Real history from a pretend pirate

Meet Richard Nolan: quartermaster of the Whydah, captain of the Anne, former coworker of Blackbeard—in general, pirate. He is also—at least through Labor Day—my friend Butch Roy.

Butch is an actor, a founder of the Twin Cities Improv Festival, and the executive director of Huge Theater here in Minneapolis. This summer, he took on a new role, playing pirate Richard Nolan in the Science Museum of Minnesota's Real Pirates exhibit.

When I first heard about Real Pirates I wasn't terribly excited. It sounded like the sort of kiddie-friendly, fact-lite thing that I tend to avoid on museum trips. I mean, for god's sake, there were actors running around going, "Arrgh," at people. But then I got a chance to talk to Butch about what, exactly, he was doing in the exhibit—and what it took to prepare for the role.

Butch and his cohorts aren't just playing pirates—they're playing real, documented people. What's more, all the actors had to build their characters from the ground up, using original historical sources and doing a lot of extra research on their own. They had to learn the skills of a pirate and the skills associated with their specific role on the ship. Butch, at least in theory, now knows how to load and fire an 18th century cannon. His fellow actor Michael Ritchie, who plays ship's surgeon James Ferguson, is up-to-date on all the latest medical research and techniques, circa 1717. The sheer volume of historical information Butch has picked up is absolutely fascinating. Read the rest

Searching for Magic in India and Silicon Valley: An Interview with Daniel Kottke, Apple Employee #12

Daniel Kottke lives and works in Palo Alto, Ca. Here, he talks about the genesis of his 1974 trip to India with Steve Jobs.

Daniel Kottke was one of Apple's first employees, assembling the company's earliest kit computers with Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs in a California kitchen. In 1974, Jobs and Kottke backpacked across India in search of themselves; now, they are industry legends. Along the way, he debugged circuit boards, helped design the Apple III and the Mac, and became host of Palo Alto cable TV show The Next Step. Read the rest

Neal Stephenson's Some Remarks, a remarkable essay collection

Neal Stephenson is a talented essayist, a fact that anyone who read his seminal In the Beginning... Was the Command Line will be aware of. Some of the finest moments in his fiction is really nonfiction, essays that make up part of the story, which some critics take umbrage at. I love it. I happen to love discursive novels. But that said, Stephenson's essays are even more enjoyable than the discursions in his novels, which is saying something.

Some Remarks is a new collection of mostly reprinted, mostly nonfiction. I've read nearly every word in this collection before, some of it multiple times, but nevertheless found it to be a breezy, fast, and thoroughly enjoyable read.

The collection is dominated by Mother Earth Mother Board a "hacker tourist" travelogue that tells the story of the FLAG transoceanic cable, a pioneering privately funded project that was originally published in Wired magazine, which deserves kudos for having the bravery to commission an essay that runs to more than 100 pages in this 300-page book. This essay still stands as a kind of Moby-Dick for undersea cabling, a ferociously detailed, gripping account of an obscure but vital field that manages to be both highly technical and highly dramatic. I found my 2012 re-read of this essay much different from my original reading of it in 1996, in particular because of all the references to politics in middle eastern countries like Libya and Egypt, which have been so much in the news lately. There's a little frisson of history-in-the-making from this essay, as you realize that the establishment of redundant, high-speed network links into the region prefigured a vast, global change that we are still experiencing. Read the rest

Blackout: What's wrong with the American grid

It began with a few small mistakes.

Around 12:15, on the afternoon of August 14, 2003, a software program that helps monitor how well the electric grid is working in the American Midwest shut itself down after after it started getting incorrect input data. The problem was quickly fixed. But nobody turned the program back on again.

A little over an hour later, one of the six coal-fired generators at the Eastlake Power Plant in Ohio shut down. An hour after that, the alarm and monitoring system in the control room of one of the nation’s largest electric conglomerates failed. It, too, was left turned off.

