Spacetime to Money

Time, they often say in New York, is money. This can also mean that money is what time is like. Money, being purely quantitative, has no content, but can be exchanged for content: its purchases. The same has become true of time: it, too, is now being exchanged for the content it lacks. Work-time for wages, wages for the unlived time “encapsulated” in the purchase: the “speed” of the automobile, the eternal present of the television screen, the time “saved” in a hundred household appliances, the peace of the retirement pension to come, etc. etc. The fourth lesson of the city is pie in the sky, in which the denial of space and time combine.

From John Berger’s Ralph Fasanella and the City, collected in About Looking.

More about Fasanella here and here. This is Fasanella’s 1959 painting, New York City:


Should We Have Formal Courtship Rituals for Technology?

Here is Marshal McLuhan, in a 1959 speech, describing a kind of courtship ritual that Canadian fighter pilots undergo which culminates in the pilots getting “married” to their planes:

Before being assigned to their common task, they undergo a long phase of what is called “going steady.” When finally assigned to their plane they are publicly “married” by the commanding officer in a sober ceremony. Today, it is felt only marriage can connote the degree of togetherness, tolerance, and sympathy necessary for decision-making in the use of new technology. This new pattern is the subliminal but overwhelming message of the media since the telegraph. Yet nowhere in our educational establishment have we made provision for the study of these profound messages which impose their configurations on the sensory equipment of children from their first days of existence. Yet some such provision would seem to be indicated against the persistent effects of media fallout.

This is from a speech titled Electronic Revolution: Revolutionary Effects of New Media and which I came across in the book Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews (pp. 6-7).

I could find no evidence that the Royal Canadian Air Force actually has such a ritual. But it is an intriguing idea. Before giving my kids their first smart phone would they benefit from going through a courtship period where they first became acquainted with its many benefits and dangers over a period of time sufficient to adequately process and prepare for them, and then finally “marry” it in a ceremony where they publicly commit to use it responsibly?

It sounds like overkill–why adapt some weird ritual when simply educating them might work just as well?

One reason is that collective ritual appears to be a highly effective way of conveying information about potential hazards and ensuring the spread of this information. In a paper titled “Whence Collective Rituals? A Cultural Selection Model of Ritualized Behavior” the French anthropologists Pierre Liénard and Pascal Boyer make the case that collective ritual activates a certain neurocognitive system designed to spot potential hazards. In the abstract to that paper they write that

Ritualized behavior is a specific way of organizing the flow of action, characterized by stereotypy, rigidity in performance, a feeling of compulsion, and specific themes, in particular the potential danger from contamination, predation, and social hazard. We proposed elsewhere a neurocognitive model of ritualized behavior in human development and pathology, as based on the activation of a specific hazard-precaution system specialized in the detection of and response to potential threats. We show how certain features of collective rituals—by conveying information about potential danger and presenting appropriate reaction as a sequence of rigidly described precautionary measures—probably activate this neurocognitive system. This makes some collective ritual sequences highly attention-demanding and intuitively compelling and contributes to their transmission from place to place or generation to generation. The recurrence of ritualized behavior as a central feature of collective ceremonies may be explained as a consequence of this bias in selective transmission.

At a time when the technology available to consumers is rapidly becoming indistinguishable from magic, maybe it makes sense to utilize forms of ritual practice that were formerly reserved for sorcery.

Notes on Gruinard Island

gruinard warning sign

In Norman F. Cantor’s book In the Wake of the Black Plague: the Black Death and the World it Made, I came across the following paragraph:

Anthrax spores buried in the ground remain active for half a century or more as extremely toxic for humans. During World War II both German and Allied biomedical scientists developed anthrax to use in germ warfare. It was employed by neither side in the end, but the Allies tested their variety on an island off the Sottish coast. Fifty years after the war live spores buried in the ground there were discovered and the inhabitants of the island had to be evacuated.

Cantor mentions this incident in passing, as part of his argument that anthrax was a cause of the Black Death, but it got me curious. Fifty years after World War II would be the 1990’s.

I couldn’t find any reference to a Scottish island abandoned in the mid-1990s, but there is the case of  Gruinard Island. This tiny island, which is part of the Inner Hebrides archipelago off the west coast of Scotland, was a testing grounds for weaponized anthrax from 1942 to 1943.

But the island was already vacant. The British government had purchased the island from its owners in 1941 and evacuated the residents in advance of the testing. So at least there’s that.

The British military research facility at Porton Down, the top secret British military complex that rivals Area 51 in secrecy and conspiracy theory generation, monitored the island for 25 years after the tests. When they got around to testing it again in 1979 they found that only the top three inches of ground soil in an area of about three acres around the test site remained contaminated.

Despite the secrecy of the anthrax tests, the scientists actually filmed the tests, and that film has been declassified and can be viewed (where else?) on Youtube. Warning: the video contains pretty graphic images of animal experimentation and autopsies.

