I’m taking a break from Occupation Notes, because I finally saw A RELATIVELY CURRENT FILM and I wanted to say a thing or two about it.
I saw The Rise of the Planet of the Apes (I think that’s what it’s called) on the plane. It was not a good film exactly, but it was still interesting for me, albeit it in redacted-for-airplane-viewing form.
In an alternate reality, I’m writing this essay about the uncanny film experience of watching a perfectly intact aircraft sublime into a pile of scrap metal in a single cut, when a plane crash is redacted from a film intended for showing on a commercial airline flight. As if there was some juxtapositional magic in air crash repression, or some common human trope where we lapse into scrap yard dream sequences while we are safety aloft. “I leaned back in my seat, and suddenly, I was transported to that familiar site of material detritus, the scraps of polypropylene and shredded aluminum waving gently in the breeze..”
But in this reality, I’m writing about humanity and violence. Perhaps I can’t get that far from the Occupation, even if I’m in a plane, watching a bad film.
So here are some notes.
The film’s main character is not a character, really. It’s a computer-animated chimpanzee. It is supposed to be characterized, of course, but the film is not really that good: so we are left with sort of a flat-character, a walking uncanny valley creation of a chimpanzee that is perhaps a bit bigger and more upright than it ought to be, with some facial expressions that are just a bit more human than our brain is expecting. However this, in a way, makes the main character much better. The plot of the film is that this chimpanzee was exposed to an Alzheimer fighting, brain-enhancing drug, that has given him above average intelligence, and powers of language. So the chimpanzee is humanized, but only to a degree–as protagonist of the film, he struggles with the problem of living life as an “animal”, though he thinks something like a “human”. And of course, the difficulty of distinguishing the exact line between the two is what the film is about.
And this is where the flaws of the film actually become features. Because the plot lines about the chimpanzee’s “awakening” as “a real boy” are kind of specious and trite, (one of the things that makes an animal into a human is a proclivity for staring off at cities over the tops of buildings and trees, apparently) it actually, by doing a poor job at anthropomorphizing the chimpanzee, increases the liminal territory that this character exists within. I’m confused, as I watch the film, as to whether or not I believe that this animal is really a person. He seems to, pardon the expression, “ape” certain human qualities and facial expressions. But are they sincere? Do I trust this image? Is it more comparable to the people I know, or the animals I know? As the film plays its merry course across the screen, I’m actually thinking about the issue at hand, and not the idiosyncrasies of the plot.
The issue at hand is of course, a post-human one. What defines a human being? Chimpanzees have 99.7% of the same genes that we do. In that .3% difference is a great deal of physiology and behavior. And yet, many of the things that we thought were uniquely human behaviors like language and tool use are now falling by the wayside as we learn to interpret the behaviors of other animals correctly.
If you follow the plot of the film, the issue is not so much a linguistic one, but one of violence. The biology takes a back seat, and we take up the politics of The Other. Several human characters in the film exhibit “inhumane” behavior, by beating the chimpanzee and other apes, or beating up other human beings. The film poses some basic questions about human life and death, and about the limits of consciousness, but the major issue is one of ethics and violence. At what point is it okay to threaten and beat an animal? If it is dangerous? If it is not human? What if it is only the non-human behaviors that it displays that make it seem dangerous?
The uncanny valley, which the animated chimpanzee certainly fits within, is a place that tends to stimulate violence for human beings. Zombies, ghosts, robots, doppelgangers–these all are viewed as as threat, in that our perception of them and their behaviors place them outside the typical realm of predictable, sociable human behavior, and in a place. Though, through the plot of the film, one begins to wonder what sort of person it is that reacts with violence against the merest indicator of Otherness. Does anyone really think it is okay to sadistically abuse an animal simply because they are not a human? And yet, perhaps one of the most meaningful scenes in the film was when the mounted police are chasing a crowd of apes across the Golden Gate Bridge, riot clubs cocked back, a grim expression on their faces as they swing for the animals’ heads. It was meaningful because I’ve seen the same scene replayed on the Internet, but it was riot cops swinging at the heads of college students during Occupation protests. Where was the uncanny valley there? What sort of Other were college students, so that beating them for non-violent protest was justified by those police officers’ sense of ethics?
So in the end, its not about our perception of “humanity” in another creature, whether imbued by ethical action, non-Otherness, speech, or other traces of behavior. It’s simply about violence. It’s not about whether or not the chimpanzee main character was able to “earn” his humanity by wanting it badly enough, or by being smart enough, or by finally learning to speak. It was that he at the other apes were smart enough to thwart the violence. They were able to ambush and defeat armed police officers, not that those officers laid down their weapons. How we perceive the apes really doesn’t matter. It’s just a movie, and no one earns anything by us being “won over” to either their political case, or themselves and personable characterizations. Of course it is a happy ending for them, even if the unmentioned fact is that their rise is going to be our species downfall. But what is different, is that they aren’t saved by their characters, by the defeat of Otherness, or the universality of humanity. They are saved by not getting shot.
Posted: November 26th, 2011
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Just a quick post to tip off the RSS: I’ve posted an online version of my Border Town project here:
So you should go and check that out, and read more about it.
Posted: September 21st, 2011
Categories: Material Cargo
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The hutongs of Beijing are an architectural phenomenon that is quickly dying. In a heavily populated city like Beijing, land, especially uninterrupted spans of land, are the ultimate natural resource. And while hutongs have existed for centuries in their environment, a new rival for the resource has come about: the urban planner. Beijing’s urban planners are making quick work of the hutongs, and by most accounts, they will be gone for good in a short number of years.
The difference between planned urban spaces and unplanned urban spaces, those that are spontaneously created by the total of intangible characteristics we might call “the city itself”, is similar to the difference between a nation and its territory. We like to think, as creatures of rational action, that we control our social terrain as if it were a part of our body. It would be easy to consider the relationship between political discourse and physical reality as a monadic, Enlightenment-era style cogito. However, this is not the truth. The map is not the territory, as the saying goes, and the map makers are even less the terrain, and those who seek to affect the map makers by their will alone a level removed again. The project of planning urban space is fundamentally a colonial one: it seeks to change reality to its benefit by flags and force. While it may succeed, the negative repercussions are legend. Alternatively, there is another urban strategy, that rather than attempting to deliminate the territory into design, finds its method of improvement in a more ecosystemic fashion. Rather than plan the urban space, support the space. In studying “the city itself”, we see that many of the issues that urban planning seeks to change have already been solved, albeit in limited and insecure fashion. The city system already trends towards stability, the key is in finding those trends, and supporting and securing them. As can be seen in the hutong, infrastructure is largely already existent. Rather than tearing them down and building new, supporting and solidifying these systems could be much more practical, as it utilizes the naturally occurring solutions that are already attempting to grow. Urban planning might achieve certain milestones and technical guidelines of improvement quickly, but the unnaturalness of these constructions within the city ecosystem is obvious. The natural aesthetic of “the city itself” is one it achieves by a steady, evolutionary praxis of effective use-value in every day life, and it would be unwise to ignore the method behind these urban strategies. To ignore them, in effect, is to cut down a tree to build and install a wooden sun shade in the same place.
The hutong is basically an alleyway. It is the passage between more major streets, lined with doorways that enter into walled private homes. It is the passage that is created when walled properties leave space between their walls, so that others may pass without entering the private space inside. In Beijing, these alleys become such a crucial urban feature because they are not merely an alternate passage around property, as in the “back alley” feature of North American or European architecture that is a supplement to the main road access, but the only means to access the majority of properties. The hutongs form a web of thin yet densely occurring access routes, a sort of capillary bed to the main veins of roads that are often hundreds of meters off from one’s front door. These main avenues are then perhaps as much of a kilometer from each other, creating thick blocks in between, which are crisscrossed by hutongs. One doesn’t walk through the hutong as an alternative or a short cut across a block, but one must walk through the hutong always, whether one steps out of one’s front door, whether one wants to go to the store, or one wants to go all the way across town.
Perhaps because of the simple ubiquity of these passageways in conjunction with the basic neighborhood building style in Beijing, the hutongs are local centers of street life. As a combination of what someone in North America might think of as the sidewalk or the front yard, the street block, and the local corner, almost every conceivable neighborhood activity takes place in the hutong.
