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  • 10 September, 2012 - 10:55
    Any watch freaks out there? Time for some early Xmas shopping! http://t.co/kM5C8cyx
  • 25 July, 2012 - 10:14
    Have you kicked the tires on the Joomla 3 Alpha? If so, I'd love to know what you think.
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    The Alpha release of the new Joomla! 3.0 is out now. The release is primarily intended for extension developers... http://t.co/eX31fk0o
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    My latest book is out: Joomla! Search Engine Optimization http://t.co/3lToGUhh #joomla #seo

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Kickstarting a film adaptation of "Dark Side of Disney" - guide to getting high, drunk & laid while on Disney vacation

19 April, 2014 - 09:00

Ricky sez, "Director Philip B. Swift has announced a feature-length documentary film called 'The Dark Side of Disney' based on Leonard Kinsey's travel guide of the same name, to feature topics like finding and buying dirt cheap park tickets and time shares, drinking around Epcot, having sex in the parks, obtaining and using drugs while on an Orlando vacation. The film has just hit Kickstarter, trying to raise $20,000. Last year Swift released 'The Bubble,' a documentary about the Disney-created town of Celebration just outside Walt Disney World."

The Dark Side of Disney [Amazon]

“The Dark Side of Disney” documentary film to explore adult side of theme park vacations, hits Kickstarter for funds [Ricky Brigante/Inside the Magic]

(Thanks, Ricky!)

Categories: The Essentials

On the Internet, no one knows you're not the mayor

19 April, 2014 - 07:25
Matthew says: "Peoria police raided a home, seized computers and phones, and hauled several people in to be questioned about who is running a fake Twitter account of Peoria's mayor."

Categories: The Essentials

Get a load of these crazy old shoes for rich people

19 April, 2014 - 07:04

Moorish chopines likely evolved from wooden stilt shoes, like this pair of 19th century Ottoman qabâqi, which were worn by women to protect their feet from the heated floors of public bathhouses. Image courtesy the Bata Shoe Museum.

Ben Marks of Collectors Weekly says: "Hunter Oatman-Stanford just interviewed Elizabeth Semmelhack of the Bata Shoe Museum, who has spoken to us in the past about high heels and flip flops. This time, we chatted with Elizabeth about chopines, an elevated form of footwear that was popular among aristocratic ladies and courtesans in 16th-century Italy and Spain."

Collectors Weekly: Were chopines limited to upper-class women?

Semmelhack: Originally yes. Though it was somewhat confusing because during the 16th century, dowry inflation grew completely out of control, and it became prohibitively expensive to marry off one’s daughter. Venice was a republic and the ruling men of Venice all had to dress with a confraternal sameness, like when you go to Bay Street in Toronto [the financial district] and all the men are dressed the same. Because of that, women’s dress carried a greater burden of expressing individual family wealth. Marriages were an opportunity to show the wealth not only of the bride’s natal family but also of her nuptial family. By the end of the 16th century, the cost of weddings and all this costume became so prohibitive that wealthy families could only afford to marry one daughter per generation.

This resulted in a surplus of girls and boys who couldn’t find mates. Many girls were sent off to nunneries, and some boys were also sent off to join the church, but both state and church became concerned that men would turn to sodomy in order to satisfy their natural urges. In response, both church and state sanctioned what was called the “honest courtesan,” who behaved as an escort for upper-class men. A courtesan had access to the noble court and moved within that very high social circle. Courtesans were expected to dress like upper-class women, which meant they wore chopines.

But a courtesan was not sequestered at home like true upper-class women: She could walk the streets. When visitors came to Venice and they saw these women clumping around in chopines, they began to assume that chopines were only worn by courtesans, as opposed to the fact that courtesans were aping the dress of wealthy women. Were these honest courtesans upper class? They were of a different class. But they were wearing chopines because of this association, because of the particular social conditions from which the shoes emerged.

These Chopines Weren't Made for Walking: Precarious Platforms for Aristocratic Feet

Categories: The Essentials

Get ready for Orphan Black's return tomorrow night with this season one recap

19 April, 2014 - 05:15

What constitutes a family? Are they the people who give you life, the people who raise you, or the people you choose as your support network? Or are they your identical clones created by a mysterious organization seeking to advance human evolution to the next level? That last one might not be a question most family dramas are interested in asking, but Orphan Black isn’t most family dramas.

Like the best sci-fi shows, BBC America’s addictive Orphan Black uses its fantastical lens to explore realities of the human condition. Where Battlestar Galactica examined politics and terrorism using a fleet of spaceships and Buffy the Vampire Slayer depicted the struggles of adolescence through demons and witches, Orphan Black uses human cloning to explore the nature of family. That unifying central theme, a slew of fantastic characters, and an absolutely stellar central performance (well, performances) from star Tatiana Maslany combine to make Orphan Black one of the best shows of 2013 and one you should absolutely check out before it returns for a second season on April 19.

The heart and soul of Orphan Black is Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany, and it would be virtually impossible to oversell her talents. Over the course of the first season she plays four leading roles and three featured ones, turning each into a recognizable human being with her own physicality, vocal quality, and mannerisms. She occasionally plays characters pretending to be other characters as well, and what sounds confusing on paper (Helena poses as Beth, while Sarah-as-Beth is away from the office) becomes clear storytelling in Maslany’s capable hands. Refreshingly, Orphan Black doesn’t use its one-actor-plays-multiple-roles conceit as a cheap gimmick; it simply calls upon its lead actress to inhabit the full reality of each of her characters. Maslany’s performance deserves ample praise—and every award they can throw at her—but Orphan Black is much more than just one impressive performance.

