“The Wheel of the Devil”: On Vine, GIFs and the Power of the Loop
When Vine launched last week, a new format for looped media was born. While visual loops have been in existence for centuries, they have arguably enjoyed special attention over the last hundred years. In this essay I want to consider the purpose and power of the loop. I also intend to propose that the reign of the loop is greatly empowered by digital media, and that today loops have enriched culture while offering new perspectives on the nature of reality.
It is William George Horner, a 19th Century British mathematician, whom we may credit with the invention of the modern zoetrope. Horner described the mechanism inan article for the journal Philosophical Magazine in 1834. When spun by hand at a steady pace, a cylindrical tub with slits around the rim would produce a looping animation, usually of a person or animal. Horner called this device “the daedelum”, but it was known popularly as “The Wheel of the Devil.”
The thaumatrope, daedelum and later toy zoetropes of the Victorian period are in my opinion the original realisation of the idea of a visual loop. Shadow puppets, marionettes, automatons - all have long histories in both Western and Eastern culture, but the magic of the zoetrope was its perpetuity. Start the zoetrope spinning and suddenly a collection of static pictures begin an endless and mesmerizing dance. That metamorphosis of something stationary into a vivid display of repeated movement is surely what makes the otherwise crude drawings, of a clown falling over, or a horse galloping, so wonderful.
This pocket history of the visual loop is awesome. Read it.
2:55 pm • 3 February 2013 • 6 notes
More than three-quarters of the food consumed in the United States today is processed, packaged, shipped, stored, and sold under artificial refrigeration. The shiny, humming stainless steel box in your kitchen is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak—a tiny fragment of the vast global network of temperature-controlled storage and distribution warehouses cumulatively capable of hosting uncounted billions of cubic feet of chilled flesh, fish, or fruit. Add to that an equally vast and immeasurable volume of thermally controlled space in the form of shipping containers, wine cellars, floating fish factories, international seed banks, meat-aging lockers, and livestock semen storage, and it becomes clear that the evolving architecture of coldspace is as ubiquitous as it is varied, as essential as it is overlooked.
I love this essay on refrigeration by Nicola Twilley in Cabinet
(Photo: Kraft’s subterranean “cheese” cave, Springfield, Missouri. Photo Christoph Morlinghaus.)
9:31 pm • 3 January 2013 • 7 notes
Gold, Golden, Gilded, Glittering
Representation of value, or the unexpected double history of banking and the art world
In 2007, with financial markets ballooning on every side, the artist Damien Hirst cast a real human skull in platinum, encrusted the cast with 8,601 diamonds that might or might not have come from “conflict-conscious” sources, and called his construction For the Love of God. Images of the macabre object circulated with incredible speed, and there was cheery debate about whether the accomplishment of the work was in the realm of aesthetics or that of the market, whether what mattered were the artist’s choices or the fact that the piece had lived up to its announced intention to be “the most expensive piece of art by a living artist” and had sold for $100 million. Two years later, with financial markets imploding on every side, it was reported that the work had in fact been sold to a holding company that turned out to consist of Hirst’s gallerist, his business manager, his friend the Russian billionaire art collector Viktor Pinchuk, and Hirst himself. There were then those who, staring at their own newly empty stock portfolios, found in the title apt expression of their feelings. The work itself, with its diamond-laden eye sockets and its original inhabitant’s grinning teeth, seems unperturbed by any hollowness of value in the financial or art markets. It does not matter to this cynical epitome of our glittering age whether it was made for the love of anything but more zeroes.
Still, museum curators have found in Hirst’s skull and title connections to earlier eras of artistic creation. The Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, showed the skull among works of the Dutch golden age. In 2010, in Paris, the Musée Maillol displayed it among works that grapple with mortality. This past summer, the skull was part of a Hirst retrospective at the Tate Modern, in London. These exhibitions evoked the long tradition of including skulls in vanitas paintings, before which a viewer is meant to consider how little time we have. Hirst’s mocking of this time-honored tradition seems superficial and acquisitive to me, but he is not only far and away the richest living artist, he is also a tremendously popular one, and one whose art provokes thoughtful discussion. The curators of the Rijksmuseum mounted a wonderful website of the talking heads of viewers responding to the Hirst work, which make it clear that the skull is indeed understood by museumgoers as an important representation of our times. But to my mind, what the work represents, specifically, is not our artistic, or not only our artistic, but our financial life. As Blake Gopnik pointed out in the Washington Post at the time the skull was unveiled, it’s the purchase of the work that is the work. Sale at outlandish price, just as was true at Lehman Brothers, is what defines and confers the value.
