A Wall of Walls

[Image: River valley outside Kamdesh, Afghanistan, where the “Battle of Kamdesh” occurred, an assault that loosely serves as the basis for part of John Renehan’s novel, The Valley].

While we’re on the subject of books, an interesting novel I read earlier this year is The Valley by John Renehan. It’s a kind of police procedural set on a remote U.S. military base in the mountains of Afghanistan, fusing elements of investigative noir, a missing-person mystery, and, to a certain extent, a post-9/11 geopolitical thriller, all in one.

Architecturally speaking, the book’s includes a noteworthy scene quite late in the book—please look away now if you’d like to avoid a minor spoiler—in which the main character attempts to learn why a particularly isolated valley on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan seems so unusually congested with insurgent fighters and other emergent sources of local conflict.

He thus hikes his way up through heavily guarded opium fields to what feels like the edge of the known world, as the valley he’s tracking steadily narrows ever upward until “there were no more river sounds. He’d gotten above the springs and runoff that fed it.” In the context of the novel, this scene feels as if the man has stepped off-stage, ascending to a world of solitude, clouds, and mountain silence.

[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by Staff Sergeant Adam Mancini].

What he sees there, however, is that the entire valley, in effect, has been quarantined. A baffling and massive concrete wall has been constructed by the U.S. military across the entire pass, severing the connection between two neighboring countries and forming an absolute barrier to insurgent troop movements. The wall has also decimated—or, at least, substantially harmed—the local economy.

Attempts to blow it up have left visible scars on its flanks, resulting in a blackened super-wall that is so far away from regional villages that many people don’t even know it’s there; they only know its side-effects.

“It was an impressive construction,” Renehan writes. “There was no way they got vehicles all the way up here. It must have been heavy-lift helicopters laying in all the pieces and equipment.”

[Image: U.S. military helicopter in Afghanistan, courtesy U.S. Army, taken by by Staff Sgt. Marcus J. Quarterman].

It was a titanic undertaking, “a wall of walls,” in his words, an improvised barrier like something out of Mad Max:

Concrete blast barriers lined up twenty feet high, one against another on the slanting ground, shingled all across the gap, with another layer of shorter walls piled haphazardly atop, and more shoring up the gaps at the bottom. There must have been another complete set of walls built behind the one he could see, because the whole hulking thing had been filled with cement. It had oozed and dried like frosting at the seams, puddling through the gaps at the bottom.

The man puts his hand on the concrete, knowing now that the whole valley had simply been sealed off. It “was closed.”

There are many things that interest me here. One is this notion that a distant megastructure, something of which few people are aware, nonetheless exhibits direct and tangible effects in their everyday lives; you might not even know such a structure exists, in other words, but your life has been profoundly shaped by it.

The metaphoric possibilities here are obvious.

[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by Spc. Ken Scar, 7th MPAD].

But I was also reminded of another famous military wall constructed in a remote mountain landscape to keep a daunting adversary at bay, the so-called “Alexander’s Gates,” a monumental—and entirely mythic—architectural project allegedly built by Alexander the Great in the Caucasus region to keep monsters out of Europe. This myth was the Pacific Rim of its day, we might say.

I first encountered the story of Alexander’s Gates in Stephen T. Asma’s book, On Monsters.

Alexander supposedly chased his foreign enemies through a mountain pass in the Caucasus region and then enclosed them behind unbreachable iron gates. The details and the symbolic significance of the story changed slightly in every medieval retelling, and it was retold often, especially in the age of exploration. (…) The maps of the time, the mappaemundi, almost always include the gates, though their placement is not consistent. Most maps and narratives of the later medieval period agree that this prison territory, created proximately by Alexander but ultimately by God, houses the savage tribes of Gog and Magog, who are referred to with great ambiguity throughout the Bible, and sometimes as individual monsters, sometimes as nations, sometimes as places.

On the other side of Alexander’s Gates was what Asma memorably calls a “monster zone.”

[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by U.S. Army Pfc. Andrya Hill, 4th Brigade Combat Team].

In any case, you can learn a bit more about the gates in this earlier post on BLDGBLOG, but it instantly came to mind while reading The Valley.

Renehan’s bulging “wall of walls,” constructed by U.S. military helicopters in a hostile landscape so remote it is all but over the edge of the world, purely with the goal of sealing off an entire mountain valley, is a kind of 21st-century update to Alexander’s Gates.

In fact, it makes me wonder what sorts of megastructures exist in contemporary global military mythology—what urban legends soldiers tell themselves and each other about their own forces or those of their adversaries—from underground super-bunkers to unbreachable desert walls. What are the Alexander’s Gates of today?

Covert Cartographics

[Image: Map Measuring Tool, CIA].

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has uploaded a massive set of images from their historic mapping unit to Flickr.

[Image: Triangular 24-Inch Engineering Scale, CIA].

The collections include state-of-the-art graphic tools for producing maps and other measured cartographic products, as well as the maps themselves. Organized by the decade of its production—including batches from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s—“each map is a time capsule of that era’s international issues,” as Allison Meier points out.

[Image: Terrain map of the Sinai Peninsula (1950s), CIA, CIA].

“The 1940s include a 1942 map of German dialects,” Meier writes, “and a 1944 map of concentration camps in the country. The 1950s, with innovative photomechanical reproduction and precast lead letters, saw maps on the Korean War and railroad construction in Communist China. The 1960s are punctuated by the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam War, while the 1970s, with increasing map automation, contain charts of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Arab oil embargo.”

[Images: The Austin Photo Interpretometer, CIA].

But it’s the mapping tools themselves that really interest me here.

On one level, these graphic devices are utterly mundane—triangular rulers, ten-point dividers, and interchangeable pen nibs, for example, any of which, on its own, would convey about as much magic as a ballpoint pen.

[Image: 10-Point Divider, CIA].

Nonetheless, there is something hugely compelling for me in glimpsing the actual devices through which a country’s global geopolitical influence was simultaneously mapped and strategized.

[Images: Rolling Disc Planimeter, CIA].

As the CIA points out, their earliest mapping division “produced some 8,000 hand-drawn maps and 64 plaster topographic 3-D models in support of the war effort. Many of their products played crucial roles in the planning and execution of major military operations in the European, North African, and Asian Theaters. On display here are just some of the many tools that OSS cartographers employed in their production process.”

[Image: Dietzgen Champion Drawing Instruments, CIA].

In a sense, it’s not unlike seeing the actual typewriter with which a particular author wrote her novels, or the battered, handheld sketchbooks a painter once carried with him to a distant mountaintop—only here, in art historical terms, we are looking at the graphic tools and visual documents through which a country’s overseas influence was realized and maintained.

It is a narrative of covert state power as relayed through cartographic objects, the outlines of an imperial nation-state arising from them like a ghost.

[Image: Stanley Improved Pantograph, CIA].

I’m reminded of one of my favorite books on the subject of geopolitics, literally understood: Rachel Hewitt’s Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey.

Among other things, Hewitt’s book reveals the often deeply strange tools—including surreal glass rods—through which British mapmakers and other agents of terrestrial exploration measured their nascent empire, helping to transform landscape into a mathematized system of coordinates and, in the process, conveying to British authorities the exact volumetric extent of their political domain.

There was the empire, in other words—but there were also these exotic objects of measurement through which that same empire was conjured, as if through cartographic magic.

[Image: Keufel & Esser 20.5-inch Slide Rule, CIA].

In any case, check out more at the CIA’s “Cartography Tools” Flickr set.

(Originally spotted via Alessandro Musetta).

Global Positioning Shift

australia[Image: Australia, rendered by Neema Mostafavi for NASA].

Australia, it turns out, is not quite where maps think it is. Thanks to plate tectonics, the island nation is moving north by 1.5 centimeters a year, which means that the entire country is now nearly five feet further north than existing cartography suggests it should be.

As a result, Australia’s lat/long coordinates are going “to shift,” the BBC reports.

Interestingly, “the body responsible for the change said it would help the development of self-driving cars, which need accurate location data to navigate.” In other words, the navigational capabilities of autonomous vehicles and other self-driving robots are, at least indirectly, affected by plate tectonics—by the ground literally moving beneath their wheels.

“If the lines [of latitude and longitude] are fixed, you can put a mark in the ground, measure its co-ordinate, and it will be the same co-ordinate in 20 years,” explained Dan Jaksa of Geoscience Australia. “It’s the classical way of doing it.”
Because of the movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates, these local co-ordinates drift apart from the Earth’s global co-ordinates over time.
“If you want to start using driverless cars, accurate map information is fundamental,” said Mr Jaksa.
“We have tractors in Australia starting to go around farms without a driver, and if the information about the farm doesn’t line up with the co-ordinates coming out of the navigation system there will be problems.”

Put another way, gaps have been opening up between the world of robotic navigation and the actual, physical barriers those machines seek to navigate.

You could perhaps argue that there is our Australia—that is, a human Australia of streets, walls, and buildings—and then there is the machines’ Australia, a parallel yet intersecting world of skewed reference points and offset walls, a kind of ghost nation, inhabited only by robots, departing further and further from the limits of human geographic experience every day.

[Image: Via the Australian Intergovernmental Committee on Surveying and Mapping].

Of course, this would not be the first time that the accuracy of geographic information has a measurable effect on precision agriculture. However, it is also not the first time that geographers have realized that they don’t know precisely where a country really is.

In his recent book about GPS, Pinpoint, author Greg Milner writes about “the geopolitical importance of geodesy,” or the study of the Earth’s exact geometric shape (it is an “oblate spheroid”).

“The geopolitical significance of geodesy increased with the onset of the Cold War,” Milner writes. “In a very real sense, the West did not know the exact location of the USSR”—and, thus, did not know exactly how or where to target its missiles. “‘Missiles were the big drivers in getting the datums tied down,’ Gaylord Green remembers. ‘If I wanted to hit a target in Russia, I couldn’t hit squat if I didn’t have their datum tied down to mine.’”

Briefly, it’s worth pointing out a fascinating side-note from Milner’s book: “The trajectory a missile follows is influenced by the gravity field where it is launched, and its aim can be disrupted by the gravity at the target, so countries often kept their gravity data classified.” I love the John le Carré-like implications of classified gravity data, including what it might take to smuggle such info out of an enemy nation.

But let’s go back to the missile thing: in addition to the question of how farm equipment and other self-driving vehicles can successfully navigate the landscape when they don’t, in fact, have the correct terrestrial coordinates, Australia’s strange misplacement on global maps implies that every potential military target in the country would also have been roughly five feet away from where existing charts say they are.

An old, uncorrected missile system in a decaying military base somewhere mistakenly fires sixty years from now, rockets off toward Australia… and plummets into the sea, missing its coastal target by several feet. Plate tectonics as a slow national defense mechanism.

Read more at the BBC.


what3words[Image: Screen-grab from what3words].

Using the bizarre three-word addressing system known as what3words, the now-destroyed curb in Hayward, CA, mentioned in the previous post, is located at a site called “chill.once.waddle.”

As you can tell, of course, what3words is not a descriptive language, and these phrases are not intended to mean anything: they are simply randomly-generated sets of words used to give any location on earth a physical address.

As Quartz explained the system back in 2015, it is, at heart, “a simple idea”:

…a combination of three words, in any language, could specify any three meter by three meter square in the world—more than enough to designate a hut in Siberia or a building doorway in Tokyo. Altogether, 40,000 words combined in triplets label 57 trillion squares. Thus far, the system has been built in 10 languages: English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Swahili, Portuguese, Swedish, Turkish, and, starting next month, Arabic… All together, this lingua franca requires only five megabytes of data, small enough to reside in any smartphone and work offline. Each square has its identity in its own language that is not a translation of another. The dictionaries have been refined to avoid homophones or offensive terms, with short terms being reserved for the most populated areas

The addresses are poetically absurd—shaky.audit.detail, salsa.gangs.square, dozed.lamps.wing.

I mention this, however, because I meant to post last month that “Mongolia is changing all its addresses to three-word phrases.” Again, from Quartz:

Mongol Post is switching to the What3Words system because there are too few named streets in its territory. The mail network provides service over 1.5 million square km (580,000 square miles), an area that’s three times the size of Spain, though much of that area is uninhabited. Mongolia is among the world’s most sparsely populated countries, and about a quarter of its population is nomadic, according to the World Bank.

While, on one level, in an age of stacks and infinite addressability, this seems like a thrilling, almost science-fictional step forward for locating and mapping physical spaces, it also seems like an alarming example of national over-reliance on a proprietary address system, one that the state itself ultimately cannot control.

Imagine a nation-state losing influence over the physical coordinates of its own territory, or a population stuck living inside an outdated, even discontinued address network, and needing to start again, from scratch, renaming all its streets and buildings—not to mention all the lost local histories and significance of certain place names, from avenues to intersections, that need to be reclaimed.

Granted, in this particular case, the system is being adopted precisely because “there are too few named streets” in Mongolia, that does not change the fact that the country will soon be dependent upon the continued existence of what3words for its packages to be delivered, its services to run, and its spatial infrastructures to function. It will be interesting to see how the transition to the use of these peculiar place tags goes—but, even more so, how this decision looks in five or ten years’ time.

The London Time Ball

timeball[Image: The London “time ball” at Greenwich, courtesy Royal Museums Greenwich].

Thanks to the effects of jet lag getting worse as I get older, I was basically awake for five days in London last week—but, on the bright side, it meant I got to read a ton of books.

Amongst them was an interesting new look at the history of weather science and atmospheric forecasting—sky futures!—by Peter Moore called The Weather Experiment. There were at least two things in it worth commenting on, one of which I’ll save for the next post.

This will doubtless already be common knowledge for many people, of course, but I was thrilled to learn about something called the London “time ball.” Installed at the Greenwich Royal Observatory in 1833 by John Pond, England’s Royal Astronomer, the time ball was a kind of secular church bell, an acoustic spacetime signal for ships.

It was “a large metal ball,” Moore writes, “attached to a pole at the Royal Observatory. At 1 p.m. each day it dropped to earth with an echoing thud so that ships in the Thames could calibrate their chronometers.” As such, it soon “became a familiar part of the Greenwich soundscape,” an Enlightenment variation on the Bow Bells. Born within sound of the time signal…

timeball1[Image: Historic shot of the time ball, via the South London Branch of the British Horological Institute].

There are many things I love about this, but one is the sheer fact that time was synchronized by something as unapologetically blunt as a sound reverberating over the waters. It would have passed through all manner of atmospheric conditions—through fog and smoke, through rain and wind—as well as through a labyrinth of physical obstructions, amidst overlapping ships and buildings, as if shattering the present moment into an echo chamber.

Calculating against these distortions would have presented a fascinating sort of acoustic relativity, as captains and their crew members would have needed to determine exactly how much time had been lost between the percussive thudding of the signal and their inevitably delayed hearing of it.

In fact, this suggests an interesting future design project: time-signal reflection landscapes for the Thames, or time-reflection surfaces and other acoustic follies for maritime London, helping mitigate against adverse atmospheric effects on antique devices of synchronization.

In any case, the other thing I love here is the abstract idea that, at this zero point for geography—that is, the prime meridian of the modern world—a perfect Platonic solid would knock out a moment of synchrony, and that Moore’s “echoing thud” at this precise dividing line between East and West would thus be encoded into the navigational plans of captains sailing out around the curvature of the earth, their expeditions grounded in time by this mark of sonic punctuation.

Beginning at Arcs, Centered by Lines

[Image: From United States of America, Plaintiff v. State of California,” December 15, 2014].

This is old, old, old news, widely covered elsewhere at the time, but I rediscovered this link saved in my bookmarks and wanted to post it: back in December 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court redefined the maritime border of California with an amazing, 108+ page sequence of numerical locations in space.

It is geodetic code for marking the western edge of state power—or Sol Lewitt’s instructional drawings given the power of sovereign enforceability.

Rather than “The Location of a Trapezoid,” in other words, as Lewitt’s work once explored, this is the location of California.

[Image: From United States of America, Plaintiff v. State of California,” December 15, 2014].

Beyond these mathematically exact limits is not the open ocean, however, but sea controlled by the United States federal government. The coordinates laboriously, hilariously reproduced over dozens and dozens of pages simply define where California’s “Submerged Lands” end, or expanses of seafloor where California has the right to explore for economic resources. Outside those submerged lands, the feds rule.

In a sense, then, this is the Supreme Court seemingly trolling California, tying up the Golden State’s perceived western destiny within a labyrinth of constricting arcs and lines, then claiming everything that lies beyond them.


blade[Image: Flying with the LAPD Air Support Division; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Over the past three years, I’ve gone on multiple flights with the LAPD Air Support Division, during both the day and night; my goal was to understand how police see the city from above.

freeway-webside-web[Image: Freeways and escape routes; Instagrams by BLDGBLOG].

Does the aerial view afford new insights into how distant neighborhoods are connected, for example, or how criminals might attempt to hide—or flee—from police oversight? Where are these other, illicit routes and refuges?

More importantly, are they temporary accidents of criminal behavior and urban geography, or are they much deeper flaws and vulnerabilities hidden in the city’s very design?

above-webgotaltitude-web[Images: Instagrams by BLDGBLOG].

Aerial patrols seems to promise a ubiquitous, and near-omniscient, amplification of police vision, even as the fabric of the city itself is put to alternative use by the activities of criminals.

I documented these flights through hundreds of photographs—many of which can be seen here—as well as in my forthcoming book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City.

However, an excerpt of that book has also been adapted for this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, including a look at Thomas More’s Utopia in the context of the LAPD, the navigational “rules of four,” and a look at the array of technical devices installed aboard each police helicopter.

screen-webdashboard-web[Images: Inside the airship; Instagrams by BLDGBLOG].

The “rules of four,” for example, as I write in the piece, are “guidelines [that] fall somewhere between a rule of thumb and an algorithm, and they allow for nearly instantaneous yet accurate aerial navigation.”

“The way the parcels work in the city of Los Angeles,” [LAPD Chief Tactical Flight Officer Cole Burdette explained to me], “is that Main Street and First Street are the hub of the city.” The street numbers radiate outward — by quadrant, east, west, north, south — with blocks advancing by hundreds (the 3800 block below 38th Street) and building numbers advancing by fours (3804, 3808, 3812, etc.). The rest is arithmetic.
With the rules of four, an otherwise intimidating and uncontrollable knot of streets takes on newfound clarity. It is no coincidence that the Los Angeles Police Department built its main headquarters at the center of it all, at the intersection of First and Main. It placed the department at the numerological heart of the metropolis, the zero point from which everything else emanates.

What fascinates me through all of this is how the city can be used as a tool of police authority, a seemingly endless crystalline grid of numbers and addresses continually re-scanned from above by helicopter—

binocs-webbinoculars-webshoulder-web[Image: Watchers; photo by BLDGBLOG].

—yet, at the same time, the city can also be manipulated from below, against those same figures of aerial power, becoming an instrument of criminal evasion and spatial camouflage.

matrix-web[Image: Night flight across the grid; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

The very notion of the “getaway route” is revealing here for what it implies about a city’s secondary use as a means of escape, offering hidden lines of flight from figures of authority.

In the book, I explore this a bit more through, among other things, the work of Grégoire Chamayou, including his research into the history of manhunts and his brief look at the speculative re-design of Paris as a kind of immersive police catalog in which “every move will be recorded.”

subdivision-websuburbs-web[Image: Over Porter Ranch and the San Fernando Valley; photos by BLDGBLOG].

Paris, Chamayou writes, “was to be divided into distinct districts, each receiving a letter, and each being subdivided into smaller sub-districts.”

In each sub-district each street had accordingly to receive a specific name. On each street, each house had to receive a number, engraved on the front house—which was not the case at the time. Each floor of each building was also to have a number engraved on the wall. On each floor, each door should be identified with a letter. Every horse car should also bear a number plate. In short, the whole city was to be reorganized according to the principles of a rationalized addressing system.

In that context, the Air Support Division’s “rules of four” as a police-navigation strategy take on a particularly interesting nuance—as do hypothetical means of resistance to police power through the deliberate complication of local addressing systems.

mapping-webbanking-webpanopticops-web[Images: Moving maps and binoculars over L.A.; Instagrams by BLDGBLOG].

The book excerpt in the Times also briefly picks up on some themes elaborated in an article I wrote for Cabinet Magazine a few years ago, discussing how the infrastructure of Los Angeles itself inadvertently permits certain classes of criminal activity.

turning-web[Image: Night flying; photo by BLDGBLOG].

The most obvious example of this unintended side-effect of transportation planning is the so-called “stop-and-rob.” From The New York Times Magazine:

The construction of the city’s freeway system in the 1960s helped to instigate a later spike in bank-crime activity by offering easy getaways from financial institutions constructed at the confluence of on-ramps and offramps. This is a convenient location for busy commuters—but also for prospective bandits, who can pull off the freeway, rob a bank and get back on the freeway practically before the police have been alerted. The maneuver became so common in the 1990s that the Los Angeles police have a name for it: a “stop-and-rob.”

In any case, the book obviously elaborates on these themes in much greater length—and it comes out next week, so please consider pre-ordering a copy—but The New York Times Magazine excerpt is a great place to start.

points-web[Image: Somewhere over the San Fernando Valley; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Meanwhile, if you yourself are planning any illicit activities, as an added bonus the article includes insights from Air Support Division pilots and tactical flight officers on the limitations of their own surveillance techniques, such as how the streets around Los Angeles International Airport have become a popular hiding spot for criminals fleeing police helicopters by car and some especially unlikely tactics used to evade thermal detection by the LAPD’s Forward-Looking Infrared or FLIR cameras.

When in doubt—although this is not mentioned in the article—drive into the fog, where the helicopters can’t follow you.

horizon-web[Image: Urban horizon lines; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

For now, here are a bunch of photos, including many Instagrams, taken from July 2013 to March 2016, including night flights in January 2014 and March 2016—

cockpit-webflying-webhollywood-webmorecityhall-webnighflight-webtennis-webbanktower-webusbank-webnickersonnight-webspot-web[Images: Night from above; photos & Instagrams by BLDGBLOG].

—as well as day and early evening flights taken in July 2013 and March 2016.

nickerson-webwattstowers-webgrid-webplane-web[Images: Note the shot of Watts Towers; Instagrams by BLDGBLOG].

Finally, a chunk of non-Instagram shots, in case those colored filters are making your eyes cross over.

jiujitsu-webcops-webgunsdrawn-webtfo-webLAKings-weblooking-web[Images: Photos by BLDGBLOG, many featuring a home barricade call in Pacoima].

Check out the article—and let me know what you think of the book, once it’s published.

sunset-web[Image: Sunset approaching downtown L.A.; cropped Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Mars Monuments and “First Landing Sites”

mars[Image: An incredible shot of Mt. Sharp on Mars, via NASA].

Science writer Lee Billings has an interesting new article up at Scientific American about the quest to identify future landing sites on Mars.

Having recently attended an event in Houston dedicated to the topic of how humans might colonize the Red Planet—and, more specifically, where exactly they will land—Billings describes scenes that seem to resemble a tabletop role-playing game crossed with a good old-fashioned land grab:

In the sunlit rotunda outside the Lunar and Planetary Institute’s auditorium they had placed permanent markers and two glossy, oversize maps of Mars on foldout tables. Each participant autographed the maps, as if a delegate signing an interplanetary Declaration of Independence, usually marking the site where he or she hoped humans would go first. Before long both maps accumulated thick clusters of signatures marking 45 potential “Exploration Zones,” or EZs. Each EZ was a circle 200 kilometers wide, equaling an area nearly 20 times larger than the sprawling city of Houston.

These “Exploration Zones” marked target sites of potential human settlement and exploration—as well as, by implication, others places where humans might never go at all. “Among the signatures scattered on the map,” Billings writes, “there were voids conspicuously light on scrawls—places where no human would tread anytime soon, if ever.”

aramchaos[Image: A Martian basin called “Aram Chaos,” NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University; via Scientific American].

While this has the potential to remain entirely abstract—determining where humans may or may not someday settle on a world they may or may not ever even visit—there are some moments of evocative specificity.

Those include one participant’s vision of future human geologists chipping and scraping away at the walls of a colossal Martian landform called Valles Marineris, revealing “interior layer deposits, ancient bedrock, ancient lake deposits, sand dunes, landslides,” and uncovering traces of what Billings calls “a former, warmer, wetter world, and perhaps even learn[ing] whether anything had ever lived there.”

In any case, there are volcanologists and robots, “exotic locales” and bombs for mining ice, the ethical question of “Planetary Protection” and the limits of terrestrial law; it’s a fascinating look at conversations occurring today that might yet prove to be of great geographic significance for having determined, decades in advance, which landscapes will someday become intensely familiar to human settlers, on a planet that, for now, remains seemingly just out of reach.

Briefly, I’m also reminded of a paper presented a number of years back by Australian student Trevor Rodwell, called “Messages for the Future: The Concept for a First Human Landing Marker on Mars.” Although I don’t actually agree with Rodwell’s approach—he more or less outlines a digital time capsule that would remind future Martian settlers of Earthly life—I nonetheless find his idea of a “First Human Landing Monument” incredibly interesting, and suitably grandiose in terms of the workshop Billings documents.

How should we—if at all—mark a site that functions as a kind of interplanetary Plymouth Rock, and, in retrospect, how will conversations such as the ones Billings writes about be seen by future settlers?

Perhaps another way to put this is that we are already building an archive for the prehistory of humans on Mars, even if their departure for that planet has yet to occur.


shanghaishift[Image: The same point in Shanghai, shifted between its map and satellite view; via Google Maps].

The slippage between map and territory is made unsettlingly clear by a mandatory geographic offset introduced into digital cartography products operating in China.

Variously known as “_applyChinaLocationShift,” eviltransform, the “China GPS Offset Problem,” and, most interestingly, as “Mars Coordinates,” this algorithmic shifting of GPS coordinates is related to China’s official mapping and survey rules, devised for national and economic security.

I’ve written much more about this in a new article for Travel + Leisure, where everything from trap streets to Jorge Luis Borges gets involved, as well as questions of technology, international borders, and geopolitics. Check it out, and let me know if you’ve had any experience with the issue yourself.

(Thanks to @0xdeadbabe for the tip!)

Comparative Astral Isochrones

[Image: Isochronic map of travel distances from London, from An Atlas of Economic Geography (1914) by John G. Bartholomew (via)].

“This is an isochronic map—isochrones being lines joining points accessible in the same amount of time—and it tells a story about how travel was changing,” Simon Willis explains over at Intelligent Life. The map shows you how long it would take to get somewhere, embarking from London:

You can get anywhere in the dark-pink section in the middle within five days–to the Azores in the west and the Russian city of Perm in the east. No surprises there: you’re just not going very far. Beyond that, things get a little more interesting. Within five to ten days, you can get as far as Winnipeg or the Blue Pearl of Siberia, Lake Baikal. It takes as much as 20 days to get to Tashkent, which is closer than either, or Honolulu, which is much farther away. In some places, a colour sweeps across a landmass, as pink sweeps across the eastern United States or orange across India. In others, you reach a barrier of blue not far inland, as in Africa and South America. What explains the difference? Railways.

Earlier this year, when a private spacecraft made it from the surface of the Earth to the International Space Station in less than six hours, the New York Times pointed out that “it is now quicker to go from Earth to the space station than it is to fly from New York to London.”

[Image: From Twitter].

In the context of Bartholomew’s map, it would be interesting to re-explore isochronal cartography in our own time, to visualize the strange spacetime we live within today, where the moon is closer than parts of Antarctica and the International Space Station is a shorter trip than flying to Heathrow.

(Map originally spotted via Francesco Sebregondi).

Ghosts of Home Geography

Noted scam artist and “Facebook fugitive” Paul Ceglia, hoping to escape from a recently imposed state of house-arrest, “sliced off his GPS ankle monitor and affixed it to a crudely built contraption in his rural New York residence,” Ars Technica reports.

The GPS sensor’s subsequent movements were then meant to maintain the illusion that he was still at home.

[Image: The GPS contraption; photo via Ars Technica].

According to the U.S. Marshals, “While conducting a security sweep of the home, the Task Force Officers observed, among other things, a hand-made contraption connected to the ceiling, from which Ceglia’s GPS bracelet was hanging. The purpose of the contraption appeared to be to keep the bracelet in motion using a stick connected to a motor that would rotate or swing the bracelet.”

The “contraption” appears to have been almost laughably basic, but it’s not hard to imagine something more ambitious, complete with tracks wandering from room to room to make it appear that someone is truly inside the residence.

In fact, the idea of faking your own location through attaching your GPS anklet to a Roomba, for example, and letting it wander around the house all day is perversely brilliant, like something from a 21st-century Alfred Hitchcock film. Of course, it wouldn’t take very long to deduce from the algorithmically perfect straight lines and zig-zag edge geometry of your Roomba’s movements that it is not, in fact, a real person walking around in there—or perhaps it would just look like you’ve taken up some bizarre new form of home exercise.

But a much more believable algorithm for faking the movements of a real, living resident could be part of some dark-market firmware update—new algorithms for the becoming-criminal of everyday machines.

[Image: Roomba-based LED art, via artselectronic].

A whole new class of products could be devised: part burglar deterrent, part anti-police-tracking device, they would meander and bump their way through a home’s interior, creating the geographic illusion that someone is moving around in there, passing room to room at certain moments.

It would be a GPS surrogate or implied resident, a locational ghost built from satellite signals and semi-autonomous robotic machines.