Monday, July 31, 2006

Actor-Network Vocabulary

From Madeline Akrich and Bruno Latour, "A Summary of a Convenient Vocabulary for the Semiotics of Human and Nonhuman Assemblies" in Wiebe E. Bijker and John Law, eds. Shaping Technology, Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change (Cambridge: MIT, 1992): 259-264.

Semiotics
Setting
Actant
Script, Description, Inscription, or Transcription
Shifting Out, Shifting In
Program of Actions
Antiprogram
Prescription; Proscription; Affordances; Allowances
Subscription or the Opposite, De-Inscription
Pre-Inscription
Circumspection
Conscription
Interface or Plugs
Re-Inscrpition
Redistributing Competences and Performances of Actors in a Setting
Ascription
Scribe, Enscripter, Scripter, Desginer, or Author
AND (syntagmatic, association, alliances); OR (paradigmatic, substitution, translation)

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Optical Events

These two images, put side by side, imply many things. Such implications go well beyond the fact that both use images to make a point about the state of a then-current war; that both a Norden Bomsight in operation. The manipulation of images here suggest implications for home living -- for the operative scale of what is at "stake" is rather broad -- from the single home, to a metropolitan region, to a nascent country.

The suggestions can be literal. For example, the Nash Kelvinator ad (left) makes clear references to domestic living. The connection between the sighting a target through the bomsight and preserving American homes is all-too-palpable.

The implications are also figural. The second image (right), from Ha-milhamah le-shalom [Our war for peace], ed. Mahadurat Yediot Aharonot (Tel Aviv: Dekel, 1967) has more obvious political implications. In this instance, the sighting a target with a bombsight implies the protection and preservation of the still-young Israel.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Object Lesson(s)

We love Bruno Latour. We love his books. In fact, his books are even better once we get to hear him speak. They read like the transcript of an intellectually-engaging conversation, yet his writing is never onerous, nor is it turgid. It is what it is. There is something rather public and almost ecumenical about his writings. Yes, he often writes about science and technology, but books like We Have Never Been Modern (1993) and Science in Action (1988) transcend their discipline. There is something -- as I already said -- democratic about his work. There's something for every one.

And this notion of democracy is, in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, "the brooding omnipresence" that sifts through the pages of Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (2005). The book is literally hefty and figuratively weighty -- it is the monograph to an exhibition of the same name held at the ZKM (Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie) in Karlsruhe, Germany. It is a heroic compendium spanning a seemingly impossible breadth of thought: from political philosophy to history of science to digital art to speculative architecture.

But, as Latour states in the introduction to the work, the book/exhibit is about the creation of an object-oriented democracy. Latour realizes the incipient double-meaning of the word representation: it not only has a political aspect (elected officials represent the public) but an unmitigated sense of veracity or verisimilitude (this chart represents a summary of our findings). The former thus talks of a matter of fact, the latter talks of representation as a matter of concern.

And they key to Latour's object-oriented democracy rests in mending this schism between representation as matter of fact and representation as matter of concern. He thus advocates moving from a Realpolitik to a Dingpolitik -- literally, a politics of things, an investigation into the significance of the tangible thing. It is as if a thing -- a glass, a video game cartridge, a cookie, or radar screen -- becomes the prism through which the world refracts itself. Dingpolitik mandates a shifting of focus from objects to things. "Back to Things!" is Latour's clarion call:
...the objects of science and technology, the aisles of supermarkets, financial institutions, medical establishments, computer networks -- even the catwalks of fashion shows! --- offer poignant examples of hybrid forums and agoras, of the gatherings that have been eating away at the older realm of pure objects bathing in the clear light of the modernist gaze. Who could dream of a better example of hybrid forums than the scale models used by architects all over the world to assemble those able to build them at scale? Or the thin felt pen used by draughtsmen toimaginen new landscapes? When we say "Public matters!" or "Back to Things!" we are not trying to go back to the old materialism of Realpolitik, because matter itself is up for grabs as well. To be materialist now implies that one enters a labyrinth more intricate than that built by Daedalus (Latour, "From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik, or How to Make Things Public," in Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (MIT/ZKM, 200): 23-24.
So here, a new, urgent klaxon demanding a reexamination of materialism and material culture. We only need to recall Wallace Stevens' elevation of the simple jar, the complex interweavings between subject, object, and context in "Anecdote of The Jar" (1923):

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

The thing is given urgency -- it is not only created, but it orders its surrounding space. In the words of critic Donald Guitierrez:

Being placed on top of a hill gives the jar an apex of human purpose through nature. But the jar asserts authority even more through the implied design of its own rotundity. It is the design of a created object embodying a human, cultural purpose. Further, the roundness is the symbolic design of purpose placed in nature, which in itself lacks purpose or order. The jar's roundness, exerting a centripetal force on the "slovenly wilderness," endows the wilderness (including the hill) with the order of a center. All the natural disorderliness of the wilderness acquires a purposive spatial character through "centering," and is given a figurative order in the way "rounded" and rounding human purpose shapes significance into the raw matter of earthly phenomena. Accordingly, human circularity, human centralization, civilizes "wilderness," not only the wild, that is, but chaos, nullity, meaninglessness, by providing it structure. This governing force is so powerful that even in its plainest, simplest representations ("grey and bare") the jar compels a "surrounding." "Circular Art: Round Poems of Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams." Concerning Poetry 14:1 (Spring 1981).

Philip K. Dick's alternate history masterpiece, The Man in The High Castle (1962) operates in the same realm as as Bruno Latour or a Wallace Stevens. The plot of the novel is familiar, only in that it has spawned similar alternate histories or science fictions: the United States has lost the Second World War; the Eastern seaboard is occupied by Germany, the West Coast by Japan, etc. As it turns out, several of the main characters in the novel traffic pre-World War II Americana, everything including Colt revolvers, Mickey Mouse Watches, Civil War-era Banknotes. These items are counterfeited, a fact that seems inconsequential. Consumers trade these high-priced items, and as long as someone can say that they are authentic, the market remains stable.

The author then considers Frank Frink's jewelry. An expert in manufacturing counterfeit firearms, Frink labors in his basement studios producing handcrafted earrings, lapel pins, and brooches. When presented to local pawners, the jewelry is ignored, unworthy of any market value. But, in the political climate of Dick's novel, where Japanese citizens consult the I Ching on a daily basis to soothe existential concerns and where Nazi forces carry out genocidal experiments in Africa in furtherance of a political mandate, this jewelry offers a new hope -- a salvation borne out of a simple, handcrafted item. Describing an transaction involving a seemingly worthless earring crafted by Frink, Dick writes:
"To have no historicity, and also no artistic, esthetic worth, and yet to partake of some ethereal value -- that is a marvel. Just precisely because this is a miserable, small,worthlesss-looking blob; that, Robert, contributes to its possessing wu. For it is a fact that wu is customarily found in least imposing places, as in the Christian aphorism, 'stones rejected by the builder.' One experiences awareness of wu in such trash as an old stick, or a rusty beer can by the side of the road. However, in those cases, the wu is within the viewer. Here, an artificer has put wu into the object, rather than merely witnessed the wu inherent in it." He glanced up. "Am I making myself clear?"
"Yes," Childan said.
"In other words, an entire new world is pointed to, by this. The name for it is neither art, for it has no form, nor religion. What is it? I have pondered this pin unceasingly, yet cannotfathomm it. We evidently lack a word for an object like this. So you are right, Robert. It is authentically a new thing on the face of the world ... This subject carries authority which compels an abandonment of property, so great is the necessity of delivering theawarenesss itself." (1962: 176-77).
As with Stevens' seemingly worthless Tennessee jar, Dick's wu-laden earring pin may also mark a transition from Realpolitik to Dingpolitik. The earring represents a literal and figural matter of concern.


Thursday, July 20, 2006

Jumbo Jet, Connected


Leave it to the impossibly strange yet fantastically compelling historian of media technology Friedrich A. Kittler to describe what, in his opinion, was the most mediated technology ever: the Jumbo Jet. In "Gramophone, Film, Typewriter" October 41 (Summer 1987): 101-118, which is perhaps either an encapsulation or segment from his book of the same title, Kittler attempts to write a history of technology, a history that is not authored by people, but by the technologies themselves.

Musing about commerical aviation, Kittler writes:
But right now there are still media; there is still entertainment. One is informed -- mainly, unfortunately, thanks to jumbo jets. In the jumbo jet, media are more densely connected than in most places. They remain separate, however, according to their technological standard, frequency, user allocation, and interface. The crew is connected to radar screens, diode displays, radio beacons, and nonpublic channels. The crew members have deserved their professional earphones. Their replacement by computers is only a question of time. But the passengers can benefit only from yesterday's technology and are entertained by a canned media mixture. With the exception of books, that ancient medium which needs so much light, all the entertainment techniques are represented. The passengers' ears are listlessly hooked up to one-way earphones, which are themselves hooked up to tape recorders and thereby to the record industry. their eyes are glued to Hollywood movies, which in turn must be connected to the advertising budget of the airline industry -- otherwise they would not so regularly begin with takeoffs and landings. Not to mention the technological medium of the food industry to wchich the mouths of passengers are connected. A multi-media embryonic sack supplied through channels or navels that all serve the purpose of screening out the real background: noise, night, and the cold of an unliveable outside. Against that there is muzak, movies, and microwave cuisine.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Policing The Spectrum


This, a great image of an autobahn simulator near Nurnberg used to train German police in high-speed road-handling.

From National Geographic Channel.