And that’s because the show’s ever-complicating plot is grounded by solid character work all around. Well before the sci-fi elements are introduced, the show raises questions about the nature of family through the rather unconventional one at its center. The first episode, “Natural Selection,” opens with Sarah Manning—a British punk rocker and con-woman—returning to town (vaguely Ontario) to reclaim her seven-year-old daughter, Kira. Sarah’s biggest ally is her foster brother Felix—a gay rent boy and artist who’s alternately the show’s comic relief, its moral compass, and its secret weapon (actor Jordan Gavaris is the only one who comes anywhere near Maslany’s level). They may not be biologically related, but Sarah and Felix’s sibling bond is probably the most grounded relationship on Orphan Black. Which is good because Sarah desperately needs all the help she can get to win back the daughter she dropped off for a one-night stay 10 months ago. Felix and Sarah’s former foster mother Mrs. S (Maria Doyle Kennedy) has been taking care of Kira ever since, and after years of dealing with Sarah’s reckless behavior, she isn’t too keen to relinquish custody.

Thankfully, Sarah’s uncanny ability to get herself into and then work her way out of tight corners is one of Orphan Black’s most engaging qualities. After seeing a woman who looks just like her commit suicide-by-train, it takes Sarah all of eight seconds to decide to steal the dead woman’s purse, break into her apartment, and form a plan to impersonate her and steal the $75,000 she has in a savings account. With that money Sarah will finally have the financial stability she needs to start a new life with Kira and Felix. The only hitch is that the life of Beth Childs—Sarah’s doppelganger—is not nearly as perfect as her stunning abode and equally stunning boyfriend would suggest.

The first three episodes mine most of their drama from watching Sarah-as-Beth squirm to manage a disciplinary hearing, a tense relationship with Beth’s co-detective Art (Kevin Hanchard), and the suspicions of Beth’s hunky-but-boring boyfriend Paul (Dylan Bruce). Where a lesser show might introduce a deus ex machina to get Sarah out of these tight spots, Orphan Black lets its protagonist be incredibly crafty—confidently lying, flirting, and faking her way out of danger. She’s always just one step ahead of getting in too deep, until the third episode “Variation Under Nature,” when she finally uncovers Beth’s biggest secret: She was one of many identical clones living all around the world, and before her death she was working with two of them to investigate their past.

It’s admirable that a show about clones takes three whole episodes to even introduce the word, an example of Orphan Black’s supreme confidence in its world building. Once the concept is introduced, however, it raises new questions about the nature of family. Sarah’s biological daughter and her adoptive brother are clearly her family, but what relationship does she have to these other women who look just like her? Biologically identical but raised in separate environments, what—if anything—do these girls owe to one another? The mystery of their creation ties them together into a “Clone Club,” but is their bond professional or personal? After all, Sarah could not be more different from her clone “sisters” (let’s call them “clone-sters” for short).

Alison Hendrix is a type-A soccer mom with a nebbishy husband named Donnie, a fabulous color-coordinated craft room, and two adopted kids (Sarah appears to be the only clone who was able to conceive a child). Cosima Neihaus is a dreadlocked, tattooed grad student studying evolutionary development (that’s “evo-devo”), with a soft spot for gorgeous French women. With Cosima offering the brains and Alison bankrolling their operations (with that $75K), Beth rounded out the Clone Club with her pragmatism and access to police intel. With Beth dead, Sarah fills the much-needed role of group badass. United by the mystery of their creation and the threat of death—there were at least four European clones who were either assassinated or killed by a potentially-hereditary disease—the Clone Club’s investigation into their past keeps Orphan Black’s momentum moving forward at a breakneck pace and also serves as the backdrop for some of the show’s most compelling inter-clone relationships. Perpetual-student Cosima easily slots into the role of “younger sister” of the group while Alison and Sarah bond over their mutual motherhood. (It’s easy to forget that the same actress plays all three women, as Maslany’s unshowy trio of performances keeps the focus rightfully on the relationships.)

The show smartly extends its thematic exploration of family to its antagonistic forces as well, giving some much-needed humanity to the shady organizations that seem requisite to the sci-fi genre. At the end of episode three, Sarah-as-Beth discovers the person who has been assassinating the clones is in fact another clone—a blonde, feral Ukrainian named Helena. Raised by a malevolent religious order known as the Prolethians, Helena was brainwashed by her abusive father figure named Tomas and trained to rid the world of unnatural clones. Through Helena (Maslany’s entirely unhinged, often hilarious iteration), the show explores the dark side of family. Instead of offering love and encouragement, those central emotional bonds can also be used for more sinister purposes.

While Orphan Black has yet to fully explore the nature vs. nurture debate it seems tailor-made for, it comes closest in its juxtaposition of Helena and Sarah. The penultimate episode, “Unconscious Selection,” reveals that Helena and Sarah are actually sisters—a single egg that split into twins in their surrogate mother’s womb. Despite being raised thousands of miles apart, Helena and Sarah have a bond they don’t share with their fellow clone-sters. Orphan Black at first seems to be making a case for the power of biological sisterhood over artificially created clone-sterhood, but the season finale takes a sharp turn in the opposite direction. When push comes to shove Sarah kills Helena in order to protect the family she chooses—cloned, adopted, and otherwise—over the one she shared a womb with.

