July 18, 2024

Jumping right in:

Video: “Larry Bell: Glass”

Larry Bell is an artist who’s worked in lots of media, but is best known for works in glass. Part of the light and space movement that came out of Southern California in the 1960s, Bell manipulates the optical qualities of glass— color, obviously, but also opacity and reflectivity— to create all kinds of different effects. To do this, he uses a high-vacuum chamber to vaporize metals and other materials that coat the glass. He got started with all of this sort of accidentally; we was initially buying treated glass, but, in addition to being expensive, that made him dependent on what other people were willing and able to make for him. So, he got his own tank and began learning how to use it.

It had the ability to pump down to 1/100th of one micron of air. At those low pressures, it allows us to evaporate metals at high temperatures so that they keep their natural crystalline structure and coat surfaces as a thin film that provides optical qualities. It’s possible to change those optical qualities by both layering various films together and doing the plating in various reactive gases that change the molecular structure of the material. I first started using aluminum and silicon monoxide, which is one atom of oxygen short of being quartz. The materials became very important to me because I could manipulate them to interfere with light at various wavelengths and get color out them.

(Bell also uses this technique, called vacuum deposition, to make works on paper that he calls “vapor drawings”.)

I’m really interested in the actual process by which art is made— what an artist’s day is actually like, how objects get from conception to realization. In this case, the process is really complex, dependent on technology and equipment; it’s also very literally experimental, since Bell doesn’t quite know what effects particular combinations of minerals or additives will have until the material comes out of the tank. Decades of trial and error have led him to discover all kinds of possibilities, and obviously he has more control over the process now, but the work still comes out of an interplay between unpredictability and intention.


Next, some music: “Phoneglow”, by Burial and Kode9

A split 12″ from one of my favorite artists and the head of one of the most interesting electronic labels. The Burial track is a departure from his recent, more ambient work, and hearkens back to Untrue— to my mind, one of the best records of the last 20 years.


“World in a Box,” by Shannon Mattern

Any good history of an everyday object— like a cardboard box— is actually using that object as a focal point for understanding something vastly more complicated. If we remember that the “everydayness” of a thing is not inherent or obvious, but rather something that needs to be explained, then we can see why this is the case. What has to happen for the corrugated cardboard box to become ubiquitous enough to seem boring? A huge variety of people, material resources, infrastructure, and economic forces must be brought into alignment to make it so that the material can be produced in sufficient quantities, shaped and printed to fit countless specific uses, and moved efficiently around the world— and cheaply enough that the boxes themselves become disposable. This is an astonishing act of human energy and coordination, one that in turn makes possible all kinds of other such acts. The box developed in response to specific economic and cultural conditions, and then went on to reshape those conditions through the affordances it generated; any object that becomes this common is, I think, going to do both of those things, by definition.


“Spreadsheet Superstars”, by David Pierce

Speaking of something that seems boring: competitive Excel spreadsheets?

Essentially, the competitors here are working to solve puzzles; presented with specific scenarios, they have to use the spreadsheet to, for instance. calculate the best use of resources. The first problem in the article

is a puzzle called “Potions Master,” and it goes roughly like this: You’re training to be a potions master in Excelburg, but you’re terrible at it. You have a number of ingredients, each of which has a certain number of associated points; your goal is to get the most points in each potion before it explodes, which it does based on how much of a white ingredient you’ve added.

As he points out, you don’t actually need a spreadsheet to figure this out; what the spreadsheet can really help to do is create a system for solving similar kinds of problems, so that you can change the starting inputs (in this case, the point values of the potions) and get the new answer. As one competitor says, the players “who win are usually the people who build a system that will eventually answer all the questions.” So, it’s a race to build puzzle-solving frameworks.

The hook for the piece is that some of the people involved in this competition want to turn it into a spectator sport— something that, like championship poker games, other people will watch. This seems, on its face, like a hard sell, but then the tournament in the article is being broadcast on ESPN, so who knows? This raises some interesting questions about the difference between a game and a sport— when does the one become the other? Is a sport simply a game that people want to watch others play?

The piece also contains a nice capsule history of the spreadsheet, which is much shorter than I would have guessed. Pretty much in response to the growing availability of computers, they were invented to make repetitive calculations unnecessary; that proved to be so useful, for so many different kinds of tasks, that spreadsheets are “maybe the single most important reason computers first became mainstream.” Pierce also draws an interesting parallel between the spreadsheets and more recent developments:

Looking back, there’s a surprising resemblance between the way we talked about spreadsheets in the ’80s and the way we talk about artificial intelligence now. The same worries about automating people out of jobs; the same questions about whether we could really trust the computers to do all this complicated work so quickly. In fact, in the 1980s, spreadsheet programs were the AI bots of their day. “The aim is to knock some sense into otherwise mindless computers,” The New York Times’ David Sanger wrote in 1985, “getting them to understand — and perform automatically — the tasks that individual users struggle each day not to forget.”

