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This 1969 LP contains half an hour of beach noises. “This is a joke” would be a reasonable first impression. So would “this was both created and should be experienced under the influence of drugs”. After a few minutes, however, the repetitive pounding conjures images: waves curving upwards, rising and then breaking like glass, droplets descending in curtains of diamonds, the sand eternally drinking, the sea eternally replenishing. The ocean is an breathing lung, and this exact noise has happened over and over for as long as liquid water has existed on the planet. Thirty minutes contains four point four billion years.
Listen long enough, and you start hallucinating. Your Broca and Wernicke’s areas start mistaking the crashing waves for vowels and consonents, as if the sea is speaking as well as breathing. At one point, a low, droning hum (a foghorn?) emerges through the sound of waves. It almost seems to drill through them, like an ice augur. The foghorn tells a story of man appearing and gaining ascendance over nature: but then the foghorn vanishes, and the waves remain.
Environments 1 was the work of a fascinating person from the 60s counterculture: Irving Solomon Teibel. He seems to have been somewhere between a musician, an inventor, and a con artist.
To rip the band-aid off, Environments is not what it appears. This is not the sound of nature. It’s the sound of a computer. It’s not a natural beach. It’s eight minutes of tape hacked up with a razorblade, reassembled in certain patterns, and supplemented with synthetic white noise. It contains an “ocean” to the extent that an Ashlee Simpson album contains “singing.” That it sounds like the real thing is largely because your brain was primed to expect it, and never questions that assumption.
One of Teibel’s interests was psychoacoustics: the impact of audio on humans. Although waves have existed eternally, our perception of them is highly personal, and lives and dies with us. Some people put on a fan to help them sleep, others need to turn a fan off. Stephen King writes to loud rock music, whereas I can’t write to a radio half a block away.
The potential for audio to be used as a tool of relaxation or therapy was a topic of interest in the late 60s, and in that spirit, Teibel decided to record the ocean. Using a Uher portable stereo reel-to-reel tape recorder, he recorded tapes of beaches all across the eastern seaboard of the United States of America, seeking the noises he heard in his head. His attempts failed: for whatever reason, real-life beaches didn’t sound right on tape. The missing link was neuropsychologist called Louis Gerstman, who had access to an IBM 360 at a time when mainframe computers cost around two million dollars. He and Teibel laboriously altered the tapes until they had arrived at a “right” sounding ocean that was, in fact, heavily artificial.
With this knowledge in mind, it’s easy to see where Teibel’s ocean was changed, and why. The “sentence-like” quality of the waves is deliberate: the creator wanted to evoke a language. The way they stay at precisely the same volume throughout is another choice. By the way, I’ve heard rumors that the droning noises aren’t foghorns, but Irv Teibel’s mouth.
“Listen to a computerized beach for an hour” was a rough sell, so Teibel worked over his product with consummate salesmanship. It was sold as a restfulness enhancer, and the cover plastered with exuberant testimonials (“HAVEN’T FELT SO GOOD SINCE MY VACATION”; “cured my insomnia!”; “BETTER THAN A TRANQUILIZER,”; “fantastic for making love!”) that were almost certainly written by Teibel himself.
It worked. The record was picked up for distribution by Atlantic, and it was soon selling thousands of copies. He presaged Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports by a full nine years, but despite this, he isn’t remembered as a pioneer of ambient music. Teibel had a similar problem to Delia Derbyshire (who created the electronic Dr Who theme) – you don’t want to invent something too early, or you won’t be part of the seminal “scene” and everyone will forget to credit your innovations.
Psychologically Ultimate Seashore was side A of Environments. The reverse contains Optimum Aviary, which is just a curio. I don’t like the sound of birds, nor the shrill and irritating recording.
And apparently the seashore still wasn’t psychologically optimum enough, because the CD re-release of the 1969 vinyl contains several more changes. It’s doubled in length by (you can hear a clumsy cut where this happens), and has been equalized to take advantage of the flat response digital audio offers. A weird little joke (Teibel recording himself saying “skoosh!” or something) is excised. The LP is a remix of the ocean, the CD is a remix of a remix. Many more Environments were released after this (featuring bells, owls, thunderstorms, and more), but the first is the most famous.
Teibel described his work as “more real than real,” which raises the question: is that a contradiction of terms? Can something be realer than real? If reality isn’t to our liking, can we improve it, or does that mean it’s no longer reality?
As a child, I found a pebble at a beach that was nearly a perfect cube, as if cut with a chisel. It was a naturally-occurring rock (as far as I can tell), but it didn’t look “real” to my eye. I could have changed its shape, smashing off its corners so that it resembled other pebbles…would this have brought it closer to nature, or farther away? It’s an interesting philosophical question.
Another Teibel LP (perhaps his second most famous, after Environments) is The Altered Nixon Speech. It contains Richard Nixon’s August 15, 1973 speech, creatively edited so that he’s confessing to the Watergate break-ins instead of denying them. “My effort throughout has been burglary and bugging of party headquarters, obstructing justice, harassing individuals, and compromising those agencies of government that should be above politics.”
The recording was made in a spirit of fun – Teibel wasn’t trying to hoax anyone – but it’s an interesting “reality improvement”, from Teibel’s perspective. As a NYC-dwelling hippie of Jewish descent, he probably voted Democrat and viewed Nixon as a crook. He probably also saw his altered Nixon speech as closer to the truth than the one Nixon actually gave.
Computers are cheaper than they were in 1969, and although Teibel was one of the first digital tinkerers with the truth, he wasn’t the last. Farms of online trolls are forging videos to sway elections. Thousands of rappers are time-aligning and pitch-correcting their voices for Soundcloud likes. Millions of young women use Facetune to make their bodies thinner and more shapely. In the accelerated evolution of digital media, it’s easy for a new reality to supplant an old one. Not everyone shares Teibel’s essentially prosocial outlook, or his sense of fun. Can we gild the lily? Should we?
