Thursday, February 22, 2018

Ice gold




Given that the ancient Greeks exercised in the nude, they probably didn't envision a Winter Olympics.

I'm glad the games happened anyway.

I've already posted about how much I love the Winter Olympics, going all the way back to the 1980 games of Lake Placid and absolutely taking hold of me in Calgary, 1988. I realize this love of the Winter Games is something of a minority opinion in America, so I thought I would meditate on just what it is about them that captivates me.

-They're different. Winter events are such a breath of fresh air. Sure, I like baseball and football all right, but the Winter Olympics let me spend two weeks watching sports that are so alien to the American mind. For example, biathlon.




Ski. Then shoot a rifle. Then ski even more.

Ski jumping.



Strap on skies. Go to the top of a ramp. And jump.

Even better is the Nordic Combined. Skiing and jumping together.

Like I said, these aren't sports that really have a following in mainstream America. No big deal for me. I actually like seeing other nations get their share of the limelight and watch their athletes dazzle with the speed and strength it takes to excel in these sports. After watching two minutes of cross-country skiing, my chest vicariously hurts from the cardio burn. The Norwegians, on the other hand, make it look easy.

-There's a dangerous aspect to these games. Many of the events are all about speed. There's ice. There's snow. Things can go really wrong, really fast. Observe:





In the Summer Olympics, you're running on a track or tumbling on a mat. In the Winter Games, you're speed skating and hoping you don't wreck and get sliced by your competitor's blades. You're not just hoping for a gold medal. You're hoping you'll survive.

-Stories. Ultimately, I believe the stories of the individual athletes and the drama of the narrative of competition that draw me in as a writer. I'm certain the Summer Games have their share of characters and conflict as well, but with so many summer events, it's so easy for them to get lost in the spectacle, not to mention the chopped up coverage we usually get in America in recent years. The venerable Jim McKay said it best all those decades ago: "The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."

What are my favorite Winter Olympic stories? Glad you asked. Here they are and they're loaded with real human drama:

-The figure skating of 1988. Dueling Carmens, Katarina Witt and Debi Thomas, and the Battle of the Brians.

-Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards and the Jamaican bobsled team, again 1988. True tales of undaunted spirits.

-Speed skater Dan Jansen. He wipes out at the 1988 games on the night of his sister's death and later fell again in his second race. He failed to medal in 1992. Finally in 1994, he wins gold. I think everyone can use a great story of perseverance. 

-Nancy and Tonya, 1994. One of the greatest Shakespearean epics in all of sports. 'Nuff said.






-Bjorn Daelhie of Norway won gold in cross-country skiing in Nagano, 1998, setting a record as the most decorated Winter Olympian in history. He waited at the finish line for the last skier, Philip Boit of Kenya. "He deserves to be encouraged. It was hard for him but he never gave up," said Daehlie

Too soon to say what my favorites from PyeongChang will be. Right now, two of them come from bobsled.




-Seeing the Nigerian bobsled team raised my spirits. It doesn't matter if your home doesn't have snow. What matters is your drive to achieve.




-When the Canadian two-man bobsled team crossed the finish line, they tied the German team for first place. Upon seeing this, the German team erupted into cheers and ran to embrace the Canadians. That's what the Olympics are all about Charlie Brown.



Alpine skier Anna Veith has quite the story. The Austrian won the gold in Sochi and then suffered a terrible injury. PyeongChang was to be her comeback and after a great run, it certainly looked like no other skier could touch her. Then a relative unknown named Ester Ledecka showed up. The Czech skier, a snowboarder really who borrowed skis for the event, shaved one one hundredth of a second off Veith's time. I'm really trying to get my head around that experience. You're separated from being the best in the world by one one hundredth of a second. I can't even conceptualize how long that is.
Though suddenly knocked to silver, Veith showed grace and gratitude in the moment.

