The Los Angeles County Department of Ambient Music vs. The Superfires of Tomorrow

You might have seen the news last month that two students from George Mason University developed a way to put out fires using sound.

“It happens so quickly you almost don’t believe it,” the Washington Post reported at the time. “Seth Robertson and Viet Tran ignite a fire, snap on their low-rumbling bass frequency generator and extinguish the flames in seconds.”

Indeed, it seems to work so well that “they think the concept could replace the toxic and messy chemicals involved in fire extinguishers.”

There are about a million interesting things here, but I was totally captivated by two points, in particular.

At one point in the video, co-inventor Viet Tran suggests that the device could be used in “swarm robotics” where it would be “attached to a drone” and then used to put out fires, whether wildfires or large buildings such as the recent skyscraper fire in Dubai. But consider how this is accomplished; from the Washington Post:

The basic concept, Tran said, is that sound waves are also “pressure waves, and they displace some of the oxygen” as they travel through the air. Oxygen, we all recall from high school chemistry, fuels fire. At a certain frequency, the sound waves “separate the oxygen [in the fire] from the fuel. The pressure wave is going back and forth, and that agitates where the air is. That specific space is enough to keep the fire from reigniting.”

While I’m aware that it’s a little strange this would be the first thing to cross my mind, surely this same effect could be weaponized, used to thin the air of oxygen and cause targeted asphyxiation wherever these robot swarms are sent next. After all, even something as simple as an over-loud bass line in your car can physically collapse your lungs: “One man was driving when he experienced a pneumothorax, characterised by breathlessness and chest pain,” the BBC reported back in 2004. “Doctors linked it to a 1,000 watt ‘bass box’ fitted to his car to boost the power of his stereo.”

In other words, motivated by a large enough defense budget—or simply by unadulterated misanthropy—you could thus suffocate whole cities with an oxygen-thinning swarm of robot sound systems in the sky. Those “Ride of the Valkyries”-blaring speakers mounted on Robert Duvall’s helicopter in Apocalypse Now might be playing something far more sinister over the battlefields of tomorrow.

However, the other, more ethically acceptable point of interest here is the possible landscape effect such an invention might have—that is, the possibility that this could be scaled-up to fight forest fires. There are a lot of problems with this, of course, including the fact that, even if you deplete a fire of oxygen, if the temperature remains high, it will simply flicker back to life and keep burning.

[Image: The Grateful Dead “wall of sound,” via].

Nonetheless, there is something awesomely compelling in the idea that a wildfire burning in the woods somewhere in the mountains of Arizona might be put out by a wall of speakers playing ultra-low bass lines, rolling specially designed patterns of sound across the landscape, so quiet you almost can’t hear it.

A hum rumbles across the roots and branches of burning trees; there is a moment of violent trembling, as if an unseen burst of wind has blown through; and then the flames go out, leaving nothing but tendrils of smoke and this strange acoustic presence buzzing further into the fires up ahead.

Instead of emergency amphibious aircraft dropping lake water on remote conflagrations, we’d have mobile concerts of abstract sound—the world’s largest ambient raves—broadcast through National Parks and on the edges of desert cities.

Desperate, Los Angeles County hires a Department of Ambient Music to save the city from a wave of drought-augmented superfires; equipped with keyboards and effects pedals, wearing trucker hats and plaid, these heroes of the drone wander forth to face the inferno, extinguishing flames with lush carpets of anoxic sound.

(Spotted via New York Magazine).

The Cloud

[Image: Photo by Kim Johnson Flodin/Associated Press, via the New York Times].

Not being a local news follower, I found myself sitting outside yesterday afternoon in Los Angeles, beneath a huge brown cloud that seemed to hover there, more or less stationary, above the parking lot beside me. The cloud was totally alone, surrounded on all sides by perfectly blue sky, as if a thunderstorm had rolled in only to change its mind and drift off, leaving part of itself behind, atmospherically orphaned in the sunlight. After all, there was no rain.

The cloud didn’t appear to be moving.

I began expecting an earthquake.

“Is there a fire or something?” I asked a guy wearing sunglasses as he walked past me on the sidewalk – but it occurred to me, absurdly, even as I heard myself asking him the question, that perhaps the cloud would be impossible to see through his sunglasses: its color would be visually filtered out by the glass’s tint and so he wouldn’t even know what I was talking about.

Instead, he just nodded and said, “Uh huh,” walking off past Radio Shack.

Still detached from the local news cycle at that point, and beginning to notice that not a single other person was looking up into the sky at what seemed, at least to me, to be a very obvious and possibly threatening brown cloud, I decided that people here really must be so over-trustful of the world that even a menacing, oily blur hovering above their heads could simply be perceptually filed away as some weird but harmless fluke: it’ll go away – it won’t be here tomorrow – and you can therefore just forget it ever happened…

Don’t think about it and it won’t harm you.

Which is when I remembered something called the “airborne toxic event” from Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise.

About a third of the way through that book, there is a train derailment somewhere outside a small American college town. The accident releases a toxic cloud into the sky: “the smoke was plainly visible,” we read, “a heavy black mass hanging in the air beyond the river, more or less shapeless.”

One of the characters says it resembles “a shapeless growing thing. A dark black breathing thing of smoke.”

Families close to the accident are soon asked to evacuate – “Abandon all domiciles,” an amplified voice calls out, broadcast from a truck that drives through the cul-de-sacs – while “medical problems” that might develop upon “personal contact with the airborne toxic event” are discussed on the radio.

One of these problems is apparently déjà vu.

The source of the cloud, meanwhile, is being buried by snow machines, in the weird hope that this will thermo-chemically contain its spread; and so an artificial winter begins to erupt as rogue flakes blow on contaminated winds through the suburbs. Etc. etc. It’s all very ironic and surreal.

At one point, though, the drifting cloud becomes an all-out military spectacle:

A few minutes later, back on the road, we saw a remarkable and startling sight. It appeared in the sky ahead of us and to the left, prompting us to lower ourselves in our seats, bend our heads for a clearer view, exclaim to each other in half finished phrases. It was the black billowing cloud, the airborne toxic event, lighted by the clear beams of seven army helicopters. They were tracking its windborne movement, keeping it in view. In every car, heads shifted, drivers blew their horns to alert others, faces appeared in side windows, expressions set in tones of outlandish wonderment.
The enormous dark mass moved like some death ship in a Norse legend, escorted across the night by armored creatures with spiral wings. We weren’t sure how to react.

To find out what happens next, both to the cloud and to the people watching it, you’ll just have to read the book; but, returning to a bench in Los Angeles yesterday on top of which I sat, looking up at an oily blur that seemed oddly rooted in place there above a parking lot, with no one else visibly concerned, no one else appearing to wonder what on earth it was that had come to visit us that day, there in the atmosphere, shadowing us, I was sad to learn that the whole thing was just the downwind result of a fire in the Hollywood Hills – an event I had otherwise managed to miss seeing entirely.

[Images: Via the BBC].

So much for the sublime or the inexplicable or the mysterious. I went back to reading, and the cloud blew away.