Monday, May 31, 2010

The Gates of Hell Just Opened In Guatemala [Science]

"This can't be real" was my first thought. Then I checked the source: The Guatemalan government. This sinkhole appeared yesterday, May 30, in a street intersection located in Zone 2 of Ciudad de Guatemala. More »

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Letter to George

Dear Mr. Johnston,

Thank you for your response attempting to assist me in my Nikon purchase. However, I find your recommendation preposterous and extremely strange coming from a so-called expert. First of all, the D700 at $2,450 is far beyond my budget, which I told you is $400, and way too much overkill for a photographer just setting out, and your suggestion that I purchase 35mm ƒ/2 and 85mm ƒ/1.8 lenses is strange. Those lenses don't even zoom? All of my friends use zoom lenses and that is all my local store carries. I am somewhat mystified by your note.



Dear George,

Yes, you are absolutely right, and I apologize. Like many aficionados I am excessively affected by my own preferences and habits, and it leads me to give buying advice that is indeed idiosyncratic. The suggestion that you jump in from the get-go with an investment of $3,195 is indeed preposterous (good word).

I would like to make amends by suggesting an objectively more characteristic 25-step course of action for you. My experience in this field has demonstrated many times that this sequence is broadly very typical, and I think you will find that these new recommendations far more objectively trace the course of most serious photographers' investments in their gear.

I apologize again—in what follows, I have used some current model names and numbers as representative of product types, even though what I'm describing is usually a 3–5 year process and actual model numbers and prices will naturally change over than interval.

And I say the process as outlined contains 25 steps; but you might well find there will be more.

Step 1. Purchase a "digicam" or digital point-and-shoot, chiefly because that's what most human beings do first when it occurs to them that they want a camera. This will be preceded by approximately four months of troublesome and increasingly frustrating product research and shopping, during which time you will be learning how to shop but not how photograph. Also during that time, you will be limited to taking pictures with your iPhone. It gradually dawns on you that no one can give you perfectly satisfactory advice about buying a point-and-shoot, for the simple reason that there are roughly 13,796 of them on the market (note: estimate only) with dozens dropping off the cliff into discontinuation and dozens more being introduced all the time, making the search for "the best one" a shifting target even if you could tell them apart. Eventually, lose patience and buy what the local local store counterman recommends, even though in the backmost reaches of your almost-subconscious you suspect that his high level of confidence might be motivated by the fact that he gets a spiff for selling that model because it has a higher profit margin than most of the others, and his boss is pushing him to push it. With tax, it only comes in $30 over your absolute top budget number of $400. Belatedly, you will remember to check B&H Photo, which will be selling the same model, only with an extra card, for $236.

Step 2. Be perfectly happy with your new purchase...for about 2 1/2 months. After that, slowly discover its infuriating shutter lag, the alarming slowness of its lens at full telephoto, its wretched high-ISO performance, and its general frailty and operational quirkiness. Nevertheless, use said digicam for another 1.8 years as you doggedly and determinedly "get your money's worth out of it," even though you pretty much hate it the whole time. Still, it's always with you, you do a lot of snapping, photography's fun.

Step 3. After the digicam fails utterly on an expensive vacation—just when you most needed it to work—buy a Canon G10 premium fixed-lens camera. ($420.)

Step 4. Three weeks later, G11 comes out. Buy that ($470), sell G10 at $150 loss.

Step 5. Realize that G10 actually has more megapixels than the G11; sell G11 ($120 loss), buy another G10.

Step 6. Read about small vs. large sensors on the internet, realize you are not really very happy with the premium point-and-shoot category anyway, because it's still mostly a point-and-shoot and you've just kind of had it with point-and-shoots. Sell second G10 for a $175 loss this time and graduate to an $800 entry-level DSLR, purchased with a "kit zoom." Again, that little voice that is almost buried in your subconscious mentions to you fleetingly that the kit zoom is where the company is saving money on the package price, despite the fact that the lens is what determines the essential look of the pictures. The pictures look much better than the pictures from your now-dead p/s, though, and you're sure—almost—that they look better than the pictures from the G10/11, most of the time—so how bad could it be?

Step 7. Some months later, following the happy congruence of a number of occurrences, namely, 1) an unexpected cash windfall, 2) your wife's uncle's ridicule of your "cheap" camera at a family gathering, 3) your own rather acute embarrassment at having to bring your camera to a rare paying job, during which you were pretty sure you saw your client looking askance at it; 4) dozens more hours spent shopping, and 5) your reading of some 340,000 words on the internet (approximately 1/12th of which were at all useful)—purchase a D90. Sell the entry-level DSLR for 2/5ths of what you paid for it, but keep the lens for the D90. (By the way, you still have your digicam. It doesn't work, can't be fixed economically, and is worth next to nothing on Ebay anyway, but for some strange reason—or, rather, just over 400 strange reasons—you cannot actually bring yourself to physically toss it in the wastebasket. It sits in the closet now. Note: the closet of which I speak is a seldom-mentioned but deeply significant vector very near the beating heart of photographic equipment shopping.

Step 8. Almost immediately after buying the D90, begin dreaming of a D300s.

Step 9. Kit lens from entry-level DSLR seems a little forlorn on the D90, and you're wondering if it's "getting the most out of the sensor." Succumb to "metaphysical doubt" and insecurity, and purchase a magnificent do-everything, fast, premium normal zoom lens. $630.

Step 10. Because the camera is so awkward to carry with your new zoom—which you love, by the way—you inadvertently drop it. Just once. It survives, but the LCD is cracked, and you're not quite 100% certain, but you think some of the electronic menu settings have gone a bit wonky. These imperfections eat at you, just a tiny bit, every time you use the camera.

Step 11. Purchase camera insurance.

Step 12. Due a perception that no serious photographer has just one serious lens, purchase a second lens to "cover all the focal lengths" and "complement" your main lens—another magnificent do-everything, fast, premium zoom lens, but telephoto. $520.

Step 13. Add a macro; your zoom doesn't seem to do close-ups very well. Also $520.

Step 14. Spend several dozen hours proving to yourself by reading and rereading lens tests until you're bleary-eyed that your macro lens is as close to technically perfect as it is possible for a lens to be. It's super sharp! Right out to the corners! The tiny voice that won't shut up mentions to you that your macro pictures still kind of suck, and that there are approximately a Graham's number of macro pictures on the internet already, almost all of which look...well, more or less the same.

Step 15. Because you're not quite satisfied, in a way you can't quite put your finger on, with the output of the tele zoom—it just doesn't quite seem to satisfy you like the images from your main zoom does—you're not quite sure what it is—you again dive into an extended bout of internet research and shopping, and resurface from a long immersion only with the purchase a truly magnificent, professional 80–200mm, constant-aperture zoom. $1080. You give the old tele zoom to your wife's uncle's teenage son, who immediately begins doing fantastic work with it after having suddenly come to the stunning realization that you exist.

Step 16. Troublingly, you find yourself increasingly leaving the camera bag at home, as it now weighs approximately the same, and is roughly the same size, as a concrete block.

Step 17. Wife buys you D300s for birthday! Yay! Best birthday present ever! It's love, pure love—for the wife, not the camera. Sort of for the camera. $1530. You would sell the D90, but since it's broken.... You do mean to get it fixed. It goes in the closet.

Step 18. F**king blo*dy tiny voice begins just the faintest, most distant murmur about full frame.

Step 19. Decide you are not a macro type of photographer. In weak, trifling attempt to lighten bag, macro lens joins old entry-level kit zoom and broken point-and-shoot in closet. Hey, you can always go get it if you need it.

Step 20. Now that you have your beautiful constant aperture pro tele zoom, your old "prosumer" mid-level normal zoom doesn't seem to quite match any more. So you buy a 17–55mm ƒ/2.8 AF-S lens. Which is truly awesome. You totally love it. $1,385. Old zoom goes on Ebay, fetches $230 after shipping and fees. 

Step 21. You consider yourself completely set where equipment is concerned. Completely set. For all time. You will never need anything more, ever. Yet, for some reason, a nagging sense of ennui sets in where your photography hobby is concerned. You realize, in a moment of exquisite clarity which also elicits just a faint touch of existential panic, that you miss shopping. You find yourself diving into shopping for things you know you're not going to buy. Desultorily, you check prices, read reviews. You find yourself getting uncharacteristically snarky on forums you frequent. Then, wandering about in this strange wilderness where shopping is no longer called for, you read some idiot on the internet who maunders on an on about how fun it is to use just one small prime lens. Completely on impulse, then, you snag a copy of the recently introduced 35mm ƒ/1.8. ($200.) Amazingly, it is kind of nice—it makes the big D300 surprisingly handy, almost nimble. Cue metaphors of bare feet, let-down hair, Julie Andrews in various meadows with her angelic sky-facing pie-hole exuding glorious plainsong. You Sure, it's not that exciting as a lens, and it's a little too long if you're being honest with yourself, but there's no big bag to carry around. It's easy to grab on the way out the door. To your surprise, your enjoyment ramps up again, much more than just noticeably. 

Step 22. Shut up, tiny voice, shut up, shut up, shut up.

Step 23. Your activity as a photographer re-ignited, you suddenly get religion: you are going to buy the best, the very best, to put the demons to rest. With a grim set to your mouth and a feeling of unstoppable determination, you purchase that D700. You hadn't even really been considering it; you weren't really that serious when you did all that research and read all those reviews. Elation vies with guilt as you write the check. $2,450. Little voice grumbles that your initial budget for this whole enterprise was $400, but you tell it to shut up: the D700 now seems almost cheap to you compared to the D3s and D3x. Wife is a tad cross and hurt: it's only been a year and four months since the D300 birthday present. Guiltily, you explain carefully that the D300 is a great backup and how you still really need it, really, how it's still the best present ever, etc. Of course, there's a slight drawback to this: having told her you still need the D300s as a backup, you can't immediately turn around and sell it to offset the cost of the D700 like you really ought to. Not right away, anyway. And of course you need a lens for it, so you keep that beautiful normal zoom. As a bright, shining symbol of your financial responsibility, you sell the macro lens on Ebay. It brings $380, of which $35 is shipping costs and Ebay fees. She goes, "It's your hobby. I just want you to have what you want." Then she adds, "Honey," giving you a look as if perhaps an incubus has invaded your body and taken over your soul.

Step 24. Slight problem with D700: only one of your lenses—the big 80–200mm, which, apart from the macro and the disused kit lens, is the one lens you own that you use the least—now works on your camera. The rest are all APS-C lenses. However, your spending has been out of control, you do have that slightly sick feeling of one who has indulged in something overmuch, your wife now looks somber and concerned whenever the subject of your hobby comes up, you've put black electrician's tape over the "D700" on your new camera in hopes that your wife's uncle won't notice the switch and tease you about it, and you're ever so slightly worried about...well, not your sanity, exactly—it's not that bad—let's just say, your previous reputation for level-headed practicality. So, in a continuation of the "one lens" notion combined with a certain feeling of penitence, you go on Ebay and purchase a very modest used 35mm ƒ/2 AF-Nikkor. $250.

Step 25. Although you're mostly happy with the 35mm, you do one simple head-and-shoulders portrait with the 80–200mm zoom and find it to be...well, preposterous (sorry!). So you add a simple 85mm ƒ/1.8. $425. You mean to get a full-frame replacement for your beloved normal zoom for APS-C—someday; you're toying with the idea of another macro, but one that works on full-frame; a wide zoom might be nice; you occasionally wonder about this or that other lens...but, really, when it gets right down to it, the lenses at either end of a postulated hypothetical 35–85mm zoom do well enough for you most of the time. And they're fast. And portable. And cheap. Besides, your files, while not perfect or automatically imbued with any special magic, are now about as good as it's reasonably possible for files to be, and you've learned by this time—finally—that photography is a matter of learning to shoot, having the camera with you, learning to handle it as if it were second nature, gradually increasing the sophistication of your taste by looking at great work that appeals to you, learning to edit, and discovering your own visual passions, rather than being a matter of equipment.

Total elapsed time: 3–5 years. Over most of that time, you haven't been terribly happy with what you were shooting with. (Remember that 1.8-year stint with the point-and-shoot.)

End-point: D700 and two basic lenses. Plus, that tele zoom that's too heavy to carry around (as well as a bunch of other things) in that closet.

Total major equipment expenditures: $9,770. Of course, you mean to sell the D300s and the AF-S normal zoom—someday—but in point of fact you will probably just basically forget they exist and end up procrastinating until such time in the distant future when the camera, at least, is not worth all that much any more. In the meantime, it's your...backup. Honey.

An investment of $3,195 would have meant you'd have been all set for 3–5 years, perfectly free to concentrate on taking pictures. The expenditure would have amounted to between $1,065 and $639 per year for a very rewarding and renewable hobby. It would have represented a savings of approximately 400 hours of shopping time, $6,575 in cash, and much needless agonizing over trivialities.

Anyway, George, I apologize again for recommending a D700 and two basic lenses even though you're just starting out. No doubt you will want to learn your own lessons, and make your own progress through a succession of gear, just as most photographers do. In my own defense, I can only say that it doesn't really matter anyway, since no one who asks me for purchasing advice ever actually follows that advice anyway! (Really.) But as you can probably deduce from the above, my initial recommendation to you possibly isn't quite as flat-out mad as it might on the surface appear.

But...$400? Please. No one gets away with that.


P.S. If I managed to do all the arithmetic in this post accurately, it will be a miracle.

UPDATE: Please also see the follow-up post, above this one.

Note: Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. More...
Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.

Featured Comment by Cameron: "It doesn't have to be that way, though. In six years of taking digital photographs, I've owned three point-n-shoots and two digital SLRs. The point-n-shoots were only replaced because they broke, not because I lusted after something better. I upgraded from a Nikon D50 to a D90 after three years; and then only because I got a chance to buy one second-hand for a price I couldn't refuse. As for the lenses, flashes, tripods, brief film phase and most recently a big Epson photo printer: guilty as charged! But the thing that I want most at the moment is not more gear, but more time to take photographs with what I already own."

Mike replies: Very smart, very...restrained. You're a better man than I! It's nice to know some people get out alive....

Query from Paul O'Mahony (Cork): "I guess my comment was not approved?"

Mike replies: It was. There are only 50 comments per page, so you have to click on "Next page of comments" at the bottom of each page to get to the next one. There are more than 200 comments to this post now, thus there are five pages of comments. It's easy to miss the link.

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Computer mouse made from biological mouse's ribcage

I know nothing about this (do you? Add a comment) -- it doesn't look functional, but it sure is a fascinating object.

mouse (Thanks, Dana!)

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iPhone vulnerability leaves your data wide open, even when using a PIN

iPhone vulnerability leaves your data wide open, even when using a PIN
If you feel like going through the process of typing in your PIN every time you unlock your iPhone is worth it thanks to the unconquerable security it implies, you might want to read this report from Bernd Marienfeldt about the chosen one's security model. Yes, a PIN will keep casual users from picking up your phone and making a call with it, or firing off an e-mail to your co-workers saying that you're quitting and becoming an exotic dancer, but it won't keep someone from accessing all your data. Bernd and fellow security guru Jim Herbeck have discovered that plugging even a fully up-to-date, non-jailbroken iPhone 3GS into a computer running Ubuntu Lucid Lynx allows nearly full read access to the phone's storage -- even when it's locked. The belief is that they're just a buffer overflow away from full write access as well, which would surely open the door to making calls. Bernd believes the iPhone's lack of data encryption for content is a real problem, and also cites the inability to digitally sign e-mails as reasons why the iPhone is still not ready for prime time in the enterprise.

[Thanks, Amit]

iPhone vulnerability leaves your data wide open, even when using a PIN originally appeared on Engadget on Thu, 27 May 2010 06:47:00 EST. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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J.J. Abrams and ABC want to reboot Alias

J.J. Abrams and ABC want to reboot <I>Alias</i>

It looks like one J.J. Abrams spy series—NBC's Undercovers—might not be enough for him on TV this fall. Apparently, ABC is in talks with Abrams about rebooting his earlier TV spy venture, Alias, according to's Kristin Dos Santos.

The new series would have some elements of the original that propelled Jennifer Garner to stardom. However, they'd skip the intricate mythology involving the Rambaldi prophecy.

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Cryptic Codes: 11 Legendary Uncracked Ciphers

[ By Steph in History & Factoids, Travel & Places. ]

From five lines of letters scrawled on the back of a dead man's book to the taunting codes sent to police by the Zodiac Killer, some of history's most legendary uncracked codes and ciphers represent a fascinating and frustrating challenge even for the world's brightest cryptographers. Could the Beale Papers lead to buried treasure? How does the Chaocipher work? Perhaps we'll never know.

Taman Shud Case

(image via: wikimedia commons)
Who was the Somerton man, how did he die, and what do these strange codes found on a book connected to the man mean? An unidentified male body was found on Somerton Beach in Adelaide, Australia in 1948 wearing a sweater and coat despite the hot day, carrying no identification. There were no clues as to his identity and dental records and fingerprints matched no living person. An autopsy discovered bizarre congestion, blood in the stomach and enlarged organs but no foreign substances. A suitcase found at the train station that may have belonged to the man contained a pair of trousers with a secret hidden pocket, which held a piece of paper torn from a book imprinted with the words "Taman Shud". The paper was matched to a very rare copy of Omar Khayyam's 'The Rubaiyat' that was found in the backseat of an unlocked vehicle and on the back of the book was scrawled five lines of capital letters    that seem to be a code. To this day, the entire case remains one of Australia's most bizarre mysteries.


(image via: wikimedia commons)
It's like a tease, standing outside the headquarters of the CIA in daily view of some of the nation's brightest cryptographers yet eluding them for years. The Krytpos monument is a sculpture by artist Jim Sanborn bearing an encrypted message divided into four sections, three of which have been solved since its installation in 1990. With misspellings in the code intact, the first part reads, "Between subtle shading and the absence of light lies the nuance of iqlusion", and the second part references some invisible buried treasure ostensibly located some 200 feet from the statue itself.

Zodiac 340 Letter

(image via:
The Zodiac Killer – whoever he is or was – is known just as much for the incredibly complex coded letters he sent to the Bay Area press as for his brutal unsolved murders. While some of his taunting ciphers have been solved, this 340-character message sent in 1969 has never been cracked.

Dorabella Cipher

(image via:
Sent by cipher enthusiast Edward Elgar to his friend Miss Dora Penny, the Dorabella Cipher seems upon viewing like it might not mean anything at all. But this string of strange symbols, made up of semicircles in various configurations, has been the subject of unfruitful study for over a century. Musicologist Eric Sams claimed to have solved it, but his methods are unproven and his translation is 22 characters longer than the cipher. Another speculation is that the code is not text, but a melody.


(image via:
If an autobiography detailing the author's memories of James Joyce seems like a strange place to find an uncracked cipher, that's because it is. J.F. Byrne inserted his cryptosystem challenge into the book "Silent Years", offering $5,000 to whoever solved it. At least three people know how Byrne's Chaocipher – a machine small enough to fit into a cigar box used to encrypt the message – actually works, but no one has ever solved the code.

RSA Crytographic Challenges

(image via:
How can the crytpography industry get better at producing strong, uncrackable codes? RSA Laboratories, a security firm known for its cryptography libraries, decided to put forth a challenge that would force the industry to learn more about symmetric-key and public-key algorithms. The key to cracking a code lies in figuring out which two prime numbers were multiplied together to create it – which is much harder than it sounds. While many of the prizes were claimed, most of the bigger numbers have never been solved.

D'Agapeyeff Cipher

(image via: cipher mysteries)
Alexander d'Agapeyeff wasn't even a cryptographer – having previously written a book on cartography, he decided to tackle cryptography in his second book, "Codes and Ciphers", in 1939. On the last page of the book, he included a modest cryptogram "upon which the reader is invited to test his skill." But modest or not, d'Agapeyeff's code has remained uncracked for 70 years, putting this amateur into the same league as the world's most gifted cryptographers.

The Beale Papers

(image via: wikimedia commons)
Want $40 million in buried gold, silver and jewels? All you have to do is solve an infamously "impossible" set of ciphertexts, one of which effectively provides that much-sought X on the map.  The treasure was reputedly buried in Bedford County, Virginia by one Thomas Jefferson Beale, who entrusted his encrypted ciphertexts to a local innkeeper. After the innkeeper's death, a friend who was given the papers spent twenty years trying to solve the ciphers, finally completing the one that describes the treasure. Despite many tries, the two others have never been solved.

Shugborough Inscription

(image via: wikimedia commons)
O-U-O-S-V-A-V-V. These letters are carved into a stone monument directly below a mirror image of Nicholas Poussin's  painting, The Shepherds of Arcadia, on the grounds of Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire, England – but what do they mean? Popular fiction imagines that Poussin was a member of the Priory of Scion and that the inscription refers to the location of the Holy Grail, but nobody really knows. Perhaps they're an acronym for Orator Ut Omnia Sunt Vanitas Ait Vanitas Vanitatem, a version of the biblical phrase "Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity" – but perhaps not.

Chinese Gold Bar Cipher

(image via:
The images seem to show a series of gold bars covered in images, strange symbols, Chinese writing, an unidentified script and crytpograms in Latin letters. These gold bars were supposedly issued to a General Wang in Shanghai, China and deposited into a U.S. bank in 1933, but they're so strange, the validity of the deposit is still disputed today. If someone can solve the script and codes, the dispute could be settled. Large images of all seven bars can be viewed at

Phaistos Disc

(image via: wikimedia commons)
From WebUrbanist's "10 Most Amazing Ancient Objects of Mystery in History": "There's very little that we actually know for sure about the Phaistos Disc. It's made of clay – check. It dates back to the second millennium B.C.E. – maybe. But its origin, meaning and purpose remain shrouded in mystery. Discovered in Crete, the disc is features i241 impressions of 45 distinct symbols, some of which are easily identifiable as people, tools, plants and animals. But because nothing else like it from the same time period has ever been found, archaeologists haven't been able to provide a meaningful analysis of its content."

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Woman sues Google after being hit by a car while using walking directions

route4-500x489.pngA woman named Lauren Rosenberg is suing Google for $100,000 after she walked onto a highway and got hit by a car while following Google Maps directions on her Blackberry. She disregarded, or didn't see, the warning that says: "Walking directions are in beta. Use caution - This route may be missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths." She also apparently didn't use common sense.

From Fortune:

Defendant Google, through its "Google Maps" service provided Plaintiff Lauren Rosenberg with walking directions that led her out onto Deer valley Drive, a.k.a. State Route 224, a rural highway with no sidewalks, and a roadway that exhibits motor vehicles traveling at high speeds, that is not reasonably safe for pedestrians.

The Defendant Google expects uses of the walking map site to rely on the accuracy of the walking directions given....

As a direct and proximate cause of Defendant Google's careless, reckless, and negligent providing of unsafe directions, Plaintiff Laren Rosenberg was led onto a dangerous highway, and was thereby stricken by a motor vehicle...

If Google told you to jump off a cliff, would you? [Fortune]

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The U-Socket Charges USB Devices Without an Adapter [Stuff We Like]

Nowadays, many of our mobile devices are USB-based, but those darn wall socket adapters are so easy to lose (or not have enough of). Thankfully, this fall, you can plug those USB devices straight into the wall with the $20 U-Socket. More »

Universal Serial Bus - USB - Hardware - Operating Systems - Linux

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Joss Whedon and Stan Lee making a Comic-Con documentary

Joss Whedon and Stan Lee making a Comic-Con documentary

A whole bunch of interesting people including Joss Whedon and Stan Lee are going to make a Comic-Con documentary according to Deadline:

"A documentary is in the works involving Morgan Spurlock, Legendary Pictures chief Thomas Tull, superhero legend Stan Lee, Justice League director Joss Whedon and the randy redhead blogger Harry Knowles. They've teamed on Comic-Con Episode Four: A Fan's Hope, a feature documentary that will follow seven people from around the world as they travel to the geek summit that is Comic-Con in San Diego."

This seems like the perfect team for such a (long overdue) project. We'll be first in line for tickets!

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First replicating life from artificial DNA reported


Potentially historic news, awaiting replication by the scientific community, from famous biochemistry entrepreneur J. Craig Venter (Wikipedia). From the abstract, published today in AAAS Science, of what may someday prove to be one of the most important papers in ths history of biochemistry:

We report the design, synthesis, and assembly of the 1.08-Mbp Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 genome starting from digitized genome sequence information and its transplantation into a Mycoplasma capricolum recipient cell to create new Mycoplasma mycoides cells that are controlled only by the synthetic chromosome. The only DNA in the cells is the designed synthetic DNA sequence, including "watermark" sequences and other designed gene deletions and polymorphisms, and mutations acquired during the building process. The new cells have expected phenotypic properties and are capable of continuous self-replication.

The original cell was not completely "synthetic," but its DNA was. So this is not quite the ultimate realization of the project of organic chemistry, i.e. to create living matter from completely lifeless matter, but it is a giant step in that direction. [via Boing Boing]

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BP Disaster: Oil reaches Louisiana marshlands


Photo from Louisiana Gov. Jindal's tour of the environmental devastation in coastal marshlands caused by the BP oil disaster. As a friend said, this thing isn't a "spill," it's a fossil-fuel Chernobyl, unfolding in slow motion, thousands of gallons a day.

(Louisiana Gov.'s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, via Clayton Cubitt)

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Metafilter users save two Russian girls from sex traffickers

A reader writes, "Members of rescue two Russian girls from probable sex traffickers in NYC, in real time. You have to read through it to believe it."
My friend and former student K arrived in DC yesterday, along with a friend. She came over on some kind of travel exchange program put together by a Russian travel agency called 'Aloha'. They paid about 3K for this program.

The program promised a job offer in advance, but didn't deliver. They said they would send one via email, but failed there, too.

Her contact in the USA barely speaks English, doesn't answer her calls but does answer mine. He has asked her and her friend to meet in NYC tonight around midnight, with promises of hostess work in a lounge. Yes, I know how horrific that sounds- that's why I am working all possible angles here.

Help me help my friend in DC.

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UK government promises immediate, sweeping, pro-liberty reform

Britain's new (and unprecedented) coalition government has promised a set of sweeping, immediate pro-liberty changes including a reduction in the use of CCTV surveillance, an end to the national ID card programme, reform libel law, end pointless data-retention and a commit to using free/open source software in large government IT projects.
* We will scrap the ID card scheme, the National Identity register and the ContactPoint database, and halt the next generation of biometric passports.

* We will outlaw the fingerprinting of children at school without parental permission.

* We will adopt the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database.

* We will review libel laws to protect freedom of speech.

* We will further regulate CCTV.

* We will end the storage of internet and e-mail records without good reason.

* We will create a level playing field for open-source software and will enable large ICT projects to be split into smaller components.

* We will create a new "right to data" so that government-held datasets can be requested and used by the public, and then published on a regular basis.

* We will introduce measures to ensure the rapid roll-out of superfast broadband across the country. We will ensure that BT and other infrastructure providers allow the use of their assets to deliver such broadband, and we will seek to introduce superfast broadband in remote areas at the same time as in more populated areas. If necessary, we will consider using the part of the TV license fee that is supporting the digital switchover to fund broadband in areas that the market alone will not reach.

The LibDems have also promised to reform the dread Digital Economy Act, consistent with Bridget Fox's Freedom, Creativity and the Internet motion at the Spring Conference this year.

New UK govt to curb CCTV, scrap ID cards, help open source

Unified Policy Statement (PDF)

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Ninjas Rescue Student From Muggers

A group of assailants got a little more than they bargained for when an entire ninja school came to their victim's rescue. A 27-year-old German exchange student was being mugged in an alley near Ninja Senshi Ryu, when a ninja student noticed the commotion. The sensei along with the rest of the students rushed out to help. "You should have seen their faces when they saw us in ninja gear coming towards them," the school's sensei, Kaylan Soto, told the Herald. It's good to see ninjas working on their brand. When I was a kid they were mostly shurikens, smoke, and attitude.

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The Human Centipede horror film

The Human Centipede: First Sequence is a newly-released schlock-horror film about a crazy surgeon who attempts to make a human centipede by sewing people together mouth-to-butt. Roger Ebert refused to apply the star system to it in his review. From the Sun Times:
 Wp-Content Uploads 2010 04 The-Human-Centipede-First-Sequence I have long attempted to take a generic approach. In other words, is a film true to its genre and does it deliver what its audiences presumably expect? "The Human Centipede" scores high on this scale. It is depraved and disgusting enough to satisfy the most demanding midnight movie fan. And it's not simply an exploitation film...

I am required to award stars to movies I review. This time, I refuse to do it. The star rating system is unsuited to this film. Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don't shine.

Roger Ebert reviews The Human Centipede (Thanks, Lisa Mumbach!)

And here's The Awl's review, "Horror Chick: Do Not See 'The Human Centipede' Unless You Are a Sick, Sick Puppy, And Even Then Reconsider"

UPDATE: And the requisite Tumblr blog for this depraved flick, "Behind the Behind," from UPSO and pals.

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52 ways to die in a cave

Some upbeat reading for your coffee and donut time.

A couple of weeks ago, I read Blind Descent, a book about speleologists exploring the some of the deepest caves* on Earth. One of the things that struck me about the story was just how frequently potentially deadly accidents happened. Towards the end, it got to the point where somebody was cheating the Reaper every other page or so. But, really, that's kind of the whole deal with deep cave exploration—when the surface is a multi-day trek away, through constricting passages and up sheer cliffs, just about any injury can quickly become life-threatening.

In fact, author James Tabor was able to come up with a list of 52 different ways deep caving could kill you—and that's with lumping all "incapacitating injuries" into one entry.

*"Deep" in this case means depth from top to bottom of the cave, not depth below sea level. These were journeys into the Earth, but they tended to start up a mountain and end at the bottom of a river valley, rather than in the land of the mole-people. That distinction confused me through the first few chapters, and left me still wanting to know about caves that go deep below the surface of the Earth, as opposed to caves that are just deep.

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NYC writer's space throws out last remaining typewriter user

Greenwich Village's Writers Room, a low-cost place for writers to rent workspace, has banned mechanical typewriters from its premises, giving Skye Ferrante, the sole remaining typewriter user the choice of switching to a laptop or going elsewhere. He's not going to switch. Ferrante's been using the Writers Room for six years, and is distressed at the news that he's got to leave.
"In the event that there are no desks available, laptop users must make room for typists," read a sign posted in the "Typing Room" for years.

When Ferrante returned to the Writers Room in April after an eight-month break, the sign was gone and his noisy typewriter was no longer welcome.

"I was told I was the unintended beneficiary of a policy to placate the elderly members who have all since died off," said Ferrante, a Manhattan native who's writing children's books. "They offered me a choice to switch to a laptop or refund my money, which to me is no choice at all."

Ferrante was peeved, but not completely surprised.

A growing number of scowls had replaced the smiles that once greeted the arrival of his black, glass-key typewriter.

Last typist refuses to switch to laptop, gets boot from Writers Room in Greenwich Village

(Image: Hagen/News

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The Gulf oil slick has a tail, and that's bad


See the the long, dangle-y trail of oil in this NASA photo taken May 17? It's a big problem—and not just for the obvious reason. The oil slick isn't simply spreading here, it's hitching a ride on the Interstate.