While there are many shops and restaurants on the main avenues, these also exist in the hutongs, extending inward as a convenience to the customers coming from the hutongs, and to take advantage of this locality. These hutong businesses are much smaller in size, often run out of the front of the proprietor’s homes, and extending out into the alleyway to use the space, if available. Not every variety of business is present in the hutong, but the nature of these shops are characteristic of what one might expect to be local and close to people’s physical homes, most catering to home life needs and small, short term purchases. These include restaurants, convenience stores, hardware stores, barbershops, bicycle repair, “dollar” stores (actually, 2 yuan is the price), and even clothing and appliance stores. In some areas, upscale coffee shops, bookstores, and other more luxury goods like electronics are also sold within the hutongs.
Because of the necessity for being out and about in the hutong, either traveling to and from the home or shopping, if not running a business, the hutong becomes a common hangout, and a unique form of public social space, as the overlap between public and private architecture. The proprietors and their friends often have established sitting places outside their businesses, chatting when not serving customers, drinking tea or beer, and smoking cigarettes. It’s common for social games to be played in these resting places, either cards or chess. Children play in the hutong as well, where they are supervised loosely by either particular adults or the general community.
In fact, hutongs are crowded places, as they are also thoroughfares for bicycle and pedestrian traffic, and more often, cars as well, when their owners drive back into the hutong to park their cars at night. But, because of the crowdedness, the narrowness of the streets and the large number of protruding bits of architecture, parked vehicles, and people, the traffic speed is slow, and most blockages are resolved vocally and amicably—which seems to be in the nature of China, which is itself a crowded place.
The infrastructure of the city extends into the hutongs along with the traffic, as there is no other supply route. Water, food, and anything sold in the shops must be carried in to the hutong, most often by bicycle cart, as this is the most efficient means for ferrying heavy things through the twisting, crowded alleys. Bicycle carts deliver milk, mail, newspapers, drinking water (the tapwater isn’t imbibed by locals), beer, dry goods, and even people, occasionally. Telephone, electricity, and now internet extend on wires overhead, and the crowdedness of the hutong is illustrated in some of the creative wiring solutions. Trash and recycling is carted out by bicycle. Security is provided in the hutongs by both local police, whose stations are often placed in the hutongs, and by local security volunteers, who wear a red armband. The ubiquitous closed circuit video cameras of China are also widespread in the hutongs, though in such a number it begs the question who is watching them all, or if their cables even lead anywhere. Public bathrooms are also very common in the hutongs, built by the government and staffed by public employees, to aid in sanitation as indoor plumbing is not always available.
Construction is ongoing in the hutongs. Much of the buildings predate the Chinese Revolution, and were in fact larger homes owned by the rich that were divided up into separate living quarters. In many places, poor repair is obvious. But, along with the walls that are falling down, stacks of new bricks and piles of sand are everywhere. The hutongs are in a rolling state of continual construction it seems, and it is common to be walking down an alley, and enter a construction site without knowing it. In at least one place on every alley, one can see a pile of rubble from walls torn down, a stack of still usable bricks that have been pulled out to be recycled, and a stack of new bricks waiting to join the rebuilt wall. This construction is one reason that very few accurate maps of the hutongs exist. My personal estimate is that Google Maps shows about 70% of the existing hutongs on the closest zoom level. The layout of the hutongs changes, as the walls of the buildings and the property enclosures change. This also gives the hutongs their own character, depending on their location and topology. A more well-known hutong that is very narrow, as close as 40cm wide in some places, was historically used as a banking street—the thought being, if a thief attempted to run with stolen money, they would easily be caught. Conversely, another famous hutong has over fourteen turns in it, and numerous documented muggings have taken place on it, due to its shape. The evolving, changing nature of hutong construction is deeply tied to the ongoing life within it.
However, construction in a larger sense is threatening the hutongs. As Beijing becomes more developed, land is needed for the large construction projects, for the footprint of large skyscrapers and ring roads. I’ve heard estimates that 50% of the hutongs have already been evacuated, condemned, and bulldozed. Perhaps most infamously, the entire footprint of the sports complex for the Beijing Olympics, including the “Bird’s Nest” stadium of which the city is massively proud, such that it has become a symbol of the new Beijing, is built across former hutongs. The people who lived in these areas are moved, most of them to new high-rise apartments, which are growing in number across Beijing. There is not much of an effort to save the hutongs, because the people who live in them are of a lower class, and they normally enjoy a chance to move to a high-rise complex, viewing it as a move up in the social ladder. Some hutongs are considered historical sites, and others have been reformatted into tourist streets rather than actual hutongs. (My personal test is that only “real” hutongs have window repair shops; because tourists don’t purchase windows, regardless of the price.) But preservation of hutongs as living neighborhoods is not a priority.
And as charming as the hutongs can be to the outsider or a guest, they are not ultimately sustainable. With population growth in China as it is, hutongs across Beijing would invite even more massive sprawl than is already existent. Clearly, the city must begin building up in places where it is now only horizontal. However, a high-rise complex seems a poor replacement for the hutongs.
If the hutongs are horizontal construction, the high-rise takes its pattern orthogonally, building completely vertical. They are buildings that stretch upwards, only with as much girth as they can have while still providing windows to the apartments within. They multiply, with any number of towers in place on a particular block, and the land left open below as the common property for the development. What this does is solidify the architecture. While it is possible to modify an alley, an elevator shaft cannot be shifted. After the planning of an apartment block is complete, the architecture will stay as is, and not be changed by its inhabitants. It also changes the infrastructure that supports the people living inside. Because there is not an easy access for deliveries in tall apartment towers, consumables are brought to somewhere at the bottom, and the residents must retrieve them. Restaurants are not allowed among the dwelling units, and so the residents must also go down to find them. The density of the living space means that this tends to support large, centralized supermarkets and restaurants. Utilities, security, and other services are also centralized, and are dependent upon the original plan for the development. In the case of security, a common method of centralization is gates, around the building.
This verticalization leads to a very different sort of public space in the high-rise than in the hutong. Public space is very important to any residential area. As Lewis Stackpole writes in his article considering low-income housing in China:
“Diversity of built space and open space creates a rich social setting, and provides recreational, retail/commercial, and cultural opportunities. All of these play a role in creating a community, economic vitality, and continuity that often is the driving force of any city, town or village, and for the purpose of this article, for any residential compound.” (Stackpole, 73)
However, in a high-rise complex, there is no public space of this kind. There is isolated, dead space. In apartment complexes throughout Beijing, one can see manicured, park-like land, sports equipment in all manner of repair, walls and pathways. But none of them are being utilized, regardless of their condition. There is no driving force to get the people into the space. They have no reason to be there, no reason to stop and linger there, no reason to make the space social, regardless of what the intended plan for the space is. They only use the pathway that leads from the building door, out to the street. The areas around subway entrances, in parking lots that serve as cut-throughs around city blocks (when unoccupied by cars) and the areas outside of restaurants are used as public spaces. The vertical aspect of apartment blocks keeps the flow of people in and out of the building streamlined, and neglects the space around it. As Stackpole continues:
“In order for public space to be successful people must be able to relate to the space: ‘own’ it. Once people become users of the space and start identifying to the space, the ‘space’ slowly becomes a ‘place’. Designers can design the space, the ‘thoughtfulness’ of the design, not design in itself determines the spaces’ success. Design must be adjusted to the local needs; such a design requires a thoughtful understanding of the prospective users—the targeted users.” (Stackpole, 73)
This is impossible with vertical construction. It is planned at the beginning, and from that point forward, the residents can only be tenants. In a hutong, the ownership is immediate, because the lives of the people living in the space intersect automatically. Their activities form a thick web, that augments and informs the architecture, often literally affecting the continual construction always already underway. There is no need to design the public space, as the space has become public by the very designs of that public. What the hutong is, in its very character, is the state of public space making itself manifest via the horizontal.
