Archive: March 2003

Email traces show who’s in your posse

Dig this: A group of Hewlett Packard researchers studied 200,000 emails sent on their company’s internal network. They analyzed them to see how they clustered, and discovered that it’s pretty easy to figure out what little subgroups exist within a larger organization. As a story in the New Scientist puts it:

To pick them out, the researchers used a computer algorithm that looks for the critical links that form bridges between separate groups - what the team calls links with high “betweenness”. By severing these links one by one, the algorithm gradually isolates people into different communities of groups who are emailing each other. …

The technique revealed 66 communities at the lab. And when the researchers compared the community members with the company organisation charts, they found that 49 of them contained people who all worked in the same department. In most of the others, the people were collaborating on a project.

Simple enough — when you look inside an organization, you’ll find a bunch of groups. Where it gets interesting is when you look outside, into the full Internet. Would it be possible to examine email movement to figure out who “knows” who? Or, more importantly, who’s the ringleader of a group?

In a second investigation, the team plotted the same network of emails using a standard algorithm that, in effect, tries to arrange it in the least tangled way possible. This showed that the managers, including the director, tended to cluster in the middle. “This approach puts in the middle the people who have the most diverse range of contacts in the organisation - and these tend to be the leaders,” says Tyler.

An interesting way to hunt for the leader of a terrorist cell, to be sure. But also a superb way to run a dragnet on ever more totally innocent people, which is the strange direction our security apparatuses seem to be going these days. I can only imagine how much the Carnivore guys are slavering over these sorts of techniques. The HP guys themselves seem fairly agnostic as to how one could use this technique; they’re just scientists, and this is good science — you can download a PDF of their paper about the experiment here.

(Thanks to Coder Log for pointing this one out!)

Hark! From afar, distant voices with fell news

This is just beyond superb. You know how a worldwide community of Tolkien geeks have been working out the grammar and vocabulary of Sindarin, the language of the Grey Elves in the Lord of the Rings trilogy?

Well, one fan recently figured out a few useful phrases to use at Tolkien fan conventions. My favorite:

“Luithio lin palanlamath” = “turn off your cell phones”
lit. “Quench your far-voices”

The universe simply does not get any better than this.

(Thanks to Misha for finding this one!)

The high price of entertainment

This is a really sobering finding. The Transportation Board of Canada has spent the last few years examining the crash of SwissAir Flight 111, which took off from JFK in 1998 and went down off the coast of Halifax, killing all 229 people aboard.

Their conclusion? The on-board fire may have been caused by the jet’s recently-installed entertainment system, which provided “video and gambling games and movies”:

Canadian investigators have concluded that the 1998 crash of Swissair Flight 111, in which all 229 people on board were killed, was caused by sparks from faulty wiring that ignited flammable insulation above the cockpit, crippling the aircraft’s electrical system.

A report released today by the Transportation Board of Canada stopped short of blaming any single factor for causing the fire that doomed Flight 111 within an hour after the plane, a McDonnell Douglas MD-11, took off for Switzerland from New York’s Kennedy International Airport.

But the report strongly suggested that a hastily installed entertainment system that provided games for passengers in first class and business class was probably at least partly to blame for starting the fire, perhaps by overloading the aircraft’s inadequate electrical wiring.

This freaks me out. I’m a huge fan of innovative technological roll-outs; I was one of the first to cheer when I heard that Boeing was outfitting some tranatlantic 747s with Wifi. Last time I flew to England, I spent a couple of hours playing the (rather lame, but whatever) games on the inflight system. Now I’m probably going to be overly-paranoid whenever I board and find out that I can there’s a Super Mario knockoff installed on my seat-back.

I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille

Behold Stephen Paternot. The last time you heard of him, he was the young, glamorous co-founder of, the online content company. It went public on Nov. 13, 1998, and within one day was worth almost $1 billion; by age 23, Paternot was rich beyond his wildest dreams. He’d certainly grown up well-off — his parents esconced him in Swiss private schools — but this sort of instant riches was the stuff of dot-com legend. At the peak of his fame, Paternot was captured in a memorable pose:

Mr. Paternot was the Corey Feldman of the Internet, a leather-pants-wearing prodigy whom a CNN camera crew once captured dancing atop a nightclub table as he declared, “Got the girl. Got the money. Now I’m ready to live a disgusting, frivolous life.”

A year later, was exposed as a company with virtually no value and no prospects of turning a profit, ever, in any way. The stock slid from $97 to its current value, somewhere south of 17 cents. Paternot invested his newfound wealth in, which immediately tanked.

So now Paternot is attempting to reinvent himself … as an actor. In a profile in the latest New York Observer, Paternot discusses his attempts to break into film. His dot-com fame lands him a two-page spread in Vogue. He’s offered a callback for a soap opera, but doesn’t think the part is worthy of him (“To throw myself into daytime soaps is not the best way to really penetrate the soul-searching craft of acting,” he notes.)

And, along the way, he reveals himself to be the gibbering id of the dot-com era — possessed of a wrenching narcissism and an overloaded sense of entitlement that would probably humiliate even the Hilton sisters. I suggest — nay, I urge you — go read this profile. It’s a gorgeous reminder of what made the dot-com boom so spectacularly nauseating. Though was played in the media as a classic Horatio Algerian rags-to-riches story, in reality Paternot was — like many of the supposedly scrappy dot-com kids — a child of silvered privilege. When he gormlessly loses the money he made off, he launches his film career the old-school way: With inherited bucks (his ancestors founded Nestle) to bankroll an indie film project. He sneers at the folks who criticize him for leading a sham company:

“At one point, I was going to hire security guards,” he said. But he doesn’t care too much about the disparagement. “I know I’m not an asshole,” he said. “In the eyes of someone who just sees a fragment of my life, they may see me as a dictator, they may see me as a slave driver. But I believe in karma, and I always believe in ethics. If you put out good, good comes back to you.”

I interviewed Paternot back in 1999, and he seemed like quite a funny and nice guy. It’s possible that his acting career will take off, since his first indie movie — Wholly Moses — is coming out soon. It might be great!

Though I fear otherwise. I just dropped by the Internet Movie Database to look at information for the film, and discovered that several people have already posted “reviews” … even though the film hasn’t opened yet. The first one appears to be written by someone who seems awfully invested in Paternot’s role:

The part that really comes across, thanks to Paternot’s acting, in Stan is how much of an artist he is. The instinctual measuring/mixing/painting scenes, lacking any form of formality, the unforgettable look in his eyes, his hunch, the absolute nihilism shown in his messy, scarred overalls, all add up to this fantastic portrayal of a man who is, at core and centre, an artist.

All of which makes this move to Hollywood seem kind of sensible, when you think about it. If you’ve got a proven talent in manufacturing hype where none is due, there are worse places to go than L.A.

Web’s first indie war correspondent begins his tour

My friend Chris Allbritton, of Back To Iraq, has begun his postings from on the road in the region. He arrived in Turkey today and has some interesting conversations with his contacts there:

The region is rife with conspiracy theories. Aykut said that if I went out and asked the people on the street, half would say the United States committed 9/11 so it could go after Iraq. (Interestingly, almost half of Americans — 45 percent — believe Saddam was personally behind 9/11.) Turkey is also rippling with an anti-Bush sentiment. Turks like Americans and sometimes, even America. But more than 90 percent oppose this war and a similar percentage absolutely loathe George W. Bush. Aykut sheepishly admitted he hoped the war would go badly so Bush would lose in 2004.

Mehmet also said that the Turks, Iranians and Syrians were coming to an “understanding” regarding Iraqi Kurdistan. The upshot is that Iran and Syria would get Turkey’s back if it moved on the Kurdish enclave in defiance of America’s wishes. Iran would even send in its own troops, he said, if the Turks invaded unilaterally. I have no idea if this is true, but Stratfor had something on this not too long ago claiming the exact same thing.

