From Coal to Code: Feeding the Machines

October 1, 2017 § 2 Comments

What’s the difference between mining coal and writing computer code? According to Michael Bloomberg, the obvious answer is: a lot. In response to concerns over the devastating loss of coal jobs in regions highly dependent on the industry, Bloomberg urged compassion for the displaced workers but also suggested that we need to be realistic about their options. “You’re not going to teach a coal miner to code,” said Bloomberg at a 2014 conference, “Mark Zuckerberg says you teach them to code and everything will be great. I don’t know how to break it to you…but no.” Bloomberg’s comments have been perceived as a sign that he is an out-of-touch elitist who thinks coal miners are intellectually-stunted yokels. This is likely true about Bloomberg, but the assumption on which these comments are based is shared by plenty of people who are not members of the U.S. plutocracy—the assumption that coal mining and computer coding are fundamentally different jobs. Coal mining is blue collar, coding white collar; coal mining is industrial, coding postindustrial; coal mining is rough, manly work, coding is for skinny nerds.

Coal Miners


The Kentucky company Bitsource has set out to show that the gap between the industrial and the postindustrial is not unbridgeable. The web and app design company was started in 2015 by Rusty Justice and Lynn Parish, both of whom had spent 40 years in the coal industry. In what was admittedly an act of desperation in the face of increasing unemployment, the men started the company with the help of a coder friend Justin Hall and selected eleven formers miners (out of over 900 applicants) to learn code. Of those eleven, ten still remain, and the company is doing well, despite existing biases (i.e. potential clients assuming that former miners are intellectually-stunted yokels). While Bitsource is a small company whose impact is currently minimal, they have created a much-needed spark of interest in retraining programs for unemployed workers in coal country. Other companies plan to get on-board with the development of what is rather ingeniously being called Silicon Holler. The biggest barrier to this development is the lack of broadband internet access in the region. Kentucky already has an active program called KYWired that is addressing the problem, but they will likely need subsidies from the federal government to create a broadband infrastructure expansive enough to make Silicon Holler a success. This would require the Trump administration to stop pretending it’s bringing back the coal jobs and start thinking about what the region actually needs.

Image result for samuel butler erewhon

What’s so different about coal mining and computer coding anyway? Both tasks are, after all, in service to our machine overlords—at least that’s the way the Victorian writer Samuel Butler suggests we might see it. In Butler’s 1872 satirical utopian novel, Erewhon, an adventuring young man in search of fortune comes across a lost civilization that had once reached a high level of technological advancement but had decided centuries earlier to destroy all advanced machinery. The decision had been prompted by the work of a  professor, who suggested that machines already possessed a certain form of consciousness and would undoubtedly evolve to become a superior race. The professor argues that while it may not seem that machines are acting of their own will, they are already adept at getting men to serve them. He uses the example of the massive coal industry needed to keep the steam engines going: “Consider […] the colliers and pitmen and coal merchants and coal trains, and the men who drive them, and the ships that carry coals—what an army of servants do the machines thus employ! Are there probably not more men engaged in tending machinery than in tending men? Do not machines eat as it were by mannery?” The professor sees the coal workers as an army of domestic servants, running around frantically to get dinner on the table for their insatiable mechanical masters.

But this is not the only way that humanity serves the machines, according to the professor. In addition to keeping them fed, it also acts as their agent of evolution. Humans, in continually seeking technological improvement, are not only ensuring the machines’ survival, but also the latter’s advancement as a species. While it may seem like humans are doing this for their own benefit, this is merely an illusion: “It would seem that those thrive best who use machinery wherever its use is possible with profit; but this is the art of machines—they serve that they may rule. They bear no malice towards a man for destroying a whole race of them provided he creates a better instead; on the contrary, they reward him liberally for having hastened their development […] but the moment he fails to do his best for the advancement of machinery, by encouraging the good and destroying the bad, he is left behind in the race of competition; and this means he will be made uncomfortable in a variety of ways, and perhaps die.”

In short, our machine overlords have cleverly wedded their own advancement as a species to humanity’s economic survival, thus ensuring that they will never be neglected.

Humans may think that we have actively chosen to move away from the coal industry because we’re concerned about climate change, but it is likely that our mechanical masters have simply developed a more refined palate. They are now turning their noses up at the black lumps they once craved and are demanding the more delicate flavors of wind and sun. One thing is certain: they have developed a ravenous appetite for code. As machines continue to advance as a species, their human menials will undoubtedly be expected to serve up an ever-increasing supply.

