Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Cheapside Hoard

A portion of the Cheapside Hoard, via Coutts

Almost a century ago, workmen were demolishing an old building in London’s Cheapside neighbourhood when they made an extraordinary discovery in the cellars.  Buried there for almost 400 years was a case of some 500 gems and jewellery items.

“The Hoard is the finest collection of Elizabethan and Jacobean jewellery in the world,” says Forsyth [senior curator at the Museum of London]. And emphasising its importance, she says, “It’s probably the most remarkable find ever recovered from British soil.”

There are garnets from India, emeralds from Columbia, turquoise from Iran - the most astonishing array of precious and semi-precious stones from around the world. A beautiful deep red cut almandine garnet was, I’m told, tied to the forehead and used as a cure for melancholy. A small mottled brown, grey stone looks like a polished acorn cup. This is one of 14 toadstones and is from a fossilised fish tooth and approximately 150 million years old. At the time people thought they came from toads and would kill them to extract the stone, which was believed to be an antidote to poison.

In all, there is a dizzying range of precious items in the collection.  But this wasn’t the collection of a monarch or aristocrat, it appears to be a working jeweller’s stock: Cheapside was, amongst other trades, the centre for London’s gold-smithing - indeed there is a street in the area called Goldsmith Row (along with Bread and Poultry streets) – and the hoard has many pieces that appear to still be in progress.  Just how much stock did jewellers in Tudor London keep if they could manage to just misplace such a large cache?  And what were they all doing to keep their stores secure?

The other surprise is that although almost all of the hoard is in the Museum of London, it isn’t on display.  Instead it sits in storage within the museum’s strong room, “in small foam-packed clear plastic boxes”.  And so, like the Cheapside gold smiths, one wonders how many frighteningly valuable treasures Europe’s museums are in possession of that they can afford to keep treasures like this in storage.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The sewer divers of Mexico City

Via Edible Geography, stills from a National Geographic video.  Carlos Barrios is lowered into the murky depths

Mexico City has the extraordinary history of being built, essentially, on top of a lake.  The water feeding into it was drained away by the Conquistadors (the better to invade Tenochtitlan) and the modern city gradually grew in its place.  But the city is gradually sinking and as a result some of the city’s 650 kilometres of sewers no longer drain as effectively as they should.  They are terribly prone to clogging and with seasonal thunderstorms that means flooding.

Keeping these floods under control means keeping the sewer pumps free of blockages, and to do that they have a team of divers.  Their job is to go into the sewers while the pumps are still running, find the material that’s causing the problem, and remove it.  Generally that’s just rubbish that’s been swept up off the streets, but as a Washington Post article mentioned it could also be something much worse:

At least there were no human bodies today, like the two he found floating by recently.

He never found out who they were, because they were carried off in the flowing waters. The police were not called. The divers, who periodically encounter bodies because sewers are popular spots for dumping murder victims, only call police when they bring a body to the surface.

The cage lowers into the filth.

I imagine that it takes a special kind of person to do this work; apart from the filthy conditions, apart from the occasional encounter with dead bodies, the water is so dark and polluted that they can’t even see.  They inch their way through the sewers feeling ahead of them until they reach the blockage that will typically be up against the blades of a pump that’s still running and start reaching around to try to dislodge it.

We’d love to be able to see down there, but the water is so dirty and it’s got so many particles in it that the light reflects off everything and bounces on your eyes and you still can’t see. Eight hundred watts—one thousand watts even—and I can’t even see my own hand in front of my face. Apart from something that could help me see down there, I can’t think of anything. Fancy things like a robot or a submarine wouldn’t really help with the kinds of things I do. And we’d still be in the same situation: we can’t see anything down there, so we have to feel it

(From Edible Geography)

It is a fabulous scenario for a horror game – who knows what could be hiding down there? – but it’s got me thinking about a fantasy version.  Underground locations are commonplace; underwater locations are much less common but there are some; I can’t think of much at all by the way of games that have combined the two.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The tunnels of Chicago

Artificial caverns under Chicago.  Image via BLDGBLOG and Tunneling Online

Big cities produce, and need, big infrastructure.  Chicago is built in a location that has significant problems with flooding, and in response the city has been building a huge network of storm-drains and sewers at a grand scale.  The TARP (Tunnels and Reservoir Program) project has now built a little over 100 miles of tunnels under the city, varying in width from 8 to 35 feet wide, ultimately leading to reservoirs that will contain billions of gallons of fluids.  And in addition to this, some of the tunnels connect back into a further 60 miles of freight tunnels.

The idea of the “megadungeon” has made something of a return to respectability, but in my mind there is still that nagging doubt about how exactly a largely underground location would come about.  Projects like this suggest a potential origin story – they are remnants of an advanced former civilization.  Post some ancient apocalypse, the city is gone, but its hidden bones remain.

If you think about the areas that have typically been called a “megadungeon”, they will hardly scratch the surface of the monumental scale of a project like this.  Beyond the simple number of 106 miles of tunnels, consider the number of access points or connections back to the service that the system must have as well.  Imagine a tunnel that you would take a day to travel down, and that you could march along it 6 abreast.  Or reservoirs with volumes measured in the hundreds of millions of cubic feet (imagine a cube 300’ x 300’ x 300’, that’s the kind of volume we’re talking about).

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Altneuschul, Prague – origin of the Golem

via Atlas Obscura

The Altneuschul – literally the “Old New Synagogue” – has a host of stories around it.  Built in Praguue in 1270 AD, it is the oldest surviving Synagogue in Europe.  But as old as it is, it has some claims on being older still, as there is a tradition that believes it contains stones taken from the Temple of Jerusalem.  That would put it in a tradition that stretches back to King Solomon.

But it is most famous for the story of the Golem.  In 1580, so the story goes, in order to protect the Jewish people in the ghettos of Prague from attacks, rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel built a clay statue that he brought to life.  The golem then defended the people from their enemies, before turning so violent that it had to be stopped.  According to this story, the golem remains in the attic of the synagogue.  Sadly, the story doesn’t have as old a history as the building itself, and likely originated in the 19th century.

The building has that powerful pull on the imagination of the very old.  Not only is it more than 700 years old, but it may indeed embody components that are far older still.  There is also something interesting about the story of the golem in that it is created to protect the community (even if it eventually goes off the rails).  I can’t think of a game that I’ve seen where the outcome was “let’s build some sort of magical protector” rather than just wading in and doing all the killing yourself.  Indeed, if something like a golem showed up, it’s an adversary to deal with rather than something to create for a role.  Is that the fault of the game, or the gamers?  I think a bit of both.

Mobile re-education facility?

Mobile Cinema, newly reconditioned and fresh off the lot in 1967, via BLDGBLOG

This mobile cinema – essentially a big home theatre setup in a bus – just shouts “Doctor Who” to me.  Especially that second, older image with the extra signage “Ministry of Technology” and “Operated by PERA”, and the black-suited men being lead into the van by the white-lab-coated operator (and notice the second operator in the glass dome at the front).

Alternatively, there’s something about it that also resonates with Lovecraft’s Nyarlathotep, the image of Nyarlathotep as a kind of travelling showman whose shows are more than they might appear.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Mind-controlling parasites

Whether just intestinal worms or gut-tearing aliens, parasites are already a creepy thought.  The idea that something will use your body as a host to live and breed in is something that most people don’t like to think about.  And the fact that so many of these organisms are specifically targeting their host species and so are searching them out gives them an air of malice.  It turns out that matters could be far worse – there are many examples of parasites that will seize control of their host, attacking its brain and causing it to do things that it wouldn’t ordinarily do, in the interests of its parasitic master.
For example, there are many species of wasp that lay parasitic eggs, but one variety of Hymenoepimecis wasp works a little differently.  The wasp egg is attached to the back of an orb spider which carries on being a spider – for now.  At some point, the larva decides that it wants a cocoon, and it starts injecting chemicals into its host.  Now the spider builds a very different web and sits still in the middle.  The larva emerges, devours the spider and uses the web to finish building its cocoon.
There are many other examples of mind-controlling insects (another favourite is the flatworm Leucochloridium paradoxum), but I was surprised to learn about fungi that also take over their hosts brains.
David Attenborough’s voice is so calming as he talks about a fungus that controls a species of ant.
The Cordyceps genus of fungus are all parasites, but there are some species that go beyond just infecting their hosts and will modify their behaviour.  One attacks the bullet ant, infecting its brain and causing it to seek out a spot that suits the fungus.  The ant grabs hold of a twig to stabilise itself, and the fungus grows out of the ants head to spread spores over more ants in the nest.
It turns out that this adaptation is very old.  There is evidence from as far back as 48 million years ago of ants exhibiting this characteristic behaviour.
For some more mind-controlling parasites, take a look at these lists of examples.
Hmm, an “Invasion of the body snatchers” scenario immediately suggests itself.  Or perhaps a colony of insects commanded by a fungus that took control of their queen?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A 13-storey house of wood

image via Inhabitat

Built in the northern Russian city of Archangelsk, this enormous wooden tower was originally going to be a simple two-storey house.  For one reason or another, over the course of 15 years owner Nikolai Sutyagin continued to add level after level until it reached a height 144 feet.  In 2008 authorities finally stepped in -– he had no building permit for a structure like this -– and declared it needed to be removed as a fire hazard.

The wild structure of this building is very compelling, the shapes all seem familiar, but are extended to absurd dimensions.  And the way that the pieces aren’t perfectly finished -- the way that the central tower bends perilously one way and then the other, for example – certainly emphasizes the impression that not all is well in such a place.

And why not have the same wildness on the interior of the building as well?  Not just that level one joins to level two joins to level three, but a three dimensional labyrinth.  In a typical “dungeon” going deeper means moving to the next stage of the adventure; perhaps in this building the levels are not layered one on top of the other, but one within another like a Matryoshka doll.

As to why someone would build something like this, at the end of the Atlas Obscura entry there is a mention that he may have built it for his betrothed.  Personally, I was taken with the idea that it wasn’t built by anyone per se, but that the house itself was somehow responsible.  Even better, put those two ideas together – someone built a magical house for their beloved so that they can always have a house around them, one that can repair itself and perhaps grow to accommodate their needs; but something is wrong and from a simple cottage it grew into this rambling tower.  Perhaps, deep inside, that original cottage is still there?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The bleeding glacier

blood falls Photo by Peter Rejcek, from

The Taylor Glacier in Antartica’s dry valleys sports a blood-red waterfall some five storeys tall.  As described at Atlas Obscura, the source is a lake that was trapped by the ice some 2 million years ago.  The lake’s water is very saline, which I presume is why it didn’t freeze, and rich in iron, which produces the striking colour.  The falls are the result of a fissure in the glacier, which allows the water to ooze out.  And perhaps most incredible of all, the lake is host to a colony of microbes still living there, without light, without (much) heat, isolated from the rest of the world for all that time.

The image of a glacier in a frozen landscape oozing blood is tremendously evocative.  Imagine in a place where the predominant colours are white, black, and grey, suddenly against a huge chalk-coloured wall of ice there is a brilliant red gash.  Equally evocative is the idea of a glacier as something that can keep something hidden for millions of years, literally for so long that there is no record or memory of it being there.

There are obvious connections to H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, or to movies like The Thing (based off John Campbell’s 1938 novella Who goes there?).  In each of these, something has ended up covered by ice by more-or-less accidental circumstances, what if something was deliberately sealed beneath a glacier?  In a fantasy setting, could some ancient creature or culture be deemed so wicked or dangerous that magical or divine powers bury it under the ice?  Now the ice thins and a danger long forgotten returns once more – would you need to find means to defeat it, or to replace the ice over it and bury it once again?

Monday, September 6, 2010

And when I say game …

My own game of choice is role-playing games, and that’s a field that presents a problem that’s somewhat unique – whether as a player or an organiser, you actually have to come up with ideas for your own games.  When you think about it, that’s quite a taxing project; in some ways it’s surprising that the concept took flight and managed to become as popular as it did.  Many people think improv theatre is fun to watch, but many fewer would be prepared to be on-stage themselves, yet that is almost what role-playing games asks them to do.

So the question then becomes how can you produce enough interesting ideas?  I recall hearing once that savants (aka “lightning calculators”) weren’t actually working out the answers when you ask them, they were constantly performing calculation after calculation, and then recollecting the answer when you ask.  And the book Talent is Overrated makes the case that becoming good at something really is largely a function of practising it (albeit practising “the right way”), rather than a question of innate talents.  Perhaps then by creating a stockpile of ideas and practising playing around with them – combining, extending, changing them – we can learn to become creative geniuses.  Or at least amusing people to spend an evening with.

The obligatory introductory post

In 1989, at a small company called DNA Design, some animators were fooling around with some simple walking characters.  They made a little demo animation of them getting crushed, mashed, and zapped.  One of the other programmers laughed and said "There's a game in that", and a little more than a year later they released "Lemmings".

The world is full of intriguing ideas that, like those animated walkers, could start people thinking and creating new ideas of their own.  They can come from artists, historians, architects, or scientists. This is a collection of some that have caught my eye and that made me think "there's a game in that".