Lately, I find that I read the financial news with the constant sense of sleight of hand at work. Since 2008, and the crisis of mismanagement that resulted in the failure of Lehman Brothers and precipitated our current financial woes, it has seemed to me that the business of all the large financial institutions—even the ones that conspicuously did not fail, like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase—has something important in common with the sale of Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull. All of these institutions have, or had, significant interests in financial products like derivatives and mortgage-backed securities. These products, or “instruments,” or “vehicles,” are anchored not to any concrete goods but only to finance itself. It was in this way that, in 2010, during the midst of the financial crisis, the gross domestic product of the entire world was between $50 and $60 trillion, while the volume of derivatives trading was about twenty times the size of the GDP—$1,200 trillion, or $1.2 quadrillion.
Mortgage-backed securities are created by assembling thousands of particles of debt—pieces of debt owned by homeowners in Peoria and by southern African governments at war over the diamond trade—and then packaging these together and selling them. Before the crisis, the banks claimed to their investors that it didn’t much matter whether there was anything solid underpinning the value of these vehicles. It was the picture—made by a financier at a computer, out of thin air, between one moment and the next—that made the value. Like the men of Wall Street, Damien Hirst is a creator of astronomical value, seemingly out of nothing. The diamonds on the Hirst skull were reportedly worth $23.6 million—the rest of the work’s value was created, overnight, in the assemblage. For the Love of God applies the technique of a leveraged buyout not only to a work of art but as a work of art.
In fact, we have long entrusted the task of representing our ideas of value to members of two professions that might seem to have little in common: banking and art. And, in the last seven hundred years or so, it has happened more than once that visual and financial inventors have come up with strikingly similar representations. There is more than a shadow of resemblance between the purchase of the Hirst skull in 2007 and the mortgage-backed-securities debacle that made of Lehman Brothers in the following year one of the great public pictures of vanitas we’ve had. And, when you look further into these intersections, you often find that what is really at stake is a change in the way we feel and understand time.
(Photo: Visitors to the Met in front of Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) ©2009 by Leo Reynolds)
I read this essay in The Believer a few weeks ago and just got around to revisiting it. This is one of a handful of pieces trumpeting the collapse of Damien Hirst’s position in the art market, including on from Bloomberg Businessweek with sweet graphics.
8:14 pm • 26 December 2012 • 59 notes
The Year That Was and Wasn’t
Most (and Least) Important: This is both. The most and the least important event I witnessed in 2012. I’m walking past a school. Two girls, maybe six years old, wearing parkas, carrying bookbags, come flying out the school door, step in front of me close enough for me to hear, and one of them leans toward the other says says, “What if you’re a serial killer? Who’s going to be your friend then?” I turn. The two girls are weighing this question. Having friends—this is a thing they know. Everybody needs one, even the nastiest among us, but this is a toughie. They stop to mull: Who might like a serial killer? “Maybe…” says the second girl, “other serial killers?” They look at each other, uncertain. (Not a big enough pool? Is that what they’re thinking?) Then the first girl says, “I know!” “What?” says the second. “How about just…killers?” More to choose from! They hug. Problem solved. They walk up the block holding hands. Friends are the solution to everything. This is their news. This is what they know.
Robert Krulwich is the science correspondent at NPR.
Photo: Vlatka Horvat, Hybrids (01), 2008. Courtesy the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery, New York
This is the best year-end retrospective yet. Read more at The Morning News
7:58 pm • 26 December 2012 • 4 notes
The Banality of Gchat
I have been thinking about Gchat for days, but this is only because I’ve been thinking about suicide for days. Not the act of suicide or its history (No, I’m not depressed, nor am I morbidly curious about how people decide take their own lives), but a single act of desperation that took place on 2010 and led to a much-publicized criminal trial. I am talking about the suicide of Tyler Clementi.
I’ve been perusing the stacks of magazines from the past year that line my windowsill in search of selections for Mark Armstrong’s annual Longreads lists. I have an immutable love for magazines: when I moved from Washington, DC to New York in July, I packed a box full of well-thumbed issues of The Atlantic (where I had worked), The New Yorker, Harper’s, and other publications I’d gradually accrued during my time in DC. I’m not one to fetishize the analog world: my old colleague Alexis Madrigal will occasionally tease me on Twitter for my excitement to go home and assemble furniture, like my desire to escape from screens is some symptom of some conscious elevation of print media. I just prefer magazines for the way they fit with how I consume stories and ideas. My Pocket queue is often overflowing, my Twitter ‘favorites’ menu all but untouched, and my laptop, smartphone, and tablet uncomfortable in bed or on my roof. When the magazine industry finally collapses, I will rend my collected covers in mourning.
Leafing through a pile of New Yorkers, I stopped at the story of the suicide of Tyler Clementi by Ian Parker in the February 6 issue. Months later, it is still absolutely devastating. Upon discovering his roommate surreptitiously captured — and publicized — his liaisons with a man in their Rutgers dorm room, Clementi lept to his death from the George Washington Bridge. On March 16, 2012, a New York jury found Dharun Ravi, Clementi’s roommate, guilty on all 15 counts of invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, tampering with evidence, witness tampering, and hindering apprehension or prosecution. Months later, Parker’s reporting is still incredibly thorough and horrifying as he documents the days and weeks leading up to Celementi’s death.
