Boing Boing 

UK immigration test to focus on Shakespeare and Christianity instead of human rights and civics

The UK Home Secretary has announced changes to the "Life in the UK" immigrant test. Instead of containing information on human rights, the nature of the political structure of the UK and the EU, and who has the legitimate right to access benefits, the test will focus on useful things that everyone in Britain really cares about: Shakespeare, Christianity, the Duke of Wellington and the Battle of Trafalgar.

I sat this test before I established my UK residence (I later became a citizen) and a large part of it is about UK culture: the history of women's suffrage, the law and norms around childrearing and work and tax, and more. Much of it is a bit tedious. Is it necessary to be able to rattle off the number of seats in each regional assembly? The multiple choice answers for Scotland were something like: a) 131, b) 130, c) 120, d, 100 -- surely knowing the number plus or minus 20 percent is enough for daily life. The legendary difficulty of the test is largely down to this sort of fine-grained multiple choice answers; it's important to know that women got the universal franchise in the late 1920s and the tradition is firmly established in the UK, but being able to name the exact year is beside the point, something that the test-designers clearly missed.

Being able to name the plays of Shakespeare, or the dates of Trafalgar are also beside the point. As a naturalised immigrant, I'm here to tell you that this sort of thing is an ocean away from the sort of knowledge that one needs to become a part of UK society. It'd be far more useful, for example, to teach us that when you turn on the BBC's "Today in Parliament" and hear the back-benchers braying a kind of well-bred, adenoidal "hnnneagh, hnnneagh" that this is the way what antique posh people say "hear, hear!" and not some kind of mass-poisoning.

Theresa May 'planning changes to immigrant test'

Excellent list of reasons to hate standardized, high-stakes testing

This WashPo column by Marion Brady ("veteran teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author") enumerates reason after reason to oppose standardized testing, the major educational technique in use in much of the world today. It's such a good (and depressing) list that it's hard not to quote it in its entirety:

Opposition to the present orgy of testing is now wrongly interpreted as unwillingness to be held accountable.

For those who buy that fiction, a list of some of the real reasons for educator opposition may be helpful.

Teachers (at least the ones the public should hope their taxes are supporting) oppose the tests because they focus so narrowly on reading and math that the young are learning to hate reading, math, and school; because they measure only “low level” thinking processes; because they put the wrong people — test manufacturers — in charge of American education; because they allow pass-fail rates to be manipulated by officials for political purposes; because test items simplify and trivialize learning.

Teachers oppose the tests because they provide minimal to no useful feedback; are keyed to a deeply flawed curriculum adopted in 1893; lead to neglect of physical conditioning, music, art, and other, non-verbal ways of learning; unfairly advantage those who can afford test prep; hide problems created by margin-of-error computations in scoring; penalize test-takers who think in non-standard ways.

Teachers oppose the tests because they radically limit their ability to adapt to learner differences; encourage use of threats, bribes, and other extrinsic motivators; wrongly assume that what the young will need to know in the future is already known; emphasize minimum achievement to the neglect of maximum performance; create unreasonable pressures to cheat.

The complete list of problems with high-stakes standardized tests (via Beth Pratt)

You're Not Doing It Right: Tales of Marriage, Sex, Death, and Other Humiliations, by Michael Ian Black

Before I read this memoir, You're Not Doing It Right: Tales of Marriage, Sex, Death, and Other Humiliations, I'd never heard of the author Michael Ian Black. After reading it, I still know little about his career, because he barely mentions what he does. Black was on a comedy show on MTV in the early 1990s and he's been a TV and movie writer and actor most of his adult life. The reason I read You're Not Doing It Right is because Ruben Bolling strongly recommended it on a recent episode of Gweek (Gweek 055, with Rainn Wilson).

Ruben and I are both fans of Little Lulu and Uncle Scrooge, so I figured if he liked this book, so would I. And I was right! You're Not Doing It Right starts out as a sarcastically funny memoir of Black's life as a young, horny pick-up artist with a terrible track record. But as it goes on, it becomes a much darker and revealing confession of a middle-aged man struggling with his marriage, his family life, and his painful insecurities.

