Sunday, February 28, 2010

Crop Mobs

“Who brought their own wheelbarrow?” Rob Jones asked the group of 20-somethings gathered on a muddy North Carolina farm on a chilly January Sunday. Hands shot up and wheelbarrows were pulled from pickups sporting Led Zeppelin and biodiesel bumper stickers, then parked next to a mountain of soil. “We need to get that dirt into those beds over there in the greenhouse,” he said, nodding toward a plastic-roofed structure a few hundred feet away. “The rest of you can come with me to move trees and clear brush to make room for more pasture. Watch out for poison ivy.”

Bobby Tucker, the 28-year-old co-owner of Okfuskee Farm in rural Silk Hope, looked eagerly at the 50-plus volunteers bundled in all manner of flannel and hand-knits. In five hours, these pop-up farmers would do more on his fledgling farm than he and his three interns could accomplish in months. “It’s immeasurable,” he said of the gift of same-day infrastructure.

It’s the beauty of being Crop Mobbed.

The Crop Mob, a monthly word-of-mouth (and -Web) event in which landless farmers and the agricurious descend on a farm for an afternoon, has taken its traveling work party to 15 small, sustainable farms. Together, volunteers have contributed more than 2,000 person-hours, doing tasks like mulching, building greenhouses and pulling rocks out of fields.

“The more tedious the work we have, the better,” Jones said, smiling. “Because part of Crop Mob is about community and camaraderie, you find there’s nothing like picking rocks out of fields to bring people together.”

The affable, articulate Jones, 27, is part of the group’s grass-roots core, organizing events and keeping them moving. The Mob was formed during a meeting about issues facing young farmers, during which an intern declared that better relationships are built working side by side than by sitting around a table. So one day, 19 people went to Piedmont Biofarm and harvested, sorted and boxed 1,600 pounds of sweet potatoes in two and a half hours. A year later, the Crop Mob e-mail list has nearly 400 subscribers, and the farm fests now draw 40 to 50 volunteers.

The Crop Mob works well partly because the area around Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Durham is so rich in small-scale, sustainable farms, and the sustainable-agriculture program at Central Carolina Community College draws students from across the nation who stay put after graduation.

One of the biggest issues facing sustainable agriculture is that it’s “way, way, way more labor-intensive than industrial agriculture,” Jones said. “It’s not sustainable physically, and it’s not sustainable for people personally: they’re working all the time and don’t have an opportunity to have a social life. So I think Crop Mob brings that celebration to the work, so that you get that sense of community that people are looking for, and you get a lot of work done. And we have a lot of fun.”

Monday, February 22, 2010

Is ChatRoulette the future of the Internet?

By Sam Anderson

The first time I entered ChatRoulette—a new website that brings you face-to-face, via webcam, with an endless stream of random strangers all over the world—I was primed for a full-on Walt Whitman experience: an ecstatic surrender to the miraculous variety and abundance of humankind. The site was only a few months old, but its population was beginning to explode in a way that suggested serious viral potential: 300 users in December had grown to 10,000 by the beginning of February. Although big media outlets had yet to cover it, smallish blogs were full of huzzahs. The blog Asylum called ChatRoulette its favorite site since YouTube; another, The Frisky, called it “the Holy Grail of all Internet fun.” Everyone seemed to agree that it was intensely addictive—one of those gloriously simple ideas that manages to harness the crazy power of the Internet in a potentially revolutionary way.

The site activates your webcam automatically; when you click “start” you’re suddenly staring at another human on your screen and they’re staring back at you, at which point you can either choose to chat (via text or voice) or just click “next,” instantly calling up someone else. The result is surreal on many levels. Early ChatRoulette users traded anecdotes on comment boards with the eerie intensity of shipwreck survivors, both excited and freaked out by what they’d seen. There was a man who wore a deer head and opened every conversation with “What up DOE!?” A guy from Sweden was reportedly speed-drawing strangers’ portraits. Someone with a guitar was improvising songs for anyone who’d give him a topic. One man popped up on people’s screens in the act of fornicating with a head of lettuce. Others dressed like ninjas, tried to persuade women to expose themselves, and played spontaneous transcontinental games of Connect Four. Occasionally, people even made nonvirtual connections: One punk-music blogger met a group of people from Michigan who ended up driving eleven hours to crash at his house for a concert in New York. And then, of course, fairly often, there was this kind of thing: “I saw some hot chicks then all of a sudden there was a man with a glass in his butthole.” I sing the body electronic.

I entered the fray on a bright Wednesday afternoon, with an open mind and an eager soul, ready to sound my barbaric yawp through the webcams of the world. I left absolutely crushed. It turns out that ChatRoulette, in practice, is brutal. The first eighteen people who saw me disconnected immediately. They appeared, one by one, in a box at the top of my screen—a young Asian man, a high-school-age girl, a guy lying on his side in bed—and, every time, I’d feel a little flare of excitement. Every time, they’d leave without saying a word. Sometimes I could even watch them reach down, in horrifying real-time, and click “next.” It was devastating. My first even semi-successful interaction was with a guy with a blanket draped over his lap who asked if I wanted to “jack of” with him. I declined; he disconnected. Over the course of an hour, I was rejected by what felt like a cast of thousands: a teenage girl talking on her cell phone, a close-up of an eyeball. It started to feel like a social-anxiety nightmare. One guy just stared into the camera and flipped me off. Another stood in front of his computer making wave motions with his hands, refusing to respond to anything I typed. One person had the courtesy to give me, before disconnecting, a little advice: “too old.” (I’m 32.) A girl with heavy makeup looked terrified when my image popped up on her screen—I actually felt guilty, a few rounds later, when the engine of randomness threw us back together and she had to look at my face for another excruciating half-second. My longest exchange was with a guy who seemed to be wearing one of those protective cones you put on a dog after surgery. “LICK YOU ELBOW,” he typed. “Why?” I asked. He disconnected.

I got off the ChatRoulette wheel determined never to get back on. I hadn’t felt this socially trampled since I was an overweight 12-year-old struggling to get through recess without having my shoes mocked. It was total e-visceration. If this was the future of the Internet, then the future of the Internet obviously didn’t include me.

Read more: Is ChatRoulette the Future of the Internet or Its Distant Past? -- New York Magazine

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

First study of mummy DNA leads to all sorts of discoveries

Boing Boing: "King Tut—plus 10 other royal mummies—recently became the first ancient Egyptians to get their DNA analyzed. The results, published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, turned up a treasure trove of new information about the famous boy king, his family and Egyptian royalty in general. Among the discoveries:

Tut had a bone disorder that would have forced him to walk with a cane, and which may have been a result of royal inbreeding.
A mummy known as KV55 has turned out to be Tut's father, Akhenaten, a controversial pharaoh best known for his failed attempt at converting Egypt to monotheism. Based on sculptures and art that depict a feminized Akhenaten, researchers had long suspected that he suffered from a genetic hormone disorder called gynecomastia. But the DNA evidence says otherwise. Instead, Akhenaten's feminine features are likely to have been an artistic conceit, added for symbolic, religious reasons.

Leftover Valentine’s Chocolate? Use It to Measure the Speed of Light

Wired: "If you’re a long-time reader, you may remember the great leftover Easter Peeps microwave experiment. Well, today we’re going to be nuking leftover Valentine’s Day chocolate to demonstrate one of the constants of physics, the speed of light. Chocolate makes a very appropriate medium, because the heating property of microwaves was first discovered by a scientist whose candy bar melted in his pocket when he got too close to a microwave device being tested for use in radar.
WARNING: This experiment may take several tries to get right. We are not responsible for any weight gained. To avoid familial strife, be sure to only do this experiment with your own chocolates or with candy which you have been authorized to access. You can probably find some leftover boxes on sale this week.
The demonstration works because microwave ovens produce standing waves — waves that move “up” and “down” in place, instead of rolling forward like waves in the ocean. Microwave radiation falls into the radio section of the electromagnetic spectrum. Most ovens produce waves with a frequency of 2,450 megahertz (millions of cycles per second). The oven is designed to be just the right size to cause the microwaves to reflect off the walls so that the peaks and valleys line up perfectly, creating “hot spots” (actually, lines of heat)."

Read More

Monday, February 15, 2010

Unemployed Ohio man chills out in extreme igloo

AQUILLA, Ohio (AP) - It's quite the man cave.

Jimmy Grey says he's been out of work for almost a year and needed a project to stay busy. So with the heavy snowfall this winter, the 25-year-old laborer got to work on an extreme igloo in his family's yard in Aquilla, about 30 miles east of Cleveland.

His four-room creation has 6-foot ceilings and an entertainment room. He powers the TV with an extension cord plugged into an outlet in the garage. He also ran wires for cable television with surround-sound stereo.

Grey says candles help add ambiance for nighttime get-togethers with friends, and the freezing temperatures mean that the beer never goes warm.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Robot Snowplow from Japan Eats Up Snow, Poops Out Bricks

Meet Yuki-taro, a self-guided, GPS and camera equipped robot snowplow that somehow manages to look as cute as Pokemon's Pikachu - this is Japan, after all!

if anything, it makes you think.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Trying to Revitalize a Dying Small Town

Cairo, Ill., sits on a narrow peninsula at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, in the heart of a region called Little Egypt for the resemblance it bears to the flat, loamy landscape of the Nile River Delta. Charles Dickens, after a visit in 1842, dubbed Cairo a "dismal swamp ... uncheered by any gleam of promise," although Mark Twain rehabilitated its image 40 years later, making it the destination of Huck and Jim's river voyage in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. At its 1920s peak, Cairo was a boomtown of 15,000 people. But as river trade declined, so did Cairo. In the 1960s and '70s, the town was engulfed in racial turmoil: white residents formed vigilante groups, while Cairo's black population waged a three-year boycott of businesses that refused to integrate. What's left, after decades of white flight and economic stagnation, is an expanse of abandoned buildings, bulldozed lots and forgotten history. Around 3,000 people live in Cairo (pronounced Kay-ro), a third of them below the poverty line. "I describe this town in three words," says Preston Ewing Jr., Cairo's unofficial historian and former president of the local NAACP chapter: "poor, black and ugly."

That hasn't deterred Chris Johnston, 36, the proprietor of punk label Plan-it-X Records. A genial Indiana native with a blond widow's peak and a penchant for flannel shirts, Johnston was looking for a decrepit Midwestern river town to relocate his business to when he saw Cairo on the map. "I grew up by the Ohio River," he says. "The more I read about the town's history, the more intrigued I got." Like the urban homesteaders who have set up shop in recent years in economically depressed areas of Detroit and Pittsburgh, Pa., Johnston came to Cairo in pursuit of dirt-cheap property and with an altruistic sense of purpose. "In all the cool places I've lived — Bloomington, Gainesville, Olympia — I felt like I could add to the community but not affect it. By taking the little bit I could afford to a place that had nothing, I felt like I could make a bigger difference." Johnston found an old Knights of Columbus building on Cairo's main drag and bought it in May for $24,000. Along with his girlfriend Adrienne Tootle, 25, and Zach Rapattoni, 24, he spent months making the building habitable.

In October, the group opened the Ace of Cups coffee shop and bookstore — the first new business to launch in Cairo in four years. The windows are adorned with posters, and on the door is a carefully scripted sign in black Sharpie that reads "We Are Not For-Profit." Inside, the brightly painted walls are lined with stacks of used books. Johnston had invited friends to come and work at the coffee shop in exchange for free rent but got few takers. "A lot of people shook on it and then backed out," he explains. "A friend of mine basically told me, 'I want to live in a place that already has nice things,' as opposed to this plan of building nice things, which is what we're doing."

Monday, February 01, 2010

Will your big-screen Super Bowl party violate copyright law?

Ars Technica: "An offhand comment the other day by a friend caught my attention—"Did you know that you can't watch the Super Bowl on a TV screen larger than 55 inches? Yeah, it's right there in the law."
With the Colts and Saints set to do battle in Super Bowl XLIV, this seemed worth looking into as a public service. Could it be that some of those giant flat panel TV sets now finding their way into US living rooms are actually violating copyright law?
Yes, it's in the law—sort of
Copyright law has a huge range of exemptions (like face-to-face classroom teaching), limitations (like fair use), and compulsory licensing schemes (like paying songwriters when you perform a cover version of a tune). Some are well known, but most are of interest only to specialists.
US Code Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 110 is called "Limitations on exclusive rights: exemption of certain performances and displays," and it lays out 12 of these exemptions to copyright restrictions. Are 55+ inch TVs mentioned specifically? They certainly are.
TV broadcasts and movie showings can only be displayed so long as "no such audiovisual device has a diagonal screen size greater than 55 inches, and any audio portion of the performance or display is communicated by means of a total of not more than 6 loudspeakers." So there it is in black and white—a ban on big TVs!
Sort of. While my friend was right about what's contained in the law, it's important to put the words in context. In this case, the context is exemption number five, which deals with TVs. The exemption opens by saying that turning on a TV set in one's house does not incur any sort of "public performance" liability under copyright law. So long as you're using a set that can reasonably be described as "a single receiving apparatus of a kind commonly used in private homes," you're in the clear.
(Okay, not completely. You cannot make a "direct charge" to "see or hear the transmission," though you can apparently ask friends to cover the cost of food and drink. You also cannot further transmit the broadcast "to the public," so diverting a live video stream onto the Internet and streaming it to the world is right out. Otherwise, you're fine.)"