Turns out I'm not the only writer enamored with the Winter Games. The Guardian published this list of writers and their literary works that feature Winter Olympic sports. Here are a few of my favorite selections:

-It's a smidge of a stretch, but T.S. Eliot mentioned the bobsled in his triumphant poem, The Waste Land: "... he took me out on a sled, / And I was frightened. He said, Marie,/ Marie, hold on tight. And down we/ went"

-Ian Fleming's On Her Majesty's Secret Service has James Bond pursuing Blofield down a skeleton track. The article also asserts the presence of slalom and biathlon. What I can say is that the ski chases in the Bond films are among the most thrilling sequences of the franchise.

-Edith Warton's Ethan Frome climaxes in what Ethan and Mattie plan as a double suicide as they hurtle down a hill on a luge.

For a hilarious send up of the Winter Olympics, look no further than Blades of Glory. Comedy writing seldom gets better.

On Sunday, the flame will go out in Olympic park. Though two weeks long, these games always seem to go by so fast. I will miss them. In a time of pain both personal and global, a time of division and honestly what feels like a downward spiral, the Olympics remind me that humans can occasionally be noble and compassionate.

This time around, I can think of no better location for them than the Korean Peninsula.


Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Biowar: Korea


I have always loved the Winter Olympics.

So I've been enjoying the games in PeyongChang this year. Or as much as I can given NBC's lackluster coverage, but that's a different can of tuna altogether. Regardless, I'm not usually thinking of biowarfare while watching downhill skiing, ski jumping, or figure skating.

It's certainly a possibility, though. After consulting with numerous military and national security officials, Yochi Dreazen wrote a long and dour piece for Vox detailing how much more horrendous open warfare on the Korean Peninsula would be compared to common perceptions. There were a number of surprising conclusions. One of the assessments that sat with me was the likely involvement of bioweapons.

Strategically, most military strategists regard nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons as ordinance of last resort. The consensus of experts interviewed in the Dreazen article is, however, that North Korea has a "use them or lose them" mode of thinking after studying the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. In other words, these weapons would be used at the onset of war...not towards the end. I've dwelt for decades on the terrifying prospects of nuclear war, but biowarfare is a mode of attack that I have not devoted as much thought to. They're rather messy as weapons go. You have little sphere of influence over them once they are deployed and that's why most military powers are reluctant to use them.

North Korea has no such compunctions.

It is believed that North Korea has stockpiles of weaponized anthrax, smallpox, yellow fever, hemorrhagic fever, and plague. Dreazen quotes Andrew Weber, formerly the assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs:

“We would expect to see cocktails of fast-acting biological agents designed to stop troops in their tracks and regular infectious agents that would take more time to kill people...There would be a significant military impact, and a significant psychological one. It’s hard to overstate just how frightening these types of weapons are.”

What has my thoughts churning are the delivery methods for these weapons. As the article says, it doesn't take a missile, it just takes a backpack. It has long been thought that North Korea would be able to deploy teams of special ops covertly into the South at the onset of hostilities. Couple that with bioweapons (BW):

"North Korea has 200,000 special forces; even a handful of those special forces armed with BW would be enough to devastate South Korea. What is alarming about human vectors is that they do not need sophisticated training or technology to spread BW amongst the targets, and they are difficult to detect in advance of an attack. It is theoretically possible that North Korean sleeper agents disguised as cleaning and disinfection personnel could disperse BW agents with backpack sprayers. Another possibility is that North Korean agents will introduce BW into water supplies for major metropolitan areas."

Bacteria or viruses could also be dispersed by drones, causing mass fatalities with little expenditure of effort.

As mentioned previously, these aren't exactly precision weapons. Factors such as wind direction and human vectors all play a part in where the agents end up going. A neighboring nation like Japan could end up being hit with biological "shrapnel," if not direct hits from nuclear and conventional ordinance. Where once I speculated on whole regions of the world rendered unlivable by radiation, I'm now trying to envision swaths and stretches of landscape contaminated by contagion. Would there need to be an exclusion zone? Would we block off entire areas of the world?

