sweet & sour notes

thoughts on music, politics, & society, from Dominique Cyprès

I finally read The Undertow: Scenes From a Show Civil War by Jeff Sharlet in late 2023 and passages of it kept bouncing around in my head for some time. I'm not sure I have anything new or interesting to bring to it, or if in talking about it I can only flail about, repeating the facts that haunt me the most until I misremember them, like Don the “town meshuga,” a character Sharlet met whilst doing research in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, who compulsively recounted to Sharlet scenes from a docudrama about local history, Wisconsin Death Trip, which Sharlet knows so well that he has discussed it at length with the author of the book on which it was based.

In short, The Undertow explores why so many people in the United States today are either preparing for a new civil war they believe to be imminent, or effectively waging one they believe is already underway.

It frustrates me endlessly that as a country we're stuck with old notions about “swing voters” and “moderate conservatives” and “family values” when increasing numbers of people inhabit a parallel social/political world where reality has more to do with what feels true than with observable fact. It's good to hear Sharlet honestly grapple with that world as he interviews authoritarians all over the contiguous United States.

It's also refreshing to read about these things from the perspective of someone who writes competently about religion. Sharlet is a thoughtful scholar of religion who elucidates the historical faith traditions and biblical justifications of religious currents that have attached themselves to the broad fascist movement in Twenty-First Century U.S. politics. Shorthand references to “the evangelical vote” and so on in the news never really conjure a clear picture in my mind; these modes of Christianity are uncanny to me (in the sense of being at once familiar and unfamiliar) as someone from a New England Catholic background, and it really clarifies things to have someone walk through the theology behind these political alliances, as vexing and topsy-turvy as it may be.

I was struck by Sharlet's reflections on “rootlessness.” Sharlet, whose late father was Jewish, understands well the old anti-Jewish trope of the “rootless cosmopolitan,” but in the course of his research he finds a very different application of the concept of rootlessness in the context of White people on stolen land. The middle section of the book, structured as a kind of road trip narrative in which Sharlet encounters a variety of fringe and not-so-fringe perspectives on the possibility of civil war, is framed within an examination of and engagement in the practice of land acknowledgements. Land acknowledgements are simply acknowledgements of the specific indigenous peoples connected to the land that is relevant to the discussion at hand. For example, I am writing this on Mohegan and Wangunk land. Land acknowledgements do not materially return land to living indigenous people, and at times they can even come across as empty gestures intended to deflect criticism, but they reintroduce to the discussion a context that has been obscured through centuries of genocide. And this is the function they serve in The Undertow: to surface the submerged history of genocide underlying the foundation of this country as a vital context for understanding the threat of civil war today.

For some time I've felt maybe it would best if I (and other White people here) could acknowledge our rootlessness—not as a badge of honor or of shame, but as a baseline fact about ourselves, a starting point for understanding the world and where we fit in it. I'm reminded of something I've been wrestling with lately, something the New York Times writer Ezra Klein said (at about timestamp 15:22) as a parenthetical remark on American ethnicity in his podcast, as he addressed the conflicting perspectives of past guests on the idea that the Israeli state has an obligation to maintain an ethnic majority. He said, by way of analogy, that it's not so strange, that it's just as normal as the United States ensuring that it remains primarily a nation of Americans. But isn't that strange, in a U.S. context? Isn't it odd that we would think we can define an “American” as anything other than either Indigenous (in which case Americans have long been a minority in this country) or simply someone who lives here? Indeed, one of the consequential outcomes of this country's original Civil War was the institution of jus soli citizenship; in effect the Constitutional position is that an American is any person “born or naturalized in the United States”—regardless of ethnicity or parentage.

I didn't know going into the book that the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision would play a big role. But I was relieved to find it being reckoned with. I remember the political columnist Jamelle Bouie opining on the Know Your Enemy podcast in early 2022 that, as a student of the 1861-1865 Civil War, he felt that as bad as things were, the conditions of another civil war were not present. The argument was like this: for the White antebellum Southern planter class, every facet of life—economic, cultural, and so on—was predicated on the institution of slavery, whereas life in the North was increasingly predicated on organizing industrial labor without slavery. And for Bouie in March 2023 it seemed like there was no one ideological issue that could create two diametrically opposed ways of life in the same way. But as states swiftly started the most draconian enforcement of their anti-abortion laws post-Dobbs, Bouie said something on Twitter that sounded less sure about that thesis. A person really can live a drastically different life now just because they live on the other side of a state line.

The question of what Sharlet's father would make of the state of things as a “Sovietologist” and “rule-of-law man” caught my eye. Lately I've been trying to better understand the collapse of the Soviet Union myself, and I thought mostly so I could better understand Eastern Europe and Central Asia, but maybe also because it helps me think through the contradictory way I relate to my lifelong home country. Do I believe in “America”, the empire and its dreams? Not particularly, but history suggests its dissolution could be so much worse.

I appreciated the musical framing of the book, in which biographical anecdotes from the lives of musicians Harry Belafonte and LeeHays illustrate the historical context of the text's contemporary observations. In particular, I've often struggled to understand the radical folk traditions of musicians like Belafonte and the Weavers (Hays's band) because I get too focused on the lyrical text and miss the significance of some of the performance aspects that Sharlet describes so beautifully. I had my own musical reference points for understanding the portrait of contemporary U.S. socio-political life—particularly “Bloodless” and “Manifest” from Andrew Bird's 2019 album My Finest Work Yet. I could hear them as I read the middle sections of the book.

The most difficult moment of the book to me wasn't any implicit call to violence that happened in a megachurch or any of the extreme ways people are preparing for a civil war, but when an activist of the “men's rights” movement going by the pseudonym Factory talks about his daughters in the hotel room after a Men's Issues conference, talking with pride about how he will not allow them to say that they have experienced sexual violence. If someone can at least hear and support his own children when they tell him this has happened to them, maybe there's still hope. I think this may be the single most hopeless utterance in the text.

I hope I've communicated how much I appreciate this book. When I was a kid, we drove the width of the contiguous US, from the Pacific Northwest to New England or vice versa, three times. I came to think that I basically knew what this country was. I haven't had much opportunity to travel over the last ten years and I've started to feel that maybe I don't know this country at all. I feel that I got the tour that I needed. It felt personal and real. And I have more questions than when I started reading, which is a good sign that I've learned something.

Where not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

When I was a high school student in Massachusetts there were certain people who liked to tell me I would really benefit from spending some time backpacking around Europe. It sounded nice, but those people never seemed to have any advice about how to raise money for the plane tickets, and none of the local stores would hire me at the time (shortly after the 2008 financial crash), so it never happened. But in June 2023 I delivered a talk at a technical conference in Brno, in the Czech Republic, so my first ever visit to Europe was paid for by my employer. I was there for a little over a week, and most of my waking hours were spent interacting with other conference-goers or with coworkers who were in town, but I managed to do some impromptu sightseeing anyhow and I got a lot out of the experience, even beyond the good it did for my work and professional relationships.

I've included a few photos, but I also have some more in a PixelFed collection for those who would like to see what some of these things look like.

A shuttered Brno florist shop at night


For someone who has flown relatively little in the past decade, who generally has to stick with economy class, and who has a fairly intense fear of heights, I actually really enjoy commercial air travel. I worry about the environmental impact of it all, and I don't like the gauntlet of security checks on the way into the airport, but I really enjoy watching arrivals from and departures to cities all over the world, navigating the strange architecture of airport terminals, the actual takeoff, and watching landscapes and cloudscapes pass by the window. For this occasion I used my employer's travel booking service to buy economy flights operated by United and Austrian Airlines, from Bradley International Airport (BDL) in Windsor Locks, Connecticut to Vienna Airport (VIE) in Austria, with layovers in Chicago O'Hare (ORD) during departure and Washington Dulles (IAD) on return. My employer used some unallocated travel funds to upgrade both of the domestic flights on my trip to United's Economy Plus class and buy me a United Club lounge pass for my Chicago layover.

I'd never personally been to any of the airports on this trip before, so everything was new from the moment I stepped onto the departures drop-off curb at Bradley. Bradley is not very big, an important regional airport but not a national hub, so the check-in process was relatively quick and easy to navigate compared to a bigger, busier airport like Boston Logan or Seattle-Tacoma. The domestic terminals at O'Hare were architecturally fascinating, the neon-lighted tunnels connecting them even more so, and using an airport lounge with a buffet and all was a new experience for me, a welcome opportunity to relax a little before shuffling over to the international terminal. That step was a little peculiar as it involved presenting my boarding pass and passport multiple times to board a shuttle bus that crossed various taxiways, stopping to allow planes to pass, on its way to the terminal building. My understanding is that this journey can be done more conveniently by train, but the train is located outside of the TSA-secured area.

The flight to Vienna was packed, as I could tell from the moment I saw the enormous crowd at the gate. The plane taxied across an overpass above an Interstate highway, something I'd never seen before. I had an arresting view of Lake Michigan during takeoff, but cloud cover was thick and I couldn't see anything outside from that moment until sunrise over Ireland. I didn't manage to sleep but I did watch Everything, Everywhere, All at Once for the first time and was very engaged in it.

As we descended over Lower Austria I saw endless fields of grain and countless wind turbines stretching toward the horizon.

Wind turbines viewed from the approach to Vienna Airport


I had booked my train from Vienna to Brno in advance and had not left myself many hours to navigate to Vienna's main train station, so I proceeded through immigration and baggage claim as quickly as possible and took no time to look around the airport, instead following signs directly to the ticket kiosks for Austria's national railway ÖBB and using the company credit card to buy a ticket for a Vienna S-Bahn train to the main station.

The S-Bahn is a commuter rail network; I boarded from an underground platform below the airport without having to interact with anyone. The cars were sleek and modern with comfortable seats and convenient overhead racks that easily accommodated my carry-on-sized rolling suitcase. A small party of travelers that sat across the aisle included an Orthodox Christian priest; I tried not to stare because I recognized his traditional black garb from photographs but had never seen it in person. Only now, with nothing to do immediately except to sit and watch for my stop, did I begin to look around with idle curiosity instead of a single-minded navigational goal. The summer sun was intense that morning, and unhurried glimpses of the agricultural and suburban neighborhoods between the airport in Schwechat and central Vienna proper unfolded outside, punctuated by earthen banks covered in sun-bleached grass and concrete underpasses adorned in colorful graffiti. Eventually the buildings grew taller and clustered closer together, and soon enough we reached my stop, a big cluster of platforms where tracks converged from all directions under a big metal canopy, Wien Hauptbahnhof.

It turned out I didn't have to worry so much about arriving in time for the next train; I arrived before its platform was even announced. I might have had time to look around, but I was tired enough that I was beginning to budget my movements, conserving enough energy to at least get to the hotel, so I did little else than find a toilet and wait under the departures board until the train I had booked was listed there. Waiting for it on the platform I heard a lot of English from the other passengers. There were more people with U.S. accents than I expected, many of them young, maybe on their way to Prague to have a good time with their friends.

My train, when it arrived, had a somewhat antique appearance, but was still at least as comfortable as the S-Bahn. The seat I had booked had a little table I shared with one other passenger, and even in standard second class the ticket inspector gave me a small complimentary bottle of Rajec mineral water (a Slovak brand), which I very much needed. It didn't take long to leave the urban center of Vienna, and enter that seemingly endless landscape of wheat fields and wind turbines I'd seen from the plane, moving northward, near and parallel to the Slovakian border and bound for the Czech Republic. There was nothing to indicate we were approaching an international border, but I knew we had crossed into Czechia when we entered the town of Břeclav and stopped briefly at its rather sleepy platform. I wanted to fully absorb everything I could see through the windows, but by this point I was finding it a struggle to stay awake. Beyond Břeclav were even more wheat fields, and sometimes a small farm village on a hill, a little patch of red-tiled roofs around an old Catholic church tower. Our approach to Brno did not take us through its center, but there was a sharp increase in roads and small urban buildings as we neared the platform in Brno.

A magic kingdom

The Brno platform was not dissimilar to the one in Břeclav, but the train station into which it fed was a white nineteenth-century palace of transit, the ceiling of its main hall high and ornate. Out the door and across the street I started following the map on my phone to the Hotel International. Immediately I faced a steep cobblestone alley flanked by hundred-year-old buildings and overshadowed by the breathtaking Gothic towers of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. It's a scene that probably passes for normal in much of Europe, but to me it looked like something out of an over-the-top theme park.

Afternoon street-level view of Brno's city center

I was sweating buckets, and the wheels of my suitcase made a racket on the twisty maze of ancient streets until I reached the neat stone stairs of the rear entrance to the sprawling early-1960s functionalist hotel, beside its restaurant with patio seating. A glass elevator inside allowed me to forgo hauling my suitcase all the way up to the lobby. The receptionist behind the long black marble countertop helpfully answered my questions in English, but it turned out that I had arrived before check-in, so I found a small indoor shopping mall up the street with a Tesco Express, obtained some reserve cash in the form of Czech koruna banknotes from an ATM, and bought a soggy, plastic-wrapped caprese sandwich, and ate it slowly on a sidewalk bench outside.

On my phone, I followed up with coworkers who were also coming to town. R. from Spain had encountered a series of delays of his Ryanair flights and was beginning to doubt that he would arrive that day.

When I did ultimately check into my hotel room, the first order of business was to figure out how to turn on the bathroom lights—the switch was just outside the bathroom door, but it took time to work out that operating the lights throughout the room required leaving my key card upright in a little wall-mounted receptacle in the entryway. After that a shower was imperative, followed by a nap. I put on loose clothes, pulled the curtains over the large windows and glass door between the bed and balcony, set up my CPAP machine on a side-table, and easily fell asleep.

I awoke maybe an hour before dusk, refreshed and eager to have another look around. The balcony looked out onto an alley between the hotel and its parking garage—not a premium view, but a decent place to get some fresh air. At the balcony's outer edge, scaffolding ran up the whole face of the building; I was warned in Czech and English not to climb it by a temporary sign on the inner side of the balcony door. I wound up having most of my daily phone conversations with my family on that balcony, using WhatsApp video chat. Looking off the narrow sides of the balcony I could see some of the rooftops surrounding the old town's main square in one direction, and off the opposite side the edge of the park around Brno's Špilberk castle.

R. was still struggling with Ryanair, and M. had just wrapped up work in another part of town, so in search of a casual meal I would know how to order I changed back into sensible street clothes and walked out to find a bowl of poke in a little fast-food restaurant called Mr. Sushito, on a relatively modern street about five minutes from the hotel on foot. I ordered the “Mr. Salmon” bowl, and maybe should have just tried right away to piece together the right phrases in Czech, but instead asked, “Mluvíte anglicky?” It turned out one of the young women behind the counter knew English better than she seemed to think she did. I ordered the “Mr. Salmon” bowl, though the “Chicken Fuck Diet” bowl also sounded delicious. To my surprise, I was asked whether I wanted the samon raw or grilled. It did occur to me that I was enjoying poke in a place that was much further inland than home, but it didn't phase me enough that I would ask for cooked fish. And in the end it was everything I wanted, served in a ceramic bowl on a cafeteria tray with disposable chopsticks, a metal fork, and a little fish-shaped plastic phial of soy sauce, which I ended up pocketing and later finding amongst my things while unpacking at home because the food didn't really need it.

Going to school

I woke up early the next day—Friday—to plan out my day and catch the early end of the hotel breakfast buffet down in the restaurant: cold cuts, sliced cheese, various fresh-baked breads, fresh juices, espresso from a machine, compôte, honey, little jars of organic yogurt, and so on. I had a grand time savoring a selection of these on the patio, watching the unhurried comings and goings of people along the edge of the old town.

I had no word yet on whether R. had made it into town. M. from Brazil was already in Brno, but was heading to the conference in the opposite direction, from his hotel on the north end of Brno. So with my laptop in my backpack I set off to find the conference on my own. Not far from my hotel was the cobblestone main square, Náměstí Svobody, lined by restaurants and guarded by a handful of the city's most recognized landmarks: the ovoid black obelisk of the “astronomical clock,” the old fountain, and the Plague Column topped with a golden crown of sunbeams and adorned with the figures of saints associated with plague victims—it seemed not as quaint in 2023 as it may have in 2019. And not too far beyond this square was a green park crisscrossed by paved paths where people met and walked their dogs, and at the opposite It also sounded like at one point they werecorner of thar park I stepped onto a tram heading north and tapped my credit card at the fare-box.

The trams in Brno were frequent and clean, with clear recorded stop announcements and electronic signage displaying route details. Outside the windows as we left the town center, there were fewer Nineteenth Century buildings and more concrete structures reminiscent of the Warsaw Pact years, often topped with red tile roofs, painted in pastel tones, and lined with shops selling anything from döner kebab to puzzles and board games.

I found the university campus that was hosting the conference just around the corner from a tram stop, down a side street and past a mechanic's garage. It was a fairly large campus, not walled off from Brno but established long ago, and forming a large-enough cluster that I immediately got lost within it, looking for registration in vain. Eventually I got through to M. on my phone and found him on the campus, and we joined the queue forming outside the ornate oak doors to the old hall that held the registration desk.

M. was also giving a couple short talks at the conference, talks I found more interesting and dynamic than my own. He was more gregarious than I knew to expect, quick to ask all the most interesting questions of the people he met and also more than willing to describe his work experiences and his home in Brazil. I hadn't met any of my immediate coworkers or even my manager in person before; the last time I had met coworkers was in early 2020, before my university campus shut down due to the pandemic during my last semester, and since then I had converted from intern to full-time software engineer, been transferred to a team of people based in Spain, Czechia, and far-flung parts of the U.S., and officially become a remote employee.

The conference commenced, and throughout the weekend I attended sessions in every time slot that wasn't occupied with the impromptu meetings I ended up having in the shade of a chestnut tree in the courtyard with a gaggle of people I had known only through work videoconferences. I saw M's talk, and R's. My own was scheduled on a Sunday afternoon, nearly at the end of the conference, and given the timing I was impressed by how many people showed up. The university campus itself had lovely—centuries-old façades, thoroughly modern lecture halls within, and soft greenery all around.

In past years this conference was always held in the winter. Brno winters seem to be much like New England winters, judging from the numerous coathooks in lecture hall entrances. But in 2023 the first physical convening of the conference since the emergence of COVID-19 enjoyed balmy summer weather throughout, the skies overhead impossibly blue. Once, as several coworkers and I walked near the campus, M. noticed wheat growing wild from the cracks in the sidewalk. It would be unremarkable to any local, but it captivated me as something I'd never seen before. I guess I've just never lived in a wheat-growing region. For me it inspired a feeling reminiscent of that metaphor often used to describe what brought famine-stricken migrants to Ellis Island, that they had heard the streets of New York were paved with gold.

Ignis Brunensis

A conference social party was planned for Saturday night, and I had a ticket, but until Saturday its location was officially secret. It ended up happening at a public swimming pool and health club in a largely residential neighborhood not far from campus. The pool itself turned out to be off-limits for this event, but partygoers enjoyed a very well-catered poolside picnic and drinks. I heard a lot at the party—about different software companies where the attendees worked, about their various home countries and hometowns—as the sun took its sweet time in setting and the summer heat gradually eased.

I didn't stick around to the end of the party, as I was anxious to see that night's installment of Ignis Brunensis, an annual multi-week international fireworks competition. On that particular night the fireworks were to be preceded by a drone light show, something I'd never seen before. My coworker T. had grown up in Brno and was ready to relive his youthful days at the Brno Reservoir where the festivities were being held this time around. He called us a rideshare, so we'd make it in time for the lights, but we hopped out of the car on the side of the road, a short distance from the pedestrian crowd, to join them and spare the driver from being caught up in event traffic. I sensed a carnival atmosphere as we walked down the darkening leafy street—and in fact not far down the way we began to pass stalls plying food and beer, followed by glowing, whirling carnival rides. It all looked and sounded uncannily like any number of summer celebrations I'd seen in Massachusetts or Washington as a kid. One of the rides that looked a little too thrilling for my taste even sported a NASA logo (unlicensed, I'm sure). I guess some things are the same the world over. T. graciously offered to buy me a beer; I'd have struggled to string together the right phrases in the dark and noise of the scene. So we joined the people gathering around a boat launch just beyond the rides and stalls to crane their necks and see whatever spectacle was about to transpire over the water, and I sipped a golden, intensely hoppy beer that smelled like freshly mulched garden weeds. It had been so long since I'd experienced this specific vibe of just existing within a crowd engaged in the simplest kinds of pleasures. I'd forgotten this kind of experience was possible. A brief and passionate quarrel broke out, which ended in a young woman berating her companion in a way that seemed to momentarily embarrass everyone in earshot. Even with the cursory Czech study I'd done before the trip, I couldn't make out a word; T. said they were speaking Ukrainian. But it all seemed to resolve in harsh words and a parting of ways, and the mood quickly mellowed again. Some young people confidently climbed a tall structure I saw mainly in silhouette, that looked like the prow of a ship, to get a better view.

Light show drones forming a flying saucer over Brno Reservoir

As soon as the sunlight was fully gone, lights appeared over the water, seeming to slowly signal to each other and align in a kind of calibration procedure before flickering out, only to reappear in the shape of a rotating flying saucer. A Czech radio announcer voice, accompanied by the X-Files theme, announced the drone light show and began to wax poetic about the mysteries of the universe; T. summarized it for me as a speech about how “we don't know shit” about the natural world. Meanwhile the flying saucer dissolved and the drones rearranged themselves in a succession of rotating, three-dimensional shapes: an obelisk, a pyramid, Neptune's trident, a double helix. And then, soon after the drones, the fireworks. We watched Sweden's entry; I would return another night to view Norway's from the top of a dam. The display was synchronized played over music played over a speaker at the boat launch and on a local FM radio station, not that I could hear it over the explosions that night. I'm no connoisseur, but the colors, the shapes, the timing were all mesmerizing. What stuck with me, though, was just that feeling of watching it with the crowd, a feeling that brought me back to a time before the pandemic that started three years before.

War stories

During the conference I joined my manager and M. for lunch at a nearby bistro, and M. asked my manager a question I would have been too timid ask: “What was it actually like to live in Communist Czechoslovakia?” My manager's response was measured and ambivalent. Sure, he said, career options were limited. There were some restrictions on what one could say in public and study at university. But materially? By the 1980s, people basically had what they needed. In that respect things weren't so bad.

Ivan, a coworker from another department, shared a different geopolitical perspective over dinner at a restaurant downtown one evening. Ivan had grown up in Montenegro and was a child during the wars of the 1990s. He recalled times when he heard things, times when no one would go into town even for groceries. He recalled that during some of the worst times NATO forces came by with food aid, including some strange kind of cheese he'd never seen elsewhere—probably “government cheese,” I suggested. M. said the bloody history of Brazil could be summarized as the ruthless suppression of a succession of various regional and indigenous independence movements. R. was disquieted by the crackdown that had followed the Catalan independence referendum of 2017; he quipped that “Democracy is illegal in my country.”

Everyone was very nice to me while I was in town, but in the corporate office vibes were off. Some months prior the company had announced an unexpected round of layoffs in North America amid objectively rosy market performance figures, and just after the conference the corresponding European layoffs were announced following regulatory clearance.

About town

Outside the conference, working hours, and scheduled social events, R. turned out to share my interest in exploring the town, so he and I improvised a few self-directed walking tours of downtown Brno. We saw cathedrals—at least from the outside, as we hadn't chosen times when these were actually open to the public. We explored the town's main squares. Once, during a lunch break, my manager indulged my quest to find a paternoster elevator in a university campus building near the office; it turned out to be closed off due to construction (as was another paternoster elevator in the old post office building), but he later led R. and I around the terraces of Špilberk, full of provocative public art installations and architectural quirks, and at this point the only castle I've visited in Europe. Seeking even more spectacular views of town, R. and I visited the Old Town Hall (stará radnice) one evening at dusk, paid a small fee to climb its tower, and proceeded with an exhausting ascent of the many staircases leading to the top, where we were rewarded with magnificent panoramic views of Brno. The narrow walkway around the tower was guarded by a railing about waist high or even a bit higher; this did not fully assuage my fear of heights but I lingered up there much longer than I otherwise might have just because of the colors, the sounds of music from the streets below, the visibility extending over rooftops all the way to the hills outside town.

Old Brno rooftops at dusk

On another occasion R. and I visited Brno's unique 10-Z Bunker museum, near our hotel and under Špilberk. 10-Z has a wild history; it served as a bomb shelter during the Nazi occupation, briefly became a wine store after the war, and was later seized by the Czechoslovak army who turned it into a self-sufficient fortified bunker for nuclear emergencies, complete with air filtration systems and a telephone exchange. Today the museum showcases the features of the bunker itself but also displays objects and ephemera of the Cold War period in Brno, from public signage of the period to antique telephones, magazines, and portraits. I even saw the cover of a vinyl album of a reading of Leonid Brezhnev's memoir Целина (Virgin Lands, in Russian), and thumbed through copies of an old Czech-language child development journal Děti a my (Children and Us). 10-Z even offers bed-and-breakfast-style lodging for tourists who want to experience staying the night in a Cold War bunker, and I might have done this if I were less busy. Before leaving the museum we passed through a kitchen / dining area presumably used to feed overnight guests, with lovely mismatched antique plates and teacups, a worn old upright piano, vintage stereo equipment and so on. There was a rack of assorted vinyl records offered as complementary souvenirs; I picked up an LP pop compilation featuring Czech-language covers of various international hits.

I eventually even found a paternoster elevator. One morning I arranged to start my day at the office a little later so I could look around town a bit on my own, and I found a municipal government building allegedly containing one of these contraptions I'd never seen in person. Sure enough there it was, in all its wood-paneled glory, constantly whirring and turning. Concerned that I would have to explain to someone why I was taking a joy ride on the elevator in their office, I only rode up one floor and then back to ground level. But it was a smooth ride, and finally I had fulfilled a goal I held since I first saw the opening of The Prisoner with Patrick McGoohan.

I ate a lot of good food in Brno. My favorite restaurant of those I tried was Stopkova Plzeňská Pivnice, a sort of microbrewery with dark green interior walls. I felt compelled to try svíčková na smetaně, the Czech national dish, and I quite liked it, but my favorite single dish was the restaurant's Pilsner goulash (plzeňský guláš) which, of course, I ate with a glass of Pilsner Urquell (which every Czech-speaking person who ate with me seemed to simply call Plzeň—also the Czech name for the city in which the beer is brewed). But I also have to give mention to smažený sýr—fried, breaded cheese traditionally served with potatoes and tartar sauce. It's like something a person would create specifically to lure me onto a transatlantic flight.

Letní kino

For my last evening in Brno I booked a ticket to watch Asteroid City (in the original English, with Czech subtitles) at an outdoor cinema event. It was just me this time; I'm a simpleton who likes Wes Anderson's movies and I don't often get around to watching any kind of movie at home with the kids at home. The showing was scheduled in an area on the east side of Brno called Nová Zbrojovka, a disused industrial park that was being gradually redeveloped as a mixed-use residential/commercial neighborhood. I walked down to Brno's main train station, got one last good look at the place, and caught a tram to a stop called Náměstí Republiky, where I stepped onto a side street and immediately entered a quiet residential neighborhood of tightly-packed single family houses. At the end of the street was a few light-industrial buildings and a small bridge across a canal. I crossed there, turned a corner, and walked right into a party.

There was a park at Nová Zbrojovka, and it was filling with young families who had gathered for some kind of neighborhood barbecue. A live band performed from a small pavilion. Behind the park I could see where a cinema screen was set up against the wall of a factory—a stately old building shaped much like the ideal of a factory, like a factory emoji, but definitely disused. Over the sceen large white letters on the indigo factory wall advertised Letní kino. But I was early, so I tried to be inconspicuous at the back of the park, soaking in the music and atmosphere while I talked to family back home on my phone. The band's set seemed almost calibrated to make me homesick: “Wish You Were Here”, “California Dreamin'”. I can't recall for certain, but they may have even played “Homeward Bound”. On the phone, my partners asked if I missed America yet. The truth was that as much as I missed my family, our kids, the cat, I hadn't been gone long enough to start missing America in the slightest.

Folding chairs arranged outside a disused factory in Brno for an outdoor movie screening

Beside the gate in the fence around the little yard where folding chairs were arrayed in front of the screen, there was a yellow shipping container converted into a snack stand for the cinema. I bought onion rings, which turned out to be more of a Funyuns-like dry packaged snack than the greasy, deep-fried onion rings one finds at a clam shack back in New England. And to wash it down I bought a tall can of non-alcoholic beer, a grapefruit radler. The movie was attended well enough. I spotted a couple of people who sounded very much like they must be U.S. expats, but I didn't try to make conversation with anyone. The slow sunset cast everything in crazy pastel hues.

Much like the Ignis Brunensis drone light show, the movie was of course scheduled to begin as soon as the sunlight had fully faded. The audience was appreciative, laughing audibly right from the opening sight gags involving a train rocketing through a desert somewhere near the Nevada-California line. Some of the audience were audibly surprised by the scene in which Jason Schwartzman's theater actor character and Edward Norton's playwright character in the movie's metanarrative abruptly transition from a discussion of craft into sexual foreplay, but I felt like I could see that development building within the scene and it seemed an appropriate nod to the widely known but often censored or repressed sexuality of historical figures like Tennessee Williams and his contemporaries. Asteroid City turned out to be the perfect movie to end my trip. It was at once the funniest and the most troubling Wes Anderson movie I had seen. In some ways it's a kind of free-associational response to the pandemic; a major part of the plot involves a group of people reacting against and subverting a quarantine imposed upon them for somewhat understandable reasons, and, like a virus, the alien visitor that animates the story is neither a benefactor nor consciously an enemy to humanity, but instead unknowable and unsettlingly indifferent to the human world. Rather than resolve the crisis of meaning that emerges from this senseless intervention in the lives of its characters, the movie ruptures the boundary been text and metatext when a metatextual acting exercise stumbles upon the statement “You can't wake up if you don't fall asleep.” This refrain is at once a meaningless tautology and a gesture toward the struggle of the characters to impose meaning onto a chaotic world without relying on foolish dreams, fantasies, and stories. At first its repetition by the actors in the exercise reads as a joke, but then it goes on for an uncomfortably long time, and soon the movie ends with everyone—all the actors, all the players in the metanarrative, all the characters in the main narrative, staring straight into the camera and chanting, “You can't wake up if you don't fall asleep.” It's hard to explain how terrifying this is after the gradual breakdown of the movie's narrative structure; it's a little like Persona in that way. The effect was also enhanced by watching the movie with an emotive group of people and outdoors; the audience reactions became part of the story, and I even remember one moment when characters in the movie looked to the sky just as a commercial jet passed overhead in real life.

Navigating back to the hotel after the movie turned out to be a little trickier than expected, because it hadn't occurred to me that I would be leaving after the trams shut down for the night. I started out walking at a respectful distance behind two young men in football shirts who were also on their way out of the movie and headed in the same direction. They seemed just a little intoxicated, like maybe they were drunk on the strange stillness and warmth of that summer night more than on actual beer. At one point they threw their arms around each other and began to raucously sing “Bella ciao”. It seemed like they were planning to catch the next bus down the road, but I was worried it would be crowded, so I turned onto a side street and started to navigate to the hotel on foot. But I soon realized it was a foolish distance to walk at that hour, and near-total silence of the unlit apartment buildings around me, the sudden awareness that I could see no one else on the streets I was walking, made me think better of it. So I found my way to a bus stop where a bunch of people, most of them seemingly twenty-somethings, were gathered in waiting. Outside our little crowd there were few signs of life apart from the blue glow from a window in the apartment building accross the street where some insomniac was watching TV.

A concrete Brno apartment block at night

When the bus finally arrived it was very crowded, but I was happy to ride it all the same. I disembarked on the other side of the town center from the hotel, and walked the rest of the way, stopping briefly to peer into an antique tram that had been parked in the central square for late-night sightseers. I slept very well for a few short hours before I awoke to catch my flight.

There's not much interesting to say about getting back home. I turned down some very good advice to spend a night in Vienna before my flight, and so in order to arrive at the airport a few hours early as I prefer to do, I had to book an intercity bus instead of a train. This turned out to be a bad idea, as the bus arrived hours late and Brno's bus station was not nearly as well cared for as the train station, though I will say that when the bus finally arrived it was the most comfortable bus I'd ever sat in, and in the end I did make it onto my flight. I did all my passport control and customs screening during my connection at Dulles International, riding one of their unusual mobile lounges in the process.

In all, I was in Brno for eight days. It must have been a long time for my partners at home, and for our kids. For me, with everything new I saw in that time, it seemed to go by in the blink of an eye.

Where not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

In the course of a decade's absence from the city I love, the face of the city changed almost beyond recognition—but its heart is probably much the same.

Bethesda Terrace in Central Park

Walter's New York

In a 2008 short documentary by Erik K Swanson, a New Yorker named Walter provides a tour of his home in the city. Walter furnished everything himself, and he obviously takes some pride in what he has built for himself — as well he might, because just about everything there he salvaged from refuse, including a desktop computer, TV, and DVD player he repaired himself, and an electric cooktop. The appliances run on an electric supply Walter wired up himself, though from where exactly he refuses to say. And all of this in a home with just one entrance, accessible only by ladder and shrouded in perpetual darkness.

Walter lived in an alcove far above the ground, in a wall of a cavernous, unused space in a train tunnel beneath Riverside Park, on the western shore of Manhattan, just across the Hudson River from New Jersey. On the margins of city life in every way. This tunnel, colloquially known as the “Freedom Tunnel,” sat unused by the railroads from 1980 to 1991, and even when it resumed rail service, parts of it were still ignored by rail operators for years. During this time, the tunnel developed a significant human population, sometimes called “mole people.” It was a rare place where people could live rent-free without constant harassment from the New York Police Department. Before trains returned to the tunnel in 1991, the mole people had a highly developed shantytown, which the police then demolished. But people like Walter managed to live in pockets of the tunnel for years afterward.

The New York I had

I studied as an undergrad at a small college in Manhattan from 2009 to 2012. In the year that I came to the city, Jay-Z released his single “Empire State of Mind” featuring Alicia Keys. It was everywhere in the city during that time, but for some reason, whether it was just the acoustic environments where I heard it or that these shops and restaurants could actually have played a different edit of the track, I didn't really hear Jay-Z's verses on the song for a long time, so all I knew was Alicia Keys's soaring, unironic celebration of the city in her chorus:

these streets will make you feel brand-new
big lights will inspire you
let's hear it for New York

I thought of that chorus every time I saw the night sky overtaken by the orange glow of Manhattan on the horizon as I rode an intercity bus back in through the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn from a trip home. But it seemed to me to be about someone else's New York. My existence in the city was mostly comfortable but also very conditional, predicated on enormous student loans I didn't know how I'd pay back and usually unsupported by employment income because I was really bad at getting hired for minimum-wage jobs and my school didn't have a robust work-study program. I found the song a lot more relatable in its view of the city when I heard Jay-Z's verses, which add a heavy layer of irony to the chorus by painting New York as a place of poverty rubbing up against excess and of an exuberant party culture crashing into rampant exploitation and assault:

MDMA got you feeling like a champion
the city never sleeps
better slip you a Ambien

But my favorite song about New York during the time I spent there was Simon & Garfunkel's “Bleecker Street:”

fog's rolling in
off the East River bank
like a shroud
it covers Bleecker Street
fills the alleys where men sleep
hides the shepherd
from the sheep

I loved being surrounded by art while I was in New York. I discovered so many artworks and ideas that have shaped my life in the ensuing years. But I could always sense and often literally see the edge of desperate struggle that followed so many people trying to make a life for themselves in the city. Eventually I knew that as my undergraduate studies grew to a close, I would not immediately have the ability to find work that would financially sustain me in the city without that kind of struggle I saw whenever I was catching an early morning departure in the subground level of the Port Authority Bus Terminal and the police came by evict anyone caught sleeping there without a bus ticket to show. It was one reason I dropped out of school when I did.

David Bowie's New York

I read once that when David Bowie's children were grown, and he had stopped touring and recording for health reasons and settled down in New York City with his wife Iman, the city became a sort of cultural playground for him. He would spend all day out in theaters or cinemas, art galleries, museums, &c, just having a grand old time. He had an ingenious disguise that allowed him to move about undisturbed; all he had to do was carry a Greek-language newspaper and no one would approach him. Presumably, the mental process that went on in people thrown off by this mechanism was something like: Holy shit, is that David Bowie? No, must be some old Greek man who looks just like him.

The city affords a sort of anonymity it's hard to find elsewhere. Being there quickly inures you to the shock of meeting someone who comes from somewhere completely outside your cultural norms. Whatever kind of day you're having, and not matter how much it shows, you're probably not the most interesting thing anyone on the subway has seen this week. People in New York are often willing to allow each other to be invisible to a certain degree. It's something I sometimes miss, the ability to be surrounded by other people and still not feel especially seen.

New York's strange new children

Several new skyscrapers have popped up along “Billionaires' Row”, like Central Park Tower, 111 West 57th St, and 432 Park Ave. When I revisited the city in March 2023 for the first time in over 10 years, they were a stark reminder of how long I'd been gone. They were off-limits, too; photographer Andi Schmied posed as a mega-wealthy socialite in order to tour apartments in these supertall skyscrapers for her book Private Views: A High-Rise Panorama of Manhattan. In a Vice mini-documentary, she showed how these exclusive views from eyesore buildings are bought and sold as investments and tokens of status and wealth, and how a real estate agent coached her to beg her imagined husband to buy one of these multi-million-dollar apartments for her. I tried not to think about them too much, because they made me uneasy.

Some intriguing public projects that were still in early stages when I had left the city had come to fruition while I was gone. Much more charming than Billionaire's Row was the finally-completed Second Avenue subway line, with a gleaming station just outside Heidelberg Restaurant in Yorkville; I'd have used this line often when attending classes if it had existed at the time. The High Line Park, built on a stretch of long-disused elevated railway on the west side of Manhattan, was also complete; only a shorter section at its southern end had been completed last time I had seen it. At the park's northern end was another project that was just getting started when I had left the city, an enormous cocoon of open staircases comprising an interactive sculpture called Vessel. I had wanted to visit, but in the time since it had opened, Vessel had been the site of a number of frankly foreseeable fatal incidents, and was closed to visitors, so I mearly walked by, struggling to see it through the raindrops running down the fogged lenses of my glasses. A number of less deadly public art installations dotted the High Line, though. A spinning tornado made of black foam rubber (Windy, by Meriem Bennani). A strange pair of digital binoculars that gave me a view over the street while also projecting a live video of my eyes on a large video screen visible to passing motorists (Observer, Observed by Julia Phillips). Completed, too, was One World Trade Center. I could have easily stopped in; I took a subway train through its station. But weirdly the Ground Zero hole had occupied such a space in my mental map of the city that it was hard for me to imagine what I would even do when I stepped inside. I passed it by.

The still air in a men's room stuck in time, the moist air in a room full of dirt

The first thing I had resolved to see when I got into the city was a work of art that, somewhat embarassingly, I had only learned about from Atlas Obscura, Keith Haring's mural Once Upon a Time. Haring's iconic cartoonish designs have been a presence throughout my whole life, though he died about a year before I was born. In particular he drew some animated segments that ran for years on Sesame Street, but his unmistakable, blobby stick-figure people and dogs continued to appear in promotions for charities, on clothing, and so on, and were warmly familiar to me. But what I didn't get to see growing up in a post-Haring world was the less “family-friendly” work he did that wasn't getting mass-reproduced in this way. Haring was invited to paint Once Upon a Time on the walls of a men's washroom of the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center (now the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center) as part of a larger art show in the building. Today all the fixtures (sinks, toilets, urinals) have been removed, but the room remains open free of charge to visitors. There's still a whitewashed cast-iron radiator, pipes along the walls, old white tile lining the floor, a mirror along one wall, and a sign admonishing visitors to wash their hands. The art itself features those familiar Keith Haring designs, but the subject matter is something entirely different from Sesame Street; the scene is an ecstatic orgy, with fantastical penises snaking their way across the walls and people (some of them stick figures, some more detailed, one sporting a United States Marine Corps tattoo) enjoying them and each other in various ways. It's black line art on white walls, but even without a riot of color it's as vivid as anything Haring ever made. But experiencing it in the room where Haring himself stood on a ladder and painted all this stuff was also a haunting experience for me, knowing it's about the closest I could ever get to meeting the artist in person. I left shortly after two other visitors walked in. I wasn't sure how to share the space with them and felt awkward about it; my impression was that they were an art (or maybe art history) professor and student from a local college, and I was just some doofus; I wanted them to have their own moment with the art.

I also went out of my way to see another work of art in the city that had been there before I was born, and that I had only recently heard of, the New York Earth Room created by Walter de Maria. To put it simply, it's a second-floor studio apartment in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood filled with dirt. During certain limited hours, when someone is minding the desk at the entrance to the apartment, you can visit the room full of dirt for free. You're not supposed to enter the dirt; it's kept behind a low plexiglass wall. And there's a sign on the way in conveying the late artist's request that no one photograph the dirt. But you can gaze at and smell and even listen to the dirt, which is what I did as soon as I found myself standing alone in front of it. I pulled off the mask I had been wearing on the sidewalks outside and breathed in the smell of dirt. I felt the moisture in the air; surely the dirt was teeming with microbial life. The Earth Room was a special, even spiritual experience for me. Certainly I've seen dirt in my life, but there was something very arresting about seeing so much dirt in an otherwise sterile, sheltered space. Bare walls, no wind, no precipitation, no hint of the chatter and vehicular noise of the street outside. No visible plant or animal life, no sky. It felt like standing in front of an incomprehensible giant, alive but profoundly still. By my estimation it's the closest experience I've ever had to visiting a Shinto shrine.

What happened to the Met

And then there's the art I didn't see while visiting the city. Back when I was a student in New York I made very frequent trips to the Cloisters, a museum of medieval European art hidden away in the middle of a park on a steep hill near the northern end of Manhattan. The building itself is medieval, in the sense that its design showcases design elements of medieval monastic architecture, and the structure physically incorporates salvaged pieces of medieval ruins.

Visiting the place felt like an act of pilgrimage. First I'd have to take the A train almost to its northern terminus, and disembark through one of the city's deepest subway stations, so deep that exiting to the park overhead involved taking a large elevator operated by an MTA employee seated at a console inside. Then when I surfaced it would take fifteen minutes or so of hiking through the park before I had a clear view of the museum. (This part of the journey was covered by a bus route, but I always walked for the full experience.)

Organizationally, the Cloisters is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose enormous main collection is in a monumental public building set into the eastern edge of Central Park. I loved and visited this museum too, though maybe not as often as the Cloisters. At that time, general admission to the Met (including both the main museum and the Cloisters, if I visited both in one day) was by suggested donation, which is why I was able to visit so often but never set foot in other institutions like the Guggenheim or the Frick Collection. If I could only afford to pay $1 or 25¢ (which was usually the case at the time), I could still get in.

Once, while sitting in the gallery that lines the courtyard within the Cloisters, I was approached by an older visitor who was concerned about the state of the museum. He said that in his youth the courtyard was full of life, that at students would bring their sketchbooks and that people would sometimes perform music there, and he wanted to know why there was now a glass wall around that courtyard. I explained to him that everything he remembered from the past still happened there when the weather was right, and that the glass wall was only a temporary insulation measure for the coldest months of the year.

