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.

Hospital Interiors / Dolby Suburbs

[Image: “Mix House” by Joel Sanders Architect, Karen Van Lengen/KVL, and Ben Rubin/Ear Studio].

Between cross-country moves, book projects, wild changes in the online media landscape over the past few years, and needless self-competition through social media, my laptop has accumulated hundreds and hundreds, arguably thousands, of bookmarks for things I wanted to write about and never did. Going back through them all feels like staring into a gravesite at the end of a life I didn’t realize was mortal.

For example, the fact that the scent of one of Saturn’s moons was created in a NASA lab in Maryland—speculative offworld perfumery—and that, who knows, it could even someday be trademarked. Or that mountain-front suburban homes in Colorado were unwittingly constructed over mines designed to collapse—and that of the mines have already begun to do so, taking surface roads along with them. Or the sand mines of central Wisconsin. Or the rise of robot-plant hybrids. Or the British home built around a preserved railway carriage “because bizarre planning regulations meant the train could not be moved”—a vehicle frozen into place through architecture.

In any case, another link I wanted to write about many eons ago explained that legendary producer and ambient musician Brian Eno had been hired to design new acoustics for London’s Chelsea and Westminster hospital, part of an overall rethinking of their patient-wellness plan. Healing through sound. “The aim,” the Evening Standard explained, “is to replicate techniques in use in the hospital’s paediatric burns unit, where ‘distraction therapy’ such as projecting moving images on to walls can avoid the need to administer drugs such as morphine.”

This is already interesting—if perhaps also a bit alarming, in that staring at images projected onto blank walls can apparently have the same effect as taking morphine. Or perhaps that’s beautiful, a chemical testament to the mind-altering potential of art amplified by modern electrical technology.

Either way, Eno was brought on board to “refine” the hospital’s acoustics, much as one would do for the interior of a luxury vehicle, and even to “provide soothing music” for the building’s patients, i.e. to write a soundtrack for architecture.

We are already in an era where the interiors of luxury cars are designed with the help of high-end acoustic consultants, where luxury apartments are built using products such as “acoustic plaster,” and where critical governmental facilities are constructed with acoustic security in mind—a silence impenetrable to eavesdroppers—but I remain convinced that middle-budget home developers all over the world are sleeping on an opportunity for distinguishing themselves. That is, why not bring Brian Eno in to design soothing acoustics for an entire village or residential tower?

Imagine a whole new neighborhood in Los Angeles designed in partnership with Dolby Laboratories or Bang & Olufsen, down to the use of acoustic-deflection walls and carefully chosen, sound-absorbing plants, or an apartment complex near London’s Royal Academy of Music with interiors acoustically shaped by Charcoalblue. SilentHomes™ constructed near freeways in New York City—or, for that matter, in the middle of nowhere, for sonically sensitive clients. Demonstration suburbs for unusual acoustic phenomena—like Joel Sanders et al.’s “Mix House” scaled up to suit modern real-estate marketers.

At the very least, consider it a design challenge. It’s 2020. KB Home has teamed up with Dolby Labs to construct a new housing complex covering three city blocks near a freeway in Los Angeles. What does it look—and, more to the point, what does it sound—like?

Garage Warfare

Going back through dozens and dozens of links saved over the past few months, I rediscovered two quick news items I thought I’d post together, both of which involve automatic garage doors.

1) The U.S. Navy has been using a radio signal that seems to interfere with garage door openers in suburban Connecticut:

U.S. Navy officials have acknowledged on Monday that a radio signal being transmitted out of the Groton Submarine Base is likely the cause behind the residents’ garage-door woes. The signal is part of the Enterprise Land Mobile Radio (ELMR) system, which is used by the military to coordinate responses with civil emergency workers, said Chris Zendan, a spokesman for the submarine base in Groton.

In short, it seems that frequencies used by remote-control garage door openers overlap with signals put back into service after 9/11 for communicating during civil emergencies.

However, putting this into the context of several recent articles about the accelerating pace of “cyber-attacks” on U.S. infrastructure—that is, “the pace at which America’s electricity grids, water supplies, computer and cellphone networks and other infrastructure are coming under attack,” in the words of the New York Times—as well as news that New York City’s elevators and boilers are now seen as potential targets for cyberwarfare (hackers “could increase the speed of how elevators go up or down,” perhaps crashing them to the bottom of the shaft), the idea of garage doors being hacked by radio signals emanating from the ocean by belligerent foreign powers takes on the air of, say, Red Dawn as remade by Bob Vila. Or it could be the plot of a bizarre future heist film: a sleepy coastal town in Oregon, its every house and building, robbed by submarine.

Just two weeks ago, meanwhile, over-heated headlines proclaimed that “Chinese hackers have control of U.S. power grid,” but perhaps we can imagine, instead, a far less threatening scenario, in which Chinese hackers manage to take control of every garage door in a small town in southern Georgia. Indescribably ignorant politicians proclaim it the work of Satan—but it’s just distant teenage poltergeists, high-fiving each other over cans of Diet Coke and trapping families in their 4-car garages.

2) Former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan had back surgery a while back—and the resulting spinal implant has given him the power to open garage doors from afar. In an otherwise idiotic article that explains how “Hulk Hogan Has Battery Powered Back,” one of the wrestler’s friends jokes that, “When he’s walking down a small neighborhood [sic] he opens every garage door on the street!” Talk about the prosthetic imaginary.

[Image: If Hulk Hogan pushes real hard, his garage door opens].

Next year’s headline: Chinese hackers in control of Hulk Hogan’s back open every garage door in Connecticut.