, you don’t need artistry; you need efficiency. A passable, functional, ugly weld will do, if it takes a fraction of the time and money to make, and a passable, functional, ugly weld is something that’s much easier to learn to make. The same is true in other industries — why pay a person to stand behind a fast food cash register, when a touchscreen can do the job?

So it’s not that robots are terminating (eh, see what I did there?) American employment — they’re just changing it. If Westworld is any indicator, the hospitality industry has a long time to wait before it watches its jobs become automated. But these traditional, blue-collar bedrock jobs in factories are gone, and at some point they’re not going to come back no matter how many bribes we offer air conditioning companies in Indiana.

The United States should be investing — heavily — in education, job transition programs, technical skill training, maybe even public sector employment (say, in infrastructure construction) or wage insurance. But we haven’t, really. For years, Democrats have provided no real solutions for the workers affected by automation and, to a lesser extent, globalization, treating their votes as a foregone conclusion irrespective of policy. Republicans provided no solutions for them, either, and just wrote off their votes. So as factories close, workers suffer, unable to find or unqualified to fill those new jobs that appear when robots arrive.

But Trump didn’t ignore these people — he campaigned for them, to them, in a way just like Bernie Sanders did. Unfortunately, Trump seems intent on blaming all lost manufacturing jobs on trade policy and immigrants, so I’m skeptical we will see the kinds of programs we need any time soon.

Immigration and trade are not the problem. I am the problem, me and engineers like me enabling our future robot overlords. We’re increasing our country’s productivity, expanding our company’s profit, strengthening our planet’s well-being — but at the expense of tens of thousands of jobs, jobs that people used to be proud to hold. I think automation and globalization are great things for humanity as a whole. But without smart policies from government, they can be devastating for specific people.

All of this adds up to a huge swath of the country that really isn’t having a great time anymore.

In 2015, the states with the highest percentage of manufacturing jobs were:

  1. Indiana (17.1%)
  2. Wisconsin (16.4%)
  3. Michigan (14.0%)
  4. Iowa (13.7%)
  5. Alabama (12.9%)
  6. Arkansas, Ohio, and Kentucky (all 12.7%)

Donald J. Trump won every single one of those states, flipping Wisconsin red for the first time since 1984 and Michigan for the first time since 1988.

* * *

A broader, historical aside: unemployment, such as the loss of manufacturing jobs in the Rust Belt, can lead to (for lack of a better phrase) some crazy shit.

During the Great Depression, unemployment took off in Germany — followed closely by the share of the vote won by the Nazi party, which provided a scapegoat and a vague promise of a return to greatness.

https://web.archive.org/web/20080511190923/http://econ161.berkeley.edu/TCEH/Slouch_Purge15.html

You could also look an unemployment with regards to radicalization and terrorism — The Economist shows that while the average country had about 16% youth population with 14% youth unemployment in 2016, Arab countries had an 18% youth population with 30% youth unemployment. This probably contributed to the Arab Spring, which was a great force for democratization in the Middle East, but I’m hard-pressed to believe this doesn’t also create a disillusioned generation susceptible to hard-line indoctrination from something like ISIS.

http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2016/08/daily-chart-7

To be clear, I am not calling Donald Trump a Nazi, or a terrorist (though the fact that I even need to add that caveat is telling). And I can’t fault people for being scared when life as they know it is changing. In the particular case of America in 2017, I just don’t think Trump’s protectionism and isolationism are the right solutions, and I think history will prove me right.

What’s needed now — and what maybe no one has really figured out yet — is how to course-correct and wrest the steering wheel from ideologues and demagogues worldwide, who promise easy solutions to exceedingly complex problems.


Part II: Will the Real America Please Stand Up?

That prototypical factory worker I conjured in the last section, or the cowboy before that, could easily be labeled REAL AMERICA today.

To be blunt, it’s another phrase I hate. Somehow, “real America” has become a metonym for white, conservative America — the America that lives in rural areas, owns 1.2 guns per capita, splits its own firewood, and sends its children to Sunday School.

That America is real, I admit — but it does not have a monopoly on real America.

And to claim so — to stage a linguistic coup by staking claim to the very phrase — is insulting, rude, offensive, and, I’ll say it, un-American. Because if that’s real America, it means by definition I live in some kind of fake America, populated by fake Americans.

I live in the United Goddamn States of America, thank you very much.

My great- and great-great-grandparents fled persecution in Europe because they saw a place across the Atlantic where they would be treated equally. My grandparents fought in Europe to defend a country willing to stand up to injustice. That is America: fair, just, good. It welcomes the oppressed, protects the tyrannized, gives voice to the voiceless.

My America is rolling farmland in the country, yes, but it is also crowded subways in the city, ballet classes in the suburbs, sleepy diners in small towns. It is white, but it is also brown and black and tan. It speaks English, Spanish, Mandarin, Farsi, Korean, French. It is an America without a convenient demographic summary, an America made stronger and taller by the disparate backgrounds and experiences that surround it, enfold it like a scaffold and drive it to new heights.

Is my America less valid, less real, than yours because it is multicolored and multicultural? Are my experiences less American because I type and text instead of hunt and fish? Do we not both pine for the same sultry sexbots?

Well, okay, strike that last bit. But you can see what I’m getting at — politics has somehow become tribal and confrontational in this country, a game of us versus them, coastal elites versus heartland good-ol’-boys, guests versus hosts. What’s different between my California lifestyle and someone in, say, Wyoming, is not neurons versus bits like in Westworld, but it is experience versus experience, and I’ll be the first to admit that the lenses we see the country through are very different. So sure, I live in a bubble. But so does everyone — we construct bubbles around ourselves, insulate our lives with layers of the past that tint our vision of the present. Real America is the sum of all our bubbles, not any specific one.

An America that excludes anyone can never be real in the way America was intended to be.


Part III: Post-Fact America

Of all the phrases that came out of this election cycle, though, the one that scares me the most is the proliferation and weaponization of FAKE NEWS.

https://www.google.com/trends/explore?q=fake%20news

What started as an attack on our election by outside forces — a slew of articles describing untrue actions and policies of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — has become an attack on one of the central pillars of a free democracy: the independent press. “Fake news” is now, suddenly, a slur to be leveled against facts that don’t agree with your worldview.

There has been a total devaluation of fact as the currency of information. Truth is no longer objective, but just one more part of the narrative.

There are plenty of examples to choose from here, but the one that galls me the most is probably the Trump team’s claim after the election that they won in a landslide, declaring a mandate to make America you-know-what again. This was just so provably, demonstrably, objectively false that I couldn’t believe it was happening.

To recap, Donald Trump:

  • is president (no question there)
  • lost the popular election by three million votes
  • won the electoral college with 56.9% of the available votes, ranking 46th out of the 58 presidential elections this country has held

The only landslide here is the avalanche of bullshit coming out of this administration. But if you disagree with their narrative — that this eking out of a victory, granted by the anachronistic technicalities of the American electoral system, was instead a massive triumph, an historic revolution — well, then you’re fake news. Because the landslide is what happened, remember?

It’s true that history is written by the victors, but we have a rare chance here to see it happening in front of us.

Maybe this is where we were always headed, an inevitable crash course between freedom of choice and freedom of the press. If you can choose what to read, why not choose what to believe? I’m certainly guilty of the echo chamber effect — I read the New York Times, not Fox News — and I think that the transition from traditional media to social media, from print to screens, has exacerbated the problem of choice versus truth. When revenue models are based on clicks and page views, it’s easy to fall into a cycle of inflammatory headlines and clickbait outrage, on both sides of the aisle.

For all of Trump’s business shortcomings — he’d be worth a lot more money if simply invested in the stock market back in the 1980s — he is a masterful television star. I fully believe the narrative he’s crafting is an intentional, deliberate effort to build up his image. The fact that gold-plated real estate mogul billionaire Donald J. Trump somehow won the presidency as a populist, as the voice of the downtrodden working class, should be evidence enough.

