Found Robotics

Imagine a flexible suit or garment that you can wrap around an object to turn it into a robot, something convulsively—compulsively—moving against its will. Researchers at Yale have created a lo-fi version of exactly that: “Robotic skin that bends, stretches and contracts can wrap around inanimate objects like stuffed animals, foam tubes or balloons to create flexible, lightweight robots,” Science News reported last week.

“The researchers achieved different types of motion by altering the layout of air pouches or coils in the skin and by attaching pieces of skin to an object in various configurations,” the report explains. “For instance, wrapping the skin around foam tubes in different orientations created robots that either scooted like inchworms or paddled forward on two ends. Patches of robotic skin around three foam fingers animated a soft robot grabber.”

While the results, at least for the time being, look more like epileptic children’s toys, as you can see in the video embedded above, the idea of giving unnatural movement to the inanimate through an external suit is a compelling reversal of a standard literary narrative. There are so many stories, for example, where something from within—a drug or medicine, a magical spell, an act of demonic possession—causes a person or thing to act strangely, against their will.

Instead, a robotic suit like this makes the source of alien locomotion an exterior one. Put on this clothing, the story would say, and watch yourself change. Like, say, Venom.

In any case, the construction implications of this are also interesting. Rather than assemble materials into a building using nails, screws, or joinery, you could instead wrap those materials up in a particular order inside a geotechnical fabric or cloak; then, using a particular sequence of air pouches and electrical charges, you could watch as previously unconnected materials heave upward and compress like a fist, assembling into some sort of architectural unit.

While this seems useless on any real industrial scale, a series of small architectural sculptures taking shape could make for an interesting gallery installation—a kind of found robotics, enlisting everyday objects into uncanny mechanized forms.

Read more over at Science News.

Mars P.D.

[Image: Illustration by Matt Chinworth, via The Atlantic].

Last summer, I got obsessed with the idea of how future crimes will be investigated on Mars. If we accept the premise that humans will one day settle the Red Planet, then, it seems to me, we should be prepared to see the same old vices pop up all over again, from kidnapping and burglary to serial murder, even bank heists.

If there is a mining depot on Mars, in other words, then there will be someone plotting to rob it.

But who will have the jurisdictional power to investigate these crimes? What sorts of forensic tools will offworld police use to analyze Martian crime scenes contaminated by relentless solar exposure, where the planet’s low gravity will make blood spatter differently from stab wounds? Further, if there is a future Martian crime wave, what sort of prison architecture would be appropriate—if any—for detaining perpetrators on another world?

Over the long and often surreal process of researching these sorts of questions, I spoke with legendary sci-fi novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, with Arctic archaeologist Christyann Darwent, with space law expert Elsbeth Magilton, with astrobiologist and political activist Lucianne Walkowicz, with political theorists Charles Cockell and Philip Steinberg, and with UCLA astrophysicist David Paige. All of them, through their own particular fields of expertise, helped chip away at various aspects of the question of what non-terrestrial law enforcement.

Incredibly, I also met a 4th-degree black belt in Aikido named Josh Gold who has been working with a team of advisors to develop a new martial art for space, rethinking the basics of human movement for a world with low—or even, on a space station, no—gravity. How do you pin someone to the ground, for example, when is no ground to pin them on?

In any case, will we need a Mars P.D.? If so, what exactly might a Martian police department look like?

The full feature is now up over at The Atlantic.

Terrestrial Chiaroscuro

[Image: Reuben Wu, from Lux Noctis].

I’ve been a fan of photographer Reuben Wu’s work for years—it’s hard to visit even his Instagram feed and not come away in a state of awe—so I was thrilled to contribute a short essay for his new book, Lux Noctis.

[Image: Reuben Wu, from Lux Noctis].

Lux Noctis is also the name of an ongoing project of his that uses drone-mounted LED lights to illuminate remote geological formations, towering figures highlighted against the landscape with what appear to be haloes or celestial spotlights.

It’s an ingenious approach to landscape lighting that Wu continues to push in new directions, and one that I compare in my essay to chiaroscuro, the use of dramatic, often single-point lighting to create deep contrasts and a sense of roiling, three-dimensional activity, a technique dating back to the Renaissance.

In Wu’s case, this is terrestrial chiaroscuro: unexpected, robotic sources of aerial light that transform how landscapes can be depicted.

[Image: Reuben Wu, from Lux Noctis].

The book is now available for preorder from Kris Graves Projects, publisher of many other artists books also worth a browse while you’re there.

Warnings Along the Drought Line

[Photo by Petr David Josek/AP, via NPR].

Elise Hunchuck, whose project “An Incomplete Atlas of Stones” sought to document warning stones placed along the Japanese coast to indicate safe building limits in case of tsunamis, has called my attention to a somewhat related phenomena in Central Europe.

So-called “hunger stones” have been uncovered by the low-flowing, drought-reduced waters of Czech Republic’s Elbe River, NPR reports. Hunger stones are “carved boulders… that have been used for centuries to commemorate historic droughts—and warn of their consequences.” One stone, we read, has been carved with the phrase, Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine, or “If you see me, weep.”

Although there are apparently extenuating circumstances for the rocks’ newfound visibility—including a modern-day dam constructed on the Elbe River which has affected water levels—I nonetheless remain haunted by the idea of uncovering buried or submerged warnings from our own ancestors stating that, in a sense, if you are reading this, you are already doomed.

Read a bit more over at NPR.

(Thanks, Elise!)

Hospital Interiors / Dolby Suburbs

[Image: “Mix House” by Joel Sanders Architect, Karen Van Lengen/KVL, and Ben Rubin/Ear Studio].

Between cross-country moves, book projects, wild changes in the online media landscape over the past few years, and needless self-competition through social media, my laptop has accumulated hundreds and hundreds, arguably thousands, of bookmarks for things I wanted to write about and never did. Going back through them all feels like staring into a gravesite at the end of a life I didn’t realize was mortal.

For example, the fact that the scent of one of Saturn’s moons was created in a NASA lab in Maryland—speculative offworld perfumery—and that, who knows, it could even someday be trademarked. Or that mountain-front suburban homes in Colorado were unwittingly constructed over mines designed to collapse—and that of the mines have already begun to do so, taking surface roads along with them. Or the sand mines of central Wisconsin. Or the rise of robot-plant hybrids. Or the British home built around a preserved railway carriage “because bizarre planning regulations meant the train could not be moved”—a vehicle frozen into place through architecture.

In any case, another link I wanted to write about many eons ago explained that legendary producer and ambient musician Brian Eno had been hired to design new acoustics for London’s Chelsea and Westminster hospital, part of an overall rethinking of their patient-wellness plan. Healing through sound. “The aim,” the Evening Standard explained, “is to replicate techniques in use in the hospital’s paediatric burns unit, where ‘distraction therapy’ such as projecting moving images on to walls can avoid the need to administer drugs such as morphine.”

This is already interesting—if perhaps also a bit alarming, in that staring at images projected onto blank walls can apparently have the same effect as taking morphine. Or perhaps that’s beautiful, a chemical testament to the mind-altering potential of art amplified by modern electrical technology.

Either way, Eno was brought on board to “refine” the hospital’s acoustics, much as one would do for the interior of a luxury vehicle, and even to “provide soothing music” for the building’s patients, i.e. to write a soundtrack for architecture.

We are already in an era where the interiors of luxury cars are designed with the help of high-end acoustic consultants, where luxury apartments are built using products such as “acoustic plaster,” and where critical governmental facilities are constructed with acoustic security in mind—a silence impenetrable to eavesdroppers—but I remain convinced that middle-budget home developers all over the world are sleeping on an opportunity for distinguishing themselves. That is, why not bring Brian Eno in to design soothing acoustics for an entire village or residential tower?

Imagine a whole new neighborhood in Los Angeles designed in partnership with Dolby Laboratories or Bang & Olufsen, down to the use of acoustic-deflection walls and carefully chosen, sound-absorbing plants, or an apartment complex near London’s Royal Academy of Music with interiors acoustically shaped by Charcoalblue. SilentHomes™ constructed near freeways in New York City—or, for that matter, in the middle of nowhere, for sonically sensitive clients. Demonstration suburbs for unusual acoustic phenomena—like Joel Sanders et al.’s “Mix House” scaled up to suit modern real-estate marketers.

At the very least, consider it a design challenge. It’s 2020. KB Home has teamed up with Dolby Labs to construct a new housing complex covering three city blocks near a freeway in Los Angeles. What does it look—and, more to the point, what does it sound—like?

Buy a Border Patrol Station

[Image: Courtesy U.S. Government Services Administration].

Somewhat amazingly, a former U.S. Border Patrol station is for sale outside the town of Gila Bend, Arizona.

The minimum bid is only $8,000—but the property doesn’t look too good and is “not warranted,” so buyer beware.

[Image: Courtesy U.S. Government Services Administration].

Structural conditions notwithstanding, this could be an amazing opportunity to create a Border Museum, a desert arts center, a writers’ retreat, an urban explorers’ redoubt, a remote branch of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, a field school for an avant-garde university geography program, a pop-up site for an architecture school to host student installations, a future restaurant, a weird Father’s Day gift, a place to store your favorite Paul Manafort trial memorabilia, an asbestos-exposure demonstration facility, or just a roadside site to park your pick-up truck.

Here is the facility on Google Maps.

[Image: Courtesy U.S. Government Services Administration].

Bidding begins on August 28th.

[Image: Courtesy U.S. Government Services Administration].

Note that there is an open house on Friday morning, August 17th, 2018, at 9am, for those of you near Gila Bend.

(Previously on BLDGBLOG: Buy a Los Angeles Sidewalk Corner, Buy a Complex of Submarine Pits, Buy a Skyway, Buy a Fort, Buy a Lighthouse, Buy an Underground Kingdom, Buy a Prison, Buy a Tube Station, Buy an Archipelago, Buy a Map, Buy a Torpedo-Testing Facility, Buy a Silk Mill, Buy a Fort, Buy a Church).

Second Central

I’ve been delinquent in mentioning an open landscape design competition, with a deadline in October, seeking designs for “a new, 21st century Central Park.” Sponsored by the journal LA+, the competition brief “asks you to redesign New York’s Central Park, which has been fictionally devastated by eco-terrorists.”

The journal suggests bearing these four main points in mind, if you proceed:

1) If in parks, no matter how faux or superficial, we manifest a collective aesthetic expression of our relationship with the “natural” world, then what, on the occasion of nature’s disappearance, is the aesthetic of that relationship today? 2) What is the role of a large urban park today? 3) How might issues of aesthetics on the one hand and performance on the other coalesce into what [Central Park’s original designer Frederick Law Olmsted] described as “a single work of art”? 4) Given the extraordinary history of the Central Park site, the competition asks how the new interprets the old, and how together, the new and the old anticipate the future.

Basically, it’s an opportunity to propose an entirely new kind of urban park, in the heart of New York City, for an explicitly interdisciplinary group (I should mention that I am also on the competition jury).

Perhaps it’s a chance to rethink the Park as an act of social justice and equitable access to urban wilderness; perhaps it’s a chance to explore the financial implications of large-scale landscape reserves put aside in the very center of the metropolis; perhaps it’s a chance to explore biotechnology, synthetic life, and the topographic implications of the Anthropocene.

There is much more information on the competition website, including how to submit. You have until October 10th, 2018.

Oven

Image: Photo by Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times].

A paper released last year by Mathew Hauer at the University of Georgia sought to identify where future sea-level refugees might end up in the continental United States. If tens of millions of people will need to depart from Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, Huntington Beach, New York City, and elsewhere, where exactly are they going to go?

As Hauer phrased it—with italics in the original—he wanted to address “one fundamental question regarding sea level rise induced migration: Where will sea level rise migrants likely migrate? Local officials in landlocked communities can use these results to plan for potential infrastructure required to accommodate an influx of coastal migrants and could shift the conceptualization of sea level rise from a coastal issue to an everywhere issue.”

Inter-American sea-level refugees will end up, he concludes, in places like Las Vegas, Austin, and Atlanta, pushing already strained future resources to the breaking point.

In any case, I thought of Hauer’s paper when I saw a tweet suggesting that “India becoming too hot for human life is probably going to be the migration event that completely destabilizes global geopolitics.”

The comment was made in reference to a New York Times article about literally unbearable temperatures—temperatures too hot for human survival—that are beginning to recur in India.

The article describes heat so intense it “is already making [people] poorer and sicker. Like the Kolkata street vendor who squats on his haunches from fatigue and nausea. Like the woman who sells water to tourists in Delhi and passes out from heatstroke at least once each summer. Like the women and men with fever and headaches who fill emergency rooms. Like the outdoor workers who become so weak or so sick that they routinely miss days of work, and their daily wages.”

By the end of this century, we read, temperatures “in several of South Asia’s biggest cities” could “be so high that people directly exposed for six hours or more would not survive.” Six hours.

Of course, this comes at the same time as worries that Tokyo—Tokyo!—might be too hot to host the 2020 Olympics, and as heat records are set all over the planet.

It’s not hard to imagine a world of militarized checkpoints surrounding regions zoned for air-conditioning, or altitude itself—and the thermal comforts associated with elevation gain—being rewarded more and more in the decades to come.

So, as with refugees fleeing sea-level rise, where will everyone go? Or, to paraphrase Mathew Hauer, where will heat migrants likely migrate?

Phantom/Null

[Image: Saxenburgh Island, from Andrew Pekler’s Phantom Islands].

Musician Andrew Pekler has composed soundtracks for “phantom islands,” or “islands that had existed on maps but not, as it turned out, in reality,” The Wire reports.

“Though a few of them were invented by unscrupulous captains seeking glory (or just further commissions),” Pekler explained to The Wire, “most phantom islands were unintentional fictions—the results of the imprecise science of navigation, clouds, fog banks and icebergs being mistaken for land, and wishful thinking.”

The accompanying website is pretty rad (although it apparently does not work in mobile), though, fair warning, it will easily consume a great deal of your afternoon at the office.

[Image: Antillia Island, from Andrew Pekler’s Phantom Islands].

While reading about Pekler’s work, I was reminded of the so-called “Null Island” effect, a different kind of phantom island that invisibly inhabits the space at 0°N, 0°E in the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of Africa.

“Every day, countless people seeking digital directions on their computers and smartphones are diverted to an isolated spot on the Atlantic Ocean, 1,000 miles or so off the coast of Africa, where the Prime Meridian and the equator intersect,” the Wall Street Journal explains. “It’s called Null Island.”

This digital “island”—the paper describes it as “the default destination for mistakes”—exists as a result of programming errors in geographic information systems (GIS).

“Unfortunately, due to human typos, messy data, or even glitches in the geocoder itself,” Tim St. Onge wrote for the Library of Congress back in 2016, “the geocoding process doesn’t always run so smoothly. Misspelled street names, non-existent building numbers, and other quirks can create invalid addresses that can confuse a geocoder so that the output becomes ‘0,0’. While this output indicates that an error occurred, since ‘0,0’ is in fact a location on the Earth’s surface according to the coordinate system, the feature will be mapped there, as nonsensical as the location may be. We end up with an island of misfit data.”

[Image: Hunter Island, from Andrew Pekler’s Phantom Islands].

Alas, Andrew Pekler’s Phantom Islands project doesn’t include a soundtrack for Null Island, but perhaps other musicians and sound designers will take that as a challenge. A fictional ethnomusicology for digital nowhere.

(Thanks to @RJCeetoo for the heads up about Phantom Islands and to Wayne Chambliss for telling me about Null Island many years ago.)

Assignment Baghdad

[Image: Screen-grab from a YouTube compilation of Desert Storm missile strikes].

In the summer of 2016, I heard an incredible story from a retired Defense Intelligence Agency analyst. It combined architectural history, international espionage, an alleged graduate research seminar in Washington D.C., and the first Gulf War. I was hooked.

According to this story, a graduate class at a school somewhere in D.C. had set out to collect as much architectural information as it could about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. This meant, at one point, even flying to Europe on a group field trip to visit engineering firms that had done work for Saddam Hussein.

Given the atmosphere at the time, the students most likely thought that their class was an act of protest, a kind of anti-war gesture, meant to help record, document, and even preserve Iraqi architecture before it was destroyed by the U.S. invasion.

Ironically, though, unbeknownst to those students—possibly even to their professor—the seminar’s research was being used to help target U.S. smart bombs. Or, as I phrase this in a new article for The Daily Beast, “there was a reason U.S. forces could put a missile through a window in Baghdad: they knew exactly where the window was. Architecture students in Washington D.C. had unwittingly helped them target it.”

[Image: YouTube].

But then things got complicated.

When I called my source back a few weeks later to follow up, it felt like a scene from a spy film: he said he didn’t remember telling me this (!) before joking that he was getting old and maybe saying things he shouldn’t have. This obviously only made me more determined to find out more.

I called every major school in Washington D.C. I FOIA’d the CIA. I started down a series of rabbit holes that led me from true stories of Gulf War espionage, involving U.S. attempts to collect blueprints for Saddam’s bunkers from engineering firms all over Europe, to a conversation with the head of targeting for the entire U.S. Air Force during Operation Desert Storm.

Along the way, I also kept finding more and more examples of architects and espionage, from Baron Robert Baden-Powell’s incredible use of butterfly sketches to hide floor plans of enemy forts to a 16th-century Italian garden designer who was, most likely, a spy.

[Image: Robert Baden-Powell’s clever use of entomological sketches to hide enemy floorplans, from his essay “My Adventures as a Spy.” See also Mark David Kaufman’s interesting essay about Baden-Powell for the Public Domain Review].

Even Michelangelo gets involved, as his designs for urban fortifications outside Florence, Italy, were secretly modeled in cork and snuck out of the city by an architect named Niccolò di Raffaello dei Pericoli—or Tribolo—in order to help plan a more effective siege (an anecdote I have written about here before).

In any case, I was sitting on this story for the past two years, waiting for my FOIA request to come back from the CIA and trying to set up interviews with people who might have known, first-hand, what I was asking about. The resulting article, my attempt to track down whether such a class took place, is finally up over at The Daily Beast. If any of the above sounds interesting, please click through to check it out.

Finally, of course, if this rings any bells with you—if you took a class like this and, in retrospect, now have doubts about its real purpose—please be in touch.

Dark Matter Mineralogy and Future Computers of Induced Crystal Flaws

[Image: Mexico’s “Cave of the Crystals,” via Wikipedia].

I guess I’ve got minerals on the brain.

Anyway, there was an amazing story last week suggesting that, deep inside the planet, minerals might exhibit flaws associated with “collisions with dark matter.” In a sense, this would make the entire interior of the earth a de facto dark matter detector—or, according to researchers at the University of Michigan, “minerals such as halite (sodium chloride) and zabuyelite (lithium carbonate), can act as ready-made detectors.”

Proving this hypothesis sounds like the opening scene of a blockbuster science fiction film: “An experiment could extract the minerals—which can be around 500 million years old—from kilometres-deep boreholes that already exist for geological research and oil prospecting. Physicists would need to crack open the extracted minerals and scan the exposed surfaces under an electron or atomic force microscope for the tracks made by recoiling nuclei. They could also use X-ray or ultraviolet 3D scanners to study bigger chunks of minerals faster, but with lower resolution.”

Either way, it’s incredible to imagine that slightly altered mineral structures deep inside the planet might reveal the presence of dark matter washing through the cosmos. After all, the Earth is allegedly “constantly crashing through huge walls of dark matter,” so the idea that some rocks might be glitched and scratched by these impacts isn’t that hard to believe. In fact, this brings to mind another hypothesis, that the GPS satellite network is, in fact, a huge, accidental dark matter detector.

Read more at Nature.

Meanwhile, ScienceDaily reported earlier this month that flaws deliberately introduced into the crystal forms of diamonds could be structured such that they improve those diamonds’ capacity for quantum computation. Apparently, a team at Princeton has designed new kinds of diamonds “that contain defects capable of storing and transmitting quantum information for use in a future ‘quantum internet.’”

There is obviously no connection between these two stories, but that won’t stop me from imagining some vast new quantum computer network, coextensive with the Earth’s interior, performing prime-number calculations along dark matter-induced crystal flaws, crooked mineral veins flashing in the darkness with data, like some buried circuitboard throbbing beneath the continents and seas.

Read more at ScienceDaily.

(Related: Planet Harddrive.)