Gadget Lab Podcast: The Web Had Some Serious ’90s Nostalgia This Week


Ariel Zambelich / WIRED

The spirit of the ’90s is alive on the web. A prerelease build of Windows 10 debuted Tuesday and was very well received, and now everyone’s excited to see where Microsoft is headed next. Social networking was big news this week too, partially because of Facebook’s “real name” policy, but also because of the sudden blossoming interest around Ello. The invite-only social network has captured the interest of the digerati fed up with Facebook and Twitter and the corporate takeover of the open internet. Speaking of the open internet, the web’s old school is riding a wave of nostalgia for Unix servers with flat HTML files—they’re flocking to Paul Ford’s latest project, a web ring for throwback-style personal web pages. All this, and a few dirty jokes. Be sure to enjoy this one with your kids.

Listen to this week’s episode or subscribe in iTunes.

Send the hosts feedback on their personal Twitter feeds (Mat Honan is @mat, Michael Calore is @snackfight) or to the main hotline at @GadgetLab.

Turns Out Fake Adam Sandler Movies Sound Just Like His Real Ones

You Don't Mess With The Zohan Movie Poster

You Don’t Mess With The Zohan Movie Poster Sony

This just in: One day after Netflix revealed it inked a four-picture deal with comedian and critical pariah Adam Sandler, the wellspring of the actor’s potential creative pursuits has been leaked to the public! A Norwegian website is hosting the long-sought-after Adam Sandler Movie Generator, finally resolving the longstanding mystery of “Who thinks of this crap?!” in reference to Sandler vehicles such as You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, Little Nicky, and dozens more.

Better yet, the site also gives us hints as to what movies Netflix may soon find itself producing. Will we get Zapping Chef, the story of a well-adjusted chef who one day realizes he is able to control time with a universal remote then stages a civil war and fools around until he falls in love with his maid, thus pulling his life together and becoming a better person? Or maybe it will be Hell of a Laughter, co-starring Tara Reid, about an ordinary comedian who one day realizes that he is the devil’s dog watcher then travels to Thailand and fools around until he realizes that family is more important than money, at which point he pulls himself together and emerges as a better person.

Only time will tell which diverse direction Netflix will choose to go with, so stay tuned for future developments, and check out this future database of might-as-well-be-real Sandler movies.

Tech Time Warp of the Week: Watch Andy Warhol Paint Debbie Harry on an Amiga 1000 Computer

Forget the Apple Macintosh, Ridley Scott, and “1984.” As computer launches go, we’ll take the Commodore Amiga, Andy Warhol, and Debbie Harry.

In January 1984—as the entire Western World is well aware—Apple unveiled the Macintosh with its Orwellian “1984″ ad during the Superbowl, directed by Ridley Scott. But it was soon eclipsed by Commodore International, the company behind that seminal personal computer, the Commodore 64.

In 1985, Commodore unveiled its Macintosh competitor, the Amiga 1000, at no less than the Lincoln Center in New York City. A live orchestra preceded a demonstration of the machine’s 3-D animation, and Andy Warhol used the machine to whip out a digital painting of Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry (see the video above). You can watch the whole event on YouTube (see the video above).

It was a stunt of epic proportions, in more ways than one. “The paint program (ProPaint) being used was a very early alpha, and the software engineers knew that it had bugs in it,” Jeremy Reimer wrote in his epic history of the Amiga for Ars Technica. “One of the known bugs was that the flood fill algorithm—the paint program didn’t use the hardware fills that were demonstrated earlier—would usually crash the program every second time it was used.”

What the heck is a flood fill algorithm? Let’s just say it’s something Andy Warhol needed to paint Debbie Harry. And the app didn’t crash once. “This is kind of pretty,” Warhol said as he finished his digital masterpiece. “I think I’ll keep that.”

The painting isn’t all that impressive by today’s standards. But in those days, Warhol’s stunt was state-of-the-art.

The Amiga was the first computer that used separate chips for graphics and sounds, which meant that it could do each better than anything else on the market. Its operating system could juggle multiple tasks at the same time using a technology called preemptive multitasking–something Apple and Microsoft didn’t match for over a decade. And most importantly—at least for Warhol’s purposes—it could display 4,096 colors at once, providing photo-realistic graphics at a time when most computer displays were monochrome.

Despite its power, the Amiga was much cheaper than the original Macintosh and even typical IBM PCs. It kept that edge over the years, garnering praise from musicians, digital artists, and animators. Warhol used the machine quite a bit, and recently, some of his Amiga art resurfaced from the ’80s.

Along with the Atari ST and the BeBox, the Amiga provided artists with an alternative to the Apple and Microsoft operating system duopoly. But Commodore was never able to capture the bohemian demographic from Apple. In fact, the Amiga was plagued by problems from the start, as Reimer documents. After Commodore rushed the machine to market, it was plagued by bugs and instability that continued to tarnish the brand’s reputation long after they were fixed. At the same time, poor marketing and company management kept the machines both out of stores and out of mind.

Commodore folded in 1994. But much like the iconic Commodore 64, the Amiga never really went away. Several companies have tried to revive the brand over the years, most recently the UK-based company Amigakit. Its spirit lives on in Amiga compatible operating systems MorphOS and AROC, as well as in DragonFlyBSD, a fork of FreeBSD created by former Amiga developer Matthew Dillon.

The Amiga’s legacy even includes that “guru meditation error” message you may have seen on many websites—including, occasionally, WIRED. What started as an in-joke at Commodore eventually became the Amiga’s standard error message. Years later, the team behind Varnish, an open source tool for speeding up web servers, adopted the message, spreading the meme across the web. That’s cool. But not quite as cool and Warhol and Harry.

Burberry’s Creative CEO on Design in the Digital Age

Christopher Bailey joined Burberry as design director in 2001. He quickly established himself as a creative force, helping spur the company’s booming resurgence in the decade that followed. When former CEO Angela Ahrendts decamped to Apple last year, her replacement was obvious, if somewhat unorthodox: Bailey, the designer, got the top job. Recently, Bailey sat down with WIRED editor in chief Scott Dadich to talk about his new role and how he hopes to push Burberry forward.

