Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Structure, Cell Signals, and Play

dwelling with Keanu at the airport

I recently wrote about the concept of "dwell time" at airports, for Slate's "Future Tense" series.

I also wrote about poor cell signals on airplanes parked at the gate, for The Atlantic.

Below are some paragraphs that didn't make it into the latter piece; they can live here:


The philosopher Jacques Derrida had a theory about structures. For any given structure to work, it has to have wiggle room—room for free play, where the pieces that comprise the structure can slip a little. Think of how buildings are built to withstand earthquakes, or how a steering wheel has just that little bit of give each way as you hold it in your hands, while driving. Or how concrete bridges utilize metal expansion joints to adjust to changes in air temperature. Cell signals at the gate are another example of this principle, where in order to provide maximum service to users, the carriers oversupply the airport but at the expense of the expansive tarmac areas that fall just out of reception zone for the terminal antennae, which are also just a bit too far from nearby cell towers. It’s a compromise, then, in order to sustain a larger (if always imperfect) arrangement. 

And no system is totally enclosed. There’s always something extra, a remainder, which falls outside of or lingers beyond the structure. That’s part of the play. Reception will be fine in the airport, or out on the road—it’s just in a temporary abyss, right here. And it’s not simply because you’re inside the plane, or outside the airport. It’s because inside and outside are never finally settled. This has wide reaching implications. No wall can perfectly separate two countries; the Amazon rainforest isn’t definitively bound by its supposed geographic borders (as we know too well, right now); residential air conditioners don’t just regulate temperature indoors, but send emissions into the atmosphere. And airplanes on the tarmac and mobile devices in our palms are not only working within their own respective systems, but are entangled with each other—and everything else.

Commercial air travel and mobile communications, awkwardly coexisting at the moment before or just after a flight, become an example through which we might better understand human beings as a superorganism, or a species whose combined activities over time form intricate patterns that span far beyond any one single member of the group. Like ant colonies, or coral reefs: millions of smaller units that cumulatively create something vaster and utterly indistinguishable from the individuals. 

Picture flight route maps, or cell coverage charts. These diagrams show that what humans are part of is never simply local, nor just abstractly global. Each connection made or missed, each signal attained or dropped, is part of a much larger structure—and the necessary free play involved therein. For it all to work, there are going to be places where it fails, where slippage can occur. This is terrifying to think of with respect to flight; less so, if more aggravating, to think about in relation to cell service. Together, though, they illuminate this massive process and the complex systems we’re all a part of.  

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Further Reflections on the Flying V

(c) Justus Benad

For Slate's Future Tense column I wrote about a concept airplane called the "Flying V." This is the idea of a new airliner that will be more fuel efficient; it is optimistically predicted to be in commercial service in two or three decades.

One "teaser" video showed the plane already pulled up to a jet bridge, and a worker ambling around the landing gear. This image makes the whole thing so remarkably mundane as if to suggest that it could happen tomorrow, if not already today.


I remain skeptical. I think think the airplane is about speculating on a future that will look—more or less—just like the present. The different shape of the airplane is a token gesture toward as-if radical change. The engineering is admirable, and the design is svelte and appealing.

I made a mistake in my piece, assuming there would be window seats along the inner walls of each arm of the V fuselage (at least in the back sections). Yet sketches and diagrams of the airliner show the inside seats to be placed next to a sheer wall (inside which maybe electronics, fuel, cargo?), rather than having their own inner-facing windows. The thought of sitting against a wall for three or six nine hours strikes me as no less uncanny, though, than the specter of looking out across the sky at a twin window-seat-mate. (If this plan develops, perhaps there could be dimmable ceiling windows, for those passengers located in the far darkness of the fuselage?)

But this mistake got me thinking.

Look at those seats in the above diagram: They are diagonally angled in relation to the center of the plane. This means that when the plane takes off, you wouldn't feel the ordinary push backward against your seat; instead, you'd feel a strange aslant pull toward the axis. I'm sure we would adjust, and over time this sideways-and-back feeling would become synonymous with flight—but still, the adjustment seems somehow significant. As one twitter follower pointed out, this also means that economic classes would be oriented around who was closer and farther from the roll axis of the plane, making poorer passengers experience more nauseating bodily tilting as the plane turns.

What about emergency exits? Are we really to believe that entire rows of six passengers are going to file through exit doors on only one side of the plane (one side for each 'wing')? This seems unlikely to pass safety approvals.

Also, consider boarding. In the above mockup, all passengers are conceivably enplaning through that single jet bridge. But then look again at the seat chart in the diagram. It seems to me that boarding this type of plane from a single jet bridge would be awkward at best, and a logistical nightmare at worst. Yet if two jet bridges per Flying V are needed, that is a signifiant infrastructural shift to ask of airports: It effectively means two discrete, coordinated boarding areas for each flight, guiding passengers down two different jet bridges to board the two 'wings' of the plane.

I realize I'm getting in the weeds here. And I'm using this metaphor intentionally: Weeds. This plane is, in so many ways, about realities on the ground, now—realities that we don't really want to face. A warming planet. Flooding coasts. Intensifying storms.

The following still image is from engineer Justus Benad's website, where the diagram above also came from:

(c) Justus Benad

In a video montage, a couple people (presumably one of them Benad) walk up a hill in order to demonstrate a model of the Flying V. They launch the plane, and it soars beautifully. What interests me about this presentation is the pastoral scene. The rolling field, the forested background. So much of this speculative airplane is about connecting with, or recovering, a better Earth. And my strong sense is that large-scale air travel is not the way to achieve something like equilibrium between our species and the rest of the planet, even air travel that promises 20% greater fuel efficiency. The Anthropocene requires a jolt to our current modes of movement and habitation—not just a tweak, no matter how aesthetically captivating it may appear.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Searching for the Anthropocene

My new book Searching for the Anthropocene pursues an elusive yet crushing subject: the current geologic era defined by human impact on the planet, and what it feels like become aware of this concept. 

Ranging from beech forests and beach fossils to jet engines and airport renovations, from snacks and snipers to fantasies of space travel and nightmares of cars on the streets, this book develops a wide-angle approach to environmental awareness. Blending personal narrative, cultural criticism, and environmental theory, Searching for the Anthropocene offers fresh ways to ponder current conditions of ecological urgency, existential crisis, and social unrest.

The two parts of my book make an awkward, asymmetric pair: my home region of northern Michigan, and the expansive, dispersed, and non-local realm of air travel. 

The cover image comes from a series of photographs I took when I was up in Michigan during the winter of 2016-2017, when I would take long walks on the frigid beach and pick up whatever trash I would find, and then afterward take pictures of each day's haul. Here's another one from that same time: 

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Life in the Late Anthropocene

TWA ad, 1952

I wrote about being accosted in my own home, for Popula. And I wrote about the organizational trope of "the 30,000-foot view," for Real Life.

These pieces might be the first glimmers of a new project...

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Perspectives on the (New) New Orleans Airport

Seeing the new MSY on takeoff... 

I've written a couple more pieces at the crossroads of the old and new Louis Armstrong International.

One, for Popula, about looking for water in the Anthropocene.

A second, for our local newspaper The Advocate, in which I try to counterbalance the more snide criticisms of this new airport in progress.

There's something about this hinge point that endlessly fascinates me: so much energy and precision funneled into the creation of the new terminal, while the managed chaos and ramshackle operations of ordinary air travel—gritty and indecorous—proceed every day, across the runway.

Normal air travel at the old MSY.