Archive: September 2002

The war against reverb

I just got back from a lecture by Emily Thompson, a technology historian — on the how the sound of reverberation was considered deeply uncool in the early 20th century.

Acousticians, enamored with the discover of signal-to-noise ratios and the idea of “clarity” in the way-new technology of radio, apparently found reverb kind of distracting and annoying. They did studies showing that reverb hurt comprehension.

The end result was a total war on reverb — in buildings that had been constructed spefically to have reverb, such as churches and auditoriums. A physicist named Wallace Sabine invented these sound-dampening tiles (he put peat inside tiles and fired it in a kiln; the peat immolated and left sound-aborbing tiny holes in the tiles) and slapped them all the hell over the place. One of his first experiments was on St. Thomas’ Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in New York. Within ten years or so, everyone in New York was crazy for silence and the tiles were in huge demand.

A few years later, radio signal-processing dudes invented artificial reverb — piping a sound signal into a chamber, or in between steel plates or along springs — to create the illusion of reverberant space during radio broadcasts. Thus, in the space of a decade, technology essentially uncoupled the traditional relationship of space and acoustics. We removed the reverb from places that naturally created it; and we created it artificially in virtual spaces.

Thompson has written an extremely cool book about this.

Emoticon-management shareware

I’m a big fan of shareware, and love the fact that there are tens of thousands of hackers out there making weird and unusual tools.

But then I ran into Emotipad II. A 4.2 meg application purely to “manage emoticons”??? I mean, in one way it’s kind of cool, but, like, still.

Self promo: my essay in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2002

Yay! I just went into the MIT bookstore and saw a copy of this year’s The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2002, which includes my essay “The Know-It-All Machine”, originally run in last fall’s issue of the late lamented Lingua Franca magazine.

I’d put up a pointer to the story online, except Lingua Franca shut down its website when it closed, and I still haven’t gotten around to putting up my journalism archive, because of my lameosity.

Self promo: “The literary style of corporate annual reports”

I just published a piece for THIS — among the coolest left-wing magazines on the planet — about the literary style of corporate annual reports:

A crucial part of conveying this warm, fuzzy image is relying on the company’s one true connection to The Little Guy: their employees. Focussing on the CEO, after all, might eventually force you to note that this guy used his insider access to lie deliberately about the value of the company and then make out like a bandit—like, say, Global Crossing head Gary Winnick, who raked in $735 million by selling his company’s stock just before it imploded. Or you’d have to acknowledge the Olympian perks, such as the $18 million Manhattan apartment given to Dennis Kozlowski, the former head of Tyco, another artist of book-cookery. No, it is far safer to focus on employees. Pages upon pages are bedecked with pictures of construction guys mired with mud, secretaries striding through the hallway with armfuls of papers, scientists squinting at test tubes filled with mysterious green goo. And there is always, without fail and without exception, at least one picture of a black man or woman leading a meeting. Given that the directors of corporations are almost invariably white, these firms are palpably desperate to pose as diverse. The picture of a confident person-of-colour leading a meeting is virtually a Jungian archetype.

The literature of game walkthroughs

I’ve rented Jedi Starfighter for the PS2, and it doesn’t come with any guide. I’m pretty good at figuring out games on the fly, but given the obtuse subtleties of something like JS, I wound up realizing I needed a walkthrough. So in about ten seconds online I found a guide at, and I’m off to the races.

Which is when I realized: After years of using game-fan walkthroughts as my de facto tech support, I’ve grown to love the literary style of a walkthrough. It’s like halfway between a tech manual and a love letter. Fans spend weeks crafting these incredibly tightly-written explanations of the game, including nuances so slight that the gamemakers themselves are probably only dimly aware of them. When they’re written for a terrain-based game — like one of the Tomb Raider series — walkthroughs are suspended so beautifully between descriptive text (what you’re looking at) and where-to-go-what-to-do functionality (what to do when you get there) that they read like the travel literature of the damned:

ROOM WITH TRANSPARENT BRIDGE & MUTANT INCUBATOR: Here you’ll find a room with a lava pit below a transparent bridge with a gap in the middle. Down in the gap is an incubator. Walk to the right side of the bridge and take a standing jump to grab the crevice in the wall. Drop and grab the bottom of the doorway below. Pull up and follow the tunnel to a switch. Pull it to open the red door on the far side of the bridge. Continue to the opening, pick up 2 sets of Uzi clips and take a standing jump down to the bridge. Take a running jump across the gap to grab the other side of the bridge. As you pass the incubator, the egg will hatch, releasing a winged mutant. Pull up and head for the doorway. You can kill the mutant from here or, if you don’t want all the kills, just keep going. (PlayStation users get a save crystal in the passageway.)

The Purloined Letter and scientific knowledge

I just ran across another mind-blowing passage in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He’s writing about why it is that some scientists are able see “anomalous” data — stuff that contradicts all known theories of science. Scientists, after all, frequently stare at anomalous data all day long — stuff that totally contradicts their ideas about the world. Yet they never really notice or pay attention to it. When you’re convinced of one way of looking at things, you see what you expect to see.

