By Nick | December 7, 2012
Carrier Pigeon #8 is out, featuring my short story “They Go Boom” (illustrated by Kirsten Flaherty). It’s a heartwarming tale of Rust Belt decay, deer hunting, meth, and murder.
Meanwhile, from the various Slashdot Websites: articles on Apple manufacturing possibly headed back to the U.S., Microsoft’s unusual stab at a homegrown social network, and (not written by me) another in our series of interviews with data-center operators who endured through hurricane Sandy.
By Nick | November 26, 2012
Hurricane Sandy came and went. There was flooding along the coast, and the power went out, and we had to siphon some gasoline to keep the cars running for yet another record-breaking day, but we’re all digging out. An image from Rockaway Beach, snapped a couple weeks back:
By Nick | November 6, 2012
The Man sits in the café, smoking, transfixed by the concept of Being. He is conscious of his consciousness as he stares at his cigarette burning to ash, and conscious of the cigarette as a property in the world, and conscious of his attempt to recognize both his inner life and the external object. However, his consciousness does not extend to the window behind him, where a horde of zombies is feasting on the delicious brains of passersby.
The café waiter, Pierre, is not an inkwell. The latter is an object in itself, whereas the “waiter” is actually a living soul restricted by society to performing, between the hours of five and midnight, a limited set of actions such as sweeping the floors, making coffee, delivering croques-monsieur to the Man’s table in a timely fashion, and so on. Unless people realize their existence is separate from the image they project to the world, they will allow their work and social class to define them. But if Pierre is bitten by a zombie while taking his cigarette break, and transformed from a slightly snooty server into an undead automaton with a blind craving for the flesh of innocent victims, is he still capable of transcending his societal role and becoming a true human being? Such questions are foremost on the Man’s mind as he barricades himself in the café stockroom by shoving several cases of beer against the door, which Pierre is attempting to claw open.
When you come down to it, human beings have two choices: they can continue to seek fulfillment within the constraints of daily routine, or they can view themselves as absolutely free to do anything. That freedom only comes with the awareness that all obstacles to the unrestrained life exist only in our minds—unless you’re trapped in a small space by a swarm of ravenous revenants, in which case freedom is also a matter of how many sharp and/or heavy objects exist within easy reach. It’s unfortunate that your average café owner never feels the urge to embrace the Absurd in the form of a large chainsaw stocked beside the sugar and coffee. The Man settles on a cast-iron skillet as the surest means of metamorphosing the abstract idea of survival into existence. The door bursts apart to reveal shambling Pierre and his new friends, ready for an intense discussion of Negation and Nothingness.
By Nick | October 31, 2012
By Nick | September 16, 2012
Carrier Pigeon vol. 2 issue 3 is out, featuring my short story “What the Fire Cost Us,” with dark-and-brilliant illustrations by Myles Karr. You can find some choice excerpts on the magazine’s Facebook page.
By Nick | August 6, 2012
Wendy is seven stories tall and looks like a porcupine as drawn by Picasso, or a computer rendering of a theoretical particle. It looms over the back area of MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, spewing mist and water, its spindly arms covered in blue nylon:
That fabric has been treated with titania nanoparticle spray, which is supposed to neutralize pollutants in the air. After she’s disassembled, in September, that cleansing fabric will be chopped up and used for shoulder bags.
Inside Wendy: an M.C. Escher-style tangle of scaffolding and platforms and giant fans:
By Nick | July 19, 2012
For your reading pleasure, from SlashBI: A new piece on how the quest to discover the Higgs boson required CERN (they’re the European group that runs that enormous particle accelerator) to build a massive data-crunching network.
Within the past two weeks we’ve added a sister site to SlashBI and SlashCloud: SlashDataCenter, which covers everything (or nearly everything) related to IT infrastructure. If you ever wanted to find out how Apple powers your iCloud account, for example, the answer’s in there.
Meanwhile, I’m quoted in the International Business Times about the state of iPad-centric publishing (spoiler alert: it’s tougher than it looks).
By Nick | May 16, 2012
Apologies for the radio silence over the past month or so; I’ve been helping develop and launch two new sites devoted to business intelligence/data analytics and cloud computing, SlashBI and SlashCloud. You can find me talking about the project to VentureBeat and TheNextWeb.
By Nick | April 8, 2012
How to Become an Intellectual is now available in real, brick-and-mortar bookstores. I highly encourage you to venture forth and secure a copy of your very own; and because those bookstores deserve our enthusiastic support, I recommend the purchase of a veritable tower of novels and nonfiction tomes to go along with it.
For those who want to save a few trees, however, Barnes & Noble is also offering the book as a Nook download.
By Nick | March 18, 2012
We need heroes. We need their stories, the better to soothe us with the illusion that our lives have weight and significance. That we can stand against the titanic forces that will crush us without warning.
The fishing village on Japan’s northeast coast existed until a few minutes past eight o’ clock on the night of June 15, 1896, when the people inside their wooden houses opened their eyes to darkness—and a rumbling noise that drowned out the sound of dogs barking, the crackle of fires settling to ash.
Four months later, an article in National Geographic described what happened next:
“Only a few survivors on all that length of coast saw the advancing wave, one of them telling that the water first receded some 600 yards from ghastly white sands and then the Wave stood like a black wall 80 feet in height, with phosphorescent lights gleaming along its crest.”
Those lucky enough to spy the tsunami ran for higher ground, or their roofs. Except for one nameless man:
“A half-demented soldier, retired since the late war and continually brooding on a possible attack by the enemy, became convinced that the first cannonading sound was from a hostile fleet, and, seizing his sword, ran down to the beach to meet the foe.”
The wave hit. It smashed houses to kindling, carried boats a mile inland, snapped off trees at the roots, tore away a temple’s stone crossbeams and hurled them the equivalent of three football fields. It killed more than 27,000 people, by some estimates, and left the survivors to struggle with the wreckage and bodies. One of the latter, presumably, was the “half-demented soldier.”
Japan sits on the circum-Pacific seismic belt, whose network of deep-sea trenches and volcanoes earns it an ominous nickname: the Ring of Fire. When the unstable crust trembles, it shifts millions of tons of water, which crushes everything in its path. Your only options are escape, or death.
On March 11, 2011, another earthquake shook the country.
In video after video online, you see people step beneath doorways or crouch in their tracks as the ground shakes, as lights swing wildly, as boxes and books tumble from shelves. Minutes later, a tsunami barrels into coastline. Television cameras in helicopters record the wave as it makes landfall, dissolving the countryside in brown water foaming with wreckage. Far below, people focus their phone-cameras and digital recorders on the flooding streets.
In one clip, a white van drifts down a two-lane street on boiling whitecaps, followed closely by a small fishing vessel. Windows shatter before the force of water. The tide rises faster and faster, higher and higher, lifting parked cars by their trunks, dragging them into the new black tide.
The cameraperson climbs atop a flight of concrete stairs set into a hillside, swinging his lens to the right. A block away, a two-story building spews brown dust—and then it starts to move, buoyed by the flood, crunching against the structures hemming it in. Separated by time and distance, confined to a tiny window on a computer, the destruction takes on the surreal quality of a fairy tale: the scene, perhaps, where the evil wizard waves his wand and unleashes a dark force on the land.
That dark force left wrecked cars, cored-out homes, fishing boats stranded inland, power outages, radioactive water gushing from a plant smacked by the tsunami. Whole mountains of debris needed excavation and bulldozing and carting away. And the bodies needed finding, pulled from the cool mud back into the heat and light.
The world is a ball of unseen cracks, capable of disaster at any moment. Los Angeles can shake itself to pieces, although it often prefers to burn. Hurricanes whirl through the Caribbean, stripping islands clean in their path. On top of that come the man-made tragedies: broken drilling platforms that gush fish-killing crude, the jet-bombers flash-frying the surface of a distant desert.
Every time, the survivors bury their dead and figure out how to best regain normalcy—to create a new “home,” a comforting bubble in which life can happen. So you clear the rubble. You begin hammering fresh planks together. You set marked stones at the tsunami’s highest watermark, to discourage building beneath that point, knowing full well that people will eventually set roots again in the danger zone—because that’s what we do, letting ourselves believe that the next disaster will never really come.
In the meantime, you find heroes: the woman who pulled two or three others from the path of the disaster, for example, or the man who treated wounds until he collapsed from exhaustion. You point at them as if to say, this is how we survive. This is how we come back.
I traveled to Japan in October of that year, on assignment to see how the electronics factories in the Tohoku region, north of Tokyo, were recovering from the disaster. As an editor at a technology-news Website I had received reports for months about lost chip-fabrication capacity, manufacturing units offline, times needed to return to full production: ruination reduced to the driest possible terms, numbers arranged neatly in black-and-white columns.
After landing I puzzled out the bus system and made my way to the hotel in Chiba, a suburb of Tokyo—where I learned the entities involved had decided, at some point during my flight over, to cancel the planned trip north. I still had a conference to attend and a talk to co-host alongside three other British and American journalists, but it looked like I would stay in Tokyo for the duration.
I kept a lookout for signs of the earthquake: cracks in the roadways or windows, an imploded building or two. Years before I’d traveled to Nicaragua, on assignment, and seen rubble that people claimed an earthquake had left forty years before. Friends of mine had returned from New Orleans, in the wake of hurricane Katrina, with cameras full of photos of the destruction: torn-away bridges, stores reduced by floodwater to a teetering front. Damage lingers.
But not in Tokyo, it seemed. Any cracks had been smoothed, the roadways repaired, the broken glass cleared away. If any of that work was still in progress, it was lost amidst the tarps and scaffolding of regular construction, the cycles of build-up and teardown that act as any big city’s respiration.
Instead, the damage manifested itself in other ways. The conference was a chance for Japanese companies to display their latest technology. In America, these sorts of events feature consumer gizmos, tablets and phones, and the emphasis is always on the newest and coolest.
This Japanese event, though, overwhelmingly featured the sorts of devices you stockpile in event of disaster: batteries, waterproof communications gear, technological innovations that would allow your electric vehicle to power your home. Everywhere you looked, Japanese companies had devoted themselves to creating ways to survive, and keep your life charged, even after the whole electrical grid collapsed.
The Japanese executives explained their reasoning behind these inventions, muttering a single phrase over and over again: “March 11.” The same way Americans intoned “9/11” in the decade after the Twin Towers collapsed in piles of rubble. Four syllables meant to convey infinite amounts of pain and loss.
Societies are people, and they work out their wounds like people: once the bandages come off, there is scar tissue, sensitive and red and barely healed. It takes time for those scars to blend with the skin. For you to forget how that wound happened in the first place.
While wandering through Tokyo I found myself thinking about that deranged soldier, the one who had charged into the face of the wave. I’d read his story years before, in a coffee-table book that collected some of National Geographic’s earliest articles. Now I had some context, however distant.
I thought about the term “half-demented soldier.” I assumed the “late war” referenced in the article was a reference to the First Sino-Japanese War, which ended in April 1895. Illustrations from that conflict suggest the brutality with which the Japanese and China’s Qing leaders fought for their respective goals. You can hypothesize that the soldier’s “dementia” was a case of post-traumatic stress disorder, whose symptoms include guilt, bursts of anger, and exaggerated responses to events.
Trauma or no, I imagine the sight of that enormous wave stopped him in his tracks. Horrified, he could have turned and tried a run for the hills, despite the tsunami’s lethal speed.
But that version feels uncharitable. Instead, picture him charging across those white sands, hand on the hilt of his blade, maybe screaming into the watery thunder, knowing the full import of his suicidal gesture, before the wave’s shadow blots him from existence. That would be the Kurosawa ending: a samurai-style refusal to yield, in even in the face of certain annihilation: a human icon of that desire to protect “home,” the most ephemeral thing, which too often disappears in an instant.
To me, that feels like heroism.