In the midst of a long New York Times article about the serial theft of offensive cyberweapons from the National Security Agency, there’s a brief but interesting image. “Much of [a core N.S.A. group’s] work is labeled E.C.I., for ‘exceptionally controlled information,’ material so sensitive it was initially stored only in safes,” the article explains. “When the cumulative weight of the safes threatened the integrity of N.S.A.’s engineering building a few years ago, one agency veteran said, the rules were changed to allow locked file cabinets.”
It’s like some undiscovered Italo Calvino short story: an agency physically deformed by the gravitational implications of its secrets, its buildings now bulbous and misshapen as the literal weight of its mission continues to grow.
[Image: Tsovkra-1 via Google Maps].
“Flanked by the Caucasus Mountains on the highest plateau in Dagestan,” Kate Sutton wrote for the February issue of Artforum, “the village of Tsovkra-1 has parlayed the perils of its topography into a peculiar claim to fame: that every able-bodied member of its roughly four-hundred-person population can walk a tightrope. While locals say that this skill was first developed simply as a way to traverse the region’s slopes and crevices, tightrope walking is now considered an integral part of the republic’s cultural heritage.”
It’s like a deleted scene from, or an alternative version of, Italo Calvino’s Baron in the Trees, this village with such a precarious natural and geological setting that everyone becomes an acrobat.
The origins of the town’s peculiar talents are disputed. According to The Week, it might have been all about love: “While no one in Tsovkra-1 knows exactly how the tradition began, the most popular story is that more than 100 years ago, the village’s young men tired of trekking across the valleys that separated them from their female love interests in a neighboring community. So the men strung up a rope between the mountains and, after first pulling themselves across, eventually began to walk the rope, displaying their prowess for their waiting admirers.”
I would love to know the extent to which this has simply been overblown by curious journalists, especially as the only consistent takeaway from coverage of the town is that no one seems to know where the tightrope skills came from—although “all agree that it happened more than 200 years ago” and all seem to agree that Tsovkra-1’s acrobatics are on the verge of disappearing.
Katherine Ye has posted short descriptions of “twenty tiny cities,” an homage to Italo Calvino, and some of them are so good. Clockwork City: “Buildings are constantly sliding, turning, merging, separating. Directions: ‘Your destination will arrive in 1.5 hours.’” Fractal City: “Directions are given recursively. ‘Go to the middle triangle, then to its top triangle. Repeat until you arrive.’ Directions might not terminate.” Desire Path City: “They covered the city with meadows of grass, then after a year, built roads where foot traffic had worn grass to dirt.” Nondeterministic City: “Every time you reach an intersection, you take all of them at once. There are few maps of the city, because you’ll always find what you’re looking for.” (Spotted via @katierosepipkin).