Archive: November 2002

Sim suburbia

I really enjoyed The Sims, and am totally looking forward to The Sims Online. I think it’s quite cool that it’s become the biggest break-out hit ever — the most mainstream-successful of any video game in history, other than Tetris. Will Wright, the creator, has done something quite amazing: He’s proven that a large chunk of everyday American society enjoys — indeed, is crazy for — spending time in a virtual space.

But is anyone else but me freaked out that Will Wright’s vision of the idealized virtual space is … a trackless American suburb?

I mean, when I first played The Sims back in 1999, I loved the characters, their interactions, and the fascinating emergent behavior. But the environment skeeved me out in the extreme. Every single house was this sprawling monster home, set back hundreds of feet from every other house.

I’ve seen what it’s like living in these areas. I grew up in the lunar precincts of Toronto’s suburbs, where you had to drive for 15 minutes just to buy a pack of gum, and everybody hung out in their basements like bomb shelters. And I learned what every sane person learns: That even at their most pleasant and highly functioning, American suburbs are complete and total nightmarescapes of alienation. You can live next to someone for like 27 years and have no idea that in their backyard they’re distilling fertilizer into a bomb, storing chopped-up Boy Scout parts in an industrial freezer, or maybe just spending every single evening working one of those 650,000-piece jigsaw puzzles composed entirely of white pieces. There is just no social contact out there. And yeah, yeah, I know this is a classic urbanist stereotype. It’s also true.

John Carpenter understood this. That’s why Halloween is such a brilliant film. Back when he made it in 1978, American media was freaking out about how violent and evil New York and L.A. and Chicago were, and how nasty and horrible urban environments were. All those … other people! Packed together like sardines! The horror!

Carpenter knew better. He knew that the truly terrifying black hole of American dread was not in the cities, but in the suburbs, where some guy in a ski mask can be stabbing you and your friends to death with a 14-inch steak knife while you scream and scream and scream and scream and scream, and everyone on the block just turns up the TV a bit louder, and nobody gives the slightest shit what’s going on. And no-one does. Every time some teenage kid cuts loose with an AK-47 in a high-school, the suburban neighbors always tell the reporters, “he always seemed like a nice kid,” or “he sort of kept to himself.” Of course he kept to himself! In the suburbs, everyone keeps to themselves. That’s all they do. That’s how you can be a teenager and DO FREAKING TARGET PRACTICE WITH AN AK-47 IN YOUR BEDROOM AND NOBODY NOTICES.

Of course, the irony is that The Sims Online is all about gaining street cred by co-operating with people — by having them come over for drinks or whatnot. The virtual environment may be visually suburban, but the interactions are urban (or rural) in their communitarian nature. Because Will Wright is a smart dude. He’s read his Jane Jacobs. He knows that environments thrive because of social interaction, and die in its absence. As he says in a very cool feature on The Sims at Gamespot:

Wright, however, cautions that he wants to let players decide how to evolve the world. “All of this political stuff has to come from the bottom up,” he posits. “We can’t do it from the top down and dictate structure.” Instead, players need to build covenants with each other and establish the conventions of the world over time. “Totally planned cities don’t work,” Wright explains. “It’s sort of like the Utopian society movement, where there were these guys who went off and started building planned cities. For the most part the cities were total failures.”

Precisely. But those planned cities were … suburban in nature, as urban theorist John Sewell wrote in his excellent book The Shape of the City.

Possibly, this is just about aesthetics. Wright wanted his players to build locales, locales big enough for several Sims to hang out in. That biases one towards large suburban-style houses — and biases one against, say, public spaces, which aren’t owned by any single person and which are too big to be visually represented in a game like The Sims.

And who knows? Maybe someone living in a particularly airless suburb might be actually inspired by seeing social interaction amongst the suburban denizens of the Sims Online. An AI researcher I know at MIT once had a friend who was pretty socially alienated, and spent hours and hours playing The Sims:

Then one day he realized, ‘Hey, the way I make my Sim happy is by having him hang out with friends and family, and do all these social things, and he winds up healthy. Maybe I should be doing those things myself.’

When your Tivo thinks you’re gay

A great piece in the Wall Street Journal about how Tivo can make some wildly inaccurate predictions about its users:

Mike Binder, creator and star of [The Mind of the Married Man], had set his home TiVo to record his 1999 movie, “The Sex Monster,” about a man whose wife becomes bisexual. After that, Mr. Binder’s TiVo assumed he would enjoy a steady stream of gay programming. Unnerved, he counteracted the onslaught by recording the Playboy Channel and MTV’s spring break bikini coverage. It worked, he says. “My TiVo doesn’t look at me funny anymore.”

His wife, however, was taken aback when she saw all the half-naked women he was ordering through TiVo. He told her those women meant nothing to him: “I’m just counterprogramming because TiVo thinks I’m gay.” She was unamused. The incident inspired an episode of his show.

Interestingly, the article never mentions “collaborative filtering” by name, even though I’m pretty sure that’s precisely the technique that Tivo — like Amazon — uses: The algorithm checks what everyone is watching, and finds connections between them all. It’s yet another example of how machine intelligence can be incredibly precise, yet weirdly inhuman, in its reasoning.

My favorite part is the story of Jeff Bezos interacting with Amazon’s collabortive filtering software:

For a live demonstration before an audience of 500 people, Mr. Bezos once logged onto ( to show how it caters to his interests. The top recommendation it gave him? The DVD for “Slave Girls From Beyond Infinity.” That popped up because he had previously ordered “Barbarella,” starring Jane Fonda, a spokesman explains.

Really weird Google news results

This morning, when I checked Google News, the lead story had this headline and this first paragraph:

Miss World reporter faces fatwa
CNN Europe, Europe - 4 hours ago
Any true Muslim would make sure that this woman’s blood is spilled wherever she is. Do you agree the media is to blame for the riots in Nigeria?

Like, wow.

What Google News had done, of course, was to misidentify the nutgraph of the story. It had taken a quote from Mamoudu Shinkarfi, the deputy governor of Zamfara state, and algorithmically decided this was the key point of the piece.

Oops. For comparison’s sake, the original CNN story that Google News was scrubbing is here. I actually like Google News a lot, but this is an interesting reminder of how machine intelligence frequently does things that are, by human standards, totally bonkers.

Library bans itself

Net Nanny strikes again. The Flesh Public Library in Ohio recently revamped its web sites — only to find that it now fell afoul of the filtering software on its own computers.

“We banned ourselves,” he said Thursday.

Oda said he never gave much thought to the library’s name — named 70 years ago for businessman Leo Flesh, who donated the money for the library’s current location. But Net Nanny, a filter the library uses on all the children’s department computers, did not care much for “flesh” linked to “public.”

“Growing up in Piqua, I don’t think we give it much thought,” Oda said. “But when I was in the service, my Mom — who worked at the library at the time — used to send care packages in these little plastic bags that said ‘Flesh Public Library.’ There was a whole group of Army guys who had a lot of fun with that.”

Canadian bureaucrat calls Bush “a moron”

Yep — one did. But by favorite part was how the Prime Minister of Canada, Jean Chretien, was forced to respond:

An offhand comment by a senior member of the Chrétien government may have a lasting effect on relations between Ottawa and Washington. A top aide to the prime minister has been quoted as referring to U.S. President George W. Bush as “a moron.”

The disparaging comment from Chrétien’s inner circle has shaken the Prime Minister’s Office. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was forced to say on Thursday that President Bush is “a friend of mine. He’s not a moron at all.”

The accusations of moronicity is, of course, rather ironic coming from an aide to a Canadian prime minister who is famous for being so exquisitely incomprehensible in both official languages that reporters regularly have to convene, after a Chretien speech, to discuss and agree upon what the hell he just said.

And there was this terrific little incident back in 1996 that perfectly illustrated Chretien’s penchant for koan-like opacity. He was walking through a crowd of protestors, and one of them got up close in his face. Rather than have his security-guard detail deal with it, Chretien (who is, like, 6’ 2” tall) simply grabbed the guy by the neck and hurled him to the ground himself.

He was called upon to apologize for this, and I’ll quote his statement verbatim:

I don’t know.
What happened?
If you don’t know,
the cameras were there.
Some people came in my way,
it might have been…
I had to go.
So if you are in my way,
I am walking.
So I don’t know what happened.
Something happened
to somebody
who should not have been there.

I’m in awe. Who’s writing this guy’s speeches these days? Samuel Beckett?

This speech, actually, became famous in Canada because it was transcribed by the poet Stuart Ross, entitled “A Minor Altercation”, and included in his book The Inspiration Cha-Cha.

Self promo: My lecture on the glass harmonica

I’m currently working on a big story about Benjamin Franklin’s glass harmonica, one of my weirder obssessions. Two weeks ago I gave a lecture about it for the Trampoline Hall lecture series, run by the fab short-story writer Sheila Heti. At each of lecture night, she appoints a “secretary” from the audience who takes notes — and then she posts them on the McSweeney’s site:

Clive Thompson is the first speaker. He is impeccably dressed and looks a little like Miles from Murphy Brown. He played us some glass harmonica on CD. Benjamin Franklin invented it (the glass harmonica, not the CD). Imagine a lathe with glass bowls turning. The glass harmonica player “plays” it with unspeakably clean hands. When played well, the glass harmonica (the only truly American acoustic instrument) sounds (1) like the music of angels, (2) pleasing, and (3) inspiring, depending on who you talked to. Europe, in particular, was crazy about it. Of course, the backlash was swift. Rumors spread that listening to the glass harmonica would cause melancholy, fainting, spasms, etc.

The phone rings again. It is for Jason, who takes it in the other room. Here, the microphone stops working for a moment. A young woman — does she live here?! — fixes it and Clive continues.

In 1798, a young child died during a glass harmonica concert in Germany. Within 3 years, it vanished from the continent.Fast forward to the ’50s. A crazy organist named Powers Biggs wanted to bring the instrument back to America for a Mozart tribute concert. He failed — I think (Clive is talking really fast). In 1982, a German glassblower moved to West Newton — he brought the glass harmonica back with the help of Linda Ronstadt, a fan of the glass harmonica. In 1999, the glass blower went for a plane flight because he was a recreational pilot — and vanished. Thus, the last tragedy of this tragic instrument.

During Q&A, Clive says that the body count related to the glass harmonica makes it a weirder instrument than the theremin. Clive plays the guitar and the harmonica (which was named after the glass harmonica, and not vice-versa). Clive had considered telling us about the bazantar, another rare acoustic instrument from the Bay Area. It is not clear why he didn’t choose the bazantar. Clive emphasizes that neither in the making of nor in the playing of the glass harmonica can your hands be at all oily. There are a lot of physics involved, but I didn’t do well in physics in high school, so I won’t try paraphrasing Clive’s explanation. The glass harmonica is played best with the middle section of your finger. Clive cannot play the glass harmonica, but he is a Canadian national.

We take a break for drinks, knowledge absorption and jazz. Reid, sitting next to me, says admiringly of Clive, “I feel really dumb.” I talk to Aaron, who went to the same college as me. He tells me that Gabe, whose place this is, used to live near him when Aaron was five. Gabe is the one behind the bar, wearing a bright red shirt, mixing mean drinks. He also has killer sideburns. Killer.

Violent smart mobs

“Smart mobs” are already here. But as Howard Rheingold has been saying, the “smart mob” phenomenon isn’t always benign — like Tokyo teenagers moving about downtown like amoebas — or pro-democratic, as with anti-WTC protestors using texting to coordinate their actions.

Mobs are, well, mobs, and frequently rather scary forces — so the idea of them suddenly gaining powerful new ways to organize is not necessarily good. Consider the recent riots around the Miss World pageant:

At least 12 people have been killed in the Nigerian city of Kaduna after protests against next month’s Miss World beauty competition descended into bloody violence. …

Protests started after the newspaper ThisDay published an article which said that the Prophet Mohammed would probably have chosen to marry one of the contestants if he had witnessed the beauty pageant, which Nigeria is hosting next month. …

The BBC’s Yusuf Sarki Muhammad says that local mosques had been calling for action against the paper and said that some people were first alerted to the article by text messages being sent to their mobile phones.

What do you call those invisible Google people, pt. 3

Another cool answer to my question of some days ago — “What do you call people who don’t show up on Google?”

From Jonathan Lundell:

The Googless

Any other suggestions — send ‘em in

Is online fan culture the future of library science?

Is everything online by now? I’m up late doing some work and IMing with my girlfriend, when she asks me for a bit of trivia:

“Was it Beavis or Butthead who had that weird laugh? Or both?”

So I do a google search. Interestingly, the top result for a nonboolean hunt on their names was this demented Russian site devoted to the show. There was nothing about their laugh, so I scanned through a few other sites, including a farewell lecture by a Hanover professor on the subject.

So I did another, narrower search — “beavis butthead laugh” — and, sure enough, this time the top hit is a site that specifically clarifies this element of the show: “Telling Beavis and Butthead apart. Beavis’s laugh is always “Heh heh” while Butthead’s laugh is always “Huh huh”.”

This took about 45 seconds, all in all. At which point I was forced to remark yet again on just how insanely mindbendingly huge the Internet is. I mean, seriously! In less than a minute I was able to locate a document that is not merely about Beavis and Butthead, and not merely about their laughs, but which exists specifically to delineate between the two acoustic signatures of their laughter.

Okay, I know this is old hat by now: Net-as-hive-mind, noosphere, woof woof, meow meow. But still, this rocks.

And, more importantly, it bodes really well for the long-term preservation of pop culture.

Consider: Back in the early 90s I was at an academic conference where an NYU professor who writes about hip-hop was talking about the difficulty of doing research in this area, because no publicly-funded libraries (and virtually no private ones) have a mandate to collect and archive that stuff. Same goes for comic books, video games, sci-fi, TV shows, and tons of other incredibly vibrant and important 20th-century art. (Previous aeons had the same problem … we have copies of the great works of literature and paintings and religious artifacts, but frequently no copies of the folk art.) Plenty of interesting little bits of pop culture simply vanished, like old Ojibway dialects, because nobody thought to retain them.

The Net has totally changed that. Pop culture is now being closely documented with the ferocious, distributed zeal of 10 million worldwide mass-culture fanatics. There’s a web site for virtually any nigh-forgotten TV show, and commercial sites like IMDB that track even more stuff. And think about file-sharing: One of the great unstated things about networks like Kazaa is that they minimize the likelihood that a piece of culture will vanish — because if everyone keeps spreading copies around, there’s no way we’ll ever lose them all. Kazaa may be considered piracy — but perhaps we should also consider it a massive, if unintentional, archival masterpiece.

