Ghosts Only Cars Can Perceive

[Image: An otherwise unrelated image of car-based LiDAR navigation, via Singularity Hub].

There was a lot of design interest a few years back in a product that allowed cyclists to project their own bike lanes, an idea that is still being honed today.

Transportation infrastructure that only exists in the form of a projection is a great analogy for the state of cycling in the U.S. today, but what we might call projected infrastructure—road signs, bike lanes, and crosswalks that aren’t really there—can apparently also be weaponized, turned against the machine-sensing systems that navigate and steer driverless vehicles.

Researchers at Ben-Gurion University, for example, have shown that fake, drone-projected street signs can spoof driverless cars. Amazingly, these fake street signs can apparently exist for only 100 milliseconds and still be read as “real” by a car’s sensing package. They are like flickering ghosts only cars can perceive, navigational dazzle imperceptible to humans.

As if pitching a scene for the next Mission: Impossible film, Ars Technica explains that “a drone might acquire and shadow a target car, then wait for an optimal time to spoof a sign in a place and at an angle most likely to affect the target with minimal ‘collateral damage’ in the form of other nearby cars also reading the fake sign.” One car out of twenty suddenly takes an unexpected turn.

Although this spoof is, for now, entirely visual, “a more advanced attacker might combine GNSS [Global Navigation Satellite System] spoofing and perhaps even active radar countermeasures in a very serious bid at confusing its target,” Ars Technica adds. Cars, lost in their own technical hallucinations, being steered to unknown destinations, unaware that they’ve even strayed.

Neighborhood Watch

[Image: Doorbell camera footage is already media content].

It was only a matter of time before this happened: Amazon’s camera-enabled Ring doorbell service has been looking for a “news editor,” implying that the Internet of Things—the immersive world of ubiquitously online surveillance objects we have willingly surrounded ourselves by—might someday find an editorial voice.

A doorbell company wants to report crime news,” NiemanLab reported back in April.

As a brief aside, that article goes on to make an extreme non sequitur, claiming that, because crime is decreasing in the United States, crime news should be less interesting to American viewers (one might suggest the exact opposite, in fact, that the rarer crime becomes the more interesting its occurrence will be—there has never been a murder in our town often translates directly into more people hoping to learn about a murder when one finally occurs).

In any case, the Internet of Things is like a vast, distributed media-production apparatus, putting microphones in our cars and kitchens, cameras in our doorbells and children’s toys, and sensors of every kind in our TVs, phones, watches, refrigerators, lightbulbs, and thermostats, to name but a few.

The idea that all this would someday be absorbed into the content industry—someday mined for unscripted media shows—has been an obvious possibility from the very beginning, just one updated end-user agreement away from realization. Watching content produced by other people’s doorbell cameras sounds both inevitable and, in a sense, quite tame. To no small extent it has already happened, and it will only get stranger from here.

Supernester

[Image: Photo by Charles Ray, via the New York Times].

Apparently, dystopian near-future climate change fiction doesn’t have enough wasps. When a colony survives one year to the next, due to a mild winter, its nest “can grow to be as big as a Volkswagen Beetle and can have 15,000 wasps.”

In a regular year in the U.S. state of Alabama, for example, there are apparently only two or three such “super nests,” but, according to an entomologist interviewed by the New York Times, in 2019 there could be as many as ninety.

First of all, it’s weirdly fascinating to learn that there is an official tally of super nests at all, let alone that there might be as many as 90 of them in Alabama alone.

However, what’s more striking, at least for me, is that the scenes depicted in this brief New York Times piece read more like something from a Cormac McCarthy novel. One man didn’t enter his outdoor toolshed for two months only to discover that it now housed a sprawling super nest housing as many as 18,000 wasps; he and his son still scurry past it now and again as they grab tools, unsure of how exactly to eliminate the threat.

It’s like Alien meets The Road: unwary climate refugees of the near-future hike through the forests of a superheated American South, unbeknownst to them approaching a super nest the size of a train yard, its buzzing mistaken for the hopeful drone of distant machinery.

Shadow Cell

My friend, Wayne, sent me this link about an accidental archaeological discovery beneath a Pennsylvania prison in the 1960s that reads like the start of a Jordan Peele film.

