Wisconsin Death Trip: Just In Time For Christmas?


When I was in my early twenties, an older friend leant me a book called Wisconsin Death Trip.  That particular copy was falling apart – the pages shuffled awkwardly against the spine – and seemed as old as its subject matter: a series of photographs taken between 1890-1910 by Charles Van Schaik, an American who learned photography after moving to Jackson County and thereafter spent fifty-seven years capturing small-town life in Black River Falls.

It sounds fairly dry, but the majority of the book concentrates on images of the deceased, which for some reason the good citizens of Black River Falls saw fit to dress and pose as though they were still alive.

The very idea sends chills down my spine, though the photos strike a peculiar balance between the macabre and the truly tragic (especially the portraits of young infants) which keeps you flipping through.


To add another note of disconcertion to an already eerie discovery, the town that Van Schaik was in the midst of documenting was plagued by disease, madness, suicide, murder, addictions, business and farm failure, and an overall despair stemming from harsh living conditions – all of which seems to infiltrate even relatively innocent portraits.

The book itself, which was written in 1973 by Michael Lesy, has since been adapted into a film, which speaks volumes about the extensive resonance of this beautiful, ghostly text.

Images from Wisconsin Historical Society

When Dogs Surf: Animal Intelligence on a Beach in San Diego

Update: Just received a great email from Judy Fridono, Ricochet’s owner. Ricochet has already helped raise over $10,000 for Patrick through their tandem surfing. You can learn more about their work at www.ripcurlricki.com. For more information on the program Ricochet was born into, visit Puppy Prodigies, which is  “neo-natal and early learning program focusing on puppies between 8 to 12 weeks of age.” This was where Ricochet developed her great balance.

Patrick Ivison is a 15 year old quadriplegic as a result of a car accident that happened when he was just over a year old. Ricochet is a nearly two year old Golden Retriever who was rejected from being a service dog because she was too unruly, specifically he had a love of chasing birds. Together, they surf off the coast of San Diego and raise money for Patrick’s treatment:

Ricochet had worked with a boogie board in the puppy pool during service dog training and developed remarkable balance. So she was spayed and Rip Curl Ricki – her surfer girl nickname – was born. She entered her first surfing contest in June, then Fridono set up “Surfin’ for Paws-abilities,” the fundraising drive.

Ivison had been surfing adaptively for about seven years, so it seemed natural that they would meet and team up. He said he couldn’t ride the adaptive surfboard, which is built for two people, without Ricochet.

“She acts as that second person. She knows how to balance, too. She leans back and turns the board and it’s pretty cool to watch.”

The two started surfing together in August. During dozens of rides, they have wiped out just a few times, Fridono said. Ivison never surfs alone – a support team of family and friends keeps him from getting in trouble in the water. And Ricochet never leaves his side when they topple. (source)

Often we underestimate ways that animals and humans can have interrelated goals. It reminds me of Joshua Klein’s TED talk about the intelligence of Crows, where he suggests that this creature’s role in the world (which so many people find annoying) could be maximised by its special set of gifts. Instead of trying to master the animal kingdom, Klein posits there are ways to work with it to tangibly meet our shared needs.

Other very cool animal skills from the Behavioral Ecology Research Group from Oxford’s Department of Zoology include:

The woodpecker finch of the Galapagos Islands uses a cactus spine to spear insects. Pigeons have been known to recognize humans and letters of alphabet. Parrots, though, appear to be at the top of the pecking order. Alex, an African gray parrot, hit the headlines in the 1980s. The bird had a vocabulary of 100 English words and was able to ask questions and make requests.” (source)

I, Keyboard

Industrialisation is a ‘process of ubiquitous rationalisation‘. Which is to say: it’s our response to things too big for our minds to grasp.

This was Henry Ford’s genius – a total disregard for reality, sensibility or reason. If you had a plan to build a car for everyone before roads, gas stations and, crucially, a middle class rich enough to pay for them, a little unreason would come in handy. His plant, The Rouge was, at one time, “easily the greatest industrial domain in the world.” George Bernard Shaw’s description of unreasonable men is entirely apt.

Fordlandia, then

More than just mass-production, industrialisation is a state of mind. Ford’s led him to found Fordlândia, a pre-fabricated town built in the Amazon to supply his American factories with rubber. Fordlândia was a fiasco. Workers revolted. Plants succumbed to disease and pests.

But the more it failed, the more Ford justified the project in idealistic terms. “It increasingly was justified as a work of civilization, or as a sociological experiment,” One newspaper article even reported that Ford’s intent wasn’t just to cultivate rubber, but to cultivate workers and human beings.”

From: Fordlandia: The Failure Of Ford’s Jungle Utopia / US National Public Radio

These days, Fordlândia is another fable of our Taylorised minds with Ford cast in a role half James Bond villain and half Piggy from Lord of the Flies (although the arch-industrialist never visited, preferring to send in management consultants).

But industrialisation’s not always the bad guy. Atul Gawande describes the rise in popularity (30% and rising) of the Caesarian section in The Score. C-sections might seem a trickier, riskier proposition than their forerunner, the forceps delivery. But it’s relatively easy to teach an obstetrician how to perform them and they have a predicatable rate of success. Unlike the forceps method:

Just putting the forceps on a baby’s head is tricky. You have to choose the right one for the shape of the mother’s pelvis and the size of the child’s head—and there are at least half a dozen types of forceps. You have to slide the blades symmetrically along the sides, travelling exactly in the space between the ears and the eyes and over the cheekbones. “For most residents, it took two or three years of training to get this consistently right . . . Some residents had a real feel for it, others didn’t.

Forceps delivery is more of an ‘artisanal skill’ or, to put it another way, a craft.

Medical professionals had to make a choice – was obstetrics a craft, or an industry? Although some studies showed forceps deliveries to be often a better option, the rise of the C-section was a choice based on a specific trade-off between reliability and the ‘possibility of occasional perfection’. In medicine, a desire for perfection is as excessive as anything at The Rouge or Fordlândia. Childbirth has been industrialised.

Industrialisation starts off with these trade-offs (and other rationalisations) and progresses through a process of bootstrapping. Factories make tools, which you can, in turn, use to build better factories. Sooner or later, you end up with robots building robots. Industry refines itself. The jarring results of the trade-offs don’t disappear, but they do fade into the background. Fordlândia today is charming.

Fordlandia, today
Fordlandia, today

Clay Shirky has said, “Tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.” Leonard Read explored this in his seminal 1958 essay, I, Pencil“:

I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me—no, that’s too much to ask of anyone—if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because—well, because I am seemingly so simple.

He goes on to explain ‘not a single person on the face of this earth’ knows how to make one, even though one and a half billion of them were made a year for kids, engineers and craftspeople. Kevin Kelly makes a similar point about webpages when he points out that they contain 100,000 inventions. Industrialisation is technologically boring.

At its core, it’s a failure to deal with reality. Ford, grappling with an out-sized vision of the future, built an organisation too big to comprehend. His version needed industrial-sized solutions, the intrinsically pathological constructs of the modernist corporation. Industrialisation 2.0 is failing to deal with reality in a different way.

There should be no way that a service company could have over 3 million customers with less than twenty employees. After a certain size, problems inevitably become industrial – when you reach the end-of-the-edge-case scale. But, evidently, industrial-sized solutions aren’t path-dependent. These are the first sub-Dunbar multi-national corporations.

When asked to make a choice between craft or industry, they’ve chosen both. Today’s unreasonable people are craftier.

[Images: Fordlandia, then is from a blog which most readers of The Januarist will enjoy – Iconic Photos. Fordlandia, today is from Wikimedia.]

Global Authorship: The Next Struggle

Movable Type

Literacy as Freedom was the slogan of the United Nations Literacy Decade. Literacy, key to good health and well-being said the posters advertising the UNESCO-sponsored International Literacy Day.

For as long as many of us have been alive, the fight for universal literacy has been prominent among politicians, non-profits and philanthropic international organisations—and this fight has accomplished a lot. Estimates suggest that by 2015 world illiteracy will stand at a meagre 16% of the world’s population and this is set to decline still more.

This battle against illiteracy has been a “defining characteristic of today’s modern civilisation”, says Denis Pelli (professor of psychology and neural science at New York University) and Charles Bigelow (Carey Distinguished Professor and MacArthur Foundation prize fellow), so what will define tomorrow’s? What will be the next global struggle? Authorship, suggests Pelli and Bigelow in a recent article for Seed Magazine where the two look at some of the surprising statistics to do with authorship on- and offline.

World Authorship Rates

With authorship estimated to reach 1% of world population by next year and nearly 10% the year after, the question isn’t so much Will this be the next cause célèbre? as What will this mean?

As the 90-9-1 principle (aka the 1% rule) of participation inequality begins to reverse and more people become creators rather than consumers, so the flow of information will escalate and become more transparent. As more individuals publish, tacmeds so the individual becomes influential; as does the group.

My question is, What does this mean for democracy, privacy and activism?

Movable type photograph by Xosé Castro.
Media authorship graph copyright Seed Media Group LLC.