• Social networks are roach motels

    Here's Cory Doctorow on the legally-backed technical interoperability barriers that social networks use to maintain and enforce their walled gardens: "we focus too much on network effects, and not enough on switching costs."

    New proposals from the UK Competition and Markets Authority, as well as the EU's Digital Services and Digital Markets Act and the US ACCESS Act of 2020, all contemplate some form of interoperability mandate – forcing the dominant platforms to open up the APIs they already use to let various parts of their own business talk to one another. These mandates are a great floor under interoperability, but they can't be the ceiling. That's because they would be easy for big companies to subvert: if a lawmaker forces you to open a specific conduit to your competition, then you can respond by moving all the interesting data away from that conduit. You're still providing a jack that competitors can plug into, but you've moved all the important stuff to another jack.

    A network effect is just a switching cost with a TED Talk.

  • The fascinating free speech history of American license plates

    You know how US states have "official birds" and "official trees" and other arbitrary "official [insert thing]" accolades, which are mostly just meaningless marketing tactics? As the podcast 99% Invisible explained in a recent episode, the same is true for license plates.

    The rise of the road trip in the 1920s created a huge new tourist market. People on the road needed services that hadn't existed in the age of steam-powered travel. Gas stations, food, roadside motels — from the states' perspectives, all those new tourist dollars were up for grabs. States began letting the world know what they had to offer. Arizona had the Grand Canyon. Minnesota had its lakes. In this war for tourists, states promoted themselves anywhere they could, but no one thought to advertise on a license plate until 1928 when Idahoans realized that their plates were too valuable to waste on just a registration number.

    Idaho's potato plates centered on agriculture, rather than tourism. But still, Rick Just says once Idaho staked its "starchy flag" on the license plate, the rush was on. "License plates became a different thing because of that potato." States spent the middle of the century transforming their plates from austere government documents into colorful boosters of tourism and industry. In 1940, Arizona stamped "Grand Canyon State" on its plates and never looked back. In 1950 Minnesota went with 'Land of 10,000 Lakes." Some states went with a classic slogan and stuck with it, like New York's "Empire State." Other states couldn't make up their minds.

    But this tourism marketing tactic also opened up a whole new can of worms around free speech issues. In the famously libertarian state of New Hampshire in the 1970s, a Jehovah's Witness named George Maynard took a religious issue with the state's "Live Free or Die" slogan — which was of course displayed on his license plate.

    As a Jehovah's Witness, Maynard actually believed that god-given life was more important than freedom and he didn't appreciate the government telling him what to die over. So Maynard covered the slogan up with some tape. But when he erased the state's message, George Maynard marched to the front lines of the license plate wars.

    Covering up the slogan was a violation of state law, and one day Maynard and his wife were coming back to their car after doing some shopping, and they saw a police officer writing them a ticket. Maynard refused to pay the $25 ticket and also kept the tape over the slogan. The tickets piled up. Finally, his consistent refusal to pay them landed him in court. The judge ended up putting him in jail for fifteen days, "And so if you don't want to live free or die, you go to jail in New Hampshire," says Maynard.

    And, like most things in America, the free speech battle over license plates would later boil to a new conflict relating to … Confederate flags and racism. In Texas, of all places, where a legal battle came down to the question of: what right does a government registration display have to express moral positions on other peoples' properties?

    All in all: it's a fascinating episode, about two seemingly disparate issues that I had personally never though about before.

    Episode 434: Artistic License [99% Invisible]

    Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  • This optical illusion area rug will shred your room's space-time continuum (it won't)

    There are area rugs that tie together a space. There are area rugs that offer a unique aesthetic to give a room a different look or feel. Then there are area rugs that do both of those things while also filling in the Venn diagram of supremely messing with your mind. And you better be ready. Because this 3D Bottomless Hole Optical Illusion Area Rug is a serious trip, man.

    If you need an area rug, but demand a piece with your quirky sense of humor and unusual sense of room decor, then this round 24×24-inch head-scratcher is probably right in your wheelhouse.

    The rug itself is crafted from polyester fiber that's hard-wearing, stain-resistant, and long-lasting. It sports a high-density space elastic cotton interlayer that absorbs water, is soft and fluffy to the touch, and doesn't fade during washing. And it's constructed with a high-density memory foam, which can actually help alleviate foot pressure. 

    Those are all the standard traditional reasons to buy a rug. And make no mistake, those reasons are not unimportant, but c'mon. Let's get to the point here. The reason you want and need this rug is to seriously freak your peeps out!

    You know it's a rug. Your visitors know it's a rug. But your brain is telling you this black and white circle is actually a portal straight down, an optical illusion of bold monochromatic patterns that makes you feel like edging even slightly too close to the edge of this rug is a one-way ticket down. Way down.

    Worst case scenario: this rug is a light chuckle at its cheeky humor. Best case scenario: somebody actually gets unnerved and fears a very real fall. And if you're in the position to unleash that kind of emotional uncertainty from just a 2 foot-diameter area rug, you've pretty much got to go all-in on that, right?

    You can unnerve anyone and everyone with this 3D Bottomless Hole Optical Illusion Area Rug now and even save more than a few bucks. Regularly $49, this conversation starter is now 67 percent off, or just $15.95. Admit it…you know you want to.

    Prices subject to change.

  • CDC recommends pause in Johnson & Johnson vaccine use after six blood clot reports

    The Centers for Disease Control today proposed a pause in the use of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson Covid vaccine, following six reports of blood clots. One person died, reports the New York Times, of the seven million who have so far received the J&J vaccine in the U.S.

    "We are recommending a pause in the use of this vaccine out of an abundance of caution," Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, and Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the C.D.C., said in a joint statement. "Right now, these adverse events appear to be extremely rare."

    Similar reports have beset the AstraZeneca jab in Europe.

    Out of 34 million people who received the vaccine in Britain, the European Union and three other countries, 222 experienced blood clots that were linked with a low level of platelets.

    It seems this spring's pile of unvaccinated corpses is going to be a lot bigger than the pile of blood clot corpses. I wish the decisionmakers here were not subject to constant armchair interference from politicians and pundits.

  • A new audio anthology of free horror stories from Tor Nightfire

    In October 2019, acclaimed sci-fi/fantasy publisher Tor released an audio anthology of 35 short stories to celebrate the launch of its new horror imprint, Nightfire.

    And now, they've done again — though unlike last year's anthology, this one is available through more services than just Google Play. Here's the official blurb for it:

    Come Join Us by the Fire Season 2 is the second installment of Nightfire's audio horror anthology, featuring a wide collection of short stories from emerging voices in the horror genre as well as longtime fan favorites. The collection showcases the breadth of talent writing in the horror genre today, with contributions from a wide range of genre luminaries like Seanan McGuire, T. Kingfisher, and Caitlín R. Kiernan; it includes stories from Nightfire's own Cassandra Khaw (Nothing But Blackened Teeth) and Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Certain Dark Things); and from rising stars like Nibedita Sen, Matthew Lyons, and Jessica Guess. Plus, it has Nick Antosca's "The Quiet Boy," soon to be a major motion picture, Antlers, starring Keri Russell.

    You can listen for free via Apple, Google Play, Kobo, Libro.fm, or Spotify.

    Come Join Us By The Fire, Season 2 [Tor / Nightfire]

    Image: Public Domain via PxHere

  • Meet the man who spent 2 years on house arrest after suing an oil company.

    I first heard the story of Steven Donziger on the fifth season Amy Westervelt's brilliant true crime climate change podcast Drilled! But Esquire also recently published an excellent story about him as well. As of that article's publication, he'd been under house arrest for 590 days after being slapped with an ankle bracelet for the civil misdemeanor of … not turning his laptop over to a corporation he'd defeated in court, because it would be a violation of attorney-client privilege.

    Doniger had represented a group of Indigenous peoples and rural farmers in Ecuador in a lawsuit against Texaco, who was accused of dumping some 16 billion gallons of toxic waste in what would become known as the "Amazon Chernobyl." That lawsuit began in 1993, and after being bounced between US and Ecuadorian courts, as well as dealing with the acquisition of Texaco by its now-parent company of Chevron, the plaintiffs represented by Donziger won the case, forcing Chevron to pay a $9.8 billion dollar settlement.

    So how did he go from kicking some corporate oil lobby ass, to spending 2 years on house arrest? Well, Chevron retaliated by suing Doniger for a non-criminal violation the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. And then, as Drilled News succinctly summarizes:

    As part of a 2014 judgement against him, Donziger was barred from profiting from the collection of the damages in the Ecuadorian judgement. When Chevron suspected him of breaking that ban, the firm asked the court to investigate, and Donziger was asked to hand over his computer and cell phone to the court, along with any communications related to the case.

    When Donziger refused, arguing that the request violated attorney-client privilege and potentially endangered the Ecuadorian plaintiffs, Judge Kaplan charged him with criminal contempt.

    In August 2019, Judge Preska ruled that Donziger, a husband and father who has lived in New York for decades, was a flight risk, placed him under house arrest and ordered him to post an $800,000 bond and surrender his passport.

    If you want to know just how deep the corruption goes, Esquire has you covered:

    Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, a former corporate lawyer whose clients included tobacco companies, became Donziger's judge-and-jury in the RICO case. He heard from 31 witnesses, but based his ruling in significant part on the testimony of Albert Guerra, a former Ecuadorian judge whom Chevron relocated to the U.S. at an overall cost of $2 million. Guerra alleged there was a bribe involved in the Ecuadorian court's judgement against Chevron. He has since retracted some of his testimony, admitting it was false. 

    But Kaplan, who refused to look at the scientific evidence in the original case, ruled the initial verdict was the result of fraud. And he didn't stop there. He ordered Donziger to pay millions in attorneys fees to Chevron and eventually ordered him to turn over decades of client communications, even going after his phone and computer. Donziger considered this a threat to attorney-client privilege and appealed the ruling, but while that appeal was pending, Kaplan slapped him with a contempt of court charge for refusing to give up the devices. When the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York declined to prosecute the case, Kaplan took the extraordinary step of appointing a private law firm to prosecute Donziger in the name of the U.S. government. The firm, Seward & Kissel, has had a number of oil-and-gas clients, including, in 2018… Chevron. Kaplan bypassed the usual random case-assignment procedure of the federal judiciary and handpicked a judge to hear the contempt case: Loretta Preska, a member of the Federalist Society, among whose major donors is… Chevron. Preska has, like Kaplan, rejected Donziger's requests to have his trial heard by a jury of his peers. Both judges declined Esquire's request for comment on Donziger's cases, citing court policy.

    And that's just part of the story. Check out Esquire or Drilled! for the rest, if your blood pressure has a high enough tolerance for such high levels of corrupt corporate fuckery.

    'I've Been Targeted With Probably the Most Vicious Corporate Counterattack in American History' [Jack Holmes / Esquire]

    Drilled, Season 5, Episode 1: Lockdown [Amy Westervelt]

    Oil Industry Links In Donziger Contempt Trial [Karen Savage / Drilled News]

    Image: Cancillería Ecuador / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

  • Get help identifying that mystery plant you bought at the hardware store

    During the pandemic I needed to fill my life with something productive and, hopefully, enriching. I chose plants. Succulents, mostly. Crassulas, echeverias, gasterias, haworthias, strings of pearls and dolphins and coins. Most of the time, I'd get a handy label on the plastic pot describing the plant's name and needs. Other times, when I'd spot something especially spiky and technicolored at the dollar store, I wouldn't.

    Titles like "Asst. Succulent", "Asst. Indoor Plant", and "Asst. Green Foliage" don't exactly provide much in the way of plant care tips. Instead of spending half an hour trying to narrow down leaf shapes; shades of green, purple, and orange; rosette structures; and on and on and on (and still not finding exactly when I'm looking for), I can snap a picture or two and ask for help on r/whatsthisplant.

    If you're looking for something you found on a hike, a plant you saw on a meme somewhere, or an interesting cluster of berries your friend on the other side of the world picked up from a farmer's market, you'll almost inevitably find out what it's called, its scientific name, if you can eat it, and how to take care of it (if you plan on taking it home with you).

    With nearly 500,000 subscribers, r/whatsthisplant is heaving with actual botanists, along with casual (and not so casual) plant lovers and caretakers.

    Whether you're searching for something you found in the trash, or some leaves you found in a 100 year old Norwegian Bible, or some "wild coronavirus", you'll find out if you can (or should) take care of it.

  • Pro golfer Rory McIlroy pelts his own father with sensational shot at The Masters

    Rory McIlroy hit the thing he aimed for: his dad. Gerry, the elder McIlroy, was positioned near the 7th green at The Masters in Augusta, GA when the younger's golf ball struck him in the leg. Without knowing that the man Rory was aiming at was his own father, he used him as a good sight guide on his approach to the green. Hitting him was unlikely but sometimes in golf everything comes together and you hit the perfect shot…that you really didn't want to hit. And for that shot to hit his dad was extra unlikely.

    via Yahoo!:

    Rory even joked about the incident when he was asked about it after he finished his round.

    "I think he just needs to go and put some ice on," Rory quipped. "Maybe I'll autograph a bag of frozen peas for him."

  • Apollo Neuro teaches your body how to battle stress on its own

    There's a silent killer that might be even more insidious than diseases, viruses, and other health conditions. It contributes to all of those more headline-grabbing ravagers, not to mention hundreds more. In fact, the American Psychological Association says it's directly linked to all six of the leading causes of death. It plays its part, yet it's never listed as the primary cause of anyone's passing.

    It's stress. And while its impact on global health is unquestionably massive, the true scope of its role is maddeningly intangible. We know it affects us all and helps to kill thousands. Yet, our ability to measure its impact and fight it are still frustratingly limited.

    Most health wearables are equipped to monitor body readings that can give you a broad indication of your typical stress level. Apollo Neuro is the wearable device that goes a step further, actually training your body to actively combat stress in the moments you need it most.

    The brainchild of a pair of University of Pittsburgh neuroscientists, Apollo Neuro is keyed into inaudible low frequency sound waves and the massive role they play in addressing stress and the human body's natural "fight or flight" sympathetic nervous response.

    Apollo's scientifically proven technology engages with your sense of touch to improve heart rate variability (HRV). A chronic stress indicator, HRV elevates when you're triggered, setting your nervous system into fight-or-flight mode, which also impairs your body's ability to calm down and think straight in heightened moments of anxiety.

    Apollo Neuro trains your body to fight this rise with those low frequency sound waves, restoring balance by sending gentle vibrations through your body to flip "fight-or-flight" reactions into their natural "rest-and- digest" counterbalance, known as a parasympathetic nervous response. These vibrations are recognized by the body as calming and grounding, generating the same reaction your body feels when someone hugs you during a rough time.

    Apollo Neuro works in tandem with a mobile app, with goal-oriented modes like Sleep and Renew, Clear and Focused, Relax and Unwind, Meditation and Mindfulness, and more. Just wear it on your wrist or ankle and use the Apollo app to choose how you'd like to feel. 

    While Apollo Neuro offers that in-the-moment relief from the effects of rising, even crippling stress episodes, its most important impacts may actually come from its long-term use. Once your body becomes accustomed to the effects Apollo Neuro unleashes, it can actually start training your body to trigger those calming sensations on its own. So the more you use Apollo Neuro, the more effective it becomes.

    Apollo Neuro is a perfectly calibrated tool for those who want to take control of their mental health, from severe chronic stress, trauma, PTSD, ADHD, insomnia, or other stress-related conditions.

    Right now, you can enjoy all the calming effects of the Apollo Neuro and save 10 percent off your purchase.

  • Create, edit, and merge PDF files for $30 with this top-rated PDF editing app

    It's among the most popular digital file formats in the world. In fact, its creator Adobe figures there are now over 2.5 trillion PDF documents floating around out there. And at times, it's probably felt like you've had to deal with every single one of them.

    Make no mistake. PDFs are so common because they're very good at what they do. Unlike other formats, PDFs retain formatting and are widely readable while still maintaining a relatively small, portable file size. But unlike editing other popular text documents, if you've ever tried to make even simple changes to a PDF without proper PDF software… Well, it probably didn't go so well.

    Thankfully, Ashampoo PDF Pro 2 is built to help. It's a software tool that gives users all the control they need for reading, editing, and sharing information in PDF files.

    German-based Ashampoo has been making popular software programs since the 1990s — and PDF Pro 2 is one of their most popular with more than 20 million worldwide users. With PDF Pro 2, users can modify basically everything in a PDF from simple text to images to web links with absolute ease. Text changes happen just like editing a Microsoft Word document. Open images are editable in place with the external image editor. And there's even a new window for even faster access to some of the most common editing areas like the letter, line, and paragraph settings.

    Meanwhile, the customization options are made to excite any regular PDF creator. From creating interactive forms and comparing PDFs to numbering pages, finding and replacing text or colors, converting documents, or even using encryption to fully protect your documents, PDF Pro 2 is on it.

    Users can fill out PDF forms with interactive fields, convert PDFs into a handful of other popular file formats, merge several documents into one PDF, or split a single PDF into a handful of separate documents. It even has an auto-repair feature to fix problems before they become problems, which could be part of why sites like Tech2Blog give PDR Pro 2 a perfect 5 out of 5-star review.

    Regularly $69, you can pick up Ashampoo PDF Pro 2 now for almost 60 percent off, down to only $29.99.

    Prices subject to change.

  • This 8-piece Homgeek knife set is the perfect kit for a formative kitchen

    Maybe you're moving into a new place and you're ready to start making more than microwave burritos and frozen pizzas for dinner. Or perhaps you know someone striking out on their own and starting up their own first kitchen. In either case, that budding chef needs a quality blade. Or more accurately, they need a set of quality blades crafted to handle all their culinary adventures.

    The Homgeek 8-Piece Knife Set with Block is the perfect starter kitchen kit, a forceful collection of cutlery that is ready to take on any meal prep task and handle it gracefully. 

    Assembled by young upstart home brand Homgeek, this set is a quality centerpiece for any burgeoning kitchen. Along with 8-inch chef's, slicing, and bread knives, the collection also features a 5-inch utility knife, a 3.5-inch paring knife, kitchen scissors, and an 8-inch sharpening steel, all housed in an attractive and durable oak woodblock.

    Each blade is forged from German-crafted stainless steel containing 15 percent chromium, which helps these knives withstand the effects of corrosion or oxidation over time. Meanwhile, each knife edge gets some premium attention as well, hand polished and edged to a 14 to 16-degree edge on each side with precision tampering.

    All that attention to detail actually makes this set even better for starter cooks; they're ultra-sharp to avoid the dulling that can ultimately lead to kitchen accidents if a chef isn't careful. Meanwhile, the full-tang ergonomically designed handle is triple-riveted for better balance, comfort, and confidence in handling, even during long kitchen sessions.

    And thanks to this wide assortment of blades and cuts, there's always an instrument especially suited to the kitchen task at hand. From forceful meat cutting or fruit chopping to more methodically dicing and slicing of everything from hard-crusted bread to soft cheeses, this set includes a knife ready to handle your business.

    Even the block itself is outfitted with rubberized feet to avoid skidding and shifting so users can enjoy one of the safest, most sensible knife sets around anywhere. 

    The Homgeek 8-Piece Knife Set with Block is a $69 value, but right now, you can save almost 40 percent off your purchase and get the entire set for just $42.95.

    Prices subject to change.

  • For the last 54 weeks, The Rocky Horror Picture Show played in this empty theater every Saturday night

    For 43 years, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has played every Saturday night at Portland's Clinton Street Theater. The pandemic forced the theater to shut the doors, but the movie still played, for 54 weeks, to an almost entirely empty house. Running the projector, and occasionally accompanied by a friend, was Nathan Williams, the host of the theater's regular Rocky Horror showings. From The Oregonian:

    "I watched it alone. I watched it during the snowstorm," said Williams, who serves as emcee for the theater's "Rocky" nights. "I was in a position to keep a flame burning, to keep a torch lit.

    "I'm just a guy holding a torch for the city of Portland, for all the weirdos, for all the people who don't have a safe place to call home, we're home […]

    Since 1987, members of the Clinton Street Cabaret have acted out "Rocky" on a stage below the screen at the Clinton Street Theater, mimicking the film in what's called a shadow cast.

    "'Rocky' has always been a place for the weird, quiet kid and the loud extrovert and the person who's just looking for something fun to do and the theater kids and LGBTQ kids," said Loren Thompson, the current president of the cabaret. "It's where all the misfits come to find family."

    The Clinton Street Theater has re-opened at limited capacity. Let's do the time warp again.

  • Zooming into the moon with the "world's sharpest" tele lens

    Enjoy Markus Stark's zoomy video of the moon, shot with a Leica 400mm F2.8 lens (about $10k, used) attached to a Panasonic GH4 with 1.4x, 2x, and 2x Leica APO focus module extenders. [via Leica Rumors]

    The video clips were filmed in August 2015 at only 290m above sea level (camping side in Germany). Some zooming in and out and spinning in post-production with Magix VDL 2016. Panasonic GH4 and a modified Leica 2.8/400mm + 1.4x + 2x + 2x Leica Apo Extender. I wanted to make the viewer feel like observing the moon from a spacecraft. I made some tests with a "Siemens Star" this summer, resolution = 1mm at 480m (0.43 arcsec)! This means 1200 lines/mm, of course wide open!