Maybe the waves really are speaking. “We are not the sea.“
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On Oct 15, 2019, a video was uploaded to Youtube. It did not set the internet on fire, because most of the internet is actually deep-sea cables that are underwater, but it did provoke discussion.
Riot Games, creators of League of Legends, was working on an FPS game. It was called Project A.
The video was stuffed with technical buzzwords (“server tickrate,” “peeker’s advantage”), and although the gameplay footage didn’t dazzle, the comp-gaming focus gained the attention of the coveted “20 gallon piss bottle” demographic. Could this finally be it? That mythical game with priorities beyond selling $20 character skins to Little Timmy No-Thumbs? A game that actually caters to hardcore, competitive players?
Project A was soon basking in (totally undeserved) kudos as the savior of the industry. Apparently claiming you’ve solved peeker’s advantage (the unintended consequence of internet lag that causes players making a move to have an advantage over defenders) is tantamount to actually solving peeker’s advantage, and numerous pro gamers publicly announced that they’d switch to a game they hadn’t played a single second of. References to the game became common in Twitch and Twitter profiles.
The feeling was that with the massive development firepower Riot Games possesses, Project A simply couldn’t fail.
Now the game is 1) released and 2) called Valorant. My feelings are mixed.
The game makes no attempt to disguise the fact that it’s a CS:GO clone. It’s five versus five – a team of attackers against a team of defenders. You buy guns with money you earn from killing people. A highly sophisticated user-interface streamlines the in-game economy, so that “rich” player can easily buy and drop gear for a poor teammate.
Valorant is class-based and character-driven, as is the trend these days. Sova wallhacks, and Viper does area denial. This isn’t as big a change from CS:GO as it might appear – although some characters (like Jett, who is highly mobile; or Raze, who brings some old-school Quake 3 nade jumping back into the mix) flip the gameplay in a new direction, for the most part it’s just a different way of having smokes, molotovs, and so on.
The gunplay works the way CS:GO‘s did, except more so. Moving is good. Shooting is good. Shooting while moving is bad. To hit shots in this game you have to be a turret, as any movement causes shots to wildly flick out ten feet from your crosshairs. Winning gunbattles in this game is less about where you’re shooting than where you’re shooting from: everyone’s jockeying for stable, defensible angles that provide maximal sightlines and minimal exposure. Valorant specialises in tense, white-knuckle moments where both you and the enemy are about to roll the dice and peek around a corner.
Unfortunately, “roll the dice” is indeed the operate phrase, as fights in Valorant have a heavy random element due to inconsistent recoil patterns. This screenshot (taken by Diegosaurs) reveals what you’re up against:
Look at how different the bursts are, and remember that this is a game where you two-tap people with virtually any weapon. Getting the first recoil pattern versus the third could mean the difference between life or death. FPS games should be “git gud, noob”. They should never be “git lucky, noob”. This is a huge issue. I couldn’t find a way to make my tapfires more reliable, no matter how much I tried.
Issues with recoil aside, the game also gets a lot of stuff right. Movement and “gunfeel” is excellent. I liked how you can move around while in the buy menu. CS:GO has a kind of stop-start rhythm. Action. Then downtime. Then action. Then downtime. Valorant’s gameplay feels more of a piece.
The weapons are also great: ranging from pistols to massive, Schwarzenegger-worthy LMGs for big spenders. Wall-penetration is a factor: sometimes it’s smart to forget about angles and just turn a wall into swiss cheese, and the game’s visuals are clear enough to know when you can do that.
Graphically, the game left me cold. As mentioned before it looks similar to Team Fortress 2, right down to its use of Gooch Shading (where models are shaded along a hot-colour/cold-colour axis instead of light-to-dark). Visually, this results in a game that’s colourful but cheap-looking. Arms wave like slabs of putrescent plastic.
…But perhaps in a competitive FPS you really want flat. Valorant is made for players who dial all their graphics settings to low anyway to squeeze out an extra 3 frames per second. Its playerbase would probably be satisfied if all the models were placeholder rigs from Blender, just so long as the hitboxes were balanced. But if your selling point over CS:GO is style, Valorant needs more of it. Everything unrelated to gameplay is stunted and abstracted away. Here’s what trees look like in a triple-A game released in 2020, by the way.
As with much of Valorant’s design, it doesn’t make mistakes, it makes choices. Choices that will alienate many players, as they have me.
I sort of enjoy a focus on content, rather than an abstract skeleton of a game that will hopefully have flesh later. The character-based element draws comparisons to Overwatch, Apex Legends, and League of Legends. Valorant is worse in that area than any of those: the content side of the game is so bland and threadbare that I wonder if F2P was the right business model. The game hopes to support itself with cosmetics…for characters who look bland and who you don’t care about.
Whatever, though. The game’s boosters are probably correct. Valorant is the new paradigm and there is not a chance it will fail. I probably won’t play it again.
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Let’s read a book together: Faucault’s histoire de la folie à l’âge classique:
“A book is produced. […] its doubles begin to swarm. Around it and far from it; each reading gives it an impalpable and unique body for an instant; fragments of itself are circulating and are made to stand in for it, are taken to almost entirely contain it, and sometimes serve as a refuge for it; it is doubled with commentaries, those other discourses in which it should finally appear as it is, confessing what it had refused to say, freeing itself from what it had so loudly pretended to be.
(Foucault, cited in Eribon 1991: 124)
…But we aren’t reading “a” book. We’re not reading the same thing and participating in a shared experience. We’re reading two different things: even though the above text might have all the same letters and words.
The thing is, they’re not being read by the same person.
Byron wrote Don Juan in 1819. It had a complicated publication history. Due to concerns over blasphemy and libel the book was released in two editions – a very expensive bound edition without an author’s name, and a very cheap bootleg that was distributed among anarchists.
From an evolutionary perspective this is r/K selection. An author wants his work to survive. They can do this by a) making their work so valuable and precious that it can’t be thrown away b) making it so cheap that it CAN be thrown away (and ends up becoming landfill, outlasting civilisation). Byron seems to have tried both strategies at once.
