Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Snug as a Bug in a Beautiful Box


When I was a kid I always wanted a gypsy wagon. I didn't know anything about what might be inside, but I could imagine it: everything in cupboards and shelves, pots and pans and maybe bundles of herbs hanging from the ceiling, beds in bunks like a ship. And that painting! All the beautiful painting!

I imagined heading off along the roads, the horse clop-clopping, the wagon swaying a little as I went. For some reason, at this part I imagined the morning sun coming down, and mist rising from the fields. Ah! The open road, the tiny house.

There are a lot of people nowadays showing interest in Gypsy vardos, as the traditional wagons are called. You can buy plans for them and find detailed descriptions of how to build them and decorate them all over the place online (see below); the Society for Creative Anachronism, among others, has sparked a movement to build vardos, including ones that you can hitch to your car. Britain is full of restorers of old vardos and even places you can rent them (horse-drawn, no less) as holiday accomodation, complete with traditional bed-cupboard, tiny stove, and hayrack on the back for the horse. But back then, I only had my imagination - and books.

The Adventures of Perrine, last published in 1941, is a story about a girl whose parents die and she has to travel to a distant city to find her uncle, with hardly any money. As a kid I read over and over the part where she spends a few weeks in a tiny hunting-hut, on an island in the marsh, with a little plank-bridge you can pull up so people don't show up unexpectedly. (She even ends up making her own shoes out of marsh-grass and ribbon).

I suppose I've had a lifelong obsession with tiny houses, despite living with people who like to sprawl. Ship cabins, or even better, the tiny cabins of boats, appeal to me: everything is in its place, there are shelves and cupboards for everything, the beds are built into the walls, and it's all so...snug. The part in The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights), when she takes up with the boat people? I really liked that. There was some dumb Doctor Doolittle spinoff I read when I was a kid, I think it was called Dr. Doolittle and the Pirates, which completely captivated me because they sail away in the pirates' ship - and you get to see the cabin belowdecks, with rich rugs, treasure, and piles of fruit (and of course the requisite bunks).

Maxfield Parrish's Ali Baba: the light is reminiscent of the light in my dream house, below.


For much of my childhood I had this recurring dream that there was this really tiny house behind the storage shed at my school. The house was so tiny (no more than 3 feet wide and 4 feet tall) that no one but me noticed it. I would go inside and it would be full of the most marvelous treasure - chests of jewels and yards upon yards of shining, brilliantly-colored silks; feathers, ornately embroidered ribbons, diamonds. It was so tiny I had to crawl in, and once in I could barely turn around, it was so stuffed full of wonderful things: but that was much of the magic of the thing.

The treasure cave in Pirates of the Caribbean, while beautifully done, didn't ultimately make me drool. Why? Possibly because of size. The treasure in my tiny house, and in the silly book, were all so near at hand, it felt completely personal - completely mine. When I used to read Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, I never imagined the cave to be vast. It was large enough to hold a lot of treasure, sure, but only if the treasure was piled up against the walls, taller than me. In my mind that treasure had to be all around to be really magical. If it simply lay all over the floor in discrete mounds, why then it wasn't nearly as impressive.

Jay Shafer, an architect and certified "claustrophile", has been building tiny houses for years now (in fact, he's now been on Oprah, so I won't talk about him too much). His Tumbleweed Tiny House Company makes plans and kits for houses that are sometimes less than 100 square feet, yet with all the comforts of home. The designing that goes into fitting it all in together, the storage planning, and the end result - with its sense of airiness and comfort - is impressive. It appeals to that shipboard part of me, the one that likes the shelves and cupboards. The fact that he actually lives in one of them (100 square feet) is a tribute to his interest in the thing.


His little houses remind me of some of the tiny traditional buildings I saw in Norway, with a narrow footprint and the sides bumped out higher up. I think one of the reasons, besides ecology, that Mr. Shafer's houses have been taking off is that people find tiny spaces comforting. Remember the "Child Caves" I described from A Pattern Language? It seems that we never really grow out of that urge.

The wonderful bathroom from Bony Legs, which is a retelling of Baba Yaga with great illustrations (especially the cover).


Back when people still read to me, someone read me a Baba Yaga tale, complete with the iron teeth and the fence made of bones, the only thing I could think of was how absolutely cool it was to live in a little hut on chicken legs! And I don't think I'm alone, because that Baba Yaga thing simply doesn't go away. Joan Aiken, in her marvelous book A Necklace of Raindrops, tells a story about some traveling musician brothers whose car breaks down and they go looking for a place to stay for the night. After a number of unpleasant adventures, they meet a woman who lives in a chicken-legged hut, who tells them that if they can find the egg her house has laid (she wants it for supper), she'll give them a bed. But by the time they get the egg and bring it back, it's cracked. It breaks in half and a little house jumps out - and they go live in that, traveling around and playing music.

Now I ask you, is there any possible way it could get better than hatching your hut out of an egg?

Later, I read Ursula LeGuin's "Darkness Box" (from The Wind's Twelve Quarters), which is a memorable story anyway, but the initial character, a child, lives with his mother in a Baba Yaga-type hut (complete with herbs from the rafters and all that). That did it - my mind was made up: I wanted one.

But I was bound to disappointment.

But there are other possibilities, always more, just beyond the horizon. What about a cave? A nice, dry cave with little alcoves in the walls for you to put your stuff. Think of Mr. Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - wouldn't you like to go stay with him for awhile? Here's an excerpt, in case you don't remember, or didn't read it:

"It was a little, dry, clean cave of reddish stone with a carpet on the floor and two little chairs ("one for me and one for a friend," said Mr. Tumnus) and a little table and a dresser and a mantelpiece over the fire and above that a picture of an old Faun with a grey beard. In one corner there was a door which Lucy thought must lead to Mr. Tumnus' bedroom, and on one wall was a shelf full of books."

They go on to have a very snug-sounding tea (which I have to include because it compliments the scenery so well):

"There was a nice brown egg, lightly boiled, for each of them, and then sardines on toast, and then buttered toast, and then toast with honey, and then a sugar-topped cake." ..And, of course, nice hot cups of tea, and a fire.

And all this appears again in the Beavers' house, so snug and full of Wellington boots and nets and things. I sigh, just thinking of it.


Now that I've grown, I know better than to believe I can fit myself and all my stuff into that kind of a tiny place, which is probably a shame. But I still have my foibles. Take, for example, the concept of the bed-cupboard. I don't know where I first got this idea, but think of having a bedroom where your bed, that messy thing with all the lumpy bits, is built into the wall. With little doors you can close if you want to be really snug (there's a thin line between claustrophilia and claustrophobia, though). In any case, then the rest of the room is free to be comfortable, right? Not just four walls around a large piece of messy furniture. Also, with a cupboard the bed itself becomes this really secret, snuggly place.

Perhaps I'm someone who particularly likes boxes, places to store things and hide things; decorative compartments. Perhaps there's some Freudian connection I'm not getting here, but I think, I think it might simply be a human desire: to have a secret place, to hide.

