Seven Curious Things Online This Week

Torture, sex, killer robots, cheap hacked iPhones and Julia Allison (did we mention torture?). This week was a good one in the Web world. You can now find photos of your friends more easily on Facebook, or find yourself on Facebook endorsing a "friend" you never meant to. Or just watch Christopher Hitchens get pretend-drowned, if you're feeling that semi-violent spring fever. It's all below in FastCompany.com's seven best things this week.

Hitchens Getting Waterboarded

Last week I linked to Obama's release of the Bush torture memos. Since those records were made public, torture has been the pan-media watchword. So it stands to reason that a lot of interest made its way to a video of Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens getting waterboarded last summer, for the sake of journalism. Or sensationalism. Either way, watch it; it's fascinating to see how something that seems so anodyne—a little towel, a little water—can actually be made to inspire such terror.

To His Coy Mistress

Common wisdom, both social and scientific, holds that men are usually more promiscuous than women. Not so, says new research coming out of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The study, which used 10,000 subjects from 18 different countries, concluded that men and women average the same number of partners and the same number of children worldwide.

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That data is at variance with a landmark study from the mid-20th century by Angus Bateman, who hypothesized that because eggs were fewer in number and rarer than sperm, women should logically be more selective about who they mate with. Bateman applied his reasoning not just to humans, but to most mammals, assuming that males naturally played a more aggressive role, while females acted as the selectors. The disruptive new findings are published in Cell Press.

Dear God, It Works

When I signed up for Face.com's alpha program, it was with glib enthusiasm. How could an algorithm identify all pictures of me, across Facebook, and deliver them all to me like Google results? Well, I've finally been admitted into the alpha, and let me tell you: it can.

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It's not 100% accurate—every once in a while it finds some face-analog like an inflatable monkey, and identifies it as my friend Nick. But four out of five IDs are right, and they dredge up pictures from people I didn't even know had me in their viewfinder. Creepy, sure, but also fun. Picasa is also experimenting with similar technology, and Apple's new version of iPhoto can tag faces automatically too. Sign up for Face's alpha here.

Killer Robots

Sure, Terminator movies are cool. So are Predator drones and other unmanned aircraft. But what about a ground robot with a machine gun strapped to it? Would you trust one?

That's the question broached by this PBS segment on remote-controlled warrior robots. Costing several thousand dollars each and packing serious firepower, the robots seem like a coup for the companies that make them. But some critics, both within the DoD and the private sector, say that these machines could impose undue danger, cost and moral hazard upon our troops abroad. Check out the video at PBS's site by clicking here.

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Microblogging a Crisis

In the U.S., we've seen Twitter used to report the progress of natural disasters. Elsewhere, where violence is more common and more riotous, microblogging can work the same way: in those first few hours of confusion, having numerous contributors detailing their endemic experiences can provide a clearer overall view of an incident than any news team or reporter. That's the logic behind a new platform being deployed in Africa called Ushahidi. Explained here in a TED talk by the project's founder, Ushahidi is a platform that could change the way we understand breaking news.

The $23-a-month iPhone

If you have an iPhone, you're probably paying about $100 a month for AT&T's service. If that repulses you, check out this workaround by blogger Cody Jones. You'll need to do a little under-the-hood work, of course; jailbreaking your iPhone and swapping out the SIM card are just the basics of this maneuver. If that makes you faint of heart, this hack probably isn't for you. But you don't need to be a total geek to do it successfully, either; programs like iPhonePWN are user-friendly and reliable, and some of the benefits—like paying less for service, using your iPhone for VOIP calls, or being able to run background apps—are well worth the risk. (Below, a pwning tool for Mac.)

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Facebook's Little Legal Misstep

Why is everyone so damned excitable over this Facebook voting thing?, you might have asked yourself this week. Well, here's why: because when a social network can do whatever it wants with your account, sometimes you end up inadvertently endorsing a product or person you never meant to. So it went this week with the Julia Allison Facebook scandal.

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Allison (above), an Internet celebrity of sorts, pulled some strings with friends inside Facebook—namely, founder Mark Zuckerberg's sister—to have 2500 people who were her "friends" converted to "fans" of her page. As Valleywag aptly explains, you can't do that; it's sort of against the law. Check out the legal shmutz here. Will either party get sued? Probably not. But the episode is a curious step in defining how the law applies itself online, and to your personal content.

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