Paris^H^H^H^H^HMarathon Texas

Taking a needed rest day in Marathon, Texas (a filming location for Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas – thus the title). It’s been a fun and strenuous few days moving out of scrub and caliche into high desert and mixed sandstone and caliche with real mountains on the horizon.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about while riding has been the past and the future of the land I’m riding through. I’ll save future for another day – too depressing – but imagining Pleisto-scenery has been a lot of fun. Two things have been big inspirations: all the vultures, black and turkey, eating road kill, and the rock shelters at Seminole Canyon. The vultures make me think of their big cousin, the California Condor and the tar pit illustration on the cover of Brooks’ Mythical Man Month. I’d really like to see something huge sitting on one of the roadside deer or calves. And another variety of road kill, armadillo, brings to mind an all time favorite: glyptodonts. The environment in and around Seminole Canyon reminded me a lot of the Dawn of Man sequence from 2001 – again tossing me back in time. So along I rode, imagining family groups of glyptodonts, herds of the extinct pronghorn, Tetrameryx shuleri, stalked by American cheetahs, all watched over by soaring condors. Proper!

Seminole Canyon

Travelogue below fold, as usual.

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Del Rio

A very short update – we clicked off approximately 70 miles today, riding US 90 from Uvalde to Del Rio. I’m not distance crazed, but the route was pretty flat, there was a slight tailwind and a Warmshowers host in Del Rio. Why not go for it? It was good riding – not exactly flow state, but something close. My legs were turning the pedals, the road was straight and I had a chance to watch birds and wildflowers, horizon lines and cloud deck. Today’s big sighting (not new, but I love seeing them) was a Caracara. The next section, especially Comstock to Marathon, is supposed to be pretty isolated. I’m going to restock tomorrow morning before heading to Seminole Canyon, but there may be a bit of a gap in blog updates. See y’all on the other side!

Pano with glitched p/u

Uvaldeeee

Checking in from Uvalde, Texas. A great few days of riding – I’m starting to get my rhythm going. A morning routine of making coffee, eating and breaking camp, riding for a good long time, and pulling in to the night’s camp site, getting set up, eating, showering, replenishing water bottles and having a bit of a nap. Again narrative to follow, but before that…

The wildflowers are getting underway!

Texas stork's bill

paintbrushes

diamond flowers

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Report from the road!

Coming to you from *clap clap clap clap* deep in the heart of Texas! I’m taking a rest day in Fredricksburg; though I’ve only been moving west for 2 days, I put a lot of miles and saddle time in kicking around Austin.Some impressions, and a more detailed chronology below the fold.

The experience so far has re-affirmed that, for me, the best way to really see (and hear and smell & that’s important) the world I’m moving through is pedaling along on a bike. Petrichor, the repeated kee-ah of frisky red shouldered hawks and small wildflowers right on the road margin are all things that are tougher to take in when one is moving faster. A convertible or a motorcycle might do it, but for me it’s all about the bike. On earlier rides I’ve found strangers consider me approachable – perhaps a “dude is probably crazy, but good crazy” vibe? Put a wee adventure teckel in a basket behind you and approachability becomes sheer Lotte-animal attraction.

Pedernales River pano

The bike has been performing beautifully. It’s a good solution to hauling an extra 16-20 pounds of dog and dog food and probably 7 or 8 of camera, lenses and electronics. It’s not fast up hill but it’s geared perfectly – I just downshift and goooo slooooow.

A more detailed narrative follows…

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A note on providential timing

Today is Fat Tuesday – Mardi Gras! – and I am in Austin, getting ready to head out on the Big Bike Ride tomorrow. The Mardi Gras Indian chant “Indian Red” supplied both the motto for the ride and the bike’s first name: M’allé couri dans deser” which became “Madi cu defio, en dans dey”. I didn’t plan it, but it’s very fitting that I’m beginning my run into the wilderness the day after the parades, chants and partying come to a crescendo!

Shinrin Yoku

Via Maine Bike Works on Instagram, a heck of a good read on bicycling in a less competitive, less focused way. This has been, and is, very much my goal on the the bike – get myself back to that carefree feeling I had when I jumped on my crappy wonderful Sears Sting Ray knock-off as a kid.

At one time, Jacquie even thought about starting a male version of WOMBATS, and had “already dreamed up the acronym, which is M-A-N-A-T-E-E: the Male Auxiliary Non-Athletic Testosterone-Enhanced Enthusiasts! Just a silly retort, because it’s this giant thing that’s, of course, going extinct, but sort of a pleasant animal—and obviously not up to any seedy tricks.”*

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Stateless Stochastic Automatons

…is my krautrock band name. Seriously, while driving to NYC last weekend, I finally started listening to Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders’ podcast, Our Opinions Are Correct – specifically, ep. 18: Alien Minds. It was so good that I listened a second time on my way home; strongest possible recommendation. The episode addresses alien minds in 3 big chunks: alien aliens (little green men/BEMs), AI/created minds and aliens that live on the planet with us.

The outer space alien portion focused partly on communication (my sweet spot) – it caused me to add Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series to my TBR list and made me think about a couple of my favorite aliens. The Ariekei/Hosts of China Miéville’s Embassytown speak with two mouths driven by one mind and their “Language does not allow for lying or even speculation, the Language reflects both their state of mind and reality as they perceive it”.* There are a bunch of interesting things going on: language/mind feedback, the destabilizing effect of new ‘technology’ and, for me especially, the Fall (of Babel/from a state of language perfection) as the Hosts learn to lie. The other aliens that sprang to mind were the Wang Carpets from Greg Egan’s Diaspora. I honestly don’t remember whether communication ever got established with the Carpets, but they were a great stab at building an intelligence that was barely recognizable.

[A] voyaging ship has found the first example [of alien life] on planet Orpheus, large “carpets” submerged and slowly moving through an ocean. The carpets hardly seem candidates for sentient life, each one being comprised of a single long carbohydrate molecule. But it turns out they are behaving as a Turing Machine made up of Wang tiles (renamed Wang’s Carpets by the human clones who discovered them).

Wang tiles are a mathematical system proposed by Hao Wang in the form of a conjecture that [simplified version:] square tiles with differently coloured sides can fill an plane, and if so in a periodic pattern. Hao Wang argued that if the such a tiling exists that would imply that there is also an algorithm that would decide if such a pattern exists. Wang’s student showed that there is no such algorithm and the tiling problem is undecidable.

The Wang Carpets on Orpheus are doing that computation, but instead of the simple two-dimensional case proposed by Hao Wang, in this story the carpets occupy many levels in the ocean and thus an immensely powerful computation is going on (and can be visualised by Fourier analysis). An intelligence comprised of a multidimensional Turing Machine. *

The AI minds portion was excellent as well – encoded biases/non-neurotypical AI minds/&c, but I’m going to just tell you to listen. I’m going on longer than I wanted and am going to cut to the chase; the portion where Newitz and Anders talk to Lisa Margonelli about her book, Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology. Most of my exposure to eusocial insects is via the Hymenoptera as a beekeeper and as a lover of both Uncle Milton and Six legs Better. Termites are different critters entirely. They’re most closely related to cockaroaches and rely on their gut biota to digest cellulose. A superorganism with symbiotic protists, which in turn have bacterial ectosymbiotes? Hell yes. What really got me going was the discussion (35:27) of what I am assuming (bought the book, haven’t cracked it yet) are Macrotermes colonies.

Macrotermes colonies host a remarkable symbiotic relationship with a basidiomycete fungus, Termitomyces. The termites cultivate the fungi in a fungus garden, comprising a few hundred fungus combs, structures built from chewed up grass and wood, and inoculated with fungal spores. Each year, these fungi produce a crop of large mushrooms (pictured at left), known locally as omajowa, which are highly prized as a delicacy.

Unlike the fungi cultivated by leaf-cutter ants, which the ant colony uses as food, the Termitomyces culture in a Macrotermes nest aids in the breakdown of cellulose and lignin into a more nutritious compost which serves as the termites actual food. The fungus garden is, therefore, a kind of extracorporeal digestive system, to which termites have ‘outsourced’ cellulose digestion. *

An aside – I inoculated some logs last spring with shiitake and oyster mushroom spawn and it occurred to me at the time that what I was doing was turning wood into food with a fungal assist.

fungus comb

I’m unclear as to whether Macrotermes have the same gut biota as other termites (wait!! see below) – guess I need to read Underbug. Regardless, what a superorganism! What a community! Extra bonus – one of the species of fungus, Termitomyces titanicus, “has a cap that may reach 1 metre (3 ft) in diameter on a stipe up to 22 inches (57 cm) in length and is reputed to be the largest edible mushroom in the world.”* Termite-stuffed mushroom caps anyone (totally serious)?

By Blimeo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56726209

P.S. It occured to me as I was proofreading that perhaps I could do a google search on ‘macrotermes gut biota’ and yes, there are papers!

A Fungus Among Us II

Via Justin Pickard on the tweets comes this fantastic project: Alias, a gadget that helps you take control of Amazon and Google’s small surveillance devices.

We looked at how cordyceps fungus and viruses can appropriate and control insects to fulfill their own agendas and were inspired to create our own parasite for smart home systems. Therefore we started Project Alias to demonstrate how maker-culture can be used to redefine our relationship with smart home technologies, by delegating more power from the designers to the end users of the products.*

I’ve never been tempted by Amazon Echo or Google Home. First off, I like not needing to reboot light switches. And the privacy implications of these gadgets are stunning. There’s the obvious: if you don’t think they’re listening and harvesting data whenever they’re plugged in, you clearly haven’t been paying attention. The Alias project mitigates this exposure with a man-in-the-middle attack – it sits between you and the listening device and only talks to the listening device when you’ve told it to.

I’m still thinking it through, but Alias isn’t a panacea. All the things Google Home (for example) is asked to do: play music, turn off lights, adjust temperature, will leak back to Google and they can build an interesting model of your life using this data. That being said, a Cordycepian brain parasite for our cloud overlords’ bugs* is conceptual candy to me. (earlier Cordyceps post here)

Lots of fungal zeitgeist in my world right now. In addition to Alias, I’ve been watching the mushroom episodes of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, reading a Vox post on “The extraordinary therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs, explained” and re-reading Toads and Toadstools. Next stop, Pollan’s book.

*SWIDT?

Ice, Ice Baby

Antarctica again: a post from Barry Lopez talking about his time on a blue ice field with a field team collecting meteorites. A lot of things to love about this – space, ice, people cooperating in a tough environment, nunataks, and a mix of cutting edge and traditional technologies.

John and I share an appetite for physical engagement with the world of snow, ice, and rock beyond our tent, and we appreciate having an opportunity to work together, almost always in silence. We’re comfortable being confined in the limited space of a Scott tent. We split the cooking chores easily, and we observe the same unwritten rules that ensure each person a bit of privacy. I like the rhythm of our daily problem-solving and the hours of stories and reminiscence we share in the tent on storm-bound days, the physical and technical challenge of the work the six of us do, and the deep sleep that comes with exhaustion. Humans, I think, were built for this. We can do it superbly.*

Read the whole thing, as they say. Additionally, some of the tech tangents I zoomed off on…

de Havilland forever! I’ve flown on a radial engine Beaver; no Twin Otter, yet.

Three years before we arrived, four scientists, the first people to visit this part of Antarctica, landed nearby in a Twin Otter plane.

BAS Twin Otter

Scott pyramid tents count as middle-aged tech, I think. Though most of Scott’s experiments were a bust, the tent endures.

Nansen sleds! Designed in the 1890s, adapted from traditional Inuit qamutiiks. Lashed, not nailed, so they flex on uneven terrain. Lights up a bunch of my pleasure centers.

Mene, mene, tekeli-li

-or-

The Writing on the Ice

It’s difficult sometimes to trace the origin of a tangent. In this case, I’m pretty sure it started with the trailer for Mortal Engines, a movie I’d like to see in the theater, but who knows… The big mobile cities started me thinking about the big vehicles I’ve imagined taking part in the 2nd Miskatonic Expedition story – especially the Russian vehicle, which is a nuclear powered, screw driven monstrosity. From there it was a quick jump to watching a favorite monster movie: John Carpenter’s The Thing. Really excellent special effects; I remember a friend had a copy of Cinefex back in the day detailing how some of the monsters were created and it was fascinating. And from there it was off to the reading races. So here’s a list of the Antarctic stuff I’ve read over the past week or so, with a thought of two on each book. I’ll list them in order of publication, and indicate the order I read them in.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (read 2nd) – Edgar Allan Poe The grandparent of all the antarctic horror to follow, this thing is a hot (cold?) mess. Poe thought of himself as a magazinist and it shows. Continuity is, um, uneven, the style and point of view are all over the place and it just stops in an “ok, we’re done now” cliffhanger (literally). But the thing that most walloped me was the racism. It’s both casual and thematic. Casual in the way Pym’s companion for the adventures, Dirk Peters, is described as having “arms, as well as legs, [that] were bowed in the most singular manner, and appeared to possess no flexibility whatever. [And a head that] was equally deformed, being of immense size, with an indentation on the crown (like that on the head of most negroes)…”*. Peters is supposed to be a “half-breed” with a Native Amreicam mother and a fur trapper (read: white) father. Early on, the brutality of the black cook on the Grampus (the first ship Pym is on) – he’s described as “demonic” – is singled out for emphasis. And thematically, the contrast between dark – the island of Tsala, where even the teeth of the locals are black – and the white figure at the end of the world is striking. With this in Poe’s oeuvre, I’m a little surprised that the orangutan is such a fraught topic:

If you’re interested in reading The Narrative, Project Gutenberg has it here.

At the Mountains of Madness (read 1st) – H. P. Lovecraft If you know anything about Lovecraft the person, you know what a virulent racist he was (yes, there’s a through-line here, beyond the southern continent). As a result, it’s difficult for me to read the story of the Old Ones vs. the Shoggoths as anything other than a slave revolt. I suppose one could shade it a bit and, per rule 1 of Horror Academia above, see it as a working class uprising, but since the Old Ones bred Shoggoths – ownership of children being a key horrible feature of chattel slavery – I’m going to stick with my interpretation. And following some of Charlie Stross’ thinking on the Lovecraft mythos, I regard the Shoggoths as sentient biological bushbots: smart and endlessly reconfigurable. RUR meets Toussaint Louverture.

Pym (read last) – Mat Johnson I discovered this satire while reading the Arthur Gordon Pym entry on Wikipedia. It’s Poe inverted and skewered: the story of an African-American professor of literature who ends up with an all-black ice mining crew in Antarctica. I need to re-read it; strongly recommended. One note – it features Thomas KinkKarvel, painter of light, which makes me wonder if there’s more to learn about Cookie Puss and Fudgie.

Still to be read is Verne’s An Antarctic Mystery, but seeing as how Mat Johnson described it as “the most pragmatic and literal sequel to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and also the worst sequel. This is probably not a coincidence. Still, even a failed book is enjoyable on an occasional page. Come for the novelty, stay for the unbridled racism.”* I’m in no hurry.