Ducks, dorks and deviants: Wackiest stories of 2008

It's not all bits and bytes

  • Can it be that the Terminator movies were right and robots will consume the Earth? Seems that's what one researcher has concluded. We are beginning to [[xref:|see]] the first steps towards an international robot arms race. Currently there is always a human in the loop to decide on the use of lethal force. However, this is set to change with the US giving priority to autonomous weapons - robots that will decide on where, when and who to kill.

  • For those fond of the old scratch-and-sniff stickers that were all the rage in the 1980s, NTT's newest product might be for you. The company has developed a system that allows mobile phone users to send scents to an in-house unit that wafts the gift into the air.

  • Sprint Nextel has had a rough year. And in its recent third quarter earnings statement it acknowledged it had lost another 1.3 million wireless customers in the quarter as well as US$326 million -- but at least Verizon stopped picking on it in public, at least for now. An advertising industry self-regulatory group recently concluded that Verizon's snarky TV ads lampooning Sprint's push to talk (PTT) service made unsupported claims and should be discontinued.

  • While copper thieves aren't known for their [[xref:|brain]] power, a new [[xref:|depravity]] is infiltrating their ranks: stealing sometimes live ammunition from military bombing ranges. An Army Times/AP story said bombing ranges have become prime hunting grounds for so-called scrappers, who are motivated by soaring commodity prices to take greater risks in their quest for brass, copper and aluminum. Since the Pentagon estimates up to 10 percent of bombs, missiles and grenades fail to detonate, well, many scrappers find that out the hard way.

  • We again turn to Buzzblog where he reported on a simple e-mail slip-up, the kind any one of us could make at any time: A Philadelphia lawyer addresses his electronic missive to an Alex Berenson instead of Bradford Berenson. But what happens next is anything but routine; it's front-page news in The New York Times. That's because Alex Berenson happens to be a reporter for The New York Times, as opposed to Bradford being another lawyer, and the e-mail happens to concern settlement talks between the US government and pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly that include the proposed sum of $1 billion.

  • It would be hard not to start this list off with the [[artid:899854919|Ig Nobel Prize ceremony|new]] at Harvard University that celebrates all manner of wacky research. Awarded since 1991 by the magazine Annals of Improbable Research, the 2008 version didn't disappoint. Lap dancer ovulation, the mental state of plants, and the question of whether Coca-Cola is an effective spermicide were some of the weirder winning research topics.

  • A camera that is sophisticated enough to tell if you have sugar in your pocket, not cocaine from a distance of 40 feet, but doesn't see your naughty bits could find a home at security points in airports or at borders throughout the globe. At least that's what ThruVision, the company developing the T5000 camera hopes. The camera sees objects that emit Terahertz, or T-rays, which pretty much includes all people and most objects. T-rays are a form of low level energy naturally emitted from all materials, including rocks, plants, animals and people.

  • This is one not even James Bond's handlers have created: A shape shifting robot. IRobot this year got a US$3.3 million contract to build a shape-shifting, flexible robot for dangerous or hard to reach combat duties. The robot is part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) Chemical Robots (ChemBots) program that seeks to build soft, flexible, mobile objects that can identify and maneuver through openings smaller than their static structural dimensions; reconstitute size, shape and features while delivering meaningful payloads or performing significant tasks, DARPA said.

  • Most of Google's ideas have indeed floated, but no so quite literally as this one. Google, this year filed a patent application for a "water-based data center" detailing a floating data center, complete with an energy supply fed by a wave-powered generator system, and a wind-powered cooling system using sea water.

  • A researcher has discovered a way to use facial expressions to speed and slow video playback. By using a combination of facial expression recognition software and automated tutoring technology Jacob Whitehill, a computer science PhD student from UC San Diego's Jacobs School of Engineering, is leading the project that is part of a larger venture to use automated facial expression recognition to make robots more effective teachers.

  • It should come as no surprise to you that if you use company computers to read and send X-rated e-mail that you will be fired. That's why it's odd to read that the head of tourism for the state of Hawaii was retained this summer after the state found X-rated e-mails in his government account. In a nutshell, the Hawaii Tourism Authority board of directors, after a seven-hour hearing, unanimously agreed to keep Rex Johnson as their president and CEO after a state audit showed he was sending and receiving X-rated e-mails on the state's dime. Johnson ultimately resigned in October.

  • Now this is some serious computer theft. We're talking 19,709 pieces of stolen computer equipment from the US Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC. The theft included everything from PCs and printer toner to hard drives, software and other office equipment amounting to more than US$120,000 according to court documents and published reports. He took so much stuff that he stored some of it in neighbors' houses.

  • Maybe space is really only for multi-millionaire, high-tech entrepreneurs. Esther Dyson, an industry guru who has been involved in all manner of technology start-ups and digital ventures, will train as a back-up crew member alongside ex-Microsoft developer Charles Simonyi, PhD, who recently announced his second mission to the International Space Station (ISS) in early 2009. Earlier this year Google co-founder Sergei Brin put down US$5 million toward a flight to the international space station in 2011 also courtesy of Space Adventures. Meanwhile, computer game entrepreneur Richard Garriott flew to the ISS in October.

  • Cisco chief John Chambers finally received one of the elite perks a CEO of a highly successful organization can get - private jet reimbursement from the company. Until recently Chambers paid for his own corporate jet use but Cisco's board put an end to that inequity stating in the company's most recent proxy: Chambers is generally required to utilize a private airplane for business travel because his responsibilities on behalf of Cisco entail substantial travel.

  • [[xref:|Buzzblog]] reported that 10 percent of men -- but 45 percent of women -- were willing to give personally identifiable information to a complete stranger, according to Infosecurity Europe. But, wait, it gets worse: The fake researchers who approached people outside Liverpool Street Station in London offered chocolate bars as an incentive to participate, so the data may be shall we say, askew.

  • It's about as low-tech as you can get from one of the most high-tech organizations. NASA this year let out a small squadron of rubber ducks -- 90 to be precise -- to help it better understand the movement of one of the world's fastest moving blocks of ice, Greenland's Jakobshavn glacier. The ice warriors and a small football-sized probe that includes a GPS and some scientific instruments were dumped into a hole on the glacier and have as their mission to discover what exactly is going on inside Jakobshavn.

  • The trial of the US student indicted this fall for allegedly breaking into the e-mail account of then-Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin won't happen until May 2009. The story certainly was one of the more colorful items in Palin's eventful year. The student David Kernell, 20, allegedly hacked Palin's Yahoo Mail account in September.

  • Despite the daily drum beat of new and improved hardware or software, the tech industry isn't all bits and bytes. Some interesting things happen along the way too. Like floating data centers, space geekonauts, shape shifting robots and weird bedfellows (like Microsoft and Jerry Seinfeld). What we include here is an example of what we thought were the best, slightly off-center stories of 2008.

  • Continually painted by Apple and other rivals as uncool and unsafe, Microsoft decided to spend US$300 million on a series of advertisements designed around its "Windows Not Walls" slogan that featured Jerry Seinfeld and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates yukking it up. Seinfeld reportedly took home the tidy sum of US$10 million for his role which promptly ended about three weeks and three commercials after it began.

  • What stories did you think were wacky in 2008? We'd love to hear about them.

  • The US Federal Trade Commission this year got a court to shut down what the agency called a vast international spam network that sold prescription drugs and bogus male-enhancement products. The network has been identified as the largest "spam gang" in the world by the anti-spam organization Spamhaus. The FTC said it had received more than 3 million complaints about spam messages connected to this operation, and estimates that it may be responsible for sending billions of illegal spam messages.

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