ROUNDUP Welcome to this week’s gallimaufry of gaucheness, as we present a selection of daft stories to make you glad that you’re not that person.
Virginia school board gets thoroughly schooled
We begin with a cautionary tale from the US state of Virginia, where a member of the Henrico County school board fell victim to one of the oldest tricks in the book during a live-streamed meeting, to the subsequent amusement of many millions of YouTube viewers.
Reverend Dr Roscoe D Cooper III had just finished hearing from a member of the public in the hall and so consulted his list of other interested parties who had asked to speak.
Rev Cooper, who later admitted to Newsweek that he was not a Simpsons fan and had never seen the gag on the show, was blissfully unaware that he had been pranked until he received a text message after running through the whole list which read: “Those names may not be real people lol.”
“I had no clue,” he admitted. “The names looked legit, and so were their associated districts and board members. I had a duty to call them.”
Rev Cooper took the prank and his unexpected YouTube fame with good humour, however, describing it as “harmless” and saying it gave him, his fellow board members and his family something to laugh about.
Nobody has yet determined who was responsible for submitting the fake names, but it is understood that a list of possible suspects has been given to the board and they are looking to speak with Amanda Huggankiss, I P Freely and Hugh Jass.
Florescent wasp nests shine light on scientist life choices
Illuminating news now from Vietnam, where scientists have learned that certain species of wasps produce paper nests that glow.
Paper wasps create paper nests made out of chewed-up wood and plant matter mixed with saliva (hence the name). Researchers have discovered that the nests of six wasp species from the genus Polistes glow in the dark under UV black light. This ability is due to the presence of silk created by wasp larvae in the base of each nest to cover the entrance of the protective cells they inhabit during their metamorphosis into adult wasps.
So far the Franco-Vietnamese team performing the study has identified four species from Vietnam whose nests glow with a green light, along with one from Europe and one from South America that glow with a blue light, adding a pleasingly cool variety to the faintly psychedelic displays.
What is less certain is why the nests do this in the first place. Some entomologists believe that the glow is to help the wasps find their way home at the end of a hard day of needlessly stinging things and doing other wasp stuff. Others disagree, since paper wasps are reputedly already very good navigators and would not need such aids. They suggest that the UV-sensitive silk shields are to help protect the larvae from harmful UV rays in sunlight.
Even more illuminating is the fact that this extraordinary fact was discovered one night by accident by a chemist called Bernd Schöllhorn. He told The Atlantic that he often took such nocturnal trips to look for things glowing in the dark, but usually had to go on his own.
“No one wanted to go with me,” he explained to The Atlantic‘s Katherine J Wu. “There is no light at all, and snakes, spiders, insects everywhere.”
While boffins often find themselves in precarious situations in the name of science, there can surely be few which force one to question one’s life choices as sharply as realising you are tramping on your own through a Vietnamese jungle at night armed with nothing but a UV black light, looking for wasps so you can steal their florescent nests.
We have contacted Dr Schöllhorn to ask him about this, but we have yet to receive a response.
DARPA plans to resurrect the Caspian Sea Monster
It was, perhaps, only a matter of time.
Everybody’s favourite unhinged military research agency, DARPA, has finally got around to looking into possibly the greatest, most beloved piece of lost geek machinery of the cold war, if not the whole of history.
Yes, last month the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency put out a Request for Information [PDF] to the combined brains of the US defence industry about the viability of launching a programme for the “Design of Seaplane Wing-in-Ground Effect Vehicles”.
In short, DARPA are considering building an ekranoplan.
If you do not know the history of the ekranoplan, then El Reg will attempt to fill you in with some of the basic details of these glorious machines now.
The ekranoplan (a Russian word meaning “screen glider”) or Wing-in-Ground-Effect vehicle (WIGE) is a vehicle which combines the characteristics of a boat, a hovercraft and an aircraft, using the aerodynamic properties of ground effect.
The beached Lun-class ekranoplan in the republic of Dagestan, city of Derbent, Russia
While most WIGE vehicles have boat hulls to allow them to take off and land on water, they actually travel in the air, riding on an air cushion generated under the craft’s wings and body, allowing it to travel long distances at high speeds with relatively little drag due to the unique qualities of the ground-effect environment.
