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Disappearing in the Digital Age January 6, 2010

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I recently reviewed the fictional work Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow, in which a teenager tries to evade the prying eyes of the Department of Homeland Security while still maintaining an electronic presence on the web. Then today, I stumbled across the real-life story of someone attempting to do the very same thing, albeit for fun and with a monetary reward. Writer Evan Ratliff decided, with the help of the magazine Wired, to disappear for a month, offering readers $5,000 to try to locate him. The impetus, Ratliff notes, was to answer “a series of questions, foremost among them: How hard is it to vanish in the digital age…People fret about privacy, but what are the consequences of giving it all up, I wondered. What can investigators glean from all the digital fingerprints we leave behind? You can be anybody you want online, sure, but can you reinvent yourself in real life?” (Wired.com).

from Wired.com

Ratliff then embarks on a cross-country jaunt, setting up fake email, Facebook, and Twitter accounts, as well as a fake office, an alias, and investing in numerous untraceable credit-card like gift cards for larger purchases. He routinely changes his appearance and uses the web to follow those trying to locate him, many who have set up groups on Twitter and Facebook and who manage to unearth every detail about his former life including hobbies, dietary restrictions, former habitations, purchases, and the name and phone number of his cat sitter. One of Ratliff’s most useful modes of cyber anonymity is using The Onion Router (TOR), which hides his true IP address and is also frequently mentioned in Little Brother. When Ratliff is finally caught a week from the end of the contest, it is because he attends a book reading that could have been in held in two places and was embedded in a New York Times crossword puzzle. By that time, his alias, Facebook and Twitter accounts had been compromised and it is likely he would have been caught soon, regardless of the clue.

Is is possible to disappear in our age? Of course it is. One women explains her fascination with Ratliff’s attempted disappearance:

Why would a middle-aged woman with virtually no technical knowledge be interested in following the Evan’s Vanished story on Twitter? You see, my father walked out one morning in Sumter, South Carolina, kissed the wife and two young children good-bye as if he was going to work as always, and disappeared for 12 years. He was around Evan’s age. He sent the family a telegraph a few days later asking them not to look for him. To this day, no one knows anything about his personal life during those years. I guess I’m hoping to have some clues to some of my questions (Wired.com).

People disappear all the time. But Ratliff didn’t try to disappear. He just tried to change and to change his electronic identity. Could he have lived in the woods, cultivating his own food, and never using a computer again? Sure. But that wouldn’t have been half as interesting or draw attention to the amount of information that is easily hackable, traceable and public. Ratliff doesn’t argue about the dangers of the information age like Doctorow’s Little Brother does, but he certainly draws attention to the reality of a real Big Brother.

Make sure to read the whole article here. It is fascinating to hear about Ratliff’s mental and emotional changes as well. Or check our his website: www.atavist.net.

The Flying Cars You’ve All Been Waiting For…(sort of) January 5, 2010

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It seems I can’t go a day in this new decade without someone complaining that the flying cars they were promised (by whom? the Jetsons?) have not yet materialized. Well I am here to say, your prayers have been answered (sort of). Sonex Aircraft, a company specializing in making kits for the adventurous brainy types who like to put together small air-crafts in their spare time, are close to introducing “a small, single-seat jet designed to provide high performance in an airplane that fits in your garage” (Wired.com) for retail. Price estimation ranges from $30,000 to $60,000 for a plane with one or two seats that can fly over “240 mph and climb at well over 2,000 feet per minute” (Wired.com). Though tests have not yet taken the craft into the air, the optimistic company hopes to be airborne by July. Make sure to check out the whole article by Wired here.

Turning Science Fiction into Fact December 1, 2009

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I often find myself linking to, or Retweeting, articles on the Wired Magazine’s GeekDad Blog. They just find some of the coolest stuff out there on the web, movies, tv and popculture. This morning’s post is no exception – it’s a plug for a new show, Sci-Fi Science: Physics of the Impossible on the Science channel.

TIME Visions 21 issue contributor physicist Michio Kaku. (Photo by Ted Thai//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Check out this interview with the Theoretical Physicist that will help figure out how to turn science fiction into reality. He talks about things like why time travelers from the future aren’t interested in us (despite our huge egos, we aren’t actually that interesting) and if we should worry about robots taking over the world (yes, but we’ll have plenty of warning.)

As if the very concept of the show wasn’t already enough to make me tune in, GeekDad added this enticement:

They’re going to make lightsabers that actually work.

The show premieres tonight at 10pm EST, on the Science Channel. Check your local listings.

Lists to Be Thankful For November 20, 2009

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Recently we posted about why people make lists. Since then, lists seem to be popping up everywhere. And now, especially with Thanksgiving around the corner, people are making lists of things for which they are thankful.

I, personally, am thankful for the lists. Here are a couple I came across this morning, that I thought were worth sharing.

Television Without Pity’s 10 TV things We’re Thankful For This Year

Wired’s GeekDad Blog’s 10 Geeky Things to Be Thankful For

I expect there will be more as we get closer to Thanksgiving, and Year-End Reviews, so check back for more in the weeks to come. If you have a list you’d like to see us highlight, let us know in the comments!

Photo by Steve Voght; used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Judge a book by its smell! November 12, 2009

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Who doesn’t love the spectrum of book odors? From the smell of dusty, archaic library books to the smell of freshly printed Barnes & Noble books, you can often find me with my nose in a book, literally. Matija Strlic, a chemist at University College London, has developed a process called “material degradomics” to determine how degraded the paper within books are. This will greatly help rare book specialists and archivists in determining what artifacts need to be preserved and in what order. Check out the full article by Wired Science.

The Birth of a Puzzler October 23, 2009

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Earlier this week, Oct. 21 actually, was the birthday of Martin Gardner, creator of many books full of mathematical and logic puzzles. He turned 95. For over half a century he has been inspiring and stumping puzzlers and thinkers. In honor of Gardner’s birthday, GeekDad over at Wired.com wrote a post about Gardner, his puzzles and their influence on his life.

High Cost of Hoarding Data October 16, 2009

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A California County tried to charge an exorbitant amount of money for mapping data it had collected, and when the non-profit coalition seeking access decided to sue instead of pay – the county claimed the data was withheld for reasons of National Security.

Well, not only did the court not believe it, but after a 3-year and thus very costly trial, the county has been ordered to release the data, and pay the coalition’s legal fees to the tune of $500,000.

So, instead making $250,000, the county is paying at least twice that, and that’s not counting their county’s own legal fees.

(via Wired)