Pretium iustum mathematicum, licet soli, Deo notum
May 10, 2018 8:01 AM   Subscribe

The West Chicago Tower Mystery
Most of the radio towers you see each day are cell towers. There are 215,000 of them in the US. They differ from other radio towers in that they will almost always have one ore more triangular structures with three or more directional antennas on each side of the triangle. A grid of cell towers covers an area with roughly hexagonal cells so that you get a good signal everywhere. The West Chicago tower had no triangular structure, so I was pretty sure it wasn’t a cell tower. And these antennas were huge compared to regular cell tower antennas. I could literally see them 1/2 mile away. Some cell towers do have microwave dish antennas when it’s hard to bring fiber to a site, but shortwave antennas didn’t seem to go together with microwave in my mind. Mystery #1: If this wasn’t a cell tower, what was it?

concurrent discussion on Hacker News

The title is from Cardinal Juan de Lugo
posted by the man of twists and turns (38 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
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posted by adamrice at 8:30 AM on May 10 [3 favorites]


Whoa.
posted by odinsdream at 9:06 AM on May 10


Always wondered what this thing was near where my parents used to live. We called it The Space Station. Mind the rattlesnakes.
posted by lagomorphius at 9:11 AM on May 10 [1 favorite]


What is "gardening leave?" Is it a euphemism?
posted by Pembquist at 9:15 AM on May 10 [2 favorites]


The Hacker News discussion says that is a paid period of time between jobs acting as a non-compete clause.

This stuff is fascinating. I assume they have a license for commercial use of whatever shortwave frequencies they use? It certainly would be illegal on the amateur frequencies. Maybe there are FCC records for that.
posted by exogenous at 9:18 AM on May 10 [2 favorites]


The HFT In My Backyard series from this blogger is a great read if you think this stuff is compelling and/or you enjoyed Flash Boys.

A friend of mine disappeared into one of the Chicago HFT firms and he won't talk about anything he does there...if I can get him to reply to my emails at all.

I myself have been approached by recruiters for these companies and when they mention the salaries involved you just know it has to be this insane high-pressure black ops rabbit hole.

They also hire FPGA engineers like crazy, so one can probably deduce that the edgier firms might even be making their own chips ala Google and Facebook.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:19 AM on May 10 [2 favorites]


What is "gardening leave?"

$20, same as in town.

Actually, the motto:
Pretium iustum mathematicum, licet soli, Deo notum
Seems to mean "Only God knows the just (correct?) mathematical price".
posted by thelonius at 9:36 AM on May 10 [5 favorites]


Garden leave
posted by cardboard at 9:36 AM on May 10 [3 favorites]


Fascinating. Thanks for the post!
posted by rtha at 9:40 AM on May 10 [1 favorite]


I wonder whether you could scam some startup money out of these guys by claiming to be on the verge of a neutrino based system that would go straight through the Earth to any other point on the globe.
posted by jamjam at 9:41 AM on May 10 [9 favorites]


Sub-space would be ideal, but the Ferengi would catch on too fast.
posted by dr_dank at 9:50 AM on May 10 [1 favorite]


One of the odd differences I noticed when living in Europe in the 1990s was that similar towers erected there were made of reinforced concrete. Turns out that when your continent is ravaged by war twice in one century, you build things that will stand up under pressure.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 9:52 AM on May 10 [3 favorites]


verge of a neutrino based system

Fermilab's neutrino project is about 4 miles away from the Chicago Mercantile data center in Aurora, so I'm sure that's already been considered. Hell, the trading firms might even be funding the project at this point.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:53 AM on May 10 [1 favorite]


I'm buying the part about the link to the local stock exchange... But transatlantic microwave links? Aren't they more or less line of sight? Any experts around?
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 9:57 AM on May 10


The tower has a microwave link to the CME's data center in Aurora to the south, but has a shortwave radio link to points beyond. These are the old-TV-style antennae next to the round white microwave antenna.
posted by JoeZydeco at 10:01 AM on May 10 [2 favorites]


Always wondered what this thing was near where my parents used to live. We called it The Space Station. Mind the rattlesnakes.