And sometimes it actually is intentional. Consider the case of video games: The MAME project — emulators that run classic 80s and 90s arcade-games — was consciously created to be an archival project. The programmer Nicola Salmoria was worried that rare arcade hits (like, say, Mappy or maybe Nibbler — remember those? No, I didn’t either) were going to utterly vanish. So he created a way for people to run the original game code, taken from the arcade cabinets, on a PC. Presto: Now people are swapping arcade games all over the planet. And, sure, yeah, it’s piracy. But it’s also library science, of a very crude sort. Only a vanishingly tiny fraction of these games are still in commercial circulation; if it weren’t for the work of Salmoria and the game-swappers, as well as those with an interest in documenting the basic facts about the games (like the Killer List Of Videogames site), this stuff would go the way of the dodo.

The entertainment industry may be cursing file-sharing now, but 10 or 20 or 100 years from now, historians will likely be thrilled as hell that we were passing all this pop flotsam around.

Of course, there are downsides. Heh — maybe pop culture is in danger of being too well documented. I mean, how many Facts of Life web sites do we really need? (Don’t answer that.) The problem with the Net is that is it prejudiced towards documenting things are inherently digital — games, video, music. Stuff that requires difficult conversion, like a rare 397-page novel, aren’t getting archived. Of course, scanning in a rare novel and putting it online would be piracy too … but, you know, it also probably help keep that book from vanishing, if it were, say, a sci-fi book that most libraries would throw out in a book-sale because they don’t consider it “important” literature. But of course the author and publisher wouldn’t necessarily be thrilled at getting ripped off. (Unless the book was out of print, the publisher sitting on the rights, and maybe the author’s kinda happy to see the book bootlegged.)

If one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, the Net has turned out to be the biggest cultural wastepaper basket in the history of the world.

Missing left-wing brains

Apparently a university hospital in Germany has misplaced the brains of three radical left-wing protestors who committed suicide in 1977:

After the three extreme leftists committed suicide in prison in 1977, their brains were taken to a university hospital in southern Tuebingen for autopsy, but the brains are no longer there and their whereabouts are unknown.

“When I took over the institute in 1990, the brains were not there, although they were still listed in our files,” Richard Meyermann, head of the hospital’s institute for brain research, told Reuters. He said it was unlikely they were stolen.

The announcement comes days after the daughter of gang co-leader Ulrike Meinhof discovered her mother’s brain was being kept in a box in Magdeburg University in eastern Germany.

I am probably asking the obvious, but … what in sam hell is going on in Germany these days?

What are the odds of that?

What does it mean when we notice a coincidence?

Most people brush off coincidences. Random strange things happen all the time, right? But they don’t mean anything. Like when you go to meet a friend run into a stranger that perfectly resembles your friend, waiting in precisely the same place (which once happened to me … creepy.) Or when farmers hundreds of years ago started noticing that milkmaids never got smallpox. Weird, huh?

The difference is, of course, is that the first example here is “mere” coincidence — something weird and fishy, but that’s about it. The second example, however, is a “suspicious” coincidence. It seems like it means something so juicy it’s got to be true. This is how science often works: Scientists get a hunch because they’re so stimulated by an inexplicable-but-suggestive connection. Guys like Louis Pasteur or Newton relied on hunches to get them going. And as for that smallpox thing? It turned out there was a connection: Milkmaids don’t get smallpox because they are constantly exposed to a mild form of it, and thus build up a resistance. Scientists in the 18th century didn’t know about microbes or viruses and could never have figured that out, but it didn’t stop them from having hunches — and quite useful ones — about the connection. In that latter case, noticing something that seems coincidental is part of how we discover knowledge.

I just got back from an MIT Knight seminar with the insanely brilliant MIT cognitive scientist Joshua Tenenbaum — who studies coincidence. As he argues, our penchant for seeing coincidence is part of very deep, intelligent processes in the brain. Our brains are making connections and theories about the world all the time, even when we’re not aware of it. We know more than we know we know, it seems — and sometimes this knowledge erupts as coincidence.

Mind you, scientists always warn us (and rightly so) that “correlation is not causation”. But as humans, we don’t believe it. When we see connections, we know damn well something is going on. We get hunches, and we’re so often right about them that — against reason — we learn to follow them:

For decades, all academic talk of coincidence has been in the context of the mathematical. New work by scientists like Joshua B. Tenenbaum, an assistant professor in the department of brain and cognitive sciences at M.I.T., is bringing coincidence into the realm of human cognition. Finding connections is not only the way we react to the extraordinary, Tenenbaum postulates, but also the way we make sense of our ordinary world. ”Coincidences are a window into how we learn about things,” he says. ”They show us how minds derive richly textured knowledge from limited situations.”

To put it another way, our reaction to coincidence shows how our brains fill in the factual blanks. In an optical illusion, he explains, our brain fills the gaps, and although people take it for granted that seeing is believing, optical illusions prove that’s not true. ”Illusions also prove that our brain is capable of imposing structure on the world,” he says. ”One of the things our brain is designed to do is infer the causal structure of the world from limited information.”

If not for this ability, he says, a child could not learn to speak. A child sees a conspiracy, he says, in that others around him are obviously communicating and it is up to the child to decode the method. But these same mechanisms can misfire, he warns. They were well suited to a time of cavemen and tigers and can be overloaded in our highly complex world. ”It’s why we have the urge to work everything into one big grand scheme,” he says. ”We do like to weave things together.

”But have we evolved into fundamentally rational or fundamentally irrational creatures? That is one of the central questions.”

Damn, this is cool, cutting-edge stuff! If you want to read more, check out the terrific New York Times Magazine story by Lisa Belkin, from which the quote above is taken.

Naked protest

I’m adamantly opposed to the idea of invading Iraq, for moral, political and realpolitikal reasons. And like many people from all political stripes, I frequently complain about how Americans are too “apathetic” about “the issues of today” — and how they won’t get off their asses and do something about it. I’m a crank. I mean, I can be so insufferably earnest about this stuff that you’d want to punch me out.

But, I gotta admit, even I was wondering about the, uh, utility of this latest protest: “West Marin Women Strip For Peace.”

Apparently, a few dozen women in West Marin County stripped to the bare essentials yesterday to spell out the word PEACE on a damp, slightly rainy field. Of the photo of the event, the organizer said:

“I’m hoping it gets distributed so that the message gets across that women in America want peace,” said Clarkson. “I want to do everything I can to stop the war that’s impending.”

Marshall resident Donna Sheehan, who organized the group called “Unreasonable Women” for the photo, said she’s been pondering for four years a way women can “be heard on a very deep level.”

(The photo is by Art Rogers; the item comes courtesy Plastic, where there’s a predictably hilarious discussion going on. “If this is peace,” as one wit wrote, “call me a pacifist.”)

Humiliation nation

Once again, another letter-from-Mars culture story running on A1 on the New York Times. Like I’ve said before, I just love it whenever the “news” section tackles “culture,” because it requires they phrase and describe pop culture in such Onionesque, plain ways that it becomes kinda poetic. Their main news audience, they figure, knows absolutely nothing of what’s going on at NBC or ABC — so the reporters’ descriptions of what’s on TV always wind up reading like a 19th-century anthropoligist’s horrified, mesmerized descriptions of scatalogical rites amongst the Zuni Indians.

Today a reporter wrote about the reality-TV slo-mo trainwreck of The Bachelor, and came to this conclusion about American life:

Viewers have shown an insatiable appetite for the queasy thrill that comes from watching an ordinary person suffer searing public embarrassment in exchange for 15 minutes of fame.

Maybe I’m nuts, but this prose style always makes me laugh and laugh and laugh.

More on the “Google invisible”

More suggestions arriving in response to my question: “What do you call people who don’t show up on a Google search?”

Tony Blow from Pointsize suggests taking inspiration from sci-fi/drug-fantasy author Jeff Noon: “Call them Dodos. It’s the name he gives people who cannot dream.”

