Air Quality Citizen Science: Measuring Pollution with an AirBeam

Los Angeles Library card holders can check out an air quality monitor and participate in a crowd-sourced science project to monitor and map air quality.

I checked out a portable monitor at the Central Library, called an AirBeam, that measures two kinds of particulate pollution and feeds the results to an app on your smartphone. The AirBeam looks at two different sizes of particulate matter: PM2.5 and PM10. PM2.5, the smaller of the two, comes mostly from burning gasoline, diesel fuel and wood. PM10 (which, somewhat confusingly, includes PM2.5 particles) comes partly from fossil fuel but also consists of dust from agriculture, construction, wildfires and pollen.

The AirBeam has a loop which I attached to my belt, allowing me to take the device on my morning dog walks. The period in early August that I took measurements was unusually good for Los Angeles in August due to a mild weather. Only on one day did smoke from a distant fire up the central coast give me a reading that air quality officials would deem as “unhealthy”. It should be noted that there is actually no level of particulate matter that is “healthy” but, even without human activity, there would still be some particulate matter.

The app gives you both a graph of your readings and a map view, in this case from a walk I took down to the always congested 101 freeway. Everyone can view results via the web on this map.

You can also use the AirBeam to make stationary measurements indoors. Indoor particulate matter consists of things such as cigarette smoke and mold spores. Thankfully we seem to have good indoor air quality.

The real promise of the AirBeam and the LA Library’s lending project lies in creating a hyper-local mapping of pollution as well as creating a kind of air pollution literacy. With a lot of people wandering around with these monitors we might be able to identify pollution hot spots in need of attention. While there is more to air pollution than just particulate matter, I also feel like I have a better idea of what air quality reports mean and almost a nose for it.

In addition to the AirBeam, the LA Library also has a number of other kits you can check out to monitor mosquitos, light pollution, water quality, biodiversity, and heat island effects. They also have curriculum materials to support these kits if you’d like to make these part of a school project.

When Mushrooms Attack

With the news that Amazon is flooded with dangerous, AI generated mushroom foraging books, this seems like the perfect time for this blog to point towards the Japanese kid’s show Ultraman Taro, specifically episode 31, “Danger! The Poisonous Mushroom of Lies”.

The episode opens with a giant, ambulatory mushroom, named Mushra, destroying a Japanese city. Ultraman Taro, a sort of size-shifting superhero, defeats the monster but not without a release of spores. After the battle the main protagonist of the series, Kotaro, meets a lonely latchkey kid, Daisuke, and gives him an experimental device that allows him to communicate with plants, as one does. Daisuke uses the device to communicate with mushrooms (I know, not a plant, but stay with me here). Handed such a device, let me just say that my first impulse would also be to communicate with the mushrooms to just ask them, like, what the hell are you all up to?

Daisuke, unfortunately, gets prodded by a bunch of hoodlum teens to eat one of the mushrooms and a seriously bad trip ensues. Daisuke becomes a mushroom monster and, due to the spores, turns the whole town into mushroom zombies.

Ultraman Taro returns to combat Mushra and this time drys up the giant mushroom’s water supply with some sort of zappy laser thingy. The mushroom zombies turn back into normal townsfolk. Daisuke’s mom apologizes for prioritizing work and, this being a Japanese show, everyone enjoys a bowl of mushrooms over rice.

That paradoxical love/hate/fear relationship we have with fungi, an organism that can nourish or kill or create visions thus provides the perfect plot points for this bit of pop cultural symbiosis and, as a bonus, you get an unexpected side plot dealing with women in the workplace in 1960s Japan.

Here’s the whole episode for your viewing pleasure:

Inside the Internet Archive: A Meat World Tour

Living, as we all do, in a fog bank of texts, emails, social media updates and more it can seem as Marx put it, that “all that is solid melts into thin air.” Thus, visiting the physical headquarters of the Internet Archive, is somewhat contradictory. Yes, in fact, you can ride the #38r Geary bus to see a website. We forget that the “virtual” things in our lives exist in the real world of servers, cables and cooling systems.

The Internet Archive, founded in 1996, is a “non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites, and more.” I’ve used it many times for research and even built a fence based on images in one of the books contained in their Building Technology Heritage Library. In addition to digitizing books, records and other media they maintain the Wayback Machine which archives a searchable selection of websites.

In 2009 they purchased a massive Christian Science church building at the corner of  Funston and Clement in the Richmond district of San Francisco. The paradoxical physical presence of the Archive is as much a story about the virtual as it is about the decline and repurposing of old-school religious institutions but that story will need to be told in another blog post.

The building houses the servers that host the Internet Archive and use the always cool air of this westerly part of San Francisco to chill the electronics without AC. The building also serves as a research and development facility for figuring out ways to digitize books, records and other types of physical media.

The Internet Archive has always been at the controversial, bleeding edge of copyright law and has landed in the news recently due to their ongoing legal troubles. In addition to the public domain material on their website they also host copyrighted books that you can check out for a period of several hours. They maintain physical copies of this material and when you check out the digital copy they temporarily withdraw the physical book.

A group of publishers did not agree with this arrangement and sued. The judge agreed and the injunction will remove a significant number of the books they currently lend online. Concurrently, a group of record labels have sued to stop the Internet Archive’s efforts to digitize and make available recordings on 78rpm records. Parsing the dialectical relationship between the value of public domain material and the rights of creators and publishers is beyond my pay grade. Let’s just say it’s complicated and made more so by technology and the huge data models gestating in the, perhaps over-hyped, world of AI.

If you come by the archive at 1pm on Friday you’ll get a tour, often led by the founder Brewster Kahle. Kahle was on vacation so our tour was capably led by gentleman whose name I failed to get, unfortunately. After explaining the history of the building, our tour guide showed us the contraption they use to digitize books. He noted that the majority of the books they digitize are sent to the Philippines and digitized with cheaper labor.

You can donate books and other materials to the Archive. They have an app that will tell you if they need a particular item and will sometimes pay for shipping.

The Internet Archive is a throwback to the heady, more optimistic days of the Internet familiar to those of us older than 50 who can remember things like Mondo 2000 and rave fueled techno-optimism. Everything will be free! Undeniably useful, the Internet Archive contains many, entertaining quirks such as Ted Nelson’s collection of vintage junk mail and their annual celebration of Public Domain Day when materials lapse into free use.

Ceramic installation by Nuala Creed.

Ceramic installation by Nuala Creed.

If you’re in San Francisco the free tour is well worth it if just to meet the celebrity tech tour guides and the rotating art installations. And you can have lunch afterwards on Clement Street, sometimes known as “the other Chinatown” (I’d add less touristy Chinatown) and then go buy a book at Green Apple if you have lingering copyright guilt.

Back From Nowhere

To my dear Root Simple friends: I’m back. Our webmaster and book designer Roman Jaster took on the arduous process of switching our hosting service and has restored the ability to subscribe to posts via email. Thank you Roman!

While I recover my muse, have a listen to this excellent summary of William Morris’ life via the Jacobin Podcast. The more I become familiar with Morris’ art and politics the more I think he speaks to our time, of the need to recover an optimism about the future and the right we all have to meaningful work.

Flipping the Flippers on May Day

The workers of The Flipping El Moussas.

I consider it a character flaw that my evening media viewing sessions often devolve into Lacanian jouissance, a state of mind that Mark Fisher explained as the “inextricability of pleasure and pain” that “transforms an ordinary object causing displeasure into a Thing which is both terrible and alluring.” (1)

The focus of that jouissance one recent evening was the HGTV show The Flipping El Moussas wherein real estate investor Tarek El Moussa and his new bride Heather Rae El Moussa attempt to rehab and sell a lackluster mid-century house in our expensive, hipster LA enclave.

The El Moussas inhabit a world that I imagine prioritizes skin care routines, personal trainers, luxury vehicles and relentless self empowerment propaganda. Their plastic skinned appearance means they could probably slip into that weird new Barbie movie without putting on any makeup.

This first episode of their new series focused on the affluent life of the hosts as they moved between suburban pool parties and their bland office. But what fascinated me most was what the show obscured: the immigrant workers who do the construction of their projects. You never see the worker’s faces, only their backs, arms and sometimes just the tools they hold. You never hear them speak or anything about their lives, families or backstory.

The obsession with flipping, the bidding frenzy and final price of the house at the end of the show obscures the real source of value which is the workers. The El Moussas inadvertently provide a textbook example of Marx’s labor theory of value. Without the workers their capital accumulation game wouldn’t work (2). And injustice is baked into the system since the workers don’t get their fare share of the “surplus value” generated by their labor nor can they afford the product of their skills. How strange is it that we have a housing system more interested in generating profits than, say, actually housing people. And it’s even weirder that we’ve turned this unjust system into an entertainment spectacle.

Nearly all of the decisions the Moussas make in this first episode are predicated on maximizing surplus value rather than housing people. The house they tackle didn’t have any structural problems and a minimum amount of touch up work could have made it more than livable. Instead they embark on a costly and unnecessary rehab, moving walls, adding bathrooms, painting everything white (of course) all to cater to the latest HGTV generated trends.

Construction work is hard and dangerous. A life of it can degrade the body and run you into the ground. On this May Day let those of us lucky to have a roof over our heads remember the workers who built those roofs and work towards a future where all will share in the benefit of our labor.