Archive: January 2003

France names the @ symbol

France has decided that the “@” symbol will be called, in French, the “arobase”.

Though universally used by French Internet users, the word “arobase” is a neologism and needed the imprimatur of the General Committee on Terminology, which published its approval in the government’s official bulletin. According to the committee, the word “arobase” comes from “arrobe” - itself a derivative of the Arabic “ar-rub” meaning a quarter - which was an ancient Spanish and Portuguese unit of capacity and weight.

The committee, which five years ago failed to have the word “mel” adopted instead of e-mail, also approved three other terms Monday: “anneau de site” for Web ring, “site” for Web site, and “portail” for portal.

(I’m coming to this one late, and got it thanks to the Reason web site!)

Leonardo Da Vinci, hacker

There’s a cool piece in today’s Wired News about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit on Leonardo Da Vinci. To quote:

Leonardo used the phrase senza lettere to describe himself. It means “without letters,” someone who is unable to read. But it also suggests someone who is an outsider.

… Leonardo described himself as “unlettered” because he was unable to read Latin, the language used by other Renaissance intellectuals. Leonardo figured things out by looking at them, thinking about them and taking them apart.

That compulsion to tinker has led many modern hackers to claim Leonardo retroactively as one of their own.

“What accounts for da Vinci’s supreme mastery of the human form is that he knew how to dissect it, literally. And that is instructive to hackers,” said Oxblood Ruffin, a member of hacking group Cult of the Dead Cow.

“There’s a sort of reciprocity factor in computing that suggests the deeper you can go into the machine, into the networks, the higher you can go into technical discovery,” said Ruffin. “That’s what I get from looking at da Vinci’s work. He was a hacker, no doubt.”

Even more, Da Vinci created the world’s first analog computer — and used it guide a robot. Back in October, I wrote in my blog about a robot expert who did a pile of research into Da Vinci and uncovered descriptions of a three-wheeled animatron — modelled, mind-blowingly, on descriptions of Hephaistos’ robot guards in The Iliad!

Le brand, c’est moi

In the current issue of the New Yorker, there’s an excellent piece on Martha Stewart by JefferyToobin. It examines the charges she’s facing for insider trading, and concludes that it will be hard for the government to nail her. I’d assumed Stewart was probably guilty; this is the first plausible defense of her I’ve read.

But what’s more interesting are the first 1,000 words of the piece, which constitute a mini-profile of Stewart as she hangs out with Toobin in her house. He asks he about how she’s feeling, having been mocked so viciously in the public eye:

Then Stewart, describing the reaction to her plight, went on, “Well, that’s puzzling to me, O.K., that’s puzzling and also confusing, because my public image has been one of trustworthiness, of being a fine, fine editor, a fine purveyor of historical and contemporary information for the homemaker. My business is about homemaking. And that I have been turned into or vilified openly as something other than what I really am has been really confusing.” She said, “I mean, we’ve produced a lot of good stuff for a lot of good people. And to be maligned for that is kind of weird.”

Read that again: The way that Stewart describes herself is so amazingly weird. She doesn’t say “I have been trustworthy, and a fine, fine editor, etc. etc.” No, she says “my public image has been one of trustworthiness, of being a fine, fine editor, etc.” It’s as if she were describing not herself, but a separate construct — a platonic ideal of Martha Stewartness, floating out there in the ocean of zeitgeist.

Which is, of course, precisely the point: Martha Stewart the icon is far more important than Martha Stewart the person. Stewart knows as well as we do that her appeal is the persona she’s cultivated. Who cares what she’s really like? Consumers buy her stuff based on what she seems to be like.

But the demented thing is that now she, too, seems concerned only for what she seems like. Martha Stewart The Real Person has ceased to be a concern even for, well, Martha Stewart; when she wakes up in the morning and looks in the mirror, she sees a brand, not a human being. It must be very strange to have that sort of life. But you can hardly blame her. Stewart’s success is a direct result of today’s peculiar mix of celebrity culture and incorporation. As with Oprah and Rosie O’Donnell, Stewart’s business is based on nothing but her persona — a feat that is possible only in a world as highly mediated as ourselves. The closest parallel I can think of is Queen Victoria, who was incredibly obsessed both with spreading her image to every corner of her empire, and yet also micromanaging that image with a watchmaker’s precision. Victoria knew that a chief ingredient to her success would be flooding Britain with pictures of herself, the better to instil love and obsession in her mostly-illiterate subjects. So she issued licenses to craftsmen to make zillions and zillions of pictures, baubles, and daguerrotypes in her likeness. But she also imposed the sort of quality-control that you’d normally associate with Fabrege Egg production, and threatened to torture and behead any craftsman who painted her in an unflattering light.

Which, come to think of it, is another interesting parallel with Stewart. As is typical in situations where the press begins teasing the powerful, tabloid papers are running some really ungainly pictures of her:

In an afternoon of conversation, Stewart generally declined to fire back at her tormentors; she has no complaint with the late-night comics, who used to welcome her. “My buddies—Dave, Jay, Conan,” she said with a sigh. “I miss the fun. They have a job to do, they can comment on anybody in a playful way, and I don’t think it’s at all damaging. In other parts of the press, more damaging. In terms of photography, even more damaging.” She’s particularly bothered by the photographs that appear in the Post, which often show her looking haggard and distraught. “The ugliest pictures. And I’m a pretty photogenic person, I mean, and they manage to find the doozies,” she said.

It makes sense, though. Stewart is an incredibly hard-assed businessperson, who can clearly deal with any sort of verbal criticism. But a bad photo? Ah, that cuts to the heart of her brand, and, by inference, to her own heart itself — since there is no real difference even for her. The SEC, the goverment courts, the judges; none can disturb her equanimity. But those who attack her image? Off with their heads!

A User’s Guide To Snow

Heh. Given how cold it’s been recently, the Guardian decided to publish “A User’s Guide To Snow” — a FAQ for citizens puzzled by all this weird white stuff lying around. A sample:

How do I make one of those compressed-snow throwing balls?
First, put on some gloves or mittens. Gather up a large portion of snow and begin to compact it by repeatedly cupping your hands around it, alternating top and bottom hands and gently rotating the snowball as you go. Smooth off any burrs or rough edges with your thumb. Lob the resulting sphere in a friendly manner toward an unsuspecting passer-by, and wait for amusement to ensue. If you are planning a “snowball fight” it is advisable to stockpile snowballs in advance and let them ice up a bit. Caution: A hard-packed snowball can cause serious damage if it hits someone in the eye, so always aim for the mouth.

(Thanks to Stephanie O’Hanley for pointing out this one!)

Props for Snood

Have you ever played the game Snood? Well, don’t start now, friend — I lost maybe three solid weeks of work in early 2001 when I discovered this free game. It’s basically a riff on the bubble-popping game Bust-A-Move, with slightly more sinister strategy. I think I’ve played Snood more obsessively than just about any other game on the planet, except for maybe Blix, another free online puzzle game.

And that’s what’s so interesting here: Online puzzle games have quietly become the most popular video games on the planet. Sure, all you’ll read about in the newspaper are massive role-playing games like The Sims, or tactical first-person-shooters like Counterstrike. But according to a study by Jupiter Media Metrix, Snood is the ninth-most popular game in the world, and actually outstrips Counterstrike in popularity.

Yet you almost never read or hear about Snood. Why? In a very cool essay on his new game blog, game-designer Greg Costikyan makes an excellent point:

As far as hardcore gamers are concerned, Snood almost doesn’t exist either. That’s not to say that hardcore gamers don’t play Snood, or Bejeweled, or other such games. They do, and they play Free Cell and Minesweeper, too. Everyone does. They just don’t talk about it. They play these games differently; they’re little time-wasting diversions, filling ten minutes before the next meeting, or occupying you when you’re too burned out to go slay gnolls in Norrath tonight. When you meet your gamer buddies and they ask what you’ve been playing, you don’t say “this cool game called Solitaire,” even if you’ve spent more time on it in the last week than you have on your last major conventional game purchase. Nor do you even really place Solitaire in the same category as Halo, say.

Gamers tend to talk about games that are part of the canon, a canon largely established by the business end of things, games that come from conventional development teams. Age of Mythology is part of their culture; Snood is not. Snood is just a game, it’s not a game. In fact, for gamers, games like Snood are “just a game” in the same way that, for the prevailing culture, all games are “just games”.

