Sneak Attacks?

The anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima gives one pause as it marks the emergence of a world of remote military strikes conducted by GPS, or on a UTM grid that cast agency at a distance from ethics or ethical choice. One thinks not only of the global cartoons of global expanse that seemed to unroll geopolitical spaces for their American readers, but of the new ethics of point-based precision. For the point-based maps created vertiginously elevated the subjectivity of their readers across the 40,000 maps produced between 1941-45 by the U.S. Army Map Service so as to remove them from a shared ethical framework of humanity. The framing of military invasion as a game of geospatial dominance discounted the massive incalculable loss of human life in campaigns of prolonged fire-bombing and atomic holocaust.

Indeed, the narrative this cartoon bears traces of how this new spherical global space suggested suggested a territorial dominance across the new spaces of air travel: the cartoon that appeared after the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6, 1945 are particularly striking as it appears to remove any sense of the agency of atomic holocaust; it cast the explosive logic of the atom bomb as a delayed quid pro quo response to the “Jap Sneak Attack” of 1941; it asked readers to consider not the effects or impact of the atom bomb, but, rather evasively, who really was “the Fellow who Lighted the Fuse,” as if he were to blame: before any images of the destruction of both cities was described, the Chicago Tribune included testimony of Enola Gay crew members, hailing from Chicago, as an exclusive, with a discussion of the physics of atomic bombs and threatening reminder that a number of American B-29 bombers were posed for more destructive missions. The front-page color cartoon of the Tribune, in Hearst style, was the sole visual documentation of the bomb’s effect, which were masked by the geopolitical logic of dropping an atom bomb.

Carey Orr, “the Fellow Who Lighted the Fuse,” American Newpaper Repository

Who, indeed, was making the sneak attack? If the yellow and orange hued pyrocumulous clouds caused by atomic blasts suggested the fireball of a nuclear or atomic explosion, the cartoon clearly referenced not only the explosion that left 200,000 estimated dead in its immediate aftermath, but the fireball of the atomic explosion as a sunset of the Japanese Empire. The first dropping of an atomic bomb on civilian population by the United States–

–was sunset of the Japanese empire, seen from the empyrean perspective of the navigation of aeronautical space that allowed its delivery.

The delivery of the bomb and its atomic fireball left massive fatalities and injuries in its immediate radius, far beyond the devastation at the site of impact where buildings were flattened, leaving third degree radiation burns far beyond it. The cartoon provided a rationalization of the explosion in maps that provide a continued basis for reflection on the scope of aerial bombardment, departing from the maps of worldly retreat of Japanese Empire on which American newspapers had focussed and were created by late August 1945 by the U.S. Army Information Branch.

Japanese Empire from 1895 to 19 August, 1945/Army Transportation Corps, Aug. 27 1945
University of North Texas Libraries

Many cartoons of the atomic bomb dropped by the U.S. Army were explicitly racist or misguidedly celebratory. This famous front-pager made open reference, perhaps fitting Chicago, where Rand McNally was based, as the spherical projection enabled dominance of aerial space and mastery of the virtual space of air strikes: the globe was now not inhabited by people, but a spherical surface over which one flew. And while the sign planted on the unidentified island of Oahu is suggested to be the site of the spent match that started it all, omitting that the 1941 aerial attack was staged on a military base–Pearl Harbor–rather than on a civilian population. The colors of the apocalyptic conflagration are muted, as we see only harm coming to the scattered limbs and bloodied knife of a caricature of the Japanese soldier scattered in a stratosphere. Boosterish jingoist maps had presented Japan as “the target” of aerial bombing, but delivery of the Enla Gay’s payload confirmed the targeting of the island empire by announcing the ultimate superiority of airspace dominance, in targeting two cities:

We are perhaps still measuring our relation to the decision and effects of the atomic bombs dropped on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If the interconnectedness of any two points on the globe was asserted by a spherical projection, the cartoon gestures to lines of longitude and latitude to link the unprecedented conflagrations of the destruction of Japanese cities to the rash act of aerial bombardment on a December morning, as if to suggest that the decision to suddenly drop two atomic bombs was a matter of just deserts in the new age of airborne explosives.

Of course, the real “sneak attack” one might have expected to see reported was not from the point of view of the pilots who had guided the two bombs dropped over Japan–oddly outside the field of terrestrial expanse that the staff cartoonist of the Chicago Tribune presented to readers the morning of August 6, 1945. But the space of flight commanders that cartoonist Carey Orr was invited to design celebrated the introduction of a new atomic age for its readers, that seemed to mark the global supremacy of the Americans in the destruction of Hiroshima that Harry Truman had commanded in Washington, DC, and that the US Army’s upper echelons had signed off on.

Readers of the newspaper acknowledged the impact of the blast the rocked large aircraft lying nearby, promising unprecedented damage as a result of a blast that obliterated a huge sector of the inhabited city–causing as yet unmeasured human casualties, spreading radiation illness among civilians-by a cartoon that clearly rendered the unprecedented degree of devastation as a consequence of the incursion of American airspace four years earlier, as the U.S. Navy threatened to “let loose more and more destruction on vital coastal installations,” with little regard for human life. The cartoon must have provided a critical way that this act of destruction could be mapped.

The pastoral scene rendered by cartooning was a sharp counterpoint to the way that the Manchester Guardian, for example, reported on the destruction that spread out from the hypocenter of the bomb in Hiroshima, carbonizing trees and reducing to rubble all but a skeletal framework of a building that survived the atomic blast that killed tens of thousands of civilians. While President Truman proclaimed to the nation with almost unhinged excitement (or glee) that “we are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above the ground,” as he went on to threaten a “rain of ruin from the airtime like of which has never been seen on this earth,” the cartoon oriented readers to a view above the ground, justifying the scale of the explosion in wildly disproportionate terms as the result of restoring balance in a geopolitical theater, not a nation, and omitted the scale of its devastating destructiveness by orienting viewers not to the scale of human destruction by which some 60% of the city was obliterated, but the smooth surface of a spherical globe. that enabled the heinous act to be performed, as if to echoed how the Enolas Gay target it with precision.

Mancester Guardian, August 7 1945

The different ethics of understanding the atomic explosion two thousand times more powerful than the largest bombs the RAF dropped on Germany was stunning in its scale, but muted in its horror by being rendered in a “lessons learned” jingoism Hearst newspaper style, but taking advantage of the regular comic strips that supplemented its news coverage from 1940-43, to describe the most consequential global news that day by a color cartoon, as if by detracting attention from the four sq miles the bomb had flattened by the bomb by imagining the aerial view from outer space as a set of pastels through which fly, as if comically, a disembodied head, limbs, and a hand, in an all too unsubtle warning of where playing with fire will get you, placing the unnamed “fellow” in place of the men who ordered the bombs of devastating tonnage dropped on two civilian centers: the “editorial” penned by veteran cartoonist Carey Orr–whose explicitly racist cartooning in his regular strip in The Tiny Tribune was a model for Walt Disney–oddly replaced the horror of the bomb with a sequence of pastels of pinks, oranges, and reds as the glorious sunset of an Eastern military theater, almost allowing readers to ignore that 60% of a city had been wiped out.

“The Fellow Who Lighted the Fuse,” MSU : Janet A. Ginsburg Chicago Tribune Collection

The cartoon that fails even to “map” Hiroshima displaced all responsibility for dropping of an atomic bomb–pointing the finger, circularly, at the very folks whose populations it incinerated and introduced radioactive illnesses. If one followed the long fuse that curved around the surface of the globe, those who understood the new doctrine of hemispheric dominance might trace the origins of the massive explosions that rocked the earth to the spent match that lay–notionally–on the islands of Oahu in Hawaii, where the evidence of who was the culprit in the recent air raid might be found–and located with geographic precision on exact global coordinates. The explosion was itself evidence of the interconnectedness of global war, and a decisive rebuff of images mapping a pan-Pacific Japanese Empire that radiated from the islands of Hawai’i that were a target of Pearl Harbor, that asserted the expansion of a Pacific empire in saturated reds in 1940 that took the Hawaiian islands as their center and focal point, to underscore the Empire’s active encroachment on American sovereignty.

1940 American Postcard after Japanese Flag

The tables were reversed in the double-duty that the atomic afterglow provided as a sunset of Japanese empire, and the precision strikes that pinpoint mastery of aerial targeting revealed. The cartoon underscored the power of bombing with such precision that the virtual landscape maps of the Army Service created; but the spherical projection erased any agency in the dropping of the bomb in ways that almost removed their users from humanity, replacing a landscape of national integrity with the world of geopolitics on grids, where the surgical strike of point-based intervention became more tempting than wars between nations, rewriting the harmony implicit in a leftist “One World” underscoring the shared humanity of global interconnections now allowed by high-speed air travel in a maleficent style.

Politicians like Wendel Wilkie optimistically assured audiences in 1940 that “there are no distant points in the world any longer,” by using the magic of a Universal Transverse Mercator, Richard Edes Harrison exploited available global mathematical projections to teach Americans, as the editors of Fortune magazine or Harrison himself put it, there was now “One World, One War,” as a single map was entitled in the the atlas that Harrison helped produce to allow readers to “Look at the World” with new eyes, eyes of global strategy, in a view of the world fitting the “air age”–and global war.

The FORTUNE Atlas for World Strategy sought to provide the magazine’s subscribers to Time might expect by offering the very needed principles used in the U.S. Military to map global expanse in wartime–and indeed, as William Rankin noted, enabling the synchronization of air, water, and land troops in unprecedented ways, by the very spherical UTM projection that the U.S. Army helped to develop, as if to allow them inside on the new power of strategic mapping that the U.S. military sought to promote.

Courtesy David Ramsey Map Collection/Cartography Associates

The resuscitation of such recondite Renaissance global projections as the azimuthal equidistant, that Gerardus Mercator used to map the pole, to foreground the notion of a global theater of military dominance by air–

–was later adopted, in something of a recuperation of the logic of a “one world” argument, as Rankin noted perceptively, in the wreath-bound emblem intended was a of global harmony in the United Nations, as if the war or cartographic logic of aerial bombardment had not occurred; what had provided a strategic sense of reducing global expanse in a world of air travel and the global reach of airborne bombs was repurposed by 1945 that for all practical purposes affirmed the centrality of American in a global discourse that dislodged the UTM projection from military theaters of war, as if to try to recreate a map of less militaristic intent, that ensured the global map would be continued to be framed by olive branches.

Harrison’s maps are the pictorial precursors of our ubiquitous satellite maps of today, yet hand drawn with great cartographic skill for specific arguments, detailed in text, statistics, and diagrams that erased the problems of military strikes across borders in a terms of a logic of efficiency and geometry–and of theaters of dominance.

They expanded emblems of transcontinental air travel to a global optic as Edes Harrison reinvented cartography as a skill of global dominance for American Strategy, far beyond the form of “transcontinental travel” of the recent past from New York City, unveiled in January 1942, as America entered into the global war effort, and sought to “sell” the war to domestic audiences through the logic of military maps by revealing geostrategic aims of airspace, as much as technologies of transcontinental air travel.

Global dominance in air travel was soon to arrive, opening up American dominance for a time in this global airspace, but the war became a critical time to promote this world view at the same time far beyond American frontiers: as war was increasingly fought in the air across Europe and the world by 1942, when the United States was joining, Life magazine assured readers that the United States frontier of Alaska was only “wait[ing] for war” in January 1942, months after Pearl Harbor, as the United States was readying itself for a showdown with the “ancient and imperial power of Japan,” the air map not only displaced the national map, but guaranteed a global purchase by high-speed air travel that could be readily imported to a military theater, now that the United States Air Force was stationed outside Anchorage in the Elmendorf Air Base, ensuring a Pacific Theater of War.

Harrison in 1943 gave us the simple ease of “seeing” Japan rom Alaska–from “our” own territory, as if, prefiguring Sarah Palin, on the horizon from her own window in Achorage–presents the globe absolutely free from cloud cover, in all its topographic elegance, the Sea of Japan and the island’s extensive mountain ranges from the Sakhalin islands all present with a tactile quality of a molded plastic relief map, with a level of naturalistic local detail and topographic accuracy that the surface of a Rand McNally globe could only aspire–and which was, the reader knew, a virtual space as much as one that a person could ever apprehend, even from the air, but was the promise that airspace dominance provided to Americans in 1943-4.

The detailed topographic aerial views that Edes Harrison so expertly designed of four approaches–or possible incursions–into Japanese airspace seemed designed to familiarize readers to the prospect of high-speed air travel in ways that worked hand-in-glove with the U.S. Army Map Corps–

“Japan from Alaska,” from Richard Edes Harrison, “Four-Approaches to Japan” (1943)

–into whose horizon line the reader could gaze, as if with wonder, seeing the island empire revealed on the horizon as lying essentially in its purview. The territorial proximity of the Empire of Japan seemed so near the Aleutian plans, that the text promising to reveal “various approaches to Japan” that could span, in the rapid travel across airspace, “the huge continental mass that Japan is trying to subdue” by confirming “the close geographic relationship that can be put to work in Allied offensive action” in the air–while conceding “difficulties of supply” of such offensive actions.

Richard Edes Harrison, “Japan from Alaska” (1943)

The shaded hemispheric relief maps of Richard Edes Harrison’s landscape maps of course offered evidence of a new purchase on global military theaters to civilian audiences in such elegant full-color inserts included in National Geographic and other publications. His global perspectives orient readers to global dominance that intersected with the ability of the Army Map Corps, as they naturalized the adoption of UTM coordinates by the U.S. Army to coordinate military forces in global war. The critical nature of maps for global war were indeed apparent after Pearl Harbor was attacked, and the United States realized that few maps existed of this theater of war, William Rankin has noted: as if to conceal the absence, Newsweek assured readers that Washington DC had become in short order a veritable “city of maps” months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, as if to assure them of American mapmakers’ readiness to meet military needs in global war: “it is now considered a faux pas to be caught without your Pacific arena,” editors assured readers lest they still entertain some inner isolationism. Newsweek openly linked Harrison’s pictorial map to dominance over theaters of combat: the increased accuracy of such bifold pictorial maps served to process a spherical earth beyond national bounds, as President Roosevelt geared up to move troops, navy fleets, and air squads around the globe.

Richard Edes Harrison, “Russia from the South” (1944) courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection

There were, Harrison assured readers of news maps made for the U.S. Army Service Forces, or Army Maps Corps, at least “four approaches to Japan” on the table by 1944, despite the considerable distance across the Pacific–which really, he implicitly argued, should not seem so far in an age of airspace and high speed flight–

Richard Edes Harrison (May 8, 1944), Army Orientation Course. Army Service Forces. courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection

–and the simplicity of these approaches “to Japan”–from Alaska, from Manuchuria, from China-Burma, and from the SW Pacific–presented a defined “Pacific Theater” sought to orient readers to the nature of global geopolitics on grids. Relations of global geostrategy seemed complicated, in the specific, but Edes Harrison simply simplified the legibility of a global landscape no one had seen.

Richard Edes Harrison, 1943

The pictorial landscapes that cast military theaters as verdant topographies were absent from war, but the picture was, readers would have known, quite different on the ground: the view might have been able to be naturalized as a continuous spherical map to suggest the close ties of air travel, but the same islands of the Alaskan peninsula were themselves “theaters of war” as well as stepping stones, where American army bases and U.S. Army and Navy airfields existed, providing the infrastructure for the global airspace that Edes Harrison’s bifold landscape maps promoted through their elegantly expansive pictorial form.

These islands that rest on the “seam of the Pacific and American geological plates” offered a powerful strategic bridge–and theater of combat–that is all but erased in Harrison’s hemispheric maps, which use the continuity of a UTM grid to define continuity, as if the illusion of perspectival unity habituates viewers in the know to the contraction of terrestrial relation that air power allows, without needing an infrastructure of air bases and refueling stations, or indeed human lives.

National Parks Service, Aleutian Islands

The unique global perspective that Edes Harrison offered Americans of the approach to Japan from Alaska was almost a creation of the U.S. Army Map Service geodeists, who plotted the continuity of air flights from these bases, as if to plot alternate flights from the Aleutians or Marianas–the eventual actual fligthtpath Big Boy and Little Boy took–as if they were options on the table of future geopolitical strategies. The set of landscape images superceded any notion of national airspace, suggesting the “freedom of the skies” if not a global theater of geopolitics over which the United States presided from the air.

Richard Edes Harrison, “From Alaska,” from “Four Approaches to Japan” (newsman)
Richard Edes Harrison, “From the SW Pacific,” courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection

the approach over and into Japanese airspace–here reduced to a thin strip of land lying upper center on the global space Edes Harrison showed, must have normalized the possibility of an airborne invasion or bombing campaign as a game of sliding across a newly mapped global space. And when the Chicago Tribune asserted a false equality of wartime bombing, even in the case of the unicum of the unprecedented power of an atom bomb, as a tit for tat, that suggested in a color scheme straight out of Tiepolo–complete with cottony puffs of billowy clouds–that dramatically suffuses the cartoon panel with light, that cuts against the dismemberment of Japanese bodies, and, amidst the violence of airborne limbs that fly across the globe like so much detritus, assured readers, that the explosion was to be ethically accepted as a response to the “sneak attack.” American readers of the Tribune should feel no qualms at the dehumanized victims of the atomic strike or feel ethical qualms of deep, deep unease at the prospect of a world whose inhabitants bathed in radiation more than celestial light.

American Newpaper Repository

The tragedy of showing the dropping of atomic explosives by a cartoon map on the front page of “the world’s greatest newspaper” some seventy-five years ago recast the act of dropping an atom bomb as only the due delayed response for the Japanese Imperial Air Force’s aerial attack: the magnified register of this response was perhaps hinted at, or acknowledged, in the color scheme that recalled the bizarrely majestic illusionistic perspective in the Wurzburg staircase of in the truly global Apollonian perspective it offered over the continents, for visitors to the Wurzburg Residenz–a fresco that seemed to suffuse the stairwell and pick up the light that streamed through large bay windows below it, as one proceeded to the Imperial Hall on the first floor, on the way to the baroque Kaisersaal dominated by images of the genius imperil: was there a gesture to the frescoes of a sun god bathed in light in the cartoon of the explosive force of Genius imperil?

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Apollo and the Continents (1752-53)

The cartoon may not have been a reference to the Tiepolo ceiling fresco that dominates the gallery through which one ascends the imperial staircase in Wurzburg, in a monumental passageway of Vitruvian ideals. The ceiling of the vescoval residence that echoes was the culmination of several vaulted ceilings Tiepolo designed and executed of planets orbiting round a sun god, bathed in radiating light, this one placing images of the continents in each cornice and caricatures of the world’s races on the ceiling fresco’s sides; the celestial court to which the visitor ascending the staircase ascends presents emblems of three continents–America, bearing a griffon, Africa, and Asia, but is dominated by the remove of the Apollo ringed by a golden glow. The cartoonist seems to have replaced Apollo by the Enola Gay, bathed in celestial rays that is the modern seat of cosmographic globalism.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Apollo and the Continents (1752-53), detail of ceiling fresco

Whereas Tiepolo rendered the continents paying service to the Sun God as if a courtly society, what was an allegory of triumph is rendered as a triumphant tha tconceals the purely destructive intnent of America; if Tieopolo’s characterization of the continents was tinged by racism, and racial prejudice,  the celestial celebration is now rooted in military triumph over the Japanese floe, the dawning of an atomic age whose radiance is rooted in new rays, hardly so removed from the terrestrial sphere–and now hardly an allegory at all–but perhaps only able to be imagined on August 6, 1945 as the dawn of a new age marked by the release of cataclysmic energy of divine transcendence.

There was, of course, little actual transcendence or any sense of transcendent sublime down on the ground, where actual humans lived. The dropping of the “Little Boy” atomic bomb that targeted Hiroshima was hardly an allegorical event, but was probably easier to see that way by the folks who dropped it, and wanted to see in it the conclusion of the war and the beginning of a new age. The explanation the cartoonist offered of the logic of dropping the first atomic bomb ever was preposterous indeed. The Japanese planes had attacked a territorial outpost over one third of whose inhabitants had recently been Japanese, before the United States government placed them under martial law–including its courts!–from December 7, 1941 through 1945, interning the small minority of Kibei who claimed loyalty to Japan, until the U.S. Supreme Court voided as illegal the military takeover of the civil government of Hawaii, and the internment of those Japanese-Americans in relocation centers on the islands where they had, under considerable duress, come to renounce American citizenship.

The Tribune, as if making due on their marquee promise to be the “Best Newspaper in the World,” offered a local perspective on the obliteration of two Japanese cities for readers. For it promised, for what it was worth, exclusive coverage of the “Atom Bomb Crew’s Story,” that Americans were more likely to read about: as if obliterating the inconvenient fact that island of japan was inhabited, or that four square miles of Hiroshima had been just purposefully reduced to an “obliterated zone,” the sort of thing we should never try to create, and presented the “awesome scene from the plane” for all Americans to share–especially Americans already habituated to the removed view of a global landscape and hemispheric logic: the presence of the Aleutian peninsula that was so critical in the war, and the proximity of Alaska to the Pacific theater as Harrison had described it, both described the “inside story” of the Chicagoan in one of the planes that dropped the bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945, and provoked cries of “My god!” from those “battle-hardened American airmen” ten miles away on the Marianas, as more bombers waited to run raids “on other enemy targets” without noting or considering their human costs of such brutality; the dominant tone of the exclamatory headline is celebration and festive.

American Newpaper Repository

The cartoon is above all a celebration of the cartographic logic of wartime globalism that show the world as interrelated, and linked discreet points in the spatial continuum of airspace. This was the space Edes Harrison and the U.S. government had promoted served to advance priorities of strategic hemispheric dominance, to be sure in an extension of the “freedom of the air” of civil aviation, but in a logic and illusion of global mastery that was to militate against global peace for the second half of the twentieth century.

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Filed under atomic age, geopolitics, globalism, Hiroshima, World War II

Bats over Urban Skylines

Thomas Nagel queried the possibility humans had to “know what it is like for a bat to be a bat” in a 1974 paper that posed a pressing epistemological challenge to the philosophical community. Arguing bats’ distributed network for sensing space was foreign to humans’ embodied experience, Nagel argued we not only lacked mental tools to think like a bat, and our embodied experience was just too removed from a distributed network to imagine being–let alone navigating–like a bat, within a cloud of a distributed intelligence. Are bats able to synthesize, share, and collectively process a sense of the images of the outlines of trees, skyscrapers, and what would be blocked routes, by an ability to synthesize a range of individual datapoints that emerge in something like a collective map map?

The philosopher performed a powerful thought experiment about human consciousness about the subjectively rooted nature of human experiences, by inviting us to consider wha the took as the vast intellectual remove of the experience of those nocturnal navigators: the winged mammals that may have inhabited the eaves of Nagel’s country house in Connecticut or Vermont–I like to imagine–where he watched bats reeling out at dusk as the sun set, not bumping into one another as they searched in wide arcs for meals of flying bugs and gnats as they flew through the night skies. We might be able to adopt “the bat’s point of view,” Nagel argued, but being like a bat escaped the conceptual tools humans have at their collective disposal.

While Nagel did not necessary mean the swarm thinking that enables bats’ behavior, it is striking that the logic of the swarm of bats’ nocturnal flight paths–that employ vision, but don’t rely on it–may be providing a basis for the new “training sets” that push new horizons for AI intelligence, beyond the “training sets” used to develop computer vision that has helped “train” how computer vision might “see” and recognize facial characteristics. As echolocation helps bats track insects, not crash into each other as they fly in large groups, and navigate caves, moving by sounds, as much as visual cues, the abilities it allows–for densely flying animals to somehow not jam each others’ sounds, but fly side-by-side in large groups without touching, evading one another without audio interference, and distinguishing the recognizable pitch of one another’s individual calls–they may offer a way of being within a distributed network, sustained at over sixty miles per hour–and within underground caves from which up to half a million bats nightly emerge. This would be a form of distributed intelligence and a form of “intelligence,” Nagel’s work reminds us, removed from human ken.

Bats’ powerful bioacoustic abilities to distinguish individual echolocators without interference in crowded caves may offer a powerful model for using sonar signals to create a similar capacities of sonic recognition among the range of sensor data that self-driving cars use by emitting distinctive levels of sonar so specific not only across different makes, but individual drivers, allowing swarms of commuters to calibrate their spatial relations to other commuters by an analogous sort of distributed intelligence: might autonomous vehicles, in other words, be made to think like bats? The thought is tempting, as it would push a new basis for drone “thought” and warm thinking and movement, if it remains a bit of a pipe dream quite different from the current base-maps for self-driving cars, based on mapping roadways, directionality, and the driving cues of highway signs, turn routes, and the sort of tacit signs of how we move cars within lanes, along painted reflective dashes, to prevent or reduce automobile collisions.

Civil Maps

But what are the maps of bats? Could the flight paths of bats ask us to reimagine maps? The level of auditory discrimination is at basis, perhaps, a question not only of “technologies of extremely accurate localization” but bioacoustics. Much as LIDAR might create a point-cloud for areas that are lacking in many topological maps of routes to estimate the areas of roads on which autonomous vehicles might travel, is there a chance that bats move mentally among multiple scales and registers of mapping, moreover, both to navigate among one another’s flight paths while traveling in the night skies at speeds that are often up to 60 mph, and to take paths that allow them to return to the security of caves or other diurnal dwellings?

The problem was how the sort of state-of-the-art maps for autonomous vehicles that were dependent on existing maps would make sense in the dramatically changing extra-urban and rural environments on large scales, and how such rapid development of built landscapes could limit the potential positives of autonomous vehicle technologies: often, these areas were the same in which many commuters lived, and where the benefits of driverless cars would be felt, so the benefits of unmooring cars from existing maps was more than a purely academic challenge.

 Detaled Trracking of Roads in Unmapped Rural Roads/Ort, Paull, & Rus (2018)

The bioacoustics tools bats use to negotiate in swarms and on individual rest on developed abilities of acoustic recognition that might be especially important to autonomous vehicles–for which the motion between large scale maps and the mapping of fast-moving vehicles beside them remain something of a missing piece, if not a potential cartographical blind spot for modeling distributed spatial intelligence by sonic blasts.

Bats may hone these auditory skills of discrimination of sonic frequencies by skills honed by preparing from departure deep underground in caverns, developing echolocation systems that allow them to capture insects while flying that are less than a centimeter in size, though the presence of a still human can confuse bats’ sonic maps for judging moving prey, while navigating swarms of over 1.5 million–15 million live in Natural Bridges underground caverns, and caves in Carlsbad NM once housed up to eight million.

Natural Bridges, TX/National Parks Service

The ability to map individually and in a swarm make their ultrasonic pulses a powerful tool of acoustic discrimination of routes, but the images bats preserve in their mental maps are not nearly so existential in nature. Indeed, the colony of a million and a half Mexican free-tailed bats that live in downtown Austin, under Congress Bridge, beleived to be the largest urban bat colony in the world, is so prized by the city’s human residents that the emergency of maturing bat pups in the Central Texas night sky is advertised as a cheap thrill during fall sundown of vertiginous biophilia, the dedicated “bat hotline”–(512) 327-9721–provides visitors eager to witness the swarm with confirmation when bats are seen emerging downtown

Bat Conservation International

–a biophilic spectacle that highly demonstrates the intricate networks of distributed knowledge as young pups learn to fly, that is a prominent part of the Central Texas city’s ecology. Perhaps a splinter group from the nearby Bracken Cave colony–one of the densest sites of mammals on earth, just a half hour northwest, is the largest known bat colony in the world.

Could it be possible to approach the mental outlook that enables bats to navigate nocturnal skies at high speeds in search of fast-moving food? Perhaps Nagel’s project influenced how, since 2011, Israeli researcher Yossi Novel attempt to cross this bridge of consciousness by a colony of bats–nearly 20,000 winged mammals–that he raised from birth to maturity, and tracked their progress as they navigate Tel Aviv’s skyline, fitted with what were then the “smallest GPS in existence” of about ten grams, to uncover what they could about the secrets of the mammals’ neural abilities of nocturnal navigation around the man-made waypoints in the city’s skyline.

While perhaps not as elegant as aerial V-formations of geese, pelicans, or storks, timing their wing beats to catch eddies of air that seem to save birds some 20%-30% in energy, minimizing downdraft to an aerodynamic advantage, and flapping in phase to maximize energy by an anti-phase synchronizing of wingbeats in V-formation: bats’ far smaller wingbeats evolved fewer aerodynamic problems, and responded to fewer challenges of long-distance migration, but offer evidence of assembling spatial maps over time over a surprisingly expansive distance range.

Indeed, the almost nightly expeditions of bats–some 15 million from caves north of San Antonio TX, in summer months–that leave their caves for feasting on insects shows up on radar as explosions of “bioscatter,” whose emergence in search of food is so striking at large-scale that the small-scale tools of navigation by which the bats move from sundown need to be mapped in relation not only to seasonal meteorology, artificial light, and human disturbances of the environment, although it might be better to begin from more basic–still insufficiently understood–questions of how bats, all too often mischaracterized as “blind,” regularly map space. The National Weather Service mapped nocturnal emergence of bats from caves in Central Texas on its radar that appear to be explosions of meteorological imbalance, but in fact only track the nightly emergence of millions of bats, an efflorescence of cave-dwelling mammals bursting into flight from underground sites–what weather forecasters dismiss them “bioscatter” which raises immediate questions about the bats’ mapping tools, and the distributed networks of navigation that allow bats to fly across the state in search of food, without ever crashing into one another’s paths of flight.

if all maps are ‘surface readings’ and of necessity exclude often crucial sensory “noise,” do those green explosions miss the miracle of bioacoustics that allow sophisticated level of auditory discrimination for bats to move with a sense of where they are going–or what to avoid and what to eat!–while registering or encoding a map to allow them to return to the caves? What are we missing in mapping those bats as mere “biostatic,” of no meteorological significance, we are now asking what sorts of sounds bats are making to one another as swarms disperse from what seem fixed points? Are the bats best mapped as swarms, or do they have individual flight paths, and, if so, what is their form of air traffic control?

Without explicitly trying to revisit Nagel’s thesis, the data gained about the bat’s spatial sense of navigation and its brain capacities provided a sense of navigation as they flew above Tel Aviv’s skyscrapers in relation to the tallest towers of the built manmade environment by a GPS of their own devise, that revealed how bats possessed uncanny navigational skills to fly in straight lines at considerable elevations of over a hundred meters, using as points of reference trees up to twenty-five meters away. Outfitted with GPS chips, they mapped the progress made from bat pups’ first exploratory flights, theorizing their abilities to encode learned flight paths to identify the best routes to locate food sources in the city at distances far beyond what sonar allowed them to navigate, to accumulate a mental map of the city that they accrue over years around visual landmarks, taking shortcuts to move across dozens of kilometers.

Israeli researchers explained without much surprise how their bats navigated elevated points on the skyline of Tel Aviv as akin to the same GPS tools that they used to navigate their commutes around the skyscrapers that provided waypoints that were, somewhat quaintly, the very same waypoints of the researcher’s own daily commute: it seemed eerily natural that bats had substituted for other landmarks that bats employ to orient themselves to a skyscape to seek their food or find their diurnal dwellings, as a basis for aerial navigation that provide orientation to the built environment. It might make sense to ask who was enabled by technology, or how technologies allowed us to think like bats: scientists interpreted their data by consulting with pilots, in order to determine what sorts of landmarks the bats released near Bersheba to guide their fairly secure paths, or what types of spatial learning bats developed over time, and how they build maps that allow them to navigate areas as expansive as 100 sq km.

The studies of bats’ neural navigation nets began in 2011 in Israel, in a sense as a casualty of war: the military engagements in Israel created huge pressures on displaced and endangered animals, peace also provided new nesting opportunities for bats, as Haaretz reported Eran Levin of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Zoology discovered species-rich bat populations nesting in long-vacated army bunkers in the Jordan Valley, abandoned since the 1994, but now repurposed by displaced bats as perfect niches that mimic caves, repurposing the bunkers abandoned by Israel Defense Forces, vacant since peace accords with Jordan, but serving as a new habitat for large colonies of Egyptian fruit bats. The fruit bat populations provide a new sample group for zoological studies, providing a unique site to study bat populations, as help from Bat Conservation International and the Ford Foundation transformed the bunkers to homes for displaced bat colonies, including plastic nets and ropes to refashion their ceilings for bats that could restart new colonies holding up to twelve different species in twenty old unused bunkers, that have welcomed bats from the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, and Israel to temporary or perhaps permanent shelters.

If bat studies progressed in the West Bank, the space of urban bats have been studied to show their ability yto navigate from the desert locations as Bersheva to urban habitats. taking them to new areas in the desert over forty kilometers from their usual habitat, finding fruit trees where they feed in the desert, 44 kilometers south of their normal range, and releasing them at dusk who had no problems finding their ways back to their favorite fruit trees, and those who were released at dawn went back to their caves. The bats seemed to use landmarks to guide their paths of flight to do so, and the bats that were released in a crater, over eighty km south of their caves, gaining the purchase to start to fly north: as they took time to exit the crater and to get oriented and needed to leave the crater to place themselves against distant landmarks to return home–waypoints, as it were, to mark their own travels that we imagined computationally checked out, grasping their internal wayfinding abilities by analogy to our own use of GPS in multiple contexts; in what risks a circular argument, bats were argued to have internalized a GPS system. Did the GPS trackers enable researchers to map a bat navigating system, or to think that they had?

The surprising lack of difficulty that the bats had in moving collectively is striking. The success with which bats learned short cuts, and indeed re-oriented themselves to space against spatially removed landmarks, seemed to suggest that they had been caught in the act of building a sophisticated mental map on which they could draw, even if it did not derive in sight, as they could indeed “see” it in their minds, that raised questions of how to describe the mental processes by which they were able to navigate after having been moved almost fifty kilometers south of their usual feeding grounds, and easily able to find their familiar sites of rest by the following day: the description of the bats as moving against buildings by their “own GPS” applied the grids we use to navigate traffic, airspace, or bike rides to the cognitive tricks of the mental operations of bats, without missing a beat.

Tel Avivi researchers recently started monitoring a colony of 20,000 bats from birth could unlock secrets of sociability that allow colonies of thousands of bats to survive over forty years, and perhaps communicate, and indeed to all use their own abilities of sonar to fly together collectively within subjective tools, by a neural map that the abilities of echolocation bats use for closer range encounters.

Such studies suggest intriguing orientational abilities of mouse-eared bats to orient themselves by magnetic fields–as if by analogy to a compass–at sunset, when they emerge, the suggest possession of considerable orientational tools. but the study of how bats can cannily navigate Tel Aviv skylines suggested an uncanny ability to internalize built landscapes, and to study their behavior that would not cause duress to any single bat.

The image of the peaceful nocturnal navigation of the Holy Land seems a collective experiment for which funding must exist in Israel, the questions of echo-recognition were hoped to find a solution to how bats map human-built space, and perhaps the surprise came when they were recently explained to built a map akin to GPS as the means that “experienced bats” move with such surety across what seems a known space, taking short-cuts around buildings to find new paths to food, in ways that indicate they have built a map of the city in their bat-minds–or to cast the bats minds not as a different embodied experience, but akin to GPS machines.

The mapping tools strapped on their backs seem to have provided terms to allow us to imagine how bats navigate as a swarm–by a version of GPS?–as if the point-based mapping system that we adopt to move through space provides a basis for understanding how to be like a bat, or how a bat navigates space–the GPS monitors seem to adopt a sort of invisible agency in the experiment, indeed, that allow us to think we can indeed, pace Nagel, enter a bat’s mind. But the astounding adoption and growth of GPS as a universal translation device seems to have been extended across species in the experiment that ties GPS monitors as tools without their own spatial logic.

Whether such monitors afford a sense of what it is like for a bat to be like a bat may be less evident than the possible expansions of imagining a neural net or distributed network by which automated cars case use GPS. There is a sort of romancing of the GPS devices as an agent, in other words, that links the bats to one another, and allow serve as universal translating machines,–a version of the instantaneous translation of TARDIS, in Dr. Who, that relies on matters of telepathic fields, or the “babel fish” that excretes translations into the auditory canal in which it is implanted like an active hearing aid in an auditory channel, as a sort of prosthetic that provides instant empathy in Hitchhiker’s Guide, or the prosthetic Microsofts that plugged into “wetware” sockets behind the ear like a chips to offer exoskeletal enhancements enabling fluency in other languages: the conceit of simultaneous translation the was tweaked by Douglas Adams and William Gibson was imagined as needed to resolve an atomic stalemate that emerged during space travel, in Murray Leinster’s First Contact, as atomic detente after the encounter of a ship of humanoid bipeds are caught in a deadlock near the Crab Nebula–and leads to a memorable conclusion as humans learn to recognize the truly universal sounds of laughter after both ships find they have proposed the same solution.

The fiction of simultaneous translation in the 1945 story would be the basis for resolving the actual fears of atomic war at the foundation of the United Nations, which from its start promised to instantaneously translate all communications under its auspices into each of six “official” languages–Arabic; Chinese; English; French; Russian; Spanish–from the 1945 San Francisco Conference that led to its formal founding; instantaneous interpretation for speeches anywhere from as long as thirty-five minutes to a full hour became a basis for world peace, if one that Preter Pyotr Avaliani compared to “driving a car that has a steering wheel but no breaks and no reverse”–as it allows no time for corrections–characterized as premised on remembering enough short-term but forgetting the words one just said.

The analogy takes us back to unidirectional routes of travel, waypoints, and the creation of a mental map without what we recognize as vision, based on the supersensitive visual perceptions of far greater distances than we’ve imagined, if a vision not dependent on color sensitivity or differentiation.

The GPS device attached to the backs of the bats provided the very tools used to track their motion would allow us to think like a bat, at least in offering a basis to interpret the how the bats navigated airspace,–and make us realize that just as we enhance our navigational abilities by placing trust in Waze and “live” GPS navigation to avoid traffic jams and plot our daily commutes–or used to–they, too, allow us to think like bats.

But the elevation of way finding tools in GPS might make us imagine we’ve found way to think like bats, as opposed to equip them with translation devices that provide a better analogy to think about how they travel.

Echolocation and geolocation are different spatial logics. But we may be in danger of assimilating bats to a system of something like a GPS-inflected AI. If the earlier model of navigation by magnetic fields at sunset posed the problem of the internal compass by which bats move after sunset by magnetic fields, the mental dominance of GPS as a grid we have internalized around waypoints, destinations, and points of primary reference provides a new model to think about how bats do think.


Filed under bats, bioacoustics, data visualization, distributed intelligence, GPS devices

Distance Learning, Disrupted Learning & Social Eruptions

As I take my daily brisk walk, my mind turning to Dr. Anthony Fauci’s injunction to exercise, I daily move between the many signs posted outside houses in my neighborhood congratulating graduates of the Berkeley CA public high school my daughter attends or Oakland’s School of the Arts and Tech, I finish among million dollar homes sporting yard signs that congratulate graduates of elite private schools, I am regularly reminded of the shifting divides of public schooling across America in the most blasé of ways. The uneven distribution of different schools barely conceals the deep divisions between schools and families seems to widen in terrifying ways as the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the nation.

But if this might have been an opportunity for collective response, we have no evidence of any preparation to supplement what school networks offer, as if those who can afford the private tutors, off-site education, and private educational services are alone provided with continuing education, as other scramble to make up the gaps school closures create. Unprepared with a broader educational strategy in the midsized of a global pandemic, we have all in essence “left the library” of schools, pausing education or switching the nation onto a disembodied experience, that makes the old physical globes of schoolroom study seem emblems of a far less complicated past, when global topographies lay undisturbed beside books in cozy nooks, waiting, as it were, for new fingers to turn it with curiosity, while more and more schools are compelled to remain on the remote learning platforms to which they gradually shifted en masse over the month of March, 2020.

U.S. News & World Report/Bret Zeigler

The status of education–and of school closures and now school reopening–became a sort of political football. Despite the readiness of a switch to remote learning and online platforms of education, school closures echoed a cartography of abandonment, in unforgivable ways: if closures were born of necessity, and disorientation before the pandemic’s spread. And the levels of insecurity that have been fostered in the desire for mitigation may remind us that the problem of COVID-19 has been a crisis of public education, as much as a lack of frontline workers’ protective equipment–PPE–or adequate testing.

To be sure, the many functions that schools now provide across the social spectrum of the United States–meeting nutritive needs; offering social and emotional support and providing models outside the family for structuring time; minimal levels of health services–go far beyond being quantified by educational standards: by a magic trick of tests and quantification, government may have reduced education to metrics that erased their value as sites of community from the Bush administration, and led them to be sacrificed with deeper costs than many have registered. Without metric to tally schools’ dividends to students and communities, we omit the crucial educational role of instructing about coronavirus comportments–from regular hand washing to social distancing to mask-wearing, to bridge some of the enduring divides that have endured in the nation, with coastal “elites” donning masks more than the “heartland” of an expansive non-urbanized midwest.

Mapbox from Dynata Data/Upshot, New York Times July 17, 2020 (link to interactive map)

Is not the deep and tragic failure to not “educate” the nation to mask-wearing, sustained since the first cases of the coronavirus reached our shores, suggested the only the initial hot-spots where infections ravaged communities in the New York tristate area, Seattle, the Imperial Valley and coastal California, and central Texas are sites of mask-wearing, with Chicago, Detroit, Denver, the southwestern border and coastal southern Florida and Tallahassee. Only a fifth of the time or less were all five people who might meet at a large part of the nation likely to be wearing protective masks.

Why is such a paucity of mask-wearing continuing save an absence of public health education? There is a predictable if terrifying congruence with areas that were themselves, by the proxy of underserved medical communities Mitchell Thornson mapped, also by a Mapbox distribution of commute-based health centers, rather than by counties, to suggest the sites most vulnerable to disasters such as viral infections: even if the promise of a complete count of infections recedes, the inhabitants of some 300 counties underserved by federal health services suggests fault lines of future sites of vulnerability, that may accentuate with continued school closures.

Mitchell Thorson, clinics in counties medically underserved and vulnerable to disasters. featured in USA Today, March 31, 2020

These steep inequalities of health care suggested a very broad difference in those able to weather and sustain COVID-19, to which the Trump administration seemed blind. School closures created insecurities for American families was perhaps not different from globally, but they lacked any support network: social support had withdrawn to schools in the United States more than other nations. The lack of any narrative of the sudden closures, and interruption of human contact and resources that followed, were deeply disorienting. And the lack of oversight from a government that one expected, perhaps with little grounds, to provide a sense of purpose and oversight in an unprecedented health crisis was, unbelievably, punted to the states, and from the states to local school boards, utterly unprepared to cope or plan–as admittedly, even are many medical specialists and health professionals–with the scale of a pandemic.

It seemed like a charade of government effectiveness; Secretary DeVos shifted from leniency, lack of coordination, to steadfastness concealing unprecedented circumstances. And the recent possibility that private schools and sites of instruction will be allowed to open their doors, while poorly funded public schools serving adjoining communities, if sometimes distinct demographics: whereas public schools that serve up to 90% of American children–just short of 51 million (50.8) by federal projections–open for restricted hours if at all, private schools possess the needed funding for on-staff epidemiologists, thermal scanners, and additional teachers–as well as often enjoying more space.

The Emoji Icon Index tells at that on Instagram, the story of a skyrocketing use of the  😷 emoji from early March, as the. Face-with-Medical-Mask rose in use in parallel to the icon of the virus, but a plan for schools, quickly shuttered in China, was not imagined, as wishful thinking prevailed.

While our nation is prepared to react to the novel coronavirus by high-level cabinet meetings to bail out airlines after summoning executives or the bail out of banks, school are evidently far lower down the list. If Donald Trump prioritized cabinet-level meetings on bailing out the airline industries to ensure the Dept. of Treasury provided passenger airlines $25 billion, cargo haulers $4 billion, airports $10 billion and airline contractors $3 billion as industry lobbyists demanded to recognize a 95% reduction of passengers in response to the epidemic, saw meeting with executives to work out that deal worth the time of health officers and coronavirus response team–

–while he saw no similar body of school executives with whom he might meet in one room around a glistening desk with nametags, mugs of coffee and glasses of water. A past President of the P.T.A. of an Alameda CA public elementary school was familiar with reduced funding of California’s public schools since rollbacks on property taxes, smarted at the clear contrast of inability to prioritize public schooling as part of our national infrastructure. Is it not most probable that the very corporate structure of the airline industry provides a more familiar set of faces to interact earning high incomes, unlike the leaders of the dispersed structure of public schools, or community voices, that Trump is so much more apt to dismiss and neglect?

Or is it that the nation is ready to sacrifice the public schools that are less likely to have the funding, save in wealthier districts in Durham, NC or Charlottesville, VA, echoing lines of a deep class divide? Not only were private schools prepared to devote attention and benefited from technological resources to transition to online platforms in the Spring, but are able to use larger buildings and reduced class sizes to benefit the children who attend them, while the aging ventilations systems of older buildings of public schools lie on the other side of a technological divide that plagues the nation.

To be sure, there are deep discrepancies–informing the Mapbox Upshot map, of which one might be rightly suspicious given the potentially unsound sampling practices based on the interviews conducted by Dynata, both in the United States and globally,  based on 250,000 survey responses between July 2 and July 14; the surveys administered by a firm boasting to provide businesses with a sense of global trends of consumption able to reorient businesses and advertisers to “re-opening,” but while showing vast expanses with relatively lower incidence of a group of five wearing masks–

–fails to acknowledge a rift among state governors who recommend masks, rather than require mask-wearing–or the considerable role that mayors have consistently played in advocating mask-wearing, if they often appear over-ruled by governors who have been filling the absence of federal policy: the looses of “recommendations” in Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Oklahoma, Kansas and the Nebraskas meant that only in some cities, where mayors had advised protective measures, was mask-wearing adopted, creating a terrifying prospect for the pandemic’s future.

When Fauci addressed the question of health disparities between race, he reminded the nation stoically that “we are not going to solve the issues of health disparities this month or next month . . . but what we can do now, today,” the voice of reason was probably far less reasonable for many, who had already tuned out, before he described the need for social distancing that was, in fact, a privilege for many. The mottled nature of northeastern communities the Dynata found in its interviews suggested an uneven terrain of mask-wearing policies, even in the Tristate Area, dictated by individual choice–and underscoring the lack of regional or federal policies.

The social topography of crowding, of second homes and of gardens or access to parks that was revealed in the Bay Area made us think in practical terms to egregious inequities that were perpetuated by sustained lack of investment to resolve pronounced racial disparities in health came as COVID-19–and the uneven landscape revealed as the coronavirus tore through communities where it was contracted in the United States. The revelation of inequalities was striking, as it suggested how communities experienced it quite differently, and the question of access to education–and access to remote education–cut across social divides in profoundly different ways.

The almost purposeful pronounced lack of master narrative in confronting COVID-19 was long apparent. President Trump, grasping for authority as a true authoritarian playbook, argued the situation demands force, as his removed son-in-law, the dauphin Jared Kushner, spun 60,000 deaths from COVID-19 as a “great success story,” as if to challenge the nation’s personal narratives with a monolithic storyline of a disconnect from communities which were ravaged by hospitalizations. In claiming his father-in-law created a “pathway to safely open up this great country,” Kushner radiated overconfidence as he painted a future as rosy as the marble atrium of Trump Tower, even when the figures didn’t add up. It was akin to Trump’s 1993 proclamation, after huddling with bankruptcy lawyers to obtain new lines of credit, having had “the most successful year I’ve had in business!”–he reprised in a compulsive act of boosterism over the next decade, and continues to rely upon in the pandemic.

The dauphin Jared had not only used a spilt infinitive, but a split reality, a divergence destined to make the Presidential Election about COVID-19, whose malevolence is hard not to say: as the growth of rates of infection by the novel coronavirus most rapidly grew in the United States, claims Trump was doing “things right” with coronavirus testing plummeting to 30% percent, over twenty-five million unemployed and further furloughs coming, and one million infected by the coronavirus and 60,000 dead in a month, hardly fit narratives that suggest “great success,” even as the rates of infection from the coronavirus may have by mid-March grown greater in the United States than any place in the world, as escalating infection rates would continue to elevate the United States far beyond other nations. The manifestation of symptoms of COVID-19 grew two weeks after contracted, and by late March through late June, they had risen above all other nations.

Yet no clear plan for school closures had emerged on a national level in the United States, and denial at the danger of the infection’s growth dominated. Vice President Pence adopted similar talking points, in a few months, taking it upon himself to bestow premature congratulations that “we slowed the spread, we flattened the curve, we saved lives,” in a mismatch evident to any map in news media, but to the actuality on the ground.

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Filed under Coronavirus, COVID-19, education policies, remote learning, school closures

Cartographies of COVID-19: Our Unclear Path Forward

A pandemic is by its nature both local and global by definition–and begins from a local outbreak. But if the only way to gain orientation to a pandemic is by accurate local counts, the problem of balancing–or toggling between–the local and global has become staggeringly pronounced in the case of COVID-19, as if the point-based cartography that we use to track the disease has the better of us, and upper hand, with the absence of accurate local counts. The lack of clear data that came from Wuhan in the days that followed the outbreak of the virus revealed worrisome problems of transparency. The difficulty that the Chinese government had in getting a clear bearing on the zoonotic virus raised problems of even trying to map its rise, to which all data visualizations since seem to respond: as local officials were loathe to shoulder responsibility, the tally of infected in Hubei Province jumped, astoundingly, forcing the government to recognize the ease of its transmission among humans, was far more virulent than believed. But at this point, looking back in the mirror provides little sense of orientation to the multiplication of dispersed local outbreaks of coronavirus that we are increasingly challenged to map in relation to ourselves.

The sudden uptick of cases reveals a reticence in tallying the infected out of fears of reprisals for apparent incompetence, an institutional blame-shifting triggering mechanisms of concealment that has led American meat-packing plants to hide numbers of infected workers, and numbers of tests for infection to be far lower than official records suggest: the absence of ability to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2 led us to proliferate maps in hopes to grasp its rapid doubling, uncomfortable at the world they began to show, apprehensive at how to come to terms with the rapidity of local outbreaks of confirmed cases with sufficient granularity, and enough continuities, hoping to track contagion as hopes of containment were beginning to fade in the new aggregates that were increasingly evident.

New York Times

The warning of the virus’ spread was raised by Li Wenliang on December 30 from Wuhan, inter-agency shifting of blame and responsibility in Wuhan– a reflexive institutional blame-shifting by “throwing woks”–abruptly ceased with summons of Shanghai Mayor Ying Yong, he who lured Elon Musk to Shanghai, to restore order: as a new hospital was built, tallies of new cases of coronavirus in Hubei astronomically grew by nine from 1,638 to 14,840, shocking the world–a figure was in keeping with the nearly 1,400 people dead in the country, but suggesting a viral load of unprecedented proportions. Americans apprehensively watched the disease afflicting passengers of cruise liners as if it would arrive ashore, its virulence was in fact already of pandemic proportions: yet American disinformation here took over, as we were told to stick our heads in the sand, ostrich-like, as fears were overblown, and tried to keep calm. And then, the tables were turned, as the United States President described, or suggested, a national policy of intentional undercounts, and limited testing, lest the counts discovered tank his popularity–the stock market value of Trump, International, or, rather, Trump-in-Office, Trump-as-Chief-Executive, whose new season might be canceled due to low ratings. And although the virus began in China, how the United States increasingly came to be the outlier in the numbers of infection confirmed weekly suggested a national story of mismanagement, as the narrative we told ourselves of American exceptionalism before illness seemed to have boomeranged, with the three-day averages of confirmed infections skyrocketing, and setting us apart from the very nations we compare ourselves to, but whose health-care policy we increasingly realize we are distinct from.

Americans were soothed by deceptive common-sense talk. But the results of a lack of investment in public health are all too evident, if our maps are . Robert Redfield, a virologist who served as the public spokesperson of reassurance who had long sustained false theories about retroviruses causing HIV and AIDS, argued that even if the fourteen confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus were monitored and traced, “the virus more exploded . . beyond public health capacity,” he seemed to forget he had not developed that capacity. Virology is of course Dr. Redfield’s area of expertise, but he won his political post in no small part by being practiced in massaging truth statements for political ends. During AIDS outbreak, the last major plague in the United States, he had advocated unproven drugs billed as HIV vaccines and encouraged quarantine, abstinence, and stripping the medical licenses of HIV-infected medical workers, more than accelerating cures; Redfield took time to blame the Obama administration for implementing clinical tests, to please his patron. Bt he obscured the level of infections that in truth were not known, blinding the nation to a cartography of COVID by not advancing adequate levels of testing, that returned us to the simple equation of the dog days of AIDS, only able to make us yell, yet again, this time with Larry Kramer, stalwart resistor of the silencing of AIDS by the failure to use on-trial medicine–

–at the utter deception with which we met the pandemic. Dr. Redfield must have met his commission to radiate calm by assuring Americans in late February. As he assured us only fourteen cases had been diagnosed in the United States, the number meant little, as any virologist should kmow; while hindsight is a benefit that obscures us from the need to life life forwards, we suspect urban hotspots were already laden with infected individuals by March 1, a silent ticking bomb of urban outbreaks already infecting 28,000 as it spread broadly its “hotspots”–New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and Chicago–all of massively different density, without tests being able to affirm the scale of its spread.

There was no map. And then, all of a sudden, the globalization of coronavirus hit home; any place in the world could be related to any other place, as rates of infection bloomed globally in geographically disjointed hotspots, spatially removed from one another, even as a standard for uniform testing lacked. And there was no sense of an art of dying, as the amazingly rapid contraction and worsening of illnesses left many without a script, and many more silent before a dizzying multiplication of statistics of mortality in the face of COVID-19, several weeks later.

Every other map of COVID-19’s spread seems an attempt to persuade the viewer of its accuracy and totality, in retrospect, even as we have no clear sense of the total figures of infection-or even of the paths infection takes. We are mystified by the geography and spatial dynamics of the virus’ travel, but realize the severe communicability of a virus whose load is stored in the naso-laryngeal passages, and can be communicated by airborne drops. Is distancing the best way we can constrain the geographic spread of infection? Can statistics demonstrate the success of curtailing its spread?

It was a hidden agenda in the maps of news agencies and to register the accurate levels of infection, promising the sorts of transparency that had been clouded in much of January. And while we watch the progress of the pandemic on screens, there is a sense of truth-telling, as a result, of revealing the scope of the virus’ actual spread that compensates for the lack of clarity we once had. But it is also increasingly difficult to orient ourselves to the GPS-enabled scales of its spread, for we still are looking at pretty limited and almost superficial data, in the sense we have trouble plotting it in a narrative context, or find a reaction more than shock. The virus is easy in ways to personify as a threat–it wants us outside; it comes from afar; it pervades public spaces and hospital grounds; it demands vigilant hand-washing and sanitizing–but the very numbest are elusive. While we try to track reported cases, hoping that these limited datasets will provide orientation, we have been lumping numbers of tests that might be apples and oranges, and have not found a consistent manner of testing. Deaths are difficult to attribute, for some, since there are different sites where the virus might settle in our bodies.

Even while not really following the pathways of its transmission, and the microscopic scale of the progress of the pathogen in bodies. And if we rely on or expect data visualizations will present information in readily graspable terms, we rarely come to question the logics that underly them, and the logics are limited given the poor levels of global testing for COVID-19. It is frustrating that our GPS maps, which we seem able to map the world, can map numbers of surrogates for viral spread, but we have yet to find a way to read the numbers in a clear narrative, but are floored by the apparently miasmatic spread of such a highly contagious disease that makes us feel, as historian of science Lorraine Daston put it, that we are in “ground zero of empiricism,” as if we are now all in the seventeenth century, not only in being vulnerable to a disease far less dangerous or deadly than Yersina pestis, but without explanatory and diagnostic tools.

This was, to be sure, a past plague come to life, requiring new garb of masks, face-shields, and protective gear for health workers–

–as the cloaks, leather gloves, staffs and masks that made up early modern protective gear returned to fashion, as if in a time warp, in new form.

We find a leveling between folk remedies and modern medicine, as we live collectively in what she calls a “ground-zero moment of empiricism”–if one in which we are deluged by data, but short in knowing what is data, as we are lacking in explanatory models. This is a bit unfair, as we still can profit from autopsies, and have been able to contain spread by hand-washing–but the images of a single magic bullet, or antiviral cure, are far, far away in time. But there is no longer any familiarity with an art of dying, although we found we encountered death with an unforeseen and unpleasant rapidity: we moved from hopes for awaiting immunity or antivirals to a basic need for some consolation of our mortality. There was no possibility of transcendence in a crisis of mortality of dimensions and scope that seem outside the modern era.

And it is ironic that distancing is the best mode to prevent infection–and many deaths may have been enabled by quicker decisions to adopt practices of distancing that could manage viral spread, Trump seemed not to notice that the very globalization he had resisted, and swung against with all his force to win votes, had facilitated the spread of a viral agent whose arrival was denied even as SARS-CoV-2 had already begun to flood the United States, in ways we only mapped in retrospect, as a global village that by March 1 had already grown satellites of viral loads in South Korea, the Middle East, Iran (Teheran), Europe (Milan; Gotheborg), South East Asia, and Hong Kong, as we anticipated its arrival with no health policy in place and no strategy for containing what was already on our shores. The global crossroads defied any choropleth, but we had only mapped the virus for some time in choropleths, as if believing by doing so we could not only map it by national boundaries to keep the virus at bay.

New York Times

But if we lacked a model of infection and communication of COVID-19, we lacked a sense of the geography by which to understand its spread–and to map it–and also, deeply problematically, an inter-agency coordination to assess and respond to the virus’ spread as we sought to contain it: and in the United States, the absence of any coordinating public health agency has left the country in something like free-fall, a cluelessness emblematic by a map cautioning American travelers to take enhanced protections while traveling in Italy or Japan, two major destinations of travel, and avoid all nonessential travel to China, but refrained from ceasing travel plans.

1. The most compelling language of the novel coronavirus is “false positives” and “false negatives,” that seem to betray the unsure nature of standards; the most haunting is the multiple sites COVID-19 can appear in the sites of the body we use to map most disease. While we associate the virus with our respiratory tracts, the virus can do damage to multiple organ systems, as well as create blotchiness of “covid toes” due to burst peripheral blood vessels; it can damage multiple organ systems simultaneously, including the kidneys, heart, lungs, brain, and linger in our intestinal tract where it can flourish and proliferate; the virus can reduce the ability of our blood to form clots, or disable our ability to form clots.  The ACE-2 receptor protein, a launching pad for viral infections, lies in our lungs and respiratory tract but in stomach, intestines, liver, kidneys, and brain. Increased sensitivities among those suffering from high blood pressure, cardiac disease, and diabetes reflect the nosological difficulties of classifying the virus as a cause of death or to grasp it as an illness, let alone to read data about the disease. If the virus lodges in the most delicate structures of the alveoli, which it causes to collapse as it infects their lining, it can take multiple pathways in the body, and as its pathway of infection may be multiple, medical response must be improvised with no playbook for clinical care.

All we know is that our medical staff desperately need protective gear. On top of that, it hardly helps that we are without a clear national policy, and find that the United States government has engaged in far less transparency that one could have ever expected.

We can only say its spread is accelerated dramatically by structures of globalization, and it stands to disrupt them. utterly Even as we map what seem total global knowledge of the disease, analogous to what we have come to expect from Global Positioning System, the multiple holes in our picture of the spread of the disease provide little sense of mastery over the pathways of communication, contraction, and infection we have come to expect from maps. These maps may even be especially disorienting in a world where expertise is often dismissed in the United States–not only by the U.S. President, but out of frustration at the inability to distance, diagnose, track or supervise the disease that is increasingly threatens to get the better hand. Have our visualizations been something of a losing battle, or a war of atrophy we will not win? Or do we even know what sorts of data to look at–indeed, what is information that can help us process a sense of what might be the geography of the contraction or the transmutability of the virus? Is the virus eluding our maps, as we try to make them? These sort of questions of making sense may be the process of science, but they trace, suddenly, a far steepder learning curve than we are used.

A dismissed biomedical researcher who ran efforts to develop a vaccine cautioned that we still lack that the failure a trusted, standard, and centralized plan for testing strategies must play a part in the coordinated plan “to take this nation through this response.” Dr. Bright, who was abruptly removed last month from his position as head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, bemoaned the limited statistics, alas, in large part as fear of providing too many tests–or fanning the flames of insecurity that testing might promote in the general public and in our financial markets, seem to have created the most dangerously deceptive scenario in which the United States seems to be committed to projecting confidence, even if it is the global epicenter of the pandemic.

Have we developed a language to orient ourselves to the scale of emergency in the spread of COVID-19? While we turn to images of natural disasters in describing the “epicenter” of the outbreak in Wuhan, this hardly conjures the species jump and under-the-radar communication of the virus that was not tracked for months before it emerged as a global threat. In tracking COVID-19 globally, or over a broad expanse of nations or states, we often ignored the pathways by which the novel coronavirus is spread in crowded spaces, where the single strand of RNA may hang in droplets that linger in the air, and are looking at the small scale maps to track a microscopic pathogen. But we are increasingly aware the spread of these strands, of the virus SARS-CoV-2, that infect populations along increasingly unequal fault lines that divide our cities, nations, health care systems, and crowding, or access to open space, are all poorly mapped in the choropleths into which we continue to smooth the datasets of infections and hospitalizations. While the problems are posed for national health services in each region, the devastation and danger of overloading public health systems and hospitals outweighs are local manifestations of a global crisis of the likes we have not confronted.

2. And the crowding of such numbers beyond the buffers that began with lead to a visual crowding by which we continue to be overwhelmed–and will have been overwhelmed for some time.

April, COIVID-19Iinfections Globally by Country/Clustrmaps May 12, 20202020

For although the global pandemic will clearly be with us for a long time, spatial narratives might be more likely to emerge in networks and in forms of vulnerability, in ways that might reveal a more pronounced set of narratives for how we can respond to a virus than the deep blues of even the limited and constrained datasets that we have, as we struggle against the blindness we have in containment and mitigation, and the frustration of the lack of anything like a vaccine. (This pandemic is almost a metastasis of the anti-vaxxers: confirmation that a vaccine cannot check a disease, it gives rise to concerns that vaccinations might have left us immunologically more vulnerable to its spread . . .and a sense that the hope of eradicating COVID-19 by the availability of a vaccination in four to five years will be widely resisted by anti-vaxxers and their acolytes, to whom the pandemic has given so much new steam. Yet as the virus interacts with the viral posting of anti-vaxxers resisting social distancing or collective policies of response, the stresses that exist in our society will only be amplified.) And if as late as February 24, only three laboratories in the United States did test for COVID-19–artificially lowering public numbers–even confirmed numbers through March and April were as a result tragically low. Could maps even help to track the disease without a testing apparatus in place?

Global Covid Infections/Datascraped by Avi Schiffman, May 11, 2020

The prestige of the data visualization has been a basis for reopening the nation. Yet if less than a tenth of the world’s population has yet to be exposed to the disease–and perhaps only 5% of the American population, in one estimate, if not lower–the virus is bound to be endemic to the global landscape for quite a considerable length of time. At the same time, one must wonder if the many fault lines that have created such peaks and valleys in the virus’ spread, if confirming its highly infectious nature, to be sure, are not removed from us in some degree by the smooth surfaces of the screens on which we watch and monitor, breath bated, with some terror, its spread, unsure of the accuracy or completeness of the data on which they are based but attentive to whatever they reveal. In many ways, these maps have created an even more precarious relation to the screen, and to the hopes that we find some sign of hope within their spread, or hope to grasp the ungraspable nature of COVID-19.

These datamaps suggest a purchase on a disease we don’t understand, and we don’t even have good numbers on contraction. Yet we are discussing “reopening” the United States, while we do not have anything approaching a vaccine, let alone the multiple vaccines that medical authorities desire before resuming social contact at pre-pandemic levels. How to process the data that we have, and how to view the maps not only by hovering, zooming in, or distancing the growing rates of infection, but tracking the virus in spaces, mapping levels of infection against adequacy of testing, mortalities against comorbidities, against with the chronic nature of the virus must be understood, as well as levels of hospitalization levels; and distinctions or mutations of the virus and against age ranges of afflicted–by, in other words, drilling beneath the datasets to make our maps’ smooth surfaces more legible, as horrifying as they are?

Can we use what we have to pose problems about the new nature of this contagion we don’t fully understand, but has been mapped in ways that seek to staunch fears of a decline in the stock market, as much as an emergency of public health, with up to one third of the population at risk of infection? The instinctive reaction of the Trump Health and Human Services to create public-private “community testing sites” for drive-thru or drive-up testing at Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, Kroger and other pharmacies seems reflexive for a government wanting to minimize federal overhead, but a far less exact means, and a far less intuitively sensible basis to attract potentially infected individuals to sites of public congregation. The hope of Verily–a subsidiary of Alphabet, whose Project Baseline boasts the slogan, “We’ve Mapped the World, Now Let’s Map Human Health,” in a bizarrely boosterish rhetoric, aggregates medical for medical screening in California–

Select States for Project Baseline Testing/Verily

–and select states–was the primary response that Trump had promised of a network of drive-up testing sites that has never materialized, even as it expanded to a hundred sites in thirty states. After Walmart opened two sites, and Walmart 40, the difficult accuracy of creating multiple testing sites was prohibitive, the testing sites that were rolled out with the assistance of private entrepreneurs that Jared Kushner enlisted, that filled the absence of any coherent public health response–perhaps, terrifyingly, in concert with his brother’s health care company, Oscar, which also partnered with CVS and some of the same pharmaceutical services, focussing on drive-thru sites more than sustained medical care, focussing largely on calming retailers who feared the arrival of infected patients on their parking lots, more than on the efficacy of testing, which they didn’t understand. If only 40% of promised test kits were made available, the absence of providing staffers or selling, as in Massachusetts, self-testing kits–and failing to provide many in large cities like New Orleans, as if to keep the final tally of infected artificially low. Even if the Center for Disease Controls had never done clinical tests on hydrochloroquine, whose dangers on humans were not studied, and despite some benefits of the antiviral on cell cultures, none appeared in mice, the drug was promoted widely on social media as late as April, although its mention on Twitter grew, even as the government delayed any roll-out of testing sites.

The demand to calm the nation, a position dangerously close to concealment, delayed action on a wave of infection that President Trump had long sought to deny, claim to be overblown, or call Fake News. The lack of a public testing initiative, and rejection of the tests of other nations, forced the United States to adopt a disorganized go-it-aloneist approach, akin to isolationism, not benefiting from the potential ties to Chinese doctors’ response, or the testing kits that would have been available that the World Health Organization (WHO) had suspected since January, and made test kits for poorer countries that might be replicated in the United States–which chose to make its own tests to ensure the highest quality. When WHO had urged countries “test, test, test” for the coronavirus to contain its spread, the global health organization provided 1.5 million tests to 120 countries who lacked the ability to test by March 16; the United States went without the diagnostic tests developed in Berlin by la Charité, implemented in Germany. If the United States had submitted a test to WHO as well, the German test the health organization adopted was never used or ordered–and by mid-March processed a sixth the specimens as in Italy, with found over six times as many cases, and an eleventh as in South Korea, which found double the cases.

By April, the picture had improved, but not much.

COVID Tracking Project (Data)

And based on later data of the virus that spread to other American cities, the virus that had infected so many in New York seems to have spread to other American metropoles by May, as we were still awaiting broad testing.

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Filed under data visualization, disease maps, infectious diseases, public health, US Politics


If elites have long harangued lower classes for continuing behavior that continued to spread disease, interpretation of the spread of illness has rarely divided so strikingly along separate interpretations. It is as if life or death matters were open to public debate: rarely have reactions to an infection been able to be received so clearly along partisan lines. While reaction to COVID-19 were long cast in partisan terms by the President, our Fearless Leader of Little Empathy, as far overblown, the surprise was perhaps that even as the data grew, and the exponential growth of infections in American cities began, the decision to announce Shelter-In-Place directives in hopes to “flatten the curve” shuttering non-essential businesses with increased fears of overloading public health facilities.

Faced by drastically uneven hospital bed capacities in individual states, reflecting existing fears of hospital bed capacities for intensive care units or floor beds, and deepening fears of needs to add increased beds across the nation, to confront a major public health emergency. Using different scenarios of increased needs for beds based on infection rates, a relatively moderate need for beds: infection of a fifth of the population in six months would compel expanding existing capacity for beds in multiple western states already hard-hit form infections, like Washington and California, east coast states, including Massachusetts and New York, and Midwest’s like Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota, and many pockets of other states, including Louisiana. Actual fears of such an impending emergency of public health emergency —

The Upshot/New York Times/March 17, 2020

–grows even sharper if one allows oneself to imagine an expansion of infection rates to 40%–not unheard of for the highly infectious novel coronavirus–over the same six month period:

.The Upshot/Interactive Version/March 17, 2020

1. Even as “Shelter-in-Place” measures sought to staunch the spread of infections across the nation, the uneven nature of the measures adopted by state governors, mayors, and counties suggested a fragmenting of the nation, as the governors of many states reacted to the issuance of shelter-in-place orders or stay-at-home directives by declaring their separate rule of law, in the words of Alabama’s Governor, “we are not New York state, we are not California–right now is not the time to shelter in place.”

Shelter in Place Measures Confined to Bay Area/Washington Post, March 15

Yet if the confirmed infections of the novel coronavirus seemed concentrated in preponderance in Louisiana, California, and New York, the virulence of its transmission was far more widely distributed, Philip Bump created a simple overlay to show, and the readiness of imposing measures of restriction were often resistant to accept school closures, or shuttering bars and restaurants as a means to restrain the virus’ spread.

httpsPhilip Bump, Washington Post, March 17 2020

Such choropleths are poor indicator of concentration and dispersion of infection, or of the “hot-spots” early watchers of the novel coronavirus hoped to isolate, folks commuting from counties of identifiable outbreaks created an immediately far more complicated map of viral dispersal, often crossing state lines and state jurisdictions at the very start of March, as work commuting alone bled from 34 counties into 1,356–even into Mississippi!

County-to-County Commutes from Confirmed Cases of Coronavirus COVID-19/March 3
BRENNEJM, r/dataisbeautiful/

Despite some a lone call the President impose a national shelter-in-place order, but the response of asking for a collective sacrifice would be hard to imagine. But the animosity that Trump revealed to any governors who tried to impose a policy of social distancing has intensified a new sense of federalism, as the increasing opposition that President Trump has directed toward Governors who have responded with attempts to enforce social distancing led, mutatis mutandis, to a new call for “liberating” states from social distancing requirements, President Trump announced April 21 that “We are opening up America again,” with great content, heralding an “opening” across twenty states comprising two-fifths of the nation’s population, if partial reopening are only slated in eighteen states.

But how could one say that the need for social distancing was not increasingly important, in a nation where health care is not only not accessible to many, but that hospital bed capacity is uneven–and would need to be ramped up to serve the communities–

–but that many areas are distant from ready testing, diagnosis, or indeed the ability for easily accessible health care? What is COVID-19, if not a major wake-up call for disparities in public health and medical access?

New York Times

–and many regions suffer severe health care professional shortages, that have been obscured in the deep shortages of health professionals, according to Rural Health Info, who have revealed these gaps in the following infographic, but many towns in each county remain difficult to get to hospitals in time in cases of emergency or need.

2. The legitimacy offered to “re-opening” states for business channeled a rousing sense of false populism across the nation, courting possible onset of a second wave of infections by easing llocal restrictions on social distancing–although testing is at a third of the level to warrant safe a transition, several governors claim “favorable data” to justify opening shuttered businesses. But when @RealDonaldTrump retweeted an attack on public safety measures against COVID-19 that were enacted in California and other states to slow airborne viral infection that labeled the closures of bars, restaurants, and theaters as revealing local states’ “totalitarian impulses” in the face of COVID-19, as having effectively “impaired the fundamental rights of tens of millions of persons” and flagrantly abrogating constitutional rights and natural liberties: the endorsing of a tweet of former judge, Andrew Napolitano, of an open “assault our freedom in violation of Constitution” demeaning sheltering policies as”nanny-state rules . . . unlawful and unworthy of respect or compliance,” inviting the sort of social disobedience, encouraging the stress-test on our nation that the pandemic poses be generalized?

COVID-19 Infection Rates in United States/New York Times/March 27, 2020

While the calls to prevent violations of the U.S. Constitution have grown in recent weeks from March to April, it makes sense to question the validity of an eighteenth-century document to a public health emergency–or to abilities to respond to a zoonotic disease of the twenty-first century. Never mind that such arguments ignore the reserving of rights of state governors in the U.S. Constitutions Tenth Amendment to protect the safety, health, and welfare of the inhabitants of their territory, is the ability to manage state health not a calculus for public health officers, rather than a partisan debate? There is a despicable false populism and rabble rousing in decrying “nanny-state rules” as “unlawful and unworthy of compliance,” and covers for “assaults on freedom” as a Lockeian natural right. Yet in retweeting such charges and denigrating policies of social distancing as “subject to the whims of politicians in power,” President Trump perpetuated the notion that medical consensus was akin to an individual removed from public concerns. In doing so, Trump echoed the opinion of a member of his own Coronavirus Economic Advisory Task Force, Heritage Foundation member Stephen Moore, to protest “government injustices” echoing false populist calls to “liberate” Michigan and Minnesota from decrees of Democratic governors. As Moore called for further protests, opening a group, Save Our Country, dedicated to agitating for the reopening of states, out of concern for the “abridgment of freedom” of sheltering in place.

The call to arms over a rejection of social distancing emphasized the translation of the pandemic into purely partisan terms, and echoed the partisan resistance to the states-right discourse of a rejection of health care, using the panmdemic to divide the nation along party lines.

3. The weekend before SIP was announced in the East Bay, my daughter’s High School suspended, and I snuck out in the mask-free days for a Monday morning coffee at my favorite café, where my friend Mike caused some consternation in line by ordering through his black 3M facemask. The mood was survivalist and grim, but we stopped outside our local Safeway, as if to provisions before an impending lockdown, looking for half-and-half. Staring me in the eyes, Mike said with some resignation that the massive mortalities in northern Italy were our future in a week at most, as the spreading waves of infections migrated crosscountry, approaching in something like a delayed real time; the question was only when “It’s gonna happen here.

What was happening across the Atlantic Ocean was trending not only on social media, but was being attentively followed by epidemiologists like Dr. Cody, apprehensive of the state of development of pubic health across the entire East Bay.

The Public Health Officers in the region had been haunted by the vision, alerted by the tangible fears of the Santa Clara Public Health Officer, Dr. Sara Cody. That very day, Cody was convening the coming early Monday morning, gripped by a sense of panic for a need for action, as the public drinking festivities of St. Patrick’s Day loomed, and as Chinese health authorities curbed travel and cancelled New Years celebration, even if its airborne communication was doubted, in hopes to contain an outbreak that still seemed centered in its largest numbers in Wuhan province–

Quartz, January 22, 2020

4. It was if we were watching in real-time image the global ballooning of COVID-19 infections in the Bay Area feared was on its way to Silicon Valley, or the entire Bay Area, as the virus traveled overseas. The lockdown that had begun in northern Italian towns in a very localized manner from late February when a hundred and fifty two cases were found in Turin, Milan, and the Veneto, had, after all, only recently expanded to the peninsula, filling Intensive Care Units of hospitals or transforming them to morgues. Although elegant graphics provided a compelling narrative, with the benefit of retrospect, that “Italy’s Virus Shutdown Came Too Late,” the interactive story of a “delayed” shutdown after the February 24 shutdown of sites of outbreak within days of the first identification of an infection in Milan, across two “red zones” around Italian cities, and the March 3 cordoning of larger areas.

February 24, 2020 Lockdowns in Northern Italy
Lockdown in Response to COVID-19, March 8 2020

The reluctance to impose a broader shutdown over the northern economy created a tension between commerce and public health that led to a late ‘shutdown’ of the movement across the peninsula by March 10 to prevent infection risks, haunted by public health disaster.

Multiplication of COVID-19 Cases in Italy, February 27-March 12, 2020 BBC

Fears of the actuality of a similar public health disaster spreading under her nose led Dr. Cody to convene a quick check-up with local public health officers to see if they registered a similar alarm, and what policy changes were available across a region whose populations are so tightly tied. And the need to convene a mini-summit of Public Health Officers to take the temperature of willingness to recommend immediate public policy changes was on the front burner, as one looked at the huge difficulty of containing the outbreak in Italy–often argued to not have been responded to immediately enough, but revealing a full public health response that the Bay Area might not be able to muster, as Italy’s hospitals were flooded by patients with infections and was on its way to become the site of the most Coronavirus deaths.

Vivid fears a growth of COVID-19 filling the hospitals and emergency rooms after St. Patrick’s Day–an event for a far larger audience contracting the aggressive virus–led Dr. Cody to arrange a group call among the Public Health Officers in San Matteo and San Francisco early Monda. Dr. Cody had broad epidemiological training was rooted in an appreciation of contagious disease–including contagious diseases outbreaks like SARS, H1N1 influenza, and salmonella, and had worked on planning for public health emergencies and completed a two yer fellowship in Epidemiolgoy and Public Health, managing E. coli outbreaks as an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer with CDC. Fears “crystallized” quickly of a scenario of similarly exponential rise in case loads making Silicon Valley a new epicenter outbreak of an epidemic overwhelming the public health services. As she quickly contacted Public Health Officers in San Francisco and San Matteo, to contemplate a response, by March 8, a lockdown in all Lombardy and other states was declared, as COVID-19 cases multiplied, in a chilling public health disaster replicating the lockdown in China.

In contrast to the uncertain public health numbers from China, as the city’s airport, highways, and rail stations, images of massive mortality from health care disasters in Italy were haunting and suddenly far closer in space, even if cases of viral infection were already reported in each province, Macao, Hong Kong, and Taiwan–revealing a global pandemic that linked place to a global space in ways difficult for some to get their minds around. The honesty that came out of Italy was an alarm.

The Bay Area health authorities were looked with apprehension at the arrival of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, after the exponential growth of infections from COVID-19 in the region: Dr. Mirco Nacoti had just published an eye-catching account of the catastrophic conditions of Ospedale Pap Giovanni XXIII in Bergamo that weekend, describing the levels of general contamination of caring for COVID-19 patients, for whom over two thirds of ICU beds were reserved, and filled a third of 900 rooms in thd peer-reviewed NEJM Catalyst; he described phantasmagoric scenes of a hospital near collapse as patients occupied mattresses on the grounds, intensive care beds had long waiting lines and with shortages of both masks and ventilators, and poorly sterilized hospitals became conduits for the expansion of diseases. The clinical model for private care incapacitated, as patients were left without palliative care; a surge of deaths in overcrowded wards overtook China’s community-based clinics at such higher death rates of 7,3% Italian doctors plead felt incapacitated by the surge of cases overflowing at intensive care units from March 9-11 as a model for mass infection, before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.

