[Image: From 2001: A Space Odyssey].

There’s a poem I think about every once in a while called “For the Missing in Action,” by John Balaban, from his book Locusts at the Edge of Summer. In fact, I’ve written about it here before.

In it, Balaban describes the postmortem landscape effects of someone—possibly a U.S. soldier, possibly a local villager—killed in the Vietnam War. The person’s body “fertilized the earth” as it decayed for months after death, vegetation assuming the body’s outline in the landscape.

In that dead place the weeds had formed a man
where someone died and fertilized the earth, with flesh
and blood, with tears, with longing for loved ones.
No scrap remained; not even a buckle
survived the monsoons, just a green creature,
a viney man, supine, with posies for eyes,
butterflies for buttons, a lily for a tongue.

I thought of Balaban’s poem again a few months ago when I read a story published by the Mirror—otherwise quite possibly the world’s least-interesting newspaper—about a missing Turkish man whose body was discovered in a cave 40 years after his disappearance due to a fig tree rooted in the man’s remains.

“A missing man who was murdered more than 40 years ago has been found—after a seed from a fig in his stomach grew into a tree,” the paper reported. The man had apparently eaten a fig before he died, and the seeds soon germinated.

The sequence of events that led to this Balabanian discovery included the botanical clue of the tree itself, which was apparently so unusual for the area that its presence required a more implausible explanation. Further, the man was murdered in the cave with two others, “killed by dynamite that was then thrown in after them. Yet the dynamite also blew a hole in the side of the cave, allowing light to flood into the darkened interior which in turn allowed the fig tree to grow from the man’s body.”

Our corpses have landscape effects, blooming with new ecologies after we’re gone.

Briefly, I’m reminded of a blog post published by Astronomy back in 2016 that took this thought interplanetary, asking, “Could an astronaut’s corpse bring new life to another world?” If our bodies can seed fig trees and flower into weedy outlines in the jungle, could we also become origin points for life on other worlds?

If you can “imagine a human corpse seeding life across the cosmos,” the article explains, then there might be much larger timescales over which it can do so, despite the seemingly insurmountable barrier of interstellar radiation: “The longer your corpse is floating in space, the more ambient cosmic radiation it’s absorbing. Enough radiation will scramble an organism’s DNA and RNA with mutations, ‘and unless those mutations can be repaired during the transit, at a rate equal to the mutations you’re accumulating, well then survival becomes questionable,’ [microbial biologist Gary King] says. ‘When you talk about one-million-plus years with little radiation shielding, then I’d say we’re talking about a very limited possibility of microbial survival. But I won’t say impossible, if you only need one of the vast number of microbes on the human body to survive the trip.’”

Mutant landscapes of the far future seeded by the bodies of drifting astronauts, a genesis moment for new planetary lifelines like ghostly human shapes appearing in the woods.

Sovereign Flocking Algorithms

[Image: Flocking diagram by “Canadian Arctic sovereignty: Local intervention by flocking UAVs” by Gilles Labonté].

One of many ways to bolster a nation-state’s claim to sovereignty over a remote or otherwise disputed piece of land is to perform what’s known as a “sovereignty cruise.” This means sending a ship—or fleet of ships—out to visit the site in question, thus helping to normalize the idea that it is, in fact, a governable part of that nation’s territory.

It is, in essence, a fancy—often explicitly militarized—version of use it or lose it.

Last summer, for example, Vietnam organized a private tour of the Spratly Islands, an archipelago simultaneously claimed by more than one nation and, as such, part of the much larger ongoing dispute today over who really owns and controls the South China Sea [sic].

Vietnam’s effort, Reuters reported at the time, was a strategic visit “to some of Asia’s most hotly contested islands, in a move likely to stoke its simmering dispute with Beijing over South China Sea sovereignty.”

It made “little attempt to disguise its political flavor, and comes as Vietnam pursues a bolder agenda in pushing its claims in the face of China’s own growing assertiveness.” Indeed, the cruise was apparently just the beginning, a mere “trial run ahead of Vietnam’s tentative plans to put the Spratlys on its tourism map, including scheduled passenger flights, possibly this year.”

Bring the people, in other words, and you bring evidence of governmental control.

Against this, of course, we must place the construction of entire islands by China, including the recent installation of a new primary school there, on an artificial island, a school whose opening lecture “was a geopolitical class that focused on China’s ownership of the sea.”

These sovereign games of Go taking place in disputed waters could sustain an entire blog on their own, of course, and are a topic we’ll undoubtedly return to. (Briefly, it’s worth noting that the sovereign implications of artificial islands were also part of a course I taught at Columbia a few years ago.)

Surprisingly, however, another region seen as potentially subject to future disputes over sovereignty is the Canadian Arctic. As such, arguments over such things as whether or not the Northwest Passage is an “international strait” (open to use by all, including Russian and Chinese military ships) or if it is actually a case of “internal waters” controlled exclusively by Canada (thus subject to restricted access), are still quite active.

Add to this a series of arguments over indigenous political rights as well as the specter of large-scale terrestrial transformation due to climate change, and a series of intriguing and quite complicated political scenarios are beginning to emerge there. (Who Owns The Arctic? by Michael Byers is an excellent introduction to this subject, as is Mia Bennett’s blog Cryopolitics.)

[Image: Flocking diagram by “Canadian Arctic sovereignty: Local intervention by flocking UAVs” by Gilles Labonté].

With all this in mind, consider a fascinating report issued by Defence R&D Canada back in 2010. Called “Canadian Arctic sovereignty: Local intervention by flocking UAVs” (PDF), and written by Gilles Labonté, it opens stating that “the importance of local intervention capability for the assertion of Canadian Sovereignty in the Northwest passage is recognized.”

However, Canada presently lacks the ability to deploy at any northern position, on demand, assets that could search a wide area for rescue or surveillance purposes. This fact motivated the exploration we report here on the feasibility of a rapid intervention system based on a carrier-scouts design according to which a number of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) would be transported, air launched and recovered by a larger carrier aircraft.

In other words, if Canada can’t send actual Canadians—that is, living human beings—on aerial “sovereignty cruises” by which they could effectively demonstrate real-time political control over the territories of the north, then they could at least do the next best thing: send in a flock of drones.

Doing so, Labonté suggests, would require a particular kind of flocking algorithm, one with an explicitly political goal. “In the present report,” he adds, “we propose a solution to the remaining problem of managing simultaneously the many UAVs that are required by the vastness of the areas to be surveyed, with a minimum number of human controllers and communications.”

Namely, we present algorithms for the self-organization of the deployed UAVs in the formation patterns that they would use for the tasks at hand. These would include surveillance operations during which detailed photographic or video images would be acquired of activities in a region of interest, and searching an area for persons, vehicles or ships in distress and providing a visual presence for such. Our conclusion is that the local intervention system with flocking UAVs that we propose is feasible and would provide a very valuable asset for asserting and maintaining Canadian Sovereignty in the North.

There are “formation patterns” and flocking algorithms, this suggests, that would specifically be of use in “asserting and maintaining Canadian Sovereignty in the North.”

Hidden within all this is the idea that particular flocking algorithms would be more appropriate for the task than others, lending an explicit air of political significance to specific acts of programming and computation. It also implies an interesting connection between the nation-state and behavioral algorithms, in which a series of behavioral tics might be ritually performed for their political side-effects.

For some context, the report adds, “the Canadian Government has had serious considerations of establishing a presence in the north through purchasing nuclear submarines and ice-breakers.” But why not side-step much of this expense by sending UAVs into the Arctic void instead, reinforcing nation-state sovereignty through the coordinated presence of semi-autonomous machines?

Simply re-launch your drones every two or three months, just often enough to nudge the world into recognizing your claim, not only of this remote airspace but of the vast territory it covers.

A halo of well-choreographed aerial robots flocks in the Arctic skies before disappearing again into a bunker somewhere, waiting to reemerge when the validity of the government appears under threat—a kind of machine-ritual in the open three-dimensional space of the polar north, a robotic sovereignty flight recognized around the world for its performative symbolism.

Read the rest of Labonté’s paper—which is admittedly about much more than I have discussed here—in this PDF.

Green Man

[Image: An unrelated photo by BLDGBLOG].

The other day I mentioned a poem by John Balaban, taken from his book Locusts at the Edge of Summer; but there’s another poem in that book with an incredible image that seems worth posting here.

In it, Balaban describes how villagers growing rice during the Vietnam War—where Balaban, a conscientious objector, served with the International Volunteer Corps—stumble upon an extraordinary feature in the landscape:

Beyond the last treeline on the horizon
beyond the coconut palms and eucalyptus
out in the moon-zone puckered by bombs
the dead earth where no one ventures,
the boys found it, foolish boys
riding buffaloes in craterlands
where at night bombs thump and ghosts howl.
A green patch on the raw earth.

This “green patch” has an usual shape, however. Balaban continues:

In that dead place the weeds had formed a man
where someone died and fertilized the earth, with flesh
and blood, with tears, with longing for loved ones.
No scrap remained; not even a buckle
survived the monsoons, just a green creature,
a viny man, supine, with posies for eyes,
butterflies for buttons, a lily for a tongue.

And the sight of this “green creature” proves too fertile, unforgettable, haunting all the villagers who’ve seen it:

Now when huddled asleep together
the farmers hear a rustly footfall
as the leaf-man rises and stumbles to them.

Out of the darkness, convinced by the life they give to the land around them that they might not yet be dead, the missing-in-action pull themselves from the tangle of the earth and rise and walk again.