Looks to be owned by Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line (Transco).
posted by asperity at 10:01 AM on May 10


I doubt it's old enough to be responsible for the Chicago Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion. But one can dream
posted by thecjm at 10:06 AM on May 10 [6 favorites]


And I had just stopped throwing up in my mouth a little bit from watching Matt Taibbi blow Joe Rogan's mind yesterday.
posted by humboldt32 at 10:17 AM on May 10 [1 favorite]


Always wondered what this thing was near where my parents used to live. We called it The Space Station. Mind the rattlesnakes.

Looks to be owned by Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line (Transco).


Yes, there's a lot of gas stuff up there. (Old and new - all of those little squares on the map are fracking pads.) I'm now recalling there was a phone number on a sign on the fence at the base to call if one had concerns or questions. The area code was in Texas. (Edit: just like on the posted link.)
posted by lagomorphius at 10:22 AM on May 10 [1 favorite]


Glad to see that "calling the mothership when things get really fucked" hasn't been conclusively ruled out.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:24 AM on May 10 [1 favorite]


I love love love love love looooooooove weird hidden in plain sites mysteries and also shortwave radio and this is like catnip to me, sooo goooood.

For those who want to play around on a webSDR and hear some shortwave for themselves, the University of Twente hosts a public SDR with a very broad range.
posted by WidgetAlley at 11:12 AM on May 10 [3 favorites]


I've read stuff from this blog before, and I don't understand the detective-mystery tone, like they're righteous defenders who are trying to keep up with dastardly evildoers or something. It makes for good reading (I enjoyed the linked article), but is there any actual wrongdoing occurring, beyond the general baseline scumminess of finance? It just kind of seems like finance guys doing legal finance things. They don't seem to be particularly cloak-and-dagger about what they're doing, as evidenced by the fact that they're leaving labelled trash out in the open for anyone to photograph. As far as shady things financiers do, this seems pretty far down the list, to be honest.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:26 AM on May 10 [2 favorites]


> I wonder whether you could scam some startup money out of these guys by claiming to be on the verge of a neutrino based system that would go straight through the Earth to any other point on the globe.

You joke but...
Remember the $1.5 billion being spent on transarctic fiber cables designed to cut a bit of latency between London and Tokyo? Here’s an even better idea: why not get rid of fiber cables entirely, and use neutrinos to transmit information, at the speed of light, right through the center of the earth?
(via)
posted by Bangaioh at 11:34 AM on May 10


I've read stuff from this blog before, and I don't understand the detective-mystery tone, like they're righteous defenders who are trying to keep up with dastardly evildoers or something.

I think it is partially to do with the subject matter of high frequency trading, which is already considered a little suspect by many, and the mystery of being able to solve exactly what a piece of infrastructure is actually for and who uses it. Even though that data isn't necessarily concealed, it's often hard to access, requiring multiple layers of tracking across thick bureaucracies. You'll see the same tone in writing about unidentified shortwave signals, oil wells in cities that are designed to look like regular high rises, disguised cell phone towers-- it's just really satisfying to be able to look at a thing in your world and find out what it is, and even more so when it's something that's so commonly around us you might not have ever considered it. It's a type of puzzle and once you've solved it overlays on the world a whole new environment that you've never seen before.
posted by WidgetAlley at 11:38 AM on May 10 [10 favorites]


that data isn't necessarily concealed

Depending on the quality of the lawyers involved to set up the shell companies, off shore LLCs etc, the data may very well be behind the veil.
posted by k5.user at 12:13 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]


The reminds me of the "antenna farm" that sits on the edge of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The place is super creepy, with a high security perimeter fence, security cameras everywhere, even a license plate scanner by the main gate. There are at least 10 antennas like this scattered throughout the property, some low to the ground, others well over one hundred feet tall. I did a little digging through tax records and found that the property is owned by a former auto parts executive, but other than that I have no idea what's going on there. No one does. I would love to hire this blogger to do some sleuthing for me.
posted by slogger at 12:26 PM on May 10 [8 favorites]


Oh, I dunno about this. Why not sit there for a bit with a cheap SDR and see whether anything's being transmitted - and if so, what?

Shortwave may have very good latency, but it's also very noisy - you're going to need some form of error detection/correction, which means redundancy, which means latency. It's also very unreliable (especially at the moment) and very low bandwidth, so...

Well, perhaps someone's doing an experiment. It's not an expensive technology to play with and your local spectrum regulator will most likely give you some frequencies in a range of bands if you ask nicely, but I'd be very surprised if this was an actual thing making anyone any money on a regular basis.

If nothing else, someone would have heard it. It's not as if there are a ton of transatlantic, frequency agile, encrypted, point-to-point civilian data links on HF, and anything capable of reliably linking Chicago to London during market hours on shortwave would be a bit conspicuous. Especially up close, hence my surprise that matey hasn't sat at the perimeter fence for a couple of hours recording the entire HF spectrum and checked for very strong local signals. (There are no very strong local HF signals in cities any more; even the poorest diplomatic missions have moved to other means.)

If shaving those few ms of latency really is that important, then put up a few LEO satellites with bent-pipe microwave linear transponders. They'll have about the same latency as HF skywave, but you get tons of bandwidth, much less noise, much higher reliability and - if you put enough up - greater availability.

But mostly, I dunno about this. Little things like the 'SDR boxes on the garbage pile' just seem a bit too twee.
posted by Devonian at 12:49 PM on May 10 [4 favorites]


They were once some of the most advanced structures and facilities on the planet, standing at the cutting-edge of design and construction. Today they are abandoned, dangerous, some of them even deadly. From uninhabited cities to empty factories, these long-forgotten engineering marvels are scattered around the globe. Science Channel uncovers why some of the world's most advanced architectural achievements were eventually left behind in the all-new series Mysteries of the Abandoned.

Highly entertaining and informative.
posted by Carol Anne at 12:55 PM on May 10 [3 favorites]


I myself have been approached by recruiters for these companies and when they mention the salaries involved you just know it has to be this insane high-pressure black ops rabbit hole.

I interviewed for one shortly after I left academia and wasn't really sure what I wanted to do. What stood out was:
  • The first round was an intelligence test.
  • The people from the company I spoke to seemed to have a very high opinion of themselves.
  • The programming test was ludicrous. Typical programming tests give you a couple of days to solve some toy problem and are used to weed out people with serious flaws and give people an opportunity to describe how they think through problem solving and decision making. This one had to be completed in an hour using a portal on their web site. You had five problems to solve, some of which would take a bog-standard developer a few weeks. You had to write it in C, right there in the text box, just like the one I'm using to type this comment. And you were instructed that if the focus left the test page, i.e. if you changed tab or window, you would fail instantly.
Even if I had somehow passed the programming test I had already made a decision not to go near the place. I think it's a zero-sum game and a tax on regular investors and a massive waste of human ingenuity to be honest.
posted by kersplunk at 1:11 PM on May 10 [8 favorites]


Oh, I dunno about this. Why not sit there for a bit with a cheap SDR and see whether anything's being transmitted - and if so, what?

It's surely going to be encrypted.
posted by enn at 1:28 PM on May 10


It may be encrypted, but you can learn a lot from the modulation scheme.

As for that antenna farm mentioned by slogger, a bit of digging reveals it's the home of one Paul Sergi - who is indeed an auto parts mogul - but also amateur radio station N08D and owner of a large (in every respect) amateur antenna company.

That place is his ham shack and test range.
posted by Devonian at 1:47 PM on May 10 [9 favorites]


Kersplunk, I interviewed with one as well about 10 years ago. I had pretty much the same experience. The attitude I just chalked up to having massive amounts of cash on hand (but, obviously, not enough programmers that stick around to help out).

I think it's a zero-sum game and a tax on regular investors and a massive waste of human ingenuity to be honest.

Couldn't agree more. That's pretty much what I cut and paste to each recruiter that asks, in the hopes that maybe one of them takes a second and thinks about it. But, as the saying goes, money talks bullshit walks.

I've also gotten into similar tangles over on Hacker News where the "HFT is a parasite" camp is quickly drowned out by the "HFT adds liquidity!" camp. It's a losing battle until something changes in legislation or the SEC. And we all know how that will go.

But this is also why they're very secretive. As long as nobody spoils the party, the cash printing press keeps chugging along. Wait until the boomers all retire and things need to start liquidating.
posted by JoeZydeco at 1:55 PM on May 10 [4 favorites]


A friend of mine disappeared into one of the Chicago HFT firms and he won't talk about anything he does there...if I can get him to reply to my emails at all.

He could be a vampire.

posted by ActingTheGoat at 8:29 PM on May 10 [2 favorites]


> One of the odd differences I noticed when living in Europe in the 1990s was that similar towers erected there were made of reinforced concrete. Turns out that when your continent is ravaged by war twice in one century, you build things that will stand up under pressure.

Or when they fall down.
posted by winterhill at 6:19 AM on May 11


> Oh, I dunno about this. Why not sit there for a bit with a cheap SDR and see whether anything's being transmitted - and if so, what?

Shortwave may have very good latency, but it's also very noisy - you're going to need some form of error detection/correction, which means redundancy, which means latency. It's also very unreliable (especially at the moment) and very low bandwidth, so...


This setup is about on a par with what a high-end radio amateur would use. Conditions are so poor at present that it'd be an achievement to reliably get communications from Chicago to any point in Europe. A lot of people are moving away from even the standard data modes to specialist weak-signal data modes like JT65 just to be able to make some sort of contact other than bog-standard QSOs with people in your (radio) backyard.

My first thought about this setup when I saw the post a few days ago was that it could be some rich person's remote ham station. As with any hobby, there are people who invest a lot of money into amateur radio and it's not beyond the realms of possibility that some rich ham living in a noisy urban RF environment in Chicago could have set up an SDR station at a disused cell tower in a quieter location.

The microwave licence for this site seems to disprove this, though. Most remote ham stations are linked over the public internet, and the few ms of latency that brings in doesn't matter much. I'm still not convinced it's anything to do with HFT, though, and the evidence presented here is circumstantial at best.
posted by winterhill at 6:37 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]


Devonian: How did you figure that out??? The name I found after digging through tax records was Dennis Wayland(or something like that, it's been a while), also of Summit Racing. A ham radio test site is so less interesting that some of the crazy theories I had concocted!
posted by slogger at 6:54 AM on May 11



Devonian: How did you figure that out???


I tried a few dead ends, then I looked for nearby local features with public access and googled their name plus 'antenna'. Goosefeather Pond did the trick - someone had posted a pic and asked on a radio forum 'what are these antennas I can see from Goosefeather Pond behind all that security?" and somebody replied 'Oh, that's Paul's place' - and the rest of the thread had everything else. He seems to be one of the three or four best-equipped ham operators in the US; it's certainly close to my money-no-object dream radio playground. (I'd have some EME/sat and an enormodome radio telescope, if you're planning for my birthday. Ta.)

I also learned there's very good fishing at Goosefeather Pond, and that it's very easy to miss the turning.
posted by Devonian at 8:14 AM on May 11 [9 favorites]


This is fascinating stuff to me. Ever since I was a kid, mystery infrastructure has held a great deal of my interest and curiosity. Odd antennas, curious waterworks, remote beacons, well maintained access roads that appear to go nowhere. These sorts of things always piqued my imagination. Not really because I thought there were evil conspiracies surrounding us all, just more mundane curiosity, like why is that antenna shaped so weird, or how old is this canal and has it been abandoned for long, or what is that little spinny thing on that pipeline and why is it placed the way it is?

The sleuthing here doesn't really answer the questions, though, at least for me. I mean, yeah, if you have deep pockets and have an application critical enough want to transfer data with very low latency with a very low reliability medium like the shortwave spectrum... Is there something else going on that makes it more practical, or is it more experimental?
posted by 2N2222 at 11:04 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


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