Sunday, October 31, 2010

Deduction or suggestion?

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, one character admits to stealing some money.  Her mother defends her by suggesting that she may have been fooled into confessing to something she didn’t do:

My dear doctor, you know what girls are nowadays.  So easily acted on by suggestion.  You, of course, know all about hypnosis and that sort of thing.  The inspector shouts at her, says the word ‘steal’ over and over again, until the poor child gets an inhibition – or is it a complex? – and actually thinks herself that she has stolen the money.

Which made me think: what if this was actually how Poirot was ‘solving’ all these crimes?  Not by deduction, but by suggestion.  Further, what if he was in fact committing them?  After all, he always seems to be on the scene, in the hotel, on the train, when the murder happens.  He commits the murders and then, with his skills in psychology and persuasion, he brainwashes or hypnotizes people into confessing to the crimes.  He speaks with such authority and such clear logic, the pieces all fit and there can be no other explanation; I rise to my feet and say “Yes, I killed him”.

Innocent confessions are a real problem, there have been a number of people who have confessed to crimes that they didn’t commit.  Part of the reason for this is that the playing field is not equal, the police have training in the psychology of interrogation that the average person does not.  This article describes the process that is commonly used for an interrogation, the combination of psychological tactics that are used to draw a confession from a suspect.

The techniques are similar to those used in brainwashing, and there are several documented cases of these techniques convincing vulnerable people to confess to crimes they had nothing to do with.  If this is possible from psychology alone, would it not be even more potent in a world with magic?

Rounding this thought out, in the final Hercule Poirot story, Curtain, Poirot is not investigating a murder, but trying to prevent one from happening.  Suppose that our detective is not himself the evil soul but is possessed by one.  Within him there is a terrible conflict, and with a great effort he is able to reach out to the characters and ask them to help him prevent a murder.  The effort leaves him invalided in hospital, where he is scarcely able to help or hinder them.  It is up to the characters to learn that he meant the murders he himself would commit, and to decide how to resolve this problem.

The London Wonderground map

The Wonderground map, much larger version here.

In 1914, the artist Macdonald Gill was commissioned to design a new map of central London and the public transport running through it.  The map had an extra job to do, promoting the tube outside of just commuting to work:

[Frank Pick, marketing manager for the underground] saw the importance of turning the firm’s loosely connected routes into an integrated transport system, making it, and by extension the city, a comprehensible entity, while simultaneously using the power of suggestion (new places to see…new things to do) to generate increased ridership in off-peak hours, holidays and weekends.

[Elisabeth Burdon from the Antiquarian Booksellers Association]

Gill’s map is a fanciful, fairy-tale version of London.  He styled it after medieval maps, with vivid colours, cartoonish little buildings lining the streets, and an assortment of playful characters sprinkled throughout the city.

Wonderground Sample 1

This sample shows Buckingham Palace (top left) and the Houses of Parliament (by the Thames).  The three red buildings that look a little like circus tents are tube stations.  In the bottom left corner someone is hauling on a railway switch; towards the top someone is feeding ducks in St James’ Park; there may be a couple of other figures in the centre, but I can’t make out what they are doing.

The map’s little cartoons includes groan inducing puns such as this one around Earl’s Court:

Wonderground Sample 2

Or these two characters in the Zoo:

Wonderground Sample 3

One is saying “Dear Giraffe, here is a bun”, the other says “Dear Tom, do you not see that he is fed up?”.  Get it, a giraffe, fed up?  Ho ho ho.  On the scroll appears to be William Blake’s poem “The Tiger”, or at least a sample from it.  There are many other snippets of poems or songs on the map, including (I believe) one from supernatural story author Algernon Blackwood.

Among the jokes are some little pictures that are rather odd.  Here is one from the area around Hyde Park:

Wonderground Sample 4

‘The Serpentine’ is the name of the lake that divides Hyde Park from Kensington Gardens, here has a dragon emerge from it and chase people out of the park.  But what’s that hanged man above the dragon’s head?  He seems to be saying something about going “when my neck gives out”.

This version of the map only lasted a couple of years, but it influenced similar maps in many other cities.  Sydney produced one for the opening of the Harbour Bridge, Boston, Manhattan, and Philadelphia each had maps in a similar style, as did Chicago and Mexico City.

Its later replacement, the 1933 London Underground map, is one of the world’s great iconic images.  Henry Beck’s notion to remove all detail from it produced a map uniquely suited to answering questions like “how do I get from Shepherd’s Bush to Highgate”?

The 1933 map, from Alan Gryfe’s collection

The Wonderground map is better suited for the question “Do I want to go to Highgate or to Shepherd’s Bush?”  Where the London of the 1933 map is all about efficient people in pinstripe suits and bowler hats getting from A to B, the Wonderground London is full of possibilities and stories.

So here’s a reminder that there are two things that a map may do in a game: tell the characters how they may get to a place, and suggest places that they may want to go.  And further than that, what if the cartoons on a map like the Wonderground were actually clues of something happening, what if they depicted a second esoteric London that was happening alongside work-a-day London?  What if an Earl was caught at Earl’s Court?  Perhaps someone may have acted as judge, jury, and executioner in place of a court?  And likewise with the hanged man and Serpentine dragon?

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Mercer & Fonthill Museums

The Mercer and Fonthill Museums were started by the historian Henry Mercer at the start of the 20th century to collect examples of handmade items and crafts that were dying out after the Industrial Revolution.  He collected over 30,000 pieces and, in order to display them all, built a museum to house them in.

But this was no ordinary museum: in 1916 he built a 6 storey tall castle out of concrete.  Indeed, he had earlier built a smaller one as his home (which became the Fonthill museum)

View from the street; larger version here.

Opposite side; larger version here.

Apart from being a huge manor house filled with a strange collection all from a single determined collector, which I hope sounds intriguing enough for someone to start building a game, the museum has a second appeal.  The museum’s guide book includes floor plans: with just a little editing, these could be used to create maps for this museum/castle location.

Gothic revival houses

It might not quite be Miskatonic University, but the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth does have a collection of issues of the 19th century magazine American Architect and Building News.  From that they have made a special collection of examples of drawings and floor plans of house and building designs.

These could be very useful images, both because the simple ink drawings are very atmospheric and also because the floor plans do most of the work of providing a map to use.  Print out large versions of them, touching up the diagrams, and start adding your story.

A pair of large houses, via UMass Dartmouth

All of the designs are examples of Gothic Revival architecture, and specifically they are stick style, meaning that they resemble half-timbered Tudor buildings.

As old and romantic as they look, these are not the kinds of buildings that Lovecraft is forever talking about (in The Dunwich Horror, for example).  Those houses are generally the starker, simpler Colonial style, the “gambrel roofs” that feature so prominently being the arched roofs you would see on a Dutch barn.  These designs are more recent than them, and are harking back to an even earlier time.

But if the colonial houses suggest the decay of isolated, impoverished people, the Gothic style suggests the madness of excess and indulgence.

Two more houses from the UMass

Apart from the numerous large homes, the collection has several other kinds of buildings, ranging from small cottages, various public buildings (fire stations, train stations, churches), and even a couple of asylums.

A cottage and an asylum, each from the UMass collection

Monday, October 25, 2010

Buyer beware – part 3

Following on from the first two parts, our third house that gave the new owners more than they bargained for.  In the 1960s, Helen and George Ackley bought a large Victorian house in Nyack, NY.

The house in Nyack, photo via Atlas Obscura

Over the years, the Ackleys find that the house is haunted, but it doesn’t bother them too greatly.  Around 1990, the Ackleys decide to sell the house, but neglect to advertise any stories of ghosts.  After all, nobody had mentioned it to them.

It turns out that their buyer felt differently.  With their $32,000 deposit in escrow, they hear from a local architect “Oh, you’re buying the haunted house”.  They turn around and remove their offer, and then start legal proceedings to regain their deposit.  In what became known as “the Ghostbusters trial”, the courts agreed with them finding that, in the absence of some reasonable way for it to be found during house inspections, the owners were obligated to divulge the presence of a ghost.

Although, really, how could this home not be haunted?  Reviewing the facts:

  1. It’s a 5,000 square foot rambling Victorian house with three full levels, basement, and attic.
  2. It’s on a dead-end street.
  3. It’s on the banks of the Hudson River, and not far from Sleepy Hollow.

A nice setup for a light-hearted Ghostbusters game: the team are reduced to doing pre-purchase home inspections with Egon’s latest device that both takes PKE readings and detects rising damp, when one house shows up something unexpected.

Alternatively, some one has bought a haunted house and starts legal proceedings against the people that were involved in the sale.  The players take the roles of the real-estate agents, lawyers, architects, engineers and the like who are defending the case and find themselves drawn into a situation far stranger than they expected.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Buyer beware – part 2

Carrying on with this little series on houses that packed a surprise for the new owner, we now move our attention to Greenville, South Carolina.  There, the Brown family bought an old mill home that, like our previous example, harboured a secret, but this time it was one that posed a very real danger to them.

Shortly after moving in, they discovered that behind a bookcase was a “secret room”:

and what was inside was a nightmare beyond their wildest dreams.

"This can't be happening. This can't be true. It terrified me," Kerri Brown told News 4's Tim Waller.

The secret room … contained a handwritten letter from the previous owner titled, "You Found It!"

"Hello. If you're reading this, then you found the secret room. I owned this house for a short while and it was discovered to have a serious mold problem. One that actually made my children very sick to the point that we had to move out,"

The Browns later learned the home contained the worst types of mold including Stachybotrys, the so-called Toxic Black Mold.

[from the news report on the story]

Moulds like Stachybotrys can cause a variety of lung problems, from asthma attacks to bleeding in the lungs.  The previous owners had learned about the mould problems the hard way: their kids became so sick that their doctors told them to leave the house.  Realising that nobody would buy the house with this problem (fixing it would cost almost as much as the house did itself), they hid it as best they could and put it on the market.  But then their conscience pricks up and says, “no, this is not cool”; not strongly enough, it seems to actually own up to the problem, but enough to put in a note saying what the problem was.

This story strikes me as being tremendously creepy; although the problem was found quickly, there was certainly the possibility that they could have missed this message and lived there for years with the mould multiplying behind the makeshift wall.  Over time, they grow sicker and sicker, perhaps only later discovering the source of their problems and the letter (itself now covered in mould).  That reminds me of Lovecraft’s The color out of space.

Using this device in a game seems a little tricky, as it is a protracted process.  Perhaps it would need to involve an NPC, somebody that the players interact with regularly and that goes through a steady decline over time.  At first, he is wheezy and mentions that he can’t shift his cold, but his wife tells him to stop his whining and says he’s always been a complainer, so it just seems to be part of his “flavour text”.  He gets a little worse and becomes bed-ridden, but he’s still being a little theatrical about it.  Gradually, it becomes clear that this is no hypochondriac and he is genuinely declining.  Would the players find what the cause was?  If they didn’t find it in time to save their friend, when they do find it what do they do next, seek revenge?

Alternatively, for a Cthulhu setting, some of the players take up some lodging in a large house, renting a room there.  The owner is a sickly chap with a rasping wheeze, and another tenant is sick too.  Perhaps they learn that most tenants don’t hang around too long, and more than one has died (which wouldn’t be so strange in the classic era; back then, TB still has no cure and it’s only a short time after the 1918 flu pandemic).  Eventually they might find the secret room with its infected walls; in the Lovecraft world, I suppose that it could do with some kind of shrine or something too.  Now, who put this there: a previous owner? a previous tenant? or a current one?

Buyer beware – part 1

Ahh, late October, that means Halloween is fast approaching.  Or at least it does back in the States - here in Australia we don’t bother with that annual festival of costumes and confectionary, try as the supermarkets might to convince us that we should.  Here, October is Spring and is the start of the busiest time for the real-estate market: the sunny weather makes even a dump look good, and weather that’s neither hot nor cold mean people don’t notice that the house is poorly built.

Putting those two ideas together, here’s a trio of houses that had a little surprise for their new owners.

First, we travel to Shropshire, UK, where after a few drinks a family decided to start exploring some more of their house.  Their 20 year old son lifts a grate in the floor and climbs in to see what he can see.

The unassuming house, photos via newslite

And under there he finds that the entire house was built on top of an earlier structure: a hall that dates back to the 1700s and may have been a clandestine church.

What lies beneath, photo via newslite

The hall was empty apart from some piles of old newspapers and wine bottles, and what appeared to be a wooden crucifix lying on the floor.  And as surprising as that was:

… that was nothing compared the the shock the rest of the family got when he followed a staircase in the chapel and came out of a cupboard in the dining room.

A hidden church and a secret passage, I suppose in real-estate speak that would be a “bonus room”.  It’s Rats in the walls all over again.

The comments on the article mention that this isn’t unheard of across the UK and that at various times in their history it’s been illegal, or at least dangerous, to be a Catholic or a Protestant (depending on who was in charge), or to be Irish, or to learn to speak Gaelic.  So secret churches, meeting halls, or schools were built across the British isles, and priests or teachers would travel from town to town in disguise.

That sounds like an interesting scenario for a game, the characters are part of an underground religious (or political) group, travelling from place to place representing their faith in a land dominated by some oppressive regime.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Antibiotic beer

While recovering from a cold, I recalled reading that Ancient Nubians brewed antibiotic beer:

A chemical analysis of the bones of ancient Nubians shows that they were regularly consuming tetracycline, most likely in their beer. The finding is the strongest evidence yet that the art of making antibiotics, which officially dates to the discovery of penicillin in 1928, was common practice nearly 2,000 years ago.

“We tend to associate drugs that cure diseases with modern medicine,” Armelagos says. “But it’s becoming increasingly clear that this prehistoric population was using empirical evidence to develop therapeutic agents. I have no doubt that they knew what they were doing.”

Even the tibia and skull belonging to a 4-year-old were full of tetracycline, suggesting that they were giving high doses to the child to try and cure him of illness, Nelson says.

Essentially the research says that these ancient Africans knew how to produce an antibiotic that was only rediscovered in the 1940s.  I think that makes a nice variation on the usual “potion of healing”, and is something of a double-edged sword: it can help cure sick characters, but at the cost of getting them drunk.  Or what if all these potions are just charlatanry and potions of healing, curing, courage, strength etc are just flasks of brandy?  They pop the cork, take a big draught and think “Yes, I do feel stronger”.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Sprawling monastery and gigantic caverns, part 2.

In part 1 I described the hillside cave-monastery of Vardzia in the eastern European country of Georgia.  Now let’s turn our attention to the second part of the title, the vast cave complex of Krubera (aka Voronya).

The Krubera caves are the deepest yet found (depth measured from the cave entrance rather than against sea-level).  At its lowest point it is 2,191m below its sole entrance, making it the only known cave beyond the 2000m mark, and the total extent of the caves is over 13km.  It was only discovered in 1960 and the initial explorations only descended 60m

Since 2001 teams from the Call of the Abyss project have explored the caves out to their current extent and to do so they need to treat the caves the way alpinists treat mountains.  From the BBC's article on the 2004, 56-member team expedition:

Carrying about five tonnes of equipment, they had to negotiate vertical drops and freezing torrents of water. They were also forced to blast rubble from passages that were critically narrowed or blocked by "boulder chokes".

They set camps at depths of 700m, 1,215m, 1,410m and 1,640m, where they cooked meals, slept up to six people to a tent and worked for up to 20 hours at a stretch.

The cavers kept in touch with the surface base camp by rigging nearly 3km (two miles) of rope strung with a telephone wire.

The level of organisation that these teams have is something that no game I’ve been part of has ever considered.  I also think that it’s interesting to see how many repeated visits the teams make.  They don’t simply go the once, look around, and declare the job’s done; in these huge and complicated environments they make visit after visit, exploring places that they’ve already been to see if they missed opportunities to reach even further and newer sections of the cave.  They spend weeks at a time underground using a variety of techniques to map the area, including using coloured dyes to determine how the water flows through the caves (put purple dye in a stream, and if you don’t see the purple in other parts of the cave, you know the stream is going somewhere else).

Now, the reason that I linked posting these caves and the Vardzia monastery together wasn’t just because they are both in Georgia, but because I first read about each of them in a terrific post on the “architectural speculation” blog BLDGBLOG.  That post was what really put the idea of a blog like this in my head, when towards the end he mentions that there is no connection between the monastery and the caves, but:

… how exciting would it be to discover that Vardzia had, in fact, been constructed as a kind of architectural filter above the stovepipe-like opening of a titanic cave system, and that, 800 years ago, monks alone in the mountains reading books about the end of the world might have sat there, surrounded by fading frescoes of saints and dragons, looking into the mouth of the abyss, perhaps even in their own local twist on millennial Christianity standing guard over something they believed to be hiding far below

I won’t steal any more of his thunder, but in the paragraph after this he throws out an idea that I sincerely hope someone turns into a game.  Enough said, go see for yourself.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The goliath tigerfish

Angler Jeremy Wade, photo from the Daily Mail.

[I suspect that this photo is actually a little deceptive, that it’s using a fish-eye (no pun intended) lens that exaggerates the size of the mouth.  But, then, we are talking about games where we suppose magic and dragons to be real …]

The goliath tigerfish is found in remote sections of the Congo.  Tigerfish are known for their aggressive feeding, behaving much like we think of piranha.  The goliath variety marry that ferocious nature with prodigious size.  Jeremy Wade, host of River Monsters, spent eight days to catch this example, reportedly 1.5m long and weighing almost 50kg.

Photo from the Daily Mail.

Fish are a little underutilised in games, probably because we breath air rather than water.  Big fish in the river? get out of the river; big bear in the forest? better get ready to fight.  Many of the species depicted on River Monsters should encourage us to right that balance.

Sprawling monastery and gigantic caverns.

The eastern European country of Georgia is home to a pair of remarkable places: the Krubera Cave, the deepest caves in the world, and the hillside monastery of Vardzia.  Vardzia was originally both built into a hillside, digging caves into the rock, and built out alongside the rock-face.  It was devastated by an earthquake that destroyed most of the external structure, but exposed the structure within.

Photos via wikipedia

The wikipedia entry claims that the monastery would have been 6,000 rooms spread across 13 levels; even now there are still some 300 rooms.

I really like the three-dimensional quality of the layout too: there are levels and partial levels, there are stairs that skip a whole (or multilple) levels, there appear to be many vertical connections as well as lateral.

Notice too that many of the stairs end right where the next begin, in contrast to so many dungeon maps where having arrived at one level you must search for the entrance to the next.  It’s also interesting that the building stretches a long way across and up the hillside, but not very far into it.  In all this layout, very tall and narrow, is quite different to the shallower, broader maps of my youth.

Photo via Wikipedia

Lest these images fool us into thinking that the monastery was a primitive one, let’s finish with some showing remnants of the fine stonework and mosaics that once covered this whole structure.


All images via wikipedia

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mass Observation

Imagine an organisation that covertly photographs and records the conversations of people across the nation, but it’s not the Stasi.  Imagine people documenting the minutia of their day in great detail and sharing it with strangers, but it’s not Twitter.  Imagine that this is all being run by volunteers on a shoe-string budget in 1930s Britain, and you have Mass Observation, “the anthropology of ourselves”.

Mass Observation was a project started in Britain just after the Depression by the unlikely trio of an anthropologist, a film-maker, and a poet.  All three had an interest in uncovering a British culture other than the one transmitted down from traditional authority.  To do this, they proposed to found a new science of observing people as they were in their day-to-day lives.

The data collected would enable the organizers to plot “weather-maps of public feeling.” As a matter of principle, Mass-Observers did not distinguish themselves from the people they studied. They intended merely to expose facts “in simple terms to all observers, so that their environment may be understood, and thus constantly transformed.”

[Caleb Crain, Surveillance Society, The New Yorker]

Starting with nothing but big (and nebulous) plans and high ideals, and with no funding but the money in their own pockets, the trio managed to build a network of correspondents (or “observers”) who would both keep minutely detailed diaries and respond to questionnaires on all manner of subjects.

[B]etween 1937 and 1945 hundreds of people mailed in regular reports of their daily lives. They came from all backgrounds, though young unmarried clerks and schoolteachers were especially well represented. No detail was too trivial. Mass-Observation studied which end of a cigarette people tap before lighting it (fifty-two per cent tap the end they put in their mouths), the nature of women’s revenge fantasies in wartime (cut Hitler into slices for pie; saw off his ankles, sharpen his shins into stakes, and pound him into the earth with a big saucepan), and the number of outdoor copulations on a typical night in the working-class vacation town of Blackpool (four, including one in which an observer participated).

[Caleb Crain in The New Yorker again]

This mass of observing lead to a series of books published on a variety of unusual topics.  The first, May the Twelfth, documented the day of George VI’s coronation with details ranging from an usher at the service smoking to a prostitute soliciting one of the “observers” at the Euston train station.  During the war, they produce The Pub and the People about the activity in the pubs of the northern industrial city of Bolton: we learn that during “a single Thursday night, pubgoers drink, on average, 3.16 pints of beer; on a Saturday, the average goes up to 3.45 pints”.

These books must make for a terrific resource for playing something like Call of Cthulhu in a 30s British setting.  The other fascinating aspect is this trio of characters who manage to arrange this network of informants and mass of data out of nothing.  Essentially they gathered their informants with their own charisma, convincing people that this was a good idea.  I imagine them as something like a benign version of Sax Rohmer’s Dr Fu Manchu, or a sane Mr Wilde from Robert Chamber’s The Repairer of Reputations.

And why not have an organisation like this that isn’t the arch nemesis.  Perhaps they are shadowy, gathering information in secret, but actually with good (albeit confused) motives.  Perhaps rather than being Cthulhu cultists, they are stumbling on evidence of the cult and its activities, but haven’t yet put all the pieces together.

The sub-surface skyscraper

Open-cut mines dig massive, massive holes out of the earth, leaving behind the problem of how you go about remediating the site once the mine is spent.  Washington University in St Louis student Matthew Fromboluti designed Above Below, a brilliant proposal to take Arizona’s 900 feet deep Lavender Pit Mine:

The empty mine, via evolo.

And build within it an “inverse sky-scraper” as a self-sustaining underground building.

The interior and the surface of Above Below, via evolo.

The holes on the surface allow light to reach the lower levels, while the central column allows warm air to escape from the structure, driving wind turbines near the top.  The lowest level acts as a reservoir to collect rainwater.

Schematic of the interior, again from evolo.

The pictures don’t really suggest how vast this would be.  At 900 feet (274m) deep, that central tower would be the height of a 60-storey building.  The surface covers 300 acres, which is roughly a kilometre wide square.

While the design looks immediately useful as a futuristic location, this had me thinking about that old fantasy trope of dwarves living in mines.  That almost always seems to mean rickety deep mine shafts, but this offers an alternative model.  And the damage to the surface that digging out such a large structure makes could be the cause of enmity between these miners and woodland elves: the dwarves as hard-headed business men, the elves as eco-terrorists.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Avrocar: attack vehicle of the retro-future

The Avrocar prototype on a test flight; photo via Wikipedia.

The Avrocar, the USAF’s experimental “flying pancake” aircraft, is a pretty familiar image these days.  Shaped like an upturned saucer wrapped around an enormous fan, this was only intended to be a proof-of-concept design built in readiness for a full scale attack aircraft capable of an estimated Mach 3.5 at an altitude of 30,000m – “Project 1794”, or “Weapon System 606a”.  Sadly the Avrocar never even reached its own targets of 300mph and a service ceiling of 3000m; the best it managed was 35mph at a height of only 1m.

But more than what it was, I love this image from the company’s promotional literature of what it could be: flying jeeps armed with rocket launchers that look suspiciously like cigarette holders.

Just the thing for golden-age Doctor Who or James Bond games: squadrons of Avrocars backed up by mighty supersonic disks capable of outflying conventional aircraft.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Maps and deliberate errors

BLDGBLOG recently mentioned a feature that some commercial maps use to protect their intellectual property: trap streets, “deliberate cartographic errors introduced into a map so as to catch acts of copyright infringement by rival firms”.

In other words, if a competitor's map includes your "trap street"—a geographic feature that you've simply invented—then you (and your lawyers) will know they nicked your data, gave it a quick redesign and tried to pass it off as their own.

But this strategy of wilful cartographic deception is not always limited to streets: there can be trap parks, trap ponds, trap buildings.

What other circumstances might someone have used a technique like this?  Imagine an earlier age where accurate maps are difficult to make and would be very valuable information both to a state and its enemies.  So the canny vizier inserts some bogus features – a lake, a mountain pass, a village - that act as a kind of watermark.  Now people heard asking for directions to Fictionville come to the attention of the intelligentsia, who would want to know how they came into possession of their map.

On a related note, there are other ways that a bogus feature can appear on a map, both accidental and as a prank.  A fine example of a prank was Beatosu and Goblu, OH, each an invention of Peter Fletcher, then chairman of the Michigan State Highway Commission.  Mr Fletcher was an alumnus of the University of Michigan and inserted the two fictitious Ohio towns into the Michigan highway maps as a retort to a friend from Michigan State University.  The towns’ names were contractions of “Go Blue” and “Beat OSU” (as in Ohio State University).

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Will Insley’s ONECITY

Image from ONECITY, via the nonist

Will Insley is (was?) an artist, architect, and engineer.  These images were taken from a collection of his that were exhibited back in the early 80s at the Guggenheim.  As the NYT reported at the time:

“ONECITY,” the chief project in the show, has, the artist says, “very little to do with advanced planning theories of the present” or with the “utopias of the future, but rather with the dark cities of mythology, which exist outside of normal times in some strange location of extremity.”

Image from ONECITY, via the nonist

An imaginary labyrinth 650 miles square, symbolized by a floor plan that paces off at about 30 feet, it … consists of many 2 1/2-mile-square structures, each divided into an “Over-building” and an “Under-building” and each containing nine arenas.

It's clear, however, that the city's inhabitants are segregated into day people, wholesome types who study at home with their children by means of electronic devices, and night people. “Tattered ghosts in phosphorescent clothing,” the night people sound a lot like the more Felliniesque denizens of the Lower East Side, being given to masks and elaborate makeup; they “mutter a lot” and “often carry around personal abstract structures” that they exchange “according to mysterious rituals.” And while they have homes in the Over-building, they frequently sleep in the cubby holes of the Under-building, ignored by day people going about their business.

Image from ONECITY, via the nonist

The article goes on to suggest that there is an allusion here to New York’s homeless (being the night people to the middle class day people).  But when I see these drawings of a claustrophobic city -especially something about it’s dense, square shape – I think of Howard’s Red Nails.  The description of the day/night people each moving through the city reminds me very much of the town of Kingsport from Lovecraft’s The Festival.

Amongst that NYT article, there is also a fleeting mention of the city’s ‘“Opaque Library”, which no one may enter’.  It’s not at all apparent to me what this ‘library’ actually is, but that name deserves to reappear in some gaming material, preferably attached to some Borgesian archive or information store.

Michael Heizer’s “City”

City, rising out of the lonely Nevada landscape.  Note the cement truck, for scale.  Photo by the New York Times, via Double Negative

Since the early 1970s, the artist Michael Heizer has been building a sculpture on such a massive scale that it defies the common notions of what actually constitutes sculpture.  City is a series of structures that, once completed, are anticipated to be a quarter of a mile wide and a mile & a quarter long.  As we can see in the image, their shapes recall the architectures of pre-Columbian America, but with their monochrome colours and simple shapes they also reflect contemporary hard minimalism.

From the top of one of the structures, looking back across an open square.  Photo by the NYT.

Once completed (in 2005, they were forecasting that it would be done by 2010, but the financial crisis may have intervened), it will be open to the public who will then be able to wander this contemporary mythological city, with its suggestions of temple squares, royal palaces, and defensive walls.

By any standards, this is an incredibly large structure to be built as a work of art.  What other locations or structures could be built for aesthetic rather than practical purposes?  Could Cthulhu have built R’lyeh as an artwork; perhaps “the geometry of the place was all wrong” because Cthulhu was a Cubist?  What if James Bond confronted Hugo Drax and learns that far from striking a blow in the name of his dead Fuhrer, the Moonraker is part of some elaborate piece of modern theatre, where detonating a nuclear device is just a new wrinkle on breaking the fourth wall?

Friday, October 1, 2010

The flowers of the moon

Lobelia wollastonii; photo from Sebastian Schutyser’s Flowers of the moon

Sebastian Schutyser is a Belgian photographer who’s work has a wonderful sense of mystery.  The collection (and book) Flowers of the moon are from visits to the Rwenzori Mountains on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a location that in ancient times was called Montes Lunae, the Mountains of the Moon.

The combination of an equatorial location and high altitude have remarkable effects on the plants that grow there.  As Sebastian Schutyser explains:

As the altitude increases, temperatures drop. The air also grows thinner, provoking intense radiation, even on clouded days. During the day the incoming radiation of ultraviolet and infrared light is fierce, while at night the outward radiation under a clear sky has a considerable cooling effect. The equatorial location dictates marked diurnal variations in temperature, whereas the seasonal differences are less important. As if it were summer every day, and winter every night.

These particular conditons have provoked an extravagant vegetation. While some plants seek refuge from the harsh conditions in miniaturism, others have taken to gigantism. The unlimited availability of water and sunlight have enabled them to grow unusually large.

Gigantic flowers, deep mosses, clouds and mist around knotted branches; the images from the book don’t just document these wild plant variations and landscapes.  The textures in the dramatic black-and-white photographs create a feeling of mythology, as if these are actually fantasies rather than living organisms.  This is the feeling that they must have given Europeans like Henry Stanley when they first visited these mountains.

This book would make phenomenal inspiration and source of props for any “lost world” game.  Or a space opera: dare I say there is something about this that almost suggests Lost In Space?

The Vdara Hotel death ray

Diagram of the Vdara Hotel’s concave surface concentrating the sun’s light, from the Las Vegas Review-Journal

The Vdara Hotel on the Las Vegas strip has a simple, sleek, concave design.  It’s curve gently cradles the hotel’s swimming pool, which was placed on the south side of the building to capture sunlight for as much of the day as possible.  It turns out that it captures rather more sun than they really want, as the building can act as a massive solar concentrator, reflecting and concentrating light that shines down onto the pool.

And it’s not even as powerful as it could have been: the designers had included a film on the south-facing windows to scatter rather than concentrate most of the reflection.  But the sun in Nevada is strong and it is such a large building that it still produces this spot that the staff have dubbed “the death ray” (management, who are less interested in stimulating the imagination, prefer to call it a “solar convergence”)

The article linked above gives the story of one customer who was sunning himself by the pool when he started to feel uncomfortably hot:

He tried to put on his flip-flop sandals but, inexplicably, they were too hot to touch. So he ran barefoot to the shade.

"I was effectively being cooked," Pintas said. "I started running as fast as I could without looking like a lunatic."

Then he smelled an odor, and realized it was coming from his head, where a bit of hair had been scorched. It was about 12:20 p.m., as best Pintas can recall.

Taking brief refuge at the pool's bar area, Pintas chatted with employees. He said they chuckled when he described what had happened. "Yes, we call it the death ray," he says they told him. Sometimes it causes disposable drink glasses to melt, a cocktail waitress added

When he gets back to his deck chair, he notices that the plastic bag he had left there has partially melted, especially around the black lettering (which presumably absorbs more of the heat).

The plastic bag after its tussle with the death ray; via Las Vegas Review-Journal

Now this is all accidental, but what if it could be used deliberately, could a sun-belt building be weaponized?  What if the hotel’s exterior windows were all motorized and could be angled to direct the sun at various targets around the city.  Built by a megalomaniac developer, the plan begins with just making the other buildings uncomfortably hot, driving up their operating costs and pushing competitors out of business (there were some complaints like that levelled against Frank Gehry’s titanium clad Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles).  Our enemy then purchases these defunct buildings and “retro-fits” them to add to his arsenal.

As people start to become suspicious, the attacks escalate to some murders, with charred bodies left and forensics can find no evidence of a fuel.  Ultimately, as the net starts to close in on him, he unleashes the full force of his magnifying buildings, sending a fiery ray of energy to destroy important buildings around the city.