Black is brave to write openly about the inner goings-on of his marriage counseling sessions. I'm surprised his wife was OK with him being public about their troubled relationship. His two chapters on the misery of caring for newborn babies ("I Hate My Baby" and "Baby Jail") were refreshing and I completely related to his experiences of having no sleep yet being responsible for tending to a perpetually screaming, shitting infant for months on end. Taking care of little babies is hideous (update: of course it's worth it, there are amazing moments that I wouldn't trade for anything, and I love my kids more than anything), and I'm thankful every day that my kids are out of diapers.

If you're looking for an inspirational book about marriage and parenthood, look elsewhere -- this is heavy stuff. But if you're in the mood for a dose of messy reality mixed with dark humor, Black delivers.

You're Not Doing It Right: Tales of Marriage, Sex, Death, and Other Humiliations

Bike Zambia to fight HIV/AIDS

My friends at Bike Zambia have been working for months to raise both funds and awareness for local HIV/AIDS prevention with their 300-mile cross-country bike ride from the capital of Lusaka to Victoria Falls.

I assume BB readers are well-informed on how the disease still ravages parts of sub-Saharan Africa, even if the urgency has faded in the Western press.  The numbers in Zambia are particularly shocking: one in 7 adults is HIV-positive. Life expectancy at birth is among the lowest on earth, with most reputable sources currently placing it at under 50 (and some as low as 39). Nearly half of the population is now under the age of 15. Without education and prevention, this next generation may face even greater trouble.

Bike Zambia's goal isn't just to raise cash, although that's neat. The ride has already raised awareness among Zambians themselves about condoms, testing, antivirals, and local wellness programs, done sustainably with locally sourced bikes and active local participation.  This should save lives even aside from any funds raised—and Bike Zambia has already cleared their goal of $150,000, which is probably even more than it sounds like in a country where the per capita income is about $4/day.

The riders arrived at Victoria Falls yesterday, but you can still chip in here.


Russia's nuclear sledgehammers

Russia's nuclear missile bunkers reportedly come standard-issue with a sledgehammer whose designated purpose is smashing open the safe containing the launch-codes, should the combination not work:

The sledgehammer's existence first came to light in 1980, when a group of inspecting officers from the General Staff visiting Strategic Missile Forces headquarters asked General Georgy Novikov what he would do if he received a missile launch order but the safe containing the launch codes failed to open.

Novikov said he would “knock off the safe’s lock with the sledgehammer” he kept nearby, the spokesman said.

Russian Missile Forces Have ‘Safe Busting’ Sledgehammer (via Super Punch)

Chimpanzee testing era ends at controversial US lab

Photo: Shutterstock

Washington Post science writer Brian Vastag reports on the story of the last four chimps that remain at a controversial research facility in Maryland. Bioqual has been experimenting on chimpanzees for 30 years. Soon, that era will end, as part of "a historic shift away from using apes in medical experiments."

On Monday morning, a truck hauled six chimps from Bioqual. Last week, five others were removed. The last four, including Tiffany and Torian, will depart later this summer. They are returning to where they were born — the much larger New Iberia Research Center, part of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette — where they will be available for more research before they’re retired — someday — to a sanctuary.

“This is another indication that chimpanzee research is on the decline,” said Kathleen Conlee of the Humane Society of the United States, which has painted Bioqual’s chimp research as unethical.

While about 1,000 research chimps live in the United States — down from 1,500 in 1997 — a landmark report from the influential Institute of Medicine (IOM) last December labeled nearly all chimpanzee research as scientifically unjustified.

Read the rest here. And, watch this previously-Boinged May 2012 PBS NewsHour piece on the ethics of chimp research, and the facility where the "retiring" Bioqual chimps will go to live out their remaining days.

Mates of State: "I am a scientist," from pro-girls-in-science compilation "Science Fair" (music video)

[video link] A cool cover of the Guided By Voices song "I am a Scientist," performed by Mates of State on the "Science Fair" benefit compilation support girls in science. Dir.: Lindsay Van Dyke.

Science Fair features new and exclusive music from Mates of State, Laura Veirs, Moona Luna (Pistolera's kids' music incarnation), Elizabeth Mitchell, Frances England and many more. Themed around and benefiting science and engineering education for girls, with an emphasis on foundational education needed to get into science fields when they grow up, Science Fair will be part of advancing the efforts both through the message of the record and through the financial contributions it will generate.

Record comes out July 3. $3 from each album sale is donated to Girls Inc. in support of girl's science education programs.

(Thanks, dpamac)

Classic pro-science-careers music video PSA: Chemical Party

[Video link]

From 2008, hence the hinky aspect ratio. The EU wasn't always so terrible at promoting science careers through funny internet music videos! (thanks, Guido)

Now *that's* a "girls in science" video: "The Longest Time," by the Barber Lab Quartet

[Video Link] Miles O'Brien points me to this cute musical video written and performed by young female scientists at the Barber Lab. The video was discussed on a recent email thread of scientists debating the (lack of) merit of this EU PSA.

Commenters: before you say anything mean about the fact that their homemade Billy Joel cover ditty is a little off-key here and there, or the rhymes a little dorky... that's the point. These women are actual researchers, who care passionately about the subject of their research, and they're sharing that in an authentic way with the world.

Unlike this shit.

From the video intro:

The Coral Triangle is one of the most threatened, yet understudied, ecosystems in the world. We are working to understand the processes creating and maintaining biological diversity in this region, while building the capacity of researchers and students to contribute to local conservation efforts. Terima kasih Pak Ngurah Mahardika dan Indonesia untuk menyambut kami! For more information please visit, or contact us at

The WELL is for sale.

Again. I miss its glory days.

The physics of crowds can kill

Almost two years ago, 21 people died when they were crushed to death in the crowd at the Love Parade music festival in Germany. Now, scientists have been able to pinpoint exactly what lead to those deaths. Here's a hint: It wasn't a stampede, there's no evidence of intentional pushing, and it doesn't look like mass hysteria had anything to do with the deaths. So how did those 21 people die? Physics. (Via Jennifer Ouellette)

How physicist Jim Kakalios invented a math equation for the new Spider-Man movie

Scientific advising for science-fiction films is a really fascinating topic for me. It's a weird, weird world, where the goal is not necessarily extreme accuracy, but extreme believability. That can be a stress point for science, a field that is, generally, all about striving for accuracy. The scientists that help directors create believable worlds have to balance the goal of educating the public with the goal of entertaining same. That can be tough, and it leads some creative solutions—and little educational Easter Eggs buried in the background of blockbusters.

Take the work University of Minnesota physicist Jim Kakalios recently did for the new Spider-Man reboot. The film's creators asked him to invent a complicated-looking equation that, in the context of the story, would relate to cell regeneration and human mortality.

How do you invent a fictional equation? Start with a real one.

In this video, Kakalios explains where his imaginary equation came from, starting with the Gompertz Equation, a very real function that describes mortality rates and can be used to model tumor growth.

Video Link

Another option for affordable healthcare: Marry a Norwegian

In a first-person account of his battle with chronic illness, Minneapolis musician Kevin Steinman explains why he's decided to move to Norway rather than keep fighting the American healthcare system. (Via Erik Hess)

The sad, unintentionally funny history of America's vice presidents

Smithsonian has a fun article on America's top second-banana—the vice presidency—a job that John Adams, the first vice-president, described as "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived."

Lest you think Dan Quayle was the first VP mocked in the press, or that The Onion's superb (if fictional) coverage of Joe Biden was some uniquely inventive portrayal of what vice presidents do with their time, Tony Horwitz is here to set you straight. The truth is that the vice presidency has a very long history of mediocrity, wackiness, and lack of purpose.

