Archive: April 2003

The algorithm of Netflix

Wow. Some hacker was a Netflix subscriber, and started noticing that he was having longer-than-usual waits for the hit movies on his list. Yet when he opened up a new account for his wife, almost every movie she asked for, she got — instantly. What’s up?

He did a rather fascinating study: He took five accounts of various ages (pre-existing ones his friends used), then wrote some Perl scripts that would automatically add and subtract movies from their Netflix queues.

The result? Active accounts — ones that rented a lot of films — quickly found that their service was degraded: They’d start getting long wait times for the films they wanted. But new customers, or people who only rarely rent movies, would get what they wanted instantly. Netflix’s principles thus appears to be:

1) Giving trial and first month customers a great experience out of the block. Would you go past the 10 day trial period of you had to wait a week for a title Blockbuster has on the shelf now?

2) Keeping profitable customers happy. Wired magazine’s Dec 2002 issue reported that Netflix loses money due to postage costs if a customer rents more than 5 movies a month. Keeping your customers who produce the best profit margins happy is a no brainer. The customers who take a lonnnnggg time to watch their movies and then stick their discs back in the mail are incredibly important to Netflix.

3) Letting unprofitable customers drop off. I think this may be more of an unintended but acceptable consequence rather than the goal. Certainly many heavy users have in the past and will in the future quit Netflix due to frustration over the availability issue. In the 2003 Q1 conference call Netflix stated that a “there is a very, very, very small percentage of our subscriber base that is uneconomic.” That could very well be those customers who are yielding $2/disc costs or less. Subtract postage, handling, mailer costs, infrastructure, licensing fees, etc. and that heavy user leaves little if any room for profit.

This is really amazing stuff. Go check out his full findings here, including really cool charts of his data!

(Thanks to Slashdot for finding this one!)

Anonymous blogging!

Dig this: some crypto freaks have designed Invisiblog — an anonymous blogging system. You post to using the Mixmaster anonymous-remailer service, so no-one can figure out who you are — unless they send a legal subpoena to the guys who run it. This is a superb device for assisting whistle-blowing and online anonymity, something that is a constitutionally protected right in the U.S., even though it’s under attack. It’s also a great political tool, as the Invisiblog FAQ points out:

q: Who needs that much anonymity?

a: Here are some examples of bloggers and web publishers whose life or liberty has been threatened, or could be endangered in the future:

Iranian blogger and journalist Sina Motallebi was arrested on April 19, and faces charges over the content of his weblog and interviews given to foreign media groups.

Tunisian web journalist Zouhair Yahyaoui was arrested and imprisoned for publishing political commentary on his web site. Authorities allegedly used torture to force Yahyaoui to reveal his access passwords.

Cuba recently imprisoned 75 dissidents and democracy activists, including a number of online journalists, for writing articles critical of the government. Many of them were turned in by informers amongst colleagues and even family. Some of their associates continue to publish on the web.

(Thanks to Slashdot for finding this one!)

Starbucks fights “Haidabucks”

Apparently, Starbucks is threatening to sue a small British Columbia restaurant called “Haidabucks” for trademark infringement. From a story by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation:

Co-owner Darren Swanson says the “bucks” part of his establishment’s name refers to aboriginal culture, not coffee culture.

“Aboriginal men were called bucks and we’re also Haidas, so Haidabucks,” said Swanson. “The three aboriginal partners are all Haidas. That’s how we came up with the name.”

Swanson says his restaurant has a longhouse façade and looks nothing like a Starbucks. HaidaBucks is a 60-seat full service restaurant offering everything from coffee to quesadillas to seafood specials.

Officials at the coffee conglomerate say they will take legal action to stop the “confusing variation” of their name.

“I couldn’t see a StarBucks opening here for another 150 years…it’s a pretty isolated place,” Swanson says refering to the town of Masset, population 1,500.

“Lots of men out there are called Haida bucks. It’s kind of our pet name.”

I realize that Starbucks has to carefully police its trademark or risk losing it … but this is sort of nuts. That’s a picture of the restaurant above.

(Thanks to Stephanie for this one!)

The ultimate spam study

The Center for Democracy and Technology did the coolest study ever: They figured out what online activities will attract spam to your inbox. They started a bunch of email addresses, and used them in several ways — on USENET, on web sites, in e-commerce, and other ways. The verdict? From their report:

Our analysis indicated that e-mail addresses posted on Web sites or in newsgroups attract the most spam … CDT received the most e-mails when an address was placed visibly on a public Web site. Spammers use software harvesting programs such as robots or spiders to record e-mail addresses listed on Web sites, including both personal Web pages and institutional (corporate or non-profit) Web pages.

USENET postings also attracted spam, but not as much. The good news is that e-commerce folks were mostly honest about not re-selling your email, when they promised to do so. The other good news is that if you have to post your email on a web sit, you can thwart spambots from harvesting it by slightly altering it — i.e. writing it as clive at

It’s interesting to see how these results differ from when CNET did a (probably less rigorous) version of this experiment two years ago. Back then, they reported that message boards and AOL’s chat rooms were the worst places to leave your email address.

For me, the irony is that I’ve left my email address all the hell over Collision Detection. Nor do I disguise it by altering it. No wonder I’m getting, like, 20 penis-enlargement solicitations a day. Sigh.

(Thanks to Plastic for finding tihs one!)

Gemini stuns me

Okay, sorry I haven’t been blogging this week. But it’s because I was on the road and just got back — and, while I was away (in Huntsville, Alabama), I visited the Rocket Museum of the Marshall Space Flight Center. At the center, NASA has collected various rockets and space modules so you can see them up close. So I wandered around, and fixed my attention on the Gemini capsule. As you may recall, the Gemini capsules were intended to circle the earth a bunch of times with two astronauts on board — as a prequel to a moon shot. The idea was to see how humans responded to the rigors of space.

But here’s what blew my mind: The tiny scale and super-retro style of the Geminis. I mean it’s hard to tell from the picture above, but christ almighty — those things make a Karmann Ghia look spacious. Those guys were just totally crammed in there. And we think of NASA as being all computerized and automated, but lemme tell you, peek inside a Gemini capsule, and it’s literally nothing but manual controls, about 800 tiny manual toggle switches, and slider switches and rotary dials that look as if they’d been plucked of the front of a vintage Fender amplifier. These people weren’t just brave for riding this thing into space — they were insane. I mean, insane in a good way, because I’m a huge supporter of manned space travel (though I agree with critics who complain that the Shuttle is a lousy design and massive waste of money). But seriously, these guys must have been smoking huge, fat rocks of crack to get inside one of these things and head out into the void. After years of being a space buff, and reading tons about early space flight, nothing — absolutely nothing — could prepare me for the shock of realizing how totally and utterly barbaric those early space capsules were. Some of the panels on the Gemini look as if they were made from Meccano pieces; I’m not exaggerating.