“I took on this role because design and creativity is the soul of what makes Burberry tick,” Bailey says. But today, that goes beyond a finished bag or trench coat. Bailey notes how new digital platforms have allowed Burberry to better tell the stories behind its products—and to open lines of dialog with consumers.

“It’s almost like a boomerang,” he explains. “We send something out into the world, it gets translated in bazillions of different ways…different cultures, different approaches to dressing. Then it gets posted, and then it comes back to us and inspires us.”

Why Google Is Following Facebook’s $19 Billion WhatsApp Gambit

WhatsApp. Image: WIRED

Image: WIRED

The rise of the dead-simple, dirt-cheap, emerging-market-friendly mobile messaging app continues.

On Friday, as the European Union rubber-stamped Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition of mobile messaging startup WhatsApp, The Economic Times of India reported that Google is building its own WhatsApp competitor, with plans to test the app in India and other emerging markets. Google declined to comment on the report, but such a move is to be expected.

Tools such as WhatsApp—which let you trade text messages and photos with friends and family via mobile phones—are widely used in places like Spain, The Netherlands, Japan, and Korea, says Pamela Clark-Dickson, an analyst with the London-based research outfit Ovum, who closely follows the rise of these messaging apps. But they’re also extremely popular in emerging markets such as India and China, in large part because they provide a cheaper alternative to the SMS text messaging systems provided by local cellphone wireless services, Clark-Dockson explains.

Since so many people in these markets are reaching the internet for the first time on phones—not PCs—these simple, ad-free apps have become de facto social reworks, used in lieu of things like Facebook. WhatsApp now claims over 600 million users worldwide, with about 833,000 new users signing up each day.

As these primary internet services saturate the U.S. and Europe, tech giants such as Facebook and Google see so much of their future growth in these markets. That’s why Facebook paid an enormous $19 billion for WhatsApp, and apparently, it beat Google to the punch. Some reports indicated that the search giant bid for WhatsApp as well.

Facebook is already exploring ways of advertising on cheap phones attached to low-bandwidth networks in places like India and Africa, and Google just launched a new effort effort to get its Android operating system onto low-cost phones in such areas. Simple messaging apps—the social networks of emerging markets—are a natural extension of these efforts. Yes, WhatsApp is ad-free, and the company has vowed to remain ad-free. But Facebook has shown that, in the long run, revenue can be drawn from such services, either through a new breed of low-bandwidth ad or by using data about users to target ads in other places.

For Google, the problem is that it’s behind the curve. It has offered other messaging apps, but nothing that has competed with the likes of WhatsApp. “Google has already tried a number of things when it comes to messaging,” says Clark-Dickson. “[A WhatsApp competitor] could work for them. But at the moment, their messaging strategy is, shall we say, disjointed.”

Alongside WhatsApp, several similar apps have achieved similar success in the developing world, including WeChat, Line, and Viber. None is as popular as Facebook’s WhatsApp. But all continue to spread.

Hunting viruses that play hide and seek

Every year, two million children die of acute respiratory infections. Among the culprits are several different viruses, one of which your child almost certainly has had without you or the doctors ever knowing it.

The good news is that researchers believe you are most likely immune after having had this virus just once.

The human metapneumovirus (hMPV) often appears disguised as a cold. Part of the reason it has stayed hidden from doctors is that it was only discovered in 2001. A team of Dutch virus researchers had the thrill of a lifetime when they realized that they had discovered a new virus. Their joy certainly wasn't lessened by the fact that the virus they discovered turned out to be one of the most common viruses in children who are hospitalized due to respiratory complications.

According to the World Health Organization, two million children die annually from acute respiratory infections. Even though the hMPV virus has been able to hide from researchers for a long time, it is not necessarily something you want to experience. Most people will have symptoms similar to a cold, but for some, the virus causes the respiratory system to swell and clog with mucus.

In developing countries, a lot of these children die. In Western countries, infected children are hospitalized and given treatment to help dislodge the mucus and ease breathing. In the hunt for the virus or bacteria that is ravaging a sick child, doctors often find other bacteria. It doesn't take much to prescribe a course of antibiotics when this happens, just to be on the safe side. The global increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria is evidence that this process is often unnecessary.

There is just no good way to see if hMPV is the main culprit. At least not yet.

Ingvild Bjellemo Johnsen, an Outstanding Academic Fellow at The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU); is working to discover everything she can about hMPV and the body's response to it. The goal is to understand this interaction well enough to develop new vaccines, good diagnostic tools that allow doctors to more easily find the virus in the body, and new forms of treatment.

This way, more children in developing countries will survive hMPV infections, and the global increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria may be slowed. These are no small tasks. Luckily, she has been thinking about viruses for the last ten years.

"I like viruses because they're smart," Bjellemo Johnsen says. "They adjust to our cells in a way that benefits them."

She is most preoccupied with how the immune system is alerted when a virus comes to call. Viruses have one clear goal: to reproduce. To do so successfully, they must be incredibly good at one thing, namely hiding.

On the inside and on the surface of our cells, there are "watchdog" organelles that sniff out viruses and bacteria. They send out warning signals to alert the rest of the immune system about the intruders, which is set into motion attacking the offending virus or bacteria.

Many viruses are able to disrupt or prevent these signals to the point where it results in serious illness and in the worst case, death. This goes for viruses such as Ebola or HIV. Our cells are not able to kill the intruders, so the virus is able to reproduce freely. It is the interaction between viruses and our immune system that Bjellemo Johnsen is trying to understand down to every last detail.

This is what her typical work week looks like: On Monday, she prepares tests of different types of cells from the human body.

On Tuesday, she turns off a single gene that corresponds to a type of protein in the cells, to see what role this particular protein plays in dealing with viruses.

On Wednesday, she adds a virus and lets it infect the samples for 24 hours.

On Thursday and Friday, she measures the effect of the virus on the samples.

Next week, she does exactly the same thing again. To ensure the quality of each test, she does this three times for each gene and each virus.

"This is how I'm trying to understand the importance of different proteins when this particular virus enters the body. In a few years, I hope to have a lot more answers," says Bjellemo Johnsen. There are an estimated 20,000 -- 25,000 genes in every cell that can express over 20 million proteins.

