The Broken Technology of Ghost Hunting

The Atlantic

The best tools for tracking down spirits have always been the ones fallible enough to find something.

The small, Syracuse, New York-based company K-II Enterprises makes a number of handheld electronic devices—including the Dog Dazer (a supposedly safe, humane device that deters aggressive dogs with high-pitched radio signals)—but it is best known for the Safe Range EMF. The size of a television remote, the Safe Range EMF detects electromagnetic fields, or EMF, measuring them with a bright LED array that moves from green to red depending on their strength. Designed to locate potentially harmful EMF radiation from nearby power lines or household appliances, the Safe Range has become popular for another use: detecting ghosts.

Since its appearance in the show Ghost Hunters, where the ghost hunter Grant Wilson claimed that it has been “specially calibrated for paranormal investigators,” the Safe Range (usually referred to as a K-II meter) has become ubiquitous among those looking for spirits. Search for it on Amazon, and many listings will refer to it as a “ghost meter,” an indispensable tool in the ghost hunter’s arsenal. It isn’t alone among EMF meters: Of the best-selling EMF meters on Amazon, two out of the top three are explicitly marketed as ghost meters.

 

ghosthunters-jason-grant-cartoon-390x220

 

Scanning the various product descriptions and reviews, though, what becomes clear is that the K-II Safe Range is a relatively unreliable electromagnetic field meter. It operates only on one axis (you have to wave it around to get a proper reading), and it’s unshielded, meaning that it can be set off by a cell phone, a two-way radio, or virtually any kind of electronic device that occasionally gives off electromagnetic waves. The reviewer Kenny Biddle found he could set it off with, among other things, a computer mouse and a camera battery pack.

Yet it’s precisely because it’s not particularly good at its primary purpose that makes it a popular device for ghost hunters. Erratic, prone to false positives, easily manipulated, its flashy LED display will light up any darkened room of a haunted hotel or castle. Which is to say, its popularity as a ghost hunting tool stems mainly from its fallibility.

The K-II isn’t the only consumer-electronic item used by ghost hunters. Often it’s sold in kits that contain other devices, such as a Couples Ghost Hunt Kit, with two of everything, so you can build “trust and lasting memories when the two of you, alone in some spooky stakeout, look to each other for confirmation of your findings and reassurance!” There are devices that have been engineered specifically for ghost hunters, like a ghost box, which works by randomly scanning through FM and AM frequencies to pick up spirits’ words in the white noise. But mostly, ghost hunters use pre-existing technology: not just EMF meters, but also run-of-the-mill digital recorders, used to capture electronic voice phenomena, or EVP. An investigator records her or himself asking questions in an empty room, with the hope that upon playback ghostly voices will appear.

All of this technology—both the custom and the repurposed—works along more or less the same principle: generating a lot of static and random effects, hoping to capture random noise and other ephemera. The ghost hunter, in turn, looks for patterns, momentary convergences, serendipity, meaningful coincidence. For the believer, this is where ghosts live: in static, in glitches and in blurs. 

ghost1

 

Electronic voice phenomena have continued to rank among the most prominent “evidence” offered of paranormal activity, it seems, precisely because humans are hardwired to dredge meaning out of chaos. Evolutionarily, we have long needed to discern the sight or sound of a predator despite its camouflage, which has led us to look for patterns where they might not be immediately evident. The quirks and shortcomings of technology plays directly into this biological need: throwing out random static and noise that is primed to be transmuted into meaningful signals. Ghost hunters work through confirmation bias. Looking for proof of the paranormal, they will find it in anything, but most readily in static, gibberish, and errata—technological noise in which we’re hardwired to find false positives.

The only thing that’s changed recently is the proliferation of consumer electronics associated with ghost hunting. In an age of iPhones and Fitbits, ghost hunters are just one more niche market, lapping up the latest and greatest gadgets for sale. But there’s one crucial difference: most purveyors of consumer electronics keep their consumers happy by constantly refining them until they’re free of bugs. Ghost tech works the other way, by actively engineering glitches—the more, the better.

Such seekers can easily be written off as kooks and outliers, but there’s something paradigmatic in their use of faulty devices. The rise of the internet and other new technologies promised a new Information Age, one in which data, truth, and knowledge were the new currency, where the future would be built on information itself. Twenty years on, there’s an endless labyrinth of conspiracy theories, fake memes, trumped up stats, and fabricated evidence. The world’s knowledge is just a Google search away, but it comes to us inextricably intertwined with the world’s bullshit.

 

ghost_hunters_cartoon_by_malevolentnate

The 21st-century media consumer is always working to sift through the noise in search of a signal. Whether it’s a cousin’s anti-vax Facebook post, the endless Farmville requests that have to be filtered out of a feed, or the colossal avalanche of half-truths and lies dumped during the last election, most people’s primary challenge online these days is blocking out the endless assault of static, trying to torture it into some kind of meaning.

A Real-life Jetpack that looks as good as James Bond’s Thunderball Unit

JetPack Aviation says it has the world’s first true jetpack that lives up to the name. Their CEO deconstructs how it stacks up against the competition.

Even if all the hoverboards, self-driving cars, and hand-held communication gizmos haven’t convinced you, there’s no more denying that we live in a mind-bending science fiction dreamland.

The jetpack is here.

The JB-9, which Van Nuys, California-based maker JetPack Aviation calls the “World’s Only True Jetpack,” it had its coming-out party in 2015 during a flight around the Statue of Liberty.

 

jetpack

 

There have, of course, been many other claimants to the jetpack name. But the JB-9 is “different to anything else being flown, or [that] has been flown historically,” says David Mayman, JetPack Aviation’s CEO and test pilot.

The JB-9 is the product of ten years of collaboration between Mayman and Nelson Tyler, a process chronicled in a forthcoming documentary to be titled Own the Sky. Tyler is best known, appropriately enough, as an inventor for Hollywood, where his advanced camera tools have earned him three Oscars for technical achievement.

Tyler was also the brains behind a so-called “rocket belt” developed in the 1970s. Inspired by the Bell rocket belt that appeared in the 1965 James Bond movie Thunderball, Tyler’s version had a long career in the movies and TV.

But, just like most other almost-jetpacks, the rocket belt had serious limitations. Flight times were under 30 seconds, which is why their main application has been in Hollywood. The JB-9 has flight times of ten minutes or more.

Then there’s Yves Rossy and his Jetman Dubai team, who fly jet-powered wingsuits. But those deploy from a helicopter, while the JB-9 offers true vertical takeoff and landing. According to Mayman, he can almost land on a dime.

Finally, the Martin Jetpack is perhaps the least convincing contender for the title—it’s neither a jet, nor a pack. “They called it a jetpack because it’s a sexy marketing term,” says Mayman, in his genial Aussie burr. “But it’s actually a gasoline powered piston engine that drives ducted fans.”

It’s also the size of a large motorcycle, and impossible for a wearer to carry. “Effectively it’s a drone,” says Mayman, “and then they put a man inside it.”

The only proper jetpack previously produced, at least by Mayman’s standards, was the Bell Aerosystems and Williams International “Jet Belt” of the late 1960s. But it was extremely heavy, and barely got past the R&D phase.

The JB-9, in contrast to the Martin, runs scaled-down versions of the same kind of jet engines that drive a 747 or F-16. Unlike the old Bell-Williams device, it’s light enough to be carried by a wearer on foot, and small enough to fit into the back seat of a car. The JB-9 also runs on a range of fuels, including diesel and kerosene. Mayman says most of the JB-9’s performance advantages are thanks to recent advances in jet engine technology.

There is still that eternal question of the jetpack—how do you not burn your legs? “It’s really not hot,” insists Mayman. “I could fly in shorts.” That’s because the exhaust mixes with ambient air almost immediately.

Another advantage of the ‘pure’ jetpack is its performance in high winds and turbulence. “We have no wings, so when we fly into 30 or 40 mile per hour winds, we hardly feel it.”

All of that makes the JB-9, at the very least, the first jetpack with potential practical applications. Mayman is particularly keen to see it in the hands of emergency responders, who could travel several miles over rough terrain much more easily than in a helicopter. Mayman says he’s fielded inquiries from Hollywood (no surprise), individual collectors, and marketers who are curious about setting up a jetpack race series (cross your fingers).

 

jetpack1

 

There are caveats. Even if the design is ready for prime time, the JB-9 is a prototype, and production at any scale is still in the future. Mayman wouldn’t speculate on the units’ eventual price.

Mayman is also the only person who has ever flown the JB-9. His swing around the Statue of Liberty came after what he admits was a sometimes-rocky learning curve, including dozens of practice flights on a safety tether over two years. Quicker training would be essential to real-world adoption.

Legally, Mayman says JB-9s could be sold tomorrow, under the Federal Aviation Administration’s Ultralight aircraft classification. But, acknowledging that this is a particularly risky form of flight, JetPack Aviation wants to carefully select and train prospective pilots. Even Mayman hasn’t taken the machine to its altitude limits, since the planned parachute assembly isn’t complete.

For all the market demand for a true jet pack, Mayman says the JB-9 has always been mainly a passion project. He’s a dedicated pilot of planes and helicopters, but he says nothing compares with the jetpack experience.

“Ah, it’s extraordinary,” Mayman gushes. “It’s like riding a motorcycle in the sky. It’s so maneuverable, all you have to do is think—I want to go left. And really you don’t do anything, it just goes left.

“It becomes part of your body.”

Bond and Q were way ahead of their time.

NASA’s high flying telescope

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) to construct and maintain an airborne observatory. NASA awarded the contract for the development of the aircraft, operation of the observatory and management of the American part of the project to the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) in 1996. The DSI (Deutsches SOFIA Institut) manages the German parts of the project which are primarily science and telescope related. SOFIA’s telescope saw first light on May 26, 2010. SOFIA is the successor to the Kuiper Airborne Observatory.

 

aanasa

 

SOFIA is based on a Boeing 747SP wide-body aircraft that has been modified to include a large door in the aft fuselage that can be opened in flight to allow a 2.5 m (8.2 ft) diameter reflecting telescope access to the sky. This telescope is designed for infrared astronomy observations in the stratosphere at altitudes of about 12 kilometres (41,000 ft). SOFIA’s flight capability allows it to rise above almost all of the water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere, which blocks some infrared wavelengths from reaching the ground. At the aircraft’s cruising altitude, 85% of the full infrared range will be available. The aircraft can also travel to almost any point on the Earth’s surface, allowing observation from the northern and southern hemispheres.

Once ready for use, observing flights were expected to be flown 3 or 4 nights a week. Originally scheduled to be operational for 20 years, in its tentative budget for the fiscal year 2015 NASA announced that unless Germany’s aerospace center would contribute significantly more than previously agreed upon, the observatory would be grounded by 2015. The SOFIA Observatory is based at NASA’s Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center at LA/Palmdale Regional Airport, California, while the SOFIA Science Center is based out of NASA Ames Research Center, in Mountain View, California.

 

aanasa1

 

SOFIA uses a 2.5 m (8.2 ft) reflector telescope, which has an oversized, 2.7 m (8.9 ft) diameter primary mirror, as is common with most large infrared telescopes. The optical system uses a Cassegrain reflector design with a parabolic primary mirror and a remotely configurable hyperbolic secondary. In order to fit the telescope into the fuselage, the primary is shaped to an f-number as low as 1.3, while the resulting optical layout has an f-number of 19.7. A flat, tertiary, dichroic mirror is used to deflect the infrared part of the beam to the Nasmyth focus where it can be analyzed. An optical mirror located behind the tertiary mirror is used for a camera guidance system.

The telescope looks out of a large door in the port side of the fuselage near the airplane’s tail, and initially carried nine instruments for infrared astronomy at wavelengths from 1–655 micrometres (μm) and high-speed optical astronomy at wavelengths from 0.3–1.1 μm. The main instruments are the FLITECAM, a near infrared camera covering 1–5 μm; FORCAST, covering the mid-infrared range of 5–40 μm, and HAWC, which spans the far infrared in the range 42–210 μm. The other four instruments include an optical photometer and infrared spectrometers with various spectral ranges. SOFIA’s telescope is by far the largest ever to be placed in an aircraft. For each mission one interchangeable science instrument will be attached to the telescope. Two groups of general purpose instruments are available. In addition an investigator can also design and build a special purpose instrument. On April 17, 2012, two upgrades to HAWC were selected by NASA to increase the field of view with new detector arrays and to add the capability of measuring the polarization of dust emission from celestial sources.

The open cavity housing the telescope will be exposed to high-speed turbulent winds. In addition, the vibrations and motions of the aircraft introduce observing difficulties. The telescope was designed to be very lightweight, with a honeycomb shape milled into the back of the mirror and polymer composite material used for the telescope assembly. The mount includes a system of bearings in pressurized oil to isolate the instrument from vibration. Tracking is achieved through a system of gyroscopes, high speed cameras, and magnetic torque motors to compensate for motion, including vibrations from airflow and the aircraft engines. The telescope cabin must be cooled prior to aircraft takeoff to ensure the telescope matches the external temperature to prevent thermally induced shape changes. Prior to landing the compartment is flooded with nitrogen gas to prevent condensation of moisture on the chilled optics and instruments.

DLR is responsible for the entire telescope assembly and design along with two of the nine scientific instruments used with the telescope, NASA is responsible for the aircraft. The manufacturing of the telescope was subcontracted to European industry. The telescope is German; the primary mirror was cast by Schott AG in Mainz, Germany with lightweight improvements, with grinding and polishing completed by the French company SAGEM-REOSC. The secondary silicon carbide based mirror mechanism was manufactured by Swiss CSEM. A reflective surface was applied to the mirror at a facility in Louisiana but the consortium now maintains a mirror coating facility in Moffett Field, allowing for fast recoating of the primary mirror, a process that is expected to be required 1-2 times per year.

 

aanasa2

 

The primary science objectives of SOFIA are to study the composition of planetary atmospheres and surfaces; to investigate the structure, evolution and composition of comets; to determine the physics and chemistry of the interstellar medium; and to explore the formation of stars and other stellar objects. While SOFIA aircraft operations are managed by NASA Dryden, NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, is home to the SOFIA Science Center which will manage mission planning for the program. On 29 June 2015, the dwarf planet Pluto passed between a distant star and the Earth producing a shadow on the Earth near New Zealand that allowed SOFIA to study the atmosphere of Pluto.

F/A-18 mission support aircraft shadows SOFIA during a functional check flight.

 

aanasa3

Wikipedia

Now even the FBI is warning about your Smart TV’s security

If you just bought a smart TV on Black Friday or Cyber Monday, the FBI wants you to know a few things.

Smart TVs are like regular television sets but with an internet connection. With the advent and growth of Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services, most saw internet-connected televisions as a cord-cutter’s dream. But like anything that connects to the internet, it opens up smart TVs to security vulnerabilities and hackers. Not only that, many smart TVs come with a camera and a microphone. But as is the case with most other internet-connected devices, manufacturers often don’t put security as a priority.

That’s the key takeaway from the FBI’s Portland field office which posted a warning on its website about the risks that smart TVs pose.

“Beyond the risk that your TV manufacturer and app developers may be listening and watching you, that television can also be a gateway for hackers to come into your home. A bad cyber actor may not be able to access your locked-down computer directly, but it is possible that your unsecured TV can give him or her an easy way in the backdoor through your router,” wrote the FBI.

The FBI warned that hackers can take control of your unsecured smart TV and in worst cases, take control of the camera and microphone to watch and listen in.

Active attacks and exploits against smart TVs are rare, but not unheard of. Because every smart TV comes with their manufacturer’s own software and are at the mercy of their often unreliable and irregular security patching schedule, some devices are more vulnerable than others. Earlier this year, hackers showed it was possible to hijack Google’s Chromecast streaming stick and broadcast random videos to thousands of victims.

In fact, some of the biggest exploits targeting smart TVs in recent years were developed by the Central Intelligence Agency, but were stolen. The files were later published online by WikiLeaks.

But as much as the FBI’s warning is responding to genuine fears, arguably one of the bigger issues that should cause as much if not greater concerns are how much tracking data is collected on smart TV owners.

The Washington Post earlier this year found that some of the most popular smart TV makers — including Samsung and LG — collect tons of information about what users are watching in order to help advertisers better target ads against their viewers and to suggest what to watch next, for example. The TV tracking problem became so problematic a few years ago that smart TV maker Vizio had to pay $2.2 million in fines after it was caught secretly collecting customer viewing data. Earlier this year, a separate class action suit related to the tracking again Vizio was allowed to go ahead.

The FBI recommends placing black tape over an unused smart TV camera, keeping your smart TV up-to-date with the latest patches and fixes, and to read the privacy policy to better understand what your smart TV is capable of.

As convenient as it might be, the most secure smart TV might be one that isn’t connected to the internet at all.

Techcrunch.com

 

Dog-Like Robot Used by Police

Imagine seeing this thing coming through the door.

Massachusetts State Police (MSP) has been quietly testing ways to use the four-legged Boston Dynamics robot known as Spot, according to new documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. And while Spot isn’t equipped with a weapon just yet, the documents provide a terrifying peek at our RoboCop future.

The Spot robot, which was officially made available for lease to businesses last month, has been in use by MSP since at least April 2019 and has engaged in at least two police “incidents,” though it’s not clear what those incidents may have been. It’s also not clear whether the robots were being operated by a human controller or how much autonomous action the robots are allowed. MSP did not respond to Gizmodo’s emails on Monday morning.

The newly obtained documents, first reported by Ally Jarmanning at WBUR in Boston, include emails and contracts that shed some light on how police departments of the future may use robots to engage suspects without putting human police in harm’s way. In one document written by Lt. Robert G. Schumaker robots are described as an “invaluable component of tactical operations” that are vital to support the state’s “Homeland Security Strategy.”

Strangely, it appears that the relationship between Boston Dynamics and the Massachusetts State Police started through a personal connection, rather than a sales call. In one email from September 1, 2018, a member of the state police K-9 division explains to Lt. Schumaker that, “My friend is the current safety officer for Boston Dynamics and he suggested to the R&D team that they show Spot to law enforcement to obtain feedback for development and marketing to the Law enforcement community.”

Spot has a rechargeable and replaceable battery that lasts for 90 minutes and 360-degree video capabilities, along with plenty of other various sensors. Spot has a max speed of 3 mph and a max payload of about 30 pounds. The dog-like robot can even open doors with a special arm that extends from the robot’s “head.”

The agreement between Boston Dynamics and MSP also includes plenty of curious provisions, including a line stating that the police department is forbidden from posting public photos of the robot. In fact, the agreement says that Massachusetts State Police weren’t even allowed to take photos of Spot. But that didn’t stop Boston Dynamics from showing its own video of Spot being used by MPD at a conference from earlier this year.

Obviously we’re on the cusp of something new here as robots, autonomous or otherwise, start following cops around and go knocking on doors. The next step will surely be putting weapons on these things.

The question that remains is whether the American public will simply accept robocops as our reality now. Unfortunately, it seems like we may not have any choice in the matter—especially when the only way that we can learn about this new robot-police partnership is through records requests by the ACLU. And even then, we’re still largely in the dark about how these things will be used.