Virginia Foster Durr and the Salvation of Alabama

A review of Freedom Writer: Virginia Foster Durr, Letters from the Civil Rights Years , edited by Patricia Sullivan.

Virginia Durr (1903-1999), a stalwart of the civil rights movement who preferred to keep out of the spotlight for personal, pragmatic and political reasons, was a hero on the grand scale, as was her husband Clifford Durr (1899 – 1975).

Having both been born and raised in Montgomery, Alabama, into reasonably prominent families, the Durrs moved as newlyweds to Washington DC, where Clifford, a lawyer, worked in the FDR administration during the heady days of the New Deal. Virginia, in addition to giving birth to and raising five children, one of whom died in infancy, became active in progressive politics. The Durr family lived near the capital city for nearly twenty years, and then, for reasons that reflect well on both of them[1], they returned to Montgomery, where, at great personal cost, over the next twenty five years they became two of the most prominent white activists for the rights of African Americans. The more one learns about this remarkable couple, the more their courage and unshakable decency leave one awestruck.

Through all those years in Montgomery, as Virginia became sucked up in the vortex of the epochal changes in social relations in the South, she wrote letters. Some of her letters were to famous people she knew quite well (Eleanor Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Hugo Black, Jessica Mitford); others were to people you’ve probably never heard of. Her letters were by turns hysterically funny, profound, amazingly politically astute, eloquent, angry, or philosophical, but they were always passionate and always written in as distinctive a literary voice as you’re likely to encounter anywhere. They are marvels of English expository writing.

Freedom Writer, published in 2003, includes about 100 of such letters, presented in chronological order, grouped into four sections corresponding to periods in the civil rights movement. Patricia Sullivan (whose book Lift Every Voice, a history of the NAACP I reviewed here) edited the book. She provides a 26 page biographical introduction and introductions (of four or five pages each) to each of the four sections, in which she explains the wider context of the time. Sullivan also provides the occasional footnote to identify people or events referred to in the letters, and dozens of short introductions to particular letters that help the reader understand the context that the letter’s recipient would have. There is a short epilogue.

Virginia Durr was a remarkable and historically important woman, and Freedom Writer is a magnificent book. I cannot recommend it highly enough. You should buy a copy and read it right now.
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Pynchon, Hofstadter, David Foster Wallace and Me: Note on the Frustration of Trying to Create a Pre-Singularity, Post-Postmodern Literature

A little while ago I put out a tweet on twitter asking for advice about how to make my books known to readers who gravitate to writers like Stanislaw Lem, Douglas Hofstadter, Vladimir Nabokov (Pale Fire in particular), Borges, Pynchon, etc.

Of course my tweet had a purpose and a meta-purpose; the purpose was to actually solicit ideas about how to make my book known to readers of those authors, and the meta-purposed was to advertise my books to people searching for tweets on Pynchon, Borges, Pale Fire, etc. In other words my question was merely a hook into which to insert keywords — a cynical, albeit widespread, practice. In fact, my trolling for tweet-stream readers was my primary aim, I suspect. I didn’t really expect much in the way of answers, or at least of original answers.

But one fellow replied with words to the effect, “Blog about those authors and what you find compelling about them, then tweet about your blog post. People will follow the connection to your novels.”

Now, that is not a dazzingly original suggestion, but oddly enough it turns out that in my hundreds of posts here on Wetmachine and elsewhere, I’ve hardly ever written about what it is in literature that I think is important, and what I’m trying to do with my books.

So, below the fold, a few observations.
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Flag Day Meditation — the American flag and the anti-American (“Confederate Battle”) flag

Here in the USA, Flag Day, a little-observed holiday, has just drawn to a close.

I woke up yesterday & discovered it was Flag Day, which I took to be a little nudge from the universe to go on the record with some thoughts about not only our American flag, but also about the obscene so-called “Battle Flag of the Confederacy”, which I do below. I say Flag Day was a nudge from the universe because I had written a longish/rant essay on this topic two days ago in response to a note from a friend of mine with whom I had been having an email discussion about the horrible Confederacy and its shitable flag. His most recent note was so preposterous that I waited a few months before figuring out how to answer. A few nights ago I finally wrote a reply.  But didn’t send it, fearing it was too incendiary and I was too tired to have any judgment about it. In the morning, out of cowardice, I deleted it. Now I kinda wish I hadn’t. Oh well.

I’m not a flag fetishist. It doesn’t really bother me to see pictures of people with real or imagined beefs against the United States of America burning our flag. Which doesn’t mean that I’m a flag abuser myself; I’m not. I used to have a flag that I displayed on the 4th of July and Memorial Day. But it wore out, so I disposed of it (“properly”) and haven’t replaced it. In other words I’m not much of a flag-waver. I don’t get all weepy at the sight of “Old Glory”.

Nevertheless I acknowledge that the American flag has deep meaning even to non-fetishists like me. Among other things, the flag is the emblem and most serious symbol of respect for those who have given their lives in the service of all of us. A prettily folded flag presumably doesn’t mean a lot to those who are dead. But it certainly often means a lot to their survivors, who are certainly due our consideration. Wherefore I don’t like to see a tattered flag left out in the weather or tied to a car antenna; I don’t like to see a flag touch the ground. I always fold the flag the traditional tri-corner way I was taught in the Boy Scouts, and I handle it respectfully.

A few days ago I was at a party and the paper napkins there had the American flag printed on them, which took me aback. That image didn’t stop me from wiping my nose with one of the napkins, but I thought it was kind of tacky. I thought it was disrespectful, basically, and I wouldn’t purchase napkins like that for use at my house. What I’m saying is that I’m old-fashioned, despite being a pinko commie Massachusetts liberal.

Similarly I think it’s tacky to make American flags into t-shirts or bathing suits or laundry bags or Harley-Davidson paraphernalia. I think it’s tacky to superimpose images — for example, a picture of an American Bald Eagle –over the picture of a flag. I once met a guy, a proud Iranian-American auto mechanic, In Cambridge, Massachusetts, who had in his office an American flag onto which he had stitched a verse from the Koran in green thread. “No Muslim would ever deface that now,” he said proudly. To him, it was a sign of utmost respect to marry the Koran and the American flag. I appreciated his sentiment, but, not being Muslim and not being able to read the verse, I just thought it made the flag look cheesy. (It would be equally tacky to put a bible verse or any other kind of printed statement.) But these are matters of taste, not things I get myself all lathered up about. If somebody were to wipe his ass with the flag I would think it pathetic and boorish, but I don’t think I would experience any violent impulses.

Which brings us to the Confederate flag, or as I prefer to call it, the flag of the disloyal states, the anti-American flag, the Jim Crow flag, the flag of all the worst that is within us Americans.

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My Insanely Long Field Guide to Lightsquared v. The GPS Guys

For some time now, I’ve been rooting for Lightsquared. Despite the fact that it faces tough odds trying to build out an expensive wireless network, a wireless network built from ground up for wholesale only could totally change the wireless market (which is entirely different from the mobile cellphone (aka the “commercial mobile radio service” or “CMRS”)  market, but that’s a rant for another time). But now, I just love the fight between Lightsquared and the GPS industry because it manages to contain everything that makes spectrum policy in this country like running a marathon with concrete blocks on your feet: bad neighbors operating critical systems so they can get away with being prima donnas, hostility from other federal agencies, unanticipated interference issues that crop up on deployment, and efforts to politicize the FCC’s technical process.

And, as always, a special guest appearance by a very tired looking Julie Knapp.

For a spectrum wonk such as myself, it simply does not get better than this. I also get one more real world example where I say to all the “property is the answer to everything” guys: “Ha! You think property is so hot? The rights are clearly defined here. Where’s your precious Coasian solution now, smart guys?” Which usually sends them back muttering that it’s not their fault no one in the real world follows the models that explain how it’s all supposed to work out in the world of rational actors and no transaction costs where unicorns frolic in the golden sunshine.

So, in the latest installment of my occasional “Insanely Long Field Guide” series, I take a lengthy look at Lightsquared, how we got here, and what I think will happen. Short version, ignore all the pseudo-Whitewater nonsense flogged by the conservative conspiracy theorists and complaints that the FCC bypassed their own process. So far, and I do not say this often so please pay attention, the FCC has behaved entirely appropriately, even intelligently. (Yeah, yeah, don’t let it go to your heads.) What matters is that the FCC is about to receive a report that confirms that, yes, when Lightsquared operates it system, it creates interference for existing deployed GPS systems. As a result, only the following things matter:

1. The Lightsquared folks are right about how the GPS guys knew this day would come and conveniently chose to do nothing. But in the short term it doesn’t matter, because the FCC will not allow anything to happen to GPS.

2. OTOH, if the GPS guys get their way, it means taking another 40 MHz of prime spectrum and rendering it useless forever. That also isn’t going to happen. That suggests a phase in/compromise.

3. Whether Lightsquared actually survives the compromise as a viable service will depend on a lot of things. The dimensions of any such compromise will depend on the interference tests. So while it is pretty clear from what’s been leaked that Lightsquared’s system as proposed causes interference with GPS systems, a lot of questions remain about what ought to happen to make it so that GPS and Lightsquared can live together in harmony.

At this point (from my wonkish perspective), the precedent of how to deal with annoying neighbors is almost more important than what actually happens to Lightsquared. If the GPS guys get their “sit on your rear-end veto,” then we can pretty much kiss off spectrum reform in the most useful spectrum bands. Every potentially useful band has neighbors that built systems on the assumption that nothing would ever change. So the FCC either finds a way to balance the interest of incumbents with fostering the expanded use we need for our expanding wireless  demand, or we forget about “spectrum flexibility” and resign ourselves to the current state of the universe pumped up by the occasional auction.

More below . . . .

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Remembering Tom West, the Original Geek Rock Star

I was saddened to learn of the passing last week of Tom West, the engineer/hacker who was the main focus of Tracy Kidder’s 1981 book The Soul of a New Machine. Tom was 71. published a nice obituary; there were also notices in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and other places.

From the article:


Thirty years ago, Tom West was thrust into a category of one, a famous computer engineer, with the publication of “The Soul of a New Machine.’’

Tracy Kidder’s book, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and is taught in business classes and journalism schools, chronicled Mr. West’s role leading a team that built a refined version of a 32-bit minicomputer at a key juncture for the computer industry and his employer, Data General of Westborough.

The book’s success turned a quirky, brilliant, private, and largely self-taught man into a somewhat reluctant guru.


I call Tom by his first name because I knew him, and that’s what I called him. In fact for a short while early in my career I worked quite closely with him — at the tail end of my four year stint at Data General.

As Soul of a New Machine amply demonstrates, West was a compelling figure. Everybody agrees he was quirky and brilliant; some people have mentioned his  being difficult or “prickly”. I have to say that I don’t remember a prickly side to the man. He could be abrupt, sure. Direct. Economical of speech. But if he had a temper or was harsh or unfair, I either never saw it or have since forgotten about it. I just remember that I really liked him.

Although I can’t claim to have been great friends with the man — I don’t know if he would even have remembered my name — he made a deep impression on me. When I wrote the novella Cheap Complex Devices in 2003 — about twenty years since I had worked with Tom West at Data General — a quirky, brilliant and (I think) extremely funny character named Tom Best showed up all through it. I can’t take much credit for Tom Best’s funny lines, however, since I stole most of them from Tom W. Continue reading