"I'm not hunting blindly. We work based on hypotheses about certain proteins being more important than others," she says. "As a researcher, you have to tolerate answers being negative. You just have to start a new week of work, continue looking."

In addition to being one of NTNU's Outstanding Academic Fellows, Bjellemo Johnsen is a part of a interdisciplinary group of researchers from NTNU and St. Olavs Hospital called CAIR, the Childhood Airway Infections Research Group. The group is comprised of paediatricians, researchers and microbiologists working with airway infections and children.

Asthma is a chronic inflammation. It is the most common cause of hospitalization among children in Norway, a big problem for those it affects, and resource-intensive for society.

According to the World Heath Organisation, 235 million people have asthma globally.

"The reasons that we develop asthma are not very well understood," Bjellemo Johnsen says.

"It looks like there is some kind of relationship between having a serious respiratory infection early in life and developing asthma later. I'd like to look more at this."

She has access to a solid database of tests from more than 4000 children hospitalized with respiratory infections at St. Olavs Hospital in Trondheim, Norway. These tests will be combined with laboratory experiments to uncover potential relationships between respiratory viruses and the development of asthma.

Friday Cephalopod: Goin’ fishing [Pharyngula]

Watch the fishing lure action right here — also pay attention to the closeups that reveal how transparent Grimalditeuthis is.

It would be so cool to be able to see our own guts like that.

The Physics of Fake Videos

Sketches Fall 14 key

This composite image shows the basic idea of video analysis.

Was that awesome video real or fake? How could you tell? Well, from a physics perspective there are at least three methods to use in an analysis that will tell us if a video is fake.

Video Analysis Method 1: Unrealistic Trajectories

When you think of video analysis, you probably think of this method. The main point of a video analysis program is to get x and y data for some object in each frame of a video. If you know the frame rate, then you get both x and y-trajectories for that object. Simple, right?

But how do you get the position of the object? That’s a whole different blog post, but maybe this will get you started. Here are a few more resources for video analysis:

  • Tracker Video Analysis – free video analysis software (this is what I use).

  • Vernier Logger Pro – not free, but very easy to use data analysis and collection program that also does video analysis.

  • Direct Measurement Videos – these are a collection of awesome videos that include data right in the video. Using these, students can analyze motion without any other software.

Ok, but back to unrealistic trajectories. There are countless videos online that show someone or something getting launched through the air. Maybe it is a person jumping off a building or a car driving over a ramp. But in all of these cases, there is most likely just one force acting on the object – the gravitational force.

Objects with only a gravitational force (and near the surface of the Earth) will have a constant vertical acceleration. We call these motions “projectile motion” and they would have the following two equations for the horizontal and vertical directions.

La te xi t 1

So, if I have a video showing projectile motion and it doesn’t have a constant vertical acceleration and a constant horizontal velocity, then it is probably fake. Oh sure, there could be cases with significant air resistance but for most cases this is an insignificant force.

How about an example? Check out this video from the internet.

Yes. It shows a buggy driving on the moon. THE MOON! Could that be real? Seems unlikely, right? Let’s find out. Like I said before, we need an object that only has the gravitational force on it. In this case, dust from the tires fits the description. Sure, dust on Earth doesn’t fall like projectile motion but on the moon there isn’t any air to keep the dust up.

Using Tracker Video Analysis, I can get the following plots for the vertical and horizontal motions of some of the dust.

Vanderbilt Video Analysis Copy key

The left graph shows that the horizontal velocity of the dust is fairly constant. The right graph shows the vertical motion of the dust has a constant acceleration of 2.14 m/s2. So, I think this video is real. Humans actually drove a buggy on the moon. Yes, the accepted value of the acceleration on the surface of the moon is 1.6 m/s2 but this value is close and constant. There are some issues with the scale of the video, but it’s still real.

Here is a longer version of this analysis. Also, at the time of my first analysis I wasn’t aware that someone else had done the same thing but I can’t seem to find it again.

You need some more examples here you go.

Of course, there are many many other examples.

Video Analysis Method 2: Impossible Physics

What if I don’t really worry about a frame-by-frame analysis of motion in a video? Instead suppose that I just look at the video to see if it’s even possible based on known laws of physics? Here is an example. Take a look at this video that shows guy at a lab being hit by styrofoam shot from a pneumatic cannon.

From the video, I can get a recoil speed of the lab at about 10 m/s (ok, I lied about not looking at frame-by-frame stuff to get data). If I estimate the mass of the person and the foam projectiles, I can treat this as a standard collision (and conservation of momentum) problem.

Could This Pneumatic lab Prank Work Wired

If the foam has a mass of 5 kg, it would have to come out of the launcher with a speed of 130 m/s (290 mph) in order to get the kind of recoil shown in the video. What’s even worse is that the guy that was hit would have an acceleration of at least 14.6 g’s. So, if this is indeed a prank it’s one that wasn’t so funny. But it’s fake.

Here is one more example. This isn’t even a video, but just an image of two dudes doing a combo wall climb (you know, where you push on two walls to climb up). But in this case, the two humans are nearly horizontal. This makes the move impossible. There must be some slight tilt such that there a vertical component of a force to balance the downward gravitational force.

Video Analysis Method 3: Detecting Fake Shake

This is my favorite video analysis method. Here is the basic idea:

  • Someone wants to make a cool fake video.

  • How do record a fake video? One method is to use a camera on a tripod. This makes the background stationary so that some fake video effects can easily be added.

  • Real fake videos (yes, I said that) aren’t recorded using a tripod. No, they are recorded on the spur of the moment when something super awesome happens. Tripods imply planning. This can be fixed by adding some fake shake to the video.

  • Upload to Youtube.

  • Profit.

But wait! Can we detect fake shake? Sometimes. Here is an example video.

Now I can just track the motion of the background. Here’s what that looks like.

Vanderbilt Video Analysis Copy key

Just for comparison, here is the background tracking for a video I made holding a camera as steady as I could.


Notice the difference? The fake video has regular looking “shakes” where as the real video looks more random – actually a lot like a random walk.

Ok, just because a video added a fake shake doesn’t mean the original video is fake. Also, what if the camera was being held by a robot or android? Maybe these artificial intelligences would shake a camera unlike a human – right?

Still, there is a lot of work to be done in the analysis of fake shaking. Is there some metric (like average jump size) that could be used to quantitatively compare real and fake videos? Do different humans have different types of real shake? What does the auto-stabilization feature (either in cameras or from youtube) do to the shake pattern?

Perhaps there will be a whole new field of science – FakeShakeology. There are plenty of videos online to look at and to gather evidence from.


Of course I am going to assign you homework. Actually, these are the same homework questions I assigned at the end of the Forman Lecture at Vanderbilt University. So, if you already answered these you don’t have to do it twice.

  • Find some videos and try a video analysis with each one of these three methods. I suggest you go to this site called “youtube” – there’s tons of video there.

  • Explore the natural video shake frequencies for different humans (or find some other metric to measure).

  • Make your own fake video. Be sure to make it in such a way that these three methods can not easily detect it as fake. Share it with your friends for fun and profit.

  • Build your own fake shake algorithm that takes a tripod video and turns it into a hand-held looking video.

What Tech Entrepreneurs and Polynesian Explorers Have in Common

Crossman above the Marum lava lake. (Image: Sam Crossman)

Crossman above the Marum lava lake. (Image: Sam Crossman)

Ambrym Island – a rugged shield volcano in the South Pacific complete with a roiling pit of lava – may not be everyone’s idea of a refreshing vacation. But for a certain demographic, it’s precisely the sort of trip that recharges mental batteries and satisfies cravings for adventure. Sam Crossman is a member of this tribe; on a recent expedition, he joined Geoff Mackley and George Kourounis for a leisurely rappel into an active crater for a closer look at the Marum lava lake.

In his day job, Crossman is embedded in the Bay Area entrepreneurial start-up circuit, having bailed on a job in the medical devices industry to work at Quake, an erstwhile tech company. He’s currently at Xola, a software platform for tour providers and adventure guiding companies.

To Crossman, these are mutually reinforcing aims – the start-up lifestyle and the wide-ranging adventuring – each incorporating the same philosophy of pragmatic risk acceptance. “I have a certain comfort level with risk,” he explains. “I’ve always been willing to step out on a limb and trust that it will hold my weight.” Indeed, in the venn diagram of adventure junkies and start-up entrepreneurs, there’s a lot of overlap. Weekend warriors in the trenches hike, bike, and climb during their time off, documenting their exploits with GoPro cameras. Richard Branson has spun off thrill-seeking enterprises Virgin Oceanic and Virgin Galactic, and Jeff Bezos spearheaded an expedition to recover Apollo 11’s lost engines.

J. Scott Zimmerman is the founder of Xola and a key player in the Bay Area adrenaline junky scene. “There’s something intellectually and emotionally connected to thinking outside the box when you’re taking risks and pursuing challenges,” he explains. Zimmerman is particularly active with MaiTai, a group largely comprised of company founders that gathers in far-flung locations to kitesurf. “Wind-powered sports tend to be very popular among engineers and tech entrepreneurs,” he notes, citing Branson and Google’s co-founders – as well as a disproportionate number of female founders – among the tribe.

Both extreme adventuring and venture-backed business creation are perilous, high risk – high reward endeavors, trading on the appeal of excitement and transformational impact (and, in the latter case, money). In both cases, you’re charting your own path, determining your own future in an empowering way. And while both pursuits may occasionally seem reckless or foolhardy on the individual level, a certain frequency of risk-takers confers a substantial societal advantage.

This has certainly been true for the last several centuries, as human cultures dispersed around the globe and ultimately re-converged, each discovery presenting economic, resource-based, or scientific opportunities. This grand arc of global history may not have been possible without a select few people willing to risk everything for an unknowable return on investment. We don’t all need to hop in a canoe without knowing where the nearest island is, or sit on top of a temperamental rocket, but it’s pretty helpful if someone’s willing to roll the dice. The Polynesian rowers who discovered Easter Island likely had no idea what lay ahead as they set out several weeks previously, but their journey provided an opportunity to colonize new lands.

Today, physical risk-taking is less necessary for human advancement than in centuries past: not only are paradigm shifts less tied to the discovery of new physical realms, but those that are primarily occur by robotic proxy. The contemporary analog is start-up culture, where you almost always strike out, but the home runs frequently have tangible impact on a global scale.

There are, of course, key differences, as failure in volcano-diving carries more dire consequences than your dotcom going out of business. Paradoxically, past misses are often considered a plus in the start-up world, providing learning opportunities, however painful and emotionally scarring they may be. “Silicon Valley has a very unusual perspective on failure,” explains Crossman, “it’s almost a badge of honor. If you were brave enough to attempt something and grasp for something greater than you, good for you. If you can jump back up, you’ll eventually make it.”

The risk-taking parallels could speak to something deeper. As David Dobbs cogently explained in National Geographic, a propensity to explore and seek new opportunities may be genetically encoded in a variant of the dopamine regulating gene DRD4. Several studies have linked heightened incidence of the DRD4-7R version to migratory cultures, as well as riskier behavior (both good and bad). So while contemporary manifestation of DRD4-7R may be disproportionately associated with start-up entrepreneurs, a growing appreciation in business circles of other sensibilities – deliberation, emotional intelligence, long-term planning – could temper its influence in interesting, unexpected ways.

Tapping into risk-taking behavior is a challenge that all societies must address; a proper calibration could be the difference between stasis or self-destruction and dynamic innovation. In the meantime, thrill-seekers will continue to test their limits and hone their mental toughness, skills that Crossman believes are transferable to other aspects of life. “I’m just very passionate about experiences, adventures, and sharing those with others in a meaningful way,” Crossman says. “I hope we’ve helped people to identify something that really lights their fire in life and do everything needed to achieve it.”

Absurd Creature of the Week: The Vicious Duck That Beats the Crap Out of Anything That Moves


The steamer duck uses those specialized orange knobs on its wings to positively pummel anything unfortunate enough to cross it. Except these rocks. Steamer ducks are OK with rocks. Kevin McCracken

On an Argentinian lake in November of 1981, Gary Nuechterlein witnessed a rather disturbing avian assault. A male steamer duck bit and held tight to the neck of another duck called a shoveler, while pummeling the victim with the keratinized knobs on its wings. Meanwhile, “several meters away,” Nuechterlein later wrote in a paper, “a female steamer duck displayed excitedly, calling and stretching” her neck to the sky, as if egging him on.

From time to time the steamer would drag the shoveler under, then resurface and continue beating the tar out of it as the female watched. At one point he shuffled over to her, but after 30 seconds returned to his victim and punched the poor critter 15 to 20 more times. “He then released the limp body of the shoveler,” wrote Nuechterlein, “pecked at it, and released it again.” At last he returned to the female for good, calling to her while she stretched, and the two flew off together. The shoveler eventually regained consciousness, and though seriously crippled, struggled to shore. It died 15 minutes later.

This is the avian version of Bloodsport, only without all of the terrible yet somehow endearing acting. The four species of steamer duck (so named for their penchant for flapping and running along the surface, kicking up water like steamboats) in South America are famous—at least in ornithological circles—for their brutality, getting all up in the grills of not just other steamers, but also other species in scrums lasting as long as 20 minutes. Why exactly they’ve evolved to be so aggressive, no one is yet sure.


If a flying steamer duck ever makes this face at you, don’t confuse it for friendliness. Steamer ducks ain’t got time for no friendliness. Kevin McCracken

Studying these pugnacious creatures is biologist Kevin McCracken of the University of Miami, who learned firsthand that you should watch your step around steamer ducks. “I was down in the Strait of Magellan and Tierra del Fuego and I saw some birds really close to some rocks,” he said. “And I went up to photograph and they were really upset with me, like, amazingly upset with me. And they just came right at me, and started squawking at me.”

Now, had the ducks been guarding a nest, that’d be one thing, but McCracken couldn’t find one nearby. Indeed, Nuechterlein noted in his paper that there needn’t be eggs around to get the ducks riled up and defensive. They’re simply really, really ornery. And that may be because they can take the abuse—by being built like feathered tanks.

You see, their heads and necks are relatively massive for a duck, and they’re equipped with thickened skin to handle the abuse. Because they’re so hardy, they reduce the risk of injury that would normally keep birds from engaging in such vicious battle. (As a rule, in the animal kingdom you don’t want to fight if you don’t absolutely have to. Battling for the right to mate or eat is of course important, but it’s really no use if you end up dead. It’s why there’s all kinds of non-contact battling going on out there, with fancy displays or calls, or even the puffed chest and unimaginative obscenities of the North American dude bro.)

“They’re enormous birds,” said McCracken, adding that males can reach 10 pounds (the famous mallard you’ve no doubt seen around your local lake tops out at 3 pounds). “You don’t want one of these things going after you.”


A white-headed steamer ducks staring down the ocean for looking at it funny. Kevin McCracken

And woe to any of the steamer’s avian neighbors that aren’t gifted with its bulk, because it could be that steamers are so persistently violent not only to chase other species away to reduce competition for their resources, but to make an example of someone. I’ll reiterate: These ducks have evolved mafia tactics. Says Nuechterlein in the paper describing the fight between the steamer and the shoveler: “Possibly observational learning is important, and holding a ‘public beating’ enhances the effectiveness of territorial displays.” And that, my friends, may be the only time “public beating” has ever appeared in a scientific paper.

Accordingly, bird species unfortunate enough to share a habitat with the steamer duck seem to know their place. When Nuechterlein was making his observations back in the ’80s, he and his colleague noticed silvery grebes and hooded grebes would suddenly skitter or dive en masse. “We puzzled over the cause of these ‘mass spooks’ in the otherwise unmolested flocks of grebes, for there were few predators and no source of human disturbance on the lake.” Only later did they notice the problem: a pair of steamer ducks approaching in a “submerged sneak” posture, with only the tops of their heads and the tips of their tails poking above the surface. They had become, in essence, the Jaws of the Andean lake.

The aforementioned public beating of the shoveler also could suggest aggressive behavior is part of winning the affection of a mate. The female did, after all, grow quite excited as the male pummeled his victim. If true, it would add yet another strange dimension to the exceedingly weird world of duck sex. It’s been well reported, so we don’t need to go into much detail here, but male ducks are notoriously forceful with their choice of mates, and in response females have evolved corkscrew vaginas that in some species twist the opposite direction of the corkscrew penis, all to give themselves more control over the reproductive process. Choosing a male based on how well he assaults another duck, though, would seem to select for such unwanted aggressiveness.

Winging It

The steamer ducks’ brazenness is all the more impressive when you consider three of the four species have grown so big they’ve lost the ability to fly. This would seem unfortunate and rather embarrassing, but we humans tend to romanticize flight. In the natural world, if you don’t use it, you lose it. There’s no point expending energy and resources developing something you aren’t going to use, much less burning vast amounts of energy to fly.

So the flightless species of steamer duck have apparently found it evolutionarily advantageous to stick to terra firma. This is partly due to the relative lack of mammalian predators to flee from (though recently the release of invasive minks, which are fond of bird eggs, has been threatening certain populations). “But they’re also hard to get at,” said McCracken. “If you’re an Andean fox,” which weighs just barely more than these birds, “going after a [10-pound] steamer duck, you’re not going to have much luck.”


A Magellanic steamer duck, so named because one once attacked Ferdinand Magellan. Yeah, that’s probably not true. Never hurts to dream, though. Kevin McCracken

And unlike migrating birds, steamers don’t have to worry about wandering in search of food. All species of steamers make their home along the coasts of southern Argentina and Chile, where they use their powerful bills to pry open muscles for a year-round supply of energy—though the unimaginatively named “flying steamer duck” will venture to inland lakes, where it sieves the water for small invertebrates like snails. “So flying is only really necessary if you’ve got to migrate,” said McCracken. “And you’ve got all this food to eat and you live in the ocean, so it’s easy to evolve flightlessness.”

Fascinatingly, we seem to have caught the Falkland steamer duck in this kind of evolutionary transition. What were once thought to be two separate species, one flying and the other that’s grown too darn fat to fly, could in fact be two populations of a single species. And that’s very strange indeed—not to mention a nice little boon for evolutionary biologists. “Partially flighted species remain an exceptional rarity in birds,” write the scientists who made the discovery using DNA testing, “making the South American steamer ducks an ideal resource for future evolutionary research.”

So if scientists can survive observing these things in the wild, they could well bring back some exciting insights into evolution. And probably a few head injuries, too.

A big thanks to Alex Kleine of Hamden, CT for suggesting this week’s creature. Browse the full Absurd Creature of the Week archive here. Have an animal you want me to write about? Email or ping me on Twitter at @mrMattSimon.


Nuechterlein, G. and Storer, R. (1985) Aggressive Behavior and Interspecific Killing by Flying Steamer-Ducks in Argentina. The Condor. Vol. 87, No. 1, pp. 87-91

Fulton, T.L., Letts, B. and Shapiro, B. (2012) Multiple losses of flight and recent speciation in steamer ducks. Proceedings of the Royal Society. 279, 2339–2346 doi:10.1098/rspb.2011.2599

Facebook Won’t Stop Experimenting on You. It’s Just Too Lucrative



Did you hear the one about Facebook charging $2.99 per month for access?

Recently, the Facebook fee hoax started circulating on, yes, Facebook, and you didn’t have to be an investigative journalist to debunk the thing. You just had to look at the company’s revenue numbers. Facebook’s 1.3 billion users are so valuable as advertising targets, the company would never run the risk of cutting any of them off with a paywall.

But, as it turns out, Facebook is willing to risk alienating its users in other ways. It also sees tremendous value in using its social network to experiment on those 1.3 billion souls—so much value that it’s still worth losing a few here and there.

If anything in recent memory comes close to validating off-repeated conspiracy theories about the motives of Facebook, it was the company’s now infamous “emotional contagion” study published over the summer. In the study, Facebook researchers tweaked the News Feeds of nearly 700,000 users—without their knowledge—to see if more positive or negative updates from friends induced the same emotions in the users themselves. The outcry was swift and loud, and now, several months later, Facebook says it’s being more careful in how it conducts its research. But there’s no sign that it’s stopping.

The idea that Facebook isn’t a content-neutral communication medium like the phone or email seems to generate constant surprise and outrage.

In a blog post Thursday, Facebook Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer acknowledged missteps in the emotional contagion study. “We were unprepared for the reaction the paper received when it was published and have taken to heart the comments and criticism,” he wrote. “It is clear now that there are things we should have done differently.”

Schroepfer said Facebook should have considered other ways to do the study, and that the research should have been vetted more carefully by more and higher-ranking people. Over the past three months, Facebook has put clearer research guidelines into place along with a more thorough review process and more training, Schroepfer said.

But nowhere did he say that Facebook plans to stop experimenting on users. On the contrary, by setting up a system to undertake research more carefully, Facebook is giving itself cover to conduct more such research. All of which should come as a surprise to exactly no one.

Not Evil, Just Business

That’s not because Facebook is somehow evil, but because Facebook is a business—albeit a business that is perpetually misunderstood. The idea that Facebook isn’t a content-neutral communication medium like the phone or email seems to generate constant surprise and outrage. To be fair to the outraged, Facebook doesn’t go out of its way to remind users that the News Feed is gamed, and it specifically does not reveal how it is gamed.

So we’ll spell it out: Facebook has every reason to manipulate the News Feed to optimize for whatever user engagement metrics correspond to the best returns for advertisers, which in turn correspond to the best returns for Facebook. And it has every reason to use other experiments in an effort to improve other parts of its operation. This is the way so many online companies work.

“Facebook does research in a variety of fields, from systems infrastructure to user experience to artificial intelligence to social science,” Schroepfer said. “We do this work to understand what we should build and how we should build it, with the goal of improving the products and services we make available each day.”

by setting up a system to undertake research more carefully, Facebook is giving itself cover to conduct more such research. All of which should come as a surprise to exactly no one.

These efforts are particularly valuable to Facebook because the reach of its service is so large. It has nearly as many test subjects as China has people—a competitive advantage it’s not about to sacrifice just because its manipulations make some users uncomfortable.

Most conspicuously absent from Schroepfer’s post is any suggestion that users can opt into or out of experiments like the emotional contagion study. The lack of transparency and consent is exactly what outraged users in the first place. But it’s understandable why Facebook likely wouldn’t see traditional informed consent as an option.

Facebook’s user base gives it access to one of the largest, most revealing random samples of human behavior ever assembled. Offering users the option not to participate would undermine the quality of Facebook’s results by compromising their randomness. The reactions and behaviors of a self-selecting group that knows it’s being watched pale in value compared to 1.3 billion people un-self-consciously going about the drama of their daily lives.

Little Incentive to Change

Monitoring, manipulating, and packaging users for advertisers are among the practices that are purportedly driving 50,000 would-be users per hour to jump on the wait list for Ello, the new ad-free social network. But even if that number were in the millions, Facebook would have little incentive to do things differently.

A few weeks after the emotional contagion scandal erupted in late June, Facebook reported record revenues and profits for its most recent quarter, and expectations are high that this quarter Facebook will once again top itself. One user behavior Facebook would no doubt have little trouble measuring is whether news of its maligned research project correlated with an uptick in defections from the service or a drop in logins. If it had, Facebook might be expected to do something more drastic to curb such projects in the future.

But however more careful Facebook promises to be, its experiments aren’t going away. “We believe in research, because it helps us build a better Facebook,” Schroepfer wrote. And judging by Facebook’s bottom line, that research seems to be working.

Why a Fake Band From a 1990s Kids’ Show Decided to Tour This Year

But starting tomorrow, Polaris embarks on their first tour, performing material that was released back when Bill Clinton was still president. Their tour is split between traditional billings—like the show they’re headlining in Philadelphia—and Nickelodeon-themed nostalgia stops, including one at Chicago’s iconic Lincoln Hall, where the band will share the bill with a live taping of The Adventures of Danny and Mike, a podcast hosted by Pete & Pete’s two now-adult stars. There’s even a date at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory—and it’s sold out.

polaris So is it a fake band being taken seriously by a few fans, or a real band that others haven’t been taking seriously? Polaris (that’s Mulcahy on vocals and guitar, Scott Boutier on drums, and Dave McCaffrey on bass) is about to find out—or at least find out if their fans are passionate enough to shell out $20 for a ticket. Even Mulcahy seems to have no idea: “I really hope people come,” he says with a laugh, “but I have no idea.”