At least it's rich material for writers. Any number of writers have dwelled upon such scenarios, most of them of the thriller-of-the-week variety, like Nelson DeMille or Richard Preston. Stephen King wrote perhaps the most recognizable book of them all with The Stand. The zombies of 28 Days Later and the ensuing sequel did not crawl out of the grave, but rather are products of biowarfare contagion. Speaking of such, I believe Max Brooks' World War Z begins in a lab in North Korea, no?

I still remain quite skeptical that hostilities will break out with North Korea and as existential threats go, we've got bigger problems. That being said, I'd be just fine leaving the concept of a post-biological warfare world as the purview of fiction writers.

UPDATE: George tells me that World War Z starts in China, not North Korea. Since he's actually read it and I haven't, I'll go with his version. Also, how could I forget 12 Monkeys? Such a good film.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, February 15, 2018

American collapse




We are in the twilight years of America. Our society is collapsing.

Such statements garner, to my experience, one of two reactions:

"No it's not! Things are fine. You're just so hyperbolic."
"I know, but what can I do about it, so let's not talk about it, k?"

Last month, a smart thinkpiece posted on Medium made the rounds, stirring objections and reflections. My kinda writing. One of my FB friends posted it on her wall and the title immediately snagged my attention: "Why We're Underestimating American Collapse." In the wake of recent news, I think it bears revisiting. 

It was by Umair Haque, Director of the Havas Media Lab in London. In the thinkpiece, Haque identifies what he calls three "pathologies" present in society:

-School shootings. Haque writes (and bear in mind this was published on 1/25/2018):
"America has had 11 school shootings in the last 23 days, which is more than anywhere else in the world, even Afghanistan or Iraq. In fact, the phenomenon of regular school shootings appears to be a unique feature of American collapse — it just doesn’t happen in any other country — and that is what I mean by “social pathologies of collapse”: a new, bizarre, terrible disease striking society."
It would be difficult to argue against Haque's contention that this is a unique phenomenon among modern nations, indeed industrialized societies in history. What's more, we now treat the news of such shootings as not really news anymore. That is unless it's particularly egregious, as was the case yesterday (which begs the question, what are the criteria to merit "special report" attention?) Otherwise, school shootings are facts of the human condition in America.

-The opioid epidemic. While that's been a popular boogeyman of the current administration, Haque keys in on just why it's uniquely American. Opioids are widely available in many parts of the world in any quantity one wants without a prescription. We should, therefore, see this kind of use and addiction on a global scale. We don't. What is driving Americans to self-medicate to such a magnitude?

-A predatory society. Haque defines that as: "A predatory society doesn’t just mean oligarchs ripping people off financially. In a truer way, it means people nodding and smiling and going about their everyday business as their neighbours, friends, and colleagues die early deaths in shallow graves."
With income inequality and 1% of the population controlling the vast majority of wealth, it is easy to lose sight of how we, the "commoners" for serious lack of a better phrase, view one another. The kind of social conditions already described would be utterly insufferable in other societies with a communal focus.

Other viewpoints might argue that's not a bad thing. It was the American values of "homesteading" and "rugged individualism" that birthed so many entrepreneurial achievements and products. There may be merit to that, yet over time systems can fall out of balance. Claims of indifference among the citizenry may also overestimate human altruism.

I would argue that Haque could also include consumerism as a pathology. I am regularly amazed and unsettled by the American obsession with consumer products. I've recently been inundated with conversations where others lament the closing of brick and mortar stores. I could not help but wonder where we might be if there was half as much concern for American intellectualism as there apparently is for retail. Then again, perhaps Haque did not include this aspect as America is not entirely unique in history in regard to consumerism. We did, however, take it to a whole new level.

Writers are quick to respond to these tectonic shifts. To see the cruel consequences of industrialization, go straight to Dickens. Writers in the UK are already constructing a whole sub-genre of Brexit literature. Sometimes writers are the first to see it coming or at least the potential of "it" happening, such as with Orwell and Huxley. In fact, I would argue that science fiction is at its best when envisioning the future shape of society. What will a collapsed America inspire?