What terrifies me the most is that he might pull it off. The Atlantic put into words the apprehension I’ve been feeling perfectly this week, a future where nothing really that outrageously bad happens during a Trump presidency, and his behavior — the bullying, the braggadocio — becomes normalized. America grows to accept his brand of racism and sexism and xenophobia, and while we remain incensed about the really big affronts to democracy and decency, many of the smaller things slip through, maybe due to outrage fatigue or maybe just because there are so many smaller things to keep track of. Trump family members enrich themselves, jockeying to be a political dynasty half in the Kennedy mold and half in the Kim mold — a rapid shift from Kardashian fame to Jong-Un personality cult. There’s no single trigger event, no crackdown on human rights, but the country slouches, steadily, away from full democracy and towards plutocracy and kleptocracy. The founding principles of this country are eaten away at the edges, and probity gives way to profit.

This is, of course, just one scenario, and certainly not the worst case (say, a massive rollback of liberty, women’s rights, and civil rights) or the best case (Trump backs off on the controversial social policies and really does deliver on substantial economic growth), but more and more it seems like one of the likeliest scenarios to me.

The war of words, the battle over truth, is the front line of this conflict. Is truth what we’re programmed to believe, or what we see with our own eyes?


There’s a line that’s repeated a lot in Westworld, so much that it has almost become the series’ tagline: these violent delights have violent ends.

That’s a quote from Romeo and Juliet, though a little out of context. It’s from about halfway through the play, as Romeo and Friar Laurence wait for Juliet to arrive so that the good friar can marry the two young lovers. Laurence cautions Romeo:

These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume: the sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite:
Therefore love moderately; long love doth so;
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.

(The fact that the show uses this quote, and also has a character named Lawrence who helps two young lovers of very different backgrounds escape a war zone, just further cements how great it is, if you ask me.)

In Westworld, the phrase violent delights is taken at maybe even more than face value, a Shakespearean excuse to watch the robot hosts stab, slice, scalp, shoot, and otherwise savage their human tormentors. But in context with the rest of the warning from the friar, it isn’t meant to be vicious at all. Be careful, Laurence says, for a love this strong can end as quickly as it started.

The transformation of Donald Trump from reality television star to president was a whirlwind romance with the American people. And like any whirlwind romance, it could last forever — or be finished next week. In the meantime, the United States feels at odds with itself: Capulets and Montagues, hosts and guests, Republicans and Democrats.

I don’t know where the common ground went, but our job for the next four years is to find it. Our job for the next four years is to fight for truth, to fight for facts, to fight for the very foundations of our democracy.

Our job for the next four years is to make America great by making America remember: e pluribus unum — out of many, one.

Good Night, Hiroshima

I’ve been in Japan for twenty-six straight days now. That’s almost twice as long as I expected this business trip to last, and I still have no return ticket booked. The delay is the mundane kind — no catastrophe, no accident, just an engineering project that’s been 90% of the way complete for days. If you’ve ever tried to debug a cabinet full of wires or find the one broken sensor in a tool the size of your bedroom — or if you’ve ever struggled to find the right word, or labored to fix a mysteriously leaky faucet — you know how infuriating that last 10% can be, like you’re swimming up and up and up in a deeply black ocean, the surface perpetually out of reach until one day, suddenly, in a stroke of insight and with no warning whatsoever, your head breaks the surface and you gulp down victory like oxygen.

So I’m here. Still swimming. But as places in the world to be trapped go, I’ve picked a nice one.

Matsuyama is the largest city on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. Even with a population of more than 500,000, Matsuyama has a reputation for being a little sleepy, and certainly when compared to the nonstop electric veins of Tokyo, Matsuyama’s pulse beats slower. It’s a hot spring town, built around the Dōgo Onsen, a spring that’s been used for over a millennium. (I checked, not a translation error.) There are cherry trees on the hills and a long history of haiku poetry, all surrounded by a ring of emerald mountains that shepherd the city to the sea. The city’s age leads to narrow streets, compact cars, and without a burrowing subway like Tokyo’s, the narrow streets are almost always full of those compact cars, so that my five-mile morning commute stretches on in the backseat of a taxi for half an hour. But no one seems to mind the pace, no one seems to mind the wait, and whether this is Japanese politeness or just Matsuyama’s own relaxed tempo I haven’t yet been able to determine.

IMG_0504

The downtown is dominated by a giant forested hill, capped with Matsuyama Castle, a 17th century fortress built by some feudal daimyo that overlooks the entire city. My hotel sits in the shadow of the castle, as does the prefecture capitol building and Okaido, the half-kilometer-long covered pedestrian thoroughfare that’s lined with shops, sushi restaurants, and 7-Elevens. The new nestles right up to the old. Following Okaido away from the castle on the hill, it dead-ends into the Gintengai pedestrian alley, which runs perpendicular for another half-kilometer of fashion, ramen, and fancy stationery until it dumps you out at the city’s gargantuan department store, topped by a massive Ferris wheel that carries you up into the sky until you, too, can have the view of a feudal lord. You can see for miles in every direction, but in the summer there are almost always clouds threatening tropical rain on the horizon.  Every restaurant has a cache of cheap umbrellas they give out to patrons if the sky opens up during dinner.

IMG_0181

I’m working in a neighborhood called Nishihabumachi, an industrial port right south of the airport. I’ve watched planes land and planes depart, and a week after I first arrived a giant container ship, the Santa Serena, pulled up to dock a hundred meters away, gravid with logs — more logs than I’ve ever seen. I watched the massive metal cranes on the ship’s deck duck and nod for two whole days, unloading piles and piles of wood, before with a blast of its foghorn the Santa Serena heaved itself loose from the shore, turned, and headed back out to sea. More planes took off. I took a taxi back to the hotel.

IMG_0705

But today is clearer than I’ve ever seen it in Matsuyama, so clear I can see islands in the distance between the Seto Inland Sea and the Iyo-nada Sea that I didn’t know were there. The geography I can see from Nishihabumachi is breathtaking, all these rocky islands that burst from the crystal blue ocean, dotting the sea and the horizon as they fade away into the distance, into eternity. It’s hard to be upset about being here, looking at those islands. But they are all so separate, so distinct, that they seem lonely, isolated despite their numbers. The more islands that reveal themselves out of the mist, the lonelier they look. They are travelers that surfaced from the sea to find themselves adrift and unconnected.

Matsuyama_map

Matsuyama is 42 miles south-southeast of Hiroshima. I’d have a clear line of sight to the famous city from the pier where I ate lunch today if it weren’t for those islands. For the first time today, as the sea seemed to stretch on forever, I realized just how close I am to Hiroshima, how close I am to the place where mankind dropped hell out of an airplane and onto a city for the first time, where in an instant we turned 80,000 lives into glass and smoke.

I have conflicting feelings about the U.S.’s atomic bombing of Japan. I think everyone must. It’s an impossible question, a moral morass — was it necessary to end the war? was it a way to intimidate the Soviet Union? was it the best use of a generation of scientists’ talents? was it revenge for Pearl Harbor? did it save countless American lives? did it murder thousands of Japanese civilians? did it spare the lives of Japanese soldiers?  I don’t envy Harry Truman, the farmer turned haberdasher turned senator turned president, thrust into the decision by Roosevelt’s sudden and complete cerebral hemorrhage. But mostly what I thought about today, as I ate lunch and stared across the sea — tried to stare straight back in time — is what Matsuyama must have seen on August 6, 1945.

