Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for January 2020

100 Ways To Live Better

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Very interesting list. Some hit home, others missed me, but all are interesting. Jacob Falkovich writes at Putanumonit.com:

A couple of weeks ago Venkatesh challenged his followers to brainstorm at least 100 tweets on a topic via live responses. Since I’m not an expert on anything in particular, I decided to simply see if I can come up with 100 discrete pieces of life advice in a day.

This off-the-cuff game turned into perhaps the most successful creative project I’ve ever done. The thread was viewed by tens of thousands of people, received thousands of likes, and gained me hundreds of Twitter followers. I didn’t know there was such thirst for random life-advice, nor that I would be the one to tap the kegs. And now my blog readers get the expanded, edited, organized, and illustrated collection.

The good life is a frequent subject on Putanumonit. I aimed for this thread to be an inspiration to myself as well, writing down many things that I think I should do but haven’t gotten around to yet. I tried to steer a middle course between over-generalized Navalisms and too-specific tips on the particular brand of chapstick that will change your life. May these inspire you to live your best life or to mock me in funny ways in the comments.

Meta

1

Any life advice that isn’t given to you personally is not designed to be followed to the letter. Try to resonate with the philosophy that generates it instead. Remember that directional advice (e.g., “be more …”) may need to be reversed before consumption.

2

Collect feedback from everybody. Play games with close friends where you have to give each other constructive criticism and ways to improve. Collect anonymous feedback from internet strangers on Admonymous.

3

Stop lurking; write that comment. You know the saying about letting people suspect you’re dumb rather than opening your mouth and removing all doubt? Fuck that. We know you’re dumb. You get less dumb by saying things and getting feedback.

4

Learn some improv, at least to get the basic gist of it. Take a class or read Impro. Improv mindset is a great way to approach many social situations including most interactions on the internet. A good comment/reply often starts with “yes, and”.

5

Don’t nitpick, that’s the opposite of good improv. You think that the categories in this post are arbitrary? A piece of advice doesn’t apply to your special situation? You’re probably right, but writing this in a comment will just make readers annoyed and make you frustrated when nobody responds.

Mind

6

There are more great podcasts than you’ll ever have the time to listen to. If it sucks after 10 minutes, skip half an hour ahead. Still boring? Delete and move on. Obviously, do the same for books.

7

Free will. The anthropic principle. Solipsism. The simulation hypothesis. Moral realism. They’re fun to argue about through the night but don’t judge anyone too much based on the positions they take and don’t treat any of them too seriously as guides to actually living your life. It should all add up to normalcy in the end.

8

Find a medium of expression and express yourself publicly every day for three months. If you’re good with words, write 100 Tweets. An artist — post 100 sketches on Instagram. Music/dance person — 100 TikToks.

9

Tell a bad joke or a pun as soon as you think of it, even if it’s just to your exasperated spouse or coworker. It takes 20 bad jokes to think of a single good one, and you only start making good jokes once you remove the unconscious filter stifling your generative brain.

10

If you can’t give it up completely, try to constrain the bandwidth of how much you hear about politics. Don’t start your day with the front page of the Times. Unfollow anyone whose posts are more than 20% about politics or the outrage du jour. And don’t jump into online arguments, it’s vice masquerading as virtue.

11

Binge a show/video game for a couple of weeks, then take a break from TV for a couple of weeks. Trying to limit yourself to an hour a day is less fun and more addictive.

12

Should you watch that movie / play that game / read that book? The formula is:

[# who rated it 5/5] + [# who rated it 1/5] – [# who rated it 3/5].

This doesn’t apply to everything, but it applies to many things, including media. There are too many options out there to waste time on mediocrity, and everything great will be divisive.

13

Unless one of them is your friend or boss, you should spend 100x less time thinking and talking about billionaires than you currently do.

14

Facebook is for event invites only, not for scrolling. The people you met offline are not going to be the people posting the best stuff online, so the timeline content is worse than what you’d get on Twitter/Reddit/blogs. And the algorithm is designed to fuck with your brain.

15

Don’t keep watching a bad TV show just because your friends are talking about it, it’s a terrible time trade-off. You can read a recap or even better — bring up richer topics of conversations.  And don’t pay money for bad movies just because “everyone is watching them”. Doing so is defecting against your friends since they’ll now have to watch it to not feel left out.

