saltair_web[Image: Saltair, photographed ca. 1901, courtesy of the Library of Congress].

While writing the previous post, I was reminded of the old sprawling Venetian structure called “Saltair,” built on the Great Salt Lake atop roughly 2,000 stilts, the ruins of which remain visible.

posts[Image: Via Google Maps].

Although the original building, seen in the topmost image, burned down in 1925, it was replaced by another behemoth architectural complex that later appeared in the film Carnival of Souls.

But it’s the sheer nature of piers—those bridges to nowhere, promising endless extensions of dry land over even the most abyssal of drowned landscapes—that captures my interest here, with Saltair promising something like an American Oil Rocks, that labyrinth of platforms and elevated roadways that snakes out, and out, and out, into the Caspian Sea, only, in this case, styled like some Renaissance palace of cupolas and domes, with rumors that it’s so vast, its furthest rooms have yet to be visited.

Islands at the Speed of Light

A recent paper published in the Physical Review has some astonishing suggestions for the geographic future of financial markets. Its authors, Alexander Wissner-Gross and Cameron Freer, discuss the spatial implications of speed-of-light trading.

Trades now occur so rapidly, they explain, and in such fantastic quantity, that the speed of light itself presents limits to the efficiency of global computerized trading networks.

These limits are described as “light propagation delays.”

[Image: Global map of “optimal intermediate locations between trading centers,” based on the earth’s geometry and the speed of light, by Alexander Wissner-Gross and Cameron Freer].

It is thus in traders’ direct financial interest, they suggest, to install themselves at specific points on the Earth’s surface—a kind of light-speed financial acupuncture—to take advantage both of the planet’s geometry and of the networks along which trades are ordered and filled. They conclude that “the construction of relativistic statistical arbitrage trading nodes across the Earth’s surface” is thus economically justified, if not required.

Amazingly, their analysis—seen in the map, above—suggests that many of these financially strategic points are actually out in the middle of nowhere: hundreds of miles offshore in the Indian Ocean, for instance, on the shores of Antarctica, and scattered throughout the South Pacific (though, of course, most of Europe, Japan, and the U.S. Bos-Wash corridor also make the cut).

These nodes exist in what the authors refer to as “the past light cones” of distant trading centers—thus the paper’s multiple references to relativity. Astonishingly, this thus seems to elide financial trading networks with the laws of physics, implying the eventual emergence of what we might call quantum financial products. Quantum derivatives! (This also seems to push us ever closer to the artificially intelligent financial instruments described in Charles Stross’s novel Accelerando). Erwin Schrödinger meets the Dow.

It’s financial science fiction: when the dollar value of a given product depends on its position in a planet’s light-cone.

[Image: Diagrammatic explanation of a “light cone,” courtesy of Wikipedia].

These points scattered along the earth’s surface are described as “optimal intermediate locations between trading centers,” each site “maximiz[ing] profit potential in a locally auditable manner.”

Wissner-Gross and Freer then suggest that trading centers themselves could be moved to these nodal points: “we show that if such intermediate coordination nodes are themselves promoted to trading centers that can utilize local information, a novel econophysical effect arises wherein the propagation of security pricing information through a chain of such nodes is effectively slowed or stopped.” An econophysical effect.

In the end, then, they more or less explicitly argue for the economic viability of building artificial islands and inhabitable seasteads—i.e. the “construction of relativistic statistical arbitrage trading nodes”—out in the middle of the ocean somewhere as a way to profit from speed-of-light trades. Imagine, for a moment, the New York Stock Exchange moving out into the mid-Atlantic, somewhere near the Azores, onto a series of New Babylon-like platforms, run not by human traders but by Watson-esque artificially intelligent supercomputers housed in waterproof tombs, all calculating money at the speed of light.

[Image: An otherwise unrelated image from NOAA featuring a geodetic satellite triangulation network].

“In summary,” the authors write, “we have demonstrated that light propagation delays present new opportunities for statistical arbitrage at the planetary scale, and have calculated a representative map of locations from which to coordinate such relativistic statistical arbitrage among the world’s major securities exchanges. We furthermore have shown that for chains of trading centers along geodesics, the propagation of tradable information is effectively slowed or stopped by such arbitrage.”

Historically, technologies for transportation and communication have resulted in the consolidation of financial markets. For example, in the nineteenth century, more than 200 stock exchanges were formed in the United States, but most were eliminated as the telegraph spread. The growth of electronic markets has led to further consolidation in recent years. Although there are advantages to centralization for many types of transactions, we have described a type of arbitrage that is just beginning to become relevant, and for which the trend is, surprisingly, in the direction of decentralization. In fact, our calculations suggest that this type of arbitrage may already be technologically feasible for the most distant pairs of exchanges, and may soon be feasible at the fastest relevant time scales for closer pairs.

Our results are both scientifically relevant because they identify an econo-physical mechanism by which the propagation of tradable information can be slowed or stopped, and technologically significant, because they motivate the construction of relativistic statistical arbitrage trading nodes across the Earth’s surface.

For more, read the original paper: PDF.

(Thanks to Nicola Twilley for the tip!)

Maunsell Towers

[Image: The Maunsell Sea Forts, photographed by Pete Speller, courtesy of Nick Sowers].

I missed an amazing opportunity the other week to visit the Maunsell Towers – aka the Maunsell Sea Forts – with Nick Sowers, author of an excellent Archinect school blog and one of my students from this summer’s studio down on Cockatoo Island in Sydney.

For the last year or so, Nick has been traveling around the world on a much-deserved John K. Branner Fellowship, documenting army bases, abandoned bunkers, and other sites of historical military interest. From South Korea to the Maginot Line, from classical war zones and medieval walled cities to “bunker recycling services” and D-Day, Nick’s itinerary is breath-taking. It is also, I hope, intriguing enough to catch the eye of future publishers or gallerists who might want to give Nick the space in which to break down all that he’s seen; there are very many of us who would love to learn more.

Of course, we could also hear more about his trip: Nick is acoustically-inclined, and he has been documenting the sounds of these militarized landscapes over on another blog he runs, called Soundscrapers.

[Images: Photos by Nick Sowers].

So Nick and his wife were in England the other week, and we unfortunately missed meeting up – but they managed to take a boat tour out to the Maunsell Sea Forts, iconic architectural structures in the Thames Estuary, inspirations for Archigram, and one of the few real-life buildings (if you can call them that) that gave me the idea to start BLDGBLOG. In fact, I’ve mentioned these places in lectures and I’ve posted about them on the blog before – but I’ve never had a chance to visit.

Nick’s photos, presented here, alongside photos by Pete Speller, will tell the story instead.

[Images: Photos by Nick Sowers].

As Underground Kent explains, “The Thames Estuary Army Forts were constructed in 1942 to a design by Guy Maunsell.”

Their purpose was to provide anti-aircraft fire within the Thames Estuary area. Each fort consisted of a group of seven towers with a walkway connecting them all to the central control tower. The fort, when viewed as a whole, comprised one Bofors tower, a control tower, four gun towers and a searchlight tower. They were arranged in a very specific way, with the control tower at the centre, the Bofors and gun towers arranged in a semi-circular fashion around it and the searchlight tower positioned further away, but still linked directly to the control tower via a walkway. All the forts followed this plan and, in order of grounding, were called the Nore Army Fort, the Red Sands Army Fort and finally the Shivering Sands Army Fort. All three forts were in place by late 1943, but Nore is no longer standing. Construction of the towers was relatively quick, and they were easily floated out to sea and grounded in water no more than 30m (100ft) deep.

They thus entered into the imaginations of speculative architects everywhere; they helped give visual shape to Archigram’s Walking City; and they continue to offer a kind of real-life spatial analogue for Constant’s New Babylon for anyone with access to a boat.

[Image: The Maunsell Sea Forts, photographed by Pete Speller, courtesy of Nick Sowers].

Nick explained in an email that he visited the structures with Tony Pine, a “sound engineer” – i.e. pirate radio operator – who spent the afternoon “telling stories of the days in the 60s when Archigram came out to visit the structures, and also about incredibly cold winters when they burned the wood-fibre linings of the tower interiors to stay warm.”

Also along for the ride was Robin Adcroft, director of Project Redsand, who “describes himself as the caretaker of the structures.” Adcroft points out the genealogical importance of these structures:

The Thames Sea Forts are the last in a long history of British Marine Defences. The Army Anti Aircraft forts have played a significant role in post World War 2 developments. Notably in offshore fuel exploration and drilling platforms. The successful rapid deployment of the Maunsell Forts soon after led to the construction of the first offshore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico in the late 1940s.

Both conceptually and materially, the Maunsell Towers have an architectural legacy that seems oddly under-explored.

[Images: Inside the forts; photos by Pete Speller, courtesy of Nick Sowers].

But “it’s interesting,” Nick adds: “no one actually owns these things.”

Apparently the transport authority wanted to give Project Redsand a deed but they declined it, not wanting the liability. A ship crashed into Shivering Sand (an outpost which is visible from Redsand) in the 60s, taking out one of the towers and killing two maintenance personnel. Red Sand is not actually in the shipping lane, but it is very much a hazard. The original 1/4 inch plate steel is rusting through to a paper thickness. We had to wear hardhats when the boat pulled in next to the structures.

Project Redsand has more information about efforts to preserve the forts – and they link to this short YouTube video in which you can see how these clustered towers might be stabilized and maintained for generations to come.

[Images: Photos by Pete Speller, courtesy of Nick Sowers].

Meanwhile, be sure to follow Nick Sowers’s slowly-ending travels around the militarized world on his Archinect blog – and he can also be found on Twitter.

Maunsell Towers Sea Forts

Speaking of Gunkanjima Island… There’s also the Maunsell Towers:

“The [Maunsell Towers] Thames Estuary Army Forts were constructed in 1942 to a design by Guy Maunsell, following the successful construction and deployment of the Naval Sea Forts. Their purpose was to provide anti-aircraft fire within the Thames Estuary area. Each fort consisted of a group of seven towers with a walkway connecting them all to the central control tower.” Constant’s Babylon meets the economic mobilization of WWII. These look like a cross between the Empire’s attack-convoy robot-walker things in *The Empire Strikes Back* and, yes, Constant’s Babylon:

As such, these are dying to be used in a film.
Another site verges on the illiterate, but it’s clearly enthusiastic, and explains the towers’ construction.