The meandering march of progress

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Fossils and artist’s rendering of Ardipithecus ramidus, the bipedal ape (Photo credit: WIRED magazine)

Like other parents, we were delighted when our daughter started walking a few months ago. But just like other parents, it’s not possible to remember when she went from scooting to crawling to speed-walking for a few steps before becoming unsteady again to steady walking. It’s not possible because no such sudden moment exists in time. Like most other developmental milestones, walking lies on a continuum, and although the rate at which walking in a baby develops is uneven, it still happens along a continuous trajectory, going from being just one component of a locomotion toolkit to being the dominant one.

As paleoanthropologist and anatomist Jeremy DeSilva describes in his book “First Steps“, this gradual transition mirrors our species’s evolution toward becoming the upright ape. Just like most other human faculties, it was on a continuum. DeSilva’s book is a meditation on the how, the when and the why of that signature human quality of bipedalism, which along with cooking, big brains, hairlessness and language has to be considered one of the great evolutionary innovations in our long history. Describing the myriad ins and outs of various hominid fossils and their bony structures, DeSilva tells us how occasional walking in trees was an adaptation that developed as early as 15 million years ago, long before humans and chimps split off about 6 million years ago. In fact one striking theory that DeSilva describes blunts the familiar, popular picture of the transition from knuckle-walking ape to confident upright human (sometimes followed by hunched form over computer) that lines the walls of classrooms and museums; according to this theory, rather than knuckle-walking transitioning to bipedalism, knuckle-walking in fact came after a primitive form of bipedalism on trees developed millions of years earlier. Read more »


by Genese Sodikoff

There is the nightmare of fecundity and the nightmare of the multitude. There is the nightmare of uncontrolled bodies and the nightmare of inside our bodies and all over our bodies. There is the nightmare of unguarded orifices and the nightmare of vulnerable places. There is the nightmare of foreign bodies in our bloodstream and the nightmare of foreign bodies in our ears and our eyes and under the surface of our skin.

—Hugh Raffles, Insectopedia


I am writing anthropological stories of zoonosis, disease that spills over from animals to humans and then potentially spreads person-to-person. A zoonosis may erupt into an alarming epidemic (Ebola, HIV/AIDS), or may idle in a reservoir host as an ever-present threat (rabies, Lyme disease, hantavirus). Insects often vector these diseases by sucking up the tainted blood of an animal and injecting it into human skin. Zoonosis can encompass parasitic infections too, such as when larvae afloat in the drinking water or nestled in the litter box penetrate our bodies and mature into worms that make us sick. By some definitions, zoonosis and vector-borne diseases are distinct categories, even though viruses and bacteria introduced by insects into human populations may have originally been lifted from an animal.

Beyond the role of vector, there's another kind of insect that acts more as a disease server. It wears pathogens like foundation, coated with bacteria, viruses, fungi, and larval cysts, as it goes about its business. Chief among these is the cockroach, whose glossy cuticle teams with unwholesome microbes. Since the cockroach does not convey pathogens from vertebrate animals to humans, it does not transmit zoonotic disease, properly understood. Instead it traffics pathogens that are just out there, free floating in the dwellings and detritus of humanity, and deposits them on our food and our wounds. Cockroaches are responsible for introducing Staphylococcus into hospitals and spreading antibiotic resistance bacteria. They sprinkle kitchen counters and cabinets with Salmonella, Shigella, and E. coli. They truck Hepatitis A from sewers into homes. If that isn't enough, their odiferous droppings and sloughed-off skins trigger asthma attacks. The list goes on.

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New York’s Empire State of Mind: The Colonization of ‘Up’ Part I

by Ryan Sayre

Elisha Otis was a solver of problems—practical problems involving bread ovens, steam engines, bed frames, and the like. Faced with the problem of safely bringing debris down from the second floor of his workshop, in 1852 he repurposed a railroad brake into an emergency elevator brake that would stop the lift cold in its tracks should the supporting cables snap. This small innovation opened an entirely new kind of space; a space we might call the 'up'. ‘Up’ had of course always existed, but never before as a habitable territory. As a place for work, life, and leisure, ‘up’ would have to be imagined. While colonial powers in the early 20th century were busy stretching railroad lines across continents, urban engineers in cities like Chicago and New York were beginning to bend Otis' elevator tracks ever further upward into uncharted verticality.

For a short three to four year period in the late 1920s and early 1930s, New York City drove its skyline 70, 87, and then 102 stories into the air. The expedition marked a transformational moment in the city. During these few years city traffic was detoured skyward. The city’s profile was nearly flipped on its axis. The goal of city planners was to rationalize the city and the ‘up’ seemed like the most efficient direction to take a growing population. But rationalization and efficiency are never linear; the stories of buildings are marked by countless twists and turns.