As with the nature vs. nurture debate, Orphan Black debates religion vs. science in only the loosest sense. On the flip side of the religiously fanatic Prolethians are the scientifically fanatic Neolutionists, a mysterious institution attempting to artificially speed up human evolution by giving themselves tails and running nightclubs. The Neolutionists’ Dyad Institution created the clones back in the 1980s and now that they’ve become self-aware, Dr. Aldous Leekie (Matt Frewer) wants to work in partnership with his “daughters.”

Yet the Neolutionists are not the benevolent parental figures Leekie makes them out to be. It’s one of the show’s creepier reveals that the clones are being unwittingly monitored in their sleep every so often. The aforementioned Paul (he was Beth’s monitor in addition to her boyfriend) and Cosima’s monitor Delphine (Évelyne Brochu) struggle between their professional duties as observers and their emerging affection for their subjects. These tortured relationships are meant to give the show a dose of sexual tension, but Orphan Black is much better at creating familial relationships than romantic ones. Cosima and Delphine work just fine, but Paul and Sarah’s romance is too often a drag on the first season’s pacing.

But while the show hasn’t quite figured out what it wants to do with Paul (and actor Dylan Bruce has little to bring to the table), that’s a minor misstep given how well Orphan Black manages to flesh out its other characters in the span of only 10 episodes. Creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett have always maintained Orphan Black is a character drama first and a sci-fi adventure second, and the show has a knack for pairing off its characters in unlikely ways and then slowly figuring out just what they have in common. While it would have been unthinkable in the first few episodes, by the end of the season it makes perfect sense that Felix is giving Alison a brotherly pep-talk or that Cosima shows up on Sarah’s door in need of a hug.

After spending a season carefully building bonds between its characters—transitioning them from strangers to friends to family—the show proceeds to blow most of those relationships up in the explosive season finale, “Endless Forms Most Beautiful.”

Alison—looking to take her life into her own hands—decides her nosey neighbor Aynsley is her monitor and allows her choke to death as revenge (in a scene that doubles as a PSA about wearing scarves near garbage disposals). Wracked with guilt, she lets Donnie’s idea of “starting over” serve as her clean slate. She signs a contract agreeing to work in conjunction with the Neolutionists, just as the audience receives the gobstopping reveal that Donnie has been her monitor all along (sorry Aynsley). Cosima, meanwhile, appears to be sick with the same respiratory disease that infected some of the European clones, Paul has yet to decide if he’s fighting for the clones or against them, and Sarah finds evidence that Mrs. S has been working with the Neolutionists all along.

Helena put a familiar face on the Prolethians and the finale reveals there’s an identical one behind the Neolutionists as well. It turns out Leekie is just a flunky working for the Neolutionists’ true leader, Rachel Duncan, a “pro-clone” raised by the organization (Maslany’s chance to play an icy, bobbed Brit). Rachel’s relationship with her clone-sters in the second season will be made more difficult by the fact that Cosima and Sarah now know the Dyad Institute built a patent right into the clones’ DNA—making them property rather than people.

The episode’s final reveal—that the Neolutionists have kidnapped Kira—leaves Sarah helplessly screaming out a window for her daughter. (It’s appropriate that the season begins and ends with Sarah longing for Kira from afar). Before learning about her clone heritage, Sarah survived by keeping a narrow focus on the two people she cares most about: Felix and Kira. Season one complicated her life with a myriad of new family-like relationships, but without her laser focus, Sarah slipped up and put her daughter in danger. With Kira missing, Sarah’s allegiance to her new found clone-sters will be put to the test. Sarah Manning is at her best when she’s fighting for her family; season two will have to figure out exactly who they are.

Categories: The Essentials

Army comes clean about its recruitment AI, accidentally discloses info about pedophile- and terrorist-catching chatbots that roam the net

19 April, 2014 - 04:49

Dave from the Electronic Frontier Foundation writes, "Not too long ago, Boing Boing covered EFF's (at the time) unsuccessful attempt to retreive records about Sgt. Star (the Army's recruiter-bot) using the Freedom of Information Act. We've now received the files and compiled our research: It turns out Sgt. Star isn't the only government chatbot -- the FBI and CIA had them first.

The information about the terrorist/child-abuser bots only came to light because the spy agencies failed to fully redact their responses (the type was legible through the black strikeouts).

Sgt. Star has a seemingly exhaustive supply of answers to questions about military service, from opportunities for dentists and veterinarians to whether soldier are allowed to use umbrellas (only women and under certain conditions). He also has answers that simply exist to deepen his personality, such as his music and film preferences, and information about his Rottweiler, "Chomp." He will also deliver rather in-depth, scientific answers to throwaway questions, including "why is the sky blue?" and "why is grass green?"

For all his character quirks, a user would never mistake Sgt. Star for human—that's just not how he was designed. That can’t necessarily be said for other government bots. Military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have employed virtual people capable of interacting with and surveilling the public on a massive scale, and every answer raises many, many more questions.

Answers and Questions About Military, Law Enforcement and Intelligence Agency Chatbots (Thanks, Dave!)

Categories: The Essentials

Army comes clean about its recruitment AI, accidentally discloses info about pedophile- and terrorist-catching chatbots that roam the net

19 April, 2014 - 04:49

Dave from the Electronic Frontier Foundation writes, "Not too long ago, Boing Boing covered EFF's (at the time) unsuccessful attempt to retreive records about Sgt. Star (the Army's recruiter-bot) using the Freedom of Information Act. We've now received the files and compiled our research: It turns out Sgt. Star isn't the only government chatbot -- the FBI and CIA had them first.

The information about the terrorist/child-abuser bots only came to light because the spy agencies failed to fully redact their responses (the type was legible through the black strikeouts).

Sgt. Star has a seemingly exhaustive supply of answers to questions about military service, from opportunities for dentists and veterinarians to whether soldier are allowed to use umbrellas (only women and under certain conditions). He also has answers that simply exist to deepen his personality, such as his music and film preferences, and information about his Rottweiler, "Chomp." He will also deliver rather in-depth, scientific answers to throwaway questions, including "why is the sky blue?" and "why is grass green?"

For all his character quirks, a user would never mistake Sgt. Star for human—that's just not how he was designed. That can’t necessarily be said for other government bots. Military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have employed virtual people capable of interacting with and surveilling the public on a massive scale, and every answer raises many, many more questions.

Answers and Questions About Military, Law Enforcement and Intelligence Agency Chatbots (Thanks, Dave!)

Categories: The Essentials

Sword and Laser Podcast 171: The Martian Influx

19 April, 2014 - 03:30

The Sword and Laser (S&L) is a science fiction and fantasy-themed book club podcast hosted by Veronica Belmont and Tom Merritt. The main goal of the club is to build a strong online community of science fiction / fantasy buffs, and to discuss and enjoy books of both genres. Check out previous episodes here.

We're very excited that James S. A. Corey's The Expanse is being made into a TV series! Plus, we sat down to chat with Andy Weir and Daniel Suarez. We learn you shouldn't go for a publisher, but go for an audience, and why you should NOT tell your friends your stories but make them read what you write instead.

Read show notes here.

Sword and Laser is not just a podcast; we’ve also been a book club since 2007! Each month we select a science fiction or fantasy book, discuss it during kick-off and wrap-up episodes of the podcast, and continue that discussion with our listeners over on our Goodreads forums. So come read along with us, and even get a chance to ask your questions to the authors themselves!

Sword and Laser: Subscribe RSS | iTunes | Download this episode

Categories: The Essentials

Ed Piskor's Hip Hop Family Tree nominated for two Eisners

19 April, 2014 - 03:16

Congratulations, Ed!

"Hip Hop Family Tree," the roots-of-the genre series by Munhall-based comic-book artist/writer Ed Piskor (right), has been nominated for two Will Eisner Awards: best reality-based work and best lettering. Winners of the annual awards, considered the Oscars of the comics world and named for the pioneering comics creator and graphic novelist Will Eisner, will be revealed at a July 25 ceremony during Comic-Con International in San Diego.

Read Hop Hop Family Tree here at BB weekly; buy the collections from Fantagraphics.

Categories: The Essentials

Wink's remarkable book picks of the week

19 April, 2014 - 03:08

Wink is a website that reviews one remarkable paper book every weekday. My wife, Carla Sinclair, is the editor. We take photos of the covers and the interior pages of the books to show you why we love them.

This week we reviewed books about Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens' beautiful comic book art, unusual maps of an ordinary neighborhood, the history of economics told through comics, visual representations of history, a visual guide to psychology, and hundreds of excellent optical illusions.

Take a look at these books and many others at Wink. And sign up for our Wink newsletter to get all the reviews and photos delivered once a week.

Categories: The Essentials

With human ancestors, the devil is in the details

19 April, 2014 - 00:19

See the notches at the top of these two casts of ancient hominid mandibles? If you were a paleoanthropologist, you would spend your days arguing about the shape of those notches and their deeper possible meanings.

In 2010, the scientists who found these jaw bones decided that the bones represented a previously unknown hominid species — Australopithecus sediba — whose characteristics blend those of our genus, Homo, with those of a much older genus, Australopithecus.

BUT, now, other scientists think they're wrong, arguing that the two bones don't even come from the same species. Instead, the top mandible in this picture could be straight up Homo, and the bottom classic Australopithecus, and the whole debate — which has implications for how we draw our human family tree — hinges on the shape of that, well, hinge.

Categories: The Essentials

Meet the 17th century's answer to Tesla

19 April, 2014 - 00:03
Cornelis Drebbel was a Dutch inventor who may have inspired Shakespeare's Prospero, was occasionally accused of witchcraft, and built submarines, telescopes, and feedback-control devices while simultaneously dabbling in alchemy. Bring on the "I <3 Drebble" T-shirts.

Categories: The Essentials

How schools got desegregated ... and then resegregated

18 April, 2014 - 23:58
The rise and fall of desegregation efforts in the three generations since Brown v. Board. Incredible work by Nikole Hannah-Jones at ProPublica, following the school careers of James Dent, his daughter, and granddaughter in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Categories: The Essentials

RiYL podcast 049: Cartoonist Bob Fingerman

18 April, 2014 - 23:30

Recommended if You Like is Boing Boing's weekly podcast of Brian Heater's cafe conversations with musicians, cartoonists, writers, and other creative types.

In April of last year, Image Comics published Maximum Minimum Wage, a hardcover compilation of Bob Fingereman’s long-running Fantagraphics series. To this day, Minimum Wage and the subsequent collection Beg The Question remain the cartoonist’s best known work, telling the close-to-home tale of an artist struggling with work, love and life in New York in the 90s. After a 15-year hiatus spent on various comics projects and a trio of prose novels, Fingerman picked up the story again in January with a new series bearing the same name, set three years after the end of its predecessor. I met up with Fingerman in the Manhattan apartment he shares with his wife to discuss returning to a project after nearly a decade and a half and how to get back into the mindset of younger, poorer time.