(If you would like a better explanation of the science behind this concept than this scribe’s rudimentary efforts, there is a very good guide here.)
The most famous example was developed by the Soviet Union during the cold war. It was dubbed the Caspian Sea Monster by US intelligence agencies after they discovered it in reconnaissance images taken over the world’s largest inland body of water, as they initially could not work out what it was or what it was for.
The enormous machine, known as KM to the Soviets, was 92m (301ft) long, had a maximum weight of 544 tonnes and was the largest aircraft in the world from its introduction in 1966 until it crashed during testing on the Caspian Sea in 1980.
They developed further versions of the ekranoplan for the Soviet Navy, including the 400-tonne Lun (“Harrier”) anti-ship missile carrier and the smaller Orlyonok (“Eaglet”) patrol and transport vessel, but despite its lengthy development process, the ekranoplan never quite fulfilled its obvious potential and the collapse of the Soviet Union saw these mighty vessels consigned to history.
In a final indignity, the sole Lun-class ekranoplan ended up stranded on a Caspian Sea beach after breaking free while it was being towed to a new home at a Russian military theme park. It remains beached there now.
Despite the prospect of fast, economical transport of large quantities of cargo or weaponry over long distances, there are some disadvantages with the WIGE concept. The fact that it travels only a few metres above the surface means that it has difficulty in rough seas and is susceptible to serious damage from obstructions on land (which is why they have always traditionally been used over water).
This is seemingly why DARPA have issued their request for information: to see if these problems can be solved, so that the ekranoplan’s potential as a new form of ocean-crossing transport, cheaper than aircraft and quicker than ships, can finally be fulfilled.
Their request ponders the possibility of a vessel capable of carrying 100 tons, while being able to operate in seas of up to sea state 3 (or waves of up to 1.25 metres). This would suggest a vessel around the size of the Soviet Lun class, which had a similar payload and sea state capability.
So DARPA wants an ekranoplan. The Caspian Sea Monster may yet inspire a new generation of mighty seaborne leviathans.
The second sexual revolution began 30 years ago, on 23 September 1991, with the release of an educational videotape called The Lovers’ Guide. The revolution’s unlikely figureheads were a film producer who had been making how-to videos about gardening and pets and cooking, and a 56-year-old doctor, while their ally was an American former TV and theatre director who had become Britain’s chief film censor.
The producer was a man called Robert Page, who had been approached by Virgin – which had recently started making condoms – to make a sexual health film for men that explained how to use one. There were two difficulties with that. The first was that no erect penis had been shown on screen in Britain. The second was that Page had no interest in making a film about penises. The censor – James Ferman, the director of the British Board of Film Classification from 1975 to 1999 – took care of the first issue.
“I was talking to the great James Ferman,” Page says, talking from New York, where he now lives, “and he went, ‘There’s only one law, and it’s called obscenity and it’s that which will deprave and corrupt.’ He said, ‘I see nothing depraving or corrupting in a man pulling a condom on in this era. I think it’s downright sensible.’”
Page brought up the second issue. “I went, ‘You know all these how-to videos? There’s this area of life that we don’t talk about. You wouldn’t let me make one about sex, would you?’ He said, ‘What would you want to show?’ I went, ‘Men and women, with actual intercourse.’” Page wanted to show oral sex. He wanted to show genitals. He wanted to show the things that even films made for sex shops couldn’t show, and he wanted to show them in a film that would get an 18 certificate and be sold as a VHS tape on the high street.
Ferman laid down conditions. The film had to be fronted by a doctor. The script had to be approved by a reputable organisation. There was to be no lingering on the explicit shots. It was not, in short, to be a mucky film, regardless of what its viewers might use it for.
Page wanted Alex Comfort, the author of The Joy of Sex, to be the doctor, but Comfort’s publishers rejected the idea. Instead he turned to Andrew Stanway, another veteran “sexologist”, with a string of books to his name (Stanway did not respond to requests for an interview). “He was a quite tall, wide man, with huge hands,” says Simon Ludgate, who was hired as director. “He had greying, curly, fair hair, a pointy nose and beady eyes. He reminded me of a bad magician with a ‘look into my eyes’ hypnotic stare.”
It’s Stanway who gives the clinical narration – “The clearest sign of male sexual arousal is an erection. Tissue within the penis fills with blood, making it stiffen. As arousal increases, so does heart rate. Breathing quickens and the nostrils flare” – and he both co-wrote the script and helped recruit the film’s stars. Chief among them were Tony and Wendy Duffield, former patients of his, who went on to be the Brad and Angelina of the sex ed video market. They later appeared on Desmond Morris’s The Human Animal making love with tiny cameras inside them to show the processes at work.
The Duffields weren’t the real problem, though. “There were a couple of people, who were supposed to be a couple and weren’t,” Page says. “One of the guys, the one who stands up to masturbate – Marino – was an adult film professional. We didn’t know that, but the press knew right away. I can’t tell you how naive we were. We had no idea. We had never been in this world. We had done very wholesome stuff, so doing this was breaking new ground.”
The press did indeed know right away, and before the film came out the News of the World revealed the fact that The Lovers’ Guide featured porn stars. “It almost sank us,” Ludgate says. “Woolworths at that point said they weren’t going to stock it, and Woolworths at the time were massive. And then WH Smith said they weren’t going to.”
The shops relented in time for release, and The Lovers’ Guide arrived on the high street. Page and Ludgate are insistent that their motives were purely to help couples, though the film’s makers knew the first certified film to feature explicit sex, even with Stanway’s lugubrious voiceover, would fly out of the shops, and not just to people wanting to learn some new positions. And so Page spent more on The Lovers’ Guide – it was shot on film, not tape, with purpose-built sets – than anything he had ever made before.
He says now he thought it might rival the 250,000 copies of a Neighbours tie-in video he had made. In fact, it sold 200,000 copies in its first fortnight, going on to sell 1.3m in the UK alone, and hundreds of thousands more around the world. (“My greatest regret is not taking a percentage,” Ludgate says. “I still kick myself about that.”)
Looking at it now, in a world of Pornhub, YouPorn, PornMD and everything else, The Lovers’ Guide seems almost unbearably innocent. It is sex at its gentlest. Everything is shot in soft focus; candles are everywhere. (Page was insistent the film’s primary market be women, though the soft focus and candles spoke more to male ideas of female sexuality. Nevertheless, 55% of buyers were women.) Couples wander through fields, smiling happily, before retiring to bedrooms and bathrooms for soft and sensual lovemaking (with a voiceover). Nothing from it would now get anywhere near the front page of a porn aggregator site.
“Some of the sex scenes in The Lovers’ Guide were certainly erotic,” Ferman – who died in 2002 – would later say. “But eroticism was never, I think, the primary purpose of the scene. The primary function of the scene was to be helpful to couples in the audience who were trying to improve their own sex life.” He argued that what separated the finished film from pornography was context: “You weren’t looking at two bodies, two strangers on screen having it away. You were actually looking at people who told what sex meant to them, what their relationships meant, what they wanted to do, what they were trying to do. And they were real people. And ordinary people watching felt, ‘They are just like us, and if this is what they do, this is what we can do.’”
Page accepts that not all his audience had education in mind, but takes the view that he was smuggling greens into their meal. “We discussed this with Jim Ferman. They were buying it to get off on it, but actually they’d learn loads of things along the way. If it had been some medical thing with diagrams, who would have bought it?” (Curiously, Ludgate says that’s exactly what Stanway wanted – women with their legs in stirrups while he pointed out the clitoris.) “There were 10,000 or so letters,” Page continues, “saying, ‘We’ve been married x years, we started watching your programme and we were making love on the living room carpet before it had finished. Thank you for saving our marriage.’ And that was fantastic.”
What was crucial was that you could buy The Lovers’ Guide easily. There were only 80 or so licensed sex shops in the UK, selling R18 films – which were not, at that point, as explicit as The Lovers’ Guide. “My family moved to Cornwall in the 1990s,” says Clarissa Smith, editor of the academic journal Porn Studies, “and the nearest sex shops were in Plymouth or Bristol, but you could buy The Lovers’ Guide in WH Smith. The ease of access was definitely really important.”