This was the basic idea behind a psychological experiment by J. S. Bruner and Leo Postman, “On the Perception of Incongruity,” published in the Journal of Personality in 1949. They took a deck of cards and altered some of the cards in subtle ways — like, for example, making a red six of spades, or a black four of hearts. Then they ran experiments, asking subjects to identify a set of cards — including a couple of the anomalous ones. They did not tell the subjects that some of the cards were anomalous, though. Thus:

Even on the shortest exposures many subjects identified most of the cards, and after a small increase all the subjects identified them all. For the normal cards these identifications were usually correct, but the anomalous cards were almost always identified, without apparent hesitation or puzzlement, as normal. The black four or hearts might, for example, be identified as the four of either spades or hearts. Without any awareness of trouble, it was immediately fitted to one of the conceptual categories prepared by prior experience. One would not even like to say that the subjects had seen something different from what they identified. With a further increase of exposure to the anomalous cards, subjects did begin to hesitate and to display awareness of anomaly. Exposed, for example, to the red six of spades, some would say: That’s the six of spades, but there’s something wrong with it — the black has a red border. Further increase of exposure resulted in still more hesitation and confusion until finally, and sometimes quite suddenly, most subjects would produce the correct identification without hesitation. Moreover, after doing this with two or three of the anomalous cards, they would have little further difficulty with the others.

Cool. But this is even more mind-blowing:

A few subjects, however, were never able to make the requisite adjustment of the categories. Even at forty times the average exposure required to recognize normal cards for what they were, more than 10 per cent of the anomalous cards were not correctly identified. And the subjects who then failed often experienced acute personal distress. One of them exclaimed: “I can’t make the suit out, whatever it is. It didn’t even look like a card that time. I don’t know what color it is now or whether it’s a spade or a heart. I’m not even sure what a spade looks like now. My god!” (pp. 63-64)

My name is “Turok”

A few months ago, Acclaim Entertainment held a contest to promote its new game “Turok Evolution.” They offered 500 British pounds and an Xbox to five people willing to change their names to “Turok” for one year.

Apparently, 10,000 people stepped forward to apply — and now the winners are in. Five people pictured here will spend the next year introducing themselves in pubs and cocktail parties as “Turok”. According to Acclaim’s own press release, this is a new generation of shilling called “Identity Marketing”:

The idea behind Identity Marketing, which emanates from Dr Simeon Cantrell of the Institute of Science in Marketing, is that in the same way as a company might buy a television commercial, a billboard poster or a radio spot, they can now buy human identities. Acclaim UK has been the first company to embark on this cutting edge marketing route …

Shaun White, Acclaim’s UK Communications Manager said: “The five Turoks will no doubt speak to and meet tens of thousands of people between them over the next year and will be walking talking adverts for the Turok video game. We think this type of advertising is sure to take off and will prove to be a big hit for both Acclaim UK and Turok Evolution.”

Interestingly, google searches for “Dr. Simeon Cantrell”, “Extreme Marketing Inititiative” and the hilariously dubious-sounding “Institute of Science in Marketing” produce no results other than pointers to this contest. I love corporate pseudoscience!

Still, I gotta hand it to them, this is one hell of a fun attention-getter. I can only imagine the reaction when the clients of this woman Lheila Rebeccah Oberman find out that their midwife is now legally named “Turok”. Or that she did so as part of Acclaim’s global multi-million-dollar “Scent of Blood” marketing campaign.

Does the keyboard affect the way you think?

Just got back from a wickedly cool conversation with a group of MIT students and Frank Wilson — author of The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture. Wilson’s book argues that the hand has inexorably shaped the way we use our brains. The unique structure of the hand — and how it lets us manipulate our environment — is what has allowed humans to develop such highly evolved cognition.

But the really interesting part of the conversation began when we argued over the computer keyboard — and how and whether it affects the way we think.

Most of the twentysomething students in the class, who grew up using computers, believe it totally affects the way they process thoughts. I agreed. In the past, I’ve used voice-recognition software and found that it totally screws up my thought processes. The voice moves too quickly; I found myself blurting out sentences, realizing they weren’t quite what I wanted to say, and then having to go back and erase or revise them. Typing, in contrast, slows my output down and leaves me time to process my thoughts as I think them. It creates a sort of buffer zone between the speed of my thinking and the speed of my expression — and the “thinking” seems to happen (partly, anyway) in that space.

And on an emotional level, I find keyboard weirdly and almost erotically pleasant. I remember old keyboards the way you remember the old smells of former houses, or your dad’s aftershave. When I got my hands on an old Vic-20 two years ago, the clunky, thick-as-molasses action on the keys instantly transported me back to my geek-ass childhood, hacking shitty slow-mo games in BASIC. (One of my fellow Knight Fellows, Annalee Newitz, writes a lot on the physical erotics of technology and had extremely cool stuff to say about this also.) And these days, when I’m away from the keyboard for a day, I’ll actually look forward to sitting down at one — not specifically to do anything, but just to dig the feel. Maybe it’s that I associate a type of pleasant thinking or communicating (like IM) with a keyboard. Pathetic, kinda, but there you go.

The weird thing is, Wilson himself was extremely skeptical of the keyboard’s role in shaping cognition. For the hand to have a serious impact on our thinking, he feels, it has to involve a “nontrivial” movement of the body. Keyboarding, with its tiny little vibrations of the fingers, doesn’t count. It is not, he argued, even close to the way we play an instrument like the piano, where the hand is the conduit for a full-body experience, with the player leaning into the instrument, balancing, pulling back. I couldn’t disagree more. Much as I hate to indulge “generational” analysis, it seemed like that was at play here: Rich is a middle-aged guy who didn’t grow up keyboarding. “I’ve never felt any sort of attachment to the keyboard myself,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, I could just as easily be using a voice-recognition system. It’s just an input device.”

Wilson and his book are brilliant, but I think he’s selling the keyboard short. Typing absolutely involves your entire body, as much as any musical instrument. I’ve played guitar for 20 years and found the rhythms of the two amazingly comparable. For example, guitar players frequently breathe in rhythm with their playing. You inhale at the beginning of a riff, and exhale slowly as you go along — sometimes stopping when you run out of breath. It helps make your playing seem on a more human pace; when you’re gasping for air, it’s a sign your riff has gone on for too long. And I swear to god I do the same thing typing: I inhale, hold my breath, work in spasms, tense up as I think through something, then release.

(Realaudio interview with Wilson about the hand, here on NPR.)

Hacking the bank with your microwave

Apparently if you put your personal checks in the microwave for a few seconds, it will demagnetize the I.D. strip — and subsequently force the bank cashing it to process it by hand. Thus, this is a way to hack the banks in case your cash flow is low for a few days and you need to appear to have paid someone, while secretly needing to delay payments by a couple of days.

I’d never heard of this! But it is the subject of a very cool thread I’m reading on the New York BBS Echo.

“Upskirting” hits new mobile-phone cameras

According to the International Herald Tribune, it seems that the new generation of camera-equipped mobile phones has found another use: Upskirting and blackmail.

In one widely reported case, the police said two junior high school students used camera phones to take pictures of another student naked and threatened to distribute them over the Internet.

Chicken-fried meatloaf

Brought to you by the fine folks at

chicken fried meatloaf.

Max Payne “Matrix lobby shoot-out” mod!

Dig it: Some guy did a Max Payne mod that replicates the lobby shoot-out scene in The Matrix. Which is particularly meta because, of course, the Matrix invented the whole slow-mo bullet thing, which Max Payne subsequently swiped and included as a fight ability: If you get caught in a hellaciously difficult shoot-out, you can jump temporarily into slow-mo to dodge the gunfire. There’s a write-up of the mod at GameSpot, and the downloadable file here.

Is your job like a 17th century French court?

I’m reviewing Shosana Zuboff’s new book — The Support Economy — and she has the most excellent quote from Jean de La Bruyere, an observer of 17th century society at the French court. The life he describes is straight out of Dilbert, and matches with creepy accuracy the inside of pretty much every office I’ve inhabited:

Life at court is a serious, melancholy game, which requires of us that we arrange our pieces and our batteries, have a plan, follow it, foil that of our adversary, sometimes take risks and play on impulses … A man who knows the court is master of his gestures, of his eyes and his expressions; he is deep, impenetrable. He dissimulates the bad turns he does, smiles at his enemies, suppresses his ill-temper, disguises his passions, disavows his heart, acts against his feelings …

Life in this circle is in no way peaceful. Very many people are continuously dependent on each other. Competition for prestige and royal favor is intense … The sword .. is replaced by intrigue, conflicts in which careers and social success are contested with words … Continuous reflection, foresight, and calculations, self-control, precise and articulate regulation of one’s own effects, knowledge of the whole terrain, human and non-human, in which one acts, become more and more indispensable preconditions of social success.

Every individual belongs to a “clique,” a social circle which supports him when necessary; but the groupings change. He enters alliance, if possible with people ranking high at court. But rank at court can change very quickly; he has rivals; he has open and concealed enemies. And the tactics of his struggles, as of his alliances, demand careful consideration. The degree of aloofness or familiarity with everyone must be carefully measured; each greeting, each conversation has significance over and above what is actually said or done. They indicate the standing of a person; and they contribute to the formation of court opinion on his standing.

Self promo: “Slaves to our Machines” in Wired

Wired just published an essay of mine, in which I argue that humans are slated to become “USB plug-ins for machines”:

As our machines get smarter and faster, our much-vaunted creative powers may not be so valuable. What’s more useful, in man-machine systems, is our flexibility – our ability to deal with periodically messy, wrenching situations. We won’t be doing the brain work; we’ll be doing the scut work.

If that doesn’t entice you, I should note that the article also discusses robotized horny male teenagers being used as sex-slave workers for spambots. Heh.

(Update: I got some very nice and smart feedback to this piece, which I’ve posted on the blog here.)

The sickest video game in existence, Part 2

A couple days ago I wrote about Porrasturvat — a video game where the object is to shove someone down the stairs and cause as much damage as possible. I couldn’t figure out how to get more than about 60,000 in points, but a lively discussion of strategy over at reveals some methods:

heres my tip:
heading: 180
pitch 79.10
his left foot
i scored 765k!!!!!!!!


The Trick is to get him to bounce off the stairs and land square on the head. Head and neck fly off the screen and snap back gets about 120-200K legit.


Pants that protect from cell-phone radiation

Dockers is launching a new style of “S-fit trousers” next year that include a pocket intended to protect the wearer from cell-phone radiation. “The Dockers trousers will have a mobile phone pocket with a shielding lining between the phone and the skin,” a Levi’s representative told ZDNet UK.

I am almost paranoid enough to buy one those, even though I know it’s probably crap and wouldn’t work. But ever since I wrote a profile of Louis Slesin — a researcher who’s tracked the freakish health effects of wireless radiation for twenty years — I’ve been increasingly unsettled by my phone, which I carry, of course, in my pants pocket all day long, letting it leak radiation slowly into the family jewels.

Self promo: Top 10 Moments in Digital Culture

I wrote a piece on the “Top 10 Moments in Digital Culture” for the wildly cool Shift magazine.

Ultima Online develops Soviet economics

A while back, an economist named Edward Castronova did an economic study of the online game Everquest. He examined the sale of online avatars and Everquest goods on Ebay, calculated their real-dollar worth, and realized that the Everquest economy was — on a per-capita basis — richer than Russia, Bulgaria, and every single developing country in the world.

Castronova’s research contained a brilliant epiphany: Virtual worlds provide us with an unusual test-bed for experimental economics. Because people are willing to pay to buy a virtual life (i.e. a character that has immense strength and power, or a castle that took months build), it’s possible to put a value on human experience — something that is very difficult to do in the real world. In everyday life, you can’t just decide to start fresh, or buy your way into a brand spanking-new identity. But in online games, using the black market of Ebay, you could — which created some damn interesting economic markers. It becomes possible to put an economic per-hour value on online experience and all those countless days you spend in Everquest … because when you slowly build a valuable character, that value can be expressed in real-life greenbacks.

Which is why Ultima Online has thrown all this for a loop. Last week, it announced last week that the company itself would jump into the arena — by selling “advanced characters” for $29.95.

This is bound to completely rearrange the economics of virtual worlds. After all, the whole reason a Napa +25 stat scroll might be worth $300 on Ebay is that it takes months and months of play-time to get it. But what Ultima Online is doing, essentially, is declaring that work worth only $30 — making it rather null and void. Why bother to spend all that work if you can buy it for the price of a night out? In a way, it’s like a classic governmental wage-and-price control: A top-down authority declaring the definitive value of a product, instead of letting it loose on the free market.

Castronova argued that the economic activity in Ebay was actually germane and central to the fun of the game — not just an ancillary activity. If that’s true, I’ll be interested to see how players react.

The sound of one drive dying

For diagnostic purposes, IBM has posted six .wav files of the sounds of hard drives gasping their last.

I give it three weeks before some DJ samples this stuff.

Christian pop-culture rankings

The Christian Analysis of American Culture project may be the most insane piece of anthropological work in the history of earth. They take six criteria for judging a movie or TV show — “Wanton Violence/Crime, Impunity/Hate, Sex/Homosexuality, Drugs/Alcohol, Offense to God, Murder/Suicide”, which coincidentally spell out WISDOM — and rank the shows according to whether or not they are “unacceptable in accordance with the teachings of Jesus”.

They even have an enormous page devoted to explaining their “CAP Entertainment Media Analysis Model” — which “computes the density of unacceptable material in a program and presents it as a number, i.e., the Influence Density (ID).” Dig this page offering an explanation of how it works, and, I beg of you, do not miss the chart near the bottom showing how Mary Poppins and Black Beauty rank compared to Demolition Man and Deathwish II. Finer pseudoscience cannot be had.

Satellite pictures getting stupidly easy to buy

You know, it’s getting really weirdly easy to buy satellite photos. For like 10 bucks you can call up a company like Space Imaging get a shot of anything from the post-bombing Afghanistan to the camps in the African season of “Survivor”. Or call 1-800-232-9037 or 301-552-3762 and order a specific picture.

This creeps me out.

Email drowning congressmen

In recent years, organizations from Amnesty International to Dick Morris’ have offered insto-emailing to congressmen — just click here to “send a virtual postcard” to everyone in the Senate and House. Another way to revolutionize democracy, right?

Except now it appears that those key decision-makers are simply trashing that stuff. Many have turned to secure outside servers, enabled with XML-driven metadata, to ensure that the only email they read comes from constituents. Apparently a bunch of politicians have simply turned their external email addresses off and only get stuff from the services.

The sickest video game in existence

Well, maybe not the sickest. But a game where the sole purpose is to shove people down the stairs and see how much damage you can cause is pretty sick.

Awfully cool, though, too. Great physics!

My top score so far is 49,278, with a high-force shove directed to the center of the back.

Location, location, location

Ever since 1999, I’ve been predicting that the first app for “location-based” services would be crazy little games — with kids running around a city trying to conquer territory, and their phones registering where they’re located.

Turns out it’s finally happening — in Copenhagen, home of UnWired Factory. They’re launching something rather excellently titled “Battle Machine”, where “addictive game-play utilizes man’s eternal strive for geographical dominance.” Yes way.

(Plus, the first-ever mobile gaming conference is on the way.)

Messiest desk contest

To celebrate “Get Organized Week,” the The National Association of Professional Organizers is holding a contest to determine the messiest desk in the world. To enter, send in:

- A photo of your messy desk. (Photo will not be returned).
- Your name, address, daytime phone number and e-mail address.
- A short statement (75 words or less) on why you would like to get organized.

The winner gets a gift certificate from Office Depot.

LOL! IM l@merz ruining English language, NYT sez

As if baggy pants weren’t enough … the latest bit of boomer America-in-peril handwringing is instant messaging.

Apparently, teachers nationwide are finding that subliterate kids are using ‘l33t lingo in academic papers, substituting “r” for “are”, “b4” for “before”, h8 for “hate”, etc. You get the picture. Thankfully, intelligent lexographers like Jesse Sheidlower — North American editor of the Oxford English Dictionary — point out that “there is no official English language”; it always changes with time, and slang is as old as the hills. And IM usage is not, actually, nongrammatical. After all, “grammar” means nothing more than a set of linguistic rules that a certain group of people abide by, which is why English and Russian and even ebonics each have a grammar, and probably even sports enthusiasts, who speak in a language that is, as far as I’m concerned, as impenetrable as Ojibway.

Killer discussion of this at Slashdot — with over 1,000 posts, one of the biggest arguments I’ve ever seen there. Most of ‘em are annoyed that students can’t tell the difference between IMing and academic writing (“Should the teacher scrawl 0W3ND in big red marker across the paper?”) My total favorite — a version of the Lord’s Prayer in l33ts3@k:

Our Father, who 0wnz heaven, j00 r0ck! May all 0ur base someday be belong to you! May j00 0wn earth just like j00 0wn heaven. Give us this day our warez, mp3z, and pr0n through a phat pipe. And cut us some slack when we act like n00b lamerz, just as we teach n00bz when they act lame on us. Please don’t give us root access on some poor d00d’z box when we’re too pissed off to think about what’s right and wrong, and if you could keep the f3i off our backs, we’d appreciate it. For j00 0wn r00t on all our b0x3n 4ever and ever, 4m3n.

I’m not indie, and I have proof

According to the online test “Are You Indie?” …

I’m not.

Zero gravity art!

Okay, space cadets: The Microgravity Interdisciplinary Research group is offering you a chance to develop art projects to be carried out in zero-gravity conditions.

I am not making this up. They somehow got the MIR space folks to agree to let artists run projects inside MIR’s parabolic flights — where they fly a Russian IL-76 MDK aircraft in a huge screaming dive to generate “30-second periods of weightlessness (zero gravity/microgravity) in freefall, interspersed with periods of double gravity (2g acceleration) and normal gravity.”

This is the pilot project of the MIR (microgravity interdisciplinary research) initiative, which seeks to open up space and space industry related facilities by matching artistic processes and scientific research to give a new impulse to space art and space research.

Assuming you don’t blow chunks the entire flight, this could indeed produce some pretty weird art. Past projects include dancers choreographing zero-g movements to help train astronauts.

Leonardo da Vinci’s robot: The first analog computer ever

In 1515, Leonardo da Vinci presented the king of France with a mechanical lion robot. Driving under its own control, it wandered through the crowds at the court, approached the king — then opened its chest to reveal a bouquet of lilies.

According to robot design guru Mark Elling Rosheim, this lion was based on an almost totally-ignored invention of da Vinci’s: A three-wheeled robot cart. The cart controlled itself via a cam-shaft-driven guidance device — making it arguably the first analog computer in history. Rosheim has done incredible research documenting the history of this robot cart, and even built a virtual version of it (check out a video showing it here.)

And dig this: Rosheim theorizes that da Vinci’s robot cart was inspired by The Iliad. In Book 18, Homer describes a flock of three-wheeled, autonomous robot tripods, created by Hephaistos to guard his castle walls:

…since he was working on twenty tripods which were to stand against the wall of his strong-founded dwelling. And he had set golden wheels underneath the base of each one so that of their own motion they could wheel into the immortal gathering, and return to his house: a wonder to look at.

