Logistics, Labor, and State Power

An interview with Laleh Khalili in Phenomenal World:

Katy Fox-Hodess: Your earlier work focuses on state violence in the Middle East. How did you come to be interested in logistics?

Laleh Khalili: While I was doing the interviews for my book on counterinsurgency, I spoke to several US military officers. One of them was quite sympathetic to my project and very critical of US foreign policy at that time. They said to me, in a joking way, “You academics are interested in the bleeding edge of war, but what you should look at is the money.” It turns out that the money often goes into organizing logistics. Talking with this officer, I learned that payments for fuel for military vehicles, were transferred to Kuwait. The entirety of the Kuwaiti economy had sprouted up through transporting fuel for the US military. I filed this information at the back of my mind.

Some years later, my friend David Hansen-Miller, who worked as a researcher for the International Transport Workers’ Federation, suggested that I research the conditions of dockworkers and sailors in the Arabian Peninsula. There wasn’t much work on the subject, and I knew that many countries in the Arabian peninsula don’t allow unionization. So I began to think about this as well.

More here.

Saturday Poem

“Owai kou makuahine? O ka aina no!
Owai kou kupunawahine? O ka aina no!”

……….—J. Nāwahī, 8 Iune 1895, Ke Aloha Aina

when i say
the land is my
believe me.

when i say
the land is my
believe me.

when i say
the land is my
believe me.

believe me when i say
my ancestors
are with me
mountains and all.

by leilani portillo
from Split This Rock

A Brief History of the United States Postal Service

Winifred Gallagher in Smithsonian:

From 1753 to 1774, as he oversaw Britain’s colonial mail service, Benjamin Franklin improved a primitive courier system connecting the 13 fragmented colonies into a more efficient organization that sped deliveries between Philadelphia and New York City to a mere 33 hours. Franklin’s travels along the post roads would inspire his revolutionary vision for how a new nation could thrive independent of Britain. But not even he imagined the pivotal role that the post would play in creating the Republic. By the early 1770s, Franklin’s fellow patriots had organized underground networks, the Committees of Correspondence and then the Constitutional Post, that enabled the founders to talk treason under the British radar. In 1775, before the Declaration of Independence was even signed, the Continental Congress turned the Constitutional Post into the Post Office of the United States, whose operations became the first—and for many citizens, the most consequential—function of the new government itself.

James Madison and others saw how the post could support this fledgling democracy by informing the electorate, and in 1792 devised a Robin Hood scheme whereby high-priced postage for letters, then sent mostly by businessmen and lawyers, subsidized the delivery of cheap, uncensored newspapers. This policy helped spark America’s lively, disputatious political culture and made it a communications superpower with remarkable speed. When Alexis de Tocqueville toured the young country, in 1831, the United States boasted twice as many post offices as Britain and five times as many as France. The astonished political philosopher wrote of hurtling through the Michigan frontier in a crude wagon simply called “the mail” and pausing at “huts” where the driver would toss down a bundle of newspapers and letters before hastening along his route. “We pursued our way at full gallop, leaving the inhabitants of the neighboring log houses to send for their share of the treasure.”

By the 1840s, though, the post faced a crisis. Average citizens, fed up with high prices—sending a letter more than 150 miles cost around 20 cents, or roughly $6 today—were turning to cheaper private carriers, almost putting the Post Office out of business. In response, Congress converted the post into a public service that no longer had to break even, and in 1845 slashed letter postage to 5 to ten cents, depending on distance. The post continued to subsidize the nation’s transportation infrastructure. In the East, railroads replaced mounted couriers and stagecoaches. To connect the coasts, the department first financed steamships to carry the mail through the Isthmus of Panama. Then it invested in stagecoaches, which sped the mail from Missouri and Tennessee, where the railroads stopped, to California, enabling vital communications during the gold rush. In 1869, the great transcontinental railroad was completed. The mail was a lifeline connecting Western settlers with loved ones back home.

More here.

What Is the Future of America?

Anand Giridharadas in The New York Times:

It used to be called the New World. Now it’s run by a man who wants to make it great “again.”

