House on the Border

There’s a great detail in a recent news story about cross-border smuggling in a small northern township, where upstate New York meets Quebec. Some homes in Dundee straddle the international border between the U.S. and Canada (recalling the marbled, enclave-rich border town of Baarle-Hertog or even Derby Line, Vermont).

In a report about a man arrested for gun-running, Radio-Canada refers to this man’s house as a “maison sur la frontière,” or house on the border: “located on Beaver Road, the house can be found in both Canada and the United States” (translating from French).

Indeed, although I cannot guarantee this is the right place, you can see a structure on Google Maps at the end of Beaver Road (Chemin Beaver) that sits astride the international border.

[Image: Via Google Maps.]

“Due to the presence of several such properties in Dundee,” the article continues, “this special location makes this municipality a historically recognized location for contraband, especially alcohol smuggling during the Prohibition era. It is therefore not new that properties along the border in this area have come under increased surveillance by the RCMP, which keeps an eye on real estate transactions and activities in the area.”

You take something in through the American side and just slide it across into Canada, crossing the border silently in the comfort of your own home.

As designer Daniel Benneworth-Gray joked on Twitter, residents could simply put everything on Lazy Susans “in case there’s a raid”: rotating furniture spun from one jurisdiction to the next in a house full of cross-border cupboards, compartments, and shelves, all connected to wheels, ropes, and pulleys, the whole place a kind of pinball machine through which illegal objects continually leave and re-enter the country.

Birds and Burglary

I’ve become obsessed with birds over the past year of lockdown, after a mourning dove couple began nesting directly outside our kitchen window. We saw the doves every day, patiently handing off their nest roles each morning and evening, cooperatively raising a little one—unsuccessfully, sadly—and pecking around for seeds and nesting material on the ground. (You can see many, many pics of the doves, if you’re so inclined, over on @highlandparkdoves.) So far this year, they have not returned to nest again.

To my friends’ baffled disinterest, meanwhile, I have fallen head over heels for incredibly common birds—species like mourning doves (the greatest birds, my friends), house sparrows (so numerous, people treat them like pests), house finches, and California towhees (ugly little brown birds that act so strangely—or at least the ones living near our house do—that they are close to mourning doves in my level of obsession). More than once, following vaccination, I have sat with friends outside in our backyard absolutely losing my mind at how adorable all the towhees, sparrows, and mourning doves are as they fly in to get seeds and water, only to realize that everyone else is looking at me as if it’s finally time for this party to end…

In any case, the idea that my interest in unspectacular bird species might have something in common with my other interests, such as burglary, never really crossed my mind, to be honest, but I keep thinking about two recent stories I thought I’d post here briefly.

One was a minor post by Audobon about birds using shopping carts as cover for sneaking into grocery stores. “Birds,” we read, “have been known to linger in them like Greeks in the Trojan Horse.” You push a line of carts through the automatic doors, unaware of the little winged invaders hidden inside, and they quickly spread out, looking for rafters, food, and perhaps a cold Modelo or two.

The other is the allegedly true story of how Eurasian collared doves arrived in North America. The story goes that, back in the 1970s, a pet store somewhere in the Bahamas was burglarized and a few collared doves managed to escape; the owner subsequently freed the rest of his collared doves and, within a few years, they had made it across to Florida. Forty years later, Eurasian collared doves are now found all over the United States—including here where I live in Los Angeles.

[Image: A Eurasian collared dove swoops in to say hello; photo by BLDGBLOG.]

A few weeks ago, my wife and I noticed the subtly different coo of a Eurasian collared dove coming from somewhere nearby in our neighborhood, a song that only got louder and louder—that is, closer and closer to our house—over the weeks to come. Then, just yesterday afternoon, a slightly lost-looking Eurasian collared dove landed in our backyard, hoping for seed. (Said curious bird appears in the image, above.) From escaped cousins in the Bahamas to Southern California—via burglary.