Operation Dark Harvest

In 1981 sealed bags of soil from Gruinard Island contaminated with anthrax were left outside of several prominent facilities, including the Porton Down research complex, the Scottish Office in Edinburgh, and the a hotel hosting a Conservative Party conference in Blackpool. This followed messages sent to newspapers claiming that a “team of microbiologists from two universities” along with some locals had collected 300 pounds of contaminated soil from the island. The messages were labelled “Operation Dark Harvest” and demanded the decontamination of Gruinard Island.

The identity of the people behind this operation remains a mystery, but in 2010 the newspaper The Scotsman published an article claiming that “secret files” implicated a shadowy nationalist paramilitary group called the Scottish Civilian Army. This group is thought to be a forerunner of the Scottish National Liberation Army, which would shortly after this time send letter bombs to Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher, among other acts.


And yet it wasn’t until 1986 that the government got around to decontaminating the island. Gary Ackerman, a professor of  Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at SUNY Albany, wrote the entry on Gruinard Island for the book Weapons of Mass Destruction. He describes the decontamination effort as follows:

In 1986, a private contractor was commissioned to decontaminate a total area of just over 10 acres on Gruinard. After spraying a herbicide and burning away the undergrowth, a system consisting of 30 miles of irrigation tubing was used to soak the ground with 280 tons of formaldehyde diluted in 2,000 tons of seawater in amounts of 50 liters per square meter. Topsoil was also removed in sealed containers and decontaminated. After retreating a few areas in July 1987, no viable spores of B. anthracis were detected on the island. As an extra precaution, forty sheep belonging to a local farmer were allowed to graze on the island from May to October 1987 and were closely monitored.

According to the book Reopening Public Facilities After a Biological Attack: A Decision Making Framework, which contains a case history of Gruinard Island, “Subsequent sampling revealed pockets of surviving spores which were than treated with undiluted formalin.”

Gruinard Today

According to Ackerman, Gruinard today is once again safe for humans and sheep alike:

In its final 1988 report, the IAG concluded that Gruinard Island could be returned to civilian use, and, in May 1990, the island was sold back to the heirs of its original owners. Gruinard Island remained only an interesting historical footnote until the anthrax attacks in November 2001 in the United States, when reporters flocked to Gruinard to recall Britain’s brief foray into biological warfare.

Here is one such article about Gruinard from the BBC dated 8 November, 2001.

The Other Maga

Faced with dire predictions about the death of the poster, lively coalitions formed to engage in two distinctly different strategies in defense of European design traditions. One preached diehard resistance, mounted by joining the postermaker to regional markets and emphasizing the unique and local character of the poster as an idiom of commercial expression. This posture was especially visible in the segmented markets of southern Europe, notably Italy but in France as well. The other spoke to reform by developing a more varied aesthetic idiom and wider marketing appeal, and it was most eloquently practiced in Germany, drawing on its traditions of modernist artistic experimentation and the dynamism of its export-oriented economy.

The strategy of resistance was embodied by the Italian Giuseppe Magagnoli (1878-1933), the founder and director of the poster workshop Maga. A former salesman for the celebrated French poster concern Vercasson, Magagnoli set up his own atelier in his native Bologna in 1920, with showrooms centrally located in Milan and Paris and business connections as far away as Buenos Aires. Criticized as “old school” by proponents of the new advertising and overly invested in postering, the firm went bankrupt in 1932, and the following year the choleric Magagnoli died of heart failure.

In its prime, however, Maga was a glorious undertaking, employing the leading talents of French and Italian poster craft, notably Cappiello, the French-born Achille-Lucien Mauzan, Mario and Severo Pezzati, Marcello Nizzoli, Sinopico, and Pozzati (Sepo), as well as lesser-known and often unnamed figures who worked in the house style. From the platform of “Punch in the Eye” (Pugno nell’occio, or Pan dans l’oeil), his company newsletter, the excitable Magagnoli ranted against “all the old, rancid, and idiotic systems used up to now.” He especially despited the purported scientificity and staid design of American corporate advertising with its “difficult phraseology” and “cabalistic” formulas, whose sole aims were to “boost the self-image of the speaker” and to impress an “audience of imbeciles.” In contrast, Maga’s oisters “materialized ideas” aiming to “take audiences by surprise.” As enlarged trademarks, they “firmly fix the names of the product in their minds.

From Victoria de Grazia’s Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance through Twentieth-Century Europe

I particularly like this Maga poster for the 1929 Geneva International Motor Show:


The Freemasons of the Field

Earlier this week a friend gave me a copy of The World Was My Garden by the botanist David Fairchild, who happens to be my friend’s great grandfather.  I’m just a few chapters in but there’s this interesting tidbit toward the beginning about the opposition to the Hatch Act of 1887, which provided federal funding for land grant colleges:

However, when the Hatch Act was first proposed, it met with strong opposition from a powerful organization called “The Grange,” composed of conservative and retroactive farmers who did not want their sons exposed to fancy “book learning.” They feared that additional funds would be used by the colleges for classical “trimmings.”

