Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Colonies At Night

(Disclaimer: This photo is not Philadelphia. This photo is San Francisco. The post is not about SFO. But the only photos I could rip off find of PHL were not germane to this post. This photo of SFO is not really germane to this post. The post itself is not germane to much of anything.)

I noticed on our descent into PHL last night that the view out the window here is markedly different from what we see around, say, Chicago. At night, big geographical features--lakes or rivers or steep hills or whatever--are always visible because of their impact on the patterns of lights from the civilization on them. But in the Midwest, the lakes are an aberration, a break from an established, large-scale grid to which everything else conforms. This is especially visible from 35,000 feet on a clear night, where major freeways and the towns they connect can be seen extending off for a hundred miles. Out East things are different. Apparently, somewhere between the layings out of Philadelphia and Omaha somebody discovered the compass and surveying. Last night we began our descent into Philly with a cloud layer beneath us, obscuring everything; then at about 15,000 feet we emerged from the clouds, and I was suddenly aware of the complete randomness of everything that meets the eye.

(Still not PHL. Istanbul stands in for old school)

The major roads do not align to any cardinal compass point--hell, they don't even go in a straight line for more than a short distance. The minor roads do not show any pattern whatsoever. It's like looking into a formicary. The patterns of lights, big and small, appear almost entirely random. The towns themselves often reveal a grid pattern, but the grids are much less regular than one sees in the Midwest; blocks have more irregular shapes, and the whole business almost never aligns N-S / E-W. Or worse, there are little grids for different sections of the same town, and each section's grid does not align with the adjacent grids, leaving sections between them where everything is katty-wampus. It's evidence of planning, but not planning with an overseer. It's like each section was designed with its own little chieftain in charge.

I have often fantasized about what it would be like to see the world age backward 10,000 years while we were flying overhead. Of course, if we were flying at night we'd quickly see the light patterns shrink and evaporate, seeing less and less until there was nothing to see at all (except maybe the occasional witch-burning pyre). But I suspect that in daylight we'd see that these modern roads followed roughly the same paths 200 or 300 years ago, which is why it all looks so unplanned today. And that makes me think of what it was like to navigate from place to place in colonial days (and before), what it was to travel. One walked long distances, or rode a horse or carriage (which moved at a walking pace), and presumably one followed a two-track or, at best, a gravel path. You would have little assurance that you had not wandered off course, except for hand-printed signs nailed to a tree, or the occasional inn where you could ask directions. Even the business of running an inn without electricity or food service would be another world from our modern experience. Without phones, travelers were simply out of contact most of the time, and getting assistance while traveling would be quite another matter from today.

(Minneapolis to about NYC. PHL is in there near the photo's center)

And, to complete my little digression insanity, we can step back further yet and try and decipher what an alien intelligence could glean from the light patterns we see at night from high above. We generate power; we are constantly on the move; we are social; we cultivate; we spread and conquer (and, probably, we're fucking up our planet). The front office of a jet is the perfect place to contemplate these things, because the scope of what we can see is so vastly beyond anything we experience on the ground. On a clear night we can take in hundreds, maybe thousands, of square miles with a sweep of the eyes. It's like being on the 5,000th floor.

I've often wanted to take pictures and post them, but it would really take special equipment to capture the view--a video camera panning from side to side, and then something wide-angle and high resolution. My little camera phone has its limits (to say nothing of company strictures about such things).

No comments: