Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Waves and Radiation: from Moscow, Maine to Moscow, Russia

In the late days of the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force acquired miles of forestland in northern Maine to erect an enormous array of steel antennae, designed to listen over the horizon for aircraft and missiles approaching from beyond the iron curtain.

The installation, ironically enough, was located in a sparsely-populated town called Moscow. The steel towers have since been scrapped, but Dave of paid a visit a few years ago while they were still intact, and got these amazing photos.

Naturally, the Soviets had their own over-the-horizon radar installation pointed at us. That array happens to be located near Chernobyl, inside the Exclusion Zone. It still stands amidst irradiated, wild forests, a mirror-world reflection of Moscow, Maine.

Images from English Russia.

Officially called "Duga," or "Arc," for the shape of its coverage area, this array was known in the western world as the "Russian woodpecker" for the rapid thumps it broadcast into short-wave radio receivers. In the 1970s and 80s, civilian radio enthusiasts in the western world could hear these signals clearly, and were even able to triangulate their source to a location near Kiev. But beyond that, little was officially known.

In this 1982 BBC Horizon documentary, ostensibly about the technologies of Nicola Tesla, a Canadian bureaucrat named Andrew Michrowski speculates that Duga was a "Tesla magnifying transmitter" broadcasting psychoactive waves into the western world to interfere with our brains.

The beginning of this clip provides an audio recording of the woodpecker signal, followed by some entertaining Cold War conspiracy theories:
A partial transcript:
Michrowski: Because it is the same frequency, the same frequency range, and also the same kind of activity that goes on in our brains. That is the terrible thing about the Soviet signal: the capacity to impose on the way people, quote, think. This thinking that I'm talking about is the thinking of being peaceful, the ability to be calm, the ability to rationalize, [they] are all affected from a purely mental point of view by signals of this nature.

Narrator: Is there any defense? This personal transmitter puts out 7.8 cycles a second, which Michrowski says is a natural planetary frequency the body is tuned to. [...]

Michrowski: This is being used as far as we are aware by the German Civil Service... It is mainly a protective mechanism to ensure that the German Civil Servant, especially on external affairs duty, is able to keep his composure, in negotiations especially with other people and other countries. To make sure that they're not influenced.
To the BBC's credit, the documentary gives a more enlightening explanation of over-the-horizon radar technology once Michrowski stops hawking his protective organic radio wave device (at around 3:20 in the clip above). 

These huge radar arrays, one located in the expansive forests of our cold northern frontier, the other located in a radioactive zone of exclusion, don't broadcast any signals any more. But as rusting relics of the 20th century, they still exert a morbid allure, inviting us to speculate about hidden, secret purposes they might once have had.

Years after the end of the Cold War, after the power has been shut down, their psychoactive properties finally begin to take root, affecting our thoughts and imaginations — not with a pulsing radio signal, but with the eerie quiet of an empty meadow and rusted wires stirring in the breeze.

I hope to visit the Moscow site later this summer, and hopefully to find some good local lore about the site. I'll keep you posted on this blog.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Ten thousand public bikes bloom in Manhattan

Later this summer, New York City city will roll out thousands of publicly-owned bikes parked at stations, spaced a few blocks apart across three boroughs, where visitors, workers, and neighborhood residents will be able to borrow a bike for short-term rentals.

Lots of other cities have already pioneered the bikesharing idea (even Houston, Texas managed to implement bikesharing before New York did, with a much smaller 3-station downtown network that opened this spring). With origins in Paris and Montreal, bikesharing has always had a tinge of utopian socialism to it, promoting the shared use of public property over privately-owned vehicles.

But it's a socialist idea that works brilliantly, thanks to mobile technology: users can use their smartphones to locate bikes and a station near their destination, while bikeshare managers can locate lost or broken bikes with GPS, and dynamically track which stations need more bikes due to high demand. Lots of new business startups seek to duplicate the same communistic idea of letting people share their private property (whether spare bedrooms or automobiles) in exchange for small rental payments. Bikesharing makes cycling in cities easier, cheaper, and more fun, resulting in more people riding bikes for short trips in the cities where it's been established.

Private property, it turns out, is a hassle to take care of. But new technology allows people to enjoy the communitarian benefits of shared property thanks to the capitalist accountability of credit card security deposits and rental payments.

New York City's state-owned bicycles wholeheartedly embrace this ironic marriage of utopian environmentalist socialism with hard-nosed capitalism. They've been named "Citi Bikes," after Citibank, which contributed a $41 million for the naming rights.

Wall Street quants riding to work like Maoist factory workers (although even Maoists own their own bikes) will do so astride bikes plastered with the Citibank logo, and pay at stations that prefer MasterCard, another corporate sponsor.

And so here is a photo, via Streetsblog, of three transportation policy wonks (from left: NYC Deputy Mayor Robert Steel, Alta Bikeshare CEO Alison Cohen, NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan) and three billionaires (Mayor Michael Bloomberg, MasterCard CEO Ajay Banga, and Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit).

In a few more years, bikesharing stations will be as much a part of our stereotypical vision of the generic urban landscape as newsstands and bus shelters are today.

Friday, May 04, 2012

The Language of Waves and Radiation

“The supermarket shelves have been rearranged. It happened one day without warning. There is agitation and panic in the aisles, dismay in the faces of older shoppers.
[...] They scrutinize the small print on packages, wary of a second level of betrayal. The men scan for stamped dates, the women for ingredients. Many have trouble making out the words. Smeared print, ghost images. In the altered shelves, the ambient roar, in the plain and heartless fact of their decline, they try to work their way through confusion. But in the end it doesn’t matter what they see or think they see. The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly. This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living. And this is where we wait together, regardless of our age, our carts stocked with brightly colored goods. A slowly moving line, satisfying, giving us time to glance at the tabloids in the racks. Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead.”

-Don Delillo, from the conclusion of White Noise

Our grocery store is finishing a remodeling project. The place feels different in ways that are hard to place — the changes are subtle enough that you can't remember what it looked like before, but the cumulative effect is of being someplace that's at once familiar and strange, as though pranksters moved your bedroom furniture a few inches while you slept.

When I visited yesterday, the changes raised all sorts of questions: how many focus groups and research studies went into determining how high this shelf is, or what kind of lightbulbs to use? And where is the yogurt?

And yet, the overall effect was effective: the colors seemed brighter, the aisles more spacious, my appetite for groceries stronger.

It reminded me of Don Delillo's White Noise, which has a number of amazing passages about supermarkets. I came home and skimmed the book for those passages again, and found my favorite, the one quoted above, which occupies the very last page of the book. A pretty amazing conclusion: an apotheosis of the consumer experience.

So it felt even more wonderful to experience the same sensations in real life, and be aware of them. Was this desire to consume more a subconscious reaction to the new environment that retail analysts and architects had designed explicitly for that purpose?

Or maybe the physical details of the remodeling are irrelevant, and the simple awareness of the remodeling itself — the mere idea of the remodeling — was enough to convey expectations that I should buy more, in order to blend in with the consensus of (real or imagined) focus groups and balance sheets. To be in harmony with the language of waves and radiation.