The Coming Storm – Michael Lewis – 4/5 Stars
This is a short essay/exploration of the topic of weather, the national government, and the use of data. Michael Lewis begins with the idea of how the government collects and stores data, and by this I mostly mean the kinds of data employed in government policies, administration, and the like. The easiest way to explain this in a broad way is to look at how little data was used in the prediction of weather until after WWII. This would have mostly been based in best guesses, and moving more than a few days out became more in the way of magical thinking. Eventually, the ability to track all possible weather data stored within historical documents, to compute this, compares this, and eventually produce predictions led to greater abilities. Initially this led to a kind of overlapping of multiple predictions to create probabilities of events. The introduction of even minute variables exponentially requires more and more advanced computation, and as computers developed so too did this ability.
One result of all this is that now weather scientists can give something like a 14 minute warning to potential tornado victims to protect themselves. A recent catastrophe has indicated that more time doesn’t mean much if people don’t heed warnings. So behavioral scientists were brought in address the question of why, when presented with warning signs, do people (well, Americans) refuse to protect themselves. The answer of course is complex. Behaviorally, one factor is the belief that one’s own particular house is very unlikely to be struck. In additional, cultural connections between home and safety have similar effects. As I was listening I kept waiting to hear the further cultural answer, and we get there: Republicans have consistently and purposely tried to instill distrust in the federal government, and areas prone to vast devastation by tornadoes often lie in red states. So the plan to undermine confidence kills off Republican voters. This is my interpretation; Michael Lewis takes a more roundabout approach.
On big reason is that the National Weather Service doesn’t promote itself, for various reasons. It produces almost all the weather data available. That data is then packaged by private companies like The Weather Channel (which, though acting corporately, is reasonable) and Accuweather, run by an evil piece of shit actively lobbied to undermine confidence in the National Weather Service while solely using their data to create their product. And of course, Trump put him in charge of the National Weather Service. You can imagine what happens next. Well, nothing in particular, except for the purposeful damaging of a national public good to make money for evil shitheads.
The Battle for Paradise – Naomi Klein – 4/5 Stars
Speaking of evil shitheads. I am reminded of course of a point made by Mike Daisy in one of the pieces I reviewed recently that Trump capitalized saying the unspoken prejudices and evils that the Republican party stands for aloud and then just doing everything out in the open. It’s important to point out that when talking about Neoliberalism and what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism” it’s not only a Republican problem. Not all disaster capitalists are Republican, but all Republicans are disaster capitalists. So what this means, and I think of places like Chile immediately after the military coup and murder of Allende, Argentina, Greece, and any other place where natural disasters, war disasters, political disasters, and economic disasters serve as pretext to immediately privatize public goods, sell of influence, create austerity policies, and force intensely immoral, often illegal debt onto cities and countries in exchange for either basic goods, basic goodwill, some level of stability or other humanitarian needs. So this piece demonstrates how that was happening in Puerto Rico immediately after Hurricane Maria. We also remember the video clips of Trump tossing paper towels to reporters while verbally attacking San Juan’s mayor, but we don’t have a collective memory of Puerto Rican evacuees being shipped off the island to temporary (but often permanent) sites off island. We might recall the scam company contracted to rebuild the power infrastructure (the one that had two employees) but most Americans weren’t paying attention as the Puerto Rican governor used the opportunity to impose incredibly strict austerity measures that had nothing to do with relief.
One thing I think about after this is that Puerto Rico’s debt is only like $75 billion dollars, and it’s completely crippling the island. I can name like 5 Americans with more personal wealth than that.
Lunch Poems – Frank O’Hara – 5/5 Stars
A collection of poetry by Frank O’Hara, a kind of queer bard to postwar New York. For reasons that completely escape me this collection was packaged and read by Matthew Weiner, of Mad Men fame. His reading is perfunctory, my feelings about him sour, and certainly charmless in connection to Frank O’Hara’s beauty and passion. There’s a wonderful episode of “99% Invisible” that highlights the bridge that has a Frank O’Hara poem built into the architecture, and I highly recommend it.
Playing to Win – Michael Lewis – 5/5 Stars
This is another essay my Michael Lewis, and it feels very connected to the Operation Varsity Blues scandals that we watched unfold and argued about online. For me, there’s both a comedy and tragedy to the whole thing. For one, it’s hilarious to watch rich people try to get their dumb kids into college, and even funnier to see them go to jail for it. The tragedy of course is that the exploitation of loop holes and outright fraud and stealing we witnessed was NOT caught in so many other cases, we have to assume.
This essay looks into the rise of children’s travel sports around the country. Centered around softball only because Michael Lewis’s daughter played softball. One daughter was good, but less interested than the other daughter, who was able to leverage her skills into a softball scholarship (or partial) maybe, but at least acceptance to a prestigious college. But she went to a school not traditionally associated with being a softball powerhouse (think Pac 12 and SEC schools). I had a student do something similar.
The time, energy, and money spent on these kids sports, as Michael Lewis slowly comes to argue ends up being a backdoor way into elite schools, when writing a check won’t cut it. It’s not about getting the scholarship, as the costs of participating in travel sports often is as expensive then a lot of tuition as well as the fact that only football and men’s basketball tends to be worth it. It’s about that acceptance. He makes the depressing point that football is the only sport without travel teams (still being the domain of schools) but it’s the one that is dominated by minority students, and the one most likely to paralyze players or give them permanent brain damage.
You are Ready for Takeoff – Susan Orlean – 3/5 Stars
A new, charming, but ultimately limited essay by Susan Orlean about her using hypnotherapy to address her fear of flying. As we all witnessed during the pandemic, tippling Susan Orlean is a gift unto the world. Those who are familiar with her books already knew she was charming, and also knew that her insertion of herself into the narratives she writes often adds a lot of reader interest and usually allows for some depth as well. Here, she’s the whole story, adding in some additional discussions about the history of hypnotism and other related topics.