Tag Archives: technology

A story about tractors

This is a story about tractors for my amazing nephew Eli.

There are two tractors who live on the farm. A lot of the time we work, while they sit around in the farmyard resting.

But when it’s time for the really big jobs? We think they are amazing. I am going to show you just some of the jobs they can do.

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One of the things they do is cut the grass, so all of the animals can have food in the winter time when snow covers the grass and they live inside.

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Sometimes little tractors can’t do everything themselves, so the tractors that live next door come and help!

This one pushes all of the grass into rows that are the perfect size. This is the daddy tractor:

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The son tractor follows behind him, scooping up all the grass into his baler. The baler takes all the grass and spins it into a big ball.

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Imagine cutting all this grass without a tractor!

Afterwards the baler covers the ball in plastic, and then just drops it onto the field. Poom!

You can watch it if you want to.

Riding in the tractor is fun, but you have to climb up up up to get into it! This is how big the neighbour tractor is:

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Inside you can see everything from really high up:

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When we need to move these bales off the field and stack them up, we put these funny arms onto our tractor. It’s important we don’t break the plastic, or the animals won’t like the food inside!

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For moving hay bales, you need the spiky arms instead. It’s so cool you can change the tractor’s arms to do all kinds of different things.

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These bales are SO BIG! See, here I am sitting on some in the barn.

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You can only move these big bales with a tractor.

Tractors can also make little hay bales when you connect this machine to it. This one is very old, but it still works and makes the hay nice and small so you can sit on it easier, and people can move it around!

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But best of all, tractors are really good at cleaning up HUGE messes. The cows and the sheep live inside the barn all winter, and they poop and pee and spill their food and it is so yucky.

With a tractor you can just move it all away. People only have to clean a little bit in the places where the tractor can’t reach. That still takes us hours, but look at what the tractor can do!

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I bet your mom wouldn’t mind having a tractor for your messes! But maybe you can use your little tractor to help her clean up. Because tractors love to help. Look at how much work this tractor has done, putting all the mess into just one shed.

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The tractor especially loves helping her animal friends. Like Sandy the calf:

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and Lilly the Kid:

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And all of the chickens. This one is Natasha:

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Mimi and Mishka the lambs:

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They all say bye bye Eli, maybe we will tell you another story sometime!

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Earth’s a Roadside Picnic. Still, we live here

Roadside Picnic - The StrugatskysThe central idea of the Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic grows on me the more I sit with it, and it will forever undercut the more familiar heroic tales of encounter and discovery.

Aliens came, they stayed a while without saying hello and left without saying goodbye, having both transformed and trashed the places they inhabited around the world. Humans are left to shift through their incomprehensible and often deadly garbage. Ursula le Guin writes in the preface to this wonderful new translation:

Here, the visitors from space, if they noticed our existence at all, were evidently uninterested in communication; perhaps to them we were savages, or perhaps pack rats. There was no communication; there can be no understanding. (Le Guin – vii)

And there never is understanding, just a mix up of hope and fear. There is one scientist, Kirill, who sees in it the potential of knowledge and utopia and inspires Red, who works with him, just a little:

‘Mr Aloysius Macnaught!’ I say. ‘You are absolutely right. Our little town is a hole. Always was and always will be. Except right now,’ I say, ‘it’s a hole into the future. And the stuff we fish out of this hole will change the whole stinking world. Life will be different, the way it should be, and no one will want for anything. That’s our hole for you. There’s knowledge pouring through this hole. And when you figure it out, we’ll make everyone rich, and we’ll fly to the stars, and we’ll go wherever we want. That’s the kind of hole we have here…’

At this point I trail off, because I notice that Ernie is looking at me in astonishment, and I feel embarrassed. (42)

Because while this is Red drunkenly speaking, these are Kirill’s words, Kirill’s utopia. It’s possibly what the zone could have meant, or could always partially mean and what remains part of its lure. It is always the promise held out by science, the bright and shining dream of it. It’s not completely disproven here, but questioned.

I love that these new translations have afterwords from Boris. He describes the process, and shares the Strugatskys’ notes for the story written in February of 1970. This after wandering ‘the deserted, snow-covered streets’ of Komarovo on the Gulf of Finland, with all its resonance as a retreat for poets and scientists and writers of what was then Leningrad…I so want to go.