Part of the power of his report stems from, perhaps counter-intuitively, the extensive use of Instant Messanger conversations. At first glance, the presence of IM jargon in the New Yorker is like watching Lewis Lapham dance ‘Gangnam Style’: it’s hysterical but it feels totally fucking wrong. But once you move past the novelty, it’s incredible just how integral instant message, the preferred medium for office gossip, daytime flirtation, and the most banal of daily exchanges, was in the death of a young man.
Here’s a section when Ravi begins his online sleuthing into his new roommate — and shares his discoveries with a friend:
A little before midnight, Ravi began an I.M. exchange with Jason Tam, a high-school friend. Ravi had found some of Keybowvio’s posts on a Yahoo forum: something about fish tanks, Ravi told Tam, and something else “pertaining to violins.” If, with “pertaining,” Ravi was aiming for sly disdain, Tam struck a different note: “I’m calling it now. This guy is retarded.” Ravi showed Tam a link to a page on a health forum where, three years earlier, Keybowvio had asked why his asthma symptoms had suddenly worsened, noting that he had prescriptions for Advair and Singulair. Nobody had replied. There was just Keybowvio’s follow-up: “Anyone?” (“What a pussy,” Tam wrote.) Ravi and Tam also found questions about anti-virus software and contributions to a Web site of counter-revolutionary peevishness called Anythingbutipod. In these old posts, at least, Keybowvio—who was indeed Tyler Clementi—seemed worried or defensive about computing. Ravi mocked his roommate for “asking if he should boot linux everytime he surfs internet.”
Just before midnight, Ravi wrote to Tam: “FUCK MY LIFE / He’s gay.” He had found Keybowvio’s name on Justusboys, a gay-pornography site that also has discussion areas. Ravi sent Tam a link to a page that contained sex-tinged ads but was otherwise mundane. It was a conversation, from 2006, prompted by Keybowvio’s question about a problem with his computer’s hard drive. Keybowvio noted that his electronic folders were fastidiously organized; perhaps jokingly, he added, “i have ocd.”
In the next few minutes, Ravi wrote “wtf”—“what the fuck”—seven times. He posted a link to the Justusboys page on his Twitter account: “Found out my roommate is gay.”
Parker uses a latticework of instant messages to trace the developing atmosphere of suspicion and distrust that characterized the lead-up to Clementi’s suicide. It’s an interesting addition, to rely on instant messager, a medium usually associated with private distraction from something more important (like our day jobs) as a the primary mechanism for parsing the inevitable collision between Ravi and Clementi. The messages, publicly available as part of the prosecution’s case against Ravi, are casual, offhand, almost mundane, but they’re at the heart of the bias intimidation (hate crime) charges that were contentious legal point throughout the course of the trial (I found Kate Zernick’s excellent exposition of this topic to WBUR’s Tom Ashbrook especially illuminating, as I knew nothing of juridical logical surrounding hate crime legislation at the time. That American Constitutional Law seminar I took in college was, apparently, a waste of my tuition).
Ravi’s chats, compounded with the seriousness of Clementi’s suicide (not that suicide can ever be unserious), reinforce a simple idea: you are what you type. I’m reminded of this excellent n+1 essay “Cathexis” (also in my print pile) on the complexities of the online chat. Pondering the modern descendants of 17th- and 18th-century salons where “aristocratic women led male philosophes in polite and lively discussion,” the n+1 editors turn a keen eye to Internet jabber: “If talking is one thing, and conversation another, then what is chat?”
Our banalities are more shameful than any fantasy or confession. Gmail saves the histories of our chats, should we ever care to look. It turns out we use the internet to talk about what other people are talking about on the internet: “Oh god please look at what she just tweeted.” “Hang on I’ll find the link.” And then there are the tactical chats—“I guess I am not that in the mood for Thai food?”—that would be harmless enough on their own. Mixed in with the rest, and preserved for all eternity, they assemble further evidence of our gross mortal wastefulness. Time is misspent twice: we talk about life as thoughtlessly as we live it. And the server farms know this.
In contrast to chat rooms, where we talked to many people in public, in Gchat we talk to many people in private and simultaneously. (We could gather our friends together—Group Chat has been around since 2007—but mostly we don’t.) “As long as one is in society,” said 18th-century salon hostess Suzanne Necker, “one must occupy oneself with others, never keeping silent out of laziness or from distraction.” But distraction is endemic to daytime Gchatting, especially at work. The medium creates the illusion of intimacy—of giving and receiving undivided attention—when in fact our attention is quite literally divided, apportioned among up to six small boxes at a time. The boxes contain staccato, telegraphic exchanges, with which we are partially and intermittently engaged. Together the many chats divert us from work, speeding up time—yet look closely and you see time break down and stop. The clusters of text are followed by time-stamps, which Google inserts whenever the conversation lags. For David Hume, increased conversation between men and women corresponded to “an increase of humanity, from the very habit of conversing together.” But Hume didn’t know about Gchat, which offers us so many opportunities for conversation that conversation becomes impossible. We are distracted from chatting by chatting itself.
“Our banalities are more shameful than any fantasy or confession.” That’s the defining feature of Instant Message: most of the time, it’s uproariously mundane.
This mundanity actually seems to separate Gchat from the more pithy exchanges of public social networks. Now, I’ve never subscribed to the idea of “digital dualism”: that the digital world is “virtual” or inauthentic and the physical world “real” and therefore inherently more meaningful than the world of, say, status updates and funny links to cat pictures (or, by extension, one form of digital living is more or less authentic than the next). All social interaction is a farce at some level, really: in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, sociologist Erving Goffman compared social life to the theater, arguing that the social actor has the ability to choose his stage and props, as well as the costume he would wear in front of a specific audience. On the Internet, we function on many different stages, with a wardrobe bursting with meticulously crafted costumes. Those costumes are still parts of who we are (you picked the materials, sewed the patterns, and the like), just often deployed to achieve a certain representation of self, an ongoing reinvention. To a certain extent, I’d argue that we’re still actors on a stage when we engage in real life, but our wardrobes are sparse, our scene changes shortened: we have to wear the costumes we’re used to wearing, the ones that are recognizable and consistent and easy to maintain. The signaling, without the luxury of composing the perfect Gchat or tweet or whatever, flows naturally. It’s not more or less authentic (authenticity is a dead term anyway, and the New York Times Sunday Review killed it) but its less structured, more organic.
But I have no doubt that Gchats, private, persistant, and unencumbered by the publicness of a Facebook wall or a Twitter feed, tell us more about who Dharun Ravi is (and likely, who we are) that most any other form of digital communication. You are not, as Jason Kottke might suggest, “who your last dozen tweets say you are” (although you are that, too): you’re more likely the sum of your chats, your furious rants about your asshole boss, your subtle flirtations with your boyfriends and girlfriends (and exes), and your deliberate, stony silences. The banality of Gchat, in the case of Dharun Ravi, was a window in the banality of hate.
Where letters and correspondence from centuries past are the primary sources for contemporary historians, Parker’s report is yet another reminder that our tweets and Facebook posts and Gchats will be fodder for future historians. I realize now that I can’t consume information or stories on a computer, or really do anything, without being a part of that perpetual act of historical production. Even with Facebook and Twitter, the dual channels of perpetual, focused reinvention, shut down for the evening, my daily search habits and private Gchats will circumscribe who I am. And I read through my Gchat histories and, devoid of context (or even in context), do not like what I see. Even searching for Parker’s New Yorker dispatch online leaves an imprint of what the Internet *thinks* I am. This isn’t to say that I’m not my search history or Pocket queue or my sassy Gchats to my coworkers: I said and did and searched for all those things, and they are me. But the structured behaviors we undertake online are slowly becoming so regular, so mundane, that the artifacts we craft online are no longer things we build deliberately, that we compose thoughtfully: they are merely extensions of ourselves, whether we like it or not.
Now that I think of it, this may actually be why I have so many magazines lying around my apartment, why I do try to unplug when I come home from work (other than the fact that I spend all day looking at screens and my eyes HURT, OK?! They hurt), and why I rarely tweet on the weekends (unless it’s 3AM and I suddenly have booze-soaked thoughts to share) and why I don’t live-tweet my reading list or every goddamn activity I participate in. I don’t go offline because the Internet isn’t real or meaningful, or because it is evil or making us lonely (for fuck’s sake). I go offline because the Internet, my networks, my points of contact, are perpetually aching to be filled with my banal everythings.
When I think of Gchat now, and even just the Internet in general, all I can think of is Leonardo DiCaprio, walking a wide-eyed Ellen Page through the dream logic of Inception: “You create the world of the dream. We bring the subject into that dream and fill it with their subconscious.”
(Image: Adriane Cloepfil/n+1)
11:36 pm • 4 December 2012 • 21 notes
Emotional traumas often demand to be overwhelmed by levity. My family and friends have always advised me to distract myself with happier things following the inevitable disappointments of life. Listen to your favorite songs. Seek out exciting activities. Enjoy the reassuring company of loved ones. Drink, but never alone.
Instead, I often choose riding the subway.
Several weeks after a particularly messy separation from a long-time partner, I found myself fleeing into the steely embrace of Washington D.C.’s Metro system. Stumbling down the escalator in Dupont Circle, my gaze fell upon the inscription in the granite walls above the north entrance, an excerpt from Walt Whitman’s 1865 poem ‘The Wound Dresser’ from Leave of Grass:
Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad
‘The Wound Dresser’ was about Whitman’s experience as a nurse during the Civil War. A few bourbons deep, I wondered what the hell WMATA was playing at: with constant work stoppages and hermetically bland cars, the Red Line is far from a naturally restorative environment. But within minutes of dumping myself into a small plastic seat in the midst of D.C.’s rush hour commute, I realized that Whitman’s words were describing a phenomenon I’d been experiencing throughout my entire life, from growing up riding Boston’s T to navigating the gritty catacombs of New York City’s sprawling subway system. Wrapped in steel and plastic and surrounded by strangers, riding public transportation can be therapeutic as a trip to a local psychologist or a night out with my friends.
