Monday, May 3, 2010

Erdös and Archive

In The Library of Babel, Jorge Luis Borges mentions, in passing, a circular room housing a great circular book whose spine follows the contours of the wall in one continuous loop. Aside from saying nothing of how we might enter the room (a hatch from above, a wormhole through the spine?) it begs us to speculate about the size of the room and what kind of story its pages might tell.

Borges's thought library (on the surface at least) doesn't follow this pattern, for Borges is concerned with infinitudes. His library is composed of a seemingly infinite number of hexagonal galleries buffered from one another by air shafts and connected by small chambers for either sleeping (standing up) or shitting. A spiral staircase from these chambers leads both up and down into a limitless succession of further hexagons.

Why hexagons? Well, as it turns out, the hexagon is the most efficient way of tiling a spherical plane, using the least material to create a latticework of cells within a volume. If, for example, you were able to uniformly heat a liquid in a flat spherical pan from below, at a certain temperature the fluid would flow into a perfect pattern of hexagons. 

Borges may have been thinking of the honeycomb pattern of a beehive when constructing his imaginary Library of Babel, his diligent researchers the worker bees, burrowing deeper and deeper into the hive to extract even one intelligible morsel of text.

But what set me thinking of Borges and The Library of Babel was another kind of library dreamed up by the David Garcia Studio, called Archive Series. Archive II, the one that caught my fancy, "is a circular library for the nomad book collector." The book lover can step inside and roll off with hundreds of books.

Of course this piece raises all kinds of questions about hoarding and freedom, nomadism v. sedentism, persistence and decay, etc. In a note to the piece, the artist explains that as a child he was introduced to a learned friend of the family, a man whom he would meet in the park or a café to discuss a wide range of topics. Due to the man's great erudition, the artist just assumed that he possessed an enormous library, but when he at last secured an invitation to the man's house, he was surprised to learn he had no books, only owning the book he had at the moment. The man told him that whenever he finished a book he would take a walk in the park and hand it off to a stranger.

The late Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös once claimed that private property was a nuisance. He owned no home or other property, had no wife or children, and very little money. Scott Buchanan, in his book on networks, Small World, calls him a "nomadic hobo-genius" who co-authored more than 1,500 papers. He would show up at a colleague's door and declare "My brain is open," then proceed to help solve their most daunting problems. Fueled by amphetamines, he would exhaust his host before decamping to the next mathematician's couch.

My own brand of punctuated sendentism, staying in one place for a year or two before tearing everything down and starting over, entails a good amount of book packing and box shuffling and hauling or mailing. While Borges's Babel is slowly being virtually assembled on GoodReads and Google Books and Gutenberg, I need to start thinking more like Matsuo Bashō, to set out thinking to travel light, in only what I am clad, heading off into the interior, iPad in hand.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Mark Jenkins & Jeanne d'Arc

Every time I drive around a certain rotary in Portland, this heroic golden lump of statuary, the stereotypical steed rearing up on its hind legs, guides me safely around its circumference.
I have been mildly curious to find out which Stumptown war hero had been memorialized in bronze—perhaps it was a young James Beard, or maybe a victorious Chuck Palahniuk—though never  curious enough to walk up to the base to read the inscription.

But the other day, in my quest for the rare, and unusual, and the new (to me) I picked up a 2008 copy of Juxtapoz magazine. In it was featured an artist by the name of Mark Jenkins who describes his outdoor art as "litter." By that he means that when he creates something, be it a Plastic Bag-Eating Giraffe made from packing tape, or a plastic baby pulling down a bus stop sign (Storker Project, left), he has no intention of ever getting the thing back, nor does he harbor any illusions about its permanence. 

Most of his works are gone in a few days or weeks. In an interview in the magazine, he has this to say about his work: " I like seeing them as litter ... especially the raw packing tape pieces like the babies, which are compositionally equivalent to the rest of the post-consumer plastic trash out there—wrappers, bags stuck in trees, etc. I like giving trash a new aesthetic."

So Jenkins's work got me thinking about the hulking golden steed in the roundabout which is everything that Jenkins's work is not: big, permanent, and serious. On a deliciously warm and golden Portland morning, I walked over to it to have a closer look.

I was surprised that it was neither Beard not Palahniuk but Joan of Arc, the maid of Orleans who single-handedly ended the Hundred Years' War by kicking the English's ass out of France. Now what Joan of Arc has to do with Portland, Oregon I have no idea—most likely nothing—but the thing's erection was donated by Doctor Some-BigEgo-or-other, a monument to the idea that nothing should ever change.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Two Paradigm Shifters

I love it when the way I formerly saw the world is upended; when certain beliefs or tenets are challenged and blown sky high.

Everyone knows, for example, that there are only two socio-political models worth talking about now that communism has passed into the dustbin of history: American style world domination capitalism and Eurosocialism. Right?

Well, if Mohammad Yunus has anything to say about it, a third wealth creation/distribution system has begun to rise based on the idea of social business. Rather than seeking to amass the greatest possible profit for shareholders, the social business seeks to achieve benefits for all, to make the world a better place. Turning a profit in Yunus's world is still acceptable, but not at the expense of people or the planet. After recouping their initial inverstment, ownership plows all future profits back into the company. A good example of this was his founding of Grameen-Danone or, more locally and on a smaller scale, The Granola Project, started by some folks in Providence.

Yunus's ideas about social business rose out of his work with microlending in Bangladesh. Unable to exist solely as an academic grappling with theory while so many of his country people languished in poverty, he started the Grameen Bank which operated under the radical assumption that you could loan small amounts of money to poor people, risk free. The "normal" banks thought he was nuts. His belief was that people had certain untapped skills that were waiting to be put to use — the only thing they lacked was adequate capital to lift them out of their endless cycle of subsistence living.

His Grameen Bank infiltrated the countryside, making small loans primarily to women who would then put the money to use buying raw materials to create goods to sell, or buy livestock or farmland to raise animals or grow fruit and vegetables for market. Bank officers, moving from village to village on bicycle, would collect tiny loan repayments on a regular schedule.

Which brings us, of course, to mycelium — the mass of branching, threadlike underground filaments of a mushroom. Paul Stamets, the author of Mycelium Running, calls it nature's neurological network. He claims that these "interlacing mosaics.... are aware, react to change, and collectively have the long-term health of the host environment in mind." (You can watch a Stamets talk here on TED.)

During a visit to Vashon Island, Washington in 2003 to talk to the local residents about the high concentrations of arsenic, cadmium, and mercury accumulating in the environment, blown over from the Tacoma Asarco smelter, he proposed remediating the soil with mushrooms. He quickly realized, however, that there was no manual available for mycoremediation (using mushrooms to absorb toxic chemicals and heavy metals from the soil and convert them into biomass.) Stamets wrote Mycelium Running as a reference for "local communities (to) begin the process of healing their habitats."

Stamets's book looks at the ability of the mycelium to act as a mycrofiltration system, or as mycopesticides, or as the founder species of forests and gardens.  By inoculating burlap sacks filled with wood chips with spores and then planting forests over them, he teaches us that we can begin "mycorestoration" of our own habitats.

So what does the Grameen bank and the concept of social business have to do with that?

On the surface perhaps not too much.  Not if we keep everything in their neat little boxes. But what microlending and mycroremediation both have in common is a desire for healing — one for mitigating ecological destruction, the other for financial and social disease.

Both Stamets and Yunus are farmers at heart. They understand that normal people can do things for themselves, and that by setting in place optimal conditions for growth and availing them the resources (technical or monetary) and education, most people will choose to live in greener places with clean water and air.

Imagine that.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Rust-Proof Corsets & Sperm Wars

Several years ago in Northern California I had the good fortune to see salmon running at Lagunitas Creek. It was the clearest example I had ever witnessed of natural selection in action. Those salmon with just the right combination of guile, luck and stamina making it up river to spawn. This struggle to make it up to the spawning grounds was both painful and exhilarating to watch. Fish with their tail fins almost entirely scratched off, beating up the rocky shallows to return to where they were born. Fitness as an absolute marker for survival.

I remember thinking at the time how the selection pressure on man has been greatly relaxed due to several mitigating factors: absence of predators, advances in technology and medicine allowing most newborns to survive into adulthood, as well as an industrial-agro subsidized food industry and socio-capilitalist distribution system supplying us with relatively cheap calories. These advances have in turn freed us from farming/hunting labor for creative endeavors. And more time to be choosy about mates. 

About a year ago I found a beautiful embossed copy of Charles Darwin's Descent of Man. In the section "Man—Law of Battle," quoting the eighteenth century explorer Samuel Hearne, an early observer of the North American Indians, he has this to say about competition for mates: "It has ever been the custom among these people for the men to wrestle for any woman to whom they are attached; and, of corse, the strongest party always carries off the prize. A weak man, unless he be a good hunter, and well-beloved, is seldom permitted to keep a wife that a stronger man thinks worth his notice." 

I happened upon the passage for the simple reason that there was an old clipping from the Missoula Daily Sentinel, dated June 12, 1925, stuck in that page as bookmark. What caught my eye, however, wasn't so much the article, an op/ed in defense of the theory of evolution, praising Darwin's son, Major Leonard Darwin, for defending the theory "against the attacks in this country that are being led by Colonel Bryan and other Fundamentalists," but rather the advertisements for Corset and Hosiery on the reverse side. For 89 cents you could get "Spuntex, Kayser, or Philadelphia Maid" silk hose, while $1.89 would buy you a Rust-Proof Corset.