All You Need Is a Miracle (Legion)

Mulcahy is no stranger to the music scene. From 1983 to 1996 he fronted Miracle Legion, a college-rock outfit whose comparisons to R.E.M. can be either good or bad, depending on how you feel about R.E.M. He’s also had a viable career as a solo musician, with 2013’s Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You peaking at #37 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart.

In 1993, towards the end of Miracle Legion’s run, Pete & Pete creators Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi approached Mulcahy about creating a theme song for the show. What they wound up with was fan favorite “Hey Sandy,” a song that lives on in part because of its indecipherable third line, which to this day remains a mystery. (If the lyric really is, as many fans have speculated, “Can you settle to shoot me?” then Nickelodeon was in a dark, dark place.)

“‘Hey Sandy’ was the main order, where they were like, ‘we need to have a theme song,’” says Mulcahy. “And then they asked for the other songs in kind of a descriptive way.” Three more songs were required for the show’s inaugural season—including “Summerbaby,” which the band played live on the first season’s finale. Once again, the process was interpretive: Viscardi and McRobb would communicate a particular emotion, and Mulcahy would create a song. “We were kind of in sync. That was [a] lucky combination of people,” Mulcahy says. “Will [McRobb] is just a great music fan. The show is a mix tape for him.”

That process continued on for the next three years: four new songs each year. By the time the show was cancelled in 1996, Polaris had produced 12 songs—just enough for a respectable rock LP.

But no album was forthcoming. “There you are with 12 songs that are all done and mixed, and all go really well together. What’s the problem?” Mulcahy asks. He never found out what the answer to that question. Perhaps Viacom, Nickelodeon’s parent company, didn’t see much use in releasing an album by a fictitious band; maybe labels didn’t see much of a potential market in Pete & Pete fans. Whatever the case, the album seemed like a lost cause, doomed to collect dust next to bins of green slime and Good Burger hats.

“Nickelodeon was like, ‘What do you mean put a record out? Who cares?’” says Mulcahy. “But they said, ‘If you want to put it out, you can.’ I was lucky that they let me put it out.”

With Nickelodeon’s indifferent blessing, Mulcahy used his own label to release these 12 songs. Music from The Adventures of Pete & Pete came out in 1999, and in the years after the band—like the show—faded into anonymity.

As time passed, Mulcahy’s solo career gained steam; his band mates nabbed a gig backing up Pixies legend Frank Black. Polaris was for the most part a thing of the past, save for Mulcahy’s sporadic impulse to include one of the band’s songs in his set list.

An Unexpectedly Fun Thing I Thought I’d Never Do Again

In 2012, Mulcahy got a call about a Pete & Pete reunion. Cinefamily, an independent theater in Los Angeles, was hosting a live panel with the show’s cast and wanted Polaris to perform live. All parties agreed, and for the first time in over a decade the three band members started rehearsing the material again.

Going in to the gig, Mulcahy had the level of hope for success you’d expect from the lead singer of the house band for a long-since-cancelled children’s show. But the response was astounding: People actually sang along. “That was a couple thousand people—they really know the music,” he says. Even if that crowd largely consisted of Pete & Pete obsessives, fans are fans.


…and Polaris now. Polaris

Now, as Polaris prepares for its first ever tour, Mulcahy is curious to find out how many more fans are out there. “Playing will be some kind of way to realize what’s happening,” he says.

The band will even be unveiling some new songs, including one with the very Pete & Pete-esque name “Happy Green Moon Face.” Writing new material “is a total mistake, but I think it’s the only choice you have,” Mulcahy says with a laugh.

Maybe Mulcahy is so nonchalant about the whole thing because the whole thing is—to quote “Hey Sandy”—so smiling strange: TV house band records album’s worth of songs, album is released to little press, album gains cult following among people who like to be cult followers, band goes on tour 15 years later, hoping that time has worked in their favor.

Actually, the whole thing reads like an episode of Pete & Pete.

The Polaris tour starts tomorrow in Providence, RI. For dates and tickets, go to their Facebook page.

Online Recipes Will Soon Have a Button That Sends You the Ingredients


Caden Crawford / Flickr

When you live in a four-story walkup in New York City with a kitchen the size of a phone booth—and the nearest grocery options are the Trader Joe’s where the checkout line inevitably extends out to the sidewalk, the Whole Foods that’s clogged with visitors from the outer boroughs, and the overpriced and understocked bodega on the corner—it’s perfectly acceptable to eat English muffins or order takeout for dinner every night.

At least, that’s how I justify it.

But lately, I’m running out of excuses, as tech companies start taking on the highly lucrative grocery market. There are meal-kit companies like Blue Apron and Plated, which will send me weekly recipes, complete with perfectly portioned ingredients, in refrigerated boxes. There’s Instacart, which will let me order groceries from nearby stores. Amazon’s same-day grocery delivery service, Amazon Fresh, will soon be sharing the New York City streets with Google’s Shopping Express and the grandfather of the grocery delivery world, FreshDirect.

Now, another New York City-based startup is joining the fray, with a service that could not only benefit lazy consumers (myself, included), but could also become a powerful marketing tool for consumer packaged goods companies. It’s called Chicory, and it allows any recipe site to slap a “Get Ingredients” button at the bottom of the recipe. When users click the button, they can get all the ingredients they need for a given recipe delivered to them from one of Chicory’s online grocery partners.

Chicory team, from left: Joey Petracca, COO; Yuni Sameshima, CEO; Adam Donahue, CTO

The Chicory team, from left: Joey Petracca, COO; Yuni Sameshima, CEO; Adam Donahue, CTO Chicory

I could always choose a different brand if I wanted to, but Chicory is betting that I won’t.

All that is clever enough, but what could make Chicory an important force in the marketing world is the way it’s reinventing the idea of digital shelf space. In the offline world, brands spend millions of dollars on so-called “slotting fees” to secure prime real estate on store shelves. With its Get Ingredients button, Chicory has developed the online equivalent.

Brands can pay Chicory to guarantee that their products will be the first ones suggested to users for certain ingredients. For instance, if Kraft bought the rights to, say, cheddar cheese, and I click the Get Ingredients button for a macaroni and cheese recipe, then Kraft cheese would get automatically uploaded to my shopping cart. I could always choose a different brand if I wanted to, but Chicory is betting that I won’t.

Point-of-Sale Marketing Reborn

It’s covert point-of-sale marketing at its finest, and yet, Chicory CEO Yuni Sameshima says he and his co-founder Joey Petracca never really planned on turning Chicory into a marketing tool.

At first, they were focused purely on the consumer side of the equation. They knew that the grocery delivery market was booming and that recipe sites are some of the most highly trafficked pages on the web. If Chicory could connect these recipe-hunting consumers to online grocers, the startup would be able to collect a percentage of sales.

“Our vision was to help those users be able to get the ingredients then and there on the page itself,” Sameshima says.

It wasn’t until he and Petracca entered the Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator that the team’s mentors suggested charging brands. “They said this is cool from a consumer perspective, but it could potentially be huge for brands who are looking to target certain consumers online,” Sameshima remembers. Now, Sameshima says he expects these fees to be a critical part of Chicory’s business model.

A Bigger Footprint

Chicory is still very much a fledgling startup, and Sameshima would only say that the team is “in talks” with a number of brands about fees. But the consumer side of the business has taken off since the Get Ingredients button launched in August. Through a partnership with the online grocer Peapod, the service is now live in 4,000 zip codes in the New York area. And while Chicory launched with a network of food bloggers, it recently struck deals with top recipe sites and, which will greatly increase Chicory’s footprint.

Sameshima is hoping this expansion among consumers will not only attract brands, but also online grocers, including major players like Google and Amazon. With more grocers on board, it’s not hard to see how Chicory could become a sort of price comparison engine for consumers, showcasing not only brands, but also the delivery services that offer the best deals.

“We’re really interested in the growth of online grocery and how that’s stirring up competitive forces. I think we’ll see delivery times decreasing, delivery minimums decreasing, and the quality increasing,” he says. “I think that’s where things can get interesting down the line.”

Home Page Photo: Andreas Kollmorgen / Flickr

A Funny Game Controller Made by Sticking an iPhone in a Ball


Rollin’. GIF: Wired Design/Source

Here’s a provocative interaction-design thought experiment: What if your iPhone was just, like, a ball.

You wouldn’t be able to check Twitter on it, and you wouldn’t be able to take selfies with it, but you would be able to roll it around, and if you happened to be playing a videogame that involved rolling a ball around, that actual, physical ball could make for an ideal controller. Well, Marc Dubois made that game. And that ball!

For “OpenControllers,” Dubois’ degree project at the Swiss school ECAL, the designer created three new game controllers by entombing smartphones inside products from Ikea. It’s a reminder that there are interesting ways to interact with our touchscreen playthings beyond simply touching their screens.

Antioxidant found in grapes uncorks new targets for acne treatment

Got grapes? UCLA researchers have demonstrated how resveratrol, an antioxidant derived from grapes and found in wine, works to inhibit growth of the bacteria that causes acne.

The team also found that combining resveratrol with a common acne medication, benzoyl peroxide, may enhance the drug's ability to kill the bacteria and could translate into new treatments.

Published in the current online edition of the journal Dermatology and Therapy, the early lab findings demonstrated that resveratrol and benzoyl peroxide attack the acne bacteria, called Propionibacterium acnes, in different ways.

Resveratrol is the same substance that has prompted some doctors to recommend that adults drink red wine for its heart-health properties. The antioxidant stops the formation of free radicals, which cause cell and tissue damage. Benzoyl peroxide is an oxidant that works by creating free radicals that kill the acne bacteria.

"We initially thought that since actions of the two compounds are opposing, the combination should cancel the other out, but they didn't," said Dr. Emma Taylor, the study's first author and an assistant clinical professor of medicine in the division of dermatology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "This study demonstrates that combining an oxidant and an antioxidant may enhance each other and help sustain bacteria-fighting activity over a longer period of time."

The team grew colonies of the bacteria that causes acne and then added various concentrations of resveratrol and benzoyl peroxide both alone and together. The researchers monitored the cultures for bacterial growth or killing for 10 days. They found that benzoyl peroxide was able to initially kill the bacteria at all concentration levels, but the effect was short lived and didn't last beyond the first 24 hours.

Resveratrol didn't have a strong killing capability, but it inhibited bacterial growth for a longer period of time. Surprisingly, the two compounds together proved the most effective in reducing bacteria counts.

"It was like combining the best of both worlds and offering a two-pronged attack on the bacteria," said senior author Dr. Jenny Kim, professor of clinical medicine in the division of dermatology at the Geffen School.

Scientists have understood for years how benzoyl peroxide works to treat acne, but less has been known about what makes resveratrol effective -- even though it has been the subject of previous studies. Using a high-powered microscope, the UCLA researchers observed that bacteria cells lost some of the structure and definition of their outer membranes, which indicated that resveratrol may work by altering and possibly weakening the structure of the bacteria.

The researchers also cultured human skin cells and blood cells with the two compounds to test their toxicity. They found that benzoyl peroxide was much more toxic than resveratrol, which could help explain what causes skin to become red and irritated when it's used as a topical treatment in high dose or concentration.

Taylor noted that combining the two compounds allowed for prolonged antibacterial effects on the acne bacteria while minimizing its toxicity to other skin cells. The finding could lead to a more effective and less irritating topical acne therapy.

"We hope that our findings lead to a new class of acne therapies that center on antioxidants such as resveratrol," Taylor said.

The next stage of research will involve further laboratory testing to better understand the mechanism of the two compounds. Additional research will be needed to validate the findings in patients.

Millions suffer from acne, and it has a significant psychosocial effect on patients, but limited progress has been made in developing new strategies for treating it. According to researchers, antibiotic resistance and side effects limit the efficacy of the current treatments, which include benzoyl peroxide, retinoids, antibiotics and Accutane (isotretinonin).

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Health Sciences . The original article was written by Rachel Champeau. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.