Postcard — January 26, 2018, 4:15 pm

Network Theory

A visit to Hearst Castle

Should you key-up pictures of the Hearst Castle’s Neptune Pool on its website, you’d see its glimmering, Klein-Blue depths. You might imagine it playing home to similarly Technicolor events: Charlie Chaplin taking a backflip off Adonis’s granite buttocks; Harpo Marx tanning his pale belly on a stretched-rubber chair; Errol Flynn massaging his corns.

And you’d be right, more or less. Hearst Castle is an imperious presence atop San Simeon hillside, all ice-cream turrets and church gates looking ripped from Rodin. It served as the West Coast fortress for Hearst’s media empire, which established him as one of the twentieth century’s wealthiest tycoons. (During the 1920s, one in four Americans read a Hearst newspaper.) It also served as a phantasmagoric stage for an array of celebrities and media folks. Hearst disdained the stiffness and aristocratic leanings of the East Coast, and found Hollywood stars and politicians more candid and gritty. Guests included Gary Cooper, Buster Keaton, Howard Hughes, Barbara Stanwyck, and Winston Churchill.

In December 2015, I was visiting Hearst Castle while trekking from Southern to Northern California, on a winter break from a graduate English program. At the time, I had been straddling two newly atomized fields: freelance journalism and academia. Journalism was becoming increasingly reliant on a constellation of bloggers and part-time fact-checkers. Academia was also manifesting its years-long slide into precariously flexible positions. The increasing reliance of universities on adjuncts—exempt from the protections, benefits, and stability of full-time and tenure-track faculty—had been broadcast in alarming op-eds.

Hearst’s imposing stature, rendered concrete in the Castle, was unusual in the present day to say the least. He would be humbled, somewhat, during the Depression years. But his brand name has carried on to the present day as Hearst Communications, which owns Esquire, Elle, and Town & Country, among other publications. Hearst, who welcomed disparate creative influences to his castle, would no doubt have enjoyed the company of the twenty-first century freelancers who cluster in coffee shops, soaking up the ambience.

You sense you are approaching a historical barrier as you cross over into the Hearst zone from Highway One. From the turn-off leading into the Castle’s base camp, you can barely see the parapets, keeping its exclusiveness somewhat intact. The formality and prestige of its original denizens, however, had noticeably changed. Rather than the gallant dinner attire of its celebrities—recalled by an available twilight “evening tour” led by docents in period clothes—the current demographic was beleaguered Californian. More Tevas and cargo shorts than sport coats and wool trousers. The trek up the hill to La Cuesta Encantada—Hearst’s term for the Castle’s hilltop, meaning “The Enchanted Hill”—was taken in a tram guided by Alex Trebek’s narration replete with lilting Spanish pronunciations. From the window you could see meandering zebra, the remnants of Heart’s private zoo, at one point the largest privately owned in the world.

At the designated meeting place atop the hillside for the beginning of the tour, the Neptune Pool was empty. It had been recently drained in acquiescence to California’s mounting water crisis, and because the cracks at the pool’s bottom were leaking and required care. The look of the empty pool was lunar, more nakedly evoking the imagery of a bygone utopia. The year before, Lady Gaga—the name unfamiliar as croaked by our tour guide, whose delivery had the velocity comparable only to Timothy “Speed” Levitch from the 1998 documentary The Cruise—had temporarily filled the pool for use in an elaborate synchronized swimming sequence for her video “G.U.Y.” The tour guide deadpanned something about his certainty that she was in fact well known.

We made our way up the exterior staircases leading from the Neptune Pool, taking in the full grandeur of the vantage point. Each angle to the mountains outward a carefully framed image. These landscape’s design was highly conscious, devised by Hearst in tandem with his long-time architect, the pioneering Julia Morgan.

As we entered the main compound of Casa Grande, our tour guide made it evident that the structure of the building was meant to facilitate social organization. In the Assembly Room, we were informed Hearst’s own presence was often carefully abstracted from the proceedings; he favored the role of orchestrator. This followed from cocktail hour drinks, to dinner, to the evening film screening. He was perceived as a shy man, comfortable in the scrum of a crowd. Abstemious himself, Hearst set the limit at two cocktails per guest before dinner, and wine during the meal was closely monitored. The effluvium of crowd noise and bubbling conversation was often, to Hearst, seemingly a pleasant background thrum—muzak meant as ambiance.

Proceeding into the dining room, dubbed the “Refectory,” the décor befits a medieval king. Our tour guide reminded us that, in homage to the unpretentious, the antique table bore condiments still in their original bottles. Paper napkins were also preferred to cloth. Fittingly to the grand and presentational atmosphere, guests were sometimes called to speak or perform.

P.G. Wodehouse described humorously how one could track their fall from favor by how they slipped further away from Hearst and his mistress and co-host Marion Davies at the table’s center; his own slide pushed him so close to the edge that “he should have been feeding on the floor.”

The guide also informed us that Hearst would excuse himself from company after the prescribed film to his Gothic Study (his centralized work space by the mid-1930s), moving about the upper floor like a tweedy apparition. The study would serve as his command center—he spread his papers on the floor “in long military lines,” evaluating them and sending messages to his squadron of editors. His mistress Marion Davies, herself the subject of Heart’s careful distance, had sleeping quarters on the same level but separate from Hearst’s. A strict house rule entailed “No sexual intercourse between unmarried couples,” yet as actor David Niven recalled, the prohibition was strange for a man openly living with his mistress, and Davies herself averred their exemption. (Violators would find their bags packed and waiting for them in the front courtyard.) Since meeting Hearst, Davies had been a constant presence and companion for him. Following a breaking point in Hearst’s open relationship with Davies in 1926, Hearst’s wife Millicent held her own residence in New York City. The burbling conversation elsewhere in the house, where guests were spared from business, would presumably fuel Hearst’s own thrumming commercial conceptions.

Hearst’s modulated interactions are poignant. Marshall McLuhan, in his 1964 text Understanding Media, makes an aperçu about how, as lines of communication stretched further and further, there was a lessening in sensitivity. Hearst seemed the position embodied, the mass-media man with taxed emotional nerves—a dimmed power plant. He at one point had nearly 100 different telephones distributed around the property, even hiding one behind a tree to wow hikers with his supernatural ability to divine sports scores.

Hearst’s peculiar tendencies seemed oddly allied with a burgeoning new work culture back in New York. The rampant proliferation of “co-working” spaces had crafted a lifestyle-oriented office environment that was meant to splice a dorm-room hothouse environment with a three-dimensional social network. That is, one effectively rented a public desk or office to share space with others in a more imbricated, permeable fashion. At organizations like WeWork, which has been valued at $20 billion, subscribers worked cheek-by-jowl with other co-workers for a different way of stimulus and interaction predicated on not-quite-closeness. I wondered if the overheard conversation makes it into the various workers’ products, like bedroom noise in a dream.

Temporarily away from urban life, I would read articles about the next extension of co-working, called co-living. These were often billed, against the wishes of their offerers, as “dorms for grown-ups.” Like the built-in networks at co-working spaces, co-living spaces likewise offered benefits ranging from planned activities via chat room to a college R.A.-like “house leader.” There was a similar hope for shared creative and social frisson. Dissenters could say we were one step closer to living in tubes or file drawers—or, worse, limiting privacy and autonomy for a feeling of being connected to, but perhaps not part of, a communal organic whole.

The tour ended somewhat unceremoniously at Hearst’s tennis courts which, while offering glass insets at the net-line to give light to the gilded Roman Pool beneath, seemed more like a Mar Vista condo offering.

The fortresses of California tycoons always struck me as having an alien gaudiness to them. Rather than clustering together in a designated furrow of millionaire’s rows, in Manhattan, or Newport, say, like the Astors and Vanderbilts, they built their complexes distant from their fellow captains of industry. Hearst was perhaps most emblematic—his castle feels like an independent world when perched atop his land holdings and mountaintop. At the time, guests would train from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo, then travel ninety minutes over dirt roads in limousines to reach San Simeon. The castle’s construction bore a transcontinental mixture of the Spanish Colonial Revival popularized in California and “the architectural grandeur of Europe.” In this independence and eccentricity, Hearst’s castle also seemed to hold a kinship with Henry E. Huntington’s residence and gardens in San Marino, a structure that evoked to me Daniel Plainview’s palatial estate from There Will Be Blood. At The Huntington Library, which the modified museum and research center is now called, there is an open-air loggia with Beaux-Arts columns, surrounded by palm trees, where a Hollister-branded version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems poised to break out at any moment. As if homing in on its subliminal SoCal strangeness, the museum featured from 2015-2016 a collaboration with LA artist Alex Israel, who fixed neon-glow wetsuits amongst 18th-century tapestries, and unreal pastel gradients behind classical sculpture. Both Hearst and Huntington’s estates embody a frontier ethos of solitude and self-determination, cast in the foundry of fantasy without shape or limit.

The castle was a model for Citizen Kane’s Xanadu, the mansion that serves as opulent get-away and eventual self-imposed prison for newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane, who is based largely on Hearst. Kane’s arc is Shakespearian, as only after his public crash, and full withdrawal into a stifling fortress of wealth and control, does he realize his true desire for an unadorned simplicity, recalled in his childhood sled “Rosebud.” He dies alone, after his second wife leaves him—a stark contrast to Hearst, who was temporarily bailed out by a million-dollar loan from Marion Davies and remained close with her until his death. Posthumous cataloguers sort the dead Kane’s belongings, throwing what is deemed worthless into a furnace—including the prized Rosebud—more grimly invoking Hearst’s heaps of treasure. Xanadu in Welles’s formulation is meant to evoke Samuel Coleridge’s “stately pleasure dome” from “Kubla Khan.” Both Hearst and Khan have in their own way “drunk the milk of paradise.” Hearst’s indulgences, however, were less self-immolating and more pleasingly neutral. The divisions of Hearst Castle, listed in individual glory on his website, seem luxurious in a way that now connotes a Club Med resort: the main residence Casa Grande, the adjoining residences Casa del Monte, Casa del Sol, and Casa del Mar, the Roman Pool, and so on.

Yet, the exposure of Hearst’s financial troubles, occurring parallel with Citizen Kane’s controversial creation, recast his Noah’s Ark–like system of properties and objects in a slightly more perverse light. The tour resolves with discussion of Hearst’s fall and precipitous financial decline during the Depression era, spurred in part by Hearst’s negligent regard toward spending. As if cutting off his own jeweled hand, he was forced to sell-off over half of his art collection and pieces from his various cavernous houses. Even in his reduced state, which entailed being taken on as editorial director of his papers, receiving a starkly diminished salary, and mortgaging San Simeon to his rival, he still planned further improvident expansions to his castle. Hearst had recovered by 1945, but the castle remains a testament to expansion at any cost; he rendered in stone and wood what might today be the ballooning valuation of a pre-IPO start-up, pushing all available resources into the fullest rendition of an imagined, colossal self.

It would be curious to see where Hearst’s interests would have fallen should be still be alive today. Would he resemble Jonah Peretti or Ezra Klein? Instead of Churchill and Chaplin, would he call on Thiel and Musk? Would Hearst Castle 2018 be more like a giant illuminated Apple store, a glass cube on the hill? Or, perhaps it’d simply look like a manic co-worked coffee shop, tables of Noguchi-like construction lined with laptops? Something tells me he might’ve preferred to end up more like Charles Foster Kane, crash and all.

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Combustion Engines

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There Will Always Be Fires

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The End of Eden

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How to Start a Nuclear War

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Combustion Engines·

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
There Will Always Be Fires·

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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
The End of Eden·

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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
How to Start a Nuclear War·

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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