The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'unintended consequences'
Fifty years ago, the governor of Indiana received an obscenity complaint about the (all but incomprehensible) lyrics of a rock'n'roll song, “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen, which he passed to the FBI. Before they could prosecute those involved, they were faced with the problem of determining what the lyrics (which had been derived from a calypso number from 1957, originally in a cod Caribbean patois, but rendered incomprehensible by the braces worn by the Kingsmen's lead singer) actually meant, and prove that it was actually obscene; and so began an exhaustive investigation, in which the valiant G-men strove, with McCarthyite zeal, to uncover the sinister plot against America's youth by deciphering exactly what kind of filth the lyrics might be:
The subsequent report on the song – unearthed in 1984 by video producer Eric Predoehl – runs for more than 140 pages. The records of the FBI's various attempts to work out the exact kind of obscenities that Louie Louie supposedly contained make for fantastic, demented reading. You can picture agents slowly going nuts as they desperately struggle to pin something, anything, dirty on the lyrics, regardless of whether or not that something makes any sense or actually features in the lyric. "Oh my bed and I lay her there, I meet a rose in her hair," suggested one interpretation. "We'll fuck your girl and by the way," offered another, failing to answer the fairly obvious question this provoked: what, exactly, is by the way? Some of the interpretations were quite lyrical – "Hey Señorita, I'm hot as hell" – although others were not: "Get that broad out of here!"One ad-hoc translator thought it was about masturbation: "Every night and day I play with my thing." Another particularly creative agent seemed to think it centered around the subject of performing cunnilingus on a woman who was menstruating – "She's got a rag on, I'll move above" – which, with the best will in the world, seems a spectacularly improbable topic for any rock band, no matter how raunchy, to be addressing in 1963. Another, more creative still, seems to have actually invented a perversion to fit the garbled vocals: "I felt my bone … ah … in her hair."
In fact, the bureau's persistence says less about the Kingsmen than the era in which it took place. Intriguingly, the concerned letters about Louie Louie and the start of the FBI's investigation coincide with the Beatles' arrival in the US: I Want To Hold Your Hand began its seven-week run at No 1 on 7 February, their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show – watched by 73 million people and considered a seismic event in US pop culture – came two days later. These days, we tend to think of the moptop-era Beatles as uncomplicated, unthreatening and universally adored, but to a certain kind of reactionary mind, the Beatles were anything but uncomplicated and unthreatening. Their very appearance marked them out as unfathomably strange and alien (in one extreme version of this response, far-right British politician John Tyndall, described the Beatles in 1963 as "effeminate oddities … looking for all the world like the members of some primitive African tribe", before accusing them of ushering an era of "weirdness in the male type"). Furthermore, after several years in which rock'n'roll appeared to have been entirely denuded of its provocative power – its initial rawness streamlined and diluted with parent-friendly intimations of pre-rock pop by Bobby Darin, Paul Anka, Bobby Rydell et al – you only had to look at the reaction the Beatles were getting to know that rock'n'roll was suddenly an incredibly potent force once more.The investigation failed to produce anything more than paranoid fancy, but did have the unintended consequence of transforming an incomprehensible, otherwise forgettable rock'n'roll ditty—one which would have almost certainly been swept from history by the tide of Beatlemania months later—into an anthem of pure rock'n'roll rebellion by fiat, a sort of Necronomicon of the moral panics that spanned the gap from the McCarthy Red Scare to the Satanic panic of the Reagan years, its very lack of definition allowing interpreters to read their own demonologies of choice into it. And many, amongst them Iggy Pop, Henry Rollins and The Clash, did versions, filling in the blanks with mundane vulgarities of their own devising (and a few cribbed from the FBI report), to varying effects.
Another consequence of the Zuckerberg Doctrine, the belief that every person has one and only one identity which they use for all online social interactions: doctors in Britain are reporting an increase in infatuated patients pursuing them romantically via Facebook:
Figures compiled by the Medical Defence Union (MDU) show that the number of cases of doctors seeking its help because they are being pursued by a lovestruck patient rose from 73 in 2002-06 to 100 in 2007-11. Patients are increasingly using social media rather than letters or flowers to make their feelings clear, such as following a doctor on Twitter, "poking" them on Facebook or flirting with them online.
A female GP was asked out for a drink by a male patient as she left her surgery. When she declined, he began to pester her via Facebook and sent her a bunch of lilies, which she had listed as her favourite flowers on her Facebook page. On MDU advice, she changed her security and privacy settings on the site so that only chosen friends could view her postings.Of course, it is unreasonable to ask doctors (and, indeed, other public-facing professionals; teachers, police, social workers and legal aid workers come to mind) to delete their Facebook accounts and not use social software. For one, in this day and age, disconnecting from social software means virtual exile; Facebook refuseniks find themselves out of the loop, relying on the charity of friends with Facebook accounts and free time to keep them informed of everything from party invitations to when mutual friends friends had a baby, got divorced or moved abroad. And then there is the increasing public expectation that well-adjusted citizens have a Facebook profile, and one with normal activity patterns. Already there is talk about governments requiring citizens to log in with Facebook/Google identities to access services, so a normal Facebook record, with the requisite casual-though-not-debauched photos and history of social chatter is increasingly starting to look like a badge of good citizenship, well-adjustedness and general non-terroristicity. And having two accounts, one for your professional persona, and one for your personal life, is expressly verboten by orders of Mark Zuckerberg and Vic Gundotra, as mandated by the advertisers who demand accurate records of eyeballs sent their way and the shareholders who demand steady advertising revenue.
So now, by the immutable facts of neoliberal capitalism in the internet age, we have a world where people have only one face they present to the world, one with their wallet name, career record, list of friends and social activity attached. This face is visible to everyone from old friends to employers to any members of the public one has a professional duty of care to. Perhaps there's a Californian jeans-and-T-shirts casualness to forcibly unifying these facets; to not allowing a distinction between the uniform of professionalism one wears in one's career and the accoutrements of one's casual, personal life; to knowing that your doctor's favourite flower is the lily, your geography teacher was in a moderately well-known math-rock band, or the police officer you reported your lost phone to is an Arsenal fan and known to his mates as Beans; though the downside of the casualisation of professional life is the professionalisation of casual life, a sort of Bay Area take on superlegitimacy. And while in Britain today, that may take the form of doctors self-censoring to avoid the possibility of obsessive patients, in parts of the US, where employers can fire workers for their political or personal views, sexual orientation or even sporting loyalties, the stakes are higher.
Whether the Zuckerberg Doctrine is the inescapable future, in which everyone is coerced into an endless, joyless social game of simulating a model citizen as if under the watchful eyes of an outsourced Stasi, however, is another question. Facebook's unquestionable hegemony is starting to show its first cracks. For now, it remains the default grapevine, the standard channel of social chatter; however, its declining share price seems to be pushing Facebook to more agressively monetise the relationships of its nominally captive audience, pushing more ads and sponsored stories, asking users to pay for their messages to be seen by their friends (whose feeds can only contain so many updates, after all, and there are commercial sponsors to compete with), and, the implication goes, throttling back how much unsponsored chatter a user sees. As this ratchets up, eventually people will notice that their friends' announcements and photos aren't making it to them but instead the fact that their friend ostensibly likes Toyota or Red Bull is and start tuning out. Then Facebook will decline, as MySpace and Friendster did before it, and something else will take its place.
Perhaps the best thing to hope for is that whatever fills the niche occupied by Facebook will be not so much a service but a decentralised system of independent services, each free to set its own terms and policies. They could be based on a protocol such as Tent or Diaspora*, and, as the servers interact, allow for great diversity; some servers will be free to use but spam your eyeballs with ads until they bleed, others will charge, say, $25 a year and offer ad-free unlimited hosting; some will have Zuckerbergian wallet-name policies, others will allow users to choose the pseudonyms of their choice (as, say, LiveJournal did back in the day, and community-oriented web forums often do), with some uptight silos only federating with others with wallet-name policies, and being seen by those outside of those as terminally square. And, of course, unlike on Facebook, there will be nothing stopping someone from having multiple accounts. Of course, there will be nothing preventing people from running their own silos, though any system which depends on people doing this will become a ghetto of deep geeks with UNIX beards who enjoy setting up such systems, to the exclusion of everyone else.
The Olympics are nigh upon London, and their shadow falls heavily over the people of the capital. The stadiums are going up in the East End and the unsightly poor are being cleansed to make way for residents with more disposable income. Further afield, signs of the mass spectacle are appearing all over London, as if dropped from Mount Olympus itself by the gods to the grateful mortals below. (The mortals are grateful and in good cheer because that is the law, and the penalties, both civil and criminal, for being off-message have been subtly explained; these Olympics are, ultimately, a very understatedly British take on the totalitarian mass spectacle that the modern Olympics' Fascist originators had in mind—not so much the iron fist in the velvet glove, as the iron fist in a glove of brightly coloured, vaguely hip-hop-styled plastic foam, shipped by the containerload from China.)
Now, it has emerged that the Ministry of Defence will be billeting surface-to-air missiles on the roofs of apartment buildings in East London; one journalist who lives in the area received a leaflet notifying him of this; the Ministry of Defence has confirmed that it is considering missile deployments.
Having surface-to-air missiles deployed to defend an urban environment is a somewhat sketchy proposition at best; should the missiles be fired, whatever they shoot down will cause a lot of damage when it hits the ground (and if they miss, they themselves will cause some damage). The Whitehouse, famously, has a SAM battery on the roof (Dick Cheney reportedly ordered it as a red-meat-conservative replacement for Bill Clinton's unacceptably liberal solar cells); the implicit message being that the lives of those inside the Whitehouse are worth trading the lives of those around it for. Whether this reasoning transfers from the Commander-in-Chief of the Free World to a stadium full of spectators at a corporate promotional event is another question. (The Queen, the head of state of Britain, does not have a SAM battery defending Buckingham Palace and threatening to send any rogue aircraft down in flames onto the posh digs of Belgravia.) Meanwhile, Charlie Stross extrapolates on the possible unintended consequences:
Hmm. It's a good thing I'm a novelist who dabbles in technothrillers, not a terrorist. If I was a terrorist I'd be licking my lips, trying to work out how to trigger a missile launch. Using a motor-powered model aircraft, free flight design (no radio controls to jam) aimed vaguely towards the Olympic stadium, with a nice radio beacon or some sort of infra-red source (a flare, perhaps) on its tail to make it easy to track? These missiles will be the close-in option, because we know the RAF will already be flying combat air patrols over London; they won't have much time to evaluate threats or respond intelligently. So launch from the back of a panel van, like the IRA mortar attacks on places like Heathrow or 10 Downing Street. The twist in the scheme would be to aim past the missile launchers along a vector that would attract a hail of hypervelocity missile launches in the direction of, say, a DLR station at rush hour.Meanwhile, Stephen Graham (professor of cities and society at Newcastle University, and author of Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism) has an article on the security lockdown being imposed on London for the Olympics, much of it to protect the brand image of corporate sponsors:
Beyond these security spectaculars, more stealthy changes are underway. New, punitive and potentially invasive laws such as the London Olympic Games Act 2006 are in force. These legitimise the use of force, potentially by private security companies, to proscribe Occupy-style protests. They also allow Olympic security personnel to deal forcibly with the display of any commercial material that is deemed to challenge the complete management of London as a "clean city" to be branded for the global TV audience wholly by prime corporate sponsors (including McDonald's, Visa and Dow Chemical).
The final point is how the security operations of Olympics have major long-term legacies for their host cities and nations. The security preoccupations of Olympics present unprecedented opportunities to push through highly elitist, authoritarian and speculative urban planning efforts that otherwise would be much more heavily contested – especially in democracies. These often work to "purify" or "cleanse" diverse and messy realities of city life and portray existing places as "waste" or "derelict" spaces to be transformed by mysterious "trickle-down effects". The scale and nature of evictions and the clearance of streets of those deemed not to befit such events can seem like systematic ethnic or social cleansing. To make way for the Beijing Games, 1.5 million were evicted; clearances of local businesses and residents in London, though more stealthy, have been marked.
Looking at these various points together shows one thing: contemporary Olympics are society on steroids. They exaggerate wider trends. Far removed from their notional or founding ideals, these events dramatically embody changes in the wider world: fast-increasing inequality, growing corporate power, the rise of the homeland security complex, and the shift toward much more authoritarian styles of governance utterly obsessed by the global gaze and prestige of media spectacles.The permanent legacy of the authoritarian measures in the Olympic enabling laws mandated by the IOC cannot be emphasised enough; in Sydney, for example, restrictions on civil liberties passed for the 2000 Olympics were used, years later, to crack down on protests against the Catholic Church's “World Youth Day”, and remain on the books to this day.
And some are saying that the levels of brand policing, imposing criminal sanctions on the display of non-sponsor logos (to say nothing of political protests) within an Olympic zone and severely restricting the use of words such as “London” and “2012” by non-sponsors, will have an adverse effect on the alleged economic benefits of the Olympics, which are touted as much much of the rationale for putting up with all this in the first place.
Finally, Charlie Brooker weighs in:
Oral-B's official Olympic toothbrush exists because its parent company, Procter & Gamble, has a sponsorship deal enabling it to associate all its products with the Games. That's why if you look up Viakal limescale remover on a supermarket website, the famous five interlocking rings pop up alongside it. This in no way cheapens the Olympic emblem, which traditionally symbolises global unity, peaceful competition and gleaming stainless steel shower baskets.
And more on unintended consequences: in the US state of Vermont, the decals on police cars are manufactured by prison labour. Now, it turns out, one creatively-inclined inmate has made a subtle, and unilateral, improvement to the state crest on the logo, by inserting the silhouette of a pig (hidden as a spot in the cow on the state logo):
"This is not as offensive as it would have been years ago. We can see the humor," Flynn said. He said the artist has talents that could be used elsewhere. "If that person had used some of that creativeness he or she would not have ended up inside."
In the 1930s, an African wild grass known as gamba grass was introduced to Australia as food for livestock, its attraction being that it grew quickly in the less than ideal Australian climate. Unfortunately, it was a little too good for its new environment, and started spreading rapidly, displacing native grasses, and growing too large for kangaroos or cattle to keep under control. Oh, and it also burned far more intensely than the native grasses. Now one ecologist has proposed a solution: introduce elephants and rhinoceri into Australia to keep it under control.
Australia, geographically isolated from much of the rest of the world's ecosystems, prides itself on its extremely stringent quarantine regime, as anybody who has ever taken anything made of wood or straw through an Australian airport will know, so the idea of introducing any new species (especially elephants) is bound to be controversial, to say the least. Professor David Bowman (the proponent of the scheme, not the astronaut in 2001) says that the elephants and rhinos wouldn't be allowed to roam freely and reproduce, but would serve as a carefully monitored "machine" for pruning the grass, with each being tracked with a GPS transmitter and otherwise meticulously accounted for. Other scientists, however, are sceptical about whether elephants are necessary or whether introducing them, even in a tightly controlled fashion, wouldn't lead to more unintended consequences.
