BLDGBLOG (“building blog”) was launched in 2004 and is written by Geoff Manaugh. In addition to this site, I’m the author of two books—the New York Times-bestselling A Burglar’s Guide to the City and The BLDGBLOG Book—as well as editor of a third, Landscape Futures: Instruments, Devices and Architectural Inventions.
This involved tracking down stray power signals, then turning those signals off one by one to determine which of them had been interfering with the frequencies emitted by car electronics. It was like tuning a neighborhood back to radio silence.
“So first we turned off the air conditioner in the room,” Toop writes in his book, “and then we turned off the one on the second floor. Then we turned off the refrigerator and the electric cooking equipment in the adjoining cafe, the power of the multi-vision in the foyer, and the power of the vending machine in a space about ten metres away. One by one we took away these continual noises, which together created a kind of drone… Hess was very interested in this and said things like, ‘From now on maybe I should do a performance of turning off sounds.’”
This town in Ohio was like a Felix Hess performance recast as a police operation.
Eventually, it led to one particular house in the neighborhood where radio signal emissions were “extraordinarily powerful.” They were coming from a kind of amateur burglar alarm, “a homemade battery-operated device designed by a local resident to alert him if someone was upstairs when he was working in his basement,” we read. “The inventor and other residents of his home had no idea that the device was wreaking havoc on the neighborhood, he said, until [local resident] Mr. Glassburn and a volunteer with expertise in radio frequencies knocked on the door.”
In any case, I love the idea of this strange, invisible world of radio signals infesting our quietest, most domestic neighborhoods, of future potential conflicts simmering amongst neighbors with the installation of every new burglar alarm, every car fob, every wireless speaker, every cutting-edge medical implant, of gathering storms of electromagnetic contamination causing suburban garage doors to freeze in place or to open wide at 3 o’clock in the morning.
Although I seem to be on a roll with linking to ScienceNews stories, this is too amazing to pass up: “People living at least 2,000 years ago near the Pacific Coast of what’s now Guatemala crafted massive human sculptures with magnetized foreheads, cheeks and navels. New research provides the first detailed look at how these sculpted body parts were intentionally placed within magnetic fields on large rocks.”
The magnetic fields were likely created by lightning strikes.
This is incredible: “Artisans may have held naturally magnetized mineral chunks near iron-rich, basalt boulders to find areas in the rock where magnetic forces pushed back, the scientists say in the June Journal of Archaeological Science. Predesignated parts of potbelly figures—which can stand more than 2 meters tall and weigh 10,000 kilograms or more—were then carved at those spots.”
It’s like a geological farm for the secondary effects of lightning. A lightning farm for real!
The mind boggles at the thought of magnetic landscape architecture, or magnetic masonry in ancient stonework, or even huge sculptures invisibly adhering to one another through magnetic forces, giving the appearance of magic.
Imagine a valley of exposed bedrock and boulders, its unusually high iron content making the rocks there attractive to lightning. Over tens of thousands of lightning strikes, the valley becomes partially magnetized, resulting in bizarre geological anomalies mistaken for the actions of a spirit world: small pebbles roll uphill, for example, or larger rocks inexplicably clump together in structurally precarious agglomerations. Stones perhaps hover an inch or two off the ground, pulled upward toward magnetic overhangs, or rocks visibly assemble themselves into small cairns, clicking into place one atop the other.
As you step into the valley, the only sound you hear is a trembling in the gravel ahead, as if the rocks are jostling for position. Your jewelry begins to float, pulling away from your wrists and chest.
[Image: Courtesy Xenon Collaboration, via ScienceNews].
Earthquakes, popularly seen as discrete, large-scale events that occur only once every few years—once a decade, once a century, once every thousand years—turn out to be nearly continuous. There are always earthquakes.
According to ScienceNews, “millions of tiny, undetected earthquakes rumble through the ground” every day in California. These are “quakes of such small magnitude that their signals were previously too small to be separated from noise.”
In other words, while we wait for the Big One—a true seismic event with the power to punctuate and interrupt everyday life—there are millions of smaller earthquakes constantly rattling the floors, walls, and roads we consider stable.
I’m reminded of a recent article in the New York Times about football player Ryan Miller. “Miller has had 10 concussions in all,” we read, “and that is to understate his battering. The brain sits in fluid inside the armor of a skull, and even nonconcussive whacks can result in brain colliding with bone. A couple of hard hits can come to resemble a concussion. The average football player, according to Cantu, takes 600 to 800 hits in high school and 800 to 1,000 in college.”
Concussions are like earthquakes, in other words: we wait for the Big One, but this means that, by definition, we miss the cumulative effects of all the little shocks along the way. Everything is moving; the earth is not stable; the landscape is jolting and cracking at a concussive rate, every day, beneath our feet.
“It takes 1 trillion times the age of the universe for a xenon-124 sample to shrink by half,” we read. “The decay, seen in xenon-124 atoms, happens so sparingly that it would take 18 sextillion years (18 followed by 21 zeros) for a sample of xenon-124 to shrink by half, making the decay extremely difficult to detect.”
That’s a bit of an understatement: it means you would need a machine significantly older than the universe to detect and measure these moments of decay.
The breakdown of this specific example—the element xenon-124—involves something called “two-neutrino double electron capture,” and I won’t even pretend to understand what it means. Nevertheless, what interests me here is the implied possibility that, well, on a universal timescale, everything is decaying. Everything is breaking down. But it occurs on a scale so huge it is inaccessible to human experience, certainly, but perhaps even to human cognition.
Imagine an element that decays only once every 750 trillion years. (Our current universe is 14 billion years old.) Imagine a creature living 749.999 trillion years, arrogantly thinking that its world is immortal.
In any case, this feels like the exact inverse of the previous example: while we’re on the hunt for radioactive decay, or while we’re out there looking for millions of overlooked mini-quakes and micro-concussions, we might actually miss detecting these massive punctuations of time, epic cycles so rare and daunting that our own universe cannot accommodate them.
For those attentive enough, in other words, there are concussions and earthquakes constantly; yet, on a large-enough timescale, everything decays, everything breaks down, everything has a half-life. Everything is radioactive. In the midst of all that, we make breakfast and take the subway to work.
“Archaeologists have long been baffled by the abrupt abandonment of northern Mesopotamian settlements roughly 4,200 years ago,” Eos reports. This otherwise mysterious abandonment might have been catalyzed by three centuries of dust—“dust for 300 years”—arising from extreme drought and aridity. The dust was so bad, it left a geological record in regional stalactites.
Perhaps that’s how the end will arrive, as a slow but relentless accumulation of dust on windowsills—in California, Arizona, Nevada—an event that should have been signaled, in retrospect, by the rapid growth of the house-cleaning economy, but, for nearly a generation, will just take the form of puzzled homeowners wiping cloths along painted wood trim, wondering if there’s something going on outside.
An anecdote I often use while teaching design classes—but also something I first read so long ago, I might actually be making the whole thing up—comes from an old interview with Richard D. James, aka Aphex Twin. I’ve tried some very, very lazy Googling to find the original source, but, frankly, I like the version I remember so much that I’m not really concerned with verifying its details.
In any case, the story goes like this: in an interview with a music magazine, published I believe some time in the late-1990s, James claimed that he had been hired to remix a track by—if I remember correctly—The Afghan Whigs. Whether or not it was The Afghan Whigs, the point was that James reported being so unable to come up with new ideas for the band’s music that he simply sped their original song up to the length of a high-hat, then composed a new track of his own using that sound.
The upshot is that, if you were to slow down the resulting Aphex Twin track by several orders of magnitude, you would hear an Afghan Whigs song (or whatever) playing, in its entirety, every four or five minutes, bursting surreally out of the electronic blur before falling silent again, like a tide. Again and again and again.
What’s amazing about this, at least for me, is in the possibilities it implies for everything from sonic camouflage—such as hiding acoustic information inside a mere beep in the overall background sound of a room—to art installations.
Imagine a scenario, for example, in which every little bleep and bloop in a song (or TV commercial or blockbuster film or ringtone) somewhere is actually an entire other song accelerated, or even what this could do outside the field of acoustics altogether. An entire film, for example, sped up to a brief flash of light: you film the flash, slow down the resulting footage, and you’ve got 2001 playing in a public space, in full, hours compressed into a microsecond. It’s the exact opposite of Bryan Boyer’s Very Slow Movie Player, with nano-cinemas hidden in plain sight.
The world of sampling litigation has been widely covered—in which predatory legal teams exhaustively listen to new musical releases, flagging unauthorized uses of sampled material—but, for this, it’s like you’d need time cops, temporal attorneys slowing things down dramatically out of some weird fear that their client’s music has been used as a high-hat sound…
Anyway, for context, think of the inaudible commands used to trigger Internet-of-Things devices: “The ultrasonic pitches are embedded into TV commercials or are played when a user encounters an ad displayed in a computer browser,” Ars Technica reported back in 2015. “While the sound can’t be heard by the human ear, nearby tablets and smartphones can detect it. When they do, browser cookies can now pair a single user to multiple devices and keep track of what TV commercials the person sees, how long the person watches the ads, and whether the person acts on the ads by doing a Web search or buying a product.”
Or, as the New York Times wrote in 2018, “researchers in China and the United States have begun demonstrating that they can send hidden commands that are undetectable to the human ear to Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. Inside university labs, the researchers have been able to secretly activate the artificial intelligence systems on smartphones and smart speakers, making them dial phone numbers or open websites. In the wrong hands, the technology could be used to unlock doors, wire money or buy stuff online—simply with music playing over the radio.”
Now imagine some malevolent Aphex Twin doing audio-engineering work for a London advertising firm—or for the intelligence services of an adversarial nation-state—embedding ultra-fast sonic triggers in the audio environment. Only, here, it would actually be some weird dystopia in which the Internet of Things is secretly run by ubiquitous Afghan Whigs songs being played at 3,600-times their intended speed.
But it’s equally hard to parse exactly what this article is really stating. It would appear that unusual geological structures found 2,000 meters below the surface of the Gulf of California have had the superficial effect of resembling mirror images of the rocks below them:
While exploring hydrothermal vent and cold seep environments, Dr. Mandy Joye (University of Georgia), and her interdisciplinary research team discovered large venting mineral towers that reach up to 23 meters in height and 10 meters across. These towers featured numerous volcanic flanges that create the illusion of looking at a mirror when observing the superheated (366ºC) hydrothermal fluids beneath them.
In other words, this sounds more like a useful analogy: the rocks up here look like the rocks down there. It’s as if we’re looking into a mirror.
But what I wish this meant—and perhaps it does, but I’m simply misreading the article—is that bizarre thermal effects, combined with unusually high dissolved-metal content in the water, has created a series of mirror planes, or literally reflective, high-density water tables in the deep ocean that visually duplicate anything above or below them.
Because, if so, imagine the possibilities for turning these into lenses, like some wild, far-future, deep-sea water telescope in which light is bounced back and forth amongst dissolved-metal mirrors hovering in the water table. You could concentrate and focus light in the deep ocean, using naturally occurring, highly-mineralized thermal boundaries, perhaps suggesting a new type of visual-communication network in the sea. Future Navy signaling tech, using nothing but water.
Anyway, whatever the case may be, the poetry of this is incredible. Silvered planes in the ocean forming other-worldly, black labyrinths suddenly illuminated by the lights of a passing submarine.
All four long-term readers of BLDGBLOG will know that I am obsessed with the San Andreas Fault, teaching an entire class about it at Columbia and visiting it whenever possible as a hiking destination.
The San Andreas is often a naturally stunning landscape—particularly in places like Wallace Creek, Tomales Bay, or even the area near Devil’s Punchbowl—but the fault’s symbolism, as the grinding edge of two vast tectonic plates, where worlds slide past one another toward an unimaginable planetary future, adds a somewhat mystical element to each visit. It’s like hiking along a gap through which a new version of the world will emerge.
I was thus instantly fascinated several years ago when I read about something called the Walker Lane, a huge region of land stretching roughly the entire length of the Eastern Sierra, out near the California/Nevada border, which some geologists now believe is the actual future edge of the North American continent—not the San Andreas. It is an “incipient” continental margin, in the language of structural geology.
[Image: My own sketch of the Walker Lane, based on Google Maps imagery].
In fact, the Walker Lane idea suggests, the San Andreas is so dramatically torqued out of alignment at a place northwest of Los Angeles known as the “Big Bend” that it might be doomed to go dormant over the course of several million years.
That’s good news for San Franciscans of the far future, but it means that a world-shattering amount of seismic strain will need to go somewhere, and that somewhere is a straight shot up the Eastern Sierra along the Walker Lane: a future mega-fault, like today’s San Andreas, that would stretch from the Gulf of California, up through the Mojave Desert, past Reno, and eventually back out again to the waters of the Pacific Ocean (most likely via southwest Oregon).
Much of this route, coincidentally, is followed closely by Route 395, which brings travelers past extinct volcanoes, over an active caldera, within a short drive of spectacular hot springs, and near the sites of several large earthquakes that have struck the region over the past 150 years.
That region—again, not the San Andreas—is where the true tectonic action is taking place, if the Walker Lane hypothesis is to be believed.
In an absolute dream come true, I was able to turn this armchair obsession of mine into a new feature for Wired, and it went online this morning as part of their May 2019 issue.
For it, I spend some time out in the field with Nevada State Geologist James Faulds, a major proponent of the Walker Lane hypothesis. We visited a fault trench, we hiked along a growing rift southeast of Pyramid Lake, and we met several of his colleagues from the University of Nevada, Reno, including geodesist Bill Hammond and paleoseismologist Rich Koehler.
[Image: Coso Volcanic Field, near where the Eastern California Shear Zone meets the Walker Lane; photo by BLDGBLOG].
The Wired story is almost entirely focused on the science behind discovering the Walker Lane, from GPS geodesy to LiDAR, but there are also a few scattered thoughts on deep time and the vast imaginative horizon within which geologists operate. This comes mostly by way of Marcia Bjornerud’s new book Timefulness. There is also a brief look at indigenous seismic experience as allegedly recorded in Native American petroglyphs along the Walker Lane, via an interesting paper by Susan Hough.
But, on a more symbolic level, the Walker Lane totally captivates me, including how vertiginous and exciting it is to think about—let alone to hike along!—a new edge to the known world, a linear abyss emerging in the desert outside Los Angeles, slowly rifting north through hundreds of miles of dead volcanoes and disorganized fault lines, gradually pulling all of it together into one clear super-system, flooding with the waters of the Gulf of California, bringing a new version of the Earth’s surface into being in real-time.
Bringing to mind the landscape paintings of Peder Balke—or maybe Hokusai is more appropriate—entire cliffs seem to “wander” across the surface of Comet 67P.
“The hills may not be alive, but they are moving,” New Scientist reports. “The comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has small cliffs that migrate across the landscape for months at a time,” apparently moving toward—not away from—the sun “at a rate of between 3 and 7 centimetres an hour.”
“The cliffs, or scarps, in question are only between 1 and 2 metres tall,” we read, “but on a comet the size of 67P, which is just 4 kilometres across at its longest point, they aren’t negligible—cliffs of a similar scale on Earth would be about 3 kilometres high.”
Frozen waves of geology, marching toward the sun in space.
Imagine a novel about a landscape photographer sent to record such sights, and the things she sees, the weird remoteness of it all, the camp sites and technical difficulties, where exposure time and depth-of-focus becomes an interplanetary concern, the ground pulsing continuously beneath her feet in a slow tide, a creeping sludge, that will never reach completion.
“The Sonic Doom of Vladimir Gavreau” by Gerry Vassilatos is a great example of speculative nonfiction—or, more specifically, of music history as conspiracy theory, where acoustic engineering gradually morphs into something closer to pseudo-science and occult mythology.
It goes all over the place, from the work of Oliver Messiaen to the physical threat of infrasound, and from the alleged Cold War weaponization of acoustics to the malignant “resonant profiles” of the buildings we work within today.
The anecdotes alone—whether or not you take them at their word—are amazing: “Walt Disney and his artists were once made seriously ill when a sound effect, intended for a short cartoon scene, was slowed down several times on a tape machine and amplified through a theater sound system. The original sound source was a soldering iron, whose buzzing 60 cycle tone was lowered five times to 12 cycles. This tone produced a lingering nausea in the crew which lasted for days.”