This is Hiroshima on that day in August, 71 years ago. A tower of flame, an inferno 60,000 feet tall. Fire and fury and ash and void. Buildings vaporized; human lives turned to shadows on the pavement. If you were standing where I was standing in Matsuyama, would you have seen the flare, brighter than anything in history, a new sun rising violently on the horizon? Would you have heard the blast, loud as hell’s own thunder, rupturing the air? Surely you would have seen the cloud, that ominous cloud of smoke and souls, rising like a hunched vulture above the city, above the rain clouds themselves?

Maybe it’s because the sea northwest of Matsuyama is so beautiful, but it’s hard for me to imagine any of that. This is not a desolate or war-torn or ugly place, not a desert in New Mexico or a war zone in the Middle East, but blue and alive and sparkling. And yet there are plenty of 80-year-old Japanese men and women I’ve passed in the streets, eaten next to at sushi restaurants. There are people to whom this is not history but reality, not an abstraction or imagination but something seared into their memories.

This is, more or less, a feeling I’ve had before, when I visited a concentration camp in Germany. That the world was so beautiful — the sky so perfect, the grass so green — that nothing atrocious could have ever possibly happened here. It’s a fallacy, obviously, but it makes me wonder what will happen when the witnesses are gone and only history remains. It’s easy to lose the past in the present.

Japan seems to be keenly aware of this, and integrates its past with its future fairly seamlessly — I’m in a town where the main tourist attraction is a thousand-year-old hot spring, after all.  I’ve linked to yesterday’s obituary of Elie Wiesel in the previous paragraph, but I think I want to close with two quotes from him, both given in speeches, not written in his books.

First —

It’s up to you now, and we shall help you — that my past does not become your future.

And second —

If anything can, it is memory that will save humanity.

Good night, Mr. Wiesel.  And good night, Hiroshima.  May we leave the world a better future than your pasts.

Seasons’ Greetings

SUMMER

Washington, D.C.

Summer in Washington, D.C. hits you like a wall.  It’s a gelatinous season, a jello mold of equal parts humidity and rigidity that seeps right into the jetway at Dulles and smothers the city from June to September.  In a way, D.C.’s geography mirrors its summers: three perfectly straight lines separate our nation’s capital from the rest of Maryland, but D.C. is slowly dissolving on its southwest side into the sopping maw of the Potomac.  Watching the aides and consultants and lobbyists rush around the marble monuments in business casual, you can almost see them melting in the heat, too, the stark lines of their formalwear dark with spreading sweat.  You walk a block or two down the streets — either lettered, numbered, or named after states — and find yourself looking for an excuse to duck back inside, into the loving embrace of an AC unit.  The city seems thick — humid, yes, but also muggy with history and with activity, as you watch recent graduates like yourself scurry down halls that have been scurried down since John Adams was president.  Everyone in D.C. is either twenty and just moved there or sixty and has lived there forever; like in Congress, there is no middle ground.  It’s a mixture of free-flowing youth and enduring marble, and the amount of conversation, information, and aspiration is enticing and intoxicating, even more so than the Irish lagers at the pub near Dupont Circle.  So you sit on the Mall at night on the Fourth of July (only the darkness tells your California brain that it’s night, since the temperature and humidity have barely budged), watch the fireworks behind the Washington Monument, and wonder what it would have been like to major in Political Science.  You also wonder, once you get home, if you can figure out a way to watch “The West Wing” reruns in your gym’s sauna.

Columbus, OH

But nothing — even the nation’s capital — embodies the Fourth of July like the Midwest.  The suburbs in Ohio are America in its purest form, Eisenhower-era environs that ooze charm and apple pie.  The perfect grids of tree-lined streets in Columbus are made for fanfare and parades, and you sit in a folding lawn chair on the curb and watch ruby red firetrucks roll by, flanked by troops of meticulously groomed girl scouts.  The mayor, the veterans’ brigade, the Model T club — mainstays of main street motorcades drive by like the decades rolling past, right before your eyes.  Columbus feels like it’s been plucked from a bygone era, which is not to say it’s backwards or parochial.  It’s the opposite: vibrant and close-knit, woven into the fabric of an America you thought was only true in textbooks and television.  You go to a neighborhood block party — an actual neighborhood block party, hosted by a solid block of houses in the neighborhood — with tables as far as the eye can see, rickety folding legs bent heavy with the weight of rib racks, jello molds, hamburgers.  People you’ve never met welcome you into their yards, and after the sun sets they herd you through the crowded streets to the best vantage point for fireworks.  When the pyrotechnic afterimages fade from the sky, streaks of saltpeter and slashes of sulfur drifting into mist, ten thousand fireflies rise up from the grass to take their place, and even in the cool night air a warm glow remains.

San Francisco, CA

Like many cities, San Francisco is prettiest from a distance: exiting the tunnel on the 101 South, barreling down the hills from Marin to the Golden Gate Bridge, there’s a vista where, for a few brief seconds between twisting turns, you see the entire fifty square miles of San Francisco spread out before you.  It’s a pastel cityscape tableau that grows from west to east, starting with the perfect rectilinear grid of low-slung houses in the Sunset, moving to the three-story cake frosting homes that crowd around Alamo Square, crescendoing to the dizzying spires of the financial district which spear the sky behind the slender, piercing point of the Transamerica Pyramid — and then crashing, abruptly, into a jumbled series of wharfs that tumble into the bay.  The slender white spiderweb of the Bay Bridge shoots out from the east to grab at Treasure Island; the stately vermillion span of the Golden Gate Bridge thrusts north to anchor the peninsula to Marin.  That’s the view you see, at least, if you’re lucky.  But most summer days, the drive down from the Marin hills is a descent into a gray unknown, a heavy layer of coastal fog that envelops everything from the headlands to the peninsula in thick, slate-colored clouds.  San Francisco seems to slumber under this shroud, with only the peaks of its bridges and skyscrapers emerging above that mist, that impenetrable cloak that hides San Francisco from the outside world like the lost city of Atlantis.  In many ways, San Francisco is an Atlantis — a city set apart from the rest of the United States.  It is a sophisticated, technologically advanced utopia, the birthing grounds for miracles of science and software that the rest of the world can only dream of and never truly understand.  It is also a nightmarish dystopia of conflict between old and new, tradition and progress: a bastion of progressive idealism and a derelict hulk without the infrastructure to sustain it.  San Francisco is all these things at once: old and new, progressive and decaying, Uber-laden and taxi-heavy, space-age and Victorian — and so it makes sense, perhaps, that in the middle of summer, this funereal fog rolls in and drops the temperature so low that software engineers venture out of their overpriced apartments in peacoats.  The beauty of San Francisco lives in its contradictions, and the seasons are no exception.

FALL

Santa Clarita, CA

It’s probably the years of academia talking, but fall always felt like new beginnings to you, far more than some random month in winter did.  January was always an arbitrary line drawn in the Gregorian sand, but fall — fall was when things changed.  This feeling has lessened since grad school, in that post-college desert you’re left to wander through without markers or signposts every September.  But it never goes away, and especially not in your home town.  Eighteen autumns you woke up here ready to embark on something new, something different.  And five more falls after that you found yourself, for one reason or another, in Santa Clarita before heading back to school.  It’s an incubator, a launching pad, a nest — it’s home.  Two valleys removed from Los Angeles, Santa Clarita was amalgamated out of smaller towns in the area, communities knitted together at the seams and now rapidly climbing up the slopes of the hills around them with one tract housing development after another.  What used to be mostly onion fields is now mostly sidewalks and wide streets, planned neighborhoods with fake Spanish-sounding names, dozens of chain restaurants, and one large amusement park.  It’s also almost literal proof of the fallacy of trickle-down economics: the affluent neighborhood of Stevenson Ranch, where Weeds was filmed and where the streets are all named after famous writers, perches atop the hills to the west, affording its residents a spectacular view of the Santa Clarita Valley and the poorer, older neighborhoods in downtown Newhall or far-flung Canyon Country.  But despite its flaws, Santa Clarita is welcoming, inviting, comforting.  Maybe it’s the personal history, or maybe it’s the spacious streets.  Maybe it’s the old, brick buildings of your high school, or maybe it’s the oak trees in your parents’ backyard.  Maybe it’s just a halcyon, nostalgic haze.  But like those oaks, Santa Clarita stands tall and central in your mental map of California.

