Best of Brainiac (10)
By: Joshua Glenn | Categories: Kudos

On January 31, 2007, a bomb scare occurred when police officers identified small electronic devices found throughout Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville as improvised explosive devices. As of 3:30 pm that day, a story written by two colleagues of mine at the Boston Globe and posted at the newspaper’s website, Boston.com, termed the devices “suspicious objects.” Ten minutes earlier, I’d posted the real story to Brainiac, a blog published on Boston.com by the Globe’s Ideas section. Here are a few excerpts from my coverage of the 2007 Boston bomb scare, aka Mooninite-gate.

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Wednesday, January 31

I once interviewed a homeland security consulant who claimed that ordinary citizens armed with wi-fi laptops, smart cellphones, and the like would be far more effective at responding to terrorist attacks than any governmental organization. Tonight I have seen the proof of that argument.

The top story on Boston.com and other local news sites and TV stations as I write this is a bomb scare that happened in Boston this morning. It seems that suspicious devices were spotted on bridges, overpasses, in subway stations and other public places. The devices — described ominously as being “composed of electronic circuit boards with LED lights attached” — were shaped like little glowing figures who seemed angry. The bomb squad was called in, and they detonated at least one of the devices and removed the others. Traffic was snarled for hours. What were the devices?

The answer to that burning question was available earlier today on blogs and social networking sites like Flickr, thanks to the sharp eyes of pop-culture-savvy young Bostonians. Todd Vanderlin, for example, spotted the devices [a couple of weeks ago] and recognized right away what they were: a guerrilla marketing campaign for the Adult Swim TV show “Aqua Teen Hunger Force. To be specific, the devices are a sophisticated advertisement — Vanderlin even figured out who orchestrated the campaign — depicting Mooninites.

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Thursday, February 1

Following up on the lead provided them — one can only assume — by Brainiac, last night the Boston Globe interviewed Todd Vanderlin, the Bostonian blogger who first recognized the battery-powered contraptions that scared Bostonians yesterday for what they were: a marketing stunt.

Here’s a funny line from today’s Globe:

“Repeat after me, authorities. L-E-D. Not I-E-D. Gfet it?” one 29-year-old blogger from Malden wrote on his website, contrasting light emitting diodes with improvised explosive devices.

I don’t have anything to add to the debate over whether or not Turner Broadcasting System and the guerrilla marketing outfit Interference Inc. should have known that these devices might have alarmed people. On the one hand, Boston police and city officials demonstrated how ignorant they are about pop culture, guerrilla marketing, and technology, and then got embarrassed, which is why they’re so angry now. On the other hand, if you watch the video of the marketing crew installing the Mooninite devices on the BU Bridge, the Charles MGH T stop, and elsewhere, it does feel kinda like you’re watching a terrorist plot on an unsuspecting Boston, and you can see why the police should have reacted (but not overreacted). So I’m on the fence.

But one question remains: If these devices (as we’ve now heard) were installed in 10 other cities, including New York — where a terrorist attack has actually happened — as long as three weeks ago, why was Boston the only city to misinterpret their nature and freak out?

Perhaps the answer is that (a) Bostonians are far less sophisticated than urbanites in other parts of the country, including what we like to imagine is the backward Midwest, and, more controversially, (b) Bostonians remain, in some sick, twisted way, jealous of New York because terrorists deemed a NY landmark world-famous enough to be targeted for attack. Anyone who followed local news coverage in the days after 9/11 knows exactly what I’m talking about. But in analyzing the Mooninite affair, will any of our local pundits ever admit it?

Globe columnist Adrian Walker asked the right question today:

It is interesting that the same marketing campaign is underway in several other cities, including Chicago and San Francisco, without causing the mass freak-out it did here.

But he immediately backed off from the embarrassing truth:

Maybe people are less observant there, or perhaps the billboards were planted in less conspicuous locations. That isn’t clear yet.

OK… So Bostonians are more observant than folks in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, Austin, San Francisco, and Philadelphia? Or else the marketers in those cities didn’t really want to get the message out, so they hid the ads?

UPDATE: BID ON A MOONINITE DEVICE! Going for $5,000 on eBay. It’s a certified Boston Mooninite, and the seller has offered to donate some of the proceeds to bail out Peter Berdovsky, the poor sap who was hired to install the devices. As someone who once spent a couple of days fly-postering around Boston and Hartford to make a fast buck from a marketing firm, I feel for Berdovsky — he’s being railroaded! Set him free!

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Thursday, February 1

One of the aspects of this Mooninite scare that intrigues me is the origin and actual name of these infamous devices — described awkwardly, by the Globe, the New York Times, and other news outlets as “small, lighted cartoon figures,” “battery-powered lights,” “electronic boards,” “illuminated plastic figures,” “signs,” “magnetic devices,” “the devices, which included circuit boards,” “the devices, dotted with blue, purple, or white lights,” and so forth. (Vanderlin, the blogger I mentioned last night, told the Globe: “It’s not so threatening — it’s a Lite-Brite.”) What exactly are they, anyway?

There was a clue embedded at the very end of the Mooninite-device-installation video created by the guerrilla marketers Interference Information Network: “Inspired by the brilliant creativity of the Graffiti Research Lab.” Now, the GRL is an outfit that provides graffiti artists (not marketing outfits) with open-source technologies customized to help them do what graffiti artists do. GRL has posted a note on their website:

You may have heard about the most recent terror attacks in Boston. This is NOT the work of the Graffiti Research Lab…. It’s Just more mindless corporate vandalism from a guerilla marketer who got busted. Interference Inc, welcome to the world of being misunderstood, scapegoated, demonized and wanted by the law. Still wanna be a graffiti artist?

How did GRL inspire Interference? By inventing and promoting the use of the “LED Throwy,” a device composed of an LED, a battery, and a magnet. See this GRL video, for a primitive example. Another GRL video shows more advanced models. They certainly make beautiful displays.

Here are some instructions on making your own LED Throwies, and another how-to from Make magazine — that’s the “open-source” part. The LEDs can be purchased on eBay, it seems usually from sources in China.

So there you have it. Fellow journalists: It’s not a “battery-powered contraption,” it’s an LED Throwy. Let’s get our facts straight.

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Thursday, February 1

The mockery of Bostonians begins. Here’s an image I saw on Gizmodo just now.

Ouch! That hurts.

***

Thursday, February 1

1) Emails are pouring in about the Mooninite devices (a term I find more appealing than LED Throwy, actually). I will respond to them later today, if possible — remember, this is my last week at the paper (though I’ll still be writing for Brainiac) and I really should be wrapping things up, instead of blogging so frequently.

2) I want to give a shout-out to Adam Salsman and Alicia Conway, colleagues of mine at Boston.com. It was Adam who first alerted me that the blogosphere already had the answer to the question puzzling Boston. Alicia, meanwhile, scrambled to fix a photo problem with Brainiac — we had to get those Mooninite photos posted! Thanks to her, we did.

3) PHOTO BY SCOTT LAPIERRE WAS REMOVED

4) I asked readers to let me know about any commentaries out there on Boston’s uniquely fearful attitude toward these Mooninite devices. The Weekly Dig’s Joe Keohane — his last week as editor is coming up; now that is scary — heaped plenty of abuse on this city and its officials today, on its blog. For example, he said:

I suppose it was inevitable that someday the pop culture gap would result in an entire city being shut down and the “perps” being frog marched into some Homeland Security gulag, but I had always hoped it would be a second- or third-rate hee-haw flyover city, not Boston.

My sentiments exactly.

***

Thursday, February 1

The mailbag is overflowing. I can’t even begin to read all of the emails, let alone respond to them (though I am trying). But I’ve glanced at a couple dozen emails, and a pattern emerges.

On the one hand, plenty of Brainiac readers agree with me that Boston police and officials overreacted yesterday and today. For example:

How is it that our ‘bomb squad’ experts can’t tell the difference between a bomb and a battery operated magnetic light? — Wayne

I was beginning to think that I was the only person thinking that the state’s blustering and threats of prosecution are completely out of proportion to what actually happened…. Thanks for reassuring me that someone in the media is looking at this from my point of view — I was sort of starting to feel like a sociopath for not being horrified and outraged like the rest of the Globe is telling me to be. — Lyette

I have a feeling that over the next few days, the city of Boston is going to end up looking like the “bad guys” in this one. While Turner was wrong to put up the signs without permission, and while city officials have nothing to be ashamed of for reacting as they did and trying to protect the people of Boston, the subsequent lashing out at everyone involved is not likely to go over well. — Dave

On the other hand, several readers agree with my other point, that in this day and age, a marketing stunt like this could easily go awry and cause a panic (remember — I’m on the fence about this). For example:

What is to stop a terrorist from copying a harmless cartoon character and filling it with explosives then setting it off once people have decided it is an ad stunt and have let their guard down? I am sure there are a few ways that even smart people like you might be fooled. — T

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Thursday, February 1

Here are a few of my favorite letters on the Mooninite incident.

I think it is DISGUSTING that you would think the people frightened by the viral marketing campaign were jealous of the terrorist attacks in New York City. What kind of twisted person thinks the Boston-New York rivalry extends to envy of such a monumental tragedy. That’s just perverted. Retract your statement and apologize for your idiocy. — Nicholas

Terrorist and Marketers have different goals when it comes to the visibility of the devices. If a terrorist wanted to plant a bomb all he would need to do is effectively disguise it as some of the trash that sits near the bridges that are part of our major highways. I think the Globe could do well to photograph just the trash. That is what they do in Iraq. Hide an IED in the trash. Boston has lots of it. — Dave

I’ve been enjoying your Mooninite coverage, and I think your analysis of why city officials are so mad is right on — they’re embarrassed and need to take it out on someone else. And I love the GRL quote. One tiny correction: I don’t think the “devices” can be called LED throwies: “throwy” is short for throwup, a type of simple tag that’s done really quickly, i.e. just thrown up onto the wall. The LED throwy seems to be developed for doing that in lights. The kind of planning this thing took is a little too elaborate for that term. — Jared

You are a real idiot. Everyone involved deserves heavy fines and jail time. Everyone cannot stay up until midnite to watch that foul-mouthed show. Placing a black box with a wired battery pack displaying middle finger is not just a prank. The police did NOT overreact. — Al

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In September 2006, Joshua Glenn launched Brainiac, a blog published by the Boston Globe’s Ideas section. He retired from Brainiac in June ’08, to pursue new projects; in February ’09, he cofounded HiLobrow.com. This post is the tenth in a series of ten commemorating Glenn’s brief tenure as a professional blogger.

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Joshua Glenn is an author, publisher, and semiotic analyst. He is co-author (with Mark Kingwell and the cartoonist Seth) of THE IDLER'S GLOSSARY and THE WAGE SLAVE'S GLOSSARY, co-editor of the object-oriented story collections TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY and (with Rob Walker) SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS, and co-author (with Elizabeth Foy Larsen) of the family activities guide UNBORED and three forthcoming spinoffs, including UNBORED Games. He is editor of HILOBROW and publisher of the Radium Age science fiction imprint HiLoBooks. Also: Glenn manages a secretive online community known as the Hermenautic Circle; he is founding editor of the e-book club Save the Adventure; and he's a frequent co-host of Boing Boing's podcast GWEEK. In the ’00s, Glenn was an editor, columnist, and blogger for the Boston Globe's IDEAS section, he co-founded the international semiotics website SEMIONAUT, and contributed to CABINET, SLATE, and elsewhere. In the ’90s, he published the high-lowbrow zine/journal HERMENAUT, worked as a dotcom and magazine editor, and contributed to THE BAFFLER, FEED, and elsewhere. His publishing company is King Mixer, LLC; and his semiotic analysis consultancy is Semiovox LLC. He lives in Boston with his wife and children.