Creatures, human or otherwise

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“Craters are not just vestiges of war. They are geographic testaments to the anthropogenic force of bombs. Research shows that when a bomb bursts, it alters long-term soil formation, vegetation growth, and hydrology. It also affects how people use the land in the future. It’s a phenomenon so disruptive that it has given rise to a new field of science with an evocative name: bombturbation.

“Simply put, bombturbation is the cratering of a land surface and “mixing the soil with an explosive device,” says Joseph P. Hupy, a geographer at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and the father of the field. The device can be an aerial bomb, a propelled explosive, or an “in situ” bomb such as a landmine.

“If you look at a cross-section of undisturbed soil, you’ll see horizons: surface vegetation and organic matter over topsoil, subsoil, parent material (partly weathered rock), and bedrock. A bomb blast shatters those horizons. It releases forceful energy that creates a supersonic shock wave, penetrating soil and rock, setting sediment in motion, and ejecting materials at high speed. A crater forms — its shape and dimensions dependent on the type and strength of the explosion, and the ground where it occurs. Explosions at or below the surface typically result in craters surrounded by a rim of ejected debris. Bedrock is often exposed in the bottom.

“If you look at a cross-section of undisturbed soil, you’ll see horizons. A bomb blast shatters those horizons.

“Each crater is unique, and its future depends on its environment. Over time, leaves and forest litter accumulate in the crater (if they are there), and water percolates through (or not). Organic matter seeps into the underlying bedrock, and microbes flourish (or not). Regardless of local conditions, the crater fosters a new soil environment that would not have evolved otherwise. Different plants take root. Runoff patterns shift. Creatures — human or otherwise — adapt to that new landscape in different ways. It’s not necessarily good or bad, but it’s changed — and that’s critical.”

Text: Karen J. Coates, Bombscapes: Of War and Earth, Undark 

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“A beguilingly simple, yet fatal problem…”

 

“It’s 2025, and 800,000 tons of used high strength steel is coming up for auction.

“The steel made up the Keystone XL pipeline, finally completed in 2019, two years after the project launched with great fanfare after approval by the Trump administration. The pipeline was built at a cost of about $7 billion, bringing oil from the Canadian tar sands to the US, with a pit stop in the town of Baker, Montana, to pick up US crude from the Bakken formation. At its peak, it carried over 500,000 barrels a day for processing at refineries in Texas and Louisiana.

“But in 2025, no one wants the oil.

“The Keystone XL will go down as the world’s last great fossil fuels infrastructure project. TransCanada, the pipeline’s operator, charged about $10 per barrel for the transportation services, which means the pipeline extension earned about $5 million per day, or $1.8 billion per year. But after shutting down less than four years into its expected 40 year operational life, it never paid back its costs.

“The Keystone XL closed thanks to a confluence of technologies that came together faster than anyone in the oil and gas industry had ever seen. It’s hard to blame them — the transformation of the transportation sector over the last several years has been the biggest, fastest change in the history of human civilization, causing the bankruptcy of blue chip companies like Exxon Mobil and General Motors, and directly impacting over $10 trillion in economic output.

“And blame for it can be traced to a beguilingly simple, yet fatal problem: the internal combustion engine has too many moving parts.”

Text: Seth Miller, This Is How Big Oil Will Die, NewCo Shift.

Pic: Simon Stalenhag, The Mascot, from Electric State.

Man-Mediated Minerals

“Robert Hazen, a mineralogist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, and his colleagues tallied up the number of minerals on Earth only to discover that a large number have been created, thanks to human activities. Although minerals, by definition, must form via natural processes, Hazen’s team discovered 208 minerals mediated by humans—they did form naturally but in places such as man-made mines, where unnatural humidity or fires from mining operations created new minerals along the mine walls. Other examples might be even harder to find, unless you are a deep-sea diver; when bronze or brass artifacts sink in a shipwreck, for example, they interact with the seafloor to create novel, man-mediated minerals.

“Perhaps more striking are mineral-like compounds—substances that would be characterized as minerals if they were not completely man-made (rather than human-mediated). Hazen’s team created a long list of these as well—everything from synthetic rubies and diamonds to ceramics, brick, cement, batteries and certain components of cell phones—and they suspect there are hundreds of thousands of varieties, too many for them to count.

