Friday, February 26, 2016

On Unfavorable Semicircle



Atlas Obscura, a website, touts itself as your "the definitive guidebook and friendly tour-guide to the world’s most wondrous places." Well-designed and sleekly informative, the website does not disappoint, offering a compendium of eccentric tourist attractions, macabre museums, bizarre geological and natural phenomena, as well as enigmatic, crumbling ruins, both modern and ancient. The atlas accompanies descriptions of these places with photographs and maps showing the location of the wonder, including directions to the place and, when relevant, admission information. (I used Atlas Obscura in Oslo, Norway to locate the remarkably peculiar and, mostly shuttered, mausoleum of Emmanuel Vigeland – a pitch-black vault in a sedate suburb open to visitors only three hours a week.) The staples of Atlas Obscura are industrial ruins, weird rock formations, caverns, and the outdoor galleries of half-crazed outsider artists. Atlas Obscura was founded by Joshua Foer, the brother of the prominent novelist, Jonathan Foer, and Dylan Thuras. The website is operated from Brooklyn, New York.

Recently, Atlas Obscura has expanded. The site now broadcasts a blog called "Weekly Wonders" to its subscribers. For some reason, "Weekly Wonders" is transmitted about three times a week and, indeed, on some occasions, twice a day. The blog contains short essays on various curious and peculiar subjects as well as videos that the curators of the site think its followers might enjoy – as I write, there is a short video posted at the site showing a manta ray giving birth on the deck of a fishing vessel. Atlas Obscura has far flung correspondents who sometimes host events for the public – there is a chapter in Iowa and a very active Atlas Obscura society in Chicago that seems to have a close relationship with the Field Museum of Natural History.

On the morning of Thursday, February 25, 2016, I received a "Weekly Wonders" transmission from Atlas Obscura. "Unfavorable Semicircle," said to be the "creepiest" enigma on the internet, was among the "wonders" featured in the blog. The story of "Unfavorable Semicircle" is legitimately bizarre and troubling. So I will recount it here.

On March 10, 2015, someone established a You Tube channel. The channel is identified as ucizqZSNNGKhnc Rvj GlwNpWw – at least, this is the http for the You Tube site. Ten days lapsed before the first video was posted the site. This video was 4 seconds long and consisted of a silent image of a dull-brown field pierced in one location by tiny eye-shaped opening. (Some people described the eye-shaped opening as a "colored pixel.") In some accounts, a color band for calibrating image hue appears along the right side of the screen – I didn’t see this on the version that I watched. The video was labeled with a elliptical circle from which an arrow protrudes on its right side and, then, an apparently random series of numbers – the number was 230511. (The elliptical circle is, in fact, a stylized representation of the astrological symbol for Sagittarius, the Archer – viewed closely, the symbol shows a bow bent into a circle and about to release an arrow.) At intervals of ten to twenty minutes, additional videos were posted. Initially, these were four to five second silent images of the motionless brown field with the location of the eye-shaped penetration, however, varying from picture to picture. Thousands of these videos were posted, all of them labeled with the enigmatic Sagittarius symbol and a random number.

At the end of May, 2015, the channel went silent. After about ten days, Unfavorable Semicircle began posting videos again – also at a rate of four to six per hour around the clock. Around this time, the Voice first manifested itself. The Voice is indisputably male, muffled, and expressionless. The Voice sometimes says a number or names a letter. In one video, the Voice recites the alphabet. On the videos that I watched, I heard the Voice speak over the brown field marked with the speck in one corner – the Voice said something that the Reddit commentators identified as "zero" (to me, the Voice seemed to say something that sounded like "duero.")

Among the thousands of videos, apparently more than 88,000 as of this writing, are anomalous images. One image of the field with its mark lasts a full eleven hours – that video seems to have been shown in short snippets initially, then for 11 hours, and, then, was rebroadcast again for one hour. This video is silent. Another video is accompanied by an ear-splitting high-pitched whine. (Some Redditors think they hear a low-frequency rumble – a sound that triggers feelings of panic and hysteria in many people. I didn’t detect anything like this in the thirty or so images that I watched.) Several videos show blurred images although it is unclear to me whether the picture is anything other than an evanescent and abstract mist of color that changes from blue to purple or green to blue. LOCK and DELOCK are the most famous of the "Unfavorable Semicircle" anomalies. I have watched them both. DELOCK, first aired on December 28, 2015, shows a neutral field with white bars oriented at right angles to one another – the bars look faintly like calibration color-bars but without the spectrum of colors. DELOCK is accompanied by a repeated refrain, something that sounds like distorted calliope music that loops incessantly during two-and-a-half minute video. LOCK, which preceded DELOCK, is similar and features the Voice reciting something – people who have attended closely to these images claim to hear a remote, distant scream. I perked my ears for this clue but didn’t hear it.

After DELOCK, the Unfavorable Semicircle channel went silent for a few days. But beginning in February 2016, postings proliferated. Someone or something was posting videos on the site, generally the 4 second brown field shot with the eye-shaped hole, at a rate of three per minute or 180 new videos every hour. The last 28,000 videos bore a different label – these were marked BRILL followed by random numbers. On many of these videos, the Voice mutters a syllable or so – there is no music.

As of February 25, 2016, no one had any plausible explanation Unfavorable Semicircle postings. Initially, some suggested that the videos were generated by You Tube itself. Enigmatic posting earlier made to You Tube under the name Webdriver Torsocolor bars and sounds of various pitches – were revealed to be testing apparatus that You Tube was using to monitor picture and sound quality. The You Tube images posted by Unfavorable Semicircle don’t seem to have any utility of this kind – with a few exceptions the postings are simply too drab and minimalist to be used to test for image/sound quality. Other commentators think the Unfavorable Semicircle images relate to some kind of "alternative reality" game, although no one has proposed the rules of this game or how it might be played. Although some Redditors, claim the postings are malicious and cause computers to crash, I don’t think there is any substantive evidence for this theory. The most probable explanation, perhaps, is that the You Tube videos are a coded signal to covert operatives – that is, that a very few of the postings buried in the horde of featureless abstract images convey some kind of message. If this explanation were true, Unfavorable Circle would be the visual equivalent of various "Numbers Channels" discovered post-World War Two by shortwave radio enthusiasts. (The most famous of these channels is one called "The Lancashire Poacher" – this channel broadcast a mechanically generated phrase of music from a folk-song, the Lancashire Poacher, followed by a woman’s voice reciting a random series of numbers. The frequency, believed to be managed by the British Secret Service MI5, continued broadcasting at intervals through 2009). About sixty or seventy "Numbers Channels" are known to exist and they are, indeed, very odd – probably artifacts of the Cold War since several of them seem to broadcast in Cuban-inflected Spanish or Russian. If Unfavorable Semicircle is espionage, a spy code of some kind with messages embedded among thousands of instances of electronic detritus, no one is even close to understanding how the system works.

At the end of the Atlas Obscura article, a Reddit exegete of Unfavorable Semicircle is quoted: Someone should tweet a message to You Tube, the commentator suggests, and ask them what is going on with Unfavorable Semicircle. Other Reddit voices, however, quickly intervene and indicate that You Tube probably doesn’t know what is going on with the site and that informing the company about the postings might lead to the channel being shut down. "In that case," someone posts, "we will never know the solution."

The story of Unfavorable Semicircle haunted me all day. Later in the afternoon, before going home, I accessed Atlas Obscura to re-read the article. The article was generally as I remembered it. However, when I clicked on the videos from Unfavorable Semicircle posted within the blog article, they didn’t play. Instead this legend appeared in the middle of the screen – This video is no longer available because the You Tube account associated with this video has been terminated. When I tried to access the channel on which Unfavorable Semicircle broadcast, a message appeared indicated that the account had been "suspended for multiple and severe violations of You Tube policy against spam, gaming, misleading content, or other Terms of Service."

I mentioned this story to my daughter, Angelica. She was using her mother’s computer to research web images of members of the band Rammstein. My daughter told me that Unfavorable Semicircle was part of the so-called "Dark Web." I asked her about that. "It is like ‘Suicide Mouse’," she told me. "If you look at the video, you go crazy and commit suicide." She mentioned "Sad Satan," a deep-web video that was thought to be a game promoting child sexual abuse. When I sat down at the computer to see if there was any update on Unfavorable Semicircle, my daughter said: "Don’t go into the Deep Web. If you go in there, the computer will crash and you will never get out." When I began to type the name "Unfavorable Semicircle" into the computer, she fled the room.