I had my own perhaps overblown geriatric complaint about the state of the museum when I came back to visit New York in 2023. It turns out that the “pay as you wish” admission policy of the Met has been modified in the intervening years and now only applies to residents of the state of New York and to students of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut schools. Since I had planned a packed itinerary for in the city for myself and only 26 hours to do it all, I was only going to have an hour or two in either Met museum, and paying a full admission price nearly equal to what I was spending to sleep in a hostel that night felt like an unjustifiable expense. It turns out this was not an entirely uncontroversial policy change. As Aimée Lutkin pointed out for her Jezebel article “The Met Should be Fucking Free”, the Met was founded on the principle of granting the public universally affordable access to the ill-gotten art collections of the city's notorious robber barons. In changing their admission policy, the organization essentially decided that this public does not include tourists like myself, or even (and more alarmingly) commuters who live just across the Hudson River in New Jersey's segment of the New York metropolitan area. For me it's another small thing that makes the city seem less like a nearby community only a day trip away from home and more like a circumscribed city-state I can visit only with appropriate financial and logistical planning. Maybe that's not so bad. But it's weird to think that if I were a service-sector worker from Hoboken who could see the New York skyline from work, I'd have to pay the same admission as any tourist.

Ghosts of commerce past

As a broke student, some of my favorite haunts in the city were in the vicinity of Manhattan's Chinatown. On rare occasions when I could spend enough money to eat in a restaurant, my go-to was Shanghai Cuisine on the southeast corner of Bayard and Mulberry, open to the sidewalk in fair weather, with its red melamine chopsticks, vintage Chinese posters, Tsingtao beer ads, and an extensive but surprisingly affordable menu including personal favorites like soup dumplings and Vietnamese-style iced coffee with condensed milk. If I was ready to splurge there were also my preferred shopping destinations on or near Canal Street. I might buy pens with a student discount at Pearl Paint on Canal. I could buy a can of Thai iced tea or Mr. Brown macadamia nut iced coffee at Sun Vin Grocery on Mulberry and assorted candy at Aji Ichiban on Mott. I could buy kitchen utensils, a small notebook, a water bottle, or even an electric kettle at Pearl River Mart on Broadway.

Aji Ichiban's New York store and Shanghai Cuisine are now both long gone, presumably due to the usual market forces. Pearl Paint, once a veritable institution patronized by droves of art students perusing its multiple floors of supplies and using its rickety, antique elevator and miserable single-occupant toilet, was caught up in a major financial crimes investigation that drove it out of business. Pearl River Mart closed in 2016, unable to renew its real estate lease, but later reopened, although that specific building I browsed so many times is now just one of many chapters in the store's long history of lease-hopping and dogged survival in the city. But somehow Sun Vin Grocery hasn't gone anywhere.

Sic transit gloria mundi

A major focus of my visit was the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn. The city's subway system in particular has always been the city's most interesting feature for me and is implicated somehow in most of my memories of the place. So after so much time away I felt it was finally time to visit the one public institution that most thoroughly documents this aspect of New York. Fittingly, the museum is contained within a working subway station, obsoleted for passenger transit by the opening of more convenient stations nearby but still capable of receiving rolling stock along its platform, which the museum uses to provide guests access to a rotating collection of vintage train cars spanning the history of the subway and some of its predecessor railways with livery, interior trim, and even advertisements all period-appropriate for each car.

Stepping through NYC transit history, I was practically in heaven. Much of the system is still an accessibility nightmare and its lack of platform doors contributes to a startling number of fatal accidents every year, but it's the oldest and most extensive urban transit system of its kind in the Western Hemisphere, and that it exists at all is still an awesome feat of engineering and urban planning. Every aspect of the city's history since the subway was first constructed is embodied in its train cars: epidemics of Spanish flu, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and COVID-19, two World Wars, the still-incomplete project of racial integration in this country.

The triumph is still overshadowed at times by the evils of our sick society. It was some months after this visit that a passenger named Jordan Neely died on the F train under downtown Manhattan. He had just boarded the train and began screaming about he had no food or water, and that he was ready to go to jail or to die. The thing that gets to me about this story is that up to this point it's all too familiar. It's the kind of struggle I saw all the time when I was a student in the city. But what happened next was something I never witnessed myself: another passenger strangled Neely to death, and over the next few weeks various pundits and political figures held up his killer, retired marine Daniel Penney, as a hero who protected the train's other passengers from whatever we're meant to imagine Neely would have done if he were allowed to live, relying on assumptions about what a homeless and mentally unstable black man will do in public, what a clean-cut white veteran should fear from him, and what should be done about that fear. Neely's death thus became a contested spectacle of violence like the similar 2014 police murder of Eric Garner on a Staten Island sidewalk or countless other such incidents across the country. I can't help but think that it could have instead amounted to nothing, like the many personal crises that I saw unfolding in the subway system, and that Neely might have had a chance to find a more stable living situation, even if he did end up passing through jail and inadequate shelters along the way.

A night on Amsterdam

For all that people say about New York being “the city that never sleeps”, the fact of you'll find very few people on the streets by 5:00 A.M. I knew I'd want to sleep at least a few hours in the city, but I was too broke to justify booking a night at any actual hotel in the city, so I opted to spend my first ever night in a hostel the Hostelling International New York City Hostel on Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan Valley. I was a little nervous that I'd be wildly out of place because people call these “youth hostels,” but the reality was that I was probably not the only thirty-something in the place; what we principally all had in common was that each of us needed a relatively cheap bed in NYC for the night and didn't mind sleeping in college-dorm-like conditions, with several bunk beds to a room and shared bathrooms. In the lounge where I relaxed and read for a short while before bed, someone probably older than me was even studying guitar without a sign of social anxiety. The bedroom itself was quiet; it seemed everyone there knew they had somewhere to be in the morning. It was a good solution for one night. But long-term stays are not allowed at the hostel, and I was reminded again of the one thing that could dissuade me from living in the city when I was single, the problem of where to sleep.

Not gone, but perhaps forgotten

After New York's particularly harrowing experience of the pandemic in the late winter and spring of 2020, it was tempting for some people to speculate that the city was socially or culturally over and done for. But it's not at all true. The diverse arts scene persists, vital institutions like the Met are hanging on through internal conflicts over leadership and policy direction, the trains are still running, and somehow a lot of people who can't really afford to live in the city continue to do so through sublets, lease-sharing, or family arrangements. For all the doom and gloom, the core things I love about New York haven't really gone anywhere—or if they have they have, they've only moved a few doors down like Pearl River Mart. What's changed is that I've lost track of New York, that it has grown without me and now I have a harder time recognizing its face. There is no grand tragedy here; the city hasn't fundamentally lost its way. Just a much smaller, personal tragedy: the city has slipped out of my reach.

Where not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

This might be too little, too late, but I want to share links to some of the materials I've used to learn the context of current events since Hamas massacres in southern Israel on 7 October 2023, and throughout the Israeli Defence Forces' bloody siege and bombardment of Gaza that has followed. These sources are mainly podcasts, this is because the way I usually consume news and analysis these days is to listen to podcasts while I do other things. There's no real photojournalism on this list, because I have chosen not to look for photographs to confirm the horrific reporting I already understand and believe.

Where not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

In response to the latest news that Spotify intends to stop payments for tracks that receive less than 1,000 streams in a year, I signed onto a petition demanding “Justice at Spotify”. This is what I wrote.

As an independent musician, I have to pay a distributor to upload my music to Spotify. Hence it is already a gamble to place my music on Spotify—I lose money doing doing this, but there is some promise that eventually I might be paid if I accumulate enough streams on the platform. That Spotify is reportedly planning to classify some music as ineligible for these payments makes this gamble even worse. I could try to navigate a byzantine system of payola and opaque editorial playlist submissions in hopes of eventually getting some of that money back, but I am more inclined to reevaluate whether Spotify is a worthwhile place to share my music.

It doesn't help that full-time musicians who don't have a day job to fall back on as I do feel locked into the platform because “everything is on Spotify” including the work small artists like me. Being a scab for a platform that underpays those musicians doesn't sit right with me.

Additionally, my most recent album in 2023 was falsely labeled by Spotify as a 1988 release and therefore not visible to listeners as a new release, though other platforms like Apple Music got this right using the same metadata from my distributor, and when I contacted Spotify support about the issue nothing was done. It's a smaller issue but one that drives home that Spotify doesn't care about the musicians on its platform.

Where not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

I've had a busy time since I last updated this blog. I had a sort of frenetic weekend trip to New York City I want to write about, but first I'd like to cover the simpler event I've had in that time, the 2023 Bleep / Blorp Festival of Synthesis and Electronic Music.

👾 At Bleep / Blorp

My time at the festival was very limited. Our two-year-old had become sick the night before, and I wound up staying at the festival for a relatively short window of time around my scheduled performance, with some of that time carved out to eat with my brother and father, who live in that area. That gave me enough time to attend Eric Lennartson's well-researched presentation on oscilloscope music, briefly poke at a little DIY east-coast eurorack synth system someone had assembled in a Cre8Audio NiftyCase, and then notice after I had repacked my gear following the performance that the whole synthesizer “petting zoo” had been hauled away and I had missed my chance to peruse the rest of it.

I had brought my own eurorack system along for the performance. Mine was much smaller. It contained just a contact microphone module and a USB interface. Here's a video of me using it before the festival:

The contact microphone picks up the sounds of me tapping, rubbing, scratching, or scraping its surface, and detects the amplitude envelope and peaks of that sound—or of an external sound source, if I connect one. The USB interface module simply connects any other modules in my system (in this case, just the contact mic module) to my computer, where I do most of my music production in the VCV Rack application. Over time, I can add more hardware eurorack modules that perform different functions. I used this system for only one piece of my performance set, but I definitely expect to get more out of it over time.

My performance itself was a fun experience. Although I wasn't around long to see other performers, the glimpses of them I did get were very cool. There were some seasoned professionals there alongside neophites like me, and it gave me some inspiration as someone trying to expand my repertoire of musical techniques and ideas. There was a little fuel for gear envy too, of course.

Setup was a breeze; I assembled my gear on a while table during the previous act and then someone deftly and quietly wheeled it into position onstage and plugged my gear into the power and audio hookups. I started a few minutes ahead of my scheduled 20-minute set, as the previous act had departed the stage a little early. I performed five pieces of varying length that I had prepared, well enough I think. I had been worried that for this debut set I would struggle to keep myself on schedule and wrap up in time for the next slot. Instead I found myself having the opposite problem; I had finished this set with more time left than I really intended to, and wanted to do at least one more piece before I left the stage. So I dug up a short, fully sequenced piece in VCV Rack I like, forgetting for the moment that my graphics card really struggles with that particular piece. This doesn't matter for recording, because the recording facilities within VCV Rack perfectly compensates when when its digital signal processing lags behind real time, but for live listening that lag creates a lot of terrible audio stutter. I tried to alleviate this after the piece started by dropping VCV Rack's visual framerate to its minimum value of 10 frames per second, but this only reduced the stutter somewhat. If I had been thinking more quickly I might have tried lowering the audio samplerate too. But no matter. Five out of six pieces without a technical failure isn't so bad.

Here's my favorite piece from the set:

🌊 Bleeping and/or blorping in eurorack

For the uninitiated, eurorack is a modular synthesizer standard based on the A-100 modular synth system created by German manufacturer Doepfer in 1995. The nice thing about eurorack is that the standard is supported by a number of small manufacturers coming up with new and interesting module designs, and those modules can be combined in unforeseen ways to make new sounds or enable new workflows. The eurorack standard makes no physical distinction between the connections that carry different kinds of signals between modules; all of them are conveyed by the same 3.5mm TS patch cables. This means, for example, that a module input jack intended for control voltage (pitch information, amplitude, filter resonance, wavefolding amount) will just as easily accept an audio signal. Or you could even patch an audio-rate pulse wave into the trigger input of a drum module, turning that drum module into a melodic oscillator with a unique waveform.

The humble beginnings of my own eurorack system.

Eurorack systems that professionals and hardcore enthusiasts show off online tend to be sprawling and mostly self-contained; a wall of modules that together handle an entire music production chain from sequencing, live control, and MIDI I/O through mixing, compression, and equalization. It's certainly not the most cost effective way for me to integrate a contact mic with VCV Rack, but it has the potential to not only augment but also gradually replace nearly all the music production I do in software, if I wanted it to and invested a lot of money.

As it is, I'm in no rush to spend a fortune moving my whole workflow off of the computer, so I'm trying to focus on modules that add something new to my current workflow, things like the contact microphone module. The next piece I have my eye on is a simple analog subtractive synth voice. The fun thing about analog circuits is that they can be a little imperfect, unpredictable, and can be sensitive to physical conditions like ambient temperature. This is why an analog oscillator has to be tuned whenever you turn it on. This can add a little subtle spontaneity or “happy accidents” to the sound. For example, oscillators that are just slightly detuned or out-of-phase from one another can produce sonically interesting interference patterns. These kinds of imperfections can be deliberately simulated in a digital system, but occur naturally and effortlessly in the analog world.

I should take a quick moment to explain basic components of a subtractive synth voice, as it hasn't been long since I needed this primer myself. Skip this paragraph if it's old hat for you. Sound is a compression wave in the air, and electrically produced audio signals are fluctuating voltages that control the instantaneous position of a driver in your headphones or speakers; the wiggling motion precisely controlled by those voltage fluctuations creates the sound you hear. You can plot the movement of the voltages in real time using an oscilloscope and detect wave patterns. The “purest” kind of tone or pitched sound is a sine wave with simple, perfectly symmetrical curves that repeat indefinitely. A simple audible sine wave has exactly one audible frequency, and no harmonic overtones. Subtractive synthesis tends to start with certain simple variations on the sine wave: the triangle wave, square or pulse wave, and saw or ramp wave, which are all shaped basically just the way their names suggest. Their deviation from the gentle curve and perfect symmetry of the sine wave produces more harmonic overtones; we tend to experience them as sounding buzzy or reedy and we are hearing more than just that one basic frequency or pitch of the overall wave. The part of a synthesizer that produces these waveforms is the oscillator. The “subtractive” part of subtractive synthesis comes from passing that harmonically rich waveform through a filter, which essentially smooths out the wave into a more sine-like shape, reducing those harmonic overtones. Subtractive synth voices most commonly use a low-pass filter, which removes the harmonic overtones above a controllable cutoff frequency and allow frequencies below the cutoff to pass through. Filters also tend to have a resonance control which allows for boosting frequencies close to the cutoff by a variable amount. Often the resonance control can be pushed to such high levels that even with no input audio signal the filter produces a sine wave at the cutoff frequency; this is called self-oscillation. Usually the cutoff frequency and resonance amount are not fixed in a subtractive synth voice; one or both of them can change according to a control envelope over the course of playing a note, or in some other dynamic way. At the same time, similar dynamic control is applied to a voltage-controlled attenuator or amplifier (VCA) to affect the amplitude or volume of the sound coming out of the filter. All together, this shapes the sound to create different timbres you hear.

I've started building my subtractive synth voice with a used 2hp VCO, a tiny analog oscillator based on the Curtis CEM3340 integrated circuit. I also added an inexpensive passive multiple module, which doesn't connect to the power supply and simply allows me to split signals between multiple cables. Having just the VCO in hardware (and not other parts of the basic subtractive voice chain) is a little challenging because there is a perceptible delay introduced by sending signals on a round trip from software to hardware and back. But it's workable; here's a fun little sequence I recorded developing just one kind of sound I can make with the VCO controlled and processed by software:

The next module I plan to add to complete this synth voice is the After Later Audio Waves—an exact hardware clone of the Mutable Instruments Ripples, a multimode analog filter with strong, self-oscillating resonance and a built-in VCA.

I'm pausing before I buy that filter module, until I've made more credit card payments. Music professionals on YouTube who talk about the potential for reckless spending on eurorack systems say that part of the problem is that individual modules are cheap, so it's easy to lose track of the total cost as one acquired more of them. But they really only mean that many eurorack modules cost less than an entire synthesizer or another piece of equipment that a professional might buy for music production. We're talking about not much less than USD $150 near the low end of the price range, with some of the modules I'm interested in costing two, three, or four times that. Still more than I would comfortably spend on a monthly basis for my avocation. The most expensive part of my current eurorack system by far is the USB interface, and though I bought it second-hand to save money, it was still costly enough that I opted to pay for it in monthly installments. But it will support any modules I add over time.

Conscious of controlling my spending, I intentionally limited myself by opting for a very small portable case to start with: the 4ms Pod 40X, 3U tall, 40hp wide, and 50mm deep. I feel that once I have the filter module in it, I'm going to put a longer pause on acquiring new modules. Most other things I would want to add to my system would either replace existing features of my current software workflow moreso than augmenting it, or are simply too big to add to this tiny case. Having acquired a taste for eurorack, I think I could move my music production workflow to a primarily hardware system. I can see the appeal of a more tactile interface with some creative constraints. But it's something that would take thousands of dollars of investment over time—easily several hundred on an appropriately sized case alone. And I can't reasonably expect any “return on investment” because, at least for now, I don't really get paid for music stuff. So instead I have to consider it as personal, “fun” spending and not as a business expense. With that in mind I'm motivated to take things very slowly with eurorack gear. Frankly, I want to have finished making payments on the USB interface before I even think about buying a bigger case.

🪷 An immutable legacy

I want to acknowledge what an outsized inspiration one particular eurorack module designer-manufacturer has already had on my sounds and techniques, even though I don't presently own a single thing bearing the company's brand: Mutable Instruments. I mentioned earlier that the filter I want to use is a Mutable Instruments clone, but in fact the contact mic module I already have is also a clone of a Mutable Instruments module (Ears, itself an enhancement of the earlier Mikrophonie module designed by one Tom Whitwell). The first patch I made with that contact mic module, featured in the first video above, is built around software clones of Mutable Instruments modules, in particular Rings (a digital resonator module that convincingly simulates the audible vibrations of a wide range of physical objects) and Clouds (a granular “texture synthesizer” which in the video's patch serves as a sort of warbly stereo shimmer delay and reverb). And if I ever move toward creating a more standalone eurorack system, the number one oscillator design I'd want is Mutable Instruments Plaits, a renowned digital “macro oscillator” with numerous melodic and inharmonic/percussive modes.

Mutable Instruments designs are widely popular amongst eurorack musicians, but the company ceased all operations in 2023. This event has an impact on the modular synthesis community comparable to the cancellation of Calvin and Hobbes in 1995. Here was a creative enterprise that forever changed the landscape of its artistic medium and inspired so many successors, and then at the zenith of its popularity its creator was simply done with the work. I think a lot of people, like me, found the announcement that this closure was coming baffling and alarming at first, but once I read more about it I found it completely understandable. Mutable Instruments was always a one-woman operation. Mass-producing the modules required the company's founder and sole employee to contract capable electronics manufacturing companies and diligently supervise and quality-check their output to verify that the finished modules would perform to spec; she explained in an interview that this manufacturing process was highly stressful. She also felt that she was done making the synth designs she wanted to make, needed some time for medical leave, and ultimately wanted to move into a career where she would have some anonymity as a private person. She is already missed and appreciated in this field.

Copyright notice on the back of a eurorack module PCB.

Though Mutable Instruments may be over as a company, clones of the Mutable Instruments modules abound. There are two reasons for this. First, the module designs are simply good: unique, innovative, versatile, well-labeled, an all-around joy to use. Secondly, the designs are all open source, save for the currently proprietary design of the last one in production, the Clouds successor, Beads, which according to its creator's custom will become open source when the sale of units has paid for its research and development. This body of open source designs will remain as an enduring gift to the entire field of modular synthesis. It means DIY modular synth musicians and small manufacturers alike are free to customize those designs or even copy them exactly, provided they don't infringe on Mutable Instruments branding.

Fittingly, the name of Mutable Instruments' creator is already inscribed within my nascent eurorack system, in the copyright notice on the back of the contact microphone module's PCB.

Where not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

I ostensibly started this iteration of my blog in part to talk about my own music-making projects, so now I owe you all an update on that front.

🎤 A live debut

I have a 20-minute performance slot coming up at 5:20pm EDT (21:20 UTC) on 18 March 2023 at the Bleep / Blorp Festival of Synthesis and Electronic Music. This year Bleep / Blorp will be held 18 March from 10:40am to 8:20pm EDT at UMass Lowell's Durgin Hall, 35 Wilder Street, Lowell, Massachusetts. Attendance is free. Here's their official flyer:

Official flyer for Bleep / Blorp  2023

This will be my first time attending Bleep / Blorp, as somehow I'd never heard of it despite having completed my computer science degree as a commuter student at UMass Lowell in 2020. This will also be my first time performing live, about which I'm both nervous and excited.

💽 Album progress

Somehow between the birth of our second child in late 2020 and the purchase of our first house in 2021, I managed to put together two albums, and I completed another later in 2021 shortly after we moved. It was a frenzied time, but I had taken some leave from my day job, and there were periods of time where I was minding a sleeping baby or not actively moving furniture, so during those times I managed to play with modular synthesis techniques in VCV Rack a lot. I've had considerably less time for music lately; I'm back to work at my day job and the baby is now a very active toddler. But I did manage to release another album in 2022.

For my current album project, I'm trying to train myself to work with more patience and, when the album is eventually complete, to release it at a slower pace, giving myself time to share it in advance with radio DJs and podcasters who have played my work before, and potentially other people who might be interested.

This isn't really a concept album in the way that Lost Temple was a concept album about Peoples Temple and Jonestown, but I have as the abstract core inspiration for the album the legacy of the World Trade Center Twin Towers as a utopian capitalist project, and 9/11 as a central catalyst for the collapse of pax americana. More simply, as I often put it: I watched thousands of people die on live television when I was ten years old, and all I got was this lousy post-imperial republic sliding into fascism.

I've got about half an hour of completed tracks for the album so far and an aiming for a total of about one hour. I'm assuming to finish and release the album vaguely in 2023, though if I find that this doesn't leave me enough time for the slow release I want to do, I will push that back to 2024.

🎛️ Equipment & technique

My main music workflow still happens primarily in the modular software synthesizer VCV Rack at this point. A friend of mine often shares some really interesting things musicians are doing with Bitwig, which is more like a traditional digital audio workstation (DAW) but also has a ton of modular features that allow for complex generative compositions like I often do in VCV Rack. Generative in this case means that pseudorandom signals influence or direct elements of the music such as melody, cord progression, rhythm, timbre, mixing and panning, and pretty much whatever else you can think of. It's very cool to have access to that paradigm in a digital audio workstation. I've had learning my way around a DAW on my musicianship to-do list for a while, and Bitwig in particular has been at the top of my list. But so far I haven't learned my way around Bitwig and the greatest extent to which I've used a DAW is some light post-processing controlled through Ardour. I think with the current limits on the time I have for music, it's a lot more rewarding for me to just get into a familiar workflow rather than spend half an evening trying to learn some basic patterns in a DAW without really making much sound at all, only to wait a week before I get to work on it again.

I bought a good microphone a couple months ago, but haven't used it yet. For one thing I need to put together a decent recording space for using it. Whereas the synth stuff can happen basically anywhere there's room for the equipment, recording vocals requires a relatively quiet recording space where I won't pick up noises from plumbing, heating, or appliances, but also where I'm unlikely to be overheard, because I don't sing confidently when someone is trying to sleep or something in the next room. I don't really consistently have a space like that, so I'll need to improve something.

However, I did try to record some vocals before I bought the good microphone, using a USB microphone mostly intended for podcasting. I wasn't very confident in the results and ended up layering a lot of effects on the vocals when I mixed them into the music (my take on L'Internationale).

Though I'm a little stuck at the moment when it comes to DAWs and vocals, I am finding time to explore different compositional techniques, new scales, etc. I've done more pieces lately that are composed through, in the sense that I manually composed the melodic/rhythmic elements instead of incorporating generative and improvisational parts—though when I do this I usually still incorporate subtle random modulation to elements of the sound, to produce a track that sounds a little more “live” and spontaneous. I've been doing that composition largely in a piano roll interface provided by the Entrian Timeline plugin for VCV Rack. I'd say I can't wait to share the results, but as I said, waiting is something I'm working on.

Where not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

We're coming up on a year since Russia turned the simmering insurgency it had backed in the Donetsk region and the illegal 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula into a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which has in turn become a protracted war seemingly aimed at annexing the whole of Ukraine and dismantling both the Ukrainian government and any idea of a unique Ukrainian culture. In the days leading up to this eruption of all-out war I believed those voices in the media who said that war would simply not arrive, that it would be such an obvious geopolitical blunder that Putin was surely too smart to go through with it. That he might be able to win such a war, but he must understand that the cost would be too great, and that all the warnings from the Biden administration of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine were so much bluster intended to rally support around US aid to Ukraine as the country struggled to hold up its territorial integrity. All of us who believed this were proven wrong in spectacular fashion.

A bombed hospital in Ukraine
A bombed hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, March 9, 2022. Photograph published by the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine web site armyinform.com.ua and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

So much talk has been made of the catastrophic invasion of Ukraine since then, and so many people more expert in the politics of the region and the material realities of this war have spoken about it. But for those of us interested in the future of left politics in the United States and lacking expertise in the geopolitics of eastern Europe, the war still bears talking about. Firstly, because people anywhere in the world having their homes blown up deserve international solidarity. But also precisely because so many who don't understand Ukraine have yammered on about it in a way that turns it into a wedge issue within our own insular anglophone left circles, exposing a fissure in an what can hardly even be called our coalition. On opposite sides of that fissure are fundamentally incompatible understandings of not only the material situation in Ukraine today, but of what imperialism and anti-imperslism actually mean.

🌐 The missing superpower

The United States in particular persisted under a hegemonic anticommunist order for so long that thirty-something years on from the collapse of the Soviet Union, the very word socialist is still a pejorative in many contexts—perhaps even most contexts, depending on where and with whom you live. The Cold War so pervasively ordered ideological expression in this country that now even many people of my generation who have no personal memory of the Cold War are conditioned to believe that geopolitics are governed by two distinct and competing world orders, one led by the US and the other by its avowed rivals in Russia, China, Iran, and perhaps India. This non-US world order may not be fully aligned behind Communism, but China and some smaller states in its orbit maintain a commitment to some or other interpretation of the idea. If you continue to hold this dualistic view of the world, and hold (as I do) a dim view of US anticommunist interventions in the recent past, you might feel that the only alternative is to support this other world order. If, in particular, you see the US as the principle exponent of imperialism in the modern world, then support of this other world order in all matters of geopolitics becomes the practical expression of anti-imperialism.

One problem with this understanding is that the alleged rival order does not hold on common the shared (though often nominal) ideological commitment to Socialism that bound together the Soviet sphere of influence. Even China's Communism, which is flexible enough to accommodate neoliberal factory labor conditions, is not held in common by the other major players in this supposed alliance. Certain smaller states, Cuba and the DPRK among them, maintain at least a nominal commitment to whatever they have come to define as Socialist or Communist policy, but the Russian Federation certainly does not; Putin even famously denounced Lenin in a public speech at the start of the invasion, blaming the founding Bolshevik leader not only for sowing the seeds strife amongst Slavic nations but for conceptually creating Ukraine in the first place. Putin explicitly cast his invasion of Ukraine as a correction of Lenin's mistakes and a decisive act of decommunization, even as he also offered “denazification” as a justification.

The other problem with this rival world order offering an alternative to the US sphere of influence is that it doesn't exist. Chinese leadership, for example, have proven themselves more open to Russian trade than the US or European Union, but have been unwilling to commit troops and reluctant to provide military aid to the cause of russifying Ukraine. At the risk of restating obvious recent history, the Soviet Union's collapse did not leave in its wake a united bloc of allies collectively forming a rival superpower against US hegemony, let alone an ideologically consistent, anti-imperialist one.

🪖 Learning the wrong lesson from the right text

As a kid during 2003 US invasion of Iraq, I can't say I understood very well what was going on except that it seemed that the adult world all around me had gone completely off the rails. Saddam Hussein was described to me as a dictatorial madman who menaced his own people with chemical weapons (in the 1998 Halabja massacre of Iraqi Kurds, a well-documented event), but why this would best be solved by US military “shock and awe” was unclear. There were supposed to be hidden “weapons of mass destruction” that Hussein was poised to fire at his foreign adversaries, but these never materialized.

History, as they say, may not exactly repeat itself, but often rhymes. Absent any actual incident of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy ordering the chemical bombing of some or other region of Ukraine, Putin and Russia's state media apparatus fabricated a secret, Ukrainian state-sponsored genocide against Ukrainian russophones, which could only be stopped through Russian military intervention. That this does not hold up to even the slightest scrutiny, or that Zelenskyy's own first language is Russian, does not deter those already committed to supporting the Russian state's anti-imperialist imperialism. Ukraine had publicly surrendered its nuclear arsenal early in its post-Soviet history as an independent state, so rather than “weapons of mass destruction,” the Ukrainian state was instead accused of using secret US-funded labs to develop exotic “bioweapons” programmed specifically to target ethnic Russians. That these bioweapons have failed to materialize has done no more to end the war in Ukraine than the fictitiousness of Saddam Hussein's WMDs ever did to end the war in Iraq. The whole scheme of pretexts for invasion, adopted without regard for evidence and just as easily discarded and forgotten, is so familiar to me. It was really just too perfect when former US president George W. Bush, in a widely televized Freudian slip, decried “the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq… I mean, of the Ukraine.”

US supporters of and apologists for the invasion of Ukraine also look upon the invasion of Iraq as a cautionary tale, but the lesson they draw is different. For me the obvious lesson there is the evil of what was done, and it would be evil no matter who did it. For others it seems the lesson was all about who did it, and this reinforced a crude geopolitical heuristic: if it aligns with US foreign policy, it's wrong. This heuristic was pretty reliable for a number of years, but now it leads people to defend the very same crimes committed against Iraqi people, just because this time around they are committed under orders of the Russian president and against the populace of a country aligned with the United States. As John Ganz put it in “Some Thoughts on Ukraine”:

Russia's appeal in the West, which crosses the traditional boundaries of right and left, is irresistible for those who believe the worst crime imaginable is Western hypocrisy. Since this hypocrisy is the only unforgivable sin, Russia's crude and cynical exercise of power, its barely plausible justifications for its actions, its overt gangsterism at home and abroad, is seen as a virtue.

🫓 What came to pass in Syria

I am not at all the right person to talk about Syria in depth. But, as with Ukraine, there are pockets of the political left here in the US and elsewhere in the anglosphere who have trouble reconciling themselves to basic documented facts of the civil war that began there in 2011, so these bear repeating. Bashar al-Assad is and was a deeply repressive hereditary autocrat, and the war began when he moved to crush a largely grassroots protest movement demanding that he be removed from power. A number of armed anti-Assad groups with varying ideologies emerged, and some of them eventually won material support from the Obama administration in the United States. But into this situation also emerged a notoriously violent armed theocratic movement called variously Daesh, the Islamic State, ISIL, or ISIS. Daesh inflicted ever more losses upon Assad's forces, but as their power grew they began to bring the same military force to bear against other, more secular anti-Assad groups and ultimately against anyone who did not swear total allegiance to their theology.

The emergence of a militant theocratic threat in Syria provided a pretext for ever-increasing violence against civilians including lethal chemical attacks on entire urban neighborhoods; the victims of these attacks could then be branded as either terrorists or collateral damage of Assad's defensive campaign against terrorism. This development also opened the door for a Russian military intervention in support of the Assad government. There were got a preview of the Russian military tactics now on display in Ukraine: the indiscriminate targeting of civilians, the frequently declared cease-fires that Russian officers violated as soon as people tried to use the break in fighting to safely move about, and the use of the fascist paramilitary Wagner Group that was officially unconnected to the Russian military or government.

Here, too, we got a preview of the failure of international left solidarity in the face of war crimes and repression not aligned with the United States. Bashar al-Assad's nominal claim to a legacy of Ba'athist Arab socialist leadership and the United States' haphazard support for anti-Assad forces were enough to convince some on the political left, including a number of somewhat prominent cultural figures, to uncritically embrace Assad. These pro-Assadists would deny known war crimes committed by Syrian state forces (like the afformentioned chemical attacks attested by copious video and eyewitness accounts, or the state's tortures and killings gruesomely documented in thousands of photographs of the “Caesar report” that were verified by Human Rights Watch), to the point of endorsing conspiracy theories. Explaining the roots of this phenomenon is out of my depth, but the work has been done very capably by Daphne Lawless in her 2018 essay series “The red-brown 'zombie plague'” for the Trans-Tasman socialist publication Fightback. (See parts One, Two, and Three on the Fightback web site. Also potentially illuminating is The Right Podcast episode 22, in which CounterPunch radio host and one-time US Assad supporter Eric Draitser explains both what drew his cohort to Assad and how he came to reject this approach to geopolitics in favor of greater solidarity for people in Syria and later Ukraine.)

📻 The lopsided pacifism of Axis Sally

There has been curious paradox of pacifism around the war in Ukraine. Early on I noticed that many in the chorus of support for the invasion on social media would frame Zelenskyy's requests for military aid from NATO member nations, or his refusal to surrender or hand over large regions of Ukraine without the support of a national, free referendum, as acts of warmongering. Anyone who suggested anything other than denying all military aid to Ukraine and pressuring the Zelenskyy government into surrender was cast as a hawk demanding a prolonged proxy war against Russia to be fought “to the last Ukrainian.” Such were the complaints I heard from some of the communists in my broader social circles. The maybe less sophisticated reader comments I read on news items about the war in Al Jazeera's social media feeds described Zelenskyy as a depraved “clown 🤡” cruelly sending his people to war on behalf of his NATO masters.

The topsy-turvy picture of the war I got from these pacifist pro-invasion talking points began to get under my skin. Were we really to believe that this war was brought about solely by madman Zelenskyy, and that Putin sought nothing but peace in Ukraine—while Russian authorities moved to imprison citizens for repeating the generic pacifist slogan “Нет войне” (“No to war”)? Or that the Ukrainian state alone bore responsibility for perpetuating the conflict, as Russian forces continued to bombard civilian infrastructure, apartment buildings, and hospitals? I had always thought of myself as a pacifist, but did pacifism really demand that a country invaded out of the blue simply turn itself over to annexation as a condition for peace, or that if such a country failed to immediately surrender we must view it and not the invading power as the war's principal aggressor?

There is danger in taking grand historical comparisons too far. But historical precedents can help us clarify what is possible. As Allied forces moved to liberate Axis-occupied territory in the Second World War, the Nazi propaganda machine cultivated superficially anti-war propaganda for foreign audiences that was designed to justify the Nazi conquest of Europe and reframe the German state as an unwilling participant in the war. Mildred Gillers, a German-US woman who was among the radio personalities collectively known as “Axis Sally,” delivered English-language radio broadcasts from Berlin in which she often talked of the Reich having been “forced” into war. In her telling, US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the principal aggressor, a warmonger sending good American boys overseas to serve shadowy Jewish interests represented by his friends and advisors. The pacifism Mildred Gillers promoted was founded on antisemitic lies, and lopsided. It demanded that the war end not by Germany withdrawing any of its occupying forces, but by Allied nations simply allowing these occupations to continue and Nazi-perpetrated genocide to spread across Europe.

This lopsided pacifism held sway amongst the Reich's influential supporters abroad, like Father Charles Coughlin, a popular US radio personality who was wisely forced out of public life in 1939 as it became apparent that his broadcasts were inciting fascist street violence. It was the kind of pacifism espoused by some in the Oswald Mosley camp of British fascists, figures like nature writer Henry Williamson. I do not mean to say that there was no genuinely felt aversion to war in this brand of pacifism; Williamson, for example, developed his opposition to war understandably in the trenches of World War I. But this form of pacifism was glaringly one-sided, admonishing military resistance to the Reich but unconcerned by its military invading and occupying Czechoslovakia under the pretense of protecting a German ethnic minority living there. Nor did this pacifism condemn the German invasion of Denmark and Norway under the guise of thwarting alleged French and British occupation plans there. And it was silent, of course, on Nazi-perpetrated genocide, an asymmetric war not against a rival state but against civilians in the Reich's own territories.

None of this is to say that we can draw direct, one-to-one parallels from World War II to the invasion of Ukraine. I do not mean to definitively cast any contemporary leader into the role of Hitler, or of Chamberlain, or Churchill. But from this historical precedent we can see that not all pacifisms are made equal. Some pacifists will be very selective about what counts as starting a war, or who holds responsibility when war occurs. To some pacifists, an unprovoked invasion is not warmongering, but resistance to that invasion is.

To understand who truly has the power to end a war, we have to understand who is choosing war now, who is keeping the war alive. In the context of Ukraine, that is not Zelenskyy. This is not to say the Ukrainian president is a saint, or that he has done everything right. I am unsettled, for example, by some of the measures he has taken to mute political dissent in Ukraine during the war, in the name of maintaining defensive unity. But he has never had full control of the metaphorical ship. In the wee hours of 1 January 2013, Zelenskyy was performing a wacky, comedic musical number on Russian television. By 25 July 2019 he was President of Ukraine, taking a call from US President Trump, and faced with the task of maintaining an impossible domain balancing act. On one side was the looming military threat from Russia, the defense against which relied on military aid from the United States. On the other side, Trump was demanding that before Ukraine receive this aid, Zelenskyy should publicly announce a legal investigation into the son of Trump's foremost political opponent—an investigation that was not actually occuring. Squeezed between two much larger military powers, he was being asked to deceive the public about official proceedings in exchange for continued Ukrainian sovereignty. In the end he remained polite, but promised nothing. Already-allocated US military aid to Ukraine remained inexplicably frozen until US legislators started asking uncomfortable questions about it. Now, too, in the war, Zelenskyy's choices are constrained by pressure from all sides. Continued military aid from abroad still depends on good diplomatic relations. The Ukrainian military and volunteer forces seem willing to carry out his commands, but would they be so willing if he were to turn from a spirited defense of national sovereignty to the full surrender that Putin seemed to expect, or even to concessions like officially recognizing Russian rule in Crimea? Would the war actually end so neatly? Would Ukrainians universally heed the order to lay down their arms? Would the risk of Russian military reprisals on occupied Ukrainian cities instantly evaporate?

On the other hand, what would happen if Putin found an excuse to declare “Mission accomplished,” and began to withdraw all Russian troops from Ukraine to victory parades at home, celebrating the success of the “special military operation”? The proximate cause of the war is the presence of an occupying force in Ukraine. Certainly the retreat of this force, even a “victorious” retreat, would be the most effective means of ending hostilities.

I've come to learn that to declare oneself a pacifist, or against war, means little without context. “This war must end” would surely seem a truism in Ukraine today. In Russia, it is criminal speech. Whether I have anything in common with another pacifist or leftist depends on is having some basic, shared understanding of reality. Not only the understanding that war is vile, but a common good faith approach to this essential question: Whose war is it, anyway?

Where not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Recently I purchased a second-hand, portable, AM/FM radio. I paid more than you'd expect for it, around $50 USD, because this model (the Sangean HDR-14 from 2018) is one of very few standalone consumer radio receivers on the market that can decode HD Radio signals. It's a decent radio, but this isn't an equipment review. What I want to talk about is the HD Radio standard itself.

Digital radio: radio, but digital

Like its analog counterpart, digital radio provides unencrypted signals you can receive anywhere within antenna range as long as you have the right equipment, no telecommunications provider subscription required. But it comes with the added advantage of signal redundancy and audio clarity; under conditions that would muddy the sound of an analog signal with static and interference, you can still get a digital signal that exactly replicates what is being broadcast from the station. The Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB or DAB+) standard is used in Europe and to a more limited extent elsewhere to provide digital radio broadcasts on specially allocated frequency bands. Some stations in Europe have even switched off their analog FM broadcasts in favor of DAB+ only. Another standard, Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM), is used for some far-reaching shortwave news broadcasts. For regulatory reasons I don't understand, Digital Audio Broadcasting is not presently used at all in North America, and Digital Radio Mondiale is only used here in the shortwave band, not in the medium wave band most radio receivers support for receiving AM broadcasts.

A portable radio receiver featuring the HD Radio trademark logo

HD Radio: the American way

The only form of public digital audio currently broadcast over the air in Canada, the US, and Mexico is called HD Radio. HD Radio is a proprietary standard that equipment manufacturers license from iBiquity Digital Corporation, which kinda bugs me because I suspect that might contribute to the relative scarcity of HD Radio receivers on the market, which contributes to slow consumer adoption, which in turn disincentivizes manufacturers from licensing more HD Radio receivers in a vicious cycle. But I'm no economist, and maybe someone who knows more about the market could produce contrary evidence.

The major feature that differentiates HD Radio from DAB, DAB+, and DRM is its implementation of in-band on-channel (IBOC) broadcasting. This means that unlike a DAB/DAB+ signal broadcast in a frequency band reserved for that standard, or a DRM signal broadcast in shortwave band without any analog component, HD Radio digital signals are broadcast on frequencies directly adjacent to an analog signal and carry the same audio stream simultaneously. The in-band on-channel model is aided by the greater bandwidth available to FM broadcasts in International Telecommunication Union Region 2, where they are centered on frequencies 200 kHz apart, unlike in other parts of the world including Europe that use an FM band spacing of 100 kHz. It makes the introduction more transparent to the listener, who only needs to tune to the same old FM frequencies they're used to and let the HD Radio decoder produce a static-free audio stream from the digital signal that a digitally-tuned analog receiver would essentially ignore. If the digital signal momentarily drops out, the radio can temporarily and almost seamlessly fall back to the adjacent analog signal. For the most part, listeners discover HD Radio because they're driving one of the recent-model cars that are equipped with an HD Radio receiver—though manufacturers are not mandated in any way to implement one. The IBOC model allows these listeners to experience digital radio without seeking it out or doing anything new.

Secret gay radio

For free, broadcasters get a license to add an HD Radio transmission that provides a synchronized duplication of the analog broadcast. These broadcasts are identified by the call sign of the analogue broadcast suffixed with “HD1.” It's HD1 because, depending on factors like the digital bitrate used for the lossily compressed audio stream, there could be as many as four digital transmissions flanking an analog FM broadcast. HD1 is, by regulatory fiat, always the same audio stream as the analog signal. But the other, additional digital signals could be anything else that can be lastly broadcast on FM radio. Often these are used to simulcast or repeat a station from another geographical area, or the programming of an AM talk radio station owned by the same broadcast licensees, but sometimes they carry stations that are not broadcast as analog over-the-air signals anywhere. Since most listeners still don't have HD Radio receivers, these digital-only stations feel almost secret.

Two such stations I can receive here are dedicated LGBTQ-focused music and news programming: Channel Q, broadcast locally on WZMX-HD2, and Pride Radio on WKSS-HD2. Both are syndicated nationally across the US, but only as these extra digital signals. They're not really secret, because both are available for internet streaming, but an analog radio listener wouldn't find either of them on the dial. Both of them play a lot of fun, dancy music; this is where I first heard “Unholy” by Sam Smith and Kim Petras.

If I told you I'd been listening to “secret gay radio” you might reasonably imagine this as a sort of underground cultural project of the LGBTQ community, maybe a pirate radio program broadcast from a network of unlicensed shortwave stations. But the reality of it is much less enchanting. Channel Q is produced by the second-largest radio company in the US: Audacy, Inc. Pride Radio is run by iHeartMedia—the largest US radio company. Both Audacy and iHeartMedia run a mix of mostly music FM stations and mostly “news talk” AM stations.

Something you have to understand when discussing the news talk radio programming format in the United States is that it is almost exclusively the domain of what passes for “conservative” media punditry here, which has veered ever further into ultra-reactionary provocation, as chronicled recently on The Divided Dial.

An iHeartMedia-owned network syndicated Rush Limbaugh's show until he died in 2021. Limbaugh is widely credited with creating the conservative news talk format as we now know it: essentially a few hours at a time of riffing on the news, taking phone calls from listeners whom he would compliment or denigrate as he pleased, and mocking anyone and anything he could associate with his political opponents. Emblematic of his style was a recurring “AIDS update” segment that ran in his show during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the United States, in which he would share the latest news of people contacting HIV and dying of AIDS-related illness over a background of music selected for lyrics he found to provide comical double-entendres about gay men. This was perhaps one of the last things in his life he was ever forced to apologize for, after ACT UP essentially bullied him into discontinuing the segment and making a token donation to a children's AIDS charity. He would continue to mock the personal tragedies of anyone he could paint as a clueless liberal.

Audacy has its own roster of conservative news talk stars. I recently tuned into their local WTIC AM news talk affiliate out of curiosity and tuned in just in time to hear host Dana Loesch a deliver a prolonged, mocking complaint about the “woke” World Health Organization ditching the word monkeypox in favor of mpox. She even artfully worked in a transmisogynist joke, comparing what she considered the delusion of the WHO attempting to destigmatize a viral disease she pretty explicitly associated with gay men to woke libs insisting that trans women are real.

It's exactly these same two companies that run the secret gay radio stations I can pick up on HD Radio. But that's consistent with the way they've done business all along. The deeply anti-LGBTQ news talk programming and the fun gay club music both generate advertising revenues, and from a corporate perspective they are not in conflict with each other. They simply run on separate stations targeted to separate audiences. The news talk stations have a large enough audience to make dedicated local analog stations profitable, while Channel Q and Pride Radio generate less profit, but still enough to find a national radio program repeated on these extra digital broadcasting slots across the country. It's cynical culture war profiteering. “Unholy” really slaps, though.

What it actually sounds like

The rural Connecticut town where I live is not the best place to receive certain local stations; a lot of those broadcasts are targeted to larger population centers surrounding us at various distances. For example, the regional National Public Radio news station, WNPR, comes in a little spotty, and if I drive a short distance west for any reason I need to tune in to a different NPR affiliate.

Given what I've said about the signal redundancy and improved signal resiliency of digital radio, I hoped the digital signals might prove more reliable than analog. In practice, it hasn't quite worked out that way. In some cases, though I can consistently hear the analog broadcast more or less clearly, with just a hint of static, I struggle to pick up enough digital signal for the radio to build the audio buffer it needs to switch from analog sound to digital.

For one thing, the digital signals are sometimes broadcast from a different physical location than the principle, analog signal. But what I hadn't really banked on was that regulations require that HD Radio digital signals be broadcast at a much lower wattage than their analog counterparts, to the point that they sometimes don't really carry as far as the analog signals. My understanding is that this might be a compromise around in-band on-channel broadcasting to prevent these digital signals from causing audible interference to analog reception. Or maybe it's that digital signals powerful enough to carry beyond the reach of analog counterparts on the same center frequency would wreak havock upon the delicate system of frequency allocations intended to prevent the geographic overlap of disparate broadcasts on the same frequency. But it makes me a little sad for what we miss out on by not having a dedicated DAB+ band; perhaps with that kind of signal resiliency at broadcast power on par with analog, more broadcasts could cover these sorts of gaps between major population centers, like where I live.

When the digital signals actually do come in consistently, I'd say they sound pretty good. I'm not an audiophile, but I think occasionally I notice certain subtle artifacts or qualities associated with lossy audio compression, similar to MP3s encoded at a slightly less-than-ideal bitrate. Cymbal crashes that sound just slightly off, in a barely perceptible way, for example. This effect is much less noticeable on some of the digital broadcasts than on others, and I suspect on the whole it's a bigger problem wherever the broadcaster had tried to fit a whole four digital signals into the sidebands of a single analogue channel. There are certainly some broadcasts where I can sometimes forget that compression is there. But even at its most noticable I find it preferable to the waves of static and interference I get on most of the analog broadcasts I can receive here.

You'll notice I haven't talked much about HD Radio in the AM band. That's because I haven't managed to listen to it yet; I can't seem to pick up a single AM broadcast augmented by HD Radio at home, though I've found some local AM stations repeated as additional HD Radio subchannels on an FM broadcast. I gather that at one point I might have been able to receive a number of HD Radio signals on the AM band, but now most of those broadcasts have been discontinued. The spacing of AM broadcast center frequencies is narrower and the HD Radio broadcasts in that band were therefore encouraged at lower bitrates than their FM band counterparts, producing lower-quality audio. But AM stations are more likely to carry news talk programming where high-fidelity audio is less important. I suspect what really drove AM broadcasters away from HD Radio in their band is that the relatively low power allowed in HD Radio broadcasting, combined with the requirement for listeners to use one of the relatively expensive minority of radio models that can decode HD Radio signals, put the standard at odds with the audience these broadcasters target. AM signals tend to carry farther than FM and can therefore cover rural areas more effectively. The rural listenership of AM stations are likely to be too far from the broadcast antenna to pick up the weaker HD Radio signals, and perhaps less likely to seek out more expensive HD-capable receivers that might not pick up any digital signals where they live anyway.

Wither the HD Radio revolution?

The Federal Communications Commission of the United States, which as a practical matter also effectively sets broadcast regulations for Canada and Mexico, selected HD Radio as an official digital radio standard in 2002. Now, 21 years later, I think I'm pretty much the only person I know who listens to it, while plenty of people I know are still listening to analog radio, if only in their cars. So, what gives? Is HD Radio a failed media format?

I've already outlined my thinly substantiated theory that the proprietary nature of the HD Radio standard locks manufacturers and radio listeners into a vicious cycle of scarce equipment and slow consumer adoption. But I suspect that problem is compounded by a marketing weakness of the in-band on-channel model. Consider that a DAB+ receiver has access to a whole other frequency band that an analog-only AM/FM radio does not receive. This makes it very obvious to someone shopping for a receiver that DAB+ models will allow them to listen to receive signals they can't get with analog models, and perhaps even entire stations they can't receive on an analog radio where they live. HD Radio also allows listeners to listen to stations they can't get on analog, but that feature isn't nearly as obvious up front. An HD Radio receiver does not feature a new, special, digital frequency band. It just tunes into the same frequencies the analog models do—only, with an HD Radio model those frequencies can carry extra audio streams you wouldn't otherwise get. But that's not obvious just from looking at the receiver controls. So consumer adoption continues to be driven largely by listeners accidentally buying into HD Radio when they happen to purchase a new car that has a capable receiver. And a lot of people aren't buying new cars in this market.

But despite the near-total abandonment of HD Radio on the AM dial, FM broadcasters don't seem in a hurry to ditch the idea. So I think HD Radio will not fizzle out now, but continue to grow at a snail's pace for years to come.

Digital radio is not internet radio

Radio is an interesting medium to me because of the lack of moderation between broadcaster and listener. Connecting to the Internet, for example, requires more than just a computer; it's a process gatekept to some degree by internet service providers, who can passively collect precise information about your individual network history—what servers you connected to, when, and typically what URLs you were requesting, too, as these are still not consistently encrypted. Those ISPs also have to contend with government agencies who can request or demand that they censor certain content or report on certain activities. By contrast, radio has higher barriers of entry for public speech (because not everyone can access high-powered broadcasting equipment or get regulatory approval to use it) but also provides for totally anonymous listening; broadcasters and governments don't just passively collect records of what stations you've been tuning into; advertisers have had to rely on consumer surveys and the like to estimate audience sizes.

Internet audio streaming—internet radio, personalized music streaming services, podcasts, etc.—has come to dominate audio media consumption for a lot of us. But it doesn't entirely replace over-the-air radio, and not only for the complicated reasons I just described, having to do with the role of ISPs in internet access. The fact is that there are still enough people who want to be able to just flip a switch, wherever they are, and hear whatever their local DJ is doing, to sustain radio as a medium.

As long as radio is going to be around, HD Radio is a huge improvement to the listening experience it can offer. But it is also an improvement frustratingly limited in its impact by regulatory decisions and its surprisingly difficult consumer adoption model. And it can do nothing to touch the deeper, less technical problems of the radio landscape in the United States: corporate consolidation, rampant hate speech, and the far-right project to build a more reactionary cultural hegemony.

Where not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

The subject matter of README.txt by Chelsea Manning is complicated. The book itself, and my feelings about it, are not. The memoir is a valuable document of a moment in recent history as lived by the person whose rare actions became its catalyst. Here are the recollections of a woman who, at a young age, made her own history, though she did not make it as she pleased. And though she did not make her history under self-selected circumstances, she guides us through those already-existing circumstances, given and transmitted from the past, that at once severely constrained who she could be in the world, and presented her with an opportunity to change it in a way that few people ever will.

Cover art for README.txt by Chelsea Manning

The title is apt; it refers to an explanatory file Manning attached to a trove of military documents she anonymously leaked to the press during her time as a U.S. Army intelligence analyst, but the entire memoir also reads like such a file: the kind of straightforward, comprehensive guide anyone who regularly works with computer information hopes to find upon opening an unfamiliar archive. For all it covers, I felt the book could have been much longer; I take its relative brevity as a sign of restraint in service of getting right to the point about what the reader needs to know. This is not to suggest that there is no art to Manning's prose. Now and then she deploys a subtle poetic metaphor where a dry accounting of events cannot convey the inner experience of the events of her life. But overall, the prose reflects an urgency and clarity of purpose. Its sentence constructions and vocabulary are simple, and the author never assumes much prior knowledge on the reader's part. But the text is never condescending in tone, either. It's clear from the way Manning explains everything—from what day-to-day life was like for a homeless young adult in Chicago's gay club scene and how U.S. Army Basic Training was structured in the waning years of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell era to what the Tor browser project is for and how IRC chatrooms function—that she wants to give you, the reader, every chance to follow along and understand the context of key decisions in her life even if your background is vastly different from hers.

A lifeline of last resort

One such decision a reader may not understand coming into the book is just why Chelsea Manning—source of the highest-profile leak of U.S. military information since Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers that revealed the public justification for the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam as a lie—enlisted in the Army in the first place. It might seem at first glance that the military, especially in the Don't Ask, Don't Tell years, was obviously opposed to everything she was as a person: a trans woman, committed to public transparency and protecting human life, including the lives of Iraqi civilians that were so often identified as “unlawful enemy combatants” because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The opening chapters of the book never make excuses for Manning's enlistment, but they clearly illustrate a timeline of experiences that led her to a situation where joining the Army would have seemed like a rational (though not inevitable) choice.

The experiences that led Chelsea Manning to the military stretch all the way back into her childhood with a Navy veteran father, who constantly talked up his military career as the singular thing that had imposed structure and meaning on his life when he was a young man. More subtly, though, Chelsea's early love of the then-nascent internet, and the impression made on her by terrorist attacks to which she was exposed, presaged the direction of her later career. She literally heard the blast of the Oklahoma City bombing from her small Oklahoma hometown miles away, as a child in 1995. She was affected, as all of us were, not only by horror of the coordinated airliner attacks of 11 September 2001, but also by the topsy-turvy, jingoistic political climate that formed in its aftermath. And in 2005, during the adolescent years she spent living with her mother in Wales, she had a solo errand in London interrupted by the coordinated bombing attacks on the Underground.

Manning's childhood was altogether difficult, though perhaps not unusually so for a queer youth born to conservative, alcoholic parents in a rural, working-class household. And the text shows the reader how this element of Manning's childhood too made the military eventually seem like one of her best options. This background did not provide a smooth path into self-sufficient adulthood. Instead, after high school Manning found herself drifting from job to job, even with her valuable technical skills, and eventually found herself homeless and living out of a barely functional pickup truck. When a relative later provided her with stable housing and she nailed down a consistent Starbucks barista job, she found that the erratic schedule of her work and prohibitive cost of tuition at badeven the local community college left her unsure she'd ever find the kind of work that would let her move out on her own and pay the rent. Gender transition, of which she had only just become aware, seemed a far-off dream next to these more basic questions of survival.

Manning is just a few years older than I, another resident of the autism spectrum (“diagnosed with mild Asperger's”), holds similar formative memories of a strange internet landscape that preceded the rise of MySpace and Facebook, and hails from a similar class background, which is to say that I was not materially deprived as a child but did not have parents who could simply pay my rent so I could move out on my own as soon as I reached adulthood, or pay my entire college tuition for me, or line me up with my first job. So with this degree of superficial familiarity, it is hard for me not to imagine myself into various episodes of Chelsea Manning's early life and wonder, if things had gone just a little differently, whether that kid I was reading about could have been me. What if my parents were alcoholics? What if my father had been even half as physically abusive as his own father was before him? What if, when my parents divorced, one of them had moved to Wales, and not just across town? What if my sexuality were a more definitively felt thing for me, and not such a wishy-washy mess—might I have kissed a boy at school and learned exactly who around me had enough anti-gay bigotry that they would hurt a child? What if, similarly, my gender had manifested as something definite, something that pulled me toward gender transition at a time when I only knew about that realm of human experience as something I would hear sneeringly mocked whenever my mom turned on talk radio in the car? What if I lost the option of living with my parents early in adulthood—would I have subsisted as resourcefully on the streets? (Probably not.) And if I hadn't had the opportunity to mortgage my future with enormous student loans, if my body were better army material, would I have found myself enlisting like she did?

Manning walked into a U.S. Army recruitment office desperate for a way to finance her education and launch a career that would enable her to move out of her aunt's house, rent her own place, and maybe even begin to transition someday (though certainly not during military service, as the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy effectively meant that a service member would be discharged as soon as the military discovered that they were trans). The recruitment officers were the friendliest people she had ever met in a professional setting, and even friendlier when they saw her aptitude test results. For the first time in her life she had made a professional contact that actually showed interest in her future, in bringing some stability to her life. Manning had just passed through a great pipeline that runs through U.S. society. On one end, the absence of any kind of robust social safety net or guaranteed employment or higher education causes a lot of people to “fall through the cracks” into lives of constant precarity. On the other end of the pipeline, the military is waiting to catch them with open arms, provided they are young enough and conform to certain physical and academic specifications. Manning does not describe the “pipeline” as I just did, and instead mostly allows readers to notice for themselves the broader patterns in the specific incidents she recounts. But she does acknowledge the striking commonality between her own recruitment and that of many of her colleagues in military intelligence:

Often, people had ended up in the military because they found themselves in their thirties and unable, despite their natural abilities and even a college degree, to lift themselves out of poverty.

The army was a lifeline of last resort for many of my colleagues, as it had been for me.

(Although Chelsea Manning herself does not make this point, it is not lost on me that cults seem to recruit from essentially the same pool of people. But that is something to discuss another time.)

And here is the understated genius of README.txt: Chelsea Manning has knack for seamlessly positioning the rich sensory specificities of her own life experience within a broad and well-considered sociological tapestry. She can provide enough detail to allow readers to imagine themselves physically in her place, but also take that wide-angle view where we glimpse the broader social systems in which these actions and transactions are performed, without it ever getting pedagogical or academic.

Unlawful disclosure

I first noticed an unexpected and troubling typographical feature about two-thirds of the way through README.txt. Partway through a sentence describing the public reaction to the military intelligence materials Chelsea Manning had leaked, I hit a block of long black bars, the sort that replace lines of text that have been redacted from a declassified document. There are a few examples of this throughout the text. It felt especially odd to me at first because I was using an e-reader that “reflows” text to fit my prefered font choices, margins, &c, so I briefly entertained the idea that what I was looking at was a formatting error not present in the print version. But it wasn't the first occurence of this quirk, and the places where this occurred all seemed to fit a pattern. What I think happened is this: the manuscript of the memoir was subject to official review, ostensibly to prevent the publication of any information that could compromise national security. Likely, the author and her editors agreed to comply with some of the censors' objections and revised the manuscript to remove that information in a way that would not be visible to the reader. But the context of all these visibly redacted passages seems to indicate that they discuss details of the information revealed in those leaks. Information that, no matter how the Department of Defense or the national security establishment feels about it, became public a decade ago. I suspect that Manning found the prospect of quietly omitting these long-public details from her memoir to be an unreasonable request, and decided to make these omissions obvious to the reading public by instead performing a visible redaction.

E-reader displaying a redacted passage in README.txt

Chelsea Manning bemoans the absurdity of her court-martial and sentencing procedings, in which reporters and other public observers were routinely removed from the courtroom to preserve the secrecy of classified information that had already been published in the pages of papers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Guardian. How much more absurd and petty to demand that this information not appear in her memoir after all these years!

It is striking that the struggle to bring suppressed truth to light became a such a throughline for Manning from the moment she enlisted, whether it was her own personal reality under a Don't Ask, Don't Tell military policy era that effectively prevented her from even reporting a deeply traumatic sexual assault at the hands of an officer for legitimate fear of being discharged, or the more broadly consequential truths of what U.S. forces were doing in the countries they claimed to be liberating.

But Manning makes very clear that being trans had nothing to do with her decision to become military whistleblower. She describes, as clearly as she can given the constraints of ongoing censorship, what gave her the moral clarity to decide that she needed to ensure the public would know some of what she saw in the course of her work. The awful war she saw in person did not remotely resemble the war she read about in U.S. newspapers, and she believed that if the public knew the truth about the war they might bring about positive change.

While tracking a militant Shia group that existed, Manning says, “to kill Americans,” she came to this realization:

Tracking this group made it clear to me that our engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan had surprisingly little to do with those actual countries. Our involvement was about a bigger picture. It was about trying to project American hegemony to other powers in the region. You could look at the accumulation of death, after years, on all sides, and think that the war was unwinnable. Or you could consider whether pouring enormous resources into a never-ending war was actually the point.


We were dying over posturing, over bullshit.

This posturing, this bullshit, was regularly getting innocent people killed. In one personally relevant case Manning recounts, U.S. operators she had provided with intelligence instead used a long-outdated report to plan an operation against a known insurgent:

The operators relied on this bad information and went to the wrong building, where they killed everyone in the house who resisted capture, all the witnesses, and finally, even the fucking dog.

I came back from lunch to news of about a dozen presumably innocent people who were now all dead. We had to pretend it had never happened.

In Iraq, Manning also watched her fellow soldiers celebrate when an Iraqi civilian was killed by an explosive intended for a U.S. military vehicle:

Instead of being upset at the random death of an onlooker, my fellow soldiers were elated: Thank goodness OUR people weren't killed. And hey, look, even our vehicle was minimally damaged! The dead and injured Iraqis, who had nothing to do with this battle, weren't even spoken about as collateral damage. They were talked about as human armor for us.

Manning understood that the deplorable behavior of so many fellow soldiers was not simply a case of bad people in uniform, but of the unprincipled war they were commanded to wage bringing out the worst elements of human nature:

With enough grief, adrenaline, and fear, we can all become amoral—even malevolent.

The spectacle of the war in U.S. media, with its “smart bombs” and “surgical strikes” in service of spreading democracy, belied the truth of this bullshit conflict in which U.S. forces were constantly killing civilians on improperly handled intelligence or thin assumptions, were conditioned to regard the Iraqi population as less than human, and were frequently dying themselves for no cause more noble than “to project American hegemony.”

Amidst this contradiction, an analyst at Chelsea Manning's level (trusted with raw intelligence from the widest possible range of sources, but not so high-ranking that she would have to deal mostly with highly abstracted reports derived from that intelligence) was constantly working with information that dramatically contradicted the consensus picture of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan within U.S. media. That information was in most cases reflexively classified, though as a practical matter much of it would not actually endanger anyone if it became public knowledge. What stayed classified, and what was instead declassified and shared with the press, was largely an arbitrary decision, as Manning discovered when an intelligence report she created strictly for internal military purposes was released to the Iraqi press:

I asked a press affairs officer why he took off the classification markings and how he could do it so quickly. His reply—an honest, succinct one—has lingered in my mind: the classification system exists wholly in the interest of the U.S. government, so if it's in the interest of public affairs to declassify something, we will. In other words, he seemed to say, the classification system doesn't exist to keep secrets safe, it exists to control the media. I realized that no only did I not think the stuff needed to be secret, neither did the higher-ups, at least not when it suited them. In that instant, I began to consider whether the public deserved to have the same information that I did. If we were briefing journalists on the full picture when it suited us, why not all of the time? This was, after all, historical information.

Armed as she was with classified intelligence that could dismantle media manipulation about the war, she came to understand doing so as a moral obligation:

I always had the responsibility of other people's lives in my hands. This felt, in some sense, like just another choice, where I was weighing the costs and benefits and deciding that this was the best way to save lives.

No good deed…

And boy, was she punished for fulfilling that moral obligation! From the time that Manning was arrested at Forward Operating Base Hammer in Iraq, she spent years awaiting court-martial, much of that in stretches of several months at a time in solitary confinement conditions that U.N. observers found to be “in violation of article 16 of the convention against torture.” When she did finally have her day in court, she was was sentenced to thirty-five years in prison, under an Obama administration that came to be seen as hostile toward any party that brought U.S. state secrets to media—not only for Manning's case, but also for that of Edward Snowden, who revealed wide-reaching surveillance campaigns conducted by the NSA both abroad and targeting civilians within the U.S. A thirty-five year sentence for bringing evidence of wrongdoing to the media was unprecedented at the time, and was eventually cut down to seven years only through an unexpected commutation from President Obama during his last days in office.

Manning and her legal counsel attempted plea negotiations with the prosecution that might have reduced her sentence to a minimum of twenty years, but negotiations broke down for a few reasons. Twenty years is still a long time to spend in prison for whistleblowing, for one thing, and maybe not the most tempting offer that could have been made. Further, the prosecution would not move forward on a deal that didn't include Manning pleading guilty to “aiding the enemy,” which could have set a very bad precendent for future journalistic sources, and did not reflect any concrete proof that the disclosures at issue had materially aided an enemy of the United States. But an especially contentious issue was simply a matter of telling the truth; prosecutors wanted Manning to agree to a version of events that included inaccuracies about when she leaked certain documents, inaccuracies that were convenient for the prosecution's narrative. She refused to sign off on statements containing these inaccuracies over the course of negotiations. “The truth,” she writes in her memoir, “was not negotiable.” The thing she seems to regret most in her recounting of the legal proceedings is the statement she read, drafted by her legal team in hopes of reducing her sentence, in which she apologized for the hurt she caused by her disclosures. She was reluctant to read this statement in court because it contradicted the truth she had been trying to convey all along: that her disclosures were chosen carefully and communicated through journalistic outlets that would provide advance warning to authorities about personally identifiable information they contained to prevent such harms, and that those disclosures were morally justified.

I acted as I did because of what I saw, because of the values I hold.

Manning highlights other people who were essentially punished by the military for doing the right thing. Ethan McCord, a soldier who appears in the infamous “Collateral Murder” video Manning leaked to the press and worked to rescue children in the aftermath of the events the video captured, spoke to the press about the unjustifiability of the war when he was sent home with disabling combat injuries. For this, the Army discharged him on the basis of “a preexisting personality disorder” instead of his injuries, rendering him for veterans' disability benefits. Marine Corps veteran Jeff Paterson, who was court-martialed for an act of pacifist resistance against Operation Desert Storm, provided “critical” financial support to Manning's legal battle. Manning's boss, one Master Sargeant Paul Adkins, was demoted seemingly because he chose not to report to his stories when Manning disclosed her trans status to him via email, which would likely have resulted in her immediate discharge from the Army.

Manning's case stands out here for the sheer severity of the punishment prescribed for her whistleblowing. She was often singled out for extra punishment in military prison. But in her memoir she does not describe the inhumanity she experienced in prison as wholly unique. Because she spent so much time in prison—more time than she did as an intelligence analyst—a large portion of the book takes place there. The descriptions of prison life make clear that many of the indignities and inhumanities she experienced there—the arbitrary and collective acts of humiliation and torture as reprisals for fabricated interactions, the unofficial but thoroughly enforced racial segregation, the denial of prescribed medical treatment, and the singling out of trans inmates for particular cruelty—were widespread practices in military prison, and everything I know about U.S. civilian prisons tells me they are no different. As narrator of the text, Manning does not opine on the overall ethics of the carceral system, and I do not know whether she has a public stance on it. All she does is relate what happened to her and her fellow inmates, and also what she did both on her own and collectively with other inmates to bargain for modest improvements to prison conditions. But for me personally it would be difficult to come out of this book without a lot of sympathy for the cause of prison abolition.

On this note, the decision to wrap up this memoir with only the briefest possible summary of everything that has occurred since Manning was released from military prison means that as readers we don't get any real detail about another cruel twist in the story of the legal fallout from Manning's disclosures. In 2019 and 2020, she was sent to a civilian prison twice for refusing to testify before grand jury proceedings regarding the role of WikiLeaks spokesperson Julian Assange in publishing her disclosures. It was more punishment for taking a principled stand regarding transparency, especially striking because, judging from the book's brief descriptions of Assange as a divisive figure within the WikiLeaks Organization who sought control over the group and attempted to reshape it around his own ego, it doesn't seem that Manning even likes him much as a person.

A view from outside

I was a full-time psychology student at a small liberal arts college in New York City when Chelsea Manning was arrested. Just kinda starting to find my way in the world and lucked into having an easier time of than she did. I remember pulling up the front page of WikiLeaks during a visit to my dad's house, just idly trying to figure out what it was all about. A big banner about the “Collateral Murder” video was front and center. I didn't look further; I've always tended to digest this kind of thing in prepared reports rather than watch the gore for myself, so I read about what was in it instead. Some time later, my dad, who worked for a defense contractor, told me everyone at the office had been warned to stay away from WikiLeaks.

I was a kid in 2003 when the invasion began and didn't really get it. The way it was explained on TV was something like: Saddam Hussein is a madman dictator hiding weapons of mass destruction and for some reason it is the responsibility of the United States to intervene. And somehow it was meant to be a response to the 9/11 attacks, which had nothing directly to do with Iraq. There were steps in there I didn't really understand. And there were a lot of smart people saying the “weapons of mass destruction” were a lie, cover to exert control over foreign oil reserves.

Sometime between then and 2010 it had become very obvious that everyone who had scoffed at the Bush administration line on “WMDs” was right, that it really was all a lie. A new administration had come in, a president accused by the most unhinged parts of the conspiratorial right of being secretly Muslim, born on foreign soil and hiding behind a fake Hawaiian birth certificate. But in concrete terms little about foreign policy seemed to have concretely changed. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq simply kept going, the horizon of peace slipping ever further into the future. And the fascistic jingoism that had appeared in the shadow of 9/11, the demand in more pugilistic corners of mass media that cowards and traitors be rooted out and that we reassert the masculine might of our military, continued unabated. I heard it in the way some people talked about what they thought should happen to Beau Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier captured in Afghanistan after privately expressing moral disgust at U.S. military actions there and walking away from his observation post at night. And I heard it again when Chelsea Manning was arrested.

The first chapter of README.txt describes the day Manning made her first upload to a WikiLeaks-affiliated server, using the WiFi in the café of a chain bookstore in Tysons Corner, Virginia, in the middle of a snowstorm, on her last day of leave before returning to Iraq. She says it was just after making that fateful upload that she took a selfie, long before she would have the chance to transition, wearing a wig and lipstick. She included the photo in an impulsive email revealing that she was trans to her boss, Master Sargeant Adkins, and it would later be used as part of the military's pubic relations campaign against her, an example of what she says is the military's “nuts and sluts” tactic for discrediting whistleblowers. I seem to recall her being portrayed as both.

Grayscale, low-resolution selfie of Chelsea Manning, taken the day of her first upload to WikiLeaks

The revelation of this photo brought out the worst in a lot of media figures. I remember even “liberal” pundits opining that it was evidence that the military should have known she was “mentally unstable” before her disclosures. But it helped to crystalize my support for her cause and believe the unsettling truths her disclosures brought to light. Because I knew, watching the ugly rhetoric building around her, that anyone who saw in this photo evidence of madness, depravity, or treason was full of shit. Because it was the most natural thing in the world, a young woman savoring a moment out of uniform, trying on something cute. For me the photo is inspiring, powerful, beautiful. It expresses a feeling that Manning describes having in the moment she sent that email that could have immediately ended her career, emboldened by the publication of a video she had leaked:

I wanted the era of secrets to be over in my life.

But I still feel a little sheepish about sharing it. Surely she has taken better selfies. So here's one she took on 1 May 2022, expressing her support for labor organizing at Twitter. She looks like she's thriving. No one's stopping her from growing her hair out now:

Chelsea Manning celebrating International Workers' Day outside Twitter headquarters This photo by Chelsea Manning is provided under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 license and scaled down from the original.

For so long, in a repressive military environment, in her prolonged court-martial, and in prison, Manning was prevented from telling the full truth, the full story of her own actions. This allowed them to become almost mythologized—as villainous treachery for some, and as saintly acts of pacifist self-sacrifice for others, but in both cases disconnected from the plain reality of what she actually did and why. Now that she has told us nearly that whole story, at least as much of it as she legally can, she has demystified those first chapters of her life that end when she first left prison. She was never a conniving monster out to get her fellow soldiers killed, nor was she an impossibly virtous martyr for a pacifist cause. She was someone who had access to devestating truths most people weren't allowed to see, and she realized how important it was for the public to see some of them. She was at the right place, at the right time, and had the fortitude to act, not knowing what might become of her as a result. We're better off for it.

Where not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.