To Levitate an Elephant

The Republican Party unveiled a sleek red elephant in preparation for the 2020 Republican Convention that seemed a strange recuperation of the circus origins of the once-sturdy quadruped. The rejuvenation of the vitality of the old elephant staged a rebirth of the party at a time when its ties to the nation had been increasingly tenuous, and seemed to mask the deep fragmentation that the politics of divisive opposition had been stoked by the shock jock tactics of a President over his first term. The classic abstracted pachyderm was no longer an iconic mascot of the past–it had not been the weighty icon of the past, laden with memories for years–but the division of the party was threatening, as was the division of the nation, by the time the Republican Party had assembled and decided not to adopt any platform in 2020, but to accept disruption and assurances of law and order as an identity the old red-white-and-blue mascot would no longer do to express.

As the nation-wide movement promoting the sovereign secession of red states advanced, and been embraced by the party as a basis for generating turnout and votes, Republicans were assured of an unreal landslide that was approaching in November 2020 as something like destiny. To be sure, the party had been internally wrestling with groups promoting the idea that red states might gain an independent sovereign status, ignoring that the the economic productivity of “blue states” have provided fiscal stability of social services across their territory, Republicans were desperate to create a sense of coherence in a party that had been animated mostly by its fear of Trump’s twitterfeed over four years, and hoped to find a possible reconciliation in which the party might emerge as embodied by Trump. There was a logical difficulty in the hopes for a pure red state republic that some in the party must have been aware: red states, for all practical purposes, had long depended on federal transfer payments or support for food stamps, temporary assistance for needy families, subsidized insurance, and Medicaid, as they were poorer states, and depended on federal pay for army troops, the funding of infrastructural projects and disaster relief, many of which were increasing due to accelerated climate change, sea-level change, and increased dangers of aridity and drought. But the proximity of the party to The Donald meant that the elephant had to be redesigned to buoy the party’s hopes.

The representation of red states as a base demanded an image of Republican identity demanded a redesign of its logo identified with the interests of red states with grandeur, that might meld the strongly separatist rhetoric in which the image of a Sovereign States of America might exist–without echoing the Confederate secession, even if the image of a Confederate States of America was dear symbolism to Trump’s base.

And in an era in which we have a President able to channel his inner P.T. Barnum more openly than his predecessors, he sought to unite the party in his increasingly capacious body, by mining a rich tradition of political iconography speaking before a redesigned symbol of the party.

If this was the “second coming” of Trump, in a newly Trumpified party, what new beast was slouching toward Washington, D.C. was hard to determine by the red- trunked elephant Ising above the speaker’s podium as if leaping into space. If cartoonists had recently cast the old guard of the Party as in fear of the new rogue Republican President, the 2020 Republican Convention seemed to remake a platform-free party proudly in an elephant of his own mold, in what would be perhaps his last hurrah before the Convention Committee in late August, as the nation was reverberating with the potent echoes of George Floyd’s killing by overzealous racist police.

President Donald Trump speaks at Republican National Committee convention, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Charlotte. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The preening insatiability of the red elephant communicated a sense of the eagerness of Republicans to map their candidate onto the body politic, a lumbering but advancing red behemoth, testifying to the electoral majority that the party would assemble in semaphore, in ways that the earlier tricolor icons of pachydermal stolidity had refused to capture as incarnations of a body politic.

The rearing elephant shopped around in committee and reviewed by experts for a Convention was to be the center of planned as a live event, and may have provided a far more powerful logo. The planning of convention spots was hurriedly improvised in the unexpected shift to television, as the President reached out to two close assistants of Mark Burnett, the former paratrooper who had hit it big as producer of Celebrity Apprentice, who had already once resurrected Donald Trump’s career. Burnett after he made his mark in America by marketing “Survivor,” a cross between “The Swiss Family Robinson” and “Lord of the Flies,” often criticized as “fascist television” by critics, and wanted to transpose the tempo of a show whose contestants were systematically eliminated to an urban setting–that led the producer to contact Donald Trump as its fourth season was closing, as he planned a new show about Trump’s persona that was to the The Apprentice. Burnett associates were brought onboard by the GOP for an uptempo convention at Trump’s personal insistence arrived to oversee its video production in concert with White House staff for the four nights of the convention from August 24-28 in Charlotte, North Carolina, to create an architecture of a vision of the nation.

While the management of the convention may have marginalized the ascendant elephant, its invigorated form was hoped, P.T. Barnum-style, to distract television audiences from unease at police violence, racial profiling, and failure to manage the advance of COVID-19 across the nation. The party’s appeal threatened to fall flat. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez implored progressives to retake the mascot as “elephants deserve so much better” and adopt the political iconography that Republicans had remade at their convention as an avatar of Trump’s party, nothing rightfully the dissonance of a mascot deserving better “bc they are compassionate, empathetic creatures w nuanced social structures,” the herd mentality was on hand in ways that seemed to erase any notion of political memory, as the Convention agreed to adopt the same platform as in 2016, leading her to suggest that an animal that showed no regard for others–and a stubborn obstinacy and lumbering lack of care made the honey badger a far more fitting avatar and meme. Ocasio-Cortez brilliantly skewered the inappropriate ways the party at pains to create the appearance of compassion that ran against its own–and Trump’s!–character, the elephant must have appealed as a single-minded bleating animal–hardly the stoic conservative emblem of a party familiar from earlier years, but had been the result of some introspection at how to “modernize” the icon of the party that had tried to rebrand itself as “Grand New Party” and not GOP, into a decidedly modern form that recuperated the winking circus performer of the past.

The attempt to invigorate the elephant never really got off the ground as it tried to reinvent itself in the Trump era–toying with the notion of insisting its initials were “Government of the People”–Lincoln’s phrase–but trying to call itself a Party of the Future, or simply “Our Party,” to instill an over-exaggeratedly forward-looking quality of truly cartoonish qualities, long absent from the four-legged beast, suggesting its considerate eagerness and insatiability, balancing any sense of its blue bloodedness squarely on four red legs.

Elephant for Republicans

The new design of the Party of Trump, however, that the red elephant was an invitation to the 2020 Convention of even more circus-like qualities, robustly announcing its identity as the product of red states.

Nurturing a mythical past of “sovereign states” that has been fueled by states’ rights activists, seeking grounds to retain separateness from federal oversight in everything from voting-rights, health care, gun control, to public health mandates, in a crisis of managing relations of national jurisprudence to increasingly tenuous conceptions of states rights. The election of a states’ rights President committed to defend the protection of regional practices had created a crisis of jurisprudence that culminated in the balance of the nation’s highest court, and encouraged the concept of secession–in ways counterbalanced by the elevation of an elephant.

The prancing elephant had attempted the magic trick of concealing the deep fractures in the nation. The threat was perhaps no better incarnated for Republicans eager to redefine the party not in the social justice protests but in the social media groups, now banned by Facebook and Twitter but once nourished in the silos both provided in virtual space, that glorified secession as the logical consequence of earlier electoral maps–by using crude GIS software to trace new outlines of a new nation recuperating the continuity of red states. In the movement that nourished and nurtured a possibility of secession that led to the Siege of the Capitol to stay the certification of the. 2020 Presidential election, as crowds at the “Save America March” moved from the Ellipse to storm the Capitol Building and enter the Rotunda, the imagery of a Republic bounded by alternate sovereign borders tried to affirm their ties to the seat of American government to deny the transfer of power.

Banned Facebook Group, “Red-State Secession (7.8 K followers)

Groups often carrying Gadsden Flags to dignify their aggression as defiance in a symbol of secession that echoed the defense of liberties elided with the confederacy, but that embodied on social media as a secessionist movement that legitimized “rights” for owning guns and often identified with white resentment–an association heightened by its accompaniment by Confederate flags, also born by protesters who stormed state capitols in Pennsylvania, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, and California in a momentary flash of a fantasy of a red state sovereignty: the snake, a symbol of the resilience that Benjamin Franklin adopted as a rallying call to join the revolutionary arm, before Christopher Gadsden refashioned it as a flag, electrified audiences as a defense of local rights in danger of eclipse.

Protests outside of State Capitols on Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Extending the logic of a divide between “red” and “blue” states to a new level by suggesting a “red state” that might emerge, fully born, out of the former United States, as its own sovereign entity, a rhetoric of defending liberties had been bent to new ends in the declaration of The promotion of a “sovereignty” as able to be mapped by a Border Wall had provided the basis for defining a new sense of states as sovereign entities, in a tortured logic of many, free from the yoke of federal control, where the talons of the imperial eagle adopted by the early republic might be holding AK47’s as laurels. The image of Sovereign States iconography was perhaps rooted in Texas, but the Gadsden flag belief in the right of unilaterally abolishing the existing governmental form and instituting a new government–fundamental in the Siege of the Capitol of January 6, 2021, incited at the conclusion of the Save America March, that was hatched online for weeks before on websites offering travel routes to Washington, DC–bent to its own end the once optimistic assertions that affirmed sovereign agency to redefine the nature of sovereign rule outside the political language of monarchy.

Online forums had bolstered a sense of sovereign separation, if not secession, in championing the precedent of “sovereign states” that, while not clearly mapping onto red states, suggested a streak of independence that had shrugged off centralized federal power, in the improbably constellation of states from federal oversight–as gun ammunition websites championed the alternative history of “a rich history of sovereign states outside the control of the federal government”–celebrating a false genealogy of sovereign states in American history that glorified the independence of states’ rights as a secret map to American sovereignty that disaggregated the federal government as a cartographic rebuttal to federal oversight of voting rights and gun control laws via the “obscure history” of how ten independent states joined the union.

Would the notion of such disaggregated federal control provide a precedent for the protests that spread against the orderly transition of power on January 6, 2021? It certainly elevated the idea that only Donald Trump could unite the union in ways able to preserve and respect states’ rights. The birth of a legend of declaring sovereignty articulated on the virtual space social media to reify electoral divides created a sovereign divide that spilled over into real life in the storming of institutions of public government in the Siege of Capitol, or Storming of Capitol Hill, as social media groups mobilized on Gab and Parler, as much as Facebook and Twitter, marched to the seat of government, in an ecstasy of the dying throes of celebrating their ties to the final days of the Trump regime. A crowd enflamed by Trump’s tweet his Vice “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done” opened chants of “Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump!” Don, Jr. vented with frustration that gave voice to his father’s tortured logic when he exhorted the “Save America” crowd that “This is Donald Trump’s Republican party!” The attempt to assert the personal affective ties of leader to Party were more familiar from totalitarian pasts, but seemed to fit Trump, even if the insatiability of the elephant could not even encompass the insatiable concentration of power in the executive Trump desired, ever the insatiable beast which Kipling famously attributed its acquisition of a trunk to ‘satiable curiosity.

The personal bonds of leader to party had been hoped to be incarnated in an elephant that however improbably seemed able to defy gravity and rise into the air, ascendant in the empyrean. Even in late August, 2020, Donald Trump realized the high stakes of bondign to the nation. Pubic messaging faltered in the coronavirus pandemic even as it struggled to remain smooth. Hope that the stars would align to create a red-state electoral map again stretching from Arizona to Maine, down to Florida, seemed subliminally encoded in the imaginary constellation of five stars embedded in the bright red elephant designed for the 2020 Republican Convention to celebrate the rebrand the GOP as a Party of Trump. But the deeply racist origins of the party symbol, long purged by the mainstreaming of the pachyderm as a partisan icon, seem to reveal its racist lineage in a strategy based on rebranding the Republican Party as a red elephant in the heart of the Old South: newly star-studded to reflect the energy of the party, and its motivation in extending the Trump era, and almost recalling a double-“V” of victory as an astrological variant on national destiny, the design that Rona McDaniel promoted as a reflection of the vitality of the “traditions of the Republican Party” all but concealed the lack of interest in a convention whose triumphalism concealed that Trump faced no serious challenge.

@MikePence/Twitter

There was no move to foreground a change in the party’s political platform, but the inauguration of a new symbol of the party, as if to prepare for the inauguration of a President with life-long ambitions, was short on the associations of elephants and memory than a new image of triumphalism, or a compelling bread-and-circuses forum to promote the inevitability of Trump’s candidacy as a vibrant occasion as the body politic suffered. The red elephant newly resurgent was something of a new vision of a “red body politic,” incarnating the will of red states as much as traditions of a party increasingly associated with White Supremacy, alt right blowhards, vitriolic racism, and capitalist mega-corporations, but now star-studded as if in an attempt to prevent the elephant fleeing the convention from running, as Stampy the elephant, past cheering Republicans celebrating they were “just plain evil,” back in 1994 episode, before being sent to a game reserve: if the 2020 actual convention might as well admit, twenty-six years later, to being “just plain evil,” the iconic elephant that was displayed onstage and television screens soared above the more pedestrian issues of the day.

“Bart Gets an Elephant,’ The Simpsons March 31, 1994

Unlike Stampy, the red elephant seemed able to levitate above the grey experience of dark days of America in its incarnation of an American political party, if with selective amnesia about the past of an elephant whose first design as an icon of the party, as the extension of equal rights to black men were rolled back, the “White Elephant” was celebrated as an icon of purity, and a noble blanching of the African elephants popular in American circuses, and for Thomas Nast as an alternate icon to the Democratic donkey–of nobility and moral high grounds Republican traditions of whiteness were not on show in a red elephant rousing red states for Republican transcendence of a riven body politic, where official speeches, and endorsers responded to Democrats’ commitment to racial equity and equality, foregrounded claims that “America is not a racist country,” as Niki Haley put it, raising the specter of a decline into anarchy a democratic victory would bring, and the boisterousness of a red pachyderm. When one of the first speakers at the convention, the fear of the potential raging of African Americans or the violent destruction of property that many at the convention invoked in reference to social justice protests, was paired with the bizarre reference to enslavement as the status quo of the Democratic Party in 2020, by asserting that “The Democratic Party does not want Black people to leave their mental plantation.” Among personal assurances “Donald Trump is not a racist” but benevolently took a quarterback and kids to Disneyland, as he tried to rebrand Donald Trump. It was striking that the party was being rebranded at the same time, as if to foreground its purity of walking in lockstep.

And the very ancient neo-imperial emblem of the elephant seemed to be prematurely announcing the victory of the Republican Party, the elephant seemed especially oblivious of the freighted associations of what was long a quite openly racist icon of the Grand Old Party since it was adopted in 1884, at the height of Reconstruction after the U.S. Civil War.

The roots of the party mascot as a circus elephant was proverbially linked to the political circus, but tapped again for a forum o political entertainment in Charlotte, NC when it was introduced, as a spectacle that would distract from the rising toll on Americans of COVID-19. The coronavirus pandemic remained the proverbial “elephant in the room” during the convention, not addressing a topic of potential controversy for a President dependent on staging rallies around the nation.

It remained almost ever-present at the 2020 Convention, as if the pachyderm presented a forward-facing emblem that confirmed the party’s identity. Its presence masked the recognition of the transformation of the iconic tricolor elephant to a party to red hue, anticipating the ‘red’ nation that the party’s victory would represent: a red monolith, showing signs of vitality, distanced from any actual elephant, but staging the elephant as a made-for-TV image, unlike, say, the “Victory Elephant” at Cleveland in 2016, which seemed indeed a different political animal of red, white and blue.

Dominick Reuter/AFP

The monocular elephant expressed the promotion of “red state” interests at the convention, in place of a party platform, and appeared onstage above the American flag, not resembling an actual elephant, but iconic symbol of onward advancement, in a hybrid between its circus origins and military charge, behind each speaker from Donald J. Trump to Don Jr, to Charlie Kirk, to select prime-time speakers to appeal to his constituency, not anticipating an acceptance speech to represent the party, but absorb adulation for his idea of the party as defending rights to gun ownership, a narrative of American progress, unlike the “darkest and angriest convention in American history” in a form that seemed to accept his destiny as the “bodyguard of American civilization.” Was the elephant not reborn as a totem for the strong sort of leadership Kirk assured Trump would provide, willing to fight and to advance toward combat with the other party.

The elephant was far from the associations of the elephant with a pacific beast, but an icon that communicated the personal strength of the nominee, rather than a collective party policy, and newly glistening nature of the icon was oddly absent from this most stage-managed of conventions. Trump had hired associates of Mark Burnett to coordinate with White House staff to make the Convention 2020 the sort of “gripping TV show” they had created for fifteen seasons of The Apprentice, through artful combination of pre-taped and live speeches featuring mostly non-political figures–and although Burnett denied speculation that he was involved. Burnett’s associates were heavily compensated for ensuring the seamlessness of the scale-backed convention for as broad an audience as possible. Burnett himself had distanced himself from Trump recently, but Trump revered him for his ability to “impose retrospective logic on the chaos” of the boardroom sections of Trump’s successful TV Show, as James Poniewozik wrote–shaping the format of The Apprentice from 2011. Was his presence felt in what was billed as “the people’s convention,” in a Reality TV air, through the new sort of convention that his associates helped stage?

The prominent product placement of the revised Republican mascot of an elephant was less widely remarked, but provided a subliminal message of the sort that had no doubt been honed and debated before it was unveiled. The updated symbol for the convention was on prominent display on the Convention marquis in a mascot redesigned to serve the Party of Trump. While the new emblem seemed a break from the past, however, the history of the elephant as a strongly radicalized creature that as P.T. Barnum had expanded transatlantic importation of range of new elephants from Africa and Burma as a popular entertainment, seemed channeled in ways more apt than Trump’s stage managers may have realized in the leaping elephant that reached its red trunk to the heavens, bedecked by stars.

It was, perhaps, no surprise that cartoonists like Graeme Mackay picked up on the Thomas Nast famously branded a pachyderm with the letters “GOP” in 1874 at a time when newsprint was the prime vehicle of public opinion. In a political world dominated by Democrats, many of whom were suspected corrupt, Nast intended an emblem of significant dignity; but the exultant elephant unveiled before Charlotte’s crown seemed close to tap an outdated symbol of royalty and to address an audience by a middle-brow entertainment more than assume public gravitas: the newly nominated candidate speaking before the new RNC emblem partisan animal emblazoned with five stars in a “W”as if a premature declaration of victory insisted the “best is yet to come,” as he accepted the nomination, “proud of the incredible progress we have made over the last four years, brimming with confidence about the bright future we will built for America over the next four years” in the face of the expanding cases of COVID-19, animated by the brisk step of the elephant that subliminally affirmed the party’s future progress. It seemed a surprise to many that Cancel Culture, violent crime, and gun rights seemed had a far greater place in the Convention than anything related to COVID-19.

The puzzling new identity of the elephant seemed a landshift in the party’s coherence as a collective, and the triumphal procession of an elephant was, for McKay, a change in the spirit of the dour, conservative animal to an animated beast with the head of the sitting President–a different political animal to be sure.

The animating of the old pachyderm unveiled for the Charlotte convention was an exulting circus animal. The convention’s length was cut short short by COVID-19, but the new icon of the party so proudly unveiled in anticipation of its reinvigorating function was presented by Ronna McDaniel and Marcia Lee Kelley, robed in red, emblazoned with five stars.

D.T. Foster/Charlotte Observer

What better way than the redesign of a red logo to make the point that the commitment of the party to red-state values, replaced the capaciousness of the party and the place of values and dignity that Thomas Nast, an ardent Republican and the father of American cartooning, saw the beast incarnating values able to transcend intra-party dispute, than for a former television star to tweak the Republican logo for a convention that replaced a platform with the scripting of a television event by the directors of Donald Trump’s Reality TV show, that placed him as central to the party’s identity, rather than values, and asserted red state values of a party as proof of ideological purity? The new elephant suggests the transformation of the Presidency to a Reality-TV show not rooted in governing or dignity but preening, and self-promotion.

Were cartoonist like MacKay sensitive to the cartooning legacy to which the icon of the party adopted in Reconstruction. Unlike the Democratic donkey, a braying jackass poking fun of its vocal cries and low status, its dissonance less dignified than the eagle, and more vocal: while the animal logo was not devised by the party, pictorial warfare seemed stacked in favor of the dignified pachyderm. The reborn rearing elephant of pure red makes us recall how much epidermal pigmentation was central to the elephant adopted by 1877 in the Presidential election, and overdetermined as an image of partisan strength, when the whiteness of the beast signified the purity of the party somewhat jarringly–as the circus animals that had begun to arrive on ships from overseas were, most commonly, African. By hearkening back to the pictorial caricature of a white elephant–an oddity that P.T. Barnum had himself marketed as an innovation in Reconstruction America–the unveiling of a startlingly monochrome elephant of entirely red skin, all but leaping off the ground, raising its sleek trunk as if in celebration or benediction, marked the arrival on the scene of a new political animal, but also hearkened back to the pointedly racialized symbolism that the “White Elephant” Thomas Nast imagined as a symbol of the party’s dignity announced, unlike its cousin, the African Grey.

President Donald Trump arrives to speak at Republican National Committee convention, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Charlotte. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The new streamlining of the old mascot mirrored the role Trump adopted in sanctioning the party’s collective identity by the illusion of advancing forward in space with dignity as the champion of “red states”: a rearing elephant served as a surrogate for replicating the electoral alliance of 2016, now rearing above Trump’s head, and the the eagle on the podium with a Presidential seal, as his left arm’s expansive gesture mirrored the pachyderm’s raised trunk, as if to recall the continuity of red states that had born Trump into office in 2016, and allowed him to ride into Washington, DC, with the imagined spectacularity of Hannibal crossing the Alps.

Wall Street Journal

Indeed, the fear, long before the summer was over, of mapping a “Road to 270” that appeared on all American TV screens, in competition with the riots, seemed to try to weave a sense of consensus in the nation that sorely lacked it, if we didn’t need to be reminded. The elephant might be assembled, and saunter forth again across the land its trunk in Florida, perhaps, rearing a roar that would reverberate across the nation to pronounce its strong borders. After all, as Trump had reminded us so many times, “If we don’t have a wall system, we’re not going to have a country.”–disdaining the inadequacy of the current “lousy wall” whose flimsiness only “stops 90, 95 percent” of those seeking asylum in our nation, and promised “when we put up the real wall, we’re going to stop 99 percent. Maybe more than that!”

The intensity of MAGA rallies that celebrated the survival of the red nation would be tracked on the nightly news through late October suggested a sprint of accumulating votes akin to vote harvesting, as alternative outcomes were painted on electoral maps, in a heady drama, that raised one’s fight or flight instinct in ways that played havoc with teh Central Nervous Systems of everyone’s body, more than offer clarity on the body politic. The big red elephant seemed to fragment or erode as numbers of states “went” light pink, from Texas to Florida to Georgia to North Carolina–Trump territories of the past that the GOP could not afford to concede.

Perhaps white-haired Joe Biden, and white-haired Anderson Cooper, would both be the losers of the contest, we were asked to imagine in weird exercises of visualization of “most likely paths to victory,” and an elephant skin of bright red would again smother the United States.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under American Politics, Donald J. Trump, political geography, political iconography, Republican Convention

Earth, Wind, and Fire

We think of earth, wind and fire as elements. Or we used to. For the possibility of separating them is called into question in the Bay Area, as wind sweeps the smoke of five to seven fires, or fire complexes, across the skies, we are increasingly likely to see them as layers, which interact in a puzzle we have trouble figuring out. Indeed, the weirdly haunting daily and hourly maps of air quality map the atmospheric presence of particulate matter by isochrones brought late summer blues to the Bay Area. Blue skies of the Bay Area were colored grey, burnt orange, and grey again as cartoon plumes of soot flooded the skies in a new sort of pyrocumulus clouds that turned the sun red, offering a disembodied traffic sign telling us to stop.

Clara Brownstein/October 1, 2020

Fire season began by remapping the town in terrifying red that registered “unhealthful,” but almost verging on the “hazardous” level of brown, based on local sensors monitoring of ozone, but is also registering a deeper history defined by an absence of rain, the lack of groundwater, the hotter temperatures of the region and the dry air. The map is both existential, and ephemeral, but also the substrate of deep climate trends.

AQI Chart on Saturday, August 22, 2020/AirNow (EPA)

Is fire an element we had never before tracked so attentively in maps? We did not think it could travel, or had feet. But wildfire smoke had blanketed the region, in ways that were not nearly as visible as it would be, but that the real-time map registers at the sort of pace we have become accustomed in real-time fire maps that we consult with regularity to track the containment and perimeters of fires that are now spreading faster and faster than they ever have in previous years. And soon after we worried increasingly about risks of airborne transmission of COVID-19, this fire season the intensity of particulate pollutants in the atmosphere contributed intense panic to the tangibility of mapping the pyrocumulus plumes that made their way over the Bay Area in late August. As the danger of droplets four micrometers in diameter remaining airborne seemed a factor of large-scale clusters, the waves of black carbon mapped in the Bay Area became a second sort of airborne pathogen made acutely material in layers of real-time Air Quality charts.

The boundaries of fire risk charts and indeed fire perimeters seemed suddenly far more fluid than we had been accustomed. When we make our fire maps with clear edges, however, it is striking that almost we stop registering the built environment, or inhabited world. As if by the magic of cartographical selectivity, we bracket the city–the sprawling agglomeration of the Bay Area–from the maps tracking the destructiveness and progress we call advancing wildfires, and from the isochronal variations of air quality that we can watch reflecting wind patterns and air movements in accelerated animated maps, showing the bad air that migrates and pool over the area I life. The even more ephemeral nature of these maps–they record but one instant, but are outdated as they are produced, in ways that fit the ecoystem of the Internet if also the extremes of the new ecosystem of global warming–the isochrones seem somewhat fatalistic, as they are both removed from human agency–as we found out in the weeks after the Lightning Siege of 2020 that seemed a spectacle of the natural world that rivaled the art of Walter de Maria in their grandiosity of time-lapse photography–

Shmuel Thaler, CZU Lightning Strikes
Walter de Maria, Lightning Field, 1977
Shmuel Thaler, CZU Complex (2020), detail

–the horizontal line of artificial light from Santa Cruz, unlike the images that De Maria created from The Lighting Field, remind us of the overlap between inhabited spaces where conflagrations in the dry wildlands that spread as the fires struck, and in way far less difficult to aestheticize than The Lightning Field set in a desert removed from human population, but was built as an isolated field for time-stop photography.

The CZU complex brought widespread devastation across areas of extra urban expansion in the Santa Cruz Mountains was almost a map that registered the expansion of residences to the very borders of forests. We haven’t ever faced the problem of maintaining and clearing in weather this dry, even if we have mapped the clustering of fires in the wild land-urban interface: but the strikes ignited underbrush lain like kindling, on the boundaries of the raging fire complexes. If the burning of underbrush by fire mitigation squads seeks to create fire lines in the mountainous landscape to create new perimeters to forestall the advance of major fires, working along a new fire line even as what is still called wildfier smoke travels across the nation, far beyond the Bay Area.

While watching the movement of fires that them in inhabited areas like shifting jigsaw pieces that destroy the landscape across which they move. These marked the start of megafires, that spread across state boundaries and counties, but tried to be parsed by state authorities and jurisdictions, even if, as Jay Inslee noted, this is a multi-state crisis of climate change that has rendered the forests as fuel by 2017–for combined drought and higher temperatures set “bombs, waiting to go off” in our forests, in ways unable to be measured by fire risk that continues to be assessed in pointillist terms by “fuel load” and past history of fires known as the “fire rotation frequency.” When these bombs go off, it is hard to say what state boundary lines mean.

Fire Threat Risk Assessment Map, 2007

If San Francisco famously lies close to natural beauty, the Bay Area, where I live, lies amidst of a high risk zone, where daily updates on fire risk is displayed prominent and with regularity in all regional parks. These maps made over a decade ago setfire standards for building construction in a time of massive extra-urban expansion. But risk has recently been something we struggled to calculate as we followed the real-time updates of the spread of fires, smoke, and ash on tenterhooks and with readiness and high sense of contingency, anxiety already elevated by rates of coronaviurs that depended on good numbers: fire risk was seen as an objective calculation fifteen years ago, but was now not easy to determine or two rank so crisply by three different shades.

Fire Risk Map, 2007

When thunderstorms from mid-August brought the meteorological curiosity of nearly 12,000 dry lightening dry strikes from mid to late August 2020, they hit desiccated forests with a shock. The strikes became as siege as they set over three hundred and fifty-seven fires across the state, that rapidly were communicated into expansive “complexes” of brush fires.

We map these fires by state jurisdictions, and have cast them as such in policy, by borders or the perimeters we hope to contain barely grasp the consequences of how three quarters of a million acres burned up suddenly, and smoke from the cluster of fires rose in columns that spread across state boundary lines as far as Nebraska, and how fire complexes that spread across three million acres that would soon create a layer of soot across the west, eerily materialized in layers of GIS ESRI maps of environmental pollutants, while toxic particulate mater released in plumes of black carbon by the fires cover the state, rendering the sun opaque where I live, in the Bay Area, now Pompeii by the Bay as smoke at toxic levels blanketed much of the state.

They even more serious map, to be sure, was of fire spread: but the maps of air quality set the entire western seaboard apart from the nation, as if threatening to have it fall into the ocean and split off from the United States,–even if the burning of its open lands was more of a portent of things to come, they were a historical anomaly, lying outside the record of fire burns or air quality, if the poor air quality traced the origin of black carbon columns of smoke that would rise into the nation’s atmosphere.

Wilfire Today, AQI Map/Sept-15, 2020
Continue reading

4 Comments

Filed under Active Fire Mapping, American West, Climate Change, data visualization, fires

President of Some?

Donald Trump has presented a new notion of the Presidency to the United States: the open claim to be President of only some of the nation, and to have that model of Presidential rule become the standard for political decisions. This policy was not Trump’s own decision: the retreat from any interest in bipartisan governance that had been the basis for American politics for two hundred years began in the pitched nature of pointed acrimony in the U.S. Senate that erased the decorum and respect among different interests in a model of collective action for over two centuries.

Already by 2011, the nation divided into spectral schema suggesting slight chance of local bipartisan governance, disguising often narrow margins of political victory, despite eighteen states where Republicans controlled both the legislature and governor’s mansion in 2011, some eighteen were split.

Republican States, 2011

While the pitched fervor of some of our national divisions bears the imprint of faith-based movements, they are replicated in the pointillistic logic of the electoral plans of REDMAP–a concerted attempt of regional redistricting. For the reconfiguration of electoral districts has staked out a problem of governance as a strategy of victory that would erode the project of governance, by privileging “states” as an amassing of electoral votes,– rather than positing the coherence of the interests of the nation as a whole. The concept of governance seems fragmented, bolstered by regionalism, states rights discourse, and the cruel new isolationism of go-it-aloneism. In ways recast in the 2020 election as a choice between “darkness” and “light” of truly terrifyingly Manichean proportions, evoking near-apocalyptic scenarios to recast public debate as issues of identitarian self-interest. The divide of states on the 2000 electoral map, which didn’t change much over eight years, enshrined a blue versus red state logic, dovetailing with a deeper plan of retaining electoral control. This was the map was parsed in the seventh season of The West Wing, in 2006, at a time when the television newscasters needed to remind their audience states shaded blue sent electors to vote for Democrat Matt Santos (modeled in 2004 on then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama, who just delivered the nominating speech at another convention), red ones for his Republic opponent, Arnie Vinick–as Campaign Director colored a dry erase board red and blue as results were announced.

The West Wing, “Election Night” (April 2006)

Obama provided a model for Santos as a candidate not defined by race, pivoting from race to underlying unity among red and blue states, but the restate-blue state divide was militarized. And when Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012, the Republican state legislators in Virginia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio adopted the idea of ensuring Republican victories by rigging the Electoral College according to the congressional districts that they had redesigned, rather than in bulk, in the hopes to skew the distribution of electors by the congressional districts they had guaranteed would be firmly red, having designed districts that even in what were considered “blue” states had “red” legislatures. m so that districts would be assured that they would not be “outvoted” by urban metro areas would dictate a future.

This gave rise to the logic that asserted the “rural” non-metro regions should reclaim a place at the table by recrafting representational politics to give new meaning to those who increasingly feared–or felt–that their vote just didn’t count but felt that their futures on the line. By redrawing districts, legislatures magnify rural interests outside large metro areas, offering a logic magnifying their political representation through congressional districts as power bases and political divides: not by blue and red states, but by a red republic, in need of its voice. The plan to separate electoral votes from the popular vote can only work by recasting electoral districts on party-skewed lines, independent of any geographic shape save benefitting one party, at the expense of another, at violence to the republic. It was echoed in a tactic of political obstructionism that provided the logic for “red” areas to be increasingly opposed to current governmental policy in the Obama administration.

Republican-Majority Electoral Districts of America, 2013

The reduction of debate between parties may have begun on a local level, but metastasized nationally in legislative maps. The rationale of legislative bodies has shifted on local levels from a representational logic of governance to a pitched battle–as only one party wields legislative power in all but one state in the union.

The Current Partisan Power Play (2019)

The disorienting nature of an overdetermined power play means that there is not much discussion or debate in the local states, or legislative bodies, but a sectarian consolidation of demographic identity as destiny.

The division of parties cast “red” and “blue” as forms of governance that essentialize the color-choices made in news maps as almost existential terms. Indeed, the increased casting of the 2020 Presidential election as a battle between “light” and “dark” was gained distinctly pocalyptic undertones fit for the age of the Coronavirus, mapping the current elections as a referendum of the “future of American democracy” or, for President Trump, a “bright future” and “dark future” whose oppositional terms echo a religious eschatology. Was it any coincidence that the separatist blood-stained banner of the Confederacy reappeared at Trump campaign rallies in 2016, jumping the logic of a chromatic divide into opposing visions that could be understood as a nation divided in war?

Brandon Partin, of Deland, Fla., at 2016 Trump rally in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

As candidates proclaim themselves to constituents as an “ally of light, not darkness,” the choice of the election has turned on the complexion of the nation’s political future in ways that concretize the removal of maps of support of political parties as an existential struggle for the nation’s soul, removed from questions of political representation. The eery blocks of political division were apparent in the long led-up to the election, as the fracture lines in the nation were only less apparent because of increasing tension as to which way the highly colored states in play would slide, and how the electoral prism would mediate the popular vote.

The notion that a specter of socialism haunts America, to be promoted by the Democratic Party, is the conclusion to a logic of deeply sectarian politics of belonging.

Continue reading

3 Comments

Filed under COVID-19, data collection, data visualization, democratic representation, public health

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 a reminder that a number of B-29 bombers were posed for further destructive missions. The front-page color cartoon hid the explosion of the Atom Bomb over Hiroshima, offering an occluded view on a spherical globe: in colorful Hearst style, the cartoon map was the sole visual documentation of the bomb’s effects, masking the devastation of its impact by the geopolitical logic that led to 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 at precise global coordinates.

To be sure Hearst Newspapers had long promoted the Pacific as a theater of national jingoism in which the Hawai’ian islands were exaggerated as a potential site of struggle, frequently distorted as of defensible American interests; Hearst Newspapers Sunday Section of comics portrayed the contest in cartoons of racist tenor, as an antiquated samurai in full ceremonial armor confronted a spry Uncle Sam.

Windsor McKay, 1913

But the explicit use of a spherical projection to accentuate the aerial targeting of sites of bombing in Japan–and indeed of Japanese civilian populations–was both an assertion of the mastery of the maps that aviators followed in releasing Little Boy and Fat Boy, and a sense of the logic of the spherical projection as the conclusion of World War II. Early in the Pacific theater’s military expansion, to be sure, the Japanese Empire had carefully mapped the island in the paper maps that the imperial army drafted for all its soldiers to hold in fold-out versions in elegant form to foreground specific aerial and marine routes to the islands historically inhabited Japanese famers–

–the mountainous outcropping of islands righted by oceanic waters were remapped as the target of aerial bombers attack in 1941 in ways that the atomic bomb was imagined to respond as an analogous incursion into territorial rights. The results were far more terribly destructive, but seen as cementing the territorial retreat of Japanese empire across the Pacific. To be sure, the attack on the United States Naval Base had killed 2,300 Americans in 1941, when Japanese planes attacked the Mighty Seventh Fleet, sinking twelve ships and destroying the U.S.S. Arizona completely destroyed and capsizing the U.S.S. Oklahoma. But the logic of the global map creates a terrifyingly false equality of quid pro quo, or an eye for an eye, in spatial terms, linking the continuity of the spherical projection that enabled the American bombers to target Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a commensurate response to the 1941 Air Raid on Pearl Harbor External in the U.S. Territory of Hawaii: the logic of the globe seems to smooth over the unprecedented destruction of the atomic bomb’s payload for American newspaper readers.

Yet in ways that are perhaps impossible to map, or to take stock of in its full consequences, the atomic fireball left massive human 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 its alleged target, striking civilians both more violently and more deeper within the logic of war than was ever imagined. As if treating the sinking of the U.S.S. Arizona and capsizing of the U.S.S. Oklahoma as attacks on the actual landlocked states in the territorial United States, the treacherous logic of the continuity of the map’s surface created a false equivalence for cartoon readers that recast the dropping of an atomic bomb as a glorious imperial gesture.

The popular newpaper cartoon for the Hearst Sunday daily 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, as if to justify the impact of one devastating attack.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

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 pressing epistemological challenges beyond the philosophical community. Nagel was asking us to consider what was the context in which bats move, and to consider the foreign nature of propositions about the distribution of a network of flying bats to humans’ embodied experience: the winged mammals that may have inhabited the eaves of Nagel’s house in Connecticut or Vermont–I am guessing–where he rises from his desk to spend the early evening watching bats reel out at dusk as they fly in wide arcs, searching en masse to seek out meals of bugs and gnats at dusk.

Asking what it is like for a bat to be a bat suggests a new model for collective action, not bumping into one another by using spatial registers in ways we don’t really know how to map–or to even think we can.

Maybe he was in Florida, near Gainsville, or Tampa Bay, where homes for bat colonies have been constructed that offer them temporary housing–

–watching a bat colony search for bugs and flies at a time when the flying mammals are losing safe natural habitat, displaced by construction and environmental saturation of electric lighting. The instant of inter-species realization that launched an epistemic earthquake might have been launched when, returning home, evening drink in hand, Nagel retired to his desk after dinner to write an article arguing we lack not language but adequate mental tools to think like a bat, or imagine the context of bat-like proposition about space, our own individually embodied experience so removed from a distributed network to imagine moving–let alone accurately navigating–like a bat, in clouds 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 blocked routes, by abilities to synthesize individual datapoints 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 navigatorWe 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.

Inspired by the broad arcs of nightly emergence of bats from New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns National park as Pearl Harbor was attacked, a dentist first promoted the idea of using bats for fire bombing of Tokyo’s wooden homes. The plans for outfitting thousands of bats with explosives affixed to their little chests–treating the bats as dive bombers to create spontaneous conflagrations in Japanese cities–developed as the letter sent to President Roosevelt led to plans for a nocturnal release of thousands of bats, bearing explosives on their chests, who would roost in the structures of Japanese buildings by treating Mexican free tail bats as a squadron of blind dive bombers who, transported across the Pacific to the eaves of wooden houses in Tokyo, might provoke an incendiary attack by distributing packets of napalm–the basis of incendiary bombs–by the far greater geographic area of bats on whom chests were affixed napalm adhesive vests. Sequestering a thousand free tails hibernating in isolated chambers for trans-Pacific travel never bore fruit; optimistic simulations revealed explosive packets regularly impaired flight and “uncertain behavior of bats” glossed the failure to cooperate in destructive fantasies of using winged mammals to distribute urban conflagrations by 1944, if disastrous experiments in California created some massive explosions. Despite the failure to orchestrate a swarm of bomb-bearing bats, plans to parachute a swarm were brushed aside by OSS director William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan punctured as the “Die Fledermaus Farce,” dismissing the fantasy of costuming bats for an air raid by an Strauss operetta promoted into the operatic repertory to ridicule the strategic value of an airborne zoo –putting the cruelty of immolating flying mammals aside. The basic truth was that the bats’ flight could not be planned.

Canister Designed by Louis Fieser for Dropping Hibernating Bats on Japan

The remove of such a bomb as a way of creating winged kamikazes removed nature of hopes for the strategic deployment of bats in a global strategy from what it is like for a bat to be a bat, or how bats think. But 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, using the city lights to navigate their paths home. By fitting the small bats with the “smallest GPS [then] in existence” of about ten grams, scientists charted paths to uncover secrets of the mammals’ neural abilities of nocturnal navigation around man-made waypoints in Tel Aviv’s and the most “visible” nocturnal monuments to detect their cognitive abilities.

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. Far from a costume party of human orchestration, in a staged ball based on costuming bats, the bats’ flight was nightly tracked.

Indeed, the almost nightly expeditions of bats–some 15 million from caves north of San Antonio TX, in summer months–that show up on radar as explosions of “bioscatter,” as they emerge from caves 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.

2 Comments

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

Distance Learning, Disrupted Learning & Social Eruptions

On a morning 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, ending among million dollar homes sporting yard signs congratulating graduates of elite private schools. This is America, and not uncommon. The path I take traces yawning 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. While we are shocked to learn that Donald Trump delayed informing the nation about coronavirus not to panicked markets, the lack of school policies stood only to magnify existing fracture lines: for the failure to provide any overarching vision left school districts with the football as decision makers they are unequipped to assess of learning requirements in remote settings of learning, and to bear the weight of difficulties in shaping remote learning programs without training.

Ill-equipped boards are asked to struggle in high pressure situations with finding ways of engaging students increasingly removed from one another or instructional settings. Increasingly, states are offering regional guidelines, but the absence of a national policy may rupture public trust with the very schools on which the nation most depends, now treated as swimming in a laissez-faire sea without guidesposts in an already disrupted educational setting, raising questions of graduations, requirements, baselines of school performance, or even study habits and the value of coursework and requirements for diplomas or graduation, as the educational market long an unqualified good in America stands to erode.

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.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

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