Escaped Pets are Ecosystems in Waiting

[Image: Photo by Stephen Beatty, via the New York Times].

A few years ago, we learned that the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze—or, rather, its rapid fizzling-out—led to a spike in illicit turtle releases in England’s Lake District. As a result, the District today is suffering through a minor invasion of orphaned turtles, unwanted pets struggling to return to a state of nature.

Zoom-in on an historic landscape in Britain, in other words, and you will find the living remnants of a 1980s pop cultural fad splashing around somewhat pathetically—somewhat sadly—in the brisk water.

Now, in thematically related news, discarded goldfish have been taking over entire river landscapes in Australia: “Two decades ago, someone dropped a handful of unwanted pet goldfish into a creek in southwestern Australia. Those goldfish grew, swam downstream, mucked up waters wherever they went and spawned like mad. Before long, they took over the whole river.”

Liberated from endless circling inside glass bowls in children’s bedrooms, the fish are able to reach their expected size, “with some fish growing as long as 16 inches and weighing up to four pounds—the size of a two-liter soda bottle.”

Indeed, the New York Times explains, “Freed from the constraints of a tank, goldfish balloon to the size of footballs. Within a few generations, they revert to natural yellow and brown colors, in place of the bright orange that breeders try to achieve.” Their success in the wild should not come as a surprise.

While there’s much more about the invasive ecology of this species over in the original article, it’s hard not to be struck by the anthropocenic absurdity of an ecosystem constituted entirely by escaped pets.

Hypertrophied beyond recognition, re-wilded by their unexpected freedom, feral pets remake the world in the distorted image of what their human owners thought nature should look like. Toy poodles will stalk our future woods.

Instance Gate

[Image: Malta, Instragram by BLDGBLOG].

Down in the lower levels of Valletta’s fortified walls, an old bricked-up doorway resembles something from a computer game: an oddly colored bit of masonry you would knock aside with a hammer, or a subtle wave of a wand, to make a corridor appear leading much further into the geologic depths.

The underside of Valletta, of course, is already mazed with passages, from wartime bomb shelters to church crypts, abandoned rail tunnels to hotel sub-cellars, and the entire island of Malta, made from such easily cut rock, is home to warrens of prehistoric temples and catacombs.

That entryways into the labyrinth can be found is hardly surprising; that they can look so much like a chunky, 8-bit game landscape only adds to the sense of urban mythology.

[The phrase “instance gate,” at least as I use it, comes from World of Warcraft. It implies that through a certain gate is a world that only you or your group will experience; anyone stepping through the same gate after you will, in fact, enter an entirely different space to confront an entirely different world of experiences. It’s a great metaphor.]

Totemic Elevator

[Image: The Barakka Lift, Malta, by Architecture Project; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

While in Malta last week, I stumbled on the Barakka Lift outdoor elevator, a project I’d written about here but had forgotten was in the city of Valletta. It was a pleasant surprise.

Designed by local firm Architecture Project, the lift connects two very different vertical levels of the metropolis, rising like a fortified tower to bring visitors to and from a small garden on the walls of Valletta.

[Image: The Barakka Lift by Architecture Project; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

One of my favorite urban sights is the unfinished concrete elevator cores of under-construction high-rises. Monolithic, sharply defined, and almost always undecorated—such as this random example—they are pure concrete geometry rising above foundation piles and machinery—elevators that appear before their buildings have arrived.

The Barakka Lift is obviously different, in that it adds an exterior skin of perforated metal to hide the shaft of the lift itself, but it also divorces the idea of the elevator from any building it would normally be contained by. It connects two outsides, sewing one level of the city to another.

As such, it suggests that lifts, like bridges, are just another possibility for urban transportation—vertical pedestrian movement through space—and that lifts are not really interiors at all, in fact, but public spaces we can all use or inhabit.

There’s also something so interesting in the notion of a 21st-century elevator shaft stylized to look more like a 17th-century fortification by way of a near-future science fiction film.

In any case, better photos of the project can be seen in this earlier post. If you’re ever in Malta, be sure to check it out; you’ll find it here.

Devotional Speleology

[Images: Photo by BLDGBLOG].

I’ve been traveling around London, the Adriatic, and the Mediterranean Sea the past few weeks, doing research for a new book, and thus not really using the internet outside of a bunch of Instagram shots; nonetheless, I thought I’d post some pictures from the trip.

Here, above, is Nicola Twilley peering into an old devotional cave dwelling on the Marjan peninsula outside Split, Croatia.

[Image: Photo by BLDGBLOG].

The hermitage is up in a cliff behind a church dedicated to St. Jerome, and the whole complex apparently dates back to the 15th century.

The church itself is also quite picturesque among the trees, with a nearly panoramic view of the Adriatic.

See many more general travel shots on Instagram.

A Burglar’s Guide to London

[Image: From London’s Hatton Garden heist; photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Police Service].

For anyone near London next week, I’m looking forward to speaking with Rory Hyde, curator of contemporary architecture and urbanism at the Victoria and Albert Museum, on Monday night, September 26th. We’ll be discussing infrastructural vulnerabilities, subterranean heists, electromagnetic getaways, ubiquitous police surveillance, and many other topics found in A Burglar’s Guide to the City.

Things kick things off at 7pm, at Libreria, a great new bookshop run by the folks at Second Home, in a space designed by Selgas Cano. The event is free, but here are some details to RSVP.

Stop by—and join us for drinks afterward to continue the conversation.

Amidst the Ruins of Military Replicas

[Image: The Atlantic Wall at Hankley Common, Surrey, UK; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

After blogging two years ago about the ruins of a simulated fragment of the WWII Atlantic Wall—the notorious Nazi coastal defensive system—now slowly crumbling in the woods of Surrey, I finally had an opportunity to go hike it in person with my wife and in-laws.

[Image: The Atlantic Wall at Hankley Common, Surrey, UK; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

The ruins themselves are both larger than you’d expect and quite compact, forming a ridge of lichen-covered concrete, jagged with rebar, nearly hidden in the vegetation.

A Dutch family was also there climbing over the ruins, and as we headed slightly further up the hillside into the trees smaller test-obstacles emerged, including “dragon’s teeth” and monolithic cuboids of stained concrete.

[Image: The Atlantic Wall at Hankley Common, Surrey, UK; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

We arrived during a live Ministry of Defence training exercise, with soldiers wandering out across the terrain, speaking to one another on radio headsets, their movements interrupted here and there by Sunday hikers out for an afternoon stroll.

[Image: A soldier at Hankley Common, Surrey, UK; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

This led to the surreal scene of seeing fully outfitted military figures crouched down behind shrubbery, holding machine guns, while kids, their dogs, and their grandparents noisily ambled by. It felt like some sort of stage play gone wrong.

[Image: Hiking at Hankley Common, Surrey, UK; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Then the soldiers disappeared again over the next ridge and we were left looking out over an empty landscape of heather and gorse, the ruins now behind us somewhere in the thicket waiting for next weekend’s hikers to come by.

Your Brain on Brake Pads

[Image: Flying over Los Angeles; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

For those of us living near freeways—and scrapyards and waste-processing centers and oil refineries, to name but a few delights of my own particular neighborhood—rest well knowing that all that pollution is going to your brain.

The discovery of nano-scale “microspheres” in the brain tissue of urban residents—based on people tested in Manchester, UK, and Mexico City—was “dreadfully shocking,” a researcher told the BBC. “[T]he particles found in the study were not only far more numerous but also smooth and rounded—characteristics that can only be created in the high temperatures of a vehicle engine or braking systems.”

This is not really news, of course. Recall the report published last year in Mother Jones about the connection between “air pollution and dementia,” with a particular focus on “fine and ultrafine particles—specks of waste at least 36 times finer than a grain of sand, often riddled with toxic combinations of sulfate, nitrate and ammonium ions, hydrocarbons, and heavy metals.”

Though we have long known that these tiny particles cause and exacerbate respiratory problems—like asthma and infections and cancers of the lungs—they are also suspected to contribute to a diverse range of disorders, from heart disease to obesity. And now cutting-edge research suggests that these particles play a role in some of humanity’s most terrifying and mysterious illnesses: degenerative brain diseases.

“While coarse pollution particles seldom make it past our upper lungs,” we read, “fine and ultrafine particles can travel from our nostrils along neural pathways directly into our brains. Once there, they can wreak a special havoc that appears to kick off or accelerate the downward spiral of degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”

Of course, this only adds to the long list of already-known threats presented by air pollution, “including asthma, heart disease and autism.”

The New York Times, for example, ran a terrifying article two winters ago about air pollution in Delhi, pointing out that some international ambassadors have been warned not to raise their children there for fear of the long-term cognitive effects caused by exposure to airborne nanoparticles. One memorable detail: “One article about Mr. Obama’s visit focused on how, by one scientist’s account, he might have lost six hours from his expected life span after spending three days in Delhi.”

Now imagine years—and years and years—spent living in the spray of brake pad dust and diesel fumes and catalytic convertors in the shadow of freeways and power plants, as your brain, and your kid’s brain, absorbs seemingly limitless tiny bits of metal, the way an air filter in your car might fill up with pollen and dust.

Imagine the interior of your head becoming cobwebbed with metal. Now imagine these idiots.

Recall, as well, that Republication presidential candidate Donald Trump wants to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency, meaning that there would, in effect, be no regulation at all for this sort of thing. Embrace your dementia now, I suppose, while you’re still cognizant enough to do so.

Sovereign Flocking Algorithms

[Image: Flocking diagram by “Canadian Arctic sovereignty: Local intervention by flocking UAVs” by Gilles Labonté].

One of many ways to bolster a nation-state’s claim to sovereignty over a remote or otherwise disputed piece of land is to perform what’s known as a “sovereignty cruise.” This means sending a ship—or fleet of ships—out to visit the site in question, thus helping to normalize the idea that it is, in fact, a governable part of that nation’s territory.

It is, in essence, a fancy—often explicitly militarized—version of use it or lose it.

Last summer, for example, Vietnam organized a private tour of the Spratly Islands, an archipelago simultaneously claimed by more than one nation and, as such, part of the much larger ongoing dispute today over who really owns and controls the South China Sea [sic].

Vietnam’s effort, Reuters reported at the time, was a strategic visit “to some of Asia’s most hotly contested islands, in a move likely to stoke its simmering dispute with Beijing over South China Sea sovereignty.”

It made “little attempt to disguise its political flavor, and comes as Vietnam pursues a bolder agenda in pushing its claims in the face of China’s own growing assertiveness.” Indeed, the cruise was apparently just the beginning, a mere “trial run ahead of Vietnam’s tentative plans to put the Spratlys on its tourism map, including scheduled passenger flights, possibly this year.”

Bring the people, in other words, and you bring evidence of governmental control.

Against this, of course, we must place the construction of entire islands by China, including the recent installation of a new primary school there, on an artificial island, a school whose opening lecture “was a geopolitical class that focused on China’s ownership of the sea.”

These sovereign games of Go taking place in disputed waters could sustain an entire blog on their own, of course, and are a topic we’ll undoubtedly return to. (Briefly, it’s worth noting that the sovereign implications of artificial islands were also part of a course I taught at Columbia a few years ago.)

Surprisingly, however, another region seen as potentially subject to future disputes over sovereignty is the Canadian Arctic. As such, arguments over such things as whether or not the Northwest Passage is an “international strait” (open to use by all, including Russian and Chinese military ships) or if it is actually a case of “internal waters” controlled exclusively by Canada (thus subject to restricted access), are still quite active.

Add to this a series of arguments over indigenous political rights as well as the specter of large-scale terrestrial transformation due to climate change, and a series of intriguing and quite complicated political scenarios are beginning to emerge there. (Who Owns The Arctic? by Michael Byers is an excellent introduction to this subject, as is Mia Bennett’s blog Cryopolitics.)

[Image: Flocking diagram by “Canadian Arctic sovereignty: Local intervention by flocking UAVs” by Gilles Labonté].

With all this in mind, consider a fascinating report issued by Defence R&D Canada back in 2010. Called “Canadian Arctic sovereignty: Local intervention by flocking UAVs” (PDF), and written by Gilles Labonté, it opens stating that “the importance of local intervention capability for the assertion of Canadian Sovereignty in the Northwest passage is recognized.”

However, Canada presently lacks the ability to deploy at any northern position, on demand, assets that could search a wide area for rescue or surveillance purposes. This fact motivated the exploration we report here on the feasibility of a rapid intervention system based on a carrier-scouts design according to which a number of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) would be transported, air launched and recovered by a larger carrier aircraft.

In other words, if Canada can’t send actual Canadians—that is, living human beings—on aerial “sovereignty cruises” by which they could effectively demonstrate real-time political control over the territories of the north, then they could at least do the next best thing: send in a flock of drones.

Doing so, Labonté suggests, would require a particular kind of flocking algorithm, one with an explicitly political goal. “In the present report,” he adds, “we propose a solution to the remaining problem of managing simultaneously the many UAVs that are required by the vastness of the areas to be surveyed, with a minimum number of human controllers and communications.”

Namely, we present algorithms for the self-organization of the deployed UAVs in the formation patterns that they would use for the tasks at hand. These would include surveillance operations during which detailed photographic or video images would be acquired of activities in a region of interest, and searching an area for persons, vehicles or ships in distress and providing a visual presence for such. Our conclusion is that the local intervention system with flocking UAVs that we propose is feasible and would provide a very valuable asset for asserting and maintaining Canadian Sovereignty in the North.

There are “formation patterns” and flocking algorithms, this suggests, that would specifically be of use in “asserting and maintaining Canadian Sovereignty in the North.”

Hidden within all this is the idea that particular flocking algorithms would be more appropriate for the task than others, lending an explicit air of political significance to specific acts of programming and computation. It also implies an interesting connection between the nation-state and behavioral algorithms, in which a series of behavioral tics might be ritually performed for their political side-effects.

For some context, the report adds, “the Canadian Government has had serious considerations of establishing a presence in the north through purchasing nuclear submarines and ice-breakers.” But why not side-step much of this expense by sending UAVs into the Arctic void instead, reinforcing nation-state sovereignty through the coordinated presence of semi-autonomous machines?

Simply re-launch your drones every two or three months, just often enough to nudge the world into recognizing your claim, not only of this remote airspace but of the vast territory it covers.

A halo of well-choreographed aerial robots flocks in the Arctic skies before disappearing again into a bunker somewhere, waiting to reemerge when the validity of the government appears under threat—a kind of machine-ritual in the open three-dimensional space of the polar north, a robotic sovereignty flight recognized around the world for its performative symbolism.

Read the rest of Labonté’s paper—which is admittedly about much more than I have discussed here—in this PDF.

The Sacrifice of the Microcosm

[Image: Photo by Jill Mead, courtesy of the Guardian].

I happened to be in London last night for the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire. To mark the occasion, a huge timber model of the city, nearly 400 feet in length, designed by sculptor David Best, was burned on a barge anchored in the center of the Thames.

[Image: Photo by Jill Mead, courtesy of the Guardian].

It felt like a Viking funeral pyre, given a particularly Borgesian subtext—the sacrifice of the microcosm—as if every city should ritually destroy miniature versions of itself as a collective means for moving forward.

Sunken Cities

[Image: Raising a house to help survive future floods; photo by Eliot Dudik, courtesy The New York Times].

The climate change-induced flooding of coastal cities along the U.S. eastern seaboard has already begun, the New York Times suggests.

“For decades, as the global warming created by human emissions caused land ice to melt and ocean water to expand, scientists warned that the accelerating rise of the sea would eventually imperil the United States’ coastline,” we read. “Now, those warnings are no longer theoretical: The inundation of the coast has begun.” In many places, “the sea is now so near the brim in many places that [scientists] believe the problem is likely to worsen quickly.”

The article is full of specific details that would not be out of place in a well-constructed novel, including dead lawns killed by exposure to seawater, vacuum trucks sent out “to suck saltwater off the streets,” and “huge vertical rulers” installed along roads to help drivers judge if the floodwaters “are too deep to drive through.”

These are the new, everyday practices of life on a future seabed: preparatory behaviors as the waters rise and whole communities face permanent inundation.

What’s so interesting about this, in fact, is the apparent lack of panic and catastrophe. While this seeming calmness is no doubt based purely in denial—not just denial that excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere retains more heat, leading to warming, but denial of the fact that this is the new normal, that these floods are not flukes but early glimpses of a fundamentally transformed landscape to come—people are nonetheless simply getting on with their lives, even as radical change occurs around them at every scale.

I’m still haunted by a small detail from a similar story published a few years ago, following Hurricane Sandy, about a place called Broad Channel, an outer neighborhood of New York City. There, rising coastal waters have been causing more and more flooding, to the extent that it has become a regular occurrence—not something terrifying, just mildly irritating.

This is true to the extent that residents have now developed otherwise calm and perfectly rational ways of warning one another that the waters are back, that the streets are flooding, and—more to the point—that they should perhaps consider moving their cars.

Broad Channel is now “a place where residents cling to tide clocks and, some joke, every child gets wading boots for Christmas. Neighbors will honk a car horn in the middle of the night to warn others of an approaching tide, and some have made pencil markings on their homes to show water levels from storms past.”

If we ask ourselves what life will be like in the Anthropocene, after the ever-mounting effects of climate change become real, it’s worth remembering these people “honk[ing] a car horn in the middle of the night to warn others of an approaching tide.”

In other words, the Anthropocene will look perfectly normal: people will simply vacuum-pump seawater out of their carports and garages, scrub encrusted salt from the walls of the homes, give each other waterproof boots for Christmas, and otherwise go on as if the world hasn’t changed.

The secret of the Anthropocene is that it’s just another kind of everyday life.