The desperation of a staged re-enactment of Michelangelo’s Pietà of L’Espresso were a few weeks or so off. While the spread of infections in our region had not yet begun, ant eh below photoshoot by Fabio Buciarelli did not appear until April 5, we were still formulation the desperation of confronting the ravages of disease we lacked time to develop any reactions, processing current or impending mortality rates.

Fabrizio Bucciarelli/COVID-19 Pietà. 5 aprile 2020, L’Espresso

The danger of trusting scientific modeling, or data, and fostering deep suspicions of trusting data on confirmed infections, or modeling that suggested the danger of failing to practice social distancing.

5. Decisions to “shelter in place” promised to “slow the spread” of COVID-19 transmitted widely in group settings, and able to create a public health disaster in the Bay Area, and was quickly followed by Santa Cruz county. After the growth of cases in Santa Clara county–whose rates of infection doubled over the weekend to 138 as of Monday–the absence of a any national restraining order save a suggestion to social distance, as Seattle cases of infection had grown to 400–and some 273 cases of infection had appeared over th weekend, despite limited testing availability.

The clear eventuality of a public health disaster, after a directive closing bars, night clubs, and large gatherings, as well as many school closures in San Francisco and the East Bay–where my daughter attends Berkeley High, whose doors shuttered on March 13; Los Angeles’ mayor, Eric Garcetti, closed bars, gyms, movie theaters, bowling alleys and indoor entertainment on late Sunday night, as Gov. Newsom encourage all elderly to self-isolate immediately. The 6.7 million in the Bay Area early agreed on the need for a “shelter in place” order as a basis to control the spread of COVID-19 that had been discovered in the region on March 16, 2020, anticipating the nation by some time.

The closure of all non-essential businesses in the seven counties sprung from the epicenter of Santa Clara county–Silicon Valley–but included affected a much larger area of commuters, no doubt, across an interlinked region of commuting far across the northern state to twelve other counties.

The cases in Italy would only grow, creating a textbook case of the exponential expansion of illness that killed a terrifying number of physicians in hospitals on the front lines against its expansion, as the arrival of medical supplies and medical viral specialists from China increased the logic of the lockdown as a response to its spread.

The evident stresses on the health care system of Lombardy, where a terrifying number of physicians on the front line contracted the virus and died, in the wealthy region of Lombardy, distanced the disease whose effects were projected or distanced onto China, and provided a clear scenario that Cody understood could be repeated, with even worse consequences, in the crowded population and limited health facilities of Santa Clara County: her own close ties to public health authorities in Italy made the exponential growth of cases from February 21 across the peninsula seem a preparatory run-through for a future disaster, as China was sending increasing medical supplies and specialists to Italy in a global story as a pandemic was declared in China March 11; northern provinces were declared under lockdown March 8 quickly extended to the nation, as a spike in 1,247 cases were found on the previous day.

When Cody urgently alerted San Francisco Public Health Officer, Dr. Tomás Aragón, to discuss the fears of a new epicenter of COVID-19 spread in Silicon Valley, they did not start by contemplating their authority to issue a legally binding directive to shutter businesses in the region. But as they discussed consequences of the exponential increase in Santa Clara County and the greater danger of facing an analogous overwhelming of pubic health hospitals as in Italy, haunted by a danger of a similar scenario overwhelming public health, and Cody’s tangible fear, Aragón floated the idea of a shutdown, acknowledging their authority of acting without permission of governors.or mayors or county supervisors; the call touched on a series of calls to debate options, including the most dramatic — a lockdown order–which seemed the only certain means to enforce isolation and social distancing haunted by the image of the increased diagnosis of COVID-19 across the Italian peninsula that would indeed only be publicly released March 18. Two days later, Governor Newsom expanded the policy to the entire state; the time lag meant that by late April, almost half of all infected with the novel Coronavirus in California were found in Los Angeles County, and were facing the prospect of overloading its public health system and hospitals.

Diagnoses of COVID-19 in Italy/ Ministero di Sanitá, March 18 2020

The influence of the health care provider Kaiser Permanente was unseen, but the preventive agenda of the health provider can be seen in a sense in the shadows of this quick consensus among six Public Health Officers. But the qyuick defense of the decision–soon followed by dozens of states since–suggests the prominence of Kaiser Health Care in the dynamic of emphasizing preventive health care, and in anticipating epidemiological spread. Cody’s brave insight into the fact that northern Italy provided a rehearsal for the public health disaster, shifting from the ban on mass gatherings to a concerted effort to isolate millions, was less apparent to the nation.

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Filed under Coronavirus, COVID-19, data visualization, global pandemic, Shelter in Place

Losing Beaches, Losing Places

We have long considered man’s impact on the world, but are only starting to be able to chart the vastness of the scope of anthropogenic change. And wen it comes to the contraction of shores and beaches that has been forecast in current climate scenarios, the oldest of human environments, the shoreline and coast, seems in danger of drastic reduction at a scale we have rarely considered. The shifting littoral landscapse of the world have ben long neglected, if they are turned to each Earth Day for coastal cleanups and have been the site of intense preoccupations as a result of sea-level rise, as we have protected much of our national seashore.

National Seashore (National Park Service)

But the prospect of an accelerated global erosion of coastal landscapes, and the loss of beaches, have only begun to be processed as triggering cascading consequences from disturbing ecological niches and coastal economies to the human relation to the natural world–a new relation to global ecology that we may well lack the vocabulary and structures to map on adequate scale to process, let alone discuss. But the mapping of coastal retreat that is projected for the coming century charts the magnitude of the scale of impact of human-created modification of a global environment in NOAA’s Fluid Dynamics Project calls for a broader reckoning of the impact on the global environment that stands to be created by coastal retreat akin to a global pandemic like SARS-CoV-2, and a remapping of the global shorelines that we have a very limited chance to come to terms with in any active context; terms like East and West don’t work in a climate catastrophe that does not differentiate not only nation states but that we lack the narrative categories to come to terms with in terms of economic inequalities, but suggest a crisis of global proportions that contrast with the delicate organization of space on shorelines near our home in their brute redrawing of the increasingly impermanent sandy shore projected for 2100, according to a rather modest climate change scenario.

The discovery of margin of the shoreline in the middle of the twentieth century as a privileged site of intense biodiversity risks obliteration as a particularly fragile ecosystem. Yet the shoreline habitat is now a site of unprecedented vulnerability. (The same stretch of sensitive shoreline habitat was quickly closed to comply with shelter-at-place directive, given the range of urban residents who drove to flood its trails, beaches, and shoreline as a way to find balance, many standing transfixed before the waves in a particularly stressful time, seeking purchase on a moment few could really grasp.)

McClures Beach, Inverness CA

The seashore seemed a natural place of reflection. But it was hard to imagine the sensitivity of these littoral lands. While the national seashore at Point Reyes is a unique preserved coastal environment, where eroding cliffs meet sands along broad strips of beach whose low grade offers habitat to coastal birds, grasses, and shellfish, in a meeting point of fresh and salt water, the beauty of the coast seemed a perfect refuge in a time of disorientation.

This blog has long discussed the specter of anthropogenic change, but in the panic of COVID-19, it seemed clear that we lack the mode to talk about the scale, continuities, and complexity at which such world-changing processes will occur. The future loss of shores would be quite difficult to imagine, even if one stares at the remote sensing maps that predict the effects of sea-level rise.. So many had voyaged to the shores as if by instinct during the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in 2020, from Long Island to Marin, to the extent of disturbing many coastal residents, who read searching for break from anxiety by acts of coastal distancing as an unwelcome promotion of the danger of importing viral spread.

In England and elsewhere, many departed from the city, in search of a new environment, by traveling to the coasts–where they were greeted, similarly, by protests by those who saw their arrival as a harbinger of infection. Many public beaches, concerned about close contact, have outright closed, as coastal communities do their best to dissuade visitors seeking to escape infection in Hawaii, Moab, Alabama, North Carolina or the Gulf Coast–in ways that cut us off from the shore as a place of reflection and rumination.

If undue media attention may be directed to bemoaning college students on Florida Spring Break, we must remember that Florida’s Governor, Ron DeSantis, ostensibly encharged with securing the state’s well-being and public welfare, stubbornly insisted on keeping beaches open in the state the shore until Easter, to allow “students to party” on Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Clearwater Beach, and other “hotspots” of pleasure into hot spots of viral infection: DeSantis, never one to stop claiming higher ground, hypocritically or not, only turned his wrath on the partiers after facing a lawsuit from the state Attorney General, and even as communities closed beaches, refused to shutter state beaches to limit the spread of the Coronavirus that were a vital parts of the state’s economy–reluctant to close them until local municipalities intervened.

John Raedle/Getty Images

Shifting the blame to foreign travelers–and insisting on self-quarantining visitors from New York state or New Jersey–he sought to keep them open for business, by casting them as more vital than viral. DeSantis refused to accept the national scope of the problem, defending an economy that depended on tourism, elevating the economy over national health–and keeping them open a week after the closure of Disney World, after trying to keep a “six feet distance rule” to “stop large crowds from congregating,” as if the crowding was an issue, more than human proximity and contact–and refusing to take leadership on the issue by “deferring” to local government and causing confusion.

As fhe Florida Governor reflected on the large number of elders in the state population, and their potential hindering of his own chances for re-election, it seems, did he alter his stance entirely, and beg the President to declare a national emergency, as the spread of the virus led to thousands of layoffs, with all non-essential businesses closed in coastal communities, as De Santis issued a state of emergency March 9, 2020.

Initial Florida Sites of Coronavirus Outbreaks of COVID-19 Infections/March 9, 2020

Meanwhile the COVID-19 data timeline by mid-March had spread across Central Florida, with cases of infection clustering on the shores. While the map that sizes the isolated pathogen as its symbol of COVID spread seems freakish, the telling newspaper graphic captures well the problem of coming to terms with the transmission of infections along the beach–superimposing the specter of an overlay of the COVID-19 pathogen as if colonizing or as blossoming along Floridian shores.

Orlando Sentinel

The abandonment of the closed Miami Beach–one of several citie that refused to keep its beaches open, as infection spread, as they knew what was really best for them–seemed to confirm the shore’s status as a natural site of reflection. The scope of projected reconfiguration of future shorelines would effect a deep change in the human relation to the shoreline, as much as the shoreline as a site of shelter and habitat.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

For environmental geographer Clarence Glacken, the “traces on the Rhodian shore” were signs of civilization and the human modification of the environment that were fundamental to historical processes of change. The reference of the title of his survey of the modification of land through the industrial revolution took its reference point as antiquity–the image of the philosopher taking geometric figures drawn on the shores of Rhodes where he was shipwrecked as evidence of human habitation. The anecdote was prized by Vitruvius as evidence of the ability of geometry to frame the environment, and respond to it; Glacken took the image of the shores as a leitmotif for a magisterial survey of relations to the natural world that we now observe expanded and refracted in the remote sensing that tracks the broad impact of how industrialization has inscribed human relations to the environment far beyond Glacken’s four on the environmental influences on human history and man’s remaking of the environment. And the problem of the continued access to shores, and future of the shores, makes us go back to some of the early work of Glacken to recover its new relevance, if only because of our failure of models to come to terms with such massive anthropogenic change.

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Filed under anthropogenic change, Climate Change, data visualization, remote observation, shoreline change