Rosheim spoke at MIT today and totally fried my noodle.

The $2,200 waste paper basket

Every once in a while, there’s something about the bloated, hysterical excess of messianic CEOs that pushes me so far out into a spiral of nauseau and anger that I circle back and wind up kind of awestruck. So we’ve found out that Tyco CEO Dennis Koslowski got the company to spend $2.1 million on his wife’s birthday party — togas and private island included. So we know now that the company paid for his $16.8 million New York apartment. And yeah, everyone’s angry about arrogant CEO bonuses.

But I swear to god I almost admire Koslowski’s utterly deranged, monomaniacal desire to acquire everyday office equipment that is not merely high-quality, not just expensive, but literally cleopatran in its excess. I mean, a $17,100 “travelling toilet box”? A the $15,000 “umbrella stand”? A $2,200 waste paper basket? God, just imagine the dialogue between him and his personal shopper:

“This $750 waste paper basket will make your office look lovely!”

“I don’t know … do you have anything a bit tonier?”

“How about this one — it’s $1,275.”

“It’s nice, but still … maybe something a little more top-drawer.”

“Okay — this gold-plated one goes for $1,899.”

“I was really hoping for something just a bit more opulent.”

“Uh, this one is $2,200.”

Lego-animated version of 2001: A Space Odyssey


(Found on Consummate Liar.)

Is “rent-an-abductor” a media prank?

Okay, by now we’ve all seen the stories now about New Yorkers who are paying to have themselves abducted — stories that include the obligatory musing over today’s Xtreme culture, America on the brink, the eroding morals of society, woof woof, meow meow. Coverage began a few months ago, and you know the meme has reached full bloat when Rolling Stone finally gets around to writing about it, with horrified boomer fascination.

Me … I can’t help wondering if this is all one big media prank by Joey Skaggs.

New moon found around Earth!

Dig it! A new object, codenamed J002E3, has been found to have a lazy, 50-day orbit around Earth. What is it? Could be a discarded piece of space junk; could be a big-ass asteroid trapped by our gravitational field. No-one knows.

But even weirder:

If it is determined that J002E3 is natural it will become Earth’s third natural satellite.

Earth’s second one is called Cruithne. It was discovered in 1986 and it takes a convoluted horseshoe path around our planet as it is tossed about by the Earth’s and the Moon’s gravity.

“Third natural satellite?” We already have a second moon?

What the hell? Why haven’t I been TOLD about this stuff???

Let’s roll

The text of a memo recently issued at my old Toronto high school:


Please post

School information

  • Hey Lawrence Students! If you’re interested in working with the Student Council to organize school activities, you can become a Grade Rep. Grade Rep applications are available outside the Student Council office on the billboard.
  • There will be a Golf Team meeting at the beginnings of periods G and H. Come at the beginning of your lunch to the north gym and see Mr. Gilbert for the first match line-up.
  • Hey LP’ers, do you know what next week is?!! IT’S SPIRIT WEEK!! Monday is PJ Day, Tuesday is Sport Day, Wednesday is Grade Color Day, Thursday is Hawaiian Day and Friday is Gold and Blue Day!! Keep your eye out for posters around the school!
  • This is a reminder to ALL students, meaning if you are enrolled at Lawrence Park, you are invited to a BBQ at lunch on Thursday. Attendance is mandatory.
  • Do sports make you an asshole? Well, probably … yes

    Great opening piece in the New York Times magazine about sports, questioning whether they’re really the wonderful character-building exercises everybody assumes they are:

    Sadly, one of the main lessons sports teach is that the more talented you are as an athlete, the less is expected of you socially or academically, and the more the rules will be bent for you. As James L. Shulman and William G. Bowen demonstrate in their report on college sports, ”The Game of Life” — a book that could have been a bombshell had it only been written in a language other than that of an actuary’s manual — recruited athletes, not just in the Big Ten sports factories but even in the Ivy League, are admitted more readily than their academic equals and do worse, winding up more frequently in the bottom third of the class. They don’t become leaders with any more frequency than the rest of their classmates, and as alumni they don’t contribute any more generously — or, for that matter, inspire generosity in anyone else. (There is, in fact, very little correlation between athletic success and alumni giving.) Female athletes, now that they are being recruited as avidly as the men (and in some cases more avidly, by schools desperate to maintain their Title IX balance), turn out to have much the same profile. Jocks are jocks, it seems, male and female alike, and are perhaps more equivalent than the legislators ever imagined.

    Considering that Mark William Lloyd, the captain of my high-school’s football team in the late 80s, also turned out to be a serial rapist who broke into four homes in our neighborhood, I learned about the moral vacuum of high-school sports years ago. He was sent to jail for 10 years; I wonder if he’s out yet.

    Self promo: NPR interviews me about “political video games”

    NPR interviewed me about a story I wrote for Slate a few weeks ago — on the rise of video games as social commentary.

    In over six years of being interviewed about video games and their social impact, this is hands-down the single smartest interview I’ve ever participated in. No weird scare tactics about “video games turning our kids into zombies,” no teary handwringing about “America in peril” — just really smart questions. Superb journalism.

    Server hosting cheaper than milk

    God in heaven. Server hosting is getting so bloody cheap, it’s just deranged. The dudes at Superuser cough up unlimited monthly traffic and 2 gigs of storage space for 10 bucks a month. I may switch over from, who are almost ten times as expensive.

    Christ, we can’t provide universal health care in this country, but servers are lying around the damn streets like discarded sofas.

    Class notes, pt. 1

    I’ve been reading Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and he talks about the public-relations problem inherent in all scientific paradigm shifts. “Big Ideas”, he argues, have historically been delivered in big books written for a reasonably generalized-but-intelligent audience — such as Benjamin Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity, or Darwin’s Origin of Species. Only later do the intellectual paradigms ossify and you get dusty academics delivering increasingly narrowly-focussed papers that nobody but initiates can read.

    I dunno — seems like Einstein’s theory of relativity is a massive example that contradicts this theory. It started out as a pretty esoteric and rarely-read theory, studied only by those close to the field, but decades later became something almost every high school student knows (or pretends to know, anyway.)

    Book: The insane explorers who invented metric system

    To create the metric system back in 1792, Pierre-Francois-Andre-Mechain and Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre officially detemined length of a meter. They set it at one ten-millionth of the Earth’s meridian.

    But how to measure the meridian? Glad you asked. The two men spent a mind-boggling seven years measuring out a precisely straight line from Dunkirk to Barcelona, so that they could triangulate the entire meridian from this smaller chunk.

    Simple? Hardly. In practice this meant clambering to the summits of mountains, or punching holes in church steeples, or hammering together scaffolding in the middle of forests, raising pyramids or reflectors, and sighting them from dozens of miles away with a telescope. Two guys burn lanterns on two mountaintops; another guy travels 60 miles, climbs his own mountaintop, and takes readings all night to measure the angle between the two. Repeat. For seven years.

    The obstacles they faced were awesome: marauding citizens bent on beheading, chronic funding shortfalls, loose screws on their instruments, jealous colleagues. Villagers accuse them of being sorcerers. Volunteer brigades quarantine them in town halls. Now mix in the fact that Mechain so devoted himself to exactitude that a possible error in his calculations drives him to the brink of insanity, and [the] story really picks up. Obsession, guilt, ambition; the psychological costs of utter precision.

    The story’s told in a new book by Ken Adler, The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World. Excellent review of it at the Boston Globe. Damn, I want to read this.

    My new look

    Hmmmm. I’m going to sit on this design for a few days and see what I think. It’s a slightly tweaked version of that design I liked, Carabeth Blue.

    The tweaks are thus: I’ve retained Georgia as my base text font, because serif fonts are just a lot more classy than sans serif, y’know what I mean? And I stole the very cool but subtle design technique that came in my old, prepackaged Movable Type design Gettysburg: Making the links one point smaller than the body text, and rendering them in a sans-serif font.

    It’s the little things.

    Dying on the moon

    Oh, creepy. A copy of the speech that President Nixon was supposed to read in the event that the Apollo 11 astronauts crashed on the moon and couldn’t leave.

    One-button games

    I’ve been hooked on a Palm game called “Hot Snake” lately, which has only one single button for control — every time you hit it, the snake changes the direction in which it snakes along.

    Which makes me wonder: Are there any other video games with a single button for control? Pacman had a single joystick, but you moved it in eight different directions. Pong had one spinner — but you had two directions for spin. Gamelab’s brilliant online game Loop uses mouse movement only (no button clicking) but again, it’s omnidirectional movement. Is there another game in existence with only a single push-button control?

    Doing “The Crawl”

    You know “the crawl” — that little trailer of text that scrolls along the bottom of a newscast, essentially letting you have two cipherlike news-experiences at once?

    Apparently, Fox crawls at 115 words per minute, while CNN and MSNBC crawl at 105 words per minute.

    Help me pick a template, pt. 2

    Okay, here are a few more I’m looking at. (I’m posting fewer now … interesting … maybe I’m getting numb to all these after staring at so many!)

    - Tri Max (similar to my current favorite, Carabeth Blue)
    - Navigate (needs elements on the sides, but kinda neato)
    - Pacifica (wow. Verry nice. But again, hard to read on a blue background, I think.)
    - Rehead (Hmm, red ain’t quite me, I don’t think, though this is pretty.)
    - Runway Green (Nice, if a little dark in the background.)
    - Shades of Blue (actually, looks more purple to me.)
    - Three Way (Great organizational layout! Maybe a little boring, though.)

