BLDGBLOG 24/03/2013 17:29[Image: The Auburn Dam site, via Google Maps].
While re-reading John McPhee's excellent book Assembling California last month for the San Andreas Fault National Park studio, I was struck once again by a short description of a Californian landscape partially redesigned in preparation for a reservoir that never arrived.
McPhee is referring to the Auburn Dam, in the city of Auburn, northeast of Sacramento (and near a small town called, of all things, Cool, California). The $1 billion Auburn Dam would have been "the largest concrete arched dam in the world," according to Geoengineer.org, but construction was abandoned over fears that seismic activity might cause the dam to collapse, inundating Sacramento.
Construction was begun, however, and its cessation produced some rather unassuming ruinsbasically large piles of exposed gravel and rock now eroding in springtime floods.
Nonetheless, these mounds were not cheap, including "$327 million concrete abutments [that] stand in stark contrast to the rest of the oak-filled canyon," as the Auburn-Cool Trail site (or ACT) explains. "The washout of the 250-foot coffer dam in 1986 left huge scars that continue to erode, with large broken pipes sticking out in a precarious manner. Hasty roadbuilding for the project has contributed to landslides that have caused sedimentation and increased turbidity in the river downstream and in Folsom Lake. The cost of seasonal repairs on the service roads alone has run into the millions of dollars, and many roads remain cracked and unsafe."
[Image: A bypass tunnel built in anticipation of the never-completed Auburn Dam; photo by D.P. Zeccos of Geoengineer.org].
Amazingly, though, and this is where we come to John McPhee, regional infrastructure was constructed with an eye on what the landscape would look like in the future, given the presence of the Auburn Dam, leading to surreal sights like the Foresthill Bridge.
The bridge, which you can still drive on today, is a towering structure remarkably out of proportion with the landscape, its unnecessary height all but incomprehensible until you imagine the cold waters of the American River rising up behind the Auburn Dam, forming a recreational lake and reservoir, the lights of the bridge reflected at night in the waters below. "Not particularly long," McPhee quips, "the bridge was built so high in order to clear the lake that wasn't there."
[Image: The Foresthill Bridge, via Wikipedia].
Weirdest of all, McPhee writes, there were boat docks built high up on the surrounding hillsides, waiting for their lake.
One gravel boat ramp, he explains, "several hundred yards long, descends a steep slope and ends high and nowhere, a dangling cul-de-sac. The skeletons [a skeleton crew of federal workers stationed at the former dam site] call it 'the largest and highest unused boat ramp in California.' Houses that cling to the canyon sides look into the empty pit. They were built around the future lakeshore under the promise of rising water. You can almost see their boat docks projecting into the air. Thirty-three hundred quarter-acre lots were platted in a subdivision called Auburn Lake Trails."
[Image: The expected waters of a lake that never arrived; via Wikipedia].
While I will confess that, while using the omniscient eye of Google Maps, I can't find these gravel boat ramps leading down to the rim of a lake that doesn't existlooking in vain for a maze of quasi-lakeside home lots perched uselessly in the hillsI assume that it's either because the ramps have long since revegetated, given the two decades that have passed since the publication of McPhee's book, or perhaps because there was a certain amount of willful projection on McPhee's part in the first place.
After all, the idea of a line of homes built far up in the hills somewhere, overlooking an empty space in which a lake should be, is so beautiful, and so perfectly odd, that it would be tempting to conjure it into being, imagining bored kids in a town called Cool riding their bikes down to lost docks in the woods each summer near sunset, climbing over maritime ruins slowly crumbling in the mountains, throwing rocks at rotting lifejackets, building small forts inside the discarded hulls of someone else's midlife crisis, perhaps still waiting, even hoping, for a flood to come.
The Long Now Foundation 22/03/2013 15:12
We often think of heart disease as a by-product of modernity: for decades, the medical establishment has warned that too little exercise and too much fried food can clog our arteries and disrupt healthy circulation.
That’s still the case, but new research suggests that atherosclerosis might be older and more common that we thought. As NPRs blog recently reported, our sedentary lifestyle of cars and hamburgers might not necessarily be entirely to blame.
Several years ago, a group of researchers found evidence of hardened arteries in a group of ancient Egyptian mummies. Intrigued, they recently looked at mummies from other civilizations as well and found calcified arteries among more than a third of their sample. NPR quotes Randall Thompson, one of the studys co-authors:
Its amazing that you can see this disease in all these different populations across 4,000 years of history, across three continents such a wide span across the globe and all sorts of different diets and lifestyles and climates, Thompson says. Our conclusion is that, in large part, heart disease is part of human ageing and that we have risk factors that we dont understand yet.
These findings confront medical science with a whole new conundrum: if modernity doesnt cause heart disease, what does? Thompsons team has taken this as their cue for more historical research. We know some of the common contemporary risk factors, but a broader understanding of heart disease may lie in a deep look at the health of our ancestors.
The Long Now Foundation 21/03/2013 15:00
The Long Now Foundations monthly
Nicholas Negroponte presents “Beyond Digital”
Wednesday, April 17 02013 at 7:30pm Marines Memorial Theater
Long Now Members can reserve 2 seats, join today! General Tickets $15
About this Seminar:
Its far easier to predict the future when you are helping make and distribute it. Nicholas Negroponte exemplifies this with his notable accomplishments, including founding the MIT Media Lab, being the first investor in WIRED magazine, and founding the One Laptop Per Child program.
His 01995 book Being Digital gave a glimpse into the world we now occupy–complete with wireless, touch screens, ebooks and personalized news. In this talk, Beyond Digital, Negroponte will once again give us a glimpse of the possibilities that lie ahead.
BLDGBLOG 21/03/2013 15:00[Image: Fallen rockets at the bottom of the sea; photo by Bezos Expeditions, via Discovery News].
News this week that the discarded engines of the Apollo rockets from the moon missions of the 1960s have been found at the bottom of the ocean by Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos is perhaps further indication that the robber barons of the 21st-century will be spending at least some of their fortunes on complex, engineering-oriented, and slightly Nemo-like adventures, whether that means mining asteroids, flying civilians into space, building 10,000-year clocks in the mountains of west Texas, traveling down into the deepest trenches on Earth, or, yes, performing gonzo acts of space archaeology 400 miles off the east coast of Florida.
Bezos's description of the rocket-age ruins now on their way back to dry landand, eventually, into a museumputs a fairly Ballardian spin on the discovery: "Weve seen an underwater wonderland," he quipped, "an incredible sculpture garden of twisted F-1 engines," a garden of fallen offworld technologies appearing to grow coral at the bottom of the sea.
I'm reminded of a line from Robert Charles Wilson's novel Axis, where Wilson writes that "the sky filled with the luminous debris of ancient, incomprehensible machines," fragmentary gears and circuits drifting through the air like mechanical snow, only, here, it's the equipment of our own recent history having washed down through the ocean, taking on the ringed appearance of coral.
Maintaining his Ballardian tone, Bezos suggested that the seafloor from which the rockets were pulled was not unlike the surface of the moon: "We on the team were often struck by poetic echoes of the lunar missions. The buoyancy of the ROVs looks every bit like microgravity. The blackness of the horizon. The gray and colourless ocean floor. Only the occasional deep sea fish broke the illusion."
Explaining his interest in restoring the behemoth pieces of equipment being re-absorbed into the planetary ecosystem, Bezos adds that his team "photographed many beautiful objects in situ and have now recovered many prime pieces. Each piece we bring on deck conjures for me the thousands of engineers who worked together back then to do what for all time had been thought surely impossible." Now, he says, "We want the hardware to tell its true story, including its 5,000 mph re-entry and subsequent impact with the ocean surface." Sadly, doing this required interrupting what might someday have been a reef, possibly one of the most interesting points to take away from all of thisthat even something as unearthly as rockets, given enough time and isolation, could become overgrown, a kind of Angkor Wat of the sea, indistinguishable from life in the oceans.
