We Only Pay for, and Retain, Information That’s ‘Durable’

hertzbergThis week’s New Yorker has a lead commentary by Hendrik Hertzberg (his picture at right). I’ve raved about his writing for years, and whenever I find his name in the contributors list of my weekly edition, I drop everything to read it. This week he discusses the astonishing reality that the best (and perhaps only) way to get the president of the US to do something to protect America from the threat of nuclear war is to make a movie about it, give it away, and hope he (or someone he talks to) watches it. The movie in question is Last Best Chance, a 45-minute thriller showing how easy it would be for a garden variety terrorist to assemble and detonate a substantial nuclear bomb in any US city. It’s sponsored by Ted Turner, Warren Buffett, Republican Richard Lugar, Democrat Sam Nunn. several non-partisan foundations and the 9/11 Commission. You’ll see it soon on HBO, and a book on the same subject, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe by Graham Allison is now out in paperback.

This all ties into the theme I’ve hit so much lately: No one in the world is in control. The president of the most powerful nation in the history of civilization has shown that even he, and his country, are utterly impotent in the face of a chicken disease (new report says if it morphs again it could kill 150 million), in the face of a bunch of self-righteous wackos with box-cutters, in the face of a motley crew of guerrillas determined to fight to the death against the ungodly West, in the face of a hurricane that fell far short of maximum damage and had been predicted as a short-term certainty in every study of threats to Homeland Security, and, coming soon, runaway glaciers, rising tides, and, very probably, a nuclear attack by someone on someone. I’ll buy Allison’s book, but I’m not sure even a competent US administration could prevent it. It was only a few years ago that a bunch of students flew a very small drone airplane with a dummy payload across the Atlantic completely undetected by the staggeringly expensive and presumably sophisticated defenses of NORAD — just to prove it could be done (and still could today). Maybe next time they do the test they should fly it onto the White House lawn with a payload of copies of Last Best Chance.

While I was reading the magazine (in the airport terminal) I was drinking a Starbucks chai latte. I noticed it had these curious words on the side of a cup (good reading material in airports is hard to find):

The Way I See It #23

chances are you 

        are scared of fictions —

        chances are you

                are only fleetingly happy —

        chances are you

know much less than you think you do —

                chances are you

        feel a little guilty —

chances are you

                want people to lie to you —

perhaps the answer lies on the side of a coffee cup:

                you are lost  

(by writer-comedian David Cross)

What do these two items have in common? Well, I threw out the New Yorker when I’d finished reading it, keeping only Hertzberg’s article, which I tore out to write this post, and will then throw it out as well. I have never considered buying his new book, Politics, containing some of his best columns, because no matter how well it is written, it is very soon all old news. Absorb and discard, the same as we do the magazine, and the newspaper.

And after writing down the ‘poem’ above on the page with Hertzberg’s article, and violating copyright by putting it on my blog, I also threw out the coffee cup. [Clarification: these items went in the ‘paper only’ airport recycling bin]

We do need to invent a more durable form of publication, where the content is frequently reviewed and updated. For now, blogs are the best model we have — when an update occurs, you blog it and link back to your archive where the original post resides. I’ve recently developed a proposal for a weekly hard-copy magazine that contains only news and commentary of ongoing import (i.e. stuff that is ‘durable’ and actionable, with suggested actions appended to each article), with each article separable from the others in each weekly edition, and binders and tabs where the articles can be filed by subject (kind of like blog categories, but in the hard copy world), so that the binders become a hard-copy diary of information and history that matters, as it unfolds, showing the actions we personally took, or should have taken, as a result. I think it’s a brilliant idea, but I’m equally sure no newspaper would underwrite it or pay to have it included with their Sunday edition. They have no interest in durable information. I would be delighted if someone were to ‘steal’ this idea and prove me wrong.

And what does it say about our society that more people probably read poetry on the side of coffee cups than read poetry in books, anthologies and websites?

Whew, what a week. Sleep come free me.

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6 Responses to We Only Pay for, and Retain, Information That’s ‘Durable’

  1. kerry says:

    Thank you for sharing some of the energy of your week with us…its been thought provoking!With regards the movie about nuclear threat, I had always figured that the movie “Fifth Element” had covered the best response to any threat. Even though it was dramatised in a non-political way, it demonstrated the results of fighting anger with war pretty well. Love, in this movie, proved to be the greater power. *sigh* such a simple concept. So hard to apply to everything!

  2. SB says:

    “And what does it say about our society that more people probably read poetry on the side of coffee cups than read poetry in books, anthologies and websites?”It says we should all read more poetry.& that poets should try to get published on coffee cups.Sleep well. We need you.

  3. lavonne says:

    your magazine idea is freakin’ brilliant. i hope somebody does it.

  4. Mike says:

    I understand the Soviets, back in the day, smuggled in a nuclear weapon to D.C., bit by bit in diplomatic pouches.Given that Israel has 200-400 nukes (which I think constitutes nuclear blackmail in itself), along with a highly regarded intelligence service, I wonder how many of these nukes have been smuggled into American cities. Perhaps this explains contemporary U.S. foreign policy.Not that (if such were the case) they intend to use them or anything, but maybe indicative of a people with a history of persecution who are determined to survive, whatever the cost.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Thank you all, and may you all be published, at least on coffee cups, so more of the world can read your attentive and heart-warming words. SB, you may be onto something there — what other ‘white space’ is out there unused where we might introduce more people to poetry? Imagine billboards with poems instead of ‘your ad here’ signs, the sides of buses, unsold radio and television air-time, driveways, boardroom walls… And let’s not stop at poetry, how about other forms of art — paintings up the sides of skyscrapers, sculptures in gardens on their roofs…

  6. David Locke says:

    Durable publications wouldn’t mean durable meaning. Every story has a genesis. Every story has a basis in facts, but those facts are far smaller than we would care to admit. Everything else is spin. In the computer industry, we have buzzwords. They were once meaningful differentiation, now meaninglessness. When we walk down a street, we see the seams between the old and the new, but we don’t understand what we see in its full cultural meaning. When we drive down Route 66, we see the real buildings abandoned or remaining in use, but the meaning is today’s meaning. Durability remains, but meaning moves on. Why did Geoffrey Moores books on technology adoption morph into his latest book? Technology adoption was once the perview of the startup, the new economy. Now, it is the perview of the institutionalized blue chip, old money. And, startups are being choked to death by the tax code, accounting rules, and SOX. The only remaining durability is that technology still has to be adopted. What if, as a result of durable documents, we couldn’t go back and understand what was? Somehow there is no durability in durable documents.

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