In so many ways, though, the spreadsheet trajectory is the best-case scenario for an AI future. Where current AI tools like ChatGPT try to abstract away the inner workings and underlying data and simply offer you the world through a text box, spreadsheets do the opposite: they promise an ever greater level of control and understanding of the world around you. The people who work on Excel and other spreadsheet tools are perpetually trying to make them easier to use while also giving power users more ways to tinker. If you want to create something with AI, you just type in a prompt and hope for the best. A spreadsheet artist, on the other hand — and there really is such a thing — can paint their creation one cell at a time. The goal isn’t just getting an answer. It’s understanding all the inputs that allowed us to arrive there.

The converse of that, though, is that spreadsheets make plain exactly how easy it is to reduce so much of modern life to a bunch of numbers and formulas in a spreadsheet. Give me some numbers, and my Excel file will predict when you’re going to die. Dating spreadsheets have become normal in a world where romance is about swipes and statistics. Have a hard decision to make? I have a decision-matrix spreadsheet for you! In a spreadsheet world, everything is comparable, reducible to some base figure that eventually explains everything if only you know how to ask. Spreadsheets promise the world isn’t actually complicated — you just have to know the formulas. I don’t know if that’s beautiful or bleak or both, but it’s certainly big business.

That might sound like a stretch, but, as with the cardboard box, when something appears that, first, meets a widespread need, and, second, becomes so widespread that it alters the way people do all kinds of apparently unrelated kinds of things, it’s inevitably going to have consequences for society and culture more broadly.


“Chiroptera” by Thomas Bangalter

This is one of the rare occasions— actually almost the only one I can think of— where an algorithmic recommendation suggested something to me that 1) I was actually interested in seeing, and 2) I didn’t already know about. This is a performance with music by Thomas Bangalter, who was one half of Daft Punk, and choreographed by JR. It is not actually very new— the performance is from November 2023— but I just discovered it. Mesmerizing to watch. There’s a little more information about it on Jalet’s website.


“The Club of Cape-Wearing Activists Who Helped Elect Lincoln—and Spark the Civil War”, by Jon Grinspan

This is about a militant Republican group called the “Wide-Awakes” who formed in the run-up to the American Civil War. Spurred by people agitating against the influence of the “Slave Power” on American politics, they took to the streets, initially, to protect Republican and anti-slavery speakers and demonstrators, who were often attacked. They wore a costume that was originally designed to help to keep the oil from torches from staining clothes, but became a kind of uniform for groups of militant Republicans— mostly young, working-class men— who eventually numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

The name “wide-awake” was already in use prior to these groups, “used for anyone who was standing up for themselves. It fit with Republican rhetoric about an aggrieved majority finally pushing back.” It was alsoused by the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing movement from a decade earlier, and, for at least some of the new Wide-Awake groups, that connection was deliberate: they saw the Democrats not only as beholden to the “slave power” in the country, but also as “welcoming the pope’s Irish Catholic foot soldiers,” who would similarly undermine democracy and “steal the political birthright from the North’s growing, Protestant, native-born majority.”

There is no defense for this bigotry, and Republican leaders such as William Seward were working to clear such xenophobia from their ranks. But the youths who formed the Wide Awakes linked it all in their minds, building a new movement to fight what they saw as multiple conspiracies against democracy.

Although Grinspan is clear that these pre-Civil War groups were “not simply fighting an earlier battle in what may feel to us like a perpetual culture war that continues to this day” the echoes are hard to ignore.


“The Cloud Under the Sea”, by Josh Dzieza

I wrote last year about another article about undersea cables, but I continue to be fascinated by the fact that the whole mass of social, cultural, and economic activity and communication that is the internet is so entirely dependent on such a mundane piece of infrastructure. This piece takes a different angle, looking at the ships and crews that repair the cables when they are damaged— which happens all the time. “On average, [cable breaks] happen every other day, about 200 times a year.” The process for fixing them has changed little in the 150 years since Cyrus Field set out to repair the transatlantic cable he had laid down in the 1850s.

There have been some refinements: ships now hold steady using automated dynamic positioning systems rather than churning paddle wheels in opposite directions, and Field’s pronged anchor has spawned a medieval-looking arsenal of grapnels — long chains called “rennies,” diamond-shaped “flat fish,” spring-loaded six-blade “son of sammys,” three-ton detrenchers with seven-foot blades for digging through marine muck — but at its core, cable repair is still a matter of a ship dragging a big hook along the ocean floor.

This is despite the fact that the repair is quite a delicate operation, requiring precision and care. Cables are many miles long, weighing many tons, but are under very high tension, and must be brought to the surface very carefully. The process of joining lengths of cable together, in turn, “demands hunched, jeweler-like focus as they seek perfect precision — not in a seismically isolated clean room but in the belly of a rocking ship.” As Dzieza puts it, “In the family tree of professions, submarine cable work occupies a lonely branch somewhere between heavy construction and neurosurgery.”

It is also done by a very small number of people: “There are 77 cable ships in the world, according to data supplied by SubTel Forum, but most are focused on the more profitable work of laying new systems. Only 22 are designated for repair, and it’s an aging and eclectic fleet.” That means that when a major problem occurs— as when seven of the twelve cables connecting Japan were broken following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami— there is a small handful of people who are responsible for putting the internet back together.

