Bully online retailer arrested by Feds

A Brooklyn cyber-merchant who recently drew attention by boasting that he used unusually bad customer service to boost his business was due in federal court in Manhattan Monday, following his arrest for allegedly threatening customers and other violations.

Vitaly Borker was charged with cyber-stalking, the making of interstate threats and both mail and wire fraud.

“Vitaly Borker, an alleged cyber-bully and fraudster, cheated his customers, and when they complained, tried to intimidate them with obscenity and threats of serious violence,” said Manhattan US Attorney Pheet Bharara in a press release. “Especially during this holiday shopping season, today’s arrest should send a message that we will protect online consumers and that victims of people like Borker are not alone.”

In a Nov. 26 article in the New York Times, Borker told a reporter that securing many online reviews, regardless of what they say, is part of his strategy to generate business for his site, DecorMyEyes.com, which sells high-end eyeware…

Google announced last week that it changed the methodology behind how it ranks search results in order to make it harder for unscrupulous merchants to appear prominently in searches…

The complaint spells out details of the offenses, in which Borker’s firm sent customers defective and counterfeit eyeglasses, refused to give refunds and threatened customers physically.

According to the complaint, Borker told one customer, known as Victim 4, “I know where you live” and “I can hurt you,” after the victim threatened to file a complaint against the merchant with the Federal Trade Commission.

I read the article in the Times, last weekend. Didn’t post about it, then, because I felt it wasn’t productive to introduce some other lowlife bastard to the same stunt.

But, Google has repaired the fault – and the Feds will hopefully throw this creep in jail.

An iPod watch project explodes online

A project that began with an iPod Nano and an experimental wristwatch design has quickly exploded online, receiving over $540,000 in funding through Kickstarter, a Web site that helps people find support for projects.

The project was created by the Chicago-based design firm Minimal, which wants to take the iPod Nano, Apple’s latest tiny multitouch iPod, and incorporate it into a wristwatch. Those who pledge $25 to the project will receive a Nano-holding watch kit when it is produced.

Scott Wilson, founder of Minimal, said his company had been astonished by the response to the idea.

“It just seems to keep on going,” Mr. Wilson said, referring to the number of pledges received since the project idea was posted online two weeks ago. “I had expectations that we would get $15,000 in funding from Kickstarter, but by the second day of sales we had quickly passed that.”

Fred Benenson, an employee at Kickstarter, said on Twitter Thursday that the project was the first on Kickstarter to top $500,000 in funding…

The TikTok design created by Minimal turns the Nano into a watch by letting you snap it into a wrist dock. The LunaTik, a more expensive design, is meant to be more permanent. It is made of aluminum and holds the Nano in place with screws.

Mr. Wilson said he decided to finance the project through Kickstarter to ensure that his designers had more input on the final product.

“I’m most excited about using this platform to give creative control to the designers and experiment with the product without having to enter a complicated corporate deal to produce it,” Mr. Wilson said. “It seems to be working; there’s nothing more validating than someone putting a credit card down to buy something.”

We’re starting to offer Giftmas suggestions to our readers, this week. This is the first of several.

I was a more than reasonably successful salesman when I was working at it – in fields as wide-ranging as sporting goods to tech goodies. This is one of those products I would have loved to sell to retailers. Its attractive design adds more functionality to an already successful product. Piece of cake.

Making blood from human skin

A new technique that allows blood to be made directly from skin cells has been discovered. The pioneering approach by Canadian researchers uses human skin stem cells to create blood stem cells without an intermediate step that previously was thought necessary.

Until now to make blood stem cells, the building blocks for a variety human cells (called pluripotent stem cells) have been used as a steppingstone a process. This has proven largely inefficient, but research led by Mick Bhatia…has shown that making blood from skin can be achieved in a one step process.

Cynthia Dunbar…said: “Bhatia’s approach detours around the pluripotent stem cell stage and thus avoids many safety issues, increases efficiency, and also has the major benefit of producing adult-type l blood cells instead of fetal blood cells, a major advantage compared to the thus far disappointing attempts to produce blood cells from human embryonic stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells.”

The discovery was replicated several times over two years using human skin from both the young and the elderly to prove it works for any age of person.

The approach could be used for creating blood for surgery or treating conditions like anemia from a patch of the patient’s skin. Other potential applications include generating bone marrow and improved treatment of leukaemia and other types of cancer, including solid tumors.


Welcome to Laptopistan

Inside the Atlas Cafe

Just after 4 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, as a dozen people clicked away on their laptops at the Atlas Café in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, half of a tree broke off without warning less than a block away. It crashed into the middle of Havemeyer Street, crushing a parked car, setting off alarms and blocking the street. A deafening chorus of horns rose outside Atlas’s window as traffic halted. An 18-wheeler executed a sketchy 10-point turn in the middle of a crowded intersection before a pair of fire trucks made their way through the traffic jam in a blaze of red. Chain saws roared, sawdust flew and the horns built to a peak. It was New York urban pandemonium at its finest.

Inside the warm confines of Atlas, separated from the chaos by only a thin wall of glass, not a soul stirred. A quiet mention was made of the falling tree, a few heads rose for a second, and then, just as quickly, they ducked back down. They all returned to whatever was on the other side of their glowing, partly eaten apples. On a day when the cafe Internet connection had already been down for four hours, and the toilet had been blocked for even longer, I thought I had seen these worker bees pushed to their limit. But I had underestimated them. Nothing could stir these people. They were not in New York; they were citizens of Laptopistan…

I was, admittedly, a profoundly skeptical observer. Though I had been a freelance writer for the last eight years, I had always worked at home, clad in pajamas and brewing my own fuel rather than paying $3 for someone to make pretty designs in my caffeinated foam. Whenever my wife suggested that I get out of the house, maybe take my laptop to a cafe, I shot back: “Real freelancers don’t work in coffee shops. It’s just unemployed hipsters and their unpublished novels, or screenplays, or Facebook stati…”

So what was I doing in Laptopistan? I moved from New York to Toronto in September, but had come back to the city for a week and was sleeping on a friend’s couch. I needed a place to work. Someone suggested Atlas. I swallowed my skepticism and got my passport ready.

Set on the corner of Havemeyer and Grand Streets, and flooded with light from two walls of windows, Atlas Café, which opened in 2003, looks like a combination of worn trattoria and late 1990s Seattle coffeehouse. The name reflects its wall-sized map of the world (there are also a mobile of hanging globes, and flourishes of décor inspired by someone’s travel to the Far East). The soundtrack is a mix of old country and folk (Dylan, Willy, Cohen and Cash), classical, bebop and French ballads…

Laptopistan’s is an entrepreneurial economy, driven by solitary thinkers. Aszure Barton, a choreographer from Alberta, was working with colleagues to prepare for her contemporary dance show called BUSK, which will debut Dec. 17 at the Jerome Robbins Theater. Robert Olinger runs a biotech startup that is getting silkworms to make spider silk at commercial scale, designs online education programs for the New York City Department of Education, and directs theater projects with Russian artists. In just a few days I met architects and event planners, database designers, classical musicians, film editors and app developers, every facet of the creative economy working under one roof, not so much together as in tandem…

RTFA. It’s long, interesting, well-written, sometimes humorous, always introspective. The sort of “notes from our journalist in the field” that keeps much of my weekend online reading stuck into the Observer or the NY Times.

This particular effort reflects a certain portion of my life with telling accuracy. I think much of the style – as observed – fits a close look at intellectuals shoehorned physically if not mentally into an urban shoebox. It still won’t impose restrictions on their curiosity or openness.

And, of course, MacDonald’s can fill the bill as well as many a coffee shop. Or, if you’re in Santa Fe, Java Joe’s.

Google’s e-Bookstore opens its doors

It’s official: the Google e-bookstore is open.

After years of planning and months of delays, the search giant Google started its e-book venture on Monday, creating a potentially robust competitor in the digital book market to Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Apple.

Google executives described the e-bookstore as an “open ecosystem” that will offer more than three million books, including hundreds of thousands for sale and millions free.

More than 4,000 publishers, including large trade book companies like Random House, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan, have made books available for sale through Google , many at prices that are identical to those of other e-bookstores.

“We really think it’s important that the book business have this open diversity of retail points, just like it does in print,” Tom Turvey, the director of strategic partnerships at Google, said in an interview. “We want to make sure we maintain that and support that.”

Customers can set up an account for buying books, store them in a central online, password-protected library and read them on personal computers, tablets, smartphones and e-readers. A Web connection will not be necessary to read a book, however; users can use a dedicated app that can be downloaded to an iPad, iPhone or Android phone…

The Google eBookstore could be a significant benefit to independent bookstores like Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., that have signed on to sell Google e-books on their Web sites through Google — the first significant entry for independents into the e-book business.

“This levels the playing field,” said Oren Teicher, the chief executive of the American Booksellers Association. “If you want to buy e-books, you don’t just have to buy them from the big national outlets…”

RTFA. Lots of detail, fair-to-middling insight.

It will provide little comfort to competitors, even less to the paranoid who fear shopping in the cloud. I can’t wait to try it.

Software design leaves trains unable to operate in snow and ice

Steam locomotive, number 45212, built in 1934

Rail companies have admitted that a fault in the the computer software on their modern electric trains leaves them unable to operate in snowy and icy conditions.

When the temperature plummets and the snows start to fall which do you turn to – a traditional steam train or its multi-million pound modern replacement?

Yesterday the steam locomotive, No: 45212, built in 1934, barrelled through the North Yorkshire countryside between Grosmont and Pickering, while hundreds of services on the country’s modern electric network fell victim to the weather.

Some train operating companies last night admitted that the computer software on their modern electric trains was not able to cope with the snowy and icy conditions…

The Sunday Telegraph can reveal that a safety feature found in some modern computerised trains causes them to shut down in freezing conditions.

Network Rail has admitted that the software contributed to the chaos which left thousands stranded in freezing conditions last week.

Experts said the problem affects a number of trains, including the Bombardier Electrostar, which operates on the “third rail” electric railway lines common in the south east.

The Electrostar, which comprises the bulk of southern and Southeastern’s rolling stock, includes a safety system which can shut down the train when there is ice on the third rail to protect the train against surges.

Last week, hundreds of commuters had to sleep on trains overnight as drivers made several attempts to reboot the trains’ systems…

Roger Ford, the technology editor of Modern Railways magazine, said: “Some people will find it a little ironic that over the past week older trains seem to have coped better with the extreme conditions.

“The fact that older trains are less clever and complicated than these modern sophisticated trains has definitely worked in their favour as it makes them less sensitive.”

Garbage in = garbage out.

Researchers aim to design single system to desalinate water, produce hydrogen and treat wastewater

Fresh water and reusable energy. Humans are on a constant hunt for a sustainable supply of both. Water purification requires a lot of energy, while utility companies need large amounts of water for energy production. Their goal is to find a low-energy-required treatment technology. Researchers from the University of Colorado Denver College of Engineering and Applied Science may have discovered an answer.

Last year, a study published in Environmental Science & Technology incorporated desalination into microbial fuel cells, a new technology that can treat wastewater and produce electricity simultaneously. However, putting it into practical use proved to be challenging due to current fluctuation. Zhiyong (Jason) Ren and his team with the University of Colorado Denver discovered, after six months from the initial hypothesis to completion, that they could produce hydrogen gas, which is collectable and storable, thus making improvements in the technology. The study…was published on December 1 and is funded by the Office of Naval Research.

“Ships and their crews need energy generated on-site as well as fresh drinking water,” said Ren. “Thus, the Navy is very interested in both low energy desalination and renewable energy production.”

A recent study by Logan group at Penn State University also demonstrated similar findings in that the energy contained in hydrogen gas not only can offset the energy used for the desalination process but has surplus that can be used for downstream processing.

Next steps for Ren and his team will include using real wastewater to test the efficiency as well as optimizing the reactor configuration to improve system performance.

“This discovery is a milestone for our new research group,” said Ren.

Cripes. There’s a wastewater treatment plant just up the road that belongs to the city of Santa Fe. C’mon down and sort them out with your experiments and I’ll even cook green chile stew for you.