“Such dramatic changes will not go unnoticed if a future geologist finds herself digging up layers of sediment from an ancient city. “These are the real global marker of our age,” Hazen says. Not only because a city’s infrastructure contains many of these man-made minerals but because it also contains natural minerals that were quarried in locations across the world, creating concentrations that would not be found naturally. Even if sea levels rise 300 feet and cover coastal cities, those minerals will still be visible in the sedimentary record. That’s because landmarks like the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian will collapse into piles of rubble—signatures that are later preserved as highly unusual lens-shaped pockets underground, distinct from their surroundings in both shape and minerals. The Washington Monument, for example, will eventually be a lens-shaped pocket composed of limestone where no other limestone is found. And the pocket that was once the Smithsonian will contain so many rare minerals that they could not possibly have formed so close together in nature. To boot, they will be surrounded by the vast array of the man-made minerals we use every day. “There is nothing at all like this in the geology of the past 4.5 billion years on Earth,” Zalasiewicz says. “It is tragically different.”

Text: Shannon Hall, Found: Thousands of Man-Made Minerals—Another Argument for the Anthropocene, Scientific American.

Pic: “Fordite, also known as Detroit agate or Motor Agate, is old automobile paint which has hardened sufficiently to be cut and polished. It was formed from the buildup of layers of enamel paint slag on tracks and skids on which cars were hand spray-painted (a now automated process), which have been baked numerous times.” – Wikipedia

“Where is this information?”

“Millions of years ago, a few spiders abandoned the kind of round webs that the word “spiderweb” calls to mind and started to focus on a new strategy. Before, they would wait for prey to become ensnared in their webs and then walk out to retrieve it. Then they began building horizontal nets to use as a fishing platform. Now their modern descendants, the cobweb spiders, dangle sticky threads below, wait until insects walk by and get snagged, and reel their unlucky victims in.

“In 2008, the researcher Hilton Japyassú prompted 12 species of orb spiders collected from all over Brazil to go through this transition again. He waited until the spiders wove an ordinary web. Then he snipped its threads so that the silk drooped to where crickets wandered below. When a cricket got hooked, not all the orb spiders could fully pull it up, as a cobweb spider does. But some could, and all at least began to reel it in with their two front legs.

“Their ability to recapitulate the ancient spiders’ innovation got Japyassú, a biologist at the Federal University of Bahia in Brazil, thinking. When the spider was confronted with a problem to solve that it might not have seen before, how did it figure out what to do? “Where is this information?” he said. “Where is it? Is it in her head, or does this information emerge during the interaction with the altered web?”

“In February, Japyassú and Kevin Laland, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Saint Andrews, proposed a bold answer to the question. They argued in a review paper, published in the journal Animal Cognition, that a spider’s web is at least an adjustable part of its sensory apparatus, and at most an extension of the spider’s cognitive system.

“This would make the web a model example of extended cognition, an idea first proposed by the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers in 1998 to apply to human thought. In accounts of extended cognition, processes like checking a grocery list or rearranging Scrabble tiles in a tray are close enough to memory-retrieval or problem-solving tasks that happen entirely inside the brain that proponents argue they are actually part of a single, larger, “extended” mind.”

Text: The Thoughts of a Spiderweb, Quanta Magazine.

Pic: Odilon Redon, The Smiling Spider, 1891.

New Equations of Meaning

“A pioneer of “Afrofuturism,” bandleader Sun Ra emerged from a traditional swing scene in Alabama, touring the country in his teens as a member of his high school biology teacher’s big band. While attending Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University, he had an out-of-body experience during which he was transported into outer space. As biographer John Szwed records him saying, “my whole body changed into something else. I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn.” While there, aliens with “little antenna on each ear. A little antenna on each eye” instructed him to drop out of college and speak through his music. And that’s just what he did, changing his name from Herman Blount and never looking back.

“Whether you believe that story, whether Sun Ra believes it, or whether his entire persona is a theatrical put-on should make no difference. Because Sun Ra would be a visionary either way. Combining Afrocentric science fiction, esoteric and occult philosophy, Egyptology, and, with his “Arkestra,” his own brand of free jazz-futurism that has no equal on earth, the man is truly sui generis. In 1971, he served as artist-in-residence at UC Berkeley and offered a spring semester lecture, African-American Studies 198, also known as “Sun Ra 171,” “The Black Man in the Universe,” or “The Black man in the Cosmos.” The course featured readings from—to name just a few—theosophist Madame Blavatsky, French philosopher Constantin Francois de Chasseboeuf, black American writer and poet Henry Dumas, and “God,” whom the cosmic jazz theorist reportedly listed as the author of The Source Book of Man’s Life and Death (otherwise known as the King James Bible).

Now we have the rare opportunity to hear a full lecture from that class, thanks to Ubu.com. Listen to Sun Ra spin his intricate, bizarrely otherworldly theories, drawn from his personal philosophy, peculiar etymologies, and idiosyncratic readings of religious texts. Hearing him speak is a little like hearing him play, so be prepared for a lot of free association and jarring, unexpected juxtapositions. Szwed describes a “typical lecture” below:

Sun Ra wrote biblical quotes on the board and then ‘permutated’ them—rewrote and transformed their letters and syntax into new equations of meaning, while members of the Arkestra passed through the room, preventing anyone from taping the class. His lecture subjects included Neoplatonic doctrines; the application of ancient history and religious texts to racial problems; pollution and war; and a radical reinterpretation of the Bible in light of Egyptology.

Text: Sun Ra’s Full Lecture & Reading List From His 1971 UC Berkeley Course, “The Black Man in the Cosmos”

Image: Film Still, Afronauts, Frances Bodomo (2014)

The Production of Space

“[Agree To All] offers an immersive but unsettling glimpse of how the future urban experience might look like for some, with smooth, frictionless landscapes, smart technologies in control and elite access to differentiated services. […] Whether a city will look like this or not, it will invariably be a part of a very unequal ‘winner-takes-all’ societies, which ‘thrive on debt and cheap money and the quick and massive burning of fossil fuels’. It’s in this kind of society that half of our cities will still have to be built […] We wonder however – what if these ‘alternative urban configurations’ don’t materialize? What if the dystopian imagination in the opening installation becomes reality? Let’s imagine what that city would look like.”

“Hajer writes that ‘real estate has given rise to an ever more speculative economy, especially during the last couple of decades. Instead of social need, it focused on the opportunity to make money on offices, shopping malls and housing for the upper class’. It did indeed, and cities of the future will see an even more powerful real estate sector and the increasing influence of the corporate sector on the production of space in general. This also means that decisions made democratically will gradually be replaced by decisions taken in corporate board rooms. Likewise urban interventions with a social or cultural dimension will increasingly be replaced by projects that produce the highest possible financial return.

“Money made in the real estate sector, but also elsewhere in the city, will quickly leave and end up in the hands of a few, and most likely in some tax havens as well. The urban economy will rapidly become an ‘extractive economy’, as Hajer calls them. Cities will increasingly open themselves up for extraction, competing for global flows of money through city-marketing campaigns aimed at foreign investors and visitors. This will result in a race to the bottom, and erode social and cultural capital at the local level. A crucial development allowing this extractive economy to expand is the continuing flexibilisation of the housing market. State-owned or rent-controlled housing is being rapidly sold off, providing investors with a host of new opportunities. The simultaneous elimination of housing rights allows for a quicker succession of rent hikes and will further consolidate the position of large real estate owners.”

Text: What the city of the future looks like if we don’t change course, Failed Architecture.

Pic: Eliel Saarinen’s Munkkiniemi–Haaga town plan. Aerial view from the north.

Novel, but not too novel

 

“Now and then, a painter like Claude Monet or Pablo Picasso comes along and turns the art world on its head. They invent new aesthetic styles, forging movements such as impressionism or abstract expressionism. But could the next big shake-up be the work of a machine?

“An artificial intelligence has been developed that produces images in unconventional styles – and much of its output has already been given the thumbs up by members of the public.

“The idea is to make art that is “novel, but not too novel”, says Marian Mazzone, an art historian at the College of Charleston in South Carolina who worked on the system.

“The team – which also included researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey and Facebook’s AI lab in California – modified a type of algorithm known as a generative adversarial network (GAN), in which two neural nets play off against each other to get better and better results. One creates a solution, the other judges it – and the algorithm loops back and forth until the desired result is reached.

“In the art AI, one of these roles is played by a generator network, which creates images. The other is played by a discriminator network, which was trained on 81,500 paintings to tell the difference between images we would class as artworks and those we wouldn’t – such as a photo or diagram, say.

“The discriminator was also trained to distinguish different styles of art, such as rococo or cubism.

“The clever twist is that the generator is primed to produce an image that the discriminator recognises as art, but which does not fall into any of the existing styles.”

Text: Artificially intelligent painters invent new styles of art, New Scientist.

Pic: Roy Lichtenstein 1974 – Cubist Still Life With Playing Cards, Oil and magna on canvas (244 x 152 cm).