Seismic Potential Energy

[Image: Photo by BLDGBLOG].

I got to hike with my friend Wayne last week through a place called the Devil’s Punchbowl, initially by way of a trail out and back from a very Caspar David Friedrich-ian overlook called the Devil’s Chair.

[Image: Wayne, Rückenfigur; photo by BLDGBLOG].

The Punchbowl more or less lies astride the San Andreas Fault, and the Devil’s Chair, in particular, surveils this violently serrated landscape, like gazing out across exposed rows of jagged teeth—terra dentata—or perhaps the angled waves of a frozen Hokusai painting. The entire place seems charged with the seismic potential energy of an impending earthquake.

[Image: It is difficult to get a sense of scale from this image, but this geological feature alone is at least 100 feet in height, and it is only one of hundreds; photo by BLDGBLOG].

The rocks themselves are enormous, splintered and looming sometimes hundreds of feet over your head, and in the heat-haze they almost seem buoyant, subtly bobbing up and down with your footsteps like the tips of drifting icebergs.

[Image: Looking out at the Devil’s Chair; photo by BLDGBLOG].

In fact, we spent the better part of an hour wondering aloud how geologists could someday cause massive underground rock formations such as these to rise to the surface of the Earth, like shipwrecks pulled from the bottom of the sea. Rather than go to the minerals, in other words, geologists could simply bring the minerals to them.

[Image: Photo by BLDGBLOG].

Because of the angles of the rocks, however, it’s remarkably easy to hike out amidst them, into open, valley-like groins that have been produced by tens of thousands of years’ worth of rainfall and erosion; once there, you can just scramble up the sides, skirting past serpentine pores and small caves that seem like perfect resting spaces for snakes, till you reach sheer drop-offs at the top.

There, views open up of more and more—and more—of these same tilted rocks, leading on along the fault, marking the dividing line between continental plates and tempting even the most exhausted hiker further into the landscape. The problem with these sorts of cresting views is that they become addictive.

[Image: Wayne, panoramically doubled; photo by BLDGBLOG].

At the end of the day, we swung by the monastic community at St. Andrew’s Abbey, which is located essentially in the middle of the San Andreas Fault. Those of you who have read David Ulin’s book The Myth of Solid Ground will recall the strange relationship Ulin explores connecting superstition, faith, folk science, and popular seismology amongst people living in an earthquake zone.

Even more specifically, you might recall a man Ulin mentions who once claimed that, hidden “in the pattern of the L.A freeway system, there is an apparition of a dove whose presence serves to restrain ‘the forces of the San Andreas fault’.”

This is scientifically cringeworthy, to be sure, but it is nonetheless interesting in revealing how contemporary infrastructure can become wrapped up in emergent mythologies of how the world (supposedly) works.

The idea, then, of a rogue seismic abbey quietly established in a remote mountainous region of California “to restrain ‘the forces of the San Andreas Fault’”—which, to be clear, is not the professed purpose of St. Andrew’s Abbey—is an idea worth exploring in more detail, in another medium. Imagine monks, praying every night to keep the rocks below them still, titanic geological forces lulled into a state of quiescent slumber.

[Image: Vasquez Rocks at sunset; photo by BLDGBLOG].

In fact, I lied: at the actual end of the day, Wayne and I split up and I drove back to Los Angeles alone by way of a sunset hike at Vasquez Rocks, a place familiar to Star Trek fans, where rock formations nearly identical to—but also less impressive than—the Devil’s Punchbowl breach the surface of the Earth like dorsal fins. The views, as you’d expect, were spectacular.

Both parks—not to mention St. Andrew’s Abbey—are within easy driving distance of Los Angeles, and both are worth a visit.

Boundary Stones and Capital Magic

[Image: “Chart showing the original boundary milestones of the District of Columbia,” U.S. Library of Congress].

Washington D.C. is surrounded by a diamond of “boundary stones,” Tim St. Onge writes for the Library of Congress blog, Worlds Revealed.

“The oldest set of federally placed monuments in the United States are strewn along busy streets, hidden in dense forests, lying unassumingly in residential front yards and church parking lots,” he explains. “Many are fortified by small iron fences, and one resides in the sea wall of a Potomac River lighthouse. Lining the current and former boundaries of Washington, D.C., these are the boundary stones of our nation’s capital.”

[Image: “District of Columbia boundary stone,” U.S. Library of Congress].

Nearly all of them—36 out of 40—can still be found today, although they are not necessarily easy to identify. “Some stones legibly maintain their original inscriptions marking the ‘Jurisdiction of the United States,’ while others have been severely eroded or sunk into the ground so as to now resemble ordinary, naturally-occurring stones.” They have been hit by cars and obscured by poison ivy.

The question of who owns the stones—and thus has responsibility for preserving them—is complex, as the Washington Post pointed out back in 2014. “Those that sit on the D.C./Maryland line were deemed the property of the D.C. Department of Transportation. ‘But on the Virginia side, if you own the land, you own the stone,’ [Stephen Powers of boundarystones.org] says.”

[Image: Mapping the stones, via boundarystones.org].

Novelist Jeremy Bushnell joked on Twitter that, “if anyone knows the incantations that correctly activate these, now would be a good time to utter them,” and, indeed, there is something vaguely magical—in a Nicolas Cage sort of way—in this vision of the nation’s capital encaged by a protective geometry of aging obelisks. Whether “activating” them would have beneficial or nefarious ends, I suppose, is something that remains to be seen.

Of course, Boston also has its boundary stones, and the “original city limits” of Los Angeles apparently have a somewhat anticlimactic little marker that you can find driven into the concrete, as well.

Read much, much more over at Worlds Revealed and boundarystones.org.

(Related: Working the Line. Thanks to Nicola Twilley for the tip!)

The Coming Amnesia

[Image: Galaxy M101; full image credits].

In a talk delivered in Amsterdam a few years ago, science fiction writer Alastair Reynolds outlined an unnerving future scenario for the universe, something he had also recently used as the premise of a short story (collected here).

As the universe expands over hundreds of billions of years, Reynolds explained, there will be a point, in the very far future, at which all galaxies will be so far apart that they will no longer be visible from one another.

Upon reaching that moment, it will no longer be possible to understand the universe’s history—or perhaps even that it had one—as all evidence of a broader cosmos outside of one’s own galaxy will have forever disappeared. Cosmology itself will be impossible.

In such a radically expanded future universe, Reynolds continued, some of the most basic insights offered by today’s astronomy will be unavailable. After all, he points out, “you can’t measure the redshift of galaxies if you can’t see galaxies. And if you can’t see galaxies, how do you even know that the universe is expanding? How would you ever determine that the universe had had an origin?”

There would be no reason to theorize that other galaxies had ever existed in the first place. The universe, in effect, will have disappeared over its own horizon, into a state of irreversible amnesia.

[Image: The Tarantula Nebula, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope, via the New York Times].

It was an interesting talk that I had the pleasure to catch in person, and, for those interested, it includes Reynolds’s explanation of how he shaped this idea into a short story.

More to the point, however, Reynolds was originally inspired by an article published in Scientific American back in 2008 called “The End of Cosmology?” by Lawrence M. Krauss and Robert J. Scherrer.

That article’s sub-head suggests what’s at stake: “An accelerating universe,” we read, “wipes out traces of its own origins.”

[Image: A “Wolf–Rayet star… in the constellation of Carina (The Keel),” photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope].

As Krauss and Scherrer point out in their provocative essay, “We may be living in the only epoch in the history of the universe when scientists can achieve an accurate understanding of the true nature of the universe.”

“What will the scientists of the future see as they peer into the skies 100 billion years from now?” they ask. “Without telescopes, they will see pretty much what we see today: the stars of our galaxy… The big difference will occur when these future scientists build telescopes capable of detecting galaxies outside our own. They won’t see any! The nearby galaxies will have merged with the Milky Way to form one large galaxy, and essentially all the other galaxies will be long gone, having escaped beyond the event horizon.”

This won’t only mean fewer luminous objects to see in space; it will mean that, “as a result, Hubble’s crucial discovery of the expanding universe will become irreproducible.”

[Image: The “interacting galaxies” of Arp 273, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope, via the New York Times].

The authors go on to explain that even the chemical composition of this future universe will no longer allow for its history to be deduced, including the Big Bang.

“Astronomers and physicists who develop an understanding of nuclear physics,” they write, “will correctly conclude that stars burn nuclear fuel. If they then conclude (incorrectly) that all the helium they observe was produced in earlier generations of stars, they will be able to place an upper limit on the age of the universe. These scientists will thus correctly infer that their galactic universe is not eternal but has a finite age. Yet the origin of the matter they observe will remain shrouded in mystery.”

In other words, essentially no observational tool available to future astronomers will lead to an accurate understanding of the universe’s origins. The authors call this an “apocalypse of knowledge.”

[Image: “The Christianized constellation St. Sylvester (a.k.a. Bootes), from the 1627 edition of Schiller’s Coelum Stellatum Christianum.” Image (and caption) from Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography by Nick Kanas].

There are many interesting things here, including the somewhat existentially horrifying possibility that any intelligent creatures alive in that distant era will have no way to know what is happening to them, where things came from, even where they currently are (an empty space? a dream?), or why.

Informed cosmology will, by necessity, be replaced with religious speculation—with myths, poetry, and folklore.

[Image: 12th-century astrolabe; from Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography by Nick Kanas].

It is worth asking, however briefly and with multiple grains of salt, if something similar has perhaps already occurred in the universe we think we know today—if something has not already disappeared beyond the horizon of cosmic amnesia—making even our most well-structured, observation-based theories obsolete. For example, could even the widely accepted conclusion that there was a Big Bang be just an ironic side-effect of having lost some other form of cosmic evidence that long ago slipped eternally away from view?

Remember that these future astronomers will not know anything is missing. They will merrily forge ahead with their own complicated, internally convincing new theories and tests. It is not out of the question, then, to ask if we might be in a similarly ignorant situation.

In any case, what kinds of future devices and instruments might be invented to measure or explore a cosmic scenario such as this? What explanations and narratives would such devices be trying to prove?

[Image: “Woodcut illustration depicting the 7th day of Creation, from a page of the 1493 Latin edition of Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle. Note the Aristotelian cosmological system that was used in the Middle Ages, below, with God and His retinue of angels looking down on His creation from above.” Image (and caption) from Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography by Nick Kanas].

Science writer Sarah Scoles looked at this same dilemma last year for PBS, interviewing astronomer Avi Loeb.

Scoles was able to find a small glimmer of light in this infinite future darkness, however: Loeb believes that there might actually be a way out of this universal amnesia.

“The center of our galaxy keeps ejecting stars at high enough speeds that they can exit the galaxy,” Loeb says. The intense and dynamic gravity near the black hole ejects them into space, where they will glide away forever like radiating rocket ships. The same thing should happen a trillion years from now.

“These stars that leave the galaxy will be carried away by the same cosmic acceleration,” Loeb says. Future astronomers can monitor them as they depart. They will see stars leave, become alone in extragalactic space, and begin rushing faster and faster toward nothingness. It would look like magic. But if those future people dig into that strangeness, they will catch a glimpse of the true nature of the universe.

There might yet be hope for cosmological discovery, in the other words, encoded in the trajectories of these bizarre, fleeing stars.

[Images: (top) “An illustration of the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic cosmological system that was used in the Middle Ages, from the 1579 edition of Piccolomini’s De la Sfera del Mondo.” (bottom) “An illustration (influenced by Peurbach’s Theoricae Planetarum Novae) explaining the retrograde motion of an outer planet in the sky, from the 1647 Leiden edition of Sacrobosco’s De Sphaera.” Images and captions from Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography by Nick Kanas].

There are at least two reasons why I have been thinking about this today. One was the publication of an article by Dennis Overbye earlier this week about the rate of the universe’s expansion.

“There is a crisis brewing in the cosmos,” Overbye writes, “or perhaps in the community of cosmologists. The universe seems to be expanding too fast, some astronomers say.”

Indeed, the universe might be more “virulent and controversial” than currently believed, he explains, caught-up in the long process of simply tearing itself apart.

[Image: A “starburst galaxy” photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope].

One implication of this finding, Overbye adds, “is that the most popular version of dark energy—known as the cosmological constant, invented by Einstein 100 years ago and then rejected as a blunder—might have to be replaced in the cosmological model by a more virulent and controversial form known as phantom energy, which could cause the universe to eventually expand so fast that even atoms would be torn apart in a Big Rip billions of years from now.”

In the process, perhaps the far-future dark ages envisioned by Krauss and Scherrer will thus arrive a billion or two years earlier than expected.

[Image: Engraving by Gustave Doré from The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri].

The second thing that made me think of this, however, was a short essay called “Dante in Orbit,” originally published in 1963, that a friend sent to me last night. It is about stars, constellations, and the possibility of determining astronomical time in The Divine Comedy.

In that paper, Frederick A. Stebbins writes that Dante “seems far removed from the space age; yet we find him concerned with problems of astronomy that had no practical importance until man went into orbit. He had occasion to deal with local time, elapsed time, and the International Date Line. His solutions appear to be correct.”

Stebbins goes on to describe “numerous astronomical references in [Dante’s] chief work, The Divine Comedy”—albeit doing so in a way that remains unconvincing. He suggests, for example, that Dante’s descriptions of constellations, sunrises, full moons, and more will allow an astute reader to measure exactly how much time was meant to have passed in his mythic story, and even that Dante himself had somehow been aware of differential, or relativistic, time differences between far-flung locations. (Recall, on the other hand, that Dante’s work has been discussed elsewhere for its possible insights into physics.)

[Image: Diagrams from “Dante in Orbit” (1963) by Frederick A. Stebbins].

But what’s interesting about this is not whether or not Stebbins was correct in his conclusions. What’s interesting is the very idea that a medieval cosmology might have been soft-wired, so to speak, into Dante’s poetic universe and that the stars and constellations he referred to would have had clear narrative significance for contemporary readers. It was part of their era’s shared understanding of how the world was structured.

Now, though, imagine some new Dante of a hundred billion years from now—some new Divine Comedy published in a trillion years—and how it might come to grips with the universal isolation and darkness of Krauss and Scherrer. What cycles of time might be perceived in the lonely, shining bulk of the Milky Way, a dying glow with no neighbor; what shared folklore about the growing darkness might be communicated to readers who don’t know, who cannot know, how incorrect their model of the cosmos truly is?

(Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for the Dante paper).

Fewer Gardens, More Shipwrecks

[Image: Peder Balke, “Seascape” (1848), courtesy of the Athenaeum].

As cities like New York prepare for “permanent flooding,” and as we remember submerged historical landscapes such as Doggerland, lost beneath the waves of a rising North Sea, it’s interesting to read that humanity’s ancient past—not just its looming future—might be fundamentally maritime, rather than landlocked. Or oceanic rather than terrestrial, we might say.

In his recent book The Human Shore, historian John R. Gillis suggests that, due to a variety of factors, including often extreme transportation difficulties presented by inland terrain, traveling by sea was the obvious choice for early human migrants.

People, after all, have been seafaring for at least 130,000 years.

This focus on seas and waterways came with political implications, Gillis writes. Even when European merchant-explorers reached North America, “It would be a very long time, almost three hundred years, before Europeans realized the full extent of the Americas’ continental character and grasped the fact that they might have to abandon the ways of seaborne empires for those of territorial states.” In fact, he adds, “for the first century or more, northern Europeans showed more interest in navigational rights to certain waterways and sea tenures than in territorial possession as such.”

At the risk of anachronism, you might say that their power was defined by logistical concerns, rather than by territorial ones: by dynamic, just-in-time access to ports and routes, rather than by the stationary establishment of landed borders and policed frontiers.

[Image: “Ship in a Storm” (ca. 1826), by Joseph Mallord William Turner; courtesy Tate Britain].

Gillis goes much further than this, however, suggesting that—as 130,000 years of seafaring history seems to indicate—humans simply are not a landlocked species.

“Even today,” Gillis claims, “we barely acknowledge the 95 percent of human history that took place before the rise of agricultural civilization.” That is, 95 percent of human history spent migrating both over land and over water, including the use of early but sophisticated means of marine transportation that proved resistant to archaeological preservation. For every lost village or forgotten house, rediscovered beneath a quiet meadow, there are a thousand ancient shipwrecks we don’t even know we should be looking for.

Perhaps speaking only for myself, this is where things get particularly interesting. Gillis points out that humanity’s deep maritime history has been almost entirely written out of our myths and religions.

In his words, “the book of Genesis would have us believe that our beginnings were wholly landlocked, but it was written at the time that the Hebrews were settling down to an agrarian existence.” That is, the myth of Genesis was written from the point of view of a culture already turning away from the sea, mastering animal domestication, mining, and wheeled transport, and settling down away from the coastline. It was learning to cultivate gardens: “The story of Eden served admirably as the foundational myth for agricultural society,” Gillis writes, but it performs very poorly when seen in the context of humanity’s seagoing past.

Briefly, I have to wonder what might have happened had works of literature—or, more realistically, highly developed oral traditions—from this earlier era been better preserved. Seen this way, The Odyssey would merely be one, comparatively recent example of seafaring mythology, and from only one maritime culture. But what strange, aquatic world of gods and monsters might we still be in thrall of today had these pre-Edenic myths been preserved—as if, before the Bible, there had been some sprawling Lovecraftian world of coral reefs, lost ships, and distant archipelagoes, from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia?

[Image: “Storm at Sea” (ca. 1824), by Joseph Mallord William Turner; courtesy Tate Britain].

This is where this post’s title comes from. “In short,” Gillis concludes, “we require a new narrative, one with, as Steve Mentz suggests, ‘fewer gardens, and more shipwrecks.’”

Fewer gardens, more shipwrecks. We are more likely, Gillis and Mentz imply, to be the outcast descendants of sunken ships and abandoned expeditions than we are the landed heirs of well-tended garden plots.

Seen this way, even if only for the purpose of a thought experiment, human history becomes a story of the storm, the wreck, the crash—the distant island, the unseen reef, the undertow—not the farm or even the garden, which would come to resemble merely a temporary domestic twist in this much more ancient human engagement with the sea.

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?

In Case You Missed Them

There are a few books I wanted to mention here at the height of the holiday season, not because they’re new or even necessarily recent but because, selfishly, I simply wish more people had read them. If you’re looking for an extra gift, or just a last-minute surprise, for anyone with an interest in architecture, landscape, archaeology, acoustics, geopolitics, history, and more, here are eight titles to consider.

(1) The Strait Gate: Thresholds and Power in Western History by Daniel Jütte (Yale University Press)—This is an academic work, in both tone and approach, but of the ideal kind: nearly every page had something I wanted to underline, write down, or scramble to look up elsewhere. Put simply, The Strait Gate is a history of the door, but, as Jütte shows, this ultra-quotidian architectural detail—the dividing line between inside and outside—has political, psychological, Constitutional, philosophical, mythological, narrative, cultural, and even material implications that are easy to overlook. Whether it’s a controversial order that “all door handles and knobs be removed from homes and shops” so that the metal could be melted down for war materiel, divine gateways as described in the Book of Revelation, or the resonant phenomenon of Torschlusspanik—“panic of gate closure,” aka a fear of being locked out—Jütte’s book is a superb example of how we can still look at architecture afresh.

(2) The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times by Adrienne Mayor (Princeton University Press)—What did cultures without the benefit of modern scientific knowledge think of the monstrous skeletons and fossilized bones they occasionally unearthed? Quite a lot, as it happens. It turns out that huge chunks of human mythology, including the existence of dragons and the idea of an extinct race of titanic super-human ancestors, can all be traced back to misinterpretations of paleontology. Mayor’s writing is casually engaging—even quite funny, at times—and the book’s many examples of ancient human societies encountering monstrous, inexplicable, and possibly otherworldly things hidden in the earth stuck with me long after reading it.

(3) The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World by Trevor Cox (W.W. Norton)—If you have even a passing interest in sound, this is the book to read. Trevor Cox, an acoustic engineer, introduces readers to sonic phenomena around the world, both naturally occurring and artificially induced, from the frozen surface of Russia’s Lake Baikal to Stone Age tombs in rural England. There are examples of sound art, acoustic science, and even landscape-scale auditory effects that easily justify the subtitle, “sonic wonders of the world.” This would pair well with David Toop’s Ocean of Sound, for those of you interested not just in acoustics but in avant-garde composition and ambient music, as well.

(4) The Tomb of Agamemnon by Cathy Gere (Harvard University Press)—This slim book, part of classicist Mary Beard’s excellent (but, sadly, now hibernating) “Wonders of the World” series for Harvard University Press, hit so many sweet spots for me. Author Cathy Gere convincingly shows how Mediterranean archaeological discoveries over the course of the 19th century helped to shape an emerging European mythos of the glories of war and historical empire. These same emphases lent themselves extremely well, however, to tragic and grotesque distortions that soon fed into the twin ideologies of Nazism and 20th-century fascism. Along the way, Gere writes, Classical discoveries misinterpreted by modern biases helped to justify British involvement in World War I. Gere’s book includes a brief, beautiful, and monumentally sad description of young, Homer-quoting scholars being shipped off to war to fight a rising evil from the East—only to be annihilated in the sodden trenches of the Somme. The Tomb of Agamemnon is probably one of my favorite ten books of the past decade; no other book I’ve read in that time conveys the true political stakes of archaeological research and the clear and obvious risks in distorting history for ideological ends.

(5) Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson (Anchor)—It’s a little disingenuous to suggest that this widely publicized book has been overlooked, but Lawrence in Arabia is nonetheless an uncannily well-timed history of the post-World War I Middle East and well worth taking the time to read. I was utterly absorbed by it for nearly a week. Part military adventure, part geopolitical biography of Lawrence of Arabia, part soul-crushing alternative history of a region that could have been—complete with agonizing descriptions of the infamous assault on Gallipoli—this book will make you see the entire 20th century differently, up to and including our own century’s Iraq War and the rise of ISIS.

(6) Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey by Rachel Hewitt (Granta)—I mentioned this book in a recent post and I would recommend it again. Map of a Nation tells the story of the British Ordnance Survey, the institute’s original geopolitical context, and the experimental cartographic tools it used to make its imperial surveys more accurate. For anyone interested in geography, maps, landscape, or British history, Hewitt’s book is a must-read.

(7) Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley (Grove/Atlantic)—You don’t need to be interested in the wonkish details of the telephone system to be amazed by the weirdness of Exploding the Phone, Phil Lapsley’s introduction to so-called phone phreaking. On one level, it’s a story of bored teenagers using synthesized sound and DIY home electronics to hack the global telephone network; on another, it’s a story with hugely metaphoric, almost occult undertones. The phone system’s diffuse and labyrinthine system of “inward operators,” robotic mechanical test numbers, and secret military phone exchanges—to name only a few ingredients—takes on the air of something invented by Alan Moore or Grant Morrison: teens encountering a world of numerological connection and mechanical intelligence through handheld receivers in the long afternoons of the 1960s and 70s. So good.

(8) Sealab: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor by Ben Hellwarth (Simon & Schuster)—The only thing that makes me pause before recommending Ben Hellwarth’s Sealab right now is that a brand new paperback edition is due out in June 2017; but, that aside, I heartily endorse this one. Imagine Archigram teaming up with a secretive branch of the U.S. military to invent an utterly bonkers new version of human civilization on the ocean floor, and you’ve roughly pictured what this book is about. Whether it’s describing what were, in effect, moon bases at the bottom of the sea or bizarre experiments with farm animals, submerged ecological research stations or Cold War espionage in the Sea of Okhotsk, Sealab is as much outsider architectural history as it is a maritime geopolitical thriller. At the very least, preorder the forthcoming paperback if you want to wait before diving in.

Finally, it’s super-obnoxious to end with my own book, but if you’re looking for something to read this winter—or if you need a gift for someone who can be hard to shop for—consider picking up a copy of A Burglar’s Guide to the City. It’s a mix of true crime, architectural theory, and first-person reporting, from a Chicago lock-picking club to flying with the LAPD’s Air Support Division, from an architect who became the most prolific bank robber of the 19th century to fake apartments run by the British police. A Burglar’s Guide includes interviews with a Toronto burglar known for using the city’s fire code to help pick his next target, with renowned architect Bernard Tschumi, with game designers, and with FBI Special Agents, among others, and the whole thing is currently being adapted for TV by CBS Studios. Check it out, if you get the chance and let me know what you think.

The World as a Hieroglyph of Spatial Relationships Yet to be Interpreted

drones
[Image: Courtesy Iris Automation].

In an interview published on the blog here a few years ago, novelist Zachary Mason, author of The Lost Books Of The Odyssey, pointed out something very interesting about the nearly limitless, three-dimensional space of the Earth’s atmosphere and how it relates to artificial intelligence.

“One of the problems with A.I.,” Mason explained back in 2010, “is that interacting with the world is really tough. Both sensing the world and manipulating it via robotics are very hard problems, and [these are] solved only for highly stripped-down special cases. Unmanned aerial vehicles, for instance, work well because maneuvering in a big, empty, three-dimensional void is easy—your GPS tells you exactly where you are, and there’s nothing to bump into except the odd migratory bird. Walking across a desert, though—or, heaven help us, negotiating one’s way through a room full of furniture in changing lighting conditions—is vastly more difficult.”

Another way of thinking about Mason’s comment—although Mason himself might disagree with the following statement—is that it is precisely the sky’s ease of navigation that makes it ideal for the emergence and testing of artificial intelligence. The Earth’s atmosphere, in other words—specifically because it is an unchallenging three-dimensional environment—is the perfect space for machine-vision algorithms and other forms of computational proto-intelligence to work out their most basic bugs.

Once they master the sky, then, autonomous machines can move on to more complicated environments, such as roads, mountains, forests. Cities.

In any case, I was thinking about Mason’s interview again earlier today when I read that drones are close to achieving “situational awareness”—albeit through visual, not artificially intelligent, means. In other words, it’s not AI—at least not yet—that will give unmanned aerial vehicles their much-needed ability to avoid colliding with other flying objects. Rather, it is a sufficiently advanced visual processing system that can identify and, more importantly, avoid potential obstacles.

Exactly such a system, TechCrunch claims, has been built by a Canadian firm called Iris Automation. Their system is able “to process visual data in real time, so it can see structures that suddenly appear, like a plane, flock of birds or another drone—not just static objects and waypoints that might be mapped using older technologies like GPS.” The company refers to this as “industrial drone collision avoidance,” which suggests a kind of on-board traffic management system for the sky. Air traffic control will be internal.

Now connect a drone’s “situational awareness” to sufficient processing power, and you could help steward into existence a computationally interesting form of autonomous intelligence.

To return to Zachary Mason’s computationally-inflected rewriting of The Odyssey, it would be AI as Athena, springing fully formed into the world from an empty sky.

Directions Might Not Terminate

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).

Secret Tunnels of England

The London Fortean Society, of all people, will be hosting a talk called “Secret Tunnels of England: Folklore and Fact” by Antony Clayton, author of the fascinating book Subterranean City: Beneath the Streets of London, on March 9. “So-called secret tunnels are a subject of perennial interest,” we read. “Are there really labyrinths of hidden passageways under our ancient buildings, towns and cities, or are these tunnel tales another seam of England’s rich folklore?” See, for example, BLDGBLOG’s earlier look at the Peterborough tunnels. There is still time to get on a waiting list for tickets. For what it’s worth, I also referred to Clayton’s book in my recent essay for The Daily Beast about the Hatton Garden heist. (Event originally spotted via @urbigenous).

Burial Grounds

Blogger Andrew Ray of Some Landscapes recently re-read The Wind in the Willows to his son, stumbling on “an intriguing passage that I’d forgotten all about, concerning Badger’s large underground home.” It is a scene where “the idea of the city has been literally buried,” where, “civilisations decline but nature endures,” an underground world of ruined architecture and vaulted halls disguised as forests.

Occult Infrastructure and the “Funerary Teleportation Grid” of Greater London

Speaking of cracks in space-time, an urban legend I love is the one about a tomb in Brompton Cemetery, London, allegedly designed by Egyptologist Joseph Bonomi and rumored to be a time machine.

[Image: Via The Clerkenwell Kid].

A sadly now-defunct blog called The Clerkenwell Kid is a great resource for this. There, we read that Bonomi “traded as an archaeological artist but is thought to have been a tomb raider”:

He is also generally considered to have been the designer of the Egyptian styled “Courtoy” tomb in Brompton cemetery which was ostensibly intended to be the final resting place of “three spinsters”. An interesting legend has grown up around this mausoleum because it is the only one in the cemetery for which there is no record of construction. This, together with Bonomi’s obsession with the afterlife (reflected in the hieroglyphs on the tomb), have been held by some to be evidence that it is not a tomb at all but a time machine and that the three spinsters, if they existed at all, were in fact his time travelling sponsors.

The correct question to ask here is not: is this true? Is this tomb really a time machine? The correct question to ask here is: how freaking cool is this?

The Clerkenwell Kid then goes one better, however, claiming that this urban legend is wrong—because it isn’t ambitious enough.

In fact, we’re told, the tomb was actually one of five such chambers, designed and constructed by Bonomi in an occult conspiracy with his colleague, Samuel Alfred Warner.

[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, courtesy of the British Museum].

“Amongst several other inventions,” the Kid tells us, “Warner claimed to have developed a mysterious missile capable of destroying ships from a distance”:

The Royal Navy were convinced enough by his demonstrations to pay him to develop this new weaponry but proved unable to reproduce his results independently. This was because what Warner had allegedly discovered (with the help of ancient knowledge gained by Bonomi in Egypt) was an occult way of “teleporting” a bomb a short distance—I suppose you could call it a “psychic torpedo.”

Again, the interest for me here is not whether or not people actually were teleporting themselves—let alone submarine torpedoes!—back and forth through time using Egyptological monuments hidden in London cemeteries.

The interest for me, instead, is at least two-fold: one, how awesome a story this is, and how much I want to tell everyone about it, and, two, how urban infrastructure always seems to inspire, catalyze, or emblematically come to represent these sorts of unexpected narrative investments.

We could say it’s the paranoia of infrastructure: the belief that there is always a bigger story we don’t know, or that someone deliberately isn’t telling us, about how our cities came to be the way they are today. We see this in everything from the water-theft politics of Chinatown to the high-speed rail conspiracies of True Detective Season 2, to this teleportation chamber disguised in plain sight in Brompton Cemetery.

The fact that this story has an atmosphere of the occult only makes literal the notion that the real histories of our cities, the true tales of backstage deals, hidden interests, and untold corruption that made them what they are, have been purposefully obscured from us—they have been occulted—by mysterious figures who prefer we don’t know.

It’s as if narrative paranoia is the default note of infrastructural investigation.

[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo of a “Stela fragment of Horiaa,” courtesy of the British Museum].

In any case, The Clerkenwell Kid keeps upping the ante. Remember those five teleportation chambers? Well, there were actually seven!

In dark collaboration, this legend goes, Bonomi and Warner set about constructing “a transportation grid around London” that would “reduce the time taken to travel the large distances of the vast, congested metropolis. To this end they built seven Egyptian teleportation chambers in the most suitable places they could find—in each of the seven new cemeteries that had been built in the capital from 1839.”

The Kid has a great phrase for this, referring to it as “the London funerary teleportation grid.” Surrounding the city like a seven-pointed star, these tombs formed a kind of mortuarial diagram—an urban-scale morbid force-field—that could zap people back and forth through Greenwich space-time.

I’s worth pointing out, however, that the rumors continue, leaking beyond the borders of Old Blighty, to suggest that there is yet another such transportation monument—but it’s over the English Channel, in Paris.

Even within the complicated mythology of these urban legends, this Parisian tomb is an outlier, but it brings with it an interesting plot development. That is, under the cover of developing something like a primitive military radar system that could protect the English Channel from foreign invasion, occult architects and Egyptologists were actually bilking the defense establishment to amass funds and construct this teleportation grid, scattered throughout the war-shadowed cemeteries of western Europe.

[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo of the “Coffin of Tpaeus,” courtesy of the British Museum].

Now all we need to do is uncover an undocumented Egyptian tomb somewhere in a rainy Swiss mountain churchyard or in the fog-shrouded hills outside Turin, perhaps designed by a bastard child of Bonomi, and we can help keep this urban legend alive…

Until then, for more information check out these three posts over at The Clerkenwell Kid.