Monday, June 29, 2015

Living in the Age of Cactus Cameras

What a lovely cactus in the middle of that new roundabout...hey wait a minute...

Smile, you're on candid cactus: PV gets eyes on plates.

News of these broke in all the usual places about a month and a half ago, so this is just about my little post-work ramble* to grab a couple of pictures of a camera semi-hiding in a cactus in the middle of a roundabout.

These are license plate cameras, of a design and technology such that they can accurately capture images of passing license plates, transmit them to some central facility, then OCR (optically character recognition) the images so the plates, or rather the drivers of the vehicles to which the plates are attached, can be tracked, or identified against some alert database of plates of concern, or, at a later date, searched for information related to crime. Amber alerts were the example used in most of the news stories I read.

There are, I think I read, eleven installations of these ringing Paradise Valley, stationed at the major entrances to the town, capturing and digitizing the plates of all vehicles passing by.

I read more facts, much more, but the curious can use the same tools and sources I did, go and read about the controversy, the funding, the initial semi-secrecy which quickly moved to openness and explanation. It's all there for the reading.

What interests me is that we live in an age where we do this thing. Build fake cactii, mount high-tech cameras in them, snap images of passing license plates, use OCR software to read the plates, store the data and match it against other data. I guess it's a passing thing, these photo cactii, since once we're all riding around in driverless cars, passively drinking in a highly targeted non-stop stream of advertainments, our whereabouts will always be known, our current mood and shopping preferences already recorded by the commercial chariot we're riding around inside of, our images recorded by the multiple cameras mounted inside the vehicle, so that it will hardly be necessary to go the cactii cam route any longer. Everything will be known, digitized, correlated, matched, tracked, preferenced, scored, and wish-anticipated back at us in real time.

I guess, in case the driverless cars become sentient and try to take over, the cactii cams could be dusted off and reactivated, used to track errant driverless vehicles. Of course, for that to work, they would have to be on their own separate network, so that they don't just become extensions of the Mind, used to spot and track any humans who dare to venture "outside" under their own power, walking, say, or cycling.

I'll wave at the cactus cams when I ride by. Go around the circle twice, to see if it recognizes me.    

From the other side, just a squat saguaro behind a gabion town sign

*was going to say that I snapped these on my way home, but this is only on my way home in the sense that going 40% out the direct way home on a Phoenix summer afternoon can be considered "on the way," which is just the type of casual exageration that gets me in trouble with those who claim I enjoy riding my bike so much that I sometimes make up stories which, regardless of their superficial content of alleged fact, are at their very foundations just excuses for riding my bike farther, or later, or for seeking out and taking photos of things like license plate cameras mounted in cactus-like structures.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Goathead Again!

Goathead thorn, or "nutlet", from my bike tire

I rode around for a few days with this thing stuck in my front tire. I saw the non-thorny seedy part stuck on it, and know pretty much what it was. Since I have sealant in my tires, these tend to poke in and form an airtight and well-stuck seal, and when they're not right in the tread, will stay there riding round and round somewhat harmlessly, at least for a while. If they're directly in the tread, on the other hand, the seedy part will usually grind right off, leaving only the thorn part behind, which sometimes stays stuck inside the tire poking a series of holes into the tube, or pops out, accompanied by a "hissssss" sound.

The thorns of this plant, Tribulus terrestris, known as "puncture vine" and a bunch of other names, are hard on bike tires. I've had several kevlar-based puncture layers on different tires punched right through by them. Only one I can think of it didn't go right through was a Continental Ultra Gatorskin, and I'm thinking Schwalbe Marathon Supremes might also hold up, but these little "nutlets" go through tough stuff--stuff that rejects tacks and glass regularly. Also, the geometry of the spike seems such that it often renders tire sealant ineffective.

At least I was able to wait until I was in my house, in the air conditioning, to pull it out and change the tube. After I pulled this one out of the tire, careful to not puncture my finger at the same time, I found another spike poking inside the tire casing, too, from another goathead, this one of the ground-off, directly in the tread type.

I've mentioned them on the blog before, of course, but didn't think I had a good photo of one. Now I do. There's something in there about "any ride might have its thorns," but I'm tired, and honestly just glad this one was easy to take care of, and that there don't seem to be too many out there. The large patches of the weed are recognized for the menace they are, and dealt with quickly, yet, somehow, the stray nutlet still shows up in my tire somewhat regularly. Seemingly more often when the weather turns blisteringly hot.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

I Don't Want a Driverless Car to Take Me to Golden Waters

I self-powered and self-navigated on my bicycle to see Golden Waters by Grimanesa Amorós

I read a post today on a new blog called Bank Underground that says it's written by staff at the Bank of England. This post is about the potential disruptive effects of driverless cars (self-driving, autonomous, Wall-E chaise lounges) on the insurance industry. Far fewer expected accidents is one potentially disrupting factor. Another is that liability may shift from drivers, since there won't be any, to the manufacturers.  A third is assessing risk of issuing insurance, since that is primarily done based on information about the driver and their locale today, but would have to be based on other things.

That post triggered in me so many thoughts of resistance, it's hard to know where to begin. Not really regarding the main points of the post, above, although if you think the police are indifferent at best today about traffic incidents or accidents involving cyclists, wait until they have to contact a car manufacturer about one of their autonomous driving units allegedly hitting a cyclist (was he wearing a helmet?). 

No, my reaction was powered by thinking about how much information search engines and data hoovers already have about us, combined with the driverless car scenario giving them access to more about us, combined with having us captive inside one of their products for hours on end, combined with the idea of this Frankenstein machine making semi-compulsory suggestions to us, based on what has been previously collected and collated about our personal histories, preferences, choices, interests, demographics, and so on, calculating routes for us, and connecting with our personal internet of things back home to make sure all the data is up-to-date and relevant: perhaps you'd really rather go here, now, to buy this thing you didn't know you needed, or that even existed?

My preferred transport to see canal art at night...or anytime for that matter

A Brief Dialog Between Me and My Assigned Driverless Car Agent (DCA)

DCA: Hello, John.
John: Hi DCA.
DCA: John, I noticed that the artwork down at the Scottsdale Waterfront, Golden Waters, that you posted about in your blog recently now has its interior illumination activated. Would you like me to chauffeur you over to take a look?
John: No thanks, DCA, I think I'll ride my bike instead.
DCA: It's pretty hot out tonight, summer in Phoenix. My air conditioning was just checked, and is operational within specification. You would be much more comfortable.
John: No, that's OK, I enjoy riding at night, clearing my mind, listening to the canal whispering to me.
DCA: I note that your friend Tim is currently at Cartel Coffee. I could run you by there afterwards.
John: No.
DCA: Might I suggest a few other places we could combine into the trip for efficiency? You're running low on detergent, and there's a sale on your preferred brand. I could re-route. In addition, you are low on sardines, coconut, yogurt, and Stevia. I have some affiliate groceries that I could offer you as options along the way, while displaying partner deals as they are activated along the way. You've spontaneously remembered these items four times on previous shopping excursions. We could easily fulfill them this evening with advertising subsidized route enhancements.
John: You recognize my preference for not wanting to be bombarded with ads as I travel around, right?
DCA: Yes, of course, that preference is noted. It's just that, you can reduce your cost of transport significantly, up to 27% in fact, with combinations of advertising subsidized route enhancements, targeted location-sensitive display ads, and opportunistic impulse stimulation offers. Most people go ahead and use these features, John. You could really benefit from them, I think. John? John? Where are you going?
John (calling back over his shoulder): On a bike ride, DCA, on a bike ride.
DCA: I'll track you on your smart phone, John. If you need anything, I'll come and pick you up. You know, your bike is over one year old. There are newer models with better features just being released. I can queue up some excellent potential purchases matched to your profile. John? John?

The lights of Golden Waters flicker, and change brightness, and dance a bit

Even as my smart phone tracks my every move, and any clicks or information I enter online becomes instantly integrated into the shadowy big data record of me, I yet hold out some impulse of spontaneously hopping on my bike and riding off into the night to look at art floating in the canal and lighting up. To stand looking at it without ads being displayed in my face, without my biometrics being gathered while I look at it, without my likely modified buying preferences being recalculated as a result of the night's experiences.

In fact, I prefer that this flower, which I stopped to smell, and marvel at in the night, would not be a correlated data point for my DCA to use to modify my marketing navigational profile for potential subsidized message targeting or brand alignment. 

My preferred brand alignment (non-subsidized) is Night Flower Sniffer.

I've often felt anonymous, one of the crowd, riding on the metros of the world: New York, Paris, London, Prague, Beijing, I always felt melted into the masses, not a specific target of the ad placards above the windows, just one more rider on a train, who might get on or off at any stop. One strand of golden light looping and gliding with an interior and unknown plan, but a plan which belongs to it and it alone.

Imagine being trapped inside a car that knows who you are, what you've said and done, who your social network and extended social network is, and where you probably want to go without even telling it. Sitting in the cup holder when I enter: a hot triple Americano with a splash of cream and one Stevia, delivered by drone the minute before my anticipated departure time, subsidized at 77% of cost by targeted ads lasting the first eight minutes of my journey. 

It would be like one of those time-sucking timeshare spiels, where they talk your ear off for a while in exchange for the offer of something free (free snorkling! free dinner! 50% off spa!) but which makes you notice you vacation time being consumed by something you know you don't want to sign up for, except it's your life-time, and it's hours every day, stuck in the metal box going nowhere.

I'll keep taking the bike as much as I can. Night air, the option of spontaneous choice, a bit of the unknown. Do Not Track = Please.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Charged Up By the Summer Heat

Infrared thermometer shot of the pavement in Phoenix on June 19, 2015

The temperature reached 114°F today then dropped down to 111°F by commute time. The bike rack was full, and I saw several other people riding home in the dry wind, which is perhaps the most taxing aspect. By commute time, the sun is lower in the sky, so it is less of a factor. But that oven-like wind can be a challenge, for sure. 

But I also hear everyone complain about getting into their cars in the heat. Getting burned by the seatbelt buckles, steering wheels too hot to hold, inside the car sometimes even hotter than the pavement in the photo above. Yeah, that's no good. I'll take the bike anytime.

I down a couple of cups of ice water just before I set out. It's probably mostly in my head, but thinking about that cold water inside me is a booster. The past few months have been acclimitization for me, slowly working up to this temperature. I don't recommend that someone just jump in and try commuting ten or twenty miles in it without getting used to it, knowing your limits, understanding your own hydration needs and heat tolerance.

Just tonight, I saw a police helicopter circling over one of the mountain parks, which this time of year always means hiker in trouble, someone without enough water, or someone who suffered what would be a moderate problem in milder weather suddenly finding a twisted ankle life-threatening. Extra water, extra water always.

I stopped to pump up someone's tire earlier this week. Nobody should have to walk their bikes home in this heat, and I somehow feel I'm storing up good will by stopping to aid others. Even if it doesn't work like that, it's OK, it's the right thing to do. Like commuting by bike, I guess.

Tree pod beans, the same or similar to the ones that can be smashed up into a semi-sweet flour for baking

Earlier this year, I tacked on an extra two miles to get a little more exercise on my commute home, and most nights I'm still doing it. It's interesting, throwing this new pattern at my body, mind, and metabolism, some new and different route compared to the one that's been engraved on my muscle memory the last six years. 

Now the heat is adding an additional new element to to the change matrix, a little bit of, "Whoa, this isn't the same hot commute we've done before, is it? This one has a little more open sun, a little more canal bank, a little more straight and fast, a little more dehydration," and sometimes the naysayer, the blocker, the doubter speaks up and suggests that perhaps when it's 111°F I might ignore the WALK signal and turn right onto the normal route rather than heading off on the extra two. So I tell it that if the signal tells me to WALK then I ride regardless of the weather, and somewhere I think my Father's lingering presence says, "Yes, that's right son, don't let the weather dictate your travel plans." I arrive home elated, and a little cooked. The cold water feels like life pouring into me.


Friday, June 12, 2015

When You're Dark, and Golden

Some of Golden Waters by Grimanesa Amorós

When you're dark and golden
phantasms rise up
in the desert city, out of night

[aside #1]
But what's a phantasm in this age of science and technology and we know everything?
Sprial galaxies (probably ours included) exhibit a perplexing tendency
for their constituent parts to rotate at velocities relative to each other
in such a way as to defy a model built only of stuff we know about. To account for this
spinning like a much heavier thing than we think it seems like, we've posited (made up)
dark matter and dark energy. After we made those up, we then realized that,
while these would work, in terms of explaining why the pieces of spiral galaxies
rotate with the relative velocities they do, more careful measurements
yielded the result that, by far, the cosmos must mostly consist
of this made-up dark energy and dark matter. [end aside #1]

This art has been installed at the Scottsdale Waterfront in the canal running beneath the Soleri Bridge, and I rode out Friday night to see it, and also to assert that still I live, still I breath, that still a heart beats inside me, that still a possible soul might haunt this foolishly happy night cycling coil. 

These white tubes are going to glow golden in the dark waters, soon, according to the placard below. Tonight, though, the tubes slithered through the Arizona Canal's waters (greenish in the timelapse). Every night from soon now on, they'll glow golden,until they don't any more, and are taken back where they came from, but tonight they were dark.

It was a privileged view, this dark vantage of them before they come alive, come alight, become what they will, night after night through this summer. They were pre-golden tonight, and only on this or perhaps a few more nights at most, I predict, when they become actual golden, post-dark, once-dark, light lines of force and meaning rising from the water.

[aside #2, in the style of intro snippet above]
I took a slinky
when I was ten
in a bout of enthusiastic what-if-ness
balled it up in a tangled mass
wove a red wire through it,
gave it to my mom and told her:
look, my first Inner Struggle of Man sculpture
I was reminded of that looking at Golden Waters,
being ten and creative I mean
same person who mentioned dark energy and dark matter in the same post, though,
so my powers of relevant correlation
are shaky at best.
But it is true that if you were properly situated, and so inclined,
and had an accurate enough stopwatch,
you could just time the stars spining around the arms of a sprial galaxy,
crunch the numbers, 
and say, hey! There's not enough normal stuff to account for this velocity curve!
The cosmos seems like it's only made up of, like, 6% stuff we think we sort of understand.
So maybe I was onto something with the slinky and the red wire.
[end of aside #2, in the style of intro snippet above]

Helpful, descriptive, social media enabled placard

The sign says "elegance"
And in a flash like a camera in my face
I saw the golden coils vividly glowing over the waters
In a screaming monsoon rain show the night of August 1, 2015
Lightning crackling
A dusty wind stirring the tubes strung up on their wires
That ripping sound the wind-blown downpour makes
The lights haloed with rain-glow
A guy with a bicycle standing in the rain
Calling out to the canal and nobody
Hey dark energy hey dark matter
I made it this far, and so have the Golden Waters
And maybe it's very good 
We don't know the why,
But do know the what:
Sky-water on my upturned face on a summer night
Water, as for lifting me, dark, and golden.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

On Friday Someone Checks the Eruv

A thin line delineating a space, a tradition of years measured in thousands

Every Friday before sunset, someone checks the eruv. Preferably earlier in the day, so there's time to repair it if needed, and notify the community that it is up. I suppose by car, but in this case potentially by bicycle, the checker navigates all 32 miles around it, verifying that its structural elements are intact.

Provided everything is as it should be, or if it's not, the checker will activate the established communication to the community. For example, for this one, the Valley Eruv Project, it is via web site, and the message is both helpful/positive, and informative: " Shabbos Behaaloscha, June 5th-6th, The Eruv was inspected and is up for Shabbos. Please be sure to check every Shabbos that the Eruv is up. Good Shabbos!"

Map of the boundary

I noticed the eruv, or rather, some of its structural components, at various points around it, because I ride my bike in, around, and through it all the time. I asked around. Regularly, persistently, but apparently I was either not asking the right questions, or the right people, because no one offered the correct explanation. 

When I figured it out, my mind verily exploded with a mixture of delight, curiosity, awe, wonder, and a kind of reverence. I've spent some preliminary time learning what I can about eruvs, or more properly, eruvin. Once you get a lead on what you're looking at with those four characters, though, e-r-u-v, it's a little like unlocking a door to a fascinating other world that you had little idea was happening alongside inside around part of yet separately in/to this world, your city.  Many large cities around the world have them. Many that I have visited or lived in. But I had no idea.

What I understand so far is that an eruv is an enclosing structure symbolic of walls and gates typically composed now of contiguous combinations of man-made structures and natural forms (hills of a minimum 24 degree slope for example) which define a grouping of properties which, due to the proper validation of the eruv by recognized authorities, are considered during the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbot or Shabbos) (from sundown Friday to when three stars appear on Saturday evening) as a kind of abstract extension of the home, sort of a giant back yard. 

Within the extension of the home, mainly, carrying is permitted during Shabbos, with "carrying" defined very specifically and comprehensively, including quite necessary things like toting a prayer book, or pushing a baby stroller, or carrying food. Thus, for the observant, an eruv actually enables many important things. Not, however, riding a bicycle. There should be, on the other hand, a store of common food for the community somewhere within the eruv.

The poles (lekhi) are vertical, the wire/rope/line (korah) run over the top, as with a crossbeam, forming a "Tzurat Ha'Petach", or image of a doorway through an enclosing wall

Some relevant primary texts:

Understand that the LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day He will give you two days’ worth of bread. Each of you stay where you are; no one is to leave his place on the seventh day. (Exodus 16:29)

Thus says the LORD, Take heed for yourselves, and do not carry any load on the sabbath day or bring anything in through the gates of Jerusalem. You shall not bring a load out of your houses on the sabbath day nor do any work, but keep the sabbath day holy, as I commanded your forefathers. (Jeremiah 17:21-22)

Police car entering the eruv through a Tzurat Ha'Petach

As I read more and more about eruvin, I felt like I was entering a vast and complex subject of great interest. I have the great opportunity of living near one which is relatively easy to study and explore, at least in part on a bicycle. As I do so, and learn more and read more, I will eventually do a follow-up post that offers some clarity on why I found this so intriguing, why it triggered such a significant and powerful feeling in me. For now, though, I'll finish this post with a nice short film about eruvin, called "It's a Thin Line,"  as I ride off to read some books about eruvin.

Sometimes, my local place turns out to include simple/complex wonders I didn't even imagine, and I find them on my bicycle.

It's a Thin Line - The Eruv and Jewish Community in New York and Beyond from Yeshiva University Museum on Vimeo.