Play the privacy game

Yishay sez, "A new game which looks at how much personal information people are willing to reveal freely online and its cost to them, has been launched by The Open University Business School. This game enables you to explore issues relating to surveillance encountered in everyday life. The Open University Business School has developed this game for the 2012 ESRC Festival of Social Science in collaboration with Play with Learning Ltd and the OU's Open Media Unit."

Secret or sharing? Play our Privacy Game (Thanks, Yishay!)

Cthulhoid idols for a limited time


Jason sez, "Available for THREE DAYS ONLY, Cryptocurium is proud to offer two hand cast solid resin Lovecraftian relics, 'The Nyarlathotep Artifact' and 'The Dunwich Cthulhu Idol.' 'The Nyarlathotep Artifact' depicts The Crawling Chaos himself in his form as the faceless Black Pharaoah carved from 'Egyptian lapis lazuli' and bearing an inscription in mysterious alien hieroglyphics. 'The Dunwich Cthulhu Idol'is a small but menacing sculptural piece said to have belonged to the infamous Old Wizard Whateley and once resided at Miskatonic University before being 'lost' in 1928. Both items are solid, hand-cast resin, hand painted and individually signed and numbered by artist Jason McKittrick."

DAY OF THE DEAD SALE (Thanks, Jason!)

Stationary bike weight-loss success story

Sumit sez, "This is the wacky story of how I biked across the country on my exercise bike and lost a lot of extra pounds in the process - complete with charts and graphs of calories burned vs. weight loss and bullet points and all sorts of other happy mutant happiness."

Sumit is also "the Seattleite who brought you 'Rope Bondage for Laptops' and 'Putting a Wood Floor on Carpet.'"

My VRATUS - How I Rode My Exercise Bike Across the Country (and Lost 20 lbs Along the Way) (Thanks, Sumit!)

Kidnapped radio engineers forced to build comms networks for the Zetas, never seen again

On Wired Danger Room, Robert Beckhusen tells how Mexican drug cartels, notably the Zetas, kidnap skilled radio engineers and force them to build out elaborate communications networks -- one comprised 167 antennas. The engineers are kidnapped and usually never seen again, and are presumed to have been murdered.

For at least six years, Mexico’s cartels have relied in part on a sophisticated radio network to handle their communications. The Zetas hide radio antennas and signal relay stations deep inside remote and hard-to-reach terrain, connect them to solar panels, and then link the facilities to radio-receiving cellphones and Nextel devices. While the kingpins stay off the network — they use the internet to send messages — the radio network acts as a shadow communication system for the cartels’ lower-level players and lookouts, and a tool to hijack military radios.

One network spread across northeastern Mexico and dismantled last year included 167 radio antennas alone. As recently as September, Mexican marines found a 295-foot-high transmission tower in Veracruz state. And while the founding leadership of the Zetas originated in the Mexican special forces — and who might have had the know-how to set up a radio system — relatively few of the ex-commando types are still active today.

One engineer, named Jose Antonio, was kidnapped in January 2009 while talking on the phone with his girlfriend outside a mechanics shop. He worked for ICA Fluor Daniel, a construction company jointly owned by U.S.-based Fluor Corporation and ICA, Mexico’s largest construction firm. Antonio’s family contacted the authorities, but were instead visited by a man claiming to be an ICA employee along with two Zetas. “They said they were going to help us, and that our contact would be ICA’s security chief,” said the kidnapped engineer’s mother. But the group’s message was implicit: Don’t pursue this, or else. The cartel members were later arrested, but Antonio never returned.

Mexican Cartels Enslave Engineers to Build Radio Network

Amazing slavery escape of Ellen and William Craft


In a 2010 Smithsonian magazine article, Marian Smith Holmes tells the story of Ellen and William Craft, two married enslaved African-Americans who fled Georgia and made their way to Philadelphia in 1848. Ellen disguised herself as a young white man (using bandages and an arm-sling to help cover up her face and limit demands on her signing registers) and her husband William was disguised as her slave. They travelled in first-class accommodation and brazened their way past checkpoints and security measures designed to stop the likes of them, with a combination of bravery, nerves and luck. The pair later chronicled their adventure in a memoir called Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom.

Pondering various escape plans, William, knowing that slaveholders could take their slaves to any state, slave or free, hit upon the idea of fair-complexioned Ellen passing herself off as his master—a wealthy young white man because it was not customary for women to travel with male servants. Initially Ellen panicked at the idea but was gradually won over. Because they were “favourite slaves,” the couple had little trouble obtaining passes from their masters for a few days leave at Christmastime, giving them some days to be missing without raising the alarm. Additionally, as a carpenter, William probably would have kept some of his earnings – or perhaps did odd jobs for others – and was allowed to keep some of the money.