Those three unrelated things—two faulty monitoring programs and one generator outage—weren’t catastrophic, in and of themselves. But they would eventually help create one of the most widespread blackouts in history. By 4:15 pm, 256 power plants were offline and 55 million people in eight states and Canada were in the dark. The Northeast Blackout of 2003 ended up costing us between $4 billion and $10 billion. That’s “billion”, with a “B”.

But this is about more than mere bad luck. The real causes of the 2003 blackout were fixable problems, and the good news is that, since then, we’ve made great strides in fixing them. The bad news, say some grid experts, is that we’re still not doing a great job of preparing our electric infrastructure for the future. Read the rest

Meet the people who keep your lights on

Power was restored today in India, where more than 600 million people had been living without electricity for two days. That's good news, but it's left many Americans wondering whether our own electric grid is vulnerable.

Here's the good news: The North American electric grid is not likely to crash in the kind of catastrophic way we've just seen in India. I'm currently interviewing scientists about the weaknesses in our system and what's being done to fix them and will have more on that for you tomorrow or Friday.

In the meantime, I wanted to share a chapter from Before the Lights Go Out, my book about electric infrastructure and the future of energy. If you want to understand why our grid is weak, you first need to understand how it works. The key thing to know is this—at any given moment, in any given place, we must have an almost perfect balance between electric supply and electric demand. Fluctuations of even fractions of a percent can send parts of the system towards blackout.

More importantly, that careful balance does not manage itself. Across North America there are people working, 24-7, to make sure that your lights can turn on, your refrigerator runs, and your computer works. They're called grid controllers or system operators. Most utility customers have never heard of these guys, but we're all heavily dependent on them. They keep the grid alive and, in turn, they keep our lives functioning—all without the benefit of batteries or any kind of storage. Read the rest

Call your Senator today and stop the Cyber Security Act of 2012: it legalizes spying on your email, chats, photos, social behavior, and location for any purpose

Tiffiny from champion SOPA-fighters Fight for the Future says:

This year, grassroots movements defeated SOPA in the US and ACTA in Europe. We might be able to make another bad-idea bill, CISPA, go down in flames too (or get the privacy protections we've been fighting for). CISPA-- which already passed the House -- would give government access to all your personal data with no restrictions on what they could do with it. The Senate version of CISPA, which is slightly better but could be made much, much worse is going to final vote today.

If you have a secret --

Or think it's creepy that the government listens in on your cell phone calls, knows your location right now, reads your emails, all without a warrant? A bill going to vote today in Congress would make all of this government spying legal.

Millions of us aren't aware of this bill or don't realize how far they go.

That's why we're sharing this link:

We took some time to try to capture exactly what's so dangerous and disturbing about having secrets at all.

This year, grassroots movements defeated SOPA in the US and ACTA in Europe. We might be able to make another bad-idea bill go down in flames too (or get the privacy protections we've been fighting for).

This could be the year for internet freedom and the open internet to prevail above huge amounts of lobbying dollars. And racking up wins on SOPA, CISPA, ACTA -- that'd be unprecedented.

Read the rest

The Unbearable Lightness Of Being British

Photo: Shimelle (cc)

The epithets attached to the Olympic opening ceremony piled up: eclectic, spectacular, monumental, shambolic, parochial, world-beating, hideous, embarrassing, filmic, and even inspiring. In its parts, the spectacle was all of these things because of the whole, which formed a gush of free-floating anxiety, a confession on a therapist’s couch.

Many commented on the ceremony’s focus on times past, in what viewers outside of Britain took as a flamboyant history lesson or, less charitably, as a statement of a country with no future. This was, however, no simple portrayal of past events, but a raid conducted to shore up a particular view that exists at this time; a malaise suffered here and now. Read the rest

Win tickets to San Francisco's Outside Lands music festival!

It's almost time for Outside Lands, the massive music festival in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. This year's festival, August 10-12, features the likes of Foo Fighters, Beck, Sigur Ros, Regina Spektor, Explosions in the Sky, Yacht, Tame Impala, Die Antwoord, Neil Young, Stevie Wonder, Franz Ferdinand, Norah Jones, Metallica, and dozens of other diverse acts. Wanna go? Our friends at Outside Lands provided a pair of 3-day tickets for the festival, a $450 value, to give to someone in the BB community. Here's how to win them:

Snap a photo that is quintessentially "summer." Then pick a song from one of this year's Outside Lands artists that epitomizes the image. (Or start with the song and then take the photo!) Next, post the image and the song title/artist to Instagram with the hashtag #OSLBOING. And if you're not into Instagram, you can post the image and song title/artist to Twitter using the #OSLBOING hashtag. Or if you really don't like either of those options, post the image and the song/artist to Flickr or anywhere else and link to it in the comments thread below. You have until 11:59pm PT on Tuesday (7/31). On Wednesday (8/1), I'll post our three favorites. Those three finalists will all receive Boing Boing t-shirts! And Friday (8/3), we'll announce the winner of the Outside Lands 3-Day Tickets! Please only one entry per person.

Good luck! Read the rest

More men join the ranks of Former Eagle Scout

On Monday, I published a letter from my husband, Christopher Baker, to the Boy Scouts of America. In that letter, Baker returned his hard-earned Eagle Scout award and explained that he no longer wanted to be associated with an organization that discriminated against gay teenagers and GBLT parents. By the end of the day, I'd posted six updates to that story—adding letters from other Eagle Scouts who had joined my husband in resigning from a fraternity they had loved and had worked incredibly hard to join.

The Boy Scouts of America is a private organization. The Supreme Court has said they have the right to discriminate. What these Eagle Scouts are saying is that legal precedent doesn't make the discrimination right. Overwhelmingly, they've said that it makes them sad to see the organization that meant so much to them go against the very values of inclusion that it taught them as children. As Baker wrote, "banning openly gay scouts and leaders is not a neutral position any more than separate-but-equal was a neutral position on race."

Yesterday, I received more letters from other Eagle Scouts who want the Boy Scouts of America to know how disappointed they are, and that they choose to stand with the persecuted rather than with the people doing the persecuting. In this post, you can read inspiring words from 13 Eagle Scouts who asked that I share their letters. In most cases, I've included a photo of the letter, and quoted text for easy reading. Read the rest

The wonder of small things

From a public perspective, biology in the oceans, like biology on the land, tends to favor the charismatic megafauna. Stop by your local aquarium and you'll find masses huddled around the seal pool or the shark tank. People will even attempt to interact with the octopodes. Meanwhile, smaller creatures sit on the sidelines. Crabs, starfish, and ray-like skates have some admirers at the touch tanks. But in the world of small things, they're actually quite large. The ocean is full of even tinier organisms—worms and snails, small shelled animals and even stationary colonies of life that look like rocks or lumps of sand.

The ocean is an amazing place, and Bill Grossman can tell you about the things that live there—large, small, or tiny. Grossman is specimen collector for the Marine Biological Laboratory. Essentially, he's part of a system of support staff for scientists. When researchers at MBL need sea creatures to study, it's people like Grossman who go out on the water and find them.

Back in May, I got to take a short trip aboard the R/V Gemma, MBL's specimen collection boat. The videos I brought back can teach you some amazing things about animals you thought you knew well, and introduce you to creatures you probably never noticed before. Read the rest

Gunman kills at least 12 in movie theater at "The Dark Knight Rises" screening in Aurora, Colorado

A Colorado gunman walked into a 12:30 a.m. showing of the The Dark Knight Rises, tossed a gas can into the crowd, then began shooting. At least 12 are dead, according to reports, with another 50 hurt.

The police took him into custody and are searching for explosives at his apartment. Redditor iteg3r collated an exhaustive timeline based on local police scanner broadcasts, tweets, and TV bulletins as the night unfolded.

In claimed video of the aftermath (right), a bloodied patron is seen leaving the theater amid confusion and chaos.

Update (830am ET): Local Colorado news provider has a live stream of coverage that's more informative and watchable than what the US cable news networks are doing.

At least 12 have been killed, and at least 38 are confirmed wounded, according to Colorado law enforcement. Victims include a 3-month-old baby. The shooter, according to eyewitnesses speaking to local TV news reports, ran in to the theater, lit a "gas can," shot into the ceiling, then into the crowd.

President Obama, Vice President Biden, and the First Lady have cancelled presidential campaign activities today. Obama: "This is a day of prayer and reflection for the victims."

A suspect is in custody: James Holmes, a 24yo white male who is said to have been wearing a gas mask, a bulletproof vest. According to law enforcement, at least four types of guns were used in the shooting, including an "AK-type" assault rifle, a shotgun, and two handguns. The suspect also used a canister of what is presumed to have been tear gas. Read the rest

Defunded - a heartbreaking look at the state of oceanic research

This week, I'm reporting from the Aquarius undersea research base in Key Largo, Florida. The habitat is the world's last undersea research base. Because NOAA is pulling funding from the 22 year old facility in September, this week's mission is its last scheduled one.

This is a video of oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle that was taken a day or two ago. She's being filmed on Aquarius a Red Camera that is in a waterproof housing tethered to an internet connection in the base. Sylvia's helmet, which is a custom variation of a helmet that working divers use, is equipped with a point of view camera and audio comms. The entire thing was streamed over Ustream a few days ago. This section of the video is of her answering the broad and simple question--Why should we care about the ocean? Read the rest

Kathe Koja's The Cipher, brilliant horror novel, back as an ebook

I've mentioned Kathe Koja's fantastic, erotic, terrifying debut novel The Cipher before, and celebrated her recent return to horror after a long stint of writing amazing YA novels.

Now I'm delighted to report that The Cipher is back in print as a $3.99 DRM-free ebook, thanks to the good folks at Roadswell, a new ebook imprint.

The Cipher Read the rest

Full Body Burden: Memoir about family secrets, government secrets, and the risks of industrial pollution

Image: A worker at Rocky Flats handles a piece of plutonium using gloves built into a sealed box. The plutonium was bound for the innards of a nuclear bomb. National Archives via Wikipedia.

Kristen Iversen grew up in the shadow of two big secrets. The first was private. Her father was an alcoholic, and his problem grew bigger and harder to ignore or hide as Iversen got older. But the other secret didn't belong to just her and her family. Instead, it encompassed whole Colorado communities, two major corporations, and the US government.

Iversen grew up near Rocky Flats, a nuclear weapons plant near Denver. In much the same way as Iversen's family related to her father's alcoholism, Rocky Flats presented risks that nearly everyone involved preferred to ignore or cover up. In fact, years after several public exposes had made it very clear that Rocky Flats made nuclear bombs and that the corporate and government entities that ran the facility had cut corners and allowed massive amounts of plutonium to escape into the surrounding environment, people who lived in Iversen's neighborhood near the plant still refused to give up their long-held belief that it produced nothing more than Scrubbing Bubbles and dishwashing detergent.

Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats is memoir—albeit one that captures documented history as well as a family's private struggles. It's not really meant to be a book about science. But I think it's a powerful, well-written memoir that science buffs should read. Read the rest

Breaking Bad Season 5: Xeni air-drops into the best viewing party in the world, in ABQ (video)

[Video Link: Our episode recap and review, with a room full of ABQ locals.]

My aviator boyfriend Miles O'Brien and I are flying in his plane from California to the east coast this week, before I start 6 weeks of radiation treatment for breast cancer. When you fly in a single-engine plane like his, you have to stop every 4 hours or so for fuel. When we woke up Sunday, the day the first episode of the new season of AMC's BREAKING BAD would air, we thought: hey, why not plan today's stop in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the show is based? And why not try to find some fellow fans, and invite ourselves into a ABQ BrBa premiere viewing party tonight?

So we did. I put out the call on Twitter, and hours later, a fellow fan in ABQ named Shanna Schultz tweeted back, come on over.

"Booze-wise we're making an asston of blue jungle juice in honor of the blue meth," Shanna said, "plus we'll be grilling."

Read the rest

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