The Silence of the Bells

[Image: Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Citing lack of new business and a changing marketplace, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry has put itself up for sale, the Financial Times reports.

“We are just commencing work on a new peal of bells for St Albans after 43 years of negotiation,” company owner Alan Hughes is quoted as saying. “That’s an example of the timescale we are working on—at least 10 years between order and delivery is normal.”

[Image: The beautiful, gleaming interior of a newly tuned church bell; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

However, the Financial Times adds, “the business has faced two other structural challenges. Bells, unlike modern devices, are made to last centuries. The other weakness of the company is that Whitechapel’s main customer, the Church of England, is in decline with congregations in the UK halving in the past 40 years.”

Check out BLDGBLOG’s visit to the Foundry back in 2012.

“Fictive Swims” Through Piscine Virtual Reality

[Image: From “Putting the Fish in the Fish Tank: Immersive VR for Animal Behavior Experiments” by Sachit Butail, Amanda Chicoli, and Derek A. Paley].

I’ve had this story bookmarked for the past four years, and a tweet this morning finally gave me an excuse to write about it.

Back in 2012, we read, researchers at Harvard University found a way to fool a paralyzed fish into thinking it was navigating a virtual spatial environment. They then studied its brain during this trip that went nowhere—this virtual, unmoving navigation—in order to understand the “neuronal dynamics” of spatial perception.

As Noah Gray wrote at the time, deliberately highlighting the study’s unnerving surreality, “Paralyzed fish navigates virtual environment while we watch its brain.” Gray then compared it to The Matrix.

The paper itself explains that, when “paralyzed animals interact fictively with a virtual environment,” it results in what are called “fictive swims.”

To study motor adaptation, we used a closed-loop paradigm and simulated a one-dimensional environment in which the fish is swept backwards by a virtual water flow, a motion that the fish was able to compensate for by swimming forwards, as in the optomotor response. In the fictive virtual-reality setup, this corresponds to a whole-field visual stimulus that is moving forwards but that can be momentarily accelerated backwards by a fictive swim of the fish, so that the fish can stabilize its virtual location over time. Remarkably, paralyzed larval zebrafish behaved readily in this closed-loop paradigm, showing similar behavior to freely swimming fish that are exposed to whole-field motion, and were not noticeably compromised by the absence of vestibular, proprioceptive and somatosensory feedback that accompanies unrestrained swimming.

Imagine being that fish; imagine realizing that the spatial environment you think you’re moving through is actually some sort of induced landscape put there purely for the sake of studying your neural reaction to it.

Ten years from now, experimental architecture-induction labs pop up at universities around the world, where people sit, strapped into odd-looking chairs, appearing to be asleep. They are navigating labyrinths, a scientist whispers to you, trying not to disturb them. You look around the room and see books full of mazes spread across a table, six-foot-tall full-color holograms of the human brain, and dozens of HD computer screens flashing with graphs of neural stimulation. They are walking through invisible buildings, she says.

[Image: From “Putting the Fish in the Fish Tank: Immersive VR for Animal Behavior Experiments” by Sachit Butail, Amanda Chicoli, and Derek A. Paley].

In any case, the fish-in-virtual-reality setup was apparently something of a trend in 2012, because there was also a paper published that year called “Putting the Fish in the Fish Tank: Immersive VR for Animal Behavior Experiments,” this time by researchers at the University of Maryland. Their goal was to “startle” fish using virtual reality:

We describe a virtual-reality framework for investigating startle-response behavior in fish. Using real-time three dimensional tracking, we generate looming stimuli at a specific location on a computer screen, such that the shape and size of the looming stimuli change according to the fish’s perspective and location in the tank.

As they point out, virtual reality can be a fantastic tool for studying spatial perception. VR, they write, “provides a novel opportunity for high-output biological data collection and allows for the manipulation of sensory feedback. Virtual reality paradigms have been harnessed as an experimental tool to study spatial navigation and memory in rats, flight control in flies and balance studies in humans.”

But why stop at fish? Why stop at fish tanks? Why not whole virtual landscapes and ecosystems?

Imagine a lost bear running around a forest somewhere, slipping between birch trees and wildflowers, the sun a blinding light that stabs down through branches in disorienting flares. There are jagged rocks and dew-covered moss everywhere. But it’s not a forest. The bear looks around. There are no other animals, and there haven’t been for days. Perhaps not for years. It can’t remember. It can’t remember how it got there. It can’t remember where to go.

It’s actually stuck in a kind of ursine Truman Show: an induced forest of virtual spatial stimuli. And the bear isn’t running at all; it’s strapped down inside an MRI machine in Baltimore. Its brain is being watched—as its brain watches the well-rendered polygons of these artificial rocks and trees.

(Fish tank story spotted via Clive Thompson. Vaguely related: The Subterranean Machine Dreams of a Paralyzed Youth in Los Angeles).

The Totality That Remains Invisible

[Image: Alice Aycock, “Project for Elevation with Obstructed Sight Lines” (1972)].

A few years ago, my wife and I went out to hike Breakneck Ridge when there was still a bunch of snow on the ground. It’s not, in and of itself, a hugely challenging hike, but between being ill-prepared for the slippery terrain, including a short opening scramble up snow-covered rocks, we found ourselves looking forward to the final vertical stretch before we could loop back down again to the road.

What was interesting, however, was that, from our point of view, each hill appeared to be the final one—until we got to the top of it and saw another one waiting there. Then it happened all over again: what appeared to be the final hill was actually just obstructing our view of the next one, and the next one, and the next one, and, next thing we knew, there were something like seven or eight different individual upward hikes, each hidden from view by the one leading up to it.

In 1972, earthworks artist Alice Aycock proposed a new, never-built work called “Project for Elevation with Obstructed Sight Lines.” It was part of a larger group, Aycock’s Six Semi-Architectural Projects, exhibited in 1973.

“Elevation with Obstructed Sight Lines” was meant to be a sculpted mound of earth, shaped for its optical effects.

[Image: Alice Aycock, “Project for Elevation with Obstructed Sight Lines” (1972), courtesy White Columns].

“Only one side of the resulting structure can be climbed,” Aycock wrote in her brief instructions for realizing the conceptual project. “All other side slopes are steep enough to deter climbing. The elevation of each successive climbing slope is determined by the sight lines of a 6 ft. observer so that only as the observer completes the ascent of a given slope does the next slope become visible.”

The piece obviously lends itself quite well to Kafka-esque metaphors—this structure that deliberately hides itself from view, never once perceptible in its totality but, instead, always revealing more of itself the further you go.

However, it also interestingly weds conceptual land art with hiking—that is, with embodied outdoor athleticism, rather than detached aesthetic contemplation—implying that, perhaps, trail design is an under-appreciated venue for potential conceptual art projects, where a terrain’s symbolic power only becomes clear to those engaged with hiking it.

(Aycock’s project spotted via Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974).

The Architecture of the Overlap

[Image: Screen grab from Sir John Soane’s Museum].

One of my favorite museums, Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, has teamed up with ScanLAB Projects for a new, 3D introduction to the Soane’s collections.

[Image: Screen grab from Sir John Soane’s Museum].

“We are using the latest in 3D technology,” the Museum explains, “to scan and digitize a wide selection of Museum rooms and objects—including Soane’s Model Room, and the ancient Egyptian sarcophagus of King Seti I.”

The opening animations alone—pulling viewers straight into the facade of the building, like a submarine passing impossibly through a luminous reef—are well worth the click.

[Image: Screen grab from Sir John Soane’s Museum].

The museum’s interior walls become translucent screens through which the rest of Soane’s home is visible. Rooms shimmer beneath other rooms, with even deeper chambers visible behind them, golden, hive-like, lit from within. Like a camera built to capture only where things overlap.

In fact, I could watch entire, feature-length films shot this way: cutting through walls, dissecting cities, forming a great narrative clockwork of action ticking away in shining blocks of space. As if the future of cinema is already here, it’s just hidden—for now—in the guise of avant-garde architectural representation.

[Image: Screen grab from Sir John Soane’s Museum].

ScanLAB’s work—such as in Rome, beneath the streets of London, or in strange new forms of portraiture—continues to have the remarkable effect of revealing every architectural space as actually existing in a state more like a cobweb.

Hallways become bridges crossing the black vacuum of space; individual rooms and galleries become unreal fogs of ornament and detail, hanging in a context of nothing.

It thus seems a perfect fit for a place as bewildering and over-stuffed as the Soane Museum, that coiling maze of archaeological artifacts and art historical cross-references, connected to itself through narrow stairways and convex mirrors.

Of course, this also begs the question of how architecture could be redesigned for maximizing the effects of this particular mode of visualization. What materials, what sequences, what placements of doors and walls would lend itself particularly well to 3-dimensional laser scanning?

The new site also includes high-res, downloadable images of the artifacts themselves—

[Images: The sarcophagus of King Seti I; courtesy Sir John Soane’s Museum].

—including Seti I’s sarcophagus, as seen above.

Click through to the Soane Museum for more.

(Elsewhere: The Dream Life of Driverless Cars).

Atlas of the Underworld

[Image: Via Science].

A “complete x-ray of Earth’s interior is coming into focus,” Science reported last week. Using computerized tomography, or CT scanning—the same technology used to visualize the interior of the human body for various medical diagnoses—Dutch Earth scientists are piecing together what they call an “Atlas of the Underworld.” They are documenting invisible landscape features—the ghostly remains of entire continents—hidden inside the planet, locked beneath the surface we dwell upon everyday.

Awesomely, these features include “oceans and mountains lost to Earth’s history,” we read, an Earth’s surface within the Earth’s surface:

The reconstructions are also resurrecting mountains that had been lost to time. For example, in a study published several months ago, [tectonicists Jonny Wu and John Suppe] reconstructed the travels of 28 slabs to recreate the Philippine Sea as it was more than 50 million years ago. Beyond identifying what appears to be a previously unknown piece of ocean crust, they predicted that as one of their paleoplates plunged into the mantle, it threw up a large chain of volcanoes that eventually collided with Asia. That convulsive process could explain mysterious folded rocks in Japan and beneath the East China Sea.

For now, however, these “lost mountains” remain digital projections based on available data, not real, physical discoveries. They are, we might say, tectonic fictions, unverified models of past Earths inside our own.

A researcher at the University of Oslo named Grace Shephard points out, for example, that she will soon “publish a comparison of 14 different models that will assess which slabs seem most likely to be real” (emphasis added).

[Image: The long-buried Farallon Plate, visible nowhere on the Earth’s surface—or, rather, only visible through its indirect, mountain-building effects; courtesy Karin Sigloch].

Twenty years ago, poet Gary Snyder published a book called Mountains and Rivers Without End. As the Freer and Sackler Galleries describe it, the book is an “epic celebration of nature and humanity that encompasses Asian artistic traditions, Native American storytelling, and Zen Buddhist philosophy,” all in the guise of a book of landscape poetry.

I mention this not because Snyder’s book is the only example of such a thing, but because it’s interesting to imagine a tomographic expansion of Snyder’s “mountains and rivers without end”—adding revelatory geophysics and otherworldly Earth-scanning technology to the book’s already eclectic mix of myths and texts.

In other words, where is the poetry of lost ghost continents, buried mountain ranges, drowned ocean basins, landlocked archipelagoes, melting thousands of miles beneath our feet, swirling slowly below us in the Earth’s deep interior?

(Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for the tip!)

“500 Years of Utopia” Opens

[Image: Thomas More’s Utopia].

There are two quick thing coming up this week that I wanted to post about:

1) At 7pm on Wednesday, November 9, I’ll be moderating a public conversation with an amazing group of Los Angeles-based designers, architects, and critics at USC’s Doheny Memorial Library. This is part of a larger evening, organized around the theme of “500 Years of Utopia.”

2016, after all, is the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s book, and we’ll be launching a small exhibition looking back at More’s influence on political, urban, and even architectural thought—but more on that, below.

[Image: “500 Years of Utopia” title card; design by David Mellen].

Kicking things off at 7pm on Wednesday evening, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne will be interviewing Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker and author of The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century; they’ll be discussing the relationship between émigré composers in Southern California, the music of exile, and “utopian thought.”

This will be followed by a panel discussion featuring urbanist and landscape architect Mia Lehrer; games designer and critic Jeff Watson; architect and writer Victor Jones; and critic Christopher Hawthorne.

We’ll be looking at the role of utopia in contemporary design, with a specific focus on questions of access. We can talk about utopia all we like, in other words—but utopia for whom? In other words, if utopia is already here, who has access to it? Who has the right to design utopia? Who has the right to critique it?

[Image: Early type experiment for “500 Years of Utopia”; design by David Mellen].

Last but not least, we’ll hear from journalist and critic Claire Hoffman, who will introduce us to her newly published memoir Greetings from Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood.

The event is free and open to the public; however, please RSVP if you hope to attend. More information is available at that link, including parking, street address, and more.

[Image: Thomas More’s Utopia].

The second thing I wanted to mention, then, is in the same place and on the same evening, but at 5:30pm. We will be kicking off our brand new exhibition, in USC’s Doheny Memorial Library, called “500 Years of Utopia.”

For 500 years, utopia—a word coined by Sir Thomas More to describe the ideal city—has been used as popular shorthand for a perfect world and lies at the heart of the Western political imagination. But what does it really mean today in the context of 21st-century urbanism, especially in a megacity like Los Angeles that has been the setting for utopian and dystopian thinking almost since its founding? A new exhibition of materials from the USC Libraries’ collections explores these questions, the history of utopian thinking, and the fine line between utopia and dystopia.

In addition to a wealth of utopian/dystopian material taken directly from the USC Libraries, we’ve used an interesting graphic approach of overlaid, differently colored exhibition text, one (in red) offering a utopian interpretation of the media and objects on display, the other (in blue) offering a dystopian spin. Decoder glasses will be on hand to assist…

Please stop by for our opening reception at 5:30pm on Wednesday, November 9. It, too, is free and open to the public, and it segues directly into the event that kicks off at 7pm.

More information is available over at USC.

Animal Ballast

[Image: Veduta dell’Anfiteatro Flavio detto il Colosseo (1776), by Giovanni Battista Piranesi; courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art].

While going through a bunch of old books for another impending cross-country move, I found myself re-reading an interesting detail in The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard.

In a discussion of that ruined megastructure, now symbolic of the entirety of ancient Rome, Hopkins and Beard point out that the colosseum was once home to a rather unexpected ecosystem, a displaced environment that did not correspond to the natural world outside its crumbling walls.

“For whatever reason—because of the extraordinary micro-climate within its walls,” they write, “or, as some thought more fancifully, because of the seeds that fell out of the fur of the exotic animals displayed in the ancient arena—an enormous range of plants, including some extraordinary rarities, thrived for centuries in the building ruins.”

The idea of entire landscapes, even alien ecologies populated with otherwise unrecognizable species, lying hidden in the fur of exotic animals, gradually encouraged to flourish by the weird winds of an architecturally induced micro-climate, is absolutely fascinating to contemplate. You could think of them as animal ballast gardens, stuck like burrs on the unseen surfaces of the everyday world, waiting to prosper.

The Anthropocene is much older than today’s conversations seem able to admit; it began in patches, sprouting here and there in the broken stones of old buildings, transported across continents one seed at a time until the entire planet now is ablaze with artificial landscapes, a planet out of joint.

(Don’t miss BLDGBLOG’s two-part interview with Mary Beard, discussing her “Wonders of the World” series).

Pleased to meet you. Hope you guess my name.

There was an interesting sequence of otherwise unrelated articles published over the last few days.

Over at Aeon, Murray Shanahan, a professor of “cognitive robotics,” asked: “Beyond humans, what other kinds of minds might be out there? From algorithms to aliens, could humans ever understand minds that are radically unlike our own?” He goes on to discuss, and even graph out, “the space of possible minds.” Briefly, I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotations of all time, from author William S. Burroughs, who, in his book The Ticket That Exploded, described “a vast mineral consciousness near absolute zero thinking in slow formations of crystal,” hidden somewhere inside the surface of the Earth. Try understanding—and conversing with—that.

As an aside, I generally find these sorts of discussions—including, most of all, the Turing Test—to be oddly fixated not on consciousness at all, but specifically on the social mores and recognizable etiquette of a well-educated middle class Western consciousness capable of rational conversation, something that is by no means synonymous even with human self-awareness, let alone with sentience itself. Engaging in conversation with your own coworkers can already be unnervingly impossible, let alone recognizing the potential intelligence of a sea urchin, a virus, a geomagnetic field, or a pulsar. Or, for that matter, a “time crystal.”

In any case, while some of us are contemplating the existence of other types of minds, those other types of minds might simply be trying to rip us off—or so the New York Times suggested in an article called, “As Artificial Intelligence Evolves, So Does Its Criminal Potential.”

In a scenario that sounds like something from Rivka Galchen’s recent book, Atmospheric Disturbances, we’re told to “imagine receiving a phone call from your aging mother seeking your help because she has forgotten her banking password. Except it’s not your mother. The voice on the other end of the phone call just sounds deceptively like her. It is actually a computer-synthesized voice, a tour-de-force of artificial intelligence technology that has been crafted to make it possible for someone to masquerade via the telephone.”

You can read the rest of the article, but there’s something oddly hilarious in the fear that we might finally encounter another form of radically inhuman intelligence—only for it to prank call us, spam us, and con us out of our life savings.

And then it gets worse. According to Quartz reports, researchers at MIT are using Artificial Intelligence “to create pure horror.” “A series of algorithms dubbed the Nightmare Machine is an effort to find the root of horror by generating ghoulish faces, and then relying on user feedback to see which approach makes the freakiest images,” we read.

To be completely honest, the resulting images are disappointing and stupid—a Target Halloween costume aisle is more frightening—but the notion, not that we will encounter an alien intelligence intent on terrifying us, but that we will deliberately create one specifically for this purpose is excellent evidence for anyone wondering how humans have made it this far.

Future Silk

[Image: Neri Oxman’s otherwise unrelated “Silk Pavilion” at MIT; photo by Steven Keating via Wired].

Research published last month in the journal Nano Letters suggests that silkworms fed a steady diet of carbon nanotubes can produce structurally stronger silk:

Silkworm silk is gaining significant attention from both the textile industry and research society because of its outstanding mechanical properties and lustrous appearance. The possibility of creating tougher silks attracts particular research interest. Carbon nanotubes and graphene are widely studied for their use as reinforcement. In this work, we report mechanically enhanced silk directly collected by feeding Bombyx mori larval silkworms with single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWNTs) and graphene. We found that parts of the fed carbon nanomaterials were incorporated into the as-spun silk fibers, whereas the others went into the excrement of silkworms.

Using animals as living 3D printers is thus more of a reality every year.

It’s also worth noting here that the resulting super-silk exhibited “enhanced electrical conductivity,” implying some strange new world in which conductive textiles and other flexible, wearable electronic circuitry could be woven in space by augmented silkworms.

(Spotted by Benjamin Bratton).

Escaping from the Garden

[Image: An example of Periplaneta japonica, via New York Daily News].

Ornamental vegetation planted on New York City’s famed High Line park might have inadvertently brought an “invasive cockroach” to the United States. From the New York Daily News:

The High Line, a park that turned a dilapidated stretch of elevated railway on Manhattan’s West Side into one of New York’s newest tourist attractions, may have brought a different kind of visitor: a cockroach that can withstand harsh winter cold and never seen before in the U.S.

Rutgers University insect biologists Jessica Ware and Dominic Evangelista said the species Periplaneta japonica is well documented in Asia but was never confirmed in the United States until now. The scientists, whose findings were published in the Journal of Economic Entomology, say it is too soon to predict the impact but that there is probably little cause for concern.

“The scientists suspect the little critter was likely a stowaway in the soil of ornamental plants used to adorn the park,” the newspaper adds.

I’ve always been fascinated by how gardens—ostensibly well-controlled landscapes meant to reach maturity under the guise of human supervision—accidentally become beachheads for invasive species.

In the UK, for instance, and this is only one example among very many, it is estimated that nearly “one-quarter of plants sold to ornamental gardeners since the 1800s have escaped, and 30 per cent of these are firmly established in the English countryside.”

As naturalist Richard Mabey points out in his highly recommended book Weeds, sometimes these botanical escapees can even be tracked step by step—or rail line by rail line, as the case may be.

[Image: Buddleia; photo by Steven Mulvey via the BBC, who describe it as “the plant that dominates Britain’s railways”].

Consider buddleia, a popular plant described by writer Laura Spinney, in a great old article for New Scientist (that no longer appears to be archived on their website), as “one of the commonest destructive weeds in Britain.” Buddleia is “not a native of the island,” on the other hand, but rather was “brought from the Himalayas in Victorian times to offer a long flowering season and attract butterflies.”

Ironically, however, “buddleia grows fast and its many seeds are easily dispersed by the wind. It has powerful roots used to thin soil on rocky substrata, ideally suited to penetrating the bricks and mortar of modern buildings. In London and other urban centres it can be seen growing out of walls and eves.”

It is, Spinney suggests, a long-term vegetative threat to the masonry structure of the city itself, a demolition tool hiding in plain sight.

Even in the descriptions of this phenomenon there is such strange poetry to be found—phrases both ominous and inspiring, like, “a plant establishing itself outside the garden,” as if John Milton had somehow reinvented himself as a horticultural critic with a penchant for sci-fi.

In any case, read more about New York City’s newest inhabitant—another alleged escapee from a garden—over at the New York Daily News.

(Roach story spotted, like the previous post, via Chris Woebken).