Silicon Valley, CA

The 280 winds like a snake’s spine along the center of the San Francisco Peninsula, cutting northwest from the 101 and straight up to San Francisco.  It’s a wide freeway that swoops and swerves through the foothills, revealing majestic vistas of both the hills and the Bay as it barrels on to San Francisco.  About a third of the way along this sixty-mile interstate, the hills are split by a deep, perfectly straight cleft that crosses under the freeway at an oblique angle and seems to go on for miles.  This is the Stanford Linear Accelerator — SLAC — a two-mile long cannon that blasts electrons from Menlo Park into Palo Alto.  It’s also one of the few views of the Valley you get from the 280, since the highway runs through the hills above the cities, but the view is an appropriate one: Silicon Valley often feels like it’s the epicenter of high-energy collisions.  SLAC sends electrons hurtling towards each other at ludicrous velocities, creating bursts and bouquets of subatomic particles, and the Silicon Valley has done the same thing with emerging technologies.  It was semiconductors first, the silicon itself, huge R&D facilities set up in Santa Clara to soak up talent from Stanford and Berkeley PhD programs.  Then massive, Scrooge McDuck piles of money appeared on Sand Hill Road, and more intangible ideas started to grow, drawn and pulled and formed out of the sea of brilliant engineers and venture capitalists like those silicon ingots the decade before.  As you travel north in the Valley the technology gets more abstract: from Applied Materials to Intel to Hewlett Packard to Apple, eBay, Google, Facebook, or whatever the hell a company called Kaggle is supposed to do.  You come back every fall, as students pour into Stanford, and flow of talent is almost tangible.  Engineers come from around the world, descending on the Valley like pilgrims with MacBooks, and the resulting explosion of ideas means tech startups blossom and grow in a spray of creativity.  Like any pilgrimage, that means plenty of snake oil vendors and charlatans have set up shop on the roadside, peddling “big data” and “disruption” as if the words themselves held the secret, as if being “mobile” and “local” will save your soul.  The Silicon Valley’s soul seems to swing back and forth, from life-changing technologies to $6 lattes, from crucibles of ingots and innovation to hyper-inflated rent, from the soaring hills of the 280 to the roil of molten ideas in the Valley, each screaming and clambering for the chance to be pulled from the froth as that fragile silicon crystal grows and grows and grows.

Las Vegas, NV

Southern Nevada is miserably hot in the summer and miserably cold in the winter, so that leaves only a couple months to visit Las Vegas if you want to soak up the Strip instead of spending your entire trip at a poolside club or in the heated confines of the labyrinthine hotels.  But if the weather in Vegas isn’t oppressive in the fall, certainly everything else is.  Las Vegas: the words have become a metonym for excess, for a land with lights everywhere, noise everywhere, money everywhere, and a thin golden glitz stretched over every surface like plastic wrap.  The Strip is unlike anywhere else in the world, a road where Egyptian pyramids jockey for skyline space with Roman palaces and miniature Manhattans.  Everyone wants to sell you something infinite: endless buffets, bottomless drink tickets, innumerable call girls.  But the Strip is only four miles long, a mirage constructed in the sand out of sheer force of will, lush with lust and bustling in defiance of the desert around it.

WINTER

Flagstaff, AZ

You know Arizona is a desert, but that doesn’t quite prepare you for Flagstaff’s winter.  This isn’t Phoenix, where the climate ranges from “pleasantly warm” to “center of the sun.”  Flagstaff is high desert, a plateau thrust up seven thousand feet from the sea, and that means it’s fucking cold in the winter.  You get there, check in to your hotel — your haunted hotel, if you believe the placard on your room’s nightstand — and venture out into the little brick- and sand-colored downtown, wishing you brought a heavier coat because there are actual snowbanks on the side of the icy road.  Christmas lights are strung along facades and electric wreaths hang on old iron streetlights, bathing the streets in a yellow-orange incandescent glow.  The word charming keeps popping into your head, because the city looks older than it is, still clinging to frontier town status even as the world’s frontiers, let alone the United States’, disappear.  Huddled for warmth in a cozy pub, you can imagine stagecoaches clattering down the streets, even as cars race by on Route 66.  The red dust around Flagstaff stretches on for miles, but it may as well be forever, leaving this city a frozen time capsule buried in the hot Arizona sand.

New York, NY

In New York City, at least, you’re prepared to be cold, but the first winter weekend you spend there isn’t nearly as bad as the ice skaters at Rockefeller plaza would make you think.  The canyons of Manhattan whistle with winter winds, but it’s early in winter still and it hasn’t snowed yet.  The air is crisp, the skies pastel, the streets inked with the blacks and grays of winter coats.  Despite the clear skies above, you find New York claustrophobic, in a way: all these people and all these buildings crammed onto Manhattan Island with nowhere to go but up and up and up.  Everything you could ever possibly want is in those twenty square miles, but somehow that’s limiting, not liberating.  You could live a full life without ever venturing farther north than Harlem — and this is the fact that makes you happy you’re here for a weekend.  Not that this makes New York any less captivating, and its sheer size and history and promise live up to your lofty expectations.  Even the skyline of the city is spellbinding, each building telling a story about the year it was built: the rectangular financial district towers; the twisting, majestic tower of One World Trade Center; and, of course, the art deco diadem of the Empire State Building.  Regardless of the current year or fashion fad, New York is an art deco city, a city centered on geometric shapes and patterns.  From the gridline of streets and avenues to the sharp profiles of skyscrapers, the city’s countenance is shaped by human hands — not grown but engineered.  Even Central Park, the heaping helping of nature scooped into the trough of Manhattan, is bounded by perfectly rectangular borders.  Winter seems to makes these lines clearer, starker, as trees lose their leaves and become another instance of the patterns of lines and angles, a desolate mathematical beauty that begins to merge with the regular tessellation of fire escapes and the crisscrossed burrowing of subway trains.

Los Angeles, CA

Christmas in Los Angeles means something different to you, you who have never celebrated any Christmas, let alone a white one.  There’s no muffled snowfall, no bootprints in blanketed white forests — just the normal buzz of traffic and some palm trees with extra tinsel.  The city of Los Angeles sprawls across southern California, indolent in the heat, covered by a blanket of azure sky pulled up to the neck of the San Gabriels.  Emerald lawns sparkle in the dew of industrial sprinkler systems, bringing color to the lavish front lawns of Beverly Hills, the pristine golf course on Sepulveda Pass, the glamorous cemeteries of the rich and famous.  It’s seventy degrees on Christmas day, so you hide in an air conditioned movie theater along with half your suburb.  Maybe you think about going to the beach, but the chill of the Pacific knows no season.  Winter in Los Angeles is like summer in Los Angeles, the season only given away by the crisp, cold mornings’ condensation on your windshield that turns to rivulets as the sun rises over Mulholland.  L.A. will always be strip malls on Ventura Boulevard, will always be houses perched precariously in Laurel Canyon, will always be billboards and lights and freeways.  It is timeless, a snow globe without the snow.  Unlike San Francisco or New York, cities defined by their geography, the L.A. downtown rises from nothing in the middle of a wide basin, buildings stretching up to pierce the sky like a blossom of crystals.  Lattices of concrete and steel build and grow on top of each other, amethyst windowpanes budding and duplicating, and though the landscape changes, to you this wonderland is always the same, always home, in a way that nothing else will ever be.  To you, it is truly crystallized, lapidified, and though crystal-gazers will stare at this snow globe trying to pierce the veil of celebrity and scry the next trend poised to erupt from Los Angeles and ripple over the country, the warm winters remind you that L.A. will always be there as you remember it, always be there when you need it.

SPRING

Chicago, IL

It takes you a while to make it to Chicago, despite its promise and its prominence.  O’Hare and Midway seem to be just that — midway, stopping points on journeys elsewhere.  Even once you reach Chicago, the city takes its time to reveal itself.  It seems backwards, twisted, because it runs headlong into an endless body of water on the east, not the west.  But once you travel down the Chicago River, the buildings unfold.  The water runs through skyscrapers and high rises like a twisting river through a canyon, cutting a path through glass and steel and concrete the way a stream wears down rock and stone.  The walls of this constructed canyon are tall, perilously steep, and getting taller everywhere as cranes sweep back and forth in a delicate ballet of ballast and beams.  Every turn of the river reveals new views, new petals of Chicago’s blooming skyline.  The downtown district seems massive, full of skyscrapers everywhere you look, and you feel like an explorer on a boat through uncharted territory. Between the modern mirrored glass facades are glimpses back in time, staid concrete behemoths as well preserved as Sue the tyrannosaurus.  Older buildings, adorned and crenelated, face jutting slabs of sparse modernism, and through it all the river winds on and on until it deposits you at the edge of the steel blossom, back in districts with wide streets and brick low rises, the wind rising off the lake and pushing you away from downtown, back west, faster than you wanted it to push.

Eugene, OR

It’s green in Eugene — so many shades of green that you struggle to describe them all, the emeralds and jades and celadons that cover everything, even seem to tint the slate, overcast skies.  But the greens are deep, rich; none of the shades are sickly or yellowed or look anything other than acutely alive.  The city looks alive, too, and like it emerged from the ground, shouldering aside vines and trees as it thrust and clawed upwards.  The land in Eugene wasn’t bulldozed and leveled and constructed on — the buildings emerged as part of the landscape, draped in verdure like a cloak.  The effect is more primordial than houses have a right to be, but Eugene nevertheless feels lush and somehow old, a somnolent titan waking from underneath the earth and slowly shrugging off the moss.

Whitefish, MT

The size and grandeur of Montana are spellbinding.  You’ve spent the last three days driving here from California, watching the landscape transform from redwood forests to the Columbia River gorge, then swell into the rolling hills of eastern Washington and the lakes and valleys of Idaho.  But Montana is on an entirely different scale than anything else you’ve driven through, like someone found the corner of the landscape and dragged it up and out, scaling everything up and up and up.  From a distance, the Rocky Mountains seem impossibly large, behemoth stone gargoyles perched on the horizon; at their feet the Rockies are simply unfathomable. It’s still chilly before Memorial Day, and Glacier National Park still looks the part, with snowdrifts in the upper crevasses of the mountains that make them seem even larger, even more looming.  Glacier is a place where nature dominates, and the manmade additions — the giant lodges, the enormous cabins, the roads blasted through the rock — simply pale in comparison.  Every winter Montana swallows them up one by one, yet every spring the lodges and roads are thawed and returned to civilization, doled back out as if for good behavior.  The cycle goes on, year after year.  Freeze and thaw, melt and ice.  Winter and summer and winter again, season after season, our cities standing like pillars of rock amid crashing ocean waves.

Skin Deep

I’m always impressed with the ingenuity scientists display when coming up with names for natural phenomena.  When introduced to the public, abstract mathematical concepts are presented with extremely evocative, almost emotional names that manage to cut to the heart of the math: black hole, big bang, the special theory of relativity.

Okay, so not always.  But enough of the time that it’s impressive — a way to directly connect science to intuition.  One of my favorite examples is a phenomena in electromagnetism called the skin effect, which describes how alternating current is carried in wires.  The skin effect is particularly interesting to me because it’s also a pretty direct analogy for a lot of the interactions I have with casual acquaintances.  I don’t think it’s often that the fields of social science and, well, science science intersect so perfectly — not only on a nomenclature and imagery level, but in the behaviors they describe.  I’ll start, as always, with physics.

The skin effect occurs all around us.  (It is notably distinct from the article in this month’s Cosmo with the same title.)  When electric wires carry alternating current — i.e. the stuff that comes out of the wall and/or one half of a legendary Australian rock band — most of the current never actually penetrates all the way through to the center of the wire, instead skirting along on the surface, creating a kind of electric sheath or skin along the wire.  This is a big break from the orthodoxy of how electromagnetism is usually taught in school, where it’s a common analogy to think of electricity racing along wires like water flowing though pipes.  While true for direct current (DC), this breaks down with AC — you’ll never see a water pipe with a hollow center and water rushing along the edges.

The difference mostly comes from the key distinction between AC and DC current, and is what makes AC so devilish to work with without an assload of math behind it.  Alternating current is called “alternating” because it switches back and forth, constantly, from positive voltages to negative voltages.  It rolls in and out of your wall like the tides at the beach, pushing electrons in and then dragging them back out to sea.  This inexorable changing of the electronic tides creates magnetic fields that similarly expand and collapse as the voltage changes, but these magnetic fields are always strongest in the center of the wire.  If you want to go back to the water analogy, magnetism here acts like a rock in the stream, pushing the flow of electrons around it and forcing the electricity to hug the banks of the stream, so that the vast majority of the current is carried along the outer skin of the wire.

I’ve always thought that the beauty of electricity and magnetism are their complexity: changing currents cause changing magnetic fields, changing magnetic fields cause changing currents, and the process constantly ebbs and flows in harmony, a symphony of the invisible as fields burst into life then dissipate into void, over and over and over again.

But that has nothing to do with friendship — and, in fact, I think if you start spouting that stuff at parties you may find yourself with a lot fewer friends by the end of the night.  So back to the main point here: the AC current carried in a wire — whether a transmission cable along the side of the road or the extension cord in your garage — only penetrates a fraction of the way into the wire.  This is called skin depth, designated δ.  Formally, skin depth is the depth into a conductor where the current carried falls to 1/e, or about 37%, of its value at the surface.  For AC frequencies in the realm of everyday experience — think the 60Hz that goes into your iPhone charger — skin depth is a function only of the material the wire is made from and the frequency of the current:

skin depth

Here ρ is the resistivity of the wire, f is the frequency of the current flowing through it, and the μs are something called magnetic permeability, which is a measure of how susceptible a material is to magnetic fields.  Something like iron, which can be made into a magnet, has a very high permeability; the permeability for wood or glass is very low.

For a current coming out of the wall and into copper wire, the skin depth is:

Screen Shot 2016-03-13 at 3.01.15 PM

For your phone charger, this means nothing — the wire is way smaller than 17mm in diameter.  But imagine the transmission lines used to send electricity from the power plant to your house: those cables that hang from wooden poles along the side of the road are much bigger, and that means when it comes to electricity they’re essentially hollow.  All of the power is running along the skin, never reaching the heart of the cable.

As the frequency of the current, f, gets bigger and bigger, the skin depth shrinks — as the electricity switches back and forth from positive to negative voltages faster and faster, the current penetrates into the wire less and less.  AC current switching at 150,000Hz penetrates into copper wire just 170 microns, or about the diameter of a human hair.  It will never see the copper’s core.

This is where my social circle enters the equation.  I have — and I assume you have, too — a lot of what I call skin effect friends.  (Though admittedly, I’m probably the only one of us who calls them that.)  These are the people that I’ve met casually and who circle the nucleus of my close friends in fast but erratic orbits.  They show up across the room at parties; I see them walking down the street in San Francisco.  Maybe I remember their names, maybe I don’t.  I usually don’t have their phone numbers or know their email addresses.  But every time we see each other, these skin effect friends and me, we say hello, because the world is a big and scary and sometimes lonely place, and finding a familiar face in an unexpected setting is a beautiful thing.

