Archive for historical contingency

Strange Cotton

Posted in Ecological resilience, Revolution, Sustainable farming with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 16, 2013 by Rob Wallace

Weighing cotton2Southern trees bear a strange fruit, / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. – Abel Meeropol (1936)

My momma was raised in the era when / Clean water was only served to the fairer skin / Doing clothes you would have thought I had help / But they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself… / I see the blood on the leaves. –Kayne West (2013)

Our political consciousness gestates early enough, perhaps in a rudimentary fashion as far back as the womb, but certainly on the playground and at the dinner table, daddy or mommy haranguing some politico. On the other hand, we also never really make it there. A 90-something I know, nodding out her window, copped to asking herself, Am I ever gonna figure that out?

Along the way there are revelations, some more trap doors than epiphanies. We learn history is both contingent and unexpectedly accumulative—shit happens in a growing pile—even as the pathways along which any set of circumstances converges aren’t always clear.

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Coffee Filter

Posted in Ecological resilience, Evolution, Organic agriculture, Sustainable farming with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2013 by Rob Wallace

shade coffee2It’s hard obviously to imagine a house which doesn’t have a door. I saw one one day, several years ago, in Lansing, Michigan. It had been built by Frank Lloyd Wright…[T]here appeared something like an open-work roof that was practically indissociable from the vegetation that had invaded it. In actual fact, it was already too late to know whether you were indoors or out…A dozen more or less similar houses were scattered through the surrounds of a private golf club. The course was entirely closed off. Guards…were on duty at the one entrance gate. –Georges Perec (1974)

Dosage and tolerance mark the thin line between palliative and poison.

The caffeine that perks up one patron in the coffeehouses of snowbound Minnesota can rocket another into rare tachycardia and cardiovascular collapse. It’s a chance many are willing to take. Even the jitters tell us we’re still alive in -40 wind chill. And look on the bright side, as one must here under the penalty of death, should a slurper keel over, a table in a popular joint is suddenly free for the rest of the day.

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Auld Lang Sine

Posted in Ecological resilience, Evolution, Revolution with tags , , , , , , on December 24, 2012 by Rob Wallace

Wittgenstein Rabbit DuckIn the acceptance of depravity the sense of the past is most fully captured. What is a ruin but Time easing itself of endurance? Corruption is the Age of Time. –Dujan Barnes (1936)

In 1939 Ludwig Wittgenstein gave a series of lectures on mathematics in his Cambridge rooms. Alan Turing was among a small cadre of students who attended. David Leavitt, Turing’s biographer, writes of the lectures as if Turing got the better of Wittgenstein. Read the class transcripts, compiled from the students’ notes, and you might conclude otherwise.

The conflict centered about the Platonic nature of mathematics. Are the descriptions mathematicians derive embodiments of the natural phenomena they address? The details matter, of course, but in some sense the argument appears moot at this point. Turing’s invention, one on every desk and lap and palm—flying planes, guiding surgery, reconstructing evolution—appears to refute Wittgenstein the world over.

Wittgenstein would likely beg to differ, thank you very much. Useful things, however ubiquitous, can be contingent or even ludicrous. We could even go so far as to ask whether computers are false—or antibiotics or any one of civilization’s intrinsics—however mission-critical to our (historically passing) way of being. Like ritual sacrifice or birds of omen or, sadly for some still among us, the antebellum South.

However deductive modernity might be, the beginning is ever fucking nigh.

Bird Flu’s Industrial Revolution

Posted in Ecological resilience, Evolution, HIV, Influenza with tags , , , , , , on April 5, 2009 by Rob Wallace

Public talks can be private affairs. In sharing our work we bare the triumphs and limits of a thinking born in long hours alone or with a few fellow conspirators sworn to secrecy. But in breaking our oaths we are able to take the next step.

In talking bird flu twice this past month I learned something new.

Much of the talk was dedicated to describing the role industrial poultry played in the evolution and diversification of highly pathogenic influenza, including H5N1, bird flu’s marquee star. The evidence is presently circumstantial, but for me offers a convincing working hypothesis:

  • A phylogenetic burst of influenzas capable of infecting humans coincided with the globalization of the industrial model of poultry: H5N1, H7N1, H7N3, H7N7, H9N2, in all likelihood H5N2 and perhaps some of the H6 serotypes.  Continue reading