The Long Now Foundation 20/03/2013 14:47
The secret to a prosperous national future may be all in our heads. So says Long Now Board member David Eagleman in a recent op-ed contribution for the New York Times. In support of the Presidents recent allocation of $3 billion to neuroscience research, Eagleman explains that the complicated riddle of our brain may hold the key to understanding just about anything.
Uncovering the mechanics of addiction, for example, will not just improve methods of treatment for substance abuse: by unlocking the possibility of developing preventive interventions, this knowledge could become a valuable strategy in the war on drugs. Similarly, greater knowledge of our neural networks may help to drive the development of more intelligent technology, and help build more adaptive machinery. In other words:
Brain health, drug rehabilitation, computer intelligence, adaptive devices these economic drivers would lavishly pay back any investment in brain research. So when a tax payer asks how to endow your country with a confident future, you can reply, the answer is right in back of your eyes.
The Long Now Foundation 19/03/2013 16:32
Speaking at TED earlier this year, Long Now co-founder Danny Hillis described the early days of networked computing – a time when one could register “think.com” on a whim and everyone with an email address or a domain could be listed in a single book.
He explained that the design of the Internet Protocol and the early community using it were infused with communistic values - ironic, he notes, as the tech grew out of Cold War militarism.
Since then, of course, the internet, its users and its uses have expanded far beyond the wildest dreams of its creators. In so doing, it has become an essential societal infrastructure – without having been designed as such. As another Long Now Board Member, David Eagleman, points out, the internet is not invulnerable. Emergency communications and other high-priority services must be possible without the internet, but increasingly depend on it.
Hillis says a separate backup internet would not be hard to build and would dramatically increase our resilience to disaster and malfeasance.
The Long Now Foundation 18/03/2013 23:39
The Present is a clock with an annual dial that was funded originally through Kickstarter by design collective m ss ng p eces. The inspiration for this clock seems to come from a similar place as the Clock of the Long Now.
This was one of those early blockbuster Kickstarter projects that reached 4x its fund raising goal. After a couple years figuring out how to produce these as a product, it has finally shipped and we just received ours. It has excellent build quality from what I can tell and auto-magically sets itself as soon as you put batteries into it. Since we are only a few days away from the March Equinox ours moved directly to nearly the “3 o’clock” position in the middle of the green section (see pic below). As we approach summer the hand will move into yellow, then reds for autumn etc.
You can get your own at http://thepresent.is/
The Long Now Foundation 15/03/2013 19:29
Over the past 12 years, audio archivists at the The Macaulay Library archive at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have digitized 7,513 hours of analog recordings of natural sounds. The collection houses the largest and oldest scientific archive of biodiversity audio and video recordings, and the entire collection is now accessible online.
These archived recordings started in 1929 when Cornell Lab founder Arthur Allen made the very first recordings of a Song Sparrow at Stewart Park in Ithaca, New York. Since then, the collection has grown to around 150,000 digital audio recordings and represents about 9,000 different species. Clips range from the 1966 recording of an ostrich chick inside its egg to the call of a male walrus:
Once heard, the coda song of the male walrus is one of those unforgettable sounds in the world. It is comprised of two basic types of elements, series of evenly-delivered taps followed by an extraordinary bell or gong-like sound. The ringing quality of this latter element is astonishing, especially in an aquatic environment, and that such a sound is produced by a walrus seems all the more improbable (but true). The function is not fully understood, but may convey dominance status to potential mates and rivals.
The Macaulay Librarys goal is to build the most comprehensive collection of natural sounds and to preserve such recordings. There is even an Audio Most Wanted list to help build the archive.
BLDGBLOG 15/03/2013 19:07Last year, I posted about a summer workshop held in upstate New York run by architect David Gersten of the Cooper Union. Well, it's back and this summer's 8-week program is even more ambitious. However, note that the deadline for applications fast approaches (due March 25).
[Images: Photos from Arts Letters & Numbers; applications for the summer 2013 workshop are due March 25].
As Gersten himself describes it, this summer's workshop will be "structured through six disciplines: construction, drawing, film/photography, writing, theater and music/sound," forming a kind of "disciplinary exquisite corpse." Participants in each of these fields "will work in parallel and in close proximity, directly interacting though a framework of shared questions and actions."
During the eight-week intensive workshop, together, we will build a bridge; a bridge that is a stage, a drawing board, a film screen, a story, a place to acta bridge between many disciplines. This bridge will be co-constructed, as each step in its construction will be developed as a series of shared questions across all of the disciplines. As we excavate the site, we will ask: What is excavation in drawing? in film, in writing, in theater, in music. As we pour the foundations we will ask what are foundations in drawing, in film, in writing, in theater, in music. As we raise the structure, we will ask what is structure in drawing, in film, in writing, in theater, in music. As raise a new horizon, we will ask; what is horizon in drawing, in film, in writing, in theater, in music? Week by week as we move thought the shared questions we will co-construct a work, an emergent space between all of the disciplines.The grand finale of the eight weeks will be "a live performance built between all of the works," an interdisciplinary opera of construction, poetry, drawing, light, and words.
[Image: Photo from Arts Letters & Numbers].
As is probably obvious, this is a much more embodied and physically engaged form of architectural exploration, in many ways at the opposite end of the world from sitting inside, designing little triangle-shaped tiles in Rhino all day, and, as such, it offers a great way to experience the humid and heavy vegetation of a New York forest outside the nighttime lights of the city for a few weeks, exploring the rigors of other disciplines (and possibly even driving heavy excavation equipment).
[Image: Photo from Arts Letters & Numbers].
Application information and a short film about the summer program are available on the project website.
BLDGBLOG 15/03/2013 18:31The last few years have seen the rise of "soft robots," squirming, biomorphic, and highly flexible little machines that can be used to slip through cracks, infiltrate tight spaces, even explore architectural ruins in the wake of earthquakes and warfare.
But soft robots are also getting closer to becoming what are, in effect, mechanically agile medical devices that can "monitor your insides," in the words of Sangbae Kim, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, as reprinted by Popular Science, sneaking around inside your body like an earthworm.
The so-called "meshworm" is exactly that: a robotic "worm" made from layered wire mesh that uses "nickel-titanium alloy for muscles." The application of a high temperature "shortens the wire, tightens the springs coil, and squeezes that body segment." Thus, "when a segment contracts, the one behind it stretches out, and the robot inches forward. The tendon also has muscles attached so the robot can turn left or right."
The result is the oddly grotesque and somewhat phallic creeping machine you see in the short video, above. The idea is that this could be used for medical diagnosis or vascular surgery.
However, the architectural or broadly spatial uses of this technology are also worth considering, including the potential for monumentally scaled-up versions of the meshworm, capable of assisting human or material transport through the built environmenta kind of peristaltic package-delivery tube that could replace the much-discussed pneumatic tubes of an earlier urban era. Like something out of a David Cronenberg film, the city would have a kind of giant bowel-infrastructure distributing waste material from point to point.
More interestingly, though, this new class of soft robots and meshworms could quickly assume their roles as architectural explorers in their own right, burrowing through collapsed buildings, passing beneath or around doors, even being taken up by the more ambitious burglars and tactical operations teams of the world.
Or, for example, earlier this month in the cave state of Kentucky, the annual "Cave City Hamfest" explored how to bring radio transmission deep underground. This was "accomplished by placing handheld (relay capable) walkie-talkies or relay boxes along a cave passage." "After the inital debugging phase, we demonstrated the ability to simply walk the cave, until data was lost and then backing up a few feet for a solid link. Then placing a radio on a convenient rock and continuing." Taking this as our cue, we could simply wire-up a team of meshworms with radio repeaters and send a small, crawling team of spelunking robots far ahead of us into caves where no human body can fit; they would crawl until they lose a signal, move back a few feet to re-establish a secure feed, and then the next one squirms dutifully forward.
You've thus built a mobile, semi-autonomous, deep-earth radio network made from repurposed medical devicesequal parts cave-mapping expedition and subterranean pirate radio stationopening up whole new realms of underground exploration (and tactical media).