CategoryParanoia

There are always more than enough takes to go around, on days like today

So I just want to talk about a Wikipedia article that I think about all the time.

There was this guy named Louis Slotin, who worked on the Manhattan Project and then continued atomic research at Los Alamos. This story doesn’t end well for him. He particularly liked to demonstrate an “experiment” in near-criticality that involved opening and closing the two hemispheres of a beryllium shell around a solid core of plutonium. There was a safety protocol for this experiment; Slotin decided not to use it. Instead of the standard shims that kept the shell from closing and thereby causing the core to go supercritical, he liked to wiggle it open and closed with a screwdriver. While wearing cowboy boots.

Smarter people said that this was a dangerous practice; Richard Feynman’s remark led to them calling Slotin’s demo “tickling the dragon’s tail.” But saying things was all they did. And when Slotin’s screwdriver slipped one day, the immediate burst of radiation killed him, and only his body partially shielding the others in the room from the blast saved their lives. Some of them died of leukemia or the complications of thyroid failure, too young.

Slotin was considered a hero by the US government for quickly flipping the shell back open and ending the reaction, and for dying, I guess. I differ on this matter. Slotin wasn’t learning anything or gathering data that day; he was showing off, angling for stature, flirting with death for the dozenth time and finally succeeding in his overtures. Tickle the dragon’s tail long enough and the dragon is going to do something about it.

I wonder if the men in that room wanted to make history. I wonder if this was how. And I wish this particular point in history were more widely understood.

After the Slotin incident, which followed an earlier near-disaster when physicist Harry Daghlian died by dropping a tungsten carbide brick on that same plug of plutonium, the scientists at Los Alamos redesigned their protocols and stopped doing hands-on experiments. But they also changed the nickname of the plutonium from “Rufus” to “the demon core.” These trained physicists—these men—reviewed the fatal interaction between one of their colleagues and an inanimate object, and they could not find it in themselves to put the blame on him.

To pinch the tip of today’s allegory, the core was allowed to cool off, then divided up and incorporated into other sources. Plutonium has a very long half-life. Its atoms are either still in use or polluting our atmosphere. This is the law of conservation of one’s demons: they can be summoned but not destroyed.

“What is the most amazing thing in the universe?”

On Thursday, amid rising feelings of unease, Kat and I traveled to San Francisco for a wedding; by Friday we knew it was a mistake, but there we were. It was good to see her family, not least because we finally got to talk wedding plans in person. But we’d planned to fly back Tuesday night after some time touring the Santa Cruz boardwalk and a movie premiere with friends in SF. Instead, we scrambled out on Monday at lunchtime, just ahead of a shelter-in-place recommendation. We both feel fine, though there’s no way to know what damage we have silently transmitted. We’re trying to limit it, going forward, by ceasing social contact for the next two weeks.

The weekend was, as Sumana says, an inflection point, at least in the perception of much of the country and the information we consume. Anyone at ease made me jumpy, and anyone jumpy made me… also jumpy. On Monday, as we tried to fill up our returning rental car, the pump behind us started gushing gasoline onto the concrete. As I ran inside to tell the clerk to shut it off, I expected the world to shrink its shutter angle and go full shakycam. It didn’t; some people yelled at each other and then they cleaned up the mess. We were all fine, but no one was easy. By April I don’t know how much the pace of change will continue to inflect, or how much this will have already settled as an uneasy new normal. Last Thursday my view of the world was different, and Lemon, it’s not even Wednesday.

As long as I’m doing the “remember that I have a blog” thing this year

I’m writing here about something that happened last fall; at the time my feelings about it were varied and fraught. In the early days of this web site, when no one read it, I would write about events in my romantic life in a very granular way. As this web site approaches middle age, when no one reads it, I have learned by example to be reluctant about sharing the specific and intimate with a world where search engines are used to destroy human beings. But this feels worth recording.

I am in love with my partner Kat, and we’ve been together for over three years. We live in different cities and we date other people sometimes. Kat has a girlfriend named Sophie, a wonderful writer who wrote a wonderful book about dating people other than the (wonderful) person she married. As part of promoting the book, Sophie submitted a column about falling for Kat to Modern Love, and that is how I ended up with a cameo in the New York Times.

Kat and I were actually in New Orleans for Sophie and Luke’s wedding when the American paper of record published details about my relationship that would be readily identifiable to anyone who knows either of us. The wedding was beautiful, and reading the column the morning after was surreal. I was simultaneously very elated and very worried that unforeseen consequences of the publication would come back to hurt me or the people I love.

Such consequences have not yet come to pass. No one has shunned or shamed or exposed me, and my fear has receded, leaving the elation behind. I’m the happiest I have been in any relationship and, despite my worries about the world’s future, I’m excited about our future. And if I was going to pop up in the Sunday NYT somehow, this is pretty much the best way I can imagine that turning out.

The warning “does not relate to an imminent or specific threat.”

“Like a zombie, it keeps on living”

I was bagging on the Washington Post the other day for letting itself bend to the government’s whim. I stand by that, but I also want to give the institution its due: their two-year investigation of the American intelligence industry is amazing, and terrifies me.

“When hired, a typical analyst knows very little about the priority countries – Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan – and is not fluent in their languages. Still, the number of intelligence reports they produce on these key countries is overwhelming, say current and former intelligence officials who try to cull them every day. The ODNI doesn’t know exactly how many reports are issued each year, but in the process of trying to find out, the chief of analysis discovered 60 classified analytic Web sites still in operation that were supposed to have been closed down for lack of usefulness.

Even the analysts at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which is supposed to be where the most sensitive, most difficult-to-obtain nuggets of information are fused together, get low marks from intelligence officials for not producing reports that are original, or at least better than the reports already written by the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency or Defense Intelligence Agency.

When Maj. Gen. John M. Custer was the director of intelligence at U.S. Central Command, he grew angry at how little helpful information came out of the NCTC. In 2007, he visited its director at the time, retired Vice Adm. John Scott Redd, to tell him so. “I told him that after 41/2 years, this organization had never produced one shred of information that helped me prosecute three wars!” he said loudly, leaning over the table during an interview.

Two years later, Custer, now head of the Army’s intelligence school at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., still gets red-faced recalling that day, which reminds him of his frustration with Washington’s bureaucracy. “Who has the mission of reducing redundancy and ensuring everybody doesn’t gravitate to the lowest-hanging fruit?” he said. “Who orchestrates what is produced so that everybody doesn’t produce the same thing?”

The intent of this post is not actually to lionize Baz Luhrmann in any way

Subject:  A personal letter from Baz Luhrmann.  Warning:  You may not know this sender.  Mark as Safe | Mark as Unsafe

Oh, I know Baz Luhrmann, all right.

Ain’t nobody marking that motherfucker safe.

Day 1: Louisville

You have to read “Mallory,” Leonard’s newly published short story: not because it’s good (it’s very good) but because that way you can understand all the “Mallory” references I’ve been making in the over-a-year since I got to beta read it. As someone on a road trip to California that includes visiting some of my role models, I find the story perhaps a little too pat in its publication timing. I smell retcon, Richardson.

Speaking of which, The War on Clarity has been updated, due mostly to people wanting their names put on or taken off the “Lasersharking” entry. If only that could have been posted on some kind of user-editable repository.

I always thought Rowling gave arithmancy short shrift

Stories I have written that revolve around invented or reinterpreted methods of divination: Stella, Jaboullei, Rob, Shekel and Jewel. I was kind of surprised it was this few–I feel like it’s one of the structures to which I keep returning. There’s another one coming Monday, if you hadn’t guessed.

I think the reason I keep coming back to this is a variation on the existential dread I feel when considering the persistence of objects (eg the lives of sapient dishes): the amount of potential information in the world, and how quickly our ability to capture and interpret it is growing, and how insignificant that capability will always be–in an obscure way, these things terrify me. They also thrill me. Look at what we can discover! If time and distance are the universe’s crypto, divination is the original side channel attack.