The act passed, but only after Congress (on the advice of Fairchild’s father, who ran a land grange college) placated the Grange by limiting the use of funds exclusively to “experimental work in agriculture.” But who are The Grange, this mysterious group of people who hate fancy book learning and are influential enough to successfully lobby Congress? Fairchild doesn’t say.

It turns out that they’re still around. The official name is National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry. They started in the Antebellum South as a way to share what today we would call “best practices” in agriculture and advocate for farmers in Washington DC. Britannica says that they fought monopolistic grain transport practices in the decades after the Civil War. One of the founders, Oliver Kelley, was  a Freemason. He presumably had the masonic model of fraternal organization in mind at the Grange. Naturally, they had an esoteric initiation ritual and secret meetings.

And after 150 years they’re still around: as of 2016 they had an annual budget of almost $2 million, and this past August Betsy Huber, their national president, had a piece published in the Daily Caller pushing for more rural internet investment. And, naturally, they’re pro-immigration. I tried, but could not find, their current position on book learning.


Top of Mind: Week Ending 12/14/2018

  • Parterre Box. The queer opera zine-turned blog got a nice write-up in the New York Times. An opera-obsessed friend in Chicago turned me on to it many years ago. The brief, gossipy posts that dominate its output are not my thing, but I still regularly visit the site to read the reviews of John Yohalem, who for my money is one of the best classical music critics writing today.


  • Anna Karenina. After six months of on-and-off reading I am within 150 pages of the end, and despite being totally done with the characters and their problems I am making a push to finish before I turn 40 next week. As far as arbitrary deadlines go, it’s a pretty good one.


  • Opportunity Zones. I first heard about this vast economic development/tax shelter scheme back in August from an investment podcast I listen to. Sean Parker, known primarily as the founder of Napster and the guy played by Justin Timberlake in the Social Network, had a pretty big hand in crafting this program and getting it into the federal 2017 tax reform legislation. It feels like a gross tax give-away to the rich, but perhaps some good will come out of it?


  • Ilya Muromets. I went down a rabbit hole with this one: earlier in the week I was perusing the program of a concert that I couldn’t go to and saw a symphony named after the mythical Russian folk hero, Ilya Muromets. Folk heroes are inherently political symbols, and Russian has been experiencing a surge of nationalist chauvinism lately, so I decided to search Google News for “Ilya Muromets” as well as the Cyrilic version of the name (Илья Муромец). My instinct did not disappoint: the mayor of Kiev, Vitali Klitschko, recently unveiled an 11 meter statue of Ilya Muromets, some of which was fabricated via 3-d printing. Klitschko claimed that the historical Muromets was born in the Ukranian city of Cherhihiv. Some in Russia take this very seriously: here is a translation of an article that ran in the newspaper Vzglyad refuting Klitschko’s claims on Muromets. By appropriating a Russian national hero for Ukraine the mayor appears to have opened up a new front in the conflict with Russia: the symbolic realm. This comes less than a year after Ukranian authorities banned books about Ilya Muromets as “propaganda of the aggressor state”. Also, Russia recently Christened an ice breaker by that name, which will be asserting Russian sovereignty in the melting Arctic Circle. Perhaps Ilya Muromets’s best fighting days are still ahead of him.

Top of Mind: Week Ending 12/7/2018


  • Jamaica, Queens. I had a meeting here yesterday that was cancelled the moment I stepped off the train, leaving me with an hour to kill. So I treated myself to a little walking tour of downtown Jamaica. Some highlights: the King Manor, the Grace Episcopal Church Complex, and the Tabernacle of Prayer for All People building on Jamaica Avenue, which is one of the five Wonder Theaters in New York City built in 1929 by Loew’s Theatres. The Google Streetview of this building doesn’t quite do it justice–it has this ornate baroque facade and a vintage ticket booth at the entry way. Jamaica also was home a several jazz greats.


  • The Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960, by Franz Schubert. Despite nearly 30 years of listening to classical music I never came to know this piece until this year, and now it’s as if it contains all the secrets of the universe. I’ve listened to a few different recordings, including ones by Wilhelm Kempff and Maria João Pires, both of which I enjoyed very much. But I keep coming back to Richter, whose slow, meditative take on the sonata finds entire worlds in each moment. There are several excellent live recordings of Richter playing this piece on Youtube, but I keep coming back to the 1972 studio recording. In my Googling I came across a 1994 piece about this sonata in the New York Times by Alex Ross, who mentions that Mahler played this piece as a student. That makes a strange kind of sense.