September and October, 2022

I somehow missed posting in September, so I’m making up for it with a longer than usual update.

The Death Cheaters,” by Courtney Shea

Longevity House is a…facility? club? community? in Toronto, run by Michael Nguyen, who made his name (and his money) making very expensive bespoke suits for the rich and famous. It costs $100,000 to join, and members get access to all kinds of procedures and treatments that are supposed to extend their lives (and the quality of those lives).

Many of the treatments have little clear science behind them— like the BioCharger, a device described by its manufacturer as “a health optimization platform designed to transmit energy that stimulates and invigorates the entire body to optimize and improve potential health, wellness, and athletic performance.” Side note: it is striking to me how durable is the belief in a vague, generalized “energy” or set of “energies” that human beings are supposed to be able to harness or channel. (In any case, I’d definitely encourage you to go to the section of that website purporting to explain “the science behind the BioCharger”).

Other treatments HAVE in fact been fairly thoroughly evaluated— despite the constant claims of advocates that “mainstream science” refuses to examine them, or that they have unknown potential. Some of those, like “platelet-rich plasma injections,” have been shown not to have any discernible benefits.

The article describes all of this as “biohacking,” which for me connotes something much more interesting, if no more personally appealing— like putting RF chips in your hands that you can use to open your door. I have no desire to DO that, but I can at least see why people think it is cool and interesting. Longevity House seems more like the very high-end version of those magnetic bracelets I used to see in infomercials. What’s jarring is that a lot of the people buying into this have the money to do so because they are very, very smart— they have invented or developed important technologies, or made a ton of money in finance, etc. So why do things that seem like pretty obvious nonsense appeal to them? My own, very undercooked theory is that if your success is based on being (really or ostensibly) smarter than other people, it’s very easy to develop the sense that you are smarter than EVERYBODY, and start to behave as though you know more, about more things, than you actually do.

The Disappearing Art of Maintenance,” by Alex Vuocolo

As Kurt Vonnegut said somewhere, “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” I’ve written here before about this problem, but this piece takes a different angle on what, exactly, it means— and what it costs— to maintain something. The reason maintenance generally provokes little enthusiasm is actually pretty obvious: it involves devoting scarce resources (if only time and energy) to simply keeping things the way they are, rather than improving them, and it requires doing that when nothing is wrong, when there is no particular problem to solve. “That’s the difference between maintenance and repair. Repair is when you fix something that’s already broken. Maintenance is about making something last.” That means, as Vuocolo points out, that maintenance can often appear unnecessary: it is labor undertaken before the need for it has become obvious.

It is also often seen as a less-desirable alternative to replacing the old with the new: “More often than not, maintenance is done only under conditions of austerity; those that can afford brand new things can simply discard what breaks or is no longer useful.” This is where the environmental implications of maintenance come to the fore; it is wasteful to simply dispose of things, especially when replacing them is likely to get more difficult, or be damaging:

The industrial world is aging, and the sheer quantity and geographic extent of transportation, water and energy infrastructure presents an unprecedented challenge at the exact moment that climate change forces us to rethink material use. More robust maintenance practices could help preserve modernity’s finest achievements, from public transit systems to power grids to insulated homes

Much more broadly, Vuocolo suggests that perhaps

Maintenance could serve as a useful framework for addressing climate change and other pressing planetary constraints…Indeed, maintenance as a concept could encompass both the built environment and the so-called natural world. Perhaps maintenance, rather than sustainability, is the more useful framework for a green transition, because it can account for how human infrastructure is now deeply entangled with the environment in the age of the Anthropocene.

A couple of things strike me about this idea. One is that it moves away from thinking about humans as separate from “the environment,” but doesn’t, to my mind, go far enough in this direction. Better, perhaps, to say that what we have built and what is natural are all, collectively, our environment, and that all the pieces of this environment require maintenance, albeit of very different kinds. Being able to encompass that difference is an advantage of maintenance as a framework; it is always at least a little bit improvisational, and that allows it to encompass a lot of different kinds of action, suited to the different aspects of the “environment,” broadly understood.

The second thing that strikes me, though, is that, again, nobody LIKES doing maintenance. It is, in a sense, backward looking— or at least not forward looking in the same way as many technological idea about how to deal with environmental crisis. As Vuocolo notes, it seems conservative, in the more literal sense: maintenance is about keeping what you have, keeping it working, and one thing that can make it frustrating is that it can feel like running in place. Spend a couple of hours changing your oil, and at the end all you have to show for it is the same car you had at the beginning. The more intense the labor involved, the more acute this feeling is likely to be. As a framework for responding to environmental crisis, I worry that this will sound to many people like the end of progress. “Sustainability,” at least as it has developed, seems to demand new technologies, new materials, new designs; it implies a future that LOOKS like the future. “Maintenance” is about holding ground, about keeping what we have; it implies a future that looks, in many ways, like the present. The discussion a little later in the piece of “circular economies” underlines this point: “maintenance is about keeping things — sometimes large, intensively built things like skyscrapers and subway cars that might be difficult to imagine in the biodegradable utopias of the most gung-ho environmentalists.”

By the same token, though, maintenance as a framework makes “the environment” and the threats to it much less abstract. If you think in terms of what is needed to keep things going, keep them working, you are necessarily thinking in terms of what is, so to speak, in front of you. More generally,

The way the world is constructed today is no longer legible, politically or technically. Objects come and go under mysterious circumstances. Cars and trains either run or someone else fixes them. The objects in our lives are shipped to us from faraway lands, and they work until they don’t. Discarded, they get hauled away in the early morning by stinky trucks.