Over at the Shifted Librarian, Jenny votes for “the ungoogleables”.

And dig this: Bob Morris wrote me to point out a whole other issue. He calls himself “antiUngoogleable”:

Ah, but this conversation misses a huge category of the unGoogleables. People like like me with common names, Google “Bob Morris” as you get many differing Bob Morris’es, and in fact, I am not listed in the top pages (sob). So, there’s no way to accurately Google me, as there are too many of me.

Does that make me antiUnGoogleable, and thus, UnGoogleable?

Another gorgeous onion-layer surrounding this weird issue! He’s right, of course; this happens all the time when I’m reporting. I’ll try to find info on someone named, say, Sam Johnson — only to be swamped with 20,000 hits that are dominated by the U.S. Representative with that name, as well as a Sam Johnson who is a professional “rolfer”. No, I didn’t know what rolfing was either.

Somebody please stop me from buying one of these

Because I already have enough freaking gadgets. Because I already carry around three different devices that can remember all my contact info. Because I never check that contact info anyway. Because I should just give the damn 200 bucks or whatever this thing costs to Greenpeace or something.

Yet nonetheless I crave it. And dig the hilariously over-the-top ad copy on the web site of Fossil, which makes this Palm OS-based delight:

Ever since the comic book hero Dick Tracy first strapped on his amazing wrist radio six decades ago, science fiction fans have eagerly anticipated the day when such fantastic gadgetry might become reality. Now, thanks to the Wrist PDA with PALM OS®, their wait is finally over.

Sometimes I hate being such a geek. I am such a sucker for this sort of landfill.

Somebody please email me now and tell me not to buy this thing. Christ almighty.

The Wizard of Oz, the Wizard of Advertising

There’s a cool review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review about a new biography of L. Frank Baum — the guy who wrote all the Wizard of Oz books.

Interestingly, though, it doesn’t mention the fact that Baum was known not just for the Oz books — but for being a major force in creating advertising as we know it. In the utterly superb 1994 book Land of Desire, William Leach explores how Baum became obsessed with the art of window displays.

Baum wrote the book on advertising — literally. In 1897, he began publishing The Show Window, a trade magazine devoted to the art of window dressing, a big deal back in nascent days of huge department stores. Those old department stores were quite a flash-point in the birth of American consumerism. Leach argues they essentially invented the modern culture of consumption. Before Baum and his colleagues invented advertising, department stores were just dull warehouses filled with drab piles of goods. In barely a decade, they were transformed into dramatic dioramas of lifestyle. When you walk into Ikea and see how they’ve set up the goods to look like typical households … yep, Baum pretty much invented that. It was so successful that soon the department stores had to invent and issue the first-ever credit cards, to hand out to their crazed customers.

At the center this transformation was the art of window dressing — the first experience that most Americans had with the advertising of opulence. You read excerpts from Baum’s advertising texts, and suddenly those Oz stories take on a whole new meaning. The Emerald City, encrusted with jewels and possessed of horses that shifted colors, is Baum’s most beautiful and florid fantasy of capitalism in full consumerist bloat.

It was a genuinely weird, dizzying moment for the nation. They used to have debates about whether the use of huge panes of glass in shop-windows was ethical — i.e. whether it was morally okay to tempt people with so many lovely goods while they tried to walk about the city doing their business. It rather eerily prefigures our modern debates about advertising colonizing every waking moment of our lives. Of course, these days, it seems kinda quaint to wonder about the ethics of whipping up desire. We pay extra for the clothes with corporate logos.

Here’s what you call those invisible Google people, pt. 1

A few days ago, I posted the question: What do you call people who don’t show up on a Google search? I.E. what’s the name for the category of person who doesn’t generate even a single page hit?

Well, the nominations are coming in! A few possible ones suggested by Andrew Wu:

The Ungooglable
The UnRanked

… and some sent in by Lewis Gault:

the ungoogleables

Anyone got other ideas? Send ‘em in!

Meanwhile, a recent comment by my friend Maura — noting that most of her high-school friends don’t show up on Google, which is weird because “wouldn’t they at least be in some sort of online dean’s list or student newspaper?” — made me wonder: What types of things do get your name online?

We could almost work out the categories. For example, if you i) have your own web site; ii) work for a company that lists its employees on the corporate site; iii) post to any discussion boards; iv) belong to a club or association that lists its members online; v) speak or attend any event that puts its stuff online; vi) etc. etc.; then you are going to crop up on a Google search. The point being, you have to avoid doing and being an awful lot of things to stay off of Google. Though the number of North Americans who don’t appear on Google is probably still quite big, it’s diminishing every day.

Here’s a fun speculation. I wonder if at some point in the far future, the world of data (the Internet, though by then we’ll call it something else, probably) will be so huge and all-encompassing that there will be a final person who is the last one to not crop up in a major search engine? Kinda like a noosphere version of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (or the Left Behind series, heh).

Or, even more fun, will there be people who try as hard as possible not to be Googleable? That may not be as nutty as it sounds. After all, many people going on a first date — or blind date — Google their hookup in advance, to find out as much as possible before l’affaire. Smart employers do the same. So there are tons of good reasons you may want your second existence as a gun freak, leatherman, flat-earther, Extropian or plushie to stay off the radar.

Of course, dig this: The converse is also true. If you don’t appear on Google, it can seem a little unnerving to the rest of us! It’s like being The Man Who Didn’t Exist, one of those bit characters on the X-files who doesn’t have fingerprints or a Social Security Number or whatever.

Got my Hiptop — and already blogging with it

Woo hoo! I had my Danger Hiptop shipped to me yesterday, and it turns out that the browser works perfectly with Movable Type. So one can post to a blog using the device, and in fact I am.

This is going to be really strange — the idea that I can just post anything from anywhere, anytime. It’s not the fastest keyboard in the world, but I will probably get a lot faster at it; probably too fast. One of the big limitations, though, is that you can’t highlight text — which means I won’t be able to use Movable Type’s autoformat tools. If I want to put any URLs in a posting, I’ll have to put the HTML in myself.

AOL offers tools to monitor instant-messaging

Most people think instant-messaging just plain vanishes. Or, rather, they hope like hell it vanishes, because the super-casual air of IM tends to encourage some pretty wild off-the-cuff conversations. The off-color stuff people say in IM makes Bill Gates’ infamous anti-Netscape emails seem tame and measured.

Of course, it’s always been possible for an employer to quietly log the IMs of its employees. But now AOL itself has decided to create tools that will make it super easy. To quote Bruce Stewart, AOL’s senior vice president:

“We heard from companies that they love AIM, but they want to be able to better manage its usage,” Stewart said. He said AOL is also offering a service that lets companies reserve specific AIM user names and plans to roll out encrypted messaging next year.

“Better able to manage its usage.” More gorgeous euphemisms are hard to come by.

CIA World Factbook — the video game

Is it just me, or does the new design of the CIA World Factbook look eerily similar to the aesthetic of a video game? Check it out. That gun-metal, rivetted steel girders along the top … the grey and blue color palette … it looks just totally like the information screens in something like Rogue Spear. Yeeeee.

Of course, as gaming pundit Carl Goodman of the American Museum of the Moving Image would argue — all software looks like a video game these days. Video games were, and remain, on the cutting edge of interface design. Remember where the first place you saw scrolling text, nested lists, WYSIWYG, icons, and the very idea of a physical tool you hold in your hand that manipulates stuff onscreen? That’s right. Asteroids and Robotron 2084.

What do you call someone who doesn’t appear on a Google search?

I just got an email from someone who I’d never heard of. It doesn’t look like spam, but I think it was mistakenly sent to me. So I decided to do what one always does these days — I googled him.

And nothing turned up.

This has happened a couple of times — people who generate not a single page hit on Google. But it’s pretty infrequent. So I’ve decided we need a name for these people — an entirely new category of social invisibility.

Any suggestions? Send ‘em in to me, and I’ll post them — then pick the best one.

In the meantime, here are a few possibilities:

The Unknowables
The Untouchables
The Mysterians
Off the Grid
Men/Women in Black
Ghosts in the Machine

(Or maybe this neologism already exists? If so, somebody email me and let me know!)

Location, location, location — pt. 2

To avoid doing work, I am procrastinating by tracking the delivery of MY INCREDIBLY COOL NEW DANGER HIPTOP via Fedex. And it occurred to me that Fedex’s tracking service is really the first major example of the power of location-based technology. I can essentially watch this little device slowly wander across America into my loving embrace:

- Arrived at Sort FacilityMEMPHIS TN 11/14/2002 11:47
- Left FedEx RampIRVING TX 11/14/2002 01:09
- Left FedEx RampDALLAS TX 11/13/2002 23:08
- Arrived at FedEx RampDALLAS TX 11/13/2002 22:41
- Arrived at FedEx RampIRVING TX 11/13/2002 22:05
- Left FedEx Origin LocationADDISON TX 11/13/2002 21:04
- Pickup statusADDISON TX 11/13/2002 14:04

Imagine how weird it’s going to be when mobile phones (and other devices) regularly track their locations, so you get the same data about the movements of your friends, family, and workmates — all day long. They’re already discovering the pleasures (and horrors) of this in Hong Kong, where The Pinpoint Company has rolled out services that let employees track the location of their workers’ cell phones.

Of course, this is all potential for some wonderful geographic hacking. A friend of mine has already joked that he could just leave his phone at his desk and then go see a movie; his boss, confidently checking his Pinpoint screen, would assume my friend was sitting at his desk and working. Heh.

Buy the rainforest!

As part of my fellowship at MIT, I got a chance today to hang out with Edward O. Wilson, the scientist publicly known as the founder of sociobiology. But he’s also the world-wide expert in ants, and has become increasingly interested in biodiversity. He is thus, understandably, totally freaked about the extinction of species worldwide.

And I’m not talking just about bald eagles — I’m talking about bacteria, of which there are gazillions of species, most of them whose function we barely know, but whom we figure are pretty essential to life. Historically, biologists figure, one species per million species has become extinct each year. New species have emerged at roughly the same rate, so biodiversity has until now been pretty much preserved. But with global deforestation so rampant, we’re now killing 100 species per million each year. And that’s a very conservative estimate. Many environmentalists — Wilson included — figure it’s way the heck worse: More like 10,000 species per year.

But there’s an interesting new solution to this (which Wilson writes about in his new book The Future of Life. ).

Deforestation is a result of huge logging companies going into developing countries and buying up logging rights; because the countries are so poor, they’re understandably happy to get money from anywhere. And it used to be that environmentalists figured the multi-billion-dollar forestry industry was fated always to win, because they have, well, multi-billions of dollars. You can’t fight that, right?

Actually, you can. “It turns out that those logging companies operate on incredibly slim margins,” Wilson told me. “So it’s pretty easy to outbid them.” Forestry is a volume business — the price they fetch for the lumber isn’t much more than the cost of cutting it down. So the companies will go in to a country like Suriname and offer them $5 million for logging rights in an area. Environmental organizations — like Conservation International — started going in and offering $6 million. And it turns out those massive logging companies can’t afford the extra million. Their profit is already so slender, they have to walk away. Presto: The logging rights belong to environmentalists.

“We sat down one day and figured out how much it would cost do to the same with all the 25 ‘hotspots’ in the world — the places where the forest has about 44 per cent of all plant species on the planet,” he says. “It’s $28 billion. That’s a one-time cost. That’s totally doable. It wouldn’t cripple the global economy. The global economy would barely notice.”

Jesus, sign me up. I’m going to go out and buy some rainforest.

Vibrator-game story a hit

Heh. A few days ago I blogged about that review Jane did at Game Girl Advance, about the vibrator plug-in for the video-game Rez.

It seems so many other people blogged it, and visited it, that their piece has singlehandedly driven their bandwidth costs to the moon:

A recent popular story drove our costs up more than we’d anticipated. We’ve taken steps to try to cut down on bandwidth usage, but for the month of November we could be out $1500. Yikes! So for a limited time we’ve decided to ask if you readers who’ve enjoyed the site could chip in to keep GGA afloat via PayPal. Thanks!

I should really stop buying so much stuff.

Particularly tiny little radio-controlled cars. I mean, what’s wrong with me? Do I actually need a radio-controlled car the size of a walnut?

Well, you know, actually, yeah. My cat Smokey is really fat and I can’t get him to exercise, so maybe I can get him to think this is a mouse or something and he’ll chase it. Or something like that.

Somebody please kill me now.

Software that eats its own tail

Recently, I’ve been playing a lot of the old video game 1943 on my computer. (I nearly ruined my university education skipping class to play this game back in the late 80s, actually.)

It suddenly occurred to me that this game is, of course, about the Second World War. And WWII is, of course, when the modern digital computer was invented, to help crack German codes. And video games were, of course, the first commercially successful uses of digital computers in entertainment.

I used to think that WWII was a long time ago — but for some reason it suddenly seemed like very recent history. There were probably some 22-year-olds who were working on those first computers back then. And in 1987 some of them probably walked into an arcade — only 44 years later — at the age of 66, only to find that teenagers like me were using those computers they’d invented to kick Axis butt in simulated WWII games.

You know, that must have been extremely weird for them. I have no deeper thoughts on this subject, other than that: There must have been some just totally and completely weirded out 66-year-olds when this Capcom game came out.

The coolest device on the planet

After drooling over various websites showcasing this gorgeous toy, I’ve finally broken down and bought a Danger Hiptop. This means that I will, surreally, be paying for two separate mobile-phone accounts — my existing Sprint account and my new Tmobile Danger account. Because I’ve had my Sprint mobile phone number for four years, too many business associates know that number, and I can’t risk giving it up.

But since Sprint doesn’t offer the Hiptop, and since I NEED A HIPTOP BECAUSE THEY ARE SO INSANELY AND PROFOUNDLY COOL, I’m willing to shell out the extra 40 bucks a month. Damn, this thing rocks the house with furious vengeance.

But seriously. All high-tech hype aside, I actually do need one of these devices. I mean, I recently looked at my Sprint mobile bill and realized, wow, I’m already spending more time surfing the web and sending text messages than I do talking. (And I’m using one of the crappiest old phones that works on Sprint — the old Touchpoint!) I’m using a phone that is intended for voice primarily and only secondarily, grudgingly, for data. Yet my own priorities are the precise reverse. The Danger device is much better suited to me: It doesn’t worry too much about being a good phone — the ergonomic design for calling is rather clunky — but it simply rocks as a texting and browsing tool. The Tmobile plan is the same way; only 200 minutes for voice, but unlimited data.

Though I normally loathe “generational” analysis, there’s definitely a generational shift going on here. Younger people regard texting and instant messaging as the primary way to keep in touch with their friends. The phone — parodied for so long in adult culture as “growing out of my daughter’s ear” — is vanishing amongst teenagers. They know that texting and IM is way the hell more efficient and nuanced a technique to keep up with your network. You can juggle a nearly infinite amount of conversations, and since quite often you’re talking about stuff that’s online, IMing an embedded URL is like saying, “hey, check that out!” as you drive along the countryside with someone looking at scenery.

Adults — and particularly biz-weasel guys who try desperately to grok the Net — simply do not understand this. For them, a mobile phone is about voice, voice, voice; they want a plan with about 15,430 talking minutes a month, because that’s how they do business deals and whatnot. Why the hell would I want to get slow, 56K data? they ask. When am I gonna get video highlights of my football game on a fast 3G phone? But everyone else, particularly bloggers, knows damn well that omnipresence is more important than bandwidth. Indeed, there are already some really killer blogs created by Hiptop users, including one where users snap pictures with their Hiptop and then post them on the fly. (One brilliant book on trends like this is Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs, which I just read and which also rocks the house with furious vengeance.)

When I stop using my Sprint phone, the only thing I might oddly be nostalgic for is the act of typing messages using that crazy T9 system. I was getting strangely fast, like 15 words a minute.

The only big limitation of the Danger Hiptop is that it doesn’t run telnet — not yet, anyway. I’ve written to them pleading and begging to release it. Anyone out there, I beg you to please also write them and ask for this.

I cannot wait to get this thing in my hands.

Commentary tracks on porn DVDs

This just in: A friend of mine on the echo BBS recently got this porn DVD, and discovered that porn DVDs now include commentary tracks. For her latest opus, Briana Loves Jenna, Jenna Jameson and the director chat about everything from camera angles and body parts to special effects, industry gossip, and the importance of custom-made strap-ons. See, apparently, the harness straps on most off-the-shelf strap-ons tend to break under repeated use and … well, hell, you’ll just have to rent it yourself to find out.

One can only wonder where this trend will lead. The mind boggles. “Director’s Cuts” of major porn movies? “The studio totally ruined my narrative. This version restores crucial chopped scenes.”

Are blogs a better interface than Windows?

There’s a great piece by David Gelernter in today’s Circuits section of the Times. As you may know, David Gelernter is the extremely-smart critic of digital design, and author of tons of books on said topic — including my favorite, Machine Beauty, a really nice attack on why computers are so hideously ugly.

One of the big problems, Gelernter has always maintained, is that the windows-style interface — with files and folders — is a rather stupid way to organize virtual space. Xerox and Apple and Microsoft only adopted that metaphor in the first place for lack of imagination. Sure, files and folders might be obvious picks for organizing a hard drive, because they nicely emulate the way we organize files in the real, physical world. But the whole point of a virtual space is that it isn’t the real, physical world. Inside computer space, we can organize information in entirely different ways than we do in the concrete world. Consider just one problem of the windows-style system — which is that it forces us to keep all the data in our different applications in different places:

Just ask Bill Gates: as he said cogently last July, “Why are my document files stored one way, my contacts another way and my e-mail and instant-messaging buddy list still another, and why aren’t they related to my calendar or to one another, and easy to search en masse?”

Why not, indeed? Computers are all about sifting through data, representing it in new ways, and uncovering patterns we didn’t know existed. Why the heck are we forcing them to represent every piece of data as if it lived in a paper manila folder?

Gelernter has spent the last couple of years developing an alternative to Windows. His system, Scopeware, represents data not in files and folders, but in a long, chronological stream:

What is this universal information structure? A narrative stream, which says, “Let me tell you a story. ” The system shows you a 3-D stream of electronic documents flowing through time. The future (where you store your calendar, reminders, plans) flows into the present (where you keep material you’re working on right now) and on into the past (where every e-mail message and draft, digital photo, application, virtual Rolodex card, video and audio clip and Web bookmark is stored, in addition to all those calendar notes and reminders that used to be part of the future and have since flowed into the past to be archived forever).

And so the organization of your digital information reflects the shape of your life, not the shape of a 1940’s Steelcase file cabinet.

To me, this makes perfect sense. Chronological order is very much the way I think of — and recall — my life. Indeed, it’s how I remember my data. I remember that, oh, that’s right, I first saw that web page right around the time I went to Minority Report, and had a big argument with my friend about the movie via Instant Messaging, and was working on some research for Shift magazine.

I don’t compartmentalize my life into messaging, email, web pages, and whatnot. Yet that’s the only way my computer lets me organize things. Why? I’m not saying that the files-and-folders concept is useless; like the Dewey Decimal system, its hierarchical style can be a great organizational and visualization tool. But chronological order is another terrific tool — which is why I think Gelernter is onto something.

And, come to think of it … so are bloggers. Blogs, after all, are in their simplest form nothing but a reverse chronological record of a whole pile of stuff related to your life. Most bloggers merely record their daily thoughts or sites they’ve been looking at. But truthfully, if you wanted to, you could pretty much dump everything in there: Your emails, your memos, your stories, everything you write down digitally. Hell, some bloggers have pretty much done that. Their blogs function almost like long, trailing maps of their brains.

The point is, a blog is a cognitive tool, and one that neatly integrates the idea of time. I started this blog so that I’d have a record of all the ideas and things that are piquing my interest. And even though I’ve only been at this for a few months, I can already see how useful this might be a year from now. I’ll be able to look backwards through time and see how various manias and obessions play themselves out through my thinking. Of course, chronology isn’t always sufficient; but if I wanted to, I could organize all these entries into categories and folders, and slap a search engine onto it, to give me ever more ways to parse this mess. And maybe some day I will. But even in their rawest, base form — a backwards-streaming list of stuff — blogs innately embody some of the crucial innovations that Gelernter pushes.

I am not, of course, suggesting that I would find a blog sufficient to organize my whole life. But they are chronological tools, and Gelernter is right about the power of chronology — it’s how we naturally tell the story of our lives. That is precisely what millions of bloggers have known for years.

(Footnote: Apparently, so many people read Gelernter’s essay today and rushed over to try out his software, that it melted down — and he had to put up this text-only version. I’ve downloaded the tool and am going to try it out.)

Fake newscasters, real truth

Jon Stewart rocks the house. Dig the transcript of some of his comments on CNN’s Reliable Sources yesterday. Here’s a wonderful bit:

KURTZ: So you don’t, you’re not confusing yourself with a quote, “real journalist”?

STEWART: No. You guys are…

KURTZ: You’re just making fun…

STEWART: You guys are confusing yourselves with real journalists.

KURTZ: Oh boy, you’re loaded (UNINTELLIGIBLE) today.

STEWART: Instead of putting on shows like “CROSSFIRE” and “Gotcha” and “I’m Going To Kick Your Ass With Tucker Carlson” and “Let’s Beat Up The Short Guy.” That was just one that I…

KURTZ: I’m glad you’re at least watching so much CNN, Jon.

STEWART: I am watching it constantly. It’s driving me insane. Make the ticker stop. You’re in the middle of a damn sniper story, and all of a sudden underneath it, you know, “Liza Minnelli’s first VH1 show to air.”

KURTZ: There’s a new thing out called…


KURTZ: There’s a new thing out called remote control. We’ll have to get you one.

STEWART: But you’re the news. That works for entertainment. People need you. Help us. Help us.

KURTZ: Thank you for making us feel needed, Jon Stewart. Thanks for sharing.

(This item comes to you courtesy Hippo Dignity, the blog of Michele Tepper!)

Run for the hills: Thomas Friedman is making a lot of sense

You know the Bush administration is truly cycling off into space when Thomas Friedman, hardly a bleeding-heart liberal, is a clarion voice of reason.

He argues that Bill Clinton remains more popular around the world than the Bush regime, because Clinton represents “American optimism” — the earnest, kinda naive desire to make the rest of the world a better place. Okay, it’s easy to argue with that statement, but the thing I quite liked was Friedman’s neat description of just how peculiarly ugly the Bush folks seem:

Bill Clinton is viewed by the world as the epitome of American optimism — naïve optimism maybe, but optimism. And the Bush team — the President, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Condi Rice (Colin Powell is an exception) — strike the world as cynical pessimists who believe only in power politics, much like 19th-century European statesmen. For the world, Bill Clinton is another J.F.K. and George Bush is another Thomas Hobbes, a man who, after witnessing Europe’s religious wars, became deeply pessimistic about human nature and concluded that only one law prevailed in the world: Homo Homini Lupus — every man is a wolf to every other man.

Fightin’ the Man by buying stuff, pt. 17

In the tired (and tiresome) department of consumption-as-rebellion, there’s this story in today’s New York Times business section — about how companies are using originally rebellious and nihilistic 70s rock to sell stuff:

The Clash’s “London Calling,” with its lyrical images of nuclear winter, looming ice age and engine failure, might seem a particularly annoying musical choice for selling an elite brand of cars. But for Jaguar, the 1979 song was the perfect accompaniment to the television commercials for its new X-Type car.

Jaguar is not the only company blithely using songs whose lyrics come off as downright contrary to the images of the brands they advertise. Commercials for family friendly cruise ship vacations with Royal Caribbean are set to Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life,” a rousing ode to drug life from a punk firebrand who has acknowledged his own copious substance abuse. Television ads for Wrangler jeans combine images of denim-clad Americans with lyrics from “Fortunate Son,” a blistering Vietnam-era protest song by Creedence Clearwater Revival. And marketers promise there will be more.

As I blogged a while back, Rob Walker wrote a superb piece in the Boston Ideas section explaining this trend — by pointing out that rock fans frequently just don’t listen to lyrics. I totally agree. And indeed, this new Times article provides ever more evidence:

Executives at Jaguar, a division of Ford Motor, knew there was something funny about juxtaposing their bourgeois brand with “London Calling” and the Clash, which once released a triple album called “Sandanista.”

“I was a little concerned, because the lyrics weren’t appropriate for our message,” said Mark Scarpato, retail communications manager at Jaguar. Young & Rubicam in Irvine, Calif., part of the WPP Group, created the spot.

Skilled editing, however, transformed it from apocalyptic to energetic, helping Jaguar project a hip image. “It’s a fairly dark song when you listen to it, but we used it in a positive way,” Mr. Scarpato said.

John Fogerty is simply brilliant in response to all this:

“I was protesting the fact that it seemed like the privileged children of the wealthy didn’t have to serve in the Army,” said Mr. Fogerty, who does not own the rights to his music.

“I don’t get what the song has to do with pants,” he added.

Artificial intelligence, genuine stupidity

Dig this new site: “Dumb Warnings.” It collects the finest in incredibly stupid labels put on products, including such gems as:

Swedish Chainsaw
Do not attempt to stop chain with your hands or genitals.

Unknown Blow Dryer
Warning: Do not use while sleeping.

Blockbuster Rental DVD
Be kind - rewind.

Child-Sized Superman Costume
Wearing of this garment does not enable you to fly.

Unknown Air Conditioner
Caution: Avoid dropping air conditioners out of windows.

Harry Potter Toy Broom
This broom does not actually fly.

What does this have to do with artificial intelligence, you ask? Well, interestingly, back in 2001 I visited the headquarters of Cyc, the “common sense” artificial intelligence company. They’re trying to write up all the rules of everyday common-sense knowledge — the stuff that humans effortlessly know, but that computers never do. Computer systems typically screw up because they encounter a basic fact of life that they weren’t told of beforehand. For example, back in the 1980s, a credit-card-approval system actually gave a credit card to a 13-year-old who claimed he had “8 years of work experience”. The problem? The computer didn’t know the common-sense fact that 13-year-old kids (in North America, anyway) can’t have 8 years of work experience. It’s a piece of common sense — a bit of knowledge about the world so patently obvious that the programmers forgot to program it into the computer system.

Which is precisely the problem with common-sense knowledge: It’s invisible. It’s the things we never actually bother to say, because everyone knows them. Doug Lenat, the founder of Cyc, has spent the last 17 years trying to codify all this knowledge, writing it out rule by rule — stuff like “everyone has a mother,” “water is wet”, or “when people die, they stay dead.” Obvious stuff, right? But it’s stuff computers don’t know.

Which brings me back to those lovely warning labels noted above. When I was visiting Cyc, Lenat showed me a bunch of warnings like that. His goal, he said, is to make it so that Cyc can actually understand what’s funny about them. Humans recognize that one ought not to try stopping a chain saw with our “hands or genitals”, because we’ll get them hacked off. For Cyc to be able to see the irony, it’ll have to know such basic facts as “chain saws can chop through soft things while they’re running,” “hands and genitals are soft,” and “it is bad to lose one’s hands or genitals.”

Of course, the real question is — if this stuff is so obvious and common-sensical, why the hell did these corporations have to make labels clarifying it? Probably because of litigation, I’d say. Companies are so afraid of getting sued that they have to specify every single contingency that governs their products, no matter how absurd. Hilariously, this turns the lowly corporate label-crafting copywriter into an ontological philosopher on par with the dudes crafting Cyc. The world is so bloody strange.

(Update: check out the comment by Aaron, with a link to a pile of other, parody warning labels!)

Jennifer Lopez goes to the dentist

Neat little piece in the New York Times today, discussing how paparazzi photographers are enjoying phat times — since an exclusive shot of Jennifer Lopez or another star caught in daily life might be worth $200,000.

Now, obviously, I enjoy celebrity-spotting as much as the next somatic consumer of mass capitalist culture, but really … what in god’s name is going on here? Does the shot of a star taking out the trash really give us a sufficiently deep insight into the existential pain of life that major corporations should be shelling this sort of coin for it?

But whatever. One of the reasons I love, love, love reading the business section of the New York Times is the moments when the writers try to describe mass culture. Since they’re writing (theoretically) for an audience of biz execs who rarely look up from their abacuses, Business Day assumes its readers will know almost nothing of the pop world. Thus, the descriptions of what’s going on out there frequently read like dispatches to Martians. The result is cultural commentary so wonderfully dry it almost catches fire:

The most valuable images build the illusion of intimacy with stars by intruding into their everyday lives. People magazine, a checkout champion with average newsstand sales of 1.4 million, features articles about real people doing extraordinary things and unreal people — A-list celebrities — doing normal things.

“It’s a frag for the Russian!!”

Sorry for posting so much stuff about video games lately, but I’ve just been watching the online telecasts of the World Cyber Games — including the final Quake deathmatch between the world champion, the American John Hill (“Zero4”) and the Russian challenger (“cooller”).

For a while now, digital pundits have been arguing whether gaming could ever develop a culture like pro sports — with fan audiences and the like. Watching this reel, though, one thing is for certain. Gaming has clearly developed the cultural trope crucial to pro sports: Wildly over-the-top live commentators. Here’s a taste of the patter by the official World Cyber Games commentator, which I just transcribed:

cooller, waiting for that yellow armor to to spawn. He’s got it! He’s back up to 100 armor! Oooh, a nice hit by cooler, and he pulls out the LG! This could be the first kill!

Oh, cooller going down to 10 health. Zero4 not doing so hot himself, but he does have a little bit of armor and a little bit of health. cooller, fortunately, it looks like he’s got 50 health, he’s back up. That was the first big firefight of the match, and it looked like cooller was going to come out on top with his shaft. …

Oh, there it is — another firefight! cooller deciding to run away from that one, only ten rockets and and: OH, NICE! cooller blows himself up! Zero4 did not get the kill! cooller loses a point for blowing himself up on Zero4. He grabbed the LG, though, and it looks like he’s going to recover from that one well. He’s got a little bit of armor, but now Zero4 has a whole lot of control of the map; more armor, not as much health — he does not want to get caught with that much health by cooller. It could mean a frag for the Russian.

Vibrator video game

In the saved-by-technology department, I turn your attention to the video game Rez. It’s a sort of rave game, in which you attempt to kill viruses in a mainframe, flying through euclidean hyperspace composed of gorgeous vector graphics. The game lets fly with a ton of cool trance music, and all the onscreen eye candy vibrates to the beat.

In the Japanese version of the game, though, Rez also ships with a vibrator that pulses to the beat. This led the fine folks at game girl advance to take the vibrator for a test ride, with the expected apocalyptic results:

Now, let me confess that this is not the first time that I’ve used a game component to, er, stimulate myself physically. Ever since they invented the whole rumble pack/vibrating technology in controllers, it’s been on my mind, and sometimes in my practice (fellow game girls, you know what I’m talking about). The thing is, though, it’s often frustrating since the vibrations are not nice and steady, but sporadic. Also I found it’s tough to actually play the game and use the controller in nasty ways at the same time. I did discover that Halo was a pretty good game for this (although for not much else), because as the gunner in the Warthog, you have unlimited ammo and you can just park yourself somewhere and rat-tat-tat to your heart’s content. Another issue, and one not solved by the Xbox controller, is the shape of the device — less than ideal. That’s why I was so excited by Rez’s trance vibrator, since it seems to have no other purpose than to act as a masturbatory aid.

Beer for books

The Library Bar and Grill in Tempe, Ariz. is offering to give you free beer if you bring in books for the place:

So far the Library Bar & Grill hasn’t had many takers. Its “Beer for Books” sign gets plenty of attention from passersby, but fewer than 50 beer coupons have been handed out in trade.

“We thought we might give away thousands and thousands of beers, but it hasn’t worked that way,” owner Julian Wright said. For trading in a book, a person receives a free beer, two books gets a mixed drink, and three earns a free menu item. For 100 books, you’ll get a party for 10.

“People are too lazy to lug books down here,” Wright said.

Why 3D realism is killing video games

Is it possible that 3D is ruining the creativity of video games?

I’ve been musing on this for a while, but this recent piece at IGN convinced me: It’s a comparison between the style of the first Defender game (from the early 1980s) and the updated, modern version released — with full 3D.

Currently, the theory behind game design is that “fun” comes from being able to do anything you want — to be playing in a massive, complex world, with the freedom to go and do anything you want, and everything rendered in fantastic 3D realism. This strikes me as wrong for two reasons:

1) Games aren’t about freedoms. They’re about restrictions. Games are defined not by what you can do, but by what you can’t. In chess, if you were allowed to move the chess pieces anywhere you wanted, it wouldn’t be a game. As the very brilliant game theorist Eric Zimmerman has told me, games embody an interesting existential paradox: It is the presence of rules (which limit behavior) that creates play (new, unpredictable forms of behavior). Play comes when everyone has agreed, in a slightly masochistic way, on a bunch of restrictions that everyone will abide by. Then the fun begins. So the idea of having massive 3D worlds is not really about gaming. It’s something else. It might be about emulation, about creating alternate universes, about having another personality you can live online, or many other incredibly cool things. But that’s not really like a game, in the traditional sense that video games have been, well, games.

Moreover …

2) The idea that “realism” allows for more creativity is almost perfectly wrong. Realism actually limits the ways you can envision the world, because reality only looks one particular way: Real. Which is to say, if you’re going to create a video game that’s highly realistic, and it’s going to have to have roads in it, the roads can really only look one particular way: Like, uh, real roads. In contrast, a more impressionistic or expressionistic aesthetic can be far, far more offbeat. Put it this way: A photo of a road in rural Boston looks pretty much like a road in India or Tokyo, more or less — a straight(ish) strip a few metres wide. In comparison — a road painted by Matisse looks totally different from a road painted by Picasso, or Walt Disney for that matter.

Look again at the Defender ship above — how kooky and stylized it is. The compare it to the Defender ship above that’s coming out in the new game. It’s pretty much like any other 3D ship in any other 3D game: brownish/greyish, bulbous, yadda yadda yadda. Since the designers wanted it to look realistic, it looks like every other “realistic” ship in existence.

This is why realistic 3D games have begun to look so incredibly tired in the last few years. Everywhere you turn, things look and play the same. I once talked to a guy who worked in software back in the early 80s. At conventions, he’d go to the sections devoted to computer games. “Every time you went around the corner, you had no idea what you were going to see. Everything looked different from everything else.” On the other hand, when I went to E3 two years ago, there were virtually no surprises, either in aesthetic style or gameplay. Because games are supposed to have tons of “freedom” and “realism”, they all wind up doing the same few things.

Dead Irish mathematician gives birth to Lara Croft

That’s actually not an exaggeration, as it turns out. It seems that the germ of today’s 3D graphics engines was born in 1843, when the Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton was on a walk in Dublin, had an inspiration, and — in the soft clay of a bridge — scrawled the quaternion, an algebraic equation that moved math into four dimensions.

Cow talk

Apparently, a bunch of researchers in Germany have been attempting to figure out what cows mean when they moo. Obviously, some moos are cows asking to be milked, or denoting that they’re in pain. But the scientists are wondering what else there is. Do cows say shit like, “how’s it going” or “dig that sunset” or anything?

One of the biggest challenges in doing this research is that you need to record lots and lots of cow “utterances”. And the thing is — cows don’t actually talk very often. You have to record, like, seventeen hours of total silence before one of them actually moos.

Dr. Gerhard Jahns, a control engineer who helped devise the project, said that about 700 “vocalizations” were recorded from about 20 cows, a process he described as “extremely time-consuming.” Cows can go for hours without making a sound, Dr. Jahns said, “and it’s hard to get them to speak into the microphone.”

People say cows are really peaceful, but I don’t agree. I used to hang out on my Ukranian grandfather’s farm in Ontario and the cows kind of terrified me. For one thing, they’re huge.

Interesting side note: For $230, you can now buy a “Bowlingual,” which uses a neural-net-trained algorithm to determine what your dog is saying when it barks.

Galileo is dead

Well, Galileo is almost dead. Thirteen years after being launched, the space probe is facing technological death — NASA is going to crash it into Jupiter:

Deep inside Jupiter’s powerful radiation field, Galileo will encounter 100 times the fatal dose for a human, possibly enough to fry its electronic brain.

After circling the solar system’s biggest planet for seven years - five more than originally planned - Galileo is virtually blind, has trouble speaking and its mind is starting to go.

“Galileo has been exposed to four times the radiation it was designed for,” said NASA’s Guy Webster. “There are some things that aren’t working any more … some circuits are shot.”

Its camera and tape recorder are playing up, it is almost out of the fuel needed to control balance and its voice has been reduced to a whisper, thanks to its main antenna jamming shut years ago, cutting the expected flood of information and pictures to a trickle.

I used to have such nostalgia for these probes, back when NASA started firing them off in the 70s and National Geographic ran extensive photos of their early planetary voyagaes in the 80s. Indeed, National Geographic, with its uber-geek profiles of the Space Shuttle, interplanetary probes, and slime mold, arguably prefigured all modern geek media, like Wired and Discover.

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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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