This desire to be in a cave or a box seems often to be associated, for adults, with our beds. I once lived, for a couple of years, in an apartment in San Francisco which had a Murphy bed, which, although it was the height of cool (my friends couldn't believe it), was just not the same. The problem with a Murphy bed was, the bed got to hide away, not me. So ultimately, though I liked the Murphy bed, it didn't fulfill the need (though it did have this cool closet behind it that you could go into when the bed was down).

Now, a Chinese marriage bed...that could really be a place to hide, the best kind of decorative box...to store yourself, when you're deactivated.


It's been documented, this urge to be contained (aside from the obvious Freudian interpretations, of course). Temple Grandin, an autistic veterinarian who is famous both for being the subject of Oliver Sacks' Anthropologist on Mars and for leading the movement to eliminate cruelty in the meat industry, invented a machine which is now used in all kinds of autism facilities to calm people when they are suffering from tension. She calls it the Squeeze Machine. You lie inside it and it essentially delivers pressure like a hug, but without the difficulties of being touched by a human being, and according to Oliver Sacks it is surprisingly satisfying. Perhaps living in a tiny house could deliver some of the same satisfaction?



I often wonder, now that I'm a boring adult, if I had found the perfect little house, how long the love affair would have lasted. Would I have become one of those people who live the sort of spick and span lifestyle that the space demands? Perhaps I could end up like the little old lady who lived in a pumpkin, or a peach-pit, or something. And what about my collections? I could be like those souls who have a tiny house - and then a storage unit for all the other stuff.

Perhaps that's why I started the Cabinet, so I could collect all these amazing things without having to put them in my house. The Dream House - no, Palace, now - that is my Cabinet is beginning to grow beyond the bounds of houses, to include ideas, geographic locations, whole armies of saints.

Ah, well, it's getting late, and I'm starting to natter on. Perhaps I'll just go climb into my Cabinet, shut the door, and admire the treasures contained within. Thank you, once again, for joining me here.


Other Links:

Further reading about the Rom

UK dealer selling original caravans

Lots and lots about gypsy wagons.

A list of links for information on learning about(mostly new) caravans being built and restored.

Horse-drawn gypsy caravan holidays in New Forest, UK

Jan Yoors left home at the age of twelve to join the gypsies, and stayed with them, on and off, for ten years. His deep penetration of such a closed society he describes in his books The Gypsies and Crossing, which talks about the Rom experience during World War II.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Babylon: Pavement Paradises


I am taking some extra time to work on fiction this week, so I will just add this addendum to the Genius Loci post, since many people seemed to find that interesting. It is kind of a sidetrack from the usual Cabinet fare, but might prove interesting to many of you. Next week I will be back to some interesting devices which I've been looking into...heh heh.

I wanted to mention this quirky book, written by award-winning author and gardener George Shenk, which appears on first glance to be some crackpot publication, but in actuality it is an interesting and useful treatise on the possibility of planting over hard surfaces. With the addition of soil on top of a such a surface (plus the occasional containment mechanism, such as rocks or sphagnum moss), it is possible to reclaim paved areas - patios, parking areas, wall-tops, steps, and even tables - and green up hardscape so that it feels more contiguous with the natural environment.


Photos showing how a parking lot can be "grown over" - including the addition of grass, which it is possible to roll up like a rug (bottom).


The book advocates the heaping of soil into and onto the edges and corners of paved areas, as well as along the internal corners of steps and in "islands" in the middle of patios and disused driveways, allowing for planting that fills in the hard edges of old or poorly-designed garden landscapes.


The author has also created many "table gardens", which he describes as being particularly wonderful, appearing to have been levitated in place, and "stump gardens", which capitalize on the natural breakdown process of the wood to make for a lush and many-layered effect.


The fascinating thing about this book is the idea that a natural process, i.e. the gradual plant-takeover of pavement which happens whenever it is left alone in the environment too long, has been hastened and encouraged - shaped, even - to create stunning, naturalistic spaces. Mostly, it's wonderful to be given permission to overgrow pavement. So few of us are actually in a position to remove unwanted pavement, either because we can't afford it or we simply don't know if we want to do anything so drastic.

Not only that, but the masters of urban planning have made us feel that the cities' hard look is an intentional thing, something we mustn't mess with because the City government, and subsequent flunkies of all sorts, made it that way. We feel, subconsciously, the Plan behind it, and the general assumption that urban hardscape about tidiness and hygene. This book allows us to question this assumption: is it really about tidiness, about the public good, or is it simply ease of cleanup, like the tiled walls of the insane asylum? Or is it merely bad planning, inspired by laziness, an unwillingness to take care of living things?

As someone who has always been interested in what I call "Guerilla Gardening", I look at this book and I see people piling dirt against the walls of their tenement buildings, planting over their steps, leaving trails where once there were broad lanes of paving; I see wavy lines where there used to be straight ones. Think how the urban environment would look if people were less intimidated by the hard, grid-like spaces around them. We could have revolution: jungle in the city.

The Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls, Massachussetts. Five hundred kinds of plants, including fully-grown trees, have been planted on this disused car bridge, leaving a lovely walking trail for pedestrians to enjoy. 30 inches depth of soil were laid against either railing, and the hollow support colums were filled 9 feet deep with soil, for the larger trees.




Another, similar idea is the Green Roof movement, which looks back at traditional sod-roofed houses to solve some of the problems of urban water runoff. Plants on the roof help absorb rainwater, keeping the runoff from causing floods and erosion. Not only that, of course, but they're just plain lovely, and much harder to see against the countryside. In the urban landscape these green roofs provide relief for the eye, and a small feeling of joy at the invasion of green.




Other links:

One of the grandfathers of the green-roof movement, a landscape architect who was designing roof gardens using rice-straw and peat moss over fifty years ago, Theodore Osmundson is well-respected. His book, Roof Gardens: History, Design, and Construction is a book intended for architects and designers which tells you all you could possibly want to know about designing for intensive roof gardens.

The Granite Garden, Urban Nature and Human Design, is a fascinating-looking book on the way cities grow and urban access to nature, as well as an examination of bringing the effect of "nature" - without any of the actual functional underpinnings of a true natural environment - into urban and suburban planning.

You've got to check out the Kensington Roof Gardens, which house flamingos in pools, palm trees, and 6000 square meters of garden, and were built in 1936 on a roof in Kensington, London.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

Green Roof Plants: A Resource and Planting Guide, a how-to book on green roof planting.

A fine capitalist example of the green roof movement being taken seriously in the industrial architecture community.

An interesting, scholarly article about a long-term study on roof gardens in Berlin.

Alyx L has kindly pointed out the vertical gardens of Patrick Blanc, which are truly amazing. Go look at the slide show (and it tells you how to do it, too).

And last but not least, Matthew over at Rebar tells me there is already a Guerilla Gardening movement! To think I was so ahead of my time! You can check it out here.

Okay, okay, I did my gardening fix. See you next week...

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Diamond Age, Incarnate


Quick note: I came across this last night and don't know if it's shown up anywhere else, but I think it's one of those great examples of how life imitates fiction.

Ever read The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson?

Well here it is, coming to life. They're taking Charles Babbage's Difference Engine and nano-izing it: making chips (probably out of diamond, no less) that are based on mechanical principles rather than electrical ones.

Hooray for fiction writers!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Genius Loci: the Spirits of Place


Three years ago, I moved from a city famous for its shipping docks to a place in the country. Not only "the country," but the valley where I had grown up. I'd lived for years and years in cities all over the world, and coming back here was a wish that had long gone unfulfilled.

Several things struck me on my return. One was the incredible certainty, which took my city-bred children two years to comprehend, that you can walk in any direction in the country. You are not confined to streets and paths. You may, if you wish, simply set off and go cross-country without worrying about the neighbors (mostly). Though you do have to worry about poison oak.

The other thing that struck me is how different this, the place I live now, is from the place I grew up, only two miles down the road. Microclimate? Or different spirits?

When I was in graduate school, in the unnamed industrial city where I ended up living for ten years, I resided in a rather unhealthy part of town for awhile. I had needed to find a place fast, between my arrival from London and the beginning of classes, and I ended up in one of those divided older houses, with young Rottweiler lovers in both the other apartments, all very nice people (but). The front garden had a six-foot-high, black spiked steel fence around it, with a gate that clanged when people walked through it. There was a small, miserable tree outside the gate, which small (and not-so-small) urban boys worked very hard at, trying to get a stick to play with. Sticks, apparently, are de rigor for boys, regardless of their class and upbringing, and these particular boys were starved for lack of them.


As time went on, the tree acquired a lean. Each spring, it put out fewer leaves. Finally one day, I found it lying on the pavement. We had a suitable funeral, and I pondered how much paved places wring the life out of one's soul. I found myself desperate to walk on grass, and I began planting things in the small, unkempt, barren yard inside the barbaric fence. Despite the dog droppings from the other residents' dogs, and the thrash-metal barbecues they liked to hold in the middle of the yard, where people didn't seem able or willing to watch their feet, I did manage to grow a small selection of bushes and vines. I gave some sweetpea seeds to a junkie woman once, and she almost cried, saying she didn't know what to do with them, holding them like they might break or get lost.

Needless to say, this affected my studies. I found myself reading about gardens, every kind of gardens; and eventually, inevitably, I came across books about the grand English gardeners - Capability Brown, William Kent, and the like. Their "modern" style of landscape gardening was all about improving on what nature should have been, rusticating things and making the views look more natural than natural. They were deeply interested in the idea of the genius loci, or spirit of the place: a location's distinctive atmosphere, the thing that makes it wholly itself. They worked with the way the landscape was already shaped, sometimes introducing new elements or rerouting streams into man-made lakes, all with an eye to emphasizing what was already there. Trees were planted in apparently random, asthetic clumps. Distant fields of sheep were incorporated seamlessly into the foreground by use of Ha-has (I love those to death). This style was the beginning of what came to be an obsession with the Picturesque, meaning, "like a painting."


A ha-ha from below...and above


In its original context, genius loci was the Roman term for the literal protective spirit of a place, this being a common enough conception: think of the roadside shrines in Japan and Bali, India and, long ago, in pre-Christian Europe and Britain. Small statues stand in particular places where people pass through, and as travelers come and partake of the spring or the resting-place, they leave offerings, or simply ask for the blessing of the little god. As time went on, this idea of local gods was no longer considered important. Formal gardens, with geometric layouts and little hedges, became the mode; the genius loci was relegated to a few classical statues placed at discreet intervals or in niches; the concept was lost. However, with the Enlightenment's interest in classical asthetics the term came around again, in the form of an allegory or a metaphor.

The poet Alexander Pope wrote, at around this time:

"Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;
Or helps th' ambitious hill the heav'ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th' intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.


After Capability Brown died, his naturalistic style was replaced by the Romantic version of the same thing: gothick ruins, hermitages, and ivy-covered grottos were all the rage. Brown's flexible and mild-mannered genius loci was transformed, via a veritable injection of anxiety, into a more exciting (if faux) Spirit which offered a "sublime thrill" to explorers of the dark and wild gardens of the new era.

For a really brilliant sideline to this, I recommend Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, one of the best plays I have ever seen or read. If you like the things I have been discussing in this blog, you would love this play, all about mathematics, love, chaos theory, Byron, history, death and, of course, landscape design. Mr. Stoppard evokes beautifully the lady of the house's distress at plans to remake her beloved Brownian grounds into something in the Romantic mold, with a ruined tower and creepers.



Another form of landscape arrangement, Feng shui at its base is a form of place-spirit analysis, simplistically speaking, with elements of geomagnetism, astronomy, cardinal direction, and geographical formation working to align human dwellings to the Universe. The ancient Chinese managed, with a minimum of fuss, to deconstruct a somewhat theological concept down to a science of energy flow and geological meaning. Curiously, some of the principles of Feng Shui can be found in many of Brown's gardens.


But to get back to this idea that there are little gods, presences that occupy a place, that give it its character: it is my deep and abiding feeling that perhaps many modern places feel soulless is because they ARE soulless. Think of shopping malls, where the entire landscape has been mashed into shape, flattened into generic-ness.


Think of those bad parts of town: do they have landmarks? Trees, large stones, hills? For the most part, and I dare you to come up with examples otherwise, ghettos and slums are in the flat parts of town. They're the most paved parts. They have the fewest, or the smallest, trees. How about those projects, where the poor are crammed into faceless apartment blocks, with weedy, untended, unused yards? The landscape has lost its face; the genius loci has fled, taking its protection with it.

Okay, I'm being political here, but it's not impossible to fix. Look at this wonderful piece of "intervention", or public performance (?) art, by a group called Rebar. The piece is called Park(ing). Rebar claims it is "Providing temporary public open space in a privatized part of town."




After Rebar did this first piece, other people PARK(ed) in cities all over the world. It's one of the coolest ideas I've seen for combatting urban depression. A portable genius loci!

In concept, I think genius loci can be a lot like mana, as I discussed in a previous post: the more a place is used, polished, loved, allowed to be itself, the more it will create itself, allow itself to grow a soul.

And these souls, these spirits can be very, very small, the genius loci of a waterfall or a knoll or even simply a hidden, sweet corner of an alley (under the fire escape, behind those potted plants). Some, of course, are vast, like the ones at Yosemite Valley, where staff work tirelessly keeping the local genii locii (?) from getting trampled.

In the valley where I live, there is a grave, quite old and all alone, tucked into the corner of a side-valley. Whoever it is who died and was buried there is now a small spirit of that place. People who don't know her, riding past on their horses, leave small handfuls of dried grasses and other things, to thank her for being in that place, making it special. Then there's the huge oak tree on a knoll, high above the valley, all alone, with a trunk the width of a king-sized bed. It stands, shading the mushrooms and irises who grow there, and its massive limbs house some kind of spirit, I am certain - though some long-ago fool carved the word "SUE" into the bark, thus naming the poor spirit for generations to come.

In any case, I think the current craze for small fountains and hidden benches in tiny urban gardens is an attempt, albeit unconscious, by the residents to invite, gently and hesitantly, some sprite or minor god to come and settle, to sit and stay awhile. You build a fountain to delight their ears, put in some fragrant roses in brilliant colors; like hummingbirds, fleet and delicate, they'll come to smell, to listen, to look at the lovely lines and shades you've made with your planting choices. In the end, if you're lucky, you'll make the place comfortable enough and beautiful enough that one of those vanquished spirits might, with a little coaxing, consent to stay.

They need us as much as we need them.

Androids and Un-Aliveness


"Every time an inventor tries to simulate life mechanically, he is in fact accentuating his own mortality." This quote comes from the introduction of Edison's Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life, by Gaby Wood.

I found this marvelous book in the Acknowledgements section of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which is a primer of sorts for kids about a fascination with clockwork, and the history of cinema. I highly recommend it, both for adults and older children. Not only are the copious illustrations excellent, but the story is created out of the kind of connection-building, drawing-lines-between-several-apparently-unassociated-things thinking that makes a work of fiction really fascinating, mostly because it could so easily be true: the places are right, the facts are right; everything runs alongside each other, so why shouldn't it be true? To take these facts and serendipities and bring them magically to life in a way that is better than any truth is the best kind of storytelling.


Although I haven't yet read Edison's Eve, the Introduction available via the "see inside" link on Amazon, unlike most of these Amazonian links, allows a very detailed and interesting look into what must certainly be a very interesting tome. Beginning with a description of "The Writer" and "The Drawer" - the two automata whose videos I showed three posts ago - she moves on to a meditation on the magic and fear involved with the creation of something which might, ultimately, replace us: human automata, or androids. She begins with Sigmund Freuds’ description of “ ‘the Uncanny,’ the feeling that arises when there is an ‘intellectual uncertainty’ about the borderline between the lifeless and the living. It is triggered in particular, Freud wrote, by ‘waxwork figures, ingeniously constructed dolls and automata.’ A child’s desire for a doll to come to life may become, in adulthood, a fear.”

From here, Ms. Wood skips along through the Spanish Inquisition, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, automata in ancient texts (!), and alchemy, to the moment when she begins her story...

“...at a later, critical moment: when the ambitions of the necromancers were revived in the well-respected name of science. In the eighteenth century, an interest in anatomy, advances in the design of scientific instruments, and a fondness for magic tricks meant that automata were thought of as glorious feats of engineering, or philosophical toys. As Umberto Eco has put it, the inventors of that period ‘substituted mechanics for the forces of evil.’ And yet...the rational scientists who constructed these celebrated objects ofen harboured ambitions beyond the bounds of reason...The madness left over from darker times was all the more disturbing for being hidden beneath the mask of enlightenment.”

She goes on to a fascinating discussion on the philosophy of creating un-humans, from the association they have with death (being un-alive) to the philosophical implications of the lingo used in modern-day robotics and, curiously, in the places where these modern-day automata tend to fail.

One of the ideas Ms. Wood brings up is the idea that machine intelligences having no perception of the passage of time - this being one of the basic tenets of human consciousness. They can count the minutes and hours, sure, but they do not "understand" what is happening: why or how or even the fact that it is true that things change through time. Robots and automata also, and this is key, don't age as we do, and thus mortality is a concept which does not apply to them - which makes them all the more frightening. They are about creating life where there is no life, and it feels strange, feels, as Freud points out, strange and wrong.

This question, of humanity and its replication (or failure thereof), is a constant in our modern (ie, industrial) culture. Think of all the literature, films, and so on that explore the idea of adding and subtracting humanity - sometimes even exploiting our fear of its lack:

- Frankenstein, both literature and movies
- Dracula, ditto
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
- The movie Metropolis
- I, Robot
- Zombie movies
- The Iron Giant
- Bladerunner, obviously
- Terminator
- X Men 1

...to name only a very few obvious ones.

Much has been made of the link between alien/martian invasion stories/movies and the Cold War fear culture, which in some sense is another side of the same coin, as they were all political stories about making an Enemy (collective noun), less than human. The Stepford Wives, which doesn't really fit into this Cold War category, is nevertheless basically a political allegory with a feminist slant, and therefore less about the humanity of the individual people than it is about the creepy price of perfection.

Ms. Wood speaks of how mechanical know-how turned, at the end of the eighteenth century, from an exploration of making machines more human, to the exploration of making humans more machine-like. It seems to me that with the machine age, fear of the un-alive human began, bit by bit, to take precedence over fear of witches, magic, and other fears of the unknown.

Which is not to say the thrust to make humans and machines interchangeably blurred has not been seen as good - as a progression from obscurity to greatness. Back in the 1920's, as part of the Efficiency Movement, Lillian and Frank Gilbreth strove to find ways to help make workers' movements more efficient by examining special films of people working (using, for the first time, little lights attached to their hands which tracked their movements). Their goal was to reduce the number of motions involved in a task. At the time this was seen as a way to make their jobs easier and better, but in latter years there has been a lot of discussion about how this thinking has led to a cultural environment where workers are expected to behave efficiently at all times, like machines...or automatons.

Efficiency can be taken to extremes, though. A performance artist called Stelarc, claims that the body is obsolete. His work is all about the idea of becoming post-human. Third Arm, for example, takes the idea of a prosthetic limb and goes a step further: what if the technology was actually used to give us extra limbs? Another work, Stimbod, looks at voluntary and involuntary control of our bodies. Using a touch screen, viewers can program a series of motions and gestures which, when executed, then electrically stimulate the artist's muscles to perform those same motions...So then the man becomes the automaton.

(Smackings of William Gibson, and the amplified bodies of The Sprawl Triology here)!

Stelarc's obsession with the body, and improving on the body's basic design, is paradoxical and ultimately controversial: if one is a creationist, then the body is sacrosanct - it is as God(s) created it, and not to be improved upon. Evolution, on the other hand, says that things are always being optimized for the current circumstances - and yet, isn't the 4-limbed model one that has been proven to be evolutionarily efficient? And what happens when prosthetics become more of us than the original? The Tin Woodsman, for example, didn't start out that way. He was a flesh-and-blood man, a woodsman who gradually lost all his limbs (and eventually head and torso as well) to his own axe, and thus to the replacements made of tin; and after all of it, the thing he longed most to regain was his heart.

So the question is, really, not whether we will create artificial intelligences that take over the world, or whether we will create machines which start as our servants and end as our deathless masters, but really, whether we will, like the tin man, subsume our own human workings to the point where we can no longer find our own hearts.

Much of this, of course, comes down to humans' inability to stop tinkering with things. The world as it is today is a product of this inability, as are many of our bodies' illnesses. The desire to cheat Death brings with it a chance that we will, in effect, invite Death in to be part of our lives - not only as a by-product of the very processes we have invented to cheat death, but in a form of deathlessness, a type of being that extends existence without taking into account an ultimately human trait: the sense that our lives are passing, that every minute is a gift, that we have only so many days to seize.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Connections: the Book


At the risk of giving away all my secrets, I want to recommend James Burke's book, Connections. It's based on this brilliant TV show he did for the BBC in the 1970's, about the history of invention. Some of you may be familiar with it.

The great thing about this series of videos, and even more so about the book, is that he doesn't take a historian's view of the sequence of events. Instead, he follows a roundabout, storyteller's route, drawing lines between this person over here having this idea and that person over there taking one aspect of that invention and running with it - in a completely different direction. There is a long and wonderful discussion of navigation and lodestones, another section discusses Guericke's work with vacuums and how this led to research into the composition of air, and eventually the investigation of light passing through gases, and thus on to the cathode ray and television.

The book draws connections between vacuums and weather, atomic energy and the Norman Conquest, ploughs and gunpowder. It discusses, among other things, water clocks, Gutenberg's printing press, Vaucanson's automated duck, and the Jacquard loom (which I plan to discuss sometime soon, so don't read the book - okay?). Clockwork, the evolution of the telescope, and the timber crisis fromt the sixteenth-century glass industry: it's all in there. In fact there are things here (and images too) that you never heard of, that will just blow you away.

Life in a silver-mining town, late 1500s - including those who are underground


I cannot recommend this book (and the video series) highly enough. The main advantage of the book is that you can leave it somewhere in your house that you frequently go to sit or lay quietly (near the toilet or the bed, for example) and it will keep you awake at night as you peruse the amazing ideas and connections laid out in it, like a particularly well-designed maze.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Automata in the Ancient World

(Image of Hephaestus courtesy of Classics Unveiled)

There were golden handmaids also who worked for him,
and were like real young women, with sense and reason, voice also and strength, and all the learning of the immortals...
- The Illiad, Book 18


I just finished reading an article by Noel Sharkey in New Scientist (a British science magazine, totally worth the exhorbitant yearly subscription), which expanded on Mark Rosheim's wonderful and interesting book, Leonardo's Lost Robots.

Mr. Rosheim's research on Leonardo da Vinci's work suggests that da Vinci's lion automaton (see Wired article here) was powered by a clockwork cart, which was steered via a mechanism "controlled by arms attached to rotating gears." In Rosheim's opinion, it would have been possible to control the lion's movements by changing the position of the arms, which means the automaton was not only clockwork, but programmable. Which is a big deal.

Inspired by Rosheim's work, Mr. Sharkey, a professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield, decided to investigate some questions this raised: was da Vinci influenced by an earlier design? How far back in history can we trace programmable robots?

Mr. Sharkey is careful to point out that "programmable" means a machine capable of taking instructions. The instructions (the "program") can be written, or they can be hard-wired. The important thing is that the instructions should be able to be changed without taking the machine itself apart. So, for example, an old-fashioned metal-drum music box is reprogrammable because you can take the drum out and put a new one in.

This is what Sharkey says about his search:

"In search of answers I followed the technology back through medieval Europe to the Islamic world, where I have found evidence of an even earlier programmable automaton, made in Baghdad by the brilliant 13th-century engineer Ibn Ismail Ibn al-Razzaz Al-Jazari. He created a veritable boatload of programmable robot musicians effectively a floating jukebox designed to entertain nobles as they drank and lounged at royal pool parties.

"Picture of the internal structure of an automata for serving and arbitrating drinking sessions."
- Courtesy of JC Heuden at Virtual Worlds


Yet the trail doesn't stop there. It led me even further back past the automata of the Byzantine court and ancient Rome to ancient Alexandria. It was here that Hero, one of the greatest Greek engineers, constructed a programmable robot that pre-dates da Vinci's by 1500 years. Its control system turns out to be unique; more like knitting than a computer circuit. Nevertheless, there is clear evidence linking Hero's design to the programming languages used in, say, Honda's latest humanoid robot Asimo."


What Sharkey found was that Hero, who had designed everything from the aeolipile (the world's first steam-engine, see picture above) to "a vending machine that dispensed a shot of holy water in exchange for a coin," had designed a mobile theatre, complete with Dionysus and some female worshippers, all automata, which came in on a sort of self-propelled, self-guided cart. Sharkey saw the similarity to da Vinci's lion at once. But when he looked in Hero's Peri automatopoietikes ("On automata-making"), it became clear: this theatre was actually programmable -- using string for the programming language.

As Mr. Sharkey describes it, "Hero's idea was so elegant that even as I read it, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end." Not only did Hero come up with a way of making a machine work in complex, programmable ways, he had essentially invented a programming language. And it's all with the kind of stuff you could put together in your basement. I found it all absolutely fascinating, but too long to recount, so you can read more in this reprint of the New Scientist article if you're interested. And here is a guy from New Scientist who decided to try it:


It's really interesting to me, finding that our mechanical-thinking personalities as humans go back so far. We tend to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of evolution, as if the ancient Greeks didn't have the brains to figure out simple mechanics. We look back and say, "My goodness, how on earth did they build those pyramids?" When in fact, the human brain hasn't changed in a really, really long time. It's only the available materials, the access to information, that have changed: the evolution of technological materials and our knowledge about what kinds of materials work, and the ability for information to move around in a sparsely-populated world full of war and danger - not the actual abilities of our minds. Think about it: Hero's book was probably read by, at best, a few hundred people over the course of several hundred years. Perhaps the reason we find it all so amazing is the way the ancients figured ways to be mechanical despite the lack of materials and access to information.

Take, for example, the article in the New Yorker recently (5/14/07) about the Antikythera mechanism (wiki), a fully-formed bronze clockwork mechanism from the first century BC:

"The device is remarkable for the level of miniaturization and complexity of its parts, which is comparable to that of 18th century clocks. It has over 30 gears, although some have suggested as many as 70 gears, with teeth formed through equilateral triangles. When past or future dates were entered via a crank (now lost), the mechanism calculated the position of the Sun, Moon or other astronomical information such as the location of other planets." - Wikipedia

When it was first opened in 1902, it was noticed that the Antikythera Mechanism had gears with precisely-cut teeth of different sizes, and looked like the mechanism of a clock, which was deemed impossible "because scientifically precise gearing wasn't believed to have been widely used until the fourteenth century - fourteen hundred years after the ship went down." No one wanted to believe it - and so the thing was put down as a sort of astrolabe - and left at that.

The interesting thing about this article, aside from the wonderful detective tale showing the slow unveiling of this device, is the unusual supposition that "early civilizations were much more technically adept than we imagine they were." In fact, let me quote a paragraph:

"Looking back over the first fifty years of research on the Mechanism, one is struck by the reluctance of modern investigators to credit the ancients with technological skill. The Greeks are thought to have possessed crude wooden gears, which were used to lift heavy building materials...but historians do not generally credit them with possessing...gears cut from metal and arranged into complex 'gear trains' capable of carrying motion from one driveshaft to another...It's almost as if we wished to reserve advanced technological accomplishment exclusively for ourselves."

The article goes on to describe how ancient inventors and their descriptions are the cause of much disbelief and furor among scholars, many of whom point to the lack of physical evidence. Hero's works are described by critics as "fantasy," for example. And yet, here is a perfectly fine specimen of ancient technology, sitting in a museum for a hundred years, gathering dust, while people argue about it in a desultory way (with a few, noticeably ignored, exceptions).

There is a quality to this kind of argument, among perfectly reasonable history- and science-types, which smacks to me of the Self-Justifying Three: Manifest Destiny, Social Darwinism, and Positivism. Manifest Destiny was a peculiarly American argument used in the 19th Century to excuse the displacement of indiginous peoples. It ran like this: the (white) American people are virtuous, and have a mission to spread this virtue, as manifestly destined by God (the destiny can be seen in how we are already spreading)...See the excellent, circular logic? Social Darwinism believes that extreme inequalities in wealth are due to the fact that anyone who's got the right stuff will become rich, therefore the poor must be inherently lazy and stupid, and that's why they're poor. Positivism is still alive and well today, and it says that everything is improving through science, i.e. continually getting more rational (read: better - remember "Better living through chemistry?") Apply all this to the ancients, and we have exactly the kind of assumed superiority that gets us nowhere.

"This painting (circa 1872) by John Gast called American Progress is an allegorical representation of Manifest Destiny. Here Columbia, a personification of the United States, leads civilization westward with American settlers, stringing telegraph wire as she travels; she holds a schoolbook. The different economic activities of the pioneers are highlighted and, especially, the changing forms of transportation. The Indians and wild animals flee." [wiki]


Think about it: why do people always say that Leonardo da Vinci was "ahead of his time?" It's true that he was brilliant, but doesn't that statement imply a certain belief that those people back then were incapable of creation to the degree he worked, that they were not only ignorant but, somehow, less than modern people?

The problem is confusing intelligence with knowledge, and knowledge with information. How many of us remember the "smart" kid in school, the one who knew everything? In reality this kid wasn't much smarter than other people, it was simply that he or she kept all the facts at his or her fingertips. On the other hand that other kid, the quiet one in the corner who never said anything? That kid was actually mechanically brilliant, but no one noticed it because it expressed itself as spending all her time "playing with" her Erector Set (aka Meccano). We have all done it, thinking that knowledge is the product of intelligence - and also that information is knowledge.

The truth is that knowledge is the assembly of information, and it is only through intelligence that we are able to convert knowledge into a coherent world view. If we saw it in terms of Lego (since I'm on a toy theme here), information would be the individual lego blocks - useless on their own. Knowledge would be lego blocks assembled into discrete chunks, which allows the legos to be carried around and exchanged - but they still don't mean much, other than the cachet of personal wealth, until you add in that secret ingredient: intelligence. Then, all of a sudden, you can make all sorts of things happen that have never been done with legos before.

In the world of education, it is becoming more and more commonly believed that intelligence comes in many different flavors, and that, contrary to IQ tests and other ways of quantifying smarts, intelligence has to do with ways of perceiving, ways of processing knowledge. If you look at the fact that there are more than ten times the number of people alive today than in da Vinci's time (and less before that), it is no wonder that this innate intelligence did not catch fire, and Hero's steam-powered aeolipile (for example) remained a curiosity.

After all, he was unable to broadcast what he did except in the most limited way, lacking a printing press or a postal system.

Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), who rebutted the presiding Cartesian view that all things must be verified through observation by observing that "the realms of verifiable truth and human concern share only a slight overlap, yet reasoning is required in equal measure in both spheres" [wiki], said that history is cyclical. His analysis was that civilization repeats the same cycle every time: a "divine" age, where culture relied on metaphor to understand the world; a "heroic" age, feudal and monarchic and dependent on idealized figures, and the final age, which is characterized by democracy and reflection on the world via irony (which era do you suppose we are in?). "...in this [final] epoch, the rise of rationality leads to barbarie della reflessione or barbarism of reflection, and civilization descends once more into the poetic era" [wiki]. Needless to say, he got a poor reception for his ideas, because no one wanted to believe that civilizations always rise and fall again. Everyone wants to believe that they are the pinnacle of history, and that it will carry on this way forever.

The truth is, even when people came up with great ideas, they might not have had the means to disseminate information. And even if they did, the ideas had difficulty going far. And even then, you were always in danger of running into a dark age, when all your ideas were burned or lost or, well, suppressed.

So here we are, with our internet and our intense crowding, where ideas fly around like bees. When someone invents something it is disseminated within minutes. Can you see the advantages we have over the ancients? We must be careful we do not assume an evolutionary advantage over those who have gone before - that we, with all our gear, are actually more intelligent than our ancient forebears, who when you think of it, did the most amazing things with the materials at hand. Perhaps the sign of a truly advancing culture is one who can overcome the urge to diminish those who have come before. Perhaps, when articles like this come out in the New Yorker and other popular broadcasting mechanisms, we have some hope; a Rennaissance of sorts.

Or perhaps we should be on the lookout for that coming Dark Age.




Links:

July 31st the History Channel is running a show on Ancient Robots, in which they have interviewed Mr. Sharkey. The dates for this in the UK start, I think, on the 24th - look it up depending on your area. I have no idea about the rest of the English-speaking world, sorry...

Thanks to the Automata/Automaton blog for the unexpected link to YouTube!

Automata Everywhere

I just found a bunch of automata videos on YouTube, and it's wonderous and mind-boggling. (NB: these take awhile to come in and sometimes only come when you scroll around - sorry; there's just so many!)

In particular, my own obsession is with "mechanical people", that is, clockwork mechanisms that emulate people doing realistic, organic-seeming things - generally called "androids" at the time they were popular. It is stunning to me to see automata which can actually write, or draw, or paint, because they seem so aware of the paper, and their touch is so amazingly delicate. And, that after more than 200 years, they still can be so accurate and beautiful.

There are a series of these French videos (not in English, unfortunately, I wish I understood it better) of these 18th-century automata, which makes me think there's a full-length French documentary out there. If anyone knows what it is, I'd like to know what it is and where I can get it. This one is called The Drawer:



Here is The Writer:



And, in case you were wanting to see (like I did) the insides of the Writer:



This one was made in Paris in 1880 by Vichy, and is unrestored. This comes to us courtesy of the folks at Automatomania, a husband-and-wife enterprise in the UK who restore old automata:



Here is another 18th Century one from somewhere else:



Lastly, here is an amazing animation of a truly amazing wooden robot (from?) the 19th Century - Karakuri Ningyo, in Japanese (thanks to an anonymous reader for the translation) :

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Cat's Out of the Bag

It's funny how you go through life in your little bubble, and then your bubble collides with someone else's bubble and does that bubble thing, you know where they look like one bubble, but really there's this wall down the middle. Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of a cluster, surrounded by friends (or, if you prefer the negative, walled in all around). Or sometimes you are simply all alone, lonely but floating gently over the world, with good fat perspective all around.

Okay, enough of the bubble analogy.

The truth is, though, we carry our little reality around with us everywhere. I looked up "reality" on wikipedia (which struck me as an amazingly odd thing to do); I highly recommend the entry. It's fascinating seeing how many different things can be discussed under that one-word heading. Among other things was this:

"On a much broader and more subjective level, the private experiences, curiosity, inquiry, and selectivity involved in the personal interpretation of an event shapes reality as seen by one and only one individual and hence is called phenomenological. This form of reality might be common to others as well, but at times could also be so unique to oneself as to be never experienced or agreed upon by any one else. Much of the kind of experience deemed spiritual occurs on this level of reality. From a phenomenological perspective, reality is that which is phenomenally real and unreality is nonexistent. Individual perception can be based upon an individual's personality, focus and style of attribution, causing him or her to see only what he or she wants to see or believes to be true."

So there you have it: all your feelings, beliefs and interests, all tied up neatly in a nutshell. Or, as I said, a bubble.

If you look up the science on neurons and reality, you will get so many diverse opinions that it becomes clear that reality, for these scientists, is really a matter of opinion, just like the rest of us.

To me it seems that good friends are people who are able to share your reality. They may not agree, but they are willing to "get inside your head" (not a neuroscientific term) and be there, in your reality, with you for awhile. Good authors are able to make friends of us all by giving us a chance to share some head space with them - which of course fools those of us known as "fans" (also not a neuroscientific term) into feeling that we do, indeed, know this person, and, having shared reality with them, they must be our friend too - right? Which is, unfortunately, not true, because really, they are carefully crafting a piece of their reality and presenting it to you - a worthy occupation and wonderful to experience, but not what good friends do with each other. When you are with someone you really get on with, you are passing bits of your reality back and forth between you with the minimum of crafting and editing, and this, this is why we sometimes get fits of the giggles: we are passing things back and forth too fast and they are spiralling out of control, and it's fun as hell.

In any case it's fun sharing my extremely weird bubble with you all. I sometimes get the giggles, anyway.

And thanks muchly to Mr. Neil Gaiman for his kind words on his blog Thursday. I only heard about it today, but was very pleased, having perused many of those carefully-crafted reality bits of his, myself.

...And welcome to those new readers who followed his link here!

Friday, July 13, 2007

A Bit of Fluff: Late Baroque Fashions

Marie Antoinette, in her youthfully extravagant days. Contrary to rumor, she did not say "Let them eat cake".


When I was young and attending design school to learn about clothing design (yet another of my many guises: the Garment Industry Professional), I had to take a class in the History of Fashion, taught by a woman named DeWitt. This class was one of the most memorable classes I've ever taken, discussing not only fashion throughout history but the political and social influences which caused certain fashions to become popular.

For example, did you know that King Henry VIII was six foot four? His waist grew to more than 45 inches, later in his life, and so he developed these sleeves padded with sawdust so as to broaden his shoulders and distract from his waistline, so he could go on looking massive and kinglike. Thus the Tudor fad for stuffed sleeves.

Or: the lace industry, in pre-Revolutionary France was so in demand that it was a major cottage industry; a dress for one of the two hundred or so courtiers who attended a ball took six months to make, was worn once, and then discarded. Dozens of people worked on the lace, or the embroidery, for those dresses, working under (of course) unpleasant conditions - damp, cramped quarters without enough light - to produce the textiles required, not to mention the actual intricate assembly of the clothes. Apparently, younger and younger people were employed as the older ones went blind and demand went up. The pay was, of course, horrible (not only for the workers, but for the tailors - sometimes the Palace didn't pay their bills) and so everyone was hungry as well. I am quoting this all from the back of my head. There is some question as to how much the textile industry's woes fed the unrest, but I'm certain it didn't help the royals' cause.

This was not too far off the mark, surprisingly


This was one of the periods I was most interested in, of course: the 1760s and 70s, when huge wigs, embroidered cloth, and layers on layers of lace were the fad for both women and men. I think what fascinates me about this era is the sheer constructedness of it. Both women and men wore wigs, which were pomaded thickly with grease and then powdered. If you were very rich, you had it re-done quite often; if not, well, you simply...lived with it. For a long time, with interesting results. Yech.

Yazbukey's modern take on the 17th century wig, courtesy of StyleBubble.


Women's wigs were much taller and more elaborate than men's during this time (though men's wigs did have a spate of relative tallness). Wigs were often up to three feet high, and had elaborate carapaces underneath of wire and wool, over which the hair was drawn. At the height of this fashion, women would have ornate themes woven into their wigs: the famous model ship in full sail, for example, or stuffed-bird-and-flower arrangements. Marie Antoinette was said to have come to a ball with a birdcage, complete with live bird, in her hair.


This was cause for much adjustment in domestic arrangements: wig dressers, called "mackerel" due to their floury appearance, were one type of servant employed solely for this purpose. Mackerel stood on special stools to be able to reach the heights of hair, and the women involved had complex garments that they put on to protect them for the final powdering. I saw a picture somewhere of carriages that were designed (or possibly re-designed) to have trap-doors in their tops that folded back from the edge of the door to allow a person with an extremely tall wig to enter.

A new look came out in the 1740s which, in most places, was abandoned by the 1760s: flat, wide dresses with cages built up over the hips. These "panniers," as they were called (yes, I know, the bicyclists have co-opted them), were often wider than the length of the woman's arm. Doors were an issue, to answer your unspoken question, and were negotiated either by squeezing the sides or by simply turning sideways and going through that way. Most places dropped this style pretty quickly, but the French kept on wearing them well into the 1770's.

Looks like a torture device, doesn't it? Some might say it was.



Fashions this extreme will always be made fun of.


In any case, I could make a long comment about how much better constructed fashion is than imposed fashion - i.e. fashion that doesn't allow for discreet corsetry, but insists that you change your actual body...but I won't.

Editor's note: I did have a section in here about the Draughtsman's Contract, a film by Peter Greenaway, which I love, but one of my perceptive readers has pointed out that it actually takes place in the 1690s...This is what happens when you try to blog away from home. Nonetheless, I'm leaving the reference in because I love the movie so much.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Gone this week

Despite my best intentions of doing something ahead of time, I don't have a post this week as I am at a writer's conference all week. Sorry, folks, and see you next week...!

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Weird Stones

Bezoar stone from India

My first conscious awareness of lodestones magical stones was in a horrific scene in Susan Cooper's The Grey King, from the Dark is Rising series (If you have not read this, you should; or at least buy it for someone young in your life, and watch them get all interested). In this scene, the main characters can't find their dog. They search and search, if I remember rightly, and finally find him in an abandoned building, flattened against the floor in a terrible, unnatural position. They realize, after a moment of horror, that there's a lodestone warestone pinning the dog to the floor. No one can move it; it's stuck fast to the ground.

I don't, unfortunately, remember what they did about the situation, but the image has stuck vividly in my mind, a reminder of a deeper reality.

The books have a wonderful memory for the kind of tale-telling that was done in historic Britain, especially the kind of tricks that evil spirits might visit upon their enemies, and a kind of lowering, glowering landscape behind and between the usual holidaying sunshine of a proper British adventure book. Really great stuff, and metaphorically very apt, as the darkness behind the light is so true of those isles: the modern (as in post-Victorian) English image, for example, being one of bramble jelly and short pants, seaside holidays and cricket and tea on the lawn of half-timbered houses in suburban villages. Or second World War images like those in The Chamomile Lawn, by Mary Wesley (another great author). Behind this lays the old Britain: woad-painted warriors and unhappy Romans, Saxons and witchcraft and sprites both evil and beneficent; the evil eye, the hollow hills; Stonehenge. ...All of which, unfortunately, have been exploited within an inch of their lives in recent years, resulting in a zeitgeist of mass-market Lord-of-the-Rings-driven mythological consumption. The darkness is lost in the endless discussion pigeonholing each relevant part into fantasy role-playing and alternative realities.

If you really look at some of the old stories, you see a lack of unified cosmology; what you have instead is a clear, if uncohesive, sense of other beings living side-by-side with the rest of us. These beliefs, these myths and stories were not an alternative reality, a game to play: they were entirely real, entirely contextual to regular life; they often involved malevolent beings and influences living in one's house, in one's village. Think of Calvinist witch-hunts: look, if you can, at the transcripts from those trials, the kinds of things those poor wretches were accused of. People were more isolated then, more frightened of the power of the natural world all around them. To quote Thomas Hobbes, their lives were "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short." And their magic was dark, hairy, and very local.

Chinese lodestone "spoon" compass, circa 2nd c. CE; the Chinese understood lodestones to be trying to return to their mother stone. They also believed lodestones to be an important factor in geomancy, otherwise known as feng shui

In any case, I've spent many years thinking of lodestones as this magical thing, this alchemically deep side of an everyday object, something from that dark crack in the sunshine of reality. Even if they are not the magical stone that I remember from the Grey King, they have a long history in alchemy and other places of being deeply, magically meaningful in the order of the universe. However, looking through all the references on the Web, I find no mention of lodestones in this context. The relevant information has been reduced to just that: information, a scientific description, a history of nautical navigation. Magnetism and geology. Gone is the magic that lodestones once held in the minds of the public.

Lodestones are "a magnetic mineral form of iron(II), iron(III) oxide Fe3O4, one of several iron oxides. A piece of intensely magnetic magnetite... was used as an early form of magnetic compass [since] iron, steel and ordinary magnetite are attracted to a magnetic field, including the Earth's magnetic field. Only magnetite with a particular crystalline structure, lodestone, can act as a natural magnet and attract and magnetize iron." wiki


If you peer under the surface of all the factual writing, sift it all and look back into the depths of history, starting in 1st century China, what you will see is a magical phenomenon: the discovery of a rock which moves on its own. Not only moves, but has this attraction to things. And even more magical: sometimes the rock doesn't do this - only certain ones actually work. The rock seems to want to point to a star. Perhaps it is in league with the star; perhaps it is the influence of spirits. As the Chinese discovered, the rock had a life of its own, no matter where you are in the world.

Curiously, at the opposite end of the universe from geology are bezoar stones, or bezars, which are stones of mineral and hair found in the digestive tracts of ruminants such as goats, sheep, llamas and deer. Originally, bezoars were found in goats living in the mountains of Western Persia. They came to Europe from the Middle East around in the 11th century, and their believed usefulness against poison made them magical: European people went on using them until the 18th century, their supposed powers becoming more and more complex until they lost credibility entirely.

A hairy bezoar, one without much calcification

"Many persons of status accepted potential poisoning as a chronic threat and armed themselves for battle against it. Medicine of the time was often practiced by improperly trained and unlicensed "surgeons" who could often do more harm than good. Those who were wise would take preventive action to avoid having to depend on unreliable "cures." Because wine and other drinks were often laced with arsenic, the most popular poison of the period, many magical devices were employed to negate its deleterious effects before it was consumed. Amethyst, crushed emerald and "unicorn horn" (often narwhal tusk) were all immersed in suspect beverages in the belief that they would render them safe. The most common and effective of these amulets was the bezoar stone...

"Discoveries on the wreck of Nuestra SeƱora de Atocha show that, in colonial Spanish-America of 1622, bezoar stones were certainly popular, and relied upon. Bezoars were rare, and the extravagant contexts from which they were found on the wreck show the power and esteem that was ascribed to them. The most spectacular item to reflect this belief is the gold "poison" cup, which once held a permanently mounted bezoar in its interior to absorb the poison from any drink it may have held. Another, chicken-egg sized bezoar is beautifully mounted in an engraved and enameled gold framework that was apparently designed to be suspended from a chain. This stone could then be immersed in any drinking vessel to remove toxins. A group of ten unadorned bezoars was found in a silver canister, apparently being shipped to Spain for more formal treatment. Because the Atocha primarily traded in South America, it is assumed these bezoars were extracted from llamas or alpacas, although there are accounts of the Spanish taking them from deer in the New World."


Bezoars were commonly thought to be an old-wives' tale until recently:

"Modern examinations of the properties of bezoars by Gustaf Arrhenius and Andrew A. Benson of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography have shown that they could, when immersed in an arsenic-laced solution, remove the poison. The toxic compounds in arsenic are arsenate and arsenite. Each is acted upon differently, but effectively, by bezoar stones. Arsenate is removed by being exchanged for phosphate in the mineral brushite, a crystalline structure found in the stones. Arsenite is found to bond to sulfur compounds in the protein of degraded hair, which is a key component in bezoars.

By the eighteenth century the marriage of magic and medicine was coming unraveled. Too many ailments, such as epilepsy, jaundice and plague were said to be treatable by bezoars, and people began to grow wary of such claims. The popularity of the bezoar soon faded."


-- Quotes from the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society

"The scarcity of bezoar stones by the 17th century led a group of Portuguese Jesuits working in Goa to come up with a man made version. These so called 'Goa Stones' were a mixture of bezoar as well as other precious objects believed to have curative powers. Until the beginning of the 18th century, when medical authorities began to debunk the belief in these stones, they could sell for more then their weight in gold and were often contained in cases such as the example offered here."

-- from Columbia University's website on South Asian Studies



The question I have, after all this, is: does something have to have no pragmatic use for it to be remembered as magical? It's clear that bezoar stones are now thoroughly explained (like a pearl, bezoar stones - as opposed to another kind of bezoar, like a hairy bezoar - are usually caused by the initial introduction of some irritant into the digestive tract). Yet their magic lives on. They continue to weird us out. We see them and they feel alien, something not-normal. You can see them in museums, on display in their original, sanctified splendor.

Lodestones, however, have been co-opted by their usefulness. As soon as magnetism was fully explained, and people began being able to make imitation lodestones (magnets), the basic mystery about their actual status as weird stones seems to have lost its power. Why? They are still found in the ground, the only stone on the earth which is naturally and permanently magnetic. To me that's like a little crumb of the universe, a bit of the True Earth showing up. Like holograms, a piece which shows the whole, though it be the tiniest fragment. When did they lose their mythological status? Think about the incredible fact that you can rub a bit of metal against these stones, and the metal will come away with the same properties as the rock. If that's not magical, what is?

Here is more than you could ever want to know what has been written throughout history on bezoar, or bezar, stones.

For a revolting example of a hairy bezoar you can try Neil Gaiman's Sandman book #3, "Calliope"

And, if you want a kind of repellent example of how magic has been turned into corporate commerce, check out this website, where a big-money diving company sells treasure at exhorbitant prices. Now you too can sit in the comfort of your own home and purchase real treasure, including gold-encrusted bezoars, online.

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