16

Habits are reinforced by your habitual environment. That’s a big part of why retreats work: they take you away from your usual surroundings and people. If you want to start meditating, doing pushups, intermittent fasting, etc, try starting on a vacation where the new circumstances make it easier to integrate new habits.

17 . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 January 2020 at 3:56 pm

Skinny map of the Mississippi River

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Take a look.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 January 2020 at 3:37 pm

Posted in Daily life

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Jesus is a Jew

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In Comment David Brooks provides the cultural context for the life and mission of Jesus:

This Year in Jerusalem

There are different lenses through which to see Jesus. I suppose there is a Florence Jesus—the pale, gentle, Caucasian Jesus of the Italian Renaissance paintings, with a scraggly blond beard and two fingers raised in blessing. There’s the Managua Jesus, the peasant revolutionary. There’s the Jesus of the American slaves, the suffering Christ bearing the burden of the oppressed. There’s the Oxford Jesus, the strong, elegant, protective Aslan for those who came to faith through C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Anglophilia. And then there’s the Jerusalem Jesus. This is the lens that sees Jesus the Jew.

This is the lens that tries to see through two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism; that tries to see through two thousand years in which Jews and Christians have defined themselves against one another, magnifying their differences. This is the lens that tries to see Jesus in his original Jewish context, that tries to put his Israelite and Jewish experience in the foreground, and not in the background.

I’m always amazed by how many people who have dedicated their lives to Christ have never actually been to Israel. They have money to travel, and go off to Europe and such places, but they haven’t directly experienced the clashing confrontation of faiths, powers, and tribes that marks Jerusalem today and was just as present in Jesus’s own lifetime. They haven’t given themselves the chance to appreciate how misleading it is to associate the faith with the serenity of a church pew or the reasoned domesticity of a Bible study. The world Jesus inhabited was a world of fractious intensity. The Israel of Jesus, like the Israel of today, was a spiritual and literal battle zone. He was love in the most hostile environment imaginable.

The starting point of the Jerusalem view of Jesus is the fact that is everywhere acknowledged but rarely given sufficient weight. Jesus was Jewish. He presumably had the skin colour of modern Sephardic Jews. He wore tzitzit, or fringes, that modern Orthodox Jews wear and donned the phylacteries that Jewish men still put on. He and his disciples kept kosher. He argued with other Jews but within the context of Judaism. In Matthew he tells his disciples not to bother evangelizing among the Samarians and the gentiles. His ministry begins with lost sheep within the house of Israel itself, before it broadens to contain all the world. “Think not that I have come to abolish the Torah and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them,” he says in Matthew 5:17.

In my experience, many Jews today know very little about Jesus. But there have always been some Jews who read about him and recognize how completely Jewish he was. Martin Buber called Jesus a “brother.” Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, a leader of reform Judaism, once declared that if Jesus came back to earth today it would be at a Reformed synagogue where he would feel most at home. The Jewish writer Amy-Jill Levine says she doesn’t worship Jesus, because she’s a Jew, but “I also have to admit to a bit of pride in thinking about him—he’s one of ours.”

Rabbi Leo Baeck, who led German Jews during the horrors of the Holocaust, put it best: “We behold a man who is Jewish in every feature and trait of his character, manifesting in every particular what is pure and good in Judaism. This man could have developed as he came to be only on the soil of Judaism, and only on this soil, too, could he find disciples and followers as they were. Here alone in this Jewish sphere, in this Jewish atmosphere . . . could this man live his life and meet his death—a Jew among Jews.”

To be a Jew in Jesus’s day was not to embrace a “religion” or to practice a “faith.” They didn’t have these concepts yet because they did not yet have the concept of secularism. Judaism was an enveloping lifepath, total worldview, a covenantal relationship, a way of living out and searching for truth. It starts with the claim that of all the many peoples of this earth, God had chosen this one scraggly little band on the eastern edge of the Judean hill country to be his people and the recipient of his covenant. As N.T. Wright puts it, the sheer absurdity of this claim, from the standpoint of any other worldview, is staggering.