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The Loop Current is a patch of warm, Caribbean water that pops up into the colder Gulf like a prairie dog sticking its head out of a hole. You can see it above as the orange parabola popping up into the blue. Water follows the path of that arch, up from the Caribbean, back to the Caribbean—and the water that gets back to the tropics can easily join up with the Atlantic Gulf Stream, seen above as the orange arrow rising along the Eastern Seaboard.

That tail of oil in the first picture has almost extended into the orange parabola of the second. So far, NASA says, the Loop Current isn't picking up the oil. But, if it does, the Deepwater Horizon slick could reach the straights of Florida in as little as eight days. And, beyond, the Atlantic.

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Eating well on food stamps isn't easy


Food stamps might pay enough to keep a single hipster in organic arugula and fine chocolates, but faddish stories about young yuppies living high on the government dime make it easy to forget the millions of Americans who have to make that money feed a whole family for a month. And that is not a simple task.

The average family of four gets $275.53 a month in food stamps. That's $68.88 a week. I've pulled that off just fine when I was single, but one adult with a middlin' appetite is a universe away from feeding multiple children. The Associated Press recently challenged two professional chefs and a food magazine editor to try making a week's worth of healthy meals for four on that budget—one pulled it off, another almost made it and the third went $20 over.

The story ended up with some handy tips for meal planning, shopping and eating on the cheap, but I think the thing to take out of this is a reminder that most people aren't on government assistance because it provides an awesome lifestyle for no work.

Hear AP food editor Jason Hirsch and chef Jose Garces talk to New Hampshire Public Radio's "Word of Mouth"

Image courtesy Flickr user clementine gallot, via cc

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What If They Gave a Terrorist Attack And Nobody Noticed?

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Apparently there was a terrorist attack on American soil earlier this week. What's more, though fortunately nobody was killed in the attack, unlike in the much-hyped Underpants Bomber or Times Square plots, the perpetrator actually managed to build a working bomb. But somehow this attack, despite its greater technical sophistication, hasn't obtained nearly the same level of media attention. And I just can't figure out why:

FBI officials in Jacksonville, Fla., say they have found the remnants of a pipe bomb used in a possible hate crime at a mosque during evening prayers.

Along with local police, the FBI launched an investigation after an explosion shook the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida at 9:35 p.m. Monday, when approximately 60 people were inside praying. No one was injured.

It's a huge mystery to me what could possibly account for the difference

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Man Jumps From Moving Car Because Wife Won't "Shut Up" [Car Crashes]

A 23-year-old Tennessee man bailed from a moving vehicle last Thursday during an argument with his wife, who was driving, because she wouldn't "shut up." He's in critical but stable condition after being helicoptered to the hospital. [The Leaf Chronicle] More »

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Anti-identity-theft huckster has had identity stolen at least 13 times

Todd Davis's identity has been stolen at least 13 times. Davis is CEO of LifeLock, a company that sells anti-identity-theft services, and their ads feature Davis's Social Security Number (because their service works so well he can afford to publicize his SSN without being compromised. Collection agencies across the country are trying to get him to cough up for debts that other people have racked up with the SSN they cleaned from the ad.

LifeLock has already been fined $12,000,000 by the FTC for deceptive advertising. The Phoenix New Times has a long, investigative story on LifeLock's business practices and the (in)efficacy of its services. It's a pretty comprehensive look at how to make something that doesn't work very well and compound that with bad business practices.

LifeLock's co-founders, Richard Todd Davis and Robert J. Maynard Jr., told reporters across the country that Maynard had once spent a week in the Maricopa County jail, falsely accused of crimes, because his identity had been stolen. The 2003 incident was the inspiration for the company, they said.

Official records and interviews with authorities in Nevada proved the story a fable. Maynard had been arrested and jailed here, all right -- because he'd failed to pay back a $16,000 gambling marker at the Mirage casino in Las Vegas. Like bouncing a check, that's a crime. Nevada authorities dropped the charges after Maynard, from his cell, managed to scrape together the cash.

The article also revealed that Maynard, the Valley businessman who was principally behind LifeLock during its 2005 inception, was banned for life in the 1990s from the credit-repair industry.

Then there was this ironic tidbit: Maynard's own father, Valley optometrist Robert Maynard Sr., accused him of identity theft.

Cracking LifeLock: Even After a $12 Million Penalty for Deceptive Advertising, the Tempe Company Can't Be Honest About Its Identity-Theft-Protection Service (via Threat

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