Sometime between then and now, the writer Kurt Andersen argues in his essential, absorbing, infuriating, full-of-facts-you-didn’t-know, saxophonely written new book, America lost one of its “defining” traits: “openness to the new,” its gee-whiz tendency to “try the untried and explore the uncharted,” its “innovative, novelty-seeking, risk-taking attitudes,” its “new conceptions of freedom and fairness and self-government and national identity” — built, it must be said, atop tyrannies new and old.

Andersen traces this “cultural U-turn” to the 1970s. (Reading this book will disabuse you of any notion that hair was the biggest problem of that era.) In those years, Andersen writes, America swerved away from the new on two distinct but intersecting levels. In culture, it fell into a “mass nostalgia” that became a “cultural listlessness,” a slowing of the rate at which life looked, felt and sounded new — Americans from the 1950s and 1970s appearing as if from different planets, but Americans from the 2000s and today looking not all that dissimilar. Meanwhile, in political economy, America was hijacked by capital supremacists, who preached and enacted, as Andersen details with wallets-full of receipts, a return to a pre-New Deal order: “everybody for themselves, everything’s for sale, greed is good, the rich get richer, buyer beware, unfairness can’t be helped, nothing but thoughts and prayers for the losers.”

To begin with the conclusion of “Evil Geniuses,” Andersen, the author of several books and an accomplished magazine editor and radio host, argues that this double reversion threatens the endurance of the country he has long chronicled. America, he says, risks being “the first large modern society to go from fully developed to failing.” In an illustration of his gift for connection-making and framing, he suggests that what could save the country “is a transformative pivot almost as radical for us as the one China made” when it abandoned Communism for capitalism, while, Andersen notes for our benefit, more or less preserving the chassis of its political system.

More here.

How to learn everything: The masterclass diaries

Irina Dumitrescu in Longreads:

When I was a teenager I read James Thurber’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I fell in love with this story of a meek, middle-aged Connecticut man whose daydreams afford him temporary escape from a dreary shopping trip with his overbearing wife. Maybe it was because I was an incorrigible daydreamer too. Or maybe I read in his fantasies of being a fearless Navy commander, a world-famous surgeon, or a brandy-swilling bomber pilot a sense of my own opportunities in life, at that point still wide open if you left my gender out of it. Unlike Walter Mitty, I could still learn anything, be anyone.

With time I found a calling, studied for a doctorate in medieval literature, published a book only a handful of people would read, and gained a longed-for professorship. But new desires arose. I discovered I want to write books for more than five readers, and that doing so is remarkably hard. I started to feel afraid of being trapped in one role for the rest of my life. That sense of endless possibility I once had was slipping away.

One day, when MasterClass sends its millionth paid ad into my Facebook feed, I decide this is the answer to the Walter Mitty lurking inside me. MasterClass seems to offer everything: from writing seminars with over a dozen famous authors to celebrity-driven inspiration to take my hobbies further. Clearly, all I was missing were the right teachers, filmed professionally and beamed into my living room. I may not become a surgeon or a pilot, but what if the renaissance woman I’d hoped to be is just a $200 subscription away?

More here.

750 million genetically engineered mosquitoes approved for release in Florida Keys

Sandee LaMotte at CNN:

A plan to release over 750 million genetically modified mosquitoes into the Florida Keys in 2021 and 2022 received final approval from local authorities, against the objection of many local residents and a coalition of environmental advocacy groups. The proposal had already won state and federal approval.

“With all the urgent crises facing our nation and the State of Florida — the Covid-19 pandemic, racial injustice, climate change — the administration has used tax dollars and government resources for a Jurassic Park experiment,” said Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the International Center for Technology Assessment and Center for Food Safety, in a statement released Wednesday.
“Now the Monroe County Mosquito Control District has given the final permission needed. What could possibly go wrong? We don’t know, because EPA unlawfully refused to seriously analyze environmental risks, now without further review of the risks, the experiment can proceed,” she added.
More here.

What If Trump Won’t Leave?

Frances Fox Piven and Deepak Bhargava in The Intercept:

EVENTS IN CHARLOTTESVILLE, Lafayette Square, and Portland have shown the country that President Donald Trump is prepared to do whatever it takes to keep power, including embracing militant white supremacists and using federal troops to tear gas and arrest peaceful protesters. His noxious proposal to postpone the elections is not the real threat to democracy. He has openly declared that he may not abide by the election results in a nationally televised interview on Fox News. Trump has a lot of tools at his disposal to steal the election if he loses, many of which he’s already putting into motion. Can he be stopped? We believe that he can be, but only if most Americans are willing to put their trust in people power — rather than courts, norms, and elites — to save democracy.

The evidence of the risk we face is impossible to ignore. Trump is questioning the legitimacy of an election that will rely on mail-in ballots, even though he himself has often voted absentee. He has threatened to withhold funding from states that are trying to make it easier for people to vote, and he is undermining the U.S. Postal Service, both of which are essential, especially in a pandemic. His Republican allies around the country have been passing voter ID laws, purging voter rolls, and cutting the number of polling places in urban areas, forcing people to stand in line for hours to exercise their right to vote. This is a war on voters who lean Democratic, specifically Black people, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, naturalized immigrants, poor people, and young people. We’ve already seen in Georgia and Wisconsin how these tactics play out on Election Day.

More here.

Minuscule RoBeetle Turns Liquid Methanol Into Muscle Power

Evan Ackerman in Spectrum ieee:

It’s no secret that one of the most significant constraints on robots is power. Most robots need lots of it, and it has to come from somewhere, with that somewhere usually being a battery because there simply aren’t many other good options. Batteries, however, are famous for having poor energy density, and the smaller your robot is, the more of a problem this becomes. And the issue with batteries goes beyond the battery itself, but also carries over into all the other components that it takes to turn the stored energy into useful work, which again is a particular problem for small-scale robots.

In a paper published this week in Science Robotics, researchers from the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, demonstrate RoBeetle, an 88-milligram four legged robot that runs entirely on methanol, a power-dense liquid fuel. Without any electronics at all, it uses an exceptionally clever bit of mechanical autonomy to convert methanol vapor directly into forward motion, one millimeter-long step at a time.

The body of RoBeetle is a boxy fuel tank that you can fill with methanol by poking a syringe through a fuel inlet hole. It’s a quadruped, more or less, with fixed hind legs and two front legs attached to a single transmission that moves them both at once in a sort of rocking forward and up followed by backward and down motion. The transmission is hooked up to a leaf spring that’s tensioned to always pull the legs backward, such that when the robot isn’t being actuated, the spring and transmission keep its front legs more or less vertical and allow the robot to stand. Those horns are primarily there to hold the leaf spring in place, but they’ve got little hooks that can carry stuff, too.

More here.

The Prophecies of Q

Adrienne LaFrance in The Atlantic:

Conspiracy theories are a constant in American history, and it is tempting to dismiss them as inconsequential. But as the 21st century has progressed, such a dismissal has begun to require willful blindness. I was a city-hall reporter for a local investigative-news site called Honolulu Civil Beat in 2011 when Donald Trump was laying the groundwork for a presidential run by publicly questioning whether Barack Obama had been born in Hawaii, as all facts and documents showed. Trump maintained that Obama had really been born in Africa, and therefore wasn’t a natural-born American—making him ineligible for the highest office. I remember the debate in our Honolulu newsroom: Should we even cover this “birther” madness? As it turned out, the allegations, based entirely on lies, captivated enough people to give Trump a launching pad.

Nine years later, as reports of a fearsome new virus suddenly emerged, and with Trump now president, a series of ideas began burbling in the QAnon community: that the coronavirus might not be real; that if it was, it had been created by the “deep state,” the star chamber of government officials and other elite figures who secretly run the world; that the hysteria surrounding the pandemic was part of a plot to hurt Trump’s reelection chances; and that media elites were cheering the death toll. Some of these ideas would make their way onto Fox News and into the president’s public utterances. As of late last year, according to The New York Times, Trump had retweeted accounts often focused on conspiracy theories, including those of QAnon, on at least 145 occasions.