If you were within this covenant, it must have felt completely self-enclosing. The pressure must have been intense. We today have a sense that the world is filled with many diverse cultures and nations and their rivalries are just the normal stuff of politics.

The Jews, two thousand years ago, had a sense that Israel stood out from all the other nations and lived out its own unique destiny. They saw relations between nations not just as the normal jostling of peoples but as the running tally of divine judgment: Are we favoured or are we punished? Is the covenant betrayed or fulfilled? God shapes history to teach us hard lessons.

Welcome to the Apocalypse

Which leads to another pivotal reality that defined Judaism in Jesus’ day: foreign occupation. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 January 2020 at 3:22 pm

Posted in Daily life, Religion

Civilization & Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Vol. I: The Structures of Everyday Life

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Alvaro de Menard writes in Fantastic Anachronism:

[Note: this was originally posted on reddit; people liked it so I’m reposting with some minor fixes]

I first discovered Fernand Braudel when Tyler Cowen answered the question: “whose entire body of work is worth reading?”, placing him next to people like Nietzsche and Hume. It was good advice.

Braudel starts working on his doctoral dissertation in 1923, at age 21, intending to concentrate on the policies of Philip II of Spain in the form of a conventional history. To support himself, he teaches at an Algerian high school for a decade, then at the university of Sao Paulo until 1937. During this period he keeps up with developments in France, especially Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre’s Annales School, which focuses on long-term history and statistical data.

In 1934, 11 years after he began, Braudel starts to find quantitative data. Population figures, ship cargoes, prices, arrivals and departures. These will form the basis of his novel, data-driven approach. Five years later, in 1939, he finally has an outline ready.

Then the Nazis capture him. He spends the next 5 years in a POW camp where he writes the first draft of La Méditerranée without access to any materials, mailing notebooks back to Paris. When the war ends, he becomes the de facto leader of the second generation of the Annales School. An additional four years after that, 26 years after he started working on it, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II is published.

The general argument of this work is that history moves at different speeds, and one must distinguish them: the short term (daily events as perceived by contemporaries), the medium term (‘economic systems, states, societies, civilisations’), and la longue durée – a perspective of centuries or millennia without which the shorter timeframes cannot be understood.

In the preface, Braudel declares: “I have always believed that history cannot be really understood unless it is extended to cover the entire human past.” Civilization and Capitalism is built on similar principles.

The initial seeds for C&C were planted in 1950, when Febvre asked Braudel to contribute to a volume for a series on world history. Braudel would simply provide a summary of existing work on the development of capitalism. But Febvre died before the volume could be completed, and Braudel took responsibility for what turned out to be a three-volume series on capitalism. The first volume came out 17 years after work began, in 1967. The final volume would not be published until 1979.

Reading Braudel one gets the impression of an infinite curiosity at work for decades, mining every source for the tiniest piece of data, and then magisterially combining everything together. Despite fairly brutal editing these notes are still way too long, and yet they struggle to capture even a tiny part of the detail and depth that the book contains.


Vol. I: The Structures of Everyday Life

A good starting point might be what is left out: politics, wars, dynasties, religion, ideology, peoples. The index of maps & graphs gives the reader a taste of what is to come: “Budget of a mason’s family in Berlin about 1800”; “Bread weights and grain prices in Venice at the end of the sixteenth century”; “French Merchants registered as living in Antwerp, 1450-1585”.

The first volume aims to illuminate every aspect of material life: agriculture, food, dress, housing, towns, cities, energy, metals, machines, animals, transportation, money. Braudel’s goal is not simply to examine each of these in isolation, but to show how all the elements of material life interact to form cultures, economies, systems of governance, power structures, long-term cycles or trends. He comes remarkably close to achieving this absurdly ambitious task. For people into worldbuilding this tome is pure gold. The first volume also has the greatest general appeal: unlike the other two which are somewhat esoteric, I think this is a book everyone will love.

In short, at the very deepest levels of material life, there is at work a complex order, to which the assumptions, tendencies and unconscious pressures of economies, societies and civilizations all contribute.

It is here that Braudel shows off his greatest skill, which is the combination of the microscopic with the panoramic. At the top level: Geography. Climate. Land. Crops. ZOOM IN. Trading routes. Piracy. Economy. Cities. Technology. And then zoom into details like the price of wheat relative to oats in 1351 Paris. He shifts effortlessly between the global, long-term perspective and minute, specific data and anecdotes, combining the two to form a coherent understanding.

The Weight of Numbers

Everything, both in the short and long term, and at the level of local events as well as on the grand scale of world affairs, is bound up with the numbers and fluctuations of the mass of people.

The predominant feature of the ancien régime is malthusianism. From the 16th century on, Europe was constantly on the brink of overpopulation. Epidemics and famines established balance, and occasional recessions in population created great wealth for the survivors. “Thus in Languedoc between 1350 and 1450, the peasant and his patriarchal family were masters of an abandoned countryside. Trees and wild animals overran fields that once had flourished.” France had 26 general famines just in the 11th century; 16 in the 18th.

Famine recurred so insistently for centuries on end that it became incorporated into man’s biological regime and built into his daily life. Dearth and penury were continual, and familiar even in Europe, despite its privileged position. […] Things were far worse in Asia, China and India. Famines there seemed like the end of the world. In China everything depended on rice from the southern provinces; in India, on providential rice from Bengal, and on wheat and millet from the northern provinces, but vast distances had to be crossed and this contribution only covered a fraction of the requirements.

Slowly, expansion and improvements in agricultural productivity doubled the global population, which Braudel calls “indubitably the basic fact in world history from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century”.

Almost all of these people lived in the countryside. “The towns the historian discovers in his journeys back into pre-nineteenth-century times are small; and the armies miniature.” The towns were also great population sinks, drawing in men from the countryside and killing them. Wild animals were everywhere, often a real threat. Even in Europe, which was full of wolves and bears.

A lapse in vigilance, an economic setback, a rough winter, and they multiplied. In 1420, packs entered Paris through a breach in the ramparts or unguarded gates. They were there again in September 1438, attacking people this time outside the town, between Montmartre and the Saint-Antoine gate. In 1640, wolves entered Besançon by crossing the Doubs near the mills of the town and ‘ate children along the roads’.

Braudel writes about . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 January 2020 at 2:38 pm

Confessions of a slaughterhouse worker

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The BBC has this report from a slaughterhouse worker:

About 100 million animals are killed for meat in the UK every month – but very little is heard about the people doing the killing. Here, one former abattoir worker describes her job, and the effect it had on her mental health.

Warning: Some readers may find this story disturbing

When I was a child I dreamed of becoming a vet. I imagined myself playing with mischievous puppies, calming down frightened kittens, and – as I was a countryside kid – performing check-ups on the local farm animals if they felt under the weather.

It was a pretty idyllic life that I dreamt up for myself – but it’s not quite how things worked out. Instead, I ended up working in a slaughterhouse.

I was there for six years and, far from spending my days making poorly cows feel better, I was in charge of ensuring about 250 of them were killed every day.

Whether they eat meat or not, most people in the UK have never been inside an abattoir – and for good reason. They are filthy, dirty places. There’s animal faeces on the floor, you see and smell the guts, and the walls are covered in blood.

And the smell… It hits you like a wall when you first enter, and then hangs thick in the air around you. The odour of dying animals surrounds you like a vapour.

Why would anybody choose to visit, let alone work in a place like this?

For me, it was because I’d already spent a couple of decades working in the food industry – in ready-meal factories and the like. So when I got an offer from an abattoir to be a quality control manager, working directly with the slaughtermen, it felt like a fairly innocuous job move. I was in my 40s at the time.

On my first day, they gave me a tour of the premises, explained how everything worked and, most importantly, asked me pointedly and repeatedly if I was OK. It was quite common for people to faint during the tour, they explained, and the physical safety of visitors and new starters was very important to them. I was OK, I think. I felt sick, but I thought I’d get used to it.

Soon, though, I realised there was no point pretending that it was just another job. I’m sure not all abattoirs are the same but mine was a brutal, dangerous place to work. There were countless occasions when, despite following all of the procedures for stunning, slaughterers would get kicked by a massive, spasming cow as they hoisted it up to the machine for slaughter. Similarly, cows being brought in would get scared and panic, which was pretty terrifying for all of us too. You’ll know if you’ve ever stood next to one that they are huge animals.