Chris’ trip is all the more significant given that more and more blogs by commercial war correspondents are being shuttered. A few days ago, I noted that CNN shut down the blog of its correspondent Kevin Sites; today, Howard Sherman pointed out to me that Time just asked Joshua Kucera, one of their war reporters, to shut down his blog too.

Optimus Prime update

A week ago, I posted about the U.S. soldier who legally changed his name to “Optimus Prime” — the commander of the Transformers! Today I noticed that his wife dropped by the comment boards here at Collision Detection to say hello and offer some more information about him. (Click here to check out her comments.)

I have now decided that this guy has the coolest email address on the planet.

You deserve a break today

These days, the “antiglobalization movement” — a misnomer, but whatever — is renowned for attacking major brands: Smashing Gap stores, trashing Starbucks, cutting loose at Disney icons. Even so, one company has been hammered particularly hard lately: McDonald’s.

The writer Rob Walker got interested in this, and compiled this collection of links to Associated Press photos of recent McDonald’s vandalism (one of the pix is above). As he notes:

To me it’s kind of an astonishing series — Ronald McDonald burned and held at gunpoint, windows smashed, soldiers with machine guns all over the planet protecting the Golden Arches.

One hundred years from now, I predict the whole issue of “brands” is going to be recognized as one of the most fascinating and queasy topics of the early 21st century. There’s something brutally potent about brands, and how they signify the relationship between our sense of self and the commercial world that defines so much of our lives. I mean, does anyone have a neutral view of brands? We usually respond with love or disdain, but nothing in the middle. I am weirdly emotionally attached to a few brands (Radio Shack, Atari, Hugo Boss), and find other ones positively nauseating (J. Crew, Abercrombie and Fitch). But I rarely just shrug my shoulders.

(My attachment to Hugo Boss is probably all the more ridiculous when you consider the designer originally cut his teeth creating uniforms for the Third Reich. But god in heaven does the company make killer ties!)

New war-related Flash game

In my ongoing quest to document the rise of Flash games as a vehicle for political commentary, I just found this fun little toy: The Blusterizer. Check it out!

(Thanks to Marc for pointing this one out!)

Are mobile phones ruining “Für Elise”?

There’s a really fun post at Monty Ashley’s blog — arguing that mobile-phone ring-tones are wreaking havoc with classical music. Check it out:

A traditional cell-phone ring is Beethoven’s “Für Elise”, because it’s a simple tune and only needs one note at a time. But now there are extremely fancy phones with the potential for extremely complicated rings. Some phones have rings that sound just like old rotary phones, which I find funny.

But some people now associate “Für Elise” with cell-phones. So there are fancy phones that still have that as the ring tone. But because it’s important to use every ounce of potential, it’s not just a simple tune any more. They’ve added harmonic chords and all sort of things that make it sound, well, bigger. And that bugs me, because if you hear “Für Elise” played by an actual pianist, it won’t be nearly as complex as the version on the phones. Weird.

It’s a neat argument. There’s a MIDI version of Fur Elise here — does anyone have any links to any mobile-phone versions of it, to compare?

(Thanks to Bret and Hot Sandwich for pointing this one out!)

B-52s: Enemies of the state, according to MTV

Dig this: MTV has temporarily stopped playing any videos by the B-52s, as part of its response to the war. From the New York Times:

The day after the war in Iraq started, a memo was distributed through the offices of MTV Europe by its broadcast standards department.

In the memo, Mark Sunderland, one of the department’s managers, recommends that music videos depicting “war, soldiers, war planes, bombs, missiles, riots and social unrest, executions” and “other obviously sensitive material” not be shown on MTV in Britain and elsewhere in Europe until further notice. …

Taking further cautionary measures, the memo goes on to advise against showing videos in which lyrics, song titles or even band names allude to war, bombs or other “sensitive words.” It mentions the songs “B.O.B (Bombs Over Baghdad)” by Outkast; “You, Me and World War Three” by Gavin Friday; and anything by the B-52’s.

The B-52s? They’re banning the B-52s??? Is there any more apolitical band on the surface of the planet? As the band members noted, in response to MTV’s actions:

“From Day 1 we’ve said in interviews that our name is a slang term for the bouffant hairdo Kate and Cindy used to wear — nothing to do with bombers, ” said Fred Schneider of the B-52’s, referring to fellow band members.

MTV clearly isn’t even reading its own write-up of the band on the MTV web site, which notes:

The first band to glorify pop culture with an almost Warholian sense of purpose, the B-52’s purveyed their absurd B-movie style and off-kilter sound celebrating the weirdness lurking just beneath the surface of Americana.”

Don’t bet on the races

For years, multiplayer first-person-shooter games have been evolving into a type of spectator sport. At massive LAN parties or sponsored competitions, there’ll be more people gathered around to watch the game-play than actual players. Over in Korea, online games are televised nationally, which makes perfect sense to me. They’re ripe for broadcast, since a news organization could put virtual cameras anywhere they wanted on the map, and/or trail behind a player’s shoulder, or peer out their eyes as they play! I’d far rather watch that than most pro sports, quite frankly.

But I digress. The point of this posting is to note an interesting new evolution of gaming-as-sport.

A new company called YouPlayGames is setting up a service that lets you bet on the outcome of a deathmatch. As the Associated Press reports:

The cost of entry generally will range from a few cents to a few dollars for each kill or injury players incur on their opponents, YouPlayGames creator Chris Grove said Tuesday.

No money limits have been set, but that could change, Grove said.

Another feature will let gamers cap how much money they can lose in 24 hours.

“If two players want to play a game for $100 a life, then we’ll open up a server for that,” he said.

Grove said prizes eventually will include games, vacations and money.

Neat — though hardly the classiest operation. As the story notes, “YouPlayGames is headquartered on the Caribbean island of Curacoa in the Netherlands Antilles, just off the coast of Venezuela,” offshore havens where greasy online gambling operations set up shop to avoid prosecution under North American anti-gambling laws.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

“Earworms” — and the psychology of music

You know when you can’t get a song out of your head? James Kellaris, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, recently studied the problem in 559 students. At the latest meeting of the Society for Consumer Psychology, he reported his findings, which are totally fascinating.

Apparently, “earworms” — songs you can’t stop humming in your brain — most often plague women and musicians. To try and dislodge the song, two-thirds of the time people will try humming a different song; 14% of the time, they try humming the song to its end. Kellaris has no idea why earworms occur. When he asked his students — whose average age was 23 — to describe the worst earworms, their top-10 list was:

1. Other. Everyone has his or her own worst earworm.
2. Chili’s “Baby Back Ribs” jingle.
3. “Who Let the Dogs Out”
4. “We Will Rock You”
5. Kit-Kat candy-bar jingle (“Gimme a Break …”)
6. “Mission Impossible” theme
7. “YMCA”
8. “Whoomp, There It Is”
9. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”
10. “It’s a Small World After All”

I did some digging into Kellaris’ work, and it turns out he’s done some interesting research into music and psychology. Specifically, he’s studied the ways that music affects shopping:

“We’ve found that lively music can shrink shoppers’ perception of time passage, so that they think they’ve been in a store for less time than they actually have,” he says. “And the more time they spend there, of course, the more likely they are to make unplanned or impulse purchases.”

Even people put “on hold” on the telephone have thought they were waiting for a shorter time when they listened to faster tempo music, according to the marketer’s research. If relaxing (i.e., boring) music was played, clients believed their time on hold was longer than it really was. …

Human crowding is one circumstance where adjusting ambient music seems to make a difference, according to the researcher. Combine a lot of shoppers with very loud music — think “Jingle Bell Rock” during the Christmas shopping crunch — and the store will seem even more crowded than it is. But playing slow music when just a few customers are in a store also makes shoppers uncomfortable.

“We found that people evaluate a store most positively — and this is a little bit different than their perceptions of crowding — when there is either fast tempo music and not a lot of people shopping, or where there are a lot of people and slower tempo music,” the professor points out.

In The Republic, Socrates bans “music without lyrics”, because he felt that it was immoral. Music without words, he argued, could be used to subtly stir men’s passions. When you read his ideas, they sound oddly naive — until you think about muzak and its role in urging us on.

Soccer-ball robots!

Well, not really. This new little ‘bot by Toshiba just looks like a soccer ball. (Or, as Gizmodo put it, “it does kinda resemble one of those old Welltron 8-track cassette players.”) In reality, it seems to be a personal robot for your home — but quite frankly, nobody seems to have a clue what the heck you’d use it for.

Unfortunately, the web site is only in Japanese, and though Babelfish tries mightily to translate it clearly, this is all we get:

This corporation this time, the equipment which is connected to foam/home network and, became mediation of the human who is the side which is used, there is no strange feeling anyone and simply those equipment can be operated as a ” human interface ” the ” robot information home appliance ” in concept, made on an experimental basis ” the ApriAlpha “.

Future, supporting and nursing the housekeeping, lightly the performance which does job is added, you think the senior citizen and the family feel at rest and would like to keep developing into the partner who can live.

(Thanks to Gizmodo for finding this one!)

It’s 10 o’clock. Do you know where your children’s cell phones are?

Here’s yet more evidence that location-based technology is the New Big Thing. Alcatel has just announced “Guardian Angel” — an application that lets parents track where their children are, all day long, by locating their mobile phones:

It will send text alerts to their mobile phone if the child deviates too far from that route or takes too long getting there.

Made by French mobile firm Alcatel, the system takes advantage of the existing mobile phone network to locate a child’s whereabouts rather than using global positioning systems like some location-based services.

Parents need simply follow the usual route a child takes to and from school and at three-minute intervals press a button to map out the route.

What I’m waiting for are the first examples of location-based hacking. A central assumption here is that your cell phone is always with you. But what if you actively leave it somewhere else, to disguise your location? Apparently, some disgruntled employees in Hong Kong — where The Pinpoint Company already tracks the location of workers and reports it to their bosses — have begun thinking of ways to mess with the system.

Think of it this way: Want to go see a movie during work hours? Leave your work mobile-phone at your desk. Set it to forward all calls to your personal mobile phone. Then go see a movie, or walk in the park, or go get shitcanned in a bar at 1 in the afternoon. Your boss will smugly check his monitoring screen, see that you’re at your desk, and conclude that all is well. If he calls you, it’ll route to your personal mobile phone, and you can pick it up and say, yeah, sure, I’m right here at my desk. What’s up? Then order another pint.

Or even better yet — try the trick that those hackers in Amsterdam did with a GPS. They tracked themselves they wandered through the streets of the city, “drawing” out figures with their movements. (Click here to see a pigeon they drew!) So, if you’re a teenager annoyed that your parents are watching you, do a few walks around the neighborhood to subtly spell out phrases like “get lost” or “loser”.

(This one comes via Smart Mobs!)

50 Most Loathsome New Yorkers

The New York Press has just published a list of “The 50 Most Loathsome New Yorkers.” Now, this is what I call service journalism. The list misses as often as it hits, but at its best, it’s an exemplar of something that is pretty much absent from our craven, celebrity-and-power-obsessed media: Sharp, funny writing that calls a spade a spade. An example:

17: Bob Kerrey, President, New School
When the bug-eyed former senator and current New School prez got word that the New York Times was about to publish an article asserting his involvement in a massacre of Vietnamese civilians in 1969, he came forward a few days ahead of time to give his own version of the story—and was immediately applauded for his courage in facing up to his “painful” past despite the fact that 1) he’d sat on the story for 32 years and 2) the real pain was on the other side of the machine gun. Kerrey is the face of that bloated, self-centered, delusional America that somehow still manages to see itself as the victim in Vietnam—as though its pseudo-literary “loss of innocence” and, in this case, ruined political prospects, somehow compare to two million actual dead people and a mine-strewn countryside of ravaged moonscapes.

Shutting down the blogs of war

I’m coming late to this, but if you haven’t already heard, Kevin Sites’ blog from Iraq has been shut down. Sites is a CNN correspondent, and ever since he landed in Iraq, he’s been posting fascinating glimpses of everyday life in a war zone. I loved it; after seeing all the top-down coverage on the TV, Sites’ blog — complete with digital-camera pix he took of Iraqi street life — gave me a totally different perspective on the conflict. I’d have thought CNN would have loved it too.

As it turns out, they didn’t. A few days ago, CNN asked Sites to stop blogging. As Sites posted:

Dear readers:

I’ve been asked to suspend my war blogging for awhile.

But I don’t want let you down — I’m chronicling the events of my war experiences, the same as I always have, and hope to come to agreement with CNN in the near future to make them available to you in some shape or form, perhaps on this site.

As a CNN spokespersons herself said: “Covering a war for CNN … is a full-time job and we asked Kevin to concentrate only on that for the time being.”

I think it’s probably more than that. Major news organs get their credibility by appearing to be as fair and objective as possible — and, more importantly, by speaking with one authorial voice. Too many personal accounts of individuals on the ground waters it down. Which really sucks, because I’d imagine it would be easy for a major news organization to set down firm rules around blogging by its employees, such as: Don’t attack our company or expose our inner secrets; don’t attack our competitors; don’t reveal any information that endangers troops. Beyond that, do what you will. And the audiences love this stuff! Sites was getting over 4,000 visitors a day.

All of which makes it more exciting that my friend Chris Allbritton is getting ready to leave for Iraq tomorrow, for his Back To Iraq blog. He is literally making history: He’s the first person to do truly independent journalism funded entirely by his readers, who are international in scope. He’s raised over $10,000 from donors — including me — and will be able to go and do whatever interests him. He’s planning on posting to his blog two or three times a day.

Yesterday, his satellite phone and ruggedized laptop arrived, and I went over to his place to watch him test it out. The laptop is tiny but as heavy as a brick; you can pretty much deflect bullets with one of these things, though I hope he doesn’t have to. We climbed up onto the roof of his Manhattan apartment building, set up the chunky satellite phone, and plugged it into laptop. I wandered over to the edge of the roof and remembered that this is where Chris went on 9/11, to watch the Twin Towers collapse, in disbelief. He took digital photos of the collapse and put them on his site. It was one of the first examples of how everyday people are transforming the way we gather and experience news; even back at 9/11, I got as much concrete information and pictures from blogs and personal web sites as I got from CNN. When he heads back to Iraq, he’s taking that grassroots trend and putting it to a new type of test.

I headed back over, where Chris was picking away at the teensy 3/4-size laptop keyboard and cursing. “I have no idea how I’m going to type on this thing,” he said. A few seconds later, he connected to the satellite — the same way he’ll do it from Syria, Turkey, and hopefully even Iraqi Kurdistan. “Check it out. We’re on!”

This made me laff

And these days, who couldn’t use a laugh?

Who gets the oil?

Once Iraq is liberated, who’ll control their massive oil assets? New York Times columnist Bob Herbert asks this question, and cites the Wall Street Journal — who you figure ought to know — to provide a few clues:

It’s not unpatriotic to say that there are billions of dollars to be made in Iraq and that the gold rush is already under way. It’s simply a matter of fact.

Back in January, an article in The Wall Street Journal noted: “With oil reserves second only to Saudi Arabia’s, Iraq would offer the oil industry enormous opportunity should a war topple Saddam Hussein. But the early spoils would probably go to companies needed to keep Iraq’s already rundown oil operations running, especially if facilities were further damaged in a war. Oil-services firms such as Halliburton Co., where Vice President Dick Cheney formerly served as chief executive, and Schlumberger Ltd. are seen as favorites for what could be as much as $1.5 billion in contracts.”

Indeed, Halliburton division Kellog Brown & Root has already won a Pentagon contract to assess and rehabilitate any war-related damage to Iraq’s oil infrastructure. It probably makes sense to hire them, though; they’ve been working alongside Saddam Hussein for years, as a quick glance through the financial pages showed a reporter for the Village Voice:

Halliburton goes back a long ways in Iraq, providing Saddam with equipment to repair his antiquated oil machinery. According to a Financial Times report in 2000 the business was done through consortia and overseas subsidiaries “to avoid straining relations with Washington and jeopardizing their ties with President Saddam Hussein’s government in Baghdad.”

The government declares war on small cars

There’s an interesting story in the New York Times today about a new governmental initiative: To get rid of small cars.

The idea, on the surface, is promising. It’s an attempt to reform fuel-economy rules in a way that would potentially decrease auto-makers’ incentives to build massive, paramilitary Hummer-style vehicles. Currently, auto-makers can go to town with the “truck class” monsters, because the fuel standards are pretty lax: Only 20.7 miles per gallon, compared to 27.5 miles per gallon for regular cars. The new rules would be different:

The type of system being considered could eliminate the distinction between cars and light trucks and instead base fuel economy requirements on the weight or size of vehicles.

So automakers would no longer have to build small cars to help reach the average required of all cars. As for the largest sport utilities and pickups, the fuel economy standard could in theory be raised enough to force the automakers to make such vehicles smaller. As a result, fewer vehicles on the road would be either very big or very small.

The really weird thing, though, is the rationale that lurks behind all this:

The idea behind the changes is that such vehicles are safer than both small cars and sport utility vehicles and pickups, and that if more people drove them, fewer people would die in crashes. Producing more such vehicles and fewer very small or very large vehicles would reduce the increasing disparity among American vehicles, both in weight and how high they ride. …

“Large passenger cars and minivans are the safest way to move around large numbers of people,” said Dr. Jeffrey W. Runge, the Bush administration’s top auto safety regulator, at a conference in January. “And yet,” he added, referring to the current system of corporate average fuel economy standards, known as CAFE, “we have CAFE-ed large cars out of existence.”

One could scarely ask for more definitive proof of Robert Frank’s amazing thesis in Luxury Fever. In that book, he argues that massive disparities in income are a problem because the pressure to spend trickles down, screwing up the lives of everyone on the lower rungs. If everyone in town starts making buckets of cash, you get screwed: Rent goes up and you’re driven out of town; rich parents blow money on private tutors, lessening your kids’ chance of getting into college; if the CEO wears a $4,000 suit, you’d better show up to the job interview wearing a $1,500 one, even if you can’t afford it. Frank does not argue a massive socialist attack on wealth; he’s pro-capitalist. But he points out that one cannot smugly say that everyone’s business is their own. When others consume profligately, it can actually harm society.

Which brings us back to this super-weird assault on small cars. One of the examples Frank raised in his book is the SUV. When the wealthy begin to drive SUVs, he argued, it forces everyone else to buy one — even if they can’t really afford it — merely to protect themselves from the blitzkrieg assault of the super-loaded careening around in vehicles they can barely control. Back when he wrote it, Frank was accused of being alarmist. But now he seems eerily prophetic. The mass purchase of SUVs by the wealthy has now produced government policy aimed at getting rid of small cars, merely because it’s too lethal to drive them.

Of course, the killer irony is that smaller cars are better than big ones for any number of reasons. You can make a big truck fuel-efficient, but a small one will always beat it. Cities can accomodate more drivers — and, crucially, parkers — with small vehicles. And clearly there’s an economic efficiency argument in allowing a more smooth flow of people in and out of cities.

If this new initiative can genuinely improve fuel efficiency, I’m all for it. But there’s nonetheless a warning in here. As we’ve learned in the last twenty years, wealth may not trickle down very often. But the pressure to spend big always does.

Dog bites robot

By now, you’ve probably read about the exploding popularity of Sony’s Aibo robotic dog. You may also know that people have demonstrated an incredible ability to become emotionally attached to the little critters. Some people buy so many Aibos they have an entire herd. Some psychologists are giving Aibos to lonely elderly people to keep them company. (And some technology thinkers like Sherry Turkle are getting increasingly freaked out by that spectacle.) Clearly, many humans enjoy thinking of Aibos as real.

But what about dogs? Are they fooled?

To find out, a handful of French scientists have been setting up experiments where real, live dogs interact with Aibos. As they note on their website, two kinds of situations are tested. “In the first one, puppies and adult dogs interact freely with the robot.” So far, so good.

Until the second scenario — when the scientists get Darwinian. “In the second one, we organise a situation of implicit competition in which the dog has to defend a piece of meat against the arrival of the robot.”

The result? Well, click here and you can watch what is surely a first in the history of science: Live video of a snarling dog kicking the living shit out of a hapless robot.

Even more gorgeous is the explanatory text that accompanies this video:

The horrible screams that you hear at the end of this film were made by the experimenters, who were startled to see the dog attack the AIBO.

This was the first time that the AIBO was attacked, but it was not the last. During the course of the experiment, the AIBO was sometimes knocked over, bitten and chewed. It is still in perfect working order, and shows no visible signs of damage.

Nevertheless, we strongly advise you not to try anything similar with your AIBO. AIBO is strongly built, but it contains many delicate components that could be easily damaged. Your warranty will not cover you if AIBO is damaged in this way.

No animals were hurt or mistreated in any way during the course of this experiment.

I quite literally cannot stop laughing.

(Thanks to Plastic for unearthing this gem! If you want to read more, there’s a story at Discover magazine discussing robot/animal interactions.)

Optimus Prime goes to war

Wow. A U.S. soldier has legally changed his name to Optimus Prime — the hero of the 1980s robot-toy cartoon show The Transformers. From

Prime took his name from the leader of the Autobots Transformers, which were popular toys and a children’s cartoon in the 1980s.

He legally changed his name on his 30th birthday and now it’s on everything from his driver’s licence, to his military ID, to his uniform.

“They razzed me for three months to no end,” said Prime. “They really dug into me about it.”

“I got a letter from a general at the Pentagon when the name change went through and he says it was great to have the employ of the commander of the Autobots in the National Guard.”

This is so incredibly, berserkly cool. The end part is kind of sad, though:

Prime says the toy actually filled a void in his life when it came out.

“My dad passed away the year before and I didn’t have anybody really around, so I really latched onto him when i was a kid,” he said.

(Thanks to Jeff Liu for pointing this one out!)

Jerry Lewis and French diplomacy

Heh. Los Angeles DJ Ralph Garman decided to play a hoax — so he called up French president Jacques Chirac, and claimed to be Jerry Lewis. The two had a very warm conversation, according to Entertainment Weekly:

Chirac … talked freely about why he isn’t supporting an attack on Iraq, noting, ”The resolution [Bush] wanted to send [to the United Nations] a few days ago says [Iraq] has one week before the attack, and that is not reasonable, you know… In fact, the United States has already won the war, because Saddam now accepts [sic] to be disarmed from the inspectors. They’ve won.”

Chirac also expressed appreciation for at least one of Bush’s prewar tactics: ”Without the boys [the military] sent over there, we would not have had the result of Saddam accepting to disarm. But now that we’ve achieved that, we can avoid war. The United States has to be very careful, because if people hold this against them, it’s not good for the equilibrium of the world.”

Chirac then invited the faux Lewis to visit him in Paris, noting, ”Understand one thing: France and I will always be friends with America, even if we have two different views of this problem.”

