September 2008 Archives


My memories of Galveston are mostly of summer trips with the family; they weren't all that frequent, since San Antonio is nearer to the cleaner beaches of Padre Island, and in any case, Texas is a big place, so it was a pretty long drive. But even though the gap between my parents' house and Galveston is over 250 miles -- comparable to the drive from Chicago to St. Louis, and far enough west that they got barely a drop of rain from the storm -- Texas as a whole still feels like home such that a hurricane headed for Houston sets me on edge in a deep way that one headed for Florida does not.

At any rate, I was struck by the photo attached to today's article on the hurricane. Crews are finally making it to the hardest hit, northern end of the island, and this is what they found:

Pool photograph from the New York Times by Smiley N. Pool, according to the byline.

Nobody knows yet how many people tried to ride out the storm there, but of 5,000 or so original residents only about 100 were there after the storm passed. I really hope the rest realized the vulnerability of that peninsula and are safely elsewhere, but I worry that we might never know how many were swept right out to sea.


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Almost lost in today's coverage of, well, quite a few important things, I discover that David Foster Wallace has died.

The NYT has the requisite obit; I actually heard about his death via a firedoglake posting.

I haven't read all that much of his work, and in particular am unlikely in the immediate future to have time to tackle the behemoth that is Infinite Jest. I am told that he was a major influence on several of today's more interesting writers, but I am very much not in a position to comment on that at any length. However, given all that, I have something of a soft spot in my heart for Wallace, as he was rather an outsized figure during my college years. Arriving a couple of years after his signature work hit the scene, all the tragically hip GS-Hum1 concentrators (i.e. the grungier, mostly more authentic but equally pretentious antecedants to today's hipsters) were obsessed with Infinite Jest. Not only did I have many such friends early on -- they tended to cluster in my neo-Gothic, nearly-on-campus dorm, but being mostly older than me, graduated and thus featured principally in my first couple of years there -- but said folks essentially dominated the editorial staff of the Chicago Maroon, which made the campus organ considerably less useful, but an immeasurably more intriguing read. Moreover, at that time the Maroon staff overlapped heavily with the ScavHunt Judgeship, and thus the literary voice of David Foster Wallace was a pervading presence during my first few Hunts. To this day, the ScavHunt by-laws endorse terrorizing Wallace, wherein "terrorize" is implicitly defined to mean "to worship, creatively and intrusively."

From reports, it sounds like Wallace was a casualty of severe -- and eventually untreatable -- clinical depression. Brain chemistry is a brutal and flighty thing.

1 GS-Hum is the UofC department code for General Studies in the Humanities -- this wasn't a real department, but was instead a program that enabled those types who were planning to have to hold down a white collar day job after graduation anyway, to get a degree for reading and writing widely and with eccentricity, for example by learning a foreign language and falling in love with the literature and drama of that language's national past, going on to study modern nonconformists living lives inspired by fictional characters contained therein, and finally writing and staging a difficult-to-follow drama informed by the experience2. Yes, that's the sort of thing the GS-Hum concentrators did. I believe the program survives today under the heading of Interdisciplinary Studies.

2 Apropos David Foster Wallace, this post is brought to you with extra footnotes and unnecessarily-long sentences.

The Twelth of September

I sat down yesterday and found that I had no desire whatsoever to write about the eleventh of September. Since every newspaper and every blog seems to have had something to say about it, I rather felt that I ought to, but refrained.

That day is, in a way, the Big Bang of 21st century America. A somewhat inscrutable event taken on its own, the entire pattern of the country I now inhabit seems to flow from that moment, initial conditions evolving in depressingly predictable ways. I would hardly say it was inevitable that seven years later America would be in its present sorry state, but it was clear to many within hours or days that the Bush administration was having visions of endless (and profitable) war abroad and a consumer police state at home.

(Roger Cohen has an interesting rhetorical take on this, although if it took him seven years to notice he really needs to work on paying attention.)

On the other hand, this country had been suffering from several deep pathologies for decades before, and it's just possible that the Bush/Cheney dark age has shaken loose enough entrenched forces, inspired enough of a clamor for something different, that we have a real shot at fixing some of them. If so, that will be no less consequential: not putting things back the way they were before, but achieving the next phase of after.

Bike Stasi

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There is something both creepy and unaccountably adorable about bicycle cops in gas masks. That doesn't make it okay that a few rounds of tear gas and concussion grenades is the new "Hello."

Also, I love Lindsey Beyerstein's photography.


If you've ever gotten into a discussion about nuclear weapons with a physicist, at some point it was probably remarked upon at some point that non-proliferation is hard, because at the end of the day, once a country has the requisite weapons-grade fuel, a few grad students could likely build one. As it turns out, this is true, and the US government has experimentally verified it.

I ran across this article in the Guardian that describes a classified project in the '60s, in which two physics PhDs with no knowledge of nuclear weapons were given only access to public libraries and made head researchers of a simulated weapons lab. In under two years, they had produced an (also simulated) working plutonium bomb that could be built in a machine shop. This is not especially surprising, really -- in reality, the biggest risk would be that they'd have an accident and die of radiation poisoning before they finished.

As an aside, doesn't this sound like a fascinating RPG? Manhattan Project RPG: "I redesign the firing pin to be 2 mm longer and have the trigger re-machined." The GM replies, "You didn't replace the beryllium housing. 1d4 technicians have perished in a neutron burst."

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