Archive: February 2003

Knock, knock, Neo

For years now, mobile phones have become less like technology and more like fashion — to be discarded in six or seven months’ time, like last season’s hiphugger jeans and cargo pants. There is no better evidence of this than Samsung’s recent announcement that they’re producing a new phone themed on the next Matrix movie. If you go to the official site for the phone, you get the obligatory mysterious Flash animation, and a quick shot of the phone itself. A still image is pictured above.

Three points here, really:

1) What the hell is the big deal with The Matrix? I’m as big a geek as anyone, to the point where I get kinda slightly turned on by the mere sound of phone-tones and modem squalling (an acoustic signature heavily fetishized in the movie, and the web site). And who hasn’t pondered the deeply cool metaphoric valences of cyberspace, particularly after reading True Names and Neuromancer? But the Matrix — I mean, it kind of sucked. Everyone keeps on prattling on about how deep it was. Deep? It was a pre-chewed, B-side remake of the Cliff’s Notes To Socratic Thought, for god’s sake! I’ve read better stuff in high-school philosophy textbooks.

2) While I would truly love to own a phone styled in the gloriously sleek-yet-steampunk aesthetic of The Matrix … this thing by Samsung looks like ass.

3) You want to really live in the future? Forget this Matrix-phone stuff. Get a Danger Hiptop! I’ve had mine for three months, and can now barely leave the house without it. Outside of having portable IM, email, SMS, a camera and a quite good web-browser, the damn thing looks like a tricoder on steroids, and every time — every. single. time. — I pull it out of my pocket in public and flip the screen up, I can hear audible gasps from onlookers as they worship the strenuous awesomeness of my geek street cred.

In fact, you can play some really fun tricks with the IM client. A month ago, I was heading back to my girlfriend Emily’s apartment in Manhattan. I went into her building, up the elevator, and just as I got to her door, I logged onto IM — and sent her the instant message “Knock, knock, Neo.” A half-second later, I knocked on her door. She totally dug the reference, and cracked up.

(Debate alert! Since so many people are rabid Matrix fans, my little screed here has prompted several heated defenses of the movie in the discussion thread here. No one as yet has defended that ugly-ass phone, though.)

Dial 666 to talk to your priest

This story recently ran on the Associated Press — but could very easily have appeared in The Onion:

After months of asking for a new telephone number, the Kentucky Mountain Bible College has finally dropped the 666 prefix that disturbed Christians who recognized it as the biblical mark of the beast.

“We’re just elated that the number has been changed,” said Rob Roy MacGregor, the college’s vice president of business affairs. “It was like we had this Scarlet Letter attached to us.”

The 666 prefix had been the only one available in Vancleve since telephone service arrived here. The need for more phone lines forced telephone companies to add new numbers, and the college tried for several months to get the new 693 prefix.

In the Book of Revelation, 666 is stamped into people’s foreheads or right hands during the last days. Those who receive the mark, according to Scripture, are damned to eternal punishment.

MacGregor said the beast represents Satan. True Christians, he said, will not accept the mark.

Bang your head

As I’ve written several times before, I just love it when the news section of the New York Times tackles pop culture. Because they assume their news readers are totally ignorant of any pop ephemera at all, the reporters invariably discuss mainstream culture with the baffled dispassion of a Vulcan from Star Trek.

Thus I was delighted to open the news section today to find a small feature on Great White, the heavy metal band that ignited the recent clubhouse blaze in Rhode Island. Obviously, that’s still an incredibly sad and tragic story. But this piece is a masterpiece of understated hilarity: The prose is so tinderbox-dry, and the band’s life so cringe-inducingly bleak, that the news story reads like a script treatment for This is Spinal Tap:

For a brief period in the very late 80’s and early 90’s, they were headlining at 20,000-to-60,000-seat arenas, sharing the limelight with some of the biggest rock bands of the day.

But that faded quickly, as it usually does. By middecade they were back in the small clubs — guided by the lead singer, Jack Russell, one of two remaining founding members — and the thousands of young, shaggy fans who had once cheered them in basketball arenas were reduced to hundreds of the aging faithful, hoping to hear the band churn out some 15-year-old hits between renditions of Led Zeppelin classics.

It is hard to eke out a living, though, on the basis of good impersonations and half-forgotten hits, especially when playing to a couple of hundred people a night in clubs that rely on bar sales to turn a profit …

“Playing to 250 people, like they were doing in Rhode Island, is probably the farthest down you can go,” Mr. Fraser said. “After that, it’s just not financially viable.” …

“I was really shocked when I heard it was Great White playing that club in Rhode Island,” Mr. Folgner said. “As far as I knew, their farewell concert had been in 2001. I thought this latest band was supposed to be Jack’s new project, not a return to Great White. And then I saw him on television after the fire and I was surprised to see that he’d gained a lot of weight.”

It all reminds me of a book I’ve recently been enjoying — Bang Your Head, a history of heavy metal by David Konow. It’s like a 500-page edition of VH1’s “Behind the Music” — huge amounts of drugs, booze-addled car accidents that ripped off bandmembers’ arms, and so many albums with “blood” in the title that I lost track. For a while, I was deeply into big-hair metal when I was teenager, and since I was getting precisely zero action, I spent about 56,000 hours in the basement trying to learn Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption” on my cheapo electric guitar. I never quite mastered it, but I can still shred 8 to 12 notes per second reasonably well — though, sadly, journalism does not require this skill as often as you’d imagine.

Francaise fries

Who says Americans don’t pay attention to international affairs? Down in Palm Beach, the county commissioner — Burt Aaronson, pictured above — has decided that he’s had enough of the French. He’s lobbying to have the district officially change the name of “french fries”:

Aaronson wants the name changed to “freedom fries” or “American fries.” The traditional “french fry” is out. “I won’t even mention the other name,” he said Tuesday.

He wants the Palm Beach County Commission to pick one of the alternatives and make it official.

Aaronson said his feelings stem from the French government’s lack of support for the United States over the possible war with Iraq. Like France, he said United Nations inspectors need more time to look for weapons in Iraq and he hopes for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

But he does not like France telling the United States what to do.

“American lives were left all through France thorough two world wars,” Aaronson said. “This is another little thing to say to the French government, `Wake up.’”

Play Crash — and find out what makes a game a game

Okay, game fans: RUN, AND DO NOT WALK TO SHOCKWAVE.COM RIGHT NOW — and play their newest game Crash.

Crash is the latest offering by skull-kings at Gamelab, an indie game house in New York. I say “indie” in the precise, historical sense of the word “indie”. Indie rock and indie film sought to bring higher levels of artistry to their genres; indie gamers try to do the same thing. And, interestingly, one place where innovation is frequently seen these days is in the humble, much-denigrated Shockwave game. In a Shockwave game, the designer can’t hide behind the usual ooh-ahh stuff that drives most of the dismal boxed titles you find at game stores. There are no special effects, no painstakingly rendered dungeons, no fabulous fog effects that deploy themselves in a cunning combination of fractal predictability and pseudorandomness.