The growth of superstition, a department attempting to assume power through owning the junk, an organization seeking to destroy it (Knowledge fallen from the sky is useless and pernicious; any discovery could only lead to evil applications). Prospectors revered as wizards. A decline in the stature of science. (195-196)

Prospectors! It was only later they came up with stalkers, used the English word thus bringing it into the Russian language (very cool).

I do like the term prospectors though, this drunken dangerous lifestyle seeking fortune and escape is so reminiscent of prospecting. Even without understanding anything, some of the new technology can be put to work, money can be made. So corruption and dealing abound. Seemingly harmless things like batteries on the one hand, but so much of the detritus deals in death and disfigurement, and there has always been big money in those.

And there is poverty in this town. So you have the stalkers, men like Red who cross government lines to enter, to pick up what they can and sell it on the black market. The danger and skill and knowledge of the work has its on pull, but you can never forget the factors prodding men into it, particularly those who do not wish to spend their whole lives in jobs they hate to get nowhere:

Now I get really depressed. I’ll have to count every cent again: this I can afford, this I can’t. I’ll have to pinch pennies…No more bars, only cheap movies…And everything’s gray, all gray. Gray every day, and every evening, and every night. (47)

This is my own fear, that I will tumble into this. It fills book after worthy book, which is why I quite love sf that brings colour to the gray without denying its existence, that tells of wonder and danger and the exploration of the meanings of our lives in new ways. This is so much about how we are transformed by things beyond our understanding, whether it is technology or other human beings:

All these conversations had left a certain sediment in his soul, and he didn’t know what it was. it wasn’t dissolving with time, but instead kept accumulating and accumulating. And though he couldn’t identify it, it got in the way, as if he’d caught something from the Vulture… (162)

I love how this resonates with some discussions of cities, of formations of inequality in ghettos as sedimentation. But the alien artifacts have much deeper transformative effects — the children of the stalkers are not fully human and love for them and their loss is also central to this.

With the spread of the artifacts through channels legal and illegal, the rest of the world is slowly changing to. This shit can’t be contained.

I love how Roadside Picnic makes humanity the sideline, incidental to the big picture. I hate to drop that conceit even for a short time. But in many ways, of course, this could be read with ourselves as the aliens, forever transforming areas of the planet and sowing it with destruction for the species that live there. I see rivers flowing polluted with oil in my mind, like the recent spills into the Amazon. Chernobyl. Abandoned landscapes, extinctions. Scenes you stumble over everywhere humans have been, here in Bristol as eerily as almost anywhere.

Perhaps because humans are the sideline, they are allowed to just be with everything good and bad about them. But then, this is one of the things I particularly love about the Strugatskys. So does le Guin:

Humanity is not flattered, but it’s not cheapened. The authors’ touch is tender, aware of vulnerability. (vii)

And the ending, oh, I did love the ending. The awareness of just how little choice there ever was, just how little understanding. But the idea that that does not define your life, and it is something to be human.

Look into my soul, I know–everything you need is in there. It has to be. Because I’ve never sold my soul to anyone! It’s mine, it’s human! Figure out yourself what I want–because I know it can’t be bad!

And who doesn’t want this in the end? What better thing to wish for on a great golden ball that supposedly grants wishes, though someone must die springing the trap first, and so it is surrounded by splodges of soot.

‘HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE, AND LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN’ (193)

Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality

Tools for ConvivialityTools for Conviviality (1973) took a lot of work, it looked so inviting, so thin. But the text was dense and the words strangely denser. It repays effort though, and writing this post has helped immensely. Why I write them I suppose.

Illich argues that there have been two watersheds in modern times. The first is crisp, 1913. We reached the point in Western medicine where a patient had a better than 50-50 chance that trained doctors would provide better treatment than anyone else. Medicine and our expanding knowledge grew in leaps and bounds, and improvements resulted in corresponding improvements in health. The second watershed? More amorphous, that point at which we shifted to keeping people alive longer, without worrying about quality. The point at which everything became considered an issue for doctor’s prescriptions and environment, society and all else were pushed to the side as irrelevant. The point at which as treatment has become further and further professionalised, removed from the control of patients and their families and removed from ideas of community and environmental connectedness. The point at which it actually becomes increasingly less effective. multiple studies in health argue this exact point — that medical knowledge can solve only a portion of health issues, the others are interconnected with society, environment, employment, housing, inequality, isolation and etc. This rather than acknowledging all that can be gained through improving our environment and creating a just society, eradicating poverty, encouraging a sense of worth and connectedness to others.  The Marmot Review is only my favourite of these to date.

These watersheds exist for many professions. I think this is a key point: science and technology with their panoply of elite controlled knowledge and procedures have brought us so far, but cannot take us much further. They are, in fact, damaging as we approach crisis.  As tools they suppress other ideas and systems of knowledge and concentrate control over knowledge and its power in the hands of a few. Partly for this very reason, partly due to their internal logics, they can only provide a limited and very unsatisfactory set of answers to questions of how we can live full meaningful lives, and how we can save our planet. They have, in fact, managed to alienate human beings and bring us to the brink of destruction, while shutting down our ability to work towards or even imagine a better world.

The pooling of stores of information, the building up of a knowledge stock, the attempt to overwhelm present problems by the production of more science is the ultimate attempt to solve a crisis by escalation. (9)

Escalation is never good, except for business. Perhaps that’s why we see it in the wars and profiteering all across our world.

All of these things created that we are told make us happy, all of these processes and knowledges and machines are actually created to encourage us to consume and be forever unsatisfied. This is what needs to shift:

The hypothesis was that machines can replace slaves. The evidence shows that, used for this purpose, machines enslave men. Neither a dictatorial proletariat nor a leisure mass can escape the dominion of constantly expanding industrial tools.

The crisis can be solved only if we give people tools that guarantee their right to work with high, independent efficiency, thus simultaneously eliminating the need for either slaves or masters and enhancing each person’s range of freedom. People need new tools to work with rather than tools that “work” for them.

We need to be able to control these tools and processes, the means of production, so that they can used in harmony with our environment to give us a genuine sense of fulfillment.

I believe that society must be reconstructed to enlarge the contribution of autonomous individuals and primary groups to the total effectiveness of a new system of production designed to satisfy the human needs which it also determines. In fact, the institutions of industrial society do just the opposite. (10)

This is what he means by conviviality:

People need not only to obtain things, they need above all the freedom to make things among which they can live, to give shape to them according to their own tastes, and to put them to use in caring for and about others.

I choose the term “conviviality” to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment. (11)

And this is how we achieve real socialism:

The transition to socialism cannot be effected without an inversion of our present institutions and the substitution of convivial for industrial tools. (12)

The focus on the tools, and the values of conviviality are what protects us:

The illusion is common that planners with socialist ideals might somehow create a socialist society in which industrial workers constitute a majority. The proponents of this idea overlook the fact that anticonvivial and manipulative tools can fit into a socialist society in only a very limited measure. (57)

I like that Illich actually also deals to some extent with how we get there — a world where we all consume less:

People with rediscover the value of joyful sobriety and liberating austerity only if they relearn to depend on each other rather than on energy slaves. The price for a convivial society will be paid only as the result of a political process which reflects and promotes the society-wide inversion of present industrial consciousness. This political process will find its concrete expression not in some taboo, but in a series of temporary agreements on one or the other concrete limitation of means, constantly adjusted under the pressure of conflicting insights and interests.

In this volume I want to offer a methodology by which to recognize means which have turned into ends. My subject is tools and not intentions. (14)

He notes the monotony of our current system, here in the built environment of our cities:

The use of industrial tools stamps in an identical way the landscape of cities each having its own history and culture. Highways, hospital wards, classrooms, office buildings, apartments, and stores look everywhere the same. (15)

He is not prescriptive in the forms of governance a better future takes — only that it be convivial.

In a society in which power–both political and physical–is bounded and spread by political decision there is place not only for a new flowering of products and characters, but also for a variety in forms of governance. Certainly, new tools would provide new options. Convivial tools rule out certain levels of power, compulsion and programming, which are precisely those features that now tend to make all governments look more or less alike. But the adoption of a convivial mode of production does not of itself mean that one specific form of government would be more fitting than another… (16-17)

What is fundamental to a convivial society is not the total absence of manipulative institutions and addictive goods and services, but the balance between those tools which create the specific demands they are specialized to satisfy and those complementary, enabling tools which foster self-realization. (24)

The issue at hand, therefore, is what tools can be controlled in the public interest. Only secondarily does the question arise whether private control of a potentially useful tool is in the public interest. (26)

This is an important point about widespread ideas of progress, they continue so powerful forty years later, even after the massive rise in awareness of environmental issues:

It has become difficult for contemporary man to imagine development and modernization in terms of lower rather than higher energy use… The illusion that a high culture is one that uses the highest possible quantities of energy must be overcome. (26)

Another similar point on the need of capitalism to always expand:

The human equilibrium is open. It is capable of shifting within flexible by finite parameters. People can change, but only within bounds. In contrast, the present industrial system is dynamically unstable. It is organized for infinite expansion and the concurrent unlimited creation of new needs… (46)

I quite enjoyed how he ties this back to medieval times, the alchemist’s dream of turning lead into gold changing into breathing a kind of life into dead matter to control labour:

The alchemist’s dream of making a homunculus in the test tube slowly took the shape of creating robots to work for man, and to educate men to work alongside them. The ideology of an industrial organization of tools and a capitalist organization of the economy preceded by many centuries what is usually called the Industrial Revolution. (30)

I also thought this point about speed was key, the differences in cost between high speed and regular trains, trains and buses, buses and bicycles, bicycles and walking.

Speed is one of the means by which an efficiency-oriented society is stratified.

Fostered addiction to speed is also a means of social control. (38)

It also converses once again with Le Corbusier — I read these almost together, but I don’t think that is the only reason they seemed to be in a war to the death. He writes:

The knowledge-capitalism of professional imperialism subjugates people more imperceptibly than and as effectively as international finance or weaponry. (43)

The final chapters look more deeply at the environmental crisis that looms (and how much worse has it become).

Political debate must now be focused on the various ways in which unlimited production threatens human life. (47)

He argues there are 6 ways in which we are threatened by industrial development:

  1. Overgrowth threatens the right to the fundamental physical structure of the environment…

  2. Industrialization threatens the right to convivial work.

  3. The overprogramming of man for the new environment deadens his creative imagination.

  4. New levels of productivity threaten the right to participatory politics.

  5. Enforced obsolescence threatens the right to tradition…

  6. Pervasive frustration by means of compulsory though engineered satsifaction… (47-48)

I so loved this, the basis for conviviality:

The only solution to the environmental crisis is the shared insight of people that they would be happier if they could work together and care for each other. (50)

This too, is a key insight, subject of much debate on the left. I think it highlights the need for a complete transformation to be free of racism, sexism and all isms.

It does not matter for what specific purpose minorities now organize if they seek an equal share in consumption, an equal place on the pyramid of production, or equal nominal power in the government of ungovernable tools. As long as a minority acts to increase its share within a growth-oriented society, the final result will be a keener sense of inferiority for most of its members.

Movements that seek control over existing institutions give them a new legitimacy, and also render their contradictions more acute. Changes in management are not revolutions.  (71-72)

This is pretty vital — and he doesn’t really do it here, or doesn’t do it enough, but ultimately this is where we have to get:

The alternative to managerial fascism is a political process by which people decide how much of any scarce resource is the most any member of society can claim; a process in which they agree to keep limits relatively stationary over a long time, and by which they set a premium on the constant search for new ways to have and ever larger percentage of the population join in doing ever more with ever less. (101)

Except to be clear — most of the world does ever more with ever less, so it is residents of Europe and America that are the problem, they will have to transform their consumption the most, and they’re still deeply class stratified. I wanted more postcolonial analysis, but I suppose that is for us to bring to the table. In the meantime,  some words of reason in how to think about creating this kind of majority:

There can be no such thing as a majority oppose to an issue that has not arisen. A majority agitating for limits to growth is as ludicrous as one demanding growth at all cost. Majorities are not created by shared ideologies. They develop out of enlightened self-interest. The most that even the best ideologies can do is interpret this interest. (102)

Ideologies might be a bit more complicated, I think about them a lot. As part of the lack of analysis around race and empire and larger global patterns of exploitation and consumption responsible for environmental disaster, I also really hated some of the rhetoric on population control. But I will end on a final quote I did like:

People will suddenly find obvious what is now evident to only a few: that the organization of the entire economy toward the “better” life has become the major enemy of the good life. (103)

Victorian Gas Works

Gas lighting transformed London, it is hard to imagine now just how much. I think the only way to begin to understand it, as much as we can from this vantage point, is through literature.

1305530Flora Tristan’s London Journal is wonderfully evoctive of the beauty of gas lighting, the magical effect it had on London:

But it is especially at night that London should be seen: then, in the magic light of millions of gas-lamps, London is superb! Its broad streets stretch to infinity; its shops are resplendent with every masterpiece that human ingenuity can devise; its multitudes of men and women pass ceaselessly too and fro. To see all this for the first time is an intoxicating experience. Then again, in the daytime, the beautiful streets, the elegant squares, the austere iron gates which separate the family mansion from the common run of humanity, the vast expanse of gracious rolling parkland, the beauty of the trees, the number of superb carriages and magnificent horses which parade the streets — all this seems magical and blurs the judgment, so that no foreigner can fail to be entranced when he first enters the British capital. But I must warn you that the spell fades like a fantastic vision, a dream in the night; the foreigner soon recovers his senses and opens his eyes to the arid egotism and gross materialism which lurk behind that ideal world (17).

I’m not sure that something hasn’t been lost now, the texture of the light changed and the last remaining shadowy places illuminated with electricity. There are still a few streets where you can experience gas lighting, you can find them here. It’s something well loved and well studied, a short description of how and when it came to illuminate London’s streets can be found here, or more at length in Liza Picard‘s work on Victorian London. The way it transformed how people could walk through the city at night, especially women, is so self-evident yet often forgotten.

Gas_Light_&_Coke_CompanyAlso often forgotten, I think, is the labour and technology that made is possible. One of the most powerful passages of Tristan’s journal describes the gasworks at Horseferry Road. There is nothing at all left to show that a gas works once stood here but a plaque.  Tristan’s words give a vivid sense of the working conditions:

One of the largest gas-works is in Horseferry Road. Westminster; I have forgotten the name of the company. You can not visit it without a ticket of admission: In this palace of industry the abundance of machinery and iron is quite overwhelming; everything is made of iron — platforms. railings, staircases. floors, roofing etc.; plainly no expense has been spared to ensure that buildings and equipment alike are made of the most durable materials. I saw cast-iron vats with the dimensions of a four-storey house. I wanted to know how many thousand tons they hold, but the foreman with me was just as uncommunicative as the foreman at the brewery, and preserved an absolute silence.

We went into the big boiler-house: the row of furnaces on either side were burning brightly; the scene was not unlike the descriptions the poets of Antiquity have left us of Vulcan’s forges, save that the Cyclops were animated with divine activity and intelligence, whereas the black slaves of the English furnaces are sullen, silent and impassive. There were about twenty men present, going about their work in a slow, deliberate fashion. Those with nothing to do stood motionless, lacking the energy even to wipe away the sweat streaming down their bodies, Two or three turned their blank gaze towards me; the rest did not even raise their heads. The foreman told me that only the strongest men were selected as stokers; even so, they all developed chest diseases after seven or eight years of the work, and invariably died of consumption. That accounted for the misery and apathy depicted on every countenance and apparent in every movement the poor wretches made.

This language is so emblematic of the odd politics of her solidarity with, and yet low opinion of, the working classes. She is offhand about their early deaths, but it breaks my heart to think of it.

The work demanded of them is more than human strength can endure. They wear nothing but cotton drawers; when they leave the boiler-house they merely throw a coat over their shoulders.

Although the space between the two rows of furnaces must have been fifty or sixty feet, the floor was so hot that the heat penetrated my shoes immediately and made me lift up my feet as if I had stepped on live coals. I stood upon a large stone slab, but even this was hot, although it was well off the ground. I could not stay in this veritable hell; the heat was suffocating, the smell of gas was making me dizzy and my chest felt as if it would burst. The foreman took me to a gallery at the end of the boiler-house where I could see everything in relative comfort.

We made a complete tour of the establishment; I was lost in admiration for all the machines, for the meticulous care that marks every stage of the work; but in spite of all precautions there are frequent disasters in which men are injured and even killed. 0 God! Can progress be bought only at the cost of men’s lives?

She is not, and I could hardly expect her to be, interested in the geographies of light, that this is gas produced to light up the expensive shops of the West End at the cost of workingmen’s lives and environment:

The gas produced at this factory is taken by pipes to light the Oxford Street area as far as Regent Street.

The air is horribly tainted: at every instant you are assailed by poisonous fumes. I emerged from one building, hoping to find the air purer in the yard outside, but everywhere I went, the foul exhalations of gas and the stench of coal and tar pursued me.

Not only is this killing the men who work here, it surely must also be killing all those who live around it, albeit more slowly. Her lack of interest in how this is affecting the poor people and dock workers living in the area is in its own way a testament to what communities fighting for environmental justice have been able to achieve.

It also makes me wish that she were not writing from such a position of privilege, that she had trudged here from wherever she was staying, for surely then the effect of the fumes and the housing of the workers would have also figured in this description. As it was, Tristan was there only briefly and already felt dizzy and sick. Odd then, and oddly Victorian, that she focuses in on the dirt.

What is more, the entire premises are very dirty. The yard — with its pools of stagnant water and piles of rubbish — testifies to a total neglect of hygiene. It is true that the materials used to produce gas are of such a nature that it would require vigorous measures to keep the place clean, but two men would be sufficient for the task, and for a trifling increase in outlay, the entire establishment would be healthier.

Returning once more to the working conditions suffered:

Retort House, Great Central Gas Works, Bow Common, London. It was here that Croll introduced the burning of incandescent coke as fuel immediately it had be taken from retorts. 10% saving. Wood engraving, 1866
Retort House, Great Central Gas Works, Bow Common, London. It was here that Croll introduced the burning of incandescent coke as fuel immediately it had be taken from retorts. 10% saving. Wood engraving, 1866

I was on the point of suffocating and could not wait to escape from such an evil-smelling place when the foreman said, ‘Stay a moment longer, there’s something very interesting for you to see; the stokers are just about to remove the coke from the ovens.’

I returned to my perch in the gallery; the sight that met my eyes was one of the most appalling that I have ever seen.

The furnaces are above ground level. with a space below to catch the coke. The stokers, armed with long iron rakes, opened the ovens and raked out the coke, which fell in blazing torrents into the chamber below. Nothing could be more terrible or majestic than the sight of so many mouths all pouring forth flames, nothing more magical than the cavern suddenly illumined with living fire, descending like a waterfall from a rocky height, only to be swallowed in the abyss: nothing more terrifying than the stokers, their bodies streaming as if they had just emerged from the water, lit on both sides by the dreadful braziers that thrust out their fiery tongues as if to devour them. Oh, no! a more frightful spectacle it would be impossible to imagine!

South Metropolitan Gas Company's works, East Greenwich, London: Quenching coke.
South Metropolitan Gas Company’s works, East Greenwich, London: Quenching coke, wood engraving published Paris, 1891.

When the furnaces were half empty, men perched on vats in the four corners of the lower chamber threw water on the coke to extinguish it. The scene changed; there arose a dense hot whirlwind of black smoke which ascended majestically through the open skylight. Now the furnaces were visible only through this haze, which made the flames seem even redder and the fire more menacing; the stokers’ bodies turned from white to black, and the unfortunate wretches were swallowed up like demons in some infernal chaos. I was caught unawares by the smoke, and barely had time to make a hasty descent.

I awaited the end of the business, anxious to see what would become of the poor stokers. I was astounded that not one woman appeared. Dear God! I thought, have the men no mother, sister, wife or daughter waiting at the door as they emerge from that hell, to wash them in warm water, to wrap them in shirts of flannel; to give them something nourishing to drink; to greet them with friendly words that would give them heart and help them to endure their cruel lot? I was in a fever of anxiety; not one woman appeared. I demanded of the foreman where these men, soaked in sweat, would go to take their rest. ‘They’ll lie down in this shed.’ he replied, quite unconcerned, ‘and in a couple of hours they’ll go back to their stoking,’

I find this simultaneously horrific in what men were forced to suffer to earn a wage, and almost laughable in terms of her horror at the absence of women occupying such middle-class Victorian roles as mopping their husband’s brow and inspiring him with hope and bringing him nourishment. I imagine these wives, sisters and daughters were all both hungry and hard at work themselves keeping households together or taking in laundry, cleaning the homes of the wealthy, working in factories themselves.

But again, we return to another of the reasons men died so quickly in this work:

This shed, open on all sides to the wind, was really no more than a shelter from the rain, and inside it was as cold as ice. A sort of mattress lay in one corner, almost indistinguishable from the coal around it. I saw the stokers stretch out on their stony bed, with no covering but a greatcoat so stained with sweat and coal-dust that it was impossible to tell its original colour. ‘There,’ said the foreman, ‘that’s how these men get consumption; they don’t look after themselves, going straight from the heat into the cold like that.’ (72-75)

You like Tristan better when she says she left in a huff after that remark.

A few more things on gas — in A Match to Fire the Thames, there is a brief description of the workers organising for the first time at the Beckton Gas Works — owned by the same company — under the leadership of Will Thorne. They won an eight hour day (it is impossible to imagine working in these conditions at all, much less from 10 to 14 hours), with fewer retorts to fill and all for the same daily wage. Long live the union.

"Watson House, Gas Light & Coke Company in Londen (1933)" by Willem van de Poll - Nationaal Archief. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Watson House, Gas Light & Coke Company in Londen (1933)” by Willem van de Poll – Nationaal Archief. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The other is that in addition to the poisoning of air and ground, the construction of gas works was also a part of the steady destruction of gardens supplying the city, from Old and New London: Volume 4:

The works belonging to the Gas Light and Coke Company, which occupy a considerable space of ground between Peter Street and Horseferry Road, stand partly on the site of what was, at the beginning of the present century, the residence of a market-gardener, known as the “Bower” ale-house and tea-gardens—a name still perpetuated in that of the adjacent public-house—”The White Horse and Bower,” in the Horseferry Road. These gasworks (one of the three earliest stations established by the first gas company in the metropolis, which received its charter of incorporation in 1812) owe their origin to the enterprise of a Mr. Winsor, the same who, on the evening of the King’s birthday, in 1807, made a brilliant display of gas along the wall between the Mall and St. James’s Park. It may be worth while to note here that the general lighting of the metropolis with gas began on Christmas Day, 1814. A branch establishment in connection with these gas-works has since been erected further westward, close by Millbank Prison, and more recently a larger establishment has been opened at North Woolwich, where the works henceforth will mainly be concentrated, so that latterly very little business has been actually carried on here.

The later history of these gas works is also rather fascinating, and described on the Subterranea Brittanica site:

The ‘Rotundas’ consisted of three buildings, two of three storeys and one of two (originally five), all linked together and occupying a site in SW1 bounded by Great Peter Street to the north, Marsham Street to the east, Horseferry Road to the south and Monck Street to the west. The site had previously been occupied since c.1877 by the gas works of the Gas Light and Coke Company. The two gas holders were demolished in 1937 leaving two very large circular holes in the ground. During the blitz a large bomb fell on the gas works which blew four workmen into these holes, unfortunately only two survived.

A government contract was issued to construct various protected buildings in London, these included Montagu House in Whitehall for the War Office, Curzon House in Curzon Street for the Army, The Admiralty Citadel on Horseguards for the Navy and the Rotundas, all designed to withstand the impact of a 500lb bomb. With their 12 foot thick concrete roof the latter complex was equipped to house several thousand Government officials in complete safety from enemy attack for up to three months.

The Rotundas were built in the holes left by the gas holders, each of three storeys with one and a half floors above ground and the same below. They were identified as the North Rotunda at 59-67 Great Peter Street, the South Rotunda at 18/19 Monck Street. The complex was completed by the five storey Steel Frame Building, with one level below ground at 17 Monck Street. The upper three stories were later removed.

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Protection Through Power: Titan Missile Museum

Able to launch from its underground silo in just 58 seconds, the Titan II was capable of delivering a 9-megaton nuclear warhead to targets more than 6300 miles (10,000 km) away in about 30 minutes. For more than two decades, 54 Titan II missile complexes across the United States stood “on alert” 24 hours a day, seven days a week, heightening the threat of nuclear war or preventing Armageddon, depending upon your point of view.
Titan Missile Museum website

Titan Missile Museum

If you had any doubt about the masculine nature of this power, and this strategy….

Titan II’s primary mission was deterrence. Deterrence is the art of creating in the mind of the enemy the fear to attack, preventing the start of the war.
— Sign posted at site

The video we watched was entirely cold war, full of ‘the enemy’ this and ‘the enemy’ that. It left me with a visceral hurt. A fear for our future. A quaking at this kind of madness because I can only see people’s faces, imagine their lives and loves and dreams, I cannot imagine an enemy. I was suddenly grateful to Stanislaw Lem, who pushes this thinking as far as it can go to serve as a warning too bitter for real satire (I had just read Peace on Earth, which chimed word for word with the rhetoric here).

It has a terrible logic to it, one you can feel and understand. Yet a logic that at no point meets with or shares anything with the logic by which I live my own life. My own logic that is continuously at risk due to theirs.

Not only did we create a missile capable of destroying this world as we know it, the propulsion system was driven by a mixture of two deadly chemicals, in themselves destructive of our earth.

Titan Missile Museum

Inside it is full of old technology, boxes of unknown lights:

Titan Missile Museum

The gear I associate with dreams and hopes of space travel, rather than mass destruction, making them eerie in this place:

Titan Missile Museum

Titan Missile Museum

Technologies to maintain a constant temperature for the sake of the chemicals, to protect the missile so it can be sent even after our own destruction at the hands of the Russian has been assured, to protect the people who must send it:

Titan Missile Museum

Everything on springs so the ground rocked by impact of their nuclear missiles, the release of our own nuclear missiles … nothing can be felt, and nothing but a direct hit can destroy this place.

Titan Missile Museum

Titan Missile Museum

The control room with its fascinating banks of ancient computers and instruments.

Titan Missile Museum

Titan Missile Museum

The control panel from which the missiles are sent to any one of three targets — no one at this site knows what these targets were. Absolved from responsibility of prior knowledge, crisis of conscience about loved ones, remembered streets, priceless treasures. The tour guide walked us through the launch sequence, the buzzers sounded, just as they would have sounded at the end of the world. Even knowing it was all for show, I can’t describe the feeling this left me with. The way my heart stopped its beating a moment. The sadness.

Titan Missile Museum

And the missile itself, the first glimpse with a reminder that no one can ever be alone in this place:

Titan Missile Museum

Titan Missile Museum

The blunt face of extraordinary violence, terror, death.

Titan Missile Museum

The relationship to space exploration technology is so clear I wonder that I ever felt them disentangled, that I ever could have possibly imagined a benign program to explore the stars. The components below evoke SF memories to me, I love metal. You could forget they were designed to kill every human being within 900 square miles of an air blast — because we could chose whether it detonated on impact or at altitude.

Titan Missile Museum

Titan Missile Museum

You are allowed to see everything, take pictures of everything, ask any question. Because technology has advanced so much we now have far deadlier weapons deployed in very different ways. Probably in many more places. We still stand on the brink of destruction.

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Marconi State Park

A privilege to come to a conference on landtrusts here at Marconi State Park, to stay in this amazing place of beauty. From the website (accessed August 2017, stumbled across these pictures almost 13 years later to the day, so I’m cheating a bit by setting this to publish back then, but why not honour chronology?):

Marconi State Historic Park has a rich human history that dates back hundreds of years. The Tomales Bay ecosystem has supported the livelihoods of people—from the pre-historic villages of the Coastal Miwok to the farming communities of today.

On past genocide (not noted), Russian settlers, farming, to Marconi…

In 1894, across the Atlantic in Bologna, Italy, a young man by the name of Guglielmo Marconi began experimenting with Electromagnetic Waves (Radio Waves). In an unused portion of his parents’ attic, Marconi constructed devices for sending and receiving Morse code across the room without the use of wires. Through trial and error he steadily improved the distances he was able to send a signal, and soon outgrew his attic laboratory.

Within a year, Marconi was able to transmit a telegraph signal a distance of two miles. By 1897, he had increased the distance to 15 miles, proving that man-made and natural obstacles did not interfere with the transmission of radio waves.

And the hotel itself:

In order to achieve a signal powerful enough to cross the Pacific Ocean, a new, more powerful station was built on the Marin Coast. This station was designed and constructed by J.G. White, a New York engineering firm. All Marconi’s transoceanic stations were “duplex” stations, geographically separated complexes for transmitting and receiving. The geographic separation was necessary because the noise of transmission obstructed clear reception. All these stations were nearly identical in construction. The imposing, two-story staff and visitors’ hotel with its wide veranda is the centerpiece of the receiving station. In addition to its thirty-five rooms – ten complete with private baths – the hotel boasted such comforts as a library, game room, lounge, and dining hall. Flanking the hotel to the left are two single-story bungalows for the chief and assistant engineers. To the right lies the powerhouse that contained the boiler, transformers, storage batteries and a workshop. The operations building, located a short distance from the bungalows, housed the receiving and printing equipment as well as the station’s administrative offices.

All the buildings are similar in architectural style, which might be described as Mediterranean Revival with Craftsman allusions.

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