Powers of Quarantine

[Image: Liberian security forces implement "a quarantine of the West Point slum, stepping up the government’s fight to stop the outbreak and unnerving residents." Photo by Abbas Dulleh/AP, via Al Jazeera America].

Of Forcible Blockades and Military Isolation

A neighborhood-scale quarantine was forcibly imposed on the slums of Monrovia, Liberia, yesterday to help prevent the spread of Ebola.

Using makeshift roadblocks—consisting, for the most part, of old furniture, wooden pallets, and barbed wire, as everyday objects were transformed into the raw materials of a police blockade—authorities have forcibly isolated the densely populated neighborhood of West Point from the rest of the city.

Unsurprisingly, however, poor communication, over-aggressive law enforcement tactics, and general misinformation about the nature—even the very existence—of Ebola has led to local resistance.

Al Jazeera reports, for example, that "police in the Liberian capital have fired live rounds and tear gas to disperse a stone-throwing crowd trying to break an Ebola quarantine imposed on their neighborhood." But they were perhaps simply trying to defend themselves against a badly communicated onslaught of police wielding batons and machine guns, and they would be doing so whether Ebola was in the picture or not.

[Image: Neigborhood-scale quarantine; photo by Abbas Dulleh/AP, via Al Jazeera America].

Ubiquitous Quarantine

But this is only one of the most recent—and one of the more extreme—examples of the spatial practice of quarantine reappearing in the news in recent weeks. At the end of July, for example, the Chinese city of Yumen was partially quarantined due to an outbreak of bubonic plague, as parts of the city were "sealed off" from the neighborhoods around them; and the ongoing Ebola outbreak has led to involuntary quarantines being implemented at nearly every spatial level, from the individual to the city to entire international regions.

In the latter case, recall that just last week a cordon sanitaire was enforced in the international border regions of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone to stop people possibly infected with Ebola from crossing the borders. As the New York Times described this action, "The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is so out of control that governments there have revived a disease-fighting tactic not used in nearly a century: the 'cordon sanitaire,' in which a line is drawn around the infected area and no one is allowed out."

This spatial technique for managing the spread of microbiological life has "the potential to become brutal and inhumane," the paper adds. "Centuries ago, in their most extreme form, everyone within the boundaries was left to die or survive, until the outbreak ended."

[Image: Enforcing quarantine; Photo by Abbas Dulleh/AP, via Al Jazeera America].

Resisting Quarantine

Yet resistance to quarantine is nearly as ubiquitous as attempts to implement it. The very notion of involuntary quarantine is important to emphasize here: this is something that must be spatially imposed on people who have not chosen to bring this condition upon themselves.

Read this dramatic description from the Times, for example, depicting the moment at which involuntary government quarantine is revealed:
Soldiers and police officers in riot gear blocked the roads. Even the waterfront was cordoned off, with the coast guard stopping residents from setting out in canoes. The entire neighborhood, a sprawling slum with tens of thousands of people, awoke Wednesday morning to find that it was under strict quarantine in the government’s halting fight against Ebola.

The reaction was swift and violent. Angry young men hurled rocks and stormed barbed-wire barricades, trying to break out. Soldiers repelled the surging crowd with live rounds, driving back hundreds of young men.
Involuntary quarantine can inspire this type of reaction at any scale. Consider the panic-stricken family who forcibly raided a hospital in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in order to free an Ebola-stricken relative who, they had come to believe, was being held against her will; she later died, but not before passing her infection on to others. Or consider the Nigerian nurse possibly exposed to Ebola while caring for patients who nonetheless "skipped quarantine," either out of a desperate sense of self-preservation or due to sheer ignorance of the dangers of her actions.

"Don't Touch The Walls!"

Somewhat incredibly, though, the deliberate breaking of quarantine can also occur not out of survivalist panic or concern for one's own medical safety, but simply for the purpose of looting. Some of the descriptions here are jaw-dropping, with raiders actually breaking into Ebola wards to steal "property like tents, tarpaulins, buckets, hospital beds, mobile phones and shoes among other things," literally all of which could bear traces of Ebola and thus spread the contagion elsewhere.

The New York Times had a particularly chilling example of why not to steal from Ebola wards when it ran this haunting sentence two weeks ago: "'Don’t touch the walls!' a Western medical technician yelled out. 'Totally infected.'"

Yet, even in the West Point quarantine zone, misguided acts of theft are rampant: "Residents stormed through" the quarantine zone, we read, also in the New York Times, "running off with a generator and supplies like mattresses, some soaked with the blood of patients who were believed to have Ebola. "

Yet, in a situation where even the hospitals are considered to be "death traps," where the walls themselves are "totally infected" with Ebola, the designation of involuntary and militarily enforced quarantine boundaries is taken to mean the designation of a kind of urban sacrifice zone, a place where patients can be fatally off-loaded and the disease tragically but successfully contained. From this point of view, getting out of the quarantine zone becomes a top priority.

Residents of West Point have even protested that "their community, they believed, was becoming a dumping ground for Ebola patients," and that quarantine was simply a spatial excuse for putting victims all in one place, uninfected neighbors be damned. "In all," we read, "residents tried to break through the barricade three times on Wednesday, Col. Prince Johnson, the army’s brigade commander, said Wednesday evening by phone. His soldiers had fired in the air, he said, but he would not comment on whether they had also fired into the crowd."

[Image: A "quarantine house" in Pennsylvania; courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress].

Powers of Quarantine

Who has the power to quarantine? Where does this power come from—especially in a Constitutional democracy like the United States—and where exactly are this power's limits? Does it have any?

Nicola Twilley and I explored these questions last week for the New Yorker, looking at, among other things, the Constitutional implications of quarantine powers. As we point out in that piece, there is an ethically troubling overlap between the notion of the quarantined subject, spatially isolated often against his or her will, and the liminal figure of the "enemy combatant" who potentially never faces the prospect of a legal trial whilst being indefinitely detained.

In both cases, extrajudicial detention can occur on the ground of suspicion alone—presumed guilt or infection—rather than legal or medical certainty.

In fact, writing as a coauthor on two Congressional Research Reports from 2005, legal theorist Jennifer Elsea commented on both of these categories: of the combatant held by the state without rights or legal access to resistance, and the medical subject unable to protest his or her segregation due to being held in a state of involuntary quarantine.

As we see massive international quarantine zones enforced at gunpoint throughout West Africa, and as suspected Ebola cases pop up everywhere from Johannesburg to California, it is well worth discussing where these spatial powers come from, who controls them, and when and where quarantine has reached its limit.

The Return of Quarantine

Indeed, as Twilley and I suggested back in 2010 during the "Landscapes of Quarantine" design studio and exhibition at New York's Storefront for Art and Architecture, quarantine is a decidedly pre-modern spatial practice that is nonetheless experiencing a contemporary comeback.

Confronted with widespread antibiotic resistance and increased global air travel that can bring diseases like Ebola to every global metropolis in a matter of hours, quarantine is part of "a 14th-century toolbox" that ironically looks perfectly at home in the 21st century.

[Image: Quarantine station, Pennsylvania; courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress].

Given all these examples of resistance, confusion, and the violence often necessary to impose spatial isolation on people only suspected of bearing a disease, we suggest in the New Yorker essay that quarantine becomes something of a spatial fiction, always and permanently on the verge of collapse. Its premise is a fantasy; the imaginary boundaries it seeks to defend are legally loose and physically porous.

Nonetheless, for all its apparent instability, quarantine offers a necessary fiction of separation and control at a time when the boundaries between health and contagion have become so vertiginous and blurred.

(Note: Parts of this post were co-written with Nicola Twilley).

The Great Age of Clouds

[Image: A "hurricane" at Saturn's south pole, via NASA; see also The Planetary Weather Report].

In Frédéric J. Pont's new book Alien Skies, he describes the atmospheres of other planets: what storms are like, what the clouds are made of, how a sunset might appear through a chemical haze at high pressure on another world.

He points out, for example, that many of these "alien skies" would likely consist of wildly unfamiliar shapes and formations, as different elements would be capable of condensing to form clouds at ever-increasing heights.

As he puts it, "The type of compound likely to condense into clouds depends on the temperature, and varies from planet to planet. Earth has water clouds. Carbon dioxide clouds sometimes grace the Martian sky, and Venus is shrouded in sulphuric acid clouds. On the giant planets, successive cloud decks are made of different compounds as the temperature increases in the deeper layers."

[Image: J.M.W. Turner, "Storm at Sea" (1824), courtesy of Tate Britain].

However, I should emphasize that all of this stuff needs to be put into the context of the Hudson River School and European Romanticism, of so-called "representational exploration art" of earlier scientific expeditions, where humans attempted to visually depict the wild worlds they'd plunged themselves into.

You shouldn't see this stuff and think of astronomy, in other words. You should think of J.M.W. Turner or John Constable, of huge coastal storms and mountain passes lit by lightning, of ships dashed on the rocks as wrathful pillars of dark cloud spiral into the blackness of space above terrified figures for whom weather bears traces of omnipotence.

Only now the weather is even more spectacular, and it is glimpsed on planets more exotic than any continent to which artists have traveled before.

The weather on other planets should not be left only to scientists, in other words, but needs always to be considered in the context of art and landscape history.

[Image: John Constable, "Seascape Study with Rain Cloud" (c. 1824), via Wikipedia].

In any case, Pont explains that, as you move higher into some of the otherworldly atmospheres he describes, you would continually pass into entirely new elements—carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia—now frozen or condensed, billowing and moving about in the wind, capable of assuming structures unlike anything seen on Earth, vast "waves, spirals and tentacles," or "unpredictable storm patterns" and even giant hexagons, as weird configurations unlock through a chemical sky.

[Image: The great hexagon at Saturn's north pole, via Universe Today].

The book is less landscape poetry, however—sadly, after all, as what an incredible book of poems it would be, simply describing the skies of other worlds—than a scientific introduction to atmospheric chemistry, including here on Earth. But don't hold that against it.

For instance, during Pont's survey of the atmosphere of the early Earth, he makes an interesting and particularly evocative observation, one worth repeating here.

As he points out, the early Earth—for a period that lasted nearly a billion years—was quite boring, geologically speaking, "because nothing much happened to the rocks in a billion years." But the skies were another matter.

[Image: A false-color image of the "hurricane" at Saturn's south pole, via NASA; the eye is estimated to be 1,250 miles wide].

"The oxygen content in the atmosphere was stable," Pont explains, "at around 0.1 percent. This was not enough to produce an ozone layer. Therefore the stratospheric lid that kept the clouds below ten miles in the present Earth did not operate."

This had at least one spectacular side-effect:
Convection must have extended much higher into the atmosphere. This would have been called "the Great Age of Clouds" by any visitor, since the high temperatures, large oceans and lack of stratospheric lid would have produced the most magnificent cloud formations and the most awesome storms.
Imagine standing on the shore of some rocky archipelago billions of years before any other humans were born, as massive and otherworldly storms four or five times taller than anything you'd ever seen come rolling over the horizon, torqued into strange tropical towers, flashing in every crevice with lightning to reveal vast humid interiors where air roars upward in near-permanent mushroom clouds, breaking open to reveal shells of orange and red storms within storms boiling continuously for weeks at a time. The Great Age of Clouds would be in full performance.

Pont's book is also available through SpringerLink if you have academic access.

Minecraft

[Image: Der Bergbau, courtesy of the British Museum; view larger].

Der Bergbau is a beautiful 19th-century German board game set in a mine, currently in the collection of the British Museum. They describe it as a "game-board showing a cross-section of a mine and the network of tunnels leading down from 6 buildings, along the tunnels, various numbers which represent ore."

The rules are not given, unfortunately, but the board itself is a gorgeous image in its own right, worth viewing in full.

(Originally spotted via @SubBrit).

The Fall

[Image: David Maisel, from ToledoContemporánea].

At the end of 2013, photographer David Maisel was commissioned to photograph the city of Toledo, Spain, as part of a group exhibition called ToledoContemporánea, timed for a wider celebration of the 400th birthday of the painter El Greco.

Maisel's photos offered a kind of aerial portraiture of the city, including its labyrinthine knots of rooftops. But the core of the project consists of disorientingly off-kilter, almost axonometric shots of the city's historic architecture.

[Image: David Maisel, from ToledoContemporánea].

On wider flights beyond the edge of the city, modern swirls of highways are seen coiling through the landscape, like snakes preparing for arrival; in a sense, their geometry mimics—or perhaps mocks—the bewildering whorls of tiny streets and passages seen in the city's core.

[Image: David Maisel, from ToledoContemporánea].

While he was in the country, however, Maisel took advantage of some extra time and access to a helicopter to explore the landscape between Toledo and Madrid, a short stretch of infrastructural connections, agricultural hinterlands, abandoned suburban developments, and arid hills.

The result was a new series of photos called The Fall.

[Image: David Maisel, from The Fall].

As Maisel writes, The Fall suggests a genre in which "the worlds of painting and photography have merged together," creating an ironically abstract form of landscape documentation.

This is most evident in the photos from an area called Vicalvaro on the outskirts of Madrid. As Maisel explains, this is "where construction was halted after the economic collapse of 2008. The abandoned zones appear like the surreal aftermath of a bombed out city or an alien landing field."

[Images: David Maisel, from The Fall].

But, as seen in Maisel's photos, they could also just as easily be extreme close-ups of minimalist oil paintings, nearly microscopic zooms into the texture of another method of representation to reveal a different kind of landscape there, one created by pigments and dyes.

[Image: David Maisel, from The Fall].

This is an interrupted landscape, a geography elaborately and expensively prepared for something that has yet to arrive.

However, the dead abstractions of Vicalvaro were only one part of the "three different areas of the Spanish landscape" that Maisel says he set out to see.

[Image: David Maisel, from The Fall].

Another landscape type—true to form, considering Maisel's pre-existing focus on landscapes of industrial use—are borax extraction sites.

These are "strange, ashen landscapes," he writes, seen "in a mining and agricultural region of La Mancha. The soil is laden with the mineral borax, which gives a surreal, ashen quality; the landscape shines, almost like a grey sea in a desert."

They're like windowpanes—or mercury lakes—reflecting the afternoon light.

[Image: David Maisel, from The Fall].

The surface of the earth becomes weirdly metallic in these shots, just a thin surface scraped away to reveal something seemingly utterly unnatural beneath, as if some divine force has begun etching the earth, scratching and engraving incomprehensible shapes into the planet.

[Images: David Maisel, from The Fall].

In many cases, amidst these grooved and metallized landscapes, gridded blooms of plant life have been introduced both to visually interrupt and physically contain the landscape.

Among other things, their roots help to secure disturbed dirt and soil from blowing away in heavy winds—but they also act to recuperate the terrain aesthetically, as if seeing these robotic fields the color of gunmetal was so philosophically unsettling for local residents that plants had to be brought in to make things seem earthly once again.

What we're seeing is thus not really arboriculture, but a kind of existential stagecraft, a rigorously constructed landscape whose ironic purpose is to shield us from the true artificiality of our surroundings.

[Images: David Maisel, from The Fall].

In fact, these bring us around nicely to the third landscape type Maisel says he was exploring with these photographs, joining the abandoned developments and borax sites that we've already seen, above.

This is Fuensalida, or a region of "croplands in the La Mancha region" that have been "gridded, crosshatched, and abstracted."

[Images: David Maisel, from The Fall].

Like the exquisite tree farms documented by Dutch photographer Gerco de Ruijter, these rob viewers of any real sense of scale.

What are, in fact, trees appear instead to be small tufts of fabric pushing up through a needlepointing mesh. It could be a carpet interrupted mid-weave, or it could be some worn patch of clothing rubbed raw to reveal the underlying pattern for all to see.

[Images: David Maisel, from The Fall].

But it's just landscape: the earth reformatted again, made artifactual and strange, carefully touched up for human culture.

This is just a selection of images, however; click through to Maisel's website to see the full series.

(All images by David Maisel, used with permission. If you like the look of Maisel's work, considering picking up a copy of The BLDGBLOG Book to read an interview with the photographer).

Survey Says

[Image: Screen-grab from The New York Times].

Peruvian archaeologist Luis Jaime Castillo Butters "has created a drone air force to map, monitor and safeguard his country’s ancient treasures," according to the New York Times.

Researchers in Peru "struggle to protect the country’s archaeological heritage from squatters and land traffickers, who often secure property through fraud or political connections to profit from rising land values," we read. "Experts say hundreds, perhaps thousands of ancient sites are endangered by such encroachment."

What's needed, it seems, is a kind of standing army or reserve corps of mechanical eyes, ready to take flight at a moment's notice and document abuses or vandalism at historic sites, and this, the article implies, is at least one of the ultimate goals. Indeed, "drones can address the problem, quickly and cheaply, by providing bird’s-eye views of ruins that can be converted into 3-D images and highly detailed maps."

At least that's the goal. Actually watching the "drone air force" at work, however, doesn't quite live up to rhetorical expectations. Instead, sand grains cause mechanical failure, batteries need to be checked and replaced, the geometrically skewed images coming back from the camera are difficult to reconcile with one another, and the small team of archaeological operators only manages to perform a short flight over the targeted valley before calling their DJI Phantom back to base.

Having said that, though, aerial landscape data culled not just from UAVs but from cameras and scanning equipment carried by kites, helium balloons, satellites, light aircraft, and even helicopter patrols has had a transformative effect on archaeological fieldwork.

[Image: A glimpse of the balloon rig, from Mozas-Calvache et al., Journal of Archaeological Science].

Just one example of this—and there are literally hundreds, as any search through publications such as the Journal of Archaeological Science or World Archaeology will reveal—was an exploration of how the images produced by balloon-based "light aerial platforms" could be made more useful.

Of course, the possible uses for this technique in contemporary architectural or urban documentation and analysis should not be overlooked.

[Image: The balloon rig diagrammed, from Mozas-Calvache et al., Journal of Archaeological Science].

As authors A.T. Mozas-Calvache et al., from the University of Jaen in Spain, explain in a paper for the Journal of Archaeological Science, they have developed "a complete methodology for performing photogrammetric surveying of archaeological sites using light aerial platforms or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) systems. Traditionally, the main problem with using these platforms is the irregular geometry of the photographs obtained."

This can make combining the resulting images into a comprehensible map or visual survey fantastically time-consuming, if not sometimes impossible; by comparison, think of a badly stitched panorama on your smartphone, now multiple that times a hundred and you can imagine some of the difficulty involved.

Instead, Mozas-Calvache and Co. built a helium-balloon-based "light aerial platform" whose "spatial coordinates are incorporated in the memory card of a robotized total station for automatic tracking of a 360 º mini reflector prism installed in the camera platform"—all of which is just a more precise way of saying that the location of the camera or scanner is precisely known at every step of its passage over the site, and the resulting, well-gridded images can thus be more easily reconciled.

[Image: Some resulting images, from Mozas-Calvache et al., Journal of Archaeological Science].

But now we're getting off-topic. For more about the "drone air force" of Peru, check out The New York Times.

Emergency Exit

[Image: The SkySaver backpack in action via Kit Up!].

The SkySaver is a kind of emergency exit in a bag: a controlled-descent backpack loaded with hundreds of feet of fire-resistant cable. Just hook the line onto some fixed point in the structure behind you and lower yourself, two meters per second, to safety.

Marketed as a tool for urban warfare with—wouldn't you know it—handy civilian uses on the side, the SkySaver system's goal is to let you escape from, say, a building siege or a hotel fire. But, of course, it would also allow you to don your night-vision goggles and raid a high-rise from above, not escaping from but breaking into a building.

It's not cheap—retailing for $499 and $849, depending on how much cable you need—but its possible use in urban exploration or even burglary seems to be a market niche the company is not (yet) aiming to cultivate.

Military Cave Logistics

[Image: "Humvees are stored inside the Frigaard Cave in central Norway. The cave is one of six caves that are part of the Marine Corps Prepositioning Program-Norway, which supports the equipping of Marine Expeditionary Brigade consisting of 15,000 Marines and with supplies for up to 30 days." U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Marcin Platek].

Norwegian caves are being stuffed full of U.S. military equipment, including armored Humvees, tanks, and cargo containers full of weaponry, all part of a vast and semi-subterranean supply chain maintained to help wage future wars around the world.

The Marines have "stashed weapons and equipment in the Norwegian countryside since the 1980s," War is Boring explains, in sites that include artificially enlarged and fortified caves. It's all about logistics: "With this setup, Marines can fly in and be ready for a fight in no time."

[Image: "Rows of front loaders and 7-ton trucks sit, gassed up and ready to roll in one of the many corridors in the Frigard supply cave located on the Vaernes Garrison near Trondheim, Norway. This is one of seven [see previous caption!] caves that make up the Marine Corps Prepositioning Program-Norway facility. All the caves total more than 900,000 sq. ft. of storage space, full of enough gear to outfit 13,000 Marines for up to 30 days." U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Matt Lyman].

These facilities are commonly described as "supply caves," and they hold warfighting gear in a state of indefinite readiness, "reserved for any time of crisis or war."

Marines can simply fly in, unlock their respective caves, and grab the keys to one of hundreds, if not thousands, of combat-ready vehicles, all "gassed up and ready to roll in one of the many corridors" of this subterranean empire on the edges of American influence.

Among many other points of interest, the Marines identify six such supply caves in the caption of one image and seven caves in the caption of another, as if—assuming this is not just a minor clerical error—the Marines themselves don't even know how many caves they have.

Instead, there's just Norway, some faraway land of underground voids we've stuffed full of combat gear, like emperors stocking our own tombs in advance of some future demise—the actual number of caves be damned, for who will be left counting at the end of the world?

[Image: "Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacements, High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles and trailers, which belong to Marine Corps Prepositioning Program-Norway are staged in a storage cave at Tromsdal, Norway, Feb. 24, 2014. Marine Corps began storing equipment in several cave sites throughout Norway in the 1980s to counter the Soviets, but the gear is now reserved for any time of crisis or war." U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Sullivan Laramie].

On one level, I'm reminded of Marcus Trimble's old joke that France has been constructing a back-up version of itself in China. It is a frenzied act of "pre-emptive preservation," led by the cultural ministers of that sclerotic nation of well-tended chateaux who realized that la belle France could only survive if they built immediately ready copies of themselves elsewhere.

Only, in France's case, it wasn't willful self-burial in Norwegian caves, but in the real estate free-for-all of urban China. After all, Trimble suggested, that country's "construction industry seems perfect for the task of backing up bricks rather than bits—cheap and powered by the brute force of sheer population. Copies of places may be made in a fraction of the time that it took to create them. If, in the event of a catastrophic episode, the part of France in question could be restored and life would go on as it was before."

[Image: "China: ample space for a spare copy of France"; image by Marcus Trimble].

Militarize this, secret it away in a cave in Scandinavia, and you have something roughly approximately what's called the Marine Corps Prepositioning Program.

However, I was also reminded of a recent paper by Pierre Belanger and Alexander Scott Arroyo at Harvard's GSD. There, Belanger and Arroyo describe the U.S. military as a kind of planetary logistics challenge. (A PDF of their paper is available here courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense).

Specifically, it is the problem of building and often violently maintaining "logistics islands," as Belanger and Arroyo describe them, that now characterizes much of the U.S. military's global behavior, an endless quest for finding and protecting "a secure staging ground adjacent to the theater of operations," in an era when adjacency is increasingly hard to define. As they explain:
While logistical acquisitions are managed by the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), logistical operations in the field are predominantly coordinated by USTRANSCOM. On average, the command oversees almost 2,000 air missions and 10,000 ground shipments per week, with 25 container ships providing active logistical support. From October 2009 through September 2010 alone, USTRANSCOM flew 37,304 airlift missions carrying over 2 million passengers and 852,141 tons of cargo; aerially refueled 13,504 aircraft with 338,856,200 pounds of fuel on 11,859 distinct sorties; and moved nearly 25 million tons of cargo in coordinated sea-land operations. DLA and USTRANSCOM and their civilian partners are responsible for the largest, most widespread, and most diverse sustained logistics operation in history.
The largest, most widespread, and most diverse sustained logistics operation in history.

The obvious and intended resonance here is that military operations perhaps now most closely resemble complicated UPS deliveries than anything like actual ground combat. However, we can also infer from this that establishing new and ever more convenient logistics islands is vital to U.S. national security.

A literal archipelago of shipping hubs is thus key to the country's global military activities, and this not only requires sites like Diego Garcia, which Belanger and Arroyo specifically write about, or even the "mobile offshore bases" they also describe, where the pop-up urbanism of Archigram has been inadvertently realized by the U.S. military, but artificially fortified caves near the Arctic Circle where truly daunting amounts of military materiel are now kept on hand, as if held frozen in some imperial freezer, awaiting the day when global tensions truly heat up.

Read a bit more at War is Boring.

(This is more or less irrelevant, but you might also like Kiln, earlier on BLDGBLOG).

The Future T.B.D.

[Image: The TBD Catalog from the Near Future Laboratory].

The TBD Catalog soon to be published by the Near Future Laboratory is a fictional catalog of possible products, all described and illustrated like mail-order props in some unrealized everyday life of tomorrow.

Part satire, part industrial brainstorm, it's a mix of impractical ideas and thought-provoking future goods, whether that means the absurd weather-sensing hair extensions or (entirely plausible) DIY home-bioluminescence kits.

[Image: The TBD Catalog from the Near Future Laboratory].

The New Future Lab's goal was to "take the things that seemed liminal, the things in the laboratories, in the public media, in science-fiction films, in economic projections and then extrapolate these ideas and prototypes and make them into 'things' in the near future." They sought "to design-develop prototypes and shape embryonic concepts in order to discard them, make them better, reconsider what we may take for granted." To come up with tomorrow's products today.

It is the catalog as speculative literature, or the inventor's notebook as a mode of critical inquiry. Call it counter-production: something that creatively mocks and toys with the idea that we can only experience futurity through the cyclical release and ritual consumption of new commodities.

[Image: The TBD Catalog from the Near Future Laboratory].

The resulting objects, services, home goods, and even new forms of food are not just "hyperbolic perfections," as the authors write, or sleek and empty new corporate products, but "things as they would exist as part of normal, ordinary, everyday life. If you stopped today and [were] transported to the near future, what would the world look like?"

What products would you buy? What services would you rely on? What would sit at home on your shelves?

The group's hope was that, in answering these questions, they might discover—even if only in parody—the outline of the world to come and reveal many of the false assumptions built into a market-based vision of tomorrow.

Along those lines, for example, they posit something called algoriture, or an emergent library of algorithmically-written literature, AI-generated on the fly.

[Image: The TBD Catalog from the Near Future Laboratory].

These are like little machine folktales produced through some narrative averaging of other written works, priced by genre and archetype.

Each text is thus "a guaranteed unique, custom book for you based on books you’ve read and enjoyed—and a matrix of genre specifications you provide. Each book is guaranteed unique and guaranteed enjoyable—or your money back. Only works of fiction. Genres: romance, technothriller, science-fiction, fantasy, thriller, young adult (incl. fairy tale), mystery and more."

[Image: The TBD Catalog from the Near Future Laboratory].

The actual catalog—which begins shipping on September 1, 2014—is "not your near future of superlative Silicon Valley exuberance," they write, "where you happily 3D-print a perfect set of lease-licensed Opinel steak knives or blissfully commute to work in your fascistically sleek Google-powered, chem-battery fueled autonomous vehicles. Nor is this the abysmal near future where you huddle in the smoldering foxholes of apocalyptic ruin. TBD Catalog runs through the middle. It is neither extreme. It is a design fiction about a normal, ordinary everyday near future."

[Images: The TBD Catalog from the Near Future Laboratory].

In the end, the authors write, "A report (or catalog, such as TBD) offers a way to normalize those extraordinary ideas and represent them as entirely ordinary. We imagined it to be a catalog of some sort, as might appear in a street vending box in any neighborhood, or in a pile next to the neighborhood real estate guides or advertising-based classified newspapers near the entrance to your local convenience store."

Consider ordering a copy to see if it has the desired effect.

Buy a Fort

[Image: Screengrab via the BBC].

A maritime fort constructed in the 1860s in the middle of the Thames Estuary is on the market for half a million pounds, or roughly $835,000.

[Image: Screengrab via the BBC].

With its fifteen-foot thick walls and insanely daunting approach—accessible on foot only at low tide and, even then, after a squelching walk across seemingly endless mudflats—it's certainly a good option if you're looking for solitude. Here it is on Google Maps.

[Images: Screengrabs via the BBC].

At first glance, it's an amazing offshore castle, a fairy tale artificial island of 19th-century military Romanticism roughly an hour's boat ride east of London.

[Images: Screengrabs via the BBC].

But don't jump in too quickly, lest you overlook the ruinous state of the place: it needs almost literally everything, from plumbing to electricity, glass windows to the most thorough cleaning you could imagine, having been open to the oceanic elements for decades.

[Image: Screengrab via the BBC].

The BBC has a video of the place, complete with a muddy walk-through and shots at both low and high tide.

[Images: Screengrabs via the BBC].

All negatives aside, though, this looks awesome; convince your billionaire best friend to buy it and we'll turn it into an offshore architecture school with an elective minor in the design of fortified micronations, complete with a bizarre summer school featuring boat-borne reenactments of famous sea battles throughout history...

(Spotted via @subbrit. Previously on BLDGBLOG: Buy a Lighthouse, Buy an Underground Kingdom, Buy a Prison, Buy a Tube Station, Buy an Archipelago, Buy a Map, Buy a Torpedo-Testing Facility, Buy a Silk Mill, Buy a Fort, Buy a Church).