Recommendations for April 1, 2016

1 Apr

For the last several weeks, I’ve been working on recommendations posts that have turned into other, longer things, which is one reason I haven’t managed to finish one. At least one of those may show up here fairly soon. Here, though, are a few things I’ve found interesting in the meantime.

While you read, another new track from Fatima Al Qadiri, whose weird, excellent album Brute is out now:


Article: “K Troop: The Story of the Eradication of the Original Ku Klux Klan” by Matthew Pearl

The word “original” in the title of this piece is important; the KKK, of course, has not been eradicated, and today is mustering in support of Donald Trump. But there was a period between the original appearance of the Klan during Reconstruction and its resurgence in the early 20th century when it indeed seemed to have been defeated. This was the result of a direct military intervention by the federal government, beginning in the Klan stronghold of York County, South Carolina. I was entirely ignorant of this history, and there’s a lot here that’s interesting, but I think what struck me most about it is the extent to which it parallels the task of military personnel in places like Afghanistan, who must root out the Taliban from among a population that may simultaneously oppose what the Taliban do, fear reprisals, resent the presence of foreign forces, and doubt the ability of those forces to protect them or really defeat their enemy. There’s also a parallel in the way that the Klan organization overlapped to a remarkable degree with the social and political elite of the county, making it impossible for federal forces to know who they could rely on; where that breaks down somewhat, though, is in the fact that in fighting the Klan federal troops had an obvious coincidence of interests with the African American population, who in fact provided them with most of their information. I’m probably making all of this seem fairly dry, but Pearl is a best-selling novelist, who unlike me knows how to tell a story. It’s apparently been optioned for a movie, if that tells you anything.


Article: “Inside the Billion-Dollar Dig to America’s Biggest Copper Deposit” by Matthew Philips

Actually, it’s more like the Seven Billion-Dollar Dig. Philips travels over 7000 feet into the earth to see the construction of one of the world’s deepest mines, in southern Arizona. What’s remarkable about the Resolution Copper Mine is not only the depth itself, but the method of mining that will be used, known as block caving. This involves digging under the actual mineral deposit, then drilling or blasting it from the bottom to make the ore fall down through, essentially, some very large funnels. Block caving isn’t a new thing, but it’s never been done with a deposit this large, or a mine this deep. To get to where they need to be, the mine shaft had to go straight through an underground lake, and so water has to be pumped out of it constantly; they’re also deep enough that the temperature averages over 180 degrees, and so the mine has to be continually air conditioned to make it survivable. The sheer difficulty of doing this is pretty unbelievable.

The main thing that got my attention about this piece, though, was the fact that the companies who are digging it don’t actually know right now whether they will actually be able to extract anything at all. They have permits to dig, but not permits to mine, and they don’t expect to have them until around 2020. In the meantime, they face opposition from environmentalists, because the mine borders a national forest, and the San Carlos Apache, whose reservation is also nearby. Assuming all of those issues are resolved, there’s also the fact that copper prices are very low at the moment, and the companies are simply digging and hoping that they will rebound by the time the mine begins to produce. They will have spent around $7 billion at that point, with no guarantee of making any of that back. This all reminded me of Geoff Manaugh’s fantastic piece “American Mine”, from about a year ago, which describes the way that the “design” of gold mines can change hourly as the price of the metal fluctuates. The level of uncertainty that characterizes such massive, complex, and challenging operations is kind of hard to get one’s head around.

And, speaking, of Geoff Manaugh…


Article: “How Aerial Surveillance Has Changed Policing — and Crime — in Los Angeles” by Geoff Manaugh

Here’s a piece adapted from his new book A Burglar’s Guide to the City . Here, he goes on a ride-along (fly-along?) with the LAPD’s air support division, a fleet of helicopters that help on-the-ground police navigate the vastness of Los Angeles. Mostly, their work seems to involve helping police understand the terrain, for instance helping them to close off routes of escape when trying to surround a suspect. The sprawl of the city makes such support vital. Criminals, of course, have figured this out, and try to find ways to thwart the police advantage, for instance by leaving getaway vehicles near LAX, where air traffic concerns mean that police helicopters often can’t go. Manaugh is interested in how criminals both use and alter urban environments, and the way those environments constrain police responses. It sounds like a fascinating book, if this is anything to go by.


Article: “Were’s George Is Not Made of Money” by Cale Guthrie Weissman

I’ve gotten a few bills with the Where’s George stamp on them, but I’ve never done anything about it; it’s one of those things that seemed like an interesting idea, but not sufficient to motivate me to go type serial numbers into a website. Apparently, though, a lot of people were willing to take that extra step, and in fact to spend time on the site’s forums, making friends and talking shop. Some of those people even met up in real life, organizing Amtrak rides halfway across the country for “Georgers” to meet and hang out together. Somewhat sadly, the site’s popularity has declined in recent years, as social media provide easier forums for this kind of thing, but it’s an interesting example of technology having unintended impacts.

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