Buy a Los Angeles Sidewalk Corner

[Image: A sidewalk corner in Los Angeles, albeit not the one for sale; via Google Street View].

If you've been longing for a way to satisfy your inner Gordon Matta-Clark—the artist who, among many other things, once purchased an interstitial empire of "odd lots" throughout New York City, including the spaces between buildings and other "unusably small slivers of land sliced from the city grid through anomalies in surveying, zoning, and public-works expansion"—then now might be your chance.

Los Angeles is auctioning off a chunk of odd lots: "Offerings include transferable 'air rights' and, in one case, the corner of a sidewalk," the Los Angeles Times reports, among what they describe as "tiny bits of land that were left over from big real estate developments, set aside like scraps of cloth cut from a garment."
The properties for sale include a collection of oddly shaped and awkwardly encumbered lots acquired during decades of efforts to help developers build in blighted neighborhoods. A few of the parcels, though, are under name-brand Los Angeles institutions, such as the ground under the historic Angels Flight funicular railway on Bunker Hill and the land occupied by the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, site of the Academy Awards.
You can peruse the full list of sites here. In all honesty, they are not immediately compelling. However, they do include an archipelago of air rights throughout the city; one property is only 26 square feet; and another appears to be the small strip of land located outside 1013 E. Adams Boulevard.

Purchase wisely.

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

Driving on Mars and the Theater of Machines

[Image: Self-portrait on Mars; via NASA].

Science has published a short profile of a woman named Vandi Verma. She is "one of the few people in the world who is qualified to drive a vehicle on Mars."

Vera has driven a series of remote vehicles on another planet over the years, including, most recently, the Curiosity rover.

[Image: Another self-portrait on Mars; via NASA].

Driving it involves a strange sequence of simulations, projections, and virtual maps that are eventually beamed out from planet to planet, the robot at the other end acting like a kind of wheeled marionette as it then spins forward along its new route. Here is a long description of the process from Science:
Each day, before the rover shuts down for the frigid martian night, it calls home, Verma says. Besides relaying scientific data and images it gathered during the day, it sends its precise coordinates. They are downloaded into simulation software Verma helped write. The software helps drivers plan the rover's route for the next day, simulating tricky maneuvers. Operators may even perform a dry run with a duplicate rover on a sandy replica of the planet's surface in JPL's Mars Yard. Then the full day's itinerary is beamed to the rover so that it can set off purposefully each dawn.
What's interesting here is not just the notion of an interplanetary driver's license—a qualification that allows one to control wheeled machines on other planets—but the fact that there is still such a clear human focus at the center of the control process.

The fact that Science's profile of Verma begins with her driving agricultural equipment on her family farm in India, an experience that quite rapidly scaled up to the point of guiding rovers across the surface of another world entirely, only reinforces the sense of surprise here—that farm equipment in India and NASA's Mars rover program bear technical similarities.

They are, in a sense, interplanetary cousins, simultaneously conjoined and air-gapped across two worlds..

[Image: A glimpse of the dreaming; photo by Alexis Madrigal, courtesy of The Atlantic].

Compare this to the complex process of programming and manufacturing a driverless vehicle. In an interesting piece published last summer, Alexis Madrigal explained that Google's self-driving cars operate inside a Borgesian 1:1 map of the physical world, a "virtual track" coextensive with the landscape you and I stand upon and inhabit.

"Google has created a virtual world out of the streets their engineers have driven," Madrigal writes. And, like the Mars rover program we just read about, "They pre-load the data for the route into the car's memory before it sets off, so that as it drives, the software knows what to expect."

The software knows what to expect because the vehicle, in a sense, is not really driving on the streets outside Google's Mountain View campus; it is driving in a seamlessly parallel simulation of those streets, never leaving the world of the map so precisely programmed into its software.

Like Christopher Walken's character in the 1983 film Brainstorm, Google's self-driving cars are operating inside a topographical dream state, we might say, seeing only what the headpiece allows them to see.

[Image: Navigating dreams within dreams: (top) from Brainstorm; (bottom) a Google self-driving car, via Google and re:form].

Briefly, recall a recent essay by Karen Levy and Tim Hwang called "Back Stage at the Machine Theater." That piece looked at the atavistic holdover of old control technologies—such as steering wheels—in vehicles that are actually computer-controlled.

There is no need for a human-manipulated steering wheel, in other words, other than to offer a psychological point of focus for the vehicle's passengers, to give them the feeling that they can still take over.

This is the "machine theater" that the title of their essay refers to: a dramaturgy made entirely of technical interfaces that deliberately produce a misleading illusion of human control. These interfaces are "placebo buttons," they write, that transform all but autonomous technical systems into "theaters of volition" that still appear to be under manual guidance.

I mention this essay here because the Science piece with which this post began also explains that NASA's rover program is being pushed toward a state of greater autonomy.

"One of Verma's key research goals," we read, "has been to give rovers greater autonomy to decide on a course of action. She is now working on a software upgrade that will let Curiosity be true to its name. It will allow the rover to autonomously select interesting rocks, stopping in the middle of a long drive to take high-resolution images or analyze a rock with its laser, without any prompting from Earth."

[Image: Volitional portraiture on Mars; via NASA].

The implication here is that, as the Mars rover program becomes "self-driving," it will also be transformed into a vast "theater of volition," in Levy's and Hwang's formulation: that Earth-bound "drivers" might soon find themselves reporting to work simply to flip placebo levers and push placebo buttons as these vehicles go about their own business far away.

It will become more ritual than science, more icon than instrument—a strangely passive experience, watching a distant machine navigate simulated terrain models and software packages coextensive with the surface of Mars.

Touring the Gruen Transfer

[Image: Gruen Day 2015].

One of the most interestingly sinister things I studied a million years ago while writing an undergraduate thesis about shopping and agoraphobia is the so-called "Gruen transfer."

Named after Victor Gruen, pioneer of American shopping mall design, the Gruen transfer is the moment at which, confronted by an unexpected array of choices—other products, rival goods, similar services, different options—a shopper loses sight of what he or she originally came out to purchase. That shopper originally just wanted new socks; now he wants jeans, a t-shirt, and, oh, that coffee place across the hall is looking mighty tempting right now...

The shopper's desire has been transferred, against their will, onto another item altogether—and this transfer is a deliberately cultivated, if not entirely predictable, side-effect of how the shopping space itself has been designed.

I say "shopping space" rather than "shopping mall," because the Gruen transfer is clearly alive and well and living online: speaking only from personal experience, the amount of random add-ons I've thrown into an Amazon cart at the last minute over the years, or even the extra songs I've bought on Bandcamp, is testament to how easy it can be to convince oneself that something you had no idea you were searching for is suddenly a must-have.

[Image: One of many malls by Victor Gruen].

What was infinitely more interesting to me, however, was the fact that, when taken to an interpretive extreme, becoming hyper-aware of the possibility that the Gruen transfer might be influencing you can lead to a strange, not particularly enjoyable state of paranoia, in which every decision you make—after all, you went to the mall to buy socks, but perhaps even wanting socks was the result of a Gruen transfer, one that began in the peace of your own home, for example, when you first noticed that you would need new shoes in another month or two, only to realize that, hey, a new pair of socks right now would be awesome... You've been transferred.

This can be true whether or not it even involves a purchase. Making the decision to move to a new city, or going to a museum there with a new friend, or even having that new friend in your life in the first place—these all might actually be the end results of multiple, cultivated mis-steps, a much more sinister and far-reaching Gruen transfer as you were silently but comprehensively duped by the world around you.

Pushed to this level, the Gruen transfer takes on a weird, paranoid ubiquity, a disturbing omnipresence that appears to be coextensive with desire in the first place. We are, in a sense, always and already being Gruen transferred, making decisions in a state of otherwise undetectable distraction.

In any case, Victor Gruen's spatial contribution to the American landscape—how he influenced urban form and set a multi-generational path for the design of retail environments—is the subject of a new tour hosted by the Bay Area Infrastructure Observatory. July 18, 2015, is Gruen Day 2015:
Victor Gruen (July 18, 1903–Feb 14, 1980) was an Austrian-born visionary architect most remembered for his pioneering work popularizing the enclosed, climate-controlled shopping center in the United States.

On July 18, the Bay Area Infrastructure Observatory (BAIO) invites you to celebrate the lofty aspirations and historical legacy of the suburban shopping center at Gruen Day 2015.

Festivities will include an afternoon of talks, tours, and hanging out in the food court at Bay Fair Center, which opened in 1957 as one of the first Gruen designed shopping centers in the country.
Tickets are $30—but the first ten people to email event co-organizer Tim Hwang saying that you read about the tour on BLDGBLOG will get a free ticket. Email him at tim (at) infraobservatory (dot) com, and tell him I said hey.

[Image: Victor Gruen gestures at a mall of his making; photo originally via The Fox is Black].

This is technically irrelevant, meanwhile, but it is nonetheless worth remembering that science fiction author Ray Bradbury—whose house of half a century was torn down by, of all people, architect Thom Mayne of Morphosis— claimed to have invented the indoor shopping mall.

Indeed, Bradbury recommended "giant malls as the cure to American urban decay," Steve Rose explains in The Guardian. "'Malls are substitute cities,' [Bradbury] said at the time, 'substitutes for the possible imagination of mayors, city councilmen and other people who don't know what a city is while living right in the center of one. So it is up to corporations, creative corporations, to recreate the city.'"

In an essay posthumously published by The Paris Review, Bradbury anecdotally recounted a conversation he once had with architect Jon Jerde. Jerde asked Bradbury if he had ever visited a mall called the Glendale Galleria:
I said, “Yes, I have.” 
“Did you like it?” he asked. I said, “Yes.” 
He said, “That’s your Galleria. It’s based on the plans that you put in your article in the essay in the Los Angeles Times.” I was stunned. I said, “Are you telling me the truth? I created the Glendale Galleria?” 
“Yes, you did,” he said. “Thank you for that article that you wrote about rebuilding L.A. We based our building of the Glendale Galleria completely on what you wrote in that article.”
What Bradbury wrote in that article was the idea that the vast interiors of future shopping malls would supply ersatz urban landscapes "where people could spend an afternoon, getting safely lost, just wandering about."

[Image: Guy Debord maps psychogeographic routes through Paris; perhaps, all along, psychogeography was just a confused first-person experience of the Gruen transfer on an urban scale].

It was a psychogeography of the interior, as weary shoppers tracked whatever down-market dérive they could find amidst the mirrored escalators and mannequins.

Who knows if Ray Bradbury will come up during Gruen Day 2015, but be sure report back if you take the tour; be sure to email Tim Hwang if you'd like a free ticket.

Lost Highways

[Image: Reviewing old property deeds and land surveys; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

A story I've been obsessed with since first learning about it back in 2008 is the problem of "ancient roads" in Vermont.

Vermont is unusual in that, if a road has been officially surveyed and, thus, added to town record books—even if that road was never physically constructed—it will remain legally recognized unless it has been explicitly discontinued.

[Image: More Granville property deeds; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

This means that roads surveyed as far back as the 1790s remain present in the landscape as legal rights of way—with the effect that, even if you cannot see this ancient road cutting across your property, it nonetheless persists, undercutting your claims to private ownership (the public, after all, has the right to use the road) and making it difficult, if not impossible, to obtain title insurance.

Faced with a rising number of legal disputes from homeowners, Vermont passed Act 178 back in 2006. Act 178 was the state's attempt to scrub Vermont's geography of these dead roads.

[Image: Geographic coordinates for lost roadways; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

The Act's immediate effects, however, were to kick off a rush of new research into the state's lost roadways.

This meant going back through property deeds and mortgage records, dating back to the late 18th-century, deciphering old handwriting, making sense of otherwise location-less survey coordinates, and then reconciling all this with on-the-ground geologic features or local landmarks.

[Image: Zooming into survey descriptions of rods and chains; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

Not every town was enthusiastic about finding them, hoping instead that the old roads would simply disappear.

Other towns—and specific townspeople—responded with far more enthusiasm, as if finding an excuse to rediscover their own histories, the region's past, and the lives of the other families or settlers who once lived there.

Anything they found and officially submitted for inclusion on Vermont's state highway map would continue to exist as a state-recognized throughway; anything left undocumented, or specifically called out for discontinuance, would disappear, losings its status as a road and becoming mere landscape.

July 1, 2015, was the deadline, after which anything left undiscovered is meant to remain undiscovered.

[Image: Ancient road descriptions; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

I had an amazing opportunity to visit the tiny town of Granville, Vermont, ten days ago, where I met with a retired forester and self-enlisted local historian named Norman Arseneault.

Arseneault became so involved in the search for Granville's ancient roads that he is not only self-publishing an entire book documenting his quest, but he was also pointed out to me as an exemplar of rigor and organization by Johnathan Croft, chief of the Mapping Section at the Vermont Agency of Transportation (where there is an entire page dedicated to "Ancient Roads").

His hunt for old roads seems to fall somewhere between Robert Macfarlane's recent work and the old Western trail research of Glenn R. Scott.

[Image: "?????? Where is this road"; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

While I was there in Granville, Arseneault took me into the town vault, flipping back through nearly 225 years of local property deeds. We then hit the old forest roads in his pick-up truck, to hike many of the "ancient roads" his research had uncovered.

I wrote up the whole experience for The New Yorker, and I have to say it was one of the more interesting article research processes I've ever been involved with; check it out, if any of this sounds of interest.

It's worth pointing out, meanwhile, that the problem of "ancient roads" is not, in fact, likely to go away; the recent introduction of LiDAR data, on top of some confusingly written legal addenda, make it all but certain that other property owners will yet find long-forgotten public routes crossing their land, or that a future private development count still find its unbuilt plots placed squarely atop invisible roads made newly available to town use.

The hows and whys of this are, I hope, explained a bit more over at The New Yorker.

Slingshots of the Oceanic

[Image: A diagram of the elaborate loops and ribbons of self-intersecting movement allowed by gravity-assisted travel, in this case heading toward a comet; original artist unknown].

Gravity-assisted space travel is when you use the gravitational pull of one planet or other celestial body as a fuel-efficient way to "slingshot" yourself toward another, more distant goal, someplace you could not have reached without assistance, either in terms of your velocity or even your basic direction.

You head toward one place to get to another—or "by indirections find directions out," we might say.

These "gravity assists" can be pieced together to form almost a kind of invisible jungle gym, helping send probes into the outer solar system or even toward Mercury and the sun:
Voyager 2 famously used gravity assists to visit Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in the late 1970s and 1980s. Cassini used two assists at Venus and one each at Earth and Jupiter in order to reach Saturn. New Horizons will arrive at Pluto in 2015 thanks to an assist at Jupiter. And Messenger used assists at Earth, Venus and three times at Mercury itself not to speed up, but to slow down enough to finally be captured by Mercury.
This can result in all sorts of insane weaving maneuvers, as objects can be made to loop stars, double back on themselves, veer off unpredictably, or even stop moving altogether, effectively parking themselves in space, as this GIF by David Shortt illustrates.

[Image: GIF by David Shortt, via The Planetary Society].

It's like gravitational judo: using the speed and mass of your opponent as a counterbalance to perform something extraordinary yourself. Or perhaps it's more like interplanetary spirography, where you could even loop-the-loop and slingshot your way between stars.

In any case, these types of assists can be made far more fuel-efficient—if not even possible in the first place—if you launch your journey at certain times rather than at others. In other words, you deliberately wait until the orbital cycles of Mars or Jupiter bring them near particular locations in space so that you can better use them to loop further outward toward, say, Neptune, a destination whose future position you will also have calculated in advance. If you want to use as little fuel and energy as possible, or even just to be as graceful as you can, you don't just launch whenever you want and hope for the best.

The metaphoric potential of all this is obviously incredibly rich, but the real reason I'm writing this is because of a fascinating comment or two found in Brian Fagan's book Beyond the Blue Horizon.

While discussing the human settlement of extremely remote islands in the South Pacific, what Fagan calls "remote Oceania," he explains how ancient mariners relied on "seasonal winds" and celestial navigation to push "ever farther east" to the most extreme outer island edges of Polynesia. These seasonal winds formed part of what he calls "the Pacific's waltz of atmosphere and ocean," whereby known or predictable climatological events could be used to help propel people from one archipelago to another.

Here, Fagan writes that "[e]arly human settlement of the offshore Pacific revolved, in part, around enduring, large-scale meteorological phenomena that are still little understood. Ultimately, most of them depend on what one might call an elaborate, usually slow-moving waltz involving two partners—the atmosphere and the ocean."

[Images: Polynesian "stick charts," via The Nonist].

What fascinates me here is the idea that we can draw a rough analogy between Fagan's "enduring, large-scale meteorological phenomena that are still little understood" and gravity-assisted space travel.

You can imagine, in other words, a well-organized group of extreme maritime navigators standing on the shores of a remote Pacific island chain, looking further out to sea together, knowing that there are distant land masses out there, implied by the winds and currents—but, more crucially, knowing that they will need a particular atmospheric event strong enough to take them there. They are thus timing their launch.

As people basically sat around waiting till the skies were right, Fagan's "enduring, large-scale meteorological phenomena" would have produced amazing local mythologies of storms yet to come and other atmospheric folklore.

Like NASA scientists calculating the positions of Mars and Jupiter as they hoped to slingshot themselves beyond the black horizon of the solar system, these beach-going super-navigators would have known that the regional winds move in seven- or ten-year cycles, or even that a one-hundred year storm is required to bring them further out into the oceanic. They thus temporarily become land-based, settling there on a particular island chain and raising their children on tales of a journey yet to come. Navigators in waiting.

[Images: Polynesian "stick charts," via The Nonist].

Imagine the diagrams or folklore that might have explained all this, like Arthur C. Clarke tales passed down family to family a thousand years ago on a windswept atoll—a science fiction not of interplanetary travel but a kind of anthropological Star Trek of outer-sea navigation.

Then the winds pick up, or strange Antarctic clouds begin to appear again for the first time in a generation, and everyone knows what it means: the signs are right and the skies are clicking back into place, and they start to build canoes, those little wooden space probes for pushing the limits of a maritime universe.

It's just a different kind of slingshotting: not slingshotting yourself between planets using gravity, but slingshotting yourself from island chain to island chain, riding the long tail of predictable winds you know can't last and that only appear once per generation. Those future storms will take you to distant archipelagoes where your descendants will have to wait another decade—or century or millennium—memorizing wind patterns and plotting their woven way through Fagan's "slow-moving waltz" of rhythmic wind patterns and currents.

Transecting Amsterdam

[Image: From Project 360º by Frank Dresmé].

Here's an old project by Dutch graphic designer Frank Dresmé. Called Project 360º, it used the idea of the "transect" as a way to map and graphically depict pedestrian movement through urban space.

[Image: From Project 360º by Frank Dresmé].

As Dresmé explains, he found existing maps of Amsterdam both navigationally inadequate and conceptually boring, so he sought to find a new way to represent how the city really feels as a sequence of spatial opportunities and physical obstacles.

This meant, among other things, focusing on and highlighting the signs, paths, turns, landmarks, and other bits of the city that stand out to someone intent on moving through it.

[Image: From Project 360º by Frank Dresmé].

The results was "four psychogeographical maps," as he described them, that unpeeled and restitched Amsterdam back together again.

"These maps are the routes between personal destinations in Amsterdam," he explained. "Every destination in a different wind direction; north /east /south /west back to the north."

While the final images are perhaps not navigationally useful for other pedestrians, they are certainly visually striking; what is more important, in any case, would not be the use-value you can extract from Dresmé's project, but the methods and techniques it suggests for breaking down and understanding your own use of the city.

[Image: Exhibiting Project 360º by Frank Dresmé].

Given all of the spatial data now available about ourselves, whether we want it to be or not, it seems particularly timely to imagine new ways of engaging with, mapping, and representing that geographic information.

Part trail map, part daily diary, Dresmé's transect offers as good an option as any. Download a PDF of the project over at his site.

[Note: Brent Milligan of Free Association Design used these and other graphic representations of urban space as a launching point for a long post back in 2009].

A Vast Array of Props

[Image: Thomas Scholes, Sketch a Day series; view larger].

Rock, Paper, Shotgun has posted an interview with artist Thomas Scholes about "how concept art is made."

Scholes refers to himself as "an environment specialist," and he describes how he develops the architecture and landscapes for games such as Guild Wars 2, Halo 4, Gigantic, and many others.

[Image: Thomas Scholes, Sketch a Day series; view larger].

One of his many strategies is to develop what RPS calls "a vast array of props": Scholes, we read, has "constructed huge asset sets from which he can plunder. A previous month-long project of his was to create a vast array of props, which he can now deposit in his images and rework to give a sense of clutter."

These include architectural motifs—arches, walls, stone monoliths, ruins—that are often just reworked from previous backgrounds. For these, he will "repurpose bits of previous paintings, manipulating their shape to suggest a receding wall, ceiling or floor."

[Image: Thomas Scholes, Sketch a Day series; view larger].

Scholes recently embarked on a "sketch a day" project that produced the images you see here. The sketches are left rough, or, as RPS suggest, they "resist the instinct to over-define, to steer them away from pedantic perfectionism."

This often makes his images both impressionistic and painterly, emotive explorations of gothic terrains and environments.

[Image: Thomas Scholes, miscellaneous work; view larger].

Many of these images are frankly gorgeous, including vibrant forest landscapes that would not look out of place in an exhibition of 18th-century landscape painting—or even alongside examples from the Hudson River School or the work of Caspar David Friedrich.

[Image: Thomas Scholes, miscellaneous work; view larger].

These being games, of course, rather than the Rückenfigur of Friedrich, you've got cloaked figures peering into hostile and mysterious landscapes, looking not for aesthetic solace but for hidden strategic advantages, ready for combat.

[Images: Thomas Scholes, Oppidum; view larger].

In any case, check out the interview over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun or, even better, click around Scholes's website for a lot more images like these.

[Image: Thomas Scholes, miscellaneous work; view larger].

[Previously on BLDGBLOG: Game/Space: An Interview with Daniel Dociu].

X Marks the Spot

[Image: A motif index for lost mines and treasures applied to redaction of Arizona legends, and to lost mine and treasure legends exterior to Arizona by Byrd Howell Granger].

Several lifetimes ago, I worked as a summer intern at the American Folklife Center down in Washington D.C., where, before my internship officially ended, I spent a few hours making loads of photocopies from a bunch of old papers, articles, pamphlets, self-published magazines, and various books about maps, mythology, folksong lyrics, and more. Even today, I keep finding these things filed away in various places.

One of the more interesting things I took with me, and that I just stumbled upon again, was a project by Byrd Howell Granger. She was an absolutely fascinating woman who served as a commanding officer in the Women Air Force Service Pilots Squadron before later becoming a folklorist; she then flew all over Arizona studying place names and the local legends that led to them, meticulously documenting the geographic folklore of the U.S. southwest.

There are a million possible things to write about Granger's life, but the one thing of hers I left D.C. with was a random sheaf of photocopied pages from a book exploring the folklore of "lost mines and treasures" in the west. The book includes a numbered list of lost treasure stories, explaining how gold bars, silver bullion, stolen Aztec jewels, and other "treasures" were left scattered throughout the landscape.

The stories are concise, novelistic, and enticing, like a peculiarly Western variation on Félix Fénéon's Novels in Three Lines.

[Image: An unrelated shot of a 19th-century silver mine in Michigan; via the Library of Congress].

"In the early days of the California missions some priests were transporting church treasure along a trail through the rough Graham Mountains," Howell writes. "A scout warned them that Apaches were coming. Hastily the padres hid the gold, money, jeweled church vessels and other things in a cave. In the ensuing battle, all but a few were killed. The survivors could not recall where the cave was."

Or: "Between 1520 and 1541, many treasure-seeking Spaniards traveled through what is now Arizona. One group crossing northern Arizona transported much gold and silver. Pursued by Indians [sic] near what is now Flagstaff, the Spaniards buried their treasure and separated to save themselves. A few escaped. These handed down the legend of a treasure which still awaits recovery."

Other times, these shortest of short stories read like a new comic by Mike Mignola: "Long ago at Tubac," we read, "maps to buried treasure were buried in a house. The place was abandoned and the maps forgotten. Then when Tubac became a part of Arizona, new people moved into the old house. Because of the way the moon caused one wall to glow, they believed that the house was haunted. They decided to remove the offending wall, and when they did they found an underground room containing a paper which crumbled to dust on exposure. The glow never reappeared."

Howell's book breaks these stories down into "motifs," or oft-repeated narrative details (such as a band of attacking Apaches, a fleeing church group, a lost Frenchman, a handful of wandering children, etc.), and then shows how these details are being constantly churned up and remixed from locality to locality to form new variations on the same basic storyline. It's how folklore is born.

[Image: Otherwise unrelated shot of a gold mine in California; via the Library of Congress].

Briefly, I'll mention that the genre of the lost Western treasure pops up unexpectedly in a film called King of California, starring Michael Douglas. The film is not very good—so be forewarned, if you decide to watch it—but the premise is amazing. The short version of it is that Douglas, recently released from a psychiatric hospital, reveals to his daughter that he spent the last several years of his confinement researching the life of an old Spanish church father whose treasure—rumored to be buried in the same region north of Los Angeles where he and his daughter now live—has never been found.

The landscape is now a sprawl of freeways, subdivisions, chain restaurants, golf courses, and big box stores, and it is amidst all this that Douglas embarks on what should have been an entertaining romp, tracking seasonal constellations, looking for inscriptions in old rocks, and performing detailed property surveys among the parking lots.

He is looking for a lost river and a particular conjunction of stars—and he actually finds it. He locates the site of the Spanish treasure.

The only problem is there's now a Costco built on top of it.

[Image: Michael Douglas measures out the exact spot of the buried treasure, near some potted plants in Costco; from King of California].

Undaunted, Douglas hauls his surveying gear deep into the store and manages to measure out the precise spot where he needs to dig, beneath some large home appliances.

Now all he has to do is come back and break into the store at night, hammer down through the concrete floor, uncover the buried river, and then swim downstream toward the Spaniard's buried treasure. Simple.

[Image: The lost river uncovered, Douglas prepares to jump in; from King of California].

It's an absurd but brilliant premise, and it is unfortunately marred by almost everything else about the film.

However, I mention it here because it sounds like something straight out of Byrd Howell Granger's book: emotionally disturbed suburbanites convinced that, amongst all the concrete and imported palm trees, beneath the cars and swimming pools, there must be some sort of buried treasure, some great and lost thing that can redeem all this, making their lives of unbearable mundanity finally worthwhile.

Greek Gods, Moles, and Robot Oceans

[Image: The Very Low Frequency antenna field at Cutler, Maine, a facility for communicating with at-sea submarine crews].

There have been about a million stories over the past few weeks that I've been dying to write about, but I'll just have to clear through a bunch here in one go.

1) First up is a fascinating request for proposals from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, who is looking to build a "Positioning System for Deep Ocean Navigation." It has the handy acronym of POSYDON.

POSYDON will be "an undersea system that provides omnipresent, robust positioning" in the deep ocean either for crewed submarines or for autonomous seacraft. "DARPA envisions that the POSYDON program will distribute a small number of acoustic sources, analogous to GPS satellites, around an ocean basin," but I imagine there is some room for creative maneuvering there.

The idea of an acoustic deep-sea positioning system that operates similar to GPS is pretty interesting to imagine, especially considering the strange transformations sound undergoes as it is transmitted through water. To establish accurately that a U.S. submarine has, in fact, heard an acoustic beacon and that its apparent distance from that point is not being distorted by intervening water temperature, ocean currents, or even the large-scale presence of marine life is obviously quite an extraordinary challenge.

As DARPA points out, without such a system in place, "undersea vehicles must regularly surface to receive GPS signals and fix their position, and this presents a risk of detection." The ultimate goal, then, would be to launch ultra-longterm undersea missions, even establish permanently submerged robotic networks that have no need to breach the ocean's surface. Cthulhoid, they will forever roam the deep.

[Image: An unmanned underwater vehicle; U.S. Navy photo by S. L. Standifird].

If you think you've got what it takes, click over to DARPA and sign up.

2) A while back, I downloaded a free academic copy of a fascinating book called Space-Time Reference Systems by Michael Soffel and Ralf Langhans.

Their book "presents an introduction to the problem of astronomical–geodetical space–time reference systems," or radically offworld navigation reference points for when a craft is, in effect, well beyond any known or recognizable landmarks in space. Think of it as a kind of new longitude problem.

The book is filled with atomic clocks, quasars potentially repurposed as deep-space orientation beacons, the long-term shifting of "astronomical reference frames," and page after page of complex math I make no claim to understand.

However, I mention this here because the POSYDON program is almost the becoming-cosmic of the ocean: that is, the depths of the sea reimagined as a vast and undifferentiated space within which mostly robotic craft will have to orient themselves on long missions. For a robotic submarine, the ocean is its universe.

3) The POSYDON program is just one part of a much larger militarization of the deep seas. Consider the fact that the U.S. Office of Naval Research is hoping to construct permanent "hubs" on the seafloor for recharging robot submarines.

These "hubs" would be "unmanned, underwater pods where robots can recharge undetected—and securely upload the intelligence they’ve gathered to Navy networks." Hubs will be places where "unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) can dock, recharge, upload data and download new orders, and then be on their way."

"You could keep this continuous swarm of UUVs [Unmanned Underwater Vehicles] wherever you wanted to put them... basically indefinitely, as long as you’re rotating (some) out periodically for mechanical issues," a Naval war theorist explained to Breaking Defense.

The ultimate vision is a kind of planet-spanning robot constellation: "The era of lone-wolf submarines is giving away [sic] to underwater networks of manned subs, UUVs combined with seafloor infrastructure such as hidden missile launchers—all connected to each other and to the rest of the force on the surface of the water, in the air, in space, and on land." This would include, for example, the "upward falling payloads" program described on BLDGBLOG a few years back.

Even better, from a military communications perspective, these hubs would also act as underwater relay points for broadcasting information through the water—or what we might call the ocean as telecommunications medium—something that currently relies on ultra-low frequency radio.

There is much more detail on this over at Breaking Defense.

4) Last summer, my wife and I took a quick trip up to Maine where we decided to follow a slight detour after hiking Mount Katahdin to drive by the huge antenna field at Cutler, a Naval communications station found way out on a tiny peninsula nearly on the border with Canada.

[Image: The antenna field at Cutler, Maine].

We talked to the security guard for a while about life out there on this little peninsula, but we were unable to get a tour of the actual facility, sadly. He mostly joked that the locals have a lot of conspiracy theories about what the towers are actually up to, including their potential health effects—which isn't entirely surprising, to be honest, considering the massive amounts of energy used there and the frankly otherworldly profile these antennas have on the horizon—but you can find a lot of information about the facility online.

So what does this thing do? "The Navy's very-low-frequency (VLF) station at Cutler, Maine, provides communication to the United States strategic submarine forces," a January 1998 white paper called "Technical Report 1761" explains. It is basically an east coast version of the so-called Project Sanguine, a U.S. Navy program from the 1980s that "would have involved 41 percent of Wisconsin," turning the Cheese State into a giant military antenna.

Cutler's role in communicating with submarines may or may not have come to an end, making it more of a research facility today, but the idea that, even if this came to an end with the Cold War, isolated radio technicians on a foggy peninsula in Maine were up there broadcasting silent messages into the ocean that were meant to be heard only by U.S. submarine crews pinging around in the deepest canyons of the Atlantic is both poetic and eerie.

[Image: A diagram of the antennas, from the aforementioned January 1998 research paper].

The towers themselves are truly massive, and you can easily see them from nearby roads, if you happen to be anywhere near Cutler, Maine.

In any case, I mention all this because behemoth facilities such as these could be made altogether redundant by autonomous underwater communication hubs, such as those described by Breaking Defense.

5) "The robots are winning!" Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in The New York Review of Books earlier this month. The opening paragraphs of his essay are is awesome, and I wish I could just republish the whole thing:
We have been dreaming of robots since Homer. In Book 18 of the Iliad, Achilles’ mother, the nymph Thetis, wants to order a new suit of armor for her son, and so she pays a visit to the Olympian atelier of the blacksmith-god Hephaestus, whom she finds hard at work on a series of automata:
...He was crafting twenty tripods
to stand along the walls of his well-built manse,
affixing golden wheels to the bottom of each one
so they might wheel down on their own [automatoi] to the gods’ assembly
and then return to his house anon: an amazing sight to see.

These are not the only animate household objects to appear in the Homeric epics. In Book 5 of the Iliad we hear that the gates of Olympus swivel on their hinges of their own accord, automatai, to let gods in their chariots in or out, thus anticipating by nearly thirty centuries the automatic garage door. In Book 7 of the Odyssey, Odysseus finds himself the guest of a fabulously wealthy king whose palace includes such conveniences as gold and silver watchdogs, ever alert, never aging. To this class of lifelike but intellectually inert household helpers we might ascribe other automata in the classical tradition. In the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, a third-century-BC epic about Jason and the Argonauts, a bronze giant called Talos runs three times around the island of Crete each day, protecting Zeus’s beloved Europa: a primitive home alarm system.
Mendelsohn goes on to discuss "the fantasy of mindless, self-propelled helpers that relieve their masters of toil," and it seems incredibly interesting to read it in the context of DARPA's now even more aptly named POSYDON program and the permanent undersea hubs of the Office of Naval Research. Click over to The New York Review of Books for the whole thing.

6) If the oceanic is the new cosmic, then perhaps the terrestrial is the new oceanic.

The Independent reported last month that magnetically powered underground robot "moles"—effectively subterranean drones—could potentially be used to ferry objects around beneath the city. They are this generation's pneumatic tubes.

The idea would be to use "a vast underground network of pipes in a bid to bypass the UK’s ever more congested roads." The company's name? What else but Mole Solutions, who refer to their own speculative infrastructure as a network of "freight pipelines."

[Image: Courtesy of Mole Solutions].

Taking a page from the Office of Naval Research and DARPA, though, perhaps these subterranean robot constellations could be given "hubs" and terrestrial beacons with which to orient themselves; combine with the bizarre "self-burying robot" from 2013, and declare endless war on the surface of the world from below.

See more at the Independent.

7) Finally, in terms of this specific flurry of links, Denise Garcia looks at the future of robot warfare and the dangerous "secrecy of emerging weaponry" that can act without human intervention over at Foreign Affairs.

She suggests that "nuclear weapons and future lethal autonomous technologies will imperil humanity if governed poorly. They will doom civilization if they’re not governed at all." On the other hand, as Daniel Mendelsohn points out, we have, in a sense, been dealing with the threat of a robot apocalypse since someone first came up with the myth of Hephaestus.

Garcia's short essay covers a lot of ground previously seen in, for example, Peter Singer's excellent book Wired For War; that's not a reason to skip one for the other, of course, but to read both. See more at Foreign Affairs.

(Thanks to Peter Smith for suggesting we visit the antennas at Cutler).

Composite Archaeology

[Image: A laser scan of the Pantheon, courtesy ScanLAB Projects and the BBC; view larger!].

ScanLAB Projects, focus of a long article on Wired last month, are back in the news with a BBC documentary exploring the infrastructure of ancient Rome.

The show "explores Roman infrastructure and ingenuity, all below ground level":
We journeyed via the icy, crystal clear waters of subterranean aqueducts that feed the Trevi fountain and two thousand year old sewers which still function beneath the Roman Forum today, to decadent, labyrinthine catacombs. Our laser scans map these hidden treasures, revealing for the first time the complex network of tunnels, chambers and passageways without which Rome could not have survived as a city of a million people.
The results, as usual, are both breathtaking and bizarre.

[Image: Courtesy ScanLAB Projects and the BBC].

The surface of the city is scraped away, a kind of archaeological dermabrasion, to reveal sprawling networks of knotted masonry and old corridors spliced together in a translucent labyrinth less below than somehow in the city.

[Image: Courtesy ScanLAB Projects and the BBC].

One of the most interesting points made in Mary-Ann Ray's excellent Pamphlet Architecture installment—1997's Seven Partly Underground Rooms and Buildings for Water, Ice, and Midgets—is when she describes her use of composite photography as a way to experiment with new forms of archaeological documentation.

Indeed, the pamphlet itself is as much architecture as it is archaeology—perhaps even suggesting a new series of historical site documents someone should produce called Pamphlet Archaeology—looking at wells, baths, cisterns, and spherical refrigeration chambers, in various states of ruin.

All of these are representationally difficult spaces, Ray explains, either curving away from the viewer in a manner that is nearly impossible to photograph or presenting constrictions of perspective that make even wide-angle photographs inadequate.

[Image: Courtesy ScanLAB Projects and the BBC].

Ray writes that the spatial complexity of the buildings, quarries, basements, and other excavations that she explores are, in a sense, an entirely different kind of space: knotty, interconnected, unstable. "They were also spaces," she writes, "which seemed to have the ability to 'flip-flop' in and out of multiple spatial or constructional readings."

What appears to be near is revealed to be far; what seems far away is suddenly adjacent.

[Image: Courtesy ScanLAB Projects and the BBC; view larger!].

Ray uses the metaphor of a "hyper-camera" here in order to draw comparisons between her composite photography and what she calls "a kind of cubist multiple view," one where "the frame might succumb to the taper of perspective into deep space, or it may counter it, or build it into something else altogether."

"In these composite views," she adds, "the photograph can record the enactment of space as one maneuvers or roams through it with the eye or body."

While Ray's photographic approach is technologically, materially, and even visually very different from the work of ScanLAB, the two projects share a great deal, conceptually and methodologically. In fact, if many of the above quotations were applied, instead, to the images seen in the present post, they would seem to be the appropriate descriptions.

[Image: In the ruined basements of architectural simultaneity; ScanLAB Projects and the BBC].

ScanLAB's laser work seems to fulfill many of the promises of Ray's composite photography, offering multiple, overlapping perspectives simultaneously whilst also eliminating the problem of the horizon or ground plane: you can thus look straight-on into the basement of an ancient structure without losing sight of the upper floors or chambers.

The city is split in two, made into an architectural section of itself that is then animated, made volumetric, turned into Ray's "enactment of space as one maneuvers or roams through it with the eye or body."

The show airs tonight on the BBC. Check out ScanLAB's website for more info, and definitely consider picking up a copy of Mary-Ann Ray's book; it remains one of my favorites and has actually become more, not less, topical since its original publication.