Oliver Sacks on face blindness

One evening, while we were watching TV, a short video preview came on, announcing that the channel was going to show Jurassic Park over the coming weekend. As the preview played, my husband turned to me and said, "I didn't know Harrison Ford was in Jurassic Park."

"That's because he's not," I said.

"Sure he is. Right there," my husband said, pointing at an image of Sam Neil fleeing a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

And that was how I learned that my husband had spent his life not really recognizing individual actors on TV, and in the movies. Given a film featuring two leads of approximately the same race, sex, age and hair color—and barring any distinctive costuming—Baker quickly loses track of the plot. (He still has no idea what the hell happened in The Departed.)

Luckily for Baker, these problems don't seem to affect him much in the real world. He can't tell the difference between Harrison Ford and Sam Neil, but he knows the faces of friends, family, and business acquaintances. The same can't be said for people, including the neurologist and science writer Oliver Sacks, who suffer from full-on, clinical prosopagnosia—or "face blindness", the complete inability to distinguish one face from any other. For them, the world is full of strangers.

I knew Sacks had written about prosopagnosia—most notably in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. But I didn't realize he actually had the disorder himself. In this video clip from a session on social memory and neurobiology at last year's World Science Festival in New York, Sacks recounts what can happen when nobody's face is familiar, not even your own. Read the rest

China cracks down on "money sucking" mobile phones loaded with malware

The government of China is taking action against mobile phones pre-installed with malware that sneakily rack up user fees by triggering various fee-based mobile services.
The ministry is targeting what it called "money sucking" phones, which are installed with software that triggers fee-based mobile services without users' knowledge.

The phones with the problem are brand name knock-offs built using the Android operating system, said Zhao Wei, CEO of Chinese security company Knownsec. Each month, the phones will spend only about 2 yuan (US$0.30) in text messages or other mobile services. The small amount ensures that users will not take notice, he said.

'Money sucking' phones in China spur government action

(via Chris Wysopal) Read the rest

Face blindness research at University of Minnesota in Minneapolis

[Video Link] Researchers at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis are working with children who have face blindness (prosopagnosia) to try to come up with ways to treat people who have difficulty recognizing and distinguishing between faces. According to the researchers in this video face blindness affects 1 to 2% of all children.

In the video [Link] below Dr. Oliver Sacks talks about his own experiences as a person with prosopagnosia. (If you ask me, Dr. Sacks and the bearded researcher in the video above look a lot alike!)

Oliver Sacks on face blindness Why it's hard not to stare at facial deformities Spot the fake smile Read the rest

Oliver Sacks on face blindness

Author and neurologist Oliver Sacks has prosopagnosia (face blindness) and he wrote about it in The New Yorker. The article isn't online, but here's an audio interview with him.

From The New Yorker's abstract of the article:

Severe congenital prosopagnosia is estimated to affect two to two and a half per cent of the population–six to eight million people in the United States alone.

Writer describes his own difficulties recognizing and remembering faces. He also has the same difficulty with places and often becomes lost when he strays from familiar routes. At the age of seventy-seven, despite a lifetime of trying to compensate, he has no less trouble with faces and places than when he was younger. He is particularly thrown when seeing a person out of context, even if he was with that person five minutes before. Writer gives several examples of his inability to recognize familiar people out of context, including his therapist and his assistant.

You Look Unfamiliar - an audio interview with Oliver Sacks Read the rest

Toxoplasma (cat-poo parasite) hypnotizes rats by making them horny for cat pee


Tobias has a creepy-fun blog post up today about Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that causes rats to become attracted to cats, which can adversely affect the development of a baby within a pregnant women's body. The post digs into Stanford scientist Dr. Robert Sopalsky's research around how "toxo" changes human behavior, but this snippet about how it "hijacks the sexual reward pathway" in rats' minds is pure gold.

Once in the rat, Toxo's goal is to then be eaten by a cat so it can be fruitful and multiply, but as I mentioned, this can only take place in the cat's gut. Toxo's goal is to get the rat eaten by a cat. Toxo could get the desired effect through a whole sort of seemingly obvious ways; e.g., Make the rat hard to run so it is easier for a cat to catch it. Instead it takes a far more interesting approach: Toxo generates cysts in the brain of the rat. These cysts take over the fear center of the brain, but specifically the fear of predators. Common fear sources for rodents (e.g., bright lights, open spaces, etc.) still operate perfectly well in an infected rat, but now they are no longer afraid of cat piss. That alone would be cool enough, but Toxo takes it one step further. When Toxo is going about futzing with the fear center of the brain it also goes into the sexual excitement part of the brain. It hijacks the incoming Fear of Cat Piss™ and instead diverts the signal to the Barry White™ center of the brain.
Read the rest

Mark on The Martha Stewart Show, May 18, 2009

(Photo: Anders Krusberg/The Martha Stewart Show)

On Monday, May 18, I'll be on The Martha Stewart show. I'm going to demonstrate bunch of different projects from the pages of MAKE, and I'll also show Martha how to build a vibrobot. Martha is one of my heroes, so it was a thrill to be on her show!

Above: Martha Stewart is enjoying a Maker-made cup of coffee. The coffee roaster on the left was designed by Larry Cotton and was featured in Make Vol 8. The hydraulic espresso tamper was designed and built by John Edgar Park and appears in Make Vol 12. And that's my espresso machine that I modded with a PID temperature control kit from

MAKE Editor Mark Frauenfelder on The Martha Stewart Show this Monday Read the rest

Lovecraft's 70th death-a-versary, Cthulhu adoration everywhere

March 15th, 2007 marked the 70th year since HP Lovecraft's death. Necronomicon junkies and devotees of the Cthulhu mythos celebrated that day with online commemorations. La Petite Claudine has a thoughtful series of related posts on her blog here (mostly in Spanish): Link.

Image: "Azathoth is described as both blind and idiotic and is regarded as the head of the Cthulhu mythos pantheon." An illustration from this Lovecraft fan-page on MySpace (No artist credit given -- if anyone knows whose work this is, please let me know and I'll update this post accordingly).

(Thanks, Reverse Cowgirl)

Reader comment: Peetee sez, "A better term for death-a-versary is 'mortiversary'."

BoingBoing reader Rob sends the photo below, and says,

He has quite the boring headstone. It's in Providence, Rhode Island. I took the picture, it was midday and the lighting was all screwy, but you can get the gist of it.

BoingBoing reader Remus Shepherd says:

Xeni, I saw someone sent you a picture of HP Lovecraft's headstone...and called it 'boring'. Well, it is. But right behind it, they used to have a gigantic oak (?) tree, which was carved with various sayings from his stories.

I have some pictures of the Tree That Feeds On Him here: Link. I'd rather not mention who the people are in those photos -- but I swear we didn't carve anything!

Sadly, the Tree That Feeds On Him was cut down a few years ago. Either the cemetary owners found it too creepy, or they were tired of it being climbed by weirdos like...well, us.

Read the rest

Chronicles of Narnia is a good movie for folks with faceblindness

Prosopagnosia is the scientific term for faceblindness. As Beware of the Blog's Iowa Firecracker describes it, "for some reason, my fusiform gyrus isn’t hooked up properly and I can’t recognize human faces." He She goes on to mention that she has been interviewed for an upcoming documentary about this rare condition, and that she met another faceblind for the first time, a guy named Glenn, who administers an email list for faceblind people.
I was really nervous about it, but it turned out to be okay. Whether it’s because he’s the list admin, or because he lives in Boston where prosopagnosiacs go to get studied by Scientists and Experts at Harvard, Glenn has met plenty of other faceblind folks, so it wasn’t a big deal for him. That helped me calm down a little. Mostly I just wanted to thank Glenn in person for running the faceblind list, because I like knowing there are some other people out there who see the world a little bit the way I do. I like knowing they have the same problems I do at parties, and they don’t see any point in having photos of their loved ones around, and they call people who aren’t faceblind NTs (for Neuro Typicals). I like getting recommendations for movies based on the fact that they have characters I’ll be able to identify all the way through the story. (“Chronicles of Narnia” got good marks for that.)

So Glenn and I met in a coffee shop, and drank some coffee, and he was very nice and a very interesting guy.

Read the rest

Espresso crema shots

Crema is the wonderful tan colored foam that appears on the top of a well-shot espresso. High quality espresso joints have a saying: "No crema, no serva."

I recently got a Rancilio Silvia espresso maker, generally considered the best consumer espresso model available. Trouble is, I can't seem to get it to make a shot with crema. It's shooting blanks, so to speak. The next issue of Make magazine is going to feature a couple of coffee hacks that should help espresso fanatics produce precious crema. I'm going to give them a try.

In the meantime, I'll just drool over these photos over at The photo here shows a machine using a "crotchless" portafilter. Some people might consider that a cheater's way to get creama, but I'll take it any way I can get it. Link (thanks, Kate!)

Coffeegeek comment: Rob N.says: "I can only say this: if you're not getting crema from Miss Silvia, then you've got a breakdown somewhere in your technique or your ingredients.  You can fake crema by using false filter bottoms with pressure disks and such to "whip" up your coffee into something foamy.  However, thin, bitter espresso with a fake layer of foam is still thin, bitter espresso.  Properly made espresso from fresh beans, ground, tamped, and brewed properly, will make plenty of its own crema - the quality of qhich is generally indicative of the shot.  

"First - what grinder did you get to go along with Silvia?  If you're using a whizzy-blade or other inexpensive bean basher, you're not getting the best grind.  Espresso must be made with coffee that is ground uniformly fine, with no large chunks and little dust.  The Racilio Rocky or Gaggia MDF are considered to be basic workhorses of home espresso.  The MDF's the least expensive unit that will produce a uniform espresso grind.  Alternately, you can use a Zassenhaus hand-crank mill with the plates set very close. Read the rest

Cuitlacoche: corn fungus delicacy

A Boing Boing reader says: "Here's a taste test of the Cuitlacoche -- which comes from corn fields that have been infected with spores. The resulting Mexican "delicacy" is corn that's black, bulbous and frightening."
In just a single serving, you'll experience a wide array of textures. Without getting too gross, it's because the disease is more advanced in some kernels than others. One bite might be kinda chewy, while the next might burst in your mouth like a black pus-filled blister.

UPDATE: Patricio López says: "Just one small correction to your last Boing Boing post, the name of the dish is huitlacoche not cuitlacoche." Wikipedia Link

UPDATE: David says: "Your Update/Correction to the Cuitlacoche/Huitlacoche is not right. Both spellings are accepted....just check out the pictures of the two cans shown in The Sneeze's post.

"Furthermore, even the wikipedia entry lists cuitlacoche as an alternate spelling."

UPDATE: David Gallardo says: "That's an unfair slur against Mexican cuisine! AFAIK, nobody eats huitlacoche whole & plain like that. It's actually quite delicious (and not at all disgusting) as part of a properly prepared dish, esp. when matched with chile poblano & fresh cheese or cream. My favorite recipes are a huitlacoche soup (sopa de huitlacoche) and crepes (crepas de huitlacoche). It's certainly no worse than Chinese cloud ears & such.

"Now, if you want to talk about disgusting Mexican food, this guy should look into some of the other pre-Columbian food that is still popular in south & southcentral Mexico, the stuff involving various grubs & insects..."

UPDATE: Steve from The Sneeze responds: "David, my apologies to Mexican cuisine. Read the rest

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