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District Attorneys rent out their letterhead to debt collectors, split the shakedown loot

Over 300 US district attorneys have made arrangements with strong-arm debt collectors, through which the debt collectors send out threatening notices on the DAs' letterhead to people who've allegedly bounced checks, and split the payments they get back (including hefty "service fees" levied by the collectors) with the DAs' offices. Jessica Silver-Greenberg writes in the NYT:

Debt collectors have come under fire for illegally menacing people behind on their bills with threats of jail. What makes this approach unusual is that the ultimatum comes with the imprimatur of law enforcement itself — though it is made before any prosecutor has determined a crime has been committed.

Prosecutors say that the partnerships allow them to focus on more serious crimes, and that the letters are sent only to check writers who ignore merchants’ demands for payment. The district attorneys receive a payment from the firms or a small part of the fees collected.

“The companies are returning thousands of dollars to merchants that is not coming at taxpayer expense,” said Ken Ryken, deputy district attorney with Alameda County.

Consumer lawyers have challenged the debt collectors in courts across the United States, claiming that they lack the authority to threaten prosecution or to ask for fees for classes when no district attorney has reviewed the facts of the cases. The district attorneys are essentially renting out their stationery, the lawyers say, allowing the companies to give the impression that failure to respond could lead to charges, when it rarely does.

“This is guilty until proven innocent,” said Paul Arons, a consumer lawyer in Friday Harbor, Wash., about two hours north of Seattle.

In Prosecutors, Debt Collectors Find a Partner (via Naked Capitalism)

(Image: Noah Berger for The New York Times)

Quick self-promotional item: I will be in one of Anderson Cooper's "Tweet Seats" tomorrow morning!

So, Boing Boing readers, here is a media alert for you: I'm going to be sitting in one of Anderson Cooper's "Tweet Seats" tomorrow morning at his daytime show, Anderson Live, which means that I'm going to be on national television! All y'all are going to find out what I look like! I'll be hijacking the Boing Boing Twitter account, live-tweeting the show, which will feature an interview with Emma Watson (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and the Long Island medium Theresa Caputo. And watch out, '90s sitcom joke ahead: Tamar Braxton (sister of Toni) will be hangin' with Mr. Cooper as co-host. To find out when you can see me tweet in the midst of a live studio audience, visit Anderson Live's site and enter your zip code. And I promise: There will be many more Hangin' With Mr. Cooper jokes, because that's how much I like you guys.

Saturday Night Live recap: Seth MacFarlane and Frank Ocean

Last night, NBC's Saturday Night Live returned early to get a head start on the presidential election season. And not only did it spend considerable time on the topic, it introduced us to three new cast members and shiny new opening credits! Our host for the 38th season premiere was Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy and director of Ted, with musical guest Frank Ocean. Here is how I'm approaching this recap, ladies and gents: I like this show, and I laughed a lot at stuff that was on it last night. And now, I'm going to tell you about what made me laugh the most, and which sketches I could have replaced with five minutes of brushing my teeth. But here is my recap in a nutshell: this was a good one! And it started with a former Barack Obama impersonator passing the baton to a new one.

Read the rest

Hot Wheels corkscrew jump with real car

As a kid, did you do insane stunts with your Hot Wheels cars? So do the people at the Hot Wheels Test Facility, but with real cars. This 92-foot "corkscrew jump" broke the world record. "Making of" video here.

Jill back

Due to popular demand, we have returned Jackhammer Jill to the logo.

Spider Robinson's podcast returns with an excerpt from The Free Lunch

Hurrah! Spider Robinson's put up another installment of his podcast (it's been understandably erratic for the past few years, as Spider and his family were doubly afflicted by cancer). As always, it features some great blues, jazz, roots and eclectic music (including some great tracks by Jeff Healey and Mose Scarlett as well as a Folk Uke's delightful tribute to poop) and a wonderful excerpt from his The Free Lunch.

The Free Lunch is Spider's 2001 contribution to the themepunk canon, a smashing novel about the greatest theme park ever made:

What if the world was so terrible that your only hope for a happy life would be to hide away in the world's greatest amusement park...Dreamworld? In The Free Lunch, Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author Spider Robinson transports us to Dreamworld, a place where everybody has fun, dreams can come true, and the only sadness is when they close for the night.

With his perceptive grasp of human emotions and his deft hand at humor, Robinson masterfully tells the take of Mike, a young teen who escapes our own dark, tormented near future into a dream--into Dreamworld. There he meets Annie, another refugee who has built a life in the underworld of this fantastic amusement park, perhaps the last vestige of innocence left in the world. But it is tainted by a dark secret--a ruthless competitor, who can't possibly create an attraction that's as much fun as Dreamworld, has decided that if he can't beat Dreamworld, he might as well destroy it. There's another threat to Dreamworld. Suddenly there are more trolls at the end of the day than were there in the morning...and nobody, not even Mike or Annie, knows where they're from. But it's up to them and their passion for preserving this last haven of joy in a world of horrors to save Dreamworld...and Earth's future.

Spider on the Web

MP3 link

William Gibson on where the Internet's Bohemias are

Here's more of Geeta Dayal's Wired interview with William Gibson (see also), wherein Gibson discusses the way that the Internet impacts on "Bohemia" and how subcultural moments like the birth of punk differed from modern "viral" phenomena like the Gundam Style video. We'll be discussing this further on Oct 20, when we do a joint appearance at the Vancouver Writers Festival.

Wired: What if punk emerged today, instead of in 1977? How do you think it would be different?

Gibson: You’d pull it up on YouTube, as soon as it was played. It would go up on YouTube among the kazillion other things that went up on YouTube that day. And then how would you find it? How would it become a thing, as we used to say? I think that’s one of the ways in which things are really different today. How can you distinguish your communal new thing — how can that happen? Bohemia used to be self-imposed backwaters of a sort. They were other countries within the landscape of Western industrial civilization. They were countries that most people would never see — mysterious places. You’d pay a price, potentially, for going there. That’s always cool and exciting. Now, where are they? Where can you do that? How are people transacting that today? I am pretty sure that they are, but I don’t have that much firsthand experience of it. But they have to do it in a different way.

My initial experience of punk was I went to Toronto, and I happened to go to a couple of nights of what historically turned out to be their first punk concert series. They had some bands from as far away as Los Angeles playing this kind of music I’d never heard before. So I absorbed that, and went home to Vancouver sort of thinking, “I wonder what that was about.”

Then a friend of mine who had been in art school in London returned with a knapsack full of British punk zines and everything that the Sex Pistols had released up to that point. And he pulled these records out of his knapsack. I had never heard of the Sex Pistols, and neither had anyone else in Vancouver. By the end of the evening we were all talking about them [laughs]. That’s just a very different kind of spread, than getting up in the morning and seeing the first page of Boing Boing.

William Gibson on Punk Rock, Internet Memes, and ‘Gangnam Style’

UK Tories put a spam kingpin in charge of the party

Grant Shapps is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Welwyn Hatfield and the new co-chair of the UK Conservative Party. He's also co-owner (with his wife) of a spam factory called HowToCorp, which markets a product called TrafficPaymaster, a program that scrapes blogs/RSS/search results, runs the text through a thesaurus (seemingly to avoid copyright infringement charges) and pastebombs the resulting word-salad onto pages slathered in display ads, in the hopes of tricking search engines into returning them as results for highly ranked queries and racking up accidental click money.

Danny Sullivan explains the workings of "spinner" software like TrafficPaymaster, and documents the tricks that the Shappses' company uses to market its wares, including a web of aliases and elaborate, misleading accounts of how Google views products like TrafficPaymaster and its useless output (here's a sample of the material the Shappses' program outputs: "A free of charge golf swing lesson appears a very little as well superior to be accurate." Here's another: "So the to begin with phase to getting a quality golfer is to order some clubs that match you.")

It’s high-profile, of course, because it’s fairly hard to believe that the new co-chair of the UK’s ruling political party (mostly ruling, the Conservatives share power with the much smaller Liberal Democrat party) is behind software that “plagiarizes” content to spam Google.

Technically, I’m not sure if the spinning is plagiarism, but both UK papers I’ve mentioned are running with that angle. They’re also big on this quote posted on Warrior Forum that appears to be from the aforementioned Sebastian Fox:

Google may or may not like a particular approach, but the real question is whether there are any signs about how a page has been created. If the answer is no, well then it doesn’t much matter what Google officially thinks.

The Guardian cites that as if the quote is dismissive of “Google’s attempts to police the internet,” whereas The Telegraph suggests that it means “Google would be unable to stop the copying of websites.”

The reality is that the claim isn’t some type of gauntlet being thrown down against Google. It’s simply meant to reassure a prospective buyer of what I covered above, that Google probably can’t tell that the page was created using automation, so even if Google has official rules against that (it does), TPM users probably won’t get caught.

Danny finishes: "The Conservatives came under accusations that they were too close to Google earlier this year. Having the party run by someone who created, and still seems associated with, a business designed to help people spam Google probably will serve as a nice balance to that."

New UK Conservative Party Co-Chair Grant Shapps Founded Google Spamming Business

Maria Del Camino, a mutant excavator mated to a 59 El Camino, with the face of Maria from Metropolis

Maria Del Camino is Bruce Tomb's magnificent mutant vehicle. It started out life as the body of a '59 El Camino, and was then riddled with thousands of hand-drilled holes, turning it into a meshwork. On the hood, the holes form a pointillist portrait of Maria from Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The whole thing was then mounted on an armature supported by a hydraulic tracked excavator, giving it the ability to rumble along at an angle, or poised many feet above the tank-treads, or vertically.

Bruce is one of my Burning Man campmates at Liminal Labs, and he brought Maria out again this year, and took her out early in the morning to the deep playa -- the area of the desert well away from the main action -- and used a GPS and the excavator blade to carve and burnish a huge piece of vector art out of the desert surface, with the intention of having it captured by the Google satellite flyover. He plans to make this process fully automated in future years, giving Maria the ability to turn herself into a giant, diesel-powered mutated Etch-a-Sketch.

Bruce has just updated Maria's blog with some beautiful photos and videos from this year's burn, and a report from the burnishing experiment:

The maximum deviation of the GPS unit is stated as 33 feet and can be as accurate as 3 feet. The graphic deviation showing in this satellite photo, is purely me following instructions from the device, setting aside my perceptions and judgement. This makes evident that there are greater inaccuracies than stated, and illustrates the inherent paradox of this civilian down market version of an ultra precise technology developed by and for the military. I would be wary of relying on this particular device alone to keep a boat off the rocks.

The western edge of the drawing is on hard playa almost like asphalt, so the line is very shallow. Here, Maria’s blade mostly burnished the playa. The east west lines were especially dramatic and reflected the lavender light of the sunrise. Photos by Anne Klint will be posted soon to show this, but here with this photo, the lines are virtually illegible. The strongest track is the north/south line on the eastern edge of the square. This was due to both the conditions of the playa and the GPS signal/device. The playa in this area was covered with drifts of dust, 6” deep or more, not unlike snow drifts, very soft, and difficult to traverse, even with Maria’s 18” wide rubber tracks. While driving this particular track the signals were quite different than all the rest, perhaps a product of a slower speed. If the resolution of this image were higher, you would see a very tight, regular, serpentine or sinusoidal line with an amplitude of about 15-20 feet and a period of about 50 feet. The noodles at the corners are me following directions from the device to land on a precise waypoint. As I approached a corner, I would slow down and make minor adjustments as needed, inching along to left, to right, back again, then sitting there for about 15 minutes to let the signal settle down to 0 degrees of travel angle and 0 feet distance from my destination.

Maria Del Camino (Thanks, Bruce!)

(Photos by Anne Klint)

Talking Heads Live in Rome, 1980

A followup to this 2007 post about the handful of clips from Talking Heads' Live in Rome concert footage: the whole movie is now online in one big, 1:05 YouTube clip. The 1980 concert is a kind of precursor to the spectacular Stop Making Sense tour, and is a perfect delight for a Sunday morning.

Colin Marshall at OpenCulture writes,

Talking Heads enthusiasts, note that Live in Rome features the group’s full “Afro-Funk Orchestra” lineup. Additionally, you’ll see on guitar a certain Adrian Belew, who would begin fronting King Crimson the following year. (As he might, in another reality, have fronted the Heads themselves; in our reality, he turned down an offer to take Byrne’s place.) The songs not heard in Stop Making Sense include “Stay Hungry,” “Cities,” “I Zimbra,” “Drugs,” “Houses in Motion,” “Born Under Punches,” and “The Great Curve.” No die-hard fan will feel completely satisfied with this concert, of course, until someone remasters it on Blu-Ray with a complete surround sound mix. But if you simply need a hit of a pack of art-school rockers unlike any others America has produced, this Remain in Light-era hour merits a permanent bookmark. H/T Biblioklept

Live in Rome, 1980: The Talking Heads Concert Film You Haven’t Seen (via MeFi)