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November 2011
Since the end of October, a group of young programmers have been blogging about their attempt to control Siri (that voice-activated iPhone app) using their thoughts. They call their effort Project Black Mirror. The basic premise is to measure the pattern of their brain waves, and then to design a program that can "detect the signature patterns that indicate a certain word is being thought of" and pass this information along to Siri, which executes the command. On their blog, they provide more details about exactly how they're going about this:

1. ECG pads provide raw skin conductivity / electrical activity as analogue data (0-5v).
2. This is plugged into the Arduino board via 4 analogue inputs (no activity = 0v, high activity = 5v).
3. The Arduino has a program burnt to it’s EPROM chip that filters the signals.
4. Josh trained the program by thinking of the main Siri commands (“Call”, “Set”, “Diary” etc.) one at a time and the program where we captured the signature brain patterns they produce.
5. The program can detect the signature patterns that indicate a certain word is being thought of. The program will then wait for a natural ‘release’ in brain waves and assume the chain of commands is now complete and action is required.
6. The series of commands are fed to a SpeakJet speech synthesiser chip
7. The audio output of which simply plugs into the iPhone’s microphone jack.

On November 10, the group claimed they were already successful enough to justify seeking out funding from Kickstarter — and they posted a video they said they were submitting to Kickstarter to demonstrate the technology. Here's that video:

After the posting of the video is when people really started paying attention to Project Black Mirror, and a lot of people in the tech community soon pointed out it had to be a hoax. The Verge summarizes some of the arguments:

For starters, Project Black Mirror claims to be using ECG pads to measure the brain's electrical activity — but ECG pads measure heart activity; EEG pads measure brain activity. Also, the scale for measuring those inputs is apparently off by an order of magnitude. Project Black Mirror says they measure brain activity on a 0 to 5v scale, while brain activity is typically measured in microvolts. According to InteraXon COO Trevor Coleman, "there is no way they could detect any meaningful brainwave signals through that setup."

And there's a more detailed breakdown of the arguments at geekosystem.

So it seems pretty clear Project Black Mirror is a hoax. The motive for the hoax, however, remains unclear. It doesn't seem as if the group actually has taken anyone's money. So presumably this wasn't just a scam to make money.
Categories: Technology
Posted by Alex on Tue Nov 15, 2011
Comments (1)
QR Markham, author of the spy thriller Assassin of Secrets, has been accused of plagiarism, as people identify multiple passages in his book that originally appeared elsewhere (such as in books by Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum). The publisher (Little, Brown) has recalled all copies of his book. And it turns out that a Huffington Post article written by Markham also used the words of someone else. So Huffington Post removed all articles by him. In other words, things aren't going well for Markham.

But what makes this case strange is an article in the New Yorker by Macy Halford, speculating that Markham (which is the pen name of Quentin Rowan) deliberately used other people's words in his novel in order to make an artistic statement — both to comment on the lack of originality in the spy genre and to turn his own readers into detectives:

If Rowan is trying to comment upon the spy genre—on how it is both tired and endlessly renewable, on how we as readers of the genre want nothing but to be astonished again and again by the same old thing—then he has done a bang-up job. If he wants to comment on our current notions of discovery, to turn us all into armchair detectives, Googling here and there and everywhere to solve the puzzle, he is a genius.

But Halford acknowledges that if this was Markham's intention, then he was far too clever for his own good, because he shot himself in the foot. Who's going to publish him after this?

This isn't the first time that apologists for a literary hoaxer have argued that the hoaxer's actions should be viewed charitably, as some kind of artistic statement about writing and the creative process. For instance, during the JT LeRoy case, defenders of Laura Albert (who manipulated readers into believing that LeRoy was a real person) made a similar argument, suggesting that Albert was an artistic genius, not a con artist.

The argument speaks to the strange morality that differentiates hoaxes from frauds (or lies). We condemn liars for taking advantage of people's trust. But hoaxes have traditionally been viewed as a special kind of lie — ones in which we forgive the liar and instead blame their victims for being too gullible. So when someone gets caught perpetrating a sensational act of deception, there's often a debate about whether their act should be interpreted as a simple lie or a forgivable hoax.

Such debates usually boil down to two key considerations: Did the hoaxer/liar leave a lot of clues about their intention? (That is, did they make the lie or theft kind of obvious?) And did they profit financially from the act?

Markham pretty much strikes out on both considerations. So I doubt he's going to be remembered as a rogue literary genius.
Categories: Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Mon Nov 14, 2011
Comments (4)
A committee at Tilburg University (in the Netherlands) has determined that the social psychologist Diederik Stapel is guilty of fabricating data in multiple studies. Staepl has admitted his guilt, saying he "failed as a scientist". From

The panel reported that [Stapel] would discuss in detail experimental designs, including drafting questionnaires, and would then claim to conduct the experiments at high schools and universities with which he had special arrangements. The experiments, however, never took place, the universities concluded. Stapel made up the data sets, which he then gave the student or collaborator for analysis, investigators allege.

An odd touch of irony: Some of Stapel's earlier work included investigating how psychologists would react to a plagiarism scandal.
Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Tue Nov 01, 2011
Comments (3)