Public transportation is an inherently contradictory experience. You insert yourself into a highly public, perpetually crowded environment and immediately retreat into the privacy of your own interior world. German sociologist Georg Simmel, in a famous passage from his 1912 volume Mélanges de Philosophie Relativiste, was struck by the new spatial and sensorial regimen that transit provided:
Before the appearance of omnibuses, railroads, and street cars in the nineteenth century, men were not in a situation where for periods of minutes or hours they could or must look at each other without talking to one another.” The result is an odd form of salutory neglect, an unspoken agreement to ignore those with whom we’re forced to share the same crowded space.
Sociologist Erving Goffman called it “civil inattention” in his 1971 book Relations in Public: “individuals exert respectful care in regard to the setting and treat others present with civil inattention.” This doesn’t mean ignoring people or treating them in a rude or dismissive way, but respectfully acknowledging their presence in an unobtrusive manner. It’s no wonder, then, that public transportation has been a fascination for generations of psychologists and sociologists: as Tom Vanderbilt noted in Slate in 2009, “the subway—which keeps random people together in a contained, observable setting—is a perfect rolling laboratory for the study of human behavior.”
That I feel comfort in the subway seems awfully counterintuitive: the presence of human beings is not the same as the presence of people (Simmel in particular cautioned city-dwellers about the dehumanizing effects of urban life). Nor does the commotion of public transportation offer any level of relaxation. Most people don’t like crowds in general, let alone being in steel tube jammed with commuters heading towards (or escaping) eight hours in the office. Individual comfort with crowds is dependent on personality, of course: an extrovert may thrive on the overstimulation of a roiling audience at an outdoor concert or the latent energy of a sporting event, while an introvert may shy away from excessive, unwelcome invasions of personal space. Others are almost entirely negative, like the sea of frenetic shoppers pressing against the automatic doors of their local Wal-Mart in the hollow darkness of a Black Friday morning. The subway lacks the commonality that underpins waiting in line for an event, the anticipation surrounding a shared experience. Most subway solidarity comes from a single shared purpose: I want to get to where I’m going, and I want to get there and out of this concrete labyrinth as soon as possible, and let’s just please not make this more difficult for each other than it has to be.
I realize now that I’ve always had a mild penchant for subway therapy, even before I started a regular commute that necessitates a routinized relationship with a major metropolitan transportation system. In high school, I’d spent afternoons riding the T in circles, thinking about daily frustrations and the anxieties of applying to college. As a student at Wesleyan University, I often insisted on traveling to and from Boston for Thanksgiving or to New York to visit friends solely by train (or on one of those hellish low-budget buses), more for the distinct experience than to avoid the distinct stresses of flying. Ta-Nehisi Coates would eventually distill my love for train travel in November 2011 into a blog post at The Atlantic:
The train, in all aspects, was a superior experience. The first thing was the feeling of everything melting away, of someone else taking control. When flying there are generally so many rules to be obeyed, and times when specific things can happen that I generally feel like, as a passenger, I’m actually a co-pilot. Lights tell you when you can and can’t move. Announcements indicate (because I use a laptop and iPad) when it’s safe to read, write, or listen to your music. Food and drink are administered at precise times. All of this within a confined space.
But there was a freedom on the train that you may need to be taller than six feet to really understand. You could walk as you needed to. You could sit in the cafe car and watch the scenery. You could fall into your book. Or you could just sleep, something I can’t really do on airplanes.
I didn’t think really think critically about my habit for subway therapy until that day in March. My former Atlantic colleague Eric Jaffe, upon leaving for a research hiatus from his job as a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities, had written about his love for the New York subway system that week, and a few paragraphs of his post stuck in my head as I rode D.C.’s Red Line in crowded solitude:
In his essay “Here Is New York,” E.B. White famously wrote that the city bestows on its inhabitants the gifts of loneliness and privacy. New York feels at times like a breeding ground for solitude, but what I think this contention misses is the charm of being alone together. New York City residents do all the things all other Americans do by themselves — ride to work, listen to music, pick their noses — but do them while sharing intensely close quarters with perfect strangers.
This sort of independent coexistence, as it might be called, seems like a defining quality of any functional democracy. The pressure of one’s own convictions and quirks, pushing outward against those of the rest, looping back into an honest reassessment of the self. Nowhere in America is this delicate balance more apparent than on the New York City subway, where mayor and citizen, rich and poor, wise and weird, late and lazy, picker and proper alike all share, for a short time each day, the earnest desire for a seat or at the very least a sliver of standing room. The car and the highway have come to represent American freedom, but it’s the subway train that truly reflects its egalitarian spirit.