From my perspective, that’s a shame. Snood is a fine game. I’ve lost very nearly as much time to it as I have to Civilization or NetHack or Diplomacy, and from me, that’s high praise indeed. It’s a very clever little design. And “little” is not, at least in my vocabulary, a word of denigration: It is far harder to design a good simple game than a good complicated one. It’s very hard to make a tightly-constrained game interesting; if I can layer a variety of systems, I can produce a widely variant gamespace, and interesting emergent behaviors almost spontaneously arise. Getting something really compelling out of something as simple as Snood is hard.

Open-source child-rearing

Dig this: A couple have set up a Wiki devoted to their baby, who’s due in a few weeks — and are thus allowing random strangers to give them advice on how to raise their child. It’s a neat sort of judo move: Since parents are battered with unsolicited advice from strangers anyway about what they’re doing wrong, why not just formalize the arrangement and give the world a quick and easy way to mouth off?

Thus, the following bits of advice:

Spend a lot of time at nightclubs and noisy events during the last couple months of your pregnancy. The child will come out unusually calm and unafraid of loud noises.

Or …

Right when you get the baby home, drop it on the floor. Then every time for the rest of her life remember the horror you felt when you dropped the newborn and nothing will stress you out, it will be impossible to feel worse as a parent than intentionally dropping your newborn on the ground — and then you can say say to yourself “if she survived that she’ll surive anything else we inflict on her.” (being grounded, no pony, etc.)

Then again, some of the stuff is useful. The parents are apparently seriously considering naming the kid “Wyoming”, and as one contributor sagely noted, “the only person I’ve ever met named Wyoming was a stripper.”

Day-planning for pre-teens

Behold the Mary-Kate and Ashley Pocket Planner. It’s a cartridge for the Game Boy, and allows pre-teens to organize their busy days with the same sort of neurotic efficiency deployed by their boomer parents. “Keep your busy life UNDER CONTROL in the COOLEST way possible,” crows the advertising copy. “ORGANIZE while having FUN.”

For a few years now, I’ve been freaked out by the professionalization of childhood — the idea that every single moment of a kid’s life needs to be as co-ordinated as a military campaign. The technology world has only been too happy to oblige, of course. When I wandered into a Radio Shack in the holidays, I was stunned by how many data-organizer tools there were for kids as young as, like, two: Hotwheel’s laptops, cell phones, you name it. Of course, when I was a kid I loved gadgets too — but I wanted gadgets that would blow shit up, not segment my day into 15-minute meetings. (Okay, it’s officially now Curmudgeon Day here at my blog.)

Personally, I think it would be more interesting to reverse the process — and, instead of having kids use the organizing tools of adults, let’s have adults use the organizing tools of kids. I’m going to found a company and force all my employees to exclusively use the Mary-Kate and Ashley Pocket Planner to co-ordinate their work days. (And use the “Ask Ashley” mode to make major corporate decisions.)

Xtreme planet

There was a terrific piece recently by James Parker in the Boston Globe Ideas section, about the triumph of Xtreme sports — “How America became safe for extremism”. It’s loosely based on a review of a new book by Mat Hoffman, a BMX biker who helped pioneer some of the most fiercely insane Xtreme-sports TV shows:

Hoffman is a legendary BMX freestyler, a pushbike stunt rider whose addiction to aerial activity (he invented, among other tricks, the “flair,” a backflip with a mid-air twist of 180 degrees) sent him up the sheer faces of higher and higher ramps until he finally needed to be towed by motorcycle to get enough speed for take-off.

“The Ride Of My Life” was written, ominously, “with” Mark Lewman, but soon enough we begin to hear what sounds like the muscular, obsessive voice of Hoffman himself: “I didn’t make the spin, came in backwards and sideways, and channeled the full momentum of my upper body into the flatbottom. I spanked the ramp with my head and knocked myself out, bad.” Spanked the ramp. With his head.

… Describing his adventures on a 21-foot-tall quarterpipe ramp, Hoffman writes: “When I did crash, I’d hit and continue bouncing and skipping across the ground a long ways, like a puppet hucked out of a car at freeway speed.” This last image perfectly captures Hoffman’s relationship to his body: It bangs along behind, neglected and ridiculous, as he concentrates his entire energy on the conquest of the vertical, or “vert.” A spleenectomy, shoulder and knee surgeries, endless concussions-he takes an awful lot of punishment to make those few extra feet, and when he finds he can ride no higher, he starts leaping out of planes. Then he begins B.A.S.E. jumping (for “buildings, antennae, spans and earth”) which is “just about as gnarly as it gets.” But hurling himself off bridges and skyscrapers is not quite enough: Hoffman must seek the bleak Norwegian cliff Kjerag, where an experienced B.A.S.E. jumper was killed only weeks before, and do a double backflip off it on his bicycle.

Though I actually really enjoy watching the most berserk Xtreme sports events I can find, I confess I’ve always found the concept a little depressing. It’s almost as if this is nothing but endless platoons of people whose lives are so freakin’ empty that, merely to feel alive for a few seconds, they have to nearly kill themselves. It’s like the most ghastly side-effect of preening American boomtime bloat: We’re a rich and mostly-healthy nation, but are we gonna help all the rest of you out there? Nah. We’d rather just hurt ourselves for pleasure.

Then again, I’m a curmudgeon about this stuff. I am — pun intended — an extremist about extremism. Hell, when I lived in Canada I even used to rail against skiing. I thought it was kind of crazy that our socialized health-care system included fixing the busted femurs of people who had voluntarily decided it would be a good idea to go down a mountain at 80 miles an hour on two sticks. Fine, I figured, you want to ski? Do it on your own dime, not with my taxes; and when you break both your arms and legs, don’t expect me to pay for the doctor to patch you up; you can drag yourself back to the lodge with your lips.

God in heaven, am I ever a crank.

Sorry for delays in emailings!

To anyone out there who belongs to the Collision Detection email list — you may have noticed that I’ve not emailed anything for the last two weeks. That’s because Yahoo Groups, where my list is hosted, has spazzed out and locked my account shut. Apparently my email address was bouncing for a while, so Yahoo’s native A.I. bots decided that I did not, in fact, exist … and was probably a spam artist.

I’m trying to get it fixed, which entails convincing the Yahoo server that I do, in fact, exist. This is amazingly harder than I’d expected. Worse, Yahoo doesn’t offer any tech support at all for their Groups. If I can’t fix this in the next 24 hours, I’ll just start a whole new Yahoo Group and put everyone who’s currently signed up on my new list.

We now return you to your regular programming.

Off for a week — to Cuba!

I’m off this morning for a week to Cuba — as part of a scientific research visit organized by the MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellowship I’m on this year! So there’ll be no more blogging for a week, until Jan. 25th — when I’ll return with, hopefully, some interesting tales from that island.

The rise of “spatial messaging”

Back in 1999, I thought of a neat idea. I’d been reading about the new generation of “location based” phones, which were going to be able to pinpoint where they were located, down to a few feet.

This, I figured, would be an insanely revolutionary step. It would open up a whole new world of data. We could start implanting information in physical locations — for example, leaving a message for other people to stumble upon as they walk down the street. Imagine walking down the street with your phone set up to sniff out messages that other people have left. You find a notice in front of a restaurant, where someone has warned you that the place sucks; you read a short memory someone has of a streetcorner where they first met their lover; you read political “tagging” of parts of the city by activists. I called this idea “spatial messaging” (which is a nastily un-catchy name, but whatever). With spatial messaging, you’d use your body as the browser — surfing through a physical world loaded with information.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized just how profoundly this would shift the stakes of the Net. After all, the whole social power of cyberspace was that it decoupled information from the physical world. The real world is shaped like a map; if I’m over here in city A, I’m going to hang out with people who are physically in or near A. In contrast, the Net is organized not like a map but a library. That’s why the Yahoo hierarchy has a Dewey-decimal-like organization. The Net allowed all the model-train freaks, the weekend nudists, and the Star Trek nuts to all find each other no matter where they were physically.

Spatial messaging would completely reverse those stakes. When you implant information in the physical world, geography becomes the most important organizing principle. What precisely would that do? I truly had no idea, and still don’t; I’m assuming that when this finally happens — and it will — the results will be as unpredictable and weird as the Net. When I interviewed Vint Cerf a while back, he said he had no clue that the Internet protocols he wrote back in the 60s would eventually result in Napster, chain email, and porn sites.

At the time, a group of geek friends and I actually tried to create a spatial-messaging application. But back in 1999, the phone companies hadn’t yet gone far enough in bringing location-based tech to reality; we didn’t have any baseline network on which to program. So instead, my friends and I set up, a web site that functioned like a Geocities for cell phones: It would let you quickly produce a little teensy site that could be viewed on mobile devices, even if you didn’t know WML coding. (We built the site in our spare time as a research project, and somehow — without any advertising — got about 10,000 users, which was fun! But it died after our free hosting service accidentally erased it last year; we’d all moved on to new projects, and hadn’t really maintained it. You can see a snapshot of the home page here, if you want, on the Internet Archive.)

The point is, with, we were trying to create a tool that let everyday people produce kooky, weird, offbeat stuff for mobile devices. The phone companies were completely ignoring this area. In early 2000, the only “content” they syndicated for those godawful WAP-browser phones were sports scores, horoscopes, and stock quotes.

But as far as I’m concerned, Internet applications really explode when the infinite monkeys of the Internet — Joe Weirdos the world over — can generate crazy stuff that cracks you up and gets you to forward it to a zillion friends: Populist, popular culture. If we’d waited for mainstream companies to fill the Internet with content, we’d have about 300 web sites in total right now. So I figured that the mobile Internet needed the same shot in the arm. (As it turns out, by late 2002, many mobile devices were able to read full HTML, so the need for mobile-phone-specific sites thankfully faded. And, interestingly, the biggest “content” revenues for the mobile industry were coming from downloaded ringtones and phone gaming — proving once again that culture is the driver of new technology, and not freakin’ sports scores and stock quotes.)

But … location-based technologies now need the same cultural impetus. At the moment, mobile companies are obsessed with using location-based tech to sell the same dull, boring, or horribly invasive information to you. They’re working on technologies to blast Gap ads at you when you’re near a Gap; or, like the the Pinpoint company , they’re setting up location-based tools to to track the location of employees for their bosses. Nice.

The point is, in pretty much every case I’ve seen, mobile corporations are only developing one-to-many applications. Some of these will be very useful, of course — such as databases that help you instantly locate the nearest subway, or, Vindigo-like, a good Italian restaurant. But it’s all about having big corporations implant the physical world with data.

But, like I said, Net applications only truly explode culturally when they’re a many-to-many phenomenon. Think of the hugest trends on the Net; what are they? Instant-messaging, blogging, email, chat rooms, and file-sharing. They’re all many-to-many; they all harness the desire people have to communicate with everyone else in weird, strange, and unpredicted ways.

Spatial messaging, or something like it, is much more likely to capture the imagination of mobile handset users than Gap ads, I’d say.

The good news — and the news item to which this incredibly bloated intro was pointing — is that some research parks are cluing in to this. In the new issue of Discover Magazine, Steven Johnson writes an extremely cool new column discussing the emergence of “GPS-based hypertext”, the very concept I was bandying around with my geek friends. Johnson starts off by pointing out how the GPS game of “geocaching” is a prototypical type of spatial link. You set up a stash of goods somewhere and leave nothing but the GPS co-ordinates as a clue for others to stumble upon:

The great breakthrough on the GPS horizon lies in thinking of those geographic coordinates as a real-world URL. In other words, think of those digits not simply as a description of a point in space but as a place to store information. Today you can create a Web address and publish pages and pages of anything you want there. But soon you’ll be able to take a GPS location—say, 40°43.833’ N, 073°59.814’ W, the coordinates for Washington Square Park in New York—and publish material there as well. Anyone walking through the park would then be able to browse through the data you’ve uploaded.

And as Johnson notes, the key thing is that this needs to be a system where anyone — not just the Gap — can publish spatial information:

“Instead of having just tourist information, the system would be open,” says Swedish researcher Fredrik Espinoza, cocreator of an experimental tool called GeoNotes. “There would be much more social activity.” Espinoza’s vision includes a filtering system for retrieving GeoNotes that have been posted by friends or other trusted sources, like the buddy list of Instant Messaging. Imagine, for instance, that you stumble across a beautiful side street in a historic district, the sort of urban discovery you might tell your friends about the next time you meet them for coffee. With GPS-based hypertext, you could leave a virtual note hanging near the street, addressed to your 30 closest friends. The next time they happened to stumble through the area, the text would pop up on their PDA screens: “Hey, come check this out…”

Here’s hoping this stuff comes along soon! The Net — and the physical world — will never be the same.

Wd U go on a d8 w/ me?

Here’s a cool little Knight-Ridder story about how teens are using texting as a social lubricant. It’s a hell of a lot easier to ask someone out if you don’t have to do it face to face — and, apparently, a hell of a lot easier to reject them, too, with less hurt feelings all around:

They punch a pithy note onto their small cell phone keypads, add a phone number and hit “send.” A text-message reply - triumph or disaster - often arrives in 10 minutes or less.

Many girls seem to prefer that. Somehow it’s easier to deal with a text message than a surprise phone call that requires an immediate “yes” or “no” to a complex question.

“I prefer text, generally,” said Kayleigh Roberts, 15.

“Cause I’ll probably end up laughing and saying something really stupid on the phone,” she said.

Texting is the next generation gap, I think. Before I got my Hiptop, I spent the last year doing a crapload of texting on my Sprint phone. (In fact, the whole reason I got the Hiptop was that I looked at my monthly bill and realized I was doing three times as much texting as I was actually talking on my phone.)

But every time I talk about texting to my peers, they totally don’t understand it. There’s a whole litany of complaints: It’s too hard to type; the screens are too small; why wouldn’t I just use email if I want to send a message? This all reminds me of the early 90s, when my friends would wonder why I was spending so much time “on the Net”, and make similar complaints: The Net is for weird loner geeks; there’s nothing interesting on it; nobody will ever want to read things on a screen. Is there an echo in here?

The point is, adults interested in society and technology ought to pay far more attention to what young adults are doing with their toys. Young adults were the first adopters of the most popular Net-based tools, like instant messaging, MP3s, file sharing, and blogging — all of which have become utterly huge and massive trends. I usually try and avoid generational analyses, but in case of technology adoption, it’s true. Mobile devices are going to penetrate our lives in ways as powerful — and unpredictable — as the Net.

(This news item comes via Techdirt, a very cool site.)

Death of a death site

How’s this for irony? Three years ago, some dot-com entrepreneurs started up — a company that would help you plan your death, organize your finances, and communicate your last wishes to friends and family.

It was actually not all that bad an idea, though it offered one particularly creepy service: Beyond-the-grave email. That’s right — would store emails that you, the dying person, had written in advance of kicking the bucket, and would send them to the recipients after you’d been planted. Imagine the scene. You wake up one winter day, get a nice mug of coffee, log on to check your email … and discover a message from your dead relative. From their website:

Through our revolutionary, e-mail service, allows you to share your final wishes and personal feelings with your loved ones, after you have passed away. Our unique e-mail service puts YOU in control and assures that your personal objectives are communicated to your family and friends when the time is right.

As a member, you will have the ability to attach to your e-mail messages, at no additional charge, several online forms that can be completed and stored securely and confidentially with until the right time. These forms, such as the Personal Property Allocator™, Pet Lover’s Organizer™, and Final Arrangements Planner™ , assist you in thinking about important issues such as: how you want your personal property distributed, who will care for your pet, what type of funeral arrangements you want, etc., and enables you to share these decisions with your loved ones.

And okay, sure, yeah, it’s a bit ghastly, but I can sort of see the demand for this type of service. (Hell, one of my life goals is to produce a chatbot programmed with my personality, to live online long after I’m dead.)

The kicker is, is now itself dying — done in by the awful funding environment for ebusinesses, and, possibly, a more slender market than they’d anticipated for people who want to mail their siblings from the choir invisible. In a lovely piece of symmetry, has acquired the goodbye email that the CEO sent to the company’s employees and supporters. It’s actually quite nicely written, as these things go! An excerpt:

I regret to inform you that the website
( will be shutting down on January 31, 2003 for an indefinite period of time. The market downturn of the last two and a half years has made it increasingly difficult for our company to stay in business and cover the costs of operating the website. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you and we hope that we will someday be able to serve you again.

… please note that any email messages or online forms that you have completed and stored on the website are available for you to print out and save for future reference. After the site shuts down, however, this information will no longer be available. So please don’t delay.

Affirmative action for W.

You’ve probably been following the fight over the University of Michigan’s affirmative-action policies — including the fact that Bush has declared them “fundamentally flawed”, and plans to file a brief with the Supreme Court opposing them.

And you probably also know that Bush himself was the recipient of one of the most lavish pieces of affirmative action available in education: A “legacy” slot at Yale, since his dad went there. Well, Atrios — on his totally superb blog — has printed this gorgeous exchange between journalist Terry Moran and White House press secretary Ari Fleischer over this issue:

Q: You said the President is against racial preferences because they’re divisive. Is he against other preferences that colleges and universities routinely grant that people see as unfair? Like the one he got?

MR. FLEISCHER: I understand — I understand all the interest and the specific questions dealing with the review of the University of Michigan case —

Q: That is not what I’m asking.

MR. FLEISCHER: — and the implications that come from whatever decision is made. I’m not going to go beyond —

Q: I’m asking a question about fairness.

MR. FLEISCHER: — I’m not going to go beyond where I’ve gone, because

Q: All right. Let me —

MR. FLEISCHER: — be able to base it on reason and judge for yourself once you see what the President has concluded and why he’s concluded . And he’ll share his thoughts.

Q: But the general question about his feeling about fairness in America. When he was 18, he got into Yale University, which had and still has a policy of granting very special preferences to children of graduates, like him. Is that preference okay, to give him a leg up, but other preferences are not?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think you’re going to have a good understanding of how the President approaches the issue of opportunity and diversity when the President shares his thoughts publicly — which is going to be, as I indicated, in some short period of time.

Are bananas doomed?

Possibly so! Dig this: In a story in The Guardian, Emile Frison — head of the Montpellier-based International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (yes, that’s a real organization) — warned that the banana may be gone in 10 years.

Why? Bananas are being ravaged by fungal diseases worldwide. And they can’t fight back and can’t adapt, because, what do you know, bananas reproduce asexually:

Almost all the varieties of banana grown today are cuttings - clones, in effect - of naturally mutant wild bananas discovered by early farmers as much as 10,000 years ago. The rare mutation caused wild bananas to grow sterile, without seeds. Those ancient farmers took cuttings of the mutants, then cuttings of the cuttings.

Plants use reproduction to continuously shuffle their gene pool, building up variety so that part of the species will survive an otherwise deadly disease. Because sterile mutant bananas cannot breed, they do not have that protection.

Worse, bananas are a hugely important crop:

This doesn’t just mean we will be eating aubergine splits and that future governments may be mocked for policy melon skins. The banana, in various forms, is the staple diet for some half billion people in Asia and Africa.

Baby toy says “I hate you”

I can’t stop laughing.

Baby toy: ‘I hate you’
Family finds Christmas gift uttering ‘subliminal’ message

A Christmas toy intended to spread the peace and love of the holiday apparently spews hatred.

As first reported by The Columbian, a Vancouver, Wash., family discovered that the toy they unsuspectingly attached to their son’s crib utters the words “I hate you” amid the rhythmic ocean sounds designed to lull the baby asleep.

Blanche Skelton told WorldNetDaily she was giving her 6-month-old, Alex, his medicine the other night when she heard the soft voice of a woman or little kid repeating the nasty message over and over.

“The voice has a softness to it. It sounds hypnotizing. … I think it’s creepy,” Skelton said. “My husband thought I was crazy until he heard it.” Skelton’s in-laws and everyone who has visited the house since have heard it.

“How many kids are lying in their crib listening to that?” Skelton’s father-in-law, Gary Skelton, posed to The Columbian.

The complete story is here.

(This one comes via Boing Boing.)

David Weinberger on the moral shape of cyberspace

Last night at MIT I attended an extremely thought-provoking talk by David Weinberger — author of Small Piece Loosely Joined — on the moral shape of cyberspace.

Essentially, he argued that morality in the “real” world is created because we live in a shared world, and are constantly aware of each other. Merely being aware of each other is an act of selflessness; it means we’re constantly getting outside of ourselves when we pay attention to others. (As he notes, this theory is very much at odds with currently popular ideas about morality, which start by assuming we’re all atomistic individuals — and which thus puzzle over why we act in altruistic or selfless ways.)

Intersestingly, Weinberger argues that the web has a similar morality built into it, via the whole concept of links. A link, as Google has so profitably discovered, is a piece of social glue — someone calling attention to someone else. It thus mirrors the constant pinging of each other that takes place in the real world, with everyone being constantly (sometimes generously, sometimes nervously, sometime angrily) aware of each other’s existence, and shifting our behavior accordingly.

Weinberger put some notes up about it on his weblog:

Every time I put in a link to a site, I am sending people away from my site, a little act of selflessness and generosity. The Web is characterized by generosity throughout. The Web is a shared world created out of shared interests. It is fundamentally connected, sympathetic and moral.

Obviously, many immoral awful things occur on the Web. But its architecture reflects our moral nature. And it’s exciting to so many of us because of the promise it offers for moving the species forward not only technologically but also morally.


Are we more or less moral online? Are we the same?

Is the Web a reflection of who we are or a reflection of our “better nature.”

Is there a developing online ethics or ethos? In what is it rooted?

Can a technology be moral or immoral, or do the terms not apply?

Is the Internet political? Does the value-free transmission of bits have its own value? What did the Taliban make of the Internet? China? Fundamentalists? Are they wrong?

What’s the best we could hope for (= work for) WRT the Web?

UPDATE: Weinberger has written an expanded version of these notes based on the talk, which is extremely cool. It boils his thesis down to a neat aphorism:

In a nutshell: The Internet is about truth and the Web is about morality.

Ban on peek-a-boo cam phones

Hong Kong gyms are getting worried — justifiably so, I’d say — about the impact of the new generation of phones with cameras. One chain has banned them from their lockers:

“It’s just some areas that are restricted for mobile phones,” Physical spokeswoman Miran Chan said. “Some of these phones can be used as cameras. If someone uses a phone this way and takes a photo and puts it on the Internet, it’s not very good for our members and their privacy.”

Man, people thought the X10 spy cams were bad enough.

(This item comes courtesy the coolness that is Gizmodo.)

The best poverty writing in America

Here is something you simply must read.

Check out the brilliant cover piece in this week’s New York Times Magazine: “When the Man of the House is in the Big House.” It’s by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, and is adapted from her new book Random Family — about the lives of inner-city residents of the Bronx.

I heard LeBlanc talk about the book back in November at the Nieman Narrative Journalism conference, and her research sounded awe-inspiring; she spent nearly a decade tracking the lives of a few people in a Bronx neighborhood. It shows: In this week’s Times article, she offers one of the most precise and nuanced portraits of what it’s like living with the justice system as part of your life.

Indeed, her longitudinal approach — ten long years — makes all the difference. I know tons of reporters who get sent out to write a piece about “what life is like” in a project. But they’re given a day or two at best for research, and really, you can’t learn anything in that time. The inner machinery of poverty won’t reveal itself with such a cursory glance. In fact, it’s these snapshot glances that produce the classically smug, one-dimensional views that dominate Republican ideas about the urban poor: They’re lazy; they have no self-control; they’re needlessly violent. In contrast, when you read LeBlanc’s work, you get a sense of how it all connects together. In particular, she does a superb job of illustrating just how mind-crushingly boring life in a project is — and how it drives kids to do something, anything, just to feel vaguely alive. LeBlanc does something quite difficult: She makes boredom interesting to read about — makes it something people can understand.

Moreover, LeBlanc avoids a classic trap in writing about poverty: The idea of “blaming the parents.” There was a terrific piece in the early 90s in the New Yorker about this problem. (Sorry, I can’t remember who or when, precisely, just the details of the piece.) Back then, there was a boomlet in stories and movies about the urban poor — unusually sensitive and sympathetic ones. But as the New Yorker writer noted, each of the books and movies focused exclusively on children. Children, the writer argued, are considered “innocent” in American ideas about poverty; they’re born into it, so they can’t be blamed, and the books and movies and stories were thus extremely sympathetic to them. But when it came to the parents, the sympathy vanished. Parents were adults, and by the covert Republican logic of these otherwise pretty cool books, adults are always to blame for their poverty: They’ve made poor choices, screwed things up, dropped out of school, whatever. And this is true: Historically, the only way anyone can write something sympathetic about poverty is to write about the kids, the “blameless.” Those adults? Screw them; they can pull themselves up by their own damn boostraps. It’s the same tacit assumption that’s behind the drive to end “child poverty”. Because what the hell does “child” poverty mean, precisely? There is no child poverty; there’s just, well, “poverty”, and that afflicts the parents as much as the kids.

Against this backdrop, LeBlanc’s writing is almost breathtakingly incisive in understanding how low-income, crime-addled families really work — and the actual reasons the parents make their life choices. I really can’t overstate how amazing her writing is.

In fact, I won’t even quote from the piece here, because you really have to read it as a whole. But read it! Then go buy the book.

Why Hollywood ignores social class

There’s a superb piece in this weekend’s New York Times Sunday Styles section by Caryn James, about the utterly berserk ways that Hollywood ignores the power of class in people’s lives.

Some examples: In Maid in Manhattan, rich dude Ralph Fiennes magically lifts J.Lo out of the ghetto, fuelled by sheer love. In Sweet Home Alabama, Reese Witherspoon’s character realizes her true love lies back in the sticks — but only because her old lover has made a name for himself as a designer. Even the “far smarter, better, and otherwise realistic” movie Real Women Have Curves, James notes, falls into this trap: The plucky working-class Latina hero gets into Columbia after a teacher writes a recommendation letter — and the dean admits her, after the normal application deadline has expired, with a full scholarship.

What these movies reveal is not just film’s addiction to fantasy, which audiences expect and embrace, but also to the Big Lie that class is meaningless in American life. Beneath the fairy dust of “Maid in Manhattan” and the grittiness of “Real Women Have Curves” is a similar message: not that America is a classless society, but that class is as fluid as water and upward mobility a cinch.

The idea, of course, goes back to the Founding Fathers’ egalitarian goals, and quickly became so ingrained in the national mythos that what Tocqueville wrote in 1840 could stand as the motto for the J. Lo movie as well as its ancestors like “Sabrina” and “Working Girl”: “At any moment a servant may become a master.” The amalgam of American idealism and rags-to-riches dreams is irresistible.

But that persistent idea ignores the realities of today’s economy and research about social mobility. The aristocratic politician Ralph Fiennes plays in “Maid in Manhattan” precisely fits the profile described by the Princeton economist Alan B. Krueger in a November article in The New York Times, which said that new studies show it takes an average of five or six generations to change a family’s economic position, and that wealth tends to linger in families. Such inherited wealth helps create political dynasties like that of the Bushes and of the Fiennes character — an assemblyman, a senator’s son running for his father’s seat, and not the kind of guy likely to take up with a maid. As Mr. Krueger added in an interview, “Recent trends in income distribution have made upward mobility less likely” than it was even 20 years ago.

And such research isn’t brand new. As Kevin Phillips says in “Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich,” published last year, the increasing gap between the median American family income and the richest 1 percent has been “a point of national discussion for over a decade.” By the turn of the 21st century, he writes, the United States “had also become the West’s citadel of inherited wealth.”

Go read the rest of the piece; it gets even better. This issue has annoyed me for years. I keep on leaving movies gnashing my teeth at the loony visions of class transcendance Hollywood sprays at us. I wind up feeling like some grim, Marxist-realist critic from the 1920s.

And ultimately, this underscores the weird irony of Hollywood politics. Theoretically, Hollywood is supposed to be liberal, right? A purveyor of the Red Menace to America, heavily donating to the Democrats, and pushing all manner of environmental causes, right? Sure. But when it comes to actual political philosophy, Hollywood’s writers and producers espouse the sort of naive, bootstrapping Horatio-Algerianism that wouldn’t be out of place at a meeting of the Fed.

Buy this family for $5 million

Actually, it’s too late. Today, Ebay yanked the posting that Steve Young — a TV writer for the WB’s Family Affair — had put up, offering to auction off his family for a minimum bid of $5 million. In a story on CNN, he explained it thusly:

“In medieval times, artists had patrons that supported them and this is a similar thing,” Young told CNN/Money. “We’re basically saying, ‘Wouldn’t you like to be a part of this?’”

In the eBay posting, Young wrote that the family would have changed its last name to the winning bidder’s and — what may be important to note — everything he wrote upon being purchased would have been credited to the buyer.

“You can be an author without the drudgery of actually writing. Imagine the thrill of watching your name flow by hurriedly on television and film credits … The feeling is priceless, or in this case just over $5 million.”

Self-promo: My interview with Kevin Mitnick

In today’s New York Times Magazine, I did an interview with Kevin Mitnick — who was once the FBI’s “most wanted” hacker. He’s an incredibly nice guy, and said some quite cool things about social engineering, so check out the interview here!

Google: protected by the First Amendment?

Attention, legal weasels: A fascinating chapter in the legal battles over Google is unfolding.

As you may have read in previous stories, the company SearchKing sued Google a while back, claiming that Google’s tweaking of its PageRank technology screwed with SearchKing’s business. SearchKing is a purveyor of “link farms”; for a fee, the company will organize a whole pile of links to your site from different locations, in an attempt to artificially increase the “popularity” of your site in Google’s PageRank system and drive it higher in seach results. Google found out about this and, one day, tweaked its algorithms to cut SearchKing out of the loop. Also, SearchKing suddenly found that its own PageRank quotient remained low, no matter how many people linked to it. So SearchKing sued Google — claiming that Google did not have the right to change its algorithms specifically to hurt SearchKing.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Google recently filed its official reply to SearchKing’s allegations — and claims that its search results should be protected as free speech.

Here’s a fabulous analysis of this from the LawMeme blog:

Google has one very powerful argument here. Google claims that PageRank is commercial speech, protected by the First Amendment. SearchKing is alleging “tortious interference with contractual relations,” but according to the precedent Google cites the First Amendment provides an absolute defense when the “interference” consists of speech that is “evaluative opinion[]” …

Google claims that its assessments of the “value” of a web page are very much like a credit agency’s assessments of the creditworthiness of a bond issuer. Both collect objective data, but then sift that data through subjectively-determined and secret formuale in order to come up with a ranking they present to the outside world. Like bond ratings, PageRanks are opinions. They’re professional opinions, but they remain opinions. As Google states in a beautiful footnote:

The PageRank values assigned by Google are not susceptible to being proved true or false by objective evidence. How could SearchKing ever “prove” that its ranking should “truly” be a 4 or a 6 or a 8? Certainly, Search King is not suggesting that each one of the billions of web pages ranked by Google are subject to another “truer” evaluation? If it believes so, it is certainly free to develop its own search services using the criteria it deems most appropriate.

Lobsters: smarter than you think

For over a hundred years, lobstermen have been using those familiar box-shaped net traps to catch lobsters. You’ve probably seen them: They have two funnel-shaped openings, and bait inside. Lobstermen — and scientists — have assumed that lobsters would be attracted by the bait, find it easy to get inside, but find it very hard to leave.

As it turns out, this is completely wrong. For the first time, a couple of researchers thought to put a video camera down next to a trap and find out what things are really like:

But when Watson’s team looked at the first time-lapse video, they were totally stunned by what they saw. “The numbers of lobsters were just amazing,” Watson recalls, with lobsters scuffling and fighting over the trap. “It looked like an anthill.”

But the biggest surprise was that the lobsters were happily wandering in and out of the traps at will. On the videos, lobsters of all sizes crawled in and out of the funnel-shaped entrance as they pleased. The biggest impediment they faced were other lobsters, which did their best to chase newcomers away from the bait. Only 6 percent of the lobsters that entered the trap failed to find their way out again.

Lobstermen who have seen the video have been just as surprised. “It’s pretty discouraging to think that here we, as intelligent human beings, have been trying our best to harvest this thing that has no brain to speak of and they’re outsmarting us,” says an amused Pat White of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

A video of these Mensa lobsters is available here.

(Thanks to Plastic for this one!)

Lad magazines and infinite monkeys

I was in a magazine store the other day and found yet another “lad” magazine that’s recently been launched — Ramp. As is typical, there’s some icelandic blonde on the cover, but I didn’t recognize her. I flipped to the feature profile of her to discover that their cover profile was of … the woman who handed out the statues at the last Emmy Awards.

Clearly, there are now so many lunk mags out there now competing — Stuff, Gear, Maxim, FHM, Loaded — that they are facing an intriguing new problem: A worldwide shortage of celebrity babes. They’ve exhausted the B-list of starlets, and have long ago moved onto the C-, D-, E- and F-lists. At this rate the editors will wind up wandering the streets of L.A., randomly accosting women with the requisite T&A quotient, in a desperate attempt to find someone, anyone, to put on the cover.

According to a recent story about Ramp:

Every book will also contain a “Girls Of …” section, highlighting three to four beautiful women in a specific category. The launch issue premiered with “Ball Busters: The killer babes of pro paintball.”

Controlling the Air Force … via web browser

So. The Air Force has decided to create a centralized control system to launch strikes, track its planes, and monitor threats. The interface for this fab system? A web browser:

Air Force officials got their hands on the ultimate global video game. Thanks to a system upgrade by defense contractor Lockheed Martin (LMT ), flyboys (and girls) could hop onto a special Air Force network from any PC equipped with a Web browser and special military encryption and authentication software. Once on this network, they could call for air strikes, direct reconaissance planes, or plot the movements of the most powerful flying force on Earth — all from their laptop in a café (or, more likely, at a secured facility). “All you need is Internet Explorer,” says Doug Barton, the director of technology for Lockheed Martin Mission Systems, based in Gaithersburg, Md.

Granted, there are many cool things about this system. Apparently, the various components operate in a mesh, peer-to-peer fashion, to increase robustness if America’s under attack. But the real problem is, does anyone think it’s a good idea to have deadly military force accessible via a bug-ridden web browser? Are these people on crack? Or is this some sort of compex piece of disinfo? I swear to god I don’t even know what to think about this.

Black-hat hackers, start your engines.

(Thanks to Plastic for this one!)

Dear god

This is the most insane thing I’ve seen in my life.

This, friends, is the Tomahawk — a new concept vehicle by Dodge. It has four wheels, a 500-horsepower V10 engine, and can cruise at a top speed of 420 miles an hour, which is closer to the speed of sound than it is to the average highway limit. It also appears to be engineered directly from the blueprints for the Light Cycles from the movie Tron. As the designer Mark Walters said:

It takes nothing to get the tires to smoke. The guy who built it with me (Kirt Bennett, RM Motorsports) did two huge burnouts in the shop. What was cool, in addition to the dual strips, is that you can see the print of the tires in the track. The tread design is inspired by printed circuit boards. We did all the design on a computer, so we figured it was appropriate.

Given the increasingly paramilitary style of today’s recreational vehicles — such as the Hummer, that rolling brick of death that provides such existential comfort to its boomer pilots — who knows? There may actually be a market for this beast. But then again, it’s so lousy with overkill, you have to wonder. As Dodge senior vice president Trevor Creed recalls:

My first reaction was one of surprise. We showed the vehicle to several people who said, “You have to build more of those. It’s for people who may never ride it, but they are avid collectors, whether it’s historic vehicles or new concepts or advanced concepts. There are people who are going to want to have one of these. And you really ought to plan to build some more.”

So, we currently are doing an investigation. I mentioned that to Dieter and he was in agreement that we should investigate building up to 100 that would go to very special peolpe who either would ride it or have as part of their collections. Jay Leno for example. He’s going to want to put an order in for one right away.

He’s got that jet helicopter engine-powered one. So we’re assuming he’s going to be a customer.

“Jet helicopter engine-powered one”?

Canada fighting gene patents again

Ontario has decided to fight a genetic patent. Recently, the province began offering a genetic test for breast cancer that takes advantage of a known gene sequence. The problem is, the company that discovered that sequence — Utah-based Myriad Genetics — has a patent on that sequence in Canada. So Myriad is claiming it solely has the right to do the test — for $3,000, instead of the $1,000 the Ontario government says it can do it for.

The blood-screening process — known as DHPLC — is for those women with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer and who therefore might have a genetic mutation that raises their risk of getting the disease.

Mr. Clement, who called gene patenting “abhorrent,” said accepting Myriad’s claim would mean more costly tests.

“We do not accept their claim and we are disregarding that claim,” said Mr. Clement.

“This is a fight for access for women who might have a predisposition to breast or ovarian cancer.”

Now, keep in mind that this guy and his government are, by Canadian standards, supposed to be really right wing. I love how differently Canadians define “left” and “right”, in comparison to Americans; some of Canada’s conservative politicians hold positions pretty much to the left of Ralph Nader. In fact, it looks like genetic patents are going to have a rough ride in Canada. Last month, the Canadian Supreme Court slapped down Harvard University’s patent on its “oncomouse” (a research mouse genetically engineered to develop specific cancers). The court ruled that lifeforms couldn’t be patented unless the national Parliament debated the issue and decided to allow it, which it hasn’t.

Open-source shoes

John Fluevog has decided to make “open source shoes.” As he says on this web site:

Got an idea for a shoe? Even for just part of a shoe? Scribble it down and send it to me. I don’t care if it’s on a bar napkin, as long as I can make it out.

The demented thing is, he actually means the part about “open source.” Grok this:

Once you’ve sent me your design, it becomes public domain — owned by nobody and freely available to all. Selection is then based on a combination of Peer voting, here on my website, and, well, if I like it. I might put it out as is, or make it the basis for a design of my own, or just use part of it … I take care of all the costs of development (it takes a year to produce a shoe … a year!), and I get your shoe onto the market, without having to put my prices up or go broke … Like I said, open-source is non-monetary. You get credit for your brilliance, and the shoes of your dreams become reality. With your name on them.

Christ almighty, it’s like this guy has actually read The Cathedral and the Bazaar! Which is, of course, Eric Raymond’s famous essay outlining the reasons open-source development works: People are motivated to do free work if they’ll get street cred and fame for it, if the work remains in the public domain, and if it’s fun. This kooky project satisfies all three criteria. (It even makes a joke about the infamous “monkey boy” presentation that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer made at the 2001 Comdex.)

Do hip-hugger jeans cause nerve damage?

Well, yes — according to Malvinder Parmar, a doctor in Timmins, Ontario. In a letter to this month’s issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, he described symptoms of “tingly thighs” caused by women wearing the oh-so-of-the-moment hip-hugger jeans:

I recently saw 3 mildly obese young women between the ages of 22 and 35, who had worn tight “low-rise” trousers (also called hiphuggers) over the previous 6 to 8 months. All presented with symptoms of tingling or a burning sensation on the lateral aspect of the thigh (bilateral in one case). The results of a physical examination were unremarkable, except for mild local tenderness at the anterior superior iliac spine in 2 patients. These 2 patients also had Tinel’s sign, whereby a reproducible tingling sensation was elicited when the lateral femoral cutaneous nerve was stimulated by finger-tapping close to the anterior superior iliac spine. One of the women was concerned about multiple sclerosis and requested MRI but was reassured by my explanation of the origin of her symptoms. In all 3 patients, the symptoms resolved after 4 to 6 weeks of avoiding hiphuggers and wearing loose-fitting dresses.

There’s a story at the CBC website about it here.

I love the ability of new trends, clothes and technologies to cause incredibly weird physical damage. It wasn’t a few months ago that Virgin Mobiles — the cell-phone company — issued a list of shoulder exercises to help keep people from crippling themselves with excessive “texting” on mobile phones. At this rate, by 2008 technology will have transformed us into an entire nation of neurological degenerates, ordering books on RSI from Amazon using lip-operated puff-sticks. I can’t wait. In the meantime, I think I’ll slip into a loose-fitting dress.

(Thanks to Stephanie O’Hanley for alerting me to this one!)

“Pornhounds are friendlier,” and other data-mining trivia

There’s a story in a recent issue of Time about data mining. Apart from the usual big-brotheresque material, a couple of points struck me as really kooky, including:

A major hotel chain discovered that guests who opted for X-rated flicks spent more money and were less likely to make demands on the hotel staff, according to privacy consultant Larry Ponemon. These low-maintenance customers were rewarded with special frequent-traveler promotions. Victoria’s Secret stopped uniformly stocking its stores once MicroStrategy showed that the chain sold 20 times as many size-32 bras in New York City as in other cities …

A loan company using predictive-analysis software from Sightward, based in Bellevue, Wash., discovered that the No. 1 indicator of whether Web applicants will go through with a loan rather than merely check current quotes was whether they voluntarily identified their gender on the website.

What interests me about data-mining is that it throws all the old scientific warnings out the window. Scientists caution us that merely finding a link between two things doesn’t mean they have any logical connection. Correlation, they insist, is not causation.

In contrast, data mining is all about finding zillions and zillions of new correlations, in a desperate bid to cash in on them. Screw the scientific method; it’s like a sort of conspiracy theory on a mass scale — finding as many loopy threads as possible to knit together the chaos of the world. Except of course, many of those loopy threads actually do turn out to be useful. For whatever reason, knowing someone’s gender — and knowing that the person is willing to reveal it to you — means they really want a loan. Who knew?

The point is: Correlation may not be causation, but who cares? If you’re scientist, you want to prove X causes Y, because you’re trying to figure out the laws of nature. Marketers, on the other hand, have no such standard of proof. They find out that people who rent porn are friendly customers. Who cares why? It’s still useful info. Subrational processes are more useful than we think they are — and our machines are proving it.

Space Invaders block-prints!

Check it out! My artist friend El Rey has begun making a series of block-prints — using not only wood, but the backing foam from grocery-store pork chops. Among the first set of prints? Renditions of the thud-thud-thuddin’ aliens from Space Invaders!

Go visit his site and buy some of these suckers before they’re all gone. Well, actually, I suppose, given that these are prints, he could always make more. In fact, that’s what’s so cool about these things: El Rey’s using block-making techniques to produce versions of digital icons that themselves were originally generated using ancient block-making techniques.

After all, when those guys were making the early video games, they faced precisely the same challenge as the first artists on the planet: How do you get maximum creative flexibility out of inherently low-rez media? The dudes at Midway were working with 8 bits and a screen that couldn’t be subdivided into more than a few thousand pixels. Primitive man was working with chunks of bone or wood and dyes from pre-chewed berries. Not really all that different in their structural limitations, when you think about it.

That’s why early computer pioneers actually borrowed directly from the techniques of ancient artists. Consider “anti-aliasing”. Back when medieval tapestry weavers and Islamic tile-mosaic artists were doing their work in the 11th to 14th centuries, they innovated a neat technique for making edges appear more curved. If the artists were using black tiles to make a rounded corner, they’d insert a few grey ones in the crevices of right-angled parts — creating the illustion that the corner was smoother than it really was. That technique, anti-aliasing, was later used by Apple fontographers in the early 1980s, when they were trying to create smoother-looking edges on their fonts for the first WYSIWYG Macintosh computers.

Like Mark Twain said, history may not directly repeat itself — but it sure rhymes.

Fiber optic candy

While surfing through the U.S. patent database doing research for the item below, I hit upon this incredibly weird patent: “Fiber Optic Candy.”

An edible fiberoptic light source is combined with confectioneries, in particular candy, to form a safe edible material possessing unusual combinations of internally generated colors and optical images. The basic design consists of a edible food pipes that may be placed within various confectioneries or foodstuffs that elicits light of various colors and intensities while standing untouched and even as the product is ingested. Digestible optical fibers act as light pipes to carry light into confectioneries where different colors and patterns of light are generated as the candy is reduced in size. Indigestible fiberoptics may see use delivering light energy into areas of digestible fiberoptic or digestible optic carriage. The light source and edible fiber optics not only has uses in candies of all types, especially lollipops and hard candy, but also is suitable for frozen food products (Popsicles), cakes and pies with lettering and decorations that emit light. The candy or other decorated edible may be of liquid, solid or gelatinous form.

I love America.

A computer that glows

There’s an interesting piece by John Markoff in the New York Times today about a new Apple patent — for a computer with a glowing, external, LED-covered case.

The company’s United States patent application, No. 20030002246, entitled “active enclosure for a computing device,” describes a machine that contains an array of rainbow-hued light-emitting diodes. It seems that the quirky computer maker is considering the manufacture of a machine that acts something like a mood ring — a computer whose shells change colors at the owner’s whim.

Though Markoff doesn’t make this connection, it sounds to me like Apple is creating an “ambient device.” I wrote about this last month in the New York Times Magazine, when I profiled Ambient Devices, a incredibly cool Cambridge-based company, who are pioneering the idea of “ambient information.” They’ve created a small glass Orb that changes color to match information you want to monitor:

The orb sits on your office desk and glows a quiet yellow. To a visitor, it might appear to be a slightly fey designer lamp, or perhaps a mutant night light. In reality, it’s a financial tool: the orb changes colors to track the performance of your stocks. When the market is stable, it glows yellow; when stocks are soaring, it becomes increasingly green. And if it begins to fade into a deep scarlet? Better call your broker.

This is ”ambient information” — the newest concept in how to monitor everyday data. Normally, our digital tools are intrusive, constantly barging in to demand our attention with e-mail alerts, beeping instant messages and phone calls. The Ambient Orb, released this year by Ambient Devices, takes a different approach. It displays information that you take in subconsciously. Instead of blasting the news at you directly, it radiates it in the background.

”The point is, you don’t need to keep checking into CNNfn all day long like a neurotic freak,” says David Rose, the C.E.O. of Ambient Devices. ”You know implicitly what’s going on, because the information is all around you.”

If Apple is creating an Orb-like enclosure for the computer itself, that would be an extremely cool thing. On the other hand, it wouldn’t shock me if it infringes on the patents of Ambient Devices — so there we may be in for a big patent battle here.

(Note: I went to the U.S. patent web site but couldn’t find the listing of the patent itself, to point to the pictures. Can anyone find it?)

Are MP3s ruining your ears?

Behold the ear. It is an incredibly sophisticated tool: Even the finest high-tech microphones still can’t do what the ear does. Your ear has a whole bunch of built-in filters that alternately strip out bits sound you don’t need, while amplifying others that you do. That’s how you’re able to stand in the middle of a loud cocktail party and yet still hear a single voice amidst the tumult.

But could MP3s be damaging it? This guy Christian Oliver in Germany seems to think so. I have no idea of Oliver’s credentials — indeed, his website seems mildly bonkers, and includes stuff about a religion he’s invented called “Logologie”. But he raises some interesting questions about MP3s and the ear.

As he points out, MP3s compress music by stripping out sounds that are almost inaudible to the human ear. That includes an awful lot of music, and indeed much of everyday sound, which lurks at the edge of audibility. But maybe this isn’t good for our ears. Maybe by taking away the almost-not-there background stuff, MP3s disturb the delicate work it’s been engineered to peform. Think of it as a figure-on-a-ground question. What if, to pick out the things we think we want to hear, our ears actually rely on the other sounds that seem like inconsequential noise?

In this essay, Oliver speculates on some possible nasty effects of listening to too many MP3s — or “datareduced audio material”:

Possible consequences of intensive consumption of datareduced audio material could therefore include ear noises (tinitus), a general degradation of the perception of quiet sounds, as well as a worsened timbre perception (a so-called “tin ear”), which would make the human of the cyberage even more insensitive than he already yet has become by the continuous mass media infotrash bombardment he is exposed to. Actually it is still unclear whether the consequences of such maladjustments are only temporary (similarly like seeing the world in green/ red discoloured after taking off red/ green 3D glasses) or if the continuous consumption of neuroacoustically datareduced sounds can lead to long lasting or even permanent damage.

Great. So while I’m sitting here listening to Shelby Lynne’s “Gotta Get Back” on an MP3, I’m slowly being driven deaf, or insane.

(I’m coming to this one late, but got it from the fine filtering of Slashdot.)

Could someone please kill my friend?

Well, not literally kill him. But my friend Jonathan Hayes does indeed need some help. He’s been playing a new video game, and recently wrote this intriguing post about it, on the Echo BBS:

A kind of unsettling experience just now playing SPLINTER CELL with my non-stealth approach to the game, I wasted all of the enemies in a current level, at the same time expending all of my ammunition. Now I wander the level alone, looking for someone to kill me so that I can go back and do it right. And yet: the streets are empty, there’s no movement save the occasional flap of flags, no sound except for the crackle of the radios of the men I killed. I cannot kill myself, for there’s nothing high enough to jump off. It’s really filling me with dread.

You know, you gotta hand it to today’s video games: They hand us some of the weirdest existential experiences imaginable.

The real kid in Catch Me If You Can speaks out

You know Frank Abagnale, the superb grifter whom the book and movie Catch Me If You Can is based on? Turns out he went over to the white-hat side, and has spent the last 25 years assisting the FBI in prosecuting forgery and embezzlement cases.

As a result, he’s not entirely thrilled that the movie of his youthful exploits is coming out now — and has written an official response on his web site. Though he notes that he’s “honored” that Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks are doing his story, he clarifies a few facts:

It has been reported that I had written $10 million, $8 million and $5 million worth of bad checks. The actual amount was $2.5 million. I was never on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List as this is reserved for very violent criminals who pose a threat to society. All of the crimes I committed were when I was between the ages 16 and 21. I served time in prison in France, Sweden and the United States. In the U. S. Federal Court, I was sentenced as a youthful offender because of my age at the time the crimes were committed. Even so, I was given 12 years of which I served a total of 5 years. This was considered harsh punishment then and almost unheard of today.

I have been married for over 25 years and I am the proud father of 3 sons. When I was 28 years old, I thought it would be great to have a movie about my life, but when I was 28, like when I was 16, I was egotistical and self-centered. We all grow up. Hopefully we get wiser. Age brings wisdom and fatherhood changes one’s life completely. I consider my past immoral, unethical and illegal. It is something I am not proud of. I am proud that I have been able to turn my life around and in the past 25 years, helped my government, my clients, thousands of corporations and consumers deal with the problems of white collar crime and fraud.

(Thanks to Max Whitney for pointing me to this one!)

Water-based Internet!

Dig it: new-media artist Jonah Brucker-Cohen has developed a form of Internet Protocol that uses water — instead of electricity — to transmit digital images:

1. The set-up at the top of the stairwell consists of a computer with a flat panel LCD screen and a USB video camera. When someone walks up to the screen they see live video of themselves. There is a button in front of the screen that when pressed takes a picture of the person. The picture is then translated into a 16 x 16 pixel grayscale image (desktop icon size) and displayed on the LCD.

Also upstairs is a water valve attached to a fixed jug of water or connection to a water source/main. When the grayscale image is created, the computer then analyzes the color of each pixel and ‘prints’ out pulses to the electronically controlled water valve - a different pulse pattern depending on the color of the pixel on screen. The water then falls to the first floor.

2. The set-up on the first floor consists of a plexi-glass tray that awaits the falling water drops. The tray will sit on top of a custom built wooden box with a video projector inside. A funnel situated above an infrared switch watches for falling drops and through a microcontroller, feeds information to the computer at the bottom to decode which color pixel has been printed.

(Got this item from the fine folks at Boing Boing.)

Canadians launch weapons inspections of U.S.

Claiming that the U.S. is now a “rogue state,” a group called Rooting Out Evil is launching teams of volunteers to conduct weapons inspections of the U.S.:

In the new year, Rooting Out Evil will be sending a team of volunteer weapons inspectors into that greatest of rogue nations, the United States of America.

We have selected the US as our first priority based on criteria provided by the Bush administration. According to those criteria, the most dangerous states are those run by leaders who:

1) have massive stockpiles of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons;
2) ignore due process at the United Nations;
3) refuse to sign and honour international treaties; and
4) have come to power through illegitimate means.

The current US administration fulfills all these criteria.

(Update: here’s a great comment by John Fleck noting how U.S. activists are doing the same thing!)

A virtual meeting

Clay Shirky has written a terrific piece about an experiment he did recently in virtual space. He was hosting a two-day conference on social software, and had the usual room full of 30 conference-goers chatting it up.

But he also set up a virtual meeting alongside the real one. Using ARSC (A Really Simple Chat) software and wifi connectivity, everyone in the room could chat amongst themselves — privately or publicly — while the real-world talking was going on. The result? Among other things:

… because participants could add to the conversation without interrupting, the group could pursue tangential material in the chat room while listening in the real room. It was remarkable how much easier it was for the speaker to finish a complex thought without being cut off. And because chat participants had no way of interrupting one another in the chat room, even people not given to speaking out loud could participate. Indeed, one of our most active participants contributed a considerable amount of high-quality observation and annotation while saying almost nothing out loud for two days.

Contrast this to the story in today’s New York Times about professors who are frustrated by wifi in the classroom — because students are tuning out, IMing, sending email, or the like. One could be sympathetic to the profs, noting that, as they say, it’s hard to compete with the high-stim power of the Net. Or there’s the contrary view — considering that many, many professors are stupifying boring (about 50%, during my university experience), what’s wrong with students keeping their minds active in other ways while they’re forced to be in class? As Cory Doctorow noted today on Boing Boing:

I speak at universities all the time, and I actually use the degree to which my audience is digging into their laptops to gauge whether I’m covering a topic well or losing the crowd. Profs who bore their students and blame laptops don’t get a lot of sympathy from me — if you can’t convince a room full of young people who’ve committed to a lifetime of debt in order to cram their heads with useful knowledge and skills to pay attention, it’s time to re-evaluate your material and methods.

More to the point — why don’t professors steal a page from Clay Shirky’s experiment? If all the students in class have wifi and laptops, why not create a virtual classroom alongside the real one? Encourage (and even reward) students for using the virtual space to talk about what’s going on in the lecture and raise issues? Hell, smart professors would display this stuff on the wall during the lecture, and/or monitor it themselves, and use it to enliven and enrich what’s going on. The Net has always been about letting people in liminal positions (shy but brilliant; not yet sure of themselves but talented; nonverbal but otherwise whip-smart) shine. Why not harness this vibe in our classrooms?

(Thanks to El Rey for the pointer to the Shirky piece!)

Toying with death

So, you had a good holiday? Kids are playing with those toys in the basement? Lots of gigglin’ and happiness?

Then, hey! Why not check the brand-new Toy Recall Database by … and find out whether you’ve accidentally given your kids THE GIFT OF DEATH. It’s a quite amazing resource. Search by toy name, manufacturer, or, most grimly, “problem with toy”, and see what sort of ludo-industrial heinousness comes up. Or just surf through the list of “Popular Toy Recall Searches”; [shuddering].

Here’s one of my favorites:

WHICH TOYS: Galoob® Toys Inc., of San Francisco, CA, recalled about 8.9 million Sky Dancers® flying dolls. Galoob® was purchased by Hasbro in 1998. The recalled Sky Dancers® dolls were sold in many different styles, including Pretty Lights Sky Dancers, Mini-Sky Dancers and Fairy Flyers. The princess/ballerina-type dolls have hair pulled up into a pony tail and have stiff foam wing-covered arms that propel the doll when it is launched. The launchers, sold in many shapes including dolphins, flowers, moon, ponies, and sun and rainbow, have a molded plastic base and a pull-cord. The launchers were sold in both hand-held and table-top versions. The doll is inserted into the top of the launcher feet-first, and the pull-cord is pulled to launch the doll. The packaging is labeled “Sky Dancers®”, “galoob®”, “MADE IN CHINA”, “Ages 5 and Up Only” and “Not for children under 3 years”. Mass merchandise and toy stores nationwide sold the dolls from November 1994 through June 2000 for between $8 to $25.

PROBLEM WITH TOY: The hard plastic Sky Dancers® dolls can fly rapidly in unpredictable directions, and can hit and injure both children and adults. Galoob® has received 170 reports of the dolls striking children and adults resulting in 150 reports of injuries. They include eye injuries, including scratched corneas and incidents of temporary blindness, broken teeth, a mild concussion, a broken rib, and facial lacerations that required stitches.

The Sky Dancer is pictured above (taken from the Galoob site). While you’re at the database, why not check out the recall for the Barbie Sunglasses?

Samuel Pepys’ diary — the original blog

Back in the 1660’s, Samuel Pepys’ single-handedly invented the idea of the diary as a literary form. He figured his own life was sufficiently interesting to be written about, so he started keeping a journal that he later published as The Diary of Samuel Pepys. This one simple act probably did about as much to create the modern sense of the individual as Freud, Rousseau, and Adam Smith — and it traced a path towards today’s recently-ascendent trend of the memoir.

And, of course, the blog! On Jan. 1, U.K. technologist Phil Gyford launched a version of Pepys’ diary as a blog, done using Movable Type. A sample entry:

This morning (we living lately in the garret,) I rose, put on my suit with great skirts, having not lately worn any other, clothes but them. Went to Mr. Gunning’s chapel at Exeter House, where he made a very good sermon upon these words:—”That in the fulness of time God sent his Son, made of a woman,” &c.; showing, that, by “made under the law,” is meant his circumcision, which is solemnized this day. Dined at home in the garret, where my wife dressed the remains of a turkey, and in the doing of it she burned her hand. I staid at home all the afternoon, looking over my accounts; then went with my wife to my father’s, and in going observed the great posts which the City have set up at the Conduit in Fleet-street. Supt at my, father’s, where in came Mrs. The. Turner and Madam Morrice, and supt with us. After that my wife and I went home with them, and so to our own home.

Okay, so, yeah, it’s not always terribly gripping material. But it’s striking just how blog-like Pepys’ diary still seems. Filled with constant name-checking of the various London VIPs he ran into, it was, in essence, a Gutenberg version of the concept of blogrolling.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for finding this one!)

Sick as a dog

Hello, anyone out there who’s reading this. I had intended, when I got back from holidays on Dec. 31, to post a huge swath of cool things I’d encountered while away. But last night I fell hideously ill with the flu, and am still just dementedly sick. I will return with ever more blogstuff in hopefully the next day or so, assuming I live.

I’m typing this with my lips.

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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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