Maintenance mostly happens out of sight, mysteriously. If we notice it, it’s a nuisance. When road crews block off sections of highway to fix potholes, we treat it as an obstruction, not a vital and necessary process.

I really like this idea of maintenance as a way of making technology more legible. If you can fix something, even in a basic way, then it is necessarily less mysterious to you: you know how it works. And if you know how it works, then it does not seem beyond your control. If enough of the world starts to make sense, in this way, then maybe making changes to it will not seem as daunting.

Of course, it’s not as simple as coming up with a new framework for thinking about these problems. There are obstacles, built into the economic structure of our world, that make change difficult. For instance, “In much of the developed world, labor costs are higher than material costs, which creates incentives to burn through fresh material rather than invest in the labor to use it more efficiently or maintain it for longer-term use.” This in a new (to me) angle on the long-standing debate about outsourcing/offshoring of labor. We’ve been seeing for decades what happens when employers have easy access to a cheaper source of labor— they switch to that source, lowering production costs but also eliminating jobs in countries like the U.S. But where labor costs are high, you cut costs elsewhere, even if that means using materials less efficiently. The only way to prevent that would be to raise the costs of such use, or, alternatively, create some kind of incentive to use them better. In any case,

Maintenance is no panacea, not within the narrow parameters of a subway system or the planet-sized arena of ecology, but it does offer a rough methodology for thinking through these questions and priorities. As a type of work that straddles production and consumption, maintenance can help us reckon with both the limits and possibilities of industrial society.

Bioacoustics: What nature’s sounds can tell us about the health of our world,” by Alanna Mitchell

What stands out to me in this story is the sheer quantity of information that sound conveys. This is probably surprising partly because, as one scientist in the piece notes, humans are “such a visual species, and we put such a high priority on it that we’ve discounted sound as a means to assess change and measure change.” I think we also have a tendency to think that animals must be using sound in relatively simple ways, since we think of them as less intelligent than ourselves, and because they don’t have language in a form that we recognize. So, we reduce their sounds to “marking territory” or “signaling threats.” They use sound for those things, of course, but it’s also much more complex. Sonar in animals like bats and whales is an obvious and relatively familiar example, and those navigational sounds can do double duty, communicating with others in the area who can hear them. Even if a bird call signals something simple like “there is a predator nearby,” there will be dozens of species, if not many more, in that bird’s immediate area, who will also hear the call and may have any number of ways of responding to it. And their responses will trigger others, and so on, in a complex cascade. That means that if a species disappears, the effects may include changes to the soundscape that may alter the behavior of everything else that lives in it.

As usual, we know a lot less about how all of this works than we might; in particular, we have very little idea of how all of sounds and species interact in complex ecosystems.

“Creatures also seem to communicate across species, using their voices to establish their own niche in a soundscape, like the harmonies in a choir. That means scientists can figure out what Pijanowski calls an ecosystem’s “acoustic heritage” by assessing the range of pitches in an area, understanding how and when creatures showed up in an ecosystem. It’s like hearing evolution.”

In a complex system like an ecosystem, everything affects everything else. By heating up the planet, human beings are also “changing the fundamental media through which sound waves move. The carbon load in the atmosphere is making air hotter and wetter or sometimes hotter and drier, throwing the planet’s instruments out of tune. It is causing the ocean to be warmer and less saline, and so sound waves move more quickly.” Indeed, climate change affects soundscapes in all kinds of ways; warmer temperatures can change the timing of breeding cycles of creatures like insects and amphibians, while “the life cycles of birds and mammals are driven by the amount of light, not by temperature. And light is not changing.” As a result, birds and insects that used to be hear together may be present at different times, or be sending different sonic signals, than they once did— which will affect the actions and responses of all kinds of other species.

The point being: it’s not just that changing the environment might mean we no longer hear certain kinds of bird song, and that’s sad (although this is true); it’s that every change has a gigantic range of unpredictable effects, and understanding those requires attention to many different phenomena.

As a side note: I am probably primed to notice and emphasize the complexity that’s highlighted here because I’ve been listening to the audiobook version of Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, by Mitchell Waldrop. I’ve been interested in complexity theory/chaos theory since I read Jurassic Park many years ago, and this book is a great (so far) history of the field.

The Enduring Allure of Choose Your Own Adventure Books,” by Leslie Jamison

I’d never really thought of the Choose Your Own Adventure books as coming from any particular person, but of course somebody had to have the idea before they became a phenomenon— and they were huge, selling more than 270 million copies. That the idea also emerged from a father’s attempts to tell his children a good story is the kind of detail that would seem implausible in fiction. That the article, itself, is written in the style of the books, allowing you to choose your own path through it, is just icing on the cake.

The 50 Million-Year-Old Treasures of Fossil Lake,” by Richard Conniff

In Southwest Wyoming, an ancient lake proved usually good for preserving fossils from the Eocene epoch, when both mammals and modern birds began to develop rapidly as the planet began to recover from the devastation of the meteor whose arrival ended the Cretaceous and the era of the dinosaurs.

“The lake not only fostered wildlife but also routinely killed it in mass mortality events of uncertain origin. Low-oxygen water in the depths kept scavengers off the corpses long enough for calcium carbonate pouring down from the surrounding hills to preserve the remains in sedimentary layers resembling annual tree rings. As a result, the fossils tend to be intact and complete, and often beautiful enough to display on a wall like a work of art.”

At high enough magnification, you can see the actual shape of the sound waves in a record:

Via Kottke

In fact, zooming in close reveals all kinds of weirdness, as you can see in this year’s Nikon Photomicrography Awards

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