Before setting out on December 21, 1848, William cut Ellen’s hair to neck length. She improved on the deception by putting her right arm in a sling, which would prevent hotel clerks and others from expecting “him” to sign a registry or other papers. Georgia law prohibited teaching slaves to read or write, so neither Ellen nor William could do either. Refining the invalid disguise, Ellen asked William to wrap bandages around much of her face, hiding her smooth skin and giving her a reason to limit conversation with strangers. She wore a pair of men’s trousers that she herself had sewed. She then donned a pair of green spectacles and a top hat. They knelt and prayed and took “a desperate leap for liberty.”

The Great Escape From Slavery of Ellen and William Craft (via Making Light)

If you vote for Obama you will "put your own soul in jeopardy," says Bishop David Ricken of The Catholic Diocese in Green Bay, WI

Bishop David Ricken of the Catholic Diocese in Green Bay, WI went for the hard sell in a letter to his Brothers and Sisters in Christ. Here's an excerpt:

I would like to review some of the principles to keep in mind as you approach the voting booth to complete your ballot. The first is the set of non-negotiables. These are areas that are “intrinsically evil” and cannot be supported by anyone who is a believer in God or the common good or the dignity of the human person.

They are:


1. abortion
2. euthanasia
3. embryonic stem cell research
4. human cloning
5. homosexual “marriage”

These are intrinsically evil. “A well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program that contradicts fundamental contents of faith and morals.” Intrinsically evil actions are those which have an evil object. In other words, an act is evil by its very nature and to choose an action of this type puts one in grave moral danger.

But what does this have to do with the election? Some candidates and one party have even chosen some of these as their party’s or their personal political platform. To vote for someone in favor of these positions means that you could be morally “complicit” with these choices which are intrinsically evil. This could put your own soul in jeopardy.

Read His entire letter here

Is Bishop Ricken going to start paying taxes? From the ACLJ's "Political Speech & Non Profit Tax Issues":

In exchange for the receipt of tax-exempt status, I.R.C. § 501(c)(3) absolutely prohibits churches and other tax-exempt organizations from campaigning for or against a candidate for public office. If a church participates or interferes, directly or indirectly, in any political campaign for or against any candidate for public office by publishing and distributing certain written material or making oral statements regarding the candidate, then a church can lose its tax-exempt status for violating the campaigning ban. I.R.C. § 1.501(c)(3)-1(c)(3)(iii). Quite simply courts have interpreted 501(c)(3) to ban any degree of participation or intervention in a campaign for public office. Ass’n of the Bar of N.Y. v. Comm'r of Internal Revenue, 858 F.2d 876, 879 (2d Cir. 1988).

But maybe warning someone that they will put their soul in jeopardy if they vote for Obama isn't considered participating in a political campaign?

(Thanks, Mark!)

Peer rewards for good behavior take a bite out of trolling and griefing in MMO


The Mary Sue's Becky Chambers rounds up the coverage and analysis of an anti-trolling/griefing experiment in League of Legends, a massively multiplayer online RPG battle arena. League's management hired a team of social scientists who designed a system of peer-rewards that allowed users to hand each other publicly visible points for positive, friendly interactions (there was already a system of reporting bad behavior and meting out punishments, but it wasn't working very well). Unlike previous attempts to use public reward to improve behavior, this one was not yet turned into a back-scratching system where friends just vote one another up, and has reportedly resulted in massive improvements in the quality of group interactions.

Ten days after Honor went live, an update from Dr. Lyte appeared on the official LoL blog, detailing the global changes they’d noticed in reported bad behavior:

Negative Attitude reports: -29% in normals and -11% in ranked
Offensive Language reports: -35% in normals and -20% in ranked
Verbal Abuse reports: -41% in normals -17% in ranked

Check that out. Ten days of a voluntary system that grants nothing more than a tiny perk for being amiable, and folks were already cleaning up their acts. Of course, these stats only show a decline of reported incidents, which, while encouraging, is could be different than how things look down in the trenches. As LoL is not part of my repertoire, I took to Twitter earlier this week to get the word on the street. Lo and behold, players are indeed noticing a difference.

I first got some feedback from a player named Paige, who cites LoL as her favorite game despite the “negativity and hostility” within the community. In her opinion, Honor is a welcome addition. “Players seem to be making more of an effort to be just generally friendly,” she wrote in an email, noting that she’s seen a slight improvement in cross-team chat. She also pointed out that this hasn’t prevented insults from flying when a match goes badly, but nonetheless, she’s glad for a way to give props for good behavior.

So Far, So Good: League of Legends Takes An Honorable Approach To Improving Player Behavior (via Techdirt)

Ohio Romney rally - interviews with supporters

From New Left Media: "Election observers believe that Ohio is the state most likely to decide who becomes our next President. These interviews were conducted with Ohio voters at a recent Romney rally in Defiance, OH."

Sequencing of barley genome could have implications for home brewers

When scientists from the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research in Germany sequenced the genome of barley, they were thinking primarily about the impact on food. Understanding the genetics behind certain traits could help us breed barley varieties that have built-in resistance against disease, or that contain more fiber. (Contrary to popular understanding, there's actually a lot of overlap between what we might think of as genetic engineering and what we might think of as breeding. Crop researchers can use genome maps to select specific plants to cross pollinate, enabling them to reliably breed a trait into a new variety much faster than was previously possible.)

But, this is barley. And we don't just eat barley. With this plant, sequencing the genome also has implications for the way we brew beer. At Popular Science, Martha Harbison explains what we're learning about barley's genetic code and why it matters in beer making. In particular, she says it's significant that the researchers sequenced the genomes of more than one variety of barley.

Why should aspiring homebrewers care? Because two-row and six-row barley behave slightly differently in the mash, which can have profound effects on brewing efficiency and characteristics of the finished beer (a complex phenomenon I'll get into in a future column). I figured anyone nerdulent enough to want to know about genetic differences of cultivars would be curious as to which kind of barley was used in the single-nucleotide-variation study.

Read the rest of the story at Popular Science

You can read more about the surprisingly complex world of plant breeding in two articles I wrote — one for Popular Science, and one for Discover.

Image: Beers and Glassware, a Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from cambridgebrewingcompany's photostream

In backup generators we trust?

It’s normal for backup generators to fail. If we want a more reliable system, we’ll have to change the way the grid works.

Read the rest

Purple and blue natural wigs

Old wig ads have some inherent comedy, sitting at the intersection of fashion, human tissue trafficking, and so forth. But when you throw in enthusiastic descriptions of the "head turning, naturally beautiful" wigs alongside elaborate purple and blue hairstyles, the internal contradictions really start to throw off sparks.

Revenge of the blue (and purple??) hair

How Victoria's Secret saved the National Guard from Hurricane Sandy

Why do we love Noah Shachtman and Wired's Danger Room blog? Because they break very important stories like this:

On Monday night, Hurricane Sandy hit the armory of the New York Army National Guard’s 69th Infantry Regiment, leaving the soldiers without power, hot water, or anything but the most rudimentary means of communicating with the outside world. So the next morning, the Regiment’s officers made an emergency plea — to the producers of the Victoria’s Secret fashion show.

As they had done for the last three years running, the lingerie company was holding its annual television event at the Regiment’s historic armory, located at 25th street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. For the show, the producers had hauled in eight massive 500 kilowatt generators. Of course, the producers said, we’d be happy to help. Hours later, the lights flashed back on.

“We were dead in the water until Victoria’s Secret showed up,” says Capt. Brendan Gendron, the Regiment’s operations officer.

You'll want to read the rest at Wired.com.

Sandy hits vulnerable populations hard; disabled and elderly at risk, post-storm

On NPR's Talk of the Nation today, a segment about the particularly damaging impact Sandy has had this week on elderly and disabled populations in the storm's path. Many remain isolated "in cold, dark homes without assistance, food and running water." Related: News today that a 93-year-old man whose electricity was knocked out has died from hypothermia from prolonged exposure to the cold.

Friday puzzle: Four Men in Hats


A fine puzzle from Mycoted.

Shown above are four men buried up to their necks in the ground. They cannot move, so they can only look forward. Between A and B is a brick wall which cannot be seen through.

They all know that between them they are wearing four hats--two black and two white--but they do not know what color they are wearing. Each of them know where the other three men are buried.

In order to avoid being shot, one of them must call out to the executioner the color of their hat. If they get it wrong, everyone will be shot. They are not allowed to talk to each other and have 10 minutes to fathom it out.

After one minute, one of them calls out.

Question: Which one of them calls out? Why is he 100% certain of the color of his hat?

This is not a trick question. There are no outside influences nor other ways of communicating. They cannot move and are buried in a straight line; A & B can only see their respective sides of the wall, C can see B, and D can see B & C.

Visit Mycoted for the answer

Artist Gary Panter interviewed on Too Much Information

I try not to let myself become overly attached to material things, but this Jimbo book by Gary Panter is something I've treasured for 30 years. I bought it in 1982 from a headshop in Boulder, Colorado, called the Pipefitter. I hadn't heard of Gary Panter before seeing the book. I was attracted to its large-format (14.5 inches x 11 inches) and especially the cardboard outer cover with the small black and red label glued onto it. (See more photos of the book here on my Flickr set).

Jimbo was published by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly's (who also published RAW, a seminal underground comics anthology that showcased the early work of a great many talented artists, including Panter). At the time I thought $3 was a lot of money for a comic book! (Amazon has some used copies of Jimbo available. The cheapest is $30, which is well worth the price.)

Read the rest