Aside from what these two snippets say about Missoula — progressive in its thinking even then, backward in fashion (corsets had gone out of style earlier in the decade) —they did get me thinking about dating, and human sexual behavior in general. For what is the purpose of those items but to boost the desirability of one sex toward the other — to attract several potential mates from which to choose?

But do men expect that our sperm will have to compete with other sperm to fertilize the chooser's egg? According to Robin Baker in Sperm Wars: The Science of Sex the answer is a resounding "yes." And if your idea of sperm conforms to a simple gestalt of miniature salmon wiggling up the shallows to find an egg to fertilize, you're in for a nice surprise. Baker estimates that less than 1 percent of the sperm in human ejaculate are "elite, fertile 'egg-getters.' The remainder, once thought to be simply defective egg-getters, we now know to be infertile by design, 'kamikaze' sperm whose function has nothing to do with fertilization as such but everything to do with preventing sperm from another man from fertilizing the egg."

How does Baker know? Aside from beakers full of sperm he has collected and analyzed, he also has evidence of sperm behavior on film, captured by "attaching a tiny fiber-optic endoscope to the underside of a man's penis before intercourse."

I won't give away any more of Baker's findings, but it is heartening and instructive to find out just what's been happening all around me in the coming together and breaking up of couples — from a biological perspective. That masturbation, orgasm, and infidelity all have functional explanations seems to me hopeful — hopeful that we can continue sawing away at our essentially superstitious religious beliefs of sexuality.

But still, to get to the moment of procreation one still needs to find a mate. Whereas formerly we had wrestling matches and corsets, we now have latent semantic indexing, a data-mining technique used in profiling would-be suitors on internet dating sites such as The January/February edition of MIT's Technology Review lays out the most likely underpinnings of the predictive technology. As the writer of the piece, Emily Gould, says "it's creepy, the idea that a computer can suss out what it is (someone) really wants." Certainly a far cry from wrestling and corsets. And I'm not sure it's helping with fitness for our species, but I guess whatever works.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Dr. Strangeluv, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Start a Blog

Watching Chris Marker's film The Last Bolshevik, his chronicle of the Soviet filmmaker Aleksandr Medvedkin's life and work — the spotted horses, the cows in boots, the apartment complexes floating by on rails — got me thinking about other artists during the Soviet era who weren't so well connected, no doubt more daring and subversive, more ready to give the middle finger to regimes brought about by the philosophizing of a little philistine in tweed. These artists met a much less fortuitous end.

I'm thinking of Mikhail Bulgakov, best known for The Master and Margarita, a book unpublished in his lifetime, who, in his play Flight, has a White Major General descending into a penniless gambler of cockroach races, throwing money after Don't Cry Child, a brilliantly fast and slippery cockroach of the underworld. Or Anna Ahkmatova and her harshly critical Voronezh, whose "poplars raise their chalices / for a sky-shattering toast" while "in the room of the banished poet / Fear and the Muse stand watch by turn." Those artists were effectively banished from Stalin's republic, internal exiles left to rot in fear and irrelevancy. But not many people knew about it at the time.

When did we begin to suspect a farce was being perpetrated on us over here, not only by them over there, but by the shapers and purveyors of history and the news? When did we begin to realize that the iron curtain was also an iron mirror? How many people saw through McCarthy's bluster? I guess we always need to be on guard against too much seriousness in politicians, but you would think a raving lunatic would be laughed off the bully pulpit. A Zen master would have slapped him upside the head. (Are you listening Glenn Beck?)

Did we think differently about the Soviets and the threat of nuclear war after Dr. Strangelove? I wasn't around then, but I suspect we did. Just as Marx morphs in unexpected ways into Lenin and Mao, Strangelove morphs into Strangeluv, and the mighty command economy disintegrates into bread lines and Chernobyl. History taunts us. Tells us to beware. Had those in control always been so incompetent? Or had it only come on by slow degrees?

In May of 2001, I visited Hiroshima with a friend. First we went to the Gembaku dome — restored A-bomb leftovers of an Industrial Promotion Hall and now a World Heritage site — then to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The Peace museum contains relics of the aftermath of the bomb: a watch that stopped at exactly at 8:15, a boy's bento box with the charred remains of his lunch, photographs of burnt bodies, and other not very nice things. I remember saying at the time that all world leaders should be required to visit the museum as part of training for their term. I don't think W.,  Kim Jong-Il, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made it there yet. 

Now, with Akhmatova's Fear and the Muse standing watch, we are set to start building tiny nuclear reactors to be buried in distant outposts around the globe. New mini Chernobyls waiting to happen in backyards all over the planet? Or sources for independence from oil and centralized control? Landmines for future superbeasts? Or power for our computing clouds?

Like I said, it's time for me to stop worrying, listen to Blonde Redhead, and get down to writing blog.