Tying everyday common bird species back to true crime is, I’m now hoping, a good way to get my friends—and you!—interested in these little beauties. Avian crime! Birds and burglary! In fact, it brings to mind Laurel Braitman’s great story about Echo, the parrot in a witness-protection program.

(Vaguely related further bird content: Acoustic Archaeology.)

Noodle Raider

There’s an interesting detail at the start of a recent Economist piece about a network of tomb raiders in China, or bands of archaeological burglars who have been breaking into and stealing artifacts from ancient sites all over the country.

“By day,” the piece begins, “Mr Wei sold pancakes in Shaanxi, a northern province. By night he led a gang of grave robbers who tunneled under an ancient temple near his shop. It took 11 months for them to reach the treasures buried beneath, which included gold statues of the Buddha and the bones of illustrious monks. Mr Wei and his cronies went on to dig several more passages from restaurants that they opened in the vicinity of shrines and pagodas.”

For as many as five years, allegedly, the crew hit graves and tombs, abetted by this false front of restaurants that were actually being used as forward operating bases for underground tunneling operations. This is quite the modus operandi—though, to be 100% clear, it is not something I am commending. Admiration of method should not be confused with advocacy for its implementation.

Nevertheless, the prospect of these restaurants’ secret purpose being discovered, or even suspected, could easily be the start of a novel or comic book: you and your single parent, say, live alone above an empty restaurant on a dilapidated side street in your depressed hometown, near an old historic site of some sort, when a new owner signs a lease downstairs. A week later, a noodle shop opens. But the food is terrible—it’s just a Coke machine and some instant ramen—and there are strange sounds at night and whispered voices coming up through the ducts. Unexplained piles of dirt begin to appear out back in the alley. Then one day you decide to investigate.

In any case, you can read more about Mr. Wei and his noodle-shop tomb raiding over at the Economist.

Every Reflection A Leak

[Image: “Two images of the same room, one reconstructed from video footage of a bag of chips within the room (top) and the other photographed directly (bottom),” as described by Scientific American. Images courtesy Jeong Joon Park.]

“Researchers have now found that by filming a brief video clip of a shiny item, they can use the light flashing off it to construct a rough picture of the room around it,” Scientific American reports. “The results are surprisingly accurate, whether the reflections come from a bowl, a cylinder or a crinkly bag of potato chips.”

It comes down to mathematically modeling “what a known object will look like—how light will reflect off it—when it is placed in new surroundings,” such that you can then reconstruct the proper orientation of what it reflects.

There’s a lot more in the original article, but what immediately struck me about this was how this technology could be used for crime or espionage, both.

You send an unsuspecting group of school kids into a target building, carrying highly reflective silver balloons, or you wear a slyly reflective and precisely designed item of clothing into a business meeting: in both cases, a photographer on a roof across the street or hidden in a park nearby snaps away through a telephoto lens. The reflections spilling off in all directions are like a 360º spherical photograph of the building interior—the art on the walls, the position of furniture. The location of a safe.

Think of the Japanese pop star who was tracked by a stalker after he deduced her location by analyzing the reflection in her eye in a selfie. Every mirrored surface becomes a security leak—“Las Meninas” as burglary tool.

[Image: “Las Meninas” (1656) by Diego Velázquez; if my reference to this painting makes absolutely no sense in the present context, it’s because I’m being pretentious and indirectly referring to Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, where he discusses the painting’s use of internal reflection.]

Of course, you may also recall that sounds can be reconstructed from the vibrations of distant objects: “Researchers at MIT, Microsoft, and Adobe have developed an algorithm that can reconstruct an audio signal by analyzing minute vibrations of objects depicted in video. In one set of experiments, they were able to recover intelligible speech from the vibrations of a potato-chip bag photographed from 15 feet away through soundproof glass… In other experiments, they extracted useful audio signals from videos of aluminum foil, the surface of a glass of water, and even the leaves of a potted plant.”

It’s worth noting here how potato chip bags pop up in each example. Ocean’s 14 will open with a surreptitious potato chip delivery…

In any case, political dissidents, high-value corporate CEOs, and adversarial diplomatic attachés will never be safe again. Just a brief reflection from a cigarette lighter or a piece of silverware, just a tiny ripple of sound across the leaves of an exotic orchid in the center of a dinner table, and someone across the city with a telescope has your bank passcode, the location of your home safe, and a complete 3D map of your building interior, even down to where your security guards are sitting.

[This is only somewhat related, but recall that an engineer at Carnegie Mellon has developed “a long-range iris scanner that can identify someone as they glance at their rear-view mirror” in a moving vehicle, Rob Meyer reported for The Atlantic back in 2015.]

Weed Hoax Architecture

[Image: Weeds, via Wikipedia.]

This story, from July 1988, feels unexpectedly timely today, given our new era of experimental sci-fi building materials, from mushroom bricks to translucent wood.

“Two brothers were convicted by a federal jury Thursday on charges that they organized an elaborate hoax in which they duped investors of $3 million with claims that they had found a way to transform common weeds into ‘Space Age’ synthetic building materials,” the L.A. Times reported. “They gave the products names, including ‘Impervium’ and ‘Impervicon,’ and at one time peddled them on the ‘700 Club,’ an evangelical television program, according to the charges.”

This would make a great premise for a short story or novel, for what it’s worth.

(Spotted via Peter Smith.)

Geofencing and Investigatory Datasheds

There’s a lot to write about “geofencing” as a law enforcement practice, but, for now, I’ll just link to this piece in the New York Times about the use of device-tracking in criminal investigations.

There, we read about something called Sensorvault: “Sensorvault, according to Google employees, includes detailed location records involving at least hundreds of millions of devices worldwide and dating back nearly a decade.”

To access Sensorvault, members of law enforcement can use a “geofence warrant.” This is a hybrid digital/geographic search warrant that will “specify an area and a time period” for which “Google gathers information from Sensorvault about the devices that were there. It labels them with anonymous ID numbers, and detectives look at locations and movement patterns to see if any appear relevant to the crime. Once they narrow the field to a few devices they think belong to suspects or witnesses, Google reveals the users’ names and other information.”

In other words, you can isolate a specific private yard, public park, city street, or even several residential blocks during a particular period of time, then—with the right warrant—every device found within or crossing through that window can be revealed.

To a certain extent, the notion of a “crime scene” has thus been digitally expanded, taking on a kind of data shadow, as someone simply driving down a street or sitting in a park one day with their phone out is now within the official dataprint of an investigation. Or perhaps datashed—as in watershed—is a better metaphor.

But this, of course, is where things get strange, from both a political and a narrative point of view. Political, because why not just issue a permanent, standing geofence warrant for certain parts of the city in order to track entire targeted populations, whether they’re a demographic group or members of a political opposition? And narrative, because how does this change what it means to witness something, to overhear something, to be privy to something, to be an accomplice or unwilling participant? And is it you or your device that will be able to recount what really occurred?

From a narrative point of view, in other words, anyone whose phone was within the datashed of an event becomes a witness or participant, a character, someone who an author—let alone an authority—now needs to track.

(For more thoughts on witnessing, narrative, and authors/authorities, I wrote a piece for The Atlantic last year that might be of interest.)

Metropolitan Accomplice

[Image: Photo by Jonas Roosens/AFP/Getty Images, courtesy of the Guardian].

You might have seen the news that a crew of burglars used sewer tunnels beneath the diamond district in Antwerp, Belgium, to break into a nearby bank vault.

“Detectives in Antwerp are searching for clues in a sewage pipe under the Belgian city’s diamond quarter after burglars apparently crawled through it to break into a bank holding safe deposit boxes full of jewels,” the Guardian reported.

The heist allegedly began across the street, in a separate building, where they dug into the sewer network; one of the city’s many subterranean pipes led close enough to the bank that the crew could then tunnel just a few more meters to make entrance.

A couple of details stand out. For example, the police apparently had to hang back long enough to take gas measurements above the newly opened sewer tunnel, fearing either that the air quality would be so bad that they could risk asphyxiation or that the sewer emanations themselves might be explosive.

Either way, this suggests a possible strategic move by future burglars, who night now know that police—or, at the very least, police not equipped with gas masks—will be delayed due to chemical concerns. Infrastructural off-gassing could become a kind of criminal camouflage.

The other detail is simply that, when the police began investigating the crime, “The first the residents of the central Antwerp district knew of the incident was when police raised all the manhole covers running down the centre of Nerviërsstraat,” the Guardian reported. This otherwise inexplicable sight—law enforcement officers suddenly raising the lid on the city’s underworld—was actually part of a forensic investigation.

I’ve already written at length about tunnel jobs used in bank heists—including a still-unsolved crime from Los Angeles, back in the 1980s—in my book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, so I will defer to that book in terms of addressing specific aspects of underground crime. In fact, I would perhaps even more specifically recommend the book Flawless by Scott Selby and Greg Campbell, about another, massive heist in Antwerp’s diamond district pulled off in 2003.

[Images: Sewer maps and diagrams are now freely available online; the ones seen here are from Los Angeles and detail the same neighborhood in which a 1986 bank heist occurred, where the bandits tunneled into a vault using the city’s stormwater network. Read more in A Burglar’s Guide to the City or in retired FBI agent Bill Rehder’s absurdly enjoyable memoir, Where The Money Is].

Instead, what seems worth commenting on here is simply the very nature of urban infrastructure and the ease with which it can be repurposed for designing, planning, and committing crimes. The city itself can be an accomplice in acts entirely unrelated to the infrastructure in question. A freeway route enables a bank-heist getaway, a sewer tunnel offers jewel thieves a subterranean method of entry, a specific intersection’s geometric complexity means that carjackings are more likely to occur there: the city is filled with silent accomplices to future criminal activity, activities and events unforeseen by most city planners.

Will this intersection lead to more carjackings? is unlikely to be high on the list of questions posed by community feedback, yet it’s exactly that sort of tactical thinking that might allow designers to stay one step ahead of the criminals who seek to abuse those same designers’ finished projects.

(Thanks to Nicola Twilley for the tip!)

Mars P.D.

[Image: Illustration by Matt Chinworth, via The Atlantic].

Last summer, I got obsessed with the idea of how future crimes will be investigated on Mars. If we accept the premise that humans will one day settle the Red Planet, then, it seems to me, we should be prepared to see the same old vices pop up all over again, from kidnapping and burglary to serial murder, even bank heists.

If there is a mining depot on Mars, in other words, then there will be someone plotting to rob it.

But who will have the jurisdictional power to investigate these crimes? What sorts of forensic tools will offworld police use to analyze Martian crime scenes contaminated by relentless solar exposure, where the planet’s low gravity will make blood spatter differently from stab wounds? Further, if there is a future Martian crime wave, what sort of prison architecture would be appropriate—if any—for detaining perpetrators on another world?

Over the long and often surreal process of researching these sorts of questions, I spoke with legendary sci-fi novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, with Arctic archaeologist Christyann Darwent, with space law expert Elsbeth Magilton, with astrobiologist and political activist Lucianne Walkowicz, with political theorists Charles Cockell and Philip Steinberg, and with UCLA astrophysicist David Paige. All of them, through their own particular fields of expertise, helped chip away at various aspects of the question of what non-terrestrial law enforcement.

Incredibly, I also met a 4th-degree black belt in Aikido named Josh Gold who has been working with a team of advisors to develop a new martial art for space, rethinking the basics of human movement for a world with low—or even, on a space station, no—gravity. How do you pin someone to the ground, for example, when is no ground to pin them on?

In any case, will we need a Mars P.D.? If so, what exactly might a Martian police department look like?

The full feature is now up over at The Atlantic.

Thermal Crime Wave

[Image: From FBI surveillance video in Baltimore].

One interesting side-effect of ever-intensifying heatwaves in an era of global climate change might be that infrared imaging technology used by the police is no longer quite as effective. Human bodies will be cooler than the surrounding landscape, meaning that they could simply disappear from view.