Yet when I talk to these people, I never actually have a conversation with them.  We only ever hit the topics that are skin-deep: how are you, where’re you living, how’s work these days.  And it seems that the more frequently I see them, the shallower the topics become, just like current skirting around the outside of a wire.  We never get to the heart of anything.

This isn’t a critique or a complaint — I can’t be best friends with everyone, and I’m misanthropic enough to not want to try.  I enjoy having a wide circle of acquaintances, and I enjoy these skin-deep conversations because they show me the surface of worlds I don’t inhabit.  I wish I could dive into those worlds, wish I could be deeply connected to everyone I’ve ever met, but just like a wire, there’s only so much current I can carry before I catch on fire / have a total psychotic breakdown.  So if you’re reading this and thinking to yourself wait a minute that bastard is talking about me, it’s not a bad thing.  Next time we run into each other, let’s grab a beer.  We’ll talk about sports.

And even though I like all these skin effect friends, they also make me acknowledge that those friends I have where our conversations do penetrate — those friends where, even if we don’t see each other very frequently, we can pick up right where we left off, or those friends who I feel like I really connect with — are something remarkable, almost physics-defying.  It’s DC friendship.

There’s a lot of discussion about a possible unified field theory in physics, but I’m happy stopping at a unified theory of physics and friendship.  Einstein, eat your heart out.

The Astrophysics of Donald Trump

[Side note: for the first time, I also posted this piece on Medium, which I may do for longer think pieces in the future.  The creative stuff will always live here.]

If any other political outsider was gaining delegates in a primary at the rate Donald J. Trump is racking them up, we’d be calling him or her a rising star of the Republican party — but that has never been the narrative around Trump. Trump is too much of an outsider to be a rising star; he’s a meteor, hurtling out of the dark depths of space with zero warning. And now, if we don’t send Bruce Willis to nuke him soon, he’s liable to crash straight into Washington, D.C. and leave nothing of our political process behind but a scorched crater and a pile of cheap red hats.

Maybe you think that’s a good thing, and maybe you think that’s a bad thing. But whatever you think, we can agree that something is different this year. Because out of all of Trump’s boasts, brags, exaggerations, and aggrandizements, there is one that is certainly true: he is not a career politician. He is not a Republican insider. And if it’s Trump that is the conservative movement’s rising star, then the Republican party is a dying star. I call this the red giant theory of red-state politics — strap yourselves in.


A red giant is a star on the brink of death. A star like our sun will spend billions and billions of years crushing hydrogen atoms in its core together to form helium, releasing tremendous amounts of energy in the process. But eventually — and we’re talking five or six billion years down the road here for our sun, so no worries — the hydrogen fuel is exhausted. Fusing hydrogen into helium is the only thing that keeps the forces of gravity at bay, and when the core’s hydrogen dries up the star will begin to collapse under its own weight, its mass falling in on itself like a deflating basketball. As more and more mass is drawn into the heart of the star, the hydrogen that had been floating around the outer layers is brought to a place where it, too, can fuse, and the engine is kickstarted again. The stellar core gets hotter and hotter as more burning hydrogen is pulled closer and closer together, and the hotter the star gets the faster the fusion of this previously-inaccessible hydrogen occurs. The energy of this astral furnace pushes the outer layers of the star back out, and the star swells, expanding to massive size and swallowing the planets that orbit around it like tic tacs. This process continues — the core getting denser and denser, hotter and hotter, as the star inflates — until it is so unbelievably hot that not only is hydrogen fusing together to form helium, but the helium itself is being transformed, destroyed and reknit into carbon atoms.

This is not a gentle process.

The gradual emergence of a red giant from a normal star is a festering growth, like a tumor that emerges over millions and millions of years to slowly engulf its host. But a helium flash, as this final stage is called, is violent in the extreme. Once the red giant reaches its critical temperature, the entirety of the helium fusion reaction in the star happens almost at once, and for a few seconds the star outputs one hundred billion times as much energy as it would normally. The outer layers of the star are ejected into space, drifting away in wisps of smoke and cloud that we call nebulae.

At the end, after the thunder and fire is spent and silence has taken their place, all that is left of the giant red star is a smoking core: a white dwarf.


Is the GOP on the brink of stellar death? Maybe. Like everything in politics, it’s probably a matter of considerable opinion. But consider the situation Republican faithfuls find themselves in: the party began its life as a champion of justice and equality — the party of Lincoln, as so many current candidates are fond of reminding us. But I’m not sure Lincoln would recognize the GOP in its current state. It has become bloated and swollen with ranks of people who, like any two hydrogen atoms, may not necessarily agree with each other on very much. The force of the Party pushes them together, crushes them into a cohesive whole that doesn’t really make much sense at an ideological level.

I feel — and this is my personal opinion here, so feel free to disagree — that politics in America is largely a back-and-forth conflict between the concepts of freedom and equality. Both of these are important, critical ideals for a democracy. The United States was founded on principles of both. Yet I can’t help but feel that at their extremes, the two ideas are fundamentally set in opposition to each other. If everyone is given identical, equal healthcare, they lose their freedom to choose a healthcare plan. If everyone is given the freedom to choose a healthcare plan, those that can afford to pay more for more services will, and those that can’t will suffer from the inequality this creates. This is a gross oversimplification, but hopefully it gets my point across: America is about striking the balance between freedom and equality for all.

I firmly believe that the modern Democratic party (and here, I feel like I need to admit, myself) is rooted in the principle of equality. I put more value into ensuring that all citizens of the United States — regardless of race, gender, age, income, sexual orientation, boxer-or-brief preference — are given fair and equal treatment than into ensuring that those citizens can be free from government interference. In some cases, I want the government to interfere, to strike out against intolerance and injustice when it’s found. I want to pay taxes to build roads and dams. I want to see the government dole out healthcare to the entire country.

But I realize this is not what everyone holds most valuable — and that’s okay. That’s the cool thing about democracy in the first place. I feel that my friends who are conservative — and they should feel free to challenge or correct me — care more about individual liberty and freedom than about using the power of the government to enforce equality. And it’s not that they don’t want equality between, say, men and women or white Americans and black Americans. We just disagree on the best way to ensure that equality.

Here’s the thing: I do feel that, for the most part, liberals have a unified, ideologically consistent champion in the Democratic party. Go down the party platform, and you can check off the boxes relating to equality: Universal healthcare? Check. Higher minimum wage? Check. Legalized same-sex marriage? Check.

I do not think the same thing is true about the modern Republican party. It’s a hodgepodge of backgrounds and ideas, some drawn from the well of freedom and others from… well, I’m not sure. Slash taxes? Freedom. Gun rights? Freedom. Mandatory sentencing for marijuana possession? Um, not exactly freedom. Restricted access to abortion? Definitely not freedom.

So this is why I see the GOP as a crucible. These differing viewpoints — conservatives, neocons, evangelicals, libertarians — are all fused together into a party that doesn’t seem to match the beliefs of any one of them that well. Nothing has illustrated that more than this year’s fractious and fragmented Republican primaries. Over the last eight years, we’ve seen the core of the GOP go dry, the fuel that propelled it since the days of the Civil War all but exhausted. It spiraled in on itself in 2008 — Sarah Palin for vice president is a pretty desperate gambit — and anger in the party grew hotter and hotter until it found new material to burn: the Tea Party movement. The Tea Party grew and grew until it boiled over like so much bubbling chamomile, spilling onto the national stage and engulfing the 2010 election. The Republican party expanded and expanded, racking up wins in midterm elections and taking control of the House and Senate, but the core of the GOP was being devoured, all that new hydrogen pushing and jostling in the ever-denser heart of the party.

Now, suddenly, the GOP finds that it has awoken one day and — almost instantaneously — its core is being transformed. This helium flash has a name: Donald J. Trump.

