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๐Ÿ”  ๐Ÿ’€  ๐Ÿ“ธ  ๐Ÿ˜ญ  ๐Ÿ•ณ๏ธ  ๐Ÿค   ๐ŸŽฌ  ๐Ÿฅ” posts about Geoff Manaugh

Law & Order: Martian Victims Unit

I loved this imaginative and clever piece by Geoff Manaugh called How Will Police Solve Murders on Mars? about how a future human settlement on Mars would handle matters of law and order. For one things, crimes might be more difficult to investigate.

Consider the basic science of crime-scene analysis. In the dry, freezer-like air and extreme solar exposure of Mars, DNA will age differently than it does on Earth. Blood from blunt-trauma and stab wounds will produce dramatically new spatter patterns in the planet’s low gravity. Electrostatic charge will give a new kind of evidentiary value to dust found clinging to the exteriors of space suits and nearby surfaces. Even radiocarbon dating will be different on Mars, Darwent reminded me, due to the planet’s atmospheric chemistry, making it difficult to date older crime scenes.

The Martian environment itself is also already so lethal that even a violent murder could be disguised as a natural act. Darwent suggested that a would-be murderer on the Red Planet could use the environment’s ambient lethality to her advantage. A fatal poisoning could be staged to seem as if the victim simply died of exposure to abrasive chemicals, known as perchlorates, in the Martian rocks. A weak seal on a space suit, or an oxygen meter that appears to have failed but was actually tampered with, could really be a clever homicide hiding in plain sight.

At a broader level, what sort of political system develops because of the Martian environment might shape how law enforcement happens.

In the precarious Martian environment, where so much depends on the efficient, seamless operation of life-support systems, sabotage becomes an existential threat. A saboteur might tamper with the oxygen generators or fatally disable a settlement’s most crucial airlock. When human life is so thoroughly entwined with its technical environment, we should not consider these sorts of acts mere petty crimes, he explained to me. In a literal sense, they would be crimes against humanity-even, on a large enough scale, attempted genocide.

“I think the fact that tyranny is easier in space is a foregone conclusion,” he explained to me, precisely because there is nowhere to escape without risking instant death from extreme cold or asphyxiation. In other words, the constant presence of nearly instant environmental lethality will encourage systems of strong social control with little tolerance for error. Orders and procedures will need to be followed exactly as designed, because the consequences of a single misstep could be catastrophic.

A few paragraphs after this, the terrifyingly wonderful phrase “politically motivated depressurization” is used. I don’t think we’re super close to the colonization of Mars, but Manaugh says, better to think about it now before we “unwittingly construct an interplanetary dystopia run by cops who shoot first and ask questions later”.

US road grid corrections because of the Earth’s curvature

Have you ever wondered why, when you’re driving along on a straight road in the Western US, there’s a weird curve or short zigzag turn thrown into the mix? Grids have been used to lay out American roads and houses since before there was a United States. One of the most prominent uses of the grid was in the Western US: the so-called Jefferson Grid.

The Land Ordinance of 1785, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, extended government authority over the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes regions. As a response to what he believed to be a confusing survey system already in use, Jefferson suggested a new grid system based on the rectangle. The grid divided land into plots one mile square, each consisting of 640 acres. The grid also placed a visible design upon a relatively untouched landscape.

As most people know, the Earth is roughly spherical. When you try to cover the surface of a sphere with squares, they are not going to line up perfectly. That means, every so often, sections of the grid shift away from each other. Gerco de Ruijter’s short film, Grid Corrections, shows dozens of examples of places where this shift occurs and the corrections employed to correct them.

By superimposing a rectangular grid on the earth surface, a grid built from exact square miles, the spherical deviations have to be fixed. After all, the grid has only two dimensions. The north-south boundaries in the grid are on the lines of longitude, which converge to the north. The roads that follow these boundaries must dogleg every twenty-four miles to counter the diminishing distances.

If you want to look at some of the corrections yourself, try this location in Kansas (or this one). See that bend? Now scroll the map left and right and you’ll see a bunch of the north/south roads bending at that same latitude.

Grid Corrections

You can read more about de Ruijter’s project and grid corrections in this Travel & Leisure article by Geoff Manaugh.

Update: An email from my dad:

Hi son, just reading your blog on the section lines….don’t forget, you used to live on a correction line…that is why 3 of my 40’s were only 26.3 acres….

“40’s” refers to 40 acre plots…a common size for a parcel of land back when that area was divvied up. Wisconsin has so many lakes, rivers, and glacial features that interrupt the grid that it’s difficult to tell where the corrections are, but looking at the map, I can see a few roads curving at that latitude. Cool!

Lost in Light: How Light Pollution Obscures Our View of the Night Sky

Because of light pollution from urban areas, many people around the world don’t know what the night sky actually looks like. Sriram Murali made a video to illustrate light pollution levels by shooting the familiar constellation of Orion in locations around the US with different amounts of light pollution, from bright San Francisco to a state park in Utah with barely any light at all. In SF, about all you can see are the handful of stars that make up Orion’s belt, arms, and legs. But as the locations get darker, the sky explodes in detail and Orion is lost among the thousands of visible stars (and satellites if you look closely).

This video is a followup to one Murali made of the Milky Way in increasingly dark locations, which is even more dramatic:

But he did the second video with Orion as a reference because many people had no concept of what the Milky Way actually looks like because they’ve never seen it before. Murali explains why he thinks light pollution is a problem:

The night skies remind us of our place in the Universe. Imagine if we lived under skies full of stars. That reminder we are a tiny part of this cosmos, the awe and a special connection with this remarkable world would make us much better beings โ€” more thoughtful, inquisitive, empathetic, kind and caring. Imagine kids growing up passionate about astronomy looking for answers and how advanced humankind would be, how connected and caring we’d feel with one another, how noble and adventurous we’d be.

The measurement scale for sky darkness is called the Bortle scale, as explained by David Owen in his wonderful piece in the New Yorker:

In Galileo’s time, nighttime skies all over the world would have merited the darkest Bortle ranking, Class 1. Today, the sky above New York City is Class 9, at the other extreme of the scale, and American suburban skies are typically Class 5, 6, or 7. The very darkest places in the continental United States today are almost never darker than Class 2, and are increasingly threatened. For someone standing on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon on a moonless night, the brightest feature of the sky is not the Milky Way but the glow of Las Vegas, a hundred and seventy-five miles away. To see skies truly comparable to those which Galileo knew, you would have to travel to such places as the Australian outback and the mountains of Peru.

Nicola Twilley and Geoff Manaugh interviewed Paul Bogard, author of a book on darkness about light pollution and the Bortle scale:

Twilley: It’s astonishing to read the description of a Bortle Class 1, where the Milky Way is actually capable of casting shadows!

Bogard: It is. There’s a statistic that I quote, which is that eight of every ten kids born in the United States today will never experience a sky dark enough to see the Milky Way. The Milky Way becomes visible at 3 or 4 on the Bortle scale. That’s not even down to a 1. One is pretty stringent. I’ve been in some really dark places that might not have qualified as a 1, just because there was a glow of a city way off in the distance, on the horizon. You can’t have any signs of artificial light to qualify as a Bortle Class 1.

A Bortle Class 1 is so dark that it’s bright. That’s the great thing โ€” the darker it gets, if it’s clear, the brighter the night is. That’s something we never see either, because it’s so artificially bright in all the places we live. We never see the natural light of the night sky.

If you’d like to find a place near you with less light pollution, check out The Light Pollution Map. I’m lucky enough to live in a place with a Bortle class of 3 and I’ve visited class 2 locations before…visiting one of the class 1 parks out west is definitely on my bucket list.

A Burglar’s Guide to the City

A Burglar's Guide to the City

An upcoming book from BLDGBLOG’s Geoff Manaugh, A Burglar’s Guide to the City examines architecture through Ocean’s Eleven-tinted glasses.

At the core of A Burglar’s Guide to the City is an unexpected and thrilling insight: how any building transforms when seen through the eyes of someone hoping to break into it. Studying architecture the way a burglar would, Geoff Manaugh takes readers through walls, down elevator shafts, into panic rooms, up to the buried vaults of banks, and out across the rooftops of an unsuspecting city.

Update: The book is now out, accompanied by a spiffy new website.

The squid and the geostationary satellite

Squid Satellite

Trevor Paglen speculates that human civilization’s longest lasting monuments will be the satellites in geostationary orbits around the Earth.

Humanity’s longest lasting remnants are found among the stars. Over the last fifty years, hundreds of satellites have been launched into geosynchronous orbits, forming a ring of machines 36,000 kilometers from earth. Thousands of times further away than most other satellites, geostationary spacecraft remain locked as man-made moons in perpetual orbit long after their operational lifetimes. Geosynchronous spacecraft will be among civilization’s most enduring remnants, quietly circling earth until the earth is no more.

Geoff Manaugh attended a lecture of Paglen’s, where Paglen suggested a possible discoverer of these artifacts:

Billions of years from now, he began to narrate, long after city lights and the humans who made them have disappeared from the Earth, other intelligent species might eventually begin to see traces of humanity’s long-since erased presence on the planet.

Consider deep-sea squid, Paglen suggested, who would have billions of years to continue developing and perfecting their incredible eyesight, a sensory skill perfect for peering through the otherwise impenetrable darkness of the oceans โ€” yet also an eyesight that could let them gaze out at the stars in deep space.

Perhaps, Paglen speculated, these future deep-sea squid with their extraordinary powers of sight honed precisely for focusing on tiny points of light in the darkness might drift up to the surface of the ocean on calm nights to look upward at the stars, viewing a scene that will have rearranged into whole new constellations since the last time humans walked the Earth.

And, there, the squid might notice something.

Note: Illustration by Chris Piascik…prints & more are available.

The Night Light

Paul Bogard recently published a book on darkness called The End of Night. Nicola Twilley and Geoff Manaugh interviewed Bogard about the book, the night sky, astronomy, security, cities, and prisons, among other things. The interview is interesting throughout but one of my favorite things is this illustration of the Bortle scale.

Bortle Scale

Twilley: It’s astonishing to read the description of a Bortle Class 1, where the Milky Way is actually capable of casting shadows!

Bogard: It is. There’s a statistic that I quote, which is that eight of every ten kids born in the United States today will never experience a sky dark enough to see the Milky Way. The Milky Way becomes visible at 3 or 4 on the Bortle scale. That’s not even down to a 1. One is pretty stringent. I’ve been in some really dark places that might not have qualified as a 1, just because there was a glow of a city way off in the distance, on the horizon. You can’t have any signs of artificial light to qualify as a Bortle Class 1.

A Bortle Class 1 is so dark that it’s bright. That’s the great thing-the darker it gets, if it’s clear, the brighter the night is. That’s something we never see either, because it’s so artificially bright in all the places we live. We never see the natural light of the night sky.

I can also recommend reading David Owen’s 2007 NYer piece on light pollution.

Eye Charts for Drones

Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG ruminates on optical calibration targets, weird landscape relics scattered across military bases made to check the resolution of cold war era photograph-snapping spy planes. You can find one target on Google Maps here.

Although I am truly fascinated by what sorts of optical landmarks might yet be developed for field-testing the optical capabilities of drones, as if the world might soon be peppered with opthalmic infrastructure for self-training autonomous machines, it is also quite intriguing to realize that these calibration targets are, in effect, ruins, obsolete sensory hold-overs from an earlier age of film-based cameras and less-powerful lenses. Calibrating nothing, they are now just curious emblems of a previous generation of surveillance technology, robot-readable hieroglyphs whose machines have all moved on.

Edward Burtynsky has a drone

In an interview with Nicola Twilley and Geoff Manaugh, photographer Edward Burtynsky talks about his use of film and drones, his current big project photographing water, and the challenges of finding ways to photograph the ubiquitous.

I’d say, actually, that I’ve been careful not to frame the work in an activist or political kind of way. That would be too restrictive in terms of how the work can be used in society and how it can be interpreted. I see the work as being a bit like a Rorschach test. If you see an oil field and you see industrial heroism, then perhaps you’re some kind of entrepreneur in the oil business and you’re thinking, “That’s great! That’s money being made there!” But, if you’re somebody from Greenpeace or whatever, you’re going to see it very differently. Humans can really reveal themselves through what they choose to see as the most important or meaningful detail in an image.

Burtynsky is a favorite around these parts.

Switzerland’s elaborate Cold War defenses

In the event of an invasion, the entire country of Switzerland is rigged to destroy all of its road, bridges, railroads, and other infrastructure. Or at least it was during the Cold War. Geoff Manaugh reports on a John McPhee book about the country’s defenses.

In any case, the book’s vision of the Alps as a massively constructed-or, at least, geotechnically augmented and militarily amplified-terrain is quite heady, including the very idea that, in seeking to protect itself from outside invaders, Switzerland is prepared to dynamite, shell, bulldoze, and seal itself into a kind of self-protective oblivion, hiding out in artificially expanded rocky passes and concrete super-basements as all roads and bridges into and out of the country are instantly transformed into landslides and dust.

The first reader comment is more than a little eye-popping:

I have seen this with my own eyes as a foreign student in Switzerland in 1981, when a MOUNTAIN “opened” up and four jets flew out of it, near the quiet town, Martigny.

Update: About a minute into this clip from Rick Steves’ Europe, Steves takes a tour of some of the hidden defenses of Switzerland.

(thx, nils & dennis)

The NYC subway exits into a Brooklyn townhouse

Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG took some photos yesterday of a curious townhouse in Brooklyn Heights.

Fake Subway Townhouse

Curious in that the facade is 100% NYC rowhouse but it’s actually a secret subway exit. Here it is one Google Maps.

The neverending lightning storm

Since at least 1595, a lightning storm has flashed above Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela with remarkable regularity.

It’s still unknown exactly why this area โ€” and this area alone โ€” should produce such regular lightning. One theory holds that ionized methane gas rising from the Catatumbo bogs is meeting with storm clouds coming down from the Andes, helping to create the perfect conditions for a lightning storm.

With a total of roughly 1.2 million lightning discharges per year, the Relampago del Catatumbo is thought to be the world’s greatest producer of ozone. As the lightning rips through the air, it produces nitrogen oxide, which is later converted by sunlight into ozone, which ends up in a protective layer high above the planet.

I learned about this storm from the description of a course that Geoff Manaugh is teaching at Columbia about…what would you call it…geoarchitecture?

The studio will be divided into three groups โ€” one designing glaciers, one designing islands, one designing storms. Each group will mix vernacular, non-fossil fuel-based building technologies with what sounds like science fiction in order to explore the fine line between architectural design and the amplified cultivation of natural processes.