Were both editions the same book? I’d argue they’re not: the first edition was read by the upper class, and the second by anarchists. The first would have been read in a spirit of transgression: you were doing something naughty and beneath your station. A rich person reading Don Juan is like a rich person picking their nose at the dinner table. An anarchist would have read Don Juan as brutal, well-deserved skewering of Romantic literary conceits: one spark dancing in the all-consuming fire immanentizing the eschaton et cetera next paragraph
I sometimes wonder if there’s any point in writing anything. Any idea more complicated than “I exist” is going to be get misinterpreted by someone, somewhere. Readers are like distorted mirrors: light pours into them and is reflected, corrupted. Although from their perspective, it’s being reflected correctly. No other interpretation is valid except the reader’s. Don Juan is an anarchist anthem. Or it’s a toy for the enemies of the anarchists. It’s somehow both, and neither. It’s intended meaning was probably something else entirely.
Books tend to be used for propaganda. In the antebellum south, slave owners frequently justified using verses from the Bible. But freed slaves also relied on scripture, particularly the slave-freeing narrative of Exodus. “The Bible says” is often a less honest version of “I say”.
But a more fundamental issue is that words are a representation of a message, but not a complete representation. Sentences lack the context present in the author’s mind. The reader has to supply their own context, and they usually attribute the one they personally prefer.
- She said she did not take his money.
- She said she did not take his money.
- She said she did not take his money.
- She said she did not take his money.
- She said she did not take his money.
- She said she did not take his money.
- She said she did not take his money.
- She said she did not take his money.
This is the infamous “eight sentences in one”, where the meaning shifts depending on which word carries the emphasis. Additional permutations can be generated by emphasising multiple words (eg, She said she did not take his money.) None are correct. There’s additional pieces of context (who’s “she”?) that would further modify how the sentence is read.
This suggest that it’s a waste of time to hone and shape your writing. The point is to find the right audience, a group of people who are already attuned to your intended meaning. Early screenings of This is Spinal Tap were reportedly filled with squares who didn’t get the joke, and who thought that Spinal Tap was a real band. Rob Reiner and Christopher Guest clearly thought that the audience would be full of smart people like them, the idiots. The space of the human mind is pretty broad, and it can be hard to accept that you don’t occupy a prestiged position within it.
Have you ever wondered why Nigerian scam emails are always so…obvious? Why don’t they vary their pitch a little – by claiming to be from Senegal, say? This is actually intentional: they’re supposed to be obvious, because they only want gullible people to respond to their emails. Sending out millions of spam emails is the easy part: the hard part is finessing the repliers. You don’t want to spend three weeks talking to a person, only for them to decide you’re ripping them off. If you’re smart enough to notice that all scam emails are from the same country, you’re smart enough to not give a credit card number to a stranger. The scammers have found a way to filter their readers so that only the very, very stupid respond.
I think a true writer would use a similar technique. Somewhere out there is a person who thinks my unintelligible drooling makes sense. The challenge for me is to find that person. If it’s you: hello. Please never leave. You’re all I have.
It might be easier to create a perfect reader than a perfect book. I imagine a sociopath writer by crippling the brains of his reader so that they’re exactly that. It’s lucky that writers seldom become totalitarian dictators. Don’t think that Will Self’s new book is excellent? With the right cocktail of drugs you will. With the right frontal lobe excised, you will. You need the correct motivation. It will be fun.
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An 18th century German composer who wrote the theme for a king, with a principle melody that ascends yet remains trapped in tonal space. A 19th century Dutch artist who created maddening and hallucinatory artwork, defying intuition about perspective and reality. A 20th century German mathematician who described the limitations of a formal system addressing itself.
According to this book, Godel, Escher, and Bach were three blind men touching the same elephant: the Strange Loop.
“The “Strange Loop” phenomenon occurs whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through levels of some hierarchial system, we unexpectedly find ourselves right back where we started.”
You get on an elevator on floor 1, go up nine floors, emerge on floor 10, and then take the stairs back down. This is a loop. But imagine taking the elevator from floor 1 to floor 10, and the door slides open to reveal…floor 1. This is a strange loop.
“But things like that don’t exist.” They might not in architecture, but they do in the things that give rise to architecture: math, language, and human consciousness. Statements like “this sentence is a lie” and “I am nobody” are linguistic paradoxes. They’re like MC Escher’s Drawing Hands: destroying and recreating themselves over and over. Idioms like “pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps” are loopy. “This is not a pipe” is loopy. Barbershop poles are loopy.
One of the eye-opening parts of this book is how you start noticing strange loops all around you. The website you’re reading is powered by PHP, which stands for “PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor”. This isn’t a mistake: the language’s name is an acronym containing its own acronym inside it! Like spiders, strange loops exist closer to your body than you think.
But there’s more to strange loops than weird art and logic puzzles. Hofstadter seems to be poking towards a theory of consciousness itself.
In 1996, David Chalmers explicated the two main problems of consciousness. 1) How does a collection of atoms develop a consciousness (meaning a subjective experience, an internal monologue, or whatever). 2) Why does this happen? Why don’t we experience the world the way a robot might?
Hofstadter’s sense (never forcefully argued) is that strange loops are responsible for the consciousness we experience. Just as the three letters “PHP” contains an infinite number of “PHPs” inside them, our three-pound brains are able to “unfold” into something more than the sum of its parts, via iterations of very complicated loops. This doesn’t address the second of Chalmers’ questions, although in a later book Hofstadter compares the soul to a “swarm of colored butterflies fluttering in an orchard” – something attracted by the fruit, but not a part of the fruit. The loops don’t require conscious experience, the conscious experience emerges as a kind of froth when all of these loops combine.
This implies that an algorithm would be capable of introspecting about its own existence. A string of math on a very large blackboard would perceive the color red, and feel pain. It’s a provocative idea, but don’t expect to find this formulated with a QED at the end. As the constant artistic motifs suggest, GEB isn’t a hard science book. This is probably why people actually read it.
