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Bats over Urban Skylines

Thomas Nagel queried the possibility humans had to “know what it is like for a bat to be a bat” in a 1974 paper that posed pressing epistemological challenges beyond the philosophical community. Nagel was asking us to consider what was the context in which bats move, and to consider the foreign nature of propositions about the distribution of a network of flying bats to humans’ embodied experience: the winged mammals that may have inhabited the eaves of Nagel’s house in Connecticut or Vermont–I am guessing–where he rises from his desk to spend the early evening watching bats reel out at dusk as they fly in wide arcs, searching en masse to seek out meals of bugs and gnats at dusk.

Asking what it is like for a bat to be a bat suggests a new model for collective action, not bumping into one another by using spatial registers in ways we don’t really know how to map–or to even think we can.

Maybe he was in Florida, near Gainsville, or Tampa Bay, where homes for bat colonies have been constructed that offer them temporary housing–

–watching a bat colony search for bugs and flies at a time when the flying mammals are losing safe natural habitat, displaced by construction and environmental saturation of electric lighting. The instant of inter-species realization that launched an epistemic earthquake might have been launched when, returning home, evening drink in hand, Nagel retired to his desk after dinner to write an article arguing we lack not language but adequate mental tools to think like a bat, or imagine the context of bat-like proposition about space, our own individually embodied experience so removed from a distributed network to imagine moving–let alone accurately navigating–like a bat, in clouds of a distributed intelligence. Are bats able to synthesize, share, and collectively process a sense of the images of the outlines of trees, skyscrapers, and blocked routes, by abilities to synthesize individual datapoints in something like a collective map map?

The philosopher performed a powerful thought experiment about human consciousness about the subjectively rooted nature of human experiences, by inviting us to consider wha the took as the vast intellectual remove of the experience of those nocturnal navigatorWe might be able to adopt “the bat’s point of view,” Nagel argued, but being like a bat escaped the conceptual tools humans have at their collective disposal.

While Nagel did not necessary mean the swarm thinking that enables bats’ behavior, it is striking that the logic of the swarm of bats’ nocturnal flight paths–that employ vision, but don’t rely on it–may be providing a basis for the new “training sets” that push new horizons for AI intelligence, beyond the “training sets” used to develop computer vision that has helped “train” how computer vision might “see” and recognize facial characteristics. As echolocation helps bats track insects, not crash into each other as they fly in large groups, and navigate caves, moving by sounds, as much as visual cues, the abilities it allows–for densely flying animals to somehow not jam each others’ sounds, but fly side-by-side in large groups without touching, evading one another without audio interference, and distinguishing the recognizable pitch of one another’s individual calls–they may offer a way of being within a distributed network, sustained at over sixty miles per hour–and within underground caves from which up to half a million bats nightly emerge. This would be a form of distributed intelligence and a form of “intelligence,” Nagel’s work reminds us, removed from human ken.

Bats’ powerful bioacoustic abilities to distinguish individual echolocators without interference in crowded caves may offer a powerful model for using sonar signals to create a similar capacities of sonic recognition among the range of sensor data that self-driving cars use by emitting distinctive levels of sonar so specific not only across different makes, but individual drivers, allowing swarms of commuters to calibrate their spatial relations to other commuters by an analogous sort of distributed intelligence: might autonomous vehicles, in other words, be made to think like bats? The thought is tempting, as it would push a new basis for drone “thought” and warm thinking and movement, if it remains a bit of a pipe dream quite different from the current base-maps for self-driving cars, based on mapping roadways, directionality, and the driving cues of highway signs, turn routes, and the sort of tacit signs of how we move cars within lanes, along painted reflective dashes, to prevent or reduce automobile collisions.

Civil Maps

But what are the maps of bats? Could the flight paths of bats ask us to reimagine maps? The level of auditory discrimination is at basis, perhaps, a question not only of “technologies of extremely accurate localization” but bioacoustics. Much as LIDAR might create a point-cloud for areas that are lacking in many topological maps of routes to estimate the areas of roads on which autonomous vehicles might travel, is there a chance that bats move mentally among multiple scales and registers of mapping, moreover, both to navigate among one another’s flight paths while traveling in the night skies at speeds that are often up to 60 mph, and to take paths that allow them to return to the security of caves or other diurnal dwellings?

The problem was how the sort of state-of-the-art maps for autonomous vehicles that were dependent on existing maps would make sense in the dramatically changing extra-urban and rural environments on large scales, and how such rapid development of built landscapes could limit the potential positives of autonomous vehicle technologies: often, these areas were the same in which many commuters lived, and where the benefits of driverless cars would be felt, so the benefits of unmooring cars from existing maps was more than a purely academic challenge.

 Detaled Trracking of Roads in Unmapped Rural Roads/Ort, Paull, & Rus (2018)

The bioacoustics tools bats use to negotiate in swarms and on individual rest on developed abilities of acoustic recognition that might be especially important to autonomous vehicles–for which the motion between large scale maps and the mapping of fast-moving vehicles beside them remain something of a missing piece, if not a potential cartographical blind spot for modeling distributed spatial intelligence by sonic blasts.

Bats may hone these auditory skills of discrimination of sonic frequencies by skills honed by preparing from departure deep underground in caverns, developing echolocation systems that allow them to capture insects while flying that are less than a centimeter in size, though the presence of a still human can confuse bats’ sonic maps for judging moving prey, while navigating swarms of over 1.5 million–15 million live in Natural Bridges underground caverns, and caves in Carlsbad NM once housed up to eight million.

Natural Bridges, TX/National Parks Service

The ability to map individually and in a swarm make their ultrasonic pulses a powerful tool of acoustic discrimination of routes, but the images bats preserve in their mental maps are not nearly so existential in nature. Indeed, the colony of a million and a half Mexican free-tailed bats that live in downtown Austin, under Congress Bridge, beleived to be the largest urban bat colony in the world, is so prized by the city’s human residents that the emergency of maturing bat pups in the Central Texas night sky is advertised as a cheap thrill during fall sundown of vertiginous biophilia, the dedicated “bat hotline”–(512) 327-9721–provides visitors eager to witness the swarm with confirmation when bats are seen emerging downtown

Bat Conservation International

–a biophilic spectacle that highly demonstrates the intricate networks of distributed knowledge as young pups learn to fly, that is a prominent part of the Central Texas city’s ecology. Perhaps a splinter group from the nearby Bracken Cave colony–one of the densest sites of mammals on earth, just a half hour northwest, is the largest known bat colony in the world.

Inspired by the broad arcs of nightly emergence of bats from New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns National park as Pearl Harbor was attacked, a dentist first promoted the idea of using bats for fire bombing of Tokyo’s wooden homes. The plans for outfitting thousands of bats with explosives affixed to their little chests–treating the bats as dive bombers to create spontaneous conflagrations in Japanese cities–developed as the letter sent to President Roosevelt led to plans for a nocturnal release of thousands of bats, bearing explosives on their chests, who would roost in the structures of Japanese buildings by treating Mexican free tail bats as a squadron of blind dive bombers who, transported across the Pacific to the eaves of wooden houses in Tokyo, might provoke an incendiary attack by distributing packets of napalm–the basis of incendiary bombs–by the far greater geographic area of bats on whom chests were affixed napalm adhesive vests. Sequestering a thousand free tails hibernating in isolated chambers for trans-Pacific travel never bore fruit; optimistic simulations revealed explosive packets regularly impaired flight and “uncertain behavior of bats” glossed the failure to cooperate in destructive fantasies of using winged mammals to distribute urban conflagrations by 1944, if disastrous experiments in California created some massive explosions. Despite the failure to orchestrate a swarm of bomb-bearing bats, plans to parachute a swarm were brushed aside by OSS director William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan punctured as the “Die Fledermaus Farce,” dismissing the fantasy of costuming bats for an air raid by an Strauss operetta promoted into the operatic repertory to ridicule the strategic value of an airborne zoo –putting the cruelty of immolating flying mammals aside. The basic truth was that the bats’ flight could not be planned.

Canister Designed by Louis Fieser for Dropping Hibernating Bats on Japan

The remove of such a bomb as a way of creating winged kamikazes removed nature of hopes for the strategic deployment of bats in a global strategy from what it is like for a bat to be a bat, or how bats think. But could it be possible to approach the mental outlook that enables bats to navigate nocturnal skies at high speeds in search of fast-moving food? Perhaps Nagel’s project influenced how, since 2011, Israeli researcher Yossi Novel attempt to cross this bridge of consciousness by a colony of bats–nearly 20,000 winged mammals–that he raised from birth to maturity, and tracked their progress as they navigate Tel Aviv’s skyline, using the city lights to navigate their paths home. By fitting the small bats with the “smallest GPS [then] in existence” of about ten grams, scientists charted paths to uncover secrets of the mammals’ neural abilities of nocturnal navigation around man-made waypoints in Tel Aviv’s and the most “visible” nocturnal monuments to detect their cognitive abilities.

While perhaps not as elegant as aerial V-formations of geese, pelicans, or storks, timing their wing beats to catch eddies of air that seem to save birds some 20%-30% in energy, minimizing downdraft to an aerodynamic advantage, and flapping in phase to maximize energy by an anti-phase synchronizing of wingbeats in V-formation: bats’ far smaller wingbeats evolved fewer aerodynamic problems, and responded to fewer challenges of long-distance migration, but offer evidence of assembling spatial maps over time over a surprisingly expansive distance range. Far from a costume party of human orchestration, in a staged ball based on costuming bats, the bats’ flight was nightly tracked.

Indeed, the almost nightly expeditions of bats–some 15 million from caves north of San Antonio TX, in summer months–that show up on radar as explosions of “bioscatter,” as they emerge from caves in search of food, is so striking at large-scale that the small-scale tools of navigation by which the bats move from sundown need to be mapped in relation not only to seasonal meteorology, artificial light, and human disturbances of the environment, although it might be better to begin from more basic–still insufficiently understood–questions of how bats, all too often mischaracterized as “blind,” regularly map space. The National Weather Service mapped nocturnal emergence of bats from caves in Central Texas on its radar that appear to be explosions of meteorological imbalance, but in fact only track the nightly emergence of millions of bats, an efflorescence of cave-dwelling mammals bursting into flight from underground sites–what weather forecasters dismiss them “bioscatter” which raises immediate questions about the bats’ mapping tools, and the distributed networks of navigation that allow bats to fly across the state in search of food, without ever crashing into one another’s paths of flight.

if all maps are ‘surface readings’ and of necessity exclude often crucial sensory “noise,” do those green explosions miss the miracle of bioacoustics that allow sophisticated level of auditory discrimination for bats to move with a sense of where they are going–or what to avoid and what to eat!–while registering or encoding a map to allow them to return to the caves? What are we missing in mapping those bats as mere “biostatic,” of no meteorological significance, we are now asking what sorts of sounds bats are making to one another as swarms disperse from what seem fixed points? Are the bats best mapped as swarms, or do they have individual flight paths, and, if so, what is their form of air traffic control?

Without explicitly trying to revisit Nagel’s thesis, the data gained about the bat’s spatial sense of navigation and its brain capacities provided a sense of navigation as they flew above Tel Aviv’s skyscrapers in relation to the tallest towers of the built manmade environment by a GPS of their own devise, that revealed how bats possessed uncanny navigational skills to fly in straight lines at considerable elevations of over a hundred meters, using as points of reference trees up to twenty-five meters away. Outfitted with GPS chips, they mapped the progress made from bat pups’ first exploratory flights, theorizing their abilities to encode learned flight paths to identify the best routes to locate food sources in the city at distances far beyond what sonar allowed them to navigate, to accumulate a mental map of the city that they accrue over years around visual landmarks, taking shortcuts to move across dozens of kilometers.

Israeli researchers explained without much surprise how their bats navigated elevated points on the skyline of Tel Aviv as akin to the same GPS tools that they used to navigate their commutes around the skyscrapers that provided waypoints that were, somewhat quaintly, the very same waypoints of the researcher’s own daily commute: it seemed eerily natural that bats had substituted for other landmarks that bats employ to orient themselves to a skyscape to seek their food or find their diurnal dwellings, as a basis for aerial navigation that provide orientation to the built environment. It might make sense to ask who was enabled by technology, or how technologies allowed us to think like bats: scientists interpreted their data by consulting with pilots, in order to determine what sorts of landmarks the bats released near Bersheba to guide their fairly secure paths, or what types of spatial learning bats developed over time, and how they build maps that allow them to navigate areas as expansive as 100 sq km.

The studies of bats’ neural navigation nets began in 2011 in Israel, in a sense as a casualty of war: the military engagements in Israel created huge pressures on displaced and endangered animals, peace also provided new nesting opportunities for bats, as Haaretz reported Eran Levin of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Zoology discovered species-rich bat populations nesting in long-vacated army bunkers in the Jordan Valley, abandoned since the 1994, but now repurposed by displaced bats as perfect niches that mimic caves, repurposing the bunkers abandoned by Israel Defense Forces, vacant since peace accords with Jordan, but serving as a new habitat for large colonies of Egyptian fruit bats. The fruit bat populations provide a new sample group for zoological studies, providing a unique site to study bat populations, as help from Bat Conservation International and the Ford Foundation transformed the bunkers to homes for displaced bat colonies, including plastic nets and ropes to refashion their ceilings for bats that could restart new colonies holding up to twelve different species in twenty old unused bunkers, that have welcomed bats from the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, and Israel to temporary or perhaps permanent shelters.

If bat studies progressed in the West Bank, the space of urban bats have been studied to show their ability yto navigate from the desert locations as Bersheva to urban habitats. taking them to new areas in the desert over forty kilometers from their usual habitat, finding fruit trees where they feed in the desert, 44 kilometers south of their normal range, and releasing them at dusk who had no problems finding their ways back to their favorite fruit trees, and those who were released at dawn went back to their caves. The bats seemed to use landmarks to guide their paths of flight to do so, and the bats that were released in a crater, over eighty km south of their caves, gaining the purchase to start to fly north: as they took time to exit the crater and to get oriented and needed to leave the crater to place themselves against distant landmarks to return home–waypoints, as it were, to mark their own travels that we imagined computationally checked out, grasping their internal wayfinding abilities by analogy to our own use of GPS in multiple contexts; in what risks a circular argument, bats were argued to have internalized a GPS system. Did the GPS trackers enable researchers to map a bat navigating system, or to think that they had?

The surprising lack of difficulty that the bats had in moving collectively is striking. The success with which bats learned short cuts, and indeed re-oriented themselves to space against spatially removed landmarks, seemed to suggest that they had been caught in the act of building a sophisticated mental map on which they could draw, even if it did not derive in sight, as they could indeed “see” it in their minds, that raised questions of how to describe the mental processes by which they were able to navigate after having been moved almost fifty kilometers south of their usual feeding grounds, and easily able to find their familiar sites of rest by the following day: the description of the bats as moving against buildings by their “own GPS” applied the grids we use to navigate traffic, airspace, or bike rides to the cognitive tricks of the mental operations of bats, without missing a beat.

Tel Avivi researchers recently started monitoring a colony of 20,000 bats from birth could unlock secrets of sociability that allow colonies of thousands of bats to survive over forty years, and perhaps communicate, and indeed to all use their own abilities of sonar to fly together collectively within subjective tools, by a neural map that the abilities of echolocation bats use for closer range encounters.

Such studies suggest intriguing orientational abilities of mouse-eared bats to orient themselves by magnetic fields–as if by analogy to a compass–at sunset, when they emerge, the suggest possession of considerable orientational tools. but the study of how bats can cannily navigate Tel Aviv skylines suggested an uncanny ability to internalize built landscapes, and to study their behavior that would not cause duress to any single bat.

The image of the peaceful nocturnal navigation of the Holy Land seems a collective experiment for which funding must exist in Israel, the questions of echo-recognition were hoped to find a solution to how bats map human-built space, and perhaps the surprise came when they were recently explained to built a map akin to GPS as the means that “experienced bats” move with such surety across what seems a known space, taking short-cuts around buildings to find new paths to food, in ways that indicate they have built a map of the city in their bat-minds–or to cast the bats minds not as a different embodied experience, but akin to GPS machines.

The mapping tools strapped on their backs seem to have provided terms to allow us to imagine how bats navigate as a swarm–by a version of GPS?–as if the point-based mapping system that we adopt to move through space provides a basis for understanding how to be like a bat, or how a bat navigates space–the GPS monitors seem to adopt a sort of invisible agency in the experiment, indeed, that allow us to think we can indeed, pace Nagel, enter a bat’s mind. But the astounding adoption and growth of GPS as a universal translation device seems to have been extended across species in the experiment that ties GPS monitors as tools without their own spatial logic.

Whether such monitors afford a sense of what it is like for a bat to be like a bat may be less evident than the possible expansions of imagining a neural net or distributed network by which automated cars case use GPS. There is a sort of romancing of the GPS devices as an agent, in other words, that links the bats to one another, and allow serve as universal translating machines,–a version of the instantaneous translation of TARDIS, in Dr. Who, that relies on matters of telepathic fields, or the “babel fish” that excretes translations into the auditory canal in which it is implanted like an active hearing aid in an auditory channel, as a sort of prosthetic that provides instant empathy in Hitchhiker’s Guide, or the prosthetic Microsofts that plugged into “wetware” sockets behind the ear like a chips to offer exoskeletal enhancements enabling fluency in other languages: the conceit of simultaneous translation the was tweaked by Douglas Adams and William Gibson was imagined as needed to resolve an atomic stalemate that emerged during space travel, in Murray Leinster’s First Contact, as atomic detente after the encounter of a ship of humanoid bipeds are caught in a deadlock near the Crab Nebula–and leads to a memorable conclusion as humans learn to recognize the truly universal sounds of laughter after both ships find they have proposed the same solution.

The fiction of simultaneous translation in the 1945 story would be the basis for resolving the actual fears of atomic war at the foundation of the United Nations, which from its start promised to instantaneously translate all communications under its auspices into each of six “official” languages–Arabic; Chinese; English; French; Russian; Spanish–from the 1945 San Francisco Conference that led to its formal founding; instantaneous interpretation for speeches anywhere from as long as thirty-five minutes to a full hour became a basis for world peace, if one that Preter Pyotr Avaliani compared to “driving a car that has a steering wheel but no breaks and no reverse”–as it allows no time for corrections–characterized as premised on remembering enough short-term but forgetting the words one just said.

The analogy takes us back to unidirectional routes of travel, waypoints, and the creation of a mental map without what we recognize as vision, based on the supersensitive visual perceptions of far greater distances than we’ve imagined, if a vision not dependent on color sensitivity or differentiation.

The GPS device attached to the backs of the bats provided the very tools used to track their motion would allow us to think like a bat, at least in offering a basis to interpret the how the bats navigated airspace,–and make us realize that just as we enhance our navigational abilities by placing trust in Waze and “live” GPS navigation to avoid traffic jams and plot our daily commutes–or used to–they, too, allow us to think like bats.

But the elevation of way finding tools in GPS might make us imagine we’ve found way to think like bats, as opposed to equip them with translation devices that provide a better analogy to think about how they travel.

Echolocation and geolocation are different spatial logics. But we may be in danger of assimilating bats to a system of something like a GPS-inflected AI. If the earlier model of navigation by magnetic fields at sunset posed the problem of the internal compass by which bats move after sunset by magnetic fields, the mental dominance of GPS as a grid we have internalized around waypoints, destinations, and points of primary reference provides a new model to think about how bats do think.


Filed under bats, bioacoustics, data visualization, distributed intelligence, GPS devices

On the Road and Off the Map: Maps for Self-Driving Cars in an Over-Paved World

Self-driving or autonomous cars promise a change in patterns of mobility more radical than any change in transportation.  While depending on maps, the maps made for self-driving cars are perhaps unlike any other:  not made or designed for human eyes. To be sure, we already drive in maps that we see ourselves moving along, in a mapped world as much as a real topography-and the internalized maps on our dashboards offer a basis from which it seems one barely has to move to imagine a machine-readable map of a self-driving vehicle–

–so that even our road signs can be obscured by the options that we have on the maps in our dashboards, and we are almost ready to offload responsibility for following the map onto the voices that provide directions, images that track our presence on the road, and put us in road maps, to permit replacing the landscapes through which we drive.

The increasing eventuality of assembling a machine-readable record of each edge of the road.  At the same time as roads are scanned, integrated with LIDAR imagery of the environment, and augmented with real-time feedback loops would provide a virtual 1:1 map of automative environments, in which cars could navigate autonomously–within parameters of speed limits, weather conditions, and oncoming traffic.  

Yet how intelligent are these “intelligent maps” by which self-driving maps integrate and position themselves in the space networks of roads?  As Shannon Mattern has argued, “With the stakes so high, we need to keep asking critical questions about how machines [are able] to conceptualize and operationalize space” that can recognize the human actors in space, and how the increased role of these networks of mapping serve as actants–shifting the networks of on-road behavior, or how, as Mattern puts it, “artificial intelligences, with their digital sensors and deep learning models” that perpetuate one image of space will “intersect with cartographic intelligences and subjectivities beyond the computational ‘Other'”  How will such maps, put differently, register people who also occupy the sidewalks, and the other cars on the highway (either as drivers or passengers), and how will they be effected by them?

The lack of a clear roadmap for self-driving cars notwithstanding, the eerily ghostly nature of LiDar views of streets, overpasses, and street side scenery seems to point up the absence of a sensory cartography of place. The maps for self-driving cars are not, it is true, for human subjects, and it is perhaps unfair to prejudge them or their selectivity. But despite the trust we are inclined to accord machines to reading space accurately and comprehensively, by synthesizing a total image of street conditions thatch replace the driver’s tacit sense of road conditions, as if they contain a greater precision than paper maps could hope to contain. We share amazement at the possibilities posed by mechanical sensing is, in a sense, pushed to new limits in the promises of self-driving cars, who have quickly gained multiple evangelists.

We already have cars able to signal their approach of the edges of traffic lanes, altering their human drivers of impending danger.  The promises of self-driving cars have generated increasing optimism in the United States and Japan, as the next generation of driving vehicles in a culture ready to embrace the new, perhaps because they promise the very possibility of constant motion in a country of speed.  But by removing routes of human motion and how humans move through road systems from direct intelligence, the maps that are being designed for autonomous vehicles to navigate the roadways of America and beyond suggest a new nature of space, as much as of transportation or transit:  and the maps for self-driving cars, while not designed for human readers, suggest a scary landscape rarely open to surprises and eerily empty of any sign of human habitation.