White hints at this recognition later in his essay when he writes that New York “compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island.” That makes the city like a poem, he contends, which also compresses a great flood of humanity into a teacup of space. If you accept White’s metaphor of the poem then I submit the subway system must be its refrain: the familiar lines that help otherwise stranded words feel like part of the same group.
Public transportation, as Simmel pondered in the early 20th century, equalizes the human experience. It is the fundamental, almost ritualistic glue of urban life: traders or artists, rich or poor, we all inevitably occupy the same confined space for hours each week. Often the experience of riding the subway is terrible, but it’s a shared terror, one where its inconveniences (delays, unruly homeless men and women, drunks, and the like) elicit furtive glances and shared exchanges of rolled eyes before riders transition back into their shared state of civil inattention.
This is why riding the subway has become something of a therapeutic experience for me. An orchestrated meeting with friends has an undertone of concern and necessity: we are here because I am a somehow world apart and they’re here to fill me with booze and keep me focused on other things. It is an abnormal exercise, a break from routine with a very specific goal. Going to the gym for relief is similar: post-trauma exercising binges are designed to simultaneously exhaust and distract, cutting the day’s frustrations with endorphins. A ride on the subway is an exercise in solidarity by shared banality. The paradox of the subway allows us to work things out in solitude but to do so in the comforting presence of other people, under the shared solidarity of subway introspection.
People-watching itself, the ultimate exercise in passive-aggressive stimulation, becomes an accidental act of introspection. On the Red Line, I start making up stories about my fellow commuters. Frumpled Suit blew a major deal today; anxious, he occasionally fingers his wedding ring. He gets off the train in Van Ness, and I imagine his climb up the station’s escalator as one last chance to formulate his thoughts before he goes home. Cute Young Professional is reading ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and sighs a lot. I anticipate she’ll go home and look at plane tickets to exotic locations in India and Western Europe before returning to the work she brought home from the office. Too Many Grocery Bags looks like she’s about to cry. I don’t even want to imagine a story for her, because so do I. Every person who entered and exited that car has had the worst day of their life, or maybe their best. Some are beginning new lives, reinventing themselves in the arms of a new city and a new job. Some are dying, or wasting away in the throes of their own private crises. But we share this structured retreat into our interior worlds. The subway becomes a shared celebration of the victories of the day and an exercise in collective mourning, a place where our people’s lives intersect for split second of collective frustration. Seemingly isolated by frustration, or anger, or sadness of personal or professional stress, the subway offers therapy through collective anxiety. Alone in a crowd, I exist in the negative space between a multitude of interior worlds. Somehow, I gradually regain my sense of regularity, of focus.
After a little more than an hour, I transfered to the Green Line at Chinatown and, 10 minutes later, exited the Metro in my neighborhood. The combination of the gentle lull of my swaying car and the company of perfect strangers has left me feeling focused and clear-headed. I’ve spent an hour working out my frustrations in the comfort of shared interiority and the Whitman quote above the Dupont Circle Metro station sudden snaps into focus: overwhelmed by the anxieties and frustrations of urban life, I emerge from my commute soothed and pacified by the cleansing banality of travel. Some speak of escaping from civilization as a way to recenter themselves: going on a ‘digital sabbath,’ camping for a weekend, and generally fetishizing the absence of people, of connections, as the necessary conditions for self reflections. I know now why I prefer the claustrophobic currents of metal and flesh that are the nervous systems of cities: I find reflection best maintained against the thrum of human activity, the casual, unspoken recognition of making (and often struggling) our own way through life, alone together.
The quote inscribed above the Dupont Circle Metro station is only an excerpt from ‘The Wound Dresser,’ pulled from the very end of Whitman’s poem. When I returned home, I unearthed a dusty, worn collection of Whitman’s poetry in search of the full poem. This excerpt caught my eye:
O maidens and young men I love and that love me,
What you ask of my days those the strangest and sudden your talking recalls,
Soldier alert I arrive after a long march cover’d with sweat and dust,
In the nick of time I come, plunge in the fight, loudly shout in the rush of successful charge,
Enter the captur’d works—yet lo, like a swift running river they fade,
Pass and are gone they fade—I dwell not on soldiers’ perils or soldiers’ joys,
(Both I remember well—many of the hardships, few the joys, yet I was content.)
Above: A New York City commuter reads The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman (Photo: Ourit Ben-Haim/Underground New York Public Library)
12:19 am • 4 December 2012 • 690 notes
Despite the efforts of industry bodies, government agencies, and industrial archaeologists, this vast, distributed artificial winter that has reshaped our entire food system remains, for the most part, unmapped. What’s more, the varied forms of these cold spaces remain a mystery to most. This guide provides an introduction to a handful of the strange spatial typologies found within the “cold chain,” that linked network of atmospheric regulation on which our entire way of life depends.
(Photo: Kraft’s subterranean “cheese” cave, Springfield, Missouri/Christoph Morlinghaus)
This salute to refrigeration is amazing. Read the whole thing at Cabinet
11:05 pm • 28 November 2012 • 2 notes
Agent Zapata traces the chain of events that led to the murder of US agent Jaime Zapata and explores its consequences, a journey that takes us from the seedy pawn shops of East Texas to the cartel-besieged cities of northern Mexico to the corridors of power in Washington, D.C.
Newsy. I like it.
7:54 pm • 28 November 2012 • 5 notes
As We May Think
As Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, Dr. Vannevar Bush has coordinated the activities of some six thousand leading American scientists in the application of science to warfare. In this significant article he holds up an incentive for scientists when the fighting has ceased. He urges that men of science should then turn to the massive task of making more accessible our bewildering store of knowledge. For years inventions have extended man’s physical powers rather than the powers of his mind. Trip hammers that multiply the fists, microscopes that sharpen the eye, and engines of destruction and detection are new results, but not the end results, of modern science. Now, says Dr. Bush, instruments are at hand which, if properly developed, will give man access to and command over the inherited knowledge of the ages. The perfection of these pacific instruments should be the first objective of our scientists as they emerge from their war work. Like Emerson’s famous address of 1837 on “The American Scholar,” this paper by Dr. Bush calls for a new relationship between thinking man and the sum of our knowledge.
This is probably one of my favorite technology essays of all time, let alone from The Atlantic’s archives. Writing in July 1945, Dr. Vannevar Bush expresses his concern for the direction of scientific efforts towards destruction, rather than understanding, and explicates a desire for a sort of collective memory machine with his concept of the memex that would make knowledge more accessible, believing that it would help fix these problems. Through this machine, Bush hoped to transform an information explosion into a knowledge explosion. This is essentially one of the first serious conceptualizations of what we now call the Internet
Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client’s interest. The physician, puzzled by a patient’s reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology. The chemist, struggling with the synthesis of an organic compound, has all the chemical literature before him in his laboratory, with trails following the analogies of compounds, and side trails to their physical and chemical behavior.
The historian, with a vast chronological account of a people, parallels it with a skip trail which stops only on the salient items, and can follow at any time contemporary trails which lead him all over civilization at a particular epoch. There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.
Thus science may implement the ways in which man produces, stores, and consults the record of the race. It might be striking to outline the instrumentalities of the future more spectacularly, rather than to stick closely to methods and elements now known and undergoing rapid development, as has been done here. Technical difficulties of all sorts have been ignored, certainly, but also ignored are means as yet unknown which may come any day to accelerate technical progress as violently as did the advent of the thermionic tube. In order that the picture may not be too commonplace, by reason of sticking to present-day patterns, it may be well to mention one such possibility, not to prophesy but merely to suggest, for prophecy based on extension of the known has substance, while prophecy founded on the unknown is only a doubly involved guess.
All our steps in creating or absorbing material of the record proceed through one of the senses—the tactile when we touch keys, the oral when we speak or listen, the visual when we read. Is it not possible that some day the path may be established more directly?
We know that when the eye sees, all the consequent information is transmitted to the brain by means of electrical vibrations in the channel of the optic nerve. This is an exact analogy with the electrical vibrations which occur in the cable of a television set: they convey the picture from the photocells which see it to the radio transmitter from which it is broadcast. We know further that if we can approach that cable with the proper instruments, we do not need to touch it; we can pick up those vibrations by electrical induction and thus discover and reproduce the scene which is being transmitted, just as a telephone wire may be tapped for its message.
The impulses which flow in the arm nerves of a typist convey to her fingers the translated information which reaches her eye or ear, in order that the fingers may be caused to strike the proper keys. Might not these currents be intercepted, either in the original form in which information is conveyed to the brain, or in the marvelously metamorphosed form in which they then proceed to the hand?
Read the rest of “As We May Think” at The Atlantic
1:01 pm • 25 December 2011 • 181 notes
My Top 5 Longreads of 2011
The Blind Man Who Taught Himself To See (Mens Journal, March 2011)
Daniel Kish has been sightless since he was a year old. Yet he can mountain bike. And navigate the wilderness alone. And recognize a building as far away as 1,000 feet. How? The same way bats can see in the dark.
Bats, of course, use echolocation. Beluga whales too. Dolphins. And Daniel Kish. He is so accomplished at echolocation that he’s able to pedal his mountain bike through streets heavy with traffic and on precipitous dirt trails. He climbs trees. He camps out, by himself, deep in the wilderness. He’s lived for weeks at a time in a tiny cabin a two-mile hike from the nearest road. He travels around the globe. He’s a skilled cook, an avid swimmer, a fluid dance partner. Essentially, though in a way that is unfamiliar to nearly any other human being, Kish can see.
The Behavioral Sink (Cabinet Magazine, Spring 2011)
How do you design a utopia?
In 1972, John B. Calhoun detailed the specifications of his Mortality-Inhibiting Environment for Mice: a practical utopia built in the laboratory. Every aspect of Universe 25—as this particular model was called—was pitched to cater for the well-being of its rodent residents and increase their lifespan. The Universe took the form of a tank, 101 inches square, enclosed by walls 54 inches high. The first 37 inches of wall was structured so the mice could climb up, but they were prevented from escaping by 17 inches of bare wall above. Each wall had sixteen vertical mesh tunnels—call them stairwells—soldered to it. Four horizontal corridors opened off each stairwell, each leading to four nesting boxes. That means 256 boxes in total, each capable of housing fifteen mice. There was abundant clean food, water, and nesting material. The Universe was cleaned every four to eight weeks. There were no predators, the temperature was kept at a steady 68°F, and the mice were a disease-free elite selected from the National Institutes of Health’s breeding colony. Heaven.
Vogt, Ehrlich, and the others were neo-Malthusians, arguing that population growth would cause our demise by exhausting our natural resources, leading to starvation and conflict. But there was no scarcity of food and water in Calhoun’s universe. The only thing that was in short supply was space. This was, after all, “heaven”—a title Calhoun deliberately used with pitch-black irony. The point was that crowding itself could destroy a society before famine even got a chance. In Calhoun’s heaven, hell was other mice.
The Beer Archaeologist (Smithsonian Magazine, August 2011)
By analyzing ancient pottery, Patrick McGovern is resurrecting the libations that fueled civilization
“Dr. Pat,” as he’s known at Dogfish Head, is the world’s foremost expert on ancient fermented beverages, and he cracks long-forgotten recipes with chemistry, scouring ancient kegs and bottles for residue samples to scrutinize in the lab. He has identified the world’s oldest known barley beer (from Iran’s Zagros Mountains, dating to 3400 B.C.), the oldest grape wine (also from the Zagros, circa 5400 B.C.) and the earliest known booze of any kind, a Neolithic grog from China’s Yellow River Valley brewed some 9,000 years ago.
The Brain on Trial (The Atlantic, July/August 2011)
Advances in brain science are calling into question the volition behind many criminal acts. A leading neuroscientist describes how the foundations of our criminal-justice system are beginning to crumble, and proposes a new way forward for law and order.
Changes in the balance of brain chemistry, even small ones, can also cause large and unexpected changes in behavior. Victims of Parkinson’s disease offer an example. In 2001, families and caretakers of Parkinson’s patients began to notice something strange. When patients were given a drug called pramipexole, some of them turned into gamblers. And not just casual gamblers, but pathological gamblers. These were people who had never gambled much before, and now they were flying off to Vegas. One 68-year-old man amassed losses of more than $200,000 in six months at a series of casinos. Some patients became consumed with Internet poker, racking up unpayable credit-card bills. For several, the new addiction reached beyond gambling, to compulsive eating, excessive alcohol consumption, and hypersexuality.
The lesson from all these stories is the same: human behavior cannot be separated from human biology. If we like to believe that people make free choices about their behavior (as in, “I don’t gamble, because I’m strong-willed”), cases like Alex the pedophile, the frontotemporal shoplifters, and the gambling Parkinson’s patients may encourage us to examine our views more carefully. Perhaps not everyone is equally “free” to make socially appropriate choices.
Lost Symbols (Lapham’s Quarterly, Spring 2011)
I also had personal reasons to be suspicious of tool collecting. Although I come from a family of insufferably handy men—men able to wire a house, rebuild a transmission, frame a wall without calling an expert or consulting a book—I am profoundly unhandy. By the traditional measures of American manhood, I am, essentially, a Frenchwoman.
One might, therefore, find it strange or worrisome that one summer not long ago I devoted every waking hour I could spare to the study of old tools, reading books with titles like Wrenches: Antique and Unusual and The Hammer: The King of Tools. I stayed up all night browsing the searchable archives of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, encountering there such exotic utensils as the Clamp Fur-Knife, which, when “Edward Flint, of the city, county, and State of New York,” registered his invention in 1837, was “a new and useful Instrument for Extracting Hairs from Fur-Skins.” Mostly, I rode a Midwestern circuit of flea markets and farm auctions in the passenger seat of an emerald-green Toyota pickup truck piloted by a fifty-five-year-old botanist with a ponytail, spectacles like windowpanes, and a beard bordering on the Whitmanesque.
The Luckiest Woman on Earth (Harpers, August 2011 (subscription required))
Three ways to win the lottery
No Death, No Taxes (New Yorker, November 28, 2011)
The libertarian futurism of a Silicon Valley billionaire.
How Luther Went Viral (The Economist, December 17, 2011)
Five centuries before Facebook and the Arab spring, social media helped bring about the Reformation
9:57 pm • 23 December 2011 • 65 notes