This Business of Dredging



Did anyone catch the latest epsidoe of Megastructures on the National Geographic Channel, the one about the Port of Rotterdam? Well, before this post divulges one of the many goodies about this particular episode, the port is something to behold. According the the Port of Rotterdam, 370 million tons of goods moved through the North Sea port in 2005. Furthermore,
The port of Rotterdam stretches out for 40 kilometers along the Nieuwe Waterweg canal (also see the Port map). The port and industrial area covers 10,500 hectares. Around 30,000 seagoing vessels and 130,000 inland vessels call at the port each year. Rotterdam is a port of call for around 500 shipping lines that maintain regular services to about 1,000 other ports. Rotterdam is Europe's most important port for oil & chemicals, containers, iron ore, coal, food and metals.

And another thing, the entrance to the port is 78 feet deep. Ornidarily, this would not present any problems to the world's container fleet. But it does present a problem to one specific vessel, the Norwegian container vessel, the MS Berge Stahl.


The Berge Stahl is a monster of a vessel. Besides being about 375 yards in length, it is also has one of the deepest draughts imaginable for a vessel: 75 feet. And only two ports in the world are capable of handling such a giant vessel: the Europort at Rotterdam and the Terminal Maritimo de Ponta da Madeira, in Itaqui, Maranhao, Brazil. When ever the Berge Stahl enters either of these ports, the repsective harbormasters deploy a fleet of dredgers, large ships that literally suck the ocean bottom into their hulls, thereby creating a deeper channel for larger ships.

A great recent posting from Pruned shows these dredging vessels in action. The majority of these vessels are owned by either Van Ord, Boskalis, Jan de Nul Group, and Dredging International, all Dutch or Belgian (read: experts in North Sea reclamation). Two of the largest trailer suction hopper dredgers (or TSHD) are Jan de Nul Group's Vasco da Gama and Boskalis' WD Fairway. Combined, these two vessels have the ability to displace a total volume of about 69,000 cubic meters.

From Pruned.


The DPRK Military, Courtesy of Google Earth

The ever-growing Google Earth community has been busy scouring North Korea for glimpses at military installations. And according to a recent posting on Radio Open Source, Globalsecurity.org maps have been grafted onto Google Earth, resulting in a fairly comprehensive listing of North Korean military sites that can be viewed using the Google app. The imaage at the far left, for example, is an aerial view of the sub base at Pipa Got. The image on the right is an unidentified North Korean air base. If you have already downloaded Google Earth, you can download the keyhole files for other DPRK installations, such as the Musudan-ri/No Dong missile test range, and the Cho Do naval base.

From Radio Open Source.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Radome Designs for Aircraft at MIT


Much has been written about the role of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) as well as the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) during the Second World War. One of the NRDC's most famous ventures was the establishment of the MIT Radiation Laboratory (or RadLab) in October 1940. Under the tutelage of Lee A. DuBridge, RadLab scientists engaged in various experiments concerning signal processing, as well as for the design and implementation of radar systems. A spinoff of this research, the Research Laboratory for Electronics, became known for sponsoring Norbert Wiener's experiments on control and communication, the subject of his most famous book, Cybernetics.

At the end of World War II, the RadLab published the 28-volume MIT Radiation Laboratory Series (1947-1953). Perhaps the most famous book to come out of the series (and known for being a predecessor to Wiener's Cybernetics) is Hubert M. James, Nathaniel Nichols', and Ralph Phillips' Theory of Servomechanisms (1947). However, for those of use who are more aviation-inclined, Willoughby Cady's, Michael Karelitz', and Louis Turner's Radar Scanners and Radomes (1948), is interesting.

As the image from Cady's book at the top of this post shows, radar systems were first conceived as a way to locate a target on the enemy lanscape. A conical high-frequency beacon emanates at an angle from the aircraft's fuselage, allowing radar operators to detect what was on the ground. The U.S. Army Air Force's principal radar systems were the AN/APQ and AN/APS-7 (or "Eagle").

The AN/APQ series were classified as BTO (“Bombing Through Overcast”) systems that enabled bombardiers to drop bombs through dense cloud cover or under cover of night at high altitudes. A 1945 edition of the Radar Observers’ Bombardment Information File (ROBIF) describes the AN/APQ and AN/APS series’ function, giving a classic description of how radar operates:
In brief, the system functions as follows: A train of extremely short but intense pulses of radio-frequency energy is transmitted in a beam from a rotating antenna. An object in the path of the beam reflects some of the energy, and the transmitting antenna intercepts a portion of this reflected energy. The received pulses, or echoes, are detected and amplified on the plan position indicator (PPI scope), where you can determine both the distance to, and the bearing of, the object.