    Clash song in Jaguar ad

    The Boston Globe’s new weekend Ideas section has just launched — edited by the fab former editor of Lingua Franca, Alexander Star. It has a simply superb piece by Rob Walker on how Jaguar is using the Clash’s “London Calling” in a new car ad. Obviously, we all know corporations use supposedly “subversive” old-school rock to sell stuff. But Walker makes a intriguing new point, and it’s something I’ve always suspected about pop music: Most people just don’t listen to the lyrics:

    The answer is not that advertising ”creatives” aren’t sharp enough to know what these songs are really about. One explanation favored by cultural critics is that advertisers simply want to borrow a little of the rebellious feeling that many of these songs convey, and persuade their audience that buying, say, a luxury car is an attractively nonconformist act. It’s also possible that advertisers spike their pitches with ”alternative” references because it makes them feel hip. But probably it boils down to the simple fact that commercial-makers are clever enough to know that a song’s ”real” meaning doesn’t actually matter. Where you or I might hear a counterculture anthem, there is also a collection of sounds and lyrical bites ready to be stripped for parts. From an ad-maker’s point of view, even the most edgy rock ‘n’ roll is just so much musical wallpaper.

    It’s kind of like TV, in a way. The aesthetics of the form overpower the content. Every time I’ve been on a TV debate, friends will email me or call or IM to say they saw it. “You looked great!”, they’ll say (thankfully). Terrific, I’ll reply; but what did you think of the debate? “Oh, I can’t remember what anyone was saying,” they’ll reply. “But you guys all looked great!”

    Music’s the same way. If the groove kicks ass, nobody really pays much attention to what the hell they’re singing, and advertisers know this. That might be why folk music is the real last vestige of serious lyrics; the instrumentation is more so much more sparse it doesn’t distract from the words.

    Help me decide on a template! (Loooong post.)

    Hmmm, I need a better looking skin that this one. The only problem is that I suck horribly at design.

    So I’ve been trolling through to look at freebie designs to use. I went through them alphabetically and stopped at the I’s. Of the ones I’ve seen, here are the possibilities so far. My favorites:

    - Carabeth Blue (very cool. My top favorite so far.)
    - Turquoise and Cream (very American-Prospect-ish, eh?)
    - Band Aid (I like the band-aid, though I’d probably replace it. Simple, crams a lot in.)
    - American Currency (staid colors, but cool layout)
    - Earthy Boxes on a Hillside (I’d definitely change the color scheme, but the layout kicks ass)
    - Grey River
    - “Goes Down Smooth” (great style, but not sure the layout’ll suit me)
    - and then i said
    - In Deep Water (super layout, bad colors)

    And some runners-up:

    - Hey Green (great layout, but I’d tweak the color prolly)
    - three-column gothic (good organization, but I’d have to change that inky scheme)
    - Massacre Face (demented)
    - Blue is for boys (about as plain as you can get, but good interface)
    - Blogscape Dual White Tables (super-busy, but allows for tons of stuff on the first page)
    - Blue’s Clues (man, people really like the color blue in blog design! I find it hard to read on that background. Pretty, though.)
    - Bold Lines, Modified (whoa — Mondrian-esque! One of the prizewinners in the Blogger Template Design Contest this summer) - “Cadet”

    A final thought: People who use black backgrounds for their blogs must be on crack or something. I mean, jesus.

    Help me decide on a template! (Loooong post.)

    Hmmm, I need a better looking skin that this one. The only problem is that I suck horribly at design.

    So I’ve been trolling through to look at freebie designs to use. I went through them alphabetically and stopped at the I’s. Of the ones I’ve seen, here are the possibilities so far. My favorites:

    - Carabeth Blue (very cool. My top favorite so far.)
    - Turquoise and Cream (very American-Prospect-ish, eh?)
    - Band Aid (I like the band-aid, though I’d probably replace it. Simple, crams a lot in.)
    - American Currency (staid colors, but cool layout)
    - Earthy Boxes on a Hillside (I’d definitely change the color scheme, but the layout kicks ass)
    - Grey River
    - “Goes Down Smooth” (great style, but not sure the layout’ll suit me)
    - and then i said
    - In Deep Water (super layout, bad colors)

    And some runners-up:

    - Hey Green (great layout, but I’d tweak the color prolly)
    - three-column gothic (good organization, but I’d have to change that inky scheme)
    - Massacre Face (demented)
    - Blue is for boys (about as plain as you can get, but good interface)
    - Blogscape Dual White Tables (super-busy, but allows for tons of stuff on the first page)
    - Blue’s Clues (man, people really like the color blue in blog design! I find it hard to read on that background. Pretty, though.)
    - Bold Lines, Modified (whoa — Mondrian-esque! One of the prizewinners in the Blogger Template Design Contest this summer) - “Cadet”

    A final thought: People who use black backgrounds for their blogs must be on crack or something. I mean, jesus.

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    I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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