No, with a Shockwave game you pretty much have to do it old-skool style, the way game-makers did in the early 80s. You have to rely on superb game design, and nothing but. Which means you have to grapple with one basic question: What makes a game a game?

This isn’t an obvious as it seems. Indeed, this question is rarely openly asked. Endless technology journalists assume they know what video games are all about. A game, they’ll tell you, qualifies as “good” if it has an interesting narrative, interesting characters, and creates a really rich world. But this is a bit of a blind alley. Sure, a game can have those elements — but so can a novel or a play or a poem, pieces of culture that aren’t games at all. What is it precisely that makes a game seem, uh, game-like?

Gamelab co-founder Eric Zimmerman likes to answer this question. As he once pointed out to me, a game is an existential paradox. It’s a set of rules that ruthlessly restrict your behavior — and yet somehow produce the opposite of rules: Play. Games are oddly masochistic; we submit to a bunch of often quite weird and arbitrary limits. (In basketball, you can dribble and walk, but if you stop walking, you have to pass? Like, what’s up with that?) Yet it’s only by agreeing to abide by these onerous rules that we create fun. “Games are not about freedoms,” Zimmerman noted. “They’re about restrictions.” Everything from baseball to chess to rock-paper-scissors to Pong is based on precisely this paradigm. You create a few simple rules, then sit back and watch what weirdness ensues.

The best games, of course, are fiendishly efficient. They have very few rules — so you can pick them up really quickly and start playing. Think of checkers, football, or Quake: Pretty simple games, with only a few rules. In each case, the first time you try it, it all seems so blase that you wonder why it’s going to be fun. Yet you quickly find that those few elegant rules combine to produce amazingly unpredictable results. And that, right there, is what makes a game fun.

The thing is, this theory is exactly the opposite of how most game journalists — and even game designers — talk about games. They constantly prattle on about how the best video games are these really huge worlds where you go anywhere and do anything, and everything looks so amazingly realistic and 3D you’d swear it were real. But Zimmerman argues, this is just “film envy”, and it often leads to incredibly crappy games. It’s true. Walk into a game store, pick up 10 of the most sexy-looking “immersive” games, and I can guarantee that nine of them will suck so much ass you will die of boredom if you play them. The creators were not thinking about what makes a game a game. They were trying to create something that emulates Hollywood, and thus they wound up producing an extremely subpar movie — whose only allure is that you can walk around in it, marvelling at the inane plot, ludicrous dialogue, and total absence of play.

Which brings me back to Crash. The game concept is ridiculously simple: You have to prevent cars from crashing into one another, by speeding them up or slowing them down. That’s it. Full stop. Unlike the average first-person-shooter, which comes complete with about 10 bazillion different commands, Crash is insanely restricted. There’s only one control — the mouse, with its click-button. You can click on a car to speed it up or slow it down, but nothing else. You can’t even change their direction. And much like Pac-Man or Asteroids, there’s only one screen: No side-scrolling, no big immersive world. Yet after a few minutes of watching the cars trundle across the screen, the game becomes fiendishly complex. What initially seemed so simple reveals itself to be virtually unmanageable, and you’re juggling forty balls at once — and that’s what makes it so fun.

Okay, I’ll get off my little pompous hobby horse here. But you really should go play the damn game. It rocks! And dig the incredibly funky techno music designed for it by Michael Sweet of Audiobrain.

Is monopoly theory all wrong?

Possibly so, according to a controversial paper by economists Michele Boldrin and David K. Levin — “Perfectly Competitive Innovation”. The record industry — and software industry and movie industry and pretty much anyone who does brain-work these days — have been arguing that online swapping kills creativity. The only reason you’d want to create a song or book or whatever is to get a short-term monopoly on it, via copyright, so you can make money off it. Right?

Wrong, say these guys — in a paper so heretical that it’s causing riots wherever they present it. There’s a good redaction of their argument in a recent issue of Reason:

Increasing rates of reproduction will drop marginal production costs and, therefore, prices. If demand for the good is elastic — that is, if demand rises disproportionately when prices drop — then total revenue will increase.

And since creators with strong rights of first sale are paid the current value of future revenue, their pay will climb. “The point we’re making is the invention of things like Napster or electronic publishing and so on are actually creating more opportunities for writers, musicians, for people in general to produce intellectual value, to sell their stuff and actually make money,” says Boldrin. “The costs I suffer to write down one of my books or songs have not changed, so overall we actually have a bigger incentive, not smaller incentive.”

Conventional wisdom admits that monopoly rights impose short-term costs on an economy. They give an undue share of the economic pie to those who own copyrights and patents; they misallocate resources by allowing innovators to command too high a price; they allow innovators to produce less than the socially optimal level of the new invention. But these costs are all considered reasonable because innovation creates economic growth: The static costs are eclipsed by dynamic development.

Boldrin and Levine say this is a false dilemma. Monopoly rights are not only unnecessary for innovation but may stifle it, particularly when an innovation reduces the cost of expanding production. “Monopolists as a rule do not like to produce much output,” they write. “Insofar as the benefit of an innovation is that it reduces the cost of producing additional units of output but not the cost of producing at the current level, it is not of great use to a monopolist.” Monopolists, after all, can set prices and quantities to maximize their profits; they may have no incentive to find faster reproduction technologies.

(Thanks to Arts and Letters Daily for pointing this one out!)

Norah Jones’ fans too old to download?

It seems that Arif Mardin, the 71-year-old producer of Norah Jones’ Grammy-winning album, thinks that Jones’ success has to do with downloading. Or, rather, the absence of it — as he told the Washington Post:

Asked to explain the album’s success, the producer, who will turn 71 next month, surmised that “it touched a forgotten segment of the market, people who don’t watch MTV… . A friend said, ‘Fifty-something people are buying your record. They don’t know how to download. They’re buying.’ “

White folks is where it’s at, pt. 34

I just got back from San Francisco, where yesterday I was reading the San Francisco Chronicle and came across an interesting story. It was about the test of an experimental AIDS vaccine, with unusual results — it shielded two-thirds of the Black, Asian and non-Latino minority subjects, but didn’t work at all on whites or Latinos.

Weird, huh? But what struck me was the headline:

AIDS vaccine mostly a failure
It helps some groups but
doesn’t work across the board

I dunno — if I were a black headline writer, I’m not sure I’d have called that experiment “mostly a failure” just because it didn’t protect whitey.

Now, before all the anti-PC hordes descend upon me, allow me to point out that I’m not actually accusing the headline writer of being some racist freak. This is San Francisco, after all, a city so berserkly left-wing that I endured an enormous lecture by the airport van driver about why the New York Times was a right-wing menace and how he needed to get “more phosophorous in his system to rebalance his energies.” I strongly doubt the headline writer is showing up to work in a white cowl. But it is kinda interesting what sort of language can still seem appropriate in a newspaper, isn’t it?

Even more interesting given that Chronicle itself reported a few days later about the massive mistrust that American blacks have for the medical establishment:

Suspicion of medical research runs deep among many blacks, they say, and the reason can be summarized in one word: Tuskegee.

