Infrastructural Voodoo Doll

For the past few months, on various trips out west to Los Angeles, I’ve been working on an exclusive story about a new intelligence-gathering unit at LAX, the Los Angeles International Airport.

To make a long story short, in the summer of 2014 Los Angeles World Airports—the parent organization in control of LAX—hired two intelligence analysts, both with top secret clearance, in order to analyze global threats targeting the airport.

There were many things that brought me to this story, but what particularly stood out was the very idea that a piece of transportation infrastructure could now punch above its weight, taking on the intelligence-gathering and analytical capabilities not just of a city, but of a small nation-state.

It implied a kind of parallel intelligence organization created to protect not a democratic polity but an airfield. This suggested to me that perhaps our models of where power actually lies in the contemporary city are misguided—that, instead of looking to City Hall, for example, we should be focusing on economic structures, ports, sites of logistics, places that wield a different sort of influence and require a new kind of protection and security.

From the article, which is now online at The Atlantic:

Under the moniker of “critical infrastructure protection,” energy-production, transportation-logistics, waste-disposal, and other sites have been transformed from often-overlooked megaprojects on the edge of the metropolis into the heavily fortified, tactical crown jewels of the modern state. Bridges, tunnels, ports, dams, pipelines, and airfields have an emergent geopolitical clout that now rivals democratically elected civic institutions.

For me, this has incredible implications:

It might sound like science fiction, but, in 20 years’ time, it could very well be that LAX has a stronger international-intelligence game than many U.S. allies. LAX field agents could be embedded overseas, cultivating informants, sussing out impending threats. It will be an era of infrastructural intelligence, when airfields, bridges, ports, and tunnels have, in effect, their own internal versions of the CIA—and LAX will be there first.

There are obvious shades here of Keller Easterling’s notion of “extrastatecraft,” where infrastructure has come to assume a peculiar form of political authority.

As such, it also resembles an initiative undertaken by the NYPD in the years immediately following 9/11—a story well told by at least three books, Peter Bergen’s excellent United States of Jihad, Christopher Dickey’s Securing the City, and, more critically, Enemies Within by Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman.

However, there is at least one key difference here: the NYPD unit was operating as an urban-scale intelligence apparatus, whereas the L.A. initiative exists at the level of a piece of transportation infrastructure. Imagine the Holland Tunnel, I-90, or the M25 hiring its own in-house intel team, and you can begin to imagine the strange new powers and influence this implies.

In any case, the bulk of the piece is focused on introducing readers to the core group of people behind the program.

There is Anthony McGinty, a former D.C. homicide detective and Marine Reserve veteran, kickstarting a second career on the west coast; there is Michelle Sosa, a trilingual Boston University grad with a background in intelligence analysis; and there is Ethel McGuire, one of the first black female agents in FBI history, who undertook their hiring.

There are, of course, literally thousands of others of people involved, from baggage handlers and the LAX Fire Department to everyday travelers. LAX, after all, is a city in miniature:

At more than five square miles, it is only slightly smaller than Beverly Hills. More than 50,000 badged employees report to work there each day, many with direct access to the airfield—and thus to the vulnerable aircraft waiting upon it. More than 100,000 passenger vehicles use the airport’s roads and parking lots every day, and, in 2015 alone, LAX hosted 75 million passengers in combined departures and arrivals.

LAX is also policed like a city. The airport has its own SWAT team—known as the Emergency Services Unit—and employs roughly 500 sworn police officers, double the number of cops in the well-off city of Pasadena and more than the total number of state police in all of Rhode Island.

However, the actual space of the airport—the built landscape of logistics—is probably the main potential source of interest for BLDGBLOG readers.

For example, at the western edge of the airfield, there is an abandoned suburb called Surfridge, its empty streets and sand dunes now used as a butterfly sanctuary and as a place for police-training simulations. The runways themselves are vast symbolic landscapes painted with geometric signs that have to be read to be navigated. And then there are the terminals, currently undergoing a massive, multibillion dollar renovation campaign.

At one point, I found myself sitting inside the office complex of Gavin de Becker, an anti-assassination security expert who has worked for celebrities, foreign dignitaries, and even U.S. presidents. Protected behind false-front signage, de Becker’s hidden complex houses a full-scale airplane fuselage for emergency training, as well as ballistic dummies and a soundproofed shooting range.

I had a blast working on this piece, and am thrilled that it’s finally online. Check it out, if you get a chance, and don’t miss the speculative “case files” at the end, brief examples of what might be called infrastructural security fiction.

(Thanks to Ross Andersen and Sacha Zimmerman at The Atlantic for the edits. All images in this post from Google Maps, filtered through Instagram).

Yodaville

[Image: Yodaville, via Google Maps].

All the Google Maps sleuthing of the Los Angeles “ghost streets” post reminded me of stumbling on a place called Yodaville—seen above—as previously explored here back in 2012. Yodaville is a simulated city in the Arizona desert, deep inside the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, used for targeting exercises.

It is truly in the middle of the nowhere, roughly midway between the Gila Mountains and the U.S./Mexico border.

Its official name is Urban Target Complex (R-2301-West).

(Related: In the Box: A Tour Through the Simulated Battlefields of the U.S. National Training Center).

Cereal Bags of the Stratosphere

[Image: One of Google’ Loon balloons; screen grab from this video].

“The lab is 250 feet wide, 200 feet deep, and 70 feet tall. It’s a massive space where Google’s scientists can simulate the negative-60 degrees Celsius temperature of the stratosphere.” Alexis Madrigal on Google’s Project Loon balloons.

The future of the internet is cereal bag technology in the sky.

This Is Only A Test

[Image: From Ways of Knowing by Daniel Stier, on display at the kulturreich gallery].

Photographer Daniel Stier has a new book out, and an accompanying exhibition on display at the kulturreich gallery, called Ways of Knowing.

Skier’s photos depict human subjects immersed in, or even at the mercy of, spatial instrumentation: strange devices conducting experiments that function at the scale of architecture but whose purpose remains unidentified.

[Image: From Ways of Knowing by Daniel Stier, on display at the kulturreich gallery].

In Stier’s words, the overall series is “a personal project exploring the real world of scientific research. Not the stainless steel surfaces bathed in purple light, but real people in their basements working on selfbuilt contraptions. All shot in state of the art research institutions across Europe and the US, showing experiments with human subjects. Portrayed are the people conducting the experiments—students, doctorands and professors.”

In recent interviews discussing the book, Stier has pointed out what he calls “similarities between artistic and scientific work,” with an emphasis on the craft that goes into designing and executing these devices.

However, there is also a performative or aesthetic aspect to many of these that hints at resonances beyond the world of applied science—a person staring into multicolored constellations painted on the inside of an inverted bowl, for example.

[Image: From Ways of Knowing by Daniel Stier, on display at the kulturreich gallery].

Ostensibly an ophthalmic device of some kind, it could just as easily be an amateur’s attempt at OpArt.

In a sense, these are not just one-off scientific experiments but spatial prototypes: rigorous attempts at building and establishing a very particular kind of environment—a carefully calibrated and tuned zone of parameters, forces, and influences—then exposing people to those worlds as a means of testing for their effects.

[Image: From Ways of Knowing by Daniel Stier, on display at the kulturreich gallery].

In any case, here are a few more images to pique your curiosity, but many, many more photos are available in Stier’s book, which just began shipping this month, and, of course, over at Stier’s website.

[Images: From Ways of Knowing by Daniel Stier, on display at the kulturreich gallery].

(Originally spotted via New Scientist).

Driving on Mars and the Theater of Machines

[Image: Self-portrait on Mars; via NASA].

Science has published a short profile of a woman named Vandi Verma. She is “one of the few people in the world who is qualified to drive a vehicle on Mars.”

Vera has driven a series of remote vehicles on another planet over the years, including, most recently, the Curiosity rover.

[Image: Another self-portrait on Mars; via NASA].

Driving it involves a strange sequence of simulations, projections, and virtual maps that are eventually beamed out from planet to planet, the robot at the other end acting like a kind of wheeled marionette as it then spins forward along its new route. Here is a long description of the process from Science:

Each day, before the rover shuts down for the frigid martian night, it calls home, Verma says. Besides relaying scientific data and images it gathered during the day, it sends its precise coordinates. They are downloaded into simulation software Verma helped write. The software helps drivers plan the rover’s route for the next day, simulating tricky maneuvers. Operators may even perform a dry run with a duplicate rover on a sandy replica of the planet’s surface in JPL’s Mars Yard. Then the full day’s itinerary is beamed to the rover so that it can set off purposefully each dawn.

What’s interesting here is not just the notion of an interplanetary driver’s license—a qualification that allows one to control wheeled machines on other planets—but the fact that there is still such a clear human focus at the center of the control process.

The fact that Science‘s profile of Verma begins with her driving agricultural equipment on her family farm in India, an experience that quite rapidly scaled up to the point of guiding rovers across the surface of another world entirely, only reinforces the sense of surprise here—that farm equipment in India and NASA’s Mars rover program bear technical similarities.

They are, in a sense, interplanetary cousins, simultaneously conjoined and air-gapped across two worlds..

[Image: A glimpse of the dreaming; photo by Alexis Madrigal, courtesy of The Atlantic].

Compare this to the complex process of programming and manufacturing a driverless vehicle. In an interesting piece published last summer, Alexis Madrigal explained that Google’s self-driving cars operate inside a Borgesian 1:1 map of the physical world, a “virtual track” coextensive with the landscape you and I stand upon and inhabit.

“Google has created a virtual world out of the streets their engineers have driven,” Madrigal writes. And, like the Mars rover program we just read about, “They pre-load the data for the route into the car’s memory before it sets off, so that as it drives, the software knows what to expect.”

The software knows what to expect because the vehicle, in a sense, is not really driving on the streets outside Google’s Mountain View campus; it is driving in a seamlessly parallel simulation of those streets, never leaving the world of the map so precisely programmed into its software.

Like Christopher Walken’s character in the 1983 film Brainstorm, Google’s self-driving cars are operating inside a topographical dream state, we might say, seeing only what the headpiece allows them to see.

[Image: Navigating dreams within dreams: (top) from Brainstorm; (bottom) a Google self-driving car, via Google and re:form].

Briefly, recall a recent essay by Karen Levy and Tim Hwang called “Back Stage at the Machine Theater.” That piece looked at the atavistic holdover of old control technologies—such as steering wheels—in vehicles that are actually computer-controlled.

There is no need for a human-manipulated steering wheel, in other words, other than to offer a psychological point of focus for the vehicle’s passengers, to give them the feeling that they can still take over.

This is the “machine theater” that the title of their essay refers to: a dramaturgy made entirely of technical interfaces that deliberately produce a misleading illusion of human control. These interfaces are “placebo buttons,” they write, that transform all but autonomous technical systems into “theaters of volition” that still appear to be under manual guidance.

I mention this essay here because the Science piece with which this post began also explains that NASA’s rover program is being pushed toward a state of greater autonomy.

“One of Verma’s key research goals,” we read, “has been to give rovers greater autonomy to decide on a course of action. She is now working on a software upgrade that will let Curiosity be true to its name. It will allow the rover to autonomously select interesting rocks, stopping in the middle of a long drive to take high-resolution images or analyze a rock with its laser, without any prompting from Earth.”

[Image: Volitional portraiture on Mars; via NASA].

The implication here is that, as the Mars rover program becomes “self-driving,” it will also be transformed into a vast “theater of volition,” in Levy’s and Hwang’s formulation: that Earth-bound “drivers” might soon find themselves reporting to work simply to flip placebo levers and push placebo buttons as these vehicles go about their own business far away.

It will become more ritual than science, more icon than instrument—a strangely passive experience, watching a distant machine navigate simulated terrain models and software packages coextensive with the surface of Mars.

Tales of the Crash: An Interview with Nick Arvin

Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

(Note: An earlier version of this interview previously appeared on Venue).

Ellis Barstow, the protagonist in Nick Arvin‘s most recent novel, is a reconstructionist: an engineer who uses forensic analysis and simulation to piece together, in minute detail, what happened at a car crash site and why.

The novel is based on Arvin’s own experiences in the field of crash reconstruction; Arvin thus leads an unusual double-life as a working mechanical engineer and a successful author of literary fiction.

As part of our Venue project, Nicola Twilley and I sat down with Arvin at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver for an afternoon of conversation and car crash animations.

Flipping open his laptop, Arvin kicked things off by showing us a kind of greatest hits reel drawn from his own crash reconstruction experience. Watching the short, blocky animations—a semi jack-knifing across the center line, an SUV rear-ending a silver compact car, before ricocheting backward into a telephone pole—was surprisingly uncomfortable.

[Images: Nick Arvin demonstrates simulated car crashes; photos by Nicola Twilley].

As he hit play, each scene was both unspectacular and familiar—a rural two-lane highway in the rain, a suburban four-way stop surrounded by gas stations and fast-food franchises—yet, because we knew an impact was inevitable, these everyday landscapes seemed freighted with both anticipation and tragedy.

The animations incorporated multiple viewpoints, slowing and replaying the moments of impact, and occasionally overlaying an arrow, scale, or trajectory trace. This layer of scientific explanation provided a jarring contrast to the violence of the collision itself and the resulting wreckage—not only of the scattered vehicles, but of entire lives.

As we went on to discuss, it is precisely this disjuncture—between the neat explanations provided by laws of physics and the random chaos of human motivation and behavior—that The Reconstructionist takes as its narrative territory.

Our conversation ranged from the art of car crash forensics to the limits of causality and chance, via feral pigs, Walden Pond, and the Higgs boson. An edited transcript appears below.

• • •

Nicola Twilley: Walk us though how you would build and animate these car crash reconstructions.

Nick Arvin: In the company where I worked, we had an engineering group and an animation group. In the engineering group, we created what we called motion data, which was a description of how the vehicle moved. The motion data was extremely detailed, describing a vehicle’s movement a tenth of a second by a tenth of a second. At each of those points in time we had roll, pitch, yaw, and locations of vehicles.

To generate such detailed data, we sometimes used a specialized software program⎯the one we used is called PC-Crash⎯or sometimes we just used some equations in Excel.

A screenshot from the PC-Crash demo, which boasts that the “Specs database contains vehicles sold in North America from 1972 to the present,” and that “up to 32 vehicles (including cars, trucks, trailers, pedestrians, and fixed objects such as trees or barriers) can be loaded into a simulation project.”

When you’re using PC-Crash, you start by entering a bunch of numbers to tell the program what a vehicle looks like: how long it is, where the wheels are relative to the length, how wide it is, where the center of gravity is, how high it is, and a bunch of other data I’m forgetting right now.

Once you’ve put in the parameters that define the vehicle, it’s almost like a video game: you can put the car on the roadway and start it going, and you put a little yaw motion in to start it spinning. You can put two vehicles in and run them into each other, and PC-Crash will simulate the collision, including the motion afterward, as they come apart and roll off to wherever they roll off to.

We then fed that motion data to the animators, and they created the imagery.

Screenshots of PC-Crash‘s “Collision Optimizer.” As the demo promises, “in PC-Crash 3D, the scene can be viewed from any angle desired.”

Often, you would have a Point A and a Point B, and you would need the animation to show how the vehicle got from one point to the other.

Point A might be where two vehicles have crashed into each other, which is called the “point of impact.” The point of impact was often fairly easy to figure out. When vehicles hit each other—especially in a head-on collision—the noses will go down and gouge into the road, and the radiator will break and release some fluid there, marking it.

Then, usually, you know exactly where the vehicle ended up, which is Point B, or the “point of rest.”

But connecting Points A and B was the tricky part.

Twilley: In real life, are you primarily using these kind of animations to test what you think happened, or is it more useful to generate a range of possibilities of which you can then look for evidence on the ground? In the book, for example, your reconstructionists seem to do both, going back and forth between the animation and the actual ground, generating and testing hypotheses.

Arvin: That’s right. That’s how it works in real life, too.

Sometimes we would come up with a theory of what happened and how the vehicles had moved, and then we’d recreate it in an animation, as a kind of test. Generating a realistic-looking animation is very expensive, but you can create a crude version pretty easily.

We’d watch the animation and say, “That just doesn’t look right.” You have a feel for how physics works; you can see when an animation just doesn’t look right. So, very often, we’d look at an animation and say to ourselves: we haven’t got this right yet.

Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

One of the challenges of the business is that, when you’re creating an animation for court, every single thing in it has to have a basis that’s defensible. An animation can cost tens of thousands of dollars to generate, and if there is one detail that’s erroneous, the other side can say, “Hey, this doesn’t make sense!” Then the entire animation will be thrown out of court, and you’ve just flushed a lot of money down the toilet.

So you have to be very meticulous and careful about the basis for everything in the animation. You have to look at every single mark on the vehicle and try to figure out exactly where and how it happened.

In the novel there is an example of this kind of thinking when Boggs shows Ellis how, when looking at a vehicle that has rolled over, you literally examine each individual scratch mark on the vehicle, because a scratch can tell you about the orientation of the vehicle as it hit the ground, and it can also tell you where the vehicle was when the scratch was made, since asphalt makes one kind of scratch, while dirt or gravel will make a different type of scratch.

For one case I worked on—a high-speed rollover where the vehicle rolled three or four times—we printed out a big map of the accident site. In fact, it was so big we had to roll out down the hallway. It showed all of the impact points that the police had documented, and it showed all of the places where broken glass had been deposited as the vehicle rolled. We had a toy model of the car, and we sat there on the floor and rolled the toy from point to point on the map, trying to figure out which dent in the vehicle corresponded to which impact point on the ground.

I remember the vehicle had rolled through a barbed wire fence, and that there was a dent in one of the doors that looked like a pole of some kind had been jammed into the sheet metal. We figured it had to be one of the fence posts, but we struggled with it for weeks, because everything else in the roll motion indicated that, when the car hit the fence, the door with the dent in it would have been on the opposite side of the vehicle. We kept trying to change the roll motion to get that door to hit the fence, but it just didn’t make sense.

Finally, one of my colleagues was going back through some really poor-quality police photographs. We had scarcely looked at them, because they were so blurry you could hardly see anything. But he happened to be going back through them, and he noticed a fireman with a big crowbar. And we realized the crowbar had made the dent! They had crowbarred the door open.

Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Sometimes, though, even after all that meticulous attention to detail, and even if you believe you have the physics right, you end up playing with it a little, trying to get the motion to look real. There’s wiggle room in terms of, for example, where exactly the driver begins braking relative to where tire marks were left on the road. Or, what exactly is the coefficient of friction on this particular roadway? Ultimately, you’re planning to put this in front of a jury and they have to believe it.

Twilley: So there’s occasionally a bit of an interpretive leeway between the evidence that you have and the reconstruction that you present.

Arvin: Yes. There’s a lot of science in it, but there is an art to it, as well. Pig Accident 2, the crash that Ellis is trying to recreate at the start of my book, is a good example of that.

It’s at the start of the book, but it was actually the last part that was written. I had written the book, we had sold it, and I thought I was done with it, but then the editor—Cal Morgan at Harper Perennial—sent me his comments. And he suggested that I needed to establish the characters and their dynamics more strongly, early in the book.

I wanted an accident to structure the new material around, but by this time I was no longer working as a reconstructionist, and all my best material from the job was already in the book. So I took a former colleague out for a beer and asked him to tell me about the stuff he’d been working on.

He gave me this incredible story: an accident that involved all these feral pigs that had been hit by cars and killed, lying all over the road. Then, as a part of his investigation, he built this stuffed pig hide on wheels, with a little structure made out of wood and caster wheels on the bottom. They actually spray-painted the pig hide black, to make it the right color.

He said it was like a Monty Python skit: he’d push it out on the road, then go hide in the bushes while the other guy took photographs. Then he’d have to run out and grab the pig whenever a car came by.

[Image: A stuffed pig on wheels, “like a Monty Python skit”; photo by Nicola Twilley].

But there wasn’t any data coming out of that process that they were feeding into their analysis; it was about trying to convince a jury whether you can or can’t see a feral pig standing in the middle of the road.

BLDGBLOG: That’s an interesting analogy to the craft of writing fiction, related to the question of what is sufficient evidence for something to be believable.

Arvin: Exactly. It’s so subjective.

In that case, my friend was working for the defense, which was the State Highway Department—they were being sued for not having built a tunnel under the road for the wild pigs to go through. In the novel, it takes place in Wisconsin, but in reality it happened in Monterey, California. They’ve got a real problem with wild pigs there.

Monterey has a phenomenal number of wild pigs running around. As it turned out, the defense lost this case, and my friend said that it was because it was impossible to get a jury where half the people hadn’t run into a pig themselves, or knew somebody who had had a terrible accident with a pig. The jury already believed the pigs were a problem and the state should be doing something about it.

Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

BLDGBLOG: In terms of the narrative that defines a particular car crash, I’m curious how reconstructionists judge when a car crash really begins and ends. You could potentially argue that you crashed because, say, a little kid throws a water balloon into the street and it distracts you and, ten seconds later, you hit a telephone pole. But, clearly, something like a kid throwing a water balloon is not going to show up in PC-Crash.

For the purpose of the reconstructionist, then, where is the narrative boundary of a crash event? Does the car crash begin when tires cross the yellow line, or when the foot hits the brakes—or even earlier, when it started to rain, or when the driver failed to get his tires maintained?

Arvin: It’s never totally clear. That’s a grey area that we often ended up talking about and arguing about.

In that roll-over crash, for example, part of the issue was that the vehicle was traveling way over the speed limit, but another issue was that the tires hadn’t been properly maintained. And when you start backing out to look at the decisions that the drivers made at different moments leading up to that collision, you can always end up backing out all the way to the point where it’s: well, if they hadn’t hit snooze on the alarm clock that morning

Twilley: Or, in your novel’s case, if they weren’t married to the wrong woman.

Arvin: [laughs] Right.

We worked on one case where a guy’s car was hit by a train. He was a shoe salesman, if I remember right, and he was going to work on a Sunday. It just happened to be after the daylight savings time change, and he was either an hour ahead or an hour behind getting to work. The clock in the car and his watch hadn’t been reset yet. He’d had this job for four years, and he’d been driving to work at the same time all those years, so he had probably never seen a train coming over those tracks before—but, because he was an hour off, there was a train.

So, you know, if he’d remembered to change his clocks…

Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: That reminds me of something that Boggs says in the book: “It’s a miracle there aren’t more miracles.”

Arvin: Doing that work, you really start to question, where are those limits of causality and chance? You think you’ve made a decision in your life, but there are all these moments of chance that flow into that decision. Where do you draw a line between the choices you made in your life and what’s just happened to you? What’s just happenstance?

It’s a very grey area, but the reconstructionist has to reach into the grey area and try to establish some logical sequence of causality and responsibility in a situation.

Twilley: In the novel, you show that reconstructionists have a particular set of tools and techniques with which to gain access to the facts about a past event. Other characters in the book have other methods for accessing the past: I’m thinking of the way Ellis’s father stores everything, or Heather’s photography. In the end, though it seems as though the book is ambivalent as to whether the past is accessible through any of those methods.

Arvin: I think that ambivalence is where the book is. You can get a piece of the past through memory and you can get a piece through the scientific reconstruction of things. You can go to a place now, as it is physically; you can look of a photograph of how it was; you can create a simulation of the place as it was in your computer: but those are all representations of it, and none of them are really it. They are all false, to an extent, in their own way.

The best I think you can hope to do is to use multiple methods to triangulate and get to some version of what the past was. Sometimes they just contradict each other and there’s no way to resolve them.

Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Working as a reconstructionist, I was really struck by how often people’s memories were clearly false, because they’d remember things that just physically were not possible. Newton’s laws of motion say it couldn’t have happened. In fact, we would do our best to completely set aside any witness testimony and just work from the physical evidence. It was kind of galling if there was not just enough physical evidence and you had to rely on what somebody said as a starting point.

Pedestrian accidents tended to be like that, because when a car runs into a person it doesn’t leave much physical evidence behind. When two cars run into each other, there’s all this stuff left at the point where they collided, so you can figure out where that point was. But, when a car runs into a person, there’s nothing left at that point; when you try to determine where the point of impact was, you end up relying on witness testimony.

Screenshots from a PC-Crash demo showing load loss and new “multibody pedestrian” functionality.

Twilley: In terms of reconciling memory and physical evidence—and this also relates to the idea of tweaking the reconstruction animation for the jury—the novel creates a conflict about whether it’s a good idea simply to settle for a narrative you can live with, however unreliable it might be, or to try to pin it down with science instead, even if the final result doesn’t sit right with you.

Arvin: Exactly. It sets up questions about how we define ourselves and what we do when we encounter things that conflict with our sense of identity. If something comes up out of the past that doesn’t fit with who you have defined yourself to be, what do you do with that? How much of our memories are shaped by our sense of identity versus the things we’ve actually done?

Twilley: It’s like a crash site: once the lines have been repainted and the road resurfaced, to what extent is that place no longer the same place where the accident occurred, yet still the place that led to the accident? That’s what’s so interesting about the reconstructionist’s work: you’re making these narratives that define a crash for a legal purpose, yet the novel seems to ask whether that is really the narrative of the crash, whether the actual impact is not the dents in the car but what happens to people’s lives.

Arvin: I always felt that tension—you are looking at the physics and the equations in order to understand this very compressed moment in time, but then there are these people who passed through that moment of time, and it had a huge effect on their lives. Within the work, we were completely disregarding those people and their emotions—emotions were outside our purview. Writing the book for me was part of the process of trying to reconcile those things.

Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

BLDGBLOG: While reading the book, I found myself thinking about the discovery of the Higgs boson—how, in a sense, its discovery was really a kind of crash forensics.

Arvin: You’re right. You don’t actually see the particle; you see the tracks that it’s made. I love that. It’s a reminder that we’re reconstructing things all the time in our lives.

If you look up and a window is open, and you know you didn’t open it, then you try to figure out who in the house opened it. There are all these minor events in our lives, and we constantly work to reconstruct them by looking at the evidence around us and trying to figure out what happened.

BLDGBLOG: That reminds me of an anecdote in Robert Sullivan’s book, The Meadowlands, about the swamps of northern New Jersey. One of his interview subjects is a retired detective from the area who is super keyed into his environment—he notices everything. He explains that this attention to microscopic detail is what makes a good detective. So, in the case of the open window, he’ll notice it and file it away in case he needs it in a future narrative.

What he tells Sullivan is that, now that he is retired, it’s as though he’s built up this huge encyclopedia of little details with the feeling that they all were going to add up to some kind of incredible moment of narrative revelation. But then he retired. He sounds genuinely sad—he has so much information and it’s not going anywhere. The act of retiring as a police detective meant that he lost the promise of a narrative denouement.

Arvin: That’s great. I think of reconstruction in terms of the process of writing, too. Reconstruction plays into my own particular writing technique because I tend to just write a lot of fragments initially, then I start trying to find the story that connects those pieces together.

It also reminds me of one of my teachers, Frank Conroy, who used to talk about the contract between the reader and the writer. Basically, as a writer, you’ve committed to not wasting the reader’s time. He would say that the reader is like a person climbing a mountain, and the author is putting certain objects along the reader’s path that the reader has to pick up and put into their backpack; when they get to the top of the mountain there better be something to do with all these things in their backpack, or they are going to be pissed that they hauled it all the way up there.

That detective sounds like a thwarted reader. He has the ingredients for the story—but he doesn’t have the story.

Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: In the novel, you deliberately juxtapose a creative way of looking—Heather’s pinhole photography—with Ellis’s forensic, engineering perspective. It seems rare to be equipped with both ways of seeing the world. How does being an engineer play into writing, or vice versa?

Arvin: I think the two things are not really that different. They are both processes of taking a bunch of little things—in engineering, it might be pieces of steel and plastic wire, and, in writing a novel, they’re words—and putting them together in such a way that they work together and create some larger system that does something pleasing and useful, whether that larger thing is a novel or a cruise ship.

One thing that I think about quite a bit is the way that both engineering and writing require a lot of attention to ambiguity. In writing, at the sentence level, you really want to avoid unintentional ambiguity. You become very attuned to places where your writing is potentially open to multiple meanings that you were not intending.

Similarly, in engineering, you design systems that will do what you want them to do, and you don’t have room for ambiguity—you don’t want the power plant to blow up because of an ambiguous connection.

But there’s a difference at the larger level. In writing, and writing fiction in particular, you actually look for areas of ambiguity that are interesting, and you draw those out to create stories that exemplify those ambiguities—because those are the things that are interesting to think about.

Whereas, in engineering, you would never intentionally take an ambiguity about whether the cruise ship is going to sink or not and magnify that!

Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: I wanted to switch tracks a little and talk about the geography of accidents. Have you come to understand the landscape in terms of its potential for automotive disaster?

Arvin: When you are working on a case—like that rollover—you become extremely intimate with a very small piece of land. We would study the accident site and survey it and build up a very detailed map of exactly how the land is shaped in that particular spot.

You spend a lot of time looking at these minute details, and you become very familiar with exactly how lands rolls off and where the trees are, and where the fence posts are and what type of asphalt that county uses, because different kinds of asphalt have different friction effects.

BLDGBLOG: The crash site becomes your Walden Pond.

Arvin: It does, in a way. I came to feel that, as a reconstructionist, you develop a really intimate relationship with the roadway itself, which is a place where we spend so much time, yet we don’t really look at it. That was something I wanted to bring out in the book—some description of what that place is, that place along the road itself.

You know, we think of the road as this conveyance that gets us from Point A to Point B, but it’s actually a place in and of itself and there are interesting things about it. I wanted to look at that in the book. I wanted to look at the actual road and the things that are right along the road, this landscape that we usually blur right past.

The other thing your question makes me think about is this gigantic vehicle storage yard I describe in the novel, where all the crashed vehicles that are still in litigation are kept. It’s like a museum of accidents—there are racks three vehicles high, and these big forklift trucks that pick the vehicles up off the racks and put them on the ground so you can examine them.

A vehicle scrapyard photographed by Wikipedia contributor Snowmanradio.

BLDGBLOG: Building on that, if you have a geography of crashes and a museum of crashes, is there a crash taxonomy? In the same way that you get a category five hurricane or a 4.0 earthquake, is there, perhaps, a crash severity scale? If so, could you imagine, at one end of it, a kind of super-crash—a crash that maybe happens only once a generation—

Arvin: The unicorn crash!

BLDGBLOG: Exactly. In fact, Nicky and I were talking about the idea of a “black swan” crash on the way over here. Do you think in terms of categories or degrees of severity, or is every crash unique?

Arvin: I haven’t come across a taxonomy like that, although it’s a great idea. The way you categorize crashes is single vehicle, multiple vehicle, pedestrian, cyclist, and so on. They also get categorized as rollover collision, collision that leads to a rollover, and so on.

So there are categories like that, and they immediately point you to certain kinds of analysis. The way you analyze a rollover is quite a bit different from how you analyze an impact. But there’s no categorization that I am aware of for severity.

I only did it for three years, so I’m not a grizzled reconstructionist veteran, but even in three years you see enough of them that you start to get a little jaded. You get an accident that was at 20 miles an hour, and you think, that’s not such a big deal. An accident in which two vehicles, each going 60 miles an hour, crash head-on at a closing speed of 120 miles an hour—now, that’s a collision!

Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

You become a little bit of an accident snob, and resisting that was something that I struggled with. Each accident is important to the people who were in it. And, there was a dark humor that tended to creep in, and that worried me, too. On the one hand, it helps keep you sane, but on the other hand, it feels very disrespectful.

Twilley: Have you been in a car accident yourself?

Arvin: I had one, luckily very minor, accident while I was working as reconstructionist—around the time that I was starting to work on this book. I heard the collision begin before I saw it, and what I really remember is that first sound of metal on metal.

Immediately, I felt a lurch of horror, because I wasn’t sure what was happening yet, but I knew it could be terrible. You are just driving down the road and, all of a sudden, your life is going to be altered, but you don’t know how yet. It’s a scary place—a scary moment.

BLDGBLOG: Finally, I’m interested in simply how someone becomes a reconstructionist. It’s not a job that most people have even heard of!

Arvin: True. For me, it was a haphazard path. Remember how we talked earlier about that gray area between the choices you made in your life and what’s just happened to you?

I have degrees in mechanical engineering from Michigan and Stanford. When I finished my Masters at Stanford, I went to work for Ford. I worked there for about three years. Then I was accepted into Iowa Writer’s Workshop, so I quit Ford to go to Iowa. I got my MFA, and then I was given a grant to go write for a year. My brother had moved to Denver a year earlier, and it seemed like a cool town so I moved here. Then my grant money ran out, and I had to find a job.

I began looking for something in the automotive industry in Denver, and there isn’t much. But I had known a couple people at Ford who ended up working in forensics, so I started sending my resume to automobile forensics firms. It happened that the guy who got my resume was a big reader, and I had recently published my first book. He was impressed by that, so he brought me in for an interview.

In that business, you write a lot of reports and he thought I might be helpful with that.

Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: Do you still work as an engineer, and, if so, what kinds of projects are you involved with?

Arvin: I work on power plants and oil and gas facilities. Right now, I am working on both a power plant and an oil facility in North Dakota—there’s lots of stuff going on out there as part of the Bakken play. It’s very different from the forensics.

Twilley: Do you take an engineering job, then quit and take some time to write and then go back into the engineering again? Or do you somehow find a way to do both?

Arvin: I do both. I work part time. Part-time work isn’t really easy to find as an engineer, but I’ve been lucky, and my employers have been great.

Engineers who write novels are pretty scarce. There are a few literary writers who started out in engineering but have gotten out of it—Stewart O’Nan is one, George Saunders is another. There’s Karl Iagnemma, who teaches at MIT. There are a few others, especially in the sci-fi universe.

I feel as though I have access to material—to a cast of characters and a way of thinking—that’s not available to very many writers. But the engineering work I’m doing now doesn’t have quite the same dramatic, obvious story potential that forensic engineering does.

I remember when I first started working in forensics, on day one, I thought, this is a novel right here.

• • •

A slightly longer version of this interview previously appeared on Venue.

Thanks to Scott Geiger for first recommending Arvin’s work!

Touchscreen Landscapes

[Image: Screen grab via military.com].

This new, partly digital sand table interface developed for military planning would seem to have some pretty awesome uses in an architecture or landscape design studio.

Using 3D terrain data—in the military’s case, gathered in real-time from its planetary network of satellites—and a repurposed Kinect sensor, the system can adapt to hand-sculpted transformations in the sand by projecting new landforms and elevations down onto those newly molded forms.

You can thus carve a river in real-time through the center of the sandbox, and watch as projected water flows in—

[Image: Screen grabs via military.com].

—or you can simply squeeze sand together into new hills, and even make a volcanic crater.

[Image: Screen grabs via military.com].

The idea of projecting adaptive landscape imagery down onto a sandbox is brilliant; being able to interact with both the imagery and the sand itself by way of a Kinect sensor is simply awesome.

Imagine scaling this thing up to the size of a children’s playground, and you’d never see your kids again, lost in a hypnotic topography of Minecraft-like possibilities, or just donate some of these things to a landscape design department and lose several hours (weeks?) of your life, staring ahead in a state of geomorphic Zen at this touchscreen landscape of rolling hills and valleys, with its readymade rivers and a thousand on-demand plateaus.

The military, of course, uses it to track and kill people, filling their sandbox with projections of targeting coordinates and geometric representations of tanks.

[Image: Screen grabs via military.com].

But there’s no reason those coordinates couldn’t instead be the outlines of a chosen site for your proposed architecture project, or why those little clusters of trucks and hidden snipers couldn’t instead be models of new buildings or parks you’re hoping will be constructed.

Watch the original video for more.

The Civic Minimum

[Image: From Gravesend—The Death of Community by Chris Clarke].

Gravesend is a suburb east of London, hosting on its own eastern edge something of a secondary suburb: a mysterious town on the edge of town that turns out not to be a town at all.

It is a simulated English village built in 2003 by the Metropolitan Police working with Equion Facilities Management and a firm called Advanced Interactive Systems (AIS).

The barren streets and hollow buildings of this militarized non-place were designed for use as an immersive staging ground for police-training exercises, fighting staged riots, burglaries, bank robberies, and other crimes.

[Image: From Gravesend—The Death of Community by Chris Clarke].

Facades with no buildings behind them line the empty streets; in some cases, it is only through the aerial views afforded by a service like Google Maps that this reality is made clear.

Imitation bus stops, make-believe banks, and an oddly whimsical Pizzaland—like an end-times chain restaurant from Shaun of the Dead—sustain the illusion on the ground.

[Image: From Gravesend—The Death of Community by Chris Clarke].

Somewhat incongruously, an airplane fuselage also now rests beside a chainlink fence near the roadway, giving officers an opportunity to prepare for airplane hijackings.

There are even empty Tube carriages parked outside town for improvisatory police raids.

[Image: From Gravesend—The Death of Community by Chris Clarke].

According to AIS, their consultant-designers kitted out the site’s “live-fire ranges with internal ballistic and anti-ricochet finishes, simulation and targetry equipment, and range sound systems,” a complete multimedia package that would soon also include HD video projectors and even “laser-based 3D virtual training environments.”

Architectural simulations embedded with high-tech, upgradeable media technology thus supply the necessary level of detail for repeating crimes, on demand, like strange social rituals.

[Image: From Gravesend—The Death of Community by Chris Clarke].

The photos seen here were all take by designer and photographer Chris Clarke, whose Flickr set of the series, including a dozen or so further images, is worth a look.

[Image: From Gravesend—The Death of Community by Chris Clarke].

For Clarke, the “facsimile” urbanism of this site at the end of Gravesend is actually something of “a warning—a prophecy of society’s potential to alienate itself from itself.” He suggests that these surreal scenes threaten to become indistinguishable from everyday life, our cities and streets stripped down to the civic minimum, used as nothing more than bleak stomping grounds for futuristic security forces armed with military-grade tools.

“We have estates, parks, nightclubs, tube stations,” Clarke writes, “but is the community missing from Gravesend significantly more present in our inhabited cities and towns?” His own answer remains unspoken but obvious.

[Images: From Gravesend—The Death of Community by Chris Clarke].

Writing about this same site back in 2008, Brian Finoki of Subtopia called it a “new theater of the absurd.”

It is, he wrote, “a city standing on the planet for one purpose: to be rioted, hijacked, trashed, held hostage, sacked, and overrun by thousands of chaotic scenarios, only so that it can be reclaimed, retaken, re-propped in circuitous loops of more dazzling proto-militant exercise, stormed by a thousand coordinated boots for eternity, targeted by hundreds of synchronized crosshairs of both lethal and non-lethal weapons.”

[Image: From Gravesend—The Death of Community by Chris Clarke].

Check out more photos at Chris Clarke’s Flickr page.

(Related: In the Box: A Tour Through the Simulated Battlefields of the U.S. National Training Center).

Procedural Brutalism

[Image: Procedural Brutalism by Cedric].

Here are a few GIFs of procedurally generated architecture by a game developer named Cedric, built using Unity. Cedric describes himself as an “indie game dev focused on social AI, emergent narrative and procedural worlds.”

[Image: Procedural Croydon by Cedric].

These were pointed out to me by Jim Rossignol, who has both guest-posted and spoken at length here on BLDGBLOG about procedural architecture, and whose own development company, Big Robot, is behind the awesome “British Landscape Generator” whirring away beneath the rolling hills and cliffsides of Sir, You Are Being Hunted.

[Image: Procedural facades by Cedric].

The GIFs here are relatively big, obviously, so it might take a while for them to load, but then you can just sit back and watch the rule-based production of built structures pop, rise, and expand like urban accordions.

Imagine whole game worlds powered by real-time computation at the building level, constantly and parametrically fizzing with architectural forms, barely predictable new Woolworth Buildings and Barbicans sprouting on-demand from the ground whenever needed.

An Occult History of the Television Set


The origin of the television set was heavily shrouded in both spiritualism and the occult, Stefan Andriopoulos writes in his new book Ghostly Apparitions. In fact, as its very name implies, the television was first conceived as a technical device for seeing at a distance: like the telephone (speaking at a distance) and telescope (viewing at a distance), the television was intended as an almost magical box through which we could watch distant events unfold, a kind of technological crystal ball.

Andriopoulos’s book puts the TV into a long line of other “optical media” that go back at least as far as popular Renaissance experiments involving technologically-induced illusions, such as concave mirrors, magic lanterns, disorienting walls of smoke, and other “ghostly apparitions” and “phantasmagoric projections” created by specialty devices. These were conjuring tricks, sure—mere public spectacles, so to speak—but successfully achieving them required sophisticated understandings of basic physical factors such as light, shadow, and acoustics, making an audience see—and, most importantly, believe in—the illusion.

A Magic Lantern for Watching Events at a Distance

What’s central to Andriopoulos’s argument is that these devices incorporated earlier experimental instruments devised specifically for pursuing supernatural research—for visualizing the invisible and showing the subtle forces at work in everyday life. In his words, these were “devices developed in occult research”—including explicitly “televisionlike devices”—that had been invented in the name of spiritualism toward the end of the 19th century and that, only a decade or two later, “played a constitutive role in the emergence of radio and television.”

[Image: From Etienne-Gaspard Robertson’s 1834 study of technical phantasmagoria, via Ghostly Apparitions].

In Andriopoulos’s words, this was simply part of “the reciprocal interaction between occultism and the natural sciences that characterized the cultural construction of new technological media in the late nineteenth century,” a “two-directional exchange between occultism and technology.” New forms of broadcast technology and belief in the occult? No big deal.

So, while the television itself—the object you and I most likely know as the utterly mundane fixture of family distraction sitting centrally ensconced in a nearby living room—might not be a supernatural mechanism, it nonetheless descends from a strange and convoluted line of esoteric experimentation, including early attempts at controlling electromagnetic transmissions, directing radio waves, and even experiencing various forms of so-called “remote viewing.”

The idea of a medium takes on a double meaning here, Andriopoulos explains, as the word refers both to the media—in the sense of a professional world of publishing and transmission—and to the medium, in the sense of a specific, vaguely shamanic person who acts as a psychic or seer. The medium thus acts as an intermediary between humans and the supernatural world in a very literal sense.

Indeed, in Andriopoulos’s version of television’s origin story, the notion of spiritual clairvoyance was very much part of the overall intention of the device.

Clairvoyance—a word that literally means clear vision, yet that has now come to refer almost exclusively to a supernatural ability to see things at a distance or before events even happen—offered an easy metaphor for this new mechanism.

Television promised clairvoyance in the sense that a TV could allow seeing without interference or noise. It would give viewers a way to tune into and clearly see a broadcast’s invisible signals—with the implication that an esoteric remote-viewing apparatus with forgotten supernatural intentions is now mounted and enshrined in nearly everyone’s home.

[Image: A “moving face” transmitted by John Logie Baird at a public demonstration of TV in 1926 (photo via the BBC)].

I’ll leave it to curious readers to look for Andriopoulos’s book itself—with the caveat that it is quite heavy on German idealism and rather light on real tech history—but it is worth mentioning the fact that at least one other technical aspect of the 20th-century television also followed a very bizarre historical trajectory.

Part Tomb, Part Church, Part Planetarium

The cathode ray—a vacuum tube technology found in early television sets—took on an unexpected and extraordinary use in the work of gonzo Norwegian inventor Kristian Birkeland. Birkeland used cathode rays in his attempt to build a doomed scale model of the solar system.

I genuinely love this story and I have written about it elsewhere, including both here on BLDGBLOG and in The BLDGBLOG Book, but it’s well worth retelling.

In a nutshell, Birkeland was the first scientist to correctly hypothesize the origins of the Northern Lights, rightly deducing from his own research into electromagnetic phenomena that the aurora borealis was actually caused by interactions between charged particles constantly streaming toward earth from the sun and the earth’s own protective magnetic field. This produced the extraordinary displays of light Birkeland had seen in the planet’s far north.

However, as Birkeland fell deeper into an eventually fatal addiction to extreme levels of caffeine and a slow-acting hypnotic drug called Veronal, he also—awesomely—became fixated on the weirdly impossible goal of precisely modeling the Northern Lights in miniature. He sought to build a kind of Bay Model of the Northern Lights.

[Image: Kristian Birkeland stares deeply into his universal simulator (via)].

As author Lucy Jago tells Birkeland’s amazing story in her book The Northern Lights, he was intent on producing a kind of astronomical television set: a “televisionlike device,” in Andriopoulos’s words, whose inner technical workings would not just broadcast actions and characters seen elsewhere, but would actually model the electromagnetic secrets of the universe.

As Jago describes his project, Birkeland “drew up plans for a new machine unlike anything that had been made before.” It resembled “a spacious aquarium,” she writes, a shining box that would act as “a window into space.”

The box would be pumped out to create a vacuum and he would use larger globes and a more powerful cathode to produce charged particles. With so much more room he would be able to see effects, obscured in the smaller tubes, that could take his Northern Lights theory one step further–into a complete cosmogony, a theory of the origins of the universe.

It was a multifaceted and extraordinary undertaking. With it, Jago points out, “Birkeland was able to simulate Saturn’s rings, comet tails, and the Zodiacal Light. He even experimented with space propulsion using cathode rays. Sophisticated photographs were taken of each simulation, to be included in the next volume of Birkeland’s great work, which would discern the electromagnetic nature of the universe and his theories about the formation of the solar system.”

However, this “spacious aquarium” was by no means the end of Birkeland’s manic (tele)vision.

[Image: From Birkeland’s The Norwegian Aurora Polaris Expedition 1902-1903, Vol. 1: On the Cause of Magnetic Storms and The Origin of Terrestrial Magnetism (via)].

His ultimate goal—devised while near-death in a hotel room in Egypt—was to construct a vacuum chamber partially excavated into the solid rock of a mountain peak, an insane mixture of tomb, church, and planetarium.

The resulting cathedral-like space—think of it as a three-dimensionally immersive, landscape-scale television set carved directly into bedrock—would thus be an artificial cavern inside of which flickering electric mirages of stars, planets, comets, and aurorae would spiral and glow for a hypnotized audience.

Birkeland wrote about this astonishing plan in a letter to a friend. He was clearly excited about what he called a “great idea I have had.” It would be—and the emphasis is all Birkeland’s—”a museum for the discovery of the Earth’s magnetism, magnetic storms, the nature of sunspots, of planets—their nature and creation.”

His excitement was justified, and the ensuing description is worth quoting at length; you can almost feel the caffeine. “On a little hill,” he scribbled, presumably on his Egyptian hotel’s own stationery, perhaps even featuring a little image of the pyramids embossed in its letterhead, reminding him of the ambitions of long-dead pharaohs, “I will build a dome of granite, the walls will be a meter thick, the floor will be formed of the mountain itself and the top of the dome, fourteen meters in diameter, will be a gilded copper sphere. Can you guess what the dome will cover? When I’m boasting I say to my friends here ‘next to God, I have the greatest vacuum chamber in the world.’ I will make a vacuum chamber of 1,000 cubic metres and, every Sunday, people will have the opportunity to see a ring of Saturn ten metres in diameter, sunspots like no one else can do better, Zodiacal Light as evocative as the natural one and, finally, auroras… four meters in diametre. The same sphere will serve as Saturn, the sun, and Earth, and will be driven round by a motor.”

Every Sunday, as if attending Mass, congregants of this artificial solar system would thus hike up some remote mountain trail, heading deep into the cavernous and immersive television of Birkeland’s own astronomy, hypnotized by the explosive whirls of its peculiar, peacock-like displays of electromagnetism, shimmering cathedrals of artificially controlled planetary light.

[Image: Cropping in on the pic seen above (via)].

Seen in the context of the occult mechanisms, psychic TVs, and clairvoyant media technologies of Stefan Andriopoulos’s book, Birkeland’s story reveals just one particularly monumental take on the other-worldly possibilities implied by televisual media, bypassing the supernatural altogether to focus on something altogether more extreme: a direct visual engagement with nature itself, in all its blazing detail.

Of course, Birkeland’s cathode ray model of the solar system might not have conjured ghosts or visualized the spiritual energies that Andriopoulous explores in his book, but it did try to bring the heavens down to earth in the form of a 1,000 cubic meter television set partially hewn from mountain granite.

It was the most awesome TV ever attempted, a doomed and never-realized invention that nonetheless puts all of today’s visual media to shame.

(An earlier version of this post previously appeared on Gizmodo).