(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘telecommunications

“It is the same in love as in war; a fortress that parleys is half taken”*…

The AT&T Long Lines Building, designed by John Carl Warnecke at 33 Thomas Street in Manhattan, under construction ca. 1974.

Further to yesterday’s post on historic battlements, Zach Mortice on a modern fortress that’s become a go-to location for film and television thrillers…

When it was completed in Lower Manhattan in 1974, 33 Thomas Street, formerly known as the AT&T Long Lines Building, was intended as the world’s largest facility for connecting long-distance telephone calls. Standing 532 feet — roughly equivalent to a 45-story building — it’s a mugshot for Brutalism, windowless and nearly featureless. Its only apertures are a series of ventilation hoods meant to hide microwave-satellite arrays, which communicate with ground-based relay stations and satellites in space. One of several long lines buildings designed by John Carl Warnecke for the New York Telephone Company, a subsidiary of AT&T, 33 Thomas Street is perhaps the most visually striking project in the architect’s long and influential career. Embodying postwar American economic and military hegemony, the tower broadcasts inscrutability and imperviousness. It was conceived, according to the architect, to be a “skyscraper inhabited by machines.”

“No windows or unprotected openings in its radiation-proof skin can be permitted,” reads a project brief prepared by Warnecke’s office; the building’s form and dimensions were shaped not by human needs for light and air, but by the logics of ventilation, cooling, and (not least) protection from atomic blast. “As such, the design project becomes the search for a 20th-century fortress, with spears and arrows replaced by protons and neutrons laying quiet siege to an army of machines within.” The purple prose of the project brief was perhaps inspired by the client. AT&T in the 1970s still held its telecom monopoly, and was an exuberant player in the Cold War military-industrial complex. Until 2009, 33 Thomas Street was a Verizon data center. And in 2016, The Intercept revealed that the building was functioning as a hub for the National Security Administration, which has bestowed upon it the Bond-film-esque moniker Titanpointe.

Computers at Titanpointe have monitored international phone calls, faxes and voice calls routed over the internet, and more, hoovering up data from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and U.S. allies including France, Germany, and Japan. 33 Thomas Street, it turns out, is exactly what it looks like: an apocalypse-proof above-ground bunker intended not only to symbolize but to guarantee national security. For those overseeing fortress operations at the time of construction, objects of fear were nuclear-armed Communists abroad and a restive youth population at home, who couldn’t be trusted to obey the diktats of a culture that had raised up some in previously inconceivable affluence; an affluence built on the exploitation and disenfranchisement of people near and far.

By the time the NSA took over, targets were likely to be insurgents rejecting liberal democracy and American hegemony, from Islamic fundamentalists to world-market competitors in China, alongside a smattering of Black Lives Matter activists. For those outside the fortress, in the Nixon era as in the present, the fearful issue was an entrenched and unaccountable fusion of corporate and governmental capability, a power that flipped the switches connecting the world. At the same time, popular culture had begun, in the 1970s, to register a paranoia that has only intensified — the fear that people no longer call the shots. In its monumental implacability, Titanpointe seems to herald a posthuman regime, run by algorithm for the sole purpose of perpetuating its own system.

It is, in other words, a building tailor made for spy movies.

John Carl Warnecke did not realize, of course, that he was storyboarding a movie set…

How (and why) a windowless telecommunications hub in New York City embodying an architecture of surveillance and paranoia became an ideal location for conspiracy thrillers: “Apocalypse-Proof,” from @zachmortice in @PlacesJournal. Fascinating.

Margaret of Valois


As we ponder impenetrability, we might recall that it was on this date in 1780, during the American Revolutionary War, that Benedict Arnold, commander of the American fort at West Point, passed plans of the bastion to the British.

Portrait by Thomas Hart, 1776 (source)

“With my tongue in one cheek only, I’d suggest that had our palaeolithic ancestors discovered the peer-review dredger, we would be still sitting in caves”*…

As a format, “scholarly” scientific communications are slow, encourage hype, and are difficult to correct. Stuart Ritchie argues that a radical overhaul of publishing could make science better…

… Having been printed on paper since the very first scientific journal was inaugurated in 1665, the overwhelming majority of research is now submitted, reviewed and read online. During the pandemic, it was often devoured on social media, an essential part of the unfolding story of Covid-19. Hard copies of journals are increasingly viewed as curiosities – or not viewed at all.

But although the internet has transformed the way we read it, the overall system for how we publish science remains largely unchanged. We still have scientific papers; we still send them off to peer reviewers; we still have editors who give the ultimate thumbs up or down as to whether a paper is published in their journal.

