Combosaurus: I don't know what's going on here

I got an email today from OkCupid headlined "Combosaurus knows more about [my username] than [my username] does," which I assumed was just a creepy new way of letting me know they'd found someone thy thought I'd be compatable with. It turns out, Combosaurus is OkCupid's new social network?  They explain:

For most folks, it takes just a few minutes to sign in and tell us what you like (or hate) before we can make predictions. Once you do, we can…

  • Introduce users with similar tastes
  • Predict interests you might like
  • Help you mock or praise your friends’ ratings

Sign up and give it a shot.

I'm hesitant about signing up for a social network that might introduce me to people without checking with me first.  But I'm also really curious.  So I have an account now.

The first thing they had me do was rate loads of things on a five-point scale from D: to :D.After about 100 ratings, I realized it was on infinite scroll.

The homepage lists loads of results form, like, three other people, which I assume is a temporary condition while the site gets up and running.  There's also a "People" tab, which offers a list of people similar to me, and a "You Might Like" tab, which appears to be the D: to :D scale they dropped me on when I signed up.

I'm not totally sure whether this site is supposed to help me meet people or find stuff.  Here's the About page, if it helps anyone else.

Faux fur ruse

Major US retailers have been selling real fur clothes, labeled as faux fur.  Julie Creswell at the New York Times writes:

On the face of it, the real-for-fake switch might not seem to make business sense. But because many people are no longer buying real fur, manufacturers and retailers are scrambling to meet growing demand for faux fur. As a result, some products are being mislabeled.

“The lines between real and fake have gotten really blurry,” said Dan Mathews, a senior vice president with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “In this global marketplace, there are fur farms in China that raise dogs for clothing that is labeled as fake fur here in the U.S. because that’s what the market best responds to.”

The retailers, The Neiman Marcus Group Inc., DrJays.com Inc., and Eminent Inc. settled with the Federal Trade Commission -- no fines or damages, but the retailers are prohibited "for 20 years, from violating the Fur Act and the Rules and Regulations Under the Fur Act."

I don't understand why that's a good thing -- having broken the law, they agreed to settle the lawsuit by agreeing not to break the law anymore, for a fixed amount of time -- but the FTC is apparently happy with the outcome.  They stress in their writeup that the retailers have not admitted guilt, and that they wouldn't necessarily have been able to prove it in a court of law.  The order "carries the force of law with respect to future actions.  Each violation of such an order may result in a civil penalty of up to $16,000."

I guess it's good, at least, to hear that real fur has become so unpopular in the US that they have to pretend it's fake to sell it.  And if three major retailers can't pass it off for the next 20 years, maybe it'll just totally die out.

Applied Aquaponics

Roman Gaus, an entrepreneur in aquaponics, has written an article about his journey from curiosity to trailblazing, ending up where he is now, running (among other farms) a farm on a rooftop in Switzerland.  The article is called The Farming Technique That Could Revolutionize the Way We Eat.

Aquaponics is a method of combined fish and vegetable farming that requires no soil. The farmer cultivates freshwater fish (aquaculture) and plants (hydroponics) in a recirculating water system that exchanges nutrients between the two. Wastewater from the fish serves as organic fertilizer for the plants, while the plants clean the water of fish feces and urine. The net result: a 90 percent reduction in freshwater use compared with conventional fish farming, and a significant reduction in added nutrients such as fossil fertilizers. The system can be run without pesticides and, because the fish environment is spacious and clean, without antibiotics.

The above is a good summary of what aquaponics entails, and highlights one of the huge advantages of the method that's not really dealt with in this article:  It's a way to mass-produce food that might be able to replace the environmentally damaging fertilizers that are necessary to produce enough food to keep all the people currently on earth still-alive.  (Hank Green talks about this near the end of his SciShow video, Fritz Haber: Great Minds.)

To test and prove my idea, I investigated urban-farm options and came across a French design for a 20-foot cargo ship container with a greenhouse module built on top. It looked like it could house an aquaponics system. The container was relatively small and portable — the size of two parking spaces — and could be easily toured in public places: in front of schools, supermarkets, or parking lots. All it required were electrical and water hookups. I liked the ruggedness of the cargo container combined with the leafy beauty of cultivation. The UrbanFarmers Box was born.

[...]

We are building a 2,700-square-foot greenhouse farm on a rooftop in Basel, Switzerland. We started selling fresh produce to five local restaurants in January 2013, just six months after construction started. This roof-garden-on-steroids should yield more than five tons of fresh vegetables and nearly a ton of fish per year, feeding a local community of 100 people year-round.

Gaus also brings up one of the other cool qualities of aquaponics:  the inherent bias towards moderation and balance.  It might be a little bit aggressively optimistic to say, but I imagine if the majority of our food was produced in a process that required excruciating attention to a complex balance, we might generally be forced to be a little less all-or-nothing as a civilization.

Amid the excitement, however, we must remember that commercial-scale aquaponics is a delicate technology requiring a sensitive balance between the cultivation of fish and vegetables. You cannot maximize yields for either part without creating problems. Maintaining food safety and quality in these systems is critical. Going forward, it will take time, ingenuity, and significant investment to perfect our methods, become profitable, and make an impact.

Check out the whole article -- it's really good, and it's great to hear about examples of aquaponics farms having direct success in real life.  My fingers are crossed that this is the future of food in America.  (And, hey.  My town just passed a ballot measure to allow the construction of casinos.  Maybe I can try and persuade someone running a casino that organic, aquaponic fresh fish and vegetables would be a good novelty draw for people who feel a bit morally queasy about gambling.)

SimCity's new release

I was vaguely aware of the existence of a new SimCity game in production over the last few weeks.  Today, I found out it came out yesterday, and I started looking into it.  Adam Sneed at Slate has written a long post about his experience with the game, that has made me drool a little bit:

To tinker with the environment during a preview of SimCity, I created Sneedville, a playground for my more destructive tendencies. The area in which I founded my city was rich in coal and metal ore, so I chose to specialize in industry. [...]

Because of the work available to them, the residents of Sneedville were low-income. This limited the city’s tax revenue, and there was little incentive for people to move into town. Worse, data showed that pollution from the industrial park was lowering property values and diminishing quality of life. It also turned out that the ore beneath the mines was being depleted.

The city was off to a decent start financially, but following the trend lines wasn’t hard. Real estate was limited, so I needed to make a decision. Should I dedicate myself to industry, knowing it will bring money as well as environmental damage, and that the area’s lifeblood would someday run out? Or should I try diversifying the economy by shifting to, say, commerce, education, or tourism?

[...]

Another way SimCity accurately captures in the leading edge of urban planning is through its use of Big Data. Cities around the world are using sensors to measure everything from energy and water usage to pollution levels and crime trends. The game puts the player at the helm of the ultimate smart city as it tracks just about every metric of life in the simulation. At the click of a button, dynamic, colorful maps—inspired by the infographics of data scientist Edward Tufte—present real-time data on traffic, crime, pollution, public health, property values, and much more.

Apparently, there are some serious problems with server access going on right now, but EA says they're working to sort them out.

Dying mice, and maybe also touchscreens

The Atlantic has a cool roundup of devices for controlling computers that are going to be coming out over this year.  I'm still primarily looking forward to Google Glass, but there's a lot of stuff on this list I'd love to play with. (And I'm becoming increasingly disappointed with the continued existence of the mouse.)

the iPhone -- and the brilliant iOS software and declining multi-touch display prices -- cracked that computing paradigm wide open. And for the last half a decade, touchscreens have more or less taken over for mobile computing. At the same time, gesture interfaces from Nintendo and Microsoft in the gaming space exploded, marking a serious move away from the traditional controller for non-hardcore gamers.

That's given a lot of new hardware interface designers hope, not to mention a plausible story to tell venture capitalists. Add a dash of Kickstarter funding and Sergey Brin's interest and you have an explosion of new possibilities. Here are five that I've noticed. What's fascinating is that all are slated to be out this year:

  • The Leap Motion control system took preorders last year and just announced they'll be shipping in May. I've played with a Leap system and I found it fun and interesting. I'm not sure it will replace your touchscreen or laptop input devices, but at $79, it seems worth trying out. The Leap uses cameras to track your motion, but they say the actual secret sauce is in the math that allows them to do that tracking at very high speed and resolution.
  • Thalmic Labs has a different approach. They give you an armband that tracks the electrical signals in your muscles.

The BP trial is starting

The trial of British Petroleum over the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 started today, Aljazeera writes.

BP also hopes to shift much of the blame, and cost, to rig operator Transocean and subcontractor Halliburton, which was responsible for a faulty cement job on board the offshore drilling platform.

It took 87 days to cap the runaway well, which blackened beaches in five states and crippled the region's tourism and fishing industries in a tragedy that riveted the nation.

The first phase of the civil trial will determine the cause and apportion fault for the disaster.

The second phase, not expected to start for several months, will determine exactly how much oil was spilled in order to calculate environmental fines.

They've already settled for over 10 billion dollars, but there are still a lot more trials to come.

So I guess the Nook is in decline?

I don't follow much about tablets and e-readers, because I was heavily de-incentivized after Borders closed, because it made me sad.  But according to Slate, in an article titled Barnes & Noble Founder Wants To Repurchase the Core of the Company, B&N is getting ready to abandon ship on their share of the e-reader market:

The attempted Nook pivot has been executed about as well as I think anyone could realistically hope. The Nook devices are good devices. But it's failing as a businessbecause the market only seems to have room for two or three complete tablet ecosystems, and Barnes & Noble just doesn't have what it takes to muscle out Apple, Amazon, and Google in this space.

Freedom Ship International: a traveling city on the ocean

Earlier today, my partner told me about a project to make a ship that is a city.  Like, an entire city.  I did some googling, and discovered that what she was talking about was the Freedom Ship, which at this stage is just a big plan.

 

Envision an ideal place to live or run a business, a friendly, safe and secure community with large areas of open space and extensive entertainment and recreational facilities. Finally, picture this community continually moving around the world. You are beginning to understand the Freedom Ship concept of a massive ocean-going vessel.

[link]

At first glance, this project sounds really, really cool.  But looking closer at the website, it sounds not so much like a real city -- it sounds sort of aggressively pre-gentrified.

The idea of a city that is a boat, in fact exactly the sort of city they're roughly describing at that website, that sails around the world, stopping in at all the major ports, sustaining a real population of people who actually live there, is really cool.  And, I think, just bordering on possible.  But what they seem to be trying to do with this project isn't to make a city at sea -- they're trying to make a rich neighborhood from a city, at sea.

That, to me, makes it sound like a much more awful place.  And it has all the trappings of that awfulness -- the name, especially, squicks me out.  Neither a ship nor a city are good places to maximize freedom.  They're great for a lot of other things -- adventure, multiculturalism, innovation, etc.  But the principle 'your right to swing your first ends at the tip of my noes' is a lot more restricting when people are packed densely.

But this project does give me hope.  Because if we're getting into the business of building ships like this, then it's only a matter of time before somebody gets it right.  (And with the speed things change in the world now, that might only be a couple of decades.)  I'm not interested in signing up to live on the Freedom Ship, but it would be awesome to live on the next one, the S.S. whatever, something with an organic nature that builds up its own, real infrastructure with a real mix of people from different socio-economic classes all pursuing what better life that ship can offer them.

And if it doesn't happen in real life, it almost certainly will, eventually, in one of my novels.

Portal: the movie?

(via Reddit) According to Polygon.com, J.J. Abrams is in talks with Gabe Newell about making movies about Portal and/or Half Life.  This conversation took place during a Keynote talk about storytelling across platforms at the 2013 DICE summit, which before today is a thing I didn't know existed.  That talk took place today, and isn't up online yet.  I'm looking forward to seeing it.

My first thought when I read that Portal might be a movie was "No way."  I'm a little embarrassed that I had that reactionary response, because it's not fair -- the response under it, the thing that makes sense to me, is "How the hell would you make a movie out of Portal?  It's such a game."  The medium of the game, specifically the game, Portal, not just the medium of 'games,' tells the story of Portal better than any other way I can imagine, because the story was written specifically to fit the game, not the other way around.

Obviously, there's a huge difference between "I don't know how this could be done" and "This shouldn't be done."  I think it definitely should, if J.J. Abrams is on board and Valve is fully involved.  These are people with a real interest, investment and history in demanding more of their chosen media, and a Portal movie might be an avenue into new revelations for both games and film.

Or, I mean, they could make the Half Life movie instead.

Holy crap, Homeland comes out tomorrow

I'm not totally sure how I failed to pay attention to this, but the sequel to Cory Doctorow's Little Brother is coming out tomorrow.  I discovered this when I saw that Doctorow is about to go on tour, promoting the book. This may call for a short break in my effort to read books by all this year's Clarion writers before I find out whether I got in, although Doctorow is one of this year's teachers, so it might sort of half count.

Also:  Doctorow will be in three different New Hampshire locations on the weekend of the 23rd/24th.

David Bowie released a single

David Bowie, rockstar, celebrated his birthday this morning by releasing the single for his first new album in over ten years.  The album is scheduled to come out, according to Wikipedia,on March 12th in the United States,  March 8th in Australia, March 11th everywhere else. The album is called The Next Dayand the single is called "Where are we now?"

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOyDTy9DtHQ]

That's the news.  On to the personal stuff:  This is weird.

I mean, it's not weird for Bowie.  This actually seems pretty tame compared to, like, Ziggy Stardust.   But the last time David Bowie came out with something new was 2003.  I was 14 at the time -- I barely knew what music was.  I certainly didn't know how significant David Bowie was, or how much I was eventually going to like him.

So this is the first time I've ever been around for the actual, present moment of David Bowie, like, happening in real life.  And I'm here for it on the day. I'm a fairly skeptical person, but this is one of those kinds of events that one's brain just refuses not to interpret as significant.

So, yes, I am absolutely buying the new David Bowie album on March 12th.

Maple syrup heist gone bad

Sometimes, I'm really glad I follow the World News subreddit.  Today, it was incredibly worth it, because I got to read this headline, and the relevant story:

Thieves arrested for stealing 6 million pounds of maple syrup

This reads a bit like a bad Canada joke.  But no, it really happened.  Four thieves have been arrested, and there are five more suspects the police are currently pursuing.

Quebec police have arrest warrants for four other suspects, the report said.

"We know there are probably more people involved. It's a complex case," said Simon Trepanier, director of the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers.

"At the beginning we knew it had been done by a very organised group because it’s impossible to steal that amount of maple syrup without being organised."

And the Business Standard, the paper reporting on this theft, also wants to clarify:

Maple syrup is often eaten with pancakes, waffles, French toast, or oatmeal and porridge. It is also used as an ingredient in baking, and as a sweetener or flavouring agent.

What were they going to do with it?  Were they going to sell it on the black market?  Is there a black market for syrup?

This is the best news story of the week.

Eyewitness recognition

The New York Times has published an editorial about a court decision in Oregon to shift the burden of proof in an eyewitness identification to the prosecution:

The Oregon Supreme Court in a unanimous decision last week upended how eyewitness identification is to be used in criminal trials. The landmark ruling shifts the burden of proof to prosecutors to show that such identification is sufficiently reliable to be admissible as evidence at trial. Misidentification is the country’s leading cause of wrongful convictions. By altering the legal standard, Oregon has set an example that other states and the federal courts would be wise to follow.

[...]

In ruling that such evidence should be subject to stricter standards, the court took into account three decades of scientific research showing that memory and perception can be highly unreliable. “Because of the alterations to memory that suggestiveness can cause,” the court said, “it is incumbent on courts and law enforcement personnel to treat eyewitness memory just as carefully as they would other forms of trace evidence, like DNA, bloodstains, or fingerprints, the evidentiary value of which can be impaired or destroyed by contamination.”

The Walmart Strike

It occurred to me just now that I've barely heard anything about the strikes that were supposed to be happening at Walmarts across the country today.  According to USA Today, it seems they didn't have much effect:

 Scattered walk-outs and protests by Walmart workers and their supporters in at least nine states may have scored symbolic points Friday by taking on the retail giant head-on, but apparently they did little to keep shoppers away as the company quickly claimed its best Black Friday ever.

The company said in a statement Friday morning that its stores rang up almost 10 million transactions from the time doors opened for Black Friday shoppers at 8 p.m. Thursday until midnight, or about 5,000 items per second.

OUR Walmart, backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, claimed an estimated 1,000 protests were held from Thursday to Friday in 46 states, though the exact number is unclear, the Associated Press reports.

Walmart reps are saying that the protests consisted almost entirely of non-employees, claiming that only about 50 people across the country who actually work for Walmart participated, and that strikes only took place at 26 stores.  Strike representatives are saying that multiple workers at over 100 stores took part, and I have no idea whether one side or the other is lying outright, or whether the correct number is somewhere in the middle.  Or some other number entirely.  Or maybe unicorns attacked all the Walmarts today.  I don't know, I haven't left the house.

Google Fiber is online (in Kansas City, Missouri)

After reading this article on ArsTechnica, I went and did a speed test to see what kind of upload and download speeds I'm getting.  I'm not super computer-literate, so sometimes I have trouble bringing that kind of information into context.  My download speed is 4.63Mbps; upload, 6.37Mbps. Google Fiber offers speeds of 600-700Mpbs.  On the low end, that's 130 Times faster than my internet connection.

The article also discusses Ben Barreth, a man who bought a home in the Fiber-section of Kansas City, to offer free temporary housing to programmers who want to create startups.  They're also considering renting out a room for tourists:

He anticipates getting donations, sponsorships, or, the most-likely scenario, renting out one of the bedrooms via AirBnB to the first Google Fiber "tourists"—people who might want to come for a day or two at a time to try it out.

"$50 a night for 10 nights a month would cover mortgage and most of the utilities," he said.

So, Kansas City has just made the list of places I really, really want to visit, and I know exactly where I want to stay. Heh, I could live-blog the internet at high speed! It makes me a little giddy just thinking about how quickly my post would upload, and re-load the editing page after I hit update.

UPDATE: I just published, and it took like 30 seconds before it would let me type more stuff.

Ikea to be self-sufficient

Wired has a great article about Ikea's efforts to create as much electricity as they consume by 2020:

The target seems achievable, considering the 342,000 solar panels on its outlets and factories already generate 27 percent of its total energy. Add to that the fact that Ikea has wind farms in six countries across Europe and the fact that, since 2009, it has already invested half of that €1.5 billion figure, and it looks like the long-term strategy has been in the works for some time.

It's a cool headline, but apparently it's only one of the many ways Ikea is trying to minimize its environmental impact.  They also buy half their wood from forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, a nonprofit which works to vouchsafe responsible logging -- and, they plant a tree for every one they use in production.

They're also looking into recycling people's kitchen fixtures:

"Some things are best recycled by local authorities," Ikea's chief sustainability officer Steve Howard told the Financial Times, "but others, we can help, like kitchens, wardrobes, mattresses. Maybe we could have low-cost leasing of kitchens and see a product offering become a service one. We want a smarter consumption, and maybe people are less attached to ownership". Ikea would presumably have to slash the cost of its kitchens significantly to make this a reality -- it's unlikely anyone would intend on having their kitchen gutted a few years after installation, and the next homeowners would not be too pleased. But it's an interesting model, nonetheless.

What are the Perversion Files?

I was a Boy Scout for a while when I was a kid.  (I quit because I started increasingly to disagree with the moral principles the Scouts defended.)  Fortunately, nothing horrible ever happened to me as part of the Scouts.  I'm sure that's true for a lot of people who went through the program, hopefully most. As a result of a court order in Oregon, the Boy Scouts' Ineligible Volunteer Files -- known within the system as the Perversion Files -- have been released to the public, and they highlight the problem with letting institutions police themselves.

The Washington Post writes:

The 14,500 pages of newly released records offer details on about 15 cases of alleged sex abuse by Washington area Boy Scout volunteers from the mid-1960s to 1984, including the names of the alleged perpetrators. Many of them have involved criminal prosecutions, but whether future criminal prosecutions might result from the records is not clear.

[...]

Thursday’s release of records follows a series of stories by the Los Angeles Times describing a decades-long culture of secrecy within the Boy Scouts in its handling of sex-abuse complaints against adult volunteers.

[...T]he newspaper cited hundreds of incidents of alleged sexual abuse since the 1960s, many of which apparently were not reported to police by Boy Scout officials.

Adults accused of molesting boys were often compelled to leave the Boy Scouts under the guise of being too busy with jobs or other activities to continue as volunteers, according to the Times. Many volunteers who were expelled for suspected sex abuse were able to slip back into the program, the newspaper reported.

On the not so completely dark side, the Boy Scouts' chain of command are recognizing this as a massive wrong, and have had a policy of reporting sexual abuse directly to the police since 2010.  That gives it a leg up over other well-respected institutions, such as the Catholic Church, but it's still well below the threshold of remotely okay.

I wonder how long pedophilia has been this reviled as a broader cultural phenomenon.  Of course, it was always horrible.  But I hope that we're hitting a point, as a civilization, where it's too visible, and too hated, to be possible on any sort of scale.

When I think of Detroit, whether or not this is fair, I think of abandoned buildings, vacant lots, decaying cars parked for decades and badly executed graffiti.  But the city is considering an ordinance that could empower Detroit's citizens to change that image. Urban farming advocates are pushing for new zoning regulations that explicitly support agriculture within the city:

The draft Urban Agriculture Ordinance is expected to go before the City Council's advisory City Planning Commission later this month, and the council itself would then take up the ordinance in January.

Written with the advice of nonprofit community gardeners and advocates of large-scale farming, the ordinance puts no size limits on urban farms, and it permits the sale of produce through many avenues, from farm stands on the property to farmers markets and directly to public or private entities, either retail or wholesale.

If it passes, it will be easy for the people of Detroit to turn a lot of the city's abandoned spaces into productive land, and it will help the people already doing this avoid being shut down or punished.  They're also looking into new ordinances "to allow for chickens, rabbits and bees to be raised in the city -- all of which are being done anyway," if this legislation and the following implementation goes well.

I've never liked the popular mental image of Detroit -- I know almost nothing about the city, but the degree to which it's maligned leaves me feeling like that reputation can't be fair, and for a while now I've wanted to visit the city to see how accurate the picture I have really is.

Knowing they're taking on projects like this makes me feel optimistic about Detroit's future -- I think urban agriculture is going to be a major necessity in the future of human cities, mass outside farming being expensive inefficient and damaging to the environment.  Having spent the last several thousand years fighting nature out of our everyday lives, it's good to see that we're getting around to bringing it back into civilization.  (On our own terms.)

SourceFed on the Bacon Shortage

You know the bacon shortage I mentioned on Tuesday?  SourceFed covered it today.  So, if you didn't want to read my post, here it is in video form:

Apparently the Epic Meal Time guy also responded to it, and stuff.  The stuff I said that wasn't in the video basically amounts to:

  • I think this is going to force the human race to shift more towards plants as main sustenance,
  • I hope that Western civilization doesn't have to collapse to make that happen, but
  • I wouldn't put it past the most bacon-obsessed Americans to drag the country kicking and screaming into a new dark age trying to push back the inevitable unsustainability of pork.

Pork: the first unsustainable meat?

(via Reddit) The idea that the amount of meat humans produce being problematic isn't a new one.  It was one of my major motivations for becoming a weekday vegetarian -- around half of the plant food humans grow is used to feed livestock, which raises questions about the ethics of global food shortage.

Unfortunately, the majority of Westerners are unlikely to give up their bacon willingly.  Fortunately, it looks like the forces of economics might make them.  The NPA ("the voice of the British pig industry") report that, next year, a global shortage of pork and bacon is unavoidable.

The Huffington Post point out that increased droughts in North America and Russia caused grain crops to fail, increasing the price for grain produced.  They add, half of the country's counties have been labeled natural disaster areas by the Department of Agriculture.

I suppose it's a little grim of me to hope that this foreshadows a global-scale collapse of industrial livestock, forcing us onto more sustainable, less environmentally damaging food sources.  Then again, I can go grimmer:  If the world governments' responses to the failing Entertainment industry are representative of their future approach to other luxuries, America might face its ultimate collapse in a mad struggle to fund steak and bacon until they've sold off everything else and have to stop trying.

What I'd like to see, I think, is a polarization.  I'd like to see most people resign themselves to the reality that meat will have become a sometimes food, and either shift totally into vegetarianism or only occasionally seek out meat. Then, the super-macho pseudo-darwinist food chain fanboys that think the consumption of weaker animals is what defines humanity can all learn to hunt, and go live on the edge of the woods and get all their meals shooting things themselves.