For Mark Lauer, wherever I may find him.

November 3, 2023

My friend Tom Vanderbilt and I have exchanged notes recently about our various 50+ mile single-push efforts/debacles over the years (the sorts of experiences I should tattoo “It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.” backward on my forehead to help explain to my senile future self as he stares, confused, at the bathroom mirror). To riprap an eroding memory, I’ve been rummaging through the archives of deleted social media accounts, in which, among the digital shoeboxes, I found this snapshot:

“In 2014, a friend and I crossed the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim – 57 linear miles and 21,000 feet of elevation change – in just under 36 hours, including an overnight bivvy on the north rim. After crossing the Colorado, we were exposed to increasingly direct sunlight, with no place to hide, and no access to potable water for long stretches. Climbing 6,000 vertical feet up from the river, we slept under the stars in a residual snow pack, partially sheltered from 40-mph winds by ponderosas. The next morning, we dropped back down into a cloudless blue heat, retracing our steps through the vipergrass, red-flowering prickly pears, century plants, hemlocks, periwinkles, and all manner of other vegetation clinging to life down there amid the raw geology. We saw giant ravens and cliff swallows, pissing deer, a rare foxtail squirrel, a Gila monster perched on the edge of Bright Angel Creek, and hundreds of its diminutive cousins scurrying about everywhere else. We identified a couple of exotic psychoactive plants. We saw signs warning of bubonic plague. We heard rumors that thirst-crazed elk had figured out water fountains, and were attacking humans topside to get at them. I mistook a big piece of sandstone on Asinine Hill for a grinning, empty-socketed cranium; and then confused a terrace of mesquite shrubs for a long row of waxy yellow skulls staring down at us. Cognitive misfires, sure, but death was down there too, I think. We hid inside a cave at one point before deciding to hustle the hell off the canyon floor, where it felt like some giant, sadistic child was holding a magnifying glass over us to see if we’d catch fire. Whether because of heat stroke, caloric deficit, or just grosse fatigue, I was somnambulant climbing out. But I couldn’t resist a backward glance to snap this photograph. It’s the sort of view that would have turned Lot’s wife into a salt lick.”

Mark Lauer, wherever you are, let us procure a canoe and portage it across the whole of the Boundary Waters. Before it is too late.

My typology of fun.

October 29, 2023

I tend to think of fun in terms of a type-1 (feels fun in the moment), type-2 (feels fun afterward, although not – or not necessarily – in the moment), type-3 (which isn’t remembered as having been fun, but is still fun to tell stories about), and type-4 (which isn’t even fun to tell stories about, for you, but is fun for others to tell them, about you and your sufferings).

Shake It Off

October 26, 2023

Electronic Terraforming: “The creation of a material environment that mimics a digital representation of a physical territory…but is entirely fictional. [A] process of emitting an electromagnetic volume that creates fictitious cyberscapes… [E]lectronic terraforming operates through elastic – and increasingly uncanny – spatial behaviour, allowing it to bend, stretch, and fold cyber territories. This topological, rather than topographical, understanding of spatial deformation provides a novel approach to defining the territorial power of cyberwar.”  

(Anna Engelhardt 2023)

In a chapter of the forthcoming book Cyberwar Topologies (co-edited by Svitlana Matviyenko & Kayla Hilstob), Anna Engelhardt introduces the idea of “electronic terraforming.” Her premise is that cyberwar combatants, with the right equipment and expertise, are now capable of producing – and then ensnarling opponents in – a new sort of ‘Eldenian’ territory that obeys a topological rather than topographical logic, one characterized by elastic, disorienting deformations of spacetime as digital devices – jammed, spoofed, or countermanded – get pulled forcibly into electromagnetic looking-glass worlds, and trapped there, temporarily, for tactical reasons.

I’m fascinated with this idea, and I’ve been thinking about territorial contestations in which the distinction she draws between the two logics might be collapsed and/or usefully set in dialectical opposition. 

A mountain range, for instance. Let me explain.

In 2009, Friedmann Freund of NASA Ames demonstrated that strain at seismogenic depths can cause igneous and high-grade metamorphic rocks to release positive charge carriers (so-called “positive holes” or “p-holes”) from the stressed rock into unstressed rock surrounding it, leaving electrons behind. Positive surface potential builds up in the unstressed rock, and as the stressed rock becomes negatively charged the difference between the potentials results in a semiconductive, battery-like outflow of electric current. Positive charge accumulates at the surface, ionizing the ground-air interface and producing a plasma. As airborne radio waves strike it, they can induce what Masafumi Fujii of the University of Toyama has called a “terrestrial surface plasmon.” The waves bend asymptotically from their path in the air, couple with the plasma, and follow its complex topographic path toward mountain peaks, where they are diffracted and reradiated beyond lines of sight.

In short, deformational pre-seismic stress could turn a mountain into a giant radio – an electrified, infrastructural landform that enables the sorts of electronic terraforming Engelhardt describes. That is, topography (specifically, a mechanically topologized topography) harnessed to deploy weaponized topologies with.

At the risk of sounding unserious, consider the Pamir mountains; or the Carpathians, or the Caucasus, or the Zagros. They all satisfy the requisite tectonic and geological conditions for a surface plasmon-based radio frequency network. They’re all settings where geopolitics and geology might (sadly, if somewhat predictably) align in such a way that guerrilla insurgents get chased among pleated folds of rock at high elevation by technologically superior belligerents determined to make use of mountain geophysics – not just for cyberwarfare, but also to establish electromagnetic supply chains for communications, piloting drones and EOD robots, even SIGINT, snatching radio whispers out of the mouths of caves. 

One can, of course, also imagine the guerillas utilizing their traditional terrain in novel ways: to monitor EM signal fires from afar; to track the spectral bleed of alpine commandos; to disrupt enemy comms; to jam and spoof their weapon systems.

One can further imagine locals wanting to be able to shut the radio effect off, should the invading army be trying to make use of it; or turn it on, should it not already be available for themselves to use.

What I’ve described is a byproduct of pre-seismic stress, and seismic induction is its kill switch. Whether by inducing a small earthquake (by means of, say, hydraulic injection – lubricating faults until they slip – as three USGS scientists first demonstrated was possible to do deliberately at a Chevron oil field in Rangely, Colorado back in 1969) or some other, more controlled, method (about which I have ideas), once the stress gets discharged, the surface plasmon will collapse, and the radio effect with it. 

Conversely, if stress can be built up to a point where the rock strains but doesn’t rupture, a plasmon could be generated artificially. Once again, the work done fifty years ago at Rangely is instructive. Those guys didn’t just start earthquakes, after all, they also stopped them – by reversing hydrostatic pressure in the fault complex. Pumping water out of the ground dried up pore space in the rocks, increased their friction, and stopped them from slipping. Which, in turn, set the stage for new deformational stress to build.

Think of it as a geophysical pas de deux based on a tactical truism that holds at every geopolitical scale from a barfight to Westphalianism: when your opponent bends, you break; when they break, you bend.

Plastic Surgery Disasters

September 10, 2023

The evolution of my face, over several days, under the influence of many dozens (possibly hundreds) of Simuliidae bites. I reckon I got off lucky, insofar as these creatures can kill horses and, I shit you not, mules.

What I ordinarily look like, for reference:

Under the Volcano (Exhumation #5)

July 25, 2023

Totum nasum. Zoom in.

All the way under. No snorkel.

Inhumation, exhumation, and documentation by Deb Chachra.

Under the Volcano (inhumation #4)

July 15, 2023

Inhumation, exhumation, and documentation by Harriet Hawkins.

La Tomba di Virgilio

June 30, 2023

Whether the ancient columbarium, with its opus reticulatum and tripodal brazier dedicated to Apollo, perched eyrie-like above the eastern maw of the Crypta Neapolitana – a tunnel approximately six meters high, three meters wide, and seven hundred meters long that Cocceius Auctus engineered, at the behest of Agrippa, through the Posillipo tuff in order to connect conurbations by the bay with the Campi Flegrei; and used subsequently by inhabitants for pedestrian traffic between the city and its neighboring super-volcano into the 20th century – is actually the tomb of Publius Vergilius Maro, as has been the tradition here since the poet, dying at Brindisi (nineteen years before the renewal of that magnus ordo saeclorum he, ventriloquizing Deiphobe at Cumae, anticipated in his fourth eclogue), asked that his ashes be communicated back to Naples for interment and was afforded a hero’s rites in Piedigrotta by Augustus before commencing a second career, in the medieval Neapolitan folk imagination, as Virgilio Mago, a sorcerer who supposedly founded Naples, personally erected its walls, and then fortified it still further by his bright arts – either by hiding a magical egg in the foundations of Castel dell’Ovo that must not be found lest ruin be general; or else, with a delicate scale model of the city, minutely detailed, he had assembled inside a glass vessel with a narrow neck: undamaged, this palladium enabled the Neapolitans to repulse any siege, but someone – whoopsie – cracked it just as the forces of H.R.E. Henry VI were massing at the gates in 1191 – as well as contriving a variety of other ingenuities, including – palimpsesting Cocceius, or perhaps actually merging with him – the Crypta Neapolitana itself, which he is supposed to have dug in a single night with daemonic assistants à la Solomon (not the only curious, and curiously distinct, echo among the tales of Virgilio Mago and those another Neapolitan literary transplant, Sir Richard Francis Burton, who lived in Chiaia as an unruly teenager, would, centuries afterward, be the first to translate into English in a complete and unexpurgated form as The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night); and then a third career, mingling the previous two, as the eidolon who guides Dante to the threshold of the salvation he himself prophesied but, born too early, has no part of, by way of damnation and purgation, after leading them into a cave mouth in a dark forest (of Quercus ilex) that Cocceius – by different order of Agrippa – clearcut in 37-36 BC while constructing the Portus Iulius – now drowned by Bradyseism – within the huge crater complex lying on the other side of the passage he cut through the peninsula, is beside the point. It might as well be there. Or there. Or there. Through convections of geology and history, Virgil – ashes and otherwise – has long since been absorbed into the fabric of the city. All Naples is his tomb.

Inhumation #3: toward a seismic Mendieta

June 29, 2023

Inside the volcano, fishing for earthquakes with my body as a lure. Documentation, inhumation, and exhumation by the painter Eric Sweet.

Katabasis is anabasis.

June 9, 2023

The Old Blind Sun

May 14, 2023

“Place is, at a basic level, space invested with meaning in the context of power.” – Tim Cresswell

The newest mountain in Europe – unimaginatively named Monte Nuovo – is a 132-meter-tall cinder cone on the shore of Lake Avernus in the Phlegraean Fields caldera complex west of the urban core of Naples, Italy. According to Mauro di Vito, et al., who reconstructed the event “through geological, volcanological and petrological investigations, and analyses of historical documents,” Monte Nuovo began to erupt from a vent in the ground around 7 pm on September 29th, 1538. The first day of the eruption, its main phase, included a twelve hour period in which the volcano exploded continuously. For several days afterward, it was nearly quiescent. Then a second series of explosions (lower energy and discontinuous) began in the late afternoon of October 3rd and continued into the early evening of October 4th, after which the volcano again went quiet. A last, violent explosion on October 6th surprised twenty-four intrepid locals hiking up to the rim for a better look at the action – assimilating them into the lithic fabric of the crater, along with the whole medieval village of Tripergole, Cicero’s famously opulent Academia villa, and, very possibly, if Strabo and his source Ephorus can be believed, the archaeological remains of a troglodytic community of ‘Cimmerians’ whose sibyl predated the Cumaean one.

There is a whole PhD to be written (by me) about how this space has historically been invested with meaning. Here on my sickbed, however, I want to spare a very brief moment to consider the “context of power” in which that investment has taken (and continues to take) place – from the standpoint of geophysics, not politics.

The Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) is a relative measurement of volcanic eruptions based on their volumes of ejecta. Monte Nuovo is estimated to have been a VEI 2. Per a years-old suggestion on the Earth Science Stack Exchange, it may be possible to (very, very roughly) estimate the total energy released for a given VEI class as E = 10^(aM+c), where E is the total energy released in joules, a ≈ 0.79, M is the VEI of the eruption, and c = 14.

In this case, E = 10^((0.79*2)+14)) or 10^15.3 Joules. That is, 3,801,893,963,205,613 joules or so.

Now, energy isn’t power of course. As with so many other things, translating energy into the terms of power requires time.

The watt, an SI unit of power, is equivalent to 1 joule per second. In addition to the twelve hours of continuous high-energy explosions between September 29-30, let’s throw in another eight hours of discontinuous ones during that first day. And perhaps seven total hours of discontinuous eruptions during the twenty-four hours between October 3-4; and then a last three hours on October 6th. For the sake of simplicity, let’s not bother ourselves with trying to estimate the difference between and high- and low-energy explosions in the three phases of explosivity. Rather, let’s just say that there were ~30 explosion-hours during the course of that fateful week.

30 hours = 108,000 seconds. 3,801,893,963,205,613 joules / 108,000 seconds = ~35,202,721,882 watts (or 35,203 megawatts or 35 gigawatts) of power – all vented through a hole in ground (well, three of them, actually) encompassed by a crater that’s eighty meters deep and four hundred meters in diameter. I mean, just look. It’s the maw of a titan, roaring up from hell.

Gaia (in the sense that James Lovelock meant it, and that of the primordial being impregnated by Tartarus who gave birth to huge fiery monsters) is poised between two suns. From above, one of them contributes ~170 petawatts of heat flux that powers the oceans, atmosphere, and much of the biosphere; the other, the earth’s core (hotter than the solar surface), contributes only a tiny fraction of that from below – something more on the order of 47 terawatts – but with it maintains the planetary magnetic field, drives mantle convection (and plate tectonics thereby), and so powers earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

And, depending on your conception of history (and/or epistemology), much besides. As Michel Serres explained to Bruno Latour in 1991 (or professed to; slippery as he was, one can’t ever know for certain what Serres meant, much less what he intended):

“In [the history of science] one is forced to connect the sciences to one another, and to other cultural formations. Let’s give Husserl his due – his Krisis invents precisely this notion of cultural formation. In his description of the crisis of western science he wonders if this original formation that we call science is independent of the others. The word formation, as he uses it, signifies something like a layer of the earth, geologically formed and deformed by and through the earth’s evolution.”


“It seemed to me that [Husserl] applied an authentic structuralism to the humanities, to religious history — a discipline that has always fascinated me, since I am still convinced that it forms the deepest plate in the history of cultures. By plate I mean what earth scientists mean by this word — thus continuing the image Husserl used when he spoke of ‘formation’. A plate that is deeply submerged. Buried, often opaque and dark, that transforms itself with infinite slowness but which explains very well the discontinuous changes and perceptible ruptures that take place above. Indeed, in comparison to religious history, that of the sciences seems superficial, recent — like a surface landscape, quite visible and shimmering. What’s more, when you study religious history in detail, that of the sciences seems to imitate or repeat it!”


“The regime of revolutions is no doubt only apparent. What if, behind them and beneath these schisms, flowed (or percolated) slow and viscous fluxes? Do you recall the geological theory of plate tectonics? Intermittent earthquakes result in sudden breaks not far from known faults, like the San Andreas fault in California. But underneath, continuous and extraordinarily slow movements explain these sudden breaks where the quakes occur. And even further below these continuous movements that pull, tranquilly but inexorably, is a core of heat that maintains or propels the moving crust. And what is the inner sun of these mechanisms? Our old hot planet, which is cooling. Earth is that very sun. (emphasis mine)

Are the breaks in history similarly brought about from below by an extraordinarily slow movement that puts us in communication with the past, but at immense depths? The surface gives the impression of totally discontinuous ruptures. Earthquakes — in this case, quakes of history or of mobs, sometimes — whose brief violence destroys cities and remodels landscapes but which, at a very deep level, continue an extraordinarily regular movement, barely perceptible, on an entirely different scale of time. 

May I say that in this we can glimpse the history of religions, for example, which forms the lowest plate — the deepest, the most buried, almost invisible, and surely the slowest moving. But what I would like to catch a glimpse of, beyond that, and deeper yet, is the furnace-like interior, so hidden, that blindly moves us.”

Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time: Michel Serres with Bruno Latour

By comparison, the Archiflegrean eruption 40,000 years ago – which created the vast caldera complex in which Monte Nuovo subsequently emerged – is estimated to have been a VEI 7 or 8. That is, among the most powerful volcanic events in Earth history for which there is a material record, during which something like 10^19.53 to 10^20.32 joules of energy were released. Can you imagine being a Neanderthal, hearing something inexplicable – and horrifyingly loud – in the distance, and then looking up to see that in the night sky?