I'm hesitant to suggest it. "Science fiction" carries any unfortunate definition with many, one that reads "that could never happen." The previously described "pathologies" are very real and happening...as are their consequences. As a punky kid, I reveled in all manner of post-collapse, dystopian fiction. Now, however, with a family to protect, utter dependence on steady employment, and a fully grown up sense of what "frightening" means, such scenarios hit too close to home and feel all-too plausible.

Let me tell you about two deadly logical fallacies I learned in 2017.

"People won't let things get that bad,"
"It can't happen to me/us."

The former presumes both competence and good intentions among those in leadership. The latter is an embarrassing cocktail of hubris and naivete.

What to do? I'm reminded of a few quotes from Terence McKenna:

"The nightmare of every government on earth is a million people assembled in the town square of your capital city, demanding that you pack up to Switzerland. no body can say No to a million people on the streets."

"I think if it's out of control then our side is winning."

If any of this intrigues you, you may also wish to read Haque's "The End of the American Experiment."


Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Yes, we still have winter in a warming world


It happens whenever we have weather like this.

As I write, there is about a foot and a half of snow outside my window. It fell less than a month after a subzero cold snap hit here in Chicago as well as much of the U.S. These days, such winter weather tends to prompt comments that inevitably are variations on this theme:

"It's so cold! I thought the world was getting warmer. So much for climate change!"

In a word, no. The occurrence of winter weather, such as extreme cold, in no way negates the reality of climate change. 

Noah Diffenbaugh, a Stanford climate scientist interviewed at the link, explained it this way:

“Steph Curry is, every year, near the top of the NBA free-throw percentages, he makes on the order of 90 percent of his free throws year in and year out,” said Diffenbaugh. “If you turn on the TV and see him miss a free throw, or see him miss two free throws, that doesn’t lead to the conclusion that he’s no longer a good free-throw shooter.”

Heavy snowfalls are also likely. Warm air holds more moisture. If the temperature dips just below freezing, that creates a good deal of snow. We may also see more winter storms like the "bomb cyclone" that recently hit the upper East Coast. Warmer sea temperatures help feed such storms. Warmer air means higher winds.

The linked article also points out an intriguing phenomenon known as the winter "dipole". This is an odd pattern where the western United States is abnormally warm while the east is abnormally cold. No one's sure what's causing it. It may be related to changes in the jet stream caused by ice loss in the Arctic, which is a condition brought on by...you guessed it...climate change. As I said though, it's still uncertain. While finer points and intricacies such as the shape and behavior of the jet stream are still debated and the nature of the "dipole" is far from certain, there is consensus in the scientific community that the climate is changing and we're causing it. That degree of certainty only seems to grow.

I guess what bothers me most about the "So much for climate change" comments during winter weather is how uninformed it all is. It's indicative of scientific illiteracy and even just plain lazy thinking.

Is this willful ignorance one day to be part of post-climate change literature?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Staying dry: why we may need more skyscrapers





Image is not mine and was found here. 

I remember Steve McQueen laying into an architect. Pretty sure it was Paul Newman.

That's it. It was The Towering Inferno. You know, that movie with O.J. Simpson? Anyway, if I recall correctly, McQueen's character, a fire chief, was complaining that he kept giving warnings but architects keep building skyscrapers taller anyway. That was in 1974 and it doesn't sound like anyone listened in 2017. Last year was a record-setter for the number of new skyscrapers completed.

A total of 144 skyscrapers were finished in 2017 and half of them are in China. This is thought to be reflective of the nation's rapid urbanization. Researchers claim that this massive move of the Chinese population to cities represents the largest migration in human history. I wonder, however, if these towering structures might one day be necessary for entirely different reasons.

Bear in mind I'm merely thinking out loud here...

Most of the educated world agrees that climate change is likely to cause a significant rise in sea level due to the melting of polar ice. This means flooding in coastal cities. If populations are hellbent on remaining in these cities, then buildings would have to be taller. The lower sections of these buildings would be waterproofed and not meant for dwelling. Then again it likely wouldn't be stubbornness keeping people in place. It would be inability to move, due to class, race, or intersectionality. Of course those aren't people likely to live in shiny new skyscrapers.

Or much more likely would be what I'll call the Blade Runner rationale for taller buildings. Flooded coastlines mean less room for urban expansion. If you can't spread outward, then the only place to really go is up. Therefore, buildings get even taller, just as depicted in Ridley Scott's film.

No, I'm still stuck on my half-baked notion of giant buildings sticking up out of water. That might be because I'm ruminating on what might be left behind when shorter buildings or the lower levels of older skyscrapers have to be abandoned due to the high waters.

I remember hearing many years ago about a book called Earth After Us. It was written by a geologist who speculated on what might be left behind by humanity after 100,000,000 years. One point that has stuck with me from the review I read is that if sea levels rise fast enough, then coastal cities might be well preserved below the waterline. What would an archaeologist be able to tell about us by that time? What would they find? That might make for an interesting premise for someone's writing.

The cynic in me just imagines finding copious amounts of plastic and Styrofoam floating about like fruit in a Jell-O mold.


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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Elon Musk just kicked ass




I feel a glimmer of something I haven't had in a while: hope.

Maybe not all that much of it, but it's there.

Today, Elon Musk's private space firm, SpaceX, launched its Falcon Heavy rocket.

Why is that significant? A few reasons:

-Falcon Heavy is the largest rocket since the space shuttle system. SpaceX, not NASA, not the ESA, not the Russians, now has the world's largest rocket. It is the most capable heavy launch vehicle available.

-The two solid rocket boosters on Falcon Heavy separate and return to ground in a controlled vertical landing. In the test launch today, these rocket boosters landed simultaneously in what looks like a special effect, but it's all quite real. Perhaps you have not seen the footage.

-This is another step towards launching heavy payloads to Mars. Because...

-Falcon Heavy launched a car into space. Seriously. In a milestone in transportation history, Elon Musk launched a car into space. His car. Yes, for the test payload, Musk elected to place his Tesla Roadster, from his own electric car company, at the top of the rocket. The car (pictured above as tweeted by Elon Musk) is now headed into interplanetary space on a trajectory for Mars' orbit. At the wheel of the car is a robot. David Bowie's "Space Oddity" is playing on the sound system on repeat until the battery drains.

HOW COOL IS THAT??

This really is inspiring to me. In the past year, I've begun to think that nothing can ever overcome systems and stupid. Behemoth, monolithic, governing entities reach critical mass and take on lives of their own. You feel small and powerless by comparison, particularly if possessed of excessive amounts of lenity. These monoliths don't care about what's right. For example, they slash any progress towards clean energy like solar or wind. They belittle and dismiss space projects such as Musk's as frivolous and not worth the cost, while others cry that SpaceX wastes time while poverty and homelessness exist (implying a false choice that space travel and social justice are mutually exclusive endeavors).

Then there's stupid, which serves as the monolith's foundation. These are the worst form of UFO conspiracy theorists who no doubt are nitpicking the SpaceX video of the Tesla, measuring light sources in search of "evidence" that the whole launch was faked and this is all a ruse to distract us from the fact that NASA is covering up their possession of alien magnetohydrodynamic propulsion. The Flat Earthers will say it's "fake news" because there's a spherical Earth in the photo.

None of that will stop human innovation. It may slow it down, but it can't stop it. A man like Elon Musk has the vision to see past those limitations, no matter how formidable they may be, and still see what's possible.

Despite all the failures (Musk himself saw a 50/50 chance the rocket would explode today and of course there have been many other losses in space travel), despite all the obstacles, it can still be done.


Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets