Socially Distancing Arts Education at Illiniois

Like most Universities, my Alma Mater has moved most meetings and interactions on-line.  Unlike most institutions, the UI is aggressively testing everyone on campus for COVID-19—twice a week.  This effort is said to represent something like 2% of all the tests administered in the US.  This effort has actually worked as hoped, reversing a big outbreak.

But what is going to school like, socially isolated.  After all, the main point of attending a residential campus is to participate in the human community, with all the joy and pain that may involve.  I mean, when the coffee shops are closed, is there much point to being here?  And staying in your dorm room by yourself for weeks on end is a formula for disaster.

In the academic sphere, I can imagine a lot of classwork going digital.  Considerable amounts of instruction was already on line and on demand, and a lot of things like discussions of readings clearly can be done over a network.  It’s not as good and not as fun, but needs must.

Other stuff, such as lab work is harder to cover.  Some things involve actually doing stuff and using stuff.  For example, you can’t learn microscopy by watching someone else do it.  You have to do it yourself, in the lab.

But the students I worry about the most are the performing arts kids.  I have to wonder how my friends in the dance department are getting along.

Jodi Heckel reports on how these departments are approaching the problems [2].  (Remember, this is against a background of universal testing that assures solid knowledge of the situation.  Without testing and tracing, this stuff is not relevant.)

Dancers are, of course, spending time doing videos, which is a useful skill.  Some of the activities can be spaced out, so we can be “together separately”.  But some kinds of performance are, by definition, group acts.  These are simply out of bounds for now.

Theater students face even more challenges.  Obviously, certain studies and discussions can be on line.  But the essence of theater is being here, now.  Staging involves constructing a space to tell a story.  Acting involves living out a story, live, in person.  For now, there will be a lot of time to practice making and using videos, and limited opportunity for live performance.

And then there are the musicians (and there are hundreds of them).  Again, there are a lot of “talking about it” activities, discussions and lectures.  And some music can be performed solo and delivered digitally.  But a lot of instruction requires personal presence, and most music is social, requiring multiple players and an audience.   There will be no symphonies or choral concerts this year.   And the live music scene is basically closed until further notice.

All these arts share a need for an audience.  There are different settings, but the main point is that the performance is not even close to the same without the presence of audience.  Live theater is different from recorded video, live music is way, way different from studio music, and so on.   For now, audiences have to be on line, or extremely small.

This sucks.  It’s going to be a bad couple of years.

But I think there will be some deep lessons learned.

For one thing, everyone is going to get good at doing digital video and other networking, whether we want to or not.  Already, no one needs to explain how a video networked meeting or performance works.  We know already!

I hope that this will lead to creative uses of this medium, and better experiences.  Personally, I think home made phone videos suck.  Just because everyone has a video camera doesn’t mean that we all know how to make good video.  So maybe the engagement of creative artists will help us all learn how to make better videos.

This year will also make people re-think conventional performance spaces.  We have grown complacent, used to a handful of pretty standardized audience filled spaces.  We use them for lectures and classes, we use them for theater, dance, and music.  We use them for politics.  And this year, we can’t use these spaces safely.

We have to invent new ways to perform and to have audiences.  In good weather, performance is moving outdoors.  Audiences are learning to space out and cover up, but still be connected.  It’s early days, but let’s see what can be done.

Above all, when we finally can all get back together in a few years we will all be so-o-o ready for live performance!  I don’t think we’ll take even the smallest event for granted.  It will be a new burst of excitement, as we rediscover doing things together.

That will be a great day!


  1. Meredith Deliso and Dr. Jay Bhatt, Inside University of Illinois’ massive COVID-19 testing operation, in ABC News, September 10, 2020. https://abcnews.go.com/US/inside-university-illinois-massive-covid-19-testing-operation/story?id=72686799
  2. Jodi Heckel, Illinois performing arts adapt teaching for fall classes, in Illinois News, August 24, 2020. https://news.illinois.edu/view/6367/1883091868

 

Book Review: “A Star Is Bored” by Byron Lane

A Star Is Bored by Byron Lane

This is another book I didn’t need to read, but I loved anyway.

I really don’t pay attention to Hollywood, mostly it’s just not interesting.  And I certainly have never aspired to live the Hollywood lifestyle.  It’s just not me.

And Lane’s fictional account of his life as a personal assistant does nothing to make me want to aspire to this nonsense.  A toxic combination of fame and far too much money seems to have only one possible outcome: destruction, of self and others.

In this story, money and fame don’t make people happy, they just make them sick and depressed (and, as the title suggests, “bored”).

Lane’s protagonist becomes a personal assistant to an aging movie star.  The lawyers insist that this book is fiction, and has nothing to do with Lane’s own time as a PA to Carrie Fisher.

The star is crazy by any ordinary standard, behaving badly and self-destructively. But with piles of cash (literally) and gold-plated Hollywood fame (second generation movie star), she is let off the hook and bailed out over and over.  In Lane’s version, it’s not so much that she has enablers (such as a PA), as that the whole world enables the super famous to behave this way.

It would make sense if this annoying lifestyle made her—or anyone—happy, but it doesn’t.  The star is miserable to the point of suicide all the time, and her PA is miserable, and her family is miserable.  It’s awful.

In the end, the PA has to walk away.  At that point he realizes that this strange life as a Personal Assistant basically took away his own life.  Living solely to take care of another person, even if you love them, is a crushing burden, and essentially erases the servant.  Some may find their identity is such an arrangement, but it’s not much of a life.

Why would anyone do this?   Lane gives us a pretty clear picture of what he calls “the Shine”.  Being PA to the super famous makes him someone.  He’s interesting.  People want to hear about his life.  People pay attention to him.

Lane also makes clear that there is a significant amount of love here, too.  He comes to love the star, and perhaps she loves him, too.  But subsuming yourself to intimate service of a loved one is still obliteration of the self.

This is basically a sad, sad story, and we are happy when the protagonist escapes to start living his own life.


  1. Byron Lane, A Star Is Bored, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2020.

 

Sunday Book Reviews

The Arctic Ice Cap is Melting

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by the history of the Earth, including the great climate change surrounding the ice ages.  As I learned more, it was clear that profound changes could occur, even without some giant triggering event.  I also learned about feedback, albedo, and sea levels.

But if you had told me then that I would live to see the disappearance of the Northern ice cap I would never have believed it.

Yet, it is happening.  I may not quite live long enough, but it’s going to be a damn close race.

This year saw the second lowest summer extent since 1981 (the beginning of satellite coverage) [1].

(From [1])
This particular year was especially low due to a number of factors, including a warm spell in Siberia and weather conditions.  But the overall trend is shrinking and thinning, so every event has a bigger impact.

So this is a particularly warm year, and next year probably will be closer to the earlier trend.

But the overall trend is thinner ice and reduced extent at the summer minimum.

Since the overall atmosphere and ocean conditions continue to warm on average, it is hardly surprising that the ice is melting.  And it is clear that sooner or later, we will see a year when the Arctic ocean is completely ice free at the end of summer.

Wow!  I literally never thought I’d live to see it.


  1. Kathryn Hansen, The Arctic sea ice extent continues its long-term downward trend, in NASA Earth Observatory, September 23, 2020. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/147306/arctic-sea-ice-reaches-second-lowest-extent

 

IBM’s AI Learning “The Language of Chemistry”

Myself, I’m a terrible chemist.  I never got far in chemistry class, and barely grok the basics, let alone the complex landscape of molecules and materials.

But from the beginning, I’ve had the clear understanding that under all the details and complexity there are patterns and structure.  And this is what good chemists know:  they have a mental toolkit of elements and processes that are, in a sense, pieces and moves in a game.

Searching for a new molecule to solve a problem is not random, but there are so many possibilities that research often goes down fruitless paths and otherwise wanders off course.  Great chemists may sometimes make inspired moves, perhaps based on unstated intuition.

In my later career, I saw problem after problem succumb to digital data and algorithmic searching.  If you can encode a problem symbolically, computers are really good at learning patterns, generating new patterns, and optimizing the bejesus out of patterns.

So, I’ve long imagined databases of chemical processes and algorithms that learn to do chemistry quickly and to order.

Naturally, this data system can connect to a robot factory, to automatically configure and execute the actual chemistry.

Essentially, replace humans for almost all aspects of chemical search.

This is a clear vision in my head, but is has been a long time coming.

But it’s finally coming!

This fall, Dexter Johnson reports on IBM’s latest effort in this direction, and it’s a doozy [1].

In addition to operating a robot chem lab (which is tres cool in itself), the system incorporates IBM’s deep capability in text analysis to understand the chemistry described papers and lab notes.  Basically, it can learn chemistry from the literature.

The thing that impressed me most is that the system “treats chemistry like language translation”.  Yes!  The language of chemistry that I imagined!

Translating concrete chemical entities and processes into the abstract meta language enables the AI to not only “understand” the chemistry, but to “speak” chemistry—generate new, meaningful chemistry.  Ultimately, this can guide search, speeding up discovery and finding unexpected possibilities.

Super cool.

IBM is also using the AI to find errors and other problems in published data.  So the system not only learns chemistry, but learns correct chemistry.  That sounds useful.

This approach could be used for a cool “check and replicate” system for published research.  The vast published literature is riddled with missing information, unreplicatible results, and at least some deliberate fraud.  I imagine this IBM system could plow through swaths of publications, quickly identifying errors, proposing (and even executing) critical replications, and suggesting connections between studies (e.g., partial replications that were not recognized by the authors).

Of course, this campaign would also find deliberate fraud, which could be jolly fun.

It might well also discover “hidden”, unpublished results.  From a large group of published findings, it might be possible to infer the results of hypothetical studies, which might point to secret research.

Neat.

Obviously, all these things are done today by humans.  But chemistry is too vast and too complicated for humans to really master.   So, yeah, this kind of digital assist is just the thing.


  1. Dexter Johnson, Robotics, AI, and Cloud Computing Combine to Supercharge Chemical and Drug Synthesis, in IEEE Spectrum – Tech Talk, August 31, 2020. https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/biomedical/devices/robotics-ai-and-cloud-computing-combine-to-supercharge-chemical-and-drug-synthesis

 

 

Myself, I’m a terrible chemist.  I never got far in chemistry class, and barely grok the basics, let alone the complex landscape of molecules and materials.

 

But from the beginning, I’ve had the clear understanding that under all the details and complexity there are patterns and structure.  And this is what good chemists know:  they have a mental toolkit of elements and processes that are, in a sense, pieces and moves in a game.

 

Searching for a new molecule to solve a problem is not random, but there are so many possibilities that research often goes down fruitless paths and otherwise wanders off course.

 

In my later career, I saw problem after problem succumb to digital data and algorithmic searching.  If you can encode a problem symbolically, computers are really good at learning patterns, generating new patterns, and optimizing the bejesus out of patterns.

 

So, I’ve long imagined databases of chemical processes and algorithms that learn to do chemistry quickly and to order.

 

Naturally, this data system can connect to a robot factory, to automatically configure and execute the actual chemistry.

 

Essentially, replace humans for almost all aspects of chemical search.

 

This is a clear vision in my head, but is has been a long time coming.

 

But it’s coming!

 

https://robertmcgrath.wordpress.com/2019/01/16/more-on-robot-chemistry/

<<earlier post>>

 

This fall, Dexter Johnson reports on IBM’s latest effort in this direction, and it’s a doozy [1]. <<link>>

 

https://rxn.res.ibm.com/rxn/robo-rxn/welcome

 

In addition to operating a robot chem lab (which is tres cool in itself), the system incorporates IBM’s deep capability in text analysis to understand the chemistry described papers and lab notes.  Basically, it can learn chemistry from the literature.

 

The thing that impressed me most is that the system “treats chemistry like language translation”.  Yes!  The language of chemistry that I imagined!

 

Translating concrete chemical entities and processes into the abstract meta language enables the AI to not only “understand” the chemistry, but to “speak” chemistry—generate new, meaningful chemistry.  Ultimately, this can guide search, speeding up discovery and finding unexpected possibilities.

 

Super cool.

 

IBM is also using the AI to find errors and other problems.  So the system not only learns chemistry, but learns good chemistry.

 

This approach could be used for a cool “check and replicate” system for published research.  The vast published literature is riddled with missing information, unreplicateable results, and at least some deliberate fraud.  I imagine this IBM system could plow through swaths of publications, quickly identifying errors, proposing (and even executing) critical replications, and suggesting connections between studies (e.g., partial replications that were not recognized by the authors).

 

Of course, this campaign would also find deliberate fraud.

 

It might well also discover “hidden” unpublished results, which might be trade or national security secrets.  From a large group of published findings, it might be possible to infer the results of hypothetical studies, which might point to secret research.

 

Neat.

 

Obviously, all these things are done today by humans.  But chemistry is too vast and too complicated for humans to really master.   So, yeah, this kind of digital assist is just the thing.

 

<<set this AI to replicate research and spot errors!

 

 

 

 

https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/biomedical/devices/robotics-ai-and-cloud-computing-combine-to-supercharge-chemical-and-drug-synthesis

 

31 Aug 2020 | 21:00 GMT

Robotics, AI, and Cloud Computing Combine to Supercharge Chemical and Drug Synthesis

IBM looks to revolutionize industrial chemistry and in the process may have cut the discovery time for Covid-19 treatments in half

By Dexter Johnson

 

 

  1. Dexter Johnson, Robotics, AI, and Cloud Computing Combine to Supercharge Chemical and Drug Synthesis, in IEEE Spectrum – Tech Talk, August 31, 2020. https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/biomedical/devices/robotics-ai-and-cloud-computing-combine-to-supercharge-chemical-and-drug-synthesis

 

The Digital Sand Dollar is Coming

A few years ago, back in the era of Dogecoin—Very Much Wow and all that [3]—cryptocurrencies used to be fun.  Silly names, fun stories, friendly communities.   Giveaways instead of megafraud. More puns, fewer pompous manifestos about ‘markets’.

I miss that!

So I was happy to see headlines about the Bahama’s issuing a new cryptocurrency, widely known as the “Sand Dollar” [1].    Sounds sunny. Beach-y. Vacation-y.  Fun.

Of course, these days cryptocurrency tends to be all about hustling, and the Bahamas coin is no exception.  For starters, this is issued by the central bank of what is literally an off-shore financial center [2].  I can’t help but think that part of the point will be quick, easy transfers, with little trace left behind for the taxman on the mainland.

The digital currency is also intended to be pegged to the Bahamas dollar, which I read is pegged to the US dollar.  In this sense, the Sand Dollar is a derivative derivative.

I’m a dumb old socialist, so I don’t really grok how these pegs work.  As far as I can tell, the bank intends to treat them as if each token is a banknote.  They will control the total number of dollars in circulation, both paper and digital.

I’m not sure this is how the money supply actually works, but you guys have fun.

This digital currency option might be useful for the tourist industry, to shear the sheep all that much more efficiently.  I assume that this digital option might be useful for Bahamas based banks and companies.

I hope this digital currency won’t be especially useful for black and grey marketeers, though cryptocurrencies certainly are just the thing for this use case. By design, the use of any moderate amount of digital currency requires a bank account, which, presumably, has someone legally responsible attached.

The bank argues that the digital currency is less hazardous than cash, viz a viz illicit uses.  Furthermore, digitizing small transactions is envisioned as “drawing out more commercial activity into the formal economy”, and thereby increasing local tax revenues and accountability.  (I.e., the digital dollar is actually more traceable than cash.)

As is often the case, this project is also advertised as offering easier access to financial services for ordinary users and for the “unbanked”.  I have to wonder just how this will work in practice.  I’m sure that tourist areas have reasonable networking, and I bet a lot of people have mobile devices.  But I’m not sure just how well the networks work on smaller islands and out to sea.  No phone service, no cryptocurrency.  So, who knows how much impact this might have for the “unbanked”.

So, I love the name.

But I don’t expect this project to do much.  We’ll see.

I’m sure that plenty of crypto enthusiasts will want to go to the Bahamas check things out in person!  : – )


  1. Paddy Baker (2020) Bahamas to Roll Out ‘Sand Dollar’ Digital Currency Next Month. Coindesk, https://www.coindesk.com/bahamas-sand-dollar-central-bank-digital-currency
  2. Central Bank of The Bahamas, PROJECT SAND DOLLAR: A Bahamas Payments System Modernisation Initiative Central Bank of The Bahamas, Nassau, 2019. https://cdn.centralbankbahamas.com/download/022598600.pdf
  3. Robert McGrath, You Shall Not Crucify The Internet On This Cross of Bitcoin, in Very Much Wow. 2014: Albuquerque. p. 34-37. (try here: https://www.amazon.com/Very-Much-Wow-Dogecoin-Magazine/dp/1499746938)

 

Cryptocurrency Thursday

Microsoft Server Farm in a Can

This fall, Microsoft retrieved an experimental server-in-a-can that has been submerged off the Orkneys [1].  It has been humming away just fine for two years, with no human intervention.  Only eight out of the 855 servers on board had failed in 2 years – lower than I would expect and lower than conventional land-based installations.

Obviously, uninhabited submarine server pods are kind of a pain.  Definitely needs to be watertight.  Have to get power down and data up and down, so there have to be underwater cables.  And if you do need to visit, it’s well, impossible.