The AN/APS-7 (or “Eagle”) radar was used in conjunction with a Norden M-9 Bombsight for even increased accuracy. The Eagle’s rangefinder system was electronically attached to the Norden Bombsight’s viewfinder, in essence creating a system where the radar system would automatically input standard bombsight range and drift data. The bombardier was essentially demoted. Instead of being the custodian of an awesome weapon, he became a static “radar observer.” The combined Eagle-Norden system, renamed as the Norden Optical Sight Modification system, or NOSMO, would allow accurate bombing from 30,000 to 35,000 feet. Although Norden bombsights were still used for daylight and clear weather missions, NOSMO would eventually be scrapped in favor of wholly electronic systems.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Thelon River Blues

On the impossibly cold morning of August 8, 1929, Sergeant C. Trundle, an Inspector for the Great Slave Lake Region of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, reported a grisly scene inside a rundown cabin on the banks of the Thelon River in the Northwest Territories. Trundle's affidavit describes the discovery of the skeletal remains of three explorers, all Englishmen. One skeleton was that of John Hornby, whose unpublished manuscript, In The Land of Feast and famine by J. Hornby, or a Life in the Arctic Region, was found alongside his body. Hornby was a seasoned explorer who frequented the Thelon area. Wanting to attract attention to the unspoiled natural beauty of the Thelon River, Hornby embarked on another expedition in early 1927, hoping to prove that he could live in the desolate, wilderness of the area subsisting only on Caribou meat and whatever other game he could procure. Hornby starved to death on April 14, 1927. Next to Hornby's corpse, Sergeant Trundle found the body of Harold Allard, who died only a couple of weeks later, on May 4 1927. The third set of remains belonged to Edgar Christian, a 19-year old amateur explorer.

When RCMP scouts first discovered the old hut by the Thelon, at first they did not notice the bodies. They entered in and noticed a handwritten note affixed to the stove, with four words written in a desperate, almost childish scrawl:
Who ... Look ... In ... Stove

Inside the stove was Edgar Christian's logbook, which presented a day-to-day account of the deadly winter of 1927. There have been different accounts of the story, all suggesting a tragic scene. On the morning of June 1, 1927, Edgar Christian finished his last diary entry, and placed it alongside a note to his mother and father in the ashes of the stove. After writing the note asking whoever discovered their remains to look inside the stove, he crawled inside his red Hudson Bay's blanket and died. Edgar Christian's last diary entry is cryptic, yet somewhat telling:
9 a.m. Weaker than ever. Have eaten all I can. Have food on hand but heart peatering? Sunshine is bright now. See if that does any good to me if I get out and bring in wood to make fire.
Make preparations now.Got out, too weak and all in now. Left things late.

Christian began writing these daily entries in October 1926, before he embarked on the trek with Hornby and Allard. His clipped, pithy style is matter-of-fact, as if he were protecting future readers from the grisly details of starvation. Death was a lonely and personal business, and he only wanted to present a bare minimum of details. Christian also depicts the barren, frozen steppes of the upper Northwest Territories, where gale-force winds and winter temperatures averaging somewhere south of -20 degrees Fahrenheit made exploration a hazardous business indeed. The Thelon River area that Hornby, Allard, and Christian explored in 1926 and 1927 was then terra incognita. Hornby made regular visits to the area, and his growing love for the fecund yet bare Thelon area no doubt inspired Allard and Christian to go along on this last, deadly jaunt.

One morning, almost 50 years later, a group of American and Canadian campers were pitching tents at Warden's Grove, near the Thelon River. Newspaper accounts indicate that Gary Anderson, 30, of Rock Island, Ill.; Chris Norment, 26, of Las Vegas; Kurt Mitchell, 28, of Jackson, Wyo.; John Mordhorst, 28, of Rock Island; Michael Mobley, 26, of Mesa, Ariz., and Robert Common, 33, of St. Anne de Bellevue, Canada were keen outdoorsmen, sharing John Hornby's love for the Thelon wilderness, and recreating the explorer's last, and most famous expedition.

On the morning of January 24, 1978, one of these men noticed a white blazing object streaking across the sky, spewing fiery bits in its wake. Mobley and Mordhorst ventured to the impact site, and on the way, noticed smoldering pieces of metal wreckage. These, however, were actually parts of wreckage from COSMOS 954, a Soviet Radar Ocean Reconnaissance Satellite (RORSAT). COSMOS 954 had a relatively short life span. Launched on September 18, 1977 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhistan, COSMOS 954 featured the latest in Soviet nuclear reactor technology: a Romashka-type reactor carrying a Uranium-235 core. The satellite was designed to monitor naval activity in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and in January 1978, reports began to surface that COSMOS 954's orbit was beginning to decay. And to make matters worse, the Soviet Space Agency was unable to jettison the satellite's reactor core due to a mechanical malfunction.

During a brief diplomatic spat between the U.S. and Soviet governments, it had been generally accepted that COSMOS 954 would reenter the Earth's atmosphere with it reactor core. This would be an unprecedented type of nuclear disaster -- an airborne, upper-atmospheric release of radioactive debris. There was even speculation that the satellite would crash in India. But it wasn't until January 24th that anyone had any inclination as to where COSMOS 954 would crash. Early that morning, the satellite entered the Earth's atmosphere somewhere over the Queen Charlotte Islands (north of Vancouver), and tumbled in a northeastern direction across Great Slave Lake, Fort Resolution, Yellowknife, Fort Reliance, and finally towards Baker Lake.

After the Soviet government admitted that COSMOS 954 indeed had a nuclear reactor on board, a cleanup operation was commenced by the U.S. and Canadian. Dubbed Operation Morning Light, the cleanup effort not only involved the on-site recovery of radioactive debris, but also utilized spectrometer-equipped Royal Canadian Air Force as well as high-altitude missions by U2 spyplanes.

The clean up effort ended in April 1978. By that time, crews assigned to Operation Morning Light surveyed over 124,000 square kilometers and logged over 4500 hours of flying time, all in search for pieces of the doomed COSMOS 954. In the end, it was determined that the Romashka reactor and its contents burned up in the atmosphere, and that the pieces strewn along the hoarfrost posed very little danger. The most radiologically intense piece, about the size of a nickel, was found on February 23 and appropriately sent to the Whiteshell Nuclear Research Establishment in Pinawa, Manitoba.

What strikes me as interesting about these two narratives is how they both end in the same location. Also, the very first piece of wreckage found by the American and Canadian campers in 1978, with two bent metal rods splaying out in opposite directions, even looked like a pair of Caribou antlers that John Hornsby would have loved to have seen in the deadly winter of 1927-1928. The newspaper accounts even describe them as "antlers." And finally, the satellite crash, how it must have looked like a falling star on that cold January morning, and the terrible, sad ending to Edgar Christian's Thelon adventure ... it reminds me of the last lines of W.H. Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts"(1940):
In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

From Yoknapatawpha to Canady: Imaginary Cartographies in Fiction

I have an affinity for maps of nonexistent places. I'll admit up front that one of the things that drew me to William Faulkner's novels is that they took place in Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi. In fact, there is even a map. You can trace your finger along the roads and rivulets of this phantom county, seeing where the Bundren family lived in As I Lay Dying (1930), or where Joe Christmas committed a murder in Light in August (1932). The fact that these events take place, that these characters stalk locations that are suspended somewhere between fact and reality perhaps give the novels added dramatic quality. But Faulkner's imaginaty geographies are not limited to Mississippi. Pylon (1935) may very well be his most flawed novel -- a tale of veteran war pilots who test their skills in air races, often dying at the throes of a dangerous new technology in a town called New Valois. In reading the decadent, sometimes violent passages describing New Valois, one wonders if this is really Faulkner's own private New Orleans.

Vladimir Nabokov's bloated masterpiece, Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969) opens with an amazing cartographic conceit. The various cities, geographical regions are an offbeat mix of the Russian and North American. For example, "Canady" is the country that borders the United States. Nabokov has even invented the state of "New Cheshire" -- according to Brian Boyd's meticulous annotations to the Vintage Edition of the novel:
... since the New England state of New Hampshire echoes the English county of Hampshire, and New York the English city and county of York, since American names in fact were frequently duplicated "across the ha-ha of a doubled ocean" (18.01), Nabokov invents the state of New Cheshire, in honor of the English county of Cheshire but perhaps also, with a grin at Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat, in honor of New York's Catskill Mountains (cf. Appel, Ada 167). There is also a Cheshire County in New Hampshire, less than fifteen miles from West Wardsboro, Vermont, where Nabokov spent two summers (1940 and 1942).

The imaginary therefore is rooted on the personal. But the imaginary is also historical. Take Nabokov's invocation of the Durmanov clan's origins in New Estoty. According to Boyd:
Estotiland was a name given by early explorers to the northeastern part of North America, now northeast Labrador. Old mapmakers let it stretch as far north as their conjectured coastline ventured. Cf. John Milton, Paradise Lost, X.686: "From cold Estotiland." "Estotiland" is listed, along with Eden and Arcadia, under the heading "utopia, paradise, heaven, heaven on earth" in Roget's International Thesaurus (New York: Crowell, 1962). "'Russian' Estoty" may contain an echo of "Russian" Estonia.
The idea that a novel has a specific geography is alluring. But when the geography is conjured, fantastic, or rooted in the esoteric or weird -- that is truly inspiring.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Sound-aided Searchlights

At one point my research concerned the location of targets in three-dimensional space. For countless World War II anti-aircraft crews, finding an incoming bomber at night or under overcast conditions proved particularly tricky. A website produced by veterans of the 255th AAA Searchlight Batallion contains a pretty interesting sidebar about how listening devices were used to train both searchlights and anti-aircraft cannons at enemy aircraft.

What is interesting about these pictures is that the sound device operator is literally attached to the machine -- it is as if he has a huge, external ear attached to his head. As it turns out, the "listener" would use the listening device to locate approaching aircraft and direct searchlight and anti-aircraft batteries towards their flightpath. Later, the system became more automated -- the listening device would "point" searchlights and ack-ack. And eventually, the listening device was replaced with either a short- or long-range microwave radar array, ensuring that the only human element would be the gunners who loaded ordnance or pulled lanyards on the anti-aircraft cannons.

Such devices are the subject of David Mindell's majestic Between Human and Machine : Feedback, Control, and Computing before Cybernetics (Johns Hopkins, 2002). The book provides a thorough pre-history of cybernetics, describing a whole slew of control systems that utilized many of the principles of feedback, oscillation, and control even before Norbert Wiener wrote Cybernetics: or the Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1948). Along with other World War II-era devices, such as the Anti-Aircraft Predictor and Norden Bombsight, one wonders what effect these devices had on postwar visual culture. If you think about it, these systems replace sound and vision with a fully-automated (and wholly bureaucratized) version of seeing and hearing.

For Your Consideration: Paul Shepheard


Although many know Paul Shepheard the English architect and critic, he is an architecture writer who defies categorization. The Cultivated Wilderness (1997), for example, at first seems to be an exegesis on the meaning of landscape. But instead of reeling off some turgid prose about the operative scale of landscape analysis, Shepheard instead uses anecdotes. His stories -- whether a conversation with a tipsy ex-pilot on a transatlantic flight, a brief sojourn in the alps, or even a weekend drive through the sites of some of the bloodiest battles of the First World War -- indeed revive the power of the narrative as a critical device.

And best of all, there is something unassuming and unpretentious about his writing. For the past couple of weeks, Shepheard's book on technology, Artificial Love (2003), has been mandatory reading before bedtime. I love this passage from that book:

And now, Jaques and Maria are zooming toward the Gulf of Mexico to have a day by the sea. She sleeps beside him in the car, his eyelashes resting on her cheeks like mink pelts. No CD. No radio. No sound in the car save that of smooth progress. He does not want to wake this sleeping beauty beside him. Ever since his late-night encounter with Plutarch on the television Jaques has been imagining himself as the protagonist of some ancient Roman love story. They are snares, entanglements, these stories: brushes with divinity. The gods stalk the landscape interfering with human lives as humans interfere with the lives of midges. The humans are riven by desire. It shoots through their bodies and their genitals and forces to them to be ecstatic. To have been one of the first humans, and to have lived before the great pile of information got too big for the unaided brain to handle, that is Jaques' fantasy. To have lived at a time when love was the prime technology, the thing that made all else possible -- now that's what he would call authentic. He is the Lover. So he grips the wheel and drives on in silence, thinking up his own food-of-love music, a silent opera with an audience of one called Cupid and Psyche, hardly daring to breathe, thinking that he must not wake Maria up. The feeling is as strong as a magic spell. Each passing moment seems to fragment from the one before it and hang in the air as delicate as a wisp and as definite as a smack in the head (2003: 92-93).

That, from a book that is ostensibly about architecture.

Your Own Miniature East Berlin



Faltplatte is a Berlin-based company that makes paper models of your very own favorite buildings from the former East Berlin. Just punch out the pattern from the paper backing, and you too can build your own Plattenbau, Cafe Moskau, Karl-Marx-Allee, and even a building from West Berlin -- Erich Mendelssohn's Schaubühne. These models take me back, reminding me of the myriad paper cut-out models of ships and planes from my youth.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Autobahn als Musik?

Mies on Technology

From a 1950 speech by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) at the Illinois Insitute of Technology:

Technology is rooted in the past. It dominates the present and tends into the future. It is a real historical movement -- one of the great movements which shape and represent their epoch. It can be compared only with the Classic discovery of man as a person, the Roman will to power, and the religious movement of the Middle Ages. Technology is far more than a method, it is a world in itself, as in gigantic structures of engineering, there technology reveals its true nature. There it is evident that it is not only a useful means, but that it is something, something in itself, something that has a meaning and a powerful form -- so powerful in fact, that it is not easy to name it. It that still technology or is it architecture? And that may be the reason why some people are convinced that that architecture will be outmoded and replaced by technology. Such a conviction is not based on clear thinking. The opposite happens. Wherever technology reaches its real fulfillment, it transcends into architecture. It is true that architecture depends on facts, but its real field of activity is in the realm of significance. I hope you will understand that architecture has nothing to do with the invention of forms. It is not a playground for children, young or old. Architecture is the real battleground of the spirit. Architecture wrote the history of the epochs and gave them their names. Architecture depends on its time. It is the crystallization of its inner structure, the slow unfolding of its form. That is the reason why technology and architecture are so closely related. Our real hope is that they will grow together, that some day the one will be the expression of the other. Only then will we have an architecture worthy of its name: architecture as a true symbol of our time.

Taken from Ulrich Conrads, Programs and Manifestoes on 20th Century Architecture (Cambridge: MIT, 2002): 154.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Fritz Neumeyer: Mies' Barcelona Pavilion as Viewing Machine

Fritz Neumeyer's book about Mies van der Rohe's writings, The Artless Word (1991), fetches an astronomical price on numerous bookseller's catalogues. In this book, Neumeyer, a professor at the Technical University, Berlin, muses on Mies' oft-cryptic writings about technology. However, writing about the Barcelona Pavilion in Detlef Mertins' collection, The Presence of Mies (Princeton 1994), Neumeyer considers the flat, orthogonal planes of Mies' most famous building as a type of viewing device. Neumeyer writes:
In the second phase of Mies' attempt to turn technology into art and to promote construction as architecture, the objective structure of the frame became an instrument of perception as well. Technology did not simply rule out art, but instead was treated as another instrument in the service of metaphysics. In his statement of 1932, "The New Time," Mies contended that whether one built high or low, in steel or glass, brick or stone, "would say nothing about the value of this way of building." Now Mies distinguished between a "practical question" and "questions of value," giving the latter the privilege of being "decisive." "We must set out new values," he wrote, "and point out the ultimate goals in order to gain new criteria. For the meaning and justification of each epoch, even the new one, lie only in providing the conditions under which the spirit can exist."

Leaving behind his earlier, Darwinian, thoughts of architectural evolution, Mies transformed the frame into a reflexive architectural element and an instrument for perception and for exploring the realm between subjectivity and objectivity. No longer did the abstract ideal of a viewed construction provide the compositional model; rather its opposite, the perceptual frame ot the construction of the view, served this role. As an essential architectural unit, the dialectical setting of podium and pavilion provided a thematic construct strong enough to reflect objectivity and subjectivity together, the self and the outer world.


As such a modern viewing machine, which constructs the viewer by arranging a set of frames and sequential spaces, the building now appears in a morphological transformation whose complexity is revealed only by passing through and strolling around. The sublimity of stepping aside engenders a new awareness of the whole -- a process of discerning the world and self in one. The structure constructs a viewer who himself constructs a coherent space when moving through it. This moving through the building entails an ambiguous play of opposites, with the viewer participating in the process of setting and abolishing boundaries through the opening and closing of vistas.


In the Barcelona Pavilion, Mies demonstrated brilliantly the extent to which the observer had become an element of the spatial construction of the building itself. From one position, the viewer looking into the patio gains the impression of being in an enclosed space, sheltered by walls from all sides. In one moving step forward the side wall opens and reveals itself to be only a slab, thereby generating an ambiguous space; depending on the point of view this space can be closed as well as open


So this idea of the Barcelona Pavilion as a viewing device interests me, especially how, in Neumeyer's view, the building requires a negotiating of subjectivity. I also wonder if this idea of the viewer "opening and closing" vistas necessitates investigating the power relationships between the subject and the object.


From Fritz Neumeyer, "A World in Itself: Architecture and Technology" in Detlef Mertins, ed., The Presence of Mies (New York: Princeton, 1994): 76-78.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Through a Bombsight Darkly

This, from the opening moments of Jörg Friedrich's Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940-1945 (Munich: Propyläen Verlag, 2002):

In dem Bombenvisser einer viermotorigen Lancaster ist eine Stadt wie Wuppertal aus sechstausend Meter Höhe nicht sichbar. Die Bewohner haben sie abgedunkelt, ein Dunstschleier hüllt die Talmulde ein. Der Pilot überquert den langgestreckten Ort in einer Minute, dir Vororte kümmern ihn wenig. Sein engeres Zielgebeit läßt ihm zehn Sekunden Zeit zum Abwurf. Wann diese Spanne entritt, irgendwann rund zwei Stunden nach Abflug von der südenglischen Küste, könnte er ohne die zwei Kilometer tiefer vorneweg fliegenden Pathfinder nicht wessen. Zudem kann eine Bombe nicht abgeworfen werden, wenn der Bomber das Ziel kreuzt, denn ihr Flug bildet keine Senkrechte, sondern beschreibt eine Parabel; Masseträgheit und Schwerkraft wirken entgegengeschon auf sie ein. Wenn sie am Boden aufschlägt, ist der Maschine schon drei Kilometer fort.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Geodet

Successful location of ground targets necessarily begins with a proper understanding of the size and shape of the earth’s surface. During World War II, the United States Army relied on geodesy for such a task. Geodesy is a “branch of applied mathematics which determines the figures and areas of large portions of the earth's surface, and the figure of the earth as a whole.” Geodesy thus became vitally important, as one geodetic field control crewmember – or geodet -- remarked
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the U.S. Army general staff was well aware that the U.S. could soon be involved in a war with Germany or Japan. It might have to defend itself against a powerful Germany bent on invading our hemisphere in an ambitious march to subjugate the world. One of the strategic needs for defense of our hemisphere would be reliable maps of poorly charted and unexplored areas of the Arctic and the forested and undeveloped areas of Central and South America. The establishment of the 1st Photographic Squadron in early 1940 was therefore authorized to undertake the role of remedying this strategic deficiency.

Geodesy became an indispensable link in the United States Army and Army Air Force reconnaissance collective. The geodet would go out in the field and take measurements that would be incorporated by photography units for accurate mapping.

Geodesy depends on a variety of instruments and techniques for the accurate determination of points on the earth’s surface. After French-made prismatic astrolabes became unavailable with the fall of France to German forces, an American version of the instrument, the equiangulator, was designed and built by the Eastman Kodak Company. The equiangulator became the geodetic instrument of choice for Army Air Force geodets from 1943 onward.

Successful geodesy relied on the establishing of accurate geodetic control points. To determine the longitude and latitude of a geodetic control point, a geodet used an equiangulator to observe a series of stars “at a fixed and invariable angle of 60 degrees.” Looking through the eyepiece, the geodet looked for two images formed by a passing star, one “produced by the light of the observed star that falls on the upper side of the [equiangulator’s] prism and the other image is formed by the light reflected into the underside of the prism from the artificial mercury horizon.” At the moment the two images would meet, a stopwatch was used to record the time of their formation, and that measurement is calibrated with a coded signal from Greenwich, England or the United States Naval Observatory in the District of Columbia. Readings are then recorded into a logbook, and can be used to interpolate other geodetic control points.

The trimetrogon camera system was an indispensable element of successful geodesy. Consisting of three cameras placed in a single, static mount, the trimetrogon system allowed accurate and level aerial photography. The trimetrogon utilized three K-3 cameras. One was placed vertically, enabling an direct photograph. The other two were placed on either side of the vertical camera at oblique 60-degree angles. Combined, the three cameras allowed for one vertical photo, and two others depicting the horizon on either side of the aircraft. Successful trimetrogon photography also enabled photo crews to determine the pitch and yaw angles of the aircraft from the photos. Geodets would compare geodetic control point readings with trimetrogon photos to create accurate navigation and target maps. Geodetic and photo crews would thus calibrate the results, referencing specific topological and geographic points on the photos and referencing them to the established geodetic control points.

The development of geodetic control systems during World War II had consequences for future military planners. Along with the 1st Photographic Squadron, The Army Map Service (AMS) was created in 1942 as a Field Office of the Army Corps of Engineers. AMS used geodetic data to provide cartographic support for ground forces. Floyd W. Hough, the first appointed head of the AMS, even became a legend in geodet circles. Moving into Germany in 1945, Hough’s team captured tons of geodetic data and cartographic materials in enemy hands. Hough’s most dramatic find, however, was the entire geodetic archives of the German Army, including the military maps and geodetic data that the Germans had captured from the Russians.

Hough later utilized his knowledge of world geodetic data for postwar guided missile programs. A meeting with higher-echelon War Department brass noted that “an accurate figure of the earth becomes more and more important to the War Department when we consider the use of guided missiles and other long range weapons.” In August 1947, after further negotiation, the Army General Staff ordered the Chief of Engineers to develop a “Geodesy for Guided Missiles.” The purpose of this secret project was “To establish a rapid method for computing exact azimuths and lengths of long geodetic lines; [and] to resolve to a common datum all existing world wide geodetic surveys.” In the end, such reports led both the AMS and its United States Air Force counterpart, the Aeronautical Chart and Information Center, to develop a series of World Geodetic Systems (WGS’s), each calibrated to a specific guided and ballistic missile program.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Images from Chombart de Lauwe's "La Decouverte Aerienne du Monde" (1948)

Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe (1918-1998) is often cited by for his contributions to urban sociology, cartography, urban studies, and even ethnography. For those of us who are more spatially-minded, and who have an unabashed predilection towards aircraft, we love Chombart de Lauwe's magisterial La Decouverte Aerienne du Monde (1948). What amazes me, first of all, are a series of pictures towards the beginning of the book. In the picture below, we see a reconnaissance P51 Mustang (with Free French livery) flying over Sudan. The caption reads:
Un P.51 sue le Soudan, avion monoplace de la 33me Escadre de chasse de l'Armée de l'air, en mission photographique en A.O.F. Un grande nombre des vues publiées dans ce livre ont été prises par cette formation militaire sur les avions de ce type.


A second photgraph shows an F5 (reconnaissance variant of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning), also flying over French territories. One may recall that French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery was flying an F5 on his last, and perhaps most famous mission.


Here, the caption states:
Gao, la Dune Rose. Deux avions militaires français en mission photographique au-dessus de l'A.O.F. Sur le sol sablonneux se distinguent nettement les ombres des appareils. L'observation aérienne fait entrer dans l'vision de l'homme les phénomènes se déroulant dans un cadre trop vaste por être saisi d'un seul regard.
Taking into account that Chombart de Lauwe appreciates the civilan applications of military technologies for land-surveying purposes, he posits a methodology for "extracting" geospatial information from aerial photographs. The photos below gives an idea of this: