BLDGBLOG 07/10/2013 13:00Michael Light, Gated Monaco Lake Las Vegas Homesites Looking West on Grand Corniche Drive, Bankrupt MonteLago Village and Ponte Vecchio Bridge Beyond, Henderson, Nevada (2010)
Photographer Michael Light divides his time between San Francisco and a remote house near Mono Lake, in the Sierra Nevada. An artist widely known for his aerial work, Light flies the trip himself in a small airplane, usually departing very early in the morning, near dawn, before the turbulence builds up.
Michael Light preps his airplane for flight; photo by Venue.
Venue, BLDGBLOG's collaborative project with Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography and the Nevada Museum of Art's Center for Art + Environment, not only had the pleasure of flying with Light around Mono Lake, but of staying in his home for a few nights and learning more, over the course of many long conversations, about his work.
Flying with Michael Light over Mono Lake; photos by Venue.
We took a nighttime hike and hunted for scorpions in the underbrush; we looked at aerial maps of the surrounding areain fact, most of the U.S. Southwestto discuss the invisible marbling of military & civilian airspace in the region; and we asked Light about his many projects, their different landscape emphases, the future of photography as a pursuit and profession, and what he might work on next.
From SCUBA diving amidst the nuked ruins of WWII battleships in the most remote waters of the Pacific Ocean to spending years touching up and republishing photos of U.S. nuclear weapons tests for a spectacular and deeply unsettling book called 100 Suns, to his look at the Apollo program of the 1960s as an endeavor very much focused around the spatial experience of another landscapethe lunar surfaceto his ongoing visual investigation of housing, urbanization, and rabid over-development in regions like Phoenix and Las Vegas, Light was never less than compelling.
With several great phrasesthat "the mine is a city reversed," or that the sunken ruins of WWII battleships "are dissolving like Alka-Seltzer" in the depths of the Pacificand with an always caustic sense of humor, Light patiently answered our questions about his work both above the ground and below sea level, discussing what nuclear weapons have done the Western notion of the landscape sublime, what cameraphones have done to the professional photographer, and what it means to transgress today into the corporate-controlled air spaces of vast mining and extraction sites out west.
Michael Light, Shadow at 300, 1300 hours, Deep Springs Valley, CA (2001)
Michael Light, Clouds Over the Jonah Natural Gas Field, Pinedale, WY (2007)
Michael Light: The short answer is that the aerial view affords a breadth of scale that offers direct access to many of the bigger, more meta themes that have always been of interest to me.
But let me take a few steps back and try to explain where all this came from. I got a B.A. in American Studies from Amherst many years ago, and I have since been an Americanistnot in the sense of being an apologist for America, but in the sense of someone trying to figure out what makes this country tick. It is a very, very vast country.
Michael Light, Sheep Hole Mountains at 400, 0700 hours, Twentynine Palms, CA (2000)
I grew up on the end of Long Island, and I was always getting onto Highway 80 or onto more southerly interstates and heading west. The metaphor that always accompanied me, oddly enough, was one of falling into America rather than crossing it. I was falling into the vastness of America and the sheer scale of it.
Of course, after I moved to California in 1986, I caught myself coming back east quite a bit, for family or for work, and those commercial air flights across the nation, flying coast to coast, were formative and endlessly interesting to me. I dont ever lower the window shade as requested. If the weather is clear, the odds are that whats unfolding below, geologically, is the main attraction for me. I just found myself looking downor looking intoAmerica a lot, and that sense of falling into the country just grew and evolved.
I did a big piece back in the 1990s, when I was still in graduate school. It took a couple of years, but I figured out how to make pretty decent images from 30,000 feet, from the seat of a commercial airliner. For instance, you have to sit in front of the engine so that the heat doesnt blow the picture; and its a contrast game, trying to get enough clarity through all the atmospheric haze and through two layers of plexiglass, and so on and so forth. That piece was based specifically on commercial flights and it was liberating for me in lots of ways.
While working on one of those images, in particular, I had something of an epiphanyI think it was somewhere over Arizona. Its very spare, arid country, and the incursions of human settlement into it that you see from above look very much like a colony on Mars might look, or the proverbial lunar colony, and I thought Ah ha! Look at that! And I realized, at that moment, that maybe I could try to find or document something like a planetary landscape: the way humans live at a planetary scale and through planetary settlements.
Michael Light, Chidago Canyon at 500, 1800 hours, Chalfant, CA (2001)
This was what got me, pretty soon thereafter, thinking above and beyond the earth: looking toward NASA, and their various programs over the past few decades, and that eventually became Full Moon.
Buying, Selling, and Building Air
BLDGBLOG 07/10/2013 04:35[Image: A "wind tunnel model of the New York Trade Center (study by Drs. J.E.Cermak and A.G. Davenport in the Colorado State University boundary layer wind tunnel for L.E. Robertson of Worthington, Skilling, Helle and Jackson (1964)," via Studio-X NYC].
Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography has put together an amazing event this coming Tuesday evening, October 8, at my former employer, Studio-X NYC, an event space run by the architecture department at Columbia University. Called "Air: Its Contents, Value, and Motion," the event looks at air rights in New York, the challenge of structurally engineering against air, winds, and hurricanes in some of the world's largest buildings, and a slightly more philosophical take on air's contentsits pollen, pollution, and even aerosolized fats.
A pretty jaw-dropping cast of panelistswriter William Bryant Logan, air rights lawyer Robert Von Ancken, and legendary structural engineer Leslie Robertsonwill discuss, as the event describes it, air, "the stuff between buildings."
In the process, they "will share their perspective on the curious logic of the city's air rights economy, how the wind has sculpted its facades, and how the content of its air differs by neighborhood."
The event is free, kicks off at 7pm, and is at 180 Varick Street, Suite 1610, on the 16th floor. Here's a map.
The Long Now Foundation 04/10/2013 15:24
Humans are good at a lot of things, but putting time in perspective is not one of them. Its not our fault the spans of time in human history, and even more so in natural history, are so vast compared to the span of our life and recent history that its almost impossible to get a handle on it. If the Earth formed at midnight and the present moment is the next midnight, 24 hours later, modern humans have been around since 11:59:59 pm 1 second. And if human history itself spans 24 hours from one midnight to the next, 14 minutes represents the time since Christ.
Given the apparent minuteness of our current lives and attention spans in relation to the vast scales of time on which non-human histories play out, what does the concept of now really mean?
To help us get a better grasp of that question, the guys over at Wait But Why have created a series of scales that illustrate in graphic color where we fit in the grand scheme(s) of history. Time expands as you scroll down the page, steadily stretching your perspective as it makes a visual argument for a reconceptualization of what we mean by the present moment.
The Long Now Foundation 03/10/2013 15:20
Long Now Executive Director Alexander Rose, also the Project Manager for the 10,000-Year Clock, collects inspiring examples (or in some cases, failures) of long-term thinking, architecture and design. In a talk called Millennial Precedent, he discussed some of these examples and the lessons he draws from them. Among them is a Japanese shrine in the city Ise.
Established an estimated 2,000 years ago, the shrine’s name “Jingu” literally means simply “the shrine.” Few structures on the planet can claim to have stood as long as Ise’s shrine, but the way it has managed to edure is singular. Rather than being constructed at monumental scale, or of immutable materials, the modest thatched-roof and wood structure is ritualistically rebuilt every 20 years. It’s secret isn’t heroic engineering or structural overkill, but rather cultural continuity.
02013 is a reconstruction year and the Shikinen Sengu ceremony marks this milestone. Alexander Rose will attend and share his experiences on our Twitter feed.
This essay by Junko Edahiro provides some great background on the shrine’s origins and long life:
The main sanctuary buildings follow the style of grain warehouses in the Yayoi Period (about 300 BC to 300 AD), which were used to store seed rice for next year and food in case of famine. Should these stocks run out, it would cause serious disruption, so grain warehouses were vital for protecting the people’s lives.
This kind of grain warehouse was normally supported by more than a dozen pillars sunk directly into the ground and had a thatched roof. A great deal of rain usually falls in Japan’s early-summer monsoon, and as the thatched roof absorbs rainwater it becomes heavier. The heavy roof presses down on the walls, and this closes gaps between the wall boards, keeping the inside dry. In summer, the roof dries out and becomes lighter, allowing air to pass through the building and this also keeps it dry. Thus, the roof and pillars function together like a living organism to securely protect the seed rice from moisture and pests.
The only way to support a thatched roof designed to increase in weight is to set the pillars directly into the ground. However, with this method, the pillars and the thatched roof eventually start to rot. Thus, the inevitable solution was to reconstruct these warehouses every 20 to 30 years. However, the life-giving seed rice could not be protected if the rebuilding process started only after the old warehouses could no longer be used. Thus, periodic reconstruction of these structures probably became customary, leading eventually to the Sengu ceremonies of Jingu Shrine in Ise, symbolizing buildings that protect life.
The Long Now Foundation 03/10/2013 00:31
The PanLex project of The Long Now Foundation, which is building a database of words and phrases in the worlds languages, has recently passed the one-billion-translation mark. That means there are now over a billion pairs of words or phrases, such as clock in English and in Assamese, that PanLex records as attested translations of each other. The translations are derived from publications collected from around the world.
Beyond these billion attested translations, it is possible to infer others from longer paths of translations. For example, the number of pairs shoots up from 1 billion to 30 billion if we include translations at distance 2, namely translations of translations. The longer the path, the greater the number, and the lower the reliability, of translations.
Because counting up these totals would overload the PanLex servers, we have estimated them using a random sample of 3,000 words and phrases. The figures below show that as more words and phrases are added to the sample the estimates of distance 1 and distance 2 translations become more stable.
The Long Now Foundation 02/10/2013 16:00
Tuesday September 17, 02013 – San Francisco
Video is up on the Schwartz Seminar page for Members.
Audio is up on the Schwartz Seminar page, or you can subscribe to our podcast.
Starship destiny – a summary by Stewart Brand
We now know, Schwartz began, that nearly all of the billions of stars in our galaxy have planets. If we can master interstellar travel, “theres someplace to go.” Our own solar system is pretty boring—one planet is habitable, the rest are “like Antarctica without ice” or worse.
So this last year a number of researchers and visionaries have begun formal investigation into the practicalities of getting beyond our own solar system. It is an extremely hard problem, for two primary reasons—the enormous energy required to drive far and fast, and the vast amount of time it takes to get anywhere even at high speed.
The energy required can be thought of in three ways. 1) Impossible—what most scientists think. 2) Slow. 3) Faster than light (FTL). Chemical rockets wont do at all. Nuclear fission rockets may suffice for visiting local planets, but it would take at least fusion to get to the planets of other stars. Schwartz showed Adam Crowls scheme for a Bussard Ramjet using interstellar ions for a fusion drive. James Benford (co-author of the book on all this, Starship Century) makes the case for sail ships powered by lasers based in our Solar System.
As for faster-than-light, that requires “reinventing physics.” Physics does keep doing that (as with the recent discovery of “dark energy”). NASA has one researcher, John Cramer, investigating the potential of microscopic wormholes for superluminal travel.
Standard-physics travel will require extremely long voyages, much longer than a human lifetime. Schwartz suggested four options. 1) Generational ships—whole mini-societies commit to voyages that only their descendents will complete. 2) Sleep ships—like in the movie “Avatar,” travelers go into hibernation. 3) Relativistic ships—at near the speed of light, time compresses, so that travelers may experience only 10 years while 100 years pass back on Earth. 4) Download ships—”Suppose we learn how to copy human consciousness into some machine-like device. Such iPersons would be able to control an avatar that could function in environments inhospitable to biological humans. They would not be limited to Earthlike planets.”
Freeman Dyson has added an important idea, that interstellar space may be full of objects—comets and planets and other things unattached to stars. They could be used for fuel, water, even food. “Some of the objects may be alive.” Dyson notes that, thanks to island-hopping, Polynesians explored the Pacific long before Europeans crossed the Atlantic. We might get to the stars by steps.
Futurist Schwartz laid out four scenarios of the potential for star travel in the next 300 years, building on three population scenarios. By 2300 there could be 36 billion people, if religious faith drives large families. Or, vast wealth might make small families and long life so much the norm that there are only 2.3 billion people on Earth. One harsh scenario has 9 billion people using up the Earth.
Thus his four starship scenarios… 1) “Stuck in the Mud”—we cant or wont muster the ability to travel far. 2) “Gods Galaxy”—the faithful deploy their discipline to mount interstellar missions to carry the Word to the stars; they could handle generational ships. 3) “Escape from a Dying Planet”—to get lots of people to new worlds and new hope would probably require sleep ships. 4) “Trillionaires in Space”—the future likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson will have the means and desire to push the envelope all the way, employing relativistic and download ships or even faster-than-light travel.
Schwartz concluded that there are apparently many paths that can get us to the stars. In other words, “Galactic civilization is almost inevitable.”
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The Long Now Foundation 01/10/2013 19:29
Tuesday October 15, 02013 at SFJAZZ Center, San Francisco
Adam Steltzner is the person responsible for putting space geeks the world over through the “seven minutes of terror” on August 6th, 02012. As the lead engineer of Curiosity rover’s Entry, Descent, and Landing phase, he helped create the sky crane and to successfully drop one of the most advanced robots in history onto another planet. The sky crane his team designed at JPL would have to perform an elaborate, impossible-seeming sequence to lower the huge Mars rover Curiosity to the planets surface from a hovering rocket guided totally by artificial intelligence. Humans wouldnt know if it worked until it was all over, hence the terror. The margin of error for this mission was 0, meaning if one element didnt work perfectly, all of the work would have been for nothing.
Adam Steltzner took a circuitous route to the space industry. After going through the motions of early schooling and barely passing math, Steltzner spent time as a musician in the Bay Area. It was one evening driving home from a gig when he noticed Orion had changed location, inspiring him to take an Intro to Physics class that changed his life, eventually leading him to a PhD in Engineering Mechanics.
Historically, missions to Mars have been fraught with accidents and miscalculations, leading to a dismal 42% success rate to date. After an initial rush of missions in the 70s as part of the Cold War space race, the first successful mission in 20 years took place in 01996. The Mars Global Surveyor collected more data than all the previous Mars missions combined and ushered in a new age of Mars exploration. After the Mars Global Surveyor, NASA launched the first two Mars rovers in 02007, which paved the way for the larger and more complex Curiosity rover, the payload of Steltzners sky crane. Potential future missions to Mars include drilling missions, a network of meteorological stations, a manned fly-by, and a no-return four human reality show colony. To learn more about Mars exploration, come see Adam Steltzner at SFJAZZ Center on October 15th.
The Long Now Foundation 30/09/2013 22:05
In a New York Times op-ed piece recently, geographer Erle C. Ellis argues “Overpopulation is Not the Problem,” dismissing fears that humanity might exceed the Earth’s carrying capacity and bring global calamity upon ourselves.
Malthusian fears swing in and out of fashion, and the pendulum can often go too far the other way, into techno-utopianism. Ellis does argue that technology allows us to increase local carrying capacity, and in fact he sees this as a deep-seated characteristic of human nature. But in his argument, technology is no panacea.
The world population is now estimated at 7.2 billion. But with current industrial technologies, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has estimated that the more than nine billion people expected by 2050 as the population nears its peak could be supported as long as necessary investments in infrastructure and conducive trade, anti-poverty and food security policies are in place.
Keeping everyone fed, he points out, is already within our technological powers; it simply eludes our politics.
It was almost ten years ago that Phillip Longman pointed out in a SALT talk that what we actually ought to worry about is depopulation. Citing urbanization, contraception, education (especially of women), declining infant mortality, and several other factors, he explained that fertility is falling quickly and that much of the world is already reproducing below the replacement rate. This averts the Malthusian crisis many feared, but may offer other challenges to the economy.
Ultimately, it’s not fewer people that we need, but rather a better understanding of our relationships with nature and amongst ourselves in order to effect better governance and a healthier balance within the biosphere. As Ellis puts it,
The science of human sustenance is inherently a social science. Neither physics nor chemistry nor even biology is adequate to understand how it has been possible for one species to reshape both its own future and the destiny of an entire planet. This is the science of the Anthropocene.
BLDGBLOG 30/09/2013 14:23[Image: Cincinnati Public Library, 1870s; photo via Steve Silberman].
It's that time of the year again, to take a look at the many, many books that have passed through the halls of BLDGBLOG the past season or two, ranging, as usual, from popular science to fiction, landscape history to the urban future of the refugee camp.
There are some great books included in this round-up, ones I'd love to help find a wider audiencehowever, as will be clear from a handful of descriptions below, and as is always the case with book round-ups here on BLDGBLOG, I have not read every book included in the following list and not all of them are necessarily new.
However, in all cases, these books are included for the interest of their approach or for their general subject matter, and the wide range of themes present should give anyone at least a few interesting titles to seek out for autumn reading.
1) Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell by Phil Lapsley (Grove Press)
One of the most enjoyable books of my summer was Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley. Lapsleys history of phone phreaks, or people who successfully hacked the early phone networks into giving them free calls to one another and around the world, would read, in a different context, like some strange occult thriller featuring disaffected teenagers tapping into a supernatural world. Weird boxes, unexplained dial tones, and disembodied voices at the end of the line pop up throughout the book, as do surprise cameos from a pre-Apple Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.
Teenagers throwing frequencies and sounds at vast machines through telephone handsets managed to unlock another dimension of the phone network, Lapsley explains, a byzantine geography of remote switching centers and international operators. In the process, they helped pave the way for the hackers we know today. I have heard, anecdotally, from a few people who were around and part of these groups at the time, that Lapsley got some of his details wrong, but that didnt take away from my enjoyment ofor inability to put downhis book. Recommended, and very fun.
2) Robot Futures by Illah Reza Nourbakhsh (MIT Press)
This pamphlet-length book by Carnegie Mellon Universitys Illah Reza Nourbakhsh on the future of robotics pays admirable attention to the fundamental problem of even defining what robotics is. Better yet, Nourbakhsh prefaces each of his short chapters with fictional interludes exploring speculative scenarios of future robotics gone awry. There is a disturbing vignette in which flying robot toys programmed to recognize human eye contact swarm around and terrify anyone not hiding their gaze behind wearing sunglassessomething the toys manufacturer never predictedas well as a memorable scenario in which new forms of robot-readable graffiti throw entire self-driving traffic systems into a tizzy, making car after car wrongly report that an impenetrable roadblock lies ahead. Call it traffic-hacking.
In the end, Nourbakhsh suggests, robots will prove to be fundamentally different from human beings, and we should be prepared for his. A robot moving down the street will see in all directions, not simply in front of it like humans, he writes. If that robot is connected to a network of video cameras along the street, it will see everywhere on the street, from all angles, the entire time it walks. Imagine this scenario. A not-very-clever robot walking down the street will have access to entire synthesized views of the streetup and down, behind you, down the alley, around the cornerand be able to scroll back through time with perfect fidelity. As you approach this robot, it might be cognitively much dumber than you, but it knows far more about its surroundings than you do. It stops suddenly. What do you do? There is no common ground established between you and this robot, just the fact that you occupy the same sidewalk.
3) Beyond The Blue Horizon: How The Earliest Mariners Unlocked The Secrets Of The Oceans by Brian Fagan (Bloomsbury Press)
Brian Fagan, an environmental historian known for his books on climate change and civilization, has written a great example of what might be called adventure-history. Beyond the Blue Horizon takes us through roughly twenty thousandeven potentially, depending on how you interpret the archaeological evidence, more than one hundred thousandyears of human seafaring. Every few pages, amidst tales of people sailing in small groups, even drifting, seemingly lost, for days at a time across vast expanses of open water, Fagan makes arresting observations, such as the fact that early Pacific navigators, laden down with seeds and plants, literally carried their own landscape with them, he writes.
The importance of the coast in supporting human settlement, and the absolute centrality of the searather than continental interiorsin shaping human history, gives Fagan multiple opportunities to refocus our sense of our own remote past. We are not landed creatures of roads and automobiles, Fagan argues, but a maritime species whose entire childhood and adolescence was spent paddling past unknown coastlines, searching for freshwater rivers and streamsa world of ceaseless movement, as he calls it, including now lost islands, deltas, and coasts. Fagans brilliance at describing landscapes as they undergo both seasonal changes and variations in climate also applies to his depictions of Earthly geography when sea levels were, for most of the eras described in his book, more than 300 feet lower than it is today. It was another planeta maritime worldone that humans seem to have lost sight of and forgotten.
4) The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History by John R. Gillis (University of Chicago Press)
John R. Gilliss look at seacoasts in history proves to be compulsively readable, sustaining many long subway rides for me here in New York, although the final few chapters fall off into unnecessarily long quotations from what seems like any random academic source he could find that mentioned the sea. This is too bad, because a shorter, more tightly edited version of this book would be a dream. Gillis is not shy about making outsized claims for revising the history of human civilization. The shore is the true home of humankind, he writes, the
The Long Now Foundation 27/09/2013 18:06
In July our Long Now Salon project passed the halfway point of fundraising, thanks to $25,000 gifts from Neil Gaiman and Cordelia Corp, and more than 200 other donations at levels big and small. The Salon will host small events both for our members and the general public. It will be equal parts library, bar, museum, and cafe. A welcoming and social place, where you’d want to go to have a great conversation.
Reaching $250,000 in funding allowed us to begin construction. And the first step of construction is destruction
Long Now has been headquartered in this space for the last 7 years. So it was strange to see it so empty:
So empty. Too empty. And since we love to prototype at Long Now we had to prototype our Salon. The bar, the booths, even bottles in the ceiling and signs on the wall. It would help us confirm that we had the design right, and we figured we could do the whole thing in a night, with enough help and a lot of cardboard.
We invited all our Salon donors (whether $10 or $25,000) to join our cardboard building party. 50 or so fantastic members, staff and friends gathered, and heres how the evening went:
Youve seen the Salon design images that show our design teams fantastic plans in incredible, lifelike detail. But just as a physical cardboard version reveals the facts of the layout in real space (not bits), seeing actual people in the space instead of the shadow figures of the illustrations helps confirm what a great space this will be to gather in!
photos by Catherine Borgeson
If you are reading this and you were there that day, thanks again for all the hard work. This video shows you the focused activity going on as we worked on every area of the build simultaneously:
video by Mikl Em
So after all that work (and fun), whats the verdict? Pretty good! No major issues or surprises; just a few minor adjustments and some food for thought. And most excitingly, our first real event in the proto-Salon space. A gathering of long-term thinkers building and learning: an auspicious debut for exactly what our Salon space is all about.