So—why underwater?

As far as I can tell, it’s mainly about cooling.  Submerged in the ocean, it is easy to dissipate heat into the water—for free.  No AC bills.  This makes up for a lot of other inconveniences.

There are other advantages.  The sea bottom is a relatively benign environment, in that there is little vibration, no sudden pressure or temperature changes, etc.  All server farms prefer to keep humans away from the machines as much as possible, and sealing them in a can at the bottom of the ocean certainly does that.

“The team is speculating that the greater reliability may be connected to the fact that there were no humans on board, and that nitrogen rather than oxygen was pumped into the capsule.” (From [1])

The project found that the servers worked fine on a diet of solar and wind power—“unreliable” sources by conventional estimates.  This success is not a surprise to those of us who have been following this “reliability” argument for decades.  This experience could mean that land based server farms might shift over to more green energy, too.

Some enthusiasts are excited by the prospect of portable, drop in server pods that could be deployed as needed around the world at least near bodies of water.  I dunno about that.  These pods need power and data cables, which are costly and not necessarily easy to deploy just anywhere.

Similarly, the notion that these pods would be especially useful in a disaster or under security threat seems dubious to me.  Yes, the pod is safe from surface weather, and relatively difficult to attack. But the power and data cables have to come to the surface near by, and are very vulnerable.  If the power is out, the pod is off. If the data connections are damaged or destroyed the pod is out of service.

Honestly, I think the passive cooling is the biggest plus.  I could easily see deploying a lot of these in places like lakes and sheltered waters near cities or near green energy sources.  Heck, you could even build a big swimming pool and put your servers in the water.   Why not?


  1. Rory Cellan-Jones, Microsoft’s underwater data centre resurfaces after two years, in BBC News – Tech, September 15, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-54146718

 

What Should Coworking Become? Bring Your Own Cubicle? [repost]

{This was posted earlier here.]

Is this “The End of Open Plan Coworking Spaces”?

Most coworking spaces offer open plan office spaces.  (Tellingly, other options usually cost extra—the clearest possible indication of the relative value of open office space.)

Unfortunately, sharing a table with strangers is pretty much the worst possible thing to do during the pandemic.  Most coworkers work at home some of the time, so I’m sure that many have transitioned to working at home almost completely, even if their coworking space is open (which a lot are not).

If workers ever needed a respite from our isolation [1], we need it now. So what can be done?

The Global Coworking Un Conference (GCUC) folks have been seeking solutions (mostly through virtual connections).

This fall they are promoting a gadget that might help.  As in many retail settings, the idea is to add a transparent screen, so coworkers can be near each other but not breathing on each other [1].

To me, this is basically a DIY kit for converting an open plan desk into a (cruddy) cubicle. Is this a step backwards?

I.e., both the hardware and the safety protocols that go with it must surely negate much of the benefits of the open plan coworking.

No hugging.  Very limited “looking over the shoulder”.  No standing around in the break area.  Heck, there may be no break areas.  So, basically, very, very limited coworking.

Still, needs must.  Even this limited social interaction may be better than nothing, and may help us get through this very bad two years.

Now, I personally still wouldn’t go into a coworking space, screens or not.  Indoor safety depends a lot on the air flow.  In a big room with shared tables, we’re probably all sharing each others’ used air and touching the same surfaces. That’s not safe, and these spit guards don’t do anything at all to change the air circulation or clean the air or surfaces.  So, these screens are really not that useful.

The bad news is that really good internal air quality is hard to achieve and generally very expensive, and cannot be reverse engineered into an existing building. The odds that a given coworking space has really good air are slim.

I guess the good news is that a large open plan space could be relatively safe, provided you keep the number of occupants low—and they don’t get close to each other.

So, you probably can think about entering a coworking space, but only a few at a time.  But it really cannot provide most of the critical social interactions that are the vital, beating heart of coworking communities.

It’s going to be a hard two years for coworkers and coworking operators.

I don’t really know what things will look like on the other side.


  1. GCUC, CoScreen by GCUC, in GCUC Community – Shop, September, 2020. https://gcuc.co/product/coscreen-by-gcuc/
  2. Zachary R. Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 2014. https://www.academia.edu/11486279/Coworking_Connectivity

 

(For much more on the Future of Work, see the book and blog  “What is Coworking?”)

What is Cowworking?  What Will Coworking Become?

3D Printing Watermarks:  Everything can be tracked

Three dimensional printing is cool, very cool.  It is the essence of “putting the tools in the hands of the workers”—the most revolutionary concept that ever came out of Marxism (even though Marx meant something a bit different than I do).

Furthermore, like all digital fabrication technologies, 3D printing enables all the yummy goodness of the Internet—uploading, downloading, mash ups.  Sharing and peer to peer commerce.  Open source manufacturing.

But, of course, the Internet has its icky sides.  Theft.  Hacking.  Surveillance.  Trolls.

I haven’t heard of any cases of Phishing via 3D printing, though that will happen sooner or later.  (Print out this cool dancing figurine of you favorite pop-star—and oops, the figurine installs malware on everything in your house that has a camera.)

This summer, researchers at Exeter discuss the privacy implications of watermarking technology in 3D printing [1].

The idea is a straightforward extension of watermarking used to track digital documents and images.  An identifying pattern is inserted into the digital data which allows each individual copy to be tracked.  The pattern is generally hidden, and often is designed to not be easy to alter or copy.   In the case of documents or content link movies, these marks are used to enforce copyrights and detect unauthorized copies.

Similar technologies can be used to mark objects created via 3D printing, with similar uses.  This can be used to track individual objects, and generally is intended to enforce patents and other property rights.

“3D printed products can contain tracking technologies, not just within the computer files but also within the physical products themselves.” ([1], p. 2)

The potential threat that the objects can be tracked for long times in the real world, potentially revealing information about the person who uses the object.  In principle, personally identifying information could be encoded in the watermark.  In any case, the unique object can be associated with you and other data about you.

Your coffee mug is being tracked, and “they” know it is you.

In the case of 3D printed body parts, this is especially intrusive, to say the least.  Therapeutic replacement parts of bones or tissue might be watermarked and yield a positive identification on the patient to a scanner.

The authors suggest that existing privacy laws and principles should be extended to apply to 3D printers and 3D printed objects.  These include legal frameworks, encryption, and more transparent consent, among other things.

I would note that this issue may gain additional salience because tracking information is deeply involved in disputes about theft, including reverse engineering and espionage. It’s hard to keep industrial secrets if I can scan the finished product and obtain a complete, detailed part list.  On the other hand, if I can scan a finished product and prove that it used my parts without permission, that is strong evidence of espionage.

So, there are reasons to want effective watermarking, but also to mask the information out in the world.  This will surely require cryptographic protocols to create signatures that can only be read by the intended readers.  I imagine there will also be arms races between defenders and attackers (and many parties will need to do both offense and defense).

Philosophically, I have to think that crossing the threshold from digital to everyday 3D life, these objects also cross over from digital rights to plain old-fashioned rights.  And in the physical world, much depends on trust:  if you don’t trust the source of your 3D object, no amount of technical and legal structure will really help much.  This is especially true in the case of body implants.

The solution to too much surveillance is to control the surveillance, not to try to hide real world activities.  That won’t work, and will drive us all mad.


  1. Annika Jones and James Griffin, 3D Printing and the Right to Privacy: Proposals for a Regulatory Framework. European Journal of Law and Technology, 11 (1) April 30 2020. https://ejlt.org/index.php/ejlt/article/view/743
  2. University of Exeter, 3D printing poses a “grave and growing threat” to people’s privacy, experts warn, in University of Exeter – Home Page News, September 8, 2020. https://www.exeter.ac.uk/news/homepage/title_814133_en.html

 

Book Review: “The Quiet Americans” by Scott Anderson

The Quiet Americans by Scott Anderson

For anyone who lived in the last third of the twentieth century, life was dominated by the Cold War, a global standoff between the US and Soviets.  This seemingly unchanging and unchangeable struggle seemed inevitable, even if not easy to explain.  Circular reasoning and self-interested saber rattling justified endless arms races and dubious wars.

How did we get into such a world?

The Quiet Americans examines the critical period at the end of World War II and just after, the time when the Soviets and Americans developed their strategic stances.  At the center of the American efforts was the CIA, which emerged in these years and existed mainly to fight the Cold War.

Anderson makes clear the improvisational nature of the early developments.  Stemming from the war time OSS, a core of people shifted concerns from defeated Germany to the clearly expansive Stalinist USSR.  This was not an easy sell in Washington or the US, which was eager to stand down, and hoped for the best for post war cooperation with Russia.  Plus, the US had the Bomb, so—problem solved.

But soon enough domestic politics in the form of the Red and Lavender Scares merged with the obvious facts on the ground in Europe and Asia:  the USSR was a dangerous enemy, and the US needed to confront Stalin’s expansion in some way.

The initial moves were disorganized to say the least.  Anderson recounts the improvised and mostly unsupervised early efforts, many modeled on OSS operations into occupied Europe.  (That was no coincidence—the US operatives were veterans of those campaigns.)

But the USSR (and later China and other nations) were not Nazi occupied Europe.  And, as Anderson emphasizes, the resistance and OSS succeeded only because allied armies were on the way, and arrived in time.  Partisans and guerilla war against a total security state is suicide unless there will be an invasion soon.  And it was quickly evident that the western powers were not likely to mobilize and invade.

The results were predictably horrible.  Persistent suicidal guerilla drops.  Wasted money and lives.  And, worst of all, broken promises.

Emigres were recruited to liberate their homelands from the hated Russian occupiers and their local collaborators.  But the CIA considered the mission to be intelligence gathering and harassment.  There never was a plan to actually liberate the areas, and, as far as the CIA was concerned the death of freedom fighters was a propaganda coup.

Reading Anderson, it is easy to see that the CIA; created to confront and roll back the Iron curtain; was nearly a complete failure at that mission.  Not only were the covert operations lethal failures, they had almost no intelligence about Soviet areas (until the U2 and then sattelites).  Worst of all, western intelligence was penetrated time and again, to the point that it was difficult to trust even the closest allies.

But, with near infinite, unmonitored, resources the CIA could fight on many fronts.  And soon did.

Here, the CIA met with more “success”.  In what became a neo-colonialist adventure, the CIA successfully overthrew popular non-communist states, including Iran and Guatemala.  They also successfully supported the US backed post-colonial government in the Philippines.  Justified as “anti-communist” operations, these power plays did nothing to hurt the USSR, and, arguably, played into their propaganda.

The thrust of the book is biographies of some of the key men who started from WWII days, and set up the initial cold war CIA.  The disasters and developments of the 50s steadily alienated and crushed them.

The successes and failures of the early 50s led to disaster.

It’s a dark story, and nobody comes out unscathed.  Welcome to reality.

On the European front, after the death of Stalin the US failed to engage the reformist feelers from the USSR, strengthening the hand of the hard liners.  And when the satellites finally did rise, as the US had encouraged for a decade, the west was unprepared.  The 1956 rebellion in Hungary actually threw out the communist state, and the fighters were calling for American intervention.  Despite the urging of the local CIA, no help was sent, and the Red Army crushed the freedom fighters.

It was one of the worst events of the Cold War, and was a self-inflicted moral blow to the west.  Never again would anyone believe American promises of support.

Elsewhere, following success in the Philippines and stalemate in Korea, the US saw Viet Nam as a similar opportunity.  Anderson gives us a quick sketch of the “snakepit” of post war Viet Namese politics, into which the US deliberately inserted itself.  This was led by the CIA, though soon enough the effort grew far beyond their covert action.

And, of course, unlike Hungary, the US did follow up with military power.  We all know how that worked out.

Appropriate to the chaotic mess of VN politics, most of the time the CIA was competing with other US agencies, often working at cross purposes. Heck, at times there was even more than one CIA station active at the same time.  To call the US entry into VN a CIA plot give the CIA far more credit that they deserve.

The CIA men Anderson follows left the service after these catastrophes.  These men were dedicated anti-communists, but they were very unhappy Cold Warriors.  The Hungarian episode was a moral disaster, especially for CIA covert operatives who incited such uprisings an then betrayed them.

The Viet Nam episode began with a little hope, but veered into dictatorship and violence, and destroying the country and people that were supposed to be saved.  Again, this was a moral disaster, not least for the operatives who implemented it.

These operational disasters took place not despite leadership in Washington, but because of leadership in Washington.  As Anderson points out, the entire point of the CIA is plausible deniability.  The powers that be wanted these adventures and betrayals, the CIA executed them—even when operatives knew better.

Small wonder that intelligent people would become disillusioned.  The original goals of the CIA were dubious, perhaps, based on ignorance of the Soviet Union and over estimation of American capabilities.  But the goals of the American government became unmistakably neo-colonialist, not to mention pro-authoritarian.  This was a betrayal of the original promise of the “free world” that the CIA was created to promote.

Some of the most important material in the book recounts how these changes occurred.  A lot of it was domestic politics, including the rise of the populist hard right, which successfully attacked the comfortable globalist East coast elite.  Some of it was personalities, especially at the FBI.  And some of it was inertia and self-fulfilling prophecy.

Once started, the Cold War had a life of its own.  We had to fight the Russians because they were fighting us.  And vice versa.   Every action, however conciliatory, was proof of how relentlessly evil the other side was.  We knew their intentions were evil, because ours would be in their place.

Having lived through most of it, I have to say we are damned lucky to survive.  It’s abundantly clear that neither the US nor the USSR really know what they were doing.  And with nuclear arsenals on hair trigger, improvising is a very dangerous game.  (This history of the Cuban missile crisis tells us that nuclear war was averted in that case because low level officers didn’t follow orders.  “If there is to be a nuclear war, let someone else fire the first shot.”)

This is carefully researched and documented history, but this book reads like a thriller.  (This is, of course, the world that inspired the James Bond legend.)  Even when we know what is going to happen, the action is gripping.  We even identify with a lot of highly flawed people, as they grope their way through the fog of Cold War.

It’s not easy to make me sympathize with the CIA in Viet Nam.  But Anderson actually does.  Or at least, I an see where they were coming from, and what they were hoping to achieve.  It was still a bad idea, as some of them knew very well.


  1. Scott Anderson, The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War—A Tragedy in Three Acts, New York, Doubleday, 2020.

 

Sunday Book Reviews

 

Mars, shmars.  How about Venus?

The surface of Venus is hostile as all get out.  Puny humans are having trouble even landing probes, and there is zero probability we would ever try to live there.

But NASA didn’t get where it is today by not thinking big.  Even before the blockbuster discovery of phosphine in the clouds [3], some of the big brains at NASA Langley have been exploring concepts for visiting and exploring the atmosphere of Venus, High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC)

Let’s start with the big, juicy part:  airships!  Giant, extraterrestrial airships!

I’m sold!

The airships could be crewed!

The mission concept involves dropping Lighter Than Whatever-is-in-the-Air craft from orbit, to cruise high in the atmosphere where the pressure and temperature isn’t as extreme.  Probes could dive deeper and then bob back up with data.

At this altitude in the Venusian atmosphere there is substantial solar radiation for power, yet radiation levels are pretty low.  Practically a day at the beach, compared to Mars!

OK, this mission isn’t trivial to do.

Key technical challenges for the mission include performing the aerocapture maneuvers at Venus and Earth, inserting and inflating the airship at Venus, and protecting the solar panels and structure from the sulfuric acid in the atmosphere.” (From [4])

Yeah, operating an airship in a bath of sulfuric acid is kind of a challenge.

And getting there involves a screaming descent from orbit, slowing to a reasonable speed, deploying and inflating the envelope—amid 100 km/hr winds.  What could possibly go wrong?

A human crew could be accommodated in a submarine-like aerial rover or, as Evan Akerman puts it, “sky cities”.

From [4]
Now you are just teasing me!

Who hasn’t been waiting forever for Sky Cities on Venus?

Hey Silicon Valley space nuts!  This is way, way cooler than a suicide mission to “settle” Mars.


  1. Evan Ackerman, NASA Study Proposes Airships, Cloud Cities for Venus Exploration, in IEEE Spectrum – Aerospace, September 13, 2020. https://spectrum.ieee.org/aerospace/space-flight/nasa-study-proposes-airships-cloud-cities-for-venus-exploration
  2. Jonathan Amos, Is there life floating in the clouds of Venus?, in BBC News – Science & Environment, September 14, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-54133538
  3. Jane S. Greaves, Anita M. S. Richards, William Bains, Paul B. Rimmer, Hideo Sagawa, David L. Clements, Sara Seager, Janusz J. Petkowski, Clara Sousa-Silva, Sukrit Ranjan, Emily Drabek-Maunder, Helen J. Fraser, Annabel Cartwright, Ingo Mueller-Wodarg, Zhuchang Zhan, Per Friberg, Iain Coulson, E’lisa Lee, and Jim Hoge, Phosphine gas in the cloud decks of Venus. Nature Astronomy, 2020/09/14 2020. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41550-020-1174-4
  4. NASA Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorat. High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC). 2020, https://sacd.larc.nasa.gov/smab/havoc/.

 

A personal blog.

%d bloggers like this: