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Posts Tagged ‘novel

“When transformation is done right, it’s like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, but when done wrong, all you have is a rejiggered caterpillar.”*…

Mail trucks, with mostly short and predictable routes, are naturals to lead the electrification revolution. But as Aaron Gordon explains, the USPS, as an institution, is not…

A year ago, the USPS announced it was buying between 50,000 and 165,000 new delivery trucks over the next decade from Oshkosh Defense, a defense contractor based in Wisconsin, as part of the long-awaited replacement of the current iconic mail trucks. The USPS provided few details about the vehicles, except to highlight key features like air conditioning, automatic emergency braking, and other safety technology, none of which the famous boxy neighborhood delivery vehicles have. The USPS also said the trucks would be a mix of both battery electric and internal combustion engine vehicles, but didn’t specify the ratio. 

At first, the new vehicles, whether gas or electric, were a hit. They’re rather cute for a truck, with a low front grill and huge windshield, giving it the unmistakable likeness of a duck. And your friendly neighborhood postal worker desperately needs them, since the USPS’s current fleet of trucks is 30 years old on average, far longer than the USPS expected them to run. It costs the USPS $5,000 per vehicle per year in maintenance alone to keep them running. And despite that exorbitant expense, it still can’t stop dozens of them from spontaneously combusting every year

But what began as mostly good-natured celebration over a cute, much-needed truck went downhill fast. It increasingly became clear the massive order was utterly unfit for the modern age. In a legally-mandated environmental review, the USPS revealed the gas version of the truck will get essentially the same miles per gallon with the air conditioning on as the current truck gets, or about 8 mpg, worse than the RAM ProMaster, which the USPS also uses, which gets roughly 14 mpg. It also revealed the truck’s weight was selected to be precisely one pound heavier than the “heavy duty truck” cutoff which frees it from various environmental regulations, including getting better gas mileage. And, most controversially of all, only 10 percent of the trucks will be electric, even though the USPS itself said in the environmental review that 95 percent of its routes are fit for EVs.

Why? Well, part of the reason is internal…

“The Postal Service made individual decisions that might have been rational,” said Michael Ravnitzky, chief counsel to the chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission from 2009 to 2015, “but taken as a whole, they don’t seem explicable to the public because the public is judging it by today’s standards, rather than the standards of when [the postal service] started this, like 10 or 15 or 20 years ago.”…

Starting in the 1980s, the USPS had to pay its own bills, received no subsidies from Congress, had no mandate to consider environmental or social issues, and mostly heard from Congresspeople when they were getting complaints about their local post office reducing its hours but were nowhere to be found when it came time to discuss the $56 billion in made-up debt the agency had been saddled with. If politicians weren’t publicly rooting for the USPS to go away as an antiquated institution from a bygone era, they at least weren’t going to stick their necks out for it, because they could no longer see to it that a local political supporter got a job at the post office. For most politicians, the post office had become a non-entity in ways that both helped and hurt the postal service. The USPS was going alone and would have to make do with what it had.

And what it had, in the late 2000s, was some 142,000 decaying delivery trucks, most pushing 20 years old then, with no air conditioning or power steering, that didn’t comply with any environmental regulations because they had been built before such regulations existed, got terrible gas mileage, and needed replacement parts that manufacturers were no longer making. USPS engineers were taking the body from one truck and the parts from another to make a new one, stacking safety hazard upon safety hazard as it created more and more Frankentrucks. 

The engineering department knew it desperately needed new vehicles but that it wasn’t going to get them any time soon. So it became intimately familiar with the 142,000 of the ones it had. Internal combustion engines were what the engineering people knew. If a part broke, they knew how to get a new one, or how to fashion one together if new ones didn’t exist. The fact that they were able to stretch the useful life of these trucks beyond the planned 20 years and push 30 years or more has been considered by the engineering department as nothing short of heroic. 

For the people who “bleed blue,” as the saying in the USPS goes, electric vehicles may have been better in theory, but gas was better for the realities they faced. Because when Congress inevitably screws them again and makes them stretch the lives of the next trucks a decade or two longer than planned, they’ll need to duct tape and glue those trucks together, too. And they don’t know how to glue an EV back together…

And part of the reason goes to rules imposed by Congress. EV’s are more expensive upfront, but promise lower overall expenses (maintenance, fuel, etc.) overall; still…

After a 2006 law saddled the USPS with made-up debt to help balance the federal budget, the USPS acts as if it lacks the financial flexibility to make any mistakes, a fear that results in an organization so tepid and conservative it ends up making many of them…

The USPS, like many large government bureaucracies, have two different budgets: operating and capital expenses. The operating budget of some $80 billion a year is the one that goes towards delivering mail every day: paying people, fueling trucks, fixing trucks, running their equipment and facilities, and so on. The capital budget, which is just a couple billion dollars a year at most, is the one that pays for investing in upgrades to all that stuff: Buying new trucks, purchasing a new HVAC system for a post office, and the like. 

While any individual USPS employee easily understands that paying $5,000 a year to keep 30-year-old trucks running makes no sense, the USPS bureaucracy can’t. To buy new ones would be a capital cost, for which the USPS would have to borrow money, something it legally could not do for the last decade.

It had reached its Congressionally-mandated borrowing limit. If the USPS had been able to borrow more money, it would have had to give it to the federal government as part of the terms of that disastrous 2006 law, which mandated the USPS pay it $5.5 billion every year. The USPS did so, amassing some $18 billion in an account managed by the federal government, until 2011, when it stopped because it could no longer afford it. So while the USPS could continue to run up deficits in its operating budget, it couldn’t borrow any more money for capital expenses, the kind that saves an organization money in the long run…

Why the USPS bought expensive, environmentally-unfriendly mail trucks: “Who Killed the Electric Mail Truck?,” from @A_W_Gordon in @motherboard. Eminently worth reading in full.

* paraphrase of George Westerman

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As we think systemically, we might recall that it was on this date in 1818 that Mary Shelley’s epoch-making tale of a man-made monster, Frankenstein, was published.  Shelley had begun writing the story two years earlier, when she was 18 and on vacation near Geneva with her soon-to-be husband (the poet Percy Shelley) and their friend Lord Byron.  The house party set itself the task of each writing a gothic story; only Mary finished hers.  The first edition was published anonymously; Shelley was first publicly identified as the author on the title page of the 1823 second edition.

The work has, as Brian Aldiss argues, a strong claim to being the first true science fiction novel.  As the sub-title– “The Modern Prometheus”– suggests (and like most great sci fi), it treats the philosophical, cultural, and psychological ramifications of scientific and technological progress.

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“My work consists of two parts; that presented here plus all I have not written. It is this second part that is important.”*…

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s wooden cabin in Skjolden, Norway

On the occasion of it centenary, Peter Salmon considers the history, context, and lasting significance of Wittgenstein‘s revolutionary first work…

One hundred years ago, a slim volume of philosophy was published by the then unknown Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The book was as curious as its title, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Running to only 75 pages, it was in the form of a series of propositions, the gnomic quality of the first as baffling to the newcomer today as it was then.

1. The world is all that is the case.
1.1 The world is a totality of facts not of things.
1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.
1.12 For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.
1.13 The facts in logical space are the world.

And so on, through six propositions, 526 numbered statements, equally emphatic and enigmatic, until the seventh and final proposition, which stands alone at the end of the text: “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.”

The book’s influence was to be dramatic and far-reaching. Wittgenstein believed he had found a “solution” to how language and the world relate, that they shared a logical form. This also set a limit as to what questions could be meaningfully asked. Any question which could not be verified was, in philosophical terms, nonsense.

Written in the First World War trenches, Tractatus is, in many ways, a work of mysticism…

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus is as brilliant and baffling today as it was on its publication a century ago: “The logical mystic,” from @petesalmon in @NewHumanist.

* Ludwig Wittgenstein

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As we wrestle with reason and reality, we might recall that it was on this date in 1930 that Dashiell Hammett‘s The Maltese Falcon— likely a favorite of Wittgenstein’s— was published. In 1990 the novel ranked 10th in Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list by the Crime Writer’s Association. Five years later, in a similar list by Mystery Writers of America, the novel was ranked third.

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“When the past is always with you, it may as well be present; and if it is present, it will be future as well.”*…

It’s been nearly 40 years since Gibson’s seminal Neuromancer was published. As Cory Doctorow notes, Eileen Gunn was a friend of Gibson’s from the earliest days, who while an exec at Microsoft, hosted him – then a penniless aspiring writer – in Seattle and took him to the hacker bars where he eavesdropped on what he calls “the poetics of the technological subculture.” She reflects on Neuromancer‘s impact– its lessons and the questions it raises– then and now…

… William Gibson’s cool, collected language doesn’t make a big deal about this being the future. Your brain glides smoothly past quotidian details that might have been futuristic the first time you read them, but now are just the way the world rolls. The transition to global connectedness and a global economy has been accomplished; cyberspace is here and people all over the world have casual access to it; outer space is an international arena and not just a US/Soviet hegemony. There are Russians here, or, at least, the clunky remains of their materiel, but, presciently, there are no Soviets in Neuromancer...

What is most interesting about Neuromancer is not the caper––although that’s certainly intricate and interesting itself. It’s not simply the suggestion of a compelling future­­––some of which has vanished from the text merely by coming to pass, but much of which is intact and captivating. What is most interesting to me, after forty years and many re-readings, is its meditation on the relationship between personality and memory and humanity, on originality and creativity, on what makes people real…

Gibson himself has said that, in creating a future that didn’t end in a global nuclear disaster, he thought he was creating an optimistic future. In the 1980s, reading Neuromancer’s grim future somehow alleviated, for me at least, the fear that the unknown future would be unsurvivable. It made today a familiar place. Our fears are different now, but Gibson’s books continue to serve that purpose….

I urge you to read and re-read not only Neuromancer, but Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, the subsequent books in the Sprawl trilogy. As Gibson continued to explore this alternate future, he continued to extend his mastery of craft and content. In the two following books, his larger vision of what he was writing about becomes evident, as I think it did to him as he wrote them. The Gibsonian world and the Gibsonian universe are larger and more diverse than Neuromancer, larger even than this entire trilogy. They contain multitudes. If you don’t already know them, I hope you will check them all out. His peculiar dystopian optimism, that humans will somehow elude complete obliteration, has grown larger over the years, and we need it more than ever…

Amen. “William Gibson’s Neuromancer: Does the Edge Still Bleed?,” from @eileen_gunn via @doctorow.

* William Gibson, Neuromancer

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As we find our ways forward, we might send ruminative birthday greetings to a master of a different genre, Georges Joseph Christian Simenon; he was born on this date in 1903.  A prolific author (who published nearly 500 novels and numerous short works), he is best known as the creator of the fictional detective Jules Maigret.  His work is featured in the collection La Pléiade (inspiration for the Library of America), and in 1966 he was awarded the Mystery Writers of America’s highest honor, the Grand Master Award.

Georges_Simenon_(1963)_without_hat_by_Erling_Mandelmann

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“Lying is done with words, and also with silence”*…

The redoubtable John Bayley deconstructs deceit in his 1990 review of Philip Kerr‘s The Penguin Book of Lies

Kipling’s unspoken criterion, that if a thing is well done enough it must be the case, has caught on in a big way. It is all made up by the media, and by those faithful camp-followers of art who tell us on radio or TV what they were ‘trying to do’ when they wrote, painted or composed. The fashionably perceptive novel, like Julian Barnes’s memorable Flaubert’s Parrot, cannot find out what it is looking for, or what is going on inside itself. The fashionable thriller does not know the answers, or which side is which. These reactions against realism discard, often to great effect, the idea of truth as solution. So, fortuitously, did Henry James in The Turn of the Screw, and Stendhal’s Fabrice when he could not find the battle of Waterloo, or be sure that he had taken part in it. That truth is a lie shows that life is stupid: once art could fix that, but now this is not so certain, even of the best art.

As Philip Kerr has perceived, and embodied in his choice of extracts, a self-consciousness about truth goes with scepticism about it to produce the modern science of propaganda. Truth is the first casualty in war, whether hot or cold; when Churchill remarked that truth in wartime was ‘so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies’ he was not just being cynical, like Bacon’s jesting Pilate, but assuming that truth, like right, must be on one’s own side: enemy truth, attended by her SS bodyguard, must be a false creature. As Orwell saw, faith in the truth leads to lying. Since the Party is always right, the concoction of deliberate lies is a moral duty. The victims of the show-trials in Moscow and Prague found relief in the lies they were made to utter. In 1940 Orwell supposed – which is interesting in the light of what happened later in the Soviet Union, and indeed in 1984 – that ‘already there are countless people who would think it scandalous to falsify a scientific textbook, but would see nothing wrong in falsifying a historical fact.’ Today science can appear just as much ‘the father of lies’ as Herodotus himself: not because of our appetite for wonders, but because the scientist has become much more aware of the possibilities of propaganda, whether personally or ideologically motivated…

More on the forms of fabrication: “Art’ll fix it,” in @LRB

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* Adrienne Rich, Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying

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As we ponder prevarication, we might rejoice in the naively and nobly inventive: it was on this date in 1605 that El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (or The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha— aka Don Quixote), the masterwork of Miguel de Cervantes (and of the Spanish Golden Age) and a founding work of Western literature was first published. Widely considered the first modern novel (published in the Western world), it is also considered by many (still) to be the best; it is in any case the second most translated work in the world (after the Bible).

Original title page

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“Anything down there about your souls?”*…

Herman Melville; drawing by David Levine

Andrew Delbanco on the difficulty, to date, of capturing Herman Melville’s central importance in a biography…

The fact is that Herman Melville is a singularly unyielding subject for literary biography. “One portrait may hit the mark much nearer than another,” as he says of the whale, “but none can hit it with any very considerable degree of exactness…[because] there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like.” The dim record of Melville’s life simply disappears into the glare of his work, and the best one can hope for is to glimpse a few moments of convergence between them…

By what alchemy did an apparently unremarkable boy become the genius who broke open the conventional form of the novel and pushed the American language far beyond where any previous practitioner had taken it? Where did he acquire his knowledge of evil that made him seem mad to his contemporaries, but prescient of our own blasted century?…

On the problem of understanding Melville’s work via his life: “The Great Leviathan.”

* Queequeg, Moby-Dick, Chapter 19

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As we wonder about white whales, we might recall that it was on this date in 1855 that David Livingstone became the first European to see (what we now call) Victoria Falls in what is now Zambia-Zimbabwe.

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