Personally, I didn’t suffer physical injuries, but the place affected my mind.

As I spent day after day in that large, windowless box, my chest felt increasingly heavy and a grey fog descended over me. At night, my mind would taunt me with nightmares, replaying some of the horrors I’d witnessed throughout the day.

One skill that you master while working at an abattoir is disassociation. You learn to become numb to death and to suffering. Instead of thinking about cows as entire beings, you separate them into their saleable, edible body parts. It doesn’t just make the job easier – it’s necessary for survival.

There are things, though, that have the power to shatter the numbness. For me, it was the heads.

At the end of the slaughter line there was a huge skip, and it was filled with hundreds of cows’ heads. Each one of them had been flayed, with all of the saleable flesh removed. But one thing was still attached – their eyeballs.

Whenever I walked past that skip, I couldn’t help but feel like I had hundreds of pairs of eyes watching me. Some of them were accusing, knowing that I’d participated in their deaths. Others seemed to be pleading, as if there were some way I could go back in time and save them. It was disgusting, terrifying and heart-breaking, all at the same time. It made me feel guilty. The first time I saw those heads, it took all of my strength not to vomit.

I know things like this bothered the other workers, too. I’ll never forget the day, after I’d been at the abattoir for a few months, when one of the lads cut into a freshly killed cow to gut her – and out fell the foetus of a calf. She was pregnant. He immediately started shouting and throwing his arms about.

I took him into a meeting room to calm him down – and all he could say was, “It’s just not right, it’s not right,” over and over again. These were hard men, and they rarely showed any emotion. But I could see tears prickling his eyes.

Even worse than pregnant cows, though, were the young calves we sometimes had to kill.

A physically demanding role

On its website, the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) says the UK meat industry has some of the highest standards of hygiene and welfare in the world.

Many of its members, it says, “are at the forefront of abattoir design with facilities designed to house the animals and help them move around the site with ease and without any pain, distress or suffering”.

Meat processing in the UK employs about 75,000 people of whom approximately 69% are from other European Union member states, the BMPA notes.

“The barrier to British people taking up roles in meat processing is an unwillingness to work in what is perceived to be a challenging environment,” it says. “Most people, while they eat meat, find it difficult to work in its production partly because of the obvious aversion to the slaughter process but also because it is a physically demanding role.”

At the height of the BSE and bovine tuberculosis crises in the 1990s, whole herds of animals had to be slaughtered. I worked at the slaughterhouse after 2010, so well after the BSE crisis, but if an animal tested positive for TB they would still bring the entire herd in to be culled – bulls, heifers and calves. I remember one day in particular, when I’d been there for about a year or so, when we had to slaughter five calves at the same time.

We tried to keep them within the rails of the pens, but they were so small and bony that they could easily skip out and trot around, slightly wobbly on their newly born legs. They sniffed us, like puppies, because they were young and curious. Some of the boys and I stroked them, and they suckled our fingers.

When the time came to kill them, it was tough, both emotionally and physically. Slaughterhouses are designed for slaughtering really large animals, so the stun boxes are normally just about the right size to hold a cow that weighs about a tonne. When we put the first calf in, it only came about a quarter of a way up the box, if that. We put all five calves in at once. Then we killed them. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

On the whole, I think a whole-food plant-based diet offers many health benefits, and I now see that we could add “mental-health benefits” to the list.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 January 2020 at 2:29 pm

John Wheeler’s H-bomb blues: “It was here a minute ago…”

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Alex Wellerstein, assistant professor in science and technology studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, and author of Restricted Data: Nuclear Secrecy in the United States, writes In Physics Today, undoubtedly excerpted from his book:

There may never be a good time to lose a secret, but some secrets are worse than others to lose, and some times are worse than others to lose them. For US physicist John Archibald Wheeler (see figure 1), January 1953 may have been the absolute worst time to lose the particular secret he lost. The nation was in a fever pitch about Communists, atomic spies, McCarthyism, the House Un-American Activities Committee, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and the Korean War. And what Wheeler lost, under the most suspicious and improbable circumstances, was nothing less than the secret of the hydrogen bomb, a weapon of unimaginable power that had first been tested only a month before.

Wheeler is best remembered today for being an audaciously original thinker whose contributions span fields from the theory of nuclear fission through relativity and quantum theory and for coining several new pieces of physics vocabulary, including the now ubiquitous term “black hole.” Wheeler’s deep connections to the budding national security state, however, are less well known. He was a major scientist at the Hanford plutonium production site in Washington State during World War II, and from 1951 to 1953, he was the head of Project Matterhorn B, the H-bomb project centered at Princeton University.

It was his role at Matterhorn B that led Wheeler to take a fateful overnight train trip from his home in Princeton, New Jersey, to Washington, DC, in January 1953. He had with him a short but potent document that explained exactly how the US, at that time the only nation in the world with an H-bomb, had overcome the many obstacles to producing a multimegaton thermonuclear weapon. Somewhere on the train ride, that document went missing. Wheeler’s Federal Bureau of Investigation file, recently released under the Freedom of Information Act, has shed new light on the incident, the secrets that lay at its heart, and the massive search for the missing document. A multitude of consequences came out of that single event—a testimony to the power of secrecy during the Cold War and to the ways in which a few pages, improperly situated in spacetime, can set off an unexpected chain of events.1

A SPLIT PHYSICS COMMUNITY, A SECRET DESIGN

To understand how Wheeler came to be in such a troubling situation, we must know what the document in question was and why Wheeler, of all people, had it with him on a train in the first place. The H-bomb document was no ordinary technical report: It was a bureaucratic weapon aimed directly at its creators’ political enemies.

The detonation of the first Soviet atomic bomb in 1949 sent many US policymakers and scientists into a tailspin. Physicists Edward Teller and Ernest Lawrence argued that the only sane response was a vigorous effort to build the next generation of nuclear weapon: the “Super,” or hydrogen, bomb. They found a receptive audience in Lewis Strauss, a member of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), who took up the cause with vigor.

Scientists had contemplated the idea of a bomb powered by nuclear fusion as early as 1942, and they had discussed it throughout World War II and even the postwar period. Any fusion reaction clearly would need to be powered by the energy from a fission bomb, and the technical difficulty of such a design, coupled with the US focus on building up an adequate supply of fission bombs, meant that little progress was made until 1949.

As the push by Teller, Lawrence, and Strauss gathered political converts, especially in Congress, it also caused a schism in the US physics community. For those who wanted the US to have an H-bomb, it was an inevitable next step. Opponents, however, questioned the H-bomb’s military necessity, morality, and feasibility. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the former head of Los Alamos during the war, strongly opposed it, as did Enrico Fermi, I. I. Rabi, James Conant, and other members of the AEC’s General Advisory Committee. Their argument rested on the fact that nobody had a good idea of how to make the “Super” in the first place, and it was not yet clear whether one could be built at all.

In January 1950 President Harry Truman concurred with the recommendations of his National Security Council and ordered the AEC “to continue with its work on all forms of atomic energy weapons, including the so-called hydrogen or super-bomb.”2 The H-bomb lobby appeared to have won, for the moment. But the win came at a cost: an increasingly bitter disagreement within the physics community. The H-bomb’s opponents saw its supporters as wanting weapons of genocide, whereas supporters saw their opponents as being dangerously naive about the safety of the nation and the world. And one of the most vigorous supporters of the H-bomb program was Wheeler.

B IS FOR BOMB

After his stint at Hanford during World War II, Wheeler returned to his academic post at Princeton, but after the Soviet detonation, he quickly volunteered to join the H-bomb work. He initially expected that he would move to the Los Alamos laboratory to work on the project, but difficulty in recruiting top scientific talent to New Mexico dictated a change of site. Wheeler would instead create an H-bomb project, which ultimately received the code name of Matterhorn B, at Princeton. The B stood for “Bomb.”

There was one small problem: Neither Wheeler nor anyone else had a good idea of how to make a working H-bomb in early 1950. The main idea Teller and others had pursued at Los Alamos, nicknamed the “Runaway Super,” increasingly seemed unworkable. But in March 1951, a collaboration between Teller and mathematician Stanislaw Ulam produced a new design that seemed like it might just work.

The key feature behind the so-called Teller–Ulam design was that it took the x-ray radiation from an exploding fission bomb and used it to compress a mass of fusionable material to a very high density before trying to heat it and begin thermonuclear fusion. In retrospect, that might seem straightforward, but at the time it was highly unintuitive to the weapons designers, who believed that the trick to making an H-bomb work was to discard the initial and seemingly useless burst of radiation.3

Considerably more details needed to be worked out, but scientists, including H-bomb skeptics like Oppenheimer, immediately recognized that the Teller–Ulam design’s application of radiation implosion was likely a workable approach. Its success was demonstrated at the “Mike” test of Operation Ivy in November 1952 (see figure 2). Mike exploded with the force of more than 10 million tons of TNT. That event inaugurated the megaton age with 700 times more energy than the first atomic bomb.

The Mike device, however, could not be easily converted into a military weapon. It required some 80 tons of cryogenic equipment to keep its hydrogen (deuterium) fuel in a liquid state—not exactly something that could be carried on an airborne bomber. As of late 1952, the US knew how to build an H-bomb but had none that it could actually use.

So 1953 was a precarious time for advocates of the H-bomb. A fission–fusion bomb had been shown to be feasible in concept but was not yet a true weapon. It was also on the cusp of what many in the US national security establishment dubbed “the year of maximum danger,” in which the Soviet Union for the first time would be in a position to deliver a surprise nuclear attack against the US homeland.

A SECRET HISTORY, A DARK VENDETTA

Even before the success of the Mike test, early supporters of the H-bomb program were feeling vindicated. Scientists such as Teller had argued that the H-bomb could be built in a relatively short amount of time, and they had turned out to be correct, though that did not bring them relief. They were still bitter about criticism from Oppenheimer and others, and they felt that US national security had been harmed by opposition to the H-bomb program. They began to wage a secret war against their opponents in the hope of removing them from power. The weapon they would use was history.

In early April 1952,  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 January 2020 at 2:21 pm

The Story of a Baltimore Panhandler Murdering a Woman Made National News. The Truth Didn’t

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Gabe Fernandez writes how the public is willing to be deceived in support of its biases:

Keith Smith wanted the public to know that Jacquelyn Smith, his wife of four years, was killed for her kindness. According to Smith, it happened in the very first hours of December 2018, at an intersection in east Baltimore. The story he told went like this:

While driving back from a birthday celebration, the family stopped at a stop sign in their 2012 Audi A7. While they sat there, Jacquelyn saw a woman with a wrapped-up blanket holding a sign that read, “Help me feed my baby, God bless.” Jacquelyn told Keith to roll down the window on her side of the car so that she could give the woman some money. As Jacquelyn started handing over a $10 bill to the woman with the sign, another panhandler suddenly appeared. That second panhandler went up to the open window, thanked the couple for their kindness, and then began stabbing Jacquelyn before snatching a necklace off of her wounded body. As Keith and his 28-year-old daughter, who was in the car’s back seat at the time, tried to process what had just happened, the original woman who had garnered Jacquelyn’s sympathy snatched a purse from inside the car and ran off as well.

Keith called 911 to report the attack, then sped off to the Johns Hopkins Hospital, about a mile away. Despite his best efforts to get Jacquelyn there as quickly as possible, doctors were unable to save her, and she was pronounced dead just before 1 am.

When Smith’s story hit local news outlets, it unleashed a flood of previously repressed resentment towards the city’s panhandlers. Scores of angry people online seemed almost excited to hold this murder up as validation for their prejudiced views of the city, but angry people online are like that. Real institutions and powerful individuals with sway in the city and broader world rushed to get involved as well. It happened very fast, and then it just kept happening.

The trouble started with the Baltimore Police Department, as trouble in Baltimore often does. Then-interim police chief Gary Tuggle issued a warning to the public about giving out money to those begging for it on the streets, using Jacquelyn’s story as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong in interactions with the city’s most desperate people. Opinion pieces in the Baltimore Sun echoed and amplified that message of suspicion and fear. One, written by a billionaire with real estate interests in the city, suggestedthat the failure of police to enforce the city’s panhandling laws infringed in turn on the “right for citizens not to be murdered in their cars waiting for a light to change.” Another, by a former county executive who was convicted for misconduct in office, called panhandling “a public safety hazard at all times.” But it was Oprah Winfrey, once a local television anchor in Baltimore, who launched the story into the national spotlight when she tweeted that, though she’s given money out to panhandlers a thousand times, she’d “think twice before ever doing [it] again.”

All of this played out perfectly for Keith Smith—or all of it, perhaps, except for Oprah elevating this story to the attention of a national audience, because in reality, the murderous panhandler who was supposedly responsible for killing his wife never existed. Under brighter lights, the story that institutional Baltimore had been quite content to believe swiftly showed signs of being a fabrication.

The story Keith didn’t tell was that he and his daughter, Valeria Smith, had planned to leave the country and go to Mexico without the third member of their family. They were unsuccessful in their escape, and U.S. marshals arrested them at the border down in Texas. The two were charged with murder and conspiracy to commit murder; prosecutors eventually dropped the murder case against Valeria Smith and later gave her an accessory charge in June.

As the story changed shape from a random act of violence in a troubled city to a more prosaic one of domestic violence, it became clear that the people who had driven the original narrative were more than ready to move on, and the public followed suit. The story of a bloodthirsty panhandler was so fantastical, and its public telling and re-telling by Keith Smith so heart-wrenching, that the size of the gap between it and reality seemed impossible to fill, or explain. And so the celebrity-endorsed warnings were never followed up with any apologies, and the institutional actors who sought to use the tragedy to advocate for what they wanted—harsher and more discriminatory policing, mostly—stayed quiet. The commissioner of the very same police department that had warned citizens about the dangers of panhandlers now bragged about his detectives always knowing that something seemed amiss in the investigation.

Odious as all of this is, it doesn’t quite qualify as surprising. The tragic-crime-that-wasn’t fit much more cleanly into the story powerful people wanted to tell than the truth did. That broader story is what Lisa Snowden-McCray has called the “Baltimore narrative” in the Washington Post; the short version is that every call to action on the city’s major problems has historically wound up harming the city’s most vulnerable people, while also propping up the unchecked power of the city’s supposed leaders.

When news broke of Keith Smith’s story being an outright fabrication, members of the police department, the state’s attorney’s office, and the mayor’s office took time to chastise Smith for bringing a bad name to a city that has endured so much in recent memory, as well they might have. But Smith’s lies weren’t told in a vacuum. They seemed, in a cynical and disquieting way, perfectly crafted to be heard and believed and retold in Baltimore. Smith’s tall tale flattered, in its way, every leader, institution and approach currently failing the city, in ways that those in charge had trained themselves to miss. While they all might have trouble recognizing the connection, others have not.

When Keith and Valeria Smith reached for a villain who might sell their story, it made a cynical sort of sense that they’d land on an unnamed but dangerous homeless man. The Maryland Interagency Council on Homelessness estimated last year that it provided services to more than 12,000 homeless people in Baltimore; the entire city has a population of a little more than 602,000. The city’s population has been shrinking for years. The homeless population has not.

Few events illuminate the relationship between the city’s power brokers and the homeless than what happened in January of last year. That’s when former mayor Catherine Pugh tried to have people removed from a homeless encampment underneath a nearby highway, a location near the local farmer’s market, which was about to reopen. City officials claimed the removal was carried out over health and sanitation concerns, and that the displaced people would be moved to and cared for at a nearby shelter. Pugh’s administration had been clearing encampments for years, but this was the largest dismantled during her tenure. Some men and women living at the site protested, marching all the way to City Hall.

Activist Zach Zwagil works with Baltimore Bloc, a grassroots activist group with a focus on social justice and police accountability in communities throughout the city. He was among those who didn’t buy the city’s defense of the mass removal.

“If it’s just about helping people out, why are [police officers] putting fencing up to prevent people from coming back?” he said. “Because it’s not about helping these people, it’s about clearing the area so that tourists and other folks coming in can go to the farmer’s market and other such things undisturbed.” . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 January 2020 at 1:18 pm

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