Saturday, January 28, 2017

in depth history

A few years ago when I read Alan Weisman’s book 'The World Without Us' I came across a paragraph that raised my curiosity:

“No one knows how many underground cities lie beneath Cappadocia. Eight have been discovered, and many smaller villages, but there are doubtless more. The biggest, Derinkuyu, wasn’t discovered until 1965, when a resident cleaning the back wall of his cave house broke through a wall and discovered behind it a room that he’d never seen, which led to still another, and another. Eventually, spelunking archeologists found a maze of connecting chambers that descended at least 18 stories and 280 feet beneath the surface, ample enough to hold 30,000 people – and much remains to be excavated.”

Perhaps you already know about them, but they were new to me and more than a little extraordinary. So for those who don't know about them at all and for those who've had other things on their minds lately, I'll go ahead.

It was in 1963 that a man in central Turkey knocked down a wall of his home. Behind it, he discovered a mysterious room. He continued digging and soon discovered an intricate tunnel system with additional cave-like rooms. What he had discovered was the ancient Derinkuyu underground city, part of the Cappadocia region in central Anatolia, Turkey. The elaborate subterranean network included discrete entrances, ventilation shafts, wells, and connecting passageways. It was one of dozens of underground cities carved from the rock in Cappadocia thousands of years ago - quite likely 5,000 years although nobody knows for certain (the old thing about not being able to date rock).

The Cappadocia region of Anatolia is rich in volcanic history and sits on a plateau around 3,300 feet (1,000m) tall. The area was buried in ash millions of years ago creating the lava domes and rough pyramids seen today. Erosion of the sedimentary rock left pocked spires and stone minarets. Volcanic ash deposits consist of a softer rock – something the Hittites of Cappadocia and the Phyrgians (remember them?) discovered thousands of years ago when they began carving out rooms from the rock. It appears it all began with storage and underground food lockers since the subterranean voids maintained a constant temperature.

Then, as invaders moved into and across the territory, the underground tunnels  served a larger purpose: protecting the people from attack. Miles of tunnels blackened from centuries of burning torches were strategically carved narrow to force would-be attackers to crawl single-file. Eventually the tunnels reached hundreds of caves large enough to shelter tens of thousands of people in separate family quarters.

As time went by Derinkuyu was inhabited by early Christians who expanded the caverns further by adding chapels, churches with ancient Greek inscriptions and frescoes. Over one hundred unique entrances to Derinkuyu are hidden behind bushes, walls, and courtyards of surface dwellings. Access points were blocked by large circular stone doors, up to 5 feet (1.5m) in diameter and weighing up to 1,100 lbs (500 kilos) were installed so each level could be sealed individually. The tunnelling architects included thousands of ventilation shafts varying in size up to 100 feet deep (30m). An underground river filled wells while a rudimentary irrigation system transported drinking water.

Commercial spaces included communal meeting areas, schools, dining rooms, grocers, religious places for worship (even shopping) while arsenals stored weapon caches and stables kept animals safe.

Just recently a housing construction project may have unearthed the biggest hiding place ever found in Cappadocia. Discovered beneath a Byzantine-era hilltop castle in Nev┼čehir, the provincial capital, the site dates back at least to early Byzantine times. It is still largely unexplored, but initial studies suggest its size and features may rival those of Derinkuyu.

Geophysicists from Nev┼čehir University who conducted a systematic survey of a 1.5-mile (4-kilometer) estimate the site is nearly five million square feet (460,000 square meters). These studies suggest the underground corridors may plunge as deep as 371 feet (113 meters). If that turns out to be accurate, the city could be larger than Derinkuyu by a third.

Cities, empires and religions have risen and fallen around these unique underground havens - 100 square miles with 200+ underground villages and tunnel towns complete with hidden passages, secret rooms and ancient temples and a remarkably storied history of each new civilization building on the work of the last. There are indications that many of these underground cities were connected by tunnels now collapsed or simply lost (for the moment).

It's an area I'd love to visit, but since that's not very likely (besides, I'm claustrophobic) and just a few are partially open to the public, I've settled for looking at some of the many online photographs and written accounts.

We inhabit a world both old and deeper than we might otherwise imagine.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

yet another unnecessary improvement

So what do you think about self driving cars? In my humble opinion, unless every vehicle was self driving on well maintained roads, I feel we'd be just as well off as Crow was the day he went for a ride with Mr. Toad at the wheel.

"Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?"
~ George Carlin

Every time I read about some miraculous new development that's bound to make our lives perfect my first reaction is suspicion. Perhaps I've become a little too cynical about technology, but if so, that's only because I've never had to look far to find proof for my misgivings.

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
~ Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

For one thing 'self driving' is in actuality a misnomer when it pertains to cars even more so than the auto-pilot systems used by commercial airline pilots. After all, an airplane flying at thirty thousand feet is unlikely to be sharing the sky with cyclists or ten tonne trucks making lane changes.

"Even from the greatest of horrors, irony is seldom absent."
~ H.P. Lovecraft

First, let’s get this out of the way: Tesla’s Autopilot is not meant to be a self-driving technology. It’s a 'driver assist' function only, and the driver is intended to be in control of the car at all times, holding tight to the steering wheel and continually second-guessing the machine despite its apparently flawless driving ability.

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong”
~ H. L. Mencken

And that’s where it goes wrong. The human brain is pretty quick to draw conclusions, and very bad at estimating low-probability events. If you drove on Autopilot five hundred times over a year, and nothing bad happened, you’d be excused for thinking the system was safe. You’d get complacent and take your hands off the wheel to do something else, like reading a book or watching a movie. Then you get an emergency signal from the confused computer.

“Death is the last enemy: once we’ve got past that I think everything will be alright”
~ Alice Thomas Ellis

Self driving cars only work on paved roads with clearly defined line markers. Admittedly, while so far there haven't been too many accidents, the thing to remember is there haven't been many of them on the roads yet. Automobile safety wasn’t invented yesterday. There are protocols and standards based on meeting established reliability and safety measures that can't possibly have been met by self driving cars.

"If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked
~ Steven Wright

So far I prefer Mr. Toad.. and he really enjoys teasing self driving cars.
The little devil. No wonder Crow likes him.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

mysteries abound

Have you ever heard of the Longyou Grottoes in China? As a longtime admirer of a good mystery this one caught my interest when I first read about them a year or two ago, but unfortunately, there isn't really a lot of information other than some pictures and a few articles to be found on the internet.

Discovered in 1992 by a curious farmer (or an old lady called Grandma Wu depending on which account you accept), who wondered if the pond near his village was one of the legendary 'bottomless' ones, he convinced his neighbours to share in the rental on a pump so they could see for themselves. Now while I can't really understand why poor villagers would want to disrupt their supply of fresh water, they apparently kept pumping water from the squared off hole long enough to discover it was actually a purpose made cavern of pretty enormous size. Already ninety-eight feet deep, the floor itself sprawled to enclose an area of nearly thirteen thousand square feet - supported by carved pillars. The ceiling, wall and pillar surfaces are all finished the same way with a series of parallel bands between ridge marks about twenty inches wide and containing parallel chisel marks set at an angle of about 60°.

Once the first grotto was reported to the authorities a further twenty-four (or thirty-five) were found, all isolated from one another and often separated by less than two feet of stone. One fact from Wikipedia was curious. “Despite their size and the effort involved in creating them, so far no trace of their construction or even their existence has been located in the historic record.” Carved in siltstone, a medium-hard rock, the grottoes are thought to date to a period prior the Qin Dynasty in 212 BCE. However, there is not a single ancient text that describes the underground complex nor its creation or its purpose. Furthermore, there's no sign anywhere given the fact that the Ancient Chinese were extremely meticulous record keepers, of where nearly thirty-five million cubic feet of excavated rock went. When it's mentioned it would have taken a thousand workers each carting one hundred buckets twenty-four hours a day for six years (going where?) I can only shake my head in perplexity.

Commenting on the Longyou Grotto Caves, Yang Hongxun, an expert at the Archaeological Institute of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, explained:

“At the bottom of each cave, the ancient builders wouldn’t be able to see what the others were doing in the next grotto. But the inside of each cave had to be parallel with that of the other, or else the wall would be holed through. Thus the measure apparatus should have been very advanced. There must have been some layout about the sizes, locations, and the distances between the caves beforehand.”

Another of the grottoe's mysteries is that there’s no evidence of lighting having been used. At Longyou there are no traces or remnants of the lamp bases, oil plates or other lighting equipment that have been found in other Chinese caves. Carbon residue remains on rock permanently. How did the builders see what they were doing when excavating and how did they breathe? The entrances are small and the caves deep, there would have been little to no natural light. It's a mystery.

Most of the spectacular mysterious ancient caverns are still full of water and neglected. This may be a good thing since Trip Advisor states the most bizarre thing is the level of destruction that has gone on in the ones that are open to the public. Concrete has been poured over them, lights and speakers installed, large fish ponds built inside the grottoes, and modern carvings have been added to the walls. By trying to attract tourists the government has destroyed and defaced the ancient cultural historical and architectural wonder. Alas, the Chinese were once understood to be very sensitive to ancient culture.

The general assumption about the grottoes is that they were man made about twenty-five hundred years ago, but I wonder. Not so much that people couldn't have made them, but the timing of their fabrication. While our race is estimated to be two hundred thousand years old our history dates back less than ten thousand years. Many ancient and mysterious artifacts and constructions have been found and are still being found. We don't know everything.

Maybe I'll ask Crow.

ps: article of the week

Friday, January 6, 2017

Crow delivers

My friend Crow,  off on his annual winter visit to his distant relatives the condors, sent me some thoughts about modernity to share with you:

It would appear new technologies are generally being sold as essential ones in the coming of either a future leisure-oriented paradise or your inevitable domination under the control of AI Algorhithmic overlords. Take your pick.

One of the more recent developments has been Amazon's patent for “An unmanned aerial vehicle delivery process that utilizes an airborne fulfillment center” (AFC). Their patent goes on to describe "an airship, or dirigible, is a type of aerostat or lighter-than-air aircraft which can navigate through the air under its own power. ... An AFC may be positioned at an altitude above a metropolitan area and be designed to maintain an inventory of items that may be purchased by a user and delivered to the user by a UAV (drone) that is deployed from the AFC.” We won't go into how they plan to stock the thing (people wearing jet packs, perhaps), but I'll tell you right now we birds aren't for it at all.

This is the kind of idea that, if described to you by your precocious nine year old nephew, you'd be likely to chuckle about later and forget. I remember susan's father on ambitious yet ill considered plans remarking, 'One day that man will be doing great things.. like washing elephants'. Instead, because it's Jeff Bezos' monstrously huge and wealthy Amazon corporation, the news media is taking the idea perfectly seriously (and anything they take seriously, you must too).

What none of them seem to consider is the chaos that would be unleashed should this delivery method actually go into effect. Imagine trying to enjoy the peace and quiet of nature on a bright summer afternoon while hundreds of delivery drones swoop down from the sky carrying Amazon's quite literal version of 'instant gratification' to customers who just can't wait for a delivery through normal channels. The ability to have warehouses floating around in the sky also has them considering the idea of delivering “perishable items or even prepared meals.” In other words, Amazon is positioning itself to be in direct competition with Domino’s Pizza. I can almost see the hunters poised with their shotguns or bows and arrows looking to bring home the pepperoni and meatball extra large.

Amazon describes your soon-to-be-old fashioned system of retail delivery in the following way: Using a “human controlled truck, bicycle, cart, etc.” which delivers items from a “ground-based building,” and continues with “a human who hands the item to a recipient, places it on the user’s porch, or stores it in a post office box, etc.” I wonder if the drones will ask after your health or remark about the weather as real people do.

Now I'm reminded of yet another grand plan devised by the technological overlords, the widely reported, soon to be instituted, advent of fully automated driverless trucking. Considering the fact that truck driver is the number one occupation in North America I see more problems ahead. But I'll leave that topic for another time.

Meanwhile, the weather is lovely here in the Andes and you'll be pleased to hear the Remy and fruitcake you sent by dogsled arrived safely. The dogs are currently napping at the fireside while the condors are waiting in the wings for our afternoon flight.

Until next time, dear friends and susan, stay warm and keep smiling. The world may be a silly place,
but we are well so long as humour and affection remain.