Thursday, September 20, 2007

The End of Nature, Nature's End, PhotoModeler, Sketchup for Google Earth: How do they relate?

I am sitting at my desk reading the product tour for a software package called PhotoModeler ("Meauring and Modeling the Real World") and I can't help thinking about a Whitley Streiber/James Kunetka thriller I read years ago called "Nature's End" (Schwarzer Horizont in German) and about how all this relates to Bill McKibben's "The End of Nature" which Professor Susanna Hecht assigned us in our urban planning classes at UCLA back at the turn of the century (did nature end with the millenium?).

If I recall Nature's End properly (I read it at the beginning of the 90's) it begins with hero John Sinclair using 3d modeling/animation/simulation software to reconstruct the many possible paths a crime could have followed so that the jury can decide which seems the most plausible. It would seem that Photomodeler sotware is beginning to be used in exactly this fashion. On their own website Eos Systems, the creator of Photomodeler, states,

" PhotoModeler software is used extensively by police, investigators, and forensics firms worldwide. Using photographs or video images taken at the scene, PhotoModeler helps to extract accurate 3D measurements and models quickly and easily, allowing you to analyze and measure crime and accident scenes long after the incident has taken place! ... PhotoModeler has capabilities to help solve even the most advanced accident reconstruction cases."

What is interesting to me is that Streiber writes books of fiction as "simulations" or "models" of events that either have happened, but where it is difficult to establish the true facts surrounding the events (e.g. alien encounters -- a kind of "accident reconstruction case") or could happen (e.g. the kind of future environmental disasters that formed the basis of the Roland Emmerich film "The Day After Tomorrow, inspired by Whitley Streiber and Art Bell's Prophetic "The Coming Global Superstorm", later novelized by Streiber himself.) But while the "1 dimensional" linear narratives found in books can do a decent job of laying out possible paths in a sequential, or serial fashion, and films can do a nice job of fleshing out those paths with rich graphics, real-time interactive 3D simulations based on actual physics and measurement can create the most compelling cases for any given scenario.

This is where a combination of Photomodeler and Google Earth Sketchup and some as yet unchosen Game Engine (like the Havoc Physics Engine, which is not free, or the Blender Game Engine, which is) can produce the desired outcome suggested by Bill McKibben in "The End of Nature".

In his book McKibben offers us two choices (as Led Zeppelin sang in Stairway to Heaven, "yes there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run... there's still time to change the road you're on"). McKibben says we can take the path he calls "The Defiant Reflex" using our technology to macromanage and micromanage the environment so as to reduce its negative effects on us as it degrades, or we can take "The Humble Approach" whereby we give up our dream of "control".

The idea behind our Solar Cities Political Ecology Alternate Reality Game is that we should be able to use software like Photomodeler, Sketchup, Google Earth and Blender to create the kind of simulations John Sinclair could use to defeat dangerous fanatics (like Gupta Singh and George W.) and play them out in the court of humanity in front of an international jury of connected minds who can rationally and democratically vote on and thus choose the paths we take into the future.

I personally believe that McKibben's binary logic is flawed and that both "The Defiant Reflex" and "The Humble Approach" can work in tandem. In fact I think that they will see-saw back and forth, as our greater control over and understanding of the political and environmental ecology of the earth help us lose our fear and give us more confidence in devolving some of our control (if not all of it) to the collective intelligence of the God-Earth-Mind system. Call it "Gaia" or call it "Hive Intelligence" or "Swarm Intelligence", or simply call it "The Invisible Hand" tempered with "Moral Sentiments"; the idea is that we didn't create this system, this earth, this universe, it created us, and we can trust it to do its job of creating and nurturing living systems once we understand where it functions and where it fails (for us!) and how to tweak it, when necessary (as all living beings do) , to try and avoid suffering and extinction.

Perhaps "The Defiant Path" will lead inexorably to "The Humble Approach", much as Marx predicted that Capitalism was a necessary phase on the journey to communal harmony through an "inevitable" socialism. I think the jury is still out on that -- but of course all of these eschatological theories contain deep epistemological flaws in that they all involve definitive "end points" -- a flaw echoed in book titles such as "The End of Nature" and "Nature's End", to say nothing of Fukuyama's "The End of History".

The point today, class, is that a tool such as Photomodeler, and other technologies that let anybody, anywhere easily reconstruct the past or make predictions of the future based on easily obtainable physical evidence in the present, CAN be used for social and environmental good, if we will only orient our thinking that way, and contribute actively to the collective task at hand.


Anonymous said...

Hi T.H. - I am doing research on the Zabaleen at the Monterey Institute and I would like to organize a group of people or a research project to go over to the Mokattam for 6 months to a year. I visited the garbage district in 2004 and vowed to go back and lend a hand. I am also taking some Environmental Policy courses, and am very interested in the work you are doing over there. How can I get a hold of you? - Ali

T.H. Culhane said...

Hi Ali (or is it Alia? Aliali? Ali baba? Sorry, the email forwarded to
my mailbox has you as "anonymous"!)

I tried to send this to your email but it bounced back! Hope you find my reply here!

My wife and I are living in Darb el Ahmar in an apartment renovated by
the Aga Khan foundation quite near the wall to Al Azhar park in =20
Medieval Cairo. We walk across the city of the dead to the Zabaleen
school in Muqattam started by Laila Iskander near the Saint Sam'aan
monastery. You may know of it.

We very much welcome you and your group to come visit and work with
us; we will be in Cairo for the next 6 weeks, then in Germany, then
back here in Cairo from February through May, then back to Germany and so forth, coming to Cairo several times a year for our research and
work. I hope we can coordinate a time to link up.

One way to get in touch is to install Unype on your computer along with Google Earth and Skype and we can then try to "meet" in Muqattam
via Google Earth; you can see some detail of what we are trying to create in a very very rough form by looking at

The idea is to be able to work in the Zaballeen community both on site and via remote viewing using digital earth technology.

What kind of research are you doing? Ours, as you may already be
aware, involves building capacity to create community built solar hot
water systems for a start and then moving on to other industrial
ecology systems (we were discussing Biogas , making use of the pig
waste, with the Hans Seidel Foundation coordinator tonight).

On Friday we will start implementing a 25,000 dollar US AID grant to build 50 solar hot water systems in the community while I collect data for my Ph.D. on hot water demand and incremental housing constraints.

Curious to hear what you are doing. Thanks for writing and hope we can link the efforts!


T.H. and Sybille Culhane

Anonymous said...

Hi again! Thanks so much for replying, I have been trying to get a hold of people for years who are affiliated with the Zabaleen (like APE, UNESCO, even Laila Iskandar), but have not had any luck in responses! I finally ordered Laila's book so that I could read up more about the situation there.

I visited Mokattam in 2004 during a short January-term study abroad, and well, I was shocked by the conditions there, but it also inspired me. It's easy to say, I will go and help those people, but I also want to learn from them. They have been surviving for decades under these conditions, and yet, there is so much wisdom that goes unheard of from within the community, with recycling especially. I'm curious to touch in with the community on a personal level.

SO as far as my research is concerned, I'm trying to put together some sort of project, or like I said before, a group of people who will go over there. Each person(s) in the group will bring a unique aspect to the Zabaleen to help out, as well as doing some intercommunity work to boost the Zabaleen voice in the community. But the unique aspects of the group would bring knowledge of environmental policy, social work, medical, health, education, ministry, human rights and public voice, organization and management, financial and fundraising, journalism, think tank, etc. I think what you're doing sounds really neat, and it might even solidify my reasoning to be an environmental policy student. I'm currently learning Arabic as well, and have a few other students here at Monterey who are also learning Arabic and are interested in going over there with my little "idea" in the making. It just needs some tweaking and some more organization to it.

Actually, my husband is German (fresh off the boat) so it's kind of ironic that you and your wife go back and forth to Germany as well. See, Cairo and Egypt are my field, Germany is his, but he's willing to learn Arabic just so he can go to Cairo with me. Maybe we really can get some linkage going in that sense.

Sorry I could go on and on about this, but I get so excited about this idea and the opportunities to gain real hands-on experience like this. It's still a little overwhelming at times since I am just a 1st year grad student, but I try not to let that scare me out of the idea. One neat aspect of our studies is that we can take a semester service abroad, where we work as junior associates in an internship with an organization overseas. Is there any way to set up some sort of internship with you and your team?

My name is Ali (Alison) by the way. If that email didn't work (odd), then you can also email me at my school account,
Then it will be easier to correspond through email. I will investigate into that googleearth thing. I have skype already.

Gosh, this is so great! Enthusiasm is definitely a good thing. Looking forward to hear from you!

Anonymous said...

Hey TH, did you get my last comment? I hope it went to you.

My school email is

T.H. Culhane said...

Hi Ali,

Enthusiasm is a prerequisite for this kind of work, so please feel free to "go on and on about this" getting excited about the ideas and opportunities. I often reflect that "enthusiasm" means "the god within" or "the spirit within" and when working with the Zabaleen, who take their faith seriously and paint huge murals of the holy family everywhere, we use that spirit to conquer our anxieties and fears and reluctance when we see just how big the challenges we face really are.

Sybille and I just had a long and productive meeting with Dr. Laila Iskander last night and we will see her again on Monday, so we can easily put you in touch with her. Laila's NGO, "Roh El- Shabab" (Spirit of Youth, speaking of spirits!) is in charge of the $25,000 dollar small infrastructure grant we applied for and are now administering, so if you decided to connect with our work you would ipso facto be working with Dr. Laila.

We are certainly very happy to have groups such as yours intern with us as we can use as much of the mental and physical input available on this planet as we can get to help the residents of an area that two Egyptian volunteers, themselves from poor areas near Alexandria, described as "inhuman and unliveable". As you well know, and have described, Manshiyat Nasser near Muqattam is one of the most tragic places on the planet in many regards, yet thankfully it is free from the threats of violence that plague other informal communities. Doing research and work in Muqqattam is a joyful experience because of the human element there; fortunately the problems are all soluble as they are environmental service problems, not problems of internecine strife. So it is a safe and great place to do graduate work and relief work.

Our mandate this year is to train local people and build 30 solar hot water systems. If all goes well we intend to expand next year to look at biogas and fertilizer production and "green roofs" for urban agriculture. We really need capable people to get deeply involved as the forces of inertia cause almost every well intentioned development project here to back slide without a constant source of fresh energy and enthusiasm. It seems whenever we return to Germany or the U.S. for a long period things take a few steps backward that take time for recovery. If we had a constant supply of people coming in to keep the momentum going we think we could turn the corner, so we welcome interns who are enthusiastic and self motivated and see the big picture.

My email is We don't have an internet connection in our apartment in Medieval Cairo so sometimes it takes a few days before we can get to email.

We hope to hear from you and look forward to sharing ideas and possibilities. We will also tell Laila about your interests and put you in direct contact.

Thanks again for writing,


T.H. and Sybille Culhane
Solar Cities