And what will even guarantee that the self-driving cars will not go off the roads?  The absence of human intelligence from the maps for self-driving cars creates a code-space that seems to depend on its interaction with human intelligence far more than its maps seem to register at first sight.  The simulated scenarios that have been created for such self-driving cars by engineers seem to seek to “provide a view of the world that a driver alone cannot access, seeing in every direction simultaneously, and on wavelengths that go far beyond the human senses,” but by nature depend on the ability to translate real-time scenarios in HD maps–as well as topological models–into the car’s actual course.


For in promising to synthesize, compress and make available amazing amounts of spatial information and data sufficient to process the rapid increase of roadways that increasingly clog much of the inhabited world, they are maps for the age of the anthropocene, when ever-increasing spaces are being paved.  And although even after the arrival of promising “autonomous vehicles” from Tesla, which has introduced a new Autopilot feature able to maneuver in well-marked highways, and tests for urban driving by Uber, General Motors, and of course Google, the limited safety of relying only on sensors to navigate space in many areas, where vehicles are forced to integrate LIDAR, mid- and low-range radar, camera-based sensors, and road maps of real-time situations, and have difficulty calibrating road conditions and weather with the efficiency human drivers do.   The absence of a clear road map for their integration, however, is paralleled by the inability to synthesize contingent information in maps, which in their absence of selectivity offer oddly hyper-rich levels of information.

The notion of processing such comprehensive maps was far away when DARPA sent tout a call in 2003 inviting engineers to design self-driving cars that could navigate a one-hundred-and-forty-two-mile-long course in the desert, near Barstow, CA, across the desert to Prima, Nevada, without giving them a sense of its coordinates on a race-course filled with gullies, turns, rocks, switchbacks and obstacles–from train tracks to cacti–hoped to integrate GPS and sensors to create a car able to navigate space in as complete an image of road conditions as was possible.  If the rugged nature of these rigged-out vehicles recalled the first-run of a Mad Max film in their outsized nature paramilitary nature, designed as if to master landscape of any sort, they were so over-fitted with machinery were they with what seemed futuristic sensors that were tantamount to signage–

Poster 619x316

–to seem to wrestle with the fundamental problem of mastering spatial information that the new generation of autonomous vehicles have placed front and center.

The top-down attempt of DARPA to stage a race of autonomous vehicles, was intended to keep soldiers out of harm’s way in a military context.  But the attempt to generate a new sort of military vehicles raised compelling questions of integrating a range of spatial signs in their apparatus of machine vision, laser range-finding data, and satellite imagery, but suffered from an inability to take in environmental information–no cars completed the course, as it was staged, and the vehicle traveling the furthest went only seven and a half miles.  Even in a course that was located in the desert–still the preferred site, given the lack of weather conditions and better kept up road surfaces, to test most self-driving cars to minimize unpredicted external influence–the relation of car to world was less easily negotiated than many thought.

While the results of the DARPA grand challenge wasn’t immediately successful, although the basis it set for future collaboration between machine-learning and automotive companies in notions of remote sensing.  It placed front and center the problem remains of how to establish more than a one-dimensional picture of the road ahead of the car to navigate the road ahead most easily.  And by 2007, the Urban Challenge, invited autonomous vehicles to navigate streets of an urban environment in Victorville, Calif., against moving traffic and obstacles and following traffic regulations, in ways that lifted a corner on the mappability of the future of driverless cars, as if to throw pasta against th ewall in the hopes tht some of it would stick.  Although the new starting point of self-driving cars on a network of readable roads, equipped with recognizable signage, remains the most profitable area for development, the machine-readable road maps eerily naturalize the parameters of the roads in their content, and absent humans from their surface.  Despite the recourse to satellite photography and attempts to benefit from aerial views, the notion of a map for the autonomous vehicle was barely conceived.  But in the almost fifteen years since, the maps that are being developed for self-driving cars have grown into an industry of their own, promising to orient cars to machine-readable records of the roadways in real-time.

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Filed under 3-D maps, autonomous cars, HD Maps, machine-readable maps, self-driving cars

Map-Inspired Madness: Mapping the Great White in the Solitude of Ahab's Cabin

The terrifying search for the whale Moby Dick runs almost vertiginously off the known map.  The absence of bearings are particularly apparent in an era of increased map-printing and the growing claims of map authorship, often insecure of the origins or coherence of their captain’s narrative design.  The quest for the elusive Great White takes readers literally off the map, as The Pequod leads readers off of the map, in frequently disorienting ways; the apparently unreliable narrative carries readers on a quest for Moby-Dick into unknown areas less mapped as the almost  primal site of whale spawning, unknown to most, where the craft, itself adorned with whale bones—“tricking herself forth in the bones of her natural enemies,” bulwarks adorned with sperm whale teeth, rudder made from a whale jaw bone, seems to seek to arrive by human artifice, as if to persuade the whale to reveal itself by charms–or be all too similarly cannibalized by its craft. 

As the voyage progresses across the seas, Ahab descends to madness as he falls into maps in his desire for stability and power.  The book is an epic of consciousness, of Shakespearean scale, and a study in a landscape of psychic interiority.   As if conjuring the character of Ahab, on the final flyleaf of a volume of Shakespeare’s works, Melville echoed the words that Captain Ahab deleriously howls as he mock-sanctifies the harpoon he feels destined to kill Moby Dick.  The devlish incantation sums up his monomaniacal absorption, inverting the sacred ritual of baptism of a Christian soul, “Ego non baptizo te in nomine Patris et/Filii et Spiritus Sancti–sed in nomine/Diaboli”–after which Melville added:  “madness is undefinable” in its hubristic drive for “converse with the Intelligence, Power, the Angel.”   If Melville was raised in the austere Calvinist, learning the catechism in the Dutch Reform Church, taught to  “acquiesce in God’s will, no matter how unjust or cruel it might seem,” without recrimination for the divine plan, Ahab’s attempt to conjure the Great White whale moves not by summoning angels or demons but by conjuring his location on maps, as if to trying to conjure the whale by imprecations, charms and talismans.  The charms, we learn in Chapter 100, begin first and foremost in his obsessive reading of nautical charts and maps. Ahab’s mad drive is no where more unbalanced than on his obsessive poring over maps to reveal the location of the whale, as if he might geolocate his position by latitudes and longitudes. Ahab’s investment of maps with mystical powers is almost a clear echo of the Theurgic magic that Melville saw as the belief in his ability to conjure the whale he so obsessively seeks.

