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A Recommendation: The Appalachian Trail Reader

There’s a virtuous interchange between hiking culture and intellectual/book culture. People who spend lots of time outdoors–walking, or just observing–tend to be on the more contemplative end of the spectrum. Those traits also make good writers, and foster the patience and introverted concentration necessary to actually produce a book. For this reason there is a lot of detailed writing in publication about naturalistic exploration, usually written out of attachment to a specific place. The genre is not well-defined, and encourages DIY eccentricity with respect to organization: topics include what to do and where to go, amateur botany and biology, old-school naturalist appreciation, human history, and exquisite reflections on simply being there. Some of the best books are indifferent to genre and quite uncharacterizable, and tend to be written at the end of an author’s life, as an attempt to crystalize decades of on-the-ground life. Publication with a small or specialty press (of which there are fewer and fewer), or even self-publication, often makes these works possible. Michael Frome’s Strangers in High Places: The Story of the Great Smoky Mountains comes to mind. As a result these books are rarely in publication for very long; usually they fall out of print and into obscurity as soon as they appear. I’ve taken to collecting books in this space that I find particularly worthy of preservation, especially if they cover a region that I have long experience with like the Appalachians. The big centralized online booksellers like Amazon and its affiliates are often, for all their problems, the only sources for a few old copies of these books.

I was delighted to discover David Emblidge’s The Appalachian Trail Reader, which was published by a major university press (Oxford, 1996). I don’t know if there was something else about the Appalachian Trail that brought it to prominence in the mid-to-late 1990s, but it’s worth noting that this book came out the year before Bill Bryson’s much better-known memoir about the trail, A Walk in the Woods

As I wrote above about this weird genre, the book is a lot of things, but is in essence an attempt to preserve stories about the area the trail covers. Some of its sources are canonical (e.g., Benton MacKay, Aldo Leopold, Thomas Bartram), but most of its dozens of authors are ordinary unknowns, people reflecting on the trail in more transitory sources (trail bulletins, long-defunct magazines, regional newspapers, etc.). Its topics range from the deep pre-American backstory of Appalachian lands and peoples, to musings from “thru-hikers” who walked, or attempted to walk, the entire 2000+ miles of the AT from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Here’s the TOC:

Tags hiking outdoors nature reflection books culture preservation


Computing: An Opening

Sherry Turkle, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (1984)

Children use the computer in their process of world and identity construction. They use it for the development of fundamental conceptual categories, as a medium for the practice of mastery, and as a malleable material for helping forge their sense of themselves. The computer is a particularly rich and varied tool for serving so wide a range of purposes. It enters into children’s process of becoming and into the development of their personalities and ways of looking at the world. It finds many points of attachment with the process of growing up. Children in a computer culture are touched by technology in ways that set them apart from the generations that have come before. Adults are more settled. In the worst of cases, they are locked into roles, afraid of the new, and protective of the familiar. Even when they are open to change, established ways of thinking act as a braking force on the continual questioning so characteristic of children. Family and work responsibilities and the very real constraints of social class can make it too risky to cast doubt on certainties. But there are events and objects that cause the taken-for-granted to be wrestled with anew. The computer is one of these provocations to reflection. Among a wide range of adults, getting involved with computers opens up long-closed questions. It can stimulate them to reconsider ideas about themselves and can provide a basis for thinking about large and puzzling philosophical issues.

(Opening to chapter entitled “Personal Computers with Personal Meaning”, 165)

We already have the first generations in which there is no “getting involved with computers,” in which everyone is always already involved with them. Turkle was writing at a moment in history when, for her place and social milieu, the personal computer was becoming for the first time a realistic possession (and aspiration). In this period, which appears to have been far more self-aware about arriving at computing than the present moment, she writes that the computer was experienced as a tool of freedom, a liberation for the imagination.

It strikes me that, for all the ways in which many people recognize that computers have become a necessary utility–everyone must learn to use them, perhaps will learn to use them without realizing it–the ethical language around computing has flipped. Yes computing skills are in-demand, you can do well in material terms by getting good at them. But the term “algorithm,” by which is usually meant an instance of computer logic, covers so many ways in which computers are understood to limit freedom. Surveillance, profiling, control, manipulation: this is the activity that accompanies computing in the present.

Tags computing beginning freedom


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Mammatus Formations

Thunderclouds passing out of the area, east over Lake Michigan, yesterday. I believe these unusual extensions on the underside are a somewhat rare variant known as mammatus (it means what it sounds like), which often form at the tail end of thunderstorms when unstable air falls beneath the bottom layer of the cloud, creating the whispy outgrowths visible here.

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Children and the Feeling Computer

Sherry Turkle in The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit(1984) on her fieldwork about how children distinguish between humans and computers:

Emotion is the psychological quantity most frequently used to separate the human and the machine. But it is not the only one. David, twelve, a sophisticated programmer, used a concrete language to express a more nuanced set of qualities: “When there are computers who are just as smart as people, the computers will do a lot of the jobs, but there will still be things for the people to do. They will run the restaurants, taste the food, and they will be the oneswho will ove each other, have families and love each other. I guess they’ll still be the only ones who go to church. (62)

1984 was before the internet-driven tech boom, but I see its concepts anticipated in the child’s comments: computers are logical, people are emotional; what distinguishes people is their ability to feel and use the senses; people have bodily and spiritual needs, computers do not. If there is a master message in today’s commercial digital world, it is that computers do stuff so that human beings can do “more important things.” Never mind that the important things are unstated, in theory they include a lot of what the kid mentions. The current excitement about language AI only pushes this same distinction further. Language now falls under the law-like regulation of algorithms; it is time to let machines take that over, too. Turkle concludes:

Thought and feeling are inseparable. When they are torn from their complex relationship with each other and improperly defined as mututally exclusive, the cognitive can become mere logical process, the cold, dry and lifeles, and the affective is reduced to the visceral, primitive and unanalyzable. The child’s sharpened distinction between intellect and emtion can easily lead to a shallow and unsentimental way of thinking about “feelings.”

Tags computers selfhood feeling emotion difference


László Földényi on the Four Tetrarchs

László Földényi:

In Venice, in an of the out-of-the-way corner of the Piazzetta located at the corner of the basilica of Saint Mark, there is a statuary group depicting the Four Tetrarchs. Carved out of the hardest granite, the sculpture, dating from the beginning of the fourth century, depicts Diocletian with three of his chosen co-sovereigns. They huddle together as if ready to brave the in- cipient end of the world.

Dostoevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts into Tears

Source: Nino Barbieri, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain


Each draws our gaze; nonetheless, they are so uniform that no matter which one we begin to look at, we see the others as well. It does not matter with what small detail we commence our examination, we always perceive, involuntarily, the whole of the sculpture. Their shoes and their garments are uniform, their swords, crowns, and belts are uniform, the fabric on them is draped in a similar fashion, their foreheads are wrinkled in a similar manner, their gazes are uniformly careworn. There are four of them, and yet they appear to be one single living being.

Földényi identifies the sculptures with the “mass” in two ways. First, mass is what unites all things, a universal materiality that could be the divine. If matter as a whole is a divine unity, then being part of the whole elevates the individual, lightening the burden of individuation:

Human beings are themselves the crystallization of this cosmic “mass,” this fundament which can neither be enclosed nor bounded; our souls are nothing other than the “condensation” of the divine mass. We cannot step out of this mass-like existence, nor can we “state anything” about it, as every conjecture or declaration is made possible only by the mass. No matter what we might say about the mass, that statement would only be yet a further manifestation of the universal mass itself. And this universal mass does not recognize any difference between soul and body, between the dead and the living, between the material and the immaterial. Yet there is something divine within it—and human beings will have a connection to the divine for as long as we are able to vividly preserve within ourselves the experience of the cosmic roots of our own existence.

Second, mass is “a multitude of living people,” as in: the crowd, mass culture, a mass of humanity. Földényi argues that because of the two-sided valence to mass, the individual both craves and fears idenfication with the mass-es. Mass in the modern sense of “the crowd” is closer to the materiality of the body separated from the soul, thingness in opposition to life.

We shall feel the reassuring mass-like nature of our own exis-tence for as long as we maintain a healthy connection with the spirit. The bifurcation of the modern meaning of the word mass can be located in the disruption of this connection.

Then, materiality is something to fear. The life that has mass is, like all other matter, guaranteed to experience destruction:

Although I wasn’t struck by the Four Tetrarchs in the same way that it appears Földényi was, I walked around downtown seeing complements to his argument for the rest of the day. There is a vulnerability in the way two of the tetrarchs reaches across his body to grasp his partner. To me that outstretched arm, which makes the body of the potentate seem less bulky, skinner, weaker–that is the statue’s most distinctive feature.

For all the talk of mass, the tetrarch figures lack the indifferent, stone-like coldness that appear in Chicago’s more generic public sculptures:



A Market for Signs of Life

Stable Diffusion image for prompt "A single book, lost in a library that goes on forever"

Sometime around 1993 in North America–and a little later, maybe 1995, for much of the rest of the world–the number of people who used the internet began to accelerate. More people put more stuff (today this stuff is often called “content”) online: at first mostly text, then images, finally video and all the rest of media. That makes about 30 years in which large numbers of people have been creating for the internet: information that is now used to train huge textual datasets like the language model behind ChatGPT.

I had a vision, really more of a sci-fi premise, about where this goes in another 30 years. It seems reasonable to assume that the next 30 years of the popular internet will involve more AI-generated media than the first. In the time between now and 2053, bots generate so much content that the media from the first, human era of the internet becomes impossibly obscure, far more rare than the handful of known cave paintings from the earliest Homo sapien pre-history. The bot era will a be derivative byproduct of the internet’s human era, but the bots have–for a while–kicked the ladder out from underneath them. The old human internet rots away under piles of bot trash. Humans still “produce content” (maybe–because it seems there is more at stake–they go back to calling it “writing” again), but even the most advanced search engines will be too overwhelmed to find it. The human data source for the bot era still exists, somewhere, online, but it goes darker than anything on the dark web today.

In 2053, an underground market springs up for the human stuff. Maybe it only exists by word of mouth, wherever humans are by this point. Maybe it’s in the last segment of the online world that has been cordoned off from bots. In the last library left, paper books offer a new assurance of security. The physical materials in the book can be tested, their provenance verified. Philology returns to its roots, goes back to being a set of methods for assuring the (human) authenticity of documents. Everyone on the planet–bots and humans–is hunting for that “data.” Bots because they need it to keep creating, humans because it reminds them.

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Tags ai