Monday, December 03, 2012

Making the Geologic Now

I'm taking off on the bus for New York early tomorrow morning to visit some friends and stop by the launch party for Making the Geologic Now, the new book edited by Jaime Kruse and Elizabeth Elsworth of the Friends of the Pleistocene and smudge studio

The book includes an essay on the Bayside Glacier contributed by yours truly. I'm really proud to be part of this project, among many writers and bloggers whom I've long admired. I've had a chance to see parts of it already, and it looks fantastic.

After tomorrow's launch party, you'll be able to download a free e-book at Punctum Books’ website, or browse an interactive web version at Pre-orders of the print version, which should ship in December, will also be available soon through Punctum’s website.

Image: the Sable Oaks glacier, a municipal snow dump located in the flight path of the Portland International Jetport.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Cities & Memory

From Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities:

In Maurilia, the traveler is invited to visit the city and, at the same time, to examine some old post cards that show it as it used to be: the same identical square with a hen in the place of the bus station, a bandstand in the place of the overpass, two young ladies with white parasols in the place of the munitions factory.

Photo courtesy of the Friends of the Eastern Promenade

If the traveler does not wish to disappoint the inhabitants, he must praise the postcard city and prefer it to the present one, though he must be careful to contain his regret at the changes within definite limits: admitting that the magnificence and prosperity of the metropolis Maurilia, when compared to the old, provincial Maurilia, cannot compensate for a certain lost grace,

Photo by Corey Templeton

which, however, can be appreciated only now in the old post cards, whereas before, when that provincial Maurilia was before one's eyes, one saw absolutely nothing graceful and would see it even less today, if Maurilia had remained unchanged; and in any case the metropolis has the added attraction that, through what it has become, one can look back with nostalgia at what it was.

Beware of saying to them that sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another, without communication among themselves. At times even the names of the inhabitants remain the same, and their voices' accent, and also the features of the faces; but the gods who live beneath names and above places have gone off without a word and outsiders have settled in their place.

It is pointless to ask whether the new ones are better or worse than the old, since there is no connection between them, just as the old post cards do not depict Maurilia as it was, but a different city which, by chance, was called Maurilia, like this one.

Photo credits:
Historic postcards from

Present-day photos courtesy of (from top to bottom): Friends of the Eastern Promenade, Corey Templeton via the forums, Corey Templeton via the Portland Maine Daily Photo blog, and Panaramio user sacoo.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Must-Have Christmas Toy of 2012: The Tickle-Me Bionic Cockroach

A pair of grad students in Michigan has started a line of educational toys designed to teach kids the basics of neuroscience by letting them hack roaches and rewire their nervous systems. These 21st-century Lincoln Logs are going by the trade name Backyard Brains.

Their first kit, the SpikerBox, encourages kids to cut off a roach's leg ("don't worry, they can grow back," the instructions reassure us) and hook up each end to electrodes in order to listen to the neurons fire, or "spike," in response to stimulus. A more advanced experiment with the same kit encourages kids to feed similar electrical impulses back into another roach leg to reanimate it post-amputation.

These guys should look into product tie-ins for the new "Frankenweenie" movie.

But their most ambitious kit (currently in beta) is the "RoboRoach," pictured above. With this toy, kids are encouraged to glue fine electrodes into a roach's amputated antennae, pierce its carapace with a ground wire, and glue a circuitboard onto its back. Apparently all of this can be accomplished with your typical 8th-grade level neurosurgery skills. Here's the instruction video:

Once the wiring is complete, you'll have hours of fun sending artificial antennae stimuli into the roach's nervous system, forcing it to turn left or right by remote control.

The Backyard Brains kits are more humane than your typical bio lab dissection — so why they feel so creepy to me? Maybe I'm just feeling the cultural warnings of Mary Shelley's famous nightmare. These toys anticipate a future in which the kids who play with them will hack into human nervous systems. But they're also one more sign that "nature" is completely bound up with — and increasingly subject to — the progress of our technology.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Science Fiction is the New Realism

Earlier this summer, the New Yorker published its first-ever "Sci-Fi" special issue, with a cover image of a spaceman, a robot, and an alien crashing through the wall of a stodgy literary party.

Inside, there were non-fiction essays by people like Ray Bradbury and Ursula Le Guin. But my favorite parts were the sci-fi stories by putatively "non-genre" writers like Jonathan Lethem, Jennifer Egan, and Junot Diaz. Diaz's story, "Monstro," was my favorite — set in a near-future, globally-heated, income-stratified Dominican Republic, where a creepy zombie infection across the border in Haiti is just getting started (apparently Diaz is working on extending the story into a novel).

But the thing that struck me most about the "sci-fi" stories was how grounded and plausible they seemed — in spite of their use of sci-fi tropes like cyborgs and zombie infections. Another story by Jennifer Egan tells of a beautiful woman spy with cybernetic implants that relay her senses to the CIA (in a demonstration of "the medium is the message," the story was published in 144-character segments on Twitter). Though it was set in the near future, and in spite of the Twitter gimmick, the story seemed completely plausible — we already have robot agents fighting overseas, while Google is building cyborg prototypes for networked, computer-enhanced vision.

And my favorite thing about "Monstro" were the details — not quite apocalyptic, but getting there — that made it feel like our everyday discomfort amidst income stratification and constant disaster. The story's horror builds in the background noise of a world in crisis with heat waves and third-world epidemics. Problems whose distance and relentlessness just don't merit that much attention (at first) from the protagonist narrator — not while he's chasing girls in the air-conditioned neighborhoods where the upper class lives.

All of which — the background static of freakish disasters on the 24-hour news cycle, combined with first-world indifference — feels a bit too familiar to call it "sci-fi," doesn't it?

I've also recently started reading the novels and essays of William Gibson, who's also has an essay in this same issue of the New Yorker. His books get shelved in the sci-fi section, even though most of them are pretty solidly rooted in contemporary Internet culture. It's not that Gibson is writing in a fantasy genre; the problem is that most contemporary literature feels like a genre that's stuck in the past, in a world without internet forums or cellphones. As critic Choire Sicha bitingly observes in Slate:
"The literary novel is, make no mistake, as much a pileup of inherited conventions as the worst werewolf cash-in. There are now thousands of young, MFA-toting writers, so many of them aping the weak generation of literary male novelists now in their 50s: pallid and insufferable teachers and idols, in light of the strong and inventive generation before them."
– from Choire Sicha's review of The Unreal and the Real, a new two-volume collection of stories by Ursula Le Guin
Gibson's on Twitter as @greatdismal, which is where I first learned of him over a year ago. Appropriately enough, he's inspired at least one fake imitator account — a fictional cyberpunk  version of the cyberpunk fiction author. I mention it here because that fake account recently summed up (admittedly with some out-of-character exaggeration) how science-fictional the reality of the last few days have been:

The world we live in — with rich-world obesity epidemics, prefabricated cities rising in Asia, global heating, social media and its attendant transformation of our identities, financial crises, and everything else — has turned out to be far stranger than the old sci-fi stories of white Texan mavericks who landed rockets on Mars.

The weirdness of the future isn't a genre anymore: it's real life.

Recommendations from authors mentioned in this post:
Distrust That Particular Flavor, essays by William Gibson (2012)

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010)

The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories Volume One: Where on Earth by Ursula Le Guin (2012).

Monday, October 29, 2012

Buried Wetlands Rise from the Grave

This evening, Hurricane Sandy's storm surge will combine with astronomical high tides to give eastern seaboard cities an exciting preview of sea level rise. Forecasters are predicting storm surges up to 10 feet above the average high water mark — especially in western Long Island Sound and New York Harbor, where the storm is funneling massive volumes of seawater into the right-angled corner formed by New Jersey and Connecticut.

As I wrote last week in Grist, most big cities have buried their wetlands and creeks underground. But big storms and flood events like this one have a way of making those hidden waterways reassert themselves, as underground sewers and stormwater channels fill up beyond their design capacity and overflow into the streets above.

That can happen in unexpected places. Here in Portland it wasn't even particularly stormy today, and there was only light rain. But the astronomical high tide did push water up to the surface of Somerset Street, four blocks away from Back Cove (note the empty tree wells — similar events killed the street trees planted here in 2006 due to salt water in the roots).

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, heavy rains may once again cause problems in the sewer-bound Mill Creek.

And in New York City's Boerum Hill and Park Slope neighborhoods, the old marshes of the Gowanus Canal may once again take over the streets. This overlay of the Brooklyn section of the 1782 British Headquarters Map shows (roughly) how far the old marshes of the Gowanus used to extend across central Brooklyn:

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

On "Sewer Discretion is Advised"

I've just published a new film review on the environmental news site about two new documentaries that profile the new watersheds. Here's an excerpt:

Most urban streams and creeks are hidden from sight — in huge sewer tunnels under streets and expressways, in concrete ditches behind razor-wire fences, and sometimes even in pipes under the manicured lawns and gardens of city parks.

These are hardly the kinds of places you’d see on the cover of an L.L. Bean catalog — although you might find a few L.L. Bean catalogs in these concrete creeks.

But a growing network of urban explorers, who sometimes call themselves “drainers,” are sneaking into the storm sewers and aqueducts to rediscover these long-hidden waterways. They’re finding lush forest groves among the concrete ditches and waterfalls and grand vaulted grottoes in underground sewers. Their photography and field notes remind residents that the rivers and streams that nursed their cities’ early growth still survive below the pavement, and are still worthy of appreciation — maybe even restoration.

Now, not one, but two new documentary films follow this small subculture of urban river enthusiasts, and celebrate the outsized impact of their civilly disobedient urban river expeditions.
Read the rest at

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

How an Icon of Journalism Became a Hollowed-Out Billboard

When it was built at the southern end of Longacre Square in 1903, the new headquarters of the New York Times became a landmark of midtown Manhattan, and helped publisher Adolph Ochs convince the city to rename the famous intersection in front of the building as Times Square.

One Times Square in 1904 (source).One Times Square in 2010.
Photo: Bernt Rostad/Flickr
By the mid-20th century, though, the Times had sold the building, and a new owner dismantled the intricate granite and terra-cotta facade to replace the exterior walls with plain concrete panels. In 1996, shortly after the City Council passed new laws that expelled porn theaters from the area, the building got sold again, to Sherwood Outdoor, an advertising firm. By then, the building's signage was covering most of the exterior windows, leaving the offices inside rather dark and dreary.

Rather than spend money to renovate, the new owners decided to simply abandon the building's interior above the 3rd floor, and use the top part of the building exclusively as a billboard (the lower 3 floors are still used, periodically, as retail space — it's currently a Walgreens drug store).

So for the past 15 years, the iconic building that was the namesake of Times Square itself, and a major headquarters of journalism, has become a hollowed-out shell, a mere scaffold for electronic signs.

At the Crossroads of the World, the value of advertising has trumped the value of journalism, and of work in general. 

Postscript: Illustrator Joe Mckendry has made a gorgeous before-and-after elevation drawing of the building's eastern facade in 1904 and in 2010, for his book One Times Square.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Indian Burial Ground in the Basement

I was walking the dog this weekend along Hammond Street, a quiet residential block squeezed on the hillside between busy Washington Avenue and the industrial district of lower East Bayside here in Portland. They're building two new apartment buildings on a lot at the end of the street, and have started digging out the foundations.

Fascinatingly, the basement excavation has revealed a cross-section of the hillside, which is full of shells. Mostly longneck clams, with a few oysters here and there:

The dense layers of shells are sandwiched between clayey marine soils that are typical of our neighborhood, and they follow the slope of the hillside, such that the same layers are visible twice in the excavation: once against the vertical wall on the uphill side, and once again on the floor:

I'm pretty confident that this is a Native American shell midden — a trash heap from seafood feasts of centuries past. Though it's several blocks and a freeway crossing away from the ocean today, this hillside used to drop straight down into the tidal flats of Back Cove, as you can see in this 1837 map of Portland. The red dot shows the site of this construction site, smack dab on the old shoreline:

Back Cove is a tidal basin — exactly the kind of place where longneck clams thrive, although you wouldn't want to eat them these days. Other parts of the shore around Back Cove were probably marshy and difficult to access from land, but this location, next to a steep hillside, probably offered more direct access to the flats for humans, and for clams, there was relative proximity to the nutrient-rich tidal flows at the Cove's outlet.

I've been kind of stumped by how the shell heaps are interspersed with layers of clayey soil. This photo shows the horizontal cross-section of two layers (on the future basement floor in the foreground) as well as the sloping vertical cross-section (on the street-facing wall, in the center of the photo). At the left edge of the photo is Anderson Street, which was once the shoreline. How did all that clay get in between? 

Stranger still is how some of the shell layers seem to overlap with each other:

My guess is that the steep slopes of the hillside probably set off occasional landslides, which would periodically bury a heap of shells under a thick layer of mud washed down from the higher ground above.

Any archaeologists care to comment?

Related post: Longfellow's Garbage

Update: Howard Reiche e-mailed me this this morning (Sept. 11):
The Knudsen home, which
stood on the site until this
summer. From the City of
Portland's 1924 tax records
 Good for you. That was my grandfather’s (Knud Knudsen) house where he raised 13 children after immigrating from Denmark. We have a family photo of my mother, Laura Christine (Knudsen) Reiche, feeding the ducks in the water which came to the foot of their garden which I walked in many times..
    Hammond St. was named after the Hammond rope walk which was originally at that site. Possibly the “layers of clay” mystery had something to do with the construction or changing of the rope walk. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Pizzashed

PBS has commissioned an amazing-looking documentary series called America Revealed (partially based on the popular BBC series "Britain from Above," from which I learned about the Teatime Deluge). In this segment, they attach a GPS device to Dominos Pizza delivery guys in Manhattan to animate the patterns of pizza delivery on a Friday night.

And then the camera zooms out, revealing the routes of the pizza shops' daily deliveries from a distribution center in northern Connecticut.

And then the camera zooms out more, to show the routes of satellite-embedded, refrigerated trucks moving across the continent, bringing dough, toppings, cheese, and tomato sauce from farms and food processing facilities to the distribution centers.

Behold, the American pizzashed:

Watch Pizza Delivery on PBS. See more from America Revealed.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Pussy Riot's April 29 Letter to President Medvedev

This is a bit off-topic from this blog's usual fare, but very much worth reading, I assure you. A friend here in Portland has been coordinating a lot of international activism on behalf of Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk group whose members were jailed last fall for provoking the regime of Vladimir Putin.

The three imprisoned members are currently in the midst of a show trial, and expect to receive a sentence later this week. I'm dusting off my Russian to help compile and edit a collection of the group's translated texts, including letters from jail, manifestos, essays, and court statements, for a public reading in New York later this week.

These texts are heartbreaking, angry, and brilliant. But they also have a dark, cynical humor to them. The irony of suffering at the hands of the Russian state as they pursue their hopes for a better Russian society is not lost on them — indeed, it puts them in good company with dozens of other Russian artistic geniuses.

Of the pieces I've edited so far, this April letter to lame-duck president Dmitry Medvedev (whose "presidency" was merely a benchwarming interlude for Vladimir Putin, whose dictatorship at least has the modesty to make shallow gestures towards constitutional term limits) is among my favorites, for the way it relentlessly, humorously skewers the impotence of the figurehead president.

Note: this translation is mostly my own. There was a rougher English translation previously available at, but I spent an evening polishing the language and diving into the original Russian to get the tone closer to the intent of the original. If any native Russian speakers have suggestions for further edits, I'll happily take advice in the comments. Here's a link to the Russian source.

Letter to President Medvedev
Here is the response Pussy Riot gave regarding D. Medvedev’s comment that the members of the group had “achieved their goal,” in a TV interview the Russian President gave to journalists from five TV networks on April 26 2012.

This response was written after the President refused to consider the evident violation of the principles of the law in the Pussy Riot case.

“Freedom is when you forget the name of the tyrant.”
    Josef Brodsky, 1975

“Freedom is a unique feeling, which is different for each person.”
    D. Medvedev, 26.04.2012

Dmitry Anatolyevich!

    Exactly four years ago, in May 2008, a few days before your inauguration as a President, members of the art group Voina [translated as"War" in English — ed.] visited some police stations near Moscow to place your portrait on the wall as a newly elected president, next to the existing portrait of Putin.

    Activists of the group Voina called your inauguration day “a great achievement of the Russian people”, “a victory of freedom,” and declared the seventh of May an important holiday, even more important than the other May holidays.*

    Your portrait fixed to the prison bars of the police departments around Moscow encapsulated the hopes of millions of Russians in 2008. Your bright image was meant to penetrate into the darkest corners of the judicial, political, and incarceratory systems of the country, and was ready to confront the monstrous medieval barbarity that characterizes Russian law today.

    Four years passed.

    Atrocities and torture in your so-called police force have become increasingly systemic. Magnitsky, a lawyer, was executed in prison; his persecutors got a raise and were nominated for awards. Khodorkovsky and Lebedev got another big prison term. Taisiya Osipova has been in prison already for one and a half years without any medical help; she might hope that, after your regal attention to her case, she might embrace her daughter again a year or two before her ten-year sentence is due to end.

    It’s touching, what you said in your interview: that you see a “lot of sense” in the fact that today, “all of these cases have become public, transparent.” During the last four years it has become absolutely transparent that in every serious situation in which conflicting interests demand legal justice, the Russian court will take the side of the stronger party, who has never bothered to pay attention to the law.

    You proudly consider yourself a practicing lawyer. In reality, as you have repeatedly emphasized, a period of four years was not long enough to carry out the reforms which could bring Russia closer to a constitutional state. It was not enough time to educate a new judiciary and a new police force. Four years were not enough to wean public officials from bribes and to keep them from hating their own people. Four years were not enough to develop and implement your beloved electronic systems that were supposed to make the stuffing of ballot boxes impossible.

    Four years: also the age of the children of our group’s imprisoned members – Gera and Phillip, a daughter and a son of Nadia Tolokonnikova and Masha Aliokhina, respectively. The court which you carefully and slowly reformed during the last four years has left these children without their mothers, indefinitely.

    What is going on in the mind of our practicing lawyer, as he observes (as the head of the state, of course, he is not able to influence justice before the verdict is made, as you have already mentioned several times) how the court of our nation first refused to detain professional sadists — the policemen who tortured and killed people with bottles of champagne — and then twice extended the detention of women who, from the point of view of a religious institution, made a prayer in church with the wrong intonation?

    As a “practicing lawyer,” does it not trouble you that that Ekaterina Samutsevich, one of the members of Pussy Riot, is placed to the same cell in the Pechatniki prison where Major Evsukov [a convicted former police officer who, while drunk and in uniform, opened fire in a crowded grocery storeEd.] awaited trial in 2009? Is it possible to still keep self-respect as a law professional, and accept the authority of the court, when someone whose crime was a prayer in church should be isolated from society in the same conditions as a police chief who shot civilians with his service weapon?

    During the interview you responded quite cynically concerning Pussy Riot. You mentioned that the participants of the act accomplished what they had hoped to. Not without reason, the journalists around you presumed that you were referring to the accomplishment of getting into prison. But you, after a dramatic pause, clarified your belief that we were merely seeking popularity and celebrity.

    We would like to assure you, Dmitry Anatolyevich, that it is the monstrous reaction of the Russian authorities to the punk-prayer “Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away,” and the widespread outrage of a huge number of people, who can not understand why three women are in prison — these are the things that brought about our so-called “celebrity.”  It is not on our merit that Pussy Riot gained international attention. Even you, at the end of your reign, forcefully emphasized in the same interview that nothing has actually changed during the last 50 years in Russia, and it was you who made the candid observation that, just as it was a half a century ago, a person of culture must resist the government, even through imprisonment and prosecution.

    Naturally, many of your colleagues and subordinates – including the Ministers of Justice and Culture, and the heads of the Federation Council and the President’s Council on Civil Society Development — openly came out against the imprisonment of the members of Pussy Riot. It is evident to them that this trial will result in a public disgrace for Russian authorities. However, today the opinion of one man is held as more significant than all the power of collective intelligence and your starry-eyed abstract notions of freedom. That is why our group appealed to the Virgin Mary to banish this man out of Russian politics.

    Thus the end of your presidential term will be remembered for the victory of bondage over freedom in Russia – the opposite of your ambitions. Three girls imprisoned in Pechatniki in Moscow are unequivocally recognised as prisoners of conscience by the international community and have become a vivid warning of Russia’s path.

    And this path is due solely to a very specific idea of freedom: a freedom in which one person, acting alone, is allowed to make the important decisions in our country.

    Pussy Riot

* Ed. note: The May holidays include May Day, the celebration of workers, and Victory Day, when Russians celebrate their victory over Nazi Germany. Both holidays are obviously more significant than Medvedev’s appointment as Putin’s benchwarmer.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

L.A. River series on Grist

This week, Grist is running a 4-part series I wrote about the Los Angeles River, based on my trip to L.A. earlier in July. You can read it starting here, with the introduction.

And though Grist was very generous with room to write, there were still lots of fascinating details that I had to leave out of the narrative. I hope to cover some of those stories here in the weeks to come. So if you've just found this blog, please consider subscribing to my RSS feed or following me on Twitter (@vigorousnorth). Also, feel free to send me an email if you'd like to share an interesting story that I missed: the address is c.neal.milneil at gmail dot com.

The Los Angeles River has more than enough stories to fill a book. If you're a publisher, please get in touch!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Los Angeles Hikes

Just got back from a vacation to southern California, which provided some material for a freelance project I'm working on. I think that I hiked more in Los Angeles during one week than I have all year here in Maine.

It's a strange, wonderful city.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Foreclosure Farms

Growing food in abandoned city lots? That's so 2007. In the post-recession landscape, the edgiest agricultural trendsetters are growing cannabis in suburban foreclosures. 

"Houses that sold for $1 million before the crisis have been turned into grow houses, equipped with the high-intensity lights, water and air-filtering systems necessary to produce potent, high-quality marijuana," reported the New York Times in an article this spring.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the BBC reports that local police found over 7,800 cannabis farms in the UK last year.

A foreclosed house in Vallejo, California, where illegal wiring for grow lights caused a fire on the second floor. Photo by Jim Wilson for the New York Times.
It's the logical next step of the "urban farming" fad. Abandoned inner-city lots for growing vegetables are becoming increasingly difficult to find. So what's an aspiring inner-city homesteader to do?

Drive 'till you qualify. There's a bounty of abandonment beyond the city limits. Find a nice quarter-acre lot with a nice lawn and privacy from any nosy neighbors, a good school district where well-to-do students will pay top dollar for your product, and five spacious bedrooms for your grow lights.

Who says the American Dream is dead? It just needs some pharmacological assistance.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Waves and Radiation: from Moscow, Maine to Moscow, Russia

In the late days of the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force acquired miles of forestland in northern Maine to erect an enormous array of steel antennae, designed to listen over the horizon for aircraft and missiles approaching from beyond the iron curtain.

The installation, ironically enough, was located in a sparsely-populated town called Moscow. The steel towers have since been scrapped, but Dave of paid a visit a few years ago while they were still intact, and got these amazing photos.

Naturally, the Soviets had their own over-the-horizon radar installation pointed at us. That array happens to be located near Chernobyl, inside the Exclusion Zone. It still stands amidst irradiated, wild forests, a mirror-world reflection of Moscow, Maine.

Images from English Russia.

Officially called "Duga," or "Arc," for the shape of its coverage area, this array was known in the western world as the "Russian woodpecker" for the rapid thumps it broadcast into short-wave radio receivers. In the 1970s and 80s, civilian radio enthusiasts in the western world could hear these signals clearly, and were even able to triangulate their source to a location near Kiev. But beyond that, little was officially known.

In this 1982 BBC Horizon documentary, ostensibly about the technologies of Nicola Tesla, a Canadian bureaucrat named Andrew Michrowski speculates that Duga was a "Tesla magnifying transmitter" broadcasting psychoactive waves into the western world to interfere with our brains.

The beginning of this clip provides an audio recording of the woodpecker signal, followed by some entertaining Cold War conspiracy theories:
A partial transcript:
Michrowski: Because it is the same frequency, the same frequency range, and also the same kind of activity that goes on in our brains. That is the terrible thing about the Soviet signal: the capacity to impose on the way people, quote, think. This thinking that I'm talking about is the thinking of being peaceful, the ability to be calm, the ability to rationalize, [they] are all affected from a purely mental point of view by signals of this nature.

Narrator: Is there any defense? This personal transmitter puts out 7.8 cycles a second, which Michrowski says is a natural planetary frequency the body is tuned to. [...]

Michrowski: This is being used as far as we are aware by the German Civil Service... It is mainly a protective mechanism to ensure that the German Civil Servant, especially on external affairs duty, is able to keep his composure, in negotiations especially with other people and other countries. To make sure that they're not influenced.
To the BBC's credit, the documentary gives a more enlightening explanation of over-the-horizon radar technology once Michrowski stops hawking his protective organic radio wave device (at around 3:20 in the clip above). 

These huge radar arrays, one located in the expansive forests of our cold northern frontier, the other located in a radioactive zone of exclusion, don't broadcast any signals any more. But as rusting relics of the 20th century, they still exert a morbid allure, inviting us to speculate about hidden, secret purposes they might once have had.

Years after the end of the Cold War, after the power has been shut down, their psychoactive properties finally begin to take root, affecting our thoughts and imaginations — not with a pulsing radio signal, but with the eerie quiet of an empty meadow and rusted wires stirring in the breeze.

I hope to visit the Moscow site later this summer, and hopefully to find some good local lore about the site. I'll keep you posted on this blog.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Ten thousand public bikes bloom in Manhattan

Later this summer, New York City city will roll out thousands of publicly-owned bikes parked at stations, spaced a few blocks apart across three boroughs, where visitors, workers, and neighborhood residents will be able to borrow a bike for short-term rentals.

Lots of other cities have already pioneered the bikesharing idea (even Houston, Texas managed to implement bikesharing before New York did, with a much smaller 3-station downtown network that opened this spring). With origins in Paris and Montreal, bikesharing has always had a tinge of utopian socialism to it, promoting the shared use of public property over privately-owned vehicles.

But it's a socialist idea that works brilliantly, thanks to mobile technology: users can use their smartphones to locate bikes and a station near their destination, while bikeshare managers can locate lost or broken bikes with GPS, and dynamically track which stations need more bikes due to high demand. Lots of new business startups seek to duplicate the same communistic idea of letting people share their private property (whether spare bedrooms or automobiles) in exchange for small rental payments. Bikesharing makes cycling in cities easier, cheaper, and more fun, resulting in more people riding bikes for short trips in the cities where it's been established.

Private property, it turns out, is a hassle to take care of. But new technology allows people to enjoy the communitarian benefits of shared property thanks to the capitalist accountability of credit card security deposits and rental payments.

New York City's state-owned bicycles wholeheartedly embrace this ironic marriage of utopian environmentalist socialism with hard-nosed capitalism. They've been named "Citi Bikes," after Citibank, which contributed a $41 million for the naming rights.

Wall Street quants riding to work like Maoist factory workers (although even Maoists own their own bikes) will do so astride bikes plastered with the Citibank logo, and pay at stations that prefer MasterCard, another corporate sponsor.

And so here is a photo, via Streetsblog, of three transportation policy wonks (from left: NYC Deputy Mayor Robert Steel, Alta Bikeshare CEO Alison Cohen, NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan) and three billionaires (Mayor Michael Bloomberg, MasterCard CEO Ajay Banga, and Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit).

In a few more years, bikesharing stations will be as much a part of our stereotypical vision of the generic urban landscape as newsstands and bus shelters are today.

Friday, May 04, 2012

The Language of Waves and Radiation

“The supermarket shelves have been rearranged. It happened one day without warning. There is agitation and panic in the aisles, dismay in the faces of older shoppers.
[...] They scrutinize the small print on packages, wary of a second level of betrayal. The men scan for stamped dates, the women for ingredients. Many have trouble making out the words. Smeared print, ghost images. In the altered shelves, the ambient roar, in the plain and heartless fact of their decline, they try to work their way through confusion. But in the end it doesn’t matter what they see or think they see. The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly. This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living. And this is where we wait together, regardless of our age, our carts stocked with brightly colored goods. A slowly moving line, satisfying, giving us time to glance at the tabloids in the racks. Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead.”

-Don Delillo, from the conclusion of White Noise

Our grocery store is finishing a remodeling project. The place feels different in ways that are hard to place — the changes are subtle enough that you can't remember what it looked like before, but the cumulative effect is of being someplace that's at once familiar and strange, as though pranksters moved your bedroom furniture a few inches while you slept.

When I visited yesterday, the changes raised all sorts of questions: how many focus groups and research studies went into determining how high this shelf is, or what kind of lightbulbs to use? And where is the yogurt?

And yet, the overall effect was effective: the colors seemed brighter, the aisles more spacious, my appetite for groceries stronger.

It reminded me of Don Delillo's White Noise, which has a number of amazing passages about supermarkets. I came home and skimmed the book for those passages again, and found my favorite, the one quoted above, which occupies the very last page of the book. A pretty amazing conclusion: an apotheosis of the consumer experience.

So it felt even more wonderful to experience the same sensations in real life, and be aware of them. Was this desire to consume more a subconscious reaction to the new environment that retail analysts and architects had designed explicitly for that purpose?

Or maybe the physical details of the remodeling are irrelevant, and the simple awareness of the remodeling itself — the mere idea of the remodeling — was enough to convey expectations that I should buy more, in order to blend in with the consensus of (real or imagined) focus groups and balance sheets. To be in harmony with the language of waves and radiation.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

David Lynch's Nature Film

Hollywood types supposedly love making heavy-handed ecological allegories to brainwash us into being more considerate and thoughtful. It turns out that David Lynch was no exception. Here's a short film about inner-city wildlife in Lynch's signature "neo-noir" style, from 1991:

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Relic from the Gold Rush Space Program

A couple years ago I wrote about the Mannahatta project, an effort to reconstruct the pre-colonial ecosystems that existed on Manhattan Island, and the gorgeous computer-generated birds-eye-views that it produced.

Now, a Californian geographer named Mark Clark has made a similar speculative map, showing most of California as it might have looked from space in 1850 (via the Strange Maps blog):

What's most striking to me is how edenic the Central Valley looks with its original rivers and marshes streaming snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada into the lush swirl of marshes in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta in the north, or, in the south, into the long-lost Tulare Lake, once the largest freshwater body west of the Great Lakes.

Now, the same landscape is all massive monoculture farm fields spotted with dusty, heat-blasted cities like Bakersfield and Fresno. Even more remarkable is that most of the transformation happened within a single generation during the early 20th century. Why aren't there more Hollywood blockbusters about this story?

And speaking of native Californian hydrology, a friend recently turned me onto the L.A. Creek Freak blog, which is all about trying to restore watersheds and their ecological functions in the Los Angeles metro area. I'm actually planning a visit to southern California early this summer — if any Californian readers want to leave tourism suggestions in the comments, or just say "hello," it would make my day.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

High-Rise Forestry

This pair of luxury housing high-rises under construction in Milan includes beefy cantilevered balconies that have been designed to support hundreds of fully-grown trees and shrubs.

Architect Stephano Boeri boasts that the project "is a model of vertical densification of nature within the city." The trees that will be suspended off of its balconies are equivalent to a hectare's worth of flat-land forest, while the homes inside the buildings represent five hectares' worth of single-family homes in the Italian suburbs.

It's called Bosco Verticale, or Vertical Forest.

These construction photos are by Daniel Iodice, and come from the Stephano Boeri Architetti website:

And a close-up of the tree boxes:

Here's the architect's vision of how the buildings will look when complete:

The plantings, which will include holly oak, European wild pear, and a mix of shrubs like Cain Apples and hawthorns, seem to have been chosen for their tolerance for constrained soil conditions and for their ability to improve the environmental quality inside and around the towers — shading the windows on hot summer days, insulating the apartments from city noise and particulate pollution, and filtering the apartments' grey water.

I first saw this project on the Green Futures blog, which included this critique:
Alexander Felson, Director of the Urban Ecology and Design Laboratory at Yale University, agrees that “there will potentially be microclimate and air particulate removal benefits”, but warns that the “overall energy required to construct a building that would support both trees and the wet weight of soil” places some serious question marks over its overall sustainability. He favors a more modest approach focusing on green roofs.
True, all that beefy steel and concrete required to hold up trees on an Italian balcony probably required the environmental sacrifice of a good chunk of China.

Still, I think Dr. Felson is missing the point (maybe he just can't see the forest for the trees?). This is a luxury high-rise, after all. While the architect Boeri is clearly interested in sustainability, he's also interested in creating a nice place to live for wealthy Milanese city-dwellers who can pay his commission. There are lots of luxury high-rises — the vast majority of them, actually — that blow their budgets waste construction material on much more masturbatory design flourishes.

What I find most interesting about these buildings is their approach to re-introducing wild nature into the city. I write about that idea often on this blog, but this project takes it to a new level (literally) by marrying a forest with a skyscraper. It's not merely creating a park that's geographically delineated from the rest of the city: it's integrating a forest with one of our most anthropocentric infrastructures: a high-rise apartment building.

That's pretty cool, not just for the people who live there, but for everyone in Milan who will be able to look at a vertical forest in their city's skyline.

Notwithstanding the technical questions of the construction project's sustainability, the buildings still presents an extremely bold vision of a sustainable city — a city in which nature is prominent and integrated into daily life.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Disappearing Bicyclist!

This isn't particularly on-topic, but I thought it was cool.

I spotted the original image of this wheel via Maria Popova's Twitter feed, which I've recently discovered. The first thing I thought when I saw it was, "I wish I could actually spin it!" And the second thing I thought was, "I'll bet that I could spin it, by using some of the new tricks in HTML5!"

Thus, here's my small contribution to global internet procrastination: a functional, digital version of the DISAPPEARING CYCLIST trick (drag the slider beneath the image to spin the wheel).

This is the sort of educational goofing off you can do when you're a freelancer with no pressing deadlines in view. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Very Situationist Valentine's Day

The Occupy camps have been dismantled — and yet, none of the motives behind the movement have disappeared. Maybe that's why I've noticed a revival of Situationist thought on city streets in my hometown and elsewhere around the globe.

Yesterday, for Valentine's Day, a Good Samaritan posted these flyers around Portland, Maine:

(photo by shannont, via Unseen Portland)

It reads: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Love that was once directly lived has become mere representation.” From Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle.

Another flyer reads "Young people everywhere have been allowed to choose between love and a garbage disposal unit. Everywhere they have chosen the garbage disposal unit" (another quote from Debord).

And in London, artist Robert Montgomery has appropriated billboards to post his Situationist poetry. This one is probably my favorite (via The Morning News, which has more samples of his work):

Valentine's Day might be the perfect Situationist holiday, especially now, when its hyper-commodified version of love is drawing so much cynicism towards itself in our bailout economy.

And yet, for anyone lucky enough to enjoy real love — not the spectacle, but the genuine article, without the chintzy chocolates or greeting cards or mall-bought lingerie — real love is an act of revolution: a reminder that we can be rich without the fake wealth of the global economy.

Thanks to Jess, I count myself in that number. All the hedge fund managers can go fuck their garbage disposal units (and I'd love to see them try).

Friday, February 10, 2012

How the Baby Boom Became the Apocalypse Boom

I recently started following the amazing Twitter feed of William Gibson, author of Pattern Recognition, Neuromancer, and a new collection of essays called Distrust That Particular Flavor.

The title of the latter, it turns out, comes from an essay about his childhood reading of H.G. Wells's Time Machine, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Quoting at length from the end of this essay, titled "Time Machine Cuba":

The future, according to Hollywood, in 1968 (from 2001: A Space Odyssey) and in 2009.

"In his preface to the 1921 edition of The War in the Air, Wells wrote of World War I (still able to call it, then, the Great War): 'The great catastrophe marched upon us in daylight. But everybody thought that somebody else would stop it before it really arrived. Behind that great catastrophe march others today.' In his preface to the 1941 edition, he could only add: 'Again I ask the reader to note the warnings I gave in that year, twenty years ago. Is there anything to add to that preface now? Nothing except my epitaph. That, when the time comes, will manifestly have to be: "I told you so. You damned fools." (The italics are mine.)'

"The italics are indeed his: the terminally exasperated visionary, the technologically fluent Victorian who has watched the 20th Century arrive, with all of its astonishing baggage of change, and who has come to trust in the minds of the sort of men who ran British Rail. They are the italics of the perpetually impatient and somehow perpetually unworldly futurist, seeing his model going terminally wrong in the hands of the less clever, the less evolved. And they are with us today, those italics, though I've long since learned to run shy of science fiction that employs them.

"I suspect that I began to distrust that particular flavor of italics when the world didn't end in October of 1962. I can't recall the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis at all. My anxiety, and the world's, reached some absolute peak. And then declined, history moving on, so much of it, and sometimes today the world of my own childhood strikes me as scarcely less remote than the world of Wells's childhood, so much has changed in the meantime.

"I may actually have begun to distrust science fiction, then, or rather to trust it differently, as my initial passion for it began to decline, around that time. I found Henry Miller, then, and William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and others, voices of another kind, and the science fiction I continued to read was that which somehow was resonant with those other voices, and where those voices seemed to be leading me.

"And it may also have begun to dawn on me, around that same time, that history, though initially discovered in whatever soggy trunk or in whatever caliber, is a species of speculative fiction itself, prone to changing interpretation and further discoveries."

I love that last sentence. There's a whole academic field of historiography: the study of how our historical narratives change and have changed over time. Historiography is essentially a literary exercise: understanding the stories we tell about ourselves. Is there really much difference between the stories we tell about our pasts and the so-called science fiction stories of our futures?

"That particular flavor" of dystopian science fiction is particularly strong right now, with heady notes of Mayan prophecies and mideast uprisings and financial collapses. In a recent interview with Wired magazine, Gibson elaborates on his skepticism:

"Futurists get to a certain age and, as one does, they suddenly recognize their own mortality, and they often decide that what’s going on is that everything is just totally screwed and shabby now, whereas when they were younger everything was better.

"It’s an ancient, somewhat universal human attitude, and often they give it full voice. But it’s been being given voice for thousands and thousands of years. You can go back and see the ancient Greeks doing it. You know, 'All that is good is gone. These young people are incapable of making art, or blue jeans, or whatever.' It’s just an ancient thing, and it’s so ancient that I’m inclined to think it’s never actually true. And I’ve always been deeply, deeply distrustful of anybody’s 'golden age' — that one in which we no longer live."

As concerned as I am about human civilization's capacity to commit suicide, I'm still with Gibson here. America's baby boomers have been a uniquely self-important generation — and uniquely destructive. But the idea that they're the apex of a million years of humanity, after which everything must decline, really takes the cake for arrogance.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Drone Surveillance Agents of the Amateur E.P.A.

"And the third angel poured out his vial on the rivers and fountains of waters; and they became blood." - Revelation 16:4

In Dallas, an amateur drone hobbyist, flying his homemade surveillance rig around the skies of Oak Cliff, recently noticed something strange about the hue of Cedar Creek, which flows into the Trinity River just upstream of the city's showcase new kayaking park.

The amateur surveillance agent submitted his photographic evidence to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which discovered an underground pipe from a nearby pork slaughterhouse that was sloughing volumes of pig blood and other slaughterhouse wastes directly into the stream. The slaughterhouse now faces serious criminal charges while the residents of the Trinity River watershed cope with their nausea (the Trinity watershed doesn't merely encompass greater Dallas; it also empties into Galveston Bay on the outskirts of Houston, which means the shrimp I ate last month might have included a few nanograms of diluted pig blood or the various pathogens that feed on it).

I have to wonder how long this was going on: the photo above shows how egregiously bloody the stream was, and it was happening within the inner neighborhoods of a huge city. Why did it take a hobbyist's flying machine to notice that something terrible was going on in Cedar Creek? Why didn't any of the millions of gravity-bound residents of Dallas think to ask why the river was running red — or did any of them even notice?

Maybe nobody had ever thought to look at the creek before this. Maybe, running through the middle of a city of millions of people, the creek had managed to surround itself in enough urban camouflage — industrial warehouses and power lines and cyclone fencing and weed-choked empty lots — to become completely anonymous, a secret hidden in plain sight.

Maybe the camera on a flying drone and a hobbyist's enthusiasm provided the first opportunity in years for a Dallas resident to peer into Cedar Creek without disregarding it as a short-lived streak of weeds seen peripherally through the car window at 40 miles per hour.

[as seen on the Field and Stream Conservationist blog, and at]

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Whole Earth 2012: Snowless and Drought-Ridden

Yesterday, NASA released a composite photo of the "Whole Earth" as seen from space, like the ones taken by Apollo astronauts of the 1970s. This one was taken on January 4, 2012 (around 4 pm Eastern time, by the looks of it - you can just barely see New England in the upper right corner passing the horizon into the winter nighttime).

Source: NASA (click for the large version)

It's a stunning image, without a doubt. And it got lots of attention yesterday on Twitter and on various blogs.

But the most relevant insights, I think, came from Dr. Jeff Masters at the Weather Underground blog:
The image is very interesting meteorologically, and extremely strange. It is obvious that it is a winter image, as revealed by the large area of stratocumulus clouds off the U.S. East Coast all the way to South Florida, caused by cold Canadian air blowing offshore. However, the U.S. and Canada are virtually snow-free and cloud-free, which is extremely rare for a January day. The lack of snow in the mountains of the Western U.S. is particularly unusual. I doubt one could find a January day this cloud-free with so little snow on the ground throughout the entire satellite record, going back to the early 1960s.
Such is the Earth in 2012: baked and drought-ridden.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Houston Is Weird: David Adickes's Giant Presidents

The first time I visited to David Adickes's presidents was during my first-ever trip to Houston in 2004, when Jess was trying to disabuse me of my Yankee prejudices against the place. It was an eerie, muggy night with lightning flashing on the horizon. We got lost for a while among huge silent grain elevators and half-abandoned warehouses near the city's main east-west railroad line, but Jess wouldn't tell me what we were looking for, insisting that it was a surprise.

Then we coasted down a dead-end street and through an open chain-link gate, and saw this:

Left to right: Martin Van Buren, Barack Obama, George Bush Sr., Lyndon B. Johnson, and others (back in 2004, of course, the bust of Barack Obama hadn't been made yet).

A field of gigantic presidents' heads looming in the hazy yellow light of the city, with a distant thunderstorm approaching over the city's suburban prairies: that was an experience I won't soon forget. I moved to Houston a few months later.

Lincoln, Jackson, and Theodore Roosevelt.

You know the "Keep Austin Weird" bumper stickers? Like saving the whales or supporting our troops, it's a halfhearted expression of nostalgia for a condition that's long been on the wane. Houston doesn't need that kind of bumper sticker, because Houston just is weird – though not in the cute ways that people romanticize. There are inflatable gorillas on top of freeway car dealerships, and ubiquitous faux-Mediterranean parking garage/condo buildings, and the flying cockroaches.

Because Houston is so sprawling, it has plenty of room for relatively ordinary people to do weird things on a grand scale, and that's exactly what David Adickes does. He's probably best known for his 70-foot statue of Sam Houston, looming over Interstate 45 about 60 miles north of the city.

Adickes makes cheap concrete sculptures on a monumental scale. His art is quintessentially Houstonian: campy, favoring quantity over quality, and scaled to a freeway audience driving 70 miles per hour. He's purchased additional real estate along I-10, possibly the city's busiest freeway, to become a roadside permanent collection for his sculptures, including a 30-foot tall representation of the Beatles and a huge "We Love Houston" sign.

In a 2004 newspaper article, he said, "the endless road through Houston is filled with a lot of junk on both ends. This will offer a little relief." Or at least some slightly different junk for people to look at.

Until that roadside attraction opens, the sculptures are in storage in a big fenced yard next to Adickes's studio. Personally, I think it's a much cooler place to see them – away from the freeway, you can enjoy them at a leisurely 2 miles per hour, and finding them feels like a discovery. It feels like wandering through a Titan grandmother's knick-knack drawer.

Visiting the presidents' heads make for a good bike ride. They're just a couple of blocks south of the very pleasant Heights Bike Trail, which extends northwest from downtown into the heart of the Heights neighborhood. As you're heading west from downtown, the bike path crosses White Oak Bayou, goes under the freeway, and enters a residential neighborhood. From there, you can take one of the side streets to your left to Summer St., then follow Summer to the end, It's about 2 miles from downtown, an easy 10 minute bike ride. You'll know the place when you find it. I mean, look, the heads are even visible from space:

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