Trump has seized the malcontent of the party and run with it, run farther and faster than anyone thought the reality TV star with the weird hair could have ever possibly gone. To me, an outside observer peering through my telescope, it seems like the end of the red giant. The unity of the party is fractured; Trump is carving out the white dwarf core and leaving the remainder scattered to the stellar wind in a faint, drifting nebula that has yet to coalesce around anyone or anything.

There’s nowhere in this morass for anyone who’s not ultra-conservative to go. If you hold liberal — or even just non-draconian — views on immigration, Trump’s not your guy. Cruz is a constitutional fundamentalist who doesn’t even oppose same-sex marriage, he opposes civil unions. Rubio has won just a single state. Kasich hasn’t won any. Carson may as well be in outer space.

That drifting nebula has a lot of unhappy people in it (see #NeverTrump), and eventually it may solidify into a new star. But until then, the white dwarf of Donald Trump is shoving its way through the dust.


Ironically enough, if Trump was running for the Democratic nomination, this would be way less of an existential crisis. This is because of two features the Democrats have that Republicans don’t — and they’re some of the least egalitarian aspects of American politics, in my opinion.

The first is kind of technical, so excuse me while I get into the nitty-gritty of some electoral procedure. In Democratic caucuses, voters at a polling place divide themselves into groups based on which candidate they support. But after this initial division, any group that doesn’t have a critical mass of supporters is forced to either abstain or divide themselves among the more popular candidates. Republicans — reflecting the totally correct idea that anyone should be able to vote for anyone they damn well want to — don’t have this at all. Their caucus divides itself up into groups, and that’s that. This means in Iowa, if the Republican caucus had followed the Democrat’s rules, all of those candidates pulling single-digit support numbers (Fiorina, Santorum, Huckabee, Paul… it’s a long list), would have been forced to divvy up their support. I can’t find data to back up this assertion, but I’m hard-pressed to believe that Trump was anyone’s second choice. He’s a polarizing figure, and you love him or hate him — no one second-choice-likes him. If all those caucus-voters had been forced to vote for their second choice, Trump’s margin of loss could have possibly been a lot bigger, halting much of his momentum. Who knows.

The second item that Democrats have that is missing from the Republican nomination process is superdelegates. What’s a superdelegate, you ask? Well, a superdelegate is the difference between the graph on the left and the graph on the right:

The left graph is a comparison of Hillary and Bernie’s current delegate counts when superdelegates are included (2383 delegates are needed to win). The right graph is the same tally if only delegates awarded from actual votes — not superdelegates — are included. It’s a much closer race. Still looks pretty good for Hils, but definitely closer.

Formally, superdelegates are members of the Democratic party that the party’s national committee chooses and sends to the nominating convention. They are given a vote in the nomination procedure that they can cast for any candidate they choose (the vast majority of them — 457 to 22, with 235 still up for grabs — have pledged to vote for Clinton rather than Sanders). Superdelegates are not bound to the will of the voters, they are not obligated to vote for the leading candidate, and they are definitely not representative democracy. They were started in 1984 explicitly as a way to give the party some additional control over the nomination procedure.

I don’t like the way the Democratic party handles this… but I have to admit that it’s a pretty good firewall against someone like Trump. If the Republicans were able to just throw 20% more delegates at, say, Rubio, it suddenly becomes much, much easier for him to hit 50% of the votes for the party’s nomination.

So here’s the crux of the my problem: for the first time in my life, I’m torn about pure power-of-the-people democracy, in the sense that I’m thinking superdelegates may actually be a good thing.


The two things that make me most upset about social media during election years are pretty opposite: in one corner, we have apathy; in the other, antipathy.

I see, from people across the political spectrum, refusal to vote because “it doesn’t matter.” This absolutely infuriates me. Your vote is the only thing that matters. There’s the Kantian categorical imperative argument here (I’m paraphrasing, but: only act in a way such that, if everyone acted that way, the world would be a better place), though that’s a tad too… metaphysical. I prefer the simple fact that if you’re living in the U.S., someone in your family, somewhere up in the branches of your family tree, made the choice to leave their home and come here. Probably against all odds, in the face of danger or death or destitution, they took everything they had ever known and set course for democracy. You owe it to them to vote. You also owe it to yourself, because you live in this place and deserve to have a say in how it’s run.

Then I also see, again from people on both ends of the spectrum, casual jokes about disenfranchisement. In 2012, it was my conservative friends posting jokes like “special polls for Obama voters are open on Friday lulz”; now, the pendulum has swung the other way and it’s my liberal friends imploring Trump supporters to miss their primary dates. They both stem from a deep dislike of the other party’s candidate, one that implies mass deprivation of the right to vote would be better than the wrong candidate winning.

I will never find these jokes funny.

And I will never find them funny for pretty much the reasons enumerated above: that I really do think this one-person-one-vote thing is pretty sacrosanct, and that it’s the defining feature of democracy, the one that we need to hold onto above all others.

This is why I find superdelegates so vexing, and now feel so conflicted when I find myself wishing for them on the GOP side of things. Ultimately, though, I think disenfranchisement cannot be the answer. The answer, as always, has to be conversation and education.

So here goes nothing.


To return to the stellar metaphor from earlier, Donald Trump is a reality show star. To put that more bluntly, he’s an entertainer. A showman. A demagogue.

If you’re a Trump supporter and somehow you’ve found this, somehow you’ve read this far, waded through my admittedly biased and unapologetically liberal argument to this point, then please read a couple more paragraphs, because this is where I’m going to try to convince you to change your mind. If you’re not a Trump supporter, which — let’s be honest about my audience— is more likely, then this is the part that I give you full permission to copy-paste at will and as needed.

Let me start by saying this: you have a right to vote for whoever you choose. And you have a right to be angry with the current political process. I’m not asking you to vote for Hillary. I am asking you to please not let your anger cloud your judgment about the key principle that America was founded on:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal

At his core, I don’t think we know what Donald J. Trump believes. But he knows what we, the American people, want to hear, and he’s off to the races with it. People are scared of terrorism abroad and domestically, and that’s legitimate. People are resentful of perceived government overstepping, and that’s legitimate. People are tired of watching jobs leave the country faster than Bernie’s supporters after a Trump inauguration, and that’s legitimate, too. But to address these problems, the Republican party needs — deserves — a candidate who can present real policy ideas, real solutions. These problems are real, but they are not solved by personal attacks. They are not solved by forsaking the ideals of our nation’s founding fathers. They are solved by sticking to the principles of the Constitution — and yes, I know it’s hard to believe that coming from a lefty-pinko-tax-loving-Democrat, but I mean it.

So far all that I’ve heard from Trump is bluster and blame: bluster that builds up his personal brand, and blame targeted at minorities that don’t merit his spite. He’s grandstanding in every sense of the word when he talks about how great his businesses are, how vast his wealth his. He’s advocating religious persecution when he says we should ban Muslims from immigrating to the U.S. (I will point out here that it was religious persecution like this that forced the Pilgrims out of England and started their immigration to the New World… but I digress). He’s advocating racism when he drops stereotypes into his speeches. He’s advocating WAR GODDAMN CRIMES when he calls for attacking the families of terrorists, or something “worse than waterboarding.”

But maybe the most insidious things, and therefore the most dangerous, are the aspects of Trump’s personality that he’d bring to the presidency. Trump is divisive, not inclusive. He is thin-skinned, not tough. He is petulant and childish, not strong-willed and bold. None of his qualities are anything I want in a future leader of the free world.

