The Ledger

April 2018

We invoke Siri impatiently, appreciatively or with condescension: before a command to play us a particular song, tell us the height of Mount Kilimanjaro, confirm our impression of the weather, give us a traffic report. Whether this phantom—or Alexa, or HAL, or some more gender-neutral virtual elf of the future—actually makes things easier is debatable, but she entertains us and (a darker theory) satisfies a deep-seated hunger for hierarchy. Reality, however, has yet to be shattered by these clever bots, since they and AI are still so eminently improvable and deeply inessential. It can be easy to forget, amid frantic proclamations of tech-world innovation, that some of the most beautiful, delightful and profound technology we’ll see is nearly invisible for being already in our midst, part of our everyday lives. The ‘wheels’ we don’t think to reinvent—the fountain pen, for instance, and the mechanical wristwatch. A basic coffee mug. Rubber bands. Elasticised socks. Red lipstick. Sourdough. Bound printed text. Sure, electric toothbrushes are finally becoming more discreet, and engineers are always finding ways to more smoothly sync the Cloud, but it’s the tried and true that we are inclined to take for granted. (This is codified in Amara’s Law, which warns us of the long-established hype cycle of emerging technologies: ‘We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.’) The roster of time-tested tech also includes useful industry standards such as USB interfaces and the QWERTY keyboard, designed for inefficiency as it may be. Faster is not always better—for example, the home microwave, the news cycle and even, to our nostalgic chagrin, the Concorde. A well-piloted life keeps a curious mind and steers clear of the shackles of convenience.



Cataloguing the corporeal at a cellular level

A more accurate model of human physiology would accelerate the development of new medications and focus the use of existing treatments. And so scientists at three cutting-edge institutions—the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Britain’s Sanger Institute and the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub—are collaborating to realise an ambitious new project, the Human Cell Atlas, within five years. The aim of the Atlas? Merely to create a ‘comprehensive reference map of all human cells—the fundamental units of life—as a basis for both understanding human health and diagnosing, monitoring and treating disease.’ To catalogue the approximately 37.2 trillion cells that make up the human body, scientists will tag each cell with a molecular signature as well as a three-dimensional ‘zip code’ within our bodies. Cellular microfluidics, which allows individual cells to be separated, tagged and etched into a tiny chip, is one innovation that will support the project. Previous attempts have identified around 300 types of cell, but there are thought to be more; just how many remains to be seen. The Sanger Institute’s Mike Stubbington told the MIT Technology Review, ‘I think there will be surprises.’



A dystopian Japan conjured in pithy, playful strokes

Based in Berlin, Yoko Tawada writes in both Japanese and German and has named Kafka and Paul Celan as literary influences. Her new novel, The Emissary, imagines a world in which technology has utterly failed us and our youngest ‘early-adopters’ are frail grey-whiskered creatures cared for by the far hardier elderly. It tells the story of Yoshiro, a centenarian who jogs every morning with a rented dog. (The novel is rendered in English by Margaret Mitsutani, the deft translator of Tawada’s earlier work of fiction The Bridegroom Was a Dog.) Yoshiro spends his days ministering to the needs of his great-grandson Mumei, a rickety, dessicated boy whose morning routines consume a great deal of time and dual effort. Set in a poisoned, Fukushima-haunted landscape, the novel finds joy in the pair’s tender bond. Those born before the nameless disaster, such as Yoshiro, find that their lives have been mysteriously extended, while the very young can barely chew or walk on their own. ‘The aged could not die’, writes Tawada. ‘Along with the gift of everlasting life, they were burdened with the terrible task of watching their great-grandchildren die.’ Yoshiro and Mumei live in basic ‘temporary’ housing. The old man bicycles the boy to school each day. Together they await a decision from officials about whether Mumei’s high IQ means he will be sent abroad as an emissary (or cautionary tale).


From cowherd to nanotechnologist: an indefatigable thirst for learning

Growing up in Lesotho, the South African scientist Tebello Nyokong went to school only every other day. On her ‘off’ days, she tended cattle, which was typically a boy’s job, and which she has credited for instilling the work ethic that enabled her to succeed academically. Today, she is an award-winning chemist, a nanotechnology and photodynamic therapy researcher and a professor at Rhodes University. Photodynamic therapy takes indigo dye and enables it to target cancer cells, with fewer toxic side effects than chemotherapy. Since joining the Rhodes faculty in 1992, Nyokong has been honoured by the Royal Society in chemistry and the Pan African Chemistry Network, and has trained scores of doctoral and masters students. ‘Do you think you have what it takes to be a scientist?’ she wrote in a letter addressed to herself at the age of eighteen, published online by a girls’ science club to encourage young women to pursue STEM careers. ‘Let me tell you this: you do have what it takes. You like nature, this may have come from your shepherd days. You like to ask deep questions about your environment and you like to fix things around the house. You like to see plants grow, you love to listen to birds and identify them. You do not realise that this is what science is about.’


Words and music that render entropy entrancing

Salvador Dalí called Catastrophe Theory—a mathematical description of how complex systems collapse and transform that can be applied to such heterogeneous phenomena as auditory illusions, prison riots and the (in)stability of bridges—‘the most beautiful aesthetic theory in the world.’ Although this theory was the primary inspiration for the language and tone of Seven Catastrophes in Four Movements, an album of compositions by the American poet Paul Kane and the Irish sound artist Katie O’Looney, the experience of listening to the work is surprisingly harmonious. Farpoint Recordings, an esoteric Dublin label specialising in experimental sonic art, puts out beautifully mastered albums, and this is no exception. Spoken word mingles with both electronic and acoustic instruments to mesmerising effect. Kane’s voice is silky, while O’Looney’s instrumentation is lively and inventive, including struck and scraped percussion, pizzicato and keyboard. ‘Stand still like a tree / and sway / give way / to whatever is given’, intones Kane at one point—a philosophy for how one might best weather a manifestation of Catastrophe Theory, perhaps.


Works of purity and depth, generated from modest media

When the Korean artist Lee Bae first arrived in Paris, in 1990, he was drawn to charcoal for its affordability, versatility and familiarity. In Korea, charcoal is used in traditional house-building, forming the first layer in a new foundation. It hangs from a rope to announce a child’s birth. It conjures art school, ink painting and calligraphy. The late 1990s and early 2000s were Bae’s charcoal period. He nestled chips of it side by side to create rough mosaic collages that resemble tree bark. He worked larger blocks into menacing black skulls. And though he now works in acrylic, his prior use of this modest organic medium grounds and deepens our understanding of his black-and-white paintings today. ‘Black Mapping’, a solo show on view until May 26 at Galerie Perrotin, in Paris, charts Bae’s unstinting quest for the blackest of blacks. ‘Like a bottomless black well, in which we each find the depth we are willing to see and the vertigo we are prepared to feel’, writes the critic Henri-François Debailleux, of the new works. ‘Like a black hole in the astrophysical sense of the word, with matter so dense and compact that the black plunges infinitely into blackness. A beyond-black, in sum.’


A stunning North African sanctuary, ideal for analogue-lovers

Some hundred miles east of Marrakech you’ll find Morocco’s dazzling Ouzoud Falls, a popular destination for picnicking locals and curious tourists alike. Ouzoud is the Berber word for the act of grinding grain—the area is home to many grain mills as well as the relentless pummel of water on rock. Patrick Lamerie is the proprietor of Riad Cascades d'Ouzoud, a rustic, rammed-earth refuge from almost everything electronic. Lamerie grew up in Morocco, worked abroad for nearly 30 years as an architect and interior decorator, and returned home to open the establishment. A roof terrace offers spectacular views of the valley below. The riad’s nine bedrooms are simple, graceful spaces with colourful walls, bright woven blankets, open fireplaces and rush-seated easy chairs that offer surprisingly restorative support to trek-weary lumbar regions. For adventurous sorts, there is nearby white-water rafting, mountain biking and mule-riding to be done. For concentrated respite from the tech-saturated routines of everyday life, take your dead-tree book to the terrace and put it aside when the sun begins to set.


A hospitable, innovative haven for senior citizens

Lisbon’s Alcabideche Social Complex provides housing for the elderly while defying almost every negative connotation of the so-called old-age home. It is neither dim nor cramped nor lonely, thanks to the ingenuity of Guedes Cruz Arquitectos’ design, which executes, in the words of the architects, ‘a balance between privacy and life in society.’ Built in 2012, the complex has 52 units intended for couples, spaces for socialising and a support building with nursing staff. A medina-like layout of freestanding apartments linked by interconnected lanes of different widths encourages residents to stroll during the sun-drenched days. Residents can alert staff to an emergency at home by flipping a switch that turns their normally white roofs red. At night, translucent walls spill light onto shared outdoor areas. A sophisticated irrigation system stores rainwater to keep gardens and grass in lush condition.


A New York verse, a song of Southern comfort and two tall tales

The tenth episode of The Paris Review Podcast starts with David Sedaris reading ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island’ by Frank O'Hara, a sly meditation on a fickle Muse. ‘“Just keep on, like I do, and pay no attention’, the sun tells the poet. ‘People always will complain about the atmosphere, either too hot or too cold, too bright or too dark, days too short or too long. If you don’t appear at all one day, they think you’re lazy or dead...Go back to sleep now, Frank, and I may leave a tiny poem in that brain of yours as a farewell.”’ Then the journal’s Southern Editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, does a gorgeous rendition of a Robert Johnson song that sounds plucked from an echoey crypt. ‘Sometimes I dream of her and see her happy and cold in a Mexico drawn by Lovecraft’, confides the actor Dakota Johnson, reading from a Roberto Bolaño story about unrequited love. Finally, the actor Mary-Louise Parker reads ‘Making Friends’, a short story by Joy Williams about grifters named Liberty and Willie, who break into strangers’ vacation houses and stay as long as they can get away with. While living on borrowed time on plush Crab Key, they cannily befriend the island’s security guard, Turnipseed, who loves to cook and to ponder life’s big questions. What do women want, he wonders, and ‘What would our lives be, without our distractions?’ Coming in the middle of a well-produced podcast, it’s quite the metaquestion.



Illustrations by Jeffrey Cheung.

‘Everything has its cunningly devised implements, its preestablished apparatus…’

Thomas Carlyle