Broadcast Engineer at BellMedia, Computer history buff, compulsive deprecated, disparate hardware hoarder, R/C, robots, arduino, RF, and everything in between.
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Orphan Black S02E01: Nature Under Constraint and Vexed [recap w/spoilers]

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It’s good to be back in the Clone Club. The return of Orphan Black quite literally hits the ground running and never lets up in this action-packed, clone-filled premiere. “Nature Under Constraint And Vexed” reintroduces almost every major player from season one, readjusts the show’s antagonistic forces, and ends with a bombshell reveal. I’m not convinced it’s a pace the show can maintain for the entire season, but it’s a hell of a fun way to jump back into the world of Orphan Black.

“Can we back up for a sec?” asks Felix, who’s decked out in assless chaps and flirting his way into a five way. “No. We need to go, Fe,” responds Sarah. That could very well serve as a thesis statement—not just for Sarah but also for this premiere. This isn’t an episode interested in easing the audience back into its world or revisiting the past; like its protagonist, Orphan Black is only interested in moving forward. (Those who do need a refresher, however, can check out my season one recap.)

Before the opening credits role we’ve already met a new villain, watched two people die, and seen Sarah escape from an inescapable situation. The cold open is a heart stopping five minutes and one of the best action sequences this show has ever produced. Orphan Black is never more enjoyable than when its heroes are backed into corners (or tiny bathrooms as the case may be) and ingeniously fight their way out. When left without an escape route, Sarah Manning simply breaks through a wall. A lesser show might rely on a deus ex machina to save the day, but Orphan Black allows its protagonist to be remarkably intelligent in her response to danger.

Sarah drives most of the plot in this premiere with her attempts to acquire a gun, gate crash a Dyad Institute gala, and rescue her daughter Kira. When put under pressure (the “constraint and vexed” part of tonight’s title) Sarah acts on instinct and sees things in black and white. The Neolutionists have her daughter—or so she thinks—which makes them her enemy. For Sarah’s clone compatriots (who I lovingly refer to as her clone-sisters or “clone-sters”), the distinction between friend and enemy isn’t so clear-cut.

“This is my biology. It’s my decision,” Cosima tells Delphine as they draw blood in dim mood lighting. Cosima hasn’t ruled out that working with the Dyad Institute might be the best way to cure her respiratory illness. On the other hand, she’s not willing to lay all her cards on the table either. She knows the Dyad Institute patented the clones’ DNA—rendering them as property, not people—and she’s still trying to keep the Neolutionists at arm’s length. When constrained and vexed, Cosima thinks like a rational scientist. The only trouble is she’s also falling hard for her monitor Delphine. “I’m not going to apologize for my heart,” Cosima informs Felix and Sarah, “but I promise both of you guys I won’t get fooled again.” Behind the sci-fi shenanigans, Orphan Black is a show about female agency. Cosima may not be making the safest choice, but, importantly, it’s her choice to make and the other characters respect that.

Alison, meanwhile, is also exercising her right to choose. Last season she signed a contract agreeing to work with the Neolutionists in exchange for an unmonitored life. That life now includes cutting back on the booze and pills, salvaging her marriage with Donnie, and starring in a musical (that’s definitely not Cats). While the Dyad Institute hasn’t kept up its end of the deal—her secret monitor Donnie is still sneaking into her craft room in his underwear to check up on her—they are following the agreement to an extent. When Rachel’s right-hand-man Daniel realizes he’s accidentally kidnapped Alison instead of Sarah, he promptly apologizes and lets her go. Sarah sees Dyad as the enemy, but Alison has faith in her contract, mostly because it’s excuse to put the past—and the fact that she basically killed Aynsley—behind her. When put under pressure, Alison represses her emotions and puts on a happy face.

The season finale saw Sarah, Cosima, and Alison making drastically different decisions about their relationships to the Dyad Institute. While those splintered opinions could have divided the group, it’s refreshing to see that the Clone Club is as functional as ever. Alison might not want to be directly involved with breaking into the Institute, but she’s still more than happy to buy Sarah an unregistered gun from her Economart cashier/pill pusher Ramon. Whether their connection is natural or nurtured, these clone-sters still put each other first. The plot climaxes at the Dyad’s swanky event, but from a character point of view, the climax comes in a delightful scene in which the Clone Club and Felix reunite—with Alison on Skype this time—to come up with a plan.