Three examples that didn’t seem to get tons of media attention:

  • When Trump finally got around to denouncing David Duke, the Ku Klux Klan leader who endorsed him, he blamed the fact that he didn’t immediately condemn the guy because he couldn’t hear the question due to a faulty earpiece. I can’t possibly believe that’s true, but Trump refuses to admit he was wrong — that he didn’t know who Duke was, or that he made a mistake not writing him off immediately. Instead, he’s hiding behind the dog-ate-my-homework of CNN interview excuses.
  • The whole small hands thing is really weird. But weirdest to me is that Trump won’t let it go. He even went so far as to say people always tell him how beautiful his hands are — which I just simply can’t believe is true. Not because Trump’s hands are ugly, but because who the hell goes around telling people that? There’s just no way Trump or any other human being on Earth consistently gets complimented for the loveliness of their hands. (One notable exception.) It’s a harmless lie from Trump, but belies a person who cannot admit anything about him is imperfect and is entirely intolerant of anyone pointing out his flaws or mistakes. Is that who you want running the military? Someone who won’t listen when he’s wrong and won’t take advice from the Joint Chiefs of Staff?
  • During the last Republican debate, Trump was repeatedly asked to release his tax returns, but said he wouldn’t because he was being audited, as he has been for every year for the last decade. Fine, that’s his choice and I don’t have an issue with it. But after the debate a reporter asked him why he thought he was audited so frequently, and Trumpclaimed religious persecution. This is totally outrageous for two reasons: one, I cannot believe Donald “Two Corinthians” Trump is a truly devout Christian. I’ve been to about a hundred bar mitzvahs and I know that’s not how you pronounce that one. And secondly, who really thinks the United States’ IRS is going after Christians? The answer is simple: conspiracy theorists. Trump was, after all, a leader of the birther movement that demanded President Obama’s birth certificate — something, by the way, that I don’t think he’s even asked for from Ted Cruz, who was ACTUALLY BORN IN CANADA. A president of the United States must make decisions based on facts and evidence, not hearsay and chain emails.

When it comes down to it, I want a president who, yes, is aligned with me on my political views. But I also want a president who is presidential: who is diplomatic, not derisive; reasoned, not rash; strong, not strident. Even — mystery Trump supporter who’s somehow stuck with me this far — even if you agree with Trump’s politics, can you honestly believe the world will be a safer place with his finger on the nuclear trigger, ready to turn a city into a burnt slab of glass when someone calls his fingers stubby?


When our own sun starts to die, many ages from now, it will grow, like any other new red giant. It will grow and grow, moving inexorably towards our home. The dying sun may swallow up the earth; it may just grow so large and so hot that all the water on Earth boils off into space, leaving it a barren, lifeless rock — there are all sorts of joyful possibilities for the end of our sun’s life. But no matter what, after it burns off all of its astral fuel, the sun will be split asunder. Half the mass of the sun will be spun off into a sparkling, iridescent nebula, a beautiful shroud of color and memory that celebrates the life of the sun, paints the history of the solar system in vibrant color against the black backdrop of the galaxy.

The other half of the sun’s mass will remain behind, sulking, a sputtering white dwarf that will sag against the fabric of space until finally it, too, grows cold and dead and fades to black.

The choice of which half to follow is yours.

That Storied Pomp

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

– Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

– Thomas Jefferson, U.S. Declaration of Independence

*  *  *

So tell me, America.  Did we ever really believe this stuff?

*  *  *

The United States of America is an audacious idea, an amazing idea — that a nation could throw off the yoke of prejudice, the burdens of social caste, the chains of history and emerge as a truly free and equal haven.  A place where all men (and women) are equal and accepted.  A sacred experiment in justice, equality, and liberty.

But America is also a contradiction.  We founded this beautiful little political science project with an economy driven by human servitude.  We didn’t grant women the right to vote until 1920.  We manifest-destinied our way across countless cultures between the Appalachians and the Pacific.

If I’m being honest, I don’t understand the contradiction.  How can one nation be so selectively in love with its own image?  We’re Narcissus sleeping at the pool, gazing lovingly not at our reflection but into our own dreams and memories.  All we see is the torch of liberty, and not the pile of smoking embers underneath it.

Maybe I seem to be veering off into some sort of America-the-Ugly diatribe, so let me correct course right now.  I love this country.  I love our idealism, our democracy, our bricolage of ideas and cultures.  I love the fact that I can get a cheeseburger for a buck without ever leaving my car.  And it’s because I love this country — love what this country symbolizes, was founded for — that I have to point back to those words we hold so hallowed, and ask when will these be more than mere words?

*  *  *

Exhibit no. 1: huddled masses.  The movement in this country to stop Syrian refugees from entering at all costs astounds me.  It’s a despicable transgression of our nation’s most iconic attribute — that we are the land of dreams, where anyone from anywhere can come, be welcome, and thrive.  We’ve accepted wave after wave of immigrants and refugees, built entire beloved neighborhoods out of them: San Francisco’s Chinatown, New York’s Little Italy, Miami’s Little Havana.  We’ve accepted everyone from Hmong fleeing the invasion of Laos to Jews fleeing the invasion of literally everywhere else.

What’s even more astounding is that this reluctance to live up to our collective promise as a nation is nothing new.

And then, even as I’m hurling ideas on the page for this piece like some political Pollock and I think the national conversation about immigration and diversity can’t get any worse, Donald J. Trump puts out this unbelievable piece of sludge.

(You know what, I removed the hyperlink in that last sentence because I don’t want to give that bigot any more web traffic, which seems to go straight to his overly-large head.  I mean that literally — his head looks like someone gave a sandbag a spray-tan.  You can google “Trump + 2015 immigration statement” if you want to read it.)

Trump wanting to ban people from immigrating to the US on the basis of religion is astounding in its audacity, its boldfaced, unapologetic, and increasingly unsurprising demagoguery.  It also goes against pretty much every single moral value I hold as an American.

Then, he compares himself to FDR interning Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, which makes just about zero sense for a couple of reasons — 1) when has a leading Republican candidate ever wanted to compare themselves favorably to Franklin “Let’s Just Spend Our Way Outta This One” Roosevelt, and 2) I like FDR for a lot of reasons, but his forcible relocation of over 100,000 Americans to prison camps WAS ALSO NOT A GOOD THING.  I’ve lost track of whether Trump is brash, tone-deaf, or just willfully ignorant, and it’d be one thing if he was like everyone else on the internet shouting their bigotry and fearmongering into the comments section of YouTube.  But this is a man who has a frighteningly large following, and he’s tapped into a well of something primal and disgusting buried deep in the American psyche.  It’s like Trump has a divining rod for latent American racism, and what worries me most is that he’s finding water.  I’m honestly scared that Trump is just riding the start of an ugly tide, and we risk it spilling over into the mainstream of American politics.

I do the Republican party’s presidential contenders a disservice to lump someone like Trump in with them, so I apologize, but even if the rest of the field is not as “unhinged” (to quote Jeb!), they all constantly wax poetic on America’s storied past.  Every candidate on the right has a story about how the good ole days were grand and our Founding Fathers were brilliant demigods of democracy who descended from Mt. Sinai into Virginia with the Constitution in one hand and the Christian Bible in the other.  This sense of moral righteousness is often completely at odds with the immigration policies they propose.  Even if you ignore the case of Trump v. the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, for those of you following along at home), people like Cruz and Trump are professing a profound love for the Constitution while ignoring the parts of it that make America the greatest experiment in history: our founders’ desire to harbor the unfortunate from other nations, to grant them the opportunity they never knew elsewhere, and to safeguard the freedoms of life, liberty, and happiness for all people of this country.

We are a new nation, conceived in liberty.  We are a welcoming nation, strengthened by our differences.  And we are a bold nation, clad in democracy.  Someday we’ll all realize it.

 

*  *  *

A small addendum here to mention that I had another half to this post about gun control, but it was entirely too angry to post without deciding if I really want to unleash that kind of internet ire.  Suffice it to say that I think it’s absolutely criminal that we’ve let the murder of our neighbors and coworkers and children become as routine as the local news station’s weather report.  Cloudy tomorrow, with a slight chance of mass homicide in the early afternoon.  Pack an umbrella with your thoughts and prayers.