Running Local

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Archive for the ‘Autobiographical’ Category

A Certain Failure to Connect

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 31, 2009

Have you ever had a moment where a connection is made that is screamingly obvious but has spent years in the making despite that clear linkage? Moreover, have you ever realized that you had made the linkage subconsciously but that it had eluded your conscious understanding?

As news of the CIA station chief under investigation for rape in Algeria broke earlier this week, Jeff Stein’s Spy Talk blog at CQPolitics described the situation as being reminiscent of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, the existential novel in which the protagonist is driven to murder by indifference to humanity and the heat, the glare, the smells of Algiers.

This morning I woke up with a song by the Cure, “Killing an Arab”, stuck on autoplay in my head.

I woke up to it. I was whistling it subconsciously in the shower, singing it aloud on the way to the bagel store this morning.

Standing on the beach with a gun in my hand, staring at the sea, staring at the sand

Staring down the barrel at the Arab on the ground, I can see his open mouth but I hear no sound

I’m alive, I’m dead, and the stranger, killing an Arab.

How, in the name of God, did I never make that connection, between a song sung by one of my favorite bands as a teenager and a book I’ve probably read four or five times for different classes? It’s a failure to connect that Meursault himself would relate too.

What is really throwing me for a loop is that clearly at some level I did make this connection– read about a situation referenced to The Stranger, wake up whistling  a song referenced to The Stranger that I never consciously  linked to The Stranger.

It’s absurd. Existentialism, indeed.

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A New Priesthood

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 26, 2009

The story of my academic life in middle & high school was my distaste inability to “show all work”. Arriving at a correct answer was never a problem for me, whether it was in algebra or trig, biology or the rudimentary computer science we studied back in the dark ages of the mid-Eighties. Showing all work though– there was nothing more frustrating than getting back a math exam with an 80 on it when every damned answer was correct but I had neglected to adequately translate my thought process in reaching that answer into a discernible, codifiable process. Actually there were a couple of young ladies who were considerably more frustrating, but that’s life as a teen-aged boy.

It’s that inability to show work, though, that intrigues me right now. I employed all of the standard dodges– what does it matter as long as I’m right, who will ever need this crap anyway (a mantra I recalled a couple of years back while trying to lay a triangular pattern of tile in my entryway), blah blah blah. The good Franciscan Brothers were, if you’ll pardon the phrase, hell bent on getting us to show all work.

They were, however, not quite so interested in process and practice in the humanities. Yes, there were papers to do in some of the Social Studies classes and essay questions on some of the Lit tests, but there were a surprising number of multiple choice, fill in the blank, true/false types of questions, too. For some reason the approach and execution of the thinker are less important in those topics, at least to the minds of some. The answer was adequate.

I’ve learned to appreciate, if not always execute, the description of systems over the intervening years. Its inherent value becomes apparent as one progresses through life, as the need to apply flexible process to rigid situations exerts and unveils itself. It is curious, then, that as we proceed further into an age in which we are told that mathematics and science are the raisons d’etre for education that very knowledge of process in falling by the wayside.

As computers run our algorithims and processors compute our runs, one can actually make the case that the display of work is an anachronism.  I play a game at a free site that requires deducing by eye the end results of a gravitational field– the math behind it is mind-boggling to me, but simple enough that whoever created the game gave away the result for free. Perhaps the time has come then when not only do we not need to show work, but we, the general populace, can not.

Why, then, is the Navy still teaching navigation by sextant at Annapolis? It’s an arcane and extraordinarily complex process involving taking sightings on the sun and stars. It is a technology surpassed what, five times over before we even reach GPS… yet it is still relevant. You must have the technical knowledge to navigate your ship if your systems are down, and, int he world of Academy graduates, the basic knowledge of taking a sighting and computing your position off of it underlies so many other integral processes that you need it to formulate the next generations of technology.