High demand for cocaine in Europe + high prices due to drug prohibition + global trade downturn resulting in glut of cheap cargo jets + Venezuela not cooperating with the War On Drugs = drug cartels buying jumbo jets, packing them with cocaine, flying them to Europe and then torching them, because it makes economic sense:
Fuel and pilots were paid for through wire transfers, suitcases filled with cash and, in one case, a bag containing €260,000 (£220,000) left at a hotel bar. The gang hired a Russian crew to move a newly acquired plane from Moldova to Romania, and then to Guinea.
The gang had access to a private airfield in Guinea, was considering buying its own airport and had sent a team to explore whether it could send direct flights from Bolivia to West Africa, Valencia Arbelaez said in recorded conversations.
Melbourne now has a bike sharing scheme. It consists of rental bikes (apparently the Canadian model used in London, not the French Vélib), which are rentable from docking stations scattered around the CBD and immediately surrounding areas. (Melbourne University and the Docklands are covered, but the programme stops short of, say, Fitzroy, Richmond and such.) In other words, it's much like the systems in Paris and London, albeit with one crucial difference: it's actually illegal to use unless you happen to be in possession of a bike helmet. These are not supplied at the docking stations, and the police aggressively target those flouting Victoria's mandatory helmet laws.
The helmet laws have had an effect on takeup of the scheme: apparently only 70 trips a day are being made on it, despite the 600 brand new bikes made available; i.e., the system is running at 0.5% capacity. The cycling lobby has been organising protests against the helmet laws; at one such protest, the police came out in force and fined everyone. The law is harsh, but it is the law.
It's not clear what the designers of the scheme were thinking; it's less than useful for tourists, who tend not to bring bike helmets with them or want to spend money on them. As for it being intended for long-term commuters, the fact that the bikes are all in the city centre makes that somewhat less than ideal. Anyway, unless the bike helmet laws are amended (and, with Australia being a car-centric society, this looks unlikely), it's likely that the scheme will be scrapped due to poor patronage. Meanwhile, those wishing to borrow a bike around the inner north may be well advised to go to the Little Creatures Dining Hall on Brunswick St. and borrow one of their fleet of Kronan fixies. They're free and come with helmets, though you'd want to get there early in the day as they tend to get snapped up quickly.
Police emergency phone lines in Manchester are being tied up by a nuisance caller who "chants, raps, sings, preaches and plays loud music" at the call handlers, often for five minutes at a time. The handlers are not allowed to hang up on a caller. The Greater Manchester Police have already blocked about 60 SIM cards he has called from, which has little effect; with cheap prepaid SIM cards, the mystery nuisance rapper seems to be making his way through the pool of unallocated mobile numbers:
During many of the calls, the operator answers the phone to be met with a barrage of music and rants. His rapping is difficult to decipher but during one call he started shouting about his citizen's rights.Greater Manchester Police have taken the unusual step of releasing a recording of one of his raps, in an attempt to track him down. Which could have unintended consequences; if that became standard practice, nuisance calls to emergency services could become the next bootleg grimetape distribution channel after MP3 blogs—you get your rap out, and are acknowledged as a police-certified badass at the same time.
Meanwhile, there's a small mystery of a less antisocial sort in Aberdeen, where the Google Street View van photographed a man with a horse's head.
Bitten by the "new media" bug, the Tories try their hand at this grass-roots web campaign thing, and launch a Web2.0-licious site, with the irreverently catchy title of "Cash Gordon". This site allows Tory supporters to earn "action points" by donating money or spreading the word. Unfortunately for the Tories, some people notice that it looks awfully familiar:
It turns out that Cash Gordon wasn't developed by David Cameron's bright-eyed web whiz-kids, but was a derivative of several web sites from the US Right, including sites against carbon taxes (see fig. 2), health care reform and gay rights, and for the right-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation.
The Tories' misfortune doesn't end there, however. In their haste to embrace the Web and be down with the kids these days, the Tories (or perhaps their American associates) decided to integrate the site with Twitter, and have it automatically display any tweets posted with the #cashgordon tag. It turns out that, in their haste, they didn't anticipate the possibility of basic cross-site scripting attacks, instead displaying HTML tags intact. And it was not long before unsympathetic parties were making the most of it, and potential Tory activists were being rickrolled and Goatse'd.
For what it's worth, Meg Pickard has a graphic of how events unfolded:
Boing Boing has a post on innovative ways of gaming airlines' pricing and air-miles schemes:
I love hanging out in airmile hacker forums -- these folks are insane. My favorite is the British Airways "Lisbon Loop." BA wants to court continental passengers, so trips overseas that originate from continental Europe are much cheaper. BA flight hackers claim that they buy a BA ticket that goes Lisbon-London-NYC-London-Lisbon, and a one-way cheap EasyJet ticket to Lisbon so they can board it. On the way home, they just get off in London, saving a bundle (you can't skip the Lisbon-London leg, or BA will cancel your tickets).The ostensible topic of the post is, alas, somewhat more prosaic: a way of getting free air miles by buying US dollar coins and using them to pay off the credit card bills (through a loophole which has now apparently been closed).
A number of social software systems give their users reputation/trust scores, which can be voted on by other users. This, however, is not without problems: when carelessly designed, the ability of users to vote down other users' reputations can lead to extortion rackets:
It didn't take long for a group calling itself the Sims Mafia to figure out how to use this mechanic to shake down new users when they arrived in the game. The dialog would go something like this:
"Hi! I see from your hub that you're new to the area. Give me all your Simoleans or my friends and I will make it impossible to rent a house.”
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm a member of the Sims Mafia, and we will all mark you as untrustworthy, turning your hub solid red (with no more room for green), and no one will play with you. You have five minutes to comply. If you think I'm kidding, look at your hub-three of us have already marked you red. Don't worry, we'll turn it green when you pay…"The solution to this is to keep positive and negative feedback separate, and have the latter go through moderators (who, presumably, will spot any shenanigans) before making it public.
(via Boing Boing)
Hospitals and prisons in the UK are removing alcohol-based hand sanitiser dispensers introduced during the swine flu pandemic because people are drinking the gel.
Doing its part to cope with the global obesity epidemic, the subway system in Sao Paolo, Brazil, has introduced double-width, reinforced seats for fat people:
The seats are bright blue and have stickers above them marking them out as special seats for the use of obese persons. Strangely enough, they seem almost always empty; presumably, a lot of those who can fit into a regular seat or can bear standing are not keen to self-identify themselves as severely overweight.
One wonders how facility planners could cater for a widening population without coming up against against stigma and denial. They could, of course, go back to flat benches without divisions, except that those allow homeless people to sleep on them, which is unacceptable for various reasons. (Not all people are sufficiently enlightened and compassionate to share their daily commute with the aromatically homeless, and if public transport facilities adopted a secondary role as a homeless shelter, this would drive out many of those who are sufficiently well-off to avoid public transport, putting more cars on the road, and resulting in the money spent on running the actual trains being wasted, but I digress.) Possibly some sort of design with all seats being double-width with a low-key, or movable, divider in the middle, would do the trick; though that could have the unintended consequence of encouraging amorous couples.
Unfortunately chosen brand name of the moment: Russian gas company Gazprom has recently launched a joint venture with the Nigerian gas firm NNPC. Unfortunately, the name they chose for their joint venture is Nigaz. Word.
I wonder whether the problem was caused by some Russian executive being unaware of pejorative words in English, or whether the name was deliberately chosen so that they can have a totally wicked gangsta-rap company anthem.
The latest weapon in Britain's ongoing war on its "out-of-control" youth: anti-teenager lighting. It's much like the violet anti-junky lighting often seen in public toilets and doorways, only it's tinted bright pink to simultaneously mock hormonal adolescent males' sense of masculinity and make their acne show up particularly vividly:
Meanwhile, the original anti-junky lights have been found to not only not work (ask any junky with a felt-tipped pen), but to also have unintended consequences:
Public toilets in Church Street, in Rugby town centre, were closed in February after a shocked cleaner discovered two people having sex inside. In a report to officers, Rugby borough council head of engineering and works David Johnson said the toilets were still suffering anti-social behaviour.
“The subdued lighting encourages an atmosphere conducive to sexual activity, while it is off-putting to the public wishing to use the facilities.
“Another problem is that graffiti written in certain pens looks spectacular under UV lighting.”
(via Boing Boing)
Paris's pioneering Vélib cycle rental scheme is under threat after it emerged that more than half of the bicycles have been stolen or destroyed, with more having been vandalised, and a few having been subjected to more surrealistic interventions:
Hung from lamp posts, dumped in the River Seine, torched and broken into pieces, maintaining the network is proving expensive. Some have turned up in eastern Europe and Africa, according to press reports.
The Velib bikes - the name is a contraction of velo (cycle) and liberte (freedom) - have also fallen victim to a craze known as "velib extreme". Various videos have appeared on YouTube showing riders taking the bikes down the steps in Montmartre, into metro stations and being tested on BMX courses.
Not all the bicycles receive rough treatment however. One velib repairman reported finding one of the bikes customised with fur covered tyres.
Britain's local councils and government departments have started to embrace web-based mapping technology, and using systems like Google Maps to display geographical information, from the locations of public toilets and recycling facilities to crime statistics. Of course, the Ordnance Survey, that troll under the bridge of UK geodata, doesn't like this one bit, and has started making threatening noises at local councils, warning them that they are prohibited from putting any data that has ever touched Ordnance Survey data on Google Maps. Of course, they might be willing to take a more agreeable line if the councils (and consequently, the taxpayers) paid them more to license the data (which was gathered using taxpayers' money, and subsequently privatised in line with Thatcherite-Blairite ideology) for web-based maps; in the meantime, they have offered the councils their own Google Maps substitute, which comes with its own poisonous licensing conditions:
The move also seems to block most of the winners of Cabinet Office's recently completed £80,000 Show Us A Better Way competition to find innovative ways to use government-held data. The winner of that competition, a site called Can I Recycle It?, would rely on locating local recycling centres - which OS could argue has been derived from its maps if a council keeps them with any sort of geographical referencing. The same would be true of another winner, Loofinder, which aims to make locations of public toilets available in a map online, just as described above.
Although OS issued a press release congratulating the competition winners and offering them "full access" to its Google Maps-like OpenSpace system - which has similar programmability - the OpenSpace licence limits the number of viewings allowed per day, and bans any use by business, central or local government. Furthermore, OS claims ownership of any data plotted on an OpenSpace-derived map. And the use of derived data would break its licence with authorities.However, this time this may have consequences the OS weren't anticipating; some councils are now making noises about buying a few GPS units and paying people to go around, collect coordinates of boundaries and facilities, and plug them into OpenStreetMap, essentially telling the Ordnance Survey to go jump.
A British scientist has come up with a bold solution to the environmental consequences of aviation: nuclear-powered airliners. Not only will they be able to fly around the world without a break, emitting no carbon whatsoever, but they could also be made safe. The nuclear engines would be on the wings in armoured casings, and could be jettisoned on parachutes in the event of the plane falling (and, presumably, the pilot giving up any hope of saving it). Should the casings rupture, the worst that could happen would be radioactive contamination over a mere few square miles. (Of course, there is also that, should terrorists blow up, shoot down or hijack one of these airliners, they'd have a most serviceable dirty bomb, though surely somebody would have thought of an answer to that. After all, they wouldn't suggest such an idea otherwise, would they?)
Despite these reassurances, Professor Ian Poll concedes that it would take about 30 years to convince the public of the benefits of nuclear aviation.
Faced with a wave of ostalgie, misty-eyed nostalgia for the fallen East German Communist regime, Germany's educational authorities have created a mockup of an East German classroom, in which school students would be subjected to the Communist experience. There they would be threatened with disciplinary action for wearing Western clothes, ordered to sing Communist marching songs and told of field trips to border guard regiments, by a "teacher" attired in authentic East German synthetic fabrics. One student would also volunteer in advance to play the child of dissidents, who would then be alternately criticised and ignored by the teachers. What the organisers hadn't planned on was that the whole thing would turn into a small-scale reenactment of the Stanford Prison Experiment, with dissident "Steffen"'s erstwhile classmates turning on him and joining in persecuting him like good cogs in the totalitarian machine:
The other pupils began to ostracise "Steffen" themselves and accused him of disrupting the class. Although they were encouraged to stand up against the system before the session, none of the pupils rallied to Steffen's support when he was told he could not visit the border-guard unit, or at any other time.
During these sessions Elke Urban models herself on Margot Honecker, the leader's wife who was also a hardline education minister. She said that only one group had dared to stand up and defend the dissident pupil during her classes. "I deliberately create a totalitarian atmosphere and I am still always shocked how quickly and easily people are conditioned by it," she said. "East Germany may have left a pile of Stasi files behind rather than a pile of corpses, but the similarities with the Nazi regime are there."
A piece by online communication expert Suw Charman-Anderson about how and why email is so dangerous to getting things done:
In a study last year, Dr Thomas Jackson of Loughborough University, England, found that it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after interruption by email (bit.ly/email2). So people who check their email every five minutes waste 8 1/2hours a week figuring out what they were doing moments before.The distractive (and some would say destructive) effects of email come down partly to the psychology of addiction and reinforcement:
Tom Stafford, a lecturer at the University of Sheffield, England, and co-author of the book Mind Hacks, believes that the same fundamental learning mechanisms that drive gambling addicts are also at work in email users. "Both slot machines and email follow something called a 'variable interval reinforcement schedule' which has been established as the way to train in the strongest habits," he says.
"This means that rather than reward an action every time it is performed, you reward it sometimes, but not in a predictable way. So with email, usually when I check it there is nothing interesting, but every so often there's something wonderful - an invite out or maybe some juicy gossip - and I get a reward." This is enough to make it difficult for us to resist checking email, even when we've only just looked. The obvious solution is to process email in batches, but this is difficult. One company delayed delivery by five minutes, but had so many complaints that they had to revert to instantaneous delivery. People knew that there were emails there and chafed at the bit to get hold of them.Things like weekly "no email days" don't work either, because they don't actually change people's compulsive email-checking habits. Charman-Anderson's article recommends other notification technologies, such as Twitter and RSS aggregators, as better alternatives.
On a similar tangent, one of the tips for getting more done in Tim Ferriss' The 4-Hour Work Week is a somewhat counterintuitive-sounding low-information diet; rather than binging on magazines, news, books, blogs, podcasts and such, he advocates cutting that out as much as possible, reasoning that we can get by on much less information than we habitually consume and still know enough, whilst having more time to actually do things. The holes in what we know will soon enough be filled by what we hear in smalltalk, learn from friends unavoidably see in front of the newspaper kiosk on the way to the shops. (Which sort of makes sense; think, for example, of the how much you know of the plots of various well-known movies you haven't seen or books you haven't read. Whether or not you've seen Star Wars or read Animal Farm (to cite two examples), you can probably come up with a summary of what they're about.)
One of the arguments for giving the Olympics to China—a contentious choice, 12 years after the crushing of the Tienanmen Square protests—was that such an event would force China to improve its human rights. Even while we couldn't expect China, a totalitarian state, to become a model nation in this respect, the argument went, surely the eyes of the world upon it would cause the situation to improve somewhat.
This argument has been shattered by a recent Amnesty International report, which finds that the Olympics have actually made things worse, with the Chinese authorities stepping up repression, censorship and arbitrary imprisonment and relocation to make sure that the games run smoothly.
The report says that Chinese activists have been locked up, people have been made homeless, journalists have been detained, websites blocked, and the use of labour camps and prison beatings has increased.
"We've seen a deterioration in human rights because of the Olympics," said Roseann Rife, a deputy programme director for Amnesty International.The authors of the Amnesty report have the extraordinary naïveté to suggest that this has "undermined" the "Olympic values" of human dignity. Surely the values that would go best with putting on a huge spectacle of commercialism and national chest-beating would be those of totalitarianism; making the trains run on time, crushing any uncomfortable dissent, and all, and China would be a more natural host than any liberal democracy which would be obliged to pass uncomfortable laws suspending civil liberties (as Sydney did in 2000; the laws, still on the books, have since come in handy for other mass spectacles, such as the Catholic Church's World Youth Day this year). Meanwhile, with the exception of a few granola-eaters and Guardian readers, the West doesn't care as long as they get their entertainment product shipped into their sitting rooms through the TV.
Perhaps when the location of the next Olympics is decided, the IOC should consider North Korea; after all, coordinating mass events with ruthless precision is one thing the Hermit Kingdom excels at.
Estrogen-like substances in toxic waste turn male fish female; now, it turns out, they turn male songbirds into super-smooth lotharios, capable of singing the songs that get them all the chicks, like a wave of avian Smoove Bs:
Accordingly, the polluted male starlings sang songs of exceptional length and complexity -- a birdsign of reproductive fitness. Female starlings preferred their songs to those of unexposed males, suggesting that the polluted birds could have a reproductive advantage, eventually spreading their genes through starling populations.(Today's word of the day is "birdsign". If you're an indie-folk songwriter, make a note of that one.)
(via Boing Boing)
Don't envy the super-rich, this article says; their wealth has almost certainly made them miserable:
According to de Vries, the super-rich are increasingly succumbing to what has been labelled Wealth Fatigue Syndrome (WFS). When money is available in near-limitless quantities, the victim sinks into a kind of inertia.
"The rich are never happy, no matter what they have," he told CNN. "There was this man who owned a 100ft yacht. I said: 'This is a terrific boat.' He said: 'Look down the harbour.' We looked down the marina, and there were boats two and three times as large. He said: 'My 100ft yacht today is like a dinghy compared to these other boats.' When else in history has someone been able to call a 100ft yacht a dinghy?"
Some of our friends have jumped from nice five-bedroom houses in South Kensington to gated mansions in St John's Wood, complete with hot and cold running staff. But many who join the super-rich find it hard to keep their old circles of support. Happiness studies have repeatedly shown that being marginally better off than your neighbours makes you feel good, but being a hundred times richer makes you feel worse. So either you change your friends or live with the envy of others.The article goes on to expound numerous other causes of wealth-induced misery: social support networks break down, as relationships with old friends are strained by the wealth disparity and poisoned by real or perceived envy; and all the cars, yachts and new houses your money can buy you just become boring much more quickly. (It's the hedonic treadmill effect, where one becomes acclimatised to one's level of comfort and contentment, it takes even more to not succumb to ennui.) Meanwhile, the wives of the super-rich (and most of the super-rich are men; presumably husbands of super-rich women or gay partners would suffer the same) suffer the same psychological consequences as the unemployed (that is, when they're not traded in for younger, prettier models), and their children, shuttled between nannies and estates, often end up clinically depressed.
The conclusion is that money can buy happiness — but only up to a point. A key component of happiness is social connectedness, of the sort that cannot be bought:
The happiest nations, he says, are those where people feel most equal, even if that means being less wealthy. Pentecost, a tiny island in the South Pacific, has recently been voted the happiest place on earth. They don't have WFS – in fact, they don't have money; they use pigs' horns instead.
In places such as Pentecost, people actually talk to each other – indeed, belonging to a community is one of the single most important prerequisites for happiness.
A study in Bath has shown that wearing a bicycle helmet may actually increase risk, as motorists give helmeted cyclists less room to manoeuvre.
If you want drivers to cut you more slack when you're cycling, however, the advice is dress as a woman (if you're not one already, that is):
His findings, published in the March 2007 issue of Accident Analysis & Prevention, state that when Walker wore a helmet drivers typically drove an average of 3.35 inches closer to his bike than when his noggin wasn't covered. But, if he wore a wig of long, brown locks -- appearing to be a woman from behind -- he was granted 2.2 inches more room to ride.
(via Boing Boing)
A chain of shops in Germany has had to destroy thousands of miniature Santa Claus figurines after customers complained that they appeared to be giving a Nazi salute:
"We were astonished by the reaction," Lange said. "It looks like he's just pointing up to the sky and we were surprised that anyone saw the so-called 'Hitler salute' in that. But we responded and had the entire inventory removed and destroyed."