If nothing else, NASA’s early space-shot puts you in complete and total awe of the existential force of hacker ingenuity. Because every component of those early spacecraft, NASA hand-tooled from scratch. It’s the most amazing hack I’ve ever seen in my life. And keep in mind, the Wright Brothers had only flown for the first time, what, 60 years earlier? Yet these NASA freaks were heading into space? Just because the president told ‘em they had to? In what amounted to A HERMETICALLY SEALED VOLKSWAGEN??? God almighty.

And one or two space trips wasn’t enough. They’d barely managed to keep two chimps alive in a capsule when they fired a few men up to circle the planet; then they shot the moon barely years later. Then did it again and again and again. And when the Apollo 13 flamed out in a total screaming mess, they just went straight ahead and launched another moon mission three months later. Three. Months. Later. I realize that the Cold War and bonkers McCarthyite ideology was driving a lot of this stuff, but come on — you have to be impressed by this total freakshow of innovation, risk, and single-minded purpose.

I sort of hope this sort of spirit can return to NASA today.

Are you for real?

The other day I was surfing, to upgrade a used Compaq I bought from a friend. After barely a minute of surfing, a pop-up window opened — with an instant message from someone from

Hi there. What are you looking for?

Possibly because I’ve been blogging so much about chat-bots — and companies who try to pass them off as “live” help — I was suspicious. Was this a real person, or just some lame chatbot configured to (badly) answer questions about RAM? I decided to run my own little Reverse Turing Test.

Are you actually a real, live human?

Yep. I’m real.

Okay, can you prove it? What did you think of the last Lord of the Rings movie?

Didn’t see it.

Oh, cool. So you actually either are real — or you’re the best-programmed chat bot I’ve ever encountered.

Satisfied now?

I stole that “Lord of the Rings” question from a San Francisco writer, who used it to trip up a crappy ‘bot from SBC Yahoo Internet that insisted it was actually human.

My life is increasingly resembling a Philip K. Dick novel. I’m spending my days trying to figure out whether the people I’m buying stuff from actually exist.

The history of urinal advertising

These days, advertising in public washrooms is omnipresent. You basically cannot relieve yourself without staring down some pitch for Altoids. In a Tivo age — where more people are zipping past ads than ever before — the washroom delivers something utterly precious to panicked, rapacious advertisers: An audience that is utterly captive for about 30 seconds.

But as it turns out, advertisers weren’t always so eager to invade the toilet. I’ve been reading a memoir by Bernie Krause, a famous soundtrack artist, and he talks about an advertising company he founded in the 60s:

We thought up a venue that had been overlooked. For several weeks, we stood in lavatories, ostensibly washing our hands, but actually running a time clock on the average length of time men spent in stalls. It’s a wonder we weren’t arrested for loitering. After accumulating enough data, we calculated that each person spent at least a full minute in a stall. It didn’t take much to see that an advertiser would receive 100 percent readership for a guaranteed period of time whenever their message was plastered on the inside of bathroom stall doors. Our next goal was to sell the concept, which we called LavaCard.

Ready to make our mark on the advertising world, we contacted Donnelly Outdoor sign company and forwarded a written proposal to the vice president of marketing. The proposal included all of our data and our plan for test-marketing the idea in gas stations along Route 66. When we called to arrange a meeting, the vice president picked up the phone and said, “This is the most scatological and deranged idea I’ve ever received, and I never want to hear your names again. Ever!”

Oh, those quaint capitalists of the past, with all their ethics and stuff.

Do larger screens help women with 3D tasks?

These days, most cognitive and visual scientists agree that men and women have slightly different ways of orienting themselves spatially. Typically, people smugly interpret these scientific findings as concluding that “women can’t find their way around as well as men.” The real question is much more contextual, and less value-laden. Talk to any cognitive scientist in this area, and they’ll tell you that it all depends on the situation. Most, but not all women, navigate best by relying on known landmarks; most, but not all men, navigate best by creating a geometric-style map of the area to work from.

But this research has, over the years, allowed essentialist creeps to say all manner of bonkers crap about what women can and can’t do. They can’t park cars, they get lost, woof woof, meow meow. Like most evolutionary arguments, this founders on the fact that these differences between men and women are sufficiently marginal that you don’t notice them unless you study them closely in a laboratory setting. In everyday life, we all drive cars more or less fine; talking on a mobile phone has an infinitely bigger effect on your cognitive spatial ability than your sex, quite frankly.

But the one area where these spatial differences do become significant is in the rapidly-evolving world of 3D computer environments. Women, in studies, have shown to be slightly worse off than men at navigating them.

Mary Czerwinski, a psychologist in Microsoft’s research lab, got interested in this, and did some research into how and why this happens. Her conclusion is that it’s not 3D environments per se that are difficult for women. It’s the display screens. To quote a story in the New Scientist:

Microsoft has found that women tend to be about 20 per cent slower than men when working out where they are in a computer-generated world. So led by Desney Tan from Carnegie Mellon, Czerwinski and her Microsoft colleague George Robertson ran tests on volunteers to see if they could improve this.

They found that women were just as good as men at virtual navigation when they had a large computer display. “The gender difference simply disappeared,” says Czerwinski. A standard monitor gives a viewing angle of about 35°. With a larger screen, giving a viewing angle of 70°, women navigated better. And with two screens delivering a 100° angle, women matched men’s spatial abilities.

This a really cool finding, because it’s such a neat gloss on these weird assumptions about “what women can’t and can’t do”. When you look at things in the light of Czerwinski’s findings, you realize that the problem with 3D environments is one of interface. They’ve been designed in a way that works well for men, probably because they’ve been designed mostly by men. And it’s these design decisions that amplify the otherwise-small differences between men and women’s cognitive styles.

This sounds all very theoretical, but it’s a huge, huge, huge deal when it comes to industries like the military or aerospace. After all, these are areas that rely increasingly on 3D representations of reality. If the tools of representation are biased towards men, it’s another — admittedly small, but significant — reason you find comparatively fewer women in these areas.

Mind you, this is my bloated political analysis, not Czerwinski’s. You can read her entire paper here, to get the straight goods. While you’re at it, you should check out some of her other work at her web site at Microsoft. She’s done some really fun stuff looking into the social impact of technologies — including instant messaging, a topic I interviewed her about a few years ago for a story.

Her findings? Instant messaging wrecks your concentration at work. No surprise there … except that, as it turns out, not all interruptions are equal. If you’re working on a task that requires visual pattern-spotting — like, say, scanning an Excel spreadsheet — then flipping back and forth into instant messaging will massively hurt your ability to work well. But when you’re doing semantic work — like analysing a text or thinking about a problem — instant messaging doesn’t hurt as much; if the messages coming in are related to your work, it can even help. This stuff rules: Check out the paper here for yourself!

Who needs talent?

There’s really no need for me to comment on this one. According to this Reuters story, a Swedish woman recently placed the following ad in a local paper, looking for work:

“I want a well-paid job. I have no imagination, I am anti-social, uncreative and untalented,” read an advertisement posted by Angelika Wedberg, 30, in the regional daily Goteborgs-Posten on Sunday.

Her phone started ringing incessantly and job offers poured in, Wedberg told the Internet edition of the daily Expressen.

She has an interview on Wednesday with a company called Map Media offering a salary of 18,000 crowns ($2,118) per month — an increase of more than a third on her current job as a care worker for the elderly. Expressen did not say what the new position was.

(Thanks to Morgan for this one!)

Nothing to see here, move along, people, move along

Sorry I’ve not posted in the last few days. I’ve been bushwhacked with a bunch of stuff that’s keeping me away from the keyboard! But I’ve continued to gather much more strange stuff — including some gems sent in by various readers — that will go up tomorrow!

Quicktime Easter Island hedz

This guy Rano Raraku has taken a bunch of Quicktime VR 360-degree-viewable dioramas of the weird heads on Easter Island. This image here is particularly beautiful and eerie! (Click your mouse on the picture and drag it around to get the full 360-degree view.)

Man, I love these heads. It’s been hundreds of years since Westerners discovered them, and we still have no clue what the heck was going on with these things. PBS did a documentary on them, and the site here is pretty informative; my favorite detail is that the single largest head is about 165 tons, stands 71 feet tall, and archaeologists have nicknamed it “El Gigante”. For hilarity’s sake, there’s an edutainment Flash game at the site that lets you try to figure out how the island inhabitants moved these enormous heads around.

(Thanks to El Rey for finding this one!)

The $12,000 phone hack

There’s a fascinating story today on Wired News about a new phone-phreak hack. Basically, it works like this:

Hackers locate someone who uses SBC voice-mail, but who’s never changed his or her password from the basic default. Since default passwords are in a regularized format and easily guessed, the hackers can pretty easily break into their victim’s voice mail. Then they change the outgoing message to say something like “yes, yes, I accept all long distance charges, yes, yes”, with a few pauses in the middle.

Then the hackers place a long-distance call using AT&T’s long-distance service. AT&T offers you the option of billing a long-distance call to a third party — so long as that party answers the phone and agrees to accept the charges. And here’s the catch: The AT&T system runs automatically, using voice-recognition software. So if a hacker places a call to Khazakstan, and gives the victim’s number as the place to bill the call to, AT&T’s little A.I. ‘bot dutifully calls up the victim’s number to check to see if they’ll accept the charges. All it’s doing is listening to make sure whoever picks up the phone says “yes”. And bingo: Since the hackers have changed the voice mail to say “yes, yes, I accept all long-distance charges”, the A.I. ‘bot is fooled.

Wired found one woman who got dinged for a stratospheric $12,000 in long-distance. But AT&T won’t let her get off. They reduced it to $8,000, but no more. And dig this:

“In the process of fighting this, I spoke to numerous people at AT&T and SBC. Not one sounded surprised when I told them about this scam,” Runyon said. “I got the distinct impression that this scam is widespread and new victims are being exploited daily.”

So AT&T knows about this, but still hasn’t changed its incredibly dumb A.I. system. That’s pretty remarkable — because it wouldn’t be that hard to do.

This is, after all, merely a reversal of the Turing Test. The original Turing Test was about whether a human could detect that a machine was a machine. In this case, the machine ought to be trying to detect whether it’s talking to an actual, live human. Plenty of other companies have begun tackling this challenge. As I’ve written about in the past for Wired, Yahoo has implemented a very cool reverse Turing Test — a test to prove whether the human is really human. And when I posted a while back about mobile-phone design, Franco wrote a comment that suggested an incredibly elegant reverse Turing Test that could be implemented over the phone:

You get a recording that asks you to pass some simple test, like dial a specific 2 digit number. However, the test is read by a stuttering drunk.

AT&T could easily do the same thing. Their ‘bot could ask the question “do you accept these third-party long-distance charges” — and then could get the person on the line to prove they’re actually human, by asking a simple, random arithmetic question or something.

Not that anyone from AT&T is actually reading this blog, but if you are — people, wake up! This stuff isn’t hard to do. Thus, the fact that you’re not doing it makes people suspicious that you just don’t care about preventing fraud, so long as you can pass the buck.

CNN’s obit for Fidel Castro

News organizations typically prepare obituaries of famous people years in advance, so that they can rush to print in the event of a sudden death. Some boneheads at CNN apparently put online the mockups for their obits of Fidel Castro, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and others. found them and gleefully posted the URLs online. Twenty minutes later, CNN took them down, but the folks at the Smoking Gun took screenshots that you can see here.

Jarringly, they all use text from Reagan’s obit. But the headlines and quotes give a nice flavor of how CNN plans to immemorialize the others. I love Castro’s quote!

(Thanks to Media Bistro for finding this one!)

Tiny dancing robots!!

Seiko Epson has just announced this teensy new robot called Monsieur II-P. It’s barely the size of a walnut, weighs only 12 grams, uses Bluetooth to communicate, and is powered by two 0.4mm ultrasonic motors. Nobody has any clue exactly what the heck these things are useful for — not even Seiko Epson, actually — but damn, aren’t they cool to look at?

All I know is I want one. Actually, I want twelve of them. Then I can replicate the insanely fabulous scene from this video: A dozen Monsieur II-P robots doing a little dance to classical music, at a Tokyo trade show.

(Thanks to Gizmodo for locating this one!)