The Constitution also failed to specify the powers and status of vice presidents who assumed the top office. In fact, the second job was such an afterthought that no provision was made for replacing VPs who died or departed before finishing their terms. As a result, the office has been vacant for almost 38 years in the nation’s history.

Until recently, no one much cared. When William R.D. King died in 1853, just 25 days after his swearing-in (last words: “Take the pillow from under my head”), President Pierce gave a speech addressing other matters before concluding “with a brief allusion” to the vice president’s death. Other number-twos were alive but absentee, preferring their own homes or pursuits to an inconsequential role in Washington, where most VPs lived in boardinghouses (they had no official residence until the 1970s). Thomas Jefferson regarded his vice presidency as a “tranquil and unoffending station,” and spent much of it at Monticello. George Dallas (who called his wife “Mrs. Vice”) maintained a lucrative law practice, writing of his official post: “Where is he to go? What has he to do?—no where, nothing.” Daniel Tompkins, a drunken embezzler described as a “degraded sot,” paid so little heed to his duties that Congress docked his salary.

Read the rest of the story at

"I Put A Spell On You" lip sync video

[Video Link] Jimmy Slonina's lip sync videos are really good. Here's his latest: Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You." (Thanks, Pat!)

Ask Scott Horton Anything: Should We Get Rid Of The DEA?

Scott Horton of Harper's explains why the Drug Enforcement Agency does a lot of damage to society. (Via Andrew Sullivan)

Diamonds do not come from coal

Okay, maybe I'm an idiot, but this is one of those facts I'd missed until recently. Despite the impression you may have gotten from grade school and/or old Superman cartoons, diamonds are probably not lumps of coal that just got compressed real good—at least, not in exactly the way you might imagine.

Diamonds are made out of carbon, but the best evidence suggests that they form far more deeply down in the Earth than coal does. Instead of coal being smushed into diamonds, imagine something more like those "grow crystals out of Borax and water" experiments you did in grade school. Only, in this case, the experiment is performed in the fiery depths of Hell, as very un-coal-like atoms of carbon are compressed and heated deep in the Earth's mantle until they start to bond together and grow into a crystalline structure.

Once the crystals are formed, they get to the surface of the Earth via volcanic eruptions.

The really interesting thing about all of this is that it's one of those ideas that's very hard to verify. Diamonds form at a depth we can't go observe directly. All we have to work with is indirect evidence. Because of that, nobody knows exactly where the necessary carbon to make diamonds comes from. This is why the "diamonds are coal" story exists. Some scientists think the carbon is stuff that's existed in the Earth since this planet was formed. Others think it might be coming from terrestrial carbon that got shifted down to the lower levels via plate subduction—although, even then, we're talking about carbon, but not necessarily coal. It could be a combination of both. Either way, the mental image of smushed coal doesn't quite work.

Read the American Museum of Natural History's explanation of where diamonds come from

Read an interview about diamonds with the curator of the U.S. National Gem and Mineral Collection

Thanks to a story written by's Hobart King for busting the myth and inspiring to me to read a little more on this

Image: Diamonds, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from kimberlyeternal's photostream

Blackout tracker tells you where the electric grid is down

The other day, someone asked me what the most surprising thing was that I learned while writing Before the Lights Go Out, my book about America's electric infrastructure and the future of energy. That's easy. The most surprising thing was definitely my realization of just how precarious our all-important grid system actually is.

There are two key things here. First, the grid doesn't have any storage. (At least, none to speak of.) Second, the grid has to operate within a very narrow window of technical specifications. At any given moment, there must be almost exactly as much electricity being produced as there is being consumed. If that balance is thrown off, by even a fraction of a percent, you start heading toward blackouts. There are people working 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week, making sure that balance is maintained on a minute-by-minute basis.

That's a long way of explaining why I find Blackout Tracker so fascinating. Put together by Eaton, a company that makes products that help utilities manage different parts of the electric grid, this little web app shows you where the electric grid has recently failed, and why. The Blackout Tracker doesn't claim to include all blackouts, but it gives you an idea of the number of blackouts that happen, and the wide range of causes blackouts can have. For instance, in the picture above, you can see that Wichita, Kansas, had a blackout earlier this week that was related to a heatwave—hot weather meant more people turned on their air conditioners in the middle of the day, and, for whatever reason, there wasn't enough electrical supply available to meet that demand. The result: Blackout.

One major flaw: Most of the time Blackout Tracker can't tell you how long a blackout lasted. But that's probably got more to do with what information the utility companies are willing to release than anything. Still, I think this program is a nice primer for people who aren't aware of all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes to make sure electricity remains flowing, nice and steady.

Check out Blackout Tracker (Also available for the UK, Canada, and Australia/New Zealand)

Learn more about how the grid works (and doesn't work) in my book, Before the Lights Go Out.

I don't remember where I picked this link up from, so if you're the one who sent it to me, please give me a little tap and I'll make sure you are properly thanked!

3D printed, fully assembled, teeny-weeny little cars

This teeny weeny little car is 3D printed, fully assembled, with all its mechanisms in place:

These tiny 3D printed cars were printed on the Objet Eden 3D printer and scale down from 4cm in length to a tiny 1cm in length. Even in the tiniest car, the wheels remain fully functional and there is no deformation of walls or loss of fine details - highlighting the enormous power of Objet's 3D printers to turn CAD designs into visually and functionally accurate prototypes.

Micro car with open doors and turning wheels

F*cking cops cracking down on curse words

[Video Link] Here's Reason TV's Net Nanny of the month award:

June's busybodies want to shield your eyes from bikinis and remind you that they're not above ripping your garden out (even if you are complying with city codes).

But top dishonors go to the police chief who admitted on camera that his officers had "more important things to do," but still championed a measure that fines folks for swearing in public.

Presenting's Nanny of the Month for June 2012: Middleborough, Massachusetts Police Chief Bruce Gates!

Bikini Banners and F*cking Cops Cracking Down on Curse Words!

Burning Down the House: Palmer & Byrne

Here is a video in which Amanda Fucking Palmer and David Byrne and a very large, very good band perform "Burning Down the House."

My life is complete.

That is all.

David Byrne & Amanda Palmer - "Burning Down the House"

Updated with better video, courtesy of Martin Borus (Thanks, Michael!)

Seeing Beyond the Human Eye: Video of beautiful scientific and artistic photography

[Video Link] The latest installment of the "Off Book" series from PBS and Kornhaber Brown is called Seeing Beyond the Human Eye and features microphotography, astrophotography, slow-motion video, and time-lapse video. My favorite part is Cameron Michaels' time-lapse scenes of Manhattan.

This piece explores the beautiful imagery that has been uncovered thanks to modern technology. Because of advancements made in photomicrography, astrophotography, high-speed and stop-motion photography, we’re now able to see the world (and galaxy) as we never have before.

It’s our curiosity and thirst for the unknown that has driven us to uncover the beauty of the universe. Technology has allowed us to overcome the boundaries of human perception and explore beyond the limits of the naked eye. Told through the voices of scientists and artists, this video illustrates how size and distance are no longer barriers, and how through innovation we see the universe, time, and humanity in a new light.

Shepard Fairey designs 50th anniversary logo for Rolling Stones


Mick Jagger asked Shepard Fairey to redesign John Pasche's 1971 tongue and lips trademark for the Rolling Stones.

In a statement by Fairey, he said that he was overwhelmed by the idea of redesigning the logo when Mick Jagger reached out to him.

One of the first questions he had for Jagger was the inclusion for the ‘tongue’, which Jagger responded, "yeah I guess it ought to be".

His concept behind the logo was to highlight the Stones' legacy and integrate the ‘50’ in a ‘creative and memorable way’, that not only celebrated their trademark icon but also to commemorate their historical anniversary.

Taxi: The Rolling Stones Celebrates Its 50th Anniversary With A New Logo

Mitch O'Connell's funny Hanna Barbera paintings

Yesterday I wrote about artist Mitch O'Connell's funny pencil sketches that Hanna Barbera commissioned him to create. Today, Mitch posted the paintings that Hanna Barbera commissioned. See them all here.

Fantasizing about what you could buy instead of health insurance

Cockeyed's Rob Cockerham lost his job last year and now works as a contractor. He now buys his own medical insurance:

And man, oh man, is it expensive.

Our family's policy, two adults and two kids, for medical, dental and vision, costs $1,320.87 per month. That's the insurance premium. If we actually use the care, we have to pay a deductable too (called a co-pay), but honestly, after paying $1,320.87 per month, almost any co-pay seems like pocket change.

He began fantasizing about what he could buy with that much month every month:

NewImage Visiting car dealerships was fun when I had a potential $1320/month to spend, but maybe that money would be better spent elsewhere. No, not on health insurance, for every extraneous monthly expense I could dream of!

Like Netflix, streaming subscription with 8 DVDs out ($51.88/month), plus a World of Warcraft subscription ($15/month), plus a gym membership ($25/month), a home security monitoring system ($32/month), Gamefly service ($22.95/month), plus a membership to a tanning club ($9.95/month), plus Amazon Prime ($6.66/month), plus Hulu Plus ($7.99), Time Magazine ($2.50/month), Newsweek ($3.25/month), Playboy ($1.33/month), Wired ($1.25), Martha Stewart Living ($2.00/month), a lawn service ($50/month), Dana's Housekeeping service -- four hours/week ($312/month).... uh, plus FullBelly Farms weekly vegetable & flower deliveries ($127.50/month), plus sponsoring a child in Haiti ($35/month), plus Disneyland deluxe annual passes for the whole family ($127.36/month total) plus a large supreme pizza from Pizza Hut delivered every night ($428.40/month). Those things total $1267.02 per month, leaving enough to give the pizza guy a $53 tip.

What I Could Buy Instead of Health Insurance

As Shenzou 9 returns to earth, China makes space history: analysis from Miles O'Brien + Leroy Chiao (video)

China made space history this week, as three Chinese astronauts returned to Earth after a 13-day mission that made their nation the third to dock on manned spacecraft to another in orbit. The Shenzhou 9 space capsule landed about 12 hours ago in Inner Mongolia, one day after the astronauts departed the Tiangong 1 prototype space lab module. Space reporter Miles O'Brien spoke to Leroy Chiao, a NASA astronaut of Chinese descent, about the significance of this event.

Read the transcript of their conversation, or watch the video. An introduction from Miles follows:

Read the rest

Zelda the kitten plays with the iPad

We got a couple of kittens a few weeks ago. Louis doesn't pay much attention to Game for Cats, but Zelda (above) loves it.

Quotes from RIM's chiefs

"The most exciting mobile trend is full Qwerty keyboards. I'm sorry, it really is. I'm not making this up." Mike Lazaridis, May 2008.

To mark RIM's $500m first quarter loss and impending doom, The Guardian offers a selection of quotes from its longtime but recently trebucheted chiefs, Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis.

End of the line for Flash on Android

Adobe's Tareq AlJaber: "To ensure that the Flash Player provides the best possible experience for users, our partner program requires certification of each Flash Player implementation. ... There will be no certified implementations of Flash Player for Android 4.1."

Compressed-air gramophones: a loud, bad, wonderful idea

This web page (which is rather elderly itself) has valuable information on the long-lost Auxetophone and its successors and imitators, a family of compressed-air gramophones which were apparently very, very loud

Two Englishmen, Horace Short and Sir Charles A Parsons (yes, the steam turbine man) introduced the compressed air amplifiers known as Auxetophones. Horace Short began the development of the idea and was granted a patent in 1898, and again in 1901. The patent rights were sold to Parsons in 1903. Parsons, who was noted for his skill as a craftsman, took on the development of the Auxetophone as a hobby when he was already financially secure from his steam turbine business, and applied it to musical instruments as well as gramophones.

The Auxetophone & Other Compressed-Air Gramophones. (via Beyond the Beyond)