But as is quite obvious, the hutongs cannot remain as they are. The goal should be, perhaps, rather than to simply replace them with vertical construction, is to augment them, adding a different dimension of horizontality, heading upwards. Rather than plan a new community from scratch, figure out how to support the current community, and direct it to where it needs to be. In reporting on government projects working to improve favelas, Kelly Shannon suggests:
“The innovative aspect of the projects is the fundamental notion that accepts unplanned and informal housing areas as a new form of urban morphology that should not be destroyed but rather changed, improved, and converted into modest, livable neighborhoods. In these programs, the relation of landscape to urbanization was ‘regularized’ by improving inner access-ways and providing services through the widening of roads, environmental intiatives, provision of sanitation, schools and clinics, and focusing on pedestrian flows.” (Shannon, 61)
Hutongs are not nearly favelas; they are in far much better condition than even the improved infrastructure of such impoverished areas. And therefore, they are much easier to continue to improve to suit the city and the residents needs and betterment. Most of the necessary infrastructure is already in place to support the hutongs, they simply need to be densified, to support more inhabitants without stressing the living conditions, while continuing to improve standards of living as the occupants see fit. There are already hints of horizontal architecture in Beijing that is building upward, that should be taken as the model or inspiration. The subway system is a perfect example. Across the city, tunnels are being dug at phenomenal pace to increase the number of lines serving the system. By taking transportation infrastructure off the roads and sending it underground, the ability for people to move horizontally is increased. Surprisingly enough, malls are another point of inspiration. While malls in North America require footprints of many square miles for parking, Chinese malls are quite compact, putting the parking underground, and building the retail space upwards. Within the massive floors of a mall, retail is at its most fluid, architecturally. The space is modular, and the necessary infrastructure is collectivized. Hutongs are, in a sense, residential malls, combining residences, necessary commerce, and socializing into one collective, public neighborhood. To stack hutongs on top of each other, and to preserve the way the social space has already integrated itself while streamlining the infrastructural needs to make the neighborhood more efficient and sustainable seems like a design challenge that could bear magnificent fruit. While on the other hand, building high-rises seems to work in the opposite direction, reducing tenants to an isolated, hamlet sort of life.
These are only ideas, from one Westerner’s reflections upon being introduced to the architectural phenomenon of the hutong. But thinking differently about urban planning, to approach the problem of density with a more open mind than simply thinking, “up”, does not seem so far-fetched. The neighborhoods of Beijing have already organized themselves, and succeeded to create vibrant public spaces in their own way. They are not perfect, and need support to improve themselves further. This support should be provided, so that what already exists can be taken advantage of, and not be thrown away. To build a city, one ought to listen to the city.
“Affordable Housing Programme in China—Opportunity for Landscape Architects to Perfect Public Space Design”, by Lewis Stackpole [Principal of AGER Group], in Landscape Architecture China, Number 16 2011. Translated by Chan Xu.
“Landscapes of Poverty & Infrastructures of Improvement”, by Kelly Shannon, in Landscape Architecture China, Number 16 2011. Translated by Chan Xu.
Posted: July 23rd, 2011
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I’m going to pitch three different ideas at you, all from the same talk by Kevin Kelly. Here we go:
The other thing that is evolving over time is the evolvability of the system. One of the things that life is doing is it’s evolving its ability to evolve. In the beginning, life didn’t evolve very much. As it made more structures and more things, the varieties of the ways it could evolve changed, so its evolution was changing. That’s what technology is doing. It is accelerating the evolvability of life.
Another way to think about this is that one of the things that life likes to do is make eyeballs. Life evolution independently invented eyeballs 30 different times in different genres and taxonomies. It invented flapping wings four times. It invented venomous stings about 20 times independently, from bees, to snakes, to jellyfish. It also has invented minds many, many times.
The problem is that there are many kinds of minds that biology can’t make but technology can. You could think of technology and us inventing the kinds of minds that biology could not invent. We are going to invent all different kinds of minds.
We invented the external stomach, it’s called cooking, that allows us to digest stuff that could not otherwise increase nutrition. It changed our jaw and our teeth. We are physically different people because of our inventions. While we can live on a raw diet, it’s actually very hard to breed on a raw diet.
What we have done is become dependent on our technology, and we will become ever more so. That’s just the definition of who we are. We are the first domesticated animals. We are a technology ourselves.
I went to visit a place where they were making one of the more advanced robots, called Willow Garage, in Stanford. I was there because this particular robot has the ability to actually find a plug and plug itself in to repower itself. No one has taught it where these things are. It can actually proceed and look and travel around on its own. It actually gets its arm and takes its tail and plugs it in.
I stood between it and a plug. It was very clear that it wanted power. It had a want that was very visible to me. It was never going to hurt me, because part of its program was not to hurt, but it was very clear it was going to get power. If I stopped, it would go around. It was somehow or another going to get it.
It’s not conscious, it’s not aware, it’s not even very smart, but it definitely wants something. It’s comparable to if your cat or birds wants something. I’m using it in those kinds of terms.
In the first excerpt, he discusses a separate yet similar evolutionary trend in nature, and in technology. In the second, he talks about both the technology of our biological functions, and the dependence of this technology on other, less biological technologies. In the third, he talks about a technology exhibiting something that we view as human, or nearly so and hence, animal: will.
In these three passages Kevin Kelly depicts contradictory and overlapping notions of what “nature”, “technology”, and “human” are. If I was to ask him about this, I don’t doubt that he would say that, indeed, these three notions are overlapping and contradictory, and that’s the point. No quibble, there. The problem, however, is that because these terms are so often used to talk about natural/technological/human issues that are only contradictory and specifically NOT overlapping, we end up going around in a terminological circle, which seems to me to be less sublime than the dichotomy of yin/yang, and more like a dog chasing his/her tail.
The problem is an epistemologically endemic one. It is most easy for us to think of things in terms of dualities, and so we deploy dualities in order to understand things. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t always work in dualities. This doesn’t make them useless, but it does give them a vulnerability.
Here is a couple of diagrams to show you what I mean.
In the first, we see three concepts, numbered 1, 2, and 3, each paired in dualistic opposition to another concept. A is NOT B, B is NOT C, and C is NOT A. Cool? Yep. A mouse is not a cat is not a dog is not a mouse.
The trouble with oppositional concepts is that we tend to think in terms of binary oppositions. A light is either on, or it’s off. A statement is either true, or it’s false. In this diagram, I’ve labeled each of three concepts, 1, 2, and 3, with a binary determination, either 0 or 1 (fill in whatever binary description you like). As you see, we immediately have a problem. 1 is oppositional to 2, 2 is oppositional to 3, but that would make 3 equivalent to 1. Mice and cats are natural enemies; cats and dogs are natural enemies; but are dogs and mice therefore natural allies? Only in Tom & Jerry cartoons. No matter how many times you go around, you end up opposing two of three concepts, if you are going to make two of them equivalent to one another.
I don’t think Kevin Kelly is intending to make his concepts binary oppositions. In fact, I think he intends to do something akin to the first diagram, in which by showing how thinks are different in some measures, they actually end up proving similar by others. The problem is that he uses words like “nature”, “technology”, and “human”, which throughout their use have been deployed strictly as binaries, we tend to think of them that way. Classically, nature and technology are opposing forces. Humans and their technology are separate entities, pitted against each other, allegorically not unlike Cain and Abel. And humans and nature are… but wait a minute, which one is on what side? Do we use nature to fight technology, or technology to fight nature? Or is our nature to use technology? Or is nature a technology for us to use? Or is the nature of technology… human? And the argument now starts to look like the second diagram, and we’re all confused. When you use concepts that are related by an us vs. them binary dichotomy, you invariably end confused when a third concept comes to the party.
Words are fluid, and their meanings change over time. But to immediately attempt to reverse the meaning of words deployed for hundreds of years, is to not only to attempt to try and talk over the epistemological voice of that former scholarship, but to confuse future readers who will attempt to glean the difference in philosophies that deploy the same word in different ways. This works, of course, and is sometimes done by accident, and then students simply have to learn their etymology. Reappropriations of terms, or “liberation” of terms sometimes occurs, and when it does, it would be futile to stand in the way. But in this case, I think we’d make more progress if we started on a different foot.
Without dipping deep into Rousseau, hobo faber, techne, and a hundred other data points that have attempted to harshly divide the world dualistically between technology/humankind/nature, I think we can say that just as strongly, we are now seeing the reasons these concepts are similar to each other. (I would add “cosmology” in there to make a perfect foursome.) Our cooking is a cyborg extension of our stomachs; robots can be programmed to convincingly simulate animal will; technology mimics nature at the same time as it surpasses it at its own game. To our perception, it often seems that the inter-concept transit is out-pacing the local transit. The news is filled with stories of nanobots made from molecules building vitamins to increase our brain activity. Aren’t they? Or does it just seem like it is?
