I was stoked to see a class being taught at Harvard this summer inspired by A Burglar’s Guide to the City. Called “(Don’t) Steal this Painting: A Burglar’s Guide to the Museum,” the course is led by Matthew Battles. It’s only open to Harvard students, alas, but if that accurately describes you then give it a shot.
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).
There was an interesting sequence of otherwise unrelated articles published over the last few days.
Over at Aeon, Murray Shanahan, a professor of “cognitive robotics,” asked: “Beyond humans, what other kinds of minds might be out there? From algorithms to aliens, could humans ever understand minds that are radically unlike our own?” He goes on to discuss, and even graph out, “the space of possible minds.” Briefly, I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotations of all time, from author William S. Burroughs, who, in his book The Ticket That Exploded, described “a vast mineral consciousness near absolute zero thinking in slow formations of crystal,” hidden somewhere inside the surface of the Earth. Try understanding—and conversing with—that.
As an aside, I generally find these sorts of discussions—including, most of all, the Turing Test—to be oddly fixated not on consciousness at all, but specifically on the social mores and recognizable etiquette of a well-educated middle class Western consciousness capable of rational conversation, something that is by no means synonymous even with human self-awareness, let alone with sentience itself. Engaging in conversation with your own coworkers can already be unnervingly impossible, let alone recognizing the potential intelligence of a sea urchin, a virus, a geomagnetic field, or a pulsar. Or, for that matter, a “time crystal.”
In any case, while some of us are contemplating the existence of other types of minds, those other types of minds might simply be trying to rip us off—or so the New York Times suggested in an article called, “As Artificial Intelligence Evolves, So Does Its Criminal Potential.”
In a scenario that sounds like something from Rivka Galchen’s recent book, Atmospheric Disturbances, we’re told to “imagine receiving a phone call from your aging mother seeking your help because she has forgotten her banking password. Except it’s not your mother. The voice on the other end of the phone call just sounds deceptively like her. It is actually a computer-synthesized voice, a tour-de-force of artificial intelligence technology that has been crafted to make it possible for someone to masquerade via the telephone.”
You can read the rest of the article, but there’s something oddly hilarious in the fear that we might finally encounter another form of radically inhuman intelligence—only for it to prank call us, spam us, and con us out of our life savings.
And then it gets worse. According to Quartz reports, researchers at MIT are using Artificial Intelligence “to create pure horror.” “A series of algorithms dubbed the Nightmare Machine is an effort to find the root of horror by generating ghoulish faces, and then relying on user feedback to see which approach makes the freakiest images,” we read.
To be completely honest, the resulting images are disappointing and stupid—a Target Halloween costume aisle is more frightening—but the notion, not that we will encounter an alien intelligence intent on terrifying us, but that we will deliberately create one specifically for this purpose is excellent evidence for anyone wondering how humans have made it this far.
[Image: Close-up of the 2010 State Geologic Map of California].
An interesting story published last month in the L.A. Times explored the so-called “sweet spot” for digging tunnels along the California/Mexico border.
“Go too far west,” reporter Jason Song explained, “and the ground will be sandy and potentially soggy from the water of the Pacific Ocean. That could lead to flooding, which wouldn’t be good for the drug business. Too far east and you’ll hit a dead end of hard mountain rock.”
However, Song continues, “in a strip of land that runs between roughly the Tijuana airport and the Otay Mesa neighborhood in San Diego, there’s a sweet spot of sandstone and volcanic ash that isn’t as damp as the oceanic earth and not as unyielding as stone.”
More accurately speaking, then, it is less a sweet spot than it is a soft one, a location of potential porosity where two nations await subterranean connection. It is all a question of geology, in other words—or the drug tunnel as landscape design operation.
[Image: Nogales/Nogales, via Google Maps].
With the very obvious caveat that this next article is set along the Arizona/Mexico border, and not in the San Diego neighborhood of Otay Mesa, it is nonetheless worth drawing attention back to an interesting article by Adam Higginbotham, written in 2012 for Bloomberg, called “The Narco Tunnels of Nogales.”
There, Higginbotham describes a world of abandoned hotel rooms in Mexico linked, by tunnel, to parking spots in the United States; of streets subsiding into otherwise unknown narco-excavations running beneath; and of an entire apartment building on the U.S. side of the border whose strategic value is only revealed later once drug tunnels begin to converge in the ground beneath it.
Here, too, though, Higginbotham also refers to “a peculiar alignment of geography and geology,” noting that the ground conditions themselves are particularly amenable to the production of cross-border subterranea.
However, the article also suggests that “the shared infrastructure of a city”—that is, Nogales, Arizona, and its international counterpart, Nogales, Mexico—already, in a sense, implies this sort of otherwise illicit connectivity. It is literally built into the fabric of each metropolis:
When the monsoons begin each summer, the rain that falls on Mexico is funneled downhill, gathering speed and force as it reaches the U.S. In the 1930s, in an attempt to control the torrent of water, U.S. engineers converted the natural arroyos in Nogales into a pair of culverts that now lie beneath two of the city’s main downtown streets, Morley Avenue and Grand Avenue. Beginning in Mexico, and running beneath the border before emerging a mile into the U.S., the huge tunnels—large enough to drive a car through—created an underground link between the two cities, and access to a network of subterranean passages beneath both that has never been fully mapped.
This rhizomatic tangle of pipes, tubes, and tunnels—only some of which are official parts of the region’s hydrological infrastructure—results in surreal events of opportunistic spelunking whereby “kids would materialize suddenly from the drainage grates,” or “you would see a sewer plate come up in the middle of the street, and five people would come up and run.”
Briefly, I’m reminded of a great anecdote from Jon Calame’s and Esther Charlesworth’s book Divided Cities, where the split metropolis of Nicosia, Cyprus, is revealed to be connected from below, served by a shared sewage plant “where all the sewage from both sides of the city is treated.” The authors interview the a local waste manager, who jokes that “the city is divided above ground but unified below.”
In any case, the full article is worth a read, but a tactical geological map revealing sites of likely future tunneling would be a genuinely fascinating artifact to see. I have to assume that ICE or Homeland Security—let alone the cartels—already have such a thing.
At long last, after more than three years of research and travel, A Burglar’s Guide to the City is finally shipping.
It is a book about crime, policing, and the built environment, and how these forces mutually influence one another, from ancient Rome to contemporary Los Angeles, with a specific focus on the spatial peculiarities of breaking and entering.
I’ve already posted about the book at some length here on the blog—with many more posts available under the Burglar’s Guide tag—and there is also a standalone website worth checking out, as well, with links to reviews, book tour information, and some great blurbs.
However, for now, especially if this is the first you’ve heard of it, consider checking out an excerpt from the book over at The New York Times Magazine, an author profile over at the Wall Street Journal, a short segment about burglary and Los Angeles on NPR’s Marketplace, or a great review published in the Los Angeles Times.
There, Annalee Newitz writes that, “Despite its title, Geoff Manaugh’s A Burglar’s Guide to the City won’t teach you how to break into houses. It won’t help you outsmart wily cat burglars with ingenious home alarm systems, either. Instead, it explores something a lot weirder and more interesting: Manaugh argues that burglary is built into the fabric of cities and is an inevitable outgrowth of having architecture in the first place.”
Writing for the Barnes & Noble Review, meanwhile, Sarah Weinman—editor of the recent collection Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 1950s—said that, after reading the book, “my worldview is altered a little bit more, and far for the better, as a result.” Patrick Lyons at VICE found the book “an exhilarating, perspective-shifting read,” and the BBC recommended it as one of their “Ten books to read in April,” calling it “a surprising and fascinating true-crime epic.”
Most fun of all was doing an interview with Gastropod—a podcast about food, science, and history cohosted by my wife, Nicola Twilley, and journalist Cynthia Graber—discussing food heists, potato bombs, fast-food burglaries, and much more.
Amazon chose A Burglar’s Guide as one of their “Best Books of April 2016,” adding that it is a “caper of a book.” *Update: I also got to speak about the book with Curbed for their recently launched podcast, on “why panic rooms are going to outlast the pyramids.”
In any case, I’d be over the moon if you picked up a copy, and I would love to discuss the book’s many ideas—and people and tools and scenes and histories—in more detail here. However, I’m also aware that I can’t just post about this book over and over—and over—again, so I’ll also get back to regular blogging soon.
Thanks! And enjoy the book.
[Image: Flying with the LAPD Air Support Division; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].
Over the past three years, I’ve gone on multiple flights with the LAPD Air Support Division, during both the day and night; my goal was to understand how police see the city from above.
[Image: Freeways and escape routes; Instagrams by BLDGBLOG].
Does the aerial view afford new insights into how distant neighborhoods are connected, for example, or how criminals might attempt to hide—or flee—from police oversight? Where are these other, illicit routes and refuges?
More importantly, are they temporary accidents of criminal behavior and urban geography, or are they much deeper flaws and vulnerabilities hidden in the city’s very design?
[Images: Instagrams by BLDGBLOG].
Aerial patrols seems to promise a ubiquitous, and near-omniscient, amplification of police vision, even as the fabric of the city itself is put to alternative use by the activities of criminals.
I documented these flights through hundreds of photographs—many of which can be seen here—as well as in my forthcoming book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City.
However, an excerpt of that book has also been adapted for this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, including a look at Thomas More’s Utopia in the context of the LAPD, the navigational “rules of four,” and a look at the array of technical devices installed aboard each police helicopter.
[Images: Inside the airship; Instagrams by BLDGBLOG].
The “rules of four,” for example, as I write in the piece, are “guidelines [that] fall somewhere between a rule of thumb and an algorithm, and they allow for nearly instantaneous yet accurate aerial navigation.”
“The way the parcels work in the city of Los Angeles,” [LAPD Chief Tactical Flight Officer Cole Burdette explained to me], “is that Main Street and First Street are the hub of the city.” The street numbers radiate outward — by quadrant, east, west, north, south — with blocks advancing by hundreds (the 3800 block below 38th Street) and building numbers advancing by fours (3804, 3808, 3812, etc.). The rest is arithmetic.
With the rules of four, an otherwise intimidating and uncontrollable knot of streets takes on newfound clarity. It is no coincidence that the Los Angeles Police Department built its main headquarters at the center of it all, at the intersection of First and Main. It placed the department at the numerological heart of the metropolis, the zero point from which everything else emanates.
What fascinates me through all of this is how the city can be used as a tool of police authority, a seemingly endless crystalline grid of numbers and addresses continually re-scanned from above by helicopter—
[Image: Watchers; photo by BLDGBLOG].
—yet, at the same time, the city can also be manipulated from below, against those same figures of aerial power, becoming an instrument of criminal evasion and spatial camouflage.
[Image: Night flight across the grid; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].
The very notion of the “getaway route” is revealing here for what it implies about a city’s secondary use as a means of escape, offering hidden lines of flight from figures of authority.
In the book, I explore this a bit more through, among other things, the work of Grégoire Chamayou, including his research into the history of manhunts and his brief look at the speculative re-design of Paris as a kind of immersive police catalog in which “every move will be recorded.”
[Image: Over Porter Ranch and the San Fernando Valley; photos by BLDGBLOG].
Paris, Chamayou writes, “was to be divided into distinct districts, each receiving a letter, and each being subdivided into smaller sub-districts.”
In each sub-district each street had accordingly to receive a specific name. On each street, each house had to receive a number, engraved on the front house—which was not the case at the time. Each floor of each building was also to have a number engraved on the wall. On each floor, each door should be identified with a letter. Every horse car should also bear a number plate. In short, the whole city was to be reorganized according to the principles of a rationalized addressing system.
In that context, the Air Support Division’s “rules of four” as a police-navigation strategy take on a particularly interesting nuance—as do hypothetical means of resistance to police power through the deliberate complication of local addressing systems.
[Images: Moving maps and binoculars over L.A.; Instagrams by BLDGBLOG].
The book excerpt in the Times also briefly picks up on some themes elaborated in an article I wrote for Cabinet Magazine a few years ago, discussing how the infrastructure of Los Angeles itself inadvertently permits certain classes of criminal activity.
[Image: Night flying; photo by BLDGBLOG].
The most obvious example of this unintended side-effect of transportation planning is the so-called “stop-and-rob.” From The New York Times Magazine:
The construction of the city’s freeway system in the 1960s helped to instigate a later spike in bank-crime activity by offering easy getaways from financial institutions constructed at the confluence of on-ramps and offramps. This is a convenient location for busy commuters—but also for prospective bandits, who can pull off the freeway, rob a bank and get back on the freeway practically before the police have been alerted. The maneuver became so common in the 1990s that the Los Angeles police have a name for it: a “stop-and-rob.”
In any case, the book obviously elaborates on these themes in much greater length—and it comes out next week, so please consider pre-ordering a copy—but The New York Times Magazine excerpt is a great place to start.
[Image: Somewhere over the San Fernando Valley; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].
Meanwhile, if you yourself are planning any illicit activities, as an added bonus the article includes insights from Air Support Division pilots and tactical flight officers on the limitations of their own surveillance techniques, such as how the streets around Los Angeles International Airport have become a popular hiding spot for criminals fleeing police helicopters by car and some especially unlikely tactics used to evade thermal detection by the LAPD’s Forward-Looking Infrared or FLIR cameras.
When in doubt—although this is not mentioned in the article—drive into the fog, where the helicopters can’t follow you.
[Image: Urban horizon lines; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].
For now, here are a bunch of photos, including many Instagrams, taken from July 2013 to March 2016, including night flights in January 2014 and March 2016—
[Images: Night from above; photos & Instagrams by BLDGBLOG].
—as well as day and early evening flights taken in July 2013 and March 2016.
[Images: Note the shot of Watts Towers; Instagrams by BLDGBLOG].
Finally, a chunk of non-Instagram shots, in case those colored filters are making your eyes cross over.
[Images: Photos by BLDGBLOG, many featuring a home barricade call in Pacoima].
[Image: Sunset approaching downtown L.A.; cropped Instagram by BLDGBLOG].
For the past several years, I’ve been writing a book about the relationship between burglary and architecture. Burglary, as it happens, requires architecture: it is a spatial crime. Without buildings, burglary, in its current legal form, could not exist. Committing it requires an inside and an outside; it’s impossible without boundaries, thresholds, windows, and walls. In fact, one needn’t steal anything at all to be a burglar. In a sense, as a crime, it is part of the built environment; the design of any structure always implies a way to break into it.
You can see burglary’s architectural connections anywhere. Watch nearly any heist film, for example, and at some point there will be an architectural discussion: inevitably, the characters will point at floor plans or lean in close to study maps, arguing over how to get from one room to another, whether or not two buildings might actually be connected, or how otherwise separate spaces and structures—sometimes whole neighborhoods—might be secretly knit together. Seen this way, heists are the most architectural genre of all.
[Image: “How The Burglar Gets Into Your House” (1903), via The Saint Paul Globe].
When a burglary is committed in the real world, you often see stunned business owners stammering to morning TV crews about how strange the burglars’ method of entry was. They came in through the walls or jumped down through a hole in the ceiling—or crawled in through a drop-off chute—rather than going through the front door as the rest of us would, never using buildings the way they’re supposed to be used.
I’m strangely thrilled to see it’s been categorized as “Architecture/True Crime.”
[Image: The complete front/back cover for A Burglar’s Guide to the City, designed by Nayon Cho].
Researching A Burglar’s Guide to the City has been a fascinating process—not to mention an incredible experience. It took me up into the sky over Los Angeles with the LAPD Air Support Division to learn how police see the city, out to visit a lock-picking group in northwest Chicago to pop open some padlocks and understand the limitations of physical security, and into the heavily fortified modular “panic rooms” designed by a retired New Jersey cop.
I spoke with a Toronto burglar who learned to use his city’s fire code as a targeting mechanism for future burglaries; I talked to the woman who arrested a kind of live-in burglar nicknamed “Roofman” who, incredibly, built a fake apartment for himself inside the walls of a Toys “R” Us; and I met the retired FBI Special Agent once tasked with tracking down a crew of subterranean bank bandits who pulled off a still-unsolved bank heist in 1986 Los Angeles, involving weeks of tunneling and a detailed knowledge of the the city’s sewer system. I spoke with one of the originators of the UK’s surreal “capture house” program, where entire fake apartments are kitted out and run by the police to trap—or capture—specific burglars, and I even visited the grave of a 19th-century super-burglar who used his training as an architect to lead a crew responsible for an astonishing 80% of all U.S. bank robberies at the time.
[Image: Flying with the LAPD Air Support Division; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].
The book includes tunnel jobs from ancient Rome, a survey of door-breaching tools, an interview with architect Bernard Tschumi about crime and the city, some thoughts on Die Hard, even tips for the ultimate getaway from a reformed bank robber in California, and on and on and on.
Meanwhile, there will be a short book tour this April and May. Keep an eye on burglarsguide.com for more information as it develops, but, for the time being, if you’re anywhere near New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, or Washington D.C., save the dates to come by and say hello.
The first event will be hosted by the incredible John M. Mossman Lock Collection at the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York on Tuesday, April 5, with beer provided by my friends at Sixpoint Brewery and books for sale courtesy of The Strand Book Store. Even better, Radiolab’s Robert Krulwich will be leading a live conversation about the book—and the event itself is free, although you must RSVP.
I could go on at great length—and undoubtedly will, in the weeks to come—but, for now, consider pre-ordering a copy of the book. Thanks!
Speaking of animals being actively incorporated into urban infrastructure, Dutch police are training eagles to hunt drones. “What I find fascinating is that birds can hit the drone in such a way that they don’t get injured by the rotors,” explains a spokesperson for the National Audubon Society. “They seem to be whacking the drone right in the center so they don’t get hit; they have incredible visual acuity and they can probably actually see the rotors.”
I’ve got a new piece up over at The Daily Beast about London’s Hatton Garden heist—in a sense, a preview of many themes from my forthcoming book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, including the idea that “the tools and techniques of breaking and entering are more often than not also those of architectural construction and maintenance.”
This is purely promotional, but I wanted to mention that I am up in San Francisco for two nights to speak as part of Pop-Up Magazine, a live-event offshoot of the new publication California Sunday; I’m joining a stellar group of other writers, photographers, broadcasters, artists, animators, and more, to talk about one of the stranger and more architecturally interesting figures from my book A Burglar’s Guide to the City, which comes out in April.
I don’t want to say much more about the story I’ll be telling, but it involves endlessly recommitting the same burglary over and over again, falling through “a crack in space-time,” living inside the walls of a Toys“R”Us—and it’s all true.
Tickets are still available for a few of the cities, over on the Pop-Up Magazine website, as we will be leaving San Francisco for a national tour through Portland, Seattle, Chicago, and Brooklyn. Stop by, if you can, and say hello!
I haven’t done one of these in a long, long time… Here are twenty-seven new or recent books, ranging from true crime to science fiction, architecture to media theory, for your back-to-school or end-of-summer reading pleasure.
1) The Cartel by Don Winslow (Alfred A. Knopf)
The Cartel is technically a sequel to The Power of the Dog, but the storyline stands on its own even without prior knowledge of the characters. Here, DEA agent Art Keller must track down—again—a man named Adán Barrera, the leader of a notorious Mexican drug cartel, an organization whose sheer brutality and unsettling ubiquitousness author Don Winslow does not shy away from depicting.
What will probably interest BLDGBLOG readers—in addition to the incredible coincidence of The Cartel‘s publication during the same week that drug lord “Chapo” Guzmán escaped from his prison in Mexico—is Winslow’s exploration of the cartel itself as a self-contained political structure, a kind of sovereignty without borders, operating through a combination of violence and logistics, with few limitations, all over the world.
I had the pleasure of seeing Winslow speak at an event last month at Bookcourt in Brooklyn, where his descriptions of cartel activities offered a kind of diagonal perspective on their operations. Winslow memorably pointed out how farmers in the Sinaloa region of Mexico had been swept up into the cartel’s infinitely flexible method of production, and that, despite any ensuing role growing and harvesting marijuana or even poppies, the cartel offered them new jobs in logistics, not agriculture. “They didn’t want to be farmers,” Winslow said at Bookcourt, “they wanted to be FedEx.”
2) ZeroZeroZero by Roberto Saviano, trans. Virginia Jewiss (Penguin)
Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah is something of a modern classic in terms of its documentation of organized crime in Italy. A fantastic book, Gomorrah depicts what is, in essence, a parallel state operating side by side with the Italian government. In the process, Saviano’s reporting suggests that sufficiently organized criminal activity is all but indistinguishable from a nation-state, even taking on the tasks of waste disposal, transportation, and de facto taxation, with a tragic aura of incompetence and corruption.
ZeroZeroZero pairs well with Winslow’s novel, as it offers the drug trade as a prism or lens through which to see the world. This is the book’s very premise: “Look at cocaine and all you see is powder,” the cover says. “Look through cocaine and you see the world.” Saviano begins his nested stories of the modern drug trade with an unnamed police officer in New York City, but soon follows cocaine’s narcotic tentacles around the world, from Miami to Colombia, Sinaloa to Spain, by way of drug-smuggling submarines and cargo ships, AK-47s and bullet-proof cars.
As with Winslow’s novel, the interest of the book is not only in getting a glimpse of this stranger, much darker world existing alongside or beneath ours; it’s in the fact that this world has such very real territory, with brute-force powers rivaling municipal governments and nation-states, and that the more intensely authorities might try to stomp it out, the larger and more sinister it grows.
3) Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War by Peter Singer and August Cole (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
I’ve followed Peter Singer’s work with great interest for nearly a decade now, ever since the publication of his book Corporate Warriors, and I was thus intrigued to see that he and fellow war technology theorist August Cole had teamed up to write a novel. While Ghost Fleet is not a book to pick up if you are looking for strong character development, it is exactly the book to pick up if you want to see how a decade’s worth of research into new or speculative military technologies can be assimilated and compiled into a work of near-future fiction.
The basic plot of Ghost Fleet is that a non-nuclear naval and cyber world war has broken out between the United States and China, its battlefields ranging from Hawaii and the broader Pacific to the anti-gravitational heights of near-Earth orbit. I got to see Singer and Cole both speak last month at New America NYC, where they discussed the novel’s depiction of multinational corporations in a future theater of war; the prospect of weaponized logistics chains; whose side our new class of billionaires might take in a global conflict; and even the fate of sovereignty in Greenland. Both authors have pointed out in interviews that they hoped to write the Red Storm Rising of our time: a kind of geopolitical beach read.
Cleverly, the book includes hundreds of footnotes and citations for all of its references to things such as railguns, microdrones, adaptive camouflage, satellite warfare, nuclear submarine detection, and more; this has the effect of making Ghost Fleet feel like reading a more exciting, distorted-mirror version of the daily news and—even better—it has the reverse effect of making the daily news feel like an outtake from Ghost Fleet.
4) Future Crimes by Marc Goodman (Doubleday)
Ghost Fleet pairs very well with Marc Goodman’s excellent, highly recommended book Future Crimes. Goodman’s book should be required reading for anyone using the internet today, let alone anyone interested in the dark side of technological innovation. Expect to learn more about GPS hacking, “burglary 2.0,” mass identity theft, online drug markets, even assassination via medical prosthetics.
5) Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)
Long-time readers of BLDGBLOG might remember my interview with novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, in which Robinson talked about offworld utopias, the politics of sustainability, the future of California, and more. Robinson is back with Aurora, a new novel about a massively intergenerational group of human explorer-refugees, passengers aboard a semi-sentient interstellar ship headed toward a distant planet where human life might be sustainable.
The book is not optimistic. Its portrayal of characters driven half-mad with desperation and a realization of doom, of a planet and its crypto-ecosystem that seems intent on rejecting the colonists, and of an on-board computer system that eventually wakes up into full narrative consciousness does not reveal confidence that humans will ever find another planet to call home.
6) The Meaning of Liberty Beyond Earth edited by Charles S. Cockell (Springer)
This makes for an odder pairing than the previous ones, but Charles S. Cockell’s edited volume on The Meaning of Liberty Beyond Earth is an interesting companion to set alongside much of contemporary science fiction (including, I should note, Ghost Fleet).
Described as a book that “takes the discussion of liberty into the extraterrestrial environment,” it includes papers on offworld sovereignty, what territory means in space, private corporate enterprise as a possible model for future space-states, and the governmental bodies or institutions that might serve to regulate this emerging sphere. From the book:
As more national governments develop expansive space programmes and more private companies design and build spaceships with the capacity to launch satellites, robots and humans into space, the number of organisations in space is growing. With this expansion comes the inevitable consequence of an expanding number of interests to protect and so with that, the chance for a clash of ownership, rules and regulations which together define the environment for individual freedom.
7) The Conflict Shoreline: Colonialism as Climate Change in the Negev Desert by Eyal Weizman and Fazal Sheikh (Cabinet Books)
Inspired by aerial images of the Negev Desert taken by photographer Fazal Sheikh, architect and forensic historian Eyal Weizman wanted to understand something that Sheikh had documented: the ghostly remains of old villages, communal graveyards, and farm houses that could be seen in the ground, almost but not quite erased from the landscape, yet that also did not appear on official Israeli state maps.
This led Weizman to write what is, in effect, an extended essay on the role of agriculture, state archival policies, regional maps, desertification, and climate change in a politically motivated attempt to remove from the landscape any trace of pre-Israeli settlement. As Sheikh’s photos showed, what appears to be bare desert—an inhospitable wasteland outside of human civilization—reveals, when seen from above, the structural outlines of earlier inhabitants.
Together with archaeological evidence, old land deeds, and British military surveillance photos from WWI, this has led to court cases over land ownership and even citizenship. One such court case—a man named Nuri Al-‘Uqbi suing for recognition of his family’s land claim—forms the narrative and legal backbone of Weizman’s essay.
8) KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps by Nikolaus Wachsmann (FSG)
Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps is a history of the concentration camps, but as organizational entities, where administration itself becomes a source of dehumanization and brutality. Wachsmann shows how the camp system grew from an archipelago of smaller units to the international scale of the Holocaust, with camps operating throughout Europe, their functions—from daily work schedules to mass executions—systematized and closely reported. There was ultimately no shortage of documentation, despite efforts to destroy records or downplay the system’s horrific extent, and the book itself includes some 200 pages of notes, sources, and appendices.
9) Brodsky & Utkin by Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin (Princeton Architectural Press)
The “paper architecture” of Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin has been reprinted in a new edition by Princeton Architectural Press. Flooded cities of pillars, glass towers, arching landforms across sprawling supergrids, infinite rooms repeated across pyramids, domes, and antenna-covered housing blocks, they are equal parts Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Modernist allegory, and Soviet bloc existentialism, their projects are as much psychological fables as they are architectural proposals.
[Image: From Brodsky & Utkin by Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin (Princeton Architectural Press)].
10) African Modernism: The Architecture of Independence—Ghana, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Zambia edited by Manuel Herz et al. with photographs by Iwan Baan and Alexia Webster (Park Books)
Manuel Herz has quietly made a name for himself studying, in admirably granular detail, architectural design and production in Africa, whether that means looking at the spatial effects of migration in Nairobi, Kenya, or the complex interplay between formal and informal settlement practices in the refugee camps of Western Africa, as in his excellent book From Camp to City.
African Modernism is a massive book—it is nearly 700 pages in length and more than a foot tall—that takes as its focus post-independence urban design and architecture in Ghana, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, and Zambia. As Herz writes in his introductory essay, “In our general perception the African continent stands for suffering and misery. It also remains a mystery as its histories, cultures, traditions, languages, politics and economies remain outside of our framework of reference. The continent is usually seen as a single entity without differentiation and without consideration of its fifty-four countries and the vast differences among its gigantic territory and diverse cultures.”
The resulting project is thus an attempt to address this strange blindness toward African urbanism, cataloging and—at least through publication—helping to preserve buildings all but never documented in contemporary architectural publications. Finally, there is also a political goal, which is to place Modern architecture in its appropriate historical context, “looking at the conscious and deliberate role architecture played in the formation of national states, with all the contradictions, dilemmas and problems this implies.”
11) War Plan Red: The United States’ Secret Plan to Invade Canada and Canada’s Secret Plan to Invade the United States by Kevin Lippert (Princeton Architectural Press)
While, at first glance, the story told in Kevin Lippert’s War Plan Red seems like what might happen if someone rewrote Dr. Strangelove as an episode of South Park, the mutual invasion plans it details between the United States and Canada comes with a dark humor that veers more toward tragedy. That two democracies with a shared 4,000-mile land border would go through the trouble of cooking up elaborately farcical battle strategies for partially consuming one another’s border states says a lot about the militarized distrust and paranoia that scripted the Cold War. Lippert’s book includes the actual war plans, as well as their historical context.
To a certain extent, this pairs well with another title from Princeton Architectural Press, Tom Vanderbilt’s engaging Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America (republished a few years ago in a paperback edition from the University of Chicago Press).
12) Equilateral by Ken Kalfus (Bloomsbury)
The plot of Equilateral is seemingly tailor-made for BLDGBLOG readers: a fever-wracked British astronomer at the height of 19th-century colonialism forces tens of thousands of Egyptians to build an enormous equilateral triangle in the Sahara Desert. Its explicit design goal is to be so big that the resulting figure, when set aflame with gasoline, will be visible from Mars. Indeed, the astronomer’s goal is to communicate, through Pythagorean geometry, with the intelligent beings he believes to exist on the Red Planet, and to do so even while he can barely speak with—and arrogantly refuses to recognize intelligence in—the Egyptian workers he has all but enslaved to build this misguided megastructure.
Incredibly, this story was inspired by a real-life plan devised by a man named Joseph Johann von Littrow, to build a flaming geometric sign in the Sahara as a means of communicating with other planets.
Kalfus does an excellent job mocking the racist overtones of the astronomer’s project without becoming didactic or politically heavy-handed, and he even allows moments of genuine wonder into the text, as the possibility of extraplanetary intelligence is debated amongst the novel’s European intelligentsia. It probably goes without saying that all does not end well for the equilateral triangle, a kind of 19th-century SETI project in the desert.
13) Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Vintage)
The end of the world has never been so hot. Whether it’s The Walking Dead, The Hunger Games, or Peter Heller’s recent, great book The Dog Stars, watching things fall apart is now a billion-dollar industry. As that intro might indicate, I went into Station Eleven with a healthy dose of skepticism, but ended up reading the whole thing in one sitting.
Far from a work of popular survivalist fiction, its end-times narrative is often only lightly applied. Against the backdrop of a near-universally fatal flu outbreak, author Emily St. John Mandel instead focuses her attention not on fire and apocalypse—although there are the requisite ruined airports and scenes set on the feral edges of a depopulated Toronto—but rather on the lives of a core group of characters whose goals, relationships, and interpersonal conflicts are left abruptly unresolved when the disease begins to spread.
The book thus has a disarmingly quiet air of reflective melancholy, enlivened by voluminous flashbacks to the characters’ pre-flu days, as it moves inevitably forward with a sense that, no matter how much we might believe otherwise, we all live amidst unfinished business. We will all have decisions to regret—and people to miss—when the end of things finally arrives.
14) Consumed by David Cronenberg (Scribner)
Legendary film director David Cronenberg has tried his hand at literary fiction—or, more accurately, at a genre-crossing murder mystery that owes much to William Gibson, Alfred Hitchcock, and Cronenberg’s own film work. The plot of Consumed involves a North Korean kidnapping plot, avant-garde filmmakers, bizarre sexual practices, anthropological fieldwork as reconceived in an age of VICE, and a grotesque use of 3D printers that many of today’s “design fiction” aficionados should find both creatively macabre and technically compelling.
15) Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson (Ecco)
I was drawn to Fourth of July Creek almost entirely on the strength and enthusiasm of a blurb from novelist Jeff VanderMeer, and I was glad to have followed his advice. While the bulk of the novel falls outside what I might call BLDGBLOG territory, its Cormac McCarthy-like exploration of off-the-grid survivalists in the vast National Forests of the U.S. is in fitting with this site’s interest in human beings forced to negotiate, and establish the barest toeholds of religious belief or culture, in the face of extreme environments.
One particularly haunting scene involves the eruption of Mount St. Helens and a hardcore survivalist who, isolated away from media in his forest homestead, is convinced the horrible, blinding rain of ash and fire is actually the opening salvo of a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union.
16) Crooked by Austin Grossman (Mulholland Books)
Crooked could be thought of as Mike Mignola’s B.P.R.D. transplanted into the heart of 20th-century U.S. presidential history, with Richard Milhous Nixon presented as a not necessarily willing participant in the battle of ancient magic normally referred to as the Cold War. Of course, if the B.P.R.D. reference doesn’t do anything for you, just imagine H.P. Lovecraft re-writing the history of the Watergate break-in, and you can begin to picture what unfolds in Austin Grossman’s novel.
While I agree with other critics that too much action occurs off-stage—gigantic creatures emerge from the snow-covered forests of eastern Russia, but only in whispered reports Nixon receives from White House aides—it’s nonetheless an enjoyably nuts and well-written book that takes occult conspiracy theories about U.S. governmental power and turns them up to eleven.
17) Inside the Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age by Megan Prelinger (W.W. Norton)
Inside the Machine is about what author Megan Prelinger calls “the enormous electronic infrastructures and networks that shape our world today [yet] remain hidden from our sight.” More than that, though, Prelinger looks at the ads, artworks, and cinematic representations that helped 20th-century popular culture visualize the world of the electron. Human nervous systems, player pianos, printable circuit boards, Cold War radar systems, and even an “unsettlingly alert” 1950s thinking machine called “the Perceptron,” all come together with full-color reproductions of amazing, often inadvertently amusing period art.
18) Rust: The Longest War by Jonathan Waldman (Simon & Schuster)
Rust, Jonathan Waldman’s long look at the material effects of corrosion, strongly bears the literary influence of John McPhee. From innovations in canned foods to the super-sized national campaign to preserve—and more or less entirely rebuild—the Statue of Liberty, Waldman uses the threat of corrosion as something more like a psychological metaphor for the people he profiles, including industrial consultants and art photographers (with an unexpected dose of LeVar Burton thrown in for good measure).
19) Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War by Helen Thorpe (Scribner)
As Helen Thorpe wrote in a recent op-ed for The New York Times, “Women are the fastest growing group of veterans treated by the V.A., and projections show that women will make up over 16 percent of the country’s veterans by midcentury.” Her new book Soldier Girls looks at three women from very different personal and political backgrounds both during their times of military service and after. The result is an excellent look at the under-documented experiences of women in the U.S. military, including the physical risks and gendered stereotypes they all but constantly and frustratingly face.
20) Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest by Carl Hoffman (William Morrow)
If you’ve ever visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and stared in awe at the incredible collection of objects from Oceania, Carl Hoffman’s Savage Harvest fills in the necessary backstory for understanding how those works got there. It was not just a story of underpaid local artisans—although it was this. It was a story of cultural misunderstanding and, ultimately, cannibalism, as collector Michael Rockefeller, son of the New York State governor and scion of the wealthiest families in the world, failed to understand the remote and extremely isolated island world he, in retrospect, blindly stumbled into.
Author Carl Hoffman front-loads the book with a gruesome scene of cannibalism, but its shock dissipates as the book shifts focus to tell the larger story, even more tragic story of a tribe knocked about from confrontation to confrontation by an ever-increasing onslaught of globalized outsiders who made little effort to understand the tightly organized world their presence so violently interrupted.
21) St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street by Ada Calhoun (W.W. Norton)
Ada Calhoun’s book about “America’s hippest street” is due out later this fall. It describes the long transformation of a legendary East Village street, from its earliest days as part of the Stuyvesant family farm to a maze of booze-smuggling tunnels in the age of Prohibition, and from a smoke-hazed world of Beat cafes and punk rock bars to the depressing smear of Chipotle wrappers, European tourists, and ill-considered tramp stamps that it is today. The book’s interest is not in its condemnation of the new St. Mark’s, however, but in the deep history of a single street that Calhoun has managed to shape from long walks through the city’s past.
22) The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media by John Durham Peters (University of Chicago Press)
John Durham Peters asks whether animals, too, have media—or even are media, their bodies communicative vessels relaying and interpreting information through the basic elements of sea, fire, earth, and air. I first came across The Marvelous Clouds through an interview Peters did with the Los Angeles Review of Books, which is worth reading before embarking upon the book itself.
The latter is not strictly speaking a work of media theory or of natural history, but an inspired combination of the two—however, it is also very much an academic work. What I mean by that is simply that I have become so used to reading journalistic nonfiction these days that I kept waiting for Peters to go out into the field, boarding a boat with marine biologists or visiting an avian research lab for some intriguing character studies and a scene of reflective first-person experience; instead, he stays on campus, quoting Immanuel Kant and Martin Heidegger.
This could very well only be a problem when seen through the lens of my own particular expectations, of course; but I do genuinely long for more academic theoretical writing that is not afraid of becoming expeditionary, so to speak, testing its hypotheses not by quoting things you’ve probably already read in grad school but by introducing readers to relevant new worlds they are otherwise unlikely to visit.
Or, to put this another way: get John Durham Peters aboard a deepsea submarine somewhere, pinging abyssal plains or peering up through echoes at thinning polar ice caps, or drop him off in the canopy of a rain forest research station, studying pheromonal discourse networks sensible only to insects; add some Friedrich Kittler and I would read that book in a heartbeat.
23) TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information by Erik Davis (North Atlantic Books)
This 2015 reprint of Erik Davis‘s cult classic TechGnosis comes with the refreshing realization that his work is more relevant today, not less. A startling and altogether off-kilter look at esoteric religious beliefs, vernacular folklore, what Davis calls “gnostic science fictions,” and today’s digital technology, it’s something like a bolt of lightning across the sky of today’s tedious tech writing, a world of circular reporting more concerned with product reviews than in discussing why technology exists—and what it’s doing to us—in the first place.
As the book’s own description explains, TechGnosis “uncovers startling connections between such seemingly disparate topics as electricity and alchemy; online roleplaying games and religious and occult practices; virtual reality and gnostic mythology; programming languages and Kabbalah. The final chapters address the apocalyptic dreams that haunt technology, providing vital historical context as well as new ways to think about a future defined by the mutant intermingling of mind and machine, nightmare and fantasy,” and, despite its (deliberately?) dated cover re-design, the book, originally published back in 1998, still feels fresh.
24) Vision Anew: The Lens and Screen Arts edited by Adam Bell and Charles H. Traub (University of California Press)
Vision Anew tries to assess what is happening to photography—not just technically but also historically and metaphorically—as the technology through which it operates rapidly shifts to digital. It is moving from chemistry to data, we might say. An edited compilation—co-edited by an old friend of mine from high school, in fact—it includes an all-star list of writers, from Walter Murch to Trevor Paglen, Rebecca Solnit to Ai Weiwei and László Moholy-Nagy.
25) Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat by Anastacia Marx de Salcedo (Current)
I originally spotted this book after my wife reviewed it for Popular Science, where she describes Combat-Ready Kitchen as a look at how “the needs of the military play an outsized role in shaping the food industry’s research agenda, resulting in the proliferation of products that are optimized for portability, convenience, shelf-life, and mass appeal, rather than health, taste, or environmental sustainability.”
As the book’s subtitle also makes clear, author Anastacia Marx de Salcedo hopes to reveal how the needs and expectations of military R&D continually trump other health concerns or even public interest when it comes to food science and product development in the United States. More interestingly, though, Marx de Salcedo shows that everyday food products such as Cheetos and granola bars have military origins, as if the battlefields of the 20th and 21st centuries extend even to our supermarket shelves and our dinner plates.
26) Drone by Adam Rothstein (Bloomsbury)
27) Waste by Brian Thill (Bloomsbury)
The new series Object Lessons from Bloomsbury is an inspired one. It is also ambitious: with twenty-six titles and counting, each small book takes one object and dissects it relentlessly, revealing the constellation of economic forces and historical interests that have caused it to exist. The titles I’ve included here—Drone and Waste—are only two of the ones I’d suspect have the most interest for readers of this site, but forthcoming looks at the Shopping Mall, the Doorknob, and the Phone Booth, among others, all look promising.
Drone—for which I also supplied a back-cover blurb—is simultaneously a concise and a refreshingly widescreen look at autonomous machine systems and uncrewed aircraft, detailing not just their military role today but their algorithmic and even philosophical origins. The drone is now a ubiquitous, near-mythological presence in contemporary society, but author Adam Rothstein takes a step back from current events to ask, in a sense, what do drones want?
Meanwhile, Waste is as much an anthropology of excess production—or what it means to have so much stuff that vast quantities of it can be reclassified as without practical use, or as waste—as it is a look at the cultural, environmental, and landscape-scale effects of easily discarded materials.
All Books Received: August 2015, September 2013, December 2012, June 2012, December 2010 (“Climate Futures List”), May 2010, May 2009, and March 2009.