Happy Thanksgiving, Grand Marshal Andrew Jackson

King Mob on the Meridian claiming
this land is ours 
in the affirmative mode which animates even
the Communists here 
the three-pounds of flax 
who wax zen on the temple mounds of the erased 

Shuck oysters and weave the
folksonomy of despair from threads golden like
the ever yellow afterglow over the bay below
you sing of this place like you own it, you
like you could own Cassiopeia and
Wite-Out the inky spaces in between 

Chicago: Day One

There is a heat lamp in my hotel bathroom. 

I’ve been basking in here like some kind of great, pale lizard in a bedroom terrarium, periodically turning the timer knob to keep the lamp going, for at least 18 minutes. I suppose I’ll have to leave at some point, but there’s another heat lamp under the awning out front, anyway. And I’ve randomly walked beneath at least three more around the city, stopping briefly to reflect on how travel really does broaden your horizons. I’m in Chicago, and the idea of a public heat lamp for humans has never crossed my mind. It’s the little things that stand out. 

Flying here yesterday morning, the clouds parted over the seaboard’s Appalachian spine and I felt it was important to write in my notebook that the towns were clustered in the valleys below. I have no idea why this was important, but it was another little thing for a Florida flatlander to reflect upon, and my notebook is full of these cryptic little admonitions. The naked geology of the earth below us was awesome in the actual sense of the word–awe-inducing–for, in my part of the world, the skin of the earth is hidden beneath a chaste layer of green, youthful and taut rather than ancient and wrinkled. The billion-year old landscape beneath us rippled like a bedsheet spreading from the mountains out toward the great farm belt of Indiana as we began our descent into Chicago.  

Bill Cronon argues that Chicago was the depot of the great American West, a concentration point for all the corn and cattle wealth of the vast continental empire ripped from the bleeding hands of its Native masters in the nineteenth century, and I agree. There would be little reason to settle on the chilled rim of Lake Michigan without all of that wealth, and herein lies the testament: Chicago is a grand steamroller of a city, unbreakable, an unstoppable machine looming over the Great Lake and dancing around an emerald-green river that stretches as far as the eye can see. I can’t help but think of the city in its packinghouse heyday as a giant, grimacing head tilting the West into its mouth like a bag of potato chips: crunch goes a million head of cattle, clang goes the Tribune Tower. And so on, until Mr. Brown and Candyman and Chi-raq entered the nation’s consciousness and Upton Sinclair turned over in his grave once again.

Fever dreams of racial violence aside, the city is a kinder place now. The maliciousness of its capital is obscured beneath good works and meaningful architecture. The reflective quiet of museums replaces the clanging madness of the rail yards–indeed, the old Burlington Zephyr resides now in the Museum of Science and Industry–but still, I can’t help but imagine the young people on the streets here as the starry-eyed sons and daughters of Iowa corn farmers, Indiana dairy farmers, Wisconsin grocers. Middle-aged couples bumbled around Macy’s in the Loop where we shopped yesterday, laughing and staring just like us, enjoying their day in the City from the sprawling suburbs just as we made our way to this great entrepôt from the distant southern pineland. Let us all genuflect before this city, because it is one of the greatest cities in the world. I am thrilled to be here. 

Places of Power: Southern Rivers

Before the U.S. Government built the Woodruff Dam and created Lake Seminole, the confluence of the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers was a place of significance and power for many different peoples across the centuries. Today I understood that a little better when I saw this aerial from 1940 depicting the literal wedding of the waters in Chattahoochee, Florida. The sandy Chattahoochee empties north Georgia on the left in this picture; the tannic Flint empties middle and southern Georgia on the right. Half of the road crossing in the aerial still exists over the original river course, as you can see in the current aerial, but the whole country is radically different just a few hundred yards to the north. It’s still a beautiful waterway; but a vast, stately lake is about as different from the river in this old photograph as you can get while keeping your hair wet.

The confluence of the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers, near Chattahoochee, Florida, 1940. Source: UFDC.
The same spot in 2019. Source: Google Maps.

I think a lot about how places like this, where rivers come together or bubble underground, where they cascade over the fall line, or where they break into rapids, have been important to everyone who’s ever lived along their banks. The place where these mighty rivers came together was so important to the United States that it invested millions of dollars, expended the political capital to flood the surrounding country, and devoted itself to maintaining a concrete wall in perpetuity just to try and harness a little bit of that power and convert it into electricity. Think about how important such a place would have been in a world without a GPS to tell you how to get where you’re going. A world where water runs with the literal spirits of the earth and carries life or death in the current. This is why I study environmental history.

Willie Taggart and the Hubble Constant Tension

There’s a problem with the universe.

Some people here in my hometown feel that way because the Seminoles are losing football games, but I’m talking about the real universe, the one out there. Right now, scientists who study the universe are puzzling over the answer to a simple equation, Ho=v/d. This equation has been with us since 1929, when Edwin Hubble discovered that all galaxies, in all directions, appear to be moving away from us here on earth. If you plug in a couple of measurements, he found–the velocity at which one of these galaxies is moving away from the Earth, v, and the retreating galaxy’s distance from the earth, d–you should come up with a simple number. This number describes the universe’s rate of expansion, and it’s called the Hubble Constant in honor of its inventor.

Edwin Hubble. From Wikipedia.

The Hubble Constant is important because it lies at the heart of how we understand the history of the universe. Using this measurement, physicists have inferred that the universe has progressed through three eras of expansion. First, they argue, it expanded very rapidly. This was the time around the Big Bang, billions of years ago, when the universe exploded into existence. Over time, the gravitational pull of a strange substance called dark matter slowed this initial expansion, but in the current era, a strange force called dark energy is speeding the expansion again. As you might guess, this model only works if the Constant is actually constant. For something that’s supposed to be a constant, however, the Hubble Constant has changed an awful lot.

When Hubble plugged in his numbers in 1929, for example, he came up with a number around 500 km/s/Mpc. That is around 99.4 miles per second per million-light-years, I think, but scientists were never happy with that number anyway. It took a long time for the physicists to reach consensus, in fact, but rival camps of researchers by the 1970s had at least settled into a pattern, with measurements of the “constant” ranging between 55 and 100 km/s/Mpc. Not only was the Hubble Constant unconstant, it was also controversial. When a group of physicists tried to solve the problem once and for all at a conference in Aspen in 1985, one of the participants says, “there really was no way to get the old timers to work with the young turks.” The controversy would continue. 

Thirteen of the Aspen group realized that the problem was really about calibrating instruments to come up with a good measurement. When you try to observe something with precision from billions of miles away, it turns out, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. I understand this. I tried to take pictures of the moon with my smartphone mounted to a telescope just last month and ended the night with two blurry photos and a bad mood. Even with the best equipment in the world and a PhD in astrophysics, trying to measure the radial velocity of a distant galaxy is really hard. 

Astronomy is hard. Credit: me.

Enter the Hubble Space Telescope. If you were alive in the 1990s, you probably heard about the Hubble on the news or read about it in the newspaper, because it was originally launched with a flaw in its enormous mirror and had to be fixed by spacewalking astronauts in 1993. Once the extremely expensive mirror was fixed, the orbiting telescope completely changed the field of astronomy. Solving the Hubble Constant dilemma was one of its goals and, with fresh new glass, it worked. By the late nineties, scientists using the Hubble reduced variability in measurements of the Constant to less than 10%. With the Hubble data, finally, scientists could tell us how quickly the universe was expanding and, therefore, how old it is. Cue the celebration.

An image of the stellar system Eta Carinae taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. More information is here.

This celebration is coming to a halt. Over the past few years, physicists have been looking at new areas, using different tools and methods, and coming up with different values for the Constant based on where they look. After measuring the light from exploding stars, one group argues that the value is 73. Two other groups argue that the number is 67, based on measurements of cosmic radiation, or 70, based on analysis of the light from red giant stars. Last month, another group of physicists published a paper using gravitational lenses to argue that the value is actually 77. That nice model of the universe, with rapid expansion, slowing, and speeding back up? It doesn’t work if the Hubble Constant is different in different places. Physicists are struggling now to come up with a new explanation for how the universe works.

Tell me if this sounds familiar. Some time after World War II, everyone agreed on a norm. In this case, it was a Hubble Constant somewhere between 50 and 100; but you can imagine if you like that the norm might be something like, Presidents release their tax returns. Everyone used that norm to build a really strong and comfortable system. In this case, that system was the standard model of cosmology; but you can imagine, again, that it might be something like, postwar American prosperity. Then, new tools gave everyone a lot more information, and the norm started to break down. People started putting that information together in new ways, and, for them, the norm–the Constant–should be 73, or 67, or 77.The evidence supports their claims. It’s all just a matter of where they choose to look and what they choose to measure.

This reminds me of Willie Taggart, the unfortunate head football coach at Florida State University. Some of the facts about Coach Taggart are hard to dispute. Taggart was hired in late 2017, after the ignominious departure of the last coach, Jimbo Fisher. Taggart inherited a football team that was in trouble. Fisher had not recruited well in his last season. Many of the team’s most talented players had graduated in the two years before. Taggart promised success through simplicity nonetheless. He achieved a record of just 9 wins and 12 losses before he was fired by the university on November 3, 2019.

This is where we are right now: awash in so much information, so many points of view, so much evidence, that just about everything can be argued cohesively. While Taggart was here in Tallahassee–I assume that he’s gone now, just to get away from the smoldering indignity of it all–I read and heard and made so many arguments about the coach that I can’t remember them all. I heard he’s getting better, just look at the NC State game, and I thought: sure, yeah, that makes sense. But then I read, he’s not getting any better, just look at all of the penalties, and I thought, too: well, shucks, that also makes sense. I scrolled over similarly conflicting opinions on my twitter and facebook feed every Saturday, sparred over inconsistent and opposite viewpoints with friends on Monday, and most of the arguments on either side made sense. 

It could be that I’m just a bad reader of football opinion, but I’m not alone. The whole city this autumn was wracked by two poles of opinion. One: you can’t fire a coach until he’s had at least three seasons to turn things around. Two: if the team’s not getting better they need to move on now. These tribal pole stars were like Hubble Constants of 67 and 77. Both were plausible and well-supported by people who knew what they were talking about, and both were true if you accepted the evidence. They were also complete opposites.

This is where football starts to diverge from the Hubble analogy. Conflicting information in science leads to new science, but conflicting information in culture leads to politics. “Any time there’s a discrepancy, some kind of anomaly,” physicist Katherine Mack told the Washington Post for a story about the Constant, “we all get very excited.” I don’t think anyone is excited about politics anymore. Unfortunately, the politics of the Taggart situation are unavoidable. Like pretty much everything else in America, Taggart’s story boils down to the bone stock of the culture war: race and class.

The internet is made up of little building blocks of information. Like Legos, you can take this information apart and put it back together into just about anything you want. While there are more communities on the web than any of us can imagine, it seems like most people in these communities use politics to help them understand how they should put information together. College football communities are no different. Ever since Taggart arrived in Tallahassee, the culture warriors who care about FSU football started taking information about his tenure apart and putting it together in shapes that fit their worldview. By the end of his first season, an upset fan posted a lynching meme over the caption, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing your rep.” The university condemned the post and everyone moved on, but the subtext was now out in the open. The stakes for Taggart were higher, and the obstacles more formidable, than they would have been for a white coach.

Ask any of Coach Taggart’s detractors, and they’ll tell you: they’re not racists. But, racists or not, race was such an important part of the Taggart story that we can’t ignore it. Earlier this year I found myself in the middle of an extremely minor Twitter skirmish between Taggart supporters and Taggart detractors arguing over a stunt involving a lemonade stand and a prominent Booster. The Booster told me the whole thing was a joke and saw himself out of the conversation, but critics and supporters kept coming in for a little while longer. It was hard to generalize about the coach’s supporters, but his critics were easier to pin down. Sunglasses, always. An exhausting barrage of exclamation points. Somewhere the phrase, “I support THE PRESIDENT.” Even a rebel flag. Some of the accounts have been deleted since then, for some later infraction or indecency. A true badge of honor.

Sounds about right.

The Taggart saga was only a minor flash point in the broader culture war consuming all of us, but viewing it through that lens makes it easier to understand how it could take over a town. Provocative critics pushed their arguments to the very edge of acceptability and, at least once, well beyond. The rest of us could only fume, could only point angry fingers at racism indirectly, like trying to look at a dim star you can only see when you look away. These provocateurs used football to talk about race. When they pulled it off just right, they could push a little further. When they failed, they could scurry behind a screen of deniability. It was all a joke. Chill out. It’s only football. Perhaps the rest of us, to be fair, are using race to talk about football. It’s deadly serious. Wake up. It’s more than a game. Either way, there’s so much information out there that we can choose which Lego set we want to play with. Nobody is happy with this state of affairs.

In the 1960s, a philosopher named Thomas Kuhn argued that scientific knowledge doesn’t grow in a straight line, steadily advancing as scientists dream up new experiments to test new hypotheses. Instead, Kuhn argued, science progresses through occasional, groundbreaking paradigm shifts, followed by long periods of “normal” work to test the paradigm. Kuhn’s argument was a breakthrough in 1962–a paradigm shift in its own right–that has come under fire, like pretty much all ideas, in the six decades since then; but much of it still rings true. Especially this, especially now: all of that “normal” work in science eventually introduces so much chaos to the theory, so many unanswered questions, that only a whole new theory can clear the board. This is why physicists are excited by the Hubble Constant tension. They can see new science just over the horizon. If we use football as a looking-glass on society, should we be excited too? Is there a new politics just over the horizon? Coach Taggart’s brief experience in the capital city suggests not. We’re long overdue for a paradigm shift.

Quick Takes from the ‘Noles Loss to Pitt

This game was both better and worse than the score suggests. Don’t get me wrong: if you only watched a few minutes of the game–at any point–you’d be justified in saying that it was too ugly for prime time. In the end, though, it turned into a decent chess match between two coaches with a limited set of pieces. I think it’s too early to draw any conclusions about anybody, but it was an entertaining, if frustrating, game to start the ‘Noles season. Here are my quick takeaways:

  1. The Seminoles’ interior defense was elite at times. Perimeter defense, not so much. If Pitt had been warmer from the perimeter in the first half, we would have been chasing a deficit through most of the game.
  2. FSU doesn’t have an offensive identity yet. There are still a lot of question marks for me about our ability to consistently create scoring opportunities. We looked significantly better when Vassell was on the court, but Forrest and Vassell put the team on their backs. Together they were responsible for 33 of the team’s 61 points. On the bright side, FSU did a great job picking up offensive boards–which was necessary, because we only made 39.6% of our shots from the floor. Ouch.
  3. Discipline was an issue. The key stat in this game was free throws. FSU made 13 of 15 from the line. Pitt? 22 of 31 attempts. FSU took way too many of these calls on the offensive side of the court, too, because the scorers had to work extra hard to create scoring opportunities in the paint.

In the end it all came down to experience, and that’s going to be a problem all year long. This was an ugly but hard-fought opener for the ‘Noles. You can see the final stats here.

The Gators are up next, at the O-Dome, but I may need to sit that one out since I’m a Gator alum. I’m sure you get it.

Roman Generals

Reading tonight and thinking about what a bunch of dickheads Roman generals were.

Listen to this nugget, from Colin Wells’s history of the Empire:

“Another of Octavian’s successful generals, Lucius Cornificius, took to arriving at his host’s house on an elephant when he went out to dinner.”

Colin Wells, The Roman Empire

Or this bit from Suetonius, describing a thin-skinned Julius Caesar:

“he had ridden past the benches reserved for the tribunes of the people, and shouted in fury at a certain Pontius Aquila, who had kept his seat: ‘Hey, there, Aquila the tribune! Do you want me to restore the republic?’ For several days after this incident he added to every undertaking he gave: ‘With the kind consent of Pontius Aquila.'”

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars (trans. Robert Graves)

What a bunch of jerks.

Late Night Passage

No, listen, what happened was this: they lied to you, sold you ideas of good & evil, gave you distrust of your body & shame for your prophethood of chaos, invented words of disgust for your molecular love, mesmerized you with inattention, bored you with civilization & all its usurious emotions.

Hakim Bey, Temporary Autonomous Zone

The Daisy

I have a little yellow Daisy on my front porch that I’ve been trying to keep alive for a few weeks. I’m not doing a very good job of it. The flower lives life on a strange carnival ride of forgetfulness, swinging wildly from healthy, golden vitality to a state of near-death droopiness over the course of each week, and I feel bad for it. I feel guilty just long enough to give it another starvation ration of water from a measuring cup out of the kitchen, that is, and then forget about it for another few days. I really have no idea what I’m doing.

I feel the same way about Twitter. Like the flower on my porch, I abandon it to time and entropy six days out of the week and overwater it on the seventh. It also gives me anxiety. I think, “I need to be better at Twitter.” I wonder, like most everyone with a high opinion of their own voice, “how can I get more engagement?” Just last night, I fell asleep thinking about how social media is a tool that I haven’t learned to properly use. Like an awl, maybe, which I also don’t know how to use. 

Unlike the flower, which needs me to live, there’s no reason for me to feel that way about Twitter. Twitter is probably demonstrably better without me on it. But I can’t help it. I fret over it, like the Tamagotchi I got in a kid’s meal from KFC in 1996 that quietly beeped its way into my psyche until I pulled the battery with a pang of guilt and a whoosh of relief two weeks later. It’s the same mechanic: press one button to clear a need, another to build a relationship.

I need to figure out why the internet makes me feel this way.   

Minute Wild: Olustee Battlefield

A one-minute video for the nature-deprived. This was recorded on the morning of September 30, 2019 at Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park in Sanderson, Florida. With apologies for the spot on the lens.

I’ve been putting these on Vimeo, but I decided to take the plunge tonight and create a whole branded YouTube thing. So, if you have approximately four minutes, check out my channel, Minute Wild. Thank you so much!