This system comes with big problems. Chief among them is the issue of publication bias: reviewers and editors are more likely to give a scientific paper a good write-up and publish it in their journal if it reports positive or exciting results. So scientists go to great lengths to hype up their studies, lean on their analyses so they produce “better” results, and sometimes even commit fraud in order to impress those all-important gatekeepers. This drastically distorts our view of what really went on.

There are some possible fixes that change the way journals work. Maybe the decision to publish could be made based only on the methodology of a study, rather than on its results (this is already happening to a modest extent in a few journals). Maybe scientists could just publish all their research by default, and journals would curate, rather than decide, which results get out into the world. But maybe we could go a step further, and get rid of scientific papers altogether…

A bold proposal: “The big idea: should we get rid of the scientific paper?,” from @StuartJRitchie in @guardian.

Apposite (if only in its critical posture): “The Two Paper Rule.” See also “In what sense is the science of science a science?” for context.

Zygmunt Bauman


As we noodle on knowledge, we might recall that it was on this date in 1964 that AT&T connected the first Picturephone call (between Disneyland in California and the World’s Fair in New York). The device consisted of a telephone handset and a small, matching TV, which allowed telephone users to see each other in fuzzy video images as they carried on a conversation. It was commercially-released shortly thereafter (prices ranged from $16 to $27 for a three-minute call between special booths AT&T set up in New York, Washington, and Chicago), but didn’t catch on.


“The challenge for capitalism is that the things that breed trust also breed the environment for fraud”*…



WannaCry, a computer virus that encrypts data and demands a ransom to unscramble it, hit thousands of computers in May, causing several hospitals in Britain to close their doors. Hardly a week now goes by without a large company admitting that its systems have been breached: Yahoo recently confessed that 1bn accounts had been compromised in an attack in 2013. Cyber-attacks are a scourge of modern life, but their history goes back further than you might expect.

The world’s first national data network was constructed in France during the 1790s. It was a mechanical telegraph system, consisting of chains of towers, each of which had a system of movable wooden arms on top. Different configurations of these arms corresponded to letters, numbers and other characters. Operators in each tower would adjust the arms to match the configuration of an adjacent tower, observed through a telescope, causing sequences of characters to ripple along the line. Messages could now be sent much faster than letters, whizzing from one end of France to the other in minutes. The network was reserved for government use but in 1834 two bankers, François and Joseph Blanc, devised a way to subvert it to their own ends…

Nearly two centuries ago, France was hit by the world’s first cyber-attack.  With a nod to Isaiah Berlin**, Tom Standage argues that it holds lessons for us today: “The crooked timber of humanity.”

* James Surowiecki

** Berlin’s title was a reference to a quote from Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”


As we learn from history, we might recall that it was on this date in 1858 that two ships, the Niagara and the Agamemnon headed out from Keyham Dockyard in England to begin work on what would become the first operational Transatlantic cable, as previous attempts at laying a Transatlantic cable had failed.  Designed for telegraph operation, the cable run was completed on August 5th; and the first test message was sent on August 12th.

The Niagara at work



Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 10, 2018 at 1:01 am

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”*…


Greenwich Hospital (from the North Bank) source: The Queens’ London

Accurately imagining what the world will be like one hundred years in the future is always going to be fraught with difficulties (see this attempt, and also this). The writer of this piece “London a Hundred Years Hence”, which appeared in an 1857 edition of The Leisure Hour, certainly swayed a little off the mark when it comes to an imagining of 1957 London – sadly in being a little too utopian. In addition to the eradication of all poverty and crime, the author talks of a smoke-free city, and the “crystal waters” of the Thames, with fishes seen darting over the “the clear sand and white pebbles lying at the bottom”. However, the vision is surprisingly accurate in other quarters. In addition to predicting the vast geographical expansion of the city in which “Kew and Hammersmith were London; Lewisham and Blackheath were London; Woolwich and Blackwall were London”, it also gets it right with specifics, such as the building of Embankment (which would actually begin only five years after the piece was published): “instead of shelving shores of mud, I saw solid walls of granite, … part paved for wheel-carriages, and part a gravelled promenade for the citizens”. There is also a foreseeing of the shopping mall:

I beheld vast associative stores, the depositories of the skilled worker in every craft, where all that talent could invent or industry produce was displayed in magnificent abundance beneath one ample roof. One shop of this kind for each single branch of commerce sufficed for a large district, and the decreased expenditure in rent, fittings, and service, reduced the cost of management, and consequently the price of products … The purchaser walked through long galleries, where, ranged in orderly array, glittered and gleamed the gold, the gems, the jewels of every clime.

The piece is really notable, however, for its anticipation (albeit a little too early for 1957) of internet shopping:

I observed that from each of these district shops innumerable electric wires branched off in all directions, communicating with several houses in the district to which it belonged. Thus, no sooner did a house-keeper stand in need of any article than she could despatch the order instantaneously along the wire, and receive the goods by the very first railway carriage that happened to pass the store. Thus, she saved her time, and she lost no money, because all chaffering and cheapening, and that fencing between buyer and seller, which was once deemed a pleasure, had been long voted a disgraceful, demoralizing nuisance, and was done away with.

And then also the connectivity across distances which the telephone, and then internet, would bring:

The electric wires ran along the fronts of the houses near the upper stories, crossing the streets at an elevation at which they were scarcely visible from below; and I noticed that the dwellings of friends, kindred, and intimates were thus banded together, not only throughout the whole vast city, but even far out into the provinces, and, in cases where the parties were wealthy, to the uttermost limits of the realm.

More at “London a Hundred Years Hence (1857),” where one will find the full text and links to scans of the original.

* Samuel Johnson, as quoted in Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D. (Vol 3)


As we look right, we might recall that it was on this date in 1967 that Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Marianne faithful, and friends were busted:

Just after eight o’clock, on the evening of February 12 1967, the West Sussex police arrived at Keith Richards’ home, Redlands. Inside, Keith and his guests – including Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, the gallery owner Robert Fraser, and “Acid King” David Schneiderman – shared in the quiet warmth of a day taking LSD. Relaxed, they listened to music, oblivious to the police gathering outside. The first intimation something was about to happen came when a face appeared, pressed against the window.

It must be a fan. Who else could it be? But Keith noticed it was a “little old lady.” Strange kind of fan. If we ignore her. She’ll go away.

Then it came, a loud, urgent banging on the front door. Robert Fraser quipped, “Don’t answer. It must be tradesmen. Gentlemen ring up first.” Marianne Faithfull whispered, “If we don’t make any noise, if we’re all really quiet, they’ll go away.” But they didn’t.

When Richards opened the door, he was confronted by 18 police officers led by Police Chief Inspector Gordon Dinely, who presented Richards with a warrant to “search the premises and the persons in them, under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1965.”

This then was the start to the infamous trial of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Robert Fraser…

[More at “The Great Rolling Stones Drug Bust“]

Richard Hamilton’s portrait of Robert Fraser and Mick Jagger under arrest



Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 12, 2016 at 1:01 am

Fence me in…


While those of us in the U.S. await a mesh network, BLDG BLOG reminds us that back at the turn of the last century there was a “ranchpunk” predecessor that spanned the American West…

“Across much of the west,” C.F. Eckhardt explains, “…there was already a network of wire covering most of the country, in the form of barbed-wire fences. Some unknown genius discovered that if you hooked two Sears or Monkey Ward telephone sets to the top wire on a barbed-wire fence, you could talk between the telephones as easily as between two ‘town’ telephones connected by slick wire through an operator’s switchboard. A rural telephone system that had no operators, no bills—and no long-distance charges—was born.”

The system relied upon the creative use of everyday materials as insulators; in fact, according to Delbert Trew, “the most clever, most innovative cowboys used every conceivable type of device as insulators to suspend the wire. I have found leather straps folded around wire and nailed to the posts, whiskey bottle necks installed over big nails, snuff bottles, corn cobs, pieces of inner-tube wrapped around the wire and short straps of tire holding telephone wires to the post.”

New York Times, June 1, 1902

Read more about this “oral internet of fences” at BLDG BLOG.


As we hope that we’re heading back to the future, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Seymour Papert; he was born on this date in 1928 (actually, on February 29 of that year, which was a leap year).  Trained as a mathematician, Papert has been a pioneer of computer science, and in particular, artificial intelligence.  He created the Epistemology and Learning Research Group at the MIT Architecture Machine Group (which later became the MIT Media Lab); he directed MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory; he authored the hugely-influential LOGO computer language; and he is a principal of the One Laptop Per Child Program.  Called by Marvin Minsky “the greatest living mathematics educator,” Papert has won won a Guggenheim fellowship (1980), a Marconi International fellowship (1981), the Software Publishers Association Lifetime Achievement Award (1994), and the Smithsonian Award (1997).




%d bloggers like this: