Thursday, November 29, 2007

Guerilla Clockwork

I don't usually simply pass on things I hear about from other blogs, but this is simply too good to pass up. A friend of mine found it on Crooked Timber:

"For a year from September 2005, under the nose of the Panthéon's unsuspecting security officials, a group of intrepid "illegal restorers" set up a secret workshop and lounge in a cavity under the building's famous dome. Under the supervision of group member Jean-Baptiste Viot, a professional clockmaker, they pieced apart and repaired the antique clock that had been left to rust in the building since the 1960s. Only when their clandestine revamp of the elaborate timepiece had been completed did they reveal themselves....

Klausmann and his crew are connaisseurs of the Parisian underworld. Since the 1990s they have restored crypts, staged readings and plays in monuments at night, and organised rock concerts in quarries. The network was unknown to the authorities until 2004, when the police discovered an underground cinema, complete with bar and restaurant, under the Seine. They have tried to track them down ever since.

But the UX, the name of Untergunther's parent organisation, is a finely tuned organisation. It has around 150 members and is divided into separate groups, which specialise in different activities ranging from getting into buildings after dark to setting up cultural events. Untergunther is the restoration cell of the network."

Sometimes, guerrilla culture is the best kind.


Sunday, November 25, 2007

Semaphore as Information Network

Claude Chappe had tried it out with his brothers and believed - no, knew it could work. He had a vision of quick national communication - much faster than a messenger could ride, much more communicative than a signal fire.

Messengers and signal fires had been around for thousands of years, and had served armies and governments relatively well. With the re-invention of the telescope in the early 1600s (and it subsequent popularity for naval and astronomical observation), technology had changed, allowing for more freedom of the seas and the land. By the late 1700s, the atmosphere of Europe was rife with invention, and people began to look to every technology and how it could be used for new (or old) applications.

Claude Chappe, who came from a well-to-do family and who had been an abbe with a secure income, had always been interested in physics, particularly optics. His uncle Abbé Jean Baptiste Chappe d'Auteroche (1722-1769), who was also in the clergy, as well as being a famous cartographer and astronomer, had traveled to Siberia in 1761 to observe the passage of Venus in front of the sun and published a well-known book about it, Voyage en Siberie. This same uncle had died of yellow fever in California while there to observe another celestial event. A eulogy was held in Paris to honor him, and his westerly observations were published posthumously.

Claude was well on his way to following in his uncle's footsteps, but the French Revolution intervened, and he and all his brothers were left unemployed. Despite the atmosphere of paranoia, where people were being beheaded for slight deviations in behavior, Claude decided to pursue an idea that had been put about, both as a reasonable scheme and as various harebrained ones: the idea of a telegraph, where signals would be passed along a line of stations, each one manned by someone trained to read the signal and reproduce it for the next station. After a few experiments, Claude came to the correct conclusion that the telegraph system should be optical - using telescopes to read the signals - because the distance between stations could then be lengthened quite a bit.

Here is an account of someone else who had experienced good results with an optical telegraph:

"One of the more practical proposals came from De Courrejolles, a captain in the French navy.[Note 12] In February 1783, De Courrejolles was engaged in battle with the English fleet, at what is described as the Turkish or Ionic Isles...He found himself surrounded by an English squadron commanded by Admiral Hood. De Courrejolles had a simple optical telegraph erected at a mountain top on the coast of one of the islands, and used it to monitor the enemy's movements. Every change in position was reported by the telegraph. Using this information De Courrejolles was able to overrun a squadron commanded by the then Captain (later Admiral) Nelson, and force the English fleet to retreat. Inspired by this success, De Courrejolles submitted a proposal to the French Minister of War to have the army adopt optical telegraphs for signaling purposes. Though De Courrejolles was unsuccessful at that time, he may well have paved the way for Chappe."

At a symposium in Sweden on the optical telegraph in 2004, a history of the Chappe network was presented in beautiful, researched detail. Unfortunately, this seems to have been taken down, but I found it via the Wayback Machine, and you can read it for yourself, if you like. Here's a quote about Claude casting about for methods to make his dream succeed:

"Abraham Chappe later wrote that Claude performed many experiments to find a good alternative, including the use of electrical signals traveling through conducting wires. He records that an optical method was only chosen. . . after having tried, unsuccessfully, electricity, various acoustical methods, the use of smoke produced by different types of combustible materials, etc. The idea to use an electrical signal had to be abandoned when no adequate insulators could be found for the wires."

So close! There were numbers of people thinking about electricity for telegraphic communication in those days, including one man in Spain who tried electrical sparks to illuminate tin-foil letters; but none of them were quite able to make it happen.

Chappe experimented and eventually adopted a design using weighted arms, which swiveled to create a large array of shapes, in effect a semaphore. Ignace is noted as saying, "Some time later [we] established with certainty that elongated objects were better visible than the sliding panels adopted before." It's interesting to note that semaphore was not used in the way we know it now, i.e., a flag-waving activity used to communicate between ships or between ships and shore, until the early 1800s.

By 1793, despite the beheading of Louis XVI and the beginning of the reign of terror, and despite the destruction of two of his signal towers by mobs who thought he was communicating with Royalist forces, Claude and his brothers had set up a telegraph line which ran between two locations near Paris, approximately 26 km apart. Having several allies within the new government, they received permission to test the line. The messages took approximately 10 minutes to transmit, an unheard-of speed at that time - and government people were there to see it happen.

This caused such excitement that within two weeks a decision had been made to establish a national telegraph system, and Claude Chappe was named Ingénieur Télégraphe (Telegraph Engineer), working for the government. Money was appropriated for the construction of a line of fifteen stations from Paris to Lille, at the frontier with the Austrian Empire; this line, when it was complete, could transmit a message in a little over half an hour, a key tool in the war between France and the Empire, as it meant the Capital could keep up on events as they happened.

If you look at this point in time, France was in a tricky position:

"France was surrounded by the allied forces of England, The Netherlands, Prussia, Austria, and Spain. The cities of Marseilles and Lyon were in revolt, and the English Fleet held Toulon. In this situation the only advantage France held was the lack of cooperation between the allied forces due to their inadequate lines of communications."[wiki]

As a result, with the success of the Lille line, optical telegraph lines were built over the entirety of France over the next twenty years or so. Napoleon loved the system, having his own portable station built which he carried with him on campaign. He also poured money into building more of the network. It wasn't cheap, because each station had to be manned by a highly-trained person, who observed the signal from other towers and knew how to pass it on. But the French system of fast communication was one of the key ingredients in France's success during the Napoleonic War, and so they hung onto it as long as they could. Claude Chappe himself remained in his position as the head of the system for over 30 years, until there was an administration change.

The Optical Telegraph system at its height covered most of the borders

By that time, however, people were finally starting to take the electric telegraph more seriously, and by 1844 America had begun work on a system of electric telegraphs which ultimately outmoded the semaphore system.

Even today you can find the towers with semaphore arms scattered all across France, sometimes with their arms drooping or missing. Some of the stations are still in working order, and you can go see them operated. It's one of those examples of a liminal moment, a place between two eras. I love things like that, things that changed the face of, say, communication while using only peoples' eyes and ears for the new technology rather than looking so far as circuits and fuses; and yet, ultimately, these systems become abandoned relatively quickly because, ultimately, someone is bound to work out the circuits and fuses...leaving behind artifacts and traces of something we couldn't possibly imagine for ourselves.


A site all about semaphores

A History of Information Highways and Byways, from NYU

Wikipedia's interesting page on the Chasqui, a network of Inca messengers who made for fast communication all over the Inca Empire.

Source for my images.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Credos to Live By (#1)

I've been too busy to really follow through on the couple of things I'm researching right now (but I have found some cool stuff!), so I wanted to share this fabulous manifesto, from Bread and Puppet Theatre. We have it hanging on the wall of our living room because it helps remind us what it's really all about. It's up high, so I forget about it and rediscover it on a regular basis. Hurrah!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

To Err Is Human, to Forgive...Human

In September, two researchers from Penn State University published about their new way to capture genetic material from extinct animals. I heard about it at the beginning of that month, when the information was released prior to the publication of a paper in Science, and have been talking about it with a friend of mine for two months now.

The thing that's unusual about this new method is that previously, with DNA samples (both nuclear and mitochondrial) from muscle and bone, there was so much cell degradation and genetic interference from bacteria and so on that it was difficult and time-consuming to find a clean enough sample to be able to get a good chunk of sequencing out of it. Sifting through the remains of mammoths and other extinct animals was so complicated and expensive that it would sometimes take six years for a single study of a single bit of mammoth. Think of it: you get this little chunk of animal, and then you have to figure out which of it is that animal and which of it is bacteria, viruses, the drool from the thing that killed and ate it, the bugs and things that broke it down after death, or whatever.

Not only that, but previously the process of saving mitochondrial DNA had been extremely difficult and fragmented, mitochondria being the driver of a number of cellular activities such as cell signaling (which includes communication between an embryo and the uterus), cellular differentiation, and control of a cell's cycles and growth.

Now, however, Stephan C. Schuster and Webb Miller have - nearly by accident - discovered a much faster, cleaner way: they take the DNA from hair.

For a long time it was thought that hair was a poor way to collect DNA because they had to gather from the few cells still clinging to the roots of the hair. The rest of the hair appeared to be dead material. But Mr. Schuster and Mr. Miller found that actually, the core of a hair is, essentially DNA; and that the material surrounding it on the outside of the hair (the keratin) is actually like a natural plastic, in effect laminating that DNA so that it remains quite pure. All they had to do was to wash the hairs very thoroughly, to remove any environmental contaminants, and then essentially crack open the "plastic" protection, and they had an instant cache of genome-building materials - plus a "remarkably enriched [source of] mitochondrial DNA, the special type of DNA frequently used to measure the genetic diversity of a population."

Not only is the DNA cleaner, but this means much, much shorter turnaround times: "In contrast [to previous methods], Miller said, 'Once I get the data from the genome sequencer, it takes only five minutes to assemble the entire mitochondrial genome.' The discovery... demonstrates that hair clippings can give researchers enormous power and efficiency for divining the genetic makeup of ancient species, " says the press release article from Penn State. The pair's work with hairs as old as 50,000 years has already set off a complete genome sequencing for mammoths. There is some discussion in the scientific community of the possibility of cloning a mammoth, which could be gestated by a modern elephant.

This brings up a lot of ideas for my friend and I. If it becomes this easy to sequence a genome for an extinct animal, and insert it into a modern animal's womb, then what's to stop scientists and entrepeneurs from re-creating extinct animals - the dodo, the passenger pigeon - and creating a wild-animal park a la Jurassic park, full of previously extinct animals? What's to stop us from simply fixing our previous mistakes, and putting dodos back on the island where we so gleefully slaughtered them, or re-introducing the many Amazon species which have been lost?

All those museum specimens which have some tiny portion of hair or feathers left - think of how much richness and variety of DNA is now available for us to sequence! We can be gods on our own earth.

Which brings me to the next point, which my obnoxious mind immediately jumped to, beyond the fun and joy my friend was imagining. What is to keep us from saying to ourselves, much as we do about dropping a dish, or about not buying a car with low gas mileage: oh, dear, we've made that species extinct again. Oops! Well, we'll just sequence it and start over. No one will mind...except, well, darn, the funding ran out. We'll do it later. In the meantime, look over there -

It smacks of the Godfather: "Bless me Father, for I have sinned", followed by the inevitable "Say (or compile) three gene sequences and don't forget to say your prayers," and the feeling that we have done our penances so we are all right to go out and kill again.

The thing that is so impressive to my friend is the idea that within his lifetime, he may get to see a wooly mammoth walking around. That right there makes him nearly want to weep, because it's like magic. It's like imaginary things coming to life, like all the things he thought would be the future when he was a kid, and was disappointed by (where's our jet-packs, dammit?). It's all the stuff we've lost, coming back to us - a universe of new exploration, new knowledge. It's a true Wonder, come to us in this time, when we are alive. And he's right; it is. It is really like a miracle. I have to say, the thing, for me, that would make me weep, would be a whole flock of dodos, peacefully minding their own business somewhere. That would be something to see.

But with every marvel comes a warning: the fairies are magic, but they can be dangerous too. Don't trust them too much, or you may fall asleep and wake to find everything you love has gone.

Image: Andy Goldsworthy

Saturday, November 10, 2007

All-Star Weekend

Jacopo Bassano's Last Supper

I'm sure we've all had that fantasy about meeting people you admire, and of course the reality is closer to all those YouTube videos of hysterical girls waiting outside Equus to get Daniel Radcliffe's autograph. Or, if you're like me, you're not into screaming and making a fool of yourself, so you see that famous person in a shop, peer at them sideways, wish there was some nice and interesting way to talk to them...but then you shrug and walk away, imagining all the things you might have said to the person, and knowing they were all pretty useless, because the poor person is probably sick of being approached.

So then there's the Dinner Party Fantasy, where you imagine the famous people you might invite to a dinner party. What would make for good conversation? Who would you really like to talk to? Not just because they're cute, or because you have a crush on them or think they're a good writer/actor/movie director/etc. But because you feel there must be a lot of amazing things in their heads, and you'd love to interact with them a little, share stories and so on.

I was trying to imagine this dinner party and I came up with a bunch of names. There began to be enough people there that I knew there would be no way I could really talk to any of them, so I decided it would be a weekend retreat (well, week-long would be better, but these are busy people). I started with live people, and worked my way into dead people...and of course, fictional characters weren't far behind. I did notice that the mean age of the people was surprisingly high, and I tried to think why. All I could think of was that I had chosen people who I've admired for awhile, who had accomplished a lot and who had a lot of life-experience - so if you're thinking I'm ageist, maybe you could suggest someone.

I couldn't possibly think who might sit next to who at meals. Come to think of it, not all these people would necessarily get along; but that's okay, let's assume they would.

In no particular order:

Tom Stoppard, because his brain works in the most amazing loops, he's had an interesting life, and because he's interested in all kinds of odd things;
Ursula LeGuin because I love her books, she's a wise person, and because she grew up in old California, which I'd like to ask her about;
Terry Gilliam, because he's just weird and wonderful, and I'd love to talk to him;
Brian Eno, because he's intelligent and, I suspect, witty and ascerbic, and I like his artworks (as well as his music), and the way he collaborates with other people;
Lori Anderson: what can I say? The woman is bloody brilliant, and I'd be her roommate any day. Dang! I'd give anything to talk to her;
Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, starting god of the WELL (early internet community), co-founder of the Long Now Foundation... he has seen and done so many interesting things I can't begin to imagine what I'd talk about with him, only that he must make for great conversation;
Jan Švankmajer, because, well, few people really get to make a name and a living making utterly bizarre and fascinating works;
Neil Gaiman, because he writes great stuff, is prolific and intelligent, appears to be extremely kind, and likes the same stuff I do (and he's a nice dad);
Tim Burton, who makes some of the weirdest (in a good way) movies and has the best eye I've seen for oddness and style, though I'm not certain about his conversation skills;
Diana Wynne Jones, who writes insightful books with an unparalleled ability to create plots that defy the ruts that so many fantasy stories fall into, and who I would think would be the same to talk to;
Youssou N'Dour, who just fascinates me, I don't know why;
John Crowley, whose Little, Big made an inexplicable and everlasting impression on me when I read it, twenty-five years ago, and who seems able to think in both macro- and micro-vision at once;
and Faith Ringgold, who makes such amazing stories with her quilts.

Now, here's some dead people:
Joseph Cornell: I don't know much about the man, but his boxes had a lifelong effect on me - and were the beginnings of a fascination with boxes and an eventual interest in Wunderkammern;
Jane Austen, because good Lord! Have you ever seen anyone better able to dissect people with absolute sweetness and deadly precision?;
James Thurber, because he was very silly in a very smart way (except when he was serious);
Thorne Smith and Dashiel Hammett, for their dazzling wit;
Claudette Colbert, because she can talk faster than anyone I've ever seen;
Ibn Ismail Ibn al-Razzaz Al-Jazari, because aside from being the product of a brilliant and lost civilization, he was incredibly brilliant himself - and left us some really beautiful documentation of it;
Sir Henry Bessemer, because he was a wonderful raconteur and a fabulous engineer who was not only willing to take risks, but bull-headed enough to make others at least try his inventions.
H.G. Wells, who might have been a weirdo in his own time, but wouldn't you love to be able to pick his brains?;
and Edith Wharton, to stir things up a little.

Here are some fictional people who I think would do well in the mix, or at least who I'd like to get to know better:
Tenar, from Tehanu and the other (later) Earthsea books, because she is insightful and wise and very strong in all the right ways;
Scheherazade - of course! Not only because she tells great stories but because she's smart and interesting, too;
Hobbes, as in "Calvin and" - but in his non-stuffed form, of course, because I've had a crush on him ever since he appeared in print;

Hopey and Maggie, from Locas, because they were a big part of my life for a long time, and I always wished they were real (especially back when they fixed rockets for a living);
Mina Harker, because even if she ends up being a kind of a prude, she's still pretty cool.
Harlequin and Columbine, a fascinating and quixotic couple guaranteed to spice up any gathering.

I suspect there are actually many, many more good house parties out there, but I'm still writing NaNoWriMo and couldn't possibly spend more time thinking about it. Any further suggestions?

(PS. for an interesting Google-Earth style look at the last supper, check this out)

Monday, November 5, 2007

Places That Are Lost

Yesterday I took a hike with my family to a waterfall that exists near where I live. Throughout my life, this place has been one of my most sacred places; even as a six- or seven-year-old I used to simply sit and admire it and the cool green pool at its base. I imagined fairies living in the mossy grottos of its rocky cliff; I saw a whole underwater world in the moving depths of the pool, where crayfish roamed under the shadows of the great rocks, and the sandy patches twinkled with fools' gold. The water fell with a sort of awesome finality down a hundred feet or so, and we would crane our necks looking at it and the trees clinging to the canyon all around.

Yesterday was the first time I had been there in nearly twenty years. There's been a flood since then, which pushed some of the great logs and large rocks around. The waterfall has worn deeper into its niche, and the shape of it has changed ever so slightly. But it's still the same canyon, the same deep pool (crayfish and fools' gold intact), the same sound and feel. The sun still slants through the trees and lights up the depths with magical fingers. It is, simply and finally, as sacred as it ever was.

There was an unnamed and unexpected comfort I gained by my visit, though, which had nothing to do with sacredness. On reflection, I think it had to do with the fact that, of all the meaningful places that existed for me in childhood, this is one of the few that still exists. There are so many, many places I have loved and lived with that are simply gone, torn down or washed away or unfindable. The barn, for example, on the ranch where I grew up: the floor and walls full of holes that we could climb in and out of; creeping around in the open space underneath its great structure; the owl pellets strewn on the floor with tiny mouse-bones and skulls in them; the wide, hand-sawn boards; the things that were stored inside.

This barn was at least a hundred feet long and thirty feet wide down the middle (not including hip roofs). It was built on two-foot-square redwood beams, sided with eighteen-inch-wide planks. It was amazing. But when the roof blew off in a freak windstorm, our landlords decided they couldn't afford to fix it. They took the whole thing down. Poof: no barn. As we used to say when my children were young (with hands held out helplessly), "All gone!"

Sometimes I wonder if I simply made up my childhood. No one seems able to corroborate it completely. There are a few photos of the barn, though.

Curiously, as these things always happen, I was already thinking about something similar before the waterfall. I had been reading BLDGBLOG, which I sometimes do, and he had a post about Gunkanjima Island, a coal-mining island off the coast of Japan that was essentially built on its own slag heap. The island had a whole town on it, of workers and their families, complete with shops and bath-houses; and the photos, taken by Japanese artist Saiga Yuji, are simply unbelievable:

I was so taken with these photos that I followed the link back to the source, Mr. Saiga's own website. Mr. Saiga, luckily, has whole portions of his site duplicated in English. I found more pictures, all beautiful and eloquent, but then I looked further - and found that Mr. Saiga had actually been there in the 1970's just before the people were due to be moved off the island, and he had taken pictures.

It is these pictures which truly caught my imagination, especially when compared with the later ones. The place is already in a state of decay, as if it was already forgotten and the people living in it were strange, living ghosts. And yet people continued to live, going to school and the bath-house, working and gossiping, running through what would soon be ruins, even while they chose what to pack for their departure. I found myself asking: how did they feel, knowing their home was already a ghost-town? What was it like, knowing they would soon leave for parts unknown, their old home crumbling to ruins behind them?

Both series are extraordinary, especially if seen backwards, with the later, abandoned images first. The photographs of hasty departure, long decayed, linger in your mind as you look at the images of people occupying the very same decay. It gives me the oddest feeling in the pit of my stomach to see the people laughing, the children playing, in what seems already to be a graveyard. It is fascinating and full of pathos.

Mr. Saiga speaks of coming to the island in the knowledge that it would soon be empty, and having one of those rare experiences with one's art where one is possessed, and must capture everything. He says:

"It was just since the previous year that I had decided to pursue photography seriously and started taking photographs. The crudeness of this series is obvious. Sentimentalism also lurks from behind. When I see the pictures now, I feel, before everything, embarrassment. But however unskillful the pictures might have been, I honestly feel that my desire to take photographs then was stronger than it is now.
I saw, at close range, islanders in pain for leaving, while I was, myself, at a loss because of the difficulty in taking photographs. I plunged myself into photography, while asking the meaning of life. In those days, photography was everything for me."

I can see why he was captivated. Places that have been lost but aren't gone have a peculiar attraction, perhaps, in my case, because of my own experience with loss of place. Pompeii, for example, or Bodie; Petra and Palmyra and Angkor Wat. Places that are both lost and gone, though, are even more mysterious, more terrible, because they live on only in the minds of the people who saw them or heard about them - or in obscure photographs which make no sense without someone to decipher them. Think of Dresden, of Ur. Memory is the only place they truly exist; memory and legend. But most lost places only leave a hole in the world for some people, and when those people are gone (an all-too simple and easy thing with our flimsy little bodies), their places will dip below the surface of history without a ripple.

It must be odd growing into an old person, watching one's world become more holes than not. I think of my rapidly-growing sense of a slipping existence, a past which exists only in my mind, and it seems like a form of insanity. I clearly see, clearly know about things and places which are patently not real. Sometimes no one else even remembers them: so are they real? Were they ever real?

I was always one of those weird people who were conscious of things going away, I don't know why. I liked to listen to old peoples' stories, because they were stories, and described things to me in ways that left traces against the things which were there for me, enriching them and informing them. But now many of those people are gone, themselves, leaving yet more holes. And their stories? I wonder sometimes if for some of them I was the only person who ever did listen.

Which is why, perhaps, I work so hard to keep my Cabinet. Like the people in Gunkanjima, I know there is not much time before I am asked to leave, so I will pack as much as I can while I wait. And save what I can of others' stuff, too.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Intellectual? Me?

I usually try to stay focused and avoid meme-like posts, but Bioephemera has kindly tagged me (along with four fine others) for the Intellectual Blogger Award, so I'm attempting to follow up on the meme by naming a few good possibilities myself. Unfortunately, she seems to like some of the same blogs I do, so I will do my best, naming three others that I can think of who should be included:

Language Log does a wonderful job of looking at how modern English is developing, and the developments in the field of linguistics as they apply to language in popular culture. They manage to write with humor and intellectualism at the same time, using everything from comics to memes to talk shows to demonstrate their point. Quite amusing and instructive.

BLDGBLOG is about "architectural conjecture, urban speculation, [and] landscape futures." I love this blog because not only does the writer, Geoff Manaugh, find the most amazing pictures, but he then riffs on them, either describing a world-that-could-be or making some connection to something apparently unrelated that is quite dazzling in its logic and application. For example, there was a post recently connecting an underwater neutrino detector with HP Lovecraft, complete with pictures of terrifying undersea creatures. Very nice.

And of course, there's Bibliodyssey, who indundates us all with amazing pictures from old books and then often talks about them in interesting ways. Just looking at the incredible feast of images is worth its weight in gold; but I like the research put into the subjects that are written about. One burning question always follows me as I read the posts: where does peacay (the blogger) find all this stuff?

If you're interested in reading the description of what the Intellectual Blogger Award is all about, check it out here. I think it's a great idea to make note of people for thinking on their own. Thanks, Bioephemera!