Those Middies with their deep knowledge are still a pace behind the diminution of process, however. There’s is a complex but approachingly ancient technology, whereas mathematical knowledge now proceeds into areas that support technologies beyond the understanding of most. Anyone can explain the construction of the internal combustion engine, even if you can’t build one yourself. Explain to me, however, how the computer you are reading this on is engineered and is working, or how the signals generated by the buttons I’m pressing are translating into the blog you’re reading somewhere else in the world right now. Yes, of course we all know the basics– integrated circuits, binary code, etc.– but the workings, the actual workings? Show all work with your answer.

It is very current to talk about societal divides– the digital divide, the economic divide, racial divides, education divides. I think they’re all about to be superseded.  We face a knowledge divide, a mathematical divide that can really only be described in the language of mathematics that itself forms the divide, thus becoming an intractable problem for the majority of the planet. While we all enjoy the fruits of mathematics– your Wii, your car, your bank account or the box you’re reading this on– we can’t describe its workings and have reached a point where it is both too complicated to do so for the majority of the planet… but also not necessary to do so either.

There are those in the world who can still show all work. Are they ascending to a different societal plane, a new priesthood that directly communes with the divine technology? The Maya priests were the leaders of their society because they understood the comings and goings of the sun and concocted a societal construct around that knowledge. Are we not doing the same with our technology?

Posted in American History, Autobiographical, Cultural Phenomena, education, History, Mathematics | Tagged: , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Silver Nomads in the Purple Tunnel of Doom

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 22, 2009

I understand security needs. I understand logistics. I even understand that when an event is as large as the Inauguration of Barack Obama, there are going to be problems.

What I don’t understand is how Terry Gainer, the Sergeant-at-Arms of the Senate, is being allowed to blatantly lie about the way yesterday’s Inaugural was carried out in the streets surrounding the Capitol.

Terry Gainer is the bad penny of security here in the Capital; he was the number two at the Washington Metropolitan Police, roundly acknowledged as one of the worst major metropolitan police forces in the nation. Later, he became the Cheif of the Capitol Police, the force that polices the Capitol campus and its environs. The reviews for him there were, and I’m being nice, less than stellar. Now, at the Senate in what should be a fairly ceremonial post as the Sergeant at Arms, he’s still flapping his gums authoritatively about things he knows little about and has no control over.

The golden tickets in Washington this week actually came in many colors; amongst them Orange or Blue got you a seat on the Capitol pediment, Purple got you into the standing area closest to the Capitol, Silver got you into standing areas clustered right in front of the Capitol. The purple tickets were handed out to senior staff of the various Obama state organizations and to the guests of Congressmen; silver were the tickets of the folks who had good connections and those who were insanely lucky enough to get a ticket from their local Representative.

For some those tickets of purple and silver were as good as gold; for perhaps as many as 20,000, however, the alchemy of the Secret Service turned them not just to lead but nearly to arsenic. According to Sergeant-at-Arms Gainer, however, there were a few thousand people “inconvenienced”, for reasons that he’s given at various times as “overcrowding”, “counterfeit tickets”, “everybody unexpectedly showing up”, and a few other whoppers.

My party of six all had silver tickets and, in theory, did everything right. We set a 4am alarm here in Alexandria, about 25 minutes from the Capitol by rail. We were on the street in DC by 6.20, better than five hours in advance of the ceremony. We grabbed a cup of coffee at Union Station and set out for what we anticipated to be a semi-chaotic but ultimately rewarding process.

For a while things made sense– there were immense banners and signs color coded to the tickets, clearly illustrating where to go from Union Station. For some reason they petered out at the Purple Gate, leaving the Silver group, by far the largest of the officially ticketed hordes, to wander in search of bafflingly sparse officials to guide them.

The Purples had problems, too. At the corner of First Street and Louisiana Avenue the mob was forming. Unpublicized amongst the official calls to arrive at the Capitol insanely early, the Secret Service had decided to not open any gates until nine o’clock. What needs to be understood is that in addition to preventing access, they also prevented outflow. Streets all over the area were closed by the Secret Service to prevent people from moving freely in the secure zone– they had basically created a very small, steel mesh bag and kept pouring more and more people into it without regard for safety.

That bag’s largest node on the north side of the National Mall was First Street NW between Louisiana Avenue & D Street, a span of roughly a block and a half. By 7am, that area was literally a wall of humanity. As the Purple ticket holders arrived to find the gates still locked, they quickly overmassed the designated holding area and someone– whether it was the Secret Service, the Army, the Metropolitan Police, the DEA, or one of the many other police authorities and agencies out there– decided to have line up on First Street. They filled it in no time flat. The problem was that according not only to the instructions on the back of the tickets and some of the officials on the street, the Silver people were supposed to head up First to D and make a left to reach their access point to the Mall at Third & D.

As we attempted to do as we were instructed with several thousand of our closest friends in tow, we ran into the wall. It appeared to be an impossibility– First Street was literally packed from curb-to-curb and from Louisiana to D with people who couldn’t lift their arms due to overcrowding. We found a uniformed Secret Service agent and asked him what to do– his advice was to head up First as it was our only option. We trusted the positive mood of the day and the good humor of the people and, with a chanted mantra of “Excuse me”, waded into the fray. After nearly 20 minutes that saw us progress about a half block into the one and a half block corridor a river of people were pushing their way back towards Louisiana with the incredible news that D Street was closed by the Secret Service and that people were being told to go back to Louisiana Avenue. After a few moments of disbelief and then finding a low wall to climb and confirm that D was indeed closed, we retreated.

After a twenty minute slog back through the still condensing crowd, we made it back to Louisiana. We could see another line hard against the walls of the Department of Labor at Second Street and, having nowhere else to go we tried again to wade through an increasingly hostile crowd of Purple People to get to it. This time, to cross a span of about 100 feet took fifteeen minutes. Things were getting much worse, and we were becoming the Silver Nomads upon the Purple Sea.

Finally reaching the other side of the Purple line, we headed for the Department of Labor only to find that line was also composed of Purples and that there was no access to Silver portals there, either. A police officer walking 20 feet overhead on the walls of the Department of Labor advised us to head for the tunnel that runs under Labor and out to D Street. We got to its mouth and saw what looked an awful lot like hell. The tunnel stretched off in a straight line far into the distance, with an intersecting tunnel to the left, through which the line stretched in a solid, unmoving wall of people at least a half mile long and ten abreast. Seeing that there was no way we could ever negotiate it, we again retreated. That tunnel, in which thousands of, again, Purple ticket holders were trapped until after the ceremony, has come to be known as the Purple Tunnel of Doom across the blogosphere.

We came back to the area aroudn the labor department and were told by a Secret Service agent to, incredibly, head back up First Street but to stay by the left-hand walls. We debated if he was insane or not and found a police officer who opined that he was… but told us to go back to the tunnel. A Military Police sergeant dressed head to toe in camos told us to do something completely different and impossible– it had become clear that none of the authorities were talking to each other. We headed back into the First Street blender, sticking to the left wall.

Suffice it to say that over the next hour and a half, as we inched forward towards D Street literally through the bushes, shrubs, railings and grates that abutted the walls of the buildings to the left side, our arms pinned to our sides and with no ability to turn our bodies at most times to the left or right no real progress was made. The sheer weight of those behind us caused forward motion not because D Street was open, but because the mass of people was being further and further, almost impossibly, compressed.

At 9.40, the Secret Service succumbed to that inexorable pressure and opened D Street to a single file line of people coming up our left wall. We had seen people injured, we had seen brave medics and doctors– not in an official capacity, mind you, but just members of the mob– fight their way backwards to help them. Finally, after nearly two hours in the blender, we emerged onto D Street and a wide open street. The Army told us to move to Third and D, the marked Silver portal, and head in. It wasn’t to be.

Reaching Third Street, we were confronted with a security cordon manned by the DC Metropolitan Police. An officer helpfully told us to ball up our silver tickets and throw them away– the Secret Service had set up Silver gates in places that they weren’t supposed to causing more chaos, with two of those gates– according to the cop– “exploding”. All Silver portals were closed and we were told to head down Third to reach the general public viewing areas back on the Mall. That advice lasted for all of 100 feet– the Army had put up steel fences across Third Street and declared that only Parade ticket holders could cross there, despite the fact that the parade wasn’t going to happen for five hours and the huge mass who had broken free of First Street was filling the space. We headed back the way we had come only to find the Secret Service telling us to go back again tot he steel fences. The Army told us to go back to the Secret Service and tell them to stop sending them people. Chaos, again, reigned.

We fell back on the DC police strongpoint and they gave us the one decent bit of information we had all day– they were opening the Third Street Tunnel, which runs under the mall, to pedestrians to get to the other side of the city. Heading underground into the massive freeway tunnel that runs beneath the Capitol precincts, we walked about a mile and came out to reassuring signs once again directing us to the Silver portals on that side of town. It was 10.15am, the ceremony started at 11.30, and we were finally going to get in. The energy and laughter of the early morning had returned.

We then turned the corner and saw the Silver line. We walked on, trying to find its end. It changed direction every block, stretching around buildings, up streets, across open spaces. As a longtime DC area resident who has been through his portion of Presidential event security screenings, this line was at least– at least– three hours long. We were finally, inexorably defeated. We grabbed a vantage point at 6th & Maryland along a Jersey wall with a blocked view of the Capitol six blocks away and no chance of hearing anything and sent out a scouting party to figure out how to get onto the Mall in the general area. That was impossible as well– at seventh street the police told us that 14th was the next access, but it was closing as we spoke– 23rd street, on the other side of the Washington monument and with no view of the Capitol over a mile away, was the new access and it would likely last only a few minutes.

Our party splintered shortly thereafter. My wife and I headed for the plaza in front of the Native American museum, which had no speakers but had some view of the Capitol. We waited to see Obama walk out onto the Capitol Platform, took some great pictures of people in trees trying to see, and headed for the subway knowing that if we stayed we’d hear nothing and face equal chaos on the way out of town.

We were frustrated, yes, but we were also exhilarated– we had shared the moments of history in a crowd that was, for the most part, buoyed by the day and that had maintained decorum in what easily could have been a stampede and trampling situation. The people we felt bad for were those who had paid more than the $1.85 we had paid to reach the ceremony– we felt bad for our random Irishman who was denied entry by the poor planning and lack of communication amongst the authorities, whom we were told by a Metropolitan police sergeant were not in radio contact– the Secret Service had denied access to their radio net to the other agencies, even though Secret Service had overall control of the streets. We felt bad for the little old ladies who had waited a lifetime for this, who had made the trek from the Deep South at great cost to see history– and were denied. We felt bad for the disabled people who we were told, again by Metro PD, were literally upended and thrown from their wheelchairs at the Disabled entrance when the crowd broke free and charged the gate. We felt bad for the women hit by a train when she was forced from the platform at Gallery Place by the crowds.

So, Terry Gainer, Sergeant-at-Arms to the Senate, today I call you a liar in addition to being incompetent. To the Secret Service, a group I’ve always admired, I hand the shame and despair of those who wandered through the crowds, who got stuck in the tunnels, who came to experience history, not your ludicrous lack of planning and cooperation.

History was made on Tuesday. Only the good humor of the mob kept tragedy, rather than annoyance, from sharing that stage.

Posted in American History, American Politics, Autobiographical, Events, Jerks, Just Annoying | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Silver Tickets, a Random Irishman, and the Madness of Crowds

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 21, 2009

It has been a long week.

We’ve had Texans in the beds, Jersey girls in the family room and an Irish journalist on the floor. We had no intention of going to the Inauguration, then we had tickets to the Inauguration, then we were left standing on the street after five hours in the cold, amongst the mob.

Did I mention that it has been a long week?

An acquaintance and sometimes drinking buddy asked several weeks ago if we might have room for him for the Inauguration. Of course we said yes and, after he asked if we could take a few of his staffers from Texans for Obama we said “yes” again. In the intervening weeks we prepared for something between two guests and half the population of Austin and even had friends volunteering their houses if we had so many Texans that we wouldn’t be able to walk the floors without stepping on them.

Last Sunday the original guest, we’ll call him the Index Texan, arrived at 10.30 in the morning on the train from New York, only to inform us that he was it. The women whom he expected to join us had crapped out because one of them hadn’t been able to reach him the day before and so had never left Texas, the couple who was staying out in the exburbs had never called him back about the offered geographic upgrade, various others hadn’t played out. It was anticlimactic but fine– one Texan was still fun and we wouldn’t have to worry about hot water for showers.

The phone rang about twenty minutes after I went to bed. The Index Texan was talking to my wife in the kitchen for a few minutes before I heard them coming down the hall. “There’s news,” said Beth– “We’re heading out to Dulles, Ken’s friend from Ireland is landing at 12.30am”. Apparently the Index Texan had made the acquaintance of an Irish freelance journalist who came to Texas to be part of the Obama experience during the campaign and wound up moving into his house; the Irishman had now jumped on a plane with the expectation that he’d stay at the house of someone whom he had met on a previous plane… which didn’t quite work out.

Next came the Jersey girls and their brother, via Houston, South Jersey, Philly, far northern Maryland and all points in between. The friend of the woman who wasn’t coming was coming and bringing friends. They showed up roughly five hours before we had to wake up to go to the Inaugural.

Did I mention we were going to the Inaugural?

My wife had decided to volunteer on the Mall during the Inaugural and she was determined to have the experience of the day; I was content to watch it from the warmth of my family room on the big screen TV– I was actually quite adamant about it when people asked the week before. The Index Texan said that he might be able to score what had been billed as an impossible-to-get extra ticket and asked if I wanted it– off went the kids to a friend’s house and I was making plans for the several layers of clothing I would wear the next day. Beth was getting ready for bed and a 3am wake-up call when we got a text from the Index Texan, now resplendent in a tux and boots at the Texas Society Inaugural Ball. Did she want a ticket too? After an agonizing four seconds of soul searching, she said yes. We were all going to the show. I’ll tell that story in the next post.

Here we are, then, on Wednesday night– the Jersey girls have departed, we think the Random Irishman leaves in the morning, the Index Texan is with us until Friday. We’ve had an interview with the Irish equivalent of the Today Show conducted at 3.30 AM from our family room and another Irish media interview conducted from the crush that was 3rd Street mid-morning, we stopped for a chat with the cast of Morning Joe and were harassed by a belligerent homeless man in Union Station, we had some great political and ethical conversations over pizza and beer in the dining room, we’ve made some new friends and had a few laughs. We also had new people with us who busted their butts to get Barack Obama elected in one of the most Republican states in the nation, and that made our Inaugural experience so much the richer. So, to the Random Irishman, the Index Texan, the Jersey Girls and their brother, thanks, it made this surreal moment, the impossible Inauguration of a black man with a strange name as President of not only New York and California but also Alabama and Utah, that much more surreal. We need our house back, now. Let’s do this again some day… say, perhaps, in four years.

Posted in American Politics, Autobiographical, Events | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Coming Back Up

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 21, 2009

Running Local was, well, running local the last few days– making stops along the Inaugural Trail here in DC, complete with a house full of guests– most of whom I’ve never met before– and a random Irish journalist who wound up on an air mattress in the guest room amidst the sprawl. There were moments of pride with my children and friends, there were moments of frustration with the idiocy of the Secret Service doing their best to ruin the experience for many not for reasons of security but for lack of interagency communication, there were even moments of danger as we were packed into streets where you literally couldn’t turn around due to the way the Secret Service created bottlenecks leading to several near-trampling events.

I’ll be writing it all up over the next day or two as the train pulls back into this station and the madness of the crowds subside.

Posted in American Politics, Autobiographical | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot….

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 9, 2009

sasSince I’m stuck in the house while a tech converts me from cable to FIOS, I’ve been killing time on the laptop before my connectivity drops for an hour or two. I checked in on Facebook to find an invite from an old friend from grade school who, to be honest, I hadn’t thought about in nearly 25 years. Albert was a truly gentle soul and good guy back then, but he went to Monsignor McClancy High School, I went to St. Francis Prep, and life moved on.

Well, take one tentatively re-established tie at 9am and by 11.45 I think I’ve linked to about 50% of my eighth grade graduating class, from fondly remembered friends to ancient foes to the people who just barely hang on at the fringes of my memory. Some I traded street-corner blows with, some I laughed with, some I had schoolboy crushes on and some were better friends than perhaps I realized at the time. The joys of grade & middle school!

I’m left to wonder right now whether these reconnected ties are a good thing. The Holden Caulfield in me says that St. Ann’s 1984 was my Museum of Natural History— until this morning it existed in my memory as it did then, as a group of people whose adult realities were exact reflections of their childhood existences. Melissa was sweet and perhaps a bit awkward and always Mrs. Conway’s favorite. Steven was a pain in my ass who assuaged his insecurities by nailing mine but turned otu to be a pretty good guy at heart. Tara and Alison were best friends and the core of the popular girls clique. Are they still those people? I was a pain in the ass myself as a kid—the classic class monitor/teacher’s pet. While I’ve changed, it was easier to think of the Jennifers and Brians and Phillips of the past as static images. Sister Catherine has been chasing Joey around with a broom for 28 years now; Sister “Pick and Flick” Dorothy is still preening over Angelica and complaining about the boys who make fun of the snot rag she kept under her watchband. One Brian is still the nice guy/brainiac/athlete, another the altar boy and genuinely nice guy, and the third is still the small, dumb bully whose parents beat the hell out of him. Now they’re not. I wasn’t the most popular kid in middle school but I wasn’t at the bottom of the social scale either, although back then my self confidence was close to zero. That seems insane to look back at when I reflect upon the person I became later in high school and college, not to mention the bombast and ego I bring to everyday life. That’s who I still am to these people— it’s always perilous to try and see yourself through other’s eyes, but I imagine that yesterday I was vaguely recalled as the teacher’s pet who could be both a prig but a nice guy to this friends and who just didn’t get the jokes half the time. Now I’m not.

Yesterday I didn’t care if that’s who I was in whatever universe the memories of grade school kids resonate; honestly I’m not sure that I do today.

That’s the thing though– I’m not sure. How ridiculous is that? The little boy on the social fringe within the proud man blessed with friends and family, with a wonderful wife and kids– that little boy maybe does still care. Were it that the better parts of youth were the only visitors to maturity…

In the end, yes, re-established ties are inherently a good thing if for no other reason than that they promote introspection, something we can all use more of. They’re also fun. So, to my friends, to my foes, to my distant memories of St. Ann’s and the QBH Little League, here I am. I am happy to see you.

Posted in Autobiographical | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This Train is… Running Local

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 5, 2009

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Number Seven Train, running local and making all stops between Main Street and Times Square. Watch the closing doors.”

I’m a child of Flushing, Queens and so too a child of the 7 Train. Following its sinuous track through the neighborhoods of ethnic Queens on its way to Grand Central & Times Square, the 7 will teach you many things– the first of which is  to treat the words “running local” as they come over the PA with comic introspection. The 7 stops everywhere, seemingly at random. It will be a long and potentially interesting ride.

Those who know me know where I’m going with this– the fact is that my train of thought has a big “7” plastered on the front  because, like the train that made John Rocker infamous, it makes all stops. My wife suffers through episodes like the time I was sitting suddenly awake and wondering aloud if Hector Elizondo skydives. At any moment I may spout off about strategic realities in the Middle East or Caucasus and then an hour later I’m musing about the intricacies of building a smoke house in the backyard, the Yankees playoff prospects and the genius of Monty Python simultaneously. God (and my wife) know it can be maddening, but every now and again I come up with something interesting to say.

Please watch the closing doors and enjoy the ride. Foreign affairs, politics, food & drink, restaurants & plays, sports and music, the news and the culture and all stops in between are fair game for this blog. We’re running local.

Posted in Autobiographical, Intro | Tagged: , | 7 Comments »

 
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