Of course, as Melville would remind us, the map is all in the eye of its reader.  Maps, in contrast, provide a sense of stability to Ishmael, and were the basis of historical orientation to the seas.   ‘It is not down in any map; true places never are,’ Ishmael descriptively evokes the mysterious origins of his fellow sailor and companion, Queequeg, whom he praises as “George Washington cannibalistically developed.”   Queequeg hails from the South Seas, and his unknown origins betrays the fascination of unmapped spaces and the allure of being “off” the map.  The sailors’ concern with mapping places haunting the narrator of the novel obsesses the monomaniacal ship’s captain who leads his ship to the same area of the globe in search of the lone whale he seeks to lead an increasingly wary crew.  Melville wrote with a particular sense of spatiousness in a chapter that first tells the story of the Great White Whale–“Moby-Dick” (Chapter XLI)–poses the question of preserving collective knowledge to gain bearings on the location of the White Whale, that suggests the onset of the first mapped knowledge of whale routes.  If providing pictures of  the specter of the whale from from the point of view of the whale-man, the encounter of ships at sea at the start of the hundredth chapter betrays a  desperation to orient his ship on the high seas, but which the conjurer Ahab invests with devilish properties as if they had the Theurgic properties he so diabolically desired.

At the start of the hundredth chapter of the massive narrative, an obsessive Ahab cries hopefully to crews of a passing English ship monomaniacally—“Ahoy!   Hast thou seen the Great White?”   Ahab cries in biblical syntax in desperation to the approaching English ship’s captain and crew, showing his ivory leg to the ship whose captain barely seems to understand him, but improbably turns out to be his twin, having lost an arm last year to the very same white whale:  in a macabre recognition scene, the ships joined the two disfigured by the same whale clink ivory limbs, arm and leg, bound by both how their lives found new orientation after their encounters with the great white whale.  Ahab has prepared to track the whale’s course on a map, however, and in ways not often historicized in the mapping of whales, a sort of hubristic act in the case of the Great White that Ahab tracks, and yet a cartographic image of location of the great white whale’s course that Ahab seems perversely and maniacally determined to be able to conjure by a map–perhaps an intimation of madness. As much as revealing the hubris of such determination, Melville’s description of Ahab’s madness is historicized, in a telling footnote, in contemporary maps of whale routes, whose potential promise, limits, and benefits he would have known well as a man of the seas.   

While legends of sightings are dispersed among whaling ships “sprinkled over the entire watery circumference” in disorderly fashion, each “pushing their quest along solitary latitudes,” sharing knowledge about whales’ locations was prevented given the “inordinate length of each separate voyage” and “long obstructed the spread through the whole world-wide whaling fleet of the special individualizing tidings concerning Moby Dick.”  The sightings of sperm whales of uncommon magnitude provoked rumors and fears of encounters with the whale, as one might expect, even if they were recored at a fixed time or meridian.  For, Melville reminds us again of the unique space of the open seas, “in maritime life, far more than that of terra firma wild rumors abound, wherever there is any adequate reality for them to cling to;” in the “remotest waters” or “widest watery spaces,” whalemen are subject to “influences all tending to make his fancy pregnant with many a mighty birth.”  

Such an expansion of legends of the White Whale on the open seas contrast to the single-minded focus of Ahab’s tracking of Moby Dick, and the certainty that the Captain possesses of his ability to find Moby Dick on the open seas .  Such a fixation is opaque at the book’s start, but is perhaps most manifest in his obsessive desire to track the individual whale by the sea charts kept in his cabin, to which he retires to read each night, and seem to provide the first point of entrance into his psyche–and what Melville calls his “monomania.”  As the ship moves over the seas, Ahab returns often to his cabin to read charts, maps, and logs, as map-reading becomes a keen emblem of monomaniacal fixation–as the belief that maps will help him track the whale that he is committed to kill.  The maps may magnify the sense of monomania, the psychological diagnosis of an undue expansion of mental attention on one object; if repeated reading the maps serves as an emblem of the growth of his fixation despite the survival of his intellect; trying to pursue the whale on charts seems to serve to focus his vindictiveness, as if materializing how the “White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all this malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating at them, till they are left living with half a heart and half a lung.”  Ahab’s fixation on the yellowed charts he unrolled on his cabin table express the monomaniacal tendencies defined in nineteenth century psychiatry of how an inordinate fixation persists in an otherwise rational mind; the fixation on mapping the course of the whale obsesses his attentive mind.  

Is the hope of locating the White Whale by the rutters of past whaling ships and collation of mapped observations an emblem of nourishing an undue fixation of his pathological preoccupation, despite his apparent ability to reason the possible path of the whale’s path?  The extended narrative of the ongoing quest for Moby Dick on which Ahab leads Pequod that fills the content of the novel becomes a sort of psychic profile of the obsessiveness with which Ahab takes the Pequod, and the novel’s narrator Ishmael, to encounter Moby Dick in the South Seas–the site of whale -spawning where the novel culminates.  The retiring of Ahab to the solitude of his cabin matches his withdrawal into his mind and serves to nurse his preoccupations.  What provides a more gripping image of Ahab’s inner psyche than the obsessive attention that he gives to tracking the White Whale by maps?   Ahab retires to consult log-books and charts to cull sightings of sperm whales that almost substitute for an actual map or rutter–and for the trust that sailors might place in maps and charts to guide the ship.  The problem of locating the whale s underscored by mention of the “wild suggestions” of many ships that have given the whale chase of an “unearthly conceit that “Moby Dick was ubiquitous; . . .  had actually been encountered in opposite latitudes at one and the same instant of time;” if”the secrets of the currents in the seas have never yet been divulged, even to the most erudite research,” Ahab seeks to challenge this sense of ubiquity through his obsessive consultation of charts, by following of the outlines of naval courses.  His intensity comes to transform his very brown and visage into a lined map, tracing out courses, so that his forehead comes to resemble a chart; reading maps with such obsessiveness to track his prey seems to remove Ahab’s single-minded pursuit from any oceanic transit, and from the common good of the ship that he commands.

Ahab’s monomania may seem sui generis.  But it is closely tied to the mapping project of Mathew Fontaine Maury and the contemporary project of collating open data on whale migration in Melville’s time, and the promise of investing legibility in a global space of whale migration.  Even more than the bodily injury of the loss of his leg that left him tormented with visions of the White Whale, the obsessive tracking and persistent consultation of charts and maps with other records manifests the idée fixe by which Captain Ahab is obsessed, and indeed the solitary consultation of these charts while his crew sleeps at night stand for the single-minded madness of tracking one whale on the open seas.  The folly of tracking the White Whale on a map embodies Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of a way to track its course by a paper map.   So fully does map-reading come to consume both his mind and his body as he ponders charts every night in his cabin, drawing new lines and courses by pencil, and revising them, “threading a maze of currents and eddies, with a veiew to the more certain accomplishment of that monomaniac though of his soul, so focussed on a map that, in a brilliant image, his tormented face even becomes a map, bearing the traces of the pencil lines traced on the charts, as if the subject of his fixation rises to the surface of his skin, so entirely consumed his mind by the conceit of mapping the course of Moby Dick.  The appearance of these self-inflicted lines as if engraved on Ahab’s brow–Melville’s image–echo the captain’s fixation with obsessively tracing multiple marine courses on the charts he keeps in his cabin; the courses that are so intensely pondered seem to rise to lines inscribed on his own skin as if in as a consequence of the imprint that tracing possible courses  of the leviathan has brought.  

The conceit of the tracking of whales on maps appears an emblem of Ahab’s madness, if it almost echoes contemporary techniques of Global Positioning Systems.  The utter hopelessness of locating one whale in an ocean map seems apparent; Ahab has indeed so often red maps to transform himself into a map hoping to locate Moby Dick, and the conceit of mapping whales has filled his mind.  Yet, as the “hidden ways of the Sperm Whale when beneath the surface remain, in great part, unaccountable to his pursuers, . . . the most curious and contradictory speculations regarding them, especially concerning [how] he transports himself with such vast swiftness to the most widely distant points”    Melville presents the problem of mapping the course of whales as one by which the crazed Captain Ahab is increasingly consumed, pouring over charts in the captain’s cabin, increasingly isolated at a remove from the crew including Queequeg and Ishmael, and the fate of his ship.  Although whalemen by their expert knowledge often came to the conclusion after the White Whale so often escaped their capture “Moby Dick not only ubiquitous, but immortal,” the presumption of mapping the course of the White Whale’s course is perhaps the clearest illustration and emblem of Ahab’s hubris, and monomaniac obsession with tracking the whale above the expert knowledge of his crew, as he “led upon the whale’s white hump as the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race,” so violently did he come to see personified in the whale that had once torn off his leg all evil in the world, and pit himself against it.  Maps provide Ahab with a basis to nourish and expand the “monomania  in him [that] took its instant rise at the precise time of his bodily dismemberment.”  If such a mania began he returned home, stretched in a hammock on his homeward voyage, swaying in a straitjacket in the rocking boat returning across the tranquil tropics, as “his special lunacy having stormed his general sanity,” he obsessed after returning to Nantucket with the one aim of hunting the White Whale.  Monomania had almost fallen out of favor as a diagnosis by 1850, when Melville wrote, but novelists from Balzac to Bronte adopted the image of mental fixation and unhinged rationality that Ahab’s reading of maps convey.  

Nothing in Mellville’s novel is so great an emblem indicating Captain Ahab’s madness than his obsessive consultation of nautical charts and maps of which he is a jealous custodian, and which provide the basis to nourish his determination to locate Moby Dick.  Maps may feed Ahab’s relentless compulsion to track the White Whale.  Ahab’s obsession with maps reflects contemporary attempts to map the open seas:  indeed, the superstitious value of the leviathan held a special place in the “wild, strange tales of Southern whaling,” and the deep sympathy of whaling men for their prey, who they know far better than those naturalists who have perpetuated false legends of their fierce animosity for humans, from Palsson to Cuvier, distorting the actual awesomenes of pursuing any whale tracking the Great White.  

Ahab’s obsessive reading of maps to track Moby Dick seems a figure for his monomania, but reflects an actual mapping project tracking whales on the open seas, which Melville knew well, and a project of mapping the logs of whaling ships in legible cartographic form.  Ahab’s use of maps to track Moby Dick mirrors the cartographical project of Matthew Fontaine Maury, the nineteenth-century Virginian polymath and early hero of open data, who in 1851 sought to map migratory routes of Sperm and Right whales or the benefit of the whaling economy.   If Melville often consulted histories of arctic searches for Northern Whales published from the 1820s, the appearance of an authoritative map of the courses of whales that Maury had accumulated from ships’ logs provided a model that attempted to impose human reason and fixed continuity on a whale’s migrating itineraries and paths, in order best to predict its actual location.

Ahab’s obsessive hope to track the course of the great white whale Moby Dick in the ship the Pequod may mirror the scope and ambition of M.F. Maury’s project–a project that led to one of the odder maps of marine population and migration that appears below, but which is one of the monuments of open data.   For Melville, however, Ahab’s mania seems driven by the hope the map carried for being  able to track  the course of the great white whale that his prey, and to arrive at the moment of confrontation that will in fact never appear on any map.  For unlike the observations Maury graphically collated, the specificity of Ahab’s tie to Moby Dick is not on the map at all.

Whale Chart 1851Maury’s Whaling Map; Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Ahab’s self-imposed sequestering on the voyage of the Pequod in his cabin, surrounded by a variety of charts, seems emblematic of his single-minded obsession to track the elusive Moby Dick.  It is emblematic of a uniquely obsessive sort of map-reading emblematic of his particular sort of hubris:  as he will never know the true path of the majestic whale, his study of the map symbolizes a contest between the mapping abilities of man and whale.

The private consultation of the map in the the secret space of the captain’s cabin reveals the sharp contrast between the whale as an innate cartographer who migrated across seas and the knowledge of routes inscribed in lifeless nautical charts, and the inability to plot or plan the intense longing for his confrontation with Moby Dick within the range of observations of all whales by traveling whale ships.  But it also offers an amazing fantasia of the reading maps and nautical maps as if they were guides to habitation, and a reflection on the nature of map-reading and the comprehensive claims of encompassing known space within engraved maps, and specifically of the colored charts of sea routes, whaling and sighted whales that the oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury produced in the 1850s compiling nautical logs of whaling ships, after having remapped the coastline of the United States from the geodetic Survey of the Coast by the Swiss Ferdnand Hassler, which had tried to fulfill the Jeffersonian dream of a nation facing two oceans, before joining the Confederate cause.

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We have little sense of the amassing of data that existed in Ahab’s cabin, so much as the intense relation that the captain develops to his charts.  Melville describes how Ahab retires to his cabin to open “large wrinkled roll of yellowish sea charts, spread them before him on his screwed-down table,” ready to set himself to “intently study the various lines and shadings which there met his eye,” and escape into the paths that they trace.  The memorable episode in Ahab’s own cabin focusses attention on how the captain’s obsessive consultation of the maps, as a sort of emblem of his search to capture the whale in them.   Ahab processed information in the map as best he could, and “with slow but steady pencil trace additional courses over spaces that before were blank,” while consulting log-books of previous voyages and noted sightings of sperm whales in a desperate attempt to locate the migratory path of the white sperm whale Moby Dick–whose own route he so obsessively seeks to understand and on which he fixates so obstinately. The reading activity is isolated and isolation, because the map is essentially mute, a second order of spatial knowledge with which he has no literal traffic or exchange, but becomes a way to wrap himself in further isolation from the mammal that communes with the productive fecund waters of the sea.  “While he himself was marking outlines and courses on the wrinkled charts, some invisible pencil was also tracing lines and courses upon the deeply marked chart of his forehead,” as every night, “in the solitude of his cabin, Ahab thus pondered over his charts, . . . threading a maze of currents and eddys, with a view to the more certain accomplishment of that monomaniac thought of his soul.”

Such a collective map of the sightings of whales is both the focus and talisman of Ahab’s monomaniacal will:  both as the transcription of the paths of hidden submarine itineraries, “with the charts of all four oceans before him,” and the hubris of understanding the concealed migratory course of that noble whale with which he is so obsessed and that has long evaded his search.  For Melville confides that “it might seem an absurdly hopeless task thus to seek out one solitary creature in the unhooped oceans of this planet” to many; “But not so did it seem to Ahab, who knew the set of all tides and currents; thereby calculating the driftings of the sperm whale’s food, which whales were imagined to follow; and, also, calling to mind the regular, ascertained seasons for hunting him in particular latitudes; could arrive at reasonable surmises, almost approaching to certainties, concerning the timeliest day to be upon this or that ground in search of his prey.”  The privacy of the consultation of the tables that allow him to try to read this map, and to establish the position of the whale he seeks, becomes the basis for the captain’s obsessive hope to track the progress of the whale, better to interpret its location.

The intensive reading of ocean charts becomes a site of reading that obsesses Ahab as a means to determine and decipher the logic of its movement stand at odds with the description of the sublime nature of the sperm whale, whose own head cannot even be read without wondering at the majesty of the form of the “head of this Leviathan,” truly “an anomalous creature,” impossible to interpret or decipher, whose imposing grandeur is of such “god-like dignity” to defy human interpretation.  As the wonderfully described problem of the legibility of the “plaited forehead” of the Sperm Whale is a living surface that defies interpretation, inscribed with “innumerable strange devices for [its] emblematical adornment,” following not Euclidean mathematics, but rather “pure nautical mathematics,” the mapping of the course of the whale seems to defy tracking by Euclidean tools also defies reading, much as Melville described the sperm whale’s forehead forms a “mystically carved container,” the lines of whose face defy clear reading, as the “bumps on the head of this Leviathan” is a surface whose interpretation “no Physiognomist or Phrenologist has as yet undertaken,” and would challenge the abilities of Lavater–despite his study of animal faces–or Spurzheim or Gall, suggesting the intractable indecipherability of the whale, but whose “sublime aspect” and “added grandeur” Melville attempted, in the brow in which “mighty god-like dignity” is indeed “inherent” in a brow “plaited with riddles,” presenting Lavater’s mark of genius in the depressed crescent at its middle, in a brow “so amplified . . . you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcefully than in any other object in living nature.”

As the brow of the leviathan remains challenging to be read, any hope of reading the map of the path it takes seems, despite Ahab’s desire and Maury’s map, Melville appears to assure his readers, as futile as a way locating the actual whale Moby Dick, but becomes an obsessing act of tracing, retracing, and location, that becomes Ahab’s main interpretive project in Melville’s book.

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Filed under American literature, data visualization, Herman Melville, Moby Dick, open data