Boing Boing 

3D Printed Robot head

Last night, a PR person contacted me and said to expect a mysterious "puzzle piece" to arrive the next morning. I steepled my fingers, squeezed in my monocle, and warned her that it was unlikely that we'd participate in a marketing thing like that.

It arrived anyway. It turned out, however, to be a gigantic 3D-printed robot head. My heart softened just a little at this, not least because of the irony embodied by how thoroughly FedEx had managed to destroy it, despite the enormous padded box it came in. It's amazing how good FedEx is at destroying packages. Protip: don't send organs via FedEx, even if it's just a hobby.

It turns out that the puzzle is part of a code, and a bunch of tech blogs all have to punch theirs in at the website for a new Droid cellular handset. This will unlock something. "Something" presumably being "an ad", right? So I found the code and punched it in, just to be a good sport. But it didn't work. Their flash site just said "Verifying Code" and never did. At this, I said oh well!, then got on with my day.

So now, of course, all the other sites have done their bit and Boing Boing is being harangued on Twitter by Droid fans to get with the program. Sneaky, intelligent PR here. But this makes it interesting! What should I do? Let's vote:

1) Just punch it in! Also, your pious avoidance of naming the advertiser is vaguely irritating, because you've posted it anyway and we're just going to go and look it up now. I have eight credit cards.

2) Post a picture of the code with a rival manufacturer's logo concealing a couple of digits, leaving a few hundred possible combinations to try.
        2B) and dont post it until 1 minute remains on the 'deadline' countdown at the puzzle website.

3) Screw 'em.


UPDATE: 11:45 a.m. - I am informed by PR that they have triggered our code entry without any further action from us.


Wikileaks: Guardian journalist negligently published password to unredacted cables (Update: Guardian denies)

Wikileaks, facing criticism after unredacted versions of diplomatic cables escaped into the wild, today accused a Guardian journalist of negligently publishing the password required to decrypt them.

A Guardian journalist has negligently disclosed top secret WikiLeaks’ decryption passwords to hundreds of thousands of unredacted unpublished US diplomatic cables.

Knowledge of the Guardian disclosure has spread privately over several months but reached critical mass last week. The unpublished WikiLeaks’ material includes over 100,000 classified unredacted cables that were being analyzed, in parts, by over 50 media and human rights organizations from around the world.

For the past month WikiLeaks has been in the unenviable position of not being able to comment on what has happened, since to do so would be to draw attention to the decryption passwords in the Guardian book. Now that the connection has been made public by others we can explain what happened and what we intend to do.

Wikileaks also says it is in touch with the U.S. State Department and will be taking legal action.

UPDATE: The Guardian, in a story about the availability of the unredacted cables, denies that its journalist disclosed the password. [Thanks, Douglas!]

But further down in the story it seems to admit it, instead blaming Wikileaks for letting it do so:

"Our book about WikiLeaks was published last February. It contained a password, but no details of the location of the files, and we were told it was a temporary password which would expire and be deleted in a matter of hours."

Interesting! Now you may go and check the timelines again to find out when certain password-protected files might have left Wikileaks' exclusive custody. Go right ahead! No-one's going anywhere.

UPDATE: the book passage in question may be read at Google books. Just like that, for all the world to see, since the day it was published.

WIKILEAKS EDITORIAL - Guardian disclosure [Wikileaks]

Venice Beach Freak Show

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When I was at Venice Beach with my family, we came across a freak show. The barker in front had a couple of two-headed turtles in a plastic tub filled with water. He said admission was $5. The barker also told me that we could take photos of everything inside. What an enlightened attitude! Many of the other businesses at Venice Beach had signs forbidden photography, bu not the Venice Beach Freak show. My wife, my 8-year-old, and I got our tickets and headed inside.

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Read the rest

Man faces 75 years for recording police

42-year-old Michael Allison of Illinois could spend the rest of his life in prison for recording police in public. He faces five counts of eavesdropping, a class one felony. Of course, the police are allowed to video people in public with impunity.

The Illinois Assistant Attorney General has joined the case and told the judge that citizens do not have the constitutional right to record police.

Illinois Man Faces 75 Years In Prison For Recording Cops

See also: Federal Court: recording cops an unambiguous first amendment right

Woman buys valuable piece of outsider art resembling iPad for $180

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The spectacularly shrewd Ashley McDowell was approached by two men in a McDonald's parking lot where they offered to sell her an iPad fetish for $300. She only had $180, but they gave it to her anyway. When she got home, she confirmed that it was really just a block of wood with an Apple logo painted on the back.

Woman Buys a Block of Wood with an Apple Logo

See also: Crafty crackhead Powerbook made from garbage bags

T-shirts replace band names with scientists and thinkers

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The Monsters of Grok t-shirt line is funny. (Via Liz McLean Knight)

TOM THE DANCING BUG: Billy Dare, in "Captain CEO's Fate!"

Read the rest

Cat meets balloon cat

Cat meets balloon cat

Philosopher describes the Simulation Argument

Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom describes his Simulation Argument on a recent episode of the excellent Philosophy Bites podcast. He proposed the argument in 2003, and it is interesting to hear him discuss it here.

As I understand it, one of the following three statements must be true:

1. Civilizations go extinct before they are able to create advanced simulations.

2. Advanced civilizations are not interested in creating advanced simulations.

3. There are so many advanced simulations that is is far more likely that we are inside a simulation than in the physical universe.

I might be oversimplifying things here, but I think that's the gist of it.

If we are in a simulation (and I don't think we are) it is upsetting to imagine a cruel operator who could flip a switch and send all of the people in the simulation into agony for all eternity (using Freeman Dyson's Eternal Intelligence idea for extracting infinite computation during the heat death of the universe).

Listen to Nick Bostrom on the Simulation Argument

London Beer Flood and other food disasters

On October 17, 1814 at the Meux family brewery in Tottenham Court, London, a massive vat of beer cracked open, spilling 3,500 barrels of beer and killing eight people. Smithsonian's Food & Think blog sums up the "London Beer Flood" and several other "Deadly Disasters Caused By Food." Here's another:
 4101 4945271178 901F0D49B0 ZBoston Molasses Disaster: In Boston’s North End, near the city’s financial district and working class Italian neighborhoods, there stood a molasses tank owned by the Purity Distilling Company. Built in 1915, the vat was capable of holding some 2.5 million gallons; however, by 1919, locals were complaining that it was leaking, and on the afternoon of January 15, it exploded. Flying metal knocked out the supports of nearby elevated train tracks and a 15-foot-high wave of molasses crashed through the streets at some 35 miles per hour, knocking down and enveloping people in its path. Parts of Boston were standing in two to three feet of molasses and the disaster left 21 dead and 150 injured.
"Four Deadly Disasters Caused by Food"

"Boston Molasses Disaster" (Boston Public Library on Flickr)

JC Penny t-shirt (now pulled): "I'm too pretty to do homework"

 Wp-Content Uploads 2011 08 Runninscared Screen-Shot-2011-08-31-At-11.03.48-Am JC Penny was called out for selling this t-shirt, emblazoned with the words "I'm too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me." What a positive, empowering message for girls aged 7-16, apparently the target market for this design. The Village Voice reports that JC Penny has quickly pulled the shirt and issued a statement, saying in part "We agree that the "Too pretty" t-shirt does not deliver an appropriate message, and we have immediately discontinued its sale." Good for them. I wonder if they calculated what impact, if any, the PR hit and this decision are having on their revenue. Probably not. After all, math class is tough.
"J.C. Penney's 'Too Pretty To Do Homework' T-Shirt Is Too Stupid for Words" (Thanks, Puce/Sarah Wulfeck!)


Short interview with creators of Cleverbot avatar video

Kevin Kelly interviewed the two grad students at Cornell Creative Machines Lab who posted that amazing video of Cleverbot-driven avatars having a conversation.

You've probably seen the viral video of the AI bots arguing with each other. Almost the first things the bots start to talk about is God and who made them. Next they begin to accuse each other of lying. The conversation was so strangely humanish that I had to interview the creators to see what was going on. 

First, watch the short clip if you have not seen it.

The conversation between the bot and itself was recorded in the Cornell Creative Machines Lab, whose faculty is researching how to make helper bots. Two grad students, Jason Yosinski and Igor Labutov, and professor Hod Lipson are responsible for the experiment.

Jason and Igor told me how it came about:

"We've been trying to make robots that can help you find things. Maybe the robot can't help you directly, but could find something else, maybe another robot, that can. So we thought about having one bot asking another bot for help. That got us thinking about having two chat bots talk to each other, one running on a laptop next to each other. We tried having the classic Eliza bot talk to itself but it quickly just got into a rut, repeating itself. There are a lot of other chatbots, but we heard good things about Cleverbot because its database is based on snippets that humans actually write and say. So we feed the output of one Cleverbot to the input of another. Then we feed the text log into Acapella, a free text-to-speach synthesizer. Then we animated the soundtrack usingLiving Actor Presenter. We don't think we are the first to have two bots chat, but it seems we are the first to animate it. In retrospect that seems such an obvious thing to do."

Theological Chatbots

The Economist on BB's comment policy

For The Economist, Glenn Fleishman wrote an item about our comment policies, which are strict as fuck. (Disclosure: Glenn also writes for BB occasionally)

Beschizza approvingly cites an essay published in July by Anil Dash, the first employee of blog-software firm Six Apart, and who is currently involved in not-for-profit efforts to help governments and citizens talk effectively to one another. Mr Dash called on sites with communities and forums actively to police themselves, rather than allow the most egregious participants to set the tone. "If your website is full of assholes, it's your fault," he writes bluntly. "And if you have the power to fix it and don't do something about it, you're one of them."

Boing Boing's substantial community is ably moderated by Antinous and his splendid cronies, the unsung heroes of the piece. Alongside these traditional subjects of spam, trolls, toxicity and general quality control, however, the hot issue now is of anonymity and pseudonymity.

To clarify a little, I think everyone at BB is actually a hardliner on the "Nymwars" issue: requiring real names is bad. But I don't think any site running on standard well-logged webserver setups, which can get subpoenad, seized or hacked, should claim to offer complete anonymity. Technical, traceable fingerprints may remain. Here, you can post under any identity you like, but it is incumbent on everyone to learn how to protect themselves.

Man drives burning car into gas station, amazingly nobody dies

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In Hamilton County, Tennessee, a gentleman noticed that his Cadillac was smoking so he pulled into a gas station. He lifted the hood to reveal flames on the engine which in turn caught the adjacent gas pump on fire. Fortunately, the man, and his five children, moved quickly away from the burning vehicle and a station employee hit the "emergency stop" button to block gas and electricity from reaching the pump. "Car burns next to gas pump, 5 children get out safely" (Times Free Press)

Artists alter paint-by-numbers for exhibit

 Wp-Content Uploads2006 2011 08 Father-And-Son-By-Troy-Gua
 Wp-Content Uploads2006 2011 08 Chris-Crites1-500X391 In Seattle, Marlow Harris and JoDavid curated a rather curious and delightful Paint-by-Number art exhibition for the 2011 Bumbershoot Arts Festival. More than 40 artists altered vintage (and completed) paint-by-number paintings for the show. Bill Blair painted massive paint-by-number backdrops and wrote stories for vintage paint-by-numbers while Ryan Feddersen installed a table tableau decorated with hand-cast wax crayons of fruit, vegetables, and meats. Above, "Father and Son" by Troy Gua. At left, Chris Crites -- whose work we've previously featured on BB -- "enhanced" a classic schooner paint-by-numbers.
"Bumber by Number at Bumbershoot" (Thanks, Kirsten Anderson!)

Collectors of barbed wire

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Over at Collectors Weekly, BB pal Ben Marks lays out the fascinating history of barbed wire through the eyes of those who collect the stuff. Yes, there are barbed wire collectors. From Collectors Weekly:
 Articles Wp-Content Uploads 2011 08 Barbedwirehat This legacy is of keen interest to people like Parker, who collect mostly 18-inch-long sections of wire, which are often mounted on boards so the twisted strands and barbs don’t get all tangled up. There were some 800 unique barbed-wire patents, and many more unpatented variations for a total of perhaps 2,000 types of barbed wire. Some feature wire barbs attached to single or double strands. Others sport stationary barbs or rotating rowels made of sheet metal in decorative shapes, from leaves to diamonds to stars. Some barbed wire isn’t wire at all, made instead out of ribbons of sheet metal that have been punctured or sliced to create nasty points.

Like many collectors, (Karl) Parker was familiar with barbed wire long before it ever occurred to him to collect it. “I grew up with cows and fixed a lot of fence in my day,” he says. “I didn’t like barbed wire then, and I still don’t like to fix fence today. But when I was a little boy, my father took me to one of his friends’ houses. He was a collector and had a bunch of wire. I was always fascinated with it, but it never really stuck until I was out of high school. I’d be helping someone fix a fence and I’d see a new wire. I’d take small pieces home and it sort of escalated from there.”

These days, Parker concentrates his collecting efforts on rare wire. “I like the figure barbs and some of the more complex bends,” he says. “It’s fascinating to me that they did this with the machinery they had back then. Now it’s easy, but in the late 1800s, the ingenuity of the machines they built to bend the wire and insert a barb was amazing.”

"Barbed Wire, From Cowboy Scourge to Prized Relic of the Old West"

With computers doing the thinking, the executive is lonely

Enjoy this report by the BBC's Tomorrow's World into the new phenomenon of desk toys for bored modern executives. At the weekends, he polishes his flowers with aerosols.

Video Link [BBC]

The Infinite Adventure Machine

David Benqué's Infinite Adventure Machine creates random folk-tales, and is itself an adventure in what he describes as an unsolved computer science problem: automatic story generation.

Tales and myths; the core narratives of human culture, have been transmitted for generations through various technologies and media. What new forms might they take through digital formats and Artificial Intelligence?

Based on the work of Vladimir Propp, who reduced the structure of russian folk-tales to 31 basic functions, TIAM aims to question the limitations and implications of attempts at programming language and narrative.

Because the program is unable to deliver a finished story, rather only a crude synopsis and illustrations, users have to improvise, filling the gaps with their imagination and making up for the technology's shortcomings.

Wikipedia's article on Propp has a lengthy description of his typology of narrative structures.

I've always been fascinated by the subtle movement these devices make, whereby a description of universal narrative elements is turned into a prescription for writing new stories. Every few years there seems to be another bestseller book, for example, telling you how to succeed in Hollywood using Jungian archetypes and Joseph Campbell. But I love these random generators all the same (and make my own). The bite-size mind-meld between culture and software they embody has a strange magic to it.

The Infinite Adventure Machine [Glitch Fiction via Creative Applications]

Sony's HMZ-T1: Home theater in a headset

Sony's HMZ-T1 is a head-mounted 3D headset, to be released later this year in Japan. Two 1280x720 OLED displays, each just 7/10 of an inch across, create a virtual 750" screen. Perceived 20m from the viewer, it "corresponds to the sense of cinema as seen from a large central seat." It'll be 60,000 Yen ($785) from mid-november.

Source []

Gaddafi's high-tech computer spying facility revealed

I know it doesn't look like much, but see that "1.44" off to the right? That means they are high density floppies.

First Look Inside Security Unit [WSJ. Photos: Edu Bayer]

LoJack makers sued over privacy invasion after tracking stolen laptop

Illustration: Sean Gladwell, Shutterstock. See more like this.

A schoolteacher who bought a stolen laptop from one of her students ($60, with a scraped-off serial number) is suing the makers of LoJack, the pre-installed software used by investigators to recover it. Absolute Software failed to have the case summarily dismissed; a judge ruled that its tracking of her, including emails and recorded sex acts, may violate wiretapping laws. [Wired]

Wacom Inkling

Wacom's Inkling is a pen that draws both on paper and on-screen, tracking the artist's linework with 1024 levels of sensitivity. At $200, it's barely even expensive! The Inkling will be in stores by mid-September.

Inkling [Wacom]

Catholic officials in Ireland object to child abuse disclosure law

Officials of the Catholic church in Ireland object to a new law that mandates the reporting of child abuse. From the BBC:

The Irish Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald said that priests who are given admissions of child abuse during the sacrament of confession will not be exempt from new rules on mandatory reporting. During his homily to worshippers at Knock shrine in County Mayo, on Sunday, the archbishop of Armagh and primate of all Ireland said: "Freedom to participate in worship and to enjoy the long-established rites of the church is so fundamental that any intrusion upon it is a challenge to the very basis of a free society."

The discussion seems to center on future abuses revealed during confession, but I wonder if it's really about the ongoing use of the sacrament to hide internal discussions of undisclosed abuses from the possibility of legal scrutiny.

Child protection measures apply regardless of religious rules [BBC]

How to make a crafting table


The multi-talented maker Nick Britsky made this cool crafting table for his multi-talented crafter girlfriend, Lish Dorset.

How-to: Custom crafting table

100 years of East London style in 100 seconds

[Video Link] From Laughing Squid: "To announce the grand opening of Westfield Stratford City, which will soon be “the largest urban shopping centre in Europe”, Westfield created this fun short film, 100 YEARS / STYLE / EAST LONDON. The film, directed by Jake Lunt with The Viral Factory, amazingly gives the run-down of 100 years of East London fashion, dance and music in just 100 seconds."

List of scienceers on Google+

Are you looking for cool science news and thoughts on Google+? Check out this spreadsheet, which collects a bunch of scientists, science writers, and other related people into one place. You can even circle them en-masse! (Thanks Chris Robinson!)

Animals and the amygdala

As part of a cool project in blogging on Google+ ("plogging"), Nature editor Noah Gray writes about a recent experiment that found that specific neurons in the human amygdala respond instantly to images of animals. These responses were stronger and faster than when other neurons responded to those images, and stronger and faster than when the animal-centric neurons responded to other types of images.

The amygdala is well known to be involved in fear modulation and memory, as well as influencing other types of emotional processing. So is it expected that cells in this structure would respond so strongly to the sight of animals? There is a moderate precedent from the non-human primate literature. Studies in macaques have revealed strong firing of amygdalar neurons to faces, so categorical responses aren't unique in the amygdala. This is true in humans as well, but humans also maintain a different dedicated brain region for face processing, perhaps opening up some portions of the amygdala to take on additional, different roles. But why would we need a dedicated system for animal imagery, elevating this particular stimulus to such an important position in our recognition system? Well this is all speculation, but it isn't difficult to state the obvious and stress that animals were critical as prey for our ancient ancestors, as well as potential threats. Thus, early man may have developed a system to speed our reaction times to such an important category as the landscape was visually scanned for information. Placing this system in a brain region critical to emotion processing could have also more-easily mobilized action through a rapid activation of attack or flight responses.

Image: Animal Kingdom Sign, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from pixeljones's photostream

Inside the sea caves of Devil's Island

Last year, when I posted here about the history of the lighthouse at Devil's Island, Wisconsin, several of you noticed the island's extensive network of sea caves, carved into the sandstone cliffs by splashing waves and moving water. This year, when some friends and I went on a little paddle through the caves, I took along a video camera. It doesn't quite capture the eerie awesomeness of floating into the dark with Lake Superior behind you, but it's still pretty neat.

Apologies in advance for the occasional sudden jerky movements and possible audible swearing. Devil's Island is also home to a large population of biting flies and my ankles are, apparently, quite tasty.

Video Link

Treating mental illness with cigarettes

While nationally, only about 20% of Americans smoke, 80% of schizophrenic Americans smoke. That's interesting, but it's not the most interesting part. Apparently, there's some evidence that those people with schizophrenia are using tobacco as a form of self medication.

At the Risk Science Blog, Mark Stewart looks at the weird dilemma people with schizophrenia are faced with when it comes to smoking:

Schizophrenics often have auditory hallucinations, paranoia, delusions, and disorganized thinking. These symptoms are predominantly caused by the inability of the brains of schizophrenics to differentiate, sort, and focus on the multitude of stimuli that go on around us. Think of being in a busy restaurant. Imagine that instead of being able to block out all the noises, conversations, and movements around you, every single piece of sensory information is as important as the interesting things said by the attractive person sitting across from you. The effects of cigarette smoking and nicotine help schizophrenics through increased selective attention.

“They should use other forms of medication,” I hear you say. Great idea, except for the fact that anti-psychotic drugs are very expensive, do not work very well for most people, and have extreme side effects. Tardive dyskinesia is the most common side effect. This makes it very hard for the body to move in normal ways at normal speeds. Also, there are common metabolic side effects that are quite similar to an individual having diabetes. (Just what someone with a severe mental illness needs!) Thus, the cheapness, effectiveness, and availability of cigarettes offer most schizophrenics some succor. Smoking leads to schizophrenics having a 30-60% increased risk of respiratory disorders and heart disease, but is this a risk that is worth taking?

This is really interesting to me. I've heard people talk about cigarettes as self-medication for ADHD, as well, and for much the same reasons. I sure found that smoking made it easier for me to study and write back in college. Although, for my ADHD, behavioral therapy and methylin ended up being a much better option. So I quit. But this poses an interesting question: If my official therapies carried the kind of side-effects that people with schizophrenia have to deal with, would smoking be more attractive?

Finally, an extinct species you can feel good about

The specific strain of the bacteria Yersinia pestis that was responsible for the Black Death in Europe is probably now extinct, according to a new study. The bacterial DNA extracted from historic samples doesn't match modern Y. pestis. This could go a long way toward explaining why the Plague seems significantly less deadly today than it was medieval Europe.