And this is the bottom line. I think it’s all a matter of perception. If we seek to measure it in a certain way, we might show that the complication of the universe is increasing, or that it is decreasing. Maybe technology is getting further away from nature, or maybe it is coming closer. Maybe we are becoming less human, or maybe we are becoming more. These are old labels, from a way of thinking more influenced by Aquinas’ theory of Natural Law than by micro-electronics. These words are not defunct or obsolete, but they are certainly archaic. I’m tempted to say there is nothing new under the sun; except for our problematization of the idea that the sun is the sort of thing to which everything else could be “under”.
So, how to proceed? To use words like “nature”, “technology”, and “human”, we are quickly getting further away from what it is we want to talk about. Ought we to coin neologisms, like Kevin Kelly? To liberate “nature” from the domain of the rain forest and the tidal pool, or to liberate “technology” from the laboratory and the consumer electronics shelf? Or to just call it whatever, dreaming up new age theological realms and choirs of technologist angels as we go, not quibbling about the language so much as that we deeply belief in the Word itself? I’m not sure it is any of these, specifically. But I am pretty sure it is not none of them, either.
Posted: April 5th, 2011
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To go to sea today is a bit of a novelty. At least for most people. For some, it is like every other novelty that exists in the world; what is archaic, insightfully ironic, symbolic, or at the very least new and out of the ordinary to you and me, is to someone else, just a job. For those who actively sail the world, promoting a heavy-lifting, bulk-pack sort of international commerce and global trade, and even now fend off pirate attacks (of all obsolete adventurous activities) looking off the side of the ship no doubt is about as interesting as gazing off across the parking lot outside of work.
But there is something wonderful about it, even more wonderful than compact foreign-made cars, diesel pick-ups, light SUVs, and tarmac. Looking off the side of a large ship at night into the boundless, endless, infinitely wide and deep sea gives one a sense of smallness–that esoteric sensation just barely outside of the domain of language, which we all seek to feel through religion, metaphysics, love, or drugs and intoxicants. Not to give parking lots short schrift of course, as they can do the same. In contemplating the expense of paving over the land with a hermetic barrier of thick tar, culled from the pressed and rotted corpses of life that lived and died thousands of years before us, we create a Body-Without-Organs, a conceptual membrane through which the living cannot penetrate, a hard wall of impermeability that gives contrast to the life attempting to live above and below, that cannot bridge this line contrary to the universal force of zoe, except when it crumbles by way of time and the unstoppable slow tyranny of weather’s endless erosion. This defensive layer that allows us to safety operate our vehicles, that we pay to renew every few years, fighting the glorious fight of humanity against the nature that refuses to accept our independence, and seeks always to reclaim us through disease, through organic poisons, through the sadistic refusal of those natural elements that we cannot live without. A paranoiac cell of isolation, an infinite span of internecine warfare, forming the eternal mental placenta between our egos and…
Well, maybe only I feel that way about parking lots. The ocean, on the other hand, is probably more easily evocative to my fellow members of the species. There is a poetic history of such evocation. And also, look at it! It’s deep. It’s dark. We can only go into a tiny bit of it. Humans have been to the moon, but we can’t go the seven miles to the deepest part of the ocean. There are strange creatures that live there, most of which we haven’t even been able to conquer by naming. That was humanity’s one job, given to us in the Garden of Eden! Everything else, it is your job to be food. Adam, you aren’t food. All you have to do is come up with a name for everything you plan to eat. Cool? Apparently not. We’re still naming microscopic squids, and we’ve had some thousands of years to do it. Some stewards we are.
It’s a weird thing, that ocean. It’s what we’ve sailed across for thousands of years. For most of that time, it was the quickest way to get anywhere. Still is the cheapest, especially if you want to move something heavy. One of the oldest technologies around involve traveling across that liquid surface. Some of the biggest technological advances were about figuring out where we were going one we got moving. And as our ancestors traveled the massive span of the globe, guided by the stars, we could see the tiny twinkling lights of other ships out there doing the same thing we were, and ponder the distance between us, and wonder if the sea decided to turn against us, to claim our worldly investments and to take our lives, would those little lights out there come to our aid?
Maritime law takes this sacredness and mortal danger into account, as it tries to export the laws of the land to the deadly lack of land, and the customs of nations to that which will always be in some way international. Did you know, that under certain conditions, a person salvaging goods from a wrecked ship is entitled to 50% or more of the value of the salvage? It depends, of course, on the nature of the salvage, the effort involved, and how long the goods were “lost” at sea. But the law is based upon the concept that what is lost is therefore valueless, and any person who preserves the value of something that easily could have been lost, is entitled to a portion of that value. Because of this, the contracts for towing ships in trouble are very explicit; everything is laid out before hand, so there are no major claims afterward. This even goes for your fishing boat lodged on a sandbar. Of course, you have little recourse if you are stuck on a sandbar. But luckily, most people in the towing business just want cash, and not half of what is in your cooler.
There is, most assuredly, no “life salvage”, however. It is a fundamental part of all countries maritime code that any capable ship must do all possible to prevent loss of life without expecting reward, as long as doing so doesn’t further endanger the lives of the rescuing ship. Of course, if the other crew dies, there would be no witnesses to your crime. And so goes the way of the sea, and no doubt the beginning of many sea adventure stories. Also of note, is that a ship’s captain is required to care for the health of all crew on the ship, and for any care required the journey as a result of injuries sustained aboard. Universal health care on the high seas dates back to the British maritime laws of centuries ago.
Of course, there as also marooning–the practice of leaving an offensive crew member on a small piece of land with a bit of water, food, and a loaded pistol for him to use on himself if he so chose. I’m not sure of the specific legal history of this practice. But if done by pirates, big fans of the punishment, I would guess the case law would probably not be of their utmost concern.
I have heard, somewhat apocryphally mind you, of a particular Catch-22 applicable at least in Florida ports. Certain docks and moorings have requirements on how long you can tie up. A public park, for example, might have a 2-hour limit, not unlike a parking spot. Private moorages often charge for the privilege, especially if one intends to stay overnight. However, if a vessel claims that that it is unseaworthy, with a broken engine for example, and the owner lives aboard the ship, and s/he has no money to pay for repairs, the boat cannot be evicted. It would be akin to cutting the person adrift, and marooning them upon the “high seas”. Of course, if you could prove they had money for repairs, or that their engine was in fact working, then you could evict away. But the mechanics of that are complicated, both technically and metaphorically. And so, transient boats are common, overstaying their welcome. This is the flip side to the brutality of the law of the sea.
In a port area, there are thousands of interesting cultural features to humanity’s relationship with the sea. From widow’s walks, to chowder recipe, to river pilots, to the local, only-taught-never-documented design for skiff hulls. Again, the specificity within the mundane is similar to a thousand other instances of cultural artifacts found away from the coast. Even, perhaps, in parking lots (one day I’ll treat you to a treatise on the many-storied nature of Employee of the Month parking spaces). If you are unacquainted with sea life, and suddenly find yourself encountering it, it is easy to be overwhelmed. An entire way of life, not just on the coast, but constantly “out there”, over the dark horizon. In each ship is a potential Moby Dick, a work not only of story but of unsurpassed, specialist knowledge, requiring either dreary days of research in a library (or on the internet) or years actually living that life. And for what? For the success of Melville, which could only ever be posthumous. Whether you write about something as exciting as the sea, or something as boring as, say, the world of consumer safety, (see? my interests are wide and varied beyond parking!) it is difficult to make anyone care. Sure, there are fascinating aspects to anything. But what is really fascinating is the boring parts, taken out of their context by about a hundred years or five thousand miles. Whaling was not so interesting to a world filled with spermicetti candles and whale-bone corsets. Nor is parking interesting to your standard commuter. It takes someone with a deeper understanding, who would not only spend their life on a ship but spend that life looking over the side at more and more water passing the side of the hull. Or someone that would watch unblinkingly as the person in the over-sized SUV lines up for their third try at simple head-in parking. Or, someone to whom all of this is new, has some sort of cross-referenced gimmick attached, or can at least be used by an above-average writer as a metaphor for something entirely different that is perhaps actually meaningful.
And I suppose, this is where I try to salvage something of value from these shipwrecks of museums. At this point, at which I see all these essays floating in the water and try to reconstruct what it was they were supposed to be. The moment at which I try and connect these bits of light scattered out over the roadway, the continent, and the ocean. Not out of interest in profit, but out of duty to some sort of literary maritime law. I’ll cut the suspense, and tell you right now that I don’t end up doing it. I fail.
But let me tell you something else. Walter Winchell, anti-Nazi, anti-Communist, pro-McCarthy newspaper columnist, in addition to inventing the “gossip column”, originated the phrase, “Good night, Mr. and Mrs. America, from border to border and all the ships at sea.” Supposedly, at the end of his life he suffered a nervous breakdown, and lived by himself in a hotel, and handed out mimeographed sheets of his column on the street corner every day. That, is dedication to writing and publishing. Either that, or a symptom of a deep psychiatric problem. Well, with that, then goodnight to us: all the writers out at sea.
The last museum will be next week. It is called, The Museum of the Book I am Officially Announcing, Based on This Museum. Or would be, except that I changed the title at the last minute. I promise that there will be text-only nudity in the book, which I hear is big with the kids these days.
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Posted: February 21st, 2011
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There’s a museum purporting to present evidence of a bizarre, marginal theory on the origins of life. No, not the Museum of Creationism. And not the Little League Hall of Fame, either; though their ideas of creation are curious. I’m talking about the Museum of Cultural Speciation, which as it happens, does not as yet benefit from having a building dedicated towards housing its expanding collection of evidence.
Let me fill you in on some of the details of mainstream evolutionary theory, with which I have only just now become acquainted. (For more info and sources, type a few phrases into Wikipedia. It’s easy!) You already know about evolutionary selection, if you are not from a Texas school system. (Virginia school system? Colorado school system? It is becoming hard to track this sort of thing.) Selection describes the process by which the benefit given to the reproductive “fitness” by certain inherited traits will serve to increase the instance of this trait in a sexually reproducing population. You may also know about genetic drift, a somewhat more difficult concept, and the less teleological cousin of selection. This is the aspect of randomness in genetics, whether it be the metaphorical mutational tree that may fall on a particular individual or the other random aspects to a species overall genetic makeup that no less effect how a species may evolve, causing the expression of traits to leap in bounds rather than trickle. If selection is the slow, plodding work of a species’ R&D department, genetic drift is the sudden flash of insight from an inventor, or junior-level programmer. In a way.
Now, these two mechanisms control the evolution of a single species, but where do new species come from? It turns out there are several different models for how we reach speciation: a “branch of the tree”, so to speak. Primarily, these splits first manifest across geographic pattern. Let’s start with allopatric speciation. Some sort of geographic isolation occurs to split a population, like a river changing its course to split a species of rodents into to isolated groups. These two groups evolve on their own, and when they are somehow reintroduced into the same territory, they have become two different species.
(The easy distinction of species is an inability to interbreed, either because of genetics, sexual choice, or physiology. This is, interestingly, an “agonistic” definition, in that it is difference from others that creates a unifiable sameness. One might try and re-phrase, saying that the ability to breed positively defines a species, but this is not exactly true, and not every member of a species can or will successfully breed with every other member. Whereas, absolutely no member of a species can breed with any member of another species, definitively. Each species can only be defined by its difference from other species, and therein lies its unity. But then, hybrid species create a problem for this definition—and we begin to see the difficulty of discussing species taxonomies.)
Then there is peripatric speciation, a subset of allopatric. In this instance a smaller subset of the population is somehow separated from the majority of the species. This is notable, because genetic drift plays a larger factor in small populations, where a sudden individual change can more quickly resonate through the entire population. Speciation then occurs relatively rapidly. A cool example is the London Underground mosquito, whose provenance is self-explanatory.
Next, and more interesting, is parapatric speciation. Check this out–there can be a continuum of related, interbreeding populations in a linked geographic area. Several species, spread across a long, lateral terrain. But, the species on one end of the continuum cannot breed with the other end, because over the course of the habitat zone, insurmountable changes in the species occur. Some of these are called “ring species”, like the Larus gulls; their range extends around the Arctic Circle Eastward from Scandinavia, across Russia, across the Bering Straight to Canada, and then to the United Kingdom. Each neighboring species differentiation (there are seven) can interbreed with its neighbor except between the UK and Scandinavia! The differences become too great as those minor variances add up. (Note: there are other unclear species with different levels of interbreeding ability in the same domain, which complicates matters. But the Larus gull is a well-known proof of concept.)
Lastly, there is sympatric speciation: in which two species develop from one species in a single habitat. There are many theories of why this may occur, and disputes about what constitutes clear and distinct sympatric speciation. One theory is that sympatric speciation might actually be heteropatric speciation: a case of micro-allopatric speciation. In other words, although the general habitat of the entire species might be intact, there could be small-scale geographic differentiation that allows the speciation to occur. The distinction of difference in geography is as hard to make as the distinction between separate species, so it seems. What constitutes a difference in geography that is strong enough to attribute speciation to its presence? What other factors might be involved? Geography, as it turns out, may mean many different things, and may only be the easiest ways for humans to measure and define speciation. Take a good example of sympatric speciation: there are two species of Orca whale in the Northeast Pacific. There are the resident population, that have a particular territory that they stick to, and the transient population, that migrates. Though their habitats overlap and are contiguous, these two species stay away from each other, and do not interbreed. What sort of geography might these whales be seeing that we cannot? Something to do with continental shelves? Average ocean temperature? Salinity? They have different whale songs. Is this a language barrier? What sort of lessons do parental whales teach their offspring about the opposite species? Do they somehow teach the message, “don’t hang out with those filthy transient whales,” or is it in a more implicit sense that they make the distinction? What sort of consciousness to whales have, that they might be able to conceptualize these identities, or even, the concept of difference itself? Come to think of it, how does any animal that is not human think of different “species”, whether the competitors for habitat sites, or those that they eat? Do they think in rigid taxonomies the way we do, or is “nature’s” view of nature more fluid? Can we even conceptualize how a non-spatially linguistic consciousness would think?
Perhaps you see what I’m getting to here, other than animal psychology. In case my rambling discourse and marginal, Wikipedia-synthesized theory isn’t clear, I’ll lay it out, and in doing so take a sharp turn from established evolutionary theory. My question: is it possible that the human species could undergo sympatric speciation, and we wouldn’t even know it?
This is dangerous ground, because speciation theories about humans has had a bad history. From the postulated difference between the Caucasian races and the mongoloids, to the more para-science ideas of phrenology and other so-assumed inheritable behavioral characteristics (as it turns out, skull shape is nothing like the shape of a finch’s beak), to even horrifyingly recent case law regarding inter-race marriages, there has been many efforts to draw distinctions between groups of humans based on superficial differences, and they have proved false. The American Anthropological Association Statement on Race says that 94% of noticeable differences in physical characteristics widely construed as “race” occur within commonly defined races. So in other words, when we identify someone as being of a particular race, we are basing these distinctions on a set of physical assumptions that are not statistically significant in any way. Blond hair, blue eyes, nose size, eye shape, skin tone: none of these actually define a categorical difference, because their varietal distribution and common co-occurrences only exist in our mind, not in the actual human species. These false categorizations of humanity are construed and perpetuated for nefarious reasons, not for any real insight into our species. I don’t think I need to go into reptilian-focused conspiracy theories to drive the point home.
Even the most geographically isolated of human cultures are easily part of our species. But no group has been completely geographically isolated for more than a few hundred years at most. Geographic isolation, as we might think of it within our own lifespans is not necessarily firm over the history of population groups. Just because a group of humans lives on an island or in the middle of the jungle, doesn’t mean they have no contact with other humans on the next island or on the edge of the jungle. Humans are notoriously migrant, especially for the purposes of sexual contact. Physical isolation is another misaligned condition of a colonialist mindset; just because a place is hard for a European to reach or does not have roads does not mean it is isolated.
But what if there were traits of categorical difference that were not immediately identifiable by eye? The misnomers of race and physical distance are both visually construed. What if there were subtle human cultural geographies, within the contiguous species habitat of humanity?
What is the extent of genetics’ effect upon our behavior? I’m hardly a genetic determinist, but there seem to be a number of, well, let’s not call them behaviors, but instead call them patterns of thinking. A young man is of the sort who enjoys a messy household, where everything is visible. A young lady likes a fastidiously clean home, for no reason except a sense of comfort. This is not a trait that will improve genetic selection for this trait (at least not with a modern general level of hygiene to the “messiness”). But it might direct the course of genetic drift. Those who prefer a messy household will have more chances of swapping genes with others of a similar predilection, and vice versa. As mutations and other selection occurs, this population within the population will have a greater chance of evolving separately from the rest of the population because of its preference to a certain sort of mate: a potential for speciation by sympatric speciation. Their levels of cleanliness becomes a geography, separating a population within a population. IF, and I stress, only if, cleanliness is a trait that is genetically inheritable, and so the child of a neat parent will also be neat, and this geography can persist in separating a population for long enough for speciation to occur. If this geography collapses after one generation, then the effect of separating out part of the gene pool is negligible. So this is clearly a long shot. But there are many things we find attractive or abhorrent in potential mates.
What inheritable traits could serve as a “ridge” of cultural geography? Or, what traits, through one mechanism or another, find themselves echoed strongly enough from one generation to the next, that they could be considered to be a feature of cultural geography? In the case of sympatric speciation, sexual choice plays a large role. Certain birds may select mates based on their call, which in turn is informed by their beak shape. A small physiological different then transforms into a bigger difference from the perspective of the harshly competitive world of bird song American Idol. Certainly a taste in food will inform which individuals are more likely to mate, in that they will be close to each other, eating in the same places. So a taste for salt could lead to a romantic encounter in the snack aisle. Or would the competition drive them apart, because your mate keeps raiding your snack stash? What about appearance? What sorts of appearance that is found attractive is based upon gene selection, and what sorts are just pure aesthetics? At what point do aesthetics begin to reflect inheritable traits, and not just good old-fashioned sexiness? Is there really a difference between the two?
We know certain otherwise un-genetic patterns are extensible through generations in humans. A pleasure in reading is something that is often passed from parents to children, by nurture if not by nature. What about taste in music? An appreciation for genres of art? How about family card games? Sure, you could teach your significant other to play trump games. But if his/her family didn’t play trump games, maybe it isn’t because they simply never learned. Maybe they dislike them, instead preferring word puzzles. And so their children prefer word puzzles. Are your other forms of genetic attraction powerful enough to never want to play cards at home again, and to never pass them to your children? Will you adopt these puzzles to please your spouse? It’s not just about items of small preference—it’s about small preferences adding up to define our lives, and accordingly, defining who we spend our lives with. Is it just deciding what to do with the family on a Saturday night, or is this cultural-genetic selection at work? What features of cultural geography are mere rivers, and what are oceans?
Clearly, a great number of rhetorical questions may be applied, but I am over-running my question mark quota. Let me just say this to you: I can foresee several… let me say “traits”, at work in human culture that put the possibility of me breeding with particular individuals completely off the table. In fact, I perceive such strong “cultural geography” separating me from certain females in the population, that there would never even be the least inkling of the likelihood that we would accidentally, drunkenly, completely blacked out, marooned on a deserted island, be in any sort of position to swap gametes. Never. Under no circumstances. I’ll leave the exact topology of this geography for another time, but let me say there is no crossing those mountains, and no swimming that sea. Granted, I’m an hot-blooded American male. We all have… traveled to new territory to see what’s going on across the river. As a fellow once said, “you always say to yourself, ‘I will never sleep with a girl who wears Uggs.’ And then one day you wake up, and there is a pair of fuzzy boots next to the bed.” (That being a river I have never personally crossed, thankfully. But everyone has a story they are not proud of.) We all have our standards. And then we have our standards that end up broken underneath a bottle that was kicked off the arm rest of the futon of someone whose name you didn’t quite get by a leg stuck in a pair of pants in the dark.
America is a big place. There are a lot of young people out there, and they all are looking to breed. So many potential mates to choose from—they must be pairing up based on something. The same sort of music. They grew up in the same sort of town. Maybe they do the same drugs, which are the same drugs their parents did. The fact is, there are so many different ways of separating ourselves culturally, I would be surprised if there wasn’t a combination of cultural behaviors that separated us beyond all possibility of willful interbreeding. Maybe a human ring species will develop, leading from punk rock to vegetarianism to pacificism to Christianity to mysticism to cult member to masochist to soldier to engineer to teacher to soft rock fan. We love the notion of star-crossed lovers, but let’s admit it. Each of us has that category of “no way, absolutely not”, and while we may have mutual friends with mutual friends, between some people, it just ain’t going to happen. I could probably construct thousands of these potential cultural continuum chains if I sat and thought about it. This is a different sort of geography. It doesn’t matter than these links aren’t always assured, or that people aren’t always so cut and dry, or that the linkage doesn’t always stay the same. Is it inconceivable that my next thousand engenderings will never exchange genetic information with gene lines from rural Alabama? Or from urban Novosibirsk? Or from suburban Chicago, even? How big must our population become, and how diverse much our cultural geography grow, before these sorts of rifts are not just possible, but assured? And we’d never notice as these difference develop, because which each neighboring cultural territory keeps making babies with its neighbors, the ends never interbreed, and genetic drift is meanwhile allowed to make the difference actually genetically real. Until one day, when a Boy Scout leader from Saskatchewan just happens to settle down with a post-punk singer from Curitiba, they decide to have a child, and then their fertility counselor sits them down to discover something very interesting the doctors discovered in their genetic profile.
One more thing. A common, every day way of deciding the difference between our species and another species, at least for the non-biologist humans in our population, is basically no different that how we choose what to eat. What sort of life form, culturally, can we kill as indiscriminately as if it were a food source? What is different enough from us, that our widespread murder of its kind is more akin to farming than genocide? We kill other species, and it may be cruel, but it is never murder. Our cultural violence reifies the difference between our species and others. We kill chimpanzees for research purposes. And yet, genetically, we could potentially interbreed with chimps.
Chimps often eat each other. Humans have eaten each other throughout history, for mostly cultural-symbolic reasons. But this is interesting: all documented forms of human cannibalism either choose to eat humans within the cultural group, or from without of the cultural group: but never both. What we allow ourselves to kill affirms cultural identity. What we allow ourselves to kill affirms species identity. What we would eat / what we would kill / who we would fuck. Cultural geography–don’t say I didn’t warn you. Cultural geography is potentially dangerous to our species: both, potentially to our shared genotype, and to us as individuals. Who knows, once these differences become established, what it might justify in our minds. The war of all against all might be a myth. As chaotic as the vastness of the human species and its culture might be, the simplistic duality of us against them might be our natural state. The agonism of us versus them, among the human species, is spread out over a geography so complicated, we haven’t even begun to comprehensively map it.
Next week we’ll look up something much more sexy than evolutionary theory, though not quite as alluring as cannibalism. Step right this way gentlemen (and ladies with a strong constitution and a purely scientific interest), for a naughty peek at the Museum of Short Sequined Dresses.
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Posted: February 10th, 2011
, Museum of Small American Museums
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Outer space, as a place where Earth life will no doubt continue to travel, is hardly the sole province of humans. Other Earth life in orbit isn’t contained to your space crops and your space beef, and your experimental ant farm, either. Animals have a long history of going into space; in fact, they went there before we did, both to the academic definition of space, and in orbit.
Laika, of course, is famous for being the first creature of an Earth species to go into orbit, in the second orbiting spacecraft in “our” history. First sputnik, then muttnik, as Westerners called the spacecraft. She did not come back, because the technology for re-entry did not yet exist. We fired her into the heavens, and at least for that, she will always be first.
Several species intentionally made it into space before humans, including fruit flies, three different species of monkeys, and of course, dogs. The United States used monkeys for their space tests, but the Soviet Union preferred dogs, because they were better suited to long periods on inactivity. Laika, and many other cosmo-dogs were strays, “recruited” into the space program because they would have toughness that dogs with more domesticated lifestyles would not. A dog held the record for longest spaceflight until trumped by Skylab in 1973.
Here’s a list of other animal species that have gone into space:
fish (a mummichog, and later, zebra fish and others)
gypsy moth eggs
stick insect eggs
more recently tardigrades (which can survive in the vacuum of space without protection)
Naturally (because we are the top of the food and hierarchical ecosystem-control chain) many of these animals died on their heroic missions into the heavens. Some, like Laika, were not planned to survive their missions, but others died in accidents. There have been a good number of spaceflight accidents with both animals and humans, but the majority of the fatalities involve launch and re-entry. Only three people have died from decompression in space, on the Soyuz 11 in 1971. There were other near accidents and injuries in space, but most fatalities, like the loss of the Challenger and the Columbia shuttles, happened because of catastrophic equipment failure during the tremendous physical conditions of the heat and gravity effects of transiting to orbit.
This is not to say that orbit, or the vacuum of space is harmless. But the equipment required to support life in space is so complicated and multi-faceted, there are a myriad possibilities for something to go wrong (and in the case of near misses, to fix the problem) before animals or humans encounter the specific dangers of the space vacuum. In the case of launch and re-entry, the tolerances for failure are much slimmer. For instance, The actual explosion of the Challenger only caused the external propellant tank to collapse, but this caused the shuttle itself to veer into the Mach 1.8 windstream in a way not designed, which ripped the craft apart in seconds. And even then, it is estimated that the cockpit protected the astronauts inside for at least a time, because they deployed emergency oxygen. The crash of the shuttle into the ocean at 200 miles an hour was the definitive cause of death. (See STS-51F and STS-93 for other shuttle near-misses, in which the shuttle still made it into orbit.)
Once in space, animals must content with a few specific dangers from the vacuum of space. Although rapid decompression has been celebrated in SF as a cataclysmic way to go, the means of actually dying in a vacuum is actually pretty simple. The crucial danger of a space vacuum is hypoxia (lack of oxygen in the body), which might cause loss of consciousness after 9 to 12 seconds, but is generally survivable up to 90 seconds. This is not the same as asphyxiating; the lack of pressure causes all oxygen in the lungs to evaporate, and the circulating blood is instantly devoid of oxygen. The 9 to 12 seconds is how long this gasless blood takes to reach the brain. Hypoxia is accentuated by ebullism, which is the evaporation of liquid at low pressure, basically boiling the blood. Ebullism can be countered by space suits that reduce swelling. Survivability is much better if it’s only part of the body exposed to the vaccuum, and breathing can be maintained.
Temperature, however, is really not dangerous, because there is no medium for conduction in a vacuum. Radiation is the only way to cool, and that won’t happen before the other effects. So the portrayals of bodies freezing instantly in a vacuum are overwrought.
Rapid decompression is much more dangerous, intensifying the above. Slow decompressions of the same pressure gradient can be survivable, while rapid decompression can cause bleeding and shock, which use up the oxygen in the blood even faster.
If pressure is maintained, there are still long-term effects of being outside the Earth’s atmosphere and gravity. Gravity affects fluid movement through the body, and bone and muscle density. Radiation exposure outside the shelter of the atmosphere and magnetic fields of Earth is ten times normal for the surface. Long term effects could include cancer, chromosomal abberation, and immune system problems, but there hasn’t been enough data to study these fully. Also, circadian rhythm problems, social and psychological issues exist, but again, data is limited.
Since 1973, there has been a constant human presence in space, along with our animal friends. As far as I know, there have not been any long term experiments to test animals’ ability to evolve to space conditions. Certainly not with humans. There would have to be long-term, generational habitation in space to figure this out.
I synthesized this from a number of Wikipedia articles:
Animals in Space
Soviet Space Dogs
Monkeys in Space
Human Adaptation to Space
Space Accidents and Incidents
Posted: August 19th, 2010
Tags: death drive
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A few thoughts about space colonization for Monday morning:
- Let’s take it as granted that the goal of space colonization is to allow humans to live in space, not just visit any particular place in space and return. This means colonies, which are self-sufficient human-inhabited entities, in that the humans who live there will be staying there for the length of their lives, and reproducing there, and the humans they produce will live there as well. They are self-sufficient from the perspective of human genealogy, if not the organic necessities of human life, even though we tend to tack the latter onto the former.
- And as any reader of R. Crumb’s Genesis will tell you, the minimum required number of humans to beget a lineage of humans is two.
- But, we must assume that we’d care for a bit of genetic variation, and furthermore, in case there is an interstellar breakup, we might like to allow our galactic breeders to “keep their options open” as it were, and send more than two. Even if artificial insemination equipment is provided for, it is not guaranteed that two humans will be able to conceive and carry to term and raise healthy offspring, nor that those offspring will be able to do the same.
- So we begin to wonder, (as Charlie Stross did in an essay that inspired these thoughts) what is the minimum number of humans that must be included in a gene pool for successful reproduction and a flourishing population. We could ask some population experts, study the genotypes of some isolated populations, and come up with a minimum number, X.
- But why are we looking for a minimum number? Well, as the conventional wisdom dictates, the most expensive part of human life in space is life support. Water, air, exercise, sustenance, etc. To create a colony in which humans can breed and reproduce, they must be able to live, of course. And from what we know about where these colonies might exist, the first colonists will have to be sent with a significant supply of these supports, at least until they can begin to create their own perpetuating support system. And, why water, air, exercise, and sustenance are all cheap on Earth, getting them into outer space is costly. So, if we send the minimum to successfully reproduce until they can create a perpetuating support system, we have created the human colonial spore pod, which we can fire into space at targets with nice real estate, if no organic grocery stores.
- This belies a certain understanding of the human colonial urge. To basically design spore pods, space-capable Nina, Pinta, and Santa Marias, full of buckle-shod pilgrims, (or convicts. Or pious children) which we can send off to the edge of the world, hoping that it might stick onto what it is flung at. Which is really weird, when you think about it. Our species is really nothing more than a bunch of penguins standing at the edge of the ice, seeing who will get the closest so we can shove them into space and see if the space orca gets them. But this is what we do. We don’t inhabit places inhospitable to us for no reason. If one is going to accept the basic ideas of evolution, we have to assume that our species-desire to send humans up mountains and to the bottom of the ocean and to Newark airport and to the Moon is not just something we do because we’re bored or think it might somehow be less trouble than a cab to JFK, but something we do as part of a pattern that has seen us become the “dominant” (in whatever way that we are) species in the ecosystem of earth. The pattern of the human species is to perfect our technology in order to let us do the odd things we do. The more technology we develop, the more crazy things we start doing (though we do stop some efforts on occasion, like trying to seriously build ornithopters or transmute lead) and the wider our range in the ecosystem becomes, and the larger our population gets. At least so far.
- But these Ninas and Pintas and Santa Marias aren’t really successful in and of themselves. They go, and they land, and maybe they eat each other during the harsh Virginia winter (just a little taste won’t hurt) but not one of these single seeds has ever engendered an entire stable population. Barring any unforeseen ammonia-loving cephalopodic Squantos of Titan who break bread with our rocket-propelled breeder orgy, I can only imagine that the harsh realities of chemical systems not exactly like the one we thrive in will kill off these human-spore pods in large numbers. The way colonization seems to work here on Earth, is that either populations who have a certain set of ecosystematic-skills slowly migrate, adapting their sustenance practices as they go over thousands of years, or it requires such a critical mass of spore-pods to the point where they are not expanding their population to cover the new environment, but actually reproducing their old environment in the new place. And yet, they still die off rapidly, until the transformation is complete, and you get full cities and states with names like New Amsterdam and New England and cute little village greens and barns that look almost exactly like the greens and barns some thousands (or billions) or miles away.
- So why do we send the spore-pods rather than saving it all up until we can send an entire Europe out into space? Well, that isn’t the pattern. The penguins have their pattern, and we have ours. Certainly we’ll lose some space colonies, but we’ll keep sending them until we reach some sort of critical mass, that to me, seems like it will look a lot like what we call terra-forming. I like to think that the slow migratory way might be possible too (and it would be cooler) but we haven’t exactly been able to migrate to the oceans in the last several hundred thousand years, so the ecosystem of another planet might be a bit of a stretch.
- Terraforming, of course, comes from 20th century futurist roots, meaning “to make it like Earth.” Either by making another planet’s ecosystem conform to the features of Earth’s ecosystem that we require to survive, or, as I would include, making a fake ecosystem from scratch, both of which would no doubt pretty closely resemble Earth. Now that I think about it, that’s a pretty funny way to colonize other worlds. Kind of like colonizing America by dragging it back across the Atlantic and welding it onto Portugal. Not that it isn’t possible, but it kind of takes the fun out of living on Tatooine if some jerk real estate developer made it look like the suburbs of Chicago. The pattern will find its own way though, and whatever the terraformed planets must look like in order to sustain human life and reproduction is what they will look like, because I’m taking the inevitability of space colonization as a foregone conclusion.
- But if terraforming is the way to space colonization, and it must be done by a substantial segment of the population and not just a handful of huguenot-astronauts, and if this will be probably pretty expensive and no doubt require a lot of people perishing in cold cold space (and maybe, fingers-crossed, cannibalism), then it is starting to appear that this is not simply colonizing space, but the reproduction of Earth. Yes. Earth, itself, will begin to beget it’s own lineage.
- At this point, the Earth might be so crowded with humans, whom have already built condos on Mt. Everest and Foxcomm dormitories in deep ocean trenches, such that sending spore-pods of human beings to dine on the sweet, sweet flesh of their friends and co-workers while struggling desperately to transmute oxygen and carbon dioxide from methane might seem like a good career move. Hell, people might be lining up to go. As is the pattern of the human species, at least so far as we remember. As these desperate waves of Earth immigrants board the converted space galleons to head to a new life of spreading scarlet fever to the local life forms, Earth itself will be moving. If you consider the way that Europe, “the extent of the civilized world” got up and renamed a whole continent (more than that) after itself and its political ecosystem, terraforming doesn’t really sound like too big of an endeavor. It is human’s pattern not to slowly migrate and evolve, but to sweep and convert, riding on the fastest technology available. The clash of civilizations that was the colonial period on Earth was not just racism and brutality (though it certainly was) it was expediency. Would it be quicker to slowly make peace with every band of humans living in stable harmony on the land, to trade equally and fairly, and to wait for them to invite a good proportion of another continent’s population to come and live with them and breed the place into a copy of the old continent, or just to kill any who seemed troublesome, lie to the rest, and enslave large numbers of the inhabitants of a less attractive continent to provide the building power to do it? I give you: History! The evolution and unfolding of the human pattern. It’s the human way–the only way we know how.
- The human species reproduces itself through the ecosystem that sustains human life. So, it is pretty straight forward, I think, that the human species will eventually begin reproducing this ecosystem anywhere it can manage through technology to sustain that ecosystem. And then, of course, reproducing itself within that ecosystem. Because like it or not, the human species is part of the Earth’s ecosystem, and it IS the Earth’s ecosystem, if not the crowning jewel of it as we might like to imagine, then the cinderblock of the Earth’s ecosystem–the ugly, reproducible, only-strong-enough-for-the-task, easily graffitoed, totally necessary fundamental component of urban blight that we are.
- If/when space colonization happens, the Earth will have learned to breed. We are its spore.
Posted: August 9th, 2010
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Wizard Island in Crater Lake, around midnight. 10-second exposure on a Canon D20.
Posted: August 6th, 2010
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I’ve recently been reading A Pattern Language, a series of described patterns for improving city planning, architecture, and social structures. I’ve been taking copious notes as I read, and hope to write some sort of more lengthy critique, response, and modern reformulation of the ideas in the book.
But just a little comparison, between the idealistic tone of the book, and the odd surreality of the actual world.
In the pattern section, “Old People Everywhere”, the authors of A Pattern Language make the case for integrating older residents with the rest of the the age range, in such ways:
We therefore need a way of taking care of old people which provides for the full range of their needs:
1. It must allow them to stay in the neighborhood they know best–hence some old people in every neighborhood.
2. It must allow old people to be together, yet in groups small enough not to isolate them from the younger people in the neighborhood.
3. It must allow those old people who are independent to live independently, without losing the benefits of community.
4. It must allow those who need nursing care or prepared meals, to get it, without having to go to nursing homes far from the neighborhood.
And so on, similarly. Integration, scalability, support, independence. These are common themes in A Pattern Language. All good.
But contrast it to this recent feature on BLDGBLOG, which, to make a reduction by way of analogy, is kind of “A Pattern Language” of the fortean, forgotten, and unconscious infrastructure of cities.
One particular detail that stands out is also the first they mention: “New York City has given pedestrians more time to cross at more than 400 intersections in an effort to make streets safer for older residents.”
While most adults average four feet per second when crossing the street, older residents manage only three, transportation experts say. So signals have been retimed at intersections like Broadway and 72nd Street, where pedestrians now have 29 seconds to cross, four more than before.
Introducing time-delay into city services by splicing an extra stretch of the present into New York’s infrastructure, this is a temporal re-engineering of urban space: a longer stroll across the street with friends, no longer having to run to avoid that yellow light, becomes experiential evidence that a subtle though highly deliberate retuning of time in the city has occurred.
I’m also reminded of the fake bus stop that was added outside a hospital in Germany so as to calm—and, frankly, to trap—Alzheimer’s patients who had wandered out onto the street: “The result is that errant patients now wait for their trip home at the bus stop, before quickly forgetting why they were there in the first place.” Does decoy infrastructure, similar to these bus stops, already play a role in New York City—and, if not, will it—for the psychiatric well-being of elderly residents? What unexpected forms might these well-camouflaged psychological props take?
Interesting how city planning for the elderly takes a much more surreptitious form in the real world, then the positive inclusion of A Pattern Language‘s intentional communities. Sort of a Big Brother as the boy scout helping the elderly cross the street. A matter of subtle persuasion in altered street light timings, and disguise as helpful trap. Not that these aren’t good additions. In NYC I often remarked to myself how dangerous it was that people who move slowly across intersections were often left in the street as the light changed to green. And the fake bus stop, while sounding a little cruel and misleading, is much more friendly than say, posting guards.
So, not to say that A Pattern Language is overly idealistic and positive, but it is interesting how real cities are much more tuned to the unseen and the unconscious than free choice and consensus.
Posted: July 19th, 2010
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via Big Picture.
[Kind of shocked at the number of pictures with people touching oil. I wouldn't touch it. Not for the "eww" factor either--there's a lot of very toxic hydro-carbons, aren't there?]
Posted: June 11th, 2010
Categories: Feedback Loops
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[Filastine goes to the most interesting places.]
via Filastine Frequency
Posted: June 11th, 2010
Categories: Feedback Loops
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Seed: charged potential to root through tangles comprising planets’ cores–unconscious desire to spark given the slightest tinge of conductive aminos held solute in soil-water. But, there will be no exploding erosion, no earth-flow released, no lost viscosity in vicious rain of pre-catharsis melting peaceful sediment into murderous lahar. Mortality won’t wind its coil. Heavy sex of humid afternoons grow to thunderheads unburstable, without wounding discharge. It’ll die here, unable to live: tight chemical consort of void, un-growth caught within stone fissure, crystalline matrix blank-wall prison shell stiff, ever-slow undead rot, no cellular transport, no impression of acceleration.
[submitted for Ballardian.com micro-fiction contest. Didn't win.]
Posted: June 9th, 2010
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Alright guys, I don’t ask you for much.
What am I talking about? I ask you guys to listen to my rants all the time. It’s ME that owes YOU. But I’m asking anyway. I’m cashing in on all of those Internet friendships.
You may remember my little tube project? Crazy tubes? Fish-eye pics? Ramblings about the super-ego?
Well, now we’re pushing it to the next level.
This little installation, above? 500 tubes. Now we have a former department store turned art space in Salem that is going to let us put in 5000 tubes.
This is the new project.
The main expense, by far, is the tubes. We’ve got a Kickstarter to help out, and we need $650. Not too bad, to get a room filled with tubes, right? Right.
There are also some pretty wicked rewards. Some of them, may or may not be filled with candy.
So I think you should help. I think your friends should help. I think you’re follower list, your friends feed, and your AIM buddy list should help. All we need are some micro-payments, and our tubes could be your reality.
So thanks in advance. And if you are too lazy to click on the link to the project page, let me re-create our proposal for you here.
The tubes are:
Anarchistic Artistic Augmented Autonomous Balanced Chaotic Collective Distributed Echoed Evolving Experiential Independent Individualistic Instant Interpretative Lateral Liberal Ludic Multiplistic Multivocal Networked Rhizomatic Self-governing Shared Specific Spontaneous Unbiased Work.
Anti-Social Authoritarian Binary Bureaucratic Censoring Centralized Controlled Dendric Disgusting Dualistic Incorporated Invasive Libidinal Mobbed Obligatory Ordered Owned Programmed Pollutant Schematic Segmented Shrieking Sorted Stratified Structured Unified Universal Vertical Violent Product.
Our infection will belong to you.
The installation will open June 2, for one month, at
150 Liberty Street
Here are the things we need:
A one-way truck trip
The Salem Art Association, a non-profit, is giving us $250. With $650, we could cover the rest of the expenses (the tubes are by far the biggest expense, at $800).
YOU can help. And then the tubes are yours.
Please treat things as you would like them to be treated.
Posted: May 26th, 2010
Categories: Material Cargo
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