It’s like that scene in The Thomas Crown Affair where a portable heater, hidden inside a briefcase, incapacitates an infrared surveillance camera at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—only, here, it’s been scaled up to an entire metropolis. Heat the city; disappear.

This is, of course, a solved problem—forward-looking infrared (FLIR) cameras can be adjusted to accommodate different temperature ranges. Nonetheless, it’s intriguing to imagine a fictional future crime wave timed specifically and deliberately for a night of excruciatingly hot temperatures in a city somewhere, the bodies of criminals mischievously blending in with the buildings around them as they only rob buildings close to their own thermal range. Criminals armed with precision thermometers, casing the city.

That, or they can simply wear graphene.

(Thanks to @raihan_ for the heads up; also, I wrote fairly extensively about police FLIR use in A Burglar’s Guide to the City.)

Logan

[Image: Philadelphia’s Logan neighborhood, via Google Maps].

On a work trip to Philadelphia last week, I learned about the city’s semi-evacuated Logan neighborhood. As you can see in the satellite view, above, a huge swath of the neighborhood was emptied of its residents, their buildings torn down—because the ground there is not really ground at all, but “an unstable foundation of cinder and ash on a creek bed.”

As the New York Times reported back in 1989, “row houses listed at angry angles, sidewalks were crumbled and the ground seemed no more steady than the nerves of the residents… The houses are sinking, officials say, because the soil is shifting.”

“Some parts of vacant houses, like front porches or walls, have collapsed on their own,” we read, as if the neighborhood had become a slow, gridded sea of unspectacular but relentless subterranean motion. Some houses took on the form of scuttled ships: “Some sag. Some list. Some lean into each other, Corinthian columns askew. One front porch juts upward, like the prow of a galleon. In some homes, the tilt is so bad it looks as if dishes would slide off the dinner table.”

[Image: The empty streets of Logan, via Google Street View].

Unsurprisingly, the results were often nightmarish. Houses were “constantly flooded by raw sewage” from leaking pipes. Gas lines exploded. Or this, also from the New York Times:

Elizabeth Stone, a secretary who has lived in Logan for 15 years with her husband and three children, said she moved her washing machine from the basement to her kitchen because the basement floor was caving in. Her dryer is still down there, but she will not go in the basement because she is afraid the floor will collapse. Besides, she said, there are rats down there and there seem to be more of them in the neighborhood because of shifting foundations.

Perhaps the most evocative description, however, comes from a 2010 entry on the blog Philadelphia Neighborhoods.

A lone medical facility, run by Dr. Donald Turner, was never moved, receiving no help or financial aid from the city, which claimed it was somehow more stable than literally every other building around it. This, despite the fact that the ground has visibly buckled and the evacuated neighborhood around it became a magnet for crime.

In the late 1980s, when the removal of the houses commenced, [Dr. Turner’s] building was spared. “My building should have been one of the first to go,” he says. Houses sat directly next to and across the street from his office. “This whole street was houses!” he exclaims, pointing to a cement path that now sinks into an empty field.

As residents were moved out, the houses were left vacant and became hot spots for criminal mischief. When they were eventually torn down, things got even worse. Turner’s office fell victim to numerous crimes. “People have drilled through the ceiling and climbed in through the back window,” he explains, “they want pills, once one of them had a gun.”

Dr. Turner thus put up a rather apocalyptic sign proclaiming, “Mayor Goode Thought My White Friends Would Help Me.”

The real kicker, however, is this: “‘One time a cancer patient fell in a sinkhole,’ says Turner, ‘I thought they’d shut me down for sure.’”

They did not. The building, incredibly, is apparently still there.

A Burglar’s Guide to Harvard

I was stoked to see a class being taught at Harvard this summer inspired by A Burglar’s Guide to the City. Called “(Don’t) Steal this Painting: A Burglar’s Guide to the Museum,” the course is led by Matthew Battles. It’s only open to Harvard students, alas, but if that accurately describes you then give it a shot.