Fables of the Permanent and Insatiable

[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo of fire-fighting foam, via Wikipedia.]

There are at least two classes of materials that have always interested me: synthetic materials designed to be so resistant and indestructible that they verge on a kind of supernatural longevity, and engineered biomaterials, such as enzymes or microbes, designed to consume exactly these sorts of super-resistant materials.

There was a strangely haunting line in a recent tweet by journalist Sharon Lerner, for example: “Turns out it’s really hard to burn something that was designed to put out fires.” Lerner is specifically referring to a plant in upstate New York that was contracted to burn fire-fighting foam, a kind of industrial Ouroboros or contradiction in terms. How do you burn that which was made to resist fire?

Unsurprisingly, the plant is allegedly now surrounded by unburnt remnants of this unsuccessful incineration process, as “extremely persistent chemicals” have been found in the soil, groundwater, and bodies of nearby living creatures.

These chemicals are not literally indestructible, of course, but I am nevertheless fascinated by the almost mythic status of such materials: inhuman things that, Sorcerer’s Apprentice-like, cannot be turned off, controlled, or annihilated. In other words, we invent a hydrophobic industrial coating that resists water, only to find that, when it gets into streams and rivers and seas, it maintains this permanent separation from the water around it, never diluting, never breaking down, forming a kind of “extremely persistent” counter-ecology swirling around in the global deep.

Or we produce a new industrial adhesive so good at bonding that it cannot be separated from the things with which it has all but merged. In any other context, this would be pure metaphor, even folklore, a ghost story of possession and inseparable haunting. What if humans are actually too good at producing the permanent? What if we create something that cannot be killed or annihilated? It’s the golem myth all over again, this time set in the dust-free labs of BASF and 3M.

Coatings, metals, adhesives, composites: strange materials emerge from human laboratories that exceed any realistic human timescale, perhaps threatening to outlast geology itself. As continents melt in the heat of an expanding sun ten billion years from now, these ancient, undead materials will simply float to the top, resistant even to magma and celestial apocalypse. We will have created the supernatural, the uncannily permanent.

[Image: “Plastic-munching bacteria,” via PBS NewsHour.]

In any case, the flip-side of all this, then, is synthetic materials that have been designed to consume these very things. Every once in a while, for example, it’s announced that a lab somewhere has devised a new form of plastic-eating enzyme or that someone has discovered certain worms that eat plastic. In other words, there is now in the world a creature or thing that can degrade the eerily immortal materials coming from someone else’s lab down the hall. But what are the consequences of this, the metaphoric implications? What myths do we have of the omnivorous and insatiable?

It is not hard to imagine that classic sci-fi trope of something escaping from the lab and wreaking havoc in the outside world. At first, say, cars parked outside the laboratory where this stuff was developed begin showing structural wear; radio dials fall off; plastic handles on passenger seats break or even seem to be disintegrating. Then it appears inside houses, people accidentally taking it home with them in the pleats and folds of their cotton clothing, where this engineered microbe begins to feast on plastic housings for electrical connections, children’s toys, and kitchen goods, all of which have begun to age before failing entirely.

Then supermarkets and drugstores, then airports and planes themselves. Boats and ferries. Internal medical implants, from joints to stents. This plastic-eating organism begins to shift genes and mutate, inadvertently unleashed onto a world that seems exactly built for it, with new food everywhere in sight. Forty years later, no plastic exists. A hundred years later, even the cellulose in plants is threatened. The world is being consumed entirely.

My point—such as it is—is that materials science seems to operate within two mythic extremes, pulled back and forth between two supernatural ideals: there is that which resists to the point of uncanny permanence, of eerie immortality, and there is that which consumes to the point of universal insatiability, of boundless hunger. Both of these suggest such interesting fables, creating such otherworldly things and objects in the process.

The Deep

[Image: Binnewater Kilns, photo by BLDGBLOG.]

While I was over in New York State last fall, reporting both the “witch houses” piece for The New Yorker and the Middletown High School piece for The Guardian, I stopped off in the town of Rosendale, enticed there by several things I noticed on Google Maps.

[Image: The Rosendale Trestle, photo by BLDGBLOG.]

First was what turned out to be a satirical reference to something called the Geo Refrigeration Crevice, which, even on its own, sounded worth a side-trip. But, in the exact same area, there were also photos of an incredible-looking railway bridge converted to a hiking path that I wanted to walk across; there were these gorgeous, ruined kilns built into the hillside; and there were supposedly huge caves.

How on Earth could I drive past all that without stopping?

[Image: Caves everywhere! Photos by BLDGBLOG.]

Being—perhaps to my Instagram followers’ frustration—an avid hiker, I spent far more time there than I should have, mostly looking down into jagged crevasses that extended past the roots of trees, carpeted in fallen leaves, often hidden beneath great, shipwrecked jumbles of boulders slick with the waters of temporary streams.

I crossed the bridge and was ready to hit the road again, when I saw another site of interest on the map. I decided to walk all the way down and around to something called the Widow Jane Mine.

Having visited many mines in my life, I was expecting something like a small arched hole in the side of a hill, probably guarded with a locked gate. Instead, hiking into the woods past some sort of private home/closed mining museum, the ground still damp from rain, I found myself stunned by the unexpected appearance of these huge, moaning, jaw-like holes blasted into the Earth.

[Image: An entrance to the Widow Jane Mine; photo by BLDGBLOG.]

I walked inside and immediately saw the space was huge: a massive artificial cavern extending far back into the hillside. Excuse my terribly lit iPhone photos here, but these images should give you at least a cursory sense of the mine’s scale.

[Image: Inside the Widow Jane Mine; photos by BLDGBLOG.]

Several things gradually became clear as my eyes adjusted to the darkness.

One, I was totally alone in there and had no artificial illumination beyond my phone, whose light was useless. Two, a great deal of the mine was flooded, meaning that the true extent of its subterranean workings was impossible to gauge; I began fantasizing about returning someday with a canoe and seeing how far back it all really goes.

[Image: Flooding inside the Widow Jane Mine; photo by BLDGBLOG.]

Three, there were plastic lawn chairs everywhere. And they were facing the water.

While the actual explanation for this would later turn out to be both entirely sensible and somewhat anticlimactic—the mine, it turns out, is occasionally used as a performance venue for unusual concerts and events—it was impossible not to fall into a more Lovecraftian fantasy, of people coming here to sit together in the darkness, waiting patiently for something to emerge from the smooth black waters of a flooded mine, perhaps something they themselves have invited to the surface…

[Image: Lawn chairs facing the black waters of a flooded mine; photo by BLDGBLOG.]

In any case, at that point I couldn’t be stopped. While trying to figure out where in the world I had left my rental car, I noticed something else in Google’s satellite view of the area—some sort of abandoned factory complex in the woods—so I headed out to find it.

On the way there, still totally alone and not hiking past a single other person, there was some sort of Blair Witch house set back in the trees, collapsing under vegetation and water damage, with black yawning windows and graffiti everywhere. I believe it is this structure in the satellite pic.

[Image: A creepy, ruined house in the woods, photo by BLDGBLOG.]

Onward I continued, walking till I made it, finally, to this sprawling cement plant facility of some sort just standing there in a clearing.

[Image: Cement world; photos by BLDGBLOG.]

I wandered into the silos, looking at other people’s graffiti…

[Image: “Born to Die”—it’s hard to argue with that, although when I texted this photo to a friend he thought it said “Born to Pie,” which I suppose is even better. Photo by BLDGBLOG.]

…before continuing on again to find my car.

Then, though, one more crazy thing popped up, sort of hidden behind those kilns in the opening photo of this post.

There was a door in the middle of the forest! With a surveillance camera!

[Image: Photos by BLDGBLOG.]

It turns out this door leads down into the massive document-storage caverns of Iron Mountain located nearby, a company whose subterranean archive fever was documented in The New Yorker several years ago (albeit referring to a slightly different location of the firm). I would guess that this is the approximate location of that door.

This was confirmed for me by a man sitting alone in a public works truck back at the Binnewater Kilns parking lot, near my rental car. He was smoking a cigar and listening to the radio with his window rolled down when I walked up to the side of his truck and said, “Hey, man, what’s that door in the woods?”

Waller

[Image: Otherwise unrelated photo of a wall in Malta; photo by the author].

It’s a slow morning, so perhaps the laziness of linking to Wikipedia can be excused… Immurement is “a form of imprisonment, usually for life, in which a person is placed within an enclosed space with no exits.”

In folklore and myth, “immurement is prominent as a form of capital punishment, but its use as a type of human sacrifice to make buildings sturdy has many tales attached to it as well. Skeletal remains have been, from time to time, found behind walls and in hidden rooms and on several occasions have been asserted to be evidence of such sacrificial practices or of such a form of punishment.”

In terms of literature and film, an obvious example would be Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Cask of Amontillado,” but there was also an absolutely God-awful horror movie a few years ago called, yes, Walled In.

The examples given by Wikipedia include a Moroccan serial killer sentenced to death in 1906 by being walled alive—or immured—and whose screams, inside the walls, were audible for two days; immurement as a tactic for military revenge; and a horrific photo of a woman “immured” inside a wooden crate with only her arm and head visible, left to die outside in Mongolia.

Vaguely related to this, anchorites are self-isolated religious hermits, but ones who “take a vow of stability of place, opting instead for permanent enclosure in cells often attached to churches.” While not immurement in a technical sense, becoming an anchorite was nonetheless also a radical act of bodily enclosure, using architecture as an extreme kind of “stability of place,” a permanent habitation.

I suppose exile would be the opposite spatial condition, a state in which one is permanently disallowed from ever entering architecture, always locked outside. Walled out, as it were.

Wood from the Witch House

[Image: Via LASSCO].

This is amazing: shortly after writing an earlier post, I found this anecdote from an architectural salvage company in England called LASSCO. It’s like the beginning of a blockbuster film. A customer came in one weekend looking for “an oak beam for his fireplace lintel.” As LASSCO explains, the company tries to keep “a selection of them in stock—salvaged, prepped up and ready to sell. It was only when placing one of the beams aside we happened to put it down with daylight glancing along its length and we spotted that it held a secret. It was covered in apotropaic markings.”

Apotropaic markings, or protection marks, are basically magic symbols thought to ward off evil influences and keep malevolent fates at bay—and they are more common in traditional architectural practice than you might think. LASSCO even recommends checking your own house for them.

“If you live in a timber-framed house dating back earlier than the eighteenth century,” they advise, “look out for scratchings on the bressumer beam, sometimes only very lightly inscribed at the top corners of the fireplace, like the scratching of a cat. Look for a repeated ‘W’—thought to be a double ‘V’ for ‘Virgo Virginum’. Look for daisy wheels—a circular device with petals, or runic symbols—a ‘P’ incorporating a cross, or a ‘W’ incorporating a ‘P’. Look for two verticals with a ‘Saltire’ cross between them—a motif also much used on iron door latches and bolts and wrought iron firedogs.”

What an incredible setup for a horror film or novella: an architectural salvage firm uncovers strange ritual markings on pieces of timber in their inventory, and the macabre knock-on effects this might have as these bits of weird wood are incorporated into someone else’s home.

Alas, LASSCO’s tale is from 2013 and the oak beam has since been sold.

Opens Coat, Flashes Links

[Image: The “former constellation” Argo Navis, via Wikipedia].

Taps mic… Is this thing still on…

1. Hidden Charms was a conference on “the magical protection of buildings,” organized by Brian Hoggard. The one-day symposium looked at everything from ritual “protection marks” to dead cats stored in glass jars, put there “to keep the witches away.”

2. Amazon wants to put robots in every home. “The retail and cloud computing giant has embarked on an ambitious, top-secret plan to build a domestic robot, according to people familiar with the plans. Codenamed ‘Vesta,’ after the Roman goddess of the hearth, home and family,” the robot “could be a sort of mobile Alexa,” Businessweek speculates, “accompanying customers in parts of their home where they don’t have Echo devices. Prototypes of the robots have advanced cameras and computer vision software and can navigate through homes like a self-driving car.”

3. A woman in Austin, Texas, went missing in 2015. Without monthly payments, her house was eventually seized and sold by the bank—but the home’s new owners found the skeletal remains of a body inside one of the walls back in March. It was the missing woman. “In the attic, there was a broken board that led down to the space” where the skeleton was found, a coroner’s spokesperson explained. “Law enforcement thinks she may have been up in the attic and fell through the attic floor.” Horrifically, whether she was killed by the fall or remained alive, trapped inside the wall, is unclear.

4. At an event here in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, artist and writer Julia Christensen drew my attention to officially recognized “former constellations,” or named star groups that are no longer considered referentially viable.

5. The Roman monetary system left a planetary-archaeological trace in Greenland’s ice sheet, according to Rob Meyer of The Atlantic. “A team of archaeologists, historians, and climate scientists have constructed a history of Rome’s lead pollution,” Meyer explains, “which allows them to approximate Mediterranean economic activity from 1,100 b.c. to 800 a.d. They found it hiding thousands of miles from the Roman Forum: deep in the Greenland Ice Sheet, the enormous, miles-thick plate of ice that entombs the North Atlantic island.” With this data, they have “reconstructed year-by-year economic data documenting the rise and fall of the Roman Republic and Empire.” Oddly enough, this means the Greenland Ice Sheet is a landscape-scale archive of Roman financial data.

6. Speaking of economic data mined from indirect sources, “satellite imagery that tracks changes in the level of nighttime lighting within and between countries over time” might also reveal whether countries are lying about the strengths of their economies. According to researcher Luis R. Martinez, “increases in nighttime lighting generally track with increases in GDP,” and this becomes of interest when lighting levels don’t correspond with officially given numbers. Of course, this is not the first time that satellite imagery has been used to estimate economic data.

7. “Today our experience of the night differs significantly from that of our ancestors,” Nancy Gonlin and April Nowell write for Sapiens. “Before they mastered fire, early humans lived roughly half their lives in the dark.” Cue the rise of “archaeological inquiries into the night,” or what Gonlin and Nowell have evocatively named the “archaeology of night.”

8. There was an amazing article by Jake Halpern published in The New Yorker two years ago about Nazi gold fever in Poland and the incredible amount of amateur detective operations there dedicated to finding an alleged buried fortune. It’s a wild mix of abandoned WWII bunkers, secret underground cities in the forest, and urban legends of untold wealth. It turns out, however, there is a (vaguely) similar obsession with lost or buried gold in northwestern Pennsylvania: “For decades, treasure hunters in Pennsylvania have suspected that there is a trove of Civil War gold lost in a rural forest in the northwestern part of the state,” the New York Times reports. “The story of the gold bars was pieced together from old documents, a map and even a mysterious note found decades ago in a hiding place on the back of a bed post in Caledonia,” the paper explains.

9. People are drawn to forests for all sorts of reasons. As Alex Mar wrote last autumn for the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Slender Man phenomenon—that inspired two young girls to try to murder a classmate—also had a forest element. “Girls lured out into the dark woods—this is the stuff of folk tales from so many countries,” Mar writes, “a New World fear of the Puritans, an image at the heart of witchcraft and the occult, timeless.” Mar points out that, after the attempted murder, the two girls began heading “to Wisconsin’s Nicolet National Forest on foot, nearly 200 miles north. They were convinced that, once there, if they pushed farther and farther into the nearly 700,000-acre forest, they would find the mansion in which their monster [Slender Man] dwells and he would welcome them.” The whole article is an interesting look at childhood, folklore, and the sometimes dark allure of the wild.

10. More treasure hunts: is there a cache of buried armaments, stolen from a National Guard armory in 1970, hidden somewhere in Amesbury, Massachusetts? According to a commenter on the Cast Boolits forum, William Gilday, who once “led an assault on a National Guard armory in Newburyport” and who spent nearly half of his life in prison for killing a police officer, confessed on his death bed that he buried guns and ammunition stolen from the armory somewhere in his hometown of Amesbury. “It’s one of those ‘what if’ things,” the commenter continues. “I’ve known about the confession for years, and I walk my dog in the ‘suspected’ vicinity just about every day. The problem is that the ‘authorities’ claim that everything that was stolen was recovered. But, a few weeks ago, I emailed a local radio talk show host who was involved in the death bed confession and I asked her if she thought that stolen items really had been buried in my town and she replied, ‘Yes…do you know where they are?’”

11. “A dispute between Serbia and Kosovo has disrupted the electric power grid for most of the Continent, making certain kinds of clocks—many of those on ovens, in heating systems and on radios—run up to six minutes slow,” the New York Times reported back in March. “The fluctuation in the power supply is infinitesimally small—not nearly enough to make a meaningful difference for most powered devices—and if it were a brief disturbance, the effect on clocks might be too little to worry about.” But this six-minute lag is enough to cause subtle effects in people’s lives. A bad first novel could be written about slow clocks, distant political disputes, and some sort of disastrous event—a missed train, a skipped meeting—in the narrator’s personal life.

12. The above story reminds me of the suspicion last year that Russia was using some sort of large-scale GPS jamming device in the Black Sea. “Reports of satellite navigation problems in the Black Sea suggest that Russia may be testing a new system for spoofing GPS,” David Hambling reported for New Scientist. “This could be the first hint of a new form of electronic warfare available to everyone from rogue nation states to petty criminals.” The reason I say this is because you can easily imagine a scenario where someone is driving around, totally lost, receiving contradictory if not frankly nonsensical navigation instructions, and it’s because they are an unwitting, long-distance victim of geographic weaponry being used in a war zone far away.

13. The legendary music fest Sónar has been sending music to “a potentially habitable exoplanet” called GJ273b, attempting to contact alien intelligence with transmissions of electronic music. Transmission 1 was sent back in October; Transmission 2 ended today. The transmissions should arrive at the planet in November 2030.

The Ghost of Cognition Past, or Thinking Like An Algorithm

[Image: Wiring the ENIAC; via Wired]

One of many things I love about writing—that is, engaging in writing as an activity—is how it facilitates a discovery of connections between otherwise unrelated things. Writing reveals and even relies upon analogies, metaphors, and unexpected similarities: there is resonance between a story in the news and a medieval European folktale, say, or between a photo taken in a war-wrecked city and an 18th-century landscape painting. These sorts of relations might remain dormant or unnoticed until writing brings them to the foreground: previously unconnected topics and themes begin to interact, developing meanings not present in those original subjects on their own.

Wildfires burning in the Arctic might bring to mind infernal images from Paradise Lost or even intimations of an unwritten J.G. Ballard novel, pushing a simple tale of natural disaster to new symbolic heights, something mythic and larger than the story at hand. Learning that U.S. Naval researchers on the Gulf Coast have used the marine slime of a “300-million-year old creature” to develop 21st-century body armor might conjure images from classical mythology or even from H.P. Lovecraft: Neptunian biotech wed with Cthulhoid military terror.

In other words, writing means that one thing can be crosswired or brought into contrast with another for the specific purpose of fueling further imaginative connections, new themes to be pulled apart and lengthened, teased out to form plots, characters, and scenes.

In addition, a writer of fiction might stage an otherwise straightforward storyline in an unexpected setting, in order to reveal something new about both. It’s a hard-boiled detective thriller—set on an international space station. It’s a heist film—set at the bottom of the sea. It’s a procedural missing-person mystery—set on a remote military base in Afghanistan.

Thinking like a writer would mean asking why things have happened in this way and not another—in this place and not another—and to see what happens when you begin to switch things around. It’s about strategic recombination.

I mention all this after reading a new essay by artist and critic James Bridle about algorithmic content generation as seen in children’s videos on YouTube. The piece is worth reading for yourself, but I wanted to highlight a few things here.

[Image: Wiring the ENIAC; via Wired]

In brief, the essay suggests that an increasingly odd, even nonsensical subcategory of children’s video is emerging on YouTube. The content of these videos, Bridle writes, comes from what he calls “keyword/hashtag association.” That is, popular keyword searches have become a stimulus for producing new videos whose content is reverse-engineered from those searches.

To use an entirely fictional example of what this means, let’s imagine that, following a popular Saturday Night Live sketch, millions of people begin Googling “Pokémon Go Ewan McGregor.” In the emerging YouTube media ecology that Bridle documents, someone with an entrepreneurial spirit would immediately make a Pokémon Go video featuring Ewan McGregor both to satisfy this peculiar cultural urge and to profit from the anticipated traffic.

Content-generation through keyword mixing is “a whole dark art unto itself,” Bridle suggests. As a particular keyword or hashtag begins to trend, “content producers pile onto it, creating thousands and thousands more of these videos in every possible iteration.” Imagine Ewan McGregor playing Pokémon Go, forever.

What’s unusual here, however, and what Bridle specifically highlights in his essay, is that this creative process is becoming automated: machine-learning algorithms are taking note of trending keyword searches or popular hashtag combinations, then recommending the production of content to match those otherwise arbitrary sets. For Bridle, the results verge on the incomprehensible—less Big Data, say, than Big Dada.

This is by no means new. Recall the origin of House of Cards on Netflix. Netflix learned from its massive trove of consumer data that its customers liked, among other things, David Fincher films, political thrillers, and the actor Kevin Spacey. As David Carr explained for the New York Times back in 2013, this suggested the outline of a possible series: “With those three circles of interest, Netflix was able to find a Venn diagram intersection that suggested that buying the series would be a very good bet on original programming.”

In other words, House of Cards was produced because it matched a data set, an example of “keyword/hashtag association” becoming video.

The question here would be: what if, instead of a human producer, a machine-learning algorithm had been tasked with analyzing Netflix consumer data and generating an idea for a new TV show? What if that recommendation algorithm didn’t quite understand which combinations would be good or worth watching? It’s not hard to imagine an unwatchably surreal, even uncanny television show resulting from this, something that seems to make more sense as a data-collection exercise than as a coherent plot—yet Bridle suggests that this is exactly what’s happening in the world of children’s videos online.

[Image: From Metropolis].

In some of these videos, Bridle explains, keyword-based programming might mean something as basic as altering a few words in a script, then having actors playfully act out those new scenarios. Actors might incorporate new toys, new types of candy, or even a particular child’s name: “Matt” on a “donkey” at “the zoo” becomes “Matt” on a “horse” at “the zoo” becomes “Carla” on a “horse” at “home.” Each variant keyword combination then results in its own short video, and each of these videos can be monetized. Future such recombinations are infinite.

In an age of easily produced digital animations, Bridle adds, these sorts of keyword micro-variants can be produced both extremely quickly and very nearly automatically. Some YouTube producers have even eliminated “human actors” altogether, he writes, “to create infinite reconfigurable versions of the same videos over and over again. What is occurring here is clearly automated. Stock animations, audio tracks, and lists of keywords being assembled in their thousands to produce an endless stream of videos.”

Bridle notes with worry that it is nearly impossible here “to parse out the gap between human and machine.”

Going further, he suggests that the automated production of new videos based on popular search terms has resulted in scenes so troubling that children should not be exposed to them—but, interestingly, Bridle’s reaction here seems to be based on those videos’ content. That is, the videos feature animated characters appearing without heads, or kids being buried alive in sandboxes, or even the painful sounds of babies crying.

What I think is unsettling here is slightly different, on the other hand. The content, in my opinion, is simply strange: a kind of low-rent surrealism for kids, David Lynch-lite for toddlers. For thousands of years, western folktales have featured cannibals, incest, haunted houses, even John Carpenter-like biological transformations, from woman to tree, or from man to pig and back again. Children burn to death on chariots in the sky or sons fall from atmospheric heights into the sea. These myths seem more nightmarish—on the level of content—than some of Bridle’s chosen YouTube videos.

Instead, I would argue, what’s disturbing here is what the content suggests about how things should be connected. The real risk would seem to be that children exposed to recommendation algorithms at an early age might begin to emulate them cognitively, learning how to think, reason, and associate based on inhuman leaps of machine logic.

Bridle’s inability “to parse out the gap between human and machine” might soon apply not just to these sorts of YouTube videos but to the children who grew up watching them.

[Image: Replicants in Blade Runner].

One of my favorite scenes in Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum is when a character named Jacopo Belbo describes different types of people. Everyone in the world, Belbo suggests, is one of only four types: there are “cretins, fools, morons, and lunatics.”

In the context of the present discussion, it is interesting to note that these categories are defined by modes of reasoning. For example, “Fools don’t claim that cats bark,” Belbo explains, “but they talk about cats when everyone else is talking about dogs.” They get their references wrong.

It is Eco’s “lunatic,” however, who offers a particularly interesting character type for us to consider: the lunatic, we read, is “a moron who doesn’t know the ropes. The moron proves his [own] thesis; he has a logic, however twisted it may be. The lunatic, on the other hand, doesn’t concern himself at all with logic; he works by short circuits. For him, everything proves everything else. The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration…”

It might soon be time to suggest a fifth category, something beyond the lunatic, where thinking like an algorithm becomes its own strange form of reasoning, an alien logic gradually accepted as human over two or three generations to come.

Assuming I have read Bridle’s essay correctly—and it is entirely possible I have not—he seems disturbed by the content of these videos. I think the more troubling aspect, however, is in how they suggest kids should think. They replace narrative reason with algorithmic recommendation, connecting events and objects in weird, illogical bursts lacking any semblance of internal coherence, where the sudden appearance of something completely irrelevant can nonetheless be explained because of its keyword-search frequency. Having a conversation with someone who thinks like this—who “thinks” like this—would be utterly alien, if not logically impossible.

So, to return to this post’s beginning, one of the thrills of thinking like a writer, so to speak, is precisely in how it encourages one to bring together things that might not otherwise belong on the same page, and to work toward understanding why these apparently unrelated subjects might secretly be connected.

But what is thinking like an algorithm?

It will be interesting to see if algorithmically assembled material can still offer the sort of interpretive challenge posed by narrative writing, or if the only appropriate response to the kinds of content Bridle describes will be passive resignation, indifference, knowing that a data set somewhere produced a series of keywords and that the story before you goes no deeper than that. So you simply watch the next video. And the next. And the next.

Seismic Potential Energy

[Image: Photo by BLDGBLOG].

I got to hike with my friend Wayne last week through a place called the Devil’s Punchbowl, initially by way of a trail out and back from a very Caspar David Friedrich-ian overlook called the Devil’s Chair.

[Image: Wayne, Rückenfigur; photo by BLDGBLOG].

The Punchbowl more or less lies astride the San Andreas Fault, and the Devil’s Chair, in particular, surveils this violently serrated landscape, like gazing out across exposed rows of jagged teeth—terra dentata—or perhaps the angled waves of a frozen Hokusai painting. The entire place seems charged with the seismic potential energy of an impending earthquake.

[Image: It is difficult to get a sense of scale from this image, but this geological feature alone is at least 100 feet in height, and it is only one of hundreds; photo by BLDGBLOG].

The rocks themselves are enormous, splintered and looming sometimes hundreds of feet over your head, and in the heat-haze they almost seem buoyant, subtly bobbing up and down with your footsteps like the tips of drifting icebergs.

[Image: Looking out at the Devil’s Chair; photo by BLDGBLOG].

In fact, we spent the better part of an hour wondering aloud how geologists could someday cause massive underground rock formations such as these to rise to the surface of the Earth, like shipwrecks pulled from the bottom of the sea. Rather than go to the minerals, in other words, geologists could simply bring the minerals to them.

[Image: Photo by BLDGBLOG].

Because of the angles of the rocks, however, it’s remarkably easy to hike out amidst them, into open, valley-like groins that have been produced by tens of thousands of years’ worth of rainfall and erosion; once there, you can just scramble up the sides, skirting past serpentine pores and small caves that seem like perfect resting spaces for snakes, till you reach sheer drop-offs at the top.

There, views open up of more and more—and more—of these same tilted rocks, leading on along the fault, marking the dividing line between continental plates and tempting even the most exhausted hiker further into the landscape. The problem with these sorts of cresting views is that they become addictive.

[Image: Wayne, panoramically doubled; photo by BLDGBLOG].

At the end of the day, we swung by the monastic community at St. Andrew’s Abbey, which is located essentially in the middle of the San Andreas Fault. Those of you who have read David Ulin’s book The Myth of Solid Ground will recall the strange relationship Ulin explores connecting superstition, faith, folk science, and popular seismology amongst people living in an earthquake zone.

Even more specifically, you might recall a man Ulin mentions who once claimed that, hidden “in the pattern of the L.A freeway system, there is an apparition of a dove whose presence serves to restrain ‘the forces of the San Andreas fault’.”

This is scientifically cringeworthy, to be sure, but it is nonetheless interesting in revealing how contemporary infrastructure can become wrapped up in emergent mythologies of how the world (supposedly) works.

The idea, then, of a rogue seismic abbey quietly established in a remote mountainous region of California “to restrain ‘the forces of the San Andreas Fault’”—which, to be clear, is not the professed purpose of St. Andrew’s Abbey—is an idea worth exploring in more detail, in another medium. Imagine monks, praying every night to keep the rocks below them still, titanic geological forces lulled into a state of quiescent slumber.

[Image: Vasquez Rocks at sunset; photo by BLDGBLOG].

In fact, I lied: at the actual end of the day, Wayne and I split up and I drove back to Los Angeles alone by way of a sunset hike at Vasquez Rocks, a place familiar to Star Trek fans, where rock formations nearly identical to—but also less impressive than—the Devil’s Punchbowl breach the surface of the Earth like dorsal fins. The views, as you’d expect, were spectacular.

Both parks—not to mention St. Andrew’s Abbey—are within easy driving distance of Los Angeles, and both are worth a visit.

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.

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 power 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 how—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).

Directions Might Not Terminate

Katherine Ye has posted short descriptions of “twenty tiny cities,” an homage to Italo Calvino, and some of them are so good. Clockwork City: “Buildings are constantly sliding, turning, merging, separating. Directions: ‘Your destination will arrive in 1.5 hours.’” Fractal City: “Directions are given recursively. ‘Go to the middle triangle, then to its top triangle. Repeat until you arrive.’ Directions might not terminate.” Desire Path City: “They covered the city with meadows of grass, then after a year, built roads where foot traffic had worn grass to dirt.” Nondeterministic City: “Every time you reach an intersection, you take all of them at once. There are few maps of the city, because you’ll always find what you’re looking for.” (Spotted via @katierosepipkin).

Secret Tunnels of England

The London Fortean Society, of all people, will be hosting a talk called “Secret Tunnels of England: Folklore and Fact” by Antony Clayton, author of the fascinating book Subterranean City: Beneath the Streets of London, on March 9. “So-called secret tunnels are a subject of perennial interest,” we read. “Are there really labyrinths of hidden passageways under our ancient buildings, towns and cities, or are these tunnel tales another seam of England’s rich folklore?” See, for example, BLDGBLOG’s earlier look at the Peterborough tunnels. There is still time to get on a waiting list for tickets. For what it’s worth, I also referred to Clayton’s book in my recent essay for The Daily Beast about the Hatton Garden heist. (Event originally spotted via @urbigenous).