GEB is filled with illustrations, games, puzzles, and – most notoriously – dialogues inspired by Lewis Carroll. Some of these are astonishingly creative. The passage about the crab canon made me stop reading for a moment, because it was incredible, and I wanted to be able to remember it instead of immediately forgetting. It was mind expanding. Nearly mind-exploding.
Although GEB contains a primer on the basics of computer language, intellectual rigor isn’t the book’s goal. One of Hofstadter’s many interests is Zen Buddhism, which is our culture’s most potent form of anti-logic and as such is of interest to the student of the strange loop.
When the nun Chiyono studied Zen under Bukko of Engaku she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time. At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was set free! In commemoration, she wrote a poem:
In this way and that I tried to save the old pail / Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break / Until at last the bottom fell out. / No more water in the pail! / No more moon in the water!
Zen never makes lessons easy for the student: you’re the one who has to do the work and become cosmic. But GEB makes the road far more fun than it has to be. What stands out about Hofstadter’s prose is how readable it is. Hofstadter isn’t a wordsmith, he’s a word alchemist, making dull things sparkle. The prelude to my edition contains a digression in the difficulties he had typesetting the book, which sounds as gripping as Hannibal crossing the Alps. (There’s also a somewhat cringeworthy part self-flagellating about the how the original printing of the book uses the default male voice.)
So is “loopiness” the way a collection of atoms can collectively seem to think, reason, and experience? The book leaves me unsure, as I think it was meant to. It’s the world’s longest Zen koan, fragments of information that never coalesce into a hard idea, but seem to get me closer to enlightenment than I was before.
Interesting aside: Godel, Escher, and Bach are three wise men (initials GEB), also the three wise men of the Nativity tale are Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar (initials GMB), also M is E rotated 90 degrees, also they brought gift of gold, frankencense, and myrrh (initials GFM), also F is the letter after E in the Roman alphabet, also “Godel” is nearly an anagram of “gold”, also I lied when I said this part was interesting.
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Bowie had a stock response to chameleon comparisons: “a chameleon’s trying to make you ignore him…that’s not my ambition!” Nor was it Adam Ant’s, who came from a similar art school background and cycled through an even more outlandish cast of characters: Indian brave, highwayman, cossack: visuals that sold (and were sold by in turn) some of the most exciting songs of the early 80s.
The first Adam and the Ants record is jittery, cold, and fraught, like ice cubes rattling in a glass. The second is a much easier listen, featuring powerful African-influenced drumming and really catchy songs. This is the third, which, as the title would suggest, is extremely charming and easy to like. It thus overcomes big problems, such as nearly every song on side B sucking.
It’s made of similar stuff to Dog Eat Dog, meaning sharp layers of vocals and guitars interspersed with empty space that crackles with energy. There isn’t the omnipresent Burundi drumming of Dog, but the busy tom fills achieve much the same effect. “Scorpios” is a nice, sprawling song with horns and many-tracked vocals that seems to stretch itself out on the airwaves. “Picasso Visita El Planeta De Los Simios” is even better, featuring lacerating funk-inspired guitar. “Stand and Deliver” is an amazing classic that summarises Adam Ant’s career, like a leaf that looks exactly like the tree it came from. Energetic danceable post-punk decked in brilliant visuals that saturate the music beneath it.
Quality control issues become evident as Prince Charming progresses. “Mile High Club”: dogshit. “Mowhok”: dogshit. “Ant Rap”: dogshit inexplicably released as a single. This is another trend of Ant: about half the songs absolutely do not work, despite containing similar ingredients as the ones that do. At least the bad songs mostly run together this time, so skip button jockeying isn’t necessary.
Ant broke through in the gulf between two eras, like a surfer trading one wave for another. The Ants were originally signed (according to Adam) because Decca Records wanted “in” on the then-waning punk rock trend, and grabbed the nearest band to hand. Then they blew up in the MTV music video era, when listeners started using their eyes as well as their ears and it began to pay to not be an absolutely hideous fucking goblin.
You know what they say about Elvis: 90% of what he did was worthless, and the last 10% made him king. Adam Ant was inconsistent, but when he was good, he was very good. You might say he burglarized the king.
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I heard the band Motorhead described as a perfect mix of 1/3 punk rock, 1/3 heavy metal, and 1/3 rock and roll, with no element outweighing the other.
This book is a mix of 1/3 fantasy, 1/3 alternate history, and 1/3 science fiction. It hooked me at age 12 because of its violence: if you want detailed descriptions of billhooks crushing skulls, this has them. Descriptions, I mean. But Ash: A Secret History is ambitious: the plot unfolds like Lemarchand’s box, becoming increasingly complex and intriguing.
It’s a book within a book within a book. The framing device is that a 20th century linguist is attempting to publish a biography of the female medieval mercenary captain, Ash, who lived in the 14th century and who is shrouded by myth and legend. She had a reputation for tactical brilliance. She also heard voices in her head, telling her the future. Or so the tales say.
The book soon starts getting weird. There are big hints that the world of Ash (and the biographer) is not our own. Christ wasn’t crucified on a cross, he was hung from a tree. The Visigoths didn’t disappear from history in the 8th century, they rebuilt the city of Carthage and established an empire on the northern coast of Africa. Certain world events went differently.
By the time quantum physics start getting involved the book, you’re heavily invested in its tale of bloodshed and war. Ash ends up defending 14th century Burgundy against an army of invading Visigoths – a bizarre war that’s found nowhere in history. Is it all a hoax? Are we are hoax? Are the true hoaxes the friends we made along the way?
The way the plot resolves is clever, but at every level the book is interesting: you feel sorry for the historian who wrote down Ash’s adventures and paid a terrible price for it, and for the modern-day linguist who keeps having the rug yanked out from under his feet by inconvenient historical discoveries (one wonders if Gentle isn’t writing about her own experiences in academia).
It’s not flawless – a lot of dialog scenes serve no purpose except to gargle and masticate information the reader already knows, and every conversation seems to run about thirty percent too long. But on the whole, it’s a superior work, unlike any story I can recall reading.