RiYL: RSS | iTunes | Download episode | Listen on Stitcher

Categories: The Essentials

Could the Game of Thrones poisoning happen in real life?

18 April, 2014 - 22:52

Game of Thrones fans have little love for young King Joffrey Baratheon. The voracious-for-power, know-it-all teen wears his expression in a permanent sneer. He executes innocents on a whim, tortures women, regularly insults his mother and elders and has no regard for anything but his own Narcissistic self-interest. All told, this character is a sadistic little shit. Which is why, when a deadly poison permanently wiped the smirk off Joffrey’s face in season four of GoT, fans rejoiced.

For all his faults, however, no one can argue that Joffrey’s death was anything less than deeply horrific. That nightmare scenario was so realistically portrayed that it creates an unsettling suspicion that the poison was not purely the stuff of fiction. Dragons aside, author George R.R. Martin does have a tendency to borrow from non-fiction when devising some of his most gruesome plot twists (the Red Wedding, for example, was loosely based on historic events, and in the past, some people were indeed executed by molten gold). Moreover, in historic times, poisonings were a common means of murder—including of those in positions of power.

This all poses the question: was the potion that killed Joffrey based on a real-life poison?

Answering this question first requires analyzing the symptoms produced by the mystery formula.

When Martin concocted the strangler—the name of the poison that claimed Joffrey’s life—he imagined a tasteless, plant-derived toxin that causes death by asphyxiation. As viewers witnessed in “The Lion and the Rose,” the victims do not go gently.

Moments after consuming a suspect sip of wine and having a bite of pie1, Joffrey complains of dryness in his mouth.

He clears his throat, and then begins to cough, at first lightly but then violently, as if choking.

He vomits as his body tries to rid itself of the toxin. Unable to breathe, he writhes in panicked spasms and his skin turns bluish.

He begins to hemorrhage: blood pools in the whites of his eyes and streams from his nose, while red spotting appears in his cheeks.

Death occurs within minutes.

Identifying the killer

While no real-world poison produces exactly the same results, there are some promising candidates that—with either a little chemical or cinematic doctoring up—could easily act as strangler stand-ins. Both Marsha Ford, director of the Carolinas Poison Center, and Deborah Blum, a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin and author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, think that cyanide is the closest match. A tiny amount of cyanide can produce toxic results, and that poison is quickly absorbed from the gut. It causes burning in the throat, Ford explains, and can also lead to pulmonary edema (a fluid build-up in the lungs), both of which could trigger the coughing fit. “Cyanide is famous for causing people to start coughing when they swallow it,” Blum says. She cites a case from 2012 when a man found guilty of arson committed suicide in the courtroom by ingesting cyanide. He began violently coughing and choking, and then died minutes later. “It causes fast-moving chemical suffocation,” Blum says.

Vomiting and confusion are also in line with cyanide’s effects, as is the blueness in the skin, caused by lack of oxygen reaching his cells. Among other fatal biochemical tamperings, cyanide inhibits an enzyme called cytochrome oxidase, which plays a key role in oxidative phosphorylation—the body’s system for generating energy through production of ATP. When that system is halted—gasp as he might—a person’s cells can no longer access life-giving oxygen, and the body begins to die. As death nears, the person’s skin can turn blue—a clinical effect called cyanosis. “They begin to have air hunger,” Ford says. “The cyanosis I saw in the episode is typical of someone who’s just not getting oxygen into their cells.”

Just as the stangler comes from the leaves of a plant, cyanide is distilled from natural products, including peaches, cherries and apricots. About 0.2 grams of potassium cyanide slipped into a person’s drink would be enough to kill him. The red wine’s strong taste—and the fact that the drinker was likely somewhat inebriated already—would have thrown him off to the slightly “bitter almond” flavor that toxin carries, Ford says. Cyanide’s natural roots, low required dose and lack of flavor in this situation all line up with the strangler.

On the other hand, some of Joffrey’s symptoms do not match perfectly with cyanide. The dramatic bleeding is not typical, especially from the eye (“A bit excessive,” Ford says). While sodium cyanide is a more caustic poison than potassium cyanide and can sometimes result in a telltale bloody froth around the mouth, Blum points out that this usually doesn’t cause streaming. To cause the hemorrhaging, it could be possible to either concentrate cyanide to make it more lethal, or combine it with another poison. A 15th century Italian family called the Borgia did just that, experimenting with combinations of arsenic and cyanide to use on their enemies. “These are already efficient poisons, but the people using them for assassination purposes wanted them to be no fail,” she says. “You could imagine that something like the strangler came from a cyanide-like poison that someone had figured out a way to concentrate and ramp up.”

A less glamorous explanation, however, is that the bleeding was simply a result of the violent coughing Joffrey experienced in his death throes, Ford says. This would also explain the red splotches— popped blood vessels called petechia—that appeared on his cheeks. An underlying blood-related condition such as Von Willebrand’s disease would also make a victim more prone to hemorrhaging, Ford adds.

Cyanide is not the only candidate, however. Deadly nightshade—a favorite poison in medieval times—is another potential strangler. Rumor has it that Emperor Augustus used it to murder foes in ancient Rome, so this plant is no stranger to high-profile plots. The leaves, stems and berries of deadly nightshade contain tropane alkaloids—extremely potent toxins that disrupt nervous system functioning. As neurotransmitters are blocked, the victim will begin to stagger, convulse, lose his vision and experience an extremely dry mouth and throat, creating a sensation of choking. Blood vessels also dilate, causing the victim to become very hot and to turn red. “I noticed that in the character’s face,” says John Trestrail III, director of the Center for the Study of Criminal Poisonings. Like cyanide, however, hemorrhaging, is not a normal symptom of deadly nightshade, and neither is the speed by which Joffrey succumbed to his fatal dose.

Modern spin

Cyanide and deadly nightshade are old time poisons and seem well suited for GoT alchemists who would be working in a setting more akin to that of medieval European than of today’s high-tech labs. But if the GoT poisoners did have access to current technologies, some modern strangler equivalents do come to mind, Ford says. These include sodium azide, found in some car airbag systems, and fluoroacetate, a pesticide sometimes used on coyotes in the US and invasive mammals in New Zealand. Both of those concoctions produce cyanide-like symptoms if consumed, although they don’t act as quickly.

A pesticide called aluminum phosphide is another modern-day candidate. It’s even more lethal than cyanide, Blum says, and produces similarly nasty symptoms. These include complete oxygen deprivation in the extremities, vomiting and trauma within the body—which can cause bleeding.

Unfortunately, the murderous potions don’t stop there. According to Trestrail, with the aid of technology and chemical knowledge, chemists today could likely create an even more accurate doppelganger of the purple wedding poison. It might not perfectly mimic each and every symptom Joffrey experienced, but they could probably get pretty close. “People are always experimenting,” he says. While this often results in better living through chemistry, Trestrail points out that there’s a flipside to that, too: “Better dying through chemistry.”

Modern monster or old horror, what is true for all of these poisons is that, exposed to in high enough doses, getting ahold of an antidote (if one even exists) in time to save the victim’s life would be highly unlikely. “For the poisons that are super fast acting, you’ll have a jolt of awareness, but not in time to save yourself,” Blum says.

Which is exactly what happened to Joffrey. Lying on the ground, suffocating, he desperately looks up at his mother for help. But there is nothing she can do. Finally, he, too, seems to understand that all is lost. No longer the haughty Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, Joffrey dies as a helpless, terrified boy.

1. Other proposed delivery vehicles include the gems or clothes Joffrey wore.

Categories: The Essentials

Technophobia goes off the Depp end in Transcendence [Movie Review]

18 April, 2014 - 22:24

In the official poster, a sinister AI remnant of genius Dr. Will Caster evinces inhuman mastery of Filter > Pixelate > Mosaic

In the near future posited by the film Transcendence, which opens today, residents of Berkeley, California are living in a kind of police state. The power grid is down. No computers, no Internet. Which means no Facebook, either (thank God). A shopkeeper uses a beat-up laptop as a doorstop. We know the end days are especially dire because a dirt-caked, cracked cell phone lies lifelessly on the sidewalk. Its technological purpose has been reduced to mere object. A potential tool for an enterprising human. Recall the opening scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey: Instead of apes smashing skulls with bones, the aftermath survivors of Transcendence may as well be wielding their iPhones as weapons.

“They say there’s power in Boston, some phone service in Denver,” intones a melancholic Paul Bettany, playing a neurobiologist named Dr. Max Waters. We quickly discover Max had a hand in creating all this mess. After what he calls an “inevitable collision” between humankind and technology, “things are far from what they were." Existence itself, he says, “feels smaller” without the Internet.

That’s all, folks. Welcome to the not-so-brave world of the new Johnny Depp anti-technology thriller Transcendence.

So how did we get there? That’s the premise of this cautionary directorial debut from Wally Pfister, the Oscar-winning cinematographer behind the camera for Christopher Nolan’s Inception and Dark Knight films. You can probably guess the reason why we destroyed modern civilization as we knew it: Hubris. Mankind --- and in this case, a woman, too --- messed with a power, a force they had no business messing with. Namely: Artificial Intelligence. Curiously killed the cat, the A.I. researcher, and the cat video, too.

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said historian, politician, and writer Sir John Dalberg-Acton. “Great men are almost always bad men.” Our great bad man is Dr. Will Caster, played by Depp. Five years before the Internet hit the fan, Will, along with fellow computer scientist and wife Evelyn, played by Rebecca Hall (The Town, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and The Prestige), and good buddy Max (Bettany) have all been monkeying around with a sentient computer known as PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network). Sentient computers are always given endearing acronyms names, which make them seem all the more human. Remember HAL 9000? How cute.

The trio are all protégés of old-timer computer guru Professor Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman), but of the three, Will is the rock star. “He has groupies,” complains Max just before Will is about to wow an audience of potential donors at a Bay Area tech conference. “Why don’t I have groupies?” (Because, Bettany, you’ve got second billing right below Depp.) Anyway, the researchers are reportedly on the edge of a breakthrough that will not only imbue PINN with all the planet’s collective knowledge, but also add in bonus features like a conscious mind and human emotions. With all of PINN’s processing power, the researchers are going to end poverty, hunger, cancer, Alzheimer’s, all the rest. We’ve heard this before from any number of starry-eyed futurists. “So you want to create a God –your God?” asks an incredulous audience member at the presentation. “Isn’t that what man has always done?” Caster replies, dripping with Depp’s self-assured charismatic funkiness.

Of course, Caster is hedging his bets about the promise of technology. At home, he’s constructed a network dead spot in his back yard for his wife, so she won’t be distracted by her smart phone and laptop. Depp also loves his analog vinyl collection, curiously just like the Tom Cruise character from Oblivion, one of many post-apocalyptic bedtime stories that hit us last year. To prepare for the end of the world, you better start combing through the stacks at your local Goodwill store and stockpile all the LPs you can find. ‘Cause iTunes doesn’t work after doomsday. The song Caster plays in the movie is “Genesis,” from the 1974 solo album by Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. (Sample lyrics: “Time has come for us to pause / And think of living as it was / Into the future we must cross, must cross.”) In my reviews, as a rule, I try not to give away any more spoilers than a reasonable person might surmise from watching a movie’s trailer. But at least I can say this: shortly after the tech conference, there’s an attack by a technology-is-evil terrorist group called Revolutionary Independence From Technology (yep, also known as RIFT). Will Caster gets shot. He is slowly dying. Racked by grief, Eve uploads Will’s brain into a version of PINN. His memories and his knowledge are preserved. PINN becomes Will, Will become PINN. “I think he’s still fragmented,” Evelyn says, listening to a version of her hubby that sounds like a bad Skype video chat. “I’m going to run a diagnostic.” Were it only that simple. For the most of the rest of the movie, Depp is seen on video screen only, performing as a fancy digital version of his former self. Which presents its own acting challenges, I’m sure. But is the Will Caster that technology helps simulate, with voice and image and apparent thought, the real Will Caster, heart and soul, or just a clever simulation? What makes us human --- our ideas, or smarts, or our ability to feel? These are the overlapping, quasi-philosophical notions broached by Transcendence. Other films have raised them too. Writers and directors have created memorable intelligent machine characters as disparate as RoboCop in RoboCop earlier this year, Samantha from Her, Skynet and the T-800 from The Terminator movies, WOPR/Joshua from Wargames, Roy Batty from Blade Runner, and Gigolo Joe from A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Note: Hey, has anyone ever noticed that Spielberg released A.I. in the year 2001. Get it?)

Transcendence does raise the thorny ethical issue we’re all grappling with as our computers and devices become more powerful, even speak to us, and we invite the consciousness of Siri into our lives. We are plumbing that human intelligence/artificial intelligence divide every day. But Pfister, working from a script by newcomer Jack Paglen, never quite settles on the film’s focus. Meanwhile, virtual Will Caster gets smarter. He connects himself to the Internet. He needs more power, both literally and figuratively. As he persuades Evelyn to build a vast underground research facility in the desert which becomes the center for various experiments --- goodhearted, or perhaps nefarious --- Transcendence divides, like a cell, into two movies, interlaced and interlocked, and wound around each other like a double helix. The plot twists these two cords tightly, and by the end, one of them breaks.

The first is Transcendence the love story. The dilemma of Caster’s passing presents Evelyn with a poignant choice. Does she let him go, as we all must let go of a loved one who dies? Or does she conjure a fantasy for herself, in this case, a technological mirage, in the hopes that he might somehow live on? The years pass, super-secret lab gets more sophisticated, as does the virtual Depp, and both Max (Bettany) and Evelyn become corrupted in different ways. That’s when the other film nested in Transcendence infects the other. This is a more didactic, often clunky, scolding tale about the dangerous siren song of technology. Sure, the virtual husband-and-wife team think they’re doing good. There’s some gobbledygook about a new nanotechnology the super-brained virtual nerd dreams up. “I made a breakthrough last night. I think you’ll be pleased,” says the silver-tongued Caster, more autonomous than ever before. “We can rebuild any materials faster than before.” (Isn’t that a line from Six Million Dollar Man?). Mwaahaha! The computers are taking over. If only the public would understand. “Once they see what the technology can do they will embrace it and it will change their lives.”

Before long, the government is involved. There’s also convoys of armored cars, and tanks, and jeeps, and rigs of every size. And rocket launchers. Nanotechnology ectoplasm spurts out of the ground and attacks! And like an innocent bystander getting sucked into the Master Control Program, that quieter film about love and loss gets subsumed into a high-tech Invasion of the Body Snatchers action flick. And we are dutifully warned: Becoming hybrids with our computers dehumanizes us. As we approach the hive mind, technology will assimilate us into the Borg.

There’s nothing quite like a good old fashioned, irreplaceable human being, you see.

“Human emotion can contain illogical conflict,” says Max in an awkwardly preachy moment near the end of Transcendence, as the post-twerk, post-TMZ.com, post-like button apocalypse is looming. “You can love someone yet hate the things that they have done. A machine can’t reconcile that.” Thanks Paul Bettany. All true, I’m sure, but what a boring lecture. Is that the most interesting verdict Transcendence could levy?

The more interesting idea, for me, is that possibility raised by the intersection of loss and technology. Would you preserve a loved one, your soul or data-mate, if he or she were about to kick off? There’s great poetic power in this dream of how, perhaps in the future, we might not ever need “bury” a loved one if some satisfying, convincing digital approximation can linger. I wish that Pfister, or screenwriter Paglen, had been braver to build the whole film around this sadder but more tender twist on the romance genre. “Do you remember when we met,” the virtual Johnny Depp asks Evelyn, his wine-sodden wife, one night. “I remember everything.” What lady wouldn’t fall for that, a digital version of their man, whose memory is foolproof, and backed up, when her own spouse can’t even remember their wedding anniversary?

Categories: The Essentials

This Day in Blogging History: How is a $12 phone possible? UK wine-sellers declare that wine has horoscopes; Burger King Subservient Chicken

18 April, 2014 - 21:00

One year ago today
How is a $12 phone possible? Bunnie's teardown shows a little bit about how this $12 piece of electronics can possibly be profitable, but far more tantalizing are his notes about Gongkai, "a network of ideas, spread peer-to-peer, with certain rules to enforce sharing and to prevent leeching."

Five years ago today
UK wine-sellers declare that wine has horoscopes, advise wine-drinkers to avoid certain moon-days: The idea that the taste of wine changes with the lunar calendar is gaining credibility among the UK's major retailers, who believe the day, and even hour, on which wine is drunk alters its taste.

Ten years ago today
Food Porn -- Burger King Subservient Chicken: ...For when "your way" calls for an enslaved chicken, Burger King invites you to "have chicken your way" by offering you the newest in ads even veteran AdBusters won't want to bust: The Subservient Chicken.

Categories: The Essentials

British Pathe puts 85,000 newsreels on Youtube

18 April, 2014 - 18:59

Jason sez, "British Pathe just dumped 85,000 newsreels from 1896 to 1976 on Youtube under a Creative Commons license."

Update: No Creative Commons, alas. False alarm.

The archive — which spans from 1896 to 1976 – is a goldmine of footage, containing movies of some of the most important moments of the last 100 years. It’s a treasure trove for film buffs, culture nerds and history mavens everywhere. In Pathé’s playlist “A Day That Shook the World,” which traces an Anglo-centric history of the 20th Century, you will find clips of the Wright Brothers’ first flight, the bombing of Hiroshima and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon, alongside footage of Queen Victoria’s funeral and Roger Bannister’s 4-minute mile. There’s, of course, footage of the dramatic Hindenburg crash and Lindbergh’s daring cross-Atlantic flight. And then you can see King Edward VIII abdicating the throne in 1936Hitler becoming the German Chancellor in 1933 and the eventual Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941 (above).

But the really intriguing part of the archive is seeing all the ephemera from the 20th Century, the stuff that really makes the past feel like a foreign country – the weird hairstyles, the way a city street looked, the breathtakingly casual sexism and racism. There’s a rush in seeing history come alive. Case in point, this documentary from 1967 about the wonders to be found in a surprisingly monochrome Virginia.

Free: British Pathé Puts Over 85,000 Historical Films on YouTube [Jonathan Crow/Openculture] (Thanks, Jason!)

Categories: The Essentials

Wolfgang Pauli opera in Austin: For Fear the Glass May Shatter

18 April, 2014 - 18:52

Jon Lebkowsky sez, "My amazing friend, neurocomputing specialist, musician & composer David Demaris has created the most geek-tastic opera ever, For Fear the Glass May Shatter. It's been produced as part of Austin's Fusebox Festival, and is running through this weekend at the Vortex Theatre here."

The biography of Wolfgang Pauli is a particle dancing through a deflector beam modulated by an extended mashup of Faust (Goethe, Mann's Dr. Faustus), Quantum Mechanics, Jungian Alchemy and Taoism. Pauli, Bohr, Heisenberg, Jung, and others transmute through various roles in Faust like particles in a chamber exposed to myth waves. It veers in and out of history of science realism, dream, magical realism, and literary disruptions, allowing each viewer to collapse its wave function in unique fashion. Unlike Joyce's characters in Ulysses, these scholars are utterly aware of their governing myth Faust and invoke it every chance they get. The actors are singing science, the mythic tale of the birth of quantum mechanics, the hidden forces of number archetypes, and their longing for love and immortality.

I've portrayed Pauli as a poet of the unique - aware of the limitations of mid-century physics deal with the contingent and improbable nature of life and the mind. He, along with Jung, imagined a reformation of religion and science; in Pauli's dream of the New House, laboratory, university and cathedral are joined. I imagine this as a kind of alternate reality in which possibly disruptive scientific advances are birthed in a ritual form capturing a culture's most glorious achievements and darkest moments.

For Fear The Glass May Shatter (Thanks, Jon!)

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Edward Snowden: "Vladimir Putin must be called to account on surveillance just like Obama"

18 April, 2014 - 12:41

Vladimir Putin during the nationwide phone-in in Moscow. Photograph: RIA Novosti/Reuters

Today's question-and-answer session on Russian TV between NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and Russian President Vladimir Putin did not go as Snowden had hoped. "I questioned the Russian president live on TV to get his answer on the record, not to whitewash him," Snowden says in an op-blog in the Guardian:

On Thursday, I questioned Russia's involvement in mass surveillance on live television. I asked Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, a question that cannot credibly be answered in the negative by any leader who runs a modern, intrusive surveillance program: "Does [your country] intercept, analyse or store millions of individuals' communications?"

I went on to challenge whether, even if such a mass surveillance program were effective and technically legal, it could ever be morally justified.

The question was intended to mirror the now infamous exchange in US Senate intelligence committee hearings between senator Ron Wyden and the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, about whether the NSA collected records on millions of Americans, and to invite either an important concession or a clear evasion. (See a side-by-side comparison of Wyden's question and mine here.)

Clapper's lie – to the Senate and to the public – was a major motivating force behind my decision to go public, and a historic example of the importance of official accountability.

In his response, Putin denied the first part of the question and dodged on the latter. There are serious inconsistencies in his denial – and we'll get to them soon – but it was not the president's suspiciously narrow answer that was criticised by many pundits. It was that I had chosen to ask a question at all.

Read the rest here.

[Thanks, Trevor Timm]

Previously: "Snowden asks Putin about surveillance in Russia on televised call-in show (video)"

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18 April, 2014 - 12:23

Shoop: XJ

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