Xeni's report from iGRID2005 optical networks event

For Wired News today, I filed this report on the eye-popping technologies on display at this week's iGRID2005 conference at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2).

In the image above, Calit2 director Dr. Larry Smarr shows UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox a zoomable 100-megapixel display that shows live image data (1 foot = 1 pixel maps of post-Katrina NOLA, shot by the USGS) streamed over an encrypted fiber-optic network link. Nortel provided the encryption, and the University of Illinois' Electronic Visualization Laboratory made the display grid happen. There's a 30-machine Linux cluster behind the screen, and you could feel the heat coming off of them!

At one point, a woman who'd evacuated New Orleans walked up to the display and said to UIC's Jason Leigh, "Can we go to my house please?" We did, and we "went" to the Superdome and to burning buildings... in incredible detail. The interlinked displays made this information so much more lifelike than it is on a small laptop screen.

What do high-definition video of seafloor volcanoes and avant-garde Japanese digital cinema have in common? They're both examples of the kinds of bandwidth-intensive information that can be streamed live from remote locations, over ultra-fast optical networks.

And both were demonstrated this week at iGrid 2005. The week-long computing conference, which showcases research in high-performance, multi-gigabit networks, was held at UC San Diego's new Calit2 (California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology) facility.

"When you can stream content this high-resolution, you can start thinking about movie theaters as a place where live events can be displayed -- sports, fashion, politics, anything," said Laurin Herr of Pacific Interface, an Oakland-based tech consulting firm that produced the demonstration. "What color film did to audiences used to viewing black and white, what stereo sound did to audiences used to hearing mono, high-definition digital cinema will do to us."

Jaw-dropping demos abounded, promising just as much for scientists as for Hollywood. One experiment on Tuesday featured the first-ever live, IP-based transmission of high-definition video from the bottom of the sea.

Link to Wired News story.

During one high-def demo, scientists on board a ship in the Pacific had hoped to submerge their research instruments for a second round of live undersea footage.

They'd dazzled everyone with a live video feed from the ocean floor the day before -- translucent seafloor critters, "black smoker" volcanic vents, with everything so clear, the water disappeared. Magical undersea life, transmitted live in super-high-def, over IP. The thousands of miles separating us from this remote underwater world just vanished.

But powerful storms made that too dangerous to repeat on Wednesday, so the cameras stayed on the ship instead, beaming realtime interviews of the increasingly woozy crew while the storm pitched and rocked their ship violently.

As we watched that footage, transmitted over IP to optical networks on shore by way of a 15mbps Ku-band satellite, John Orcutt of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography turned to Dr. Smarr in the theater and said "It's still amazing."

Dr. Smarr gazed at the screen and was silent for a moment. Then he replied, "That's because it's the real world."

Oh, and here are details and some little screengrabs from the avant-garde Noh movie: Link. It was pretty amazing, too!


iGRID2005: Xeni's notes

Live webcast of undersea volcanoes @ IGRID2005

Disneyland history exhibit opens at MI's Ford museum

A travelling exhibit on Disneyland's history opens today at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI (my Flickr photos from the Henry Ford). Unfortunately, the site consists entirely of gigantic, non-quotable, non-bookmarkable Flash pages with tiny illustrations and an overwhelming flood of registered trademark symbols, which render me temporarily blind. So I can't tell you much about the exhibit, except that its website sucks and its subject-matter interests me a great deal. Link (Thanks, Patrick!)

"Creative Commons Comics" debut on SNL this weekend

Remember our previous blog-posts here on Boing Boing about The Lonely Island guys who were recently hired on Saturday Night Live? Well, this Saturday night is the opening night of the 31st SNL season, and I filed a story for Wired News about the long internet road that led to forthcoming TV debut of "the three dudes".
Live from New York, it's -- three comic talents who first made a name for themselves on the internet.

Andy Samberg will become a performing member of Saturday Night Live's 31st season cast debuting Oct. 1, while Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer have joined the show as writers.

But all three got their first big break online, thanks in part to the viral popularity of video shorts they released on the net.

In a move that may have helped fuel rapid grass-roots distribution, the comics released their work under Creative Commons licenses, which essentially let anyone copy a given work for free provided that person doesn't try to profit from it.

Link (Thanks, Macki!)

Photography and the Occult

Earlier this month, I pointed to a New York Times preview of "The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult" at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Today's NYT takes a deeper look at the exhibition with a long review and narrated slideshow by Michael Kimmelman. (Seen here, detail of "Henri Robin and a Specter" (1863) by Eugene Thibault.)
From the text:
The exhibition's deeper subject is the dreamer in all of us. The art in these ham-fisted photographs of transparent tomfoolery, such as it is, is generally not formal but mystical. I don't mean that the images of spirits and ectoplasms and mediums lofting card tables into the air are believable (although they are, I suppose, if you wish them to be). I mean that they inevitably sail past their intended goal, which is to document the unbelievable, and end up in a realm of higher truth. They remind us that art is a wonderment defying logic.

How else to describe, except in terms of wonderment, the deliciousness of the implausible image of the French medium Marguerite Beuttinger accompanied by her twin spirit, a trick of double exposure that evidently fooled somebody at one point. A blurry Marguerite is standing beside a seated Marguerite whose body is so slight that it makes her look like her own dwarf twin. The effect is marvelous, as is the multiple exposure of the ghost of Bernadette Soubirous, in white robes, gliding under a trellis, gradually evaporating into a brick wall.

Tim O'Reilly profiled by Steven Levy

Wired Magazine has a fantastic, in-depth feature on Tim O'Reilly, the publisher of O'Reilly and Associates (world's greatest tech books, hands down). The feature is written by Steven Levy, he of Hackers, Insanely Great and Crypto fame (Hackers was a huge influence on me and a big part of how I ended up working in tech). Between Tim's insight and Levy's vivid writing, this is one of the best profiles I've ever read.
By 1983, O'Reilly had learned enough about computers to start his own business. He set up shop in a converted barn in Newton, Massachusetts-, with about a dozen people, all working in a chaotic open room. "The company then was a loose confederation of people who knew Tim," says Dale Dougherty, who fell into the circle in 1984 and is now O'Reilly's most trusted associate and a 15 percent partner in the business.

What happened in that room was a small revolution in technical writing. The O'Reilly approach was to figure out what a system did and plainly describe how you could work around problems you encountered. "The house style was colloquial - simple and straightforward," Dougherty says. "And the other thing was to tell the whole story, not just what's easy to say."

In 1988, O'Reilly and Associates was producing- a two-volume guide to the programming libraries of the X-Windows system; in the process of showing it to vendors for licensing, people kept asking if they could buy single copies. MIT was about to host a conference on the system, and O'Reilly figured he'd give it a shot. "We went to a local copy shop that night and produced around 300 manuals," he recalls. "Without any authorization, we set up a table in the lobby, with a sign saying copies of an Xlib manual would be available at 4:30. By 4 pm, there was this line of 150 people. They were literally throwing money at us, or sailing their credit cards over other people's heads. That was when we went, 'Publishing could be a really big business.'"


Strange video of child prodigy "training"

Flashcard Earlier this month, the BBC ran a documentary called "Child Prodigies: Too Much Too Young?" Here's a very odd clip from the program showing a woman subjecting her toddler to absurdly fast flashcard "training," including a game that could be called "Name the Dictator."
Link to RealVideo clip, Link to program page (via Mason Inman's Moonshine Lard Man)

Guided RPG hikes

Otherworld Excursions offers guided tours run by famous role-playing game designers who take you hiking through rural and urban treks, immersing you in the role-playing elements of the natural environment:
See the occult architecture of Chicago as only Kenneth Hite can show it to you--then use this knowledge to survive (or, at least, be the last one to lose their mind) in an original roleplaying adventure of eldritch horror!

The Windy City is the birthplace of urban horror. Riding on the L with a faceless mass of drones being herded back to their soul-crushing jobs, Fritz Leiber looked out across the sooty rooftops and envisioned the kinds of ghosts that the metropolis demanded. In his classic novel Our Lady of Darkness, Leiber invented the arcane science of megapolisomancy, the magic of cities. Or so the story goes.

Is it possible that Leiber didn't create a fictional concept, but instead revealed a hidden truth? Were the street plans for the great American cities laid out like circuit boards to channel psychic energies, with steel-girdled skyscrapers designed as capacitors to store up these forces until they were needed for some cosmic ritual? (The Ghostbusters script could well be calculated misinformation, or a nod to fellow initiates).

If anyone knows what's really going on, it is Kenneth Hite. Guided by his uncanny mastery of Things Man Was Not Meant to Know, you'll spend a Saturday afternoon inspecting the architectural evidence. Then head downtown to the Hotel Intercontinental--which was constructed as an athletic club for the Medinah Shriners, but may serve another purpose for their secret masters. Here, you'll experience an unparalleled evening of roleplaying led by Kenneth, and learn first-hand why he wrote the definitive chapter on "The Joy of Research" for Gamemastering Secrets. It'll be a day trip you'll never forget, which could be problematic if you still have to go into the city after dark.

Link (Thanks, Tavis!)

Indy label for games

My friend Greg Costikyan -- an award-winning game designer of such classics as Toon and Paranoia -- has co-founded a new "indy label" for games called Manifesto Games:
Game industry veterans Greg Costikyan and Johnny Wilson announced today that they are joining forces to launch Manifesto Games, a new venture to build a strong and viable independent game industry. Its site will offer independently-developed games for sale via direct download--a single place where fans of offbeat and niche games can find "the best of the rest," the games that the retail channel doesn't think worth carrying. Three types of games will be offered: truly independent, original content from creators without publisher funding; the best PC games from smaller PC game publishers, including games in existing genres like wargames, flight sims, and graphic adventures; and niche MMOs.

While games were once the domain of hobbyists, today, the game industry considers any title that sells fewer than 1 million copies to be a failure; "The typical game store only has 200 facings," notes Costikyan, Manifesto’s CEO., "They can only carry best-sellers. On the Internet, there is no shelf space and you are limited only by how well you can market yourself, your site. This is where niche product can rule." Manifesto believes that an independent game market is analogous to film or music, where less commercial offerings aimed at identifiable markets and produced at lower budgets than the "blockbusters" can achieve profitability and critical success.

"The game industry has become moribund,” notes Costikyan. "Because of ballooning budgets and the narrowness of the retail channel, it is now essentially impossible for anything other than a franchise title or licensed product to obtain distribution. Yet historically, the major hits, the titles that have expanded the industry to new markets and created new audiences have been highly innovative. It is time for us to find a way to foster innovation, because it's not going to happen if we leave it to the large publishers."

"Many companies are entering the direct download space," Costikyan continues, "but in most cases, they're either focusing on casual downloadable games, or on offering the back catalog of major publishers. It’s amazing that casual game publishers can succeed selling games to people who, historically, haven't bought them, but we’d rather try to sell games to people who already buy them. By offering greater exposure to independent games, we'll be introducing gamers to a universe of games they haven't already seen--and that, we think, is the winning strategy."


Shaolin Bee-Fu! Slow-cook your enemies to death.

This is awesome. It's like combat sous vide. Snip:

"Honeybees that defend their colonies by killing wasps with body heat come within 5°C of cooking themselves in the process, according to a study in China. At least two species of honeybees there, the native Apis cerana and the introduced European honeybee, Apis mellifera, engulf a wasp in a living ball of defenders and heat the predator to death."


Xeni op-ed on Authors Guild lawsuit against Google Print

I wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times on the class action suit filed last week against the Google Print Library Project by the Authors Guild, a biographer of Abraham Lincoln, a children's book author and a former U.S. poet laureate.

Bottom line? Lawers, unclench: this should be considered fair use.

Google will make its money by selling ads next to book search result pages, just as it does when you search for images or Web pages – but the company says it won't show ads on pages that display books from libraries.

(...)[T]his isn't the same as the recording industry's war on file-sharing or the Motion Picture Assn. of America's battles against DVD bootleggers. Google isn't pirating books. They're giving away previews. And in order to provide those keyword-searchable peeks, Google may have to scan entire books. For example, let's say you're a pug aficionado. A search on print.google.com for "tiara" + "pug" can't point you to the instructive masterpiece "Putting Party Hats on Dogs" unless the scan process got all the way to page 237, where the chapter "Princess Tea Parties for Toy Breeds" begins. OK, there is no such book, but work with me here.

Perhaps the Authors Guild members would prefer that search companies pay them for the right to build book search services. If Google has its way, their logic goes, we'll lose control over who can copy our work, and we'll lose sales. But Internet history proves the opposite is true. Any product that is more easily found online can be more easily sold. Amazon.com's "look inside" feature works similarly. And, surprise, the Authors Guild has squabbled with it too.

If the paranoid myopia that drives such thinking penetrates too deeply into the law, search engines will eventually shut down. What's the difference, after all, between a copyrighted Web page and a copyrighted book? What if Internet entrepreneurs could sue Google for indexing their websites? What if the law required search engines to get clearance for every Web page? Even a company as large and well-funded as Google couldn't pull that off because what's on the Internet, and who owns that content, changes constantly.


In Memoriam: Jerry Juhl, Muppets and Fraggle Rock writer/producer

Jerry Juhl, who wrote for the Muppet Show and served as creative producer for Fraggle Rock, died Monday from cancer. Link to a remembrance by Ken Plume. (Thanks, John "Widgett" Robinson)

The Twilight World of the Iraqi News Stringer

My friend James Glanz wrote a piece for last Sunday's New York Times about "the menacing, half-lit world inhabited by the network of Iraqi stringers that Western news organizations rely on." One of those stringers, a man who worked with Glanz, was murdered earlier this month.
As important as they are for people around the globe who want to know what is happening in Iraq, the stringers cut only a shadowy profile outside the newsrooms where they send their reports - by choice, because their lives are continually under threat. Who the stringers are, how and why they do their work comes into much sharper focus for the Western journalists who work with them. And, sooner or later, the Western journalist gains a vivid appreciation of the risks the Iraqis run in helping to collect the news. But even with us, there are limits; we aren't seen much together outside of work; we do not share their family celebrations.

One week ago, a different stringer from the one who had been merely warned met with a much more tragic fate. Men claiming to be police officers showed up at the home of Fakher Haider, a stringer in the southern city of Basra who worked primarily with The New York Times, and took him away in front of his family. Mr. Haider was found dead hours later.

Exactly why Mr. Haider was murdered, and whether it was related to his work for this newspaper, have not been determined. But he had just filed a report on clashes between British forces in the area and members of a militia that has infiltrated the Basra police force but is loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr. Mr. Haider's killers arrived at his home in at least one police car.

The advocacy organization Reporters Without Borders reported on its Web site last week that when Mr. Haider's death is included, 72 journalists and "media assistants" - stringers - have been killed in Iraq since the American-led invasion. The great majority were Iraqi, but not all: Steven Vincent, an American freelance reporter, was shot and killed in Basra in August after being taken away, also by men in a police car.


Prairie Prada

Snip from New York Times story:

[C]ome Saturday it will look as if a tornado had picked up a Prada store and dropped it on a desolate strip of U.S. 90 in West Texas. That is where Prada Marfa, a permanent sculpture by the Berlin artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset will be installed. (Actually it will go up in Valentine, Tex., about 26 miles outside Marfa, a town of 2,400 that has become a magnet for artists and art lovers.) The sculpture is meant to look like a Prada store, with minimalist white stucco walls and a window display housing real Prada shoes and handbags from the fall collection. But there is no working door.

Suicide Girls responds to post on FBI and image takedowns

Disclaimer: Suicide Girls is a Boing Boing sponsor.

Responding to a Boing Boing post from earlier today, Steve Simitzis of Suicide Girls says:

Well, since you posted about the criminal case (which isn't over yet), the case is United States vs Chad Grant, not Suicide Girls vs Chad Grant. It's a criminal case - your post would imply that it's a civil dispute between us and him, which it's not. We reported the intrusion to the FBI, and from there, the government decides whether or not to prosecute. I already gave my testimony (yesterday) so I feel okay talking about it.

But anyway, the reason why the two situations (the criminal case and the upcoming government crackdown) are connected:

During the investigation, the FBI asked us to provide them a list of every single photo set that contains bondage, blood play, urination, etc. In short, anything a jury might find "obscene". The idea was that the defense would try to discredit SG by displaying in graphic detail how we're disgusting and therefore evil. And the prosecution wanted to be ready for this attack, by knowing everything we had in advance, so they could either try to downplay it or make some other point about it. Either way they wanted to be prepared. But of course that's irrelevant to the case, since the defendant (a) also worked for an "adult entertainment" company, and (b) we're not on trial anyway - he is, for computer intrusion.

So, as requested, we started assembling the list of photos containing said naughty content, when news of the upcoming crackdown started to surface. And it immediately became crystal clear: if we were handing over a list of every photo on our site that contains the content they're about to start prosecuting, and if someone in the Attorney General's office would have that on file, it would be a quick and easy few steps from there to going after us, a fairly well-known site. We felt that we were too close to the fire at that point, and took the content down.

So - were we contacted by the FBI specifically because of the "war on porn"? No. Were we contacted by the FBI and asked for a list of all our "obscene" content? Yes. So when people were asking "were you contacted by the FBI?" we really couldn't give a straight yes or no answer without talking about something we couldn't talk about.


Suicide Girls: rumor-debunking time

Reader comment: Shannon Larratt of BMEzine responds to Steve's statement:

So you took down content to help you win a case against a competitor (even if by proxy), effectively admitted on the public record that you feel this content is legally obscene and you're ashamed or afraid to show it in court, played a highly misleading PR game, and didn't come clean about it until the PR started to go bad?

As I said before, as someone who really has had a real threat of prosecution and had to uproot my whole life and company to avoid being shut down due to being unwilling to compromise the ethics of my site, I really think it's unfortunate that you guys did not have the strength of character to do the same, and I think it's even worse that you'd manipulate the courts by playing along with the FBI like this. It's not going to be helpful.

I'm sorry to be so blunt about this but I really feel you guys need to take a stronger stand, especially because if they ever actually did come after you on this point you're such an easily defendable target.

PLEASE restore the content, along with a pledge to fight to protect it.

Odd tear gas packaging: spray this on students!

I bought a fresh can of self-defense spray at my friendly neighborhood weapons depot last week. "Sabre" is a potent mix of military-grade tear gas and pepper spray. It's at least a few times stronger than Chanel Number 5. and at $9 each, it's about twelve times cheaper. One detail on the packaging was really funny, though. On the back side of the box (partial scan shown above), a series of line drawings depicting potentially threatening foes you might need to use it on, or situations you might use it in. One of them is a blonde teen "student" smoking a cigarette, seated beneath a school sports pennant, and it's not entirely clear whether he's a victim or an aggressor. Link to full size.