As I’ve alluded, Gentle is a heavily-credentialed midlist author with degrees in Seventeenth Century Studies and War Studies. She seems to be one of those writers who turns converts masters degrees into novels. Ash can a brutal book, revelling in blood, sordidness, and bathroom activities, and the fact that it’s also thoroughly researched and informative offsets this. Like George MacDonald Fraser before her, Gentle realises that the audience will tolerate a lot of depravity if you present it as an educational experience.
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“I don’t remember giving a moment’s thought to the fact that we had just sketched out a plan to kill millions of people.”
Ken Alibek – born Kanatzhan “Kanat” Alibekov – was a Soviet microbiologist. Prior to his defection to the United States in 1992, Alibek was First Deputy Director of Biopreparat, the USSR’s secret biowarfare project.
In other news, I might be dying right now. Something deadly might be in my body, invisibly small, eluding my T-cells and multiplying like a gathering snowfall underneath my skin. My killer has no face. Like a citizen in Kabul being targeted by a reaper drone, my loved ones won’t be able to curse my murderer or exact revenge on it. My body will go into a plague bag, then into a cremation oven. If I have a legacy, it will be the infection of others.
Disease is everywhere. “You Want It, You Got It,” sang the Detroit Emeralds in the 70s. Disease is “You Don’t Want It, You Got It”. I live in a first world country with plumbing and sewage, yet I’ve had the flu, chicken-pox, and at least forty colds. Viruses are as inescapable as air – and to an approximation, viruses are air. 800 million viruses drift to earth every day per square meter, a steady rain, as deadly as a storm of steel. These viruses clash and recombine, peeling off strips of recombinant DNA and RNA like Formula One cars swapping paint, making themselves stronger in the process, climbing up evolution’s ladder. A deadly new superplague might now be inside my lungs. It’s unlikely to happen, but that’s chilly comfort. Someone, somewhere is going to be the first.
And these are natural plagues, constrained by evolutionary limitations. Engineered ones are far worse. Nature can create shapes that float on water, such as curved leaves, but only man can build the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. The biohazards Alibek works on are synthetic tularemia, anthrax, glanders, haemorraghic fever, and anthrax. But the true biohazard is Abelikov himself. He was a sorcerer of the spirochete, driving nature beyond its natural constraints and then straight over a cliff.
“We saw ourselves as custodians of a mystery that no one else understood, warriors or high priests of a secret cult whose rituals could not be revealed.”
The thing about viruses is that they can’t be too deadly, or they’ll kill their carrier organisms before they can spread and thus become extinct themselves. A man-made plague distributed from airborne canisters is under no such obligations to play nice. Alibek wasn’t the first to see the potential of disease as a weapon – we’ve been catapulting rotting cattle over city walls since antiquity – but backed by the Soviet military apparatus, he took it to a never-before-seen level. It’s impersonal, creating a layer of obfuscation between the attacker and victim. And it’s easy for a state actor to work on bioweapon projects, telling outside inspectors that they’re merely conducting defensive research.
But weaponized diseases have a big problem: they can’t tell friend from foe. Alibek and his fellow researchers are playing with fire, and he has many close calls at Biopreparat, such as a terrifying incident in 1983 where a faulty safety valve causes a liquified super-strain of tularemia to flow upwards through an air vent.
“I opened the door and took a few steps inside. It was pitch black. I reached back, groping in the darkness for the light switch. When I finally hit the switch and looked down, I found I was standing in a puddle of liquid tularemia. It was milky brown–the highest possible concentration. The puddle at my feet was only a few centimeters deep, but there was enough tularemia on the floor to infect the entire population of the Soviet Union.”
Alibek frantically washes himself with hydrogen peroxide. It isn’t enough. One day later, he begins to sicken.
Toward the end of Klyucherov’s visit, my body started to shake. Chills, and a sudden wave of nausea, overcame me so quickly I wanted to bury my head in my arms. It’s a cold, I thought. I’ve been working too hard.
But it felt worse than any cold I’d ever had. I could feel my face burning with fever.
“What’s happened to you?” Klyucherov asked in a tone that was now much friendlier. “You look like you’re about to die.”
I smiled weakly. “It’s just a cold,” I said. “I had a long night. I could do with some tea.”
Alibek isn’t just afraid of the disease, he’s afraid of discovery: this kind of fuck-up that will cause him to disappear. Luckily, he’s able to antidote himself with black market tetracycline, and his superiors never suspect it was anything but a cold.
This was one of the most fascinating parts of the book for me: the discussion of Soviet culture and how one interacts with it.
Russia had several Chernobyl-like events. And in every case, they were made worse by scared technicians trying to cover it up. On March 1979, a technician at a Sverdlovsk chemical drying plant removed a clogged filter and forgot to replace it. Aerosolized spores were soon pouring from the plant’s exhaust pipes, and the wind blew them into Sverdlovsk’s factory district. What kind of spores? Bacillus anthracis, which is better known as anthrax.
Workers began dying in their dozens. Several contradictory coverup stories went into effect at once. The KGB informed locals that the deaths were caused by a truckload of contaminated meat. Innocent meat vendors were arrested, and the victims’ families received visits from “doctors” armed with falsified death certificates. Meanwhile, members of the local Communist Party were put to work scrubbing “hazardous material” from roads and rooftiles.
…which caused a second wave of deaths, because the brooms and brushes swept anthrax spores back into the air, spreading them a second time throughout the city. Multiple layers of incompetence, executed with maximal efficiency.
I don’t think any kid dreams of working at a place like Biopreparat. Alibek originally wanted to become a military psychiatrist, but he was drawn sideways into studying epidemiology and biology. He has an obvious flair for such work, but he also possesses a single large weakness: he notices things he’s not supposed to. His professor, a retired colonel called Aksyonenko, assigns him the task of writing about the outbreak of tularemia that crippled a German offensive in 1942. After a few nights studying the case, Alibek came to conclusions that might have landed him in big trouble.
When I walked into my professor’s office with a draft of my paper, I thought I had solved the puzzle. He was concentrating on the latest edition of Krasnaya Zvezda, the official army newspaper.
“So, what have you discovered?” Aksyonenko asked, smiling up at me before returning to his paper.
“I’ve studied the records, Colonel,” I said cautiously. “The pattern of the disease doesn’t suggest a natural outbreak.”
He looked up sharply. “What does it suggest?”
“It suggests that this epidemic was caused intentionally.”
He cut me off before I could continue.
“Please,” he said softly. “I want you to do me a favor and forget you ever said what you just did.”
Whether or not you think Reagan was correct in describing the USSR as an “evil empire” (I think he was), it was certainly an unsafe empire. When disasters like Chernobyl (or Sverdlovsk) occur, they need to occur under bright light. Everyone needs to know what went wrong, and how, so that a correct response can occur. Not beneath the shade of coverups and lies. Most importantly, you need to give your inferiors permission to make mistakes. Otherwise you’ll simply train them to be good liars, and you’ll never know when things go wrong.
Obviously, Biopreparat’s work killed a good number of Russians. Was it ever used on non-Russians?
Not in war, as far as I can tell. But the strength of biowarfare is that it can be used in ways that specifically aren’t sanctioned warfare; such as against civilians and political opponents. Alibek has numerous encounters with KGB operatives, who praise him, threaten him, attempt to recruit him as an informant, etc. He suspects that his work is used to commit assassinations on behalf of a government venture called Project Flute.
In the spring of 1990, Butuzov walked into my office and sank into the big armchair across from my desk. He stared for a while at the
portraits of scientists hanging on the wall.
“I need your advice on something, Kan,” he said casually.
“Sure,” I said. “Professional or personal?”
I waited until he spoke again.
“I’m looking for something that will work with a gadget I’ve designed. It’s a small battery, the kind you use for watches, connected to a vibrating plate and an electric element.”
“Go on,” I said. He spoke in the same casual tone in which we discussed a soccer match. I was fascinated.
“Well, when you charge this element up, the plate will start vibrating
at a high frequency, right?”
“So, if you had a speck of dried powder on that plate, it will start to form an aerosol when it vibrates.”
He looked at me for encouragement, and I motioned for him to continue.
“Let’s say we put this assembly into a tiny box, maybe an empty pack of Marlboro cigarettes, and then find a way to put the pack under someone’s desk, or in his trash basket. If we were then to set it in motion, the aerosol would do the job right away, wouldn’t it?”
“It depends on the agent,” I said.”Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you about. What’s the best agent to use in such a situation if the objective is death?”
I’m not sure why I went along with him, but I did.
“You could use minimal amounts of tularemia,” I said, “but it wouldn’t necessarily kill.”
“I know,” said Butuzov. “We were thinking of something like Ebola.”
“That would work. But you’d have a high probability of killing not just this person, but everyone around him.”
“That wouldn’t matter.”
Alibek continues probing, and learns that Flute’s target is Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the newly elected president of Georgia. The “flamboyantly mustachio’d” Gamsakhurdia had been an enemy of Moscow ever since leading a campaign against the Soviet army in 1989, and it was politically attractive to the Kremlin that he not remain in power.
Zviad Gamsakhurdia died in 1993, under circumstances that remain unclear. Maybe it was a suicide. Maybe a small, vibrating battery was involved.
How did Alibek morally rationalise his work? Using the standard line: Biopreparat was doing the same thing the Americans were doing. It was the USSR’s version of the missile gap argument: if we don’t develop bioweapons, they will first.
Was this ever true? Maybe at one stage. Research efforts between the US and the USSR dovetail perfectly between 1945 and 1969: the same agents, the same aerosols, and the same processes were used on both sides of the Iron Curtain. This likely wasn’t an accident. Classified US research papers on bacteriological weapons had a curious way of ending up in Moscow.
But by 1969, the US was losing interest in the field. Public discontent with the Vietnam war soon expanded to encompass chemical and biological warfare, and facilities throughout the country were picketed. Nixon was convinced by his advisors that disease-based weapons lacked tactical value, and later that year, he appointed a panel that killed America’s biowarfare program. The United States was publically throwing in the towel.
The Soviets, of course, regarded all of this as theater.
“We didn’t believe a word of Nixon’s announcement. Even though the massive U.S. biological munitions stockpile was ordered to be destroyed, and some twenty-two hundred researchers and technicians lost their jobs, we thought the Americans were only wrapping a thicker cloak around their activities.”
But in 1991, the old regime ended, and Alibek was chosen to be part of a group of Russian scientists to tour biological research facilities in the United States. He was shocked at what he didn’t find: Biopreparat had two thousand specialists in anthrax. The Americans had two. The American research papers he saw were all decades old. Supposedly top-secret installations like Fort Detrick were either defunct or converted to into hum-drum civilian medical research. He turned over every stone he could, but there was nothing incriminating to be seen.
But his superiors weren’t interested in hearing that America had abandoned biowarfare, because that would destroy Biopreparat’s raison d’etre and put all of them out of a job. Parallels to the US’s 2003 invasion of Iraq war come to mind. From Bush’s perspective, Iraq had to be guilty of something. After all, he’d already gone to the trouble of invading them.
The hollowness of his mission weighs on Alibek during this period, and thoughts of defection enter his head. Spurring him on is the new wave of racial tension that followed the collapse of the USSR – another thing that interested me. Alibek is ethnically a Kazakh, and his face looks just as Asiatic as it does Caucasian. Until this point, he’d been a citizen of the Soviet Union. Now, he was a foreigner with strange features. This was interesting to me: maybe the union of satellite states across Russia effectively erased a number of racial barriers? Either way, Alibek couldn’t rely on Soviet national unity to protect himself any longer. So he runs.
Alibek escaped his former country, but he can’t escape his place in history: one that’s already pockmarked with smallpox scars, lacerated with varicella-zoster rashes. If a few metaphorical butterfly wingflaps had occurred, a massive breakthrough might have occurred at Biopreparat that greatly altered the balance of power between the USSR and the USA. Or perhaps the breakthrough would have insured that the balance of power became irrelevant, welding mankind into one: carriers for a deadly superplague.
Archimedes spoke about how a perfectly positioned lever could move the world. Disease is a perfectly positioned lever that could end the world. Alibek’s work might have value, if it helps us understand and prepare against the next time Pandora’s box is opened. Because that’s the only certainty: that there will be a next time.
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In 1982, Viking Press published four novellas by Stephen King, themed loosely (and probably ex-post-facto) after the four seasons. Someone else did it first, of course, and King seems to be referencing Vivaldi’s sonatas (even presenting the seasons in the order of Spring/Summer/Autumn/Winter). This kind of performative literary touch might indicate an attempt to step outside the horror genre, and the novellas back this up. They’re not King’s usual work.
The first novella, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”, impresses the heck out of me, every time I read it. I think it’s one of the best things he ever wrote.
It contains the famous line “prison is no fairytale world”. But King’s Shawshank is a fairytale world: and the character of Andy Dufresne is as much a folk figure as Robin Hood or Paul Bunyan. The plot is very famous thanks to a Frank Darabont movie: it’s about a wrongfully convicted man (but everyone behind bars is wrongfully convicted, the worldly narrator explains), and the ingenious use he finds for a poster of a Golden Age Hollywood actress.
But a straight telling of the plot doesn’t do justice to how rich an experience “Rita Hayworth” is. Its pages seem to bleed colour and sound. Literally everything about it is fascinating, from the desperate thrust of the main story to the little asides and sketches about incarcerated life. King always shines when writing about guys in prison, probably because they “contain” the action and actors in one place (subverting the questions about “why doesn’t [insert bozo] run away?”), as well as allowing time to move as fast or as slow as he chooses.
The ending is genuinely moving, even if you know what’s going to happen. Early in the story we get a vignette about a con who owned a pet pigeon. The day after he gets paroled, the pigeon is found “dead as a turd”. That’s life. The pigeon dies. “Rita Hayworth” is a legend where the pigeon gets to live, winging away into the blue silent sky.
“Apt Pupil” is a portrait of a young sociopath. Thirteen-year-old Todd Bowden accosts an elderly German immigrant and threatens to expose his secret: he’s a former Nazi commandant called Kurt Dussander, who ran an extermination camp. Bowden doesn’t want money, he wants knowledge. He’s is obsessed with the Holocaust. Obsessed with mass graves and incinerators. He wants to hear about the Holocaust from someone who actually perpetuated it. He wants to become Dussander’s pupil.
This character is totally believable – thanks to the internet, you can encounter Todd Bowden online any time you want to. The world is full of Holocaust fetishists – let’s face it, there’s something chic and sexy about the Final Solution that other historical tragedies lack: it’s the Rolls Royce of genocides. The Bowdens of the world aren’t overtly pro-Nazi – far from it, in fact. Even notorious Nazisploitation flick Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS dutifully informs the viewer that it’s only staging depictions of the Holocaust “with the hope that these heinous crimes will never occur again”. Whether or not you believe these cover stories, the disconcerting reality is that people still pay money to watch Judenfleisch get brutalized.
The story takes unpredictable turns, and avoids several obvious cliches. Although the relationship between Bowden and Dussander is initially one of extortion, soon they’re both in over their heads and reliant on the other to survive. Dussander doesn’t want his identity revealed. Bowden doesn’t want his all-American parents to discover his Nazi fetish. A game theoretician could teach a class based on “Apt Pupil”: Dussander and Bowden each have the ability to destroy each other, and this gives them perfect trust, as any betrayal will be punished by the other. In real life the strongest teams aren’t the Justice League, they’re La Cosa Nostra: bad guys with guns held to each other’s heads. Nevertheless, the mental (and soon physical) violence soon increases, to the point where the story explodes. A nice little tale about rattling skeletons and having them rattle you back.
“The Body” sees King going for an easy score. Plucky children, 1950s Maine, dark secret: how can you go wrong? It has plenty of connective tissue to other King stories (the character of Ace Merrill appears in a few other tales, and even Joe Camber’s mad dog Cujo gets a shout-out), but the strongest link might be to King’s own childhood.
The actual plot (four young boys go into the woods because they’ve heard there’s a dead body) is slender and almost irrelevant. The focus is on their characters, and the idealism of childhood interacting with the complexities of a world where trains and dogs and guns can kill you. It shouldn’t be news to anyone that the white picket fences of the 1950s often concealed scenes of unpleasantness, even horror, and a lot of King’s work consists of vivisecting America’s Leave It To Beaver era for the modern reader’s education. I like “The Body”, but compared to “Rita Hayworth” and “Apt Pupil” it seems conservative and safe: King colouring well between the lines.
The final novella is the least like the others. “The Breathing Method” is quite brief, almost a short story, contains overt supernatural and horror elements, and is detached from its central character in a way the others aren’t. It still has a stately literary air that separates it from his “I Was a Teenage Grave-Robber” stuff, but next to the first three it’s as insubstantial as breath on a winter’s day.
It’s about a woman way up shit creek. She’s pregnant, and the father has booked it out of town. She approaches a doctor, although not for the reasons you might expect. She wants to keep the baby, and she needs the doctor’s help.
King has made no bones about his difficulties in writing female characters, and here he avoids that difficulty by telling the story from the perspective of the male doctor. This is probably for the best, but it creates a lot of distance between us and the main character. It’s like trying to feel empathy for a person you can only glimpse through a periscope. But, importantly, it also casts the tale’s supernatural (or magical realist) elements under a shadow. Is this the truth? Or only what the narrator believes or wishes was the truth?
Hard though it might be to believe, in the 1980s the question existed as to whether King could escape the horror ghetto. These days the question is settled, and the new one is should he write outside that ghetto. Whatever you might think his neverending quest to write the Great American novel, this was an early, profitable attempt at broadening his portfolio. I just wish the final story was longer. If these are seasons, Stephen King Metro is built on the Equatorial line, where winter only lasts for a few days.