In the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, conducted by the federal government between 1932 and 1972, researchers withheld medical treatment from poor, black men in Macon County, Ala., for experimental purposes. The men were not told they had syphilis, and weren’t treated for the disease even after penicillin became available. By the time the study was exposed, 128 men had died of syphilis or related complications.

More than 30 years later, the damage done by that study still lingers, black activists say — even hindering efforts to halt the AIDS epidemic.

“Many African-Americans are suspicious of the health care system and suspicious of doctors and scientists because there’s a legacy of mistreatment,” said Phill Wilson, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Black AIDS Institute.

“Even though people may or may not know the specifics of the Tuskegee trials, they know that there are health disparities and that blacks often get inferior treatment based on race.”

Antarctica against the war

Heh. This picture, and text, appeared on the BBC’s site. The sentiment is a little hippie-dippie “I’d like to teach the world to sing” for my tastes, but what the hell:

“We organized a rally here at the US Amundsen-Scott Station, South Pole, Antarctica. We were only five rallying, probably the smallest protest in the world. Antarctica is the only continent where no wars ever happened and where all countries recognise that the only way to survive is collaboration.”

- Paolo G. Calisse, Amundsen-Scott Station, South Pole, Antarctica

(Thanks to Morgan for pointing this out!)

Courtney Love’s dog died after eating what?

I’m sorry, I’m coming really late to this one, considering that this happened three months ago. But …

… apparently Courtney Love’s pomeranian dog died after eating one of her silicon breast implants.

When she had them removed, she apparently kept them around for nostalgic purposes. And then the dog was rooting around in a drawer or something, found one, ate it, got sick, and passed away.

What in Sam Hell is going on in TV news?

A couple of days ago, Paul Krugman wrote a terrific piece about why Europeans have such different views than Americans about the impending war. Perhaps, he suggested, it’s not just that they have different politics. It’s actually that they have completely different information at hand — because they consume very different news media. European news regularly reports material that makes the Iraq situation seem more complex, like the fact that Hans Blix doesn’t support the war, and that the recent bin Laden tape includes major dissing of Saddam Hussein. In America, this type of stuff does indeed appear in newspapers. But on TV news — where the majority of Americans get their information — it’s a whole different story:

The coverage of Saturday’s antiwar rallies was a reminder of the extent to which U.S. cable news, in particular, seems to be reporting about a different planet than the one covered by foreign media.

What would someone watching cable news have seen? On Saturday, news anchors on Fox described the demonstrators in New York as “the usual protesters” or “serial protesters.” CNN wasn’t quite so dismissive, but on Sunday morning the headline on the network’s Web site read “Antiwar rallies delight Iraq,” and the accompanying picture showed marchers in Baghdad, not London or New York.

This wasn’t at all the way the rest of the world’s media reported Saturday’s events, but it wasn’t out of character. For months both major U.S. cable news networks have acted as if the decision to invade Iraq has already been made, and have in effect seen it as their job to prepare the American public for the coming war.

So it’s not surprising that the target audience is a bit blurry about the distinction between the Iraqi regime and Al Qaeda. Surveys show that a majority of Americans think that some or all of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Iraqi, while many believe that Saddam Hussein was involved in Sept. 11, a claim even the Bush administration has never made. And since many Americans think that the need for a war against Saddam is obvious, they think that Europeans who won’t go along are cowards.

I mostly read newspapers and web sites, and don’t watch much TV news. Lately I’ve begun to think this is a big problem, because I’m cutting myself off from the information that defines most Americans’ lives. So while I’m on the road in hotels this week, I’ve been watching tons of news TV — and it is totally freaking me out. My god in heaven. I’m not completely naive about TV news; in Canada, I hosted a TV show, and I’ve been a regular commentator on many programs. But still, I’m stunned by the tone of the crap I’ve been watching. Whenever the subject of the war comes up, the hosts — to a one — are snarlingly hostile to any critic, and utterly toadying to the Bush administration. Their obsequiousness towards authority would embarass a kid in Grade Two.

Check out this recent exchange between CNN host Tucker Carlson and Janeane Garofalo, when they brought her onto Crossfire to discuss “What does Hollywood know about the war?”

GAROFALO: Well, there’s no credible link between Iraq and al Qaeda. There’s no credible link between Iraq and 9/11. So, if you want those links, then we should be going to Saudi Arabia. Or if you want weapons of mass destruction and a dictator that starves his own people, we should be in North Korea …

There are hundreds of thousands of credible voices you could be talking to right now that are far more qualified than I. I am as qualified as anyone who has access to the Internet, satellite dish, international and domestic news, a library, a bookstore and newspapers.

So, you know, when the patronizing teaser for the show [says,] “What does Hollywood know about foreign policy?” Well I don’t know what the city of Hollywood knows about foreign policy, but do I know that a lot of people do learn and educate themselves about policy and I don’t have to be a policy expert to know that this will be a disaster.

The Pentagon has ordered 75,000 body bags this week.

CARLSON: Wait a second, Janeane.

GAROFALO: What does that mean?

CARLSON: Janeane, you were asking why am I patronizing? You said a minute ago that there is no evidence that Iraq has any links to al Qaeda. Yet you claim to read the paper.

Those claims are uncontested.

GAROFALO: No, they aren’t, Tucker.

CARLSON: Well, then perhaps you can answer this question. Then why has the head of the CIA, the secretary of state, the national security adviser and the prime minister of Great Britain all said we have seen the evidence that there are members of al Qaeda living in Baghdad [and that] there was an agreement between al Qaeda and Saddam. Are they all making it up?

The links between bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are uncontested? What planet does this man live on?

The Planet of TV News, I guess.

(Thanks to Plastic for pointing out the Garofalo interview!)

More robot customer-service

More robot-service wackiness! My friend and the way-excellent artist El Rey pointed me towards a truly surreal exchange between this guy and a “live” chat staff person on TurboTax. He posted a screen-grab of it here — it’s beyond hilarious.

Robot service

Everyone knows that customer-service agents can seem incredibly stiff. But what if they’re actually robots? A writer at the San Franciso Chronicle got a letter from a reader complaining that the online help folks for SBC Yahoo’s internet service seemed overly fakey. So the writer logged on to talk to the help himself — someone who identified himself as Floyd:

I was asked, “How can we assist you today?”

“Floyd,” I wrote, “do you really exist?”

A few minutes passed. Then came the reply: “Yes, I am a person like you.”

Was it just me, or did that sound eerily like something Hal might have said in “2001”?

“So this is really a live session?” I asked. “I’m not talking to a machine?”

“Yes, you are talking to a live person,” Floyd wrote back after another lengthy interval.

“Prove it,” I replied. “What is the current level of the Dow Jones industrial average?”

Duck that one, I thought, as the minutes ticked by.

“Please be assured that this is a live and interactive chat session and I am a human being like you,” Floyd finally answered. “May I know the issue you are facing related to SBC Yahoo Internet services?”

“I just want a little confirmation,” I responded. “How about this: What did you think of the new ‘Lord of the Rings’ movie?”

The guy’s supposed to be a techie, right? No way he hasn’t seen “The Two Towers.”

“Please know that we are not authorised” — note spelling — “to discuss anything other than the technical issues related to SBC Yahoo Internet services,” Floyd wrote back.

I love this stuff. Obviously, as the writer points out, Eliza-like bots have been around for years — faking conversation by taking a person’s statement and reformatting it as a question, a la Rogerian psychology (“I hate my mother.” “Why do you hate your mother?”) That’s part of the stuff I wrote about in my profile of the creator of the A.I. chatbot Alice. And many of you probably know that companies like ActiveBuddy have been making customer-service ‘bots for a while. Indeed, some of the ‘bots are sufficiently good that, according to ActiveBuddy employees I’ve interviewed, customers sometimes just wind up having regular conversations with the ‘bots. Unlike the SBC/Yahoo ‘bot, which seems pretty crappy, some of these customer-service A.I. constructs have tens of thousands of possible conversational gambits. “If you’re bored at work, they’re sometimes more interesting to talk to than, say, your co-workers,” said one ActiveBuddy executive.

The irony here is that actual customer-service agents — the real, live ones — are nowadays increasingly forced to read from scripts and never deviate from them. I’m not sure why; maybe it’s got to do with liability issues. But either way, talking to these people is incredibly awkward. A while ago, I called Sprint to get some help with my mobile-phone account. Every question I asked, I could the guy rummaging through online Q&A guides to find the appropriate pre-canned answer, which he’d numbly recite with an almost Brechtian lack of emotion. When I finally ended the call and said good-bye, he said “At Sprint we try to offer you the finest quality service. Have I offered you the finest quality service today?” Well, no, man — because it’s kind of creepy to talk to someone who sounds like a robot!

Which is precisely the point, of course. In the modern service economy, robots behave like people, and people behave like robots. Would you like fries with that?

(Thanks to Plastic for this one!)


Check out the newest voice on the war in Iraq — Warblogs. It’s the creation of three different bloggers who, for the last few months, have been doing excellent research, writing, and collating of the best contrarian war news: Sean-Paul Kelly, Mike Hudack, George Paine, and my friend Chris Allbritton. They’ve joined forces and produced a one-stop-shopping locale, which is now gonna be on my hotlist.

Jetblue redefines “being on hold”

I was supposed to fly to San Francisco this morning, from New York. But due to the fourth-seal-of-the-apocalypse blizzard we’re having — which has led to an official declaration of a state emergency — all flights were cancelled. So I’m calling Jetblue frantically to try and see if I can get on a flight tomorrow. Since the lines are jammed, I’m put on hold.

But as it turns out, Jetblue has the most excellent “hold” message on the planet. Here’s a complete transcript:

You know, everyone seems to think being on hold is a bad thing. Let’s re-examine this, shall we? Don’t look at it as being on hold. Look at it as being held! Because we all like to be held — don’t we?

For example, when you’re sitting in front of a fire with someone special, being held is very comforting. Or when you’re upset about something, being held can make you feel a whole lot better. Or when walking in the park with our significant other, we like our hands to be held. Or even coming home from school and having your books held.

You see? It’s not all that bad. So remember. Don’t look on it as being on hold. Look on it as being held!

I am in awe. That’s almost enough to get me to buy stock in the company.

Google buys Pyra!

Whoa. Google is buying Pyra, the company responsible for making Blogger — and helping to set of a worldwide movement of self-publishing. Dan Gillmor broke the news yesterday:

“I couldn’t be more excited about this,” said Evan Williams, founder of Pyra, a company that has had its share of struggles. He wouldn’t discuss terms of the deal when we spoke Saturday, but he said it gives Pyra the “resources to build on the vision I’ve been working on for years.”

Part of that vision, shared by other blogging pioneers, has been to help democratize the creation and flow of news in a world where giant companies control so much of what most people see, hear and read. Weblogs are also becoming a valuable communication tool for groups of people, and have begun to infiltrate the corporate, university and government spheres.

What Gillmor doesn’t mention is the other well-known synergy here (and please kill me if I ever use the word “synergy” again): That Google essentially created the mass popularity of blogs. Google ranks things partly based on their popularity, measured by how many people link to a certain page; if there are tons of links to it, that site is considered popular and becomes a top-ranked search result. It is, as many have noted, a social definition of popularity.

And blogs are all about linking — promiscuous, fascinated, I-hate-this I-love-this linking. As a result, blogs frequently have many, many links to them, and thus crop up very high on Google results. Since people so frequently find the big blogs via Google searches, that means they tend to link to them, too, and the virtuous cycle begins. Moreover, since blogs point people — in droves — to fresh pieces of interest online, those pieces of news also become highly-linked-to … and they join the blogging cycle. This phenomenon was first noted last year in a great piece by John Hiler, entitled “Google Loves Blogs: How Weblogs Influence a Billion Google Searches a Week”:

A match made in heaven! Google loves links, and weblogs are all about links. Every time a blogger links to a website, its Google rank rachets up ever so slightly. If enough bloggers pile onto that link, it can start to have a significant impact on a sites’ Google rank …

So even if you never visit a blog, you’re being influenced by them. The collective votes of the weblog community are determing what sites you see on Google, the world’s largest search engine.

Don’t believe it? Here’s an interesting data point that is so weird I’ll devote an entire, new item to it …

I’m a top Google result for “upskirting”

This weekend, I installed some excellent software from — which tracks your web site’s traffic. It’ll tell you how many hits you’re getting, which countries and domains they’re coming from, and even what search strings on search engines are producing results for your site. So I downloaded my log files, turned the software loose on it, and waited to see what I’d find out.

The result? Collision Detection is the fifth-highest result of a Google search for “upskirting”. I’m pretty high for “hip hugger jeans”, too.

Maybe I’ve got this all wrong! Screw this cultural and political commentary; I should be running a porn site here. Though that would certainly put the phrase “collision detection” in a whole new kinetic light …

A drill sergeant speaks out on bioweapons

Worried about a bioweapons attack in North America? Check out this essay by Red Thomas, a retired Armor Master Gunner, on what guys in the army actually think about their dangers. His conclusion?

Drill Sergeants exaggerate how terrible this stuff was to keep the recruits awake in class (I know this because I was a Drill Sergeant too). Forget everything you’ve ever seen on TV, in the movies, or read in a novel about this stuff, it was all a lie (read this sentence again out loud!). These weapons are about terror, if you remain calm, you will probably not die. This is far less scary than the media and their “Experts,” make it sound.

“Probably” is not, of course, the most soothing word to use in this case, but if you read the rest of the piece it’s a nice talk-through of what practical steps you can take in the event of a chemical weapon, bioweapon, or even a nuke. I had some crazy cold-war-of-my-youth flashbacks while reading the nuke stuff (including Thomas’ instructions on how to purify rainwater in case the city’s water supply is cut off, yeeeeeeeikes). But his analysis of chemical and bioweapons is interesting because, as he points out, these things are not all that efficient at killing people. They exist for a different reason:

Contrary to the hype of reporters and politicians they are not weapons of mass destruction they are “area denial,” and terror weapons that don’t destroy anything. When you leave the area you almost always leave the risk. That’s the difference; you can leave the area and the risk but soldiers may have to stay put and sit through it and that’s why they need all that spiffy gear.

I like this “area denial” point, because it turns a bioweapon attack into something more akin to when a tanker truck with a toxic payload jacknives on the interstate. Everyone flees, the government moves in and cleans it up — but nobody much dies. Much less terrifying. On the other hand, if bioweapons are about forcing people to clear out a particular area, it makes sense that terrorists would hit big, financially crucial cities. Hmmmm.

(Thanks to boing boing for this one!)

Canadian UFO sightings up by 30 per cent!

Apparently, 2002 was a banner year. From The Globe and Mail:

“In 2002 we had the largest number of separate events for a single year in the history of collecting UFO data for Canada,” Chris Rutkowski of Ufology Research of Manitoba said Wednesday.

There were 483 UFO sightings reported in 2002 — almost 30 per cent more than in 2001 and a 250 per cent increase since 1998.

There is no easy explanation for the increase, he added.

Flash-game prediction of Mideast chaos

Wow. Last summer, I wrote a piece for Slate about how people are using Flash games as a form of political commentary — using the physics of games to create elegant visual metaphors to make a political point. One of the big areas where this was happening, of course, was with war-related material.

I just happened upon a brilliant and quite mind-blowing new Iraq game, from the folks at idleworm. They’ve posed the question that the U.S. isn’t asking: What happens the attack on Iraq sets off a domino effect? What if the U.S. manages to kill Saddam Hussein — but in doing so, makes the Islamic world so angry that it we get a Mideast powderkeg?

To make this scenario a little more concrete, the idleworm folks created an interactive cartoon that shows their prediction for what the next few years look like — represented as icons moving, war-game-like, across a map of the Mideast. The result is darkly funny and massively unsettling. There’s something unspeakably creepy about the aesthetics of this thing: Part Saturday-morning cartoon, part CNN-political-map, and part role-playing-boardgame. As with many of these interactive Flash games, you laugh — but it makes you think in a way substantially different from when you read an old-school New York Times editorial.

Indeed, the idleworm games illustrates a principle that dawns on almost anyone who plays a five-hour session of Risk, Diplomacy or Dungeons and Dragons: In a complex world of negotiations and multiple interests, things rarely go as planned. Teenagers and game-players the world over, cloistered in their basements, know this. The U.S. administration, apparently, doesn’t.

(Image above taken from the idleworm site!)

War: A great time to win market share!

Dig this internal memo, leaked from the California radio sister-stations KFBK and KSTE. It discusses what to do in the event that war breaks out:

The initial hours of coverage are critical. People who have never listened to our stations will be tuning in out of curiosity, desperation, panic and a hunger for information. RIGHT NOW, convert them to P-1’s, or at least make them a future cumer [sic]. We must make sure we meet their expectations, otherwise they’re gone forever and they ain’t coming back.

Bah. I don’t even know why I’m bothering to post this; it’s hardly a secret to anyone that media organizations are slavering over the prospect of war. Hell, they slaver over the prospect of a kid falling down a well, or a local dog getting braces. Anyway.

(Thanks to Maura for pointing out this one!)

Why social networks are different from the Net

In the last year, tons of smart technology thinkers have been noticing the fascinating parallels between on-line networks and human, social ones. Indeed, that idea is partly behind the item I posted a few days ago — about “why are some blogs popular”, and power-law distributions.

But recent research has found that human networks and computer networks can actually be very different. Mark Newman, a physics professor at the University of Michigan, studied both and found something interesting: In human networks, people who are social gravitate towards other people who are social. But in computer networks, highly-connected nodes frequently connect to millions of dead-end nodes. Computer networks are a bit socially agnostic; humans — well, we want to hang with the cool people.

This has some intriguing implications, as Newman notes in an interview at Technology News and Review:

In social networks, where popular people are friends with other popular people, diseases spread easily, said Newman. At the same time, however, this type of network has a small central set of people that the disease can actually reach. “They support epidemics easily, but… the epidemic is limited in who it can reach,” he said.

The opposite is true for the Internet, the Web and biological networks, said Newman. This makes these types of networks more vulnerable to attack than social networks are.

The implications for vaccinating people and for protecting networks like the Internet against attacks are not good, according to Newman. The networks that we might want to break up, like social networks that spread disease, are resilient against attacks; but the networks that we wish to protect, like the Internet, are vulnerable to attack, said Newman.

Social networks hold together even when some of the most connected nodes are removed. This may be because these nodes tend to be clustered together in a core group so that there’s a lot of redundancy, according to Newman. This means that vaccination and similar strategies are less effective than in other types of networks.

Attacks on the largest nodes of disassortative networks, however, affect the network as a whole more because the connections are more broadly distributed across the network. “This suggests that if nodes were to fail on the Internet, it would have a bigger effect on the performance of the Net than we might otherwise expect,” he said. “In a way, it is telling us that the Internet is fragile.”

Newman found that the number of highly-connected nodes that need to be removed to destroy disassortative networks is smaller by a factor of five or 10 than the number needed to destroy assortative networks.

It’s certainly true that the Net, for all its vaunted robustness, is oddly fragile. Wanna cause some serious world damage? Okay — just arrange to destroy the thirteen root name servers that organize which Net addresses point to where. Poof: The whole Net goes down. This would not be easy to do, since most of these 13 servers are buried in bunkers and protected by armed guards. But that’s precisely the point: The security of the root-name server system is not computational or network-based — it’s not inherent. It’s secure because there are guys with big-ass guns protecting them. Social networks are far more redundant.

War games

You can’t make this stuff up. Trond Helleland, a Conservative member of the Norwegian parliament, was caught playing a war game called “Metalion” on his Pocket PC handheld — during a debate over the war in Iraq:

Helleland told Nettavisen that he only meant to check his electronic appointments calendar, “but fiddled a bit too much” and landed on his new war game. He admitted that he “just had to try it out.”

“It’s a robot game where you shoot drones,” he said, stressing the game doesn’t involve any blood.

Helleland, who leads the parliament’s justice committee, apologized for the inappropriate diversion during an important parliamentary session.

“I’ll never do it again,” he promised, claiming, by the way, that he managed to follow the debate while he played.

Of course, I began immediately wondering — what precisely is Metalion? A quick Google search found me several (quite favorable) reviews. Even better, I found the text reprinted from the game manual. Apparently, the plot of Metalion is thus:

The year is 2252 AD. Due to extreme overpopulation and lack of food, the world leaders form a group of top scientists and engineers known as the Universal Federation, to research the conversion of dead planets to living ones, better known as Terraforming. After nearly 100 years, the group of scientists successfully Terraformed Mars and began colonization. Venus, Jupiter and Saturn are transformed and colonized 50 years later.

Unfortunately, the transformation of Jupiter was not as successful as the others. Jupiter’s new atmosphere and environment began to deteriorate after only 15 years. The colony on Jupiter rebels against the Federation. Due to this renegade colony of Jupiter, the leaders on Earth form the “Universal Federation Corps” to serve and protect the Federal colonies. The colony of Jupiter claims its independence from the Federation and the self-proclaimed Emperor of Jupiter creates his own army called the “Red Galaxy Knights.” For 50 years, the Red Galaxy Knights wreak widespread havoc and destruction among the peaceful colonies of the Federation.

On September 21, 2710, the “Red Galaxy Knights” launch a full-scale attack on Earth. Millions of lives are lost. Four days later, the Federation declares war on Jupiter.

After 4 long years of war, the Federation has finally developed a new weapon called “Metalion.” This robotic weapon, piloted by a single human being, was developed specifically for inter-planetary travel and battle. It is the Federation’s last hope for peace.


You know, I’m a gaming geek from way back. I’ve played Doom, Quake, Half-Life, Counterstrike, America’s Army, and loved them all. I am thus accustomed to reading the manuals for space shoot-em-up games — which inevitably sport similarly hysterical, apocalypso sci-fi prose. “The aliens have captured the moon base and are reverse-engineering the fragments of the crashed UFO to enslave us all.” “The Titian faction has become enraged with mutant bloodlust and will not stop until all are exterminated.” It’s always something like that.

Yet you might wonder why the heck game designers bother to write these complex little backstories. After all, the goal is just to fly around in outer space blasting the shit out of everything, right? Why the throat-clearing? Why the complex, turgid justifications for the interstellar carnage? I’ve long suspected it’s because game-makers are aware, on some level, that they can’t just unleash these scenarios of joyful, wanton death without offering some feeble excuse for why all this killing is necessary. They recognize that, even though this is just a game, you can’t quite come out and say the obvious — which is that massacring endless phalanxes of space goons is fun. That’s implicit. But to actually offer it as the sole justification would seem kinda creepy, even to themselves. No, they need some vaguely plausible moral backdrop, and that’s why every single game forces you to sit through some impossibly lame, cringe-inducing explanation of Why We Fight.

Which brings me quite neatly back to our friend Trond Helleland. He was playing the game during a debate on whether to go to war with Iraq, which lends a truly gorgeous symmetry to everything here. Go back and read that backstory from “Metalion”“: A bunch of colonists sent to Jupiter get uppity, stage a rebellion, and we have to go to war, dude. Now pick up the paper and read the U.S. government’s rationale for attacking Iraq. There are endless reasons why the war is an incredibly bad political move, which I’ve discussed before. But Bush has spent the last few months ignoring those bad reasons — and telling us, again and again, a bunch of long narratives about why we need to invade.

In the real world too, it seems, we need a backstory to convince us it’s okay — to go to war, kick ass, and blast away until there is nothing left to blast.

(The news item about Trond came to me via Gizmodo and PocketPC Thoughts — many thanks!)

Dude, you’re getting busted

It seems that “Steve”, the Dell pitchman — famous from his “Dude, you’re gettin’ a Dell!” TV ads — has been arrested in New York for marijuana possession.

Sony’s first ever product …

… was a rice-cooker that failed, because it either over- or under-cooked rice. Interestingly, the reason Sony founder Masaru Ibuka decided to focus on electronics was that electricity, in the wake of the second World War, had become incredibly cheap. According to Sony’s historical site:

As the war plants had closed down, there was more electricity than was needed at the time. This surplus fed Ibuka’s desire to produce items which were needed for everyday life. The electric rice cooker, made by merely interlocking aluminum electrodes which were connected to the bottom of a wooden tub, was a primitive product. The result depended heavily on the kind of rice used and the weight of the water. Tasty rice was a rarity, as the rice cooker produced mostly undercooked or overcooked rice. It was a memorable first failure for Ibuka and his staff.

(Thanks to Howard Sherman’s Nuggets for this one!)

Reach out and lie to someone

You know how, when you get a call from someone who’s on a mobile phone, you often ask “where are you?”

Well, according to this very cool study of cell-phone behavior — 20% of the time, the person on the mobile lies about their location.

(Thanks to Smart Mobs for pointing to this study!)

Nader-trading is legal!

Excellent news: A U.S. appeal court ruled that “Nader Trading” is legal. As you may recall, the “Nader Trader” phenomenon erupted during the last election. There were people who wanted to voted for Nader, but were terrified that if they did so, Gore might lose to Bush in their state. So a few voter nerds created web sites —,, and — to do vote-swapping. If someone wanted to vote for Nader in state “A” where Gore was in danger, she’d use the site to locate a Gore supporter in “B”, a Gore-safe state. The Gore supporter in “B” would vote for Nader safely, in exchange for the voter in state “A” promising to vote for Gore. Presto: Gore gets elected, and Nader gets enough votes to turn the Greens into a funded federal party.

In theory. In reality, of course, Gore (and Clinton) botched the election so horribly that Gore lost his own damn state. And brain-dead liberals went on to blame Nader for Gore’s loss. He lost his own state, people! Anyway … the point is, California’s secretary of state claimed the trading sites were perverting democracy, and tried to get shut down. The ACLU fought back, the U.S. appeal court agreed: The sites can stay.

Which is as it ought to be. What was at stake here wasn’t just a quirky attempt to get Nader elected. It was a fascinating evolution of how voter coalitions emerge and self-organize. Vote-swapping is a glimpse at the weird new ways democracies will comport themselves in an age when everyday citizens can organize not just locally, but nationally. It was, in essence, a smart-mob phenomenon. “Smart mobs,” writes Howard Rheingold in his book that named the trend, “consist of people who are able to act in concert even if they don’t know each other.” Precisely what vote-trading does, in a way that probably would have cracked up — and thrilled — the guys who wrote the constitution.

Why are some blogs popular? And other “power law” mysteries

Check out the chart above: It illustrates the most popular blogs, ranked by their “inbound links” — the number of people who link to them. As is obvious, a very small number of blogs account for the vast majority of traffic.

There’s a great piece by Clay Shirky today about this phenomenon — it’s called the “power law distribution.” It basically notes that in a field of open competition, we normally expect that a plethora of choices will flatten everyone’s popularity. Think of it this way: Say I and a friend set up rival lemonade stands on our street. Say we were roughly the same quality, and had equally as good advertising and word-of-mouth. You would expect that we’d both get roughly half the street’s business, right? If another equally-similar rival showed up, they would pose competition — and the pie would be sliced three ways. Each new competitor flattens everyone’s popularity. Entire textbooks of traditional economics are based on this basic concept.

But that’s not the way the world works, does it? We all know this. We know that there are a couple of dozen almost-equally-good soft drinks out there, but somehow, Pepsi and Coke and Ginger Ale dominate. Same goes for TV shows, clothes, cars — you name it. This is because of the cardinal rule of “power law distributions”: One person’s choice affects another’s. Blogs have become the latest example of this, as Shirky notes:

If we assume that any blog chosen by one user is more likely, by even a fractional amount, to be chosen by another user, the system changes dramatically. Alice, the first user, chooses her blogs unaffected by anyone else, but Bob has a slightly higher chance of liking Alice’s blogs than the others. When Bob is done, any blog that both he and Alice like has a higher chance of being picked by Carmen, and so on, with a small number of blogs becoming increasingly likely to be chosen in the future because they were chosen in the past.

Think of this positive feedback as a preference premium. The system assumes that later users come into an environment shaped by earlier users; the thousand-and-first user will not be selecting blogs at random, but will rather be affected, even if unconsciously, by the preference premiums built up in the system previously.

Note that this model is absolutely mute as to why one blog might be preferred over another. Perhaps some writing is simply better than average (a preference for quality), perhaps people want the recommendations of others (a preference for marketing), perhaps there is value in reading the same blogs as your friends (a preference for “solidarity goods”, things best enjoyed by a group). It could be all three, or some other effect entirely, and it could be different for different readers and different writers. What matters is that any tendency towards agreement in diverse and free systems, however small and for whatever reason, can create power law distributions.

This is what’s interesting about power-law distributions: They aren’t about “merit”, at least in the way we normally think about it. It’s more like high school: Why is that guy popular? Because he’s popular. This is okay when it comes to blogs, of course. The stakes are lower; having a high or low-rated blog doesn’t — yet, anyway — matter too much to your livelihood. (Also, even a small audience can be useful. Though Collision Detection probably doesn’t have more than a few dozen people regularly linking to it, that’s enough to make it the #1 result for a Google search “Clive Thompson”.) Power-law distributions do no real harm online.

But in the real world of work, they’re much more troubling. As Robert Frank and Philip J. Cook noted in their superb, superb book The Winner-Take-All Society, power-law networks wind up massively rewarding people for minute, tiny, almost indistinguishable differences in talent. Increasingly, the guy making $40 million a year is only about 2% more qualified than the one making $400,000, and maybe only 5% more than the one making $40,000. Under power-law distributions, the workplace is now resembling the worlds of Olympic or pro sports — where being a tenth of a second faster than someone else, an amount that would normally be considered vanishingly negligible, separates those who remain amateurs from those who get gazillion-dollar endorsements.

Now for something completely different — well, almost completely different. If you’re interested in this power-law stuff, you might want to check out a feature I wrote last summer for the New York Times Magazine. It was about Richard Wallace, the creator of ALICE — one of the world’s most life-like chatbots.

ALICE “works” well because Wallace had a power-law epiphany: He realized that a tiny number of utterances — maybe 40,000 — make up over 95% of everything humans say in everyday conversation. To seem incredibly realistic, a chatbot didn’t need to have highly sophisticated artificial intelligence. All it needed was to have preprogrammed responses for those 40,000 everyday utterances:

Wallace had hit upon a theory that makes educated, intelligent people squirm: Maybe conversation simply isn’t that complicated. Maybe we just say the same few thousand things to one another, over and over and over again. If Wallace was right, then artificial intelligence didn’t need to be particularly intelligent in order to be convincingly lifelike. A.I. researchers had been focused on self-learning ”neural nets” and mapping out grammar in ”natural language” programs, but Wallace argued that the reason they had never mastered human conversation wasn’t because humans are too complex, but because they are so simple.

”The smarter people are, the more complex they think the human brain is,” he says. ”It’s like anthropocentrism, but on an intellectual level. ‘I have a great brain, therefore everybody else does — and a computer must, too.”’ Wallace says with a laugh. ”And unfortunately most people don’t.”

(Thanks to Boing Boing for originally pointing out Shirky’s piece!

Update: In the comment sections for this item, Jeff Liu has posted some extremely cool research related to power-law distributions; go check them out!

Also, I just noticed that the big-ass graphic at the top of this piece has once again stretched my blog template into a slightly wider-than-usual shape. I lack the requisite design kung-fu to fix it, so, there it is.)

Mathematicians: Huge nerds in the U.S., rock stars in China

I got a fascinating piece of email from a reader the other day — Linda Chen, a mathematician at Columbia University. She pointed me to a study recently done by the Center for Teaching Mathematics at Plymouth University, in which researchers polled young students to find their views about math teachers. The result?

Mathematicians are fat, scruffy and have no friends — in any language. Youngsters from seven countries, asked to come up with a portrait of the typical mathematician, showed a badly dressed, middle-aged nerd with no social life.

Schoolchildren as far apart as Romania, England and America took part in the study conducted by a researcher from the Centre for Teaching Mathematics at Plymouth University. The 300 children, aged 12 and 13, also drew pen and ink portraits of the “archetypal mathematician”.

One English pupil added a caption that read: “Mathematicians have no friends, except other mathematicians, not married or seeing anyone, usually fat, very unstylish, wrinkles in their forehead from thinking so hard, no social life whatsoever, 30 years old, a very short temper.”

Most children drew white men with glasses, often with a beard, bald head or weird hair, and shirt pockets filled with pens, who were working at a blackboard or computer. Finnish children had an even more disturbing view of maths teachers: several portrayed them forcing children to do sums at gunpoint.

Nice. However, things aren’t this bad all over, as Chen found when she recently went to China. She was attending the International Congress of Mathematicians, where they hand out the Fields Medals, effectively the Nobel Prizes for math. It was held in Beijing, and the public reception was astonishing. As Chen wrote:

Of course, visiting China is politically and culturally interesting in itself, but on the mathematical side, I was astounded by the treatment of math by the government and the press. My flight didn’t arrive in time for the opening ceremonies, but besides hearing about it from friends, when I turned on the TV in my hotel room a few hours after the ceremonies, there was coverage on very single channel including clips of the ceremonies as well as interviews with famous mathematicians. Many of them live in the US, but are treated as celebrities in China — there were TV crews at some talks. To get the approximately 4000 mathematicians from the conference center to the Great all of the People in Tiananmen Square for the ceremonies, traffic in Beijing was halted for the motorcade of buses. Furthermore, Jiang Zemin, president of China at the time, sat on stage quietly for two hours, then personally awarded the Fields Medals.

All this occurred because China is a communist country that decided to use its control over the press to emphasize its policy that math is a priority and to publicize China’s ability to attract international events (didn’t China just get chosen for the World’s Fair really recently? I didn’t know the World’s Fair still took place.) Even the fact that every single Beijing subway and bus operator knew that mathematicians wearing badges could ride for free would be difficult to replicate here. The effect of the wall-to-wall coverage of the conference was definitely apparent during my return — from other Americans at the airport and on the plane who learned that I was a mathematician, I heard, “You were with the big math conference? I read about that,” or “Oh, I saw that on TV” or even more specific comments. Imagine W mumbling something about “fuzzy math,” math news on the front page of all the local papers every day for a week, and mathematicians getting waved on through subway turnstiles in New York City by smiling transit workers and you see the difference.

Crash Bonsai

You know, with some items, there is really just no point in me commenting. From the web site:

CrashBonsai is the creation of John Rooney, an artist who is torn between the desire to create and destroy. Recently, he has been making bonsai plants, and combining them with model cars and trucks which he has creatively smashed and melted, to create “CrashBonsai,” little living car crash sculptures. …

You’ll find a variety of vehicles in crashed cars, their scales and dimensions listed. Each model is unique, and individually disassembled, cut, melted, filed, smashed, then reassembled to replicate a real fender bender. Some models might work perfectly with a bonsai you already have, but generally you should expect to create a new bonsai around the vehicles, often placing the tree more to the side of a pot to make room for the vehicle. …

Please note that CrashBonsai models are not just for bonsai alone. They look great on coffee tables, kitchen counters, smashing into lamps and toasters. Please feel free to email any questions prior to ordering.

Rooney is accepting orders now! Apparently, the models available include a “1953 Cadillac Eldorado”, a “2001 Volkswagen Beetle”, and a “1993 Exxon Tanker”.

(Thanks to Rooney for forwarding this to me himself! The picture above is plundered from his site.)

Location, location, location — part. 7

According to Ephraim Schwartz’s latest column, Gillette is engaging in the world’s biggest-yet experiment in location-based sensing:

Following a pilot program, Gillette announced its intention to buy 500,000,000 (that’s not a typo — not half a million but half a billion) RFID tags, at 10 cents a piece and to tag every pallet and every carton coming out of its distribution centers. By the way, the company selling the tags to Gillette is Alien Technology, in Morgan Hill, Calif.

Imagine the benefits of tracking those pallets, and the cases on the pallets, from manufacturing to the point of sale. Gillette will be able to reduce losses from out-of-stock, stolen or lost products, and as the company understands the power of this tracking capability, it will increase revenues by leveraging inventory information into smarter marketing to the retailers. …

RFID tags will allow a computer to identify any object, anywhere, automatically and — here’s the scary part — will allow a product, in essence, to sense the real world on its own.

Two points. These sensors are only 10 cents a piece? At this rate, soon everything you wear, eat, drive and read will be plastered with these things — and you won’t be able to remove them because you won’t even know where they are. I predict someone’s going to invent personal RF-jamming devices that emit pseudorandom fuzzy noise to confuse the zillions of corporate sensors trying to track your whereabouts. At least I hope someone’s working on those jammers — because at this rate, we’re going to need them soon.

Oh, yeah — the second point? The name of the company who made the RFID tags is “Alien Technology”. Love it.

(Update: There are some excellent informational updates in the comments to this item … check them out! Chris Walsh notes that Gillette has said that, based on buying patterns they’ve observed in the past, anyone carrying more than three or four packs may be stealing them. Andrea notes that The Economist wrote a story about the Gillette experiment; the story also notes the freakish privacy implications of this, and reports that some makers of RFID tech are responding to it:

Its chip specifications include a “kill command” that can permanently disable the tag. The centre is working on a privacy policy, a draft of which gives the customer the option to kill tags at the checkout.

Weightless flame balls

It’s really weird (and sad) to read excited science stories that were published a week ago about the interesting experiments taking place … aboard the Columbia’s latest mission in space. But there was, indeed, some cool stuff going on — including research into the behavior of flames in zero-g situations. Apparently you get “flame balls”, which burn incredibly small amounts of fuel, a trick that car engineers would love to learn more about. You also get some just plain wacky flame physics:

They’re creatures of space: tiny flames that curl into balls and flit around like UFOs. They burn using almost no fuel at all, dim and often hard to see. … Ronney says he has no idea what would make a flame ball fly around in a spiral. “Flame balls move for two reasons,” he explains. “First, when they exhaust the fuel in their vicinity, they drift toward regions with more. They follow the fuel like a little organism. Second, they can drift due to slight accelerations of the shuttle.” Neither of these effects would produce a corkscrew flight path.

More about it on the NASA science site!

Science Week gets medieval on drug companies

Whoa. The editors of Science Week have just published this powerful, angry editorial entitled “The Dangerous Greed of Pharmaceutical Companies”. The title says it all, really — except that it’s obviously quite unusual for such a well-respected science mag to take such a hard-line stance. I’m impressed.

A song that will end in the year 2,642

Man, you gotta love John Cage. Whether he was creating music crafted by coin tosses — or maybe just the movements of goldfish in a bowl — you have to know that, even as he undoubtedly was committed to a historically challenging aesthetic plan, and continually attempted to push the envelope in music, and developed some of the most existentially intriguing experiments in non-intentionality and egolessness in music … he was probably also thinking, god almighty am I ever a scam artist. I mean, you just know he watched all the New York pseuds sitting down for a performance of his entirely-silent composition 4’33”, and had serious trouble keeping from giggling.

Still, I actually like Cage a lot. I’ve played music for twenty years and, like most musicians (at least, ones that have at some point played in speed-metal bands), am intrigued by sound that lurks on the peripheries of what we consider “music”. Thus it was really cool to hear that some Germans have begun playing As Slow As Possible — a piece of music Cage wrote which lasts for 639 years:

The three notes, which will last for a year-and-a-half, are just the start of the piece, called As Slow As Possible.

Composed by late avant-garde composer John Cage, the performance has already been going for 17 months - although all that has been heard so far is the sound of the organ’s bellows being inflated.

This performance actually reminds me of the idea behind The Clock Of The Long Now — Danny Hillis’ idea of building a clock that will ticks only once a year, and which has a cuckoo that comes out every millenium. The idea, of course, is to impress upon viewers that time is long, something that our nanosecond culture isn’t very good at thinking about. It might seem like a kind of fey project, until you think about the environment and how badly we’ve messed it up. Most of the time, our horrible environmental choices are driven partly because humans, with our 75-year lifespans, are bad at visualizing the long future — and thinking about the implications of our actions. Only very occasionally does one see forethought that goes for a while, and when you do, it’s astonishing; as Hillis writes:

I think of the oak beams in the ceiling of College Hall at New College, Oxford. Last century, when the beams needed replacing, carpenters used oak trees that had been planted in 1386 when the dining hall was first built. The 14th-century builder had planted the trees in anticipation of the time, hundreds of years in the future, when the beams would need replacing. Did the carpenters plant new trees to replace the beams again a few hundred years from now?

Which is what brings me back to John Cage’s As Slowly As Possible. It’s a lovely connective tissue, a way of casting forward to the far future in a visceral, palpable way. Imagine going to see some of the performance 20 years from now. How old will you be in 20 years? What will you be doing? That song will only be three per cent of the way in. What notes will be playing even later on, while you lie dying?

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

My friend Bret’s blog!

Sorry for the looooong delays between postings! I was writing a big essay on the politics of envy, which I will cram onto Collision Detection when it’s done.

But at the moment, I direct your attention to Hot Sandwich — the excellent blog of my friend Bret Dawson. The above graphic is taken from a posting of his about the really freaky aspects of anthropomorphic foodstuffs — food that begs you to eat it.

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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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