That earthquake is the focal point of the article, which helps to clarify what is at stake in the maintenance of these cables. The quake— and, more specifically, the undersea landslide that followed it— both threatened to cut Japan connection to the rest of the world, and made that connection dramatically more necessary. The repair boat crews had to work very quickly, and in dangerous conditions (among other things, the meltdown at the Fukushima power plant had irradiated the ocean along the coast). The deepest repair needed after the quake was at a depth of over 20,000 feet, and materials had to be used carefully; if the ship in the article “used too much on their first repair, it would take six months to manufacture and deliver enough new cable to fix the remaining faults.”

More generally, there are all kinds of reasons that cable networks are at risk. One is a familiar problem: ore interest in building than in maintenance. In recent years, as companies like Google have invested in cloud infrastructure, the number of cables has increased a lot, but the number of repair ships has not. International tensions, like China’s claims in the South China Sea or conflict in the Red Sea region, complicate and increase the risks of repairs. One of the most common causes of cable breaks— fishing ships— are venturing into ever-deeper waters in pursuit of declining fish populations. And recruiting new people to work on the ships is difficult— most people don’t know the job exists, and even the people who do it didn’t exactly train for it, specifically. But the work is only getting more important, as we become more reliant on network infrastructure that to work, all the time, at faster and faster speeds.

Side note: this piece, like the one about Excel, has some really nice, distinctive web design.


“Inside Mexico’s Anti-Avocado Militias”, by Alexander Sammon

This is also kind of a follow-up, since I posted several months ago about the the growing role of Mexican drug cartels in the production of avocados. That, of course, means violence for areas where avocados are grown; in addition, the increasing demand (mainly in the US) has driven the clear-cutting of forests and water usage (since avocados are a very thirsty crop). This piece, though, is about a town that organized to resist this expansion, becoming an autonomous community with its own police force dedicated to preventing avocado cultivation.

Thirteen years ago, the town’s residents prevented corrupt officials and a local cartel from illegally cutting down native forests to make way for the crop. A group of locals took loggers hostage while others incinerated their trucks. Soon, townspeople had kicked out the police and local government, cancelled elections, and locked down the whole area. A revolutionary experiment was under way. Months later, Cherán reopened with an entirely new state apparatus in place. Political parties were banned, and a governing council had been elected; a reforestation campaign was undertaken to replenish the barren hills; a military force was chartered to protect the trees and the town’s water supply; some of the country’s most advanced water filtration and recycling programmes were created. And the avocado was outlawed. Citing the Mexican constitution, which guarantees Indigenous communities the right to autonomy, Cherán petitioned the state for independence. In 2014, the courts recognised the municipality, and it now receives millions of dollars a year in state funding. Today, it is an independent zone where the purples and yellows of the Purépecha flag, representing the Indigenous nation in the region, is as common as the Mexican standard. What started as a public safety initiative has become a radical oddity, a small arcadia governed by militant environmentalism in the heart of avocado country.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this transformation has had its own problems; similar autodefensa groups spring up in the wake of Chéran’s success, but some of them were infiltrated by the cartels, or even became something pretty much like a cartel themselves as they turned to selling drugs in order to raise funds. Still, the example offers a model for giving communities a measure of control in the face of global economic forces that would otherwise simply run them over.


“Viruses Finally Reveal Their Complex Social Life, by Carl Zimmer

I’ve been interested in chaos theory, and later complexity theory, since reading Jurassic Park and, even more, The Lost World in high school. The more you learn about complexity, the more of the world it seems to explain; to me, in my scientific ignorance, it seems like the magic key that links everything together, from information science to biology to weather systems.

Viral infections produce lots of what are called “incomplete” viruses, which don’t have all of the genetic information of the regular virus. Rather than simply being duds, as one might expect, these incomplete viruses can actually exploit other, complete version of the virus, using their “machinery” to insert the incomplete virus’s DNA into a host cell, for instance. For many years, this led to incomplete versus being known as “cheaters,” who took advantage of their more complete brethren. However, more recent research suggests that they may actually be assisting the complete viruses, in various ways. For instance, in some cases incomplete viruses seem to trigger a stronger immune response— which sounds like a bad thing, but it keeps the virus from overwhelming and killing its host, giving it a longer time to reproduce and spread. So, what initially looked like cheating or exploitation is actually a form of cooperation, and scientists think there may be lots of other ways in which viruses cooperate, as well as compete.

What this has to do with complexity theory is that one of the things that often characterizes complex systems is that their pieces interact— they respond to one another, in various ways. It is (often) this interaction and response that generates the complexity. With just a handful of actions and a handful of possible responses to those actions, outcomes can vary wildly, in ways that are totally unpredictable if you look at the behavior of the units in isolation.

In a more straightforward way, this work shows how some of the simplest organisms we know about— so simple that there is disagreement about whether viruses should be considered alive— have far more complex behavior and relationships than one would expect. Understanding those complexities may give us new ways of controlling, or at least living with, viruses.


That’s it for this time. I’ll have a new crop in the next month or two.

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