Most coding is not about solving intense conundrums or making exciting breakthroughs. It’s mostly about keeping things running. It requires a specialized skill and a lot of patience. In this way, WIRED contributor Clive Thompson has argued, coding generally looks less like the creation of Facebook and more like “skilled work at a Chrysler Plant.” These solidly middle-class jobs, Thompson suggests, might be taught through high school vocational programs and at community colleges.

I say: let’s do what we need to do to keep our machine overlords fed. I don’t want to see what happens if they get hungry.



“Hillbillies who Code: the formers miners out to put Kentucky on the tech map” by Cassady Rosenblum. The Guardian. 21 April 2017.

“Can You Teach a Coal Miner to Code?” by Lauren Smiley. WIRED. 18 November 2015.

“The Next Big Blue-Collar Job is Coding” by Clive Thompson. WIRED. 8 February 17.

Erewhon; or, Over the Range by Samuel Butler. Penguin, 1985.



Ghost Ships, Ghost Ships Everywhere…

September 24, 2017 § 3 Comments

Growing up on an island in the Atlantic, I spent summers reading adventure stories. One such tale was Brian Jacques’ Castaways of the Flying Dutchman. In this young adult fantasy novel, a boy stows away on a ship: the Flying Dutchman. The ship’s crew is a depraved lot, and most fearsome of all is Captain Vanderdecken. One day Vanderdecken curses God for inclement weather, and an angel descends on the ship, scourging all but the faultless boy (and his dog). The ship’s crew is doomed to wander the seas for all eternity, never to make port, while boy and dog conversely must wander the earth, spreading goodness wherever they go.                                    cotfd

The myth of the ghost ship and its doomed crew is remixed again and again in maritime tales. The polar vessel in Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner comes to mind, with its glowing seraphs and reanimated corpses. Here, too, exists a lone survivor, who must wander the globe sharing his cautionary tale. We see ships of similar make in Poe’s story “MS. Found in a Bottle­­”—whose ghost ship gives off a “dull, sullen glare of red light”—and again in his novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Such ships are spooky to say the least, often emitting a ghastly radiance, and seem to portend disaster for those who sight them.


                “Upon the very verge of the precipitous descent, hovered a gigantic ship”                    MS Found in a Bottle by Byam Shaw c. 1909

Perhaps the best-known contemporary nod to this myth appears in the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise, where the story of the Flying Dutchman is conflated with that of Davey Jones’ Locker, the guardian of which gathers the souls of the dead-at-sea. Krakens and maelstroms are also par for the course in these films, yet this is in keeping with older, more literary nautical adventures.


While there are many iterations of the Flying Dutchman myth (including a German opera by Wagner!) the unifying element seems to be that the sailors are exempt from the ruins of time and barred from return to land. In Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas, Captain Nemo’s submarine may be considered one such ship. This mysterious craft emits a phosphorescent glow, which readers learn is due to the engine’s mechanisms, and not an otherworldly curse. Still, mysteries abound regarding not only where, but when Nemo is from. Like many a ghost ship captain, Nemo eschews dry land in favor of the ocean depths. You might have noticed, too, that Captain Nemo enjoys playing creepy organ music, as does Captain Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Nemo’s existence is an isolated, liminal one, and as such, he and his ship may be seen as ghostly; indeed, he promises Dr. Aronnax “he who enters the Nautilus is destined never to leave again.”27twenty_thousand_leagues_under_the_sea27_by_neuville_and_riou_027

 What is it about seafaring that encourages storytellers to include these ships in their narratives? Perhaps ghost ships are a caution against hubris in the face of the ungovernable ocean, or of loving the sea too much.

–Elena Britos












Metamorphosis and Mirrors

September 17, 2017 § 1 Comment

[Please Note: This text contains minor spoilers for the 2017 television series “Twin Peaks: The Return.”]

The season finale of “Twin Peaks: The Return” earlier this month created a seismic ripple amongst David Lynch devotees of the Internet. The proliferation of detail-obsessed fan theories, wikis in at least six languages, and thoughtful analytic pieces speaks to the twisted depths of Lynch’s vision in his reboot of the cult 1990s television series. While the show’s terrain is undoubtedly multidimensional, its intricacies depend on a foundational, age-old motif: dual identity.