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The Portuguese were probably more technologically advanced than China by the mid 16th century. They had arquebuses, matchlock muskets, and breech loaded cannons. We know this stuff was better than the Chinese equivalents, because the Chinese copied them. After the battle of Shancaowan, the Ming captured some Portuguese swivel guns and produced their own imitations, which they called “Folangji”. When a Ming prince received a shipment of Folangji to deal with a seditious local lord, he literally wept for joy.
It’s surprising, considering that China had the first guns, rockets, and cannons. It’s like if Apple’s next iPhone was a reverse-engineered Huawei.
How did European cannonry become better than these Chinese equivalent, even though they started later? One explanation I’ve heard is that early Chinese cannons were never as useful against Chinese walls as early European cannons were against European walls, thus the Chinese lacked a reason to develop the technology.
European fortifications were made of solid courses of stone blocks mortared in place. They were rigid, hard, and inelastic. Fire a cannon at stone wall, and it cracks.
Chinese fortifications tended to be two relatively thin layers of brick, with a large interior cavity (several meters thick) filled with packed dirt. This is a strong design against sharp, sudden force, as the dirt absorbs and re-radiates the impact. Another difference was that Chinese walls tended to be sloped, which better deflected projectiles than the vertical surfaces of European castles.
So where the Europeans were firing early cannons at castles and seeing encouraging results, the Chinese were taking an opposite lesson: that artillery were toys that did little more than annoy the enemy.
Ironically, their advanced walls caused their artillery to stagnate.
Technology is a evolutionary process. You build a thing, then build a better thing, then build a better thing. Crude early artillery in the 13th century soon evolved into the powerful bombards that felled Constantinople. But the danger of evolutionary processes is that you can get stuck in a local maximum – where no further adaptation is worthwhile because you’ve hit some barrier or another. Your stepwise process becomes thing -> better thing -> better thing -> same thing -> same thing -> same thing, and then you give up, because you think you’ve gone as far as you can, even though you haven’t. The Europeans had a logical hill-climbing path that the Chinese didn’t, and the early Chinese advantage was wasted because they got stuck.
It’s similar to the argument that the wheel never took off among the Incas because, without gearing, wheels are of limited use in the mountainous Andes. But unless you use wheels a lot, you never think about gears.
This is important, because right now mankind is stuck in exactly that trap with space exploration. In 1966, NASA received 4% of the US federal budget. In 2010, it’s a 10th of that. Space exploration just doesn’t seem to be paying off…and thus we’re guaranteeing it will ever be so.
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You’ve heard your friends talking about this Netflix documentary, and I suggest you see it right now, before it saturates the water cooler ecoystem and it loses its shock value. It’s sad that nobody can watch The Sixth Sense in 2020 without knowing that Bruce Willis is a ghost. I’d hurry up and watch Tiger King before it gets spoiled for you.
It’s one of the most insane things I’ve ever seen. The people in it hardly seem real. I was constantly veering between shock and laughter. “…he’d come and rub them balls in my face” gets spoken at an eulogy. A man shoots himself in the head barely off camera, and it’s not even the fifth craziest thing to happen in that episode. There’s a straightfaced discussion about whether a human body can be put through an industrial mincer.
Basically, it’s about a war between owners of big cats, which culminates in a tangle of attempted (and perhaps successful?) murders. Joe Exotic owns a zoo. Carole Baskin owns an “animal rescue” that is indistinguishable from a zoo. Both of these people have a lot of shady history: we get the sense that they’re both dangerous, as well as incapable of walking away from any situation where they see themselves as the loser.
Owning a big cat is legal in most US states: but not in a same way that owning a head of lettuce is legal. The animals are as dangerous as their owners (one of Joe Exotic’s weirdly devoted employees loses an arm in a tiger cage) and there are laws against breeding them. Joe is clearly on the wrong side of these laws, but he needs to breed them, because it’s the only way his zoo can remain profitable.
The documentary educates you on the brutal economics of the tiger business: an adult tiger costs several thousand dollars per month to feed, and you can’t do anything with them except exhibit them. The real money is in tiger cubs, which are small enough to be cuddled and petted. Joe Exotic claims he can make a hundred thousand dollars from a newborn cub.
However, profitable cubs age into unprofitable tigers. Joe’s zoo in Wynnewood Oklahoma (aka Backup Florida) had a total 176 tigers, saddling him with staggering food bills and forcing him to breed still more cubs. The Chinese saying “he who rides on the back of a tiger can never get off” describes Joe’s basic dilemma: he’s running a tiger-based Ponzi scheme that will basically never be profitable (except in the short term). Unless he euthanizes grown tigers, which he’s pretty clearly doing.
He might have escaped notice for this, but he also starts targeting human prey. Supposed animal rights activist Carole Baskin may have fired the first shot in their war (she objects on moral grounds to the breeding of tiger cubs), but he escalates their feud to ridiculous, Wile E Coyote levels, piling up incriminating evidence against himself. The series straight away spoils the ending – Joe Exotic makes a call from his Fort Worth prison cell – but there’s no way it could have ended any other way. It’s a testament to the man’s unnatural charisma that he got away with so much for so long.
It’s hard to describe how fun and exhilerating Tiger King is. Even thinking about a few of my favorite moments overwhelms me with options. It’s like digging a hole to find gold, but the dirt you’re casting aside is also gold, and your pickaxe is made of gold too.
It’ll give you a lot to think about, too. Joe Exotic would probably still be a free man if he hadn’t effectively lynched himself via social media. But his self-exhibiting impulses were the only reason he was ever successful: albeit in a quasi-legal fashion. And in this sense, is he any different from the tigers he kept?
About ten years ago, there was a “furry” called Stalking Cat who took his feline obsession to ghastly extremes, undergoing over fourteen body modifications to become a tigress before committing suicide. Joe Exotic succeeded where Stalking Cat failed. Spiritually, he became a tiger.
The main role of tigers, in our culture, is to stand out and attract attention. If they were boring, they’d already be extinct. They survive because people love them. Joe Exotic was the ultimate charismatic megafauna. We adulated him, we feared him, and eventually, we put him in a cage.