Archiving “Geomagnetic Spikes” in Everyday Objects

[Image: One of the pots; photo by Oded Lipschits, courtesy NPR].

Ancient clay pottery in the Middle East has inadvertently recorded the Earth’s magnetic field, including evidence of an “astonishing geomagnetic spike.”

“All those years ago,” NPR reported earlier this week, “as potters continued to throw clay, the molten iron that was rotating deep below them tugged at tiny bits of magnetic minerals embedded in the potters’ clay. As the jars were heated in the kiln and then subsequently cooled, those minerals swiveled and froze into place like tiny compasses, responding to the direction and strength of the Earth’s magnetic field at that very moment.”

Archaeologist Erez Ben-Yosef, one of the researchers on the project, has compared the process to a terrestrial “tape recorder,” and a particularly sensitive one at that: the resulting jars “provide an unprecedented look at the planet’s magnetic field over those six centuries, one that’s much harder to get from rocks.”

These accidental indices also indicate that the Earth’s magnetic field at the time was much stronger than expected; ominously, this “astonishing geomagnetic spike,” as mentioned above, could happen again. Indeed, the jars have “given scientists a glimpse of how intense the magnetic field can get—and the news isn’t good for a world that depends on electrical grids and high-tech devices,” Annalee Newitz writes for Ars Technica.

“The researchers note that this geomagnetic spike is similar to another that occurred in the 10th century BCE,” Newitz adds. “Data from the 10th century spike and this 8th century one indicate that such events were probably localized, not global. That said, they write that ‘the exact geographic expanse of this phenomenon has yet to be investigated, and the fact that these are very short-lived features that can be easily missed suggests that there is much more to discover.’”

This vision—of highly localized, mysterious geomagnetic storms frying electronics from below—is not only a great plot device for some burgeoning scifi novelist, it could also almost undoubtedly be weaponized: subterranean geomagnetic warfare against an entire region of the planet, short-circuiting every electrical device in sight.

[Image: One of the pots; photo by Oded Lipschits, courtesy NPR].

Of course, it’s also worth noting that this would still be happening: that is, today’s ceramics should still be “recording” the Earth’s magnetic field, even without any corresponding spike in that field’s strength. An invisible terrestrial forcefield is thus still inscribing itself inside objects in your kitchen cabinet or standing on your breakfast table. Everyday knick-knacks in retail stores around the world are still archives of planetary magnetism.

This also makes me wonder what other types of artifacts—clay figurines from nomadic Arctic tribes, mud bricks from central Africa—might also house geomagnetic records yet to be analyzed by modern technology. So what else might be discovered someday?

I’m reminded of the possibility that space weather—or “fossils of spacetime”—might be frozen into the built environment in the form of GPS glitches: hidden inside minute structural errors in large building projects, such as freeways, dams, and bridges, there might be evidence that our solar system is passing through “cosmic kinks” of dark matter.

In any case, read the original paper in PNAS; see also The New Yorker.

Alien Geology, Dreamed By Machines

[Image: Synthetic volcanoes modeled by Jeff Clune, from “Plug & Play Generative Networks,” via Nature].

Various teams of astronomers have been using “deep-learning neural networks” to generate realistic images of hypothetical stars and galaxies—but their work also implies that these same tools could work to model the surfaces of unknown planets. Alien geology as dreamed by machines.

The Square Kilometer Array in South Africa, for example, “will produce such vast amounts of data that its images will need to be compressed into low-noise but patchy data.” Compressing this data into readable imagery opens space for artificial intelligence to work: “Generative AI models will help to reconstruct and fill in blank parts of those data, producing the images of the sky that astronomers will examine.”

The results are thus not photographs, in other words; they are computer-generated models nonetheless considered scientifically valid for their potential insights into how regions of space are structured.

What interests me about this, though, is the fact that one of the scientists involved, Jeff Clune, uses these same algorithmic processes to generate believable imagery of terrestrial landscape features, such as volcanoes. These could then be used to model the topography of other planets, producing informed visual guesstimates of mountain ranges, ancient ocean basins, vast plains, valleys, even landscape features we might not yet have words to describe.

The notion that we would thus be seeing what AI thinks other worlds should look like—that, to view this in terms of art history, we are looking at the projective landscape paintings of machine intelligence—is a haunting one, as if discovering images of alien worlds in the daydreams of desktop computers.

(Spotted via Sean Lally; vaguely related, “We don’t have an algorithm for this”).

Representing Utopia, or Advertisements of a World to Come

[Image: Test-crash from “California Freeways: Planning For Progress,” courtesy Prelinger Archives].

For those of you here in Los Angeles, I’m thrilled to be hosting an event tomorrow evening at USC with “rogue librarianMegan Prelinger, on the subject of representing utopia.

Megan is cofounder of the San Francisco-based Prelinger Library, an independent media archive specializing “in material that is not commonly found in other public libraries.” Their collection has a strong focus on California history, science, and technology, from obscure technical publications to books on environmental politics, topics that can be tracked throughout Megan’s own work as a researcher and writer.

She is also the author of Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race, 1957-1962 and Inside The Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age. Both books reproduce beautifully designed promotional materials produced as part of an earlier era of science and technology; these include often-overlooked ephemera, such as corporate advertisements and business brochures, or what Alexis Madrigal has described as “the hyperbolic, whimsical world of the advertisements these early aerospace companies created to sell themselves.”

New satellite systems, microchip designs, space program components, electronic home appliances, from televisions to microwaves, to name only a few: all were the subject of visionary business models premised on utopian narratives of the world to come.

Taken as a whole, the Prelinger Library’s collection of these materials raises the interesting possibility that, in order to understand twentieth-century science fiction, we should not only read Octavia Butler, Arthur C. Clarke, or J. G. Ballard, but back-of-magazine ads for firms such as Frigidaire and General Electric. These are corporations, of course, applied futurism sought to create a new world—one in which their own products would be most useful.

[Image: From Another Science Fiction, via Wired].

At the event tomorrow night, we’ll be discussing both of these books, to be sure, but we’ll be doing so in the larger context of utopian representations of the state of California, treating California as a place of technical innovation, artificial control of the natural environment, and even perceived mastery over public health and the risk of disease transmission.

Megan will be showing a handful of short films about these themes, all taken from the Prelinger Archives, and we’ll round out our roughly 45-minute Q&A with open questions from the audience.

The event will cap off 500 Years of Utopia, our long look at the legacy of Sir Thomas More’s book, Utopia, timed for the 500th anniversary of its publication. The accompanying exhibition closes on February 28.

Things kick off at 5pm on Tuesday, February 7th; please RSVP.

Heat Maps

[Image: From Heat Maps by Richard Mosse, courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery].

In a highly timely new show called Heat Maps, opening tonight, February 2, at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City, photographer Richard Mosse “charts the refugee crisis unfolding across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.”

Mosse has documented refugee camps and staging sites using an extreme telephoto military-grade camera that can detect thermal radiation, including body heat, at great distance. The camera is used against its intended purpose of border and combat surveillance to map landscapes of human displacement. Reading heat as both metaphor and index, these images reveal the harsh struggle for survival lived daily by millions of refugees and migrants, seen but overlooked, and ignored by many.

By attaching the camera to a robotic motion-control tripod, Mosse has scanned significant sites in the European refugee crisis from a high eye-level, creating densely detailed panoramic thermal images. Each artwork has been painstakingly constructed from a grid of almost a thousand smaller frames, each with its own vanishing point. Seamlessly blended into a single expansive thermal panorama, these images evoke certain kinds of classical painting, such as those by Pieter Bruegel or Hieronymus Bosch, in the way that they describe space and detail. They are documents disclosing the fences, security gates, loudspeakers, food queues, tents, and temporary shelters of camp architecture, as well as isolated disembodied traces of human and animal motion and other artifacts that disrupt each precarious composition and reveal its construction. Very large in scale, Heat Maps reveal intimate details of fragile human life in squalid, nearly unlivable conditions on the margins and in the gutters of first world economies.

An accompanying book, featuring brilliant silver metallic inks and a new essay by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, is due out this spring, as well.

The exhibition opens today at 6pm; more info at Jack Shainman Gallery.

(Earlier: Saddam’s Palaces: An Interview with Richard Mosse).

Gold Standard

[Image: “Ringroad (Houston)” (2005) by Bas Princen].

Photographer Bas Princen has published a new book looking at the visual and personal backstory to one particular photograph, seen above, “Ringroad (Houston),” from 2005. Called The Construction of an Image, the book is also the final publication from Bedford Press.

It is, the book’s editor, Vanessa Norwood, writes, “an arresting image: an ordinary American office block transformed by Princen’s lens into a glowing golden cube cut by the horizon, acting as both mirror and container; the reflected landscape of trees confined within its gridded exterior.”

As part of his work process, Princen assembles small research notebooks of images he is thinking of or influenced by during the production of certain images; The Construction of an Image includes those along with other examples of Princen’s work created at the same time. As such, it offers a sustained glimpse of how Princen operates, how visual concepts are formed, and how analogies are identified and tracked from one building or landscape to another.

In the case of “Ringroad (Houston),” these precedent images range from engravings by Albrecht Dürer—fitting the world into a perspectival grid—to photographs taken inside geodesic domes, and from corporate lobbies to archaeological earthworks. These represent moments or sites where solitary structures, all-encompassing geometric frames or grids, and uneasy distinctions between foreground and background predominate.

I’m proud to have a short essay featured in the book, alongside texts by editor Vanessa Norwood, architect Kersten Geers, curator Moritz Küng, and a summary by Princen himself.

Geers, in particular, swings for the fences with his assessment of the photo, writing, “Bas Princen’s photograph Ringroad (Houston) encapsulates, through its simple presence and curious ambiguity, almost everything I feel we can ever say about architecture,” continuing over the rest of his essay to explain how the photo went on to influence Geers’s own architectural design work.

My own look at the image is in the context of Princen’s output, from Los Angeles to Dubai, focusing on his images in which “there is often an extraordinary, building-size geometric shape in the center of the frame, yet it is not always clear if it can be described as architecture. (…) Rather, these abstract objects—sometimes mirrored, sometimes with no visible points of entry—function more like undeclared monuments with no clear subject of commemoration. They are, in a sense, both unexplained and inexplicable.”

[Image: “Cooling Plant, Dubai” (2009) by Bas Princen; while this photograph does not appear in The Construction of the Image, I mention it in my essay as an inversion of “Ringroad (Houston)”].

If you’re curious to see a slightly different sort of approach, Princen’s photos are also—as of yesterday—on display at the Met Breuer museum in New York City.

In a show called Breuer Revisited, photographers Luisa Lambri and Princen both offer their own distinctive visual analyses of four buildings designed by Marcel Breuer.

“Evoking minimalism and abstraction,” the museum explains, “Lambri creates images that examine the dialogue between interior and exterior, and the interaction between surface and light. Princen investigates and reframes urban and rural spaces through documenting the concept of post-occupancy, or the evolution of a building and its enduring relevance.”

The show is open until May 21, 2017; The Construction of an Image is available through the Architectural Association.

(Earlier: Pieces of the city are forming, like islands).

Fewer Gardens, More Shipwrecks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Abundance of Glass

Going through some old notes, I found this great line from architect Kengo Kuma’s 2008 book Anti-Object, describing the conceptual ambition—and ultimate anticlimax—of modernist architecture. “Modernism set out to connect time and space,” he wrote, “but ultimately managed only to create objects that used an abundance of glass.”

The Wreckage, The Collapse

I’ve been thinking about two art installations lately—one from the 1980s, the other from 2008—that remain interesting beyond their admittedly obvious metaphoric value.

The first is the aptly named Samson by Chris Burden, an installation piece from 1985.

[Image: An installation view of Samson (1985) by Chris Burden, courtesy Zwirner & Worth].

Samson was “a museum installation consisting of a 100-ton jack connected to a gear box and a turnstile. The 100-ton jack pushes two large timbers against the bearing walls of the museum. Each visitor to the museum must pass through the turnstile in order to see the exhibition. Each input on the turnstile ever so slightly expands the jack, and ultimately if enough people visit the exhibition, Samson could theoretically destroy the building.”

The idea that attendees might not know this—that they could continue to visit the gallery unaware of the purpose or function of this massive device sitting there in the middle of the room, disastrously expanding millimeter by millimeter with every click of the turnstile—haunted me for days after first studying this back in college. Perhaps the artist gets drunk on the night of the opening and doesn’t fully explain what the piece does, or perhaps far more people show up than anyone had expected, the wall-text is obscured by human bodies, and the outward pressure of the machine relentlessly builds. And builds.

The end is built into the very working of the machinery, even while the moment of its long-promised collapse remains impossible to anticipate.

The other is the technically and aesthetically fascinating slow-motion car crash of Jonathan Schipper’s “Slow Inevitable Death of American Muscle.”

The “sculpture is a machine that advances two full sized automobiles slowly into one another over a period of 6 days, simulating a head on automobile collision. Each car moves about three feet into the other. The movement is so slow as to be invisible.”

The tectonic effects of the ensuing collision are incredible to watch; this would be hugely useful, it seems, in a geology lab, for demonstrating the movement of faults. Slow it down even more—not days, but weeks, months—and you could watch whole mountain ranges, basins, folds, and troughs form in stressed and crumpling landscapes of different materials over the course of an entire semester.

Two forces, oppositely oriented, appear at first glance to be still, their mutual ruination—gorgeous, unstoppable—already underway.

Prodigal Congress

[Image: Federal lands near Boulder, Utah; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

The incoming Republican Congress has redefined U.S. federal lands as being “effectively worthless,” making it easier to return those lands to state control, and then to auction them off to private ownership or future industrial use.

“In a single line of changes to the rules for the House of Representatives, Republicans have overwritten the value of federal lands, easing the path to disposing of federal property even if doing so loses money for the government and provides no demonstrable compensation to American citizens,” the Guardian reports.

“Essentially, the revised budget rules deny that federal land has any value at all, allowing the new Congress to sidestep requirements that a bill giving away a piece of federal land does not decrease federal revenue or contribute to the federal debt.”

As such, “federal land is effectively worthless.”

That people who voted for this party to be in power will be amongst the hundreds of thousands of Americans who drive west every summer to experience the natural beauty of the United States is so politically absurd that it is worth pointing out here, however briefly.

This is what those same voters rejected at the ballot box in November: “As a nation, we need policies and investments that will keep America’s public lands public, strengthen protections for our natural and cultural resources, increase access to parks and public lands for all Americans, protect species and wildlife, and harness the immense economic and social potential of our public lands and waters.” Their votes have also made it far more difficult to declare future National Monuments and National Parks, let alone to maintain the ones we already have.

Those same people will come home next summer with their smartphones and digital cameras full of images of extraordinary landscapes their own party just sold off the table for scrap.

Northern Sonic

[Image: Canada’s Fury and Hecla Strait, source of the “ping”].

The “mysterious ‘ping’ sound” occurring beneath the waters of Canada’s Fury and Hecla Strait is now under official investigation.

“Hunters in a remote community in Nunavut are concerned about a mysterious sound that appears to be coming from the sea floor,” the CBC reported back in November. “The ‘pinging’ sound, sometimes also described as a ‘hum’ or ‘beep,’ has been heard in Fury and Hecla Strait—roughly 120 kilometres northwest of the hamlet of Igloolik—throughout the summer.” One of many concerns is that, “whatever the cause, it’s scaring the animals away.”

To find out exactly what it is, the Canadian military has sent “two acoustic specialists to investigate the sound.” Oddly, however, “the specialists will not be visiting the actual area of Fury and Hecla Strait, but rather spending a week in Igloolik to gather information about the sound.”

In any case, if this was a novel, I wish I had written it—with slight variations. Two acousticians, carrying sensitive recording equipment and some personal baggage, are sent at short notice up to a tiny fishing hamlet in the far north to investigate a mysterious sound in the water.

No one has any idea of what it is or what’s causing it. It could be a unique natural effect of changing undersea currents, oceanographers suggest; it could be an adversarial foreign military sonar-mapping the strait for future navigation, a military advisor warns; it could be, one of the acousticians quietly begins to fear, supernatural; but the two of them continue researching nonetheless, engaging in sometimes eerie nighttime conversations with locals about a wide range of northern folklore, of vast Lovecraftian things waiting in the ice to thaw and stories of now-vengeful, thousand-year-old revenant hunters lost at sea.

[Image: The hamlet of Igloolik, Canada, visible on the left].

The acousticians return to their spartan accommodations every evening—an old creaking building whose sole resident passed away the year before, although no one will tell them of what cause—where they put on headphones and listen back through their daily recordings, this weird lurch of aquatic noise, as if they’ve wiretapped the drain of the world.

One of them becomes convinced he can hear something—a signal amongst the reverb—but the other can’t hear it, and, either way, it’s almost time to head south again.

A day before they’re set to leave, however, there is a commotion outside near the jetty as three people are rushed into the village. They are hypothermic and dehydrated—and, strangely, carrying U.S. passports despite the fact that one of them has been babbling in Russian. They were found in the strait, half-drowned, their fishing vessel sinking.

And so on. If you want to read the rest, buy me a coffee some time.

(Via Atlas Obscura).

The Doomway

[Image: The beginning of the Broomway path, at Wakering Stairs].

One of my favorite chapters in Robert Macfarlane’s recent book, The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot, has been excerpted over at the BBC—and, although the excerpt itself is well worth reading in full, it only reminds me of how good the entire chapter really is (note, as well, that the following quotations come from Macfarlane’s book, not from the BBC excerpt, lest there be variations in text).

The chapter documents a hike along the Broomway, an eerie coastal path across tidally exposed sands out where the Thames meets the North Sea.

The satellite photo, above, shows the Broomway’s launching point, at a place called Wakering Stairs. From there it heads into a shifting marine landscape of tidal flats—a “vast revealed world,” in Macfarlane’s words, of mud, half-buried guideposts, and omnipresent quicksand.

The path is also known as the Doomway: it is a path that leads “straight out to sea.”

[Image: One possible end-point—not the furthest—of the “Doomway” path].

The Broomway is “allegedly ‘the deadliest’ path in Britain,” Macfarlane writes, “and certainly the unearthliest path I have ever walked.”

It only exists at low tide, for starters, and it can often be followed only with the visual help of unstable wooden poles driven into the ground to mark its route across the landscape. Its unusual name, in fact, comes from “the 400 or so ‘brooms’ that were formerly placed at intervals of between thirty and sixty yards on either side of the track, thereby indicating the safe passage on the hard sand that lay between them.”

Without those brooms, the path—and not just where it’s heading, but the route you’ve already walked to get there–would disappear from view entirely, in effect stranding you at sea.

That might sound easy enough to account for, if you have a good sense of direction. “When the tide comes back in, though,” Macfarlane warns, “it comes fast—galloping over the sands quicker than a human can run.”

[Image: The endpoint of the Broomway tidal path].

A sense of how difficult the Broomway can be to follow is revealed by Macfarlane’s description of how people used to walk it in bad weather. “Until hand-held compasses became available to walkers, the safest way of navigating in bad conditions, when it was impossible to see from broom to broom, was with stone and thread. Walkers carried a 200-foot length of linen thread, with one end tied to a small stone. They would place the stone next to a broom and then walk away in what they believed to be the right direction, unspooling the thread as they went, until they could see the next broom.”

They would then either haul the stone up to their current position and start the process all over again, or they would search back through the mist and darkness for the correct route forward.

The path “is thought to have killed more than a hundred people over the centuries,” and what an utterly lost and disoriented death it must have been.

If you’re tempted to hike it—as am I—please take the necessary precautions; consider reading Macfarlane’s book the first necessary step.

(On a side note, it is very much not the same thing, but Andrew Michael Hurley’s novel The Loney takes place in a coastal British landscape that has its own disappearing footpath across the tidal sands; it can be, at times, uneven, but it is a good read for any fellow fans of Gothic horror).