While it wasn’t pornography, it was revolutionary. Politics has the concept of the Overton window – the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time – in which the centre of political gravity shifts left and right. One might think of sex, too, as having its own Overton window, and the 90s saw that window shift to allow portrayals of explicit sex, and an explosion in pornography.
There were simple, practical, legal reasons for that. From 1986, the Reagan and Bush administrations in the US had vigorously pursued obscenity prosecutions against pornographic film-makers. Bill Clinton came to power in 1993 promising to follow that agenda; in fact the Clinton administration had virtually no interest in prosecuting pornographers. In 1992, there were 42 prosecutions in the US in which federal obscenity offences were the lead charge; by 1998, there were only six. The result was a boom in porn production, and the rise of mega-studios such as Evil Empire and Vivid Entertainment.
That would have been irrelevant had porn remained the preserve of sex shops. But three things were happening at once. First, escalating traffic loads caused the first wave of free porn sites – often run by college students, and usually consisting of images stolen from professional porn – to fade from business, because they didn’t have the bandwidth to continue. Second, in summer 1994, a man sold a Sting CD to his friend over the internet, described by the New York Times as “the first retail transaction on the internet using a readily available version of a powerful data encryption software designed to guarantee privacy”. E-commerce was born. It wasn’t long before those who lived too far from sex shops, or who couldn’t bring themselves to walk into one, would be able to buy those Evil Empire and Vivid films without leaving their homes: they could visit a site such as Blissbox and have them delivered, in plain packaging, for the same cost as a Hollywood film, rather than the high prices charged by sex shops for something tamer. Third, a dancer and stripper called Danni Ashe noticed how many of her pictures were being traded on Usenet groups, and set up her own website, sparking a rush for porn producers to sell content directly via the internet.
At the same time, the culture was changing. Soft porn mags for women were launching, as was the hugely explicit Black Lace series of novels, also aimed at women, which sold more than 4m copies between its launch in 1993 and its closure in 2009. Margi Clarke’s TV show The Good Sex Guide launched in 1993, and got unheard-of ratings for a late-night show: 13 million viewers. And a new kind of male culture – in which it was assumed and accepted that viewing porn was nothing to be ashamed of – was emerging. Porn was in newsagents, in the “lad mags”, and it was on screen.
By the end of the 1990s, what was officially licensed lagged so far behind what was readily available to anyone with an internet connection and a credit card that change was inevitable. The driver of change, again, was James Ferman. He was convinced the only way to draw people away from violent pornography – his particular bete noire – was to grant R18 certificates to films depicting consensual penetration and allow them to be sold in licensed sex shops. The test case was a film called Makin’ Whoopee, to the outrage of the new home secretary, Jack Straw.
Straw summoned the BBFC’s vice-president, Lord Birkett, to his office and railed at him. “Do you really mean that you are going to allow oral sex and buggery and I don’t know what else?” Birkett later recalled Straw as saying. “That you are actually passing this? You are giving a certificate to it?”
In the face of Straw’s rage, the BBFC withdrew Makin’ Whoopee’s certification, and Straw changed the body’s leadership, with Ferman and Birkett departing. But in his final report for the BBFC, Ferman displayed prescience. “It may well be that in the 21st century, it simply becomes impossible to impose the kind of regulation which the board exists to provide,” he wrote. “After all, what is the point of cutting a gang-rape scene in a British version of a film if that film is accessible down a telephone line from outside British territorial waters? I am probably the last of the old-time regulators.” Ferman may have lost his job, but he won the fight with Straw – for another statutory body, the Video Appeals Committee, simply reversed the BBFC’s decision to back down, and seven porn films were licensed for sale in sex shops. Censorship of pornography had, to all intents and purposes, finished in the UK.
The Lovers’ Guide did not cause the collapse of censorship. It did not lead to YouPorn. That was the internet. But it was the starting point for a decade of change. “I think it was one of those moments in social history where there was a need for change, and we fulfilled the need,” Ludgate says. “I think there was a collective need for change, and curiosity. Since the 60s, the cult of the individual had grown and this was part of that process. It was something people wanted individually that changed a lot of attitudes towards sex. I think it was a massive, seismic shift in attitudes.”
And still it does its work. A few weeks after we talk, Page forwards an email he has just received. “Hi Robert. I just want to give you a VERY, VERY BIG THANK YOU AGAIN. I have bought your complete collection of The Lover’s GUIDE. Your work is impeccable. I began watching them, and all I can say is. You sir are AWESOME. What I have been learning from them is amazing, and I just really wanted to THANK YOU AGAIN!!!!!!!”
The trading arm of the Raspberry Pi Foundation has received a £33m investment – putting paid to rumours that the company was looking to float on the stock exchange as a means of funding growth.
The Raspberry Pi project came to the public’s attention back in 2011, and by the time the education-focused single-board computer entered mass production a year later demand was high – so high that its initial production run of 10,000 units sold out in seconds.
Earlier this year, a report claimed that Raspberry Pi was to float on the stock market with a £300m valuation – a suggestion co-founder Eben Upton gently dismissed as being a simple chat with unnamed advisors about “how we might fund the future growth of the business” that had been “over-interpreted” by the media.
Now the meat behind the sizzle has been revealed: a report in The Telegraph confirming the sale of stakes in the company to Lansdowne Partners and the Ezrah Charitable Trust – providing $45m (around £33m) in funding without needing to go public.
Lansdowne Partners’ presence in the list of investors is less surprising than Ezrah Charitable Trust. The latter was founded by former Goldman Sachs vice-president and Farallon Capital Management partner David Cohen in 2016 to focus “on the poorest of the poor, especially in Africa” – an indicator that it may be the work of the not-for-profit Raspberry Pi Foundation that was of interest.
According to executive director Kevin L Miller’s LinkedIn profile, Ezrah Charitable Trust remains “dedicated to serving people burdened by poverty by providing catalytic support to our high-impact implementing partners” – among which Raspberry Pi can now be counted.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t cash on the table while the charity works to improve access to computing for all. The foundation’s 2020 financials [PDF] showed a total group income of over £95.8m, nearly double the £49.5m it reported in 2019.
“The commercial and human impact [Raspberry Pi] has achieved in its first decade has been extraordinary,” Peter Davies, Lansdowne partner and head of developed markets strategy, claimed in a statement to press on the investment, “and we look forward to assisting the company to expand this even further in coming years as new capital is deployed.”
Neither Raspberry Pi nor Ezrah Charitable Trust responded to requests for comment in time for publication. ®
The British start-up plans to use the funds to expand after it announced the opening of a European HQ in Dublin last month.
TrueLayer has raised $130m in a funding round that saw participation from Stripe and gives the fintech start-up a post-money valuation of over $1bn.
The British company, which develops APIs to securely connect fintech platforms directly to banks, announced last month that it’s opening a European HQ in Dublin, hiring 25 people. TrueLayer has received authorisation from the Central Bank to operate in Ireland.
The round was led by Tiger Global Management, and comes after TrueLayer’s $70m Series D round in April of this year. The company has now raised about $272m in total.
Alex Cook, partner at Tiger Global Management, commented: “The shift to alternative payment methods is accelerating with the global growth of online commerce, and we believe TrueLayer will play a central role in making these payment methods more accessible.
“We’re excited to partner with Francesco, Luca and the TrueLayer team as they help customers increase conversion and continue to grow the network.”
Stripe, which last week announced its intention to grow its Dublin presence significantly, was already an investor in TrueLayer. The Irish-founded payments giant has invested numerous up-and-coming fintech ventures across the US and Europe, such as a renewed interest in Ramp in late August.
Speaking to the Irish Times, TrueLayer Ireland CEO and general manager for Europe Joe Morley said: “The fundraise allows us to commit even further to our markets in Europe…and allows us to start thinking about broader expansion.
“But our focus in the short to medium term is to make sure we win in Europe so we’re really doubling down on what we had already initiated with our last funding round.”
Morley formerly worked as an executive at Facebook and WhatsApp, and is joined by fellow Facebook alum Leigh-Anne Cotter as TrueLayer Ireland COO.
TrueLayer says that, during 2021, it has so far seen a 400pc increase in volume of payments and 800pc increase in total payment valuation through its APIs. It also claims to have “millions of customers” and more than 10,000 developers using its systems.
The company plans to use the fresh funding to expand into new markets and to increase the penetration of open banking services in regions in which it already operates.