The power of the internet was understood early on, but the full nature of that power—its ability to shatter any semblance of shared reality, undermining civil society and democratic governance in the process—was not. The internet also enabled unknown individuals to reach masses of people, at a scale Marshall McLuhan never dreamed of. The warping of shared reality leads a man with an AR-15 rifle to invade a pizza shop. It brings online forums into being where people colorfully imagine the assassination of a former secretary of state. It offers the promise of a Great Awakening, in which the elites will be routed and the truth will be revealed. It causes chat sites to come alive with commentary speculating that the coronavirus pandemic may be the moment QAnon has been waiting for. None of this could have been imagined as recently as the turn of the century.

More here.

Friday Poem

The Audience

The head of the protocol department asked
What are you involved in
We are tired I said
Alright, but what are you involved in
In ourselves
We said
We have been occupied
We would like to have a little rest

Are you involved in politics
Oh no
Our goal is freedom

The department head took note
And gave us a startled look

They look naive he said
As he came in to meet us
And desperate
They are Albanians
They come from a land of hatred
They want to be understood
They don’t insist on love

by Eqrem Basha
Poetry International Web

Against the erosion of academic freedom by identity politics

Laurent Dubreuil in Harper’s Magazine:

In August 2017, a few weeks before the fall semester began at Cornell University, I received an email inviting me to participate in a campaign called “I’m First!” The idea was to encourage “faculty and staff on campus to identify themselves, via T-shirt or button, as the first in their family to graduate from a four-year institution.” The rationale for this themed costume party was the following: “This visual campaign will allow first-generation students to clearly identify (and connect with) faculty and professional staff that have had similar experiences as them!” Though I have been a tenured professor at Cornell for eleven years, neither of my parents, who are French, pursued post-secondary education. My father finished high school; my mother learned stenography at a vocational school and got her first job at sixteen. I guess this made me an ideal candidate to wear the nice T-shirt provided by the administration. But I declined. I’m not ashamed of my background, and I don’t underestimate the challenges students face when they are the first in their family to attend college. But the two occurrences of the verb “to identify” in one eight-line paragraph were clear hints that the I’m First! initiative—part of a national campaign—was pushing a new social identity: “first-gen.”

More here.

Computer Search Settles 90-Year-Old Math Problem

Kevin Hartnett in Quanta:

A team of mathematicians has finally finished off Keller’s conjecture, but not by working it out themselves. Instead, they taught a fleet of computers to do it for them.

Keller’s conjecture, posed 90 years ago by Ott-Heinrich Keller, is a problem about covering spaces with identical tiles. It asserts that if you cover a two-dimensional space with two-dimensional square tiles, at least two of the tiles must share an edge. It makes the same prediction for spaces of every dimension — that in covering, say, 12-dimensional space using 12-dimensional “square” tiles, you will end up with at least two tiles that abut each other exactly.

Over the years, mathematicians have chipped away at the conjecture, proving it true for some dimensions and false for others. As of this past fall the question remained unresolved only for seven-dimensional space.

But a new computer-generated proof has finally resolved the problem.

More here.

Why Tokyo’s New Transparent Public Restrooms Are A Stroke Of Genius

Suzanne Rowan Kelleher in Forbes:

At first, it’s hard to fathom how a public restroom with transparent walls could possibly help ease toilet anxiety — but a counterintuitive design by one of Japan’s most innovative architects aims to do just that.

Around the world, public toilets get a foul rap. Even in Japan, where restrooms have a higher standard of hygiene than in much of the rest of the world, residents harbor a fear that public toilets are dark, dirty, smelly and scary.

To cure the public’s phobia, the non-profit Nippon Foundation launched “The Tokyo Toilet Project,” tasking 16 well-known architects to renovate 17 public toilets located in the public parks of Shibuya, one of the busiest commercial areas of Tokyo.

More here.

Not in This Together

Laila Lalami in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

FEBRUARY WAS ONLY six months ago, but it belongs to a different era. Back then I still thought that, notwith-standing different private interests, moral values, and group allegiances, the United States could still function as a democratic society. I remember I was visiting Amherst College to take part in a public conversation with the novelist Susan Choi on the art of fiction. After the event, we signed books, shook hands with attendees, and went to dinner with our hosts in a packed restaurant. The next morning, I took a walk around the campus, ending up at the local bookstore, where I picked up and put down a dozen different novels before settling on one. Phrases like “aerosolized droplets” and “surface contamination” had not yet entered my daily vocabulary.

At the time, the United States had identified only a few dozen cases of the novel coronavirus, most of them linked to an outbreak on the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship that had docked in Yokohama, Japan. Though the disease was difficult to treat, the preventive measures advanced by epidemiologists — washing one’s hands with soap and covering one’s mouth when coughing — were easy. I assumed that COVID-19, like its antecedent SARS, would require a range of federal measures, including the confinement of travelers who came from affected countries. Containment seemed not only possible, but likely.

More here.

Thursday Poem


I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,
moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred—
and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,
dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the moisture gone.
It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
full of moonlight.

Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.

by Mary Oliver

Stuck with Pound

J L Wall in Kirk Center:

What are we to do with Ezra Pound? One answer would be to “cancel” him, to dump his statue in some river and let the water erase it. This wouldn’t be without cause: calling his politics and personality repugnant is an understatement. But it would also be too simple. Pound’s fingerprints are everywhere: most famously on The Waste Land, but also on the careers of Yeats, Frost, William Carlos Williams, and H. D. (Hilda Doolittle); on the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses; on Imagism, Vorticism, and the “New Poetry” that emerged in Poetry a century ago. He was, inescapably, one of the pivotal figures of twentieth-century literature. If we have to live with Pound, the necessary question is how: merely as a player in literary history or also as the author of literature still worth reading?

…So let’s speak plainly. Pound was a central figure of twentieth-century literary history, without whom lasting, enduring works would not have taken the shapes they did. He was a talented, innovative poet—up until his mid-thirties. But the Cantos, on which he staked his reputation, were a failure. The modernist scholar Lawrence Rainey referred to them as “The Monument of Culture.” The truth is that they were born ruins. To find beauty in them, we have to do something like what Pound did in Cathay: read the word-by-word glosses and ignore the paraphrases. The reason is this: when we do try to make sense of them, they descend too often into secrecy, paranoia, and conspiracy. It’s not that there’s no “there” there—it’s that what is there far too often isn’t worthwhile.

Pound will endure, though, because in any honest literary history he must. The poems will, too—at least some of them, the early translations like Cathay especially. Billings’s scholarship makes the case for that—and for “The Seafarer,” “Homage to Sextus Propertius,” and the first Canto. Despite the ugliness of his person, some of what Pound created remains lastingly beautiful.  

More here.

The revolutionary work of Tycho Brahe

Kitty Ferguson in Delancey Place:

One of the underappreciated keys to launching the scientific age was the work of Tycho Brahe. His contribution was simple but revolutionary: At a point just before the invention of the telescope, he wanted to precisely record the positions of the planets and the stars. However, the instruments used before him to make these measurements produced unreliable results. Brahe was a Danish nobleman, and thus deemed to be above such pursuits as astronomy. But as a nobleman, he had the financial means of only a very few. He cast aside convention to spend a lifetime making better instruments to take these more precise measurements of the stars and planets, and then used those instruments to make measurements far superior to any that had been previously made. It was this revolutionary work that allowed his student Johannes Kepler to come up with his three laws of planetary motion. And it was Kepler’s work that was so helpful to Sir Isaac Newton and his laws of thermodynamics.

The first revolutionary instrument Tycho Brahe constructed was in Herrevad Abbey, Denmark, in 1572, which he called the “half-sextant”:

“One of Tycho’s first undertakings at Herrevad was to construct a new astronomical instrument, a ‘half-sextant’ with straight walnut legs and a curved brass arc. A little later he added a larger, interchange­able sixty-degree arc. It was this sixty-degree arc that gave a ‘sextant’ its name — probably coined by Tycho himself. Sixty de­grees is one-sixth of a circle; a half-sextant has a thirty-degree arc. Sextants and half-sextants resemble slices of pie. By sighting along the two legs or sides (where the pie is ‘cut’) — pointing one leg toward one star and the second leg toward another, for example — it was possible to measure the angular distance between two heavenly bodies. One could similarly measure a body’s altitude above the horizon.

More here.