Birds and Burglary

I’ve become obsessed with birds over the past year of lockdown, after a mourning dove couple began nesting directly outside our kitchen window. We saw the doves every day, patiently handing off their nest roles each morning and evening, cooperatively raising a little one—unsuccessfully, sadly—and pecking around for seeds and nesting material on the ground. (You can see many, many pics of the doves, if you’re so inclined, over on @highlandparkdoves.) So far this year, they have not returned to nest again.

To my friends’ baffled disinterest, meanwhile, I have fallen head over heels for incredibly common birds—species like mourning doves (the greatest birds, my friends), house sparrows (so numerous, people treat them like pests), house finches, and California towhees (ugly little brown birds that act so strangely—or at least the ones living near our house do—that they are close to mourning doves in my level of obsession). More than once, following vaccination, I have sat with friends outside in our backyard absolutely losing my mind at how adorable all the towhees, sparrows, and mourning doves are as they fly in to get seeds and water, only to realize that everyone else is looking at me as if it’s finally time for this party to end…

In any case, the idea that my interest in unspectacular bird species might have something in common with my other interests, such as burglary, never really crossed my mind, to be honest, but I keep thinking about two recent stories I thought I’d post here briefly.

One was a minor post by Audobon about birds using shopping carts as cover for sneaking into grocery stores. “Birds,” we read, “have been known to linger in them like Greeks in the Trojan Horse.” You push a line of carts through the automatic doors, unaware of the little winged invaders hidden inside, and they quickly spread out, looking for rafters, food, and perhaps a cold Modelo or two.

The other is the allegedly true story of how Eurasian collared doves arrived in North America. The story goes that, back in the 1970s, a pet store somewhere in the Bahamas was burglarized and a few collared doves managed to escape; the owner subsequently freed the rest of his collared doves and, within a few years, they had made it across to Florida. Forty years later, Eurasian collared doves are now found all over the United States—including here where I live in Los Angeles.

[Image: A Eurasian collared dove swoops in to say hello; photo by BLDGBLOG.]

A few weeks ago, my wife and I noticed the subtly different coo of a Eurasian collared dove coming from somewhere nearby in our neighborhood, a song that only got louder and louder—that is, closer and closer to our house—over the weeks to come. Then, just yesterday afternoon, a slightly lost-looking Eurasian collared dove landed in our backyard, hoping for seed. (Said curious bird appears in the image, above.) From escaped cousins in the Bahamas to Southern California—via burglary.

Tying everyday common bird species back to true crime is, I’m now hoping, a good way to get my friends—and you!—interested in these little beauties. Avian crime! Birds and burglary! In fact, it brings to mind Laurel Braitman’s great story about Echo, the parrot in a witness-protection program.

(Vaguely related further bird content: Acoustic Archaeology.)


3D shapes can now be pre-printed onto flat sheets of uncooked pasta and only revealed during the boiling process, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Nestlé’s food-science labs.

[Image: Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon’s Morphing Matter Lab, via New Scientist.]

“The 2D pasta morphs into 3D shapes when boiled because each piece is lined with tiny grooves, less than 1 millimetre wide, in particular patterns. The grooves increase the surface area of some parts of a piece of pasta. Areas with a higher surface area absorb water and swell faster,” New Scientist reports. “The groove pattern in terms of the depth, the height, and then the spacing are all very important,” researcher Wen Wang tells the magazine. “By utilizing this we could bend the pasta into the shape we would like.”

The idea is that this can dramatically cut down on packaging costs, material use, and food’s spatial footprint, eliminating the need for bulky boxes currently used to store not just pasta but empty air around all those imperfectly jumbled shapes.

While this is interesting in and of itself, it’s difficult not to wonder about the architectural possibilities inherent in such an approach. You could take advantage of perforations, cuts, grooves, and incisions in otherwise flat materials to hide 3D shapes that are only later revealed under very particular circumstances. This could, in fact, have quite ominous uses in, say, combat robotics—flat pieces of metal that crease and unfold into pop-up weaponry—but also humanitarian possibilities for self-constructing emergency shelters.

A new architectural avant-garde, inspired by science fiction and pasta, designing a world of flat surfaces awaiting future transformation.

Flat-pack architectural components, of course, are a very old story! I’m nevertheless intrigued by the idea of an imprinted 3D shape being only conditionally revealed: a flat board that becomes a building, say, but only at particular temperatures or humidities, perhaps even at certain altitudes or barometric pressures. You could imagine storm-triggered shelter pods, water-swollen coastal flood defenses, or even urban heat-warning architectures, among many other things, all based on similar materials.

Read more in the original paper, published by Science Advances.

Noodle Raider

There’s an interesting detail at the start of a recent Economist piece about a network of tomb raiders in China, or bands of archaeological burglars who have been breaking into and stealing artifacts from ancient sites all over the country.

“By day,” the piece begins, “Mr Wei sold pancakes in Shaanxi, a northern province. By night he led a gang of grave robbers who tunneled under an ancient temple near his shop. It took 11 months for them to reach the treasures buried beneath, which included gold statues of the Buddha and the bones of illustrious monks. Mr Wei and his cronies went on to dig several more passages from restaurants that they opened in the vicinity of shrines and pagodas.”

For as many as five years, allegedly, the crew hit graves and tombs, abetted by this false front of restaurants that were actually being used as forward operating bases for underground tunneling operations. This is quite the modus operandi—though, to be 100% clear, it is not something I am commending. Admiration of method should not be confused with advocacy for its implementation.

Nevertheless, the prospect of these restaurants’ secret purpose being discovered, or even suspected, could easily be the start of a novel or comic book: you and your single parent, say, live alone above an empty restaurant on a dilapidated side street in your depressed hometown, near an old historic site of some sort, when a new owner signs a lease downstairs. A week later, a noodle shop opens. But the food is terrible—it’s just a Coke machine and some instant ramen—and there are strange sounds at night and whispered voices coming up through the ducts. Unexplained piles of dirt begin to appear out back in the alley. Then one day you decide to investigate.

In any case, you can read more about Mr. Wei and his noodle-shop tomb raiding over at the Economist.

Cetacean Surroundsound

I was thinking about this whale song bunker idea the other week after reading about the potential for whale song to be used as a form of deep-sea seismic sensing. That original project—with no actual connection to the following news story—proposed using a derelict submarine surveillance station on the coast of Scotland as a site for eavesdropping on the songs of whales.

[Image: An otherwise unrelated image of whales, courtesy Public Domain Review.]

In a paper published in Science last month, researchers found that “fin whale songs can also be used as a seismic source for determining crustal structure. Fin whale vocalizations can be as loud as large ships and occur at frequencies useful for traveling through the ocean floor. These properties allow fin whale songs to be used for mapping out the density of ocean crust, a vital part of exploring the seafloor.”

The team noticed not only that these whale songs could be picked up on deep-sea seismometers, but that “the song recordings also contain signals reflected and refracted from crustal interfaces beneath the stations.” It could be a comic book: marine geologists teaming up with animal familiars to map undiscovered faults through tectonic sound recordings of the sea.

There’s something incredibly beautiful about the prospect of fin whales swimming around together through the darkness of the sea, following geological structures, perhaps clued in to emerging tectonic features—giant, immersive ambient soundscapes—playfully enjoying the distorted reflections of each other’s songs as they echo back off buried mineral forms in the mud below.

I’m reminded of seemingly prescient lyrics from Coil’s song “The Sea Priestess”: “I was woken three times in the night / and asked to watch whales listen for earthquakes in the sea / I had never seen such a strange sight before.”

Someday, perhaps, long after the pandemic has passed, we’ll gather together in derelict bunkers on the ocean shore to tune into the sounds of whales mapping submerged faults, a cross-species geological survey in which songs serve as seismic media.

Koala Dream Theory

I have not been sleeping well the past few weeks, but I had a great dream the other night in which someone explained to me a new conspiracy theory; in the dream, they really wanted me to investigate it.

The idea, this person explained, was that an obscure clause of the U.S. Constitution, somehow related to the regulation of commerce, requires that the federal government print two back-up copies of every dollar bill in circulation. Every one-dollar, five-dollar, twenty-dollar bill, etc., thus exists in triplicate.

What this means, the person added, was that if you know where the back-up bills are stored, you could thus steal the entire national monetary supply—twice.

I must have been excited by this, because I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep for more than an hour—but while I was lying there, thinking about conspiracy theories, I came up with my own.

In 1973—according to my new conspiracy theory, thrown together at 3 o’clock in the morning last week—Australian researchers discovered a koala that knew how to talk. Amazed, convinced it was the scientific discovery of the decade, they filmed a whole series of long TV-style interviews with it for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation—but the tapes were immediately confiscated and never aired out of fear that anyone who saw the talking koala might panic.

However, this theory claims, the tapes still exist and are being stored in a warehouse somewhere. (Note to new readers of this blog: I do not actually believe this theory.)

Right before drifting back to sleep again that night it occurred to me that you could write a story in which someone who believes in Theory #1—that every dollar bill has two back-ups somewhere—breaks into a warehouse only, instead, to find videotape confirmation of Theory #2.

Cut to a scene of disappointed burglars sullenly sliding an old VHS tape into a machine—only for their jaws to drop in wonder at the sound of a little voice…

Uncanny Crops

Speaking of @wmmna, Régine Debatty—author of we make money not art—will be hosting a workshop next month on “plant geopolitics, phytoengineering, and uncanny crops.” Expect discussions of “plant neurobiology,” agricultural colonialism, space crops, hyperaccumulators, future foods, and much more.

Sign up over at the School of Machines, Making & Make-Believe.

(Related: Trees as radio antennas and plants as archaeological detectors.)

Planetary Supercinema

[Image: Courtesy Capella Space.]

The Geocinema group is hosting a six-week class this spring called Signals and Storms, a kind of planetary-scale media studies workshop. Participants will research and critique what they describe as an emerging super-system of always-on recording technologies, from “geosensors” and street-level surveillance cameras up to weather satellites—tools that suggest a future possible medium for “largely distributed infrastructures of filmmaking.”

The image above, meanwhile, comes courtesy of Capella Space and depicts a new satellite design—as of January 2020—that allows the company to produce “on-demand observations of anywhere on Earth” (what they have elsewhere called “persistent monitoring from space”).

These sorts of technologies—though currently out of reach for the typical budgets of a film studio, let alone an arts group—are part of an increasingly omnipresent media-production infrastructure, one that continuously records the surface of the Earth in real time and in great detail, or where Geocinema gets its name in the first place.

Read more over at Signals and Storms.

(Spotted via @wmmna.)

The Magnetic Depths

The emerging sub-genre of public service announcements about geological surveys—apparently offered not just due to FAA regulations, but to quell the growth of potential conspiracy theories—continues with this heads-up about a “low-flying airplane” over parts of Virginia and North Carolina.

[Image: USGS map of eastern Virginia, altered by BLDGBLOG.]

Of course, beyond the idea of simply preempting the development of new conspiracy theories, the work being done by the project is fascinating in and of itself: “Instruments on the airplane will measure variations in the Earth’s magnetic field and natural low-level radiation created by different rock types near and up to several miles beneath the surface. This information will help researchers develop geologic maps of the area that will be used to better understand sand resources and underground faults in the region.”

While we’re on the topic of the Virginia/North Carolina border region, I’m reminded of why there’s a strange “notch” in the state line, a story “that mostly involves collecting taxes and avoiding swamps”: “The rough and rowdy inhabitants living close to the border told North Carolina tax collectors they lived in Virginia, [Gates County historian Linda Hofler] said. When the Virginia tax man came, they said North Carolina was their home.”

In any case, check out the USGS for more on the low-flying geomagnetic airplane and The Virginian-Pilot for more on VA/NC border history.

(Related: Geomedia, or What Lies Below.)


[Image: How do you resist a map with features like Labyrinth, the Asgard Range, and Inland Forts?! (via).]

A new magazine called Antarktikos has launched with an open call for papers on the theme of “Mapping Nature.”

For the inaugural issue, they’re seeking “any kind of research, story, or visualization related to the mapping of Antarctica. From ice cores containing the information trapped in 20,000-year-old air bubbles, to the architectural drawing of research stations, to imaginary maps of Antarctica in the year 3000.”

Click through for more info.

Of Alpha Males and Algorithms

I realize this is off-topic even for a blog that has dwindled down to one or two posts a month for the past year, but recent events have posed too much of a distraction to avoid commenting on them at least briefly. Nevertheless, feel free to skip this—it has nothing to do with architecture or design.

I: “we are the alpha males”

There was an article in the Washington Post last week about a man—the son of a Maryland police chief—who allegedly took part in this month’s siege of the U.S. Capitol building. In case you missed it, there was a violent attempt to overturn the most recent American presidential election, performed by a mob of misinformed people from all over the country who had been encouraged and openly lied to every step of the way by their own elected officials, from the president himself to representatives from Missouri, Texas, Arizona, and other states.

Allegedly amongst that mob was this son of a Maryland police chief. The Washington Post mentions, in passing, a text message exchange in which the man appears to think that, if the big coup really arrived, the military would have stood behind the president—our twice-impeached now-former commander-in-chief publicly known, even many decades prior to his stint in the White House, for dishonesty, nepotism, corruption, and bankruptcy. Cops, those text messages claim, would also have backed the president—after all, one message says, “we are the alpha males.”

What’s interesting to me about this comment is that self-described “alpha males” have come to overlap almost perfectly with the most gullible people on the internet. From Jade Helm and Birtherism to “spirit cooking” and Pizzagate—and, now, QAnon—it is, again and again, the men quickest to oil themselves with a sheen of masculinity who fall for the dumbest, most obviously false stories they can find. I do not mean men, in general, or that masculinity somehow lends itself to being hoaxed, but that there is a kind of security vulnerability inherent to self-professed alpha males: beings so tough, they don’t need to ask questions. This makes them easy marks.

One such alpha-influencer, allegedly a real man’s man, has dubbed this approach to life the “gorilla mindset”—inadvertently giving the game away in terms of its intended intellectual acuity. This same guy, back in 2016, heavily pushed Pizzagate, with its secret Egyptoid pyramid symbols (slices of pizza are triangles, dude!) and Beavis and Butt-Head levels of coded-message interpretation, as well as the inane “spirit cooking” conspiracy, in which an internationally known performance artist was believed to be secretly, actually, really performing Satanic rituals with prominent celebrities.

This alpha-unwillingness to parse information became all the more obvious when the stupidest storylines imaginable began coming out about the 2020 election: it was all rigged, you see, by secret Venezuelan algorithms somehow programmed by a dictator who has been dead since 2013, or, no, it was a CIA-connected German server farm that, incredibly, had been tallying the real results on election night, or, no, it was actually advanced equations “broken” by an unexpected Trump landslide so numerically extreme that math itself could not keep up, or, no, it was an apartment in Rome somehow tied to the Vatican—this is an actual theory!—from which overseas operatives had uploaded encrypted malware to U.S. voting systems by satellite link, or, no, it was an elaborate Chinese information warfare campaign that somehow combined all of the above into one devastating super-attack. Stop the steal!

Time and again, it was the self-professed alpha males—the online persuaders and the Crossfit gurus and the retired cops and a 6’6″ Olympian and a disgraced former general who admitted lying to the FBI and even a Zoolander-adjacent pillow salesman advocating martial law—who fell for every single word of it. Every single stupid theory, swallowed and swallowed again by gullible alpha males—men with apparently no ability to protect themselves, their friends, or their own children from obvious hoaxes and stupidity.

Surely the least masculine thing you can do is fall for everything you see, swooning and fainting in front of every titillating Reddit thread—and I’m not saying this in an attempt to outflank these guys, to say I am the true alpha male, which, for anyone who has ever met me, would be a statement verging on surreality.

Throughout all this, I have found myself thinking about a catchphrase associated with an author and podcaster whose primary skill is speaking very quickly and who has infamously claimed that “facts don’t care about your feelings.” This is intended as a devastatingly rational, hyper-masculine jab at what he perceives to be an ascendent cultural femininity: after all, only the spineless and the beta, only women, would prioritize their feelings over alpha male facts.

It was thus utterly laughable to watch elected U.S. representatives, trying to wash their hands of an attempted coup that they had publicly supported mere days earlier, say that, well, sure, the election may have been legitimate—who really knows?—but what the nation needs to accept, those same representatives quickly added, is that millions of Americans feel as if the election was rigged, they feel as if their votes didn’t count, they feel as if Biden simply could not have won. They feel as if secret Venezuelan algorithms uploaded by Vatican insiders had somehow been deployed by Chinese cyberwarfare teams—don’t you get it? Their feelings don’t care about your facts.

My point here, to be clear, is not that cops or their sons are, by definition, easily duped—or that men, conservatives, or former Olympians are, by definition, easily duped—or even that having “feelings” or being accused of femininity are somehow actual insults. They’re not.

Rather, if social media has been good at one thing, it has been at revealing the unnerving extent to which considering yourself an alpha male appears to mean being duped by everything you see. The hypocrisy at the heart of “alpha maleness”—men oversensitive to their own “feelings” about politics, falling for theories so absurd they sound like adventure stories written by 10-year-olds—is both frustrating and obvious.

Strong silent types, growing their coup beards and wearing Oakleys, their biceps ripped, bellies roiling with porterhouse, dreaming of custom lug nuts, muttering with an air of conspiratorial authority about secret adrenochrome farms, covert Vatican uplink teams, and the imminent return of JFK Jr. “This is a man’s war, son,” he says, driving off to combat an obviously fake threat that exists only on his aunt’s Facebook page. “We are the alpha males.”

II: Submission

Having said that, I should state the next most obvious thing: it is not only men wrongly measuring themselves as alphas who have fallen willy nilly for these online conspiracy theories. One need only look as far as a certain recently elected representative from Georgia; a young Pennsylvanian woman arrested by the FBI for allegedly stealing “Nancy Polesis” [sic] laptop; a Manhattanite who apparently thinks that Trump has “secretly dethroned” the Queen of England; or any number of bikini-clad New Age influencers who have progressed without pause from unattributed Bob Marley quotations to peddling theories about chemtrails and Chinese 5G.

But rather than erroneously pin the blame on some illusory haze of alpha-masculinity or toxic femininity—in fact, rather than assign gender characteristics to gullibility at all—what instead sets the stage for being duped by con after con after con is a misapplication of faith. If you truly believe that celebrities have been invisibly arrested in a massive government crackdown, if you instinctually feel that Chrissy Teigen must be wearing a tracking anklet because she is part of an international cabal of child traffickers, if you know in your heart that global elites have been eating kids, or if you just trust that this secret plan you read about on the internet is real, then the idea of pausing even for a moment to assess some new piece of information before going all-in with your entire identity is not an option. You do not wait or ask questions—because you have faith.

Some insane new variation of your primary conspiracy theory arrives—it was the Vatican, not Venezuela, it was a coded message, not a concession speech—but no problem: this is just another piece of the puzzle you’ve been assembling and to question the truth of its final form would be to reveal you’re unworthy of solving it.

While the hypocrisy of the internet-addicted alpha male, chasing rumors in a cloud of political feelings, is infuriating, the near-instantaneity with which faith—trust, instinct, intuition, just knowing—can be hijacked and attached to nefarious, obviously wrong things is arguably more concerning. Worse, these two things often overlap: to be alpha is to trust one’s raw battlefield instincts, uncorrupted by the yammering of feminine experts, and to have faith is to know through intuition, without question or nuance, that the path you’re walking is a righteous one. In many situations, these can be exactly the same thing.

What’s particularly sad here is that masculinity obviously does not mean that you can’t ask questions or seek expert guidance, any more than being a person of faith means that you must deny any doubt or hesitation. In fact—to put this in explicitly theological terms—this is a total misunderstanding of what faith demands of us, which is not that we abandon ourselves and rescind all agency to a hidden superpower, but that we learn to live and work critically with forces larger than ourselves.

Alas, in today’s cultural climate, real men act rather than dwell on things, and people of faith simply trust the plan rather than questioning that mysterious voice they hear, apparently never realizing it might be hoaxing them.

III: Algorithmic Pygmalion, or “a sharp rise in engagement”

But there is at least one more reason why so many elaborate and inane theories have taken off lately, and it has nothing to do with gender stereotypes or blind faith.

Engagement algorithms on social media have thrown people’s ideological and cultural orientations completely out of whack—or, seen another way, people have willfully distorted their own personalities in order to boost their metrics on corporate social media. (I have no illusions I am somehow immune to this.)

As an article in the New York Times explored last week, people with seemingly no real political passions, let alone partisan loyalties, saw their online engagement levels spike as soon as they began posting about QAnon or #StopTheSteal—so they posted more about QAnon and #StopTheSteal.

“Facebook’s algorithms have coaxed many people into sharing more extreme views on the platform—rewarding them with likes and shares for posts on subjects like election fraud conspiracies, Covid-19 denialism and anti-vaccination rhetoric,” we read. (Of course, this article is explicitly limited to “far right” internet causes, but it would be just as interesting to read how, for example, a loner with virtually no interest in politics found themselves suddenly wearing all black and participating in a multi-month left-wing siege of the federal courthouse in Portland.)

Instead, a system of positive feedback and a quest for social validation together mean that we all risk actively remaking ourselves not into someone we ever wanted to become, but into something—an act, a minstrel show, a parlor game—that performs better for the dominant algorithms of our time. Do you even want to be doing this new thing, going to this particular tourist destination, or assuming this new identity, or have you been conned into choosing it by a system of gamified feedback? Next thing you know you’re storming the U.S. Capitol building, espousing conspiracy theories you don’t even really believe—but your social media metrics have gone through the roof.

It is neither a surprise nor a coincidence that many of the people arrested after this month’s Capitol raid were found through their social media, oftentimes clearly and deliberately identifying themselves on camera as those sweet engagement metrics kicked in. (It seems all too likely that we’ll see the first armed revolution in which half the participants are only doing it for the ’gram.)

Everything I’m saying here, of course, is obvious, but it’s interesting nonetheless to see how this has been so dramatically ratcheted up in the past few years. From something presumably harmless—like a friend of yours going out for lunch more often because his photos of well-plated food have attracted new followers on Instagram—social media has instead become an engine for totally remaking people’s personalities and politics, up to and including insurrection.

To put this another way, that suburban alpha male out there hand-blueing his own rifle barrel and eyeing the U.S. Capitol building, despite no personal history of political interest, is just a remake of Pygmalion: an ironic Eliza Doolittle letting himself be sculpted by flattering algorithms.

The more ominous take-away from this is that we can’t just blame alpha males, the Goop-to-QAnon pipeline, or people of faith for the most recent tide of conspiracy theories drowning public discourse in the United States. Instead, through the Althusserian magic of social media engagement, dark, conspiratorial versions of ourselves are being conjured into existence, post by post, algorithm by algorithm, like by like, until we are all but unrecognizable to ourselves (whatever those selves were in the first place). That this experience of being scrambled is then sold back to us as a quest for meaning and significance—a literal solving of puzzles and an interpreting of clues—seems almost willfully cruel.

No wonder our dads, brothers, and sons, our moms, aunts, and sisters, our bosses and colleagues—no wonder we, some of us, most of us, maybe you—are so depressed and atomized, espousing nonsensical beliefs we don’t even really have, tracking ideas and conspiracies that have led to nothing at all like delight or joy, even as our new selves appeal evermore to algorithms we neither control nor know how to challenge.

[Update: Going all-in on obvious cons and conspiracy theories is the new mid-life crisis for alpha males seeking meaning in their otherwise empty lives.]

Geomedia, or What Lies Below

[Image: Courtesy USGS.]

I love the fact that the U.S. Geological Survey had to put out a press release explaining what some people in rural Wisconsin might see in the first few weeks of January: a government helicopter flying “in a grid pattern relatively low to the ground, hundreds of feet above the surface. A sensor that resembles a large hula-hoop will be towed beneath the helicopter,” the USGS explains—but it’s not some conspiratorial super-tool, silently flipping the results of voting machines. It’s simply measuring “tiny electromagnetic signals that can be used to map features below Earth’s surface,” including “shallow bedrock and glacial sediments” in the region.

Of course, the fictional possibilities are nevertheless intriguing: government geologists looking for something buried in the agricultural muds of eastern Wisconsin, part Michael Crichton, part Stephen King; or CIA contractors, masquerading as geologists, mapping unexplained radio signals emanating from a grid of points somewhere inland from Lake Michigan; or a rogue team of federal archaeologists searching for some Lovecraftian ruin, a lost city scraped down to its foundations by the last Ice Age, etc. etc.

In any case, the use of remote-sensing tools such as these—scanning the Earth to reveal electromagnetic, gravitational, and chemical signatures indicative of mineral deposits or, as it happens, architectural ruins—is the subject of a Graham Foundation grant I received earlier this autumn. That’s a project I will be exploring and updating over the next 10 months, combining lifelong obsessions with archaeology and ruins (specifically, in this case, the art history of how we depict destroyed works of architecture) with an interest in geophysical prospecting tools borrowed from the extraction industry.

In other words, the same remote-sensing tools that allow geological prospecting crews to locate subterranean mineral deposits are increasingly being used by archaeologists today to map underground architectural ruins. Empty fields mask otherwise invisible cities. How will these technologies change the way we define and represent architectural history?

[Image: Collage, Geoff Manaugh, for “Invisible Cities: Architecture’s Geophysical Turn,” Graham Foundation 2020/2021; based on “Forum Romano, Rome, Italy,” photochrom print, courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.]

For now, I’ll just note another recent USGS press release, this one touting the agency’s year-end “Mineral Resources Program Highlights.”

Included in the tally is the “Earth MRI” initiative—which, despite the apt medical-imaging metaphor, actually stands for the “Earth Mapping Resource Initiative.” From the USGS: “When learning more about ancient rocks buried deep beneath the surface of the Earth, it may seem surprising to use futuristic technologies flown hundreds of feet in the air, but that has been central to the USGS Earth Mapping Resource Initiative.”

[Image: A geophysical survey of northwestern Arkansas, courtesy USGS.]

What lies below, whether it is mineral or architectural, is becoming accessible to surface view through advanced technical means. These new tools often reveal that, beneath even the most featureless landscapes, immensely interesting forms and structures can be hidden. Ostensibly boring mud plains can hide the eroded roots of ancient mountain chains, just as endless fields of wheat or barley can stand atop forgotten towns or lost cities without any hint of the walls and streets beneath.

The surface of the Earth is an intermediary—it is media—between us and what it disguises.

(See also, Detection Landscapes and Lost Roads of Monticello.)