A mobile company in Hong Kong has started a new service — SMS alerts about new places where SARS is cropping up. It’ll let users know any buildings — within one mile of their calling area — where SARS has been reported.

I’d never thought about this potential aspect of location-based services, but it queasily makes sense. Once mobile devices are much more location-aware, I can imagine paranoia-chic companies setting up alerts to let you know the relative crime-safety ratios of the neighborhoods you’re entering. It’ll be a like a massive, dynamic version of digital redlining. Yikes.

(Thanks to Boing Boing, via Gizmodo, for this one!)

Is Hobbes now our leading philosopher?

Hobbes is easily the most pessimistic philosopher in history, which is one of the reasons I’ve always loved him. His vision was of a society composed of men “in a state of war” against one another — until a “common power” slaps ‘em around and forces them to behave. My second-year professor of political philosophy put it this way: “If Machiavelli’s philosophy discovered a bold new world of self-interest amongst the elites, Hobbes landed on those shores, cut down the trees, and built Orillia.” (This joke will mean nothing to people who don’t know that Orillia is a trackless suburban moonscape about two hours north of Toronto. Indeed, Orillia is so bleak that it’s a punch line that needs no joke.)

But I digress. The point is, my friend Erik at his blog Culture Raven has been observing a rise in Hobbesian punditry. It seems that today’s pundits are finding many parallels between Hobbes’ Leviathan and today’s America. One is Paul Johnson, who penned a recent essay “Leviathan to the Rescue” for the National Review.

The fun part, though, is Erik’s hilarious ad hominem analysis of Johnson’s motivations. I won’t give it away — go read it here.

The sound of one hand typing

Dig this: A company called Digit Wireless has developed a new way to map QWERTY keys onto a regular phone, to make it easier to type SMSes, emails, and novels on your Nokia. Rather than force people to type on the super-teensy keys of, say, a Handspring Treo — a truly sadomasochistic bit of ergonomic design, if you ask me — Digit Wireless has created the Fastap system.

Their idea: Cluster the QWERTY keys in the corners of each number on a keypad. It’s a little hard to see from this picture, but if you go to the splash page on their site, there’s a better view.

I dunno. It’s a neat idea, but I’ve still yet to see anything as perfectly designed for mobile typing than the Danger Hiptop.

(Thanks to Techdirt Wireless News for finding this one!)

Maybe video games are too creative

Over at Corante’s game blog, Andrew Phelps — a professor of gaming at the Rochester Institute of Technology — has written an interesting essay about how game-design is taught. He points out that academic studying games still have no real language with which to discuss how games work, which is a really good point.

But then he criticizes students for continually wanting to remake the popular games of their youth:

When students come to me their questions are not ‘will I study technique XYZ?’ or ‘will I get a job?’ but ‘how can I learn to make [game X]?’ ( where [game X] is a game that they played in childhood ). Bard’s Tale, Asteroids, Pitfall, Zelda, these are all popular choices. Yes, they all want to do it with new fully immersive ultra high-def 3D and whatnot, but generally people getting their feet wet are not interested in studying new forms of play — they are interested in lavishly recreating the old ones with better technology. And there is nothing wrong with studying the old forms first, indeed it is difficult to explore new alternatives without first understanding the major genres and niches — but at some point originality is key… Regardless of what we try to study anyone in this culture invariable relates any idea back to a basis in another game, and anyone who isn’t in this culture has long since left the room out of disinterest.

As I sit here (and I’ve had two prospective student emails thus far even while I write this in spite of the fact we only have a concentration at the moment and not a degree) I am floored by the number of people that wish only to recreate, albeit with better tech, that which has been seen and described before. And it is in part because they are a part of the gaming culture, and that is what drew them here. The culture is so iconic, worships its past with such fervor, that it is nearly impossible to break the mold … I’ve seen game proposals that literally say ‘We want to build a Quake-like thing but that takes place in a kind of giant bee-hive with insectoid enemies’.

I think he’s way off base. I, too, have harshly criticized the game industry for coughing up the same-old, same-old stuff. But Phelp isn’t giving enough credit to the artistic value of remaking the old.

In virtually every other art-form throughout history, pupils learned the craft by mimicking the style of masters. And the masters themselves invariably plundered from successful works that had come before. Chaucer stole tons of narrative devices for his Canterbury Tales from Boccaccio’s Decameron; Shakespeare stole material joyfully from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Chaucer himself, and Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. James Joyce and T.S. Eliot pretty much did nothing but brilliantly stitch together riffs from the last few millenia of art.

And in each case, the plundering was utterly crucial to their art. These guys knew that by starting with narratives and drama and metaphors that were already proven to work, they were freed up to focus on their own particular creative genius. Julius Caesar kicks ass partly because Shakespeare didn’t have to worry about coming up with an original storyline; he knew the existing one worked well. The same holds true for the audience; nobody who sat down to watch the play was there for the surprise ending or anything. The story had been known for centuries. The point was, Shakespeare’s creativity came out because he didn’t have to worry about crafting the basic narrative. He was free to worry about other things, like making Brutus’ character so wonderfully complex, or producing an insanely deft speech by Marc Anthony that turns the mob against the conspirators.

Let’s be really contrary here. Let’s say the problem with games is not that we’ve had too little creativity — but that we’ve had too much. As Warren Spector once told me, one of the main reasons game design is so hard is that the technological stakes change every few years. A new Playstation or new Pentium chip comes out with entirely new graphical capabilities, forcing designers to throw out all the work they’ve done on tweaking and perfecting the last game engine, and start fresh. That’s like demanding oil painters switch to watercolors after only two years — and then to macrame bead art two years later. Who’s ever going to master an artform under those conditions?

Consider this: The most successful first-person shooter in recent years was Counterstrike — not a new game, but a modification of an existing one. The designer didn’t start from scratch; he didn’t need to. He took a game that worked perfectly well, and made it immeasurably better with a few elegant tweaks. Similarly, there’s been a creative explosion in online Flash games — like Bejeweled or Collapse or Snood — that are really nothing more than updates and modifications of classic color-matching games. Again, the designers didn’t go back to square one … because that’s often artistically counterproductive. If Phelps is worried about the crapola games his students are suggesting (and I admit that Quake-with-bees thing sounds kinda ludicrous) the problem is not that they’re starting with a tried-and-true game. It’s merely that they suggestions for updating it aren’t terribly smart.

Sometimes, too much creativity can be the worst thing for art — and gaming is going to figure this out soon.

I am just not going to make the obvious beef-joke here

A while ago, Chris at pointed me to the site Cool 2B Real. At first blush, it seems like a typical up-with-teens site — the obligatory boosterish stuff trying to bolster the self-esteem of young girls. “Cool-2B-Real is about real girls like you! Whether you’re in school, playing sports or just having fun, strive to be the best you can be,” it gushes.

I poked around it for a bit, chuckling over the site’s combination of earnestness and hopelessly out-of-date lingo. The incredibly goofy text (“It’s totally cool to feel good about yourself! Take the self-esteem test”), the graphics of girls happily doing their homework … this sort of stuff makes actual teenagers cringe. Have the people who made this stuff ever actually met a teenager?

But the truly weird thing was the constant harping on about meat. “Enjoy a beef wrap for lunch or spaghetti and meatballs for dinner,” the site urges. “As energy requirements increase, so should protein intake. Chow down!” There’s a section devoted to Smart Snackin’, listing delights such as “Beef on Bamboo” or “Easy Beef Chili”, those staples of the teenage diet. Want to really have some fun? Why not take this meat poll? (“What type of beef do you most like to eat with your friends?” it asks, and offers you the choice of “Steak”, “Tacos”, “Burgers”, or “Subs”.) Then you can top off the merriment by playing — and I am not making this up — a flash game devoted to grilling burgers. What the hell is going on here? I wondered.

Then I glanced at the bottom of the site and discovered the secret: This site was produced by the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Consider what’s going on here. This isn’t just any other harebrained, marketing site. This is a unique moment in history: The first-ever attempt to make beef hip.

I can only imagine what the pitch meeting for this thing was like.

The “Turing Slip”

My friend Michele just posted this hilarious item on her blog, Hippo Dignity. It’s a screenshot from today’s Google News. It appears that Google News concatenated an item about how Cherie Blair is writing a book — with various articles discussing how Tony Blair is scheduled to appear on The Simpsons. Oops.

I actually am an enormous fan of Google News — not least because it does a superb job of collecting news from a plurality of sources worldwide. (I’m as likely to find stories from Australia, India, or smaller U.S. papers, which helps break my monotonic reliance on The New York Times.) And actually, I’m also strangely fond of these occasional glimpses into the weirdness of machine logic. They’re like Freudian slips. After all, we humans, too, make all manner of intriguing and revealing verbal mistakes, and they can seem funny or odd. But once you unpack these mistakes, you realize the deep psychological reasons we make them, and you understand we really meant to say.

So we could consider this Google-News mistake a mechanical version of a Freudian slip. The computer says something so incredibly weird that it startles you, and only upon closer investigation do you learn more about why the machine did it; and then everything makes a bit more sense. The machine’s facade of Turing-like intelligence slips for a moment, and you spy the algorithms at work. I think that’s a good thing, because it’s socially and politically important — to say nothing of really fun — to understand what makes our intelligent machines tick.

Actually, here’s an idea. Since there are so many of these little machine mistakes every day, we should have a term for them. We need a name for the artificial-intelligence equivalent of a Freudian slip. So I’m inventing a new term, right now:

The “Turing Slip”.

You read it here first!

Tivo and the future of advertising

You know how the TV industry went bonkers back in 1999, when the Tivo came out and let people fast-forward through ads?

TV execs put so much pressure on Tivo that the company removed the way-popular “30-second fast-forward” option. (Actually, there’s a simple hack that restores that option, but whatever.) Tivo users are thus left with the normal-speed fast-forward — which renders ads visible, albeit in super-fast jerky-action mode. TV execs still aren’t too happy with that, since they’re understandably worried that most ads will lose their impact when seen that quickly.

But apparently they don’t. A recent study by Procter and Gamble found that Tivo users who view ads on fast-forward speed have the same retention rates as those who view them at normal speed:

The surprising research has led at least some P&G marketing executives to conclude that TiVo may not pose the threat to TV advertising that many predict, according to executives close to the company. A P&G spokeswoman declined to comment on the research, saying, “We have nothing we can share publicly on TiVo.”

Of course, this may not be good news for TV execs and advertisers, because the logic works both ways. Maybe the point is that retention rates are so crappy that nothing could possibly make them worse:

“That’s probably not an unusual finding based on the way people recall things,” Mr. Schar said. “People hardly recall anything.”

I think I have a weird relationship to TV ads. I actually don’t like fast-forwarding through them. Partly, it’s because I find it can disturb the emotional ecology of the experience; television shows are, after all, scripted specifically to use the commercials as dramatic breaks. That’s not such a big deal if I’m watching a comedy, but if I’m watching a very intense show — like Firefly, a particularly spooky old X-files, or a blood-and-guts episode of E.R. — then the ads serve an important restful function, slowing me down enough to actually enjoy the next blast of narrative face-shredding. When I fast-forward through the ads, it’s just too intense. But maybe I’m a wuss.

The other point is an old one — that the ads are often the best-crafted things on TV. Advertisers spent tons more money per minute than actual shows (something like ten times as much, actually), so they usually showcase the most intriguing early experiments in TV cinematography, special effects and music. But again, I may be in the minority on this opinion.

Here’s an even better idea: I think advertisers should adopt a steganographic approach — and hide commercials inside commercials. Why not create a commercial that produces one coherent visual message when it’s viewed at full speed, and another one that emerges when you view it in fast-forward mode? I mean, how insanely cool would that be? And talk about buzz-producing! You just know Tivo users would hunt through their shows in hopes of seeing “the commercial everyone’s talking about.”

Which is really the lesson of all new technologies and the marketplace. When something comes along that appears to challenge you, don’t quash it. Figure out a way to elegantly hack it — and turn it to your use.


Someone has apparently discovered a Herbert Hoover action figure.

(Thanks to El Rey for pointing this one out!)

Flash mind-reader

Heh. This one’s fun: Click on this page to be taken to the Flash Mind Reader. It’s a little interactive toy that pretends to read your mind.

Actually, the trick behind it is quite simple and fun; I figured it out pretty quickly.

The Core producer defends his craptastic science

Oh, this is delightful. A couple of days ago, I posted about the singularly awful science errors in the sci-fi movie The Core. Apparently, the film’s science has been so viciously lambasted that the producer recently freaked out — and wrote a letter to the North County Times, attacking their review of The Core, and defending his creation. To quote, in part:

When I read that “The Core” suffers from “a preposterous plot, cliched characters, and silly special effects,” I realized Pack didn’t do his homework. If he had checked with your science editor or searched the real core online, he would have found out that many geophysicists and deep earth scientists believe we will be down there soon enough.

Two Ph.D.s from Cal Tech/Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one Ph.D. from the University of California, and one Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia laid out the science for us so that it would be real. If Pack thinks our plot is preposterous, then our team of geophysicists are all wrong, which I seriously believe is not the case. If Pack was alive and well in the ’50s and ’60s, he probably would have said we’d never walk on the moon or land on Mars. He might even have called those two monumental events preposterous as well.

The characters in our film were shaped by the scientists referred to above. They’re all well-known and highly respected in their field and helped the writers, the director, and the actors so they’d behave like real scientists do today. We also had three astronauts as technical advisors work with the rest of our cast. One was Col. Susan Helms, of the Air Force and NASA who guided Hilary Swank. In other words, we took great pains to be accurate in our technology, science, and behavior. So, I guess real scientists and real astronauts are cliched, according to Pack.

Okay, whatever, so he found a couple of scientists who’ll back up the scientific validity of CONTINUITY ERRORS SO HUGE YOU CAN DRIVE A TRUCK THROUGH THEM. Still, there’s one question. Considering the movie’s science has been mocked in places ranging from The Onion to the New York Times, what precisely drove this guy so bonkers about a review in … the North County Times?

Mohammed Al-Sahhaf meets the press

They say the first casualty of war is truth. In the dense fog of war, one is surrounded by propaganda and disinformation; one searches in vain for actual facts, and finds only falsehood. Is this all we can expect from conflict? Lies, lies, and more lies?

Well, no — because if you’re at a press conference for Iraqi information minister Mohammaed Al-Sahhaf, you get such loopy, fantasmagorically over-the-top lies that they almost deserve a new epistemological category of their own.

In recent days, as British and U.S. troops have slowly pounded the living hell out of Bagdhad, Al-Sahhaf has delivered press conferences so wildly hysterical and unglued from reality that even Egyptian sympathizers of Iraq refer to him as “comic relief”. Yet every day, at press-conference time, they tune in, mesmerized by Al-Sahhaf’s Scheherezadian performances.

A few days ago, he argued that “The infidels are committing suicide by the hundreds on the gates of Baghdad. We slaughtered them.” He also let fly with this gem: “As our leader Saddam Hussein said, God is grilling their stomachs in Hell. Fighting is continuing in the main battlefields. Baghdad is secured and fortified and Baghdadis are heroes … We have fed them hell and death.”

Even Al-Sahhaf’s translator has gotten into the game, as the Chronicle Foreign Service noted:

For extra entertainment value, there’s the sideshow of watching al-Sahhaf’s official translator attempt to convey the flavor of his boss’ words.

Sometimes, he skips the really fun stuff altogether and goes with watered- down paraphrasing. But other times, he adds a personal spice that al-Sahhaf never said. At one point, the translator finished off an al-Sahhaf rant by ad- libbing, “Go to hell, I say, go to hell!”

Timothy Noah at Slate magazine decided it was time to give this guy some professional help, so he called up several famous public-relations experts to give their advice. A few examples:

John Buckley was Bob Dole’s spokesman during the 1996 presidential campaign and is now executive vice president for corporate communications at AOL. Buckley says he regards al-Sahhaf “with nothing but admiration, because when you’re going down, style counts. … Why try to get credible at this late date?” Buckley adds, “He does have something I’m a little jealous of, which is the ability to hold a press briefing with a gun on his hip.”

Mike McCurry was Bill Clinton’s press secretary and is now a communications consultant in Washington. “The problem with this guy is that there’s going to be an M-1 tank that shows up in the background of his pictures, and it sounds like sooner rather than later.” He adds, “I’m sure the poor guy has to do this because someone’s going to shoot him if he doesn’t. At least I never had that problem.”

(Check out Tom’s blog here for an entry with a really comprehensive list of Al-Sahhaf’s announcements, as well as an intriguing idea for a second career for him!)

“Token sucking” — the skankiest crime in history?

Apparently, the explosion of high-tech card-reading machines in the New York subway system has produced an unusual casualty: The vanishing of “token sucking”. Never heard of this practice? Well, this story in the New York Times today describes the technique in sufficiently revolting detail that I probably couldn’t paraphrase it better, so here’s a quote:

The criminal carefully jams the token slot with a matchbook or a gum wrapper and waits for a would-be rider to plunk a token down. The token plunker bangs against the locked turnstile and walks away in frustration. Then from the shadows, the token sucker appears like a vampire, quickly sealing his lips over the token slot, inhaling powerfully and producing his prize: a $1.50 token, hard earned and obviously badly needed.

Even among officers who had seen it all, it was widely considered the most disgusting nonviolent crime ever to visit the subway.

“It gave you the willies,” said Brendan J. McGarry, a veteran transit police officer. “We’ve had cases every so often, these guys would end up choking and swallowing the tokens. Then what do you do? You’ve got to wait for the evidence to come out?”

So, as tokens have slowly vanished from everyday use, so has token sucking. That’s not a bad thing — except, perhaps, anthropologically. We are seeing the dodo-like extinction of what is surely the skankiest crime in history, and, consequently, the gnarliest criminals.

And deterrence, when dealing with someone willing to clamp his mouth to one of the most public surfaces in all of New York City, was next to impossible.

“These guys were on their last legs,” Officer McGarry said. “If they were going to jail, it was just an inconvenience for them.” (In an interview with a reporter for The Los Angeles Times in the early 1990’s, one token sucker acknowledged the depths of his desperation. “Hard times makes you do it,” he explained, adding: “Anyways, I’ve kissed women that’s worse.”)

Blogshares: How much is a blog worth?

My friend Andrew Rickard just pointed out a totally cool new site to me: Blogshares. The concept is like the Hollywood Stock Exchange; you get $500 in fake money, which you then invest in your favorite blogs. Blogs are valued by how many inbound links they have, which make it a sort of de-facto reputation-management system, a la “google juice”. The more people like you, the more your popularity, the higher your stock rises.

As the site’s FAQ notes:

BlogShares is a fantasy stock market for weblogs (aka blogs), web sites written by amateurs and professionals alike. The purpose of this manual isn’t to try to define what a blog is and so it’ll assume familiarity with blogs and blogging.

BlogShares is partly a game where registered users can speculate on the value of a blog by buying and selling shares in them. It is also an evolving snapshot of a limited portion of the Blogosphere (the universe of blogs) tracking the single commodity that drives BlogShares: the hyperlink. Blogs are valued on the basis of their incoming links and add value to the market by linking to other known blogs. The valuation process is based on a principal of popularity or how many other blogs like a particular blog. However, in BlogShares not all participants are equal. The value of an incoming link is a factor of the linker’s own popularity.

Of course, the instant I went to the site, the first thing I did was CHECK TO SEE HOW COLLISION DETECTION IS DOING. As it turns out, I’m in okay shape — number 359 on the list of the Top 500 Blogs. That puts me near Neil Gaiman’s journal, and Game Girl Advance — nice company in which to be. My overall valuation is $2,902.32, and I’m owned by three folks. It’s kind of interesting to check into their portfolios and see who else they own; it’s like a cross between a hotlist and a financial decision.

As my friend Andrew — a financial writer and incredibly astute critic of the markets — pointed out to me in an email, though, this system is weirdly hackable:

At the moment I appear to have a controlling interest in your ass. The problem with the site, however, is the relative ease with which one can manipulate the markets. All I have to do is sign on with multiple email accounts and my consortium of fictional people could snap up dozens of blogs (driving up prices, of course). What then? Once we have acquired control of several internet properties, could we force a merger? It’s only natural that we’d start looking for “synergies”, and try to replace ten bloggers with one semi-literate goof in the hopes that readers won’t notice. The mind boggles. Or bloggles, rather.

The Core: the worst science ever in a movie?

I recently saw The Core, and I must say, it rocked the house with furious vengeance. It had a witty script that skated close — but not too close — to being meta; note-perfect fidelity to the conventions of the disaster-flick genre; and, of course, Hilary Swank.

There was only one major problem. The science.

I do not, of course, expectation disastersploitation flicks to reflect rigorous, peer-reviewed science. But nor do I expect them to just wantonly, promiscuously screw stuff up with total and complete abandon. Among the most painfully egregious errors: The ship is shaped like a subway train falling head-first downwards into the core, but everyone walks around on the floor as if gravity didn’t exist. Christ, even Plan 9 From Outer Space doesn’t have continuity errors that bad. I was talking about this with a friend afterwards, when he remembered his own worst-science moment in a movie — Armageddon:

There’s this moment on the space station when Bruce Willis leans over to throw a switch and yells, “I’m turnin’ the gravity on!

Later on, they’re flying the Space Shuttle through a blizzard of meteorites, and it’s swerving around all over the place, handling like a Porsche.

Though when I think about it, I suppose that “turning on the gravity thing” is actually possible. Gravity equals acceleration, so if you had a cylindrical space station, you could theoretically “turn the gravity on” by flicking a switch that set it quickly rotating — effectively producing gravity, a la the space orbiters in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

So I’m thinking it’s time to produce the Top 10 list of Worst Science Moments Ever In Movies. Any suggestions?

(Coolness alert: Check out the discussion thread for this item. Plenty of people have written in superb examples, and we are building a really great list of stinktacular movie science!)

Military strategy and Pac-Man

Every time someone comes me to talking about the awfulness of violent video gamse — and how they’re turning tha kidz today into aggressive zombies — I always harken back to the early 80s. Back then, I point out, parents were just as freaked out about video games as they are now. And yet those games of the early 80s seem awful quaint now, don’t they? After all, it was all this goofy stuff like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong — little pixellated icons stumping around hallucinogenic playfields. This is what people thought would lead to vicious, violent tendencies? Pac-Man?? It is to laugh!

Except a few days ago, my girlfriend Emily opened up the Washington Post and discovered that military leaders were discussing their strategy around Bagdhad using the analogy of nothing other than … Pac-Man.

An Army general and others said that rather than slice through Republican Guard defenders and drive straight for Baghdad, the Army and Marines are likely to be forced to focus on wiping out most of the Guard divisions facing them south of Baghdad.

“I think you need to defeat them in detail,” said the general, using the military term for destroying a unit. “I think you should ‘Pac Man’ the ring around Baghdad,” he said, referring to the 1980s computer game in which a big dot gobbled up smaller ones.

Of course, the lovely thing here is that the game is now so old that the newspaper reporter here feels compelled to clarify just what the heck Pac-Man actually is.

I suppose this means that in wars twenty years from now, generals will be referring to the classic lingo of 90s first-person-shooters to describe their attacks. “We’ll be looking out for campers lurking in the quiet spots, and giving the 3rd division extra training in death-flower moves …”

All your base are belong in jail

Once again, when it comes to sheer weirdness, reality outstrips fiction. From the pages of the Sturgis Journal:

Sturgis police arrested seven Sturgis men for placing more than 20 threatening letters on various businesses, schools, banks and at the post office. At least 12 signs were posted Monday morning. Another 20 were put up Tuesday evening, according to Sturgis police.

The letters all read “All your base are belong to us and you have no chance to survive, make your time.”

Information about the letters was forwarded to the FBI and U.S. postal authorities, said Sturgis police Chief Eugene Alli.

“This is no joking matter,” he said. “During a time of war and with the present concern for homeland security, terrorist acts will not be tolerated and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

The “All your base are belong to us” are lines said by Cats, a bad guy in a 1989 Japanese video game. The poor translation to English led to its use by many involved in the video game culture.

Like they say, you can’t make this stuff up — and indeed, why would you even want to?

Drudge Report makes $3,500 a day

Whoa. According to the New York Post, the Drudge Report makes $800,000 a year. No word on precisely how he does this — advertising? Syndication? Counterfeiting? But either way, that probably makes Drudge the wealthiest blogger in the world.

And when you think about it, Drudge is probably also the first ever blogger in history. Back when his web site started up, I remember people saying, what the hell? It’s nothing but a bunch of links to other news sites. I can just go to them myself! Except that in a networked world flooded with too much information, the valuable people become the ones who point you in the right places to go — a proposition that Drudge originally discovered, and that a worldwide explosion of blogs has now proved.

The funny thing is, I remember when I first began reading the Drudge Report … back when he did it via email. It was late 1994, and I remember thinking, wow, this guy is a right-wing conspiracy nutcase, but he’s getting some interesting scoops on Hollywood insider info! The earliest copy of his old-style email report I can find is from April 3, 1995, archived on Google News. You can view it here, and here’s an excerpt:


WASHINGTON-Talk Radio is buzzing. We overheard several national shows this week stating-as fact-the imminent indictment of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. The charge is said to be obstruction of justice. If our First Lady did order the removal of files from the office of Vince Foster- after the office was sealed- this could spell trouble in the eyes of the law. The source of this seems to be Larry Nichols. Mr. Nichols has been no stranger to Talk Radio. He spent months after the election airing dirty Arkansas laundry.

(Thanks to Media Bistro for pointing this one out!)

A magazine for hacking the world

I have fallen in love with this new magazine — Ready Made. I picked it up a few months ago in a supermarket, and was totally fascinated by its mix: It’s like a Martha Stewart Living for broke, DIY-minded young adults with an ecological sensibility.

To wit: Every issue consists of a dozen or so really hilarious projects you can make using cheap, found, or recycled materials. In recent issues, they’re run instructions on how to make a waterproof skirt out of broken umbrellas, a set of lamps out of discarded retro blenders, or a “trash can wall sconce”. The thing is, these items are not only fun, they’re strikingly beautiful: Part of the governing aesthetic is to take an item or material and rethink it with a new purpose.

Which is what I ultimately find so cool about the magazine. At core, it has a hacker spirit: Take the stuff around you and push it to weird new limits.

Check out the images for a few of their projects here, at this page. The one labelled #2 is their design for a “pegboard table” — essentially a table with an internal light and a pegboard surface, allowing you to arrange the pegs in lite-bright-style patterns. That’s as creatively fun as the totally demented casemods that computer geeks have recently been making. In the current issue, they pretty much plant the needle on the weird-o-meter by printing instructions on how to grow a grass couch. I’m not kidding — you can check out the instructions here.

(Actually, my only complaint about the magazine is that they don’t publish complete archives of every issue. Probably, they’re aiming to market it to someone, which sucks; I wish I had all those crazy projects to refer to online now.)

The Ataris

So apparently there’s this new band called The Ataris. I just watched one of their videos online — for a song called “In This Diary.” It’s pretty standard white-boy rawk, notable only for the algorithmic precision with which it cleaves to the middle of the road.

But the question really is, how the hell are they pulling this off? Isn’t Atari still trademarked, and owned by Infogrames now? Either Infogrames’ lawyers haven’t picked on this yet, or maybe they’re actually clueful enough to realize that cultural namechecks are the best marketing they can ask for.

The poetry of our leaders

Slate has a funny piece by Hart Seely pointing out an interesting paradox of our political leaders. When they’re facing harsh questions at a press conference and are trying to speak evasively, their utterances become so koan-like that they verge on poetry.

Apparently, transcripts of Donald Rumsfeld these days have been increasingly Harold-Pinter-esque:

Every day, Rumsfeld regales reporters with his jazzy, impromptu riffs … Rumsfeld’s poetry is paradoxical: It uses playful language to address the most somber subjects: war, terrorism, mortality. Much of it is about indirection and evasion: He never faces his subjects head on but weaves away, letting inversions and repetitions confuse and beguile. His work, with its dedication to the fractured rhythms of the plainspoken vernacular, is reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’. Some readers may find that Rumsfeld’s gift for offhand, quotidian pronouncements is as entrancing as Frank O’Hara’s.

He’s not entirely kidding. When Seely arranges a few of Rumsfeld’s off-the-cuff statements in free verse, the results are almost startling in their weird beauty. An example:

The Unknown

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

That’s almost deep.

As far as I know, in the history of literature, the directly-transcribed words of a political leader have only been printed as actual poetry in one case: Jean Chretien, the Canadian prime minister. When he strangled a protestor with his bare hands (!!) in 1996, his apology was so opaque that the Canadian poet Stuart Ross printed it in his book The Inspiration Cha Cha. I posted a transcription of it some months ago, and you can find it here.

The Kraken wakes

God in heaven. They just caught this giant squid off New Zealand. It weights 330 pounds and, apparently, was feasting on “Patagonian Toothfish” which themselves are about six feet long. As one of the scientists said in a story about this on, “This is a very aggressive animal and moves quickly. If you fell in the water next to it you would be in big trouble.”

No kidding. As the story also notes:

The half-grown female colossal squid is only the second intact example of the monster cephalopod known to have been found, said marine biologist Steve O’Shea of New Zealand’s national museum.

“I’ve seen 105 giant squid, but seeing something like this is pretty sensational,” O’Shea told Reuters.

Okay, maybe this guy is a bit blase after having stared down his 100th giant squid. But for me, this is more proof that we need something like a NASA space program for the ocean. Not to diss outer space — I’m as much of a fan of space exploration as anyone else, believe me. But if we can spent billions of dollars over the the last 30 years hunting for signs of life on hunks of frozen rock like Mars or Io, why the heck aren’t we more interested in the deep sea? It’s surrounding us on all sides, it’s about 99.9% completely unexplored … and it’s teeming with incredibly strange forms of life that want to kill us.

Man, I can’t even look at that picture anymore. It’s seriously freaking me out.

Self promo: My article on Internet war coverage

Newsday, the paper where I used to write a weekly technology column, called me last week and asked me to write an op-ed analysis of how the Internet is affecting our experience of war.

They printed it today, and a copy is online here at their site. Since they take articles off their site after a week, I’ve permanently archived the complete piece here:

Internet Is Democratizing the War
By Clive Thompson

Lately, I’ve been getting messages from a reserve officer deployed in Iraq. He has a remarkably dry wit, and jokes about the terrible food of the army (“Man cannot live on MREs alone. Well, actually he can, but it gets tedious.”) He even finds black humor in the dangers of combat: “Saddam fired a couple of those Scuds that he doesn’t have at me this afternoon,” he grimly noted.

Normally, if a civilian wanted close access to a soldier, you’d have to wait weeks or months for a personal letter. But this anonymous reservist — who calls himself “Lt. Smash” — isn’t sending letters home to his folks.

He’s writing about his experiences on his “blog” — a web site he updates almost every day (available at Over 6,000 people read it daily, giving them a suddenly intimate glimpse into news they see on television. Heard about those infamous Iraqi sandstorms? Lt. Smash is living with them. “Fortunately, the sand is very fine, and therefore does not sting,” he notes. “Unfortunately, the sand is very fine, and is probably doing nasty things to our lungs.”

Such is the new face of combat. The last Gulf conflict was known as the “video game war” — where the only images we saw were impersonal blips on TV. But this time around, the Internet is radically changing our experience of the battle. Intimate, first-person accounts are showing us the personal side of conflict.

Is it going to affect how we think of war?

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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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Collision Detection: A Blog by Clive Thompson