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Shady Illuminations


by John Shade

Generic image illustrating the article
  A cockroach festival, cybernetic cockroaches, the internet considered as a zombie cockroach, and Apple’s Map app flap.  

The cockroaches are taking over.

I was going to write about Apple’s Map app flap this month. I was all set to rant about how replacing Google Maps with Apple’s Not Ready for Primetime substitute will bring about death and driver disorientation and Doonesbury derision. I think you can tell by the alliteration that it would have been a nifty column. I was going to tie in football refs and Mars Curiosity rover. Good stuff.

But then Tim Cook himself stepped up with the solution to the map mess and undercut my premise. Cook’s recipe is simple: Don’t use Apple Maps. It’s crap, we’re trying to fix it, and in the meantime, here are some workarounds so you can use Google Maps. Great. Thanks a lot, Tim. Problem solved. So I’m going to column plan B: cockroaches.

But first let me just say this: fanboy. There, I got that in. You’re not a serious journalist unless you use the word “fanboy” in every article that mentions Apple.

But back to the cockroaches. Or as Tony “Scarface” Montana prefers, cockaroaches.

They’re taking over. You knew it was going to happen eventually. And it is. Check Google Trends if you don’t believe me. Or try this search if you dare. They’re big in Nepal. And although Google Trends doesn’t know it yet, they’re really big in Madagascar.

A Kami-Kazi Flight to the Cockroach Festival

Cockroaches are survivors. They are the zombies of the creepy vermin set. They can survive nuclear war. They can survive decapitation. Cut off a cockroach’s head and it will go on functioning for days without a head. In fact, the head will go on living without the cockroach. It’s like you’ve created a second cockroach. But even though they’re almost impossible to kill, until now cockroaches have preferred to keep themselves hidden from humans. Staying out of the light. Waiting for their moment.

And it looks like their wait is over.

The first sign, for those of us manning the early warning system, was the Cockroach Festival in Santa Fe, Texas. Apparently October is Cockroach Month in Galveston County. I think they race the cockroaches. There was also mention of a barbecue. I’d skip that. For that matter, I’m not sure how you get to Santa Fe, Texas. There’s a heliport nearby named Kami-Kazi Airport, but I think I’d avoid that, too.

Anyway, I’m not on the Santa Fe, Texas Tourism Board. I couldn’t care less about their cockamamie festival. That story just happens to be the first one I spotted. But remember the lesson of Cockroach 101: There's never just one. When it comes to cockroaches, you’re either roach-free or you’re roach-infested.

So I flipped on the light. Oh. My. God.

Invasion of the Cybernetic Cockroaches

Researchers at North Carolina State University have worked out how to drive a cockroach by remote control. Sort of like a very slow, very low altitude drone. They’re using Madagascar hissing cockroaches because they are the very best cockroaches. Really big, measuring up to three inches long, exactly the length of an iPod Nano. Apple could use that in their advertising. Probably go over better than the Map app. More significantly, the Madagascar hissing cockroach is just a bit longer than an Arduino Diecimila microcontroller.

The researchers want to put these monster roaches to work as beasts of very small burden. Emergency first responder is their idea of a good job for their cybernetically controlled cockroaches. Strap audio equipment and a tiny camera to one’s back and it can be sent into earthquake rubble to locate survivors.

And to identify them. “Hold still and look into this cockroach,” would be the implicit message, “so your loved ones will know you’re alive.” Once the system’s in place it’ll be interesting for other academic researchers to study the effect on the mental health of someone pinned immobile under earthquake rubble who suddenly has a three-inch-long cockroach hissing in his face.

I’m sure the researchers are right and that these hideous cyborgs could be useful for that sort of thing. But what I see here is another cool techno-toy that everybody’s going to want. Aren’t you just itching to get your own cyber-roach? I’m sure they won’t be cheap, at least as cockroaches go, because of the add-ons. You’re going to want the motion control circuitry and video and audio at least, plus the Arduino board for cockroach programmability. And with that much investment in roach tech, you should probably plunk for a tracking chip and download the Tony Montana Where Is My Cockaroach? app.

Of course, as Tony Montana could tell us, these cybernetic cockaroaches will be easily adapted for crime. Now that burglars can use a Trojan designed by other helpful academic researchers to build a 3D map of the inside of your house, they can send a cyber-roach in to retrieve the front door key from your pants pocket. You can’t stop progress. Even if you cut off its head.

The Internet Considered as a Zombie Cockroach

You know why cockroaches can survive having their heads cut off? It’s because their brains aren’t all in their heads.

Cockroaches have distributed intelligence. They have ganglia running down the length of their bodies that are capable of managing a lot of the mental activities that cockroaches consider important. Or that North Carolina researchers want to control.

Cockroaches are not going to bleed to death from having their heads cut off, either. Their blood doesn’t circulate the way ours does. And they don’t breathe through their heads. All these functions are more distributed than in humans. Sound like anything? Right, it sounds like the internet. So the internet will probably survive the invasion of the zombie cybernetic cockroaches and the rise of the Jurassic cockroaches, even if we don’t. And since cockroaches and the internet have similar minds, they’ll probably link up eventually and become one disgusting and all-powerful being.

Oh, right. The Jurassic cockroaches. Another team of helpful academic researchers have reconstructed a prehistoric cockroach, a slippery step on the path to the Jurassication of the Roach. Technically, the Roach Nymph is an ancestor, sort of a proto-roach. But as we all know, prehistoric ancestors of any living creature are way bigger and scarier than their descendants. This was a structural revisiting of roach history, not a DNA reconstruction, but you know that’s only a matter of time.

Obviously, resistance is futile.

So if you, as I do, welcome our insect overlords and want to track their every thought and action, you’ll be happy to know that there’s an app for that.

John Shade was born under a cloud in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1962. Subsequent internment in a series of obscure institutions of ostensibly higher learning did nothing to brighten his outlook. Much like a cockroach, he has been hiding from the light ever since. Follow him on Twitter, send him your feedback, or discuss the article in the magazine forum.