“A hidden underground cell was found this week at the Bucks County prison here,” the New York Times reported back in 1964. “Warden John D. Case said that several inmates digging in the prison basement preparing to install new water pipes discovered an 8‐foot by 18‐foot room with a brick arched ceiling of about 5½‐foot clearance. Mr. Case said there might be a secret room under each of the original 51 cells in the prison, which dates to 1884.”

It’s easy to imagine the story of an occult 19th-century architect constructing prisons to contain both a person and their shadow self, or perhaps just a sadistic warden installing secret listening rooms beneath the cells of his prisoners to eavesdrop on the growing sounds of loneliness and remorse crying down through the ceiling.

Or, for that matter, imagine a horror novel about some strange and thoroughly debunked folk-magic architectural theory from the 1800s suggesting that all works of civil infrastructure—prisons, libraries, courts of law—had to have both a positive and a negative version constructed, an aboveground world and its subterranean reflection, and that, over the course of the novel, more and more of these underground spaces are discovered in the humid, history-rich soils of the American east coast. And that it ends well for no one involved.

(Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for the heads up!)

The Atlas of Natural Regions

[Image: “Saint-Valentin, Champagne berrichonne (Centre-Val-de-Loire), 2019, by Eric Tabuchi].

I’ve been enjoying the Instagram account of photographer Eric Tabuchi for quite a while now. Tabuchi is working on an ambitious ten-year photographic project, kicked off in 2017, that he calls The Atlas of Natural Regions, basically a catalog of spatial conditions found throughout France.

The project “aims to create a photographic archive offering a broad overview of the diversity of the buildings, but also the landscapes, that make up the French territory,” Tabuchi explains. “Ultimately, 50 shots will be taken in each of France’s natural regions, geographical and cultural entities that are simple to grasp by their size (a few tens of kilometers).”

It will include 25,000 photographs when it’s done—and I am already excited to see the final exhibition or book when it’s complete. So far, there have been flooded quarries, sports complexes, and emergency training towers, industrial ruins, coastal bunkers, and surreal scenes that resemble something designed by Simon Stålenhag.

Tabuchi’s Instagram account is well worth following, and you can also support his work by purchasing a print.

Have Clock, Will Travel

[Image: From The Hunt For Red October, via Quora].

There’s a line in The Hunt For Red October where a submarine navigator jokes, “Give me a stopwatch and a map, and I’ll fly the Alps in a plane with no windows.” I was reminded of that comment by reports of a new atomic clock that will allegedly enable “futuristic navigation schemes”:

“Every single spacecraft exploring deep space today relies on navigation that’s performed back here at Earth,” said [Jill] Seubert, who’s based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Earth-based antennas send signals to spacecraft, which the spacecraft echo back. By measuring a signal’s round-trip time within a billionth of a second, ground-based atomic clocks in the Deep Space Network help pinpoint the spacecraft’s location.

With the new Deep Space Atomic Clock, “we can transition to what we call one-way tracking,” Seubert said. A spaceship would use such a clock onboard to measure the time it takes for a tracking signal to arrive from Earth, without having to send that signal back for measurement with ground-based atomic clocks. That would allow a spacecraft to judge its own trajectory.

One might say that the ship is navigating time as much as it is traveling through space—steering through the time between things rather than simply following the lines that connect one celestial object to another.

The general problem of ship orientation and navigation in deep space is a fascinating one, and it has led to ideas like using “dead stars” as fixed directional beacons, a kind of thanato-stellar GPS. This is “the long-sought technology known as pulsar navigation,” Nature reported last year. “For decades, aerospace engineers have dreamed of using these consistently repeating signals for navigation, just as they use the regular ticking of atomic clocks on satellites for GPS.” You head toward something that’s only consistent because it’s dead.

There is something really interesting here, where human navigators and their far-flung machines are confronted with a landscape so vast it is all but devoid of local landmarks. Imagine the cognitive skills necessary for early humans to wander forth, on foot, across colossal and empty steppes, long before modern navigational tools, or picture autonomous, near-frozen hard-drives falling endlessly outward toward stars they might never reach: these scenarios lend themselves to metaphor just as much as they present real-world cartographic problems masked as an encounter with landscapes impossibly huge.

A landscape so big it becomes time, and only a clock can conquer it; or a space so empty, its only fixed points are long dead.

Departure

[Image: From Deep Unlearning (I), Sascha Pohflepp].

I woke up to the sad news this weekend that my friend, designer Sascha Pohflepp, has died. Sascha’s work was animated by such a good-natured inquisitiveness and sense of intellectual freedom, a grinning need to ask more questions about the objects, systems, and things before him—what they could be, what they should be, what they would be with the right amount of effort—that you could actually see it in his bearing, his near-constant smile, and a kind of amused sense that he didn’t quite believe what you were saying.

Sascha described his work as exploring “questions regarding the role of technology as a force that shapes our relationship with natural systems, human culture and ultimately ourselves, embodied in the tools we create.” His work required friends, others, collaborators; in Sascha’s words, “Almost every piece is grounded in joint efforts with researchers from the respective scientific fields and more often than not with peers as long-time collaborators. This emerges from a personal conviction that a truly satisfying understanding of the world and our role in it will not be achieved by a single perspective alone.”

Details are thin, but he seems to have died in his sleep in Berlin; he was 41.

Fob Jam

[Image: Unrelated photo of an Ohio suburb, via the Library of Congress, altered by BLDGBLOG].

When most of the electronic car fobs and garage door openers stopped working in an Ohio suburb, the explanation was found only by systematically mapping the town’s electromagnetic landscape.

This involved tracking down stray power signals, then turning those signals off one by one to determine which of them had been interfering with the frequencies emitted by car electronics. It was like tuning a neighborhood back to radio silence.

I’m reminded of an anecdote about experimental musician Felix Hess, as described in David Toop’s excellent book, Ocean of Sound. Requiring a performance space bothered by no “extraneous sounds,” Hess soon found that total silence was an impossible goal. There were tiny noises everywhere.

“So first we turned off the air conditioner in the room,” Toop writes in his book, “and then we turned off the one on the second floor. Then we turned off the refrigerator and the electric cooking equipment in the adjoining cafe, the power of the multi-vision in the foyer, and the power of the vending machine in a space about ten metres away. One by one we took away these continual noises, which together created a kind of drone… Hess was very interested in this and said things like, ‘From now on maybe I should do a performance of turning off sounds.’”

This town in Ohio was like a Felix Hess performance recast as a police operation.

Eventually, it led to one particular house in the neighborhood where radio signal emissions were “extraordinarily powerful.” They were coming from a kind of amateur burglar alarm, “a homemade battery-operated device designed by a local resident to alert him if someone was upstairs when he was working in his basement,” we read. “The inventor and other residents of his home had no idea that the device was wreaking havoc on the neighborhood, he said, until [local resident] Mr. Glassburn and a volunteer with expertise in radio frequencies knocked on the door.”

In any case, I love the idea of this strange, invisible world of radio signals infesting our quietest, most domestic neighborhoods, of future potential conflicts simmering amongst neighbors with the installation of every new burglar alarm, every car fob, every wireless speaker, even every cutting-edge medical implant, of gathering storms of electromagnetic contamination causing suburban garage doors to freeze in place or shudder open at 3 o’clock in the morning.

Think of the bizarre story of Hulk Hogan’s back implant that allowed him to open garage doors from a distance, but now scale that up to a domestic comedy set in a town of retirees, all of whom are amateur home-electronics tinkerers, where every day is a new electromagnetic misadventure.

Magnetic Landscape Architecture

[Image: R. Fu, via ScienceNews].

Although I seem to be on a roll with linking to ScienceNews stories, this is too amazing to pass up: “People living at least 2,000 years ago near the Pacific Coast of what’s now Guatemala crafted massive human sculptures with magnetized foreheads, cheeks and navels. New research provides the first detailed look at how these sculpted body parts were intentionally placed within magnetic fields on large rocks.”

The magnetic fields were likely created by lightning strikes.

This is incredible: “Artisans may have held naturally magnetized mineral chunks near iron-rich, basalt boulders to find areas in the rock where magnetic forces pushed back, the scientists say in the June Journal of Archaeological Science. Predesignated parts of potbelly figures—which can stand more than 2 meters tall and weigh 10,000 kilograms or more—were then carved at those spots.”

It’s like a geological farm for the secondary effects of lightning. A lightning farm for real!

The mind boggles at the thought of magnetic landscape architecture, or magnetic masonry in ancient stonework, or even huge sculptures invisibly adhering to one another through magnetic forces, giving the appearance of magic.

Imagine a valley of exposed bedrock and boulders, its unusually high iron content making the rocks there attractive to lightning. Over tens of thousands of lightning strikes, the valley becomes partially magnetized, resulting in bizarre geological anomalies mistaken for the actions of a spirit world: small pebbles roll uphill, for example, or larger rocks inexplicably clump together in structurally precarious agglomerations. Stones perhaps hover an inch or two off the ground, pulled upward toward magnetic overhangs, or rocks visibly assemble themselves into small cairns, clicking into place one atop the other.

As you step into the valley, the only sound you hear is a trembling in the gravel ahead, as if the rocks are jostling for position. Your jewelry begins to float, pulling away from your wrists and chest.

Anyway, read more at ScienceNews.

(Also, watch for my friend Eva Barbarossa’s book on magnets coming out this fall.)

Terrestrial Concussion / Infinite Half-Life

[Image: Courtesy Xenon Collaboration, via ScienceNews].

Earthquakes, popularly seen as discrete, large-scale events that occur only once every few years—once a decade, once a century, once every thousand years—turn out to be nearly continuous. There are always earthquakes.

According to ScienceNews, “millions of tiny, undetected earthquakes rumble through the ground” every day in California. These are “quakes of such small magnitude that their signals were previously too small to be separated from noise.”

In other words, while we wait for the Big One—a true seismic event with the power to punctuate and interrupt everyday life—there are millions of smaller earthquakes constantly rattling the floors, walls, and roads we consider stable.

I’m reminded of a recent article in the New York Times about football player Ryan Miller. “Miller has had 10 concussions in all,” we read, “and that is to understate his battering. The brain sits in fluid inside the armor of a skull, and even nonconcussive whacks can result in brain colliding with bone. A couple of hard hits can come to resemble a concussion. The average football player, according to Cantu, takes 600 to 800 hits in high school and 800 to 1,000 in college.”

Concussions are like earthquakes, in other words: we wait for the Big One, but this means that, by definition, we miss the cumulative effects of all the little shocks along the way. Everything is moving; the earth is not stable; the landscape is jolting and cracking at a concussive rate, every day, beneath our feet.

On the opposite side of this temporal spectrum, the same website, ScienceNews, also reported that some radioactive decay takes so long, they can outlast our current universe.

“It takes 1 trillion times the age of the universe for a xenon-124 sample to shrink by half,” we read. “The decay, seen in xenon-124 atoms, happens so sparingly that it would take 18 sextillion years (18 followed by 21 zeros) for a sample of xenon-124 to shrink by half, making the decay extremely difficult to detect.”

That’s a bit of an understatement: it means you would need a machine significantly older than the universe to detect and measure these moments of decay.

[Image: Xenon, via Images of Elements].

The breakdown of this specific example—the element xenon-124—involves something called “two-neutrino double electron capture,” and I won’t even pretend to understand what it means. Nevertheless, what interests me here is the implied possibility that, well, on a universal timescale, everything is decaying. Everything is breaking down. But it occurs on a scale so huge it is inaccessible to human experience, certainly, but perhaps even to human cognition.

Imagine an element that decays only once every 750 trillion years. (Our current universe is 14 billion years old.) Imagine a creature living 749.999 trillion years, arrogantly thinking that its world is immortal.

In any case, this feels like the exact inverse of the previous example: while we’re on the hunt for radioactive decay, or while we’re out there looking for millions of overlooked mini-quakes and micro-concussions, we might actually miss detecting these massive punctuations of time, epic cycles so rare and daunting that our own universe cannot accommodate them.

For those attentive enough, in other words, there are concussions and earthquakes constantly; yet, on a large-enough timescale, everything decays, everything breaks down, everything has a half-life. Everything is radioactive. In the midst of all that, we make breakfast and take the subway to work.

300 Years of Dust

I’m late to the news that the ancient Akkadian Empire might have collapsed due to “dust activity” that “persisted for 300 years.” As a resident of Los Angeles, it’s sobering to read.

“Archaeologists have long been baffled by the abrupt abandonment of northern Mesopotamian settlements roughly 4,200 years ago,” Eos reports. This otherwise mysterious abandonment might have been catalyzed by three centuries of dust—“dust for 300 years”—arising from extreme drought and aridity.

The dust was so bad, in fact, it left a geological record in regional stalactites.

Perhaps that’s how the end will come, as a slow but relentless accumulation of dust on windowsills—in California, Arizona, Nevada—a civilizational collapse that should have been signaled, in retrospect, by the rapid growth of the house-cleaning economy, but that, for at least a generation, will take the form of puzzled homeowners wiping wetted cloths along wood trim, wondering if there’s something going on outside.