The Stack: A Love/Hate Story

For a while now, I’ve been interested in what I think of as “stack research” — investigations into how the high-tech built environment stack works at all levels. I have a milquetoast cyberpunk story to tell you that sheds some light on the matter.

It is about how I retrieved this remote control for my Canon EOS camera after dropping it. Yes, there’s a 2200-word story to be told about dropping something and picking it up. You see, I didn’t drop it on the floor. I dropped it from my 7th floor balcony into the backyard of the neighboring building.

To understand how absurd this story is, consider how simple this could and perhaps should be: in a traditional ordinary city, in say 1980, you’d just go over next door, ring the doorbell, and ask whoever answered if you could go back there and look for it. There’s no story there.

But of course, I live in Los Angeles in 2020, not Ordinary City in 1980. So it has to get more complex.

First, why did I even drop the remote?

As some of you know, I’ve been getting back into amateur backyard astronomy after over 30 years, thanks to a friend donating me his old telescope.

Wait, there’s a stack problem right there. As a teenager in the 1980s, I would take my telescope out to a literal backyard for an astronomy session. If I dropped anything — say a lens cover — it would fall 2 feet to the grass.

There would be no problem, no story. Pick up object. Done.

But I don’t have a backyard, and for most residents of modern, dense, urban agglomerations, backyards are a 1950s fantasy. We live in buildings, where you are lucky to even have a balcony, very lucky if it actually has an unobstructed view of enough of the sky for amateur astronomy, and extraordinarily lucky if there is low-enough light pollution to see anything at all.

I’m merely very lucky. I happen to live on the top floor of a 7 floor high-rise, overlooking much shorter buildings, and the top of the balcony is uncovered. So I have a view of almost half the sky. Since I’m not extraordinarily lucky though, I also have a view of the Los Angeles downtown skyline, which is ridiculously light polluting. On a good night, I can see maybe a few dozen bright stars. I’m not complaining though, since the skyline view has its own attractions.

Here is a shot of the view, with some weird camera settings, since I was experimenting with apertures, exposure times, and ISO speeds to photograph the sky. It is MUCH brighter than this at night.

The balcony is a decent size, but pretty cramped, with 2 outdoor armchairs, 2 footrests, and some potted plants crammed into an approximately 10’x5′ space (after all, the balcony is a multi-purpose space for urban dwellers during a pandemic).

This means doing astronomy is tough. I move the armchairs back, put the footrests onto them, set out my telescope tripod, and on nights I’m trying some direct SLR photography, my camera tripod as well.

It gets cramped enough, maneuvering around it all is like a game of twister.

Now, there’s a prequel to my remote-retrieval story: My dust cap non-retrieval story.

On one of my first sessions out, in taking the dust cap off my telescope (it is a smaller cap that fits into the larger cover of the optical tube), I wasn’t gentle enough, and it flew out of my hands as it popped out, across the balcony railing, and down onto the roof of a shed-like thing in the backyard of the neighboring building.

Whoops. It is still there. Among a whole bunch of other dropped objects that merit a little things-that-fall-from-balconies ethnographic study, but that’s for another post.

Here is a call to a stack adventure I didn’t go on. Getting this back would have meant not just getting access to the next-door property, but permission (and means) to climb onto the roof of this shed, which may or may not be strong enough to hold my weight.

I didn’t bother because I was planning to get a 3d printer anyway, and a replacement cap seemed like an ideal first project. That’s a stack adventure story for another day. But again, in a simpler world, I’d simply have walked around, climbed the roof, and gotten it back.

But okay, back to the remote adventure. I should have learned my lesson from the dust cap episode: that small objects are liable to go flying over the railing to inaccessible stack interstices seven floors down, but clearly I didn’t. Because last night, while I was attempting to maneuver the camera into an awkward corner of my balcony to try to take a picture of the Andromeda galaxy, I stumbled a bit and whoops, the remote went flying out of my hand.

A little aside here.

I began playing with photography because the seeing is so lousy from light pollution that objects that I could easily see naked eye in better conditions as a kid are very hard to find even on good days. So it’s a way to explore sights besides really bright objects like Jupiter, Saturn and Mars right now (it’s a very big year for those 3) or the Moon.

So I’ve been experimenting with two approaches to astrophotography: iPhone attached to binoculars or telescope eyepiece via an adapter, and long-exposure SLR photography. I just got my SLR adapter from Aliexpress — it’s been out of stock for weeks in the US stack, so I’ll be trying that soon.

But anyway — I’m up on a high balcony, awkwardly working around 2 tripods because I’m in a high-rise in big light polluted city.

And SLR astrophotography requires long exposures, which requires — yep, a small 2″ remote (it allows me to leave the shutter open as long as I like, without having to touch the camera, which would cause vibrations).

When it went flying, I went aargh and leaned over to see where it was going. This was around midnight. Fortunately hearing two sounds, plus being able to follow the falling arc a bit with my night-adjusted vision, helped me guess that it had bounced off the Shed Roof of Doom and onto the ground somewhere.

The next morning, 5 minutes searching with my binoculars revealed where it had fallen. Since it’s a lightweight little widget, I guessed it was almost certainly undamaged (spoiler: I was right).

Now this was an adventure I had to take on. Not only is the remote a $25 item, I couldn’t make one myself, and this seemed more accessible.

Now remember, we’re talking a built-up Los Angeles block. This backyard belongs to the apartment building behind ours, facing the next street over. It’s fenced in all around.

Now the thing is, the remote was not literally physically inaccessible. As a kid, I routinely snuck under, over, or through fences as part of taking shortcuts. Back in more trusting times in ordinary cities, you could do that sort of thing.

I could see from my balcony that there were a couple of obvious places where I could scramble over a fence and get in there to retrieve the remote.

My wife had a more typical womanly suggestion: just sneak in the front door behind someone entering the building.

Now I don’t want to take this to a racial place, but neither seems like a particularly wise course of action for a middle-aged brown guy in today’s America, full of Karens and trigger-happy cops.

Even thinking about clambering over fences got me thinking about Geoff Manaugh’s excellent Burglar’s Guide to the City, which has a big section on Los Angeles btw, and is an excellent book you should totally read.

So I was going to do this The Right Way. I’d go around to the front door of the building, and….

And what?

It’s not like there’d be a guy on the porch, or a doorbell to ring. I guessed (correctly) that what I’d likely face was a call box like this one.

As I learned during our apartment hunt last month, most buildings no longer have on-site staff, and Covid has only made that more extreme. If they do in-person tours at all, a leasing agent has to come meet you by appointment. Neither property managers, nor leasing agents, live or work on site any more for the most part. The slightly pricier properties still have on-site concierge staffing (we live in one such) but most buildings only have residents, and occasionally custodial staff, on site.

To get into a random building, your best bet is to keep punching in random apartment numbers, like in a Seinfeld episode, and hoping someone lets you in. Which I wasn’t going to do.

So…

  • Plan A: waylay some resident or maintenance person on the way in or out and try to get them to let me in to look.
  • Plan B: print out and leave a flyer on the front door/gate.

So I made a flyer. Not exactly a lost cat type flyer since I knew exactly where the remote was, but a sort of help-a-neighbor-out flyer. This was actually quite hard to compose:

My first thought was to put my own building address and my real name/number of the flyer. But then my wife reminded me that I’m a gullible middle-aged fool from more trusting times (Case in point: we happened to find out that one of our neighbors in this building had a record for identity theft, so now we’re extra careful about leaving personally identifiable information scattered around).

Anyhow, this is a transitional neighborhood and there’s definitely sketchier elements around. You don’t want to be more visible/known than you absolutely must.

So I made the flyer with my Google Voice number, listed my name as Ven, and didn’t include my address.

But wait, there’s more to the flyer chapter of the story!

Initially, the last sentence of the first paragraph read, “I need help retrieving it.” But then it hit me that the neighborhood has many non-native English speakers, and even for English speakers, I frankly don’t know if “retrieve” counts as advanced English in the US anymore. So I changed it to “I need help getting it back.”

Anyhow. Flyer prepared and printed, with helpful photos. Note btw, that Plan B was only possible because a) I used binoculars to locate the remote, and b) used a high-zoom SLR (not a phone) to take a picture of where it was. This meant I could simply direct potential good samaritans to exactly the right spot to retrieve the thing, like a surveillance drone directing special forces. Asking people to go search for a small dropped object is a whole different level of demand to make of strangers via flyer.

There was also the question of incentives. Should I list say a $5 reward (which seems about right for a $25 item)? Or would that backfire by triggering the wrong non-neighborly instincts? Like looking for it to steal, or being pissed off enough about me offering a lowball $5 reward to not do it? (my wife suggested $10 which seemed too high to me — could probably score a used remote online for that much).

Ultimately I decided to not list a reward. Seemed more respectful to appeal to neighborly goodwill than financializing and securitizing the small transaction like some Wall Street lowlife.

So finally, armed with flyer and tape, with mask on, showered and shaved, and with Decent Upstanding Citizen clothes on (all rare for me), I walked around the block to the other building, casing the joint on my short walk (ie popping into the 2-3 alleys that could access the spot, and assessing the jumpability of various fences/walls).

As I expected, there was a fence around the front of the property. With a call box. Which did not appear to be working (so the punch-in-random-numbers plan wouldn’t have worked anyway).

Fortunately for me, there was a big banner announcing vacancies and a number to call for the leasing agency. I called, but as I expected, it dumped me to the voicemail of what was likely the poorly staffed central back-office of some vast private-equity real-estate empire. Screw that. I wasn’t going to play phone tag and make an appointment to enter a building right in front of me.

Then I got lucky. The first person to come out of the building was a Latino maintenance guy. I explained my problem and asked if he could let me in. He seemed reluctant initially and said I’d have to call the manager. But then I guess he decided I looked harmless, and said I could just go on in.

Luckily again, it was one of those buildings with an open through passage to the backyard, rather than a maze of corridors and doors requiring a fob to access. So I cut right through to the backyard, went right to my remote and retrieved it.

A building resident saw me from one of the balconies and asked what I was picking up (in a friendly way, not suspicious) and I explained. We chatted a bit. The first block-neighbor conversation in this new place. I told him I’d also lost a lens cap to the roof of the shed, but that I wasn’t going to try and retrieve that.

I gave the shed a quick look as I walked off. There is a wall near it that would have allowed for a slightly difficult two-pull-up access to the roof, but a ladder would have been better. Plus it didn’t seem worth the effort or social awkwardness risk in case someone questioned what I was up to. Though on second thoughts, likely nobody would have said anything.

With that I returned home. I tested the remote. It worked. Three cheers for modern solid-state lightweight electronics surviving a fall from seven floors up.

Victory. Stack: 0. Me: 1.

The whole adventure got me thinking. The modern civilizational stack is so complex, simply dropping a thing and picking it up involves an extraordinary number of elements:

  1. Physical geometry of high-rises
  2. Structure of interstitial spaces in built environment
  3. Binoculars
  4. High-powered zoom camera
  5. Burglar-like assessment of physical accessibility of built-environment interstices
  6. Hard and soft norms around spatial access
  7. Laws about breaking and entering
  8. Composing and printing a flyer with photographs to recruit neighbors
  9. Thinking about language competency/reading levels
  10. Thinking about cash incentives vs. goodwill vs. market prices
  11. Virtualized phone numbers
  12. Identity theft op-sec
  13. Physical access control (call box)
  14. Remote ownership and access control (leasing number)
  15. Trust/suspicion norms among custodial staff
  16. Modern building internal architecture and access control
  17. Fraught law-and-order condition that makes an ordinary act of climbing a fence risky
  18. Karen Procedure and Police Procedure
  19. Racial perception calculus
  20. Likelihood of people asking what you’re up to, and how to respond

The telescope cap remains there, on the shed roof, an unanswered call to another stack adventure. Somebody on Twitter suggested using a drone. That would actually be a fun thing to try.

So that’s it for my first stack research investigative report. Like I said, milquetoast cyberpunk stuff. But still, who’d have thought simply picking up an object dropped from a balcony would involve so much.

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. A seven-floor high-rise? Having lived for a decade in Hong Kong where 30 floors is average this just sounds weird, unless you tweak the sentence to be ironic… Since this is a cyberpunk story, if there is no lift you might prosaically describe such a building as a seven-floor walkup (five floor walkups are still the norm here in Phnom Penh). Or if you want to invoke the feeling of a penniless artist living in a ramshackle garret, you could call it a seven-floor cold water flat, with Net access obtained by dropping a fiber-optic cable outside the building to a hacked junction box on the 4th floor (I actually did that as well — cost a US$25 bribe paid to a fiber contracter working on the building)…. If you want to go full-on evangelion it could be a seven-floor geofront, that sinks below ground when the alien mechs attack the city. But that only works if you spend a paragraph talking about electrical utility poles, straining under the weight of a tangle of fiber and power cables that dip between the oncrete poles with transformers that occasionally light up the alley when they spark late at night… If you mention the drone of cicadas as you retrieve the remote or squadons of dragonflies people will think you’re in Japan. But a seven floor high-rise? Sigh…

    • Fine, fine…. mid rise 😆

      It’s concrete floors though, which is a key feature separating the 2 regimes…. and I did say milquetoast.

      Previous apartment downtown was 45 floors though

  2. Surely you could rig a little dragnet/snare type loop to a fishing line to cast onto the shed roof to retrieve your lens cap.
    Sounds like a fairly basic engineering challenge…

    • It’s at least a hundred feet down and about 15 feet out, so that would be quite a fishing challenge… and I’m not spending a ton of money on fishing rigging to retrieve a cap worth a couple of bucks :D

      • But it’s not to retrieve a cap, it’s to develop a systematic response to dropped objects such that you can retrieve anything dropped with minimal inconvenience, a patch to the problem of spatial access, which, as its initial proof of concept, will retrieve a cap.

  3. Nitin Nair says

    This was way more fun to read than it should have been. Well done!
    A wholesome urban adventure I can use as bedtime reading for my kids. Going through the planning and execution of this ‘retrieval’ is likely more useful than anything they’ll learn in school. Especially this year.

  4. Soon you can just command your personal drone assistant via direct neural connection to go and get it back for you, plus pick you up a latte on the way home

  5. Ravi Daithankar says

    This is one of those classic stories where I feel like your psychological projection transmogrifies into an actual situational reality. Almost real enough to be a physical quantity that palpably exists under the temporal arc that bounds the whole situation. None of what you have written is an exaggerated concern or caricaturized in the smallest way. I can completely relate with all of it. And yet, I feel like it is all in your mind.

    If the Prehistoric Ice Man from South Park was to unfreeze in 2020 instead of in Season 2, 1999 as he did for example, I want to say he could have retrieved the remote in some kind of uncomplicated, old fashioned way, without even considering the civilizational stack that you had to get around. He would just go about it like it actually was 1996 and more importantly, pull it off too. 2020 reality wouldn’t get in his way, I feel, because he would be genuinely tone-deaf to it. There is something about being tone-deaf that makes reality bend itself and adapt to what looks like a ridiculously oversimplified view of a situation from the outside. I used to think that’s just some variant of the observer effect, but I increasingly think it is real enough and there is something to be explored there. I have recently been in far too many such situations where I thought it just couldn’t be done, not in 2020, and yet it could because the person was totally oblivious to the complication that I saw in the situation. I guess something like that (scientifically incorrect) cliche about the bumblebee being able to fly in spite of the law of physics not supporting it…

    It has to be authentic tone-deafness of course, not conscious or subconscious pretense. Because that shit backfires in hilarious ways…when you get called out while trying to pull a fast one.

    • Thanks! This comment makes my day. This is exactly the vibe I was going for, a sort of surreal performance-art larp story that’s still entirely reality based. A bit of Walter Mitty fantasy, but with action, not just internal.

      And yes, you’re right that Steve/Gorak would have simply done it without overthinking it. There’s some sort of deep lesson there. Obliviousness is bliss.

  6. Do you like fishing and chewing gum? That is one way to get your cap back.

    Some say Blu Tack works too!

Leave a Reply to Josh W Cancel reply

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.