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Reflections on the Density of City Life

I: Reflectvertising in Tokyo’s Liquid Desert
The white neon apple, visible all the way down Chuo Avenue, Reflectvertizing_ginza makes finding the Ginza Apple Store deceptively easy. I say ‘deceptively’ because it’s not until you’re about to enter that you realize you've been chasing after a reflection, a perfect double emblazoned on the frosted glass of the Matsuya Department store directly across the street. Tokyo’s upturned desert of glass preserves, from its former days as sand, the ability to proliferate mirages and fata morgana, sends wanderers deeper and deeper into the wild.

Restaurant reflectvertisements are slung around Tokyo's street-corners, billboard reflections dragged over the curved surfaces of its slow-moving
taxi cabs. Storefront neon sloshes about like oil in narrow waterways, luring then repelling, tempting then deterring. Looking out over this liquid Sahara, it’s hard to say whether reflectvertisements fall more on the side of visiting or intruding, hanging out or loitering. What can be said is that this economy of intangible light operates very differently from the economy of invisible air over which radio, television, and cellular companies bid so ravenously. And while all things may not pass amicably between reflectvertising neighbors in Tokyo, more notable than the tallying of strife is the mood of the city excited by all this uneven thrumming.
However much dictionaries may want us to think of reflections as “the throwing back by a body or surface of light, heat, or sound, without absorbing it” I can’t help but feel Reflectvertizing_street that while reflections may bounce coldly off individual surfaces in Tokyo, taken together, they soak throughly into the warm skin of the city.

II: The Relative Pressures of City Life

Whenever I happen to lay my hand against the side of a skyscraper in Tokyo or New York, I wonder why it is that these structures don’t get hot from all the millions of pounds of vertical pressure coursing down through them. Where does it all go? As it passes into the streets, through nut vendors, and out the exhaust pipes of busses, might it be possible to follow it into subway tunnels or trace it up elevator shafts back to the top floors of office buildings? City smells, city sounds, and so many of
the city’s weighty little annoyances push us along the same stress-strain curve as its towering buildings, at every turn making trial of our tensile strength. When late for a business meeting, wouldn't we do better to measure the long wait for an elevator in pascals rather than in seconds, with a barometer rather than with a wristwatch? We Razor_thin_building_shiodome inhabitants of megacities are little Titans, miniature Atlases, each hefting a little of the city's load on our aching shoulders.

When I was a child, I’d greet my father at the door, and, tired after a hard day’s work, he’d always make me the same deal. “I'll give you a piggyback ride to the kitchen,” he’d say, “but only if you carry this heavy briefcase for me.” Giving out a groan as he dropped his burden into my extended hand, and then, lifting me up onto his back, he’d march about, play-acting an unfettered lightness of being. I have a sneaking suspicion that the logic of city life turns on a similar principle; that the city carries our freight upon its shoulders as long as we bear a small measure of its upon ours. Despite common sense telling us all this heavy-lifting ought to result in more, not less, cumulative pressure, what keeps the operation moving, both for my father and for the city, is not a diminishing of pressure, but the inverse; its amplification, spiked with a communal ecstasy over the senselessness of it all.

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Tokyo, Almost-Encounters, and “Passing By”

After a long day of walking Tokyo_red around Tokyo I often catch myself thinking, “Well, I guess today wasn't to be the day that I bump into her.” Is it really so ridiculous to think that I might? Sure, it may be a city of nearly twelve million, but the odds of meeting my ex-girlfriend on the train or passing her on the street can't really be that low, can they? By my calculations, it’s an even fifty-fifty: either I see her or I don't. At least that's how it feels.

To Pass By
Once while browsing at the library, I came across a book that began with a dentist and a patient chatting during a minor medical procedure. The patient, if memory serves, was a professor of Chinese history. So where ya from, asks the doctor? China. What Province? Szechuan. Ya know, the doctor chuckles, I only know one Chinese guy, a dentist from Szechuan. His name is X. D’ya _MG_0504 happen to know him? Actually, says the astonished patient, that's my uncle!

The author’s point was not that it’s a small world after all, but rather, that docs and profs really only move within the smallest slices of a rather large world. Nor is this phenomenon limited to cosmopolitan elites. When I used to drift around New York City, I would often see folks in MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) uniforms, far from any train station or bus stop, greeting each other by first name: Hi Derrick. How’s it going there, Carroll? It’s true that for the MTA, city-streets behave as the office hallway, food trucks as the cafeteria, stations as cubicles; but still, shouldn’t these folks feel just the littlest surprise when running into each other inside this impossibly large office building? It would seem that city-space just operates differently for the transit authority than it does for those of us who merely pass through the city’s streets in transit. How it all works I can't presume to know.

Passing By in Tokyo
If chance encounters happen at all in Tokyo, they happen in the small slices; at the bike-shop, the record-store, a favorite watering hole. But for most of us, most of the time, Tokyo is a city of almost-encounters and near-misses, a city of shared space – shared not simultaneously, but by turns. It is a city defined by 'passing by.’

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