Google Earth has given ordinary people easy access to satellite images of where they live. In Bahrain, this technology is proving disruptive, as ordinary Bahrainis visualise the glaring inequality between them and the aristocracy who own most of the land:
Opposition activists claim that 80 per cent of the island has been carved up between royals and other private landlords, while much of the rest of the population faces an acute housing shortage.
"Some of the palaces take up more space than three or four villages nearby and block access to the sea for fishermen. People knew this already. But they never saw it. All they saw were the surrounding walls," said Mr Yousif, who is seen in Bahrain as the grandfather of its blogging community.The house of al-Khalifa has responded by knocking down the walls of its palaces and handing the land over to the people.. whom am I kidding; they, of course, responded by configuring the national firewall (and every authoritarian regime should have one of those!) to block access to Google Earth. Which, given the number of internet-savvy Bahrainis, failed, and had the opposite effect, encouraging more people to look at this Google Earth thing.
For those with insufficient bandwidth to access Google Earth, a PDF file with dozens of downloaded images of royal estates has been circulated anonymously by e-mail. Mr Yousif, among others, initially encouraged web users to post images on photo-sharing websites.It'll be interesting to see what happens: whether this will result Bahrain's democratic reform programme to be accelerated, or result in violent unrest and a Nepalese-style crackdown.
(via Boing Boing)
A new study puts forward the argument that exposure to television in early childhood may trigger autism. The paper established correlations between autism rates and rates of early childhood TV viewing, and increases in autism in 3 US states with the growth of cable television in those states, and suggests that some children may be susceptible to autism but may not develop it unless exposed to environmental triggers, of which television viewing is one.
The US military has given the world a number of things: the internet, GPS, and now, it turns out, San Francisco's gay scene:
During World War II, the United States armed forces "sought out and dishonorably discharged" homosexuals. Many men who were expelled for being gay were processed at San Francisco bases.
This site agrees, stating San Francisco was indeed a point of departure during World War II. Gay men often stayed in the city after completing their military service. Since then, San Francisco's gay and lesbian population has continued to grow.
(via Boing Boing)
A funny thing has happened on social-network site Orkut: by some quirk of social network dynamics, Brazilian Portuguese speakers now outnumber English speakers 2 to 1, and the Anglophones are getting a sudden taste of what it's like to be in a marginalised linguistic minority:
"Orkut maps one's social prestige, and Brazilians are by nature gregarious," said Beth Saad, a professor at the University of Sao Paulo's School of Communications and Arts.
Tammy Soldaat, a Canadian, got a sample of Brazilian wrath recently when she posted a message asking whether her community site on body piercing should be exclusive to people who speak English. Brazilian Orkut users quickly labeled her a "nazi" and "xenophobe."
"Since we can invite anyone we want at Orkut, and my friends are Brazilians, it doesn't make sense talking to them in English," Reis said in Portuguese. "I use the language I know." His compatriot Pablo Miyazawa has a more moderate view. "Brazilians have the right to create anything they want in any language they want," Miyazawa said. "The problem is to invade forums with specific languages and write in Portuguese. Brazilians are still learning how to behave in the Net."
This posits a dilemma: if English is no longer the language of the majority on Orkut, what reasonable rationale could there be for asking Brazilian users to use English in non-Brazilian-specific forums, rather than asking English-speakers to learn Portuguese (the new majority language)? Not so much on one web site (where the management could, in theory, dictate the site's language) but on the internet at large. I wonder how long it will be until (American) English is displaced as the global language and Americans/Australians/Britons have to learn another language (be it Portuguese, Chinese or something else) to engage in the intellectual mainstream of internet discourse, or else become increasingly marginalised and ghettoised?
Old computers donated to third-world countries are having unforeseen impacts:
"On a trip I made to the Gambia last year I was amazed to see on of the roadside carpenters was doing a roaring trade making a range of contemporary Swedish style furniture," he said. "When I asked him where he got the idea, you've guessed it, he told me he'd seen it on the Ikea website."
An anti-pigeon programme involving trained hawks in a New York park has been suspended after one of the hawks swooped down and seized a chihuahua. As the owner of a cat who considers chihuahuas to be prey, I find this amusing. (via jwz)
Apparently Mattel's Harry Potter tie-in Nimbus 2000 broomstick, which vibrates when you ride it, is popular with kids of all ages.
When my 12 year old daughter asked for this for her birthday, I kind of wondered if she was too old for it, but she seems to LOVE it. Her friends love it too! They play for hours in her bedroom with this great toy. They really seem to like the special effects it offers (the sound effects and vibrating). My oldest daughter (17) really likes it too! I reccomend this for all children.
Via a lot of places. I wonder whether it's really as risqué as the comments make it out to be.
Wildlife experts are concerned that the Harry Potter fad may encourage children to keep owls as pets. Owls can be bought reasonably cheaply, but are not suitable household pets, requiring a lot of attention; as such, we may soon see a plague of feral owls in the suburbs after all the real-life Dudley Dursleys who got owls for Christmas get sick of them and let them go.