While doppelgängers have always been important to the “Twin Peaks” universe, Lynch takes it a step further in “The Return” with the introduction of Tulpas: manufactured alternate identities. A Tulpa takes on the exact appearance (with shifts in minute physical details) of a character, but is actually a construct unknowingly advancing evil while the “real” person is trapped somewhere—in another body or alternate dimension. This play on identity undergoes a number of interesting permutations with the show’s central character, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). There is 1) the “real” Dale Cooper, known and adored from the original series, 2) his evil doppelgänger, “Bad Cooper,” 3) a manufactured Tulpa, Dougie Jones, 4) Dougie Jones’ evacuated body, which is reinhabited by the “real” Dale Cooper in a dormant, barely verbal state; and, eventually, 5) the reawakened Dale Cooper who, after entering an alternate dimension, becomes someone named Richard. In this shifting landscape, one can never know who is real and who is a Tulpa, not the real characters or the Tulpas themselves, and oftentimes not even the viewers.


Bad Cooper, Dale Cooper, and Dougie Jones (Showtime)

Indeed, any fan of Lynch will recognize doubles as a long-standing interest of the surrealist filmmaker; Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway wholly depend on structures of duality and split existence. But this preoccupation with multiple identities seems to have particular resonance in the world of contemporary television. Jill Soloway’s award-winning series “Transparent,” for instance, revolves around the story of Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), a transitioning transgender woman who, while exploring the complex (and increasingly unlikely) process of sex reassignment surgery, must make peace with her hybrid identity.

The FX original series “The Americans” offers a more politically oriented site for thinking about metamorphosis: two Soviet spies passing as Americans (as well as happily married) near the end of the Cold War. Additional examples are not hard to find: Walter White/Heisenberg (“Breaking Bad”), Don Draper/Dick Whitman (“Mad Men”), and Tony Soprano (“The Sopranos”), who struggles to reconcile his public role as brutal Mafioso with his inner sense of morality and humanity.

That the theme of metamorphosis is central to so many recent television shows is significant, I think. TV has emerged as a medium that not only offers easily digestible entertainment, but also produces serious art, in some conversations even rivaling film as today’s cinematic experience of choice. And perhaps it is no surprise that in an increasingly digital and fragmented culture, creatives have taken up questions of refracted identity, code-switching, and constructed worlds through a medium that is itself somewhat paradoxical: consisting of isolated parts while also sustaining a long-form narrative whole, a combination that has produced a telling term that yokes the consumptive and temporal—binge-watching.

Perhaps, though, it is not merely technology that is fueling inquiry into questions of identity and self-definition in today’s cultural mainstream. As we become an increasingly global society, boundaries separating countries and cultures are less and less defined (or else more fervently reinforced). It may be productive to consider an earlier era that blurred geographic borders through an increase in travel: the 19th Century. In 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species spawned a crisis of faith in the Western world, exploding people’s notions of what it means to be human. The rise of expeditions into new territories and confrontations with indigenous cultures exposed a seemingly infinite variety among human beings and the natural order.

Identity crisis may indeed be one impulse behind the contemporary revival of the 19th Century as a site for artistic inquiry. A particularly inspired example of such bridging of periods can be found in A. S. Byatt’s 1992 novella Morpho Eugenia, which presents Victorian-era social critique and romance through a modern, hybrid form. The story’s protagonist, William Adamson, admits to being “doomed to a kind of double consciousness” after returning to England from a voyage in the Amazon (28). Throughout the novella, William is jockeyed between a host of tensions and dualities: settling into domesticated married life vs. pursuing his life’s work in the jungle; writing a book on natural science vs. editing his father-in-law’s book arguing for the existence of a divine creator; lusting for a woman who is physically alluring vs. one who is intellectually stimulating.

In his book on the behavior of ants, William lays out “some more abstract, questioning chapters” according to a series of possible headings: “Instinct or Intelligence,” “Design or Hasard,” “The Individual and the Commonwealth,” “What is an Individual?” (126). These questions have DNA in cultural artifacts from as recent as the television shows discussed above to as distant as Homer’s Odyssey (a source text that’s taken up in Morpho Eugenia and, appropriately, adapted to suit the novella’s own ends). After sketching out William’s chapters, the text shifts into the actual pages of his book, where he considers “the utility to men of other living things.” He writes, “one of the uses we make of them is to try to use them as magical mirrors to reflect back to us our own faces with a difference” (127).

In “Twin Peaks: The Return,” Lynch ends one of the final episodes with a brief, unsettling shot of Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), in an unspecified location, staring aghast at her own mirror-image.


Audrey Horne (Showtime)

Where is she? What year is it? Design or Hasard? What is an individual?

We look to science and religion and art. We look to others and, ultimately, to ourselves. But perhaps the longer and harder we look, the farther away we are from knowing, and the more we demand from the image reflected back to us.

Jennifer Gutman


Byatt, A. S. “Morpho Eugenia.” Angels & Insects. Vintage International, 1994.

Le Guin on blogging, women in science fiction, and more

September 13, 2017 § Leave a comment

Interesting article about Ursula K. Le Guin’s blog and her new book, No Time To Spare in this week’s issue of The New Republic.

Not-so-Genius of America: Adolphe Yvon’s Utopia Dismantled

September 9, 2017 § 1 Comment

One of my favorite places to spend random Saturday afternoons is the St. Louis Art Museum. I’ve spent many hours wandering the various galleries during my countless visits there, but I always stop to take a look at one painting in particular—Genius of America by French painter Adolphe Yvon. One might think that I’m in love with the work based on this fact, but, bluntly stated, I hate it. This work serves not only as a cruel reminder of where America once was, but is revelatory of the lack of progress that America has undergone since the painting was completely in 1858.GeniusofAmerica

Genius of America by Adolphe Yvon, 1870

My sentiments regarding the work are actually shared by many. The painting was replicated on a much larger scale in 1870 at the request of Alexander Stewart, was displayed in Stewart’s Grand Union Hotel, but has since been donated and is currently housed in Albany, New York’s State Education Building. The unveiling of the mural in its current home brought forth much controversy and this article delves into details about those issues, so there is no need for me to reiterate. I will, however, fill in a few gaps in an effort to uncover how Yvon’s vision of America, particularly as a perspective from the outside looking in, is grossly utopian.

It’s no secret that America has always been hopeful with regards becoming, and remaining, the best at everything. This includes having the best education system, the most powerful military force, maintaining peace amongst the nation’s citizens (a stark deviation from the previous goal), and being in the forefront of scientific advances. All of that sounds amazing, except said quest for being the best as a nation has been historically a quest to maintain “Anglo racial superiority,” as Dr. Dana Nelson articulates in her book The World in Black and White: Reading ‘Race’ in American Literature, 1638-1867. Nelson notes, “Between 1800 and 1850 America witnessed a simultaneous surge in scientific professionalization and expansionist fervor which cumulatively resulted in the Anglo-American theory of Manifest Destiny” (92). The ideology of which Nelson speaks is precisely what is depicted in Yvon’s Genius of America and greatly contributes to the problematic nature of the painting that stems far beyond what first meets the eye. For the sake of time, and my sanity, I won’t fully dissect every single aspect of the painting but instead, I’ll opt to pinpoint the major figures that prove to be “not-so-genius.”

Firstly, let me take a second to expand upon the argument that has already been presented in the aforementioned article with regards to the depiction of the slave essentially being pulled up, presumably out of slavery, by the white man. Slavery was abolished in 1865 and this painting was completed in 1858. Yvon was being incredibly optimistic by presenting the slave/master relationship in this way, especially since many would argue, myself included, that slavery still exists but in the form of other manifestations of systemic oppression (please watch the film 13th directed by Ava DuVernay, if you haven’t already). Furthermore, this depiction is not wholly an issue simply because of the realities of slavery, but also because it requires one to believe that Black people in America need to be saved by their white counterparts to be truly liberated. The Black man in the painting had to be physically lifted in order to stand as if his own strength wouldn’t suffice, which alludes to the Anglo-American view of the power of “white.”

Secondly, turn your attention to the image just above the uplifting of the slave—the Native Americans admirably looking at the central figures, which represent balance, order, and truth for America. The “discovery” of America, which led to the massacre of Native peoples and the subsequent marginalization of those people to the point of psychological, financial, and physical oppression, proves to be the antithesis of what is presented in the painting. It might sound like I’m only referring to 1492, but I’m also referring to the 21st century. According to the United States Census Bureau, “26.6 percent of single-race American Indians and Alaska Natives were in poverty in 2015, the highest of any race group. For the nation as a whole, the poverty rate was 14.7 percent.” The admiration in the eyes of the Natives in this painting thus serves as a slap in the face to those it represents. This depiction serves as an utter disregard to the cruel history of Native peoples since the practice of manifest destiny befell American and is an undeserving gesture towards optimism.

Finally (for now), the figure in the bottom left corner of the painting is said to represent the torch of war being extinguished. On the New York State Museum website, they suggest that this image is symbolic of the end of the Civil War, which couldn’t possibly be true since the war had not commenced until years after the original painting was produced. The reference to a specific war is not the issue, however. What is troublesome is the fact that not only can America not seem to stay out of wars involving other countries, but within America, the nation is always at war with its citizens. From the American Indian Wars, to the Civil War, to the less overt wars such as the War on Drugs, marginalized people in America have perpetually been targeted and oppressed for the sake of maintaining Anglo-American power and the fulfillment of the prophecy of manifest destiny. Yvon’s insistence that peace was a part of the “genius” of America completely ignores the realities of what America truly represents both then and now.

The deeming of America as being “genius” by Yvon was incredibly unrealistic and is still nowhere near a reality. While the aforementioned points are not an exhaustive list of the not-so-genius of America, consider them a point of departure for conversations about how America is viewed from the outside-in as well as from the inside-out.

– Amanda Wicks


“FFF: American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month: November 2016.”, 2 Nov. 2016,

“The Genius of America.” New York State Museum.

Nelson, Dana D. The World in Black and White: Reading ‘Race’ in American Literature, 1638-1867. Oxford University Press, 1992.

Yvon, Adolphe. Genius of America. 1870. New York State Education Building.


The Space Between

April 27, 2017 § Leave a comment

As artificial intelligence technology continues to advance and mature, we must become willing to confront the thorny questions which surround its development.

“How much access to human lives should AI entities be granted? How far intellectually and emotionally is an AI entity from a human? How will the presence of AI entities affect our relationships with each other as humans?”

How are these intricacies conveyed through art now?

For my final project, I examine the use of distance – emotional, physical, and aesthetic – in three cinematic works which explore AI/human relationships: Her, Ex Machina, and Black Mirror’s Be Right Back. My full paper can be accessed here.

Teeth in the Sand

April 26, 2017 § Leave a comment

For my final project, I designed a computer game centered around the opening scene of Cloud Atlas (the book), in which Adam Ewing happens upon Henry Goose searching for teeth in the sand. In the game the player has to click around the screen to try to find the concealed teeth. I chose this scene because I believe it can be viewed as an outline for what the rest of the novel is going to be exploring. Let me explain what I mean. Goose says that the teeth are remnants from a “cannibals’ banqueting hall, yes, where the strong engorged themselves on the weak” (Mitchell 3). In essence then, these teeth are symbols of times in which humans preyed on other humans. In fact, Goose himself is perpetuating this symbolism because he is planning to exploit the teeth to earn money. The opening scene shows a literal sifting through the sands (of time) to find these evidences and reminders of human predacity towards other humans. I would argue that Mitchell is performing the same act in his novel.

[You might want to go play the game before reading further. Here is the link to it:]

Throughout the novel, Mitchell highlights the manner in which humans are always preying on other humans, whether individually or as part of tribes, corporations, or governments. There are two reasons that seem to lead to this rampant predacity. The first is the ‘other’-ization of groups of people such that they can be treated differently. In The Orison of Sonmi~451, fabricants are viewed as sub-human and so horrible atrocities can be committed on them. In Adam Ewing’s journal, the attitude of the white people to black people, and the superior attitude of the Kona towards the Valleysman can also be described in these terms. The second reason for the overwhelming rapaciousness appears to greed, generally for wealth and/or power. Examples of this are the Swannekke corporation in Luisa’s story, John Hotchkiss’s desperate desire for his aged mother’s wealth in Cavendish’s story, and Ayrs’ exploitation of Frobisher.

I wanted to represent these two reasons for predacity in Cloud Atlas with two mini-games. The first is a card matching memory game centered around Sonmi’s story. With this game I wanted to show that the fabricants can be exploited and preyed upon because they, as clones, are treated as identical and replaceable, just as the cards have to be treated as identical.

The second mini-game is based around Luisa’s story. The player has to feed gold nuggets to Ekke the Swan to keep him from getting enraged.  With this game, I intended to draw attention to the insatiable corporate greed for power and wealth that is revealed through Luisa’s investigation.

I hope you enjoy playing the game!  Let me know in the comments if you are having trouble accessing it.

— Mihira Konda

P.S. The software is kind of basic and I’m not sure I coded in the most efficient way so please don’t try to go too fast while playing as it may get really buggy.

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