I also live in constant fear of side channel attacks, by the way, to the point where I have resigned myself to much-more-likely primary channel attacks. I kind of never want to be even mildly famous, as that would destroy what flimsy comfort I take in anonymity.

Anyway, you’ll know I’ve gutted the shark on this theme when I write the one about logymancy. Meanwhile I want to do more of these little collect-and-explain entries; I think they’d be a better point of entry to Anacrusis for new or hesitant readers than just the sheer blank mass of the archives. When one of my best friends refers to my writing corpus as “a stupid amount” and my own mother is too intimidated to read them, I am pretty much failing to sell my product.

Sneakers, my favorite heist movie, features some plot elements that involve the NSA. It came out in 1992, when that agency wasn’t particularly well-known–o halcyon days!–and so it has this little exchange between Robert Redford (“Martin Bishop”) and Timothy Busfield (“Dick Gordon”) to introduce it to the audience.

Bishop: Sorry to waste your time, gentlemen. I don’t work for the government.
Gordon: We know. (Flashes ID) National Security Agency.
Bishop: Oh, you’re the guys I hear breathing on the other end of my phone.
Gordon: No, that’s the FBI. We’re not chartered for domestic surveillance.

Ah ha ha ha ha! Ha ha! Ah ha ha ha ha. Heh.

Bishop: Oh, so you just overthrow governments–set up friendly dictators.
Gordon: (chuckling) No, that’s the CIA. We protect our government’s communications–try and break the other fellas’ codes. We’re the good guys, Marty.
Bishop: Gee, I can’t tell you what a relief that is. Dick.

And now it is later

I read the arrival time on my ticket as the departure time. That is what I did. That is the stupidest and most expensive mistake I have ever made.

My housemates kindly refused to let me heave all my luggage to Heathrow myself, and so we set out together with a bag apiece at a little after 10 am. We took the express and I was at the check-in counter by 11:15, smirking at the former self who had worried about transportation time and long lines. There was no line! There was only a brusque man explaining that my flight was not at 1:00, it had been at 10:30.

I explained that I had still been on the first of several public transportation routes at 10:30.

The brusque man directed me to the ticketing counter.

I got on standby for the next flight for 200 bucks, and I did end up on it, and my seat was actually one of the best on the plane. I completely missed the last plane to Louisville from O’Hare, of course, but got on a different standby flight to Lexington and Saint Maria drove out to those hinterlands in the middle of the night to pick me up.

It should be noted that my seat on the Lexington flight was also impossibly good. Here’s what I have learned about American Airlines: reserve a seat and get fucked, or get on standby for infinite leg room and an unobstructed window view. I’m never flying on a reserved ticket again! Wait, no, I said “on a reserved ticket” when I meant “anywhere.”

My original mistake almost ended up much more costly than I anticipated. The somewhat hilarious coda is that, during my panicky evening in O’Hare, I had to make a number of pay phone calls to David Flora and Maria, trying to figure out whether I would have to stay overnight in Chicago in order to get a morning flight to Louisville. I had forgotten that trying to call a nonlocal number (like, say, any cell phone ever) from a pay phone requires more quarters than I could have held in my cupped hands, so I had to charge all these to my credit card. This meant swiping the card directly on the phone, punching in the number on the keypad, and reading it aloud to the operator before I could connect.

Apparently someone wandered by and listened to me obligingly reading out the number, expiration date, CV2, et cetera, and proceeded to charge an amount greater than my entire credit limit to the card. Capital One actually noticed and denied it; their overenthusiastic fraud department often made things inconvenient in London, but my attitude toward them is much warmer now. I’ll miss my old card number, though, which I’ve had memorized for almost ten years. Farewell, 5291071505966037! May you serve Internet in poor decision-making as well as you did me.

There is a subtext to this story: I had three friends in London to help take my luggage all the way to Heathrow, buy me yogurt and let me send emergency emails from their phones. Those emails went to more friends, one of whom was willing to put me up in Chicago, another of whom was willing to drive to tiny airports late at night just so I could get home when I wanted. I traveled across seven time zones and I had people offering me help at every step. Who cares how much ticket changes or credit card scammers might cost me? I’m rich.

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