Lewis himself was unimpressed. ”Jerry is outraged that this impersonation occurred, especially at this critical time in the conduct of foreign policy,” Alan Isaacman, Lewis’ attorney, told

Blogging from Baghdad

My girlfriend Emily just pointed out the blog “Where Is Raed?” to me — it’s written by a young Iraqi, apparently well-educated and well-off, in Baghdad. He’s posting missives of what it’s like to be bombed:

there is still nothing happening im baghdad we can only hear distant expolsions and there still is no all clear siren. someone in the BBC said that the state radio has been overtaken by US broadcast, that didn’t happen the 3 state broadcasters still operate.
:: salam 6:40 AM [+] ::

air raid sirens in baghdad but the only sounds you can here are the anti-aircraft machine guns. will go now.
:: salam 5:46 AM [+] ::

He’s in favor of getting rid of Saddam Hussein, but apparently isn’t terribly impressed by the mechanism of war to do so:

I think that the coming war is not justified … The excuses for it have been stretched to their limits they will almost snap. A decision has been made sometime ago that “regime change” in Baghdad is needed and excuses for the forceful change have to be made. I do think war could have been avoided, not by running back and forth the last two months, that’s silly. But the whole issue of Iraq should have been dealt with differently since the first day after GW I.

The entities that call themselves “the international community” should have assumed their responsibilities a long time ago, should have thought about what the sanctions they have imposed really meant, should have looked at reports about weapons and human rights abuses a long time before having them thrown in their faces as excuses for war five minutes before midnight.

What is bringing on this rant is the question that has been bugging for days now: how could “support democracy in Iraq” become to mean “bomb the hell out of Iraq”? why did it end up that democracy won’t happen unless we go thru war? Nobody minded an un-democratic Iraq for a very long time, now people have decided to bomb us to democracy? Well, thank you! how thoughtful.

Also, I note that this guy is a fan of my friend Chris Allbritton, the indie-journalist going to Iraq; he quotes approving from Chris’ blog Back To Iraq, and says “is he good or what?”

Here’s my question, though. Is this thing for real — i.e. is he really an Iraqi living in Baghdad? A Google search for his name shows that many folks point to his blog. Does anyone know anything that definitively proves he is who he says he is, and not just a guy in another country, or, like, Jersey City? He certainly seems to have access to Iraqi TV, since he posts pictures of local broadcasts (one of which I’ve posted above). If you go further down this page, he talks about this issue, and says:

there is this whole “authenticity” thing going on concerning this blog. the people who have been reading this blog for a while know that we have been there and done that. and I don’t really want to go into it again.

If it’s real, and he can continue to post during the fighting, it’ll be a fascinating glimpse into what’s going on.

Here’s hoping

Well, we’re at war now.

Here’s hoping the best scenario does come to pass: That the Iraqi army mostly surrenders en masse; that there is as little civilian death as possible; that a democracy — and a sustainable economy — flowers in Iraq; that we have the political will to help stabilize the region; and that we don’t, instead, leave the area in such chaos that we’re less able than ever to pinpoint and prevent acts of terrorism.

We won’t know for five or six years, so, for now, nothing to do but hope.

Palm art

Dig this: The artist Tom Kemp drew 1,000 little paintings on his Palm Vx, using the TealPaint program. Then he assembled them into a 100 x 10 grid, and produced a piece of artwork called Analysis, which is 4 feet high and 16 feet long.

It’s weirdly mesmerizing. It’s like a modern riff on pointillization. Except in this case, it uses the atomic unit of digital life — a single screen of data on a Palm, a little brick of reality we spent so much time staring at all day long.

I love the idea of using PDAs for art. I once had the idea of doing an art project where you create a digital novel of an imaginary person’s life, using the Palm software. You’d create their memos, their calendar, their contacts — the artifacts of a life lived. Then you beam it to someone to “read”; except, in this case, the reader would just poke around in the various bits of data to get a sense of who this fictitious person was, and what their life was like. It’d be like finding a diary on the subway, and leafing through it.

(I first saw Analysis a year ago, but forgot about it until recently Memepool posted about it.)

Independent journalism 1; Fake boobs, 0

You may have heard of Chris Allbritton — my journalist friend, who’s collecting donations at his blog Back to Iraq so he can go back to Iraq and deliver truly independent war reporting. He’ll be relying solely on the money his donors give him (which includes me), so he’ll have no editors pulling his strings, limiting his space, or dumbing down his work.

Here’s the fun part. About a month ago, Chris wrote an anguished post on his blog, noting that after a few months online, he’d raised less money than the woman who has set up a blog soliciting donations to pay for breast implants. She had $3626.18; he had only $1803.71. (Over at the Hector Rottweiler Journal blog, they called this ratio the
“Philistinism Quotient”,
and calculated it to be 201%.)

But then the tide turned. Chris got written up at Wired News, thousands of people started reading his stuff daily, and now the donations are pouring in. As of this weekend, he’d topped $4,300 — thus neatly edging out the fake-boob fund.

Editorialists worldwide on the war

Salon has an interesting collection of editorials from around the world, talking about the U.S.’s declaration of war. The Israeli commentator suggests that the countries opposed to the war are merely envious of U.S. might:

For a short moment, following 9/11, it had seemed that the nations of the world planned to join forces in the battle against global terrorism. But with time, it transpired that selfish concerns of certain states — in particular, the temptation to gnaw at the puissance of a wounded superpower — have overcome even the universal interest in stripping a tyrant like Saddam Hussein of his ability to strike.

The Jordanian writer isn’t so sure:

No Jordanian, no Arab has ever bought, even for one single second, Bush’s blabbering about bringing democracy to this region. A democratic government in Baghdad would reflect people’s anger and revulsion against U.S. policies, and translate it into policies.

Google, the verb

In the last year or so, Google has reached the apotheosis of branding: The corporation has become a verb. Very few corporate names can make a similar boast, other than “xerox” or “fedex.” In fact, “googling” something has become such a common phrase that the online dictionary Word Spy recently listed “google” as a generic term for hunting for info online. To quote:

(GOO.gul) v. To search for information on the Web, particularly by using the Google search engine; to search the Web for information related to a new or potential girlfriend or boyfriend.
—Googling pp.

Google lawyers were not quite as flattered. If your corporate name becomes a catchphrase, it’s used to describe your competitors, too. When I say I’m going to “xerox” something, most of the time these days I’m using a Canon photocopier; if I ask you to pass me a “Kleenex,” it’s just as likely you’ll hand me something made by Scottie. So by defining “google” as the verb for searching on a search engine, WordSpy was attributing the particularly-good techniques of Google to folks like Altavista or Teoma. As CNET noted:

Companies risk losing their trademarks if the terms become a part of common usage and they can’t show they’ve tried to contest it. In one high-profile case in Austria, Sony lost the right to its Walkman trademark in 1994 after it failed to seek a retraction from a dictionary publisher that defined the term generically as a portable cassette player.

So the legal letters went out, and Google asked WordSpy to add a little clarification to the definition. It now reads:

(GOO.gul) v. To search for information on the Web, particularly by using the Google search engine; to search the Web for information related to a new or potential girlfriend or boyfriend. (Note that Google™ is a trademark identifying the search technology and services of Google Technologies Inc.)
—Googling pp.

Sometimes, success can be as much of a hassle as failure.

Dying online

What happens when you die online? At last week’s SXSW Interactive Festival, there was a really super discussion of this. They were discussing the phenomenon of people who, after years of being active in an online community, die. How do their virtual friends deal with it? What’s the connection between people who only know each other from computer screens?

Blogger extraordinaire Heath Row took excellent notes on this panel, which was organized by Dana Robinson. Robinson works for Starbright, a group that hooks up terminally sick kids online, and she’s been doing research into this question: How do people grieve online?

In doing my research I’ve found that online communities in a couple of different ways. They may keep the account up so nobody else can use that ID. And if there are profiles, they may keep the profile available, maybe marking it with a RIP and the years they were alive. They might also set up memorial pages, living obituaries that talk about what they did, how they remembered. And a lot of the gaming communities may have annual memorial events where they have their own little events where they have a memorial avatar. They put down their weapons, come to a central meeting place, and mourn the loss of one of their users.

Other folks had some interesting stuff to add. A few of my favorite comments:

Cory Doctorow: When Google wrote its algorithm for what comes up when you type suicide, they put a lot of thought into it. Right now, the top results are suicide hotlines. But sometimes, when the algorithms aren’t working right, it’s pages of people telling each other how to kill themselves.

Brad Fitzpatrick: Whenever someone dies on LiveJournal, and it’s happened maybe a dozen times now, the last post will get hundreds of comments.

Artificial intelligence — really dumb humans

There’s a nifty piece that went up on Salon a few weeks ago about Hugh Loebner’s annual Turing Test competition. In case you’re not familiar with the competition, it’s an annual contest where computer scientists (and hobbyists) vie to see who has the most life-like chatbot — whose program can converse in the most human-like fashion.

The writer noticed that “serious” A.I. researchers — from universities — typically deride the Loebner contest. Their argument is, usually, that chatbots aren’t real A.I. When you type a sentence in to a chatbot, it doesn’t “know” what you’re saying; it just looks for a preprogrammed response that matches the input, and spits it out. Chatbots usually don’t learn. So serious A.I. scientists regard them as nothing more than a trick. In fact, they often don’t even deign to enter the competition — because they say that the test isn’t tough enough:

“Well, I’ve given you the reason,” replied Dennett. “Think about it: If you and your lab/team had devoted years to developing a truly competent language-comprehension system, but it could be beaten by somebody’s cheezo hobby system because the rules didn’t permit putting a real strain on the competitors, you wouldn’t enter that competition. You wouldn’t take that competition seriously. You don’t enter your Ferrari in a ‘race’ to the bottom of the mountain that can be won by the first car that drives over the cliff and lands upside down on the finish line.”

Behind all this skepticism is one powerful, common-sense assumption about humans: That our conversation is sufficiently complex that it can’t be captured by a “dumb” chatbot. Fair enough.

Except for one thing — many humans can’t converse in an intelligent manner. A.I. chatbot-maker Richard Wallace made this point when I profiled him last year. Sure, the conversation offered by a chatbot is rambling, disconnected, illogical, and unable to follow a topic for more than a sentence. But again — that pretty much describes most conversation online. “Go to any AOL chat room,” Wallace once urged me. Read the stuff that actual humans are writing to each other. It’s easily less human that the speech coughed up by even the dimmest chatbots.

Indeed, here at Collision Detection we have examples even closer at hand. Back in December, I wrote a little posting about the infamous “Michael Jackson Baby Drop Game”. Soon, Google picked it up, and a search for “michael jackson baby drop” began listing my post as one of the top results. Thus, Michael Jackson fans started dropping by — and writing their comments.

And the thing is — more than half the postings are wildly, gorgeously incoherent. You can check ‘em out here, but here are a few samples:

- Stop the negativity because maybe he was bapting them. I think his wires are crossed to but he acks like he is under some kind of religion that he sat for himself and his kids. They have to cover their faces in public.


- Michael, I luv ur music but ur a FUCKIN idiot!U almost dropped that baby.

- you are awsome but what the hell mike you have screwd it up for yourself,it cant end good now iluv ya but get it strait dude, later king you are the best

- hi im very fan of michael jackson but some times his stupid

Interestingly, the posts seem to get more incoherent as time goes on, as if there were some subtle half-life-decay algorithm of moronicity at work here. Even more alarmingly, the more blitheringly weird the posts become, the more likely the authors are to address the post to Michael Jackson himself. Yeee.

I could be accused of poking fun at people for being illiterate, or merely crappy at typed/verbal speech. That would be a correct assumption. But I do this in the service of the larger point that A.I. researchers frequently miss: We humans are defined as much by our idiocy as by our brilliance.

Does spell-check make you dumber?

Possibly so. A bunch of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh just did an interesting experiment. They took a handful of people with high SAT verbal scores, and a handful that had lower SAT verbal scores; then they had both groups proof-read a business letter. Those with higher SAT scores did better, as you might expect. They made five errors, on average — while those with worse aptitude for language made 12.3 errors on average.

Then the researchers repeated the experiment with different groups — but this time, let them use the spell-check in Microsoft Word to help them do the proofreading. The results? Those with higher SAT scores did worse — this time, they made 16 errors. Those with lower verbal aptitude also did slightly worse, though the erosion in their work wasn’t quite so drastic: They sunk to 17 errors. In effect, as CNN wrote:

… spell-check software may level the playing field between people with differing levels of language skills, hampering the work of writers and editors who place too much trust in the software.

Sure, it levels the playing field — by making everyone in a moron. Saved by technology!

Maybe the Onion actually is America’s Finest News Source

On January 18, 2001, The Onion ran the following satirical piece about Bush and his plans for his presidency. The title was “Bush: ‘Our Long National Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity Is Finally Over”, and it goes on to read:

During the 40-minute speech, Bush also promised to bring an end to the severe war drought that plagued the nation under Clinton, assuring citizens that the U.S. will engage in at least one Gulf War-level armed conflict in the next four years.

“You better believe we’re going to mix it up with somebody at some point during my administration,” said Bush, who plans a 250 percent boost in military spending. “Unlike my predecessor, I am fully committed to putting soldiers in battle situations. Otherwise, what is the point of even having a military?”

On the economic side, Bush vowed to bring back economic stagnation by implementing substantial tax cuts, which would lead to a recession, which would necessitate a tax hike, which would lead to a drop in consumer spending, which would lead to layoffs, which would deepen the recession even further. …

“Finally, the horrific misrule of the Democrats has been brought to a close,” House Majority Leader Dennis Hastert (R-IL) told reporters. “Under Bush, we can all look forward to military aggression, deregulation of dangerous, greedy industries, and the defunding of vital domestic social-service programs upon which millions depend. Mercifully, we can now say goodbye to the awful nightmare that was Clinton’s America.”

“For years, I tirelessly preached the message that Clinton must be stopped,” conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh said. “And yet, in 1996, the American public failed to heed my urgent warnings, re-electing Clinton despite the fact that the nation was prosperous and at peace under his regime. But now, thank God, that’s all done with. Once again, we will enjoy mounting debt, jingoism, nuclear paranoia, mass deficit, and a massive military build-up.”

Bush concluded his speech on a note of healing and redemption.

“We as a people must stand united, banding together to tear this nation in two,” Bush said. “Much work lies ahead of us: The gap between the rich and the poor may be wide, be there’s much more widening left to do. We must squander our nation’s hard-won budget surplus on tax breaks for the wealthiest 15 percent. And, on the foreign front, we must find an enemy and defeat it.”

Well, there you have it. When able satirists can predict — down the last note — pretty much every move in Bush’s tenure, several years before he makes it … it’s ever more bleak proof that at least part of the administration’s actions are not in response to world events. It was so painfully obvious that he’d try all this stuff that any clear-headed writer could have called the shots.

(Thanks to Chris from Back To Iraq for finding this one!)

Francaise fries, pt. 2

You may have noticed my posting a week ago about the Palm Beach politician who is lobbying to rebuke the French — by having local restaurants officially call “french fries” by a new name.

As it turns out, this cultural revolution has reached Capitol Hill. This week, two Republican Representatives announced that they had successfully spearheaded a similar move — and from now on, all deep-fried slices of potato served in three House office buildings will be known as “freedom fries”.

One can only wonder what the cheese-eating surrender monkeys on the other side of the pond think of all this.

(Many thanks to Marc for passing this along!)

Video game antiwar protest

Heh. I love this. Video games probably don’t cause real-life violence, but one thing’s for sure …

… they can certainly be used to make a rather hilarious statement against the war.

(Tip of the hat to the fine folks at for finding this one!)

Are you there?

I was talking to a telco executive a year ago, and he mentioned something interesting. “You know what’s weird about the phone?” he asked. “The fact that when you pick up the receiver to call someone, you don’t know if they’re going to be there. We’ve done all this incredible innovation in interesting new tools for using the phone — call waiting, voice mail, forwarding. But it’s kind of weird that the phone is essentially, still, a blind instrument.”

I was talking to him for a story about “presence management” — a new field in our mobile world. “Presence management” is about building tools that let you know where your posse is. The ur-application in this field is the Buddy List on America Online’s Instant Messenger. By letting you know whether someone is online or not — with those wonderful acoustic cues of a door creaking open or slamming shut — AOL’s IM beautifully defined the art of presence management.

When you launch IM, it’s like walking into a party, where you scan the room to see who’s there. It’s such an intimate feeling that, when I log on and spot someone I’m currently having a fight with, it’s very socially awkward. It’s precisely the same discomfort you feel when you walk into a party and spy someone, off in the corner, with whom you’ve had an argument. What should you do? Should I walk over and say hi? Should I ignore him? What if he looks over at me? This spatial dilemna is precisely replicated in IM: Jeez, he’s online. Normally, I’d shoot him a quick IM to say hi. Should I? Does it seem awkward if I don’t? What if he IMs me first? IMspace is, in many ways, a very tactile and physical place.

So the question is — why aren’t phones like this too? How come when I turn on my cell phone or arrive at my desk, I don’t have an option that lets me signal my availability to the outside world? When I pick up my phone to make a call, how come I don’t see a screen letting me know if the person I’m about to call is available? AOL IM — and, indeed, every messaging application — lets you neatly put up a little flag to alert others to your availability: I’m busy! I’m out at lunch! Why don’t phones have this simple, elegant application?

It’s such a no-brainer of an idea that apparently Japanese teens have figured out a simple hack to implement it. According to this very-cool story about mobile-phone culture in Japan, the kids use texting as a way to ping one another:

Before initiating a call to a keitai, they will, almost without exception, begin with a text message to determine availability; the new social norm is that you should “knock before entering.” By sending messages like “Can you talk on the phone now?” or “Are you awake?” text messagers spare each other the rude awakening and disruption of a sudden phone call.

(Cool-discussion alert: There’s a nifty thread about this in the comments for this item.)

(Thanks to Slashdot for finding this one!)

Duct and cover

Back when we were on a high terror alert, the government was constantly warning us to stock up on duct tape — to point of taking out expensive full-page ads in the New York Times urging us on. And, dutifully, citizens raced to the hardware stores — buying three times as much of the stuff as usual. At the same time, though, many experts — including ex-military folks — were deeply skeptical it would do any good. Yet still the government pressed on, urging us to buy. Why?

Well, in one of the weirder conspiracy theories I’ve heard in a while, the Washington Post has noted that America’s major duct-tape manufacturers are huge donors to the Republicans:

Turns out that nearly half — 46 percent to be precise — of the duct tape sold in this country is manufactured by a company in Avon, Ohio. And the founder of that company, that would be Jack Kahl, gave how much to the Republican National Committee and other GOP committees in the 2000 election cycle? Would that be more than $100,000?

His son, John Kahl, who became CEO after his father stepped down shortly after the election, told CNBC last week that “we’re seeing a doubling and tripling of our sales, particularly in certain metro markets and around the coasts and borders.” The plant has “gone to a 24/7 operation, which is about a 40 percent increase” over this time last year, Kahl said. The company had more than $300 million in sales in 2001.

And Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge keeps pushing the product. “You may want to have a safe shelter for four or six hours,” he told PBS’s Jim Lehrer on Wednesday, “until … the chemical plume moves on.” So “you may need that duct tape.”

“Homeland Alert” software

Red, yellow, orange, mauve, chartreuse. Readers — are you, too, having trouble color-coordinating your daily panic level with the government’s ever-shifting terror iconography?

To help keep you on track, some wit has created a little app for the Mac OS called “Homeland Alert” — which monitors the current warning level and displays it on your desktop. You can download it here, but be warned — apparently it doesn’t actually, uh, work. As one reviewer wrote:

The first time I downloaded it I waited about 4 weeks and it did not change once from “Guarded” or blue, not even when we were at the “Elevated” level. We could have been attacked by terrorists and I would have never known!

I don’t know about the rest of the country, but in New York this season … red is the new blue.

(Thanks again to Memepool for this one! And hey — for more fun terror-monitoring equipment, check the awesome comment posted to this item by Howard Sherman.)

Pixel stitching

I’m speechless with awe. Some intrepid hobbyist has created note-perfect renditions of classic 80s video games using needlepoint stitching patterns.

As astute readers may recall, I once posted about the way modern game-graphic techniques have borrowed from some of the tricks that ancient tapestry-designers used to employ. Specifically:

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.

But it never occurred to me to reverse the influence — and use the chunky pixellation of stitching to emulate video-game design. What a brave new world, that has such people in it!

(A tip of the hat to Memepool for finding this one!)

A wedding in need of a shotgun

No comment necessary, here. This fine story comes to us via the Times Picayune:

As Boyd “Bubba” Earl and other members of his sister’s wedding party posed for pictures inside First Christian Church in Slidell, some uninvited guests waited outside for the perfect moment to crash the affair.

Sitting in a parked car across the street, two plainclothes detectives were poised Monday afternoon to arrest Earl, an alleged Marine Corps deserter.

“Out of respect for the bride and groom, they waited until after the wedding party had finished taking the pictures to make the arrest,” Slidell police Lt. Rob Callahan said. “But it still turned into a ruckus.”

He said Earl, 20, began to punch and kick the detectives as several members of the wedding party joined the fray. The bride, still wearing her wedding gown, jumped in and tried to pull the detectives away from Earl, Detective Bobby Campbell said.

When one of the detectives tried to detain Earl’s 16-year-old runaway girlfriend, Earl screamed, “Don’t hurt her! She’s carrying my baby!” according to police reports.

“Try” out the “new” fun “sarcasterizer”

I love the Brunching Shuttlecocks. A couple of years ago, the geeks at this site started producing surreal interactive toys — which have become some of the most crisp and excellent social comment around. One of their most famous was the Alanis Morisette Lyric Generator, of which I will say no more, other than urging you to go check it out.

But now there’s a new one — the “Sarcasterizer”. Type the URL for any web page into the Sarcasterizer, and it places “irony quotes” around random words. Presto: A sage, solemn news story or corporate website is rendered into a sardonic commentary on itself, delivered in the tone of a sneering po-mo lit-studies student.

I tried it out on a recent CNN story — “France, Russia vow to veto resolution” — and here’s the result:

A veto from any of the “five” permanent council “members” — France, Russia, China, Britain and the United States — “could” kill the measure “sponsored” by the United States, Britain and Spain.

A vote on the draft resolution had been “expected” Tuesday, but diplomats said it is more “likely” that a vote “will” take place later in the week.

French President “Jacques” Chirac told a television interviewer “Monday” that his country’s veto might not be “necessary” because he doesn’t “think” the proposal will win the “required” approval of at least nine of the 15 council members.

Russian Foreign “Minister” Igor “Ivanov” said “Monday” that Moscow is ready to “vote” against the “draft” resolution. (Full story)

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said President Bush would be disappointed by a Russian veto and that he would view it “as a missed ‘opportunity’ for Russia to take an important ‘moral’ stand to ‘defend’ freedom, and to prevent the risk of a massive catastrophe taking place as a ‘result’ of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.”

In a bid to sway still-undecided council members to the U.S. side on the Iraq issue, Secretary of State Colin “Powell” was host to Francois Lonseny Fall, minister for “foreign” affairs of Guinea, for lunch at the State Department on Monday, a senior State Department official told CNN.

Jupiter has 48 moons

Dig it: They’ve just discovered eight new moons orbiting Jupiter, bringing its total to 48. These days, they’ve started talking about Jupiter as its own little solar system. And even wackier — several of the moons circle the planet in the opposite direction to the others, which is freaking out many astronomists:

What is completely unknown about such irregular satellites is how they come to exist at all. When Jupiter was young, it is thought, many asteroids (or dynamical clusters) orbitted the Sun. As Jupiter condensed, its gravity began to bend the paths or even capture some of these stray asteroids. The best evidence for such a capture hypothesis is that many of these new satellites actually orbit in a direction opposite to the rotation of Jupiter, or otherwise follow what is known as retrograde orbits. Six of the new moons are retrograde.

But while the capture theory can explain the backwards orbits, that finding alone is only half the story of how actually to hold on to them once caught. The problem arises in slowing down the moon to a stable orbit. Following a large solar orbit requires lots of speed and energy, while going against the flow of Jupiter—if captured—is likely the only way to dissipate all that escape energy. At least for Jupiter in its present state, capture is almost impossible. As Jewitt noted: “The origin of the dissipation that lead to the capture of Jupiter’s irregular satellites is unknown. In fact, at the present time there is no plausible source of dissipation so that capturing satellites is presently almost impossible.”

I love outer space.

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

Weird USB stuff, pt. 2

Sorry for the delays in posting — I’ve been wrapped up in a project that has kept me from the blog!

But, without further ado, let’s continue the USB weirdness that I posted last week. My artist friend El Rey has continued to hunt the aether for the strangest things on earth that you can plug into a USB port, and has uncovered the following gems:

- the Hello Kitty USB hub (pictured above)
- a USB electric toothbrush
- the ever-toasty USB electric blanket
- and the USB desk fan.

The desk fan I can sort of imagine being useful, but the other stuff? This has got to be some sort of Japanese overcrowding thing. Most of those products are solely Japanese, and outside of their gadgetomania, in urban areas everyone lives in such tiny apartments that your toothbrushing may, in fact, take place within arm’s reach of the computer.

Heat your coffee using USB

Check out this ad for a totally demented invention — a coffee cup that warms itself by drawing a trickle-charge out of your USB port.

Saved by technology!

(Thanks to El Rey for this one!)


Two war notes from the blogosphere — one inspiring, one surreal:

1) My friend Chris Allbritton, who covers war news from an indie perspective at Back To Iraq, has raised almost $1,700 from readers — to help him fund another trip to Iraq. Go check his site out, and if you like what you see, drop him some change. He’ll go back to Iraq and write about what the situation on the ground is really like — from his own perspective, without any strings attached.

2) My friend Bret Dawson, who runs the superbly strange blog Hot Sandwich, has discovered a truly alarming “separated at birth” — related to the war on terrorism. Check out the photo of Al Qaeda operative Khalid Shaikh Mohammed above …. then go to this page here.

The war on terrorism: Pakistan 1, U.S 0

Here’s an irony for you.

For the last year, the Bush administration has sneered at the UN and most of Europe, pretty much ignored its otherwise slavishly devoted allies Mexico and Canada, and actively alienated everyone in the Mideast other than Israel. Bush assumes, quite obviously, that in most matters the U.S. can go it alone. The Bush people feel that everyone is either 1) sufficiently in love with the U.S., 2) sufficiently terrified of it, or 3) already a sworn enemy trying to destroy us with terrorism, so who needs to please ‘em? Yes, we do have all the answers. We don’t need to preserve alliances with other countries, because we can do everything ourselves.

Yet when the time comes to finally capture a major Al Qaeda figure, whoops — it happens in Pakistan. By Pakistani police. Granted, the CIA and U.S. military intelligence no doubt were key to finding Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. But the fact of the matter remains, if we want to nab the terrorists who oppose us, we need strong alliances with other countries — because that’s where they’ll be hiding. We can’t act alone. We never have.

What’s a good reputation worth? 7.6 per cent more, apparently

What’s your good reputation worth? For years, that’s been incredibly hard to quantify. If you’re successful in life or work, it’s often partly due to having developed a good reputation amongst your peers — such that people trust you to do excellent work. Clearly, reputation is worth something. But how do you study it? How do you separate reputation out from other things?

By looking at online systems, that’s how. At places like Ebay, rep-management systems take reputation and distil it into a quintessence — something eminently quantifiable. A few economists at Harvard recently studied people who successful sell a lot of stuff on Ebay — and who have developed high reputation rankings. The result?

Zeckhauser’s research has determined that a person’s good reputation is not only valuable, but it’s worth about 7.6 percent in a retail transaction.

Zeckhauser said eBay’s brand of arms-length transaction provide perhaps one of the best opportunities to examine the economic importance of reputation. Though Zeckhauser said he’s sure that other reputation studies have been conducted on brick-and-mortar sellers, it’s very difficult to isolate reputation from the many other factors that create business success for a retailer in a community. Things such as location, civic associations, store layout, atmosphere, and even the personality of the seller can all affect how a buyer perceives his or her experience in a traditional retail store.

In eBay’s electronic marketplace, Zeckhauser was able to strip out all those external variables and isolate reputation. He and his colleagues auctioned carefully matched items - five vintage Valentine postcards, for example - from the two sellers. One seller had a superb, long-established reputation, which on eBay means many buyers had posted positive feedback after their transactions. The second set was auctioned by the same seller, but under a newly established identity with little or no track record.

After selling 200 matched pairs of vintage postcards, the established identity had brought in 7.6 percent more, on average, from his transactions.

“It’s a pretty fair rate of return for having a good reputation,” Zeckhauser said.

The tiniest video game in the world

… is right here.

(Thanks to El Rey for spotting this one!)

Apply for a job, lose your identity

Quite literally. Apparently, one of the latest forms of identity theft is to put up a job posting on — and harvest all the excellent information that comes in someone’s application. It’s fiendishly brilliant. In the few jobs where I’ve had hiring power, I’ve been astonished how frequently people include their social-security number on their resume. From CNet:

The largest U.S. online job board, a division of TMP Worldwide, sent e-mails to its users this week telling them that fraudulent job positions were being posted as a way to obtain personal information. The e-mail offered suggestions to prevent theft, such as never revealing social security, credit card or nonwork-related information to potential employers.

“Regrettably, from time to time, false job postings are listed online and used to illegally collect personal information from unsuspecting job seekers,” according to a copy of the e-mail forwarded by a reader. “The placement of such false job postings is a violation of the Monster terms of use and may also be a criminal violation of federal and/or state law.”

Still, there are plenty of easier ways to steal someone’s identity. For example:

1) Go to the ATM machines at your local bank around 6 pm on a Friday or Monday. People frequently get paid those days, and after depositing their checks, they often leave the stubs lying around the ATM area. I’ve frequently seen stubs lying around that had someone’s name, address, social-insurance number, and even their phone number and bank account number. Plus, you find out how much they make, which is super-useful for social engineering and stealing their identity.

2) Go to the bank of payphones at an elite hotel like the Waldorf Astoria in New York. One afternoon I spent an hour making a bunch of business calls there, and I was shocked at how frequently incredibly rich older business guys would holler out their personal information into those phones. Half the guys were old enough to be kind of deaf, and they invariably were booking flights or doing something that required their credit card — so in the course of an hour, I listened as about six guys bellowed the spelling of their name, their Platinum American Express Card number, and the expiry date, at full volume. Just unbelievable.

(Thanks to Slashdot for finding this one!)

Everything old is new again

I love this. I’m going to ring this guy up and say hi!

Elle, organ of international terrorism

According to the New York Post, Saddam Hussein owns 2 per cent of Hachette Filipacchi — the magazine company that publishes Elle, Car & Driver, and Women’s Daily.

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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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