Putting the main characters in one room not only allows for some nice character beats (“We love you Alison,” purrs Felix), it juxtaposes and clarifies the characters’ points of view. Hotheaded Sarah wants to break-in first and ask questions later while logical Cosima suggests negotiating with Rachel or at least forming a plan first. Alison also encourages Sarah to plan ahead, but asks to be kept in the dark so as to maintain plausible deniability in her new relationship with the Neolutionists. It’s a testament to creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett—who serve as the respective writer and director for this episode—that the characters of Orphan Black feel like distinctive individuals; there’s no mistaking an Alison line for a Sarah line. And Tatiana Maslany’s performances are so effortlessly unique, it’s easy to forget that ¾ of the characters in this scene are played by the same person.

Maslany also gets the chance to stretch her legs as Rachel, the newest clone iteration who made a quick appearance in the season finale but gets a proper introduction here. To its credit, Orphan Black plays its world building close to the chest, allowing details to emerge naturally rather than offering up forced exposition. It’s still unclear exactly how Rachel fits into the Dyad hierarchy. She doesn’t feel like the leader of the entire Institute, but she’s got authority over Leekie and enough clout to negotiate with both the Koreas. Rachel is an intriguing mystery and it will be interesting to learn more about her backstory, but so far the Dyad scenes rely a little too heavily on sci-fi tropes about mysterious organizations—especially when it comes to generic baddie Daniel, who seems largely perfunctory.

While the premiere fits in some nice character moments—like a stoned Felix asking Alison for a gun in the middle of the night—other plot mechanics are less organic. Detectives Art and Angie just happen to show up in the right place at the right time in one of the more contrived moments of the premiere. It’s not a major misstep, it’s just Orphan Black showing its work more than it does at its best. There’s a lot of dramatic potential in Art and Sarah’s uneasy relationship, but Angie continues to be one of the least developed characters on the show. Art and Angie temporarily arresting Sarah is perhaps one plot point too many in an already overstuffed premiere.

If the episode feels a bit constructed in the middle, it’s saved by a slam-bang ending. Once again proving she’s the best conwoman in town, Sarah impersonates Cosima—and even gets the hair almost right—to attend the Dyad gala. One awkward hug with Leekie later and she’s in the Dyad offices holding Rachel at gunpoint. Sarah and Rachel may look identical, but as Orphan Black proves time and time again, these clones are individuals. Rachel shares Sarah’s skills at manipulation, but she’s decidedly not a woman of action. Sarah, on the other hand, is more than happy to fire her gun—in a moment that made me jump out of my seat—and pin Rachel to the ground. When constrained and vexed, otherwise cool and collected Rachel is useless. It takes Paul—whose loyalties are still ambiguous—to both protect Rachel and let Sarah escape unharmed.

That would be plenty to sustain a season premiere, but, of course, this isn’t just any season premiere. Instead of cutting to credits as Sarah is about to confess everything to Art, we cut to a bloody boot and a shock of bleach blonde hair. “Excuse me, my sistra shot me,” Helena calmly explains before collapsing in a hospital waiting room. So everyone’s favorite unhinged Ukrainian is alive after all! It’s a genuinely shocking twist, not least of all because the cast has been so adamant about that fact that she’s gone.

It turns out this episode’s focus on the Dyad Institute was a red herring; the Proletheans are the ones who kidnapped Kira. Art tells Sarah that the mysterious man who attacked her in the dinner—Ali Millen’s creepy Mark—is a member of the extremist religious group. He works for a Mormon-esque sect that has apparently replaced Tomas’ old world branch. Mark shows up again alongside Helena at the hospital. But how did Helena survive a gunshot to the chest? What is her role in this newly organized Prolethean movement? And what do the Proletheans want with Kira?

Part of what made Orphan Black’s first season so exciting was the ever-expanding mystery around the clones and the people out to hurt them. Now that we have a decent number of answers to those questions, there’s a danger that the writers will keep expanding the mysteries until the show gets swallowed up by its own mythos (take a look at Lost if you want a prime example of that). With the addition of Rachel and Daniel to the Neolutionists, the introduction of this new Prolethean sect, and the return of Helena this show has a lot of antagonist forces in play. Given the strength of the first season, I’m willing to give Manson and Fawcett the benefit of the doubt that they can juggle all these storylines. This premiere is probably more action-packed than Orphan Black can sustain over the long term, but watching the show keep so many plates in the air tonight is exhilarating. Helena’s return is a reminder that in the world of Orphan Black anything is possible. Welcome to the trip, man.

Clone Club Conversations

• Welcome to Boing Boing’s Orphan Black reviews! I’ll be here all season talking about clones and craft rooms. I’m a big fan of the show and I’d love to discuss it more with you guys in the comments section or on Twitter!

• This week in Tatiana Maslany Shows Off: She speaks what I believe is German as Rachel, and she gets to do a whole song and dance number as Alison. Is there anything this girl can’t do?

• Last season all of the episode titles were phrases pulled from Charles Darwin’s The Origin Of Species. This season’s titles come courtesy of Francis Bacon. I watched this episode three times in preparation for this review and now I can’t get that song from Alison’s musical out of my head. “And we will sing, sing, sing…!”

• According to Leekie’s speech the Dyad Institute has been around since 1918 and has branches in 134 countries, including Vatican City. They also have enough power to influence real-life Supreme Court decisions!

• How did Sarah manage to bring a gun into an event that is apparently riddled with security? Maybe Dyad should invest in some metal detectors.

• Big Dick Paul continues to be the least interesting part of this series. Thanks to Dylan Bruce’s wooden performance it’s unclear when Paul is trying to play those around him and when he’s following orders. Can Tatiana just play Paul too?

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Playing Jenga with heavy earth-moving equipment

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In Stack competitions, a bunch of earth-moving equipment plays a monster-scale game of Jenga with 600lb blocks of wood -- pretty amazing skill on the part of the operators!

This is pretty amazing, but don't get too excited about Cat's equipment. Remember, this is the company that bought an Ontario factory, got a huge, multi-year tax break out of the government, then, pretty much the day it ran out, demanded a 50% wage-cut from the union, refused to negotiate, then closed down the factory, fired its workforce just before Christmas, and split town, having waxed fat on corporate welfare. No amount of fun promotional Jenga games can change the fact that if Cat's corporate personhood was literal, the company would be such an obviously dangerous sociopath that it would be permanently institutionalized to protect the rest of society.

Built For It Trials - Stack: Largest Board Game Played with Cat Excavators (via JWZ)

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4 hours ago
sounds like fun!
Burlington, Ontario
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Army comes clean about its recruitment AI, accidentally discloses info about pedophile- and terrorist-catching chatbots that roam the net

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

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

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

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

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

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Where Did That iPod Come From?

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Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 12.03.00 PM

Apple’s 1st Generation iPod, 2001

Few topics are more controversial among people who study histories of science and technology than the categories of basic versus applied research. In part, it’s because the borders between basic vs. applied research shifts over time. What was “basic” in 1880 might be applied (or simply black-boxed knowledge) a few decades later. Moreover, even within one particular time period, the labels “basic” vs “applied” are actors’ categories. They’re contingent on the circumstances in which researchers deploy them and the rhetorical work they (and we) want them to do.

I was reminded of these distinctions this week when the Technology Academy Finland announced the recipient of its prestigious Millennium Technology Prize (and a cool 1 million euros). The winner is Stuart S.P. Parkin, an IBM Fellow based at the Almaden Research Centre in San Jose as well as the director of the Max Planck Institute of Microstructure Physics.

2014 Millennium Technology Prize

1 million reasons to smile.

Parkin is being honored for his discoveries which have “enabled a thousand-fold increase in the storage capacity of magnetic disk drives.” These innovations, according to the Finns, have “underpinned the evolution of large data centers and cloud services, social networks, music and film distribution online.”

Parkin’s work is especially illuminating for the “what is science and what is technology?” question given the historical background of his work. The origins of it go back to basic physics research carried out in the late 1980s in France and Germany. In 1988, Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg independently discovered that tiny changes in magnetism can produce unexpectedly strong electrical signals. Because the response was so much greater than any of them expected, they named the phenomenon giant magnetoresistance (GMR).1 In mid-1988, both the French and the German research teams presented their results at a conference in France and submitted their studies for publication in the Physical Review. Aware now of each other’s work, the two scientists agreed to share credit for the discovery. Their work also helped initiate a new field of interdisciplinary research called spintronics which blends novel solid-state physics and device engineering with well-established areas of research such as magnetics and materials science.


Happy days…Fert and Grünberg, 2007

In 2007, the two European scientists shared the Nobel prize for physics. Yay! But what happened between 1988 and 2007 is the key here…and this is where Parkin entered the picture.

The first commercial application of the GMR phenomenon was in devices to detect slight magnetic fields for applications like landmine detection and traffic control systems. While sensor devices were fine for niche applications, other companies were eager to apply the GMR effect to more lucrative markets. This included IBM and the researchers it employed at its Almaden lab, a place where there was already a long tradition of work on magnetic information storage technologies.

Parkin was one of the IBM researchers who undertook this research. In 1980, Parkin earned his doctorate in physics while working at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. Still in his twenties, he joined IBM Almaden laboratory in 1982 and did research on topics such as high-temperature superconductivity for several years. After learning about the Europeans’ GMR research, he began to explore the magnetic properties of multilayer thin films with an eye toward improving the capabilities of the company’s hard disk drives.

In 1991, Parkin and his colleagues described what they called a “spin valve,” a device that makes use of the GMR phenomenon.2

Unlike Fert and Grünberg, who built samples using the more precise but slower and expensive tool of molecular beam epitaxy, Parkin’s group tried using sputter deposition equipment. This fit the goals of the Almaden group which wasn’t on basic science per se but on making devices that could be readily manufactured. Parkin’s use of sputtering held appeal for a company like IBM which had extensive experience in fabricating sputter-deposited magnetic storage media on an industrial scale. As one observer of Parkin’s research later recalled, the British scientist and his colleagues “simply engineered the shit” out the underlying GMR discovery as they made and characterized over 30,000 different multilayer combinations.

IBM eventually used the spintronics research Parkin and his colleagues had done to redesign and improve a basic element – the read head – in the company’s hard disk drives.

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In November 1997, The Wall Street Journal carried a front-page story about IBM’s unveiling of a new innovation for the personal computer industry. Based on the Almaden group’s exploitation of the GMR phenomenon, the new drives featured exquisitely sensitive magnetic read heads. For example, they could store eight times as much data as competitor’s equipment while still being smaller in size.3 This helped set the stage for the subsequent explosion in computer memory.


The result? Tiny hard drives that Apple incorporated into its early iPods. Fert and Grünberg’s work – channeled through Parkin and his colleagues at Almaden – found its way into the hands of millions of earbud wearing teenagers and subway commuters.

Historians, recognize that “pure science” is very much a social construction and one that often, after closer scrutiny, may not be quite so uncomplicated. Fert and Grünberg originally discovered GMR in the tradition of small-scale basic physics research. Parkin helped translate this into practical applications. Businesses, large and small, swiftly patented these applications and integrated it into products worth billions of dollars in annual sales. In this week’s Millennium Prize announcement, we can discern connections between contemporary scientific research and engineering applications and also see the shifting boundaries between science and technology.

  1. Peter Grünberg, then at the Jülich Research Center in western Germany, and his team made their discovery using Fe/Cr/Fe tri-layers. At the same time, Albert Fert and his group at Laboratoire de Physique des Solides at the University of Paris-Sud were examining more complex Fe/Cr multilayers. Fert and Grünberg’s work represented nanotechnology research long before the word itself fully entered the popular lexicon. For example, Fert’s team prepared its alternating iron and chromium layers – each less than ten nanometers thick – with molecular beam epitaxy, a key proto-nano research tool, before observing the GMR effect.
  2. As described in its basic form, a spin valve is composed of two magnetic layers separated by a nonmagnetic layer. When the magnetic moment of the magnetic layers are aligned, electrons move more easily and the sample shows low resistance. If the magnetic layers are not aligned, the spin-dependent movement of electrons is impeded and resistance goes up. In this way, the device acts as a valve, affecting the passage of electrons depending on whether the valve is “open” or “closed. At about the same time, Parkin and four other colleagues filed for a patent. This was awarded in October 1992.
  3. Raju Narisetti. “IBM Unveils Powerful PC Disk Drive, Confirms Plans to Join Two Divisions.” The Wall Street Journal, November 10, 1997: 1. IBM’s device held about 17 gigabytes of data (double what the company had previously offered) and was 3.25” in size; the best products from other firms had about thirty percent less storage capacity and were two inches bigger.
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Tick, tick, tick

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No idea who made this, but it's wonderful. If you know, post in the comments, please.

Update: It's from Bees and Bombs, to which I have just subscribed.

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5 days ago
my brain hurts!
Burlington, Ontario
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Blackmagic adds more pro cameras at market-nuking prices

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Blackmagic's trick is to make cameras with great cinematic image quality at a relatively inexpensive price. The tradeoff is gear that is Satan's gift to ergonomics, with low-end audio inputs, terrible battery life and a limited set of features. Enter the Blackmagic Studio Camera, which includes a big 10" monitor, 4 hours on a charge, XLR inputs, and broadcast-friendly features lacking in the earlier models. With the offered grip accessory, one may even hold it with a human hand! The game-changing prices remain: it's just under $2k, with a 4K version for $3k. You'll still need to bring your own lenses and SSDs.

Also announced is the Blackmagic URSA, a higher-end model with a super35-size 4k sensor aimed at professional feature use. At $6k, it isn't as affordable to students and consumers as the other models (especially the $990 pocket cinema camera), but it compares well on paper to the five-figure price tags hanging off similar gear from Canon, Sony and others.

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