Archive: June 2003

Military discovers instant-messaging

It seems the U.S. military has discovered instant-messaging — and loves it. During the war on Iraq, military staff at all levels have found that typing short messages is a supremely efficient way of communicating in a crisis. From a story at Federal Computer Week:

A Navy commander who recently returned from the Middle East said today that chat and secure telephones were the primary communications circuits Navy ships used at sea during the war ….

In addition to chat rooms, joint and coalition forces used numerous other means to communicate, including the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNET), the Non-Classified Internet Protocol Router Network and the Combined Operations Wide-Area Network. “The SIPRNET and IP connectivity allowed us to win this war as fast as we did,” Sorber said.

The secret network not only enables chats, but is agile, flexible and has dynamic bandwidth capabilities that were not hindered, as most other systems were, by the saturated satellite pipes that were used extensively throughout southwest Asia, he said.

However, the soldiers ran into the same social problems that plague those other, fervent early-adopters of instant messaging: Bored office workers and teenagers. When you can chat with nineteen message windows open simultaneously, cognition can become chaotic and filled with nearly Elizabethan subterfuge:

Chat quickly became overused in some situations, including one chat room at the Combined Air Operations Center that had 900 people participating at once, said Navy Cmdr. Tim Sorber, knowledge officer for Commander, Cruiser-Destroyer Group 8. He spoke today at the American Society of Naval Engineers’ Human Systems Integration Symposium in Vienna, Va.

Such a large number of people in a chat room “is a nightmare,” Sorber said … For example, some users were communicating privately with one another, or “whispering,” during chats so that they didn’t clog the main conversation. This became problematic because the whisperers were brokering important deals that cut other decision-makers out of the loop. This caused the commander to quickly outlaw the practice, Sorber said.

(Thanks to the Corante Social Software Blog for this one!)

Virtual women worth 10 per cent less

You know how people play online games like Everquest or Ultima, build up characters with high levels of experience — and then sell them for real cash on Ebay?

Well, the cyber-economist Edward Castronova (an incredibly smart guy who I interviewed last spring) did a study of online-character sales, and found that female avatars sell for 10 per cent less, on average, than male ones. Nathan posted about it on his blog Ramblings, and quoted the study thusly:

“(R)elations between avatars are gender-based, and include chivalry, dating, and sex,” Castronova notes in the 45-page report, The Price of Man and Woman: A Hedonic Pricing Model of Avatar Attributes in a Synthetic World. “(A)bility seems more important than sex in determining the value of a body. Nonetheless, among comparable avatars, females do sell at a significant price discount.

“The discount may stem from a number of causes, including discrimination in Earth society, the maleness of the EverQuest player base, or differences in well-being related to male and female courtship roles. We do know, however, that these differences cannot be caused by sex-based differences in the abilities of the body, since in the fantasy world of Norrath, there are none.”

Don’t think and drive

A new study by a group of Spanish scientists examined how various distractions impaired your ability to drive well. So they strapped a bunch of drivers into a Citroen, had them drive around a course while engaging in a set of distracting activities — such as talking on a mobile phone or having a conversation. As we’d expect by now, such external activities — or “exogenous” behavior, as they call it — had a negative effect, decreasing one’s ability to drive well by about 30 per cent.

But here’s the interesting thing: Internal things — like thinking deeply about a problem — were just as bad. An “endogenous” activities, like meditating on the state of the Dow, can make you just as likely to mow down a nice old granny at the crosswalk. From MSNBC:

Thoughts that require visualizing other spaces also can be distracting, especially if it requires visualizing motion, which can clash with the motion of the car. For example, Nunes says, trying to think about navigating your way through a complex road map may require a lot of effort if you think about it in terms of motion. You may be better off trying to visualize your path as a still image.

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

Exterminate! Exterrrrminate!

So, I was reading this story online about about Sohgo Security, a Japanese company, is developing a robot for security purposes — to patrol buildings at night and check for intruders. Apparently the cool thing about these robots is that they’re powered by fuel cells.

But truthfully, what surprised me more is how much they look like Daleks from the BBC’s televised version of Doctor Who. I mean, it’s kinda uncanny: The garbage-can shape, the little wheels for motion concealed under the metal skirt. Even the function of the robots seems oddly Dalek-like:

The robot sends alarm signals to a security center when it detects flame within 10 meters and people within 8 meters. It also intimidates possible thieves with alarms, flashing lights and loud recordings of the words “thief” and “wait.”

Bendable computers

Dig this: Sony is working on a project called “Gummi” — a computer where you scroll through data by bending and twisting the screen. From the New Scientist:

The resulting device would have no conventional mechanical parts. You would steer the cursor using a touch panel on the reverse of the mini PC, while pushing the middle of the device in or out would let you browse through a menu. Bending could also control tasks such as zooming in and out of a map, controlling the playback speed of video files and editing the composition of image layers. Prototypes of these in-your-wallet devices are about three years away, says Schwesig.

Dig the crazee video of a prototype of Gummi online here!

Young lady, what are you wearing?

Generally, “countercultural” attire tends to annoy me. It’s not because I think people ought to dress in any particular way; I think they ought to be free to dress however they like, actually. No, what tends to irritate me about countercultural fashion — tattoos, multiple piercings, etc. — is the assumption that clothing and fashion can be even vaguely rebellious anymore.

The Man long ago stopped insisting that young women and men wear prim, formal skirts and jacket-and-tie combos. Indeed, The Man is the one selling all of today’s edgy Xtreme clothing to all tha rebel kidz. Come to think of it, The Man is making a hell of a tidy profit doing so, because The Man subcontracts the manufacturing out to Chinese prison-labor factories and sweatshops in the Phillipines that employ armless orphan children to stitch the clothing with their lips. So by all means, fight the power, dude — rock that elite surferwear, get a post-ironic barcode tattooed to the base of your neck. The currency traders on Wall Street are cowering.

But anyway. You get the point. I’m a crank.

And as it turns out, I’m also wrong. Because there is one corner of the universe that still fulminates about loose morals and today’s fashion: Christian colleges. A friend recently brought my attention to the web site of Liberty University, where one can peruse the Female Dress Code that was drafted by the Dean of Women. Using Powerpoint and a bunch of images that look like outtakes from an old Sears catalogue, the Dean outlines the rules of proper attire, including:

* Hair and clothing styles related to counterculture (as determined by the Deans’ Review Committee) are not acceptable.

* Shoulder straps should be no less than two inches wide.

* Body piercing is not permitted. Earring and plugs are permitted in ears only.

* No tennis, athletic, sport shoes or flip-flops (of any style) for class.

* Wrap around dresses (or skirts) must be pinned at the top of the knee.

* No midriffs!

My favorite part is the fact that, according to this document, the Dean’s Review Committee actually meets to determine precisely which hair and clothing styles are part of the “counterculture”.

(Thanks to Ian Hannah for this one!)

Reverse Turing Test fights spam

This is incredibly cool. A couple of times in the past, I’ve posted about Reverse Turing Tests — little online tests that screen out ‘bots by forcing users to prove that they’re human. It’s a simple idea: You ask a user to look at an online graphic of a stretched or distorted word, and type in what they see. Humans are great at visual-recognition, and can do this effortlessly; ‘bots can’t. (I wrote a story for Wired last fall about how Yahoo is using one of these tests.) In the discussion boards here at Collision Detection, a bunch of people mused on whether it’d be possible to use such a system to help screen out spam.

As it turns out, that’s the very idea behind Spam Arrest, a new spam-screening service. Pay them $20 every six months, and they’ll implement at Reverse Turing Test that acts as a sort of firewall between you and anyone trying to email you. As they describe the process in their FAQ:

When an email arrives from an unknown sender, a reply email is sent back asking the sender to verify themselves by clicking on a link to the Spam Arrest website. (View Screenshot)

The link takes them to a page where they are instructed to type in a word that is shown in a picture (View Screenshot).

This step prevents automated systems, such as those used to send spam, for authorizing themselves, yet is very easy for any human to complete.

Obviously, the problem is in situations where the person trying to email you can’t be bothered to do the test and validate themselves as human. But then again, if they can’t be bothered to do 10 seconds of extra work to communicate with you, maybe you don’t want to communicate with them.


Check out this extremely cool Hiptop/Sidekick site called aiyaa! It’s a creation of May Woo, who you may recall from my posting a few weeks ago about how she was creating surrealist pictures using her Hiptop.

Anyway, at aiyaa!, the concept is simple:

Every so often a new word will appear in the box above and if you’d like to join in, snap a photo of yourself expressing today’s emotion with a Hiptop/Sidekick and attach it to an email addressed to Enter whatever’s listed as Today’s Emotion in the subject line of your email (the red text in the box above) and then hit send. Your photo will be immediately posted! w00t!

Today’s emotion is “Spooked” — check it out!

A security-cam of one’s own

Dig this: A camera device that records everything you’re looking at and hearing, via a camera attached to your glasses. Then, if you need to remember or revisit something recent — i.e. to recall precisely what someone said to you, or maybe just to find where the heck you put your keys — you can scroll back over the last four hours of your life. Or, it’d be great for those arguments you have with your partner where you can’t agree over precisely how someone said something. Endless fun!

The only downside is that you’d look like a dork of immense proportions with that camera on your glasses.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for finding this one!)

Miss Manners for cell-phone cameras

By now, you’ve probably seen those ads for cellphones that come with camera attachments. You’ve seen the ads with young goateed hipsters mugging for their friends’ cameras. Or chicks taking secret shots of men on the subway to send to their friends for assessment. Or laughing couples taking goofy action pix as they walk arm-in-arm along the sidewalk. And, like me, you’ve probably thought: Damn, do those people ever look annoying.

As it turns out, so does CNET — so they put together a quick list of cell-phone camera etiquette. It’s online here, and here’s a sample:

DO seek consent before you take shots of strangers. The last thing you should do is to suddenly or stealthily sneak up and snap away.

DO be mindful of your surroundings. As you’re taking pictures with your camera-phone, you may be blocking others just looking for a good view.

DON’T send photo messages to all your friends, unless you know it will appeal to them. As much as you’re proud of them, not everyone wants to see your mundane pictures. Remember, recipients often have to pay to download MMS messages.

Of course, they left the most important one out: Don’t take your cameraphone into the locker room. Heck, they’re already banning that in Tokyo.

Dot-com tombstones

Webloggers Stan and Cathy have collected together a lovely bit of web history — screenshots of the pages that various dot-coms put up saying “goodbye” when they shut down. There are dozens of them, and it’s such a trip looking at how, precisely, the PR weasels at each firm decided to explain what had happened.

There’s a lovely shot of reporting on its own demise, and boasting about how it “confirmed the Internet’s power to connect people worlds apart” (and produce a company with a stock valuation of 12 cents). There’s the lovely irony of a company called going under. And then there’s a really weird one for me, considering that my girlfriend’s name is Emily: A “health and wellness” site that shut down, called

Cool Robot Of The Week

Dig it — the Telerobotics department of NASA has started running a weekly series called “Cool Robot of the Week.” Every seven days, they find a new robot and point to the project. This week it’s David Anderson’s two-wheeled, balancing “nBot”:

The basic idea is pretty simple: drive the wheels in the direction that the upper part of the robot is falling. If the wheels can be driven in such a way as to stay under the robot’s center of gravity, the robot remains balanced. In practice this requires two feedback sensors: a tilt or angle sensor to measure the tilt of the robot with respect to gravity, and wheel encoders to measure the position of the base of the robot. Four terms are sufficient to define the motion and position of this “inverted pendulum” and thereby balance the robot. These are 1) the tilt angle and 2) its first derivative, the angle velocity, and 3) the platform position and 4) its first derivative, the platform velocity. These four measurements are summed and fed back to the platform as a motor voltage, which is proportional to torque, to balance and drive the robot.

Do not fail to check out the videos on this page of the nBot driving around! It makes your heart glad to see a robot roll around on only two wheels.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for finding this one!)

Goodfella video-game reviews

You may recall Henry Hill — the infamous mobster upon which the movie Goodfellas was based. He was part of the $6 million Lufthansa heist in 1978, then cooperated with the police to help bust the Lucchese crime family. He certainly knows about the use of brutal violence and force.

So the editors of the Electronic Gaming Monthly decided to try him out on some virtual violence and force — by having him review Grand Theft Auto, Hitman 2, The Getway, and Animal Crossing. (The latter is a game intended for little girls.) Hill brought along his 14-year-old son Julian. The transcripts are online here, but here’s a taste from Hill’s encounter with The Getaway:

HH: What’s this, English gangsters? What the f*** are they saying? And why’s that guy so ugly? Like his face got caught in the sausage machine.

EGM: OK, that aside, how do you like it so far?

HH: This is like that other stupid one—I’m dying all over again. How do you drive? Ah, s***, wrong side of the street! Bad enough I gotta learn this complicated apparatus—

JH: It’s a controller—

HH: It’s a torture device. Look at these f***ing buttons—where am I going? What the f***? We’re in Brooklyn!

JH: It’s London.

HH: I know. Let’s kill some guys. Can I kill a cop? The Queen, is she dead? Somebody..

JH: You have to follow the mission.

HH: There’s too much traffic. This is like the freeway—why would I wanna do that at home?

JH: Finish the mission!

HH: Julian, I can’t even get in this car. How am I gonna finish anything, here? This game sucks. I’m gonna go have a smoke break.

(Thanks to El Rey for finding this one!)

“Bullfighter” app destroys corporate jargon

Here at Collision Detection, we try to implement blogging solutions in a scalable, extensible fashion, to maximize audience buy-in and provide carry-through with continuous quality improvement, while leveraging our core competencies as an enterprise player in the many-to-many publishing space.

Sadly, that last sentence may not even qualify as parody. Go to almost any corporate web site, and you’ll see examples of writing equally as turgid and gnarly.

But hope has arrived, from the consultancy Deloitte and Touche! They just released Bullfighter, an app that scans through Microsoft Word and Powerpoint documents … and eliminates buzzwords. You can download it here for free, but it’s also worth perusing the FAQ; it’s a lovely example of straight-talking itself. Some excerpts:

Q: What applications can use Bullfighter?
Bullfighter works with Microsoft Word and PowerPoint 2000 and XP. It doesn’t work with Office 97 or earlier. We tried it. There were small explosions and our entire drives were wiped out instantly.

Q: Is there any science behind Bullfighter, or did someone just come with this idea at a bar somewhere? How can I learn more?
Yes. The Flesch Reading Ease score is one of the accepted standards for measuring the demands placed on a reader, and the late Dr. Rudolf Flesch is still regarded as an important figure in the field of readability. His book, “How to Write, Speak and Think More Effectively” (Signet, 1960), is an excellent survey of his work. If you want to be a great communicator, we recommend an appointment with Dr. Flesch. Don’t bother checking - your medical benefits don’t cover visits with deceased linguists.

Q: So you didn’t use any research later than 1960 for this?
A: Right. Remember, we can stop answering FAQs anytime we want to.

Q: Does Deloitte own the Bullfighter name?
Yes. We registered it, at least. The paperwork was started last year. Don’t ask.

Of course, as one observer quoted in the today’s New York Times points out, it’s a touch ironic for Deloitte and Touche — a corporate consultancy — to be offering this remedy, since they were among those reponsible for unleashing this tidal wave of linguistic sludge on the world in the 90s. But possibly this is the hormesis of the business world: Those who try to kill us can also make us stronger.

World’s longest palindrome

A guy named Peter Norvig got bored one evening and wrote a program to create the world’s longest palindrome — 15,139 words.

Granted, it’s just a list of names, places, and things, and doesn’t make grammatical sense. But the computer did wind up using some pretty interesting words:

Maybe I’m biased, but I think it starts out quite strong. “A man, a plan, a caddy” is the basic premise of another fine piece of storytelling. Unfortunately, things go downhill from there rather quickly. It contains truths, but it does not have a plot. It has Putnam, but no logic; Tesla, but no electricity; Pareto, but no optimality; Ebert, but no thumbs up. It has an ensemble cast including Tim Allen, Ed Harris and Al Pacino, but they lack character development. It has Sinatra and Pink, but it doesn’t sing. It has Monet and Goya, but no artistry. It has Slovak, Inuit, Creek, and Italian, but its all Greek to me. It has exotic locations like Bali, Maui, Brasil, Uranus, and Canada, but it jumps around needlessly.

If you want, you can download the source code here!

When good Segways go bad

I can’t stop laughing.

Remember the Segway? Remember how, back in the fall of 2001, it was supposed to launch a new high-tech boom, revitalize the economy, and even — according to Jeff Bezos — “revolutionize the way cities are designed”? How it was the hush-hush secret subject of a book that got a quarter-million-dollar contract from the Harvard Business School Press? And remember how the inventor Dean Kamen boasted that the gyroscopic controls were so brilliant and precise that “it is virtually impossible to fall off the Segway”, as he told Wired News?

Well, President Bush took one for a ride yesterday — and did a total face-plant. According to ITV:

US President George Bush has been photographed falling off a high-tech scooter near his family’s summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine.

A sequence of photos show President Bush stepping onto a two-wheeled high-tech scooter and then lurching forward before recovering his balance.

Bush’s mishap may not be surprising, considering Segways have proven to be sufficiently unstable that they were recently banned by the city of San Francisco. An Atlanta police officer also went flying when he tried to ride one. So, as a matter of fact, did Gina Ghershon.

But we’re being too harsh here. Though the Segway was undoubtedly subject to far too much hype — which includes Bezos desperately shilling them on — Kamen is a brilliant guy, and the device is a really neat piece of engineering. Dig the schematics he’s put online, which include this lovely bit of detail:

Our engineers were so obsessed with the details on the Segway HT that they designed the meshes in the gearbox to produce sound exactly two musical octaves apart—when the Segway HT moves, it makes music, not noise.

“Paging Mr. Jayson Blair”: how to use high-tech to pretend you’re at work

I’m coming to this story two weeks late, but for those of you who haven’t seen it, the Wall St. Journal ran a hilarious story describing the ways that employees use technology to pretend they’re at work, when they’re not. For example:

David Wiskus gives new meaning to the term “working lunch.” The Denver tech-support worker installed a program on his Handspring Visor hand-held that allowed him to manipulate the screen on his office computer from a booth at a local diner.

As he lingered for hours over burgers and fries, he could actually open windows and move documents around on his screen via the hand-held — creating the impression to anyone who walked by that the diligent Mr. Wiskus had just stepped away from his desk.

Okay, that’s clearly pretty insane, and requires more high-tech kung fu than the average worker possesses. But some of the other tricks are easier, such as using to remotely log onto your computer, open up documents, and send things to the printer … so you can look as if you’ve just stepped away from your desk. Another fun trick: If you use a Blackberry pager, you hack it to remove the line it normally adds at the end of each email — “Sent from my BlackBerry Handheld” — so that your boss will think you wrote the message at your desk. They also discuss the lovely scam of setting email timers to auto-sent at a much later time, so you can make it look like you were firing off memos at 2 am.

I actually do stuff like this all the time, but with a slightly different goal. Since I’m a freelance writer, I work pretty much everywhere, 24/7: On the subway, at the cafe, walking down the street, in the middle of an evening out with friends. (Sigh.) But it’s usually too much hassle to explain to my interview subjects that “oh, sorry, yeah, you’ve just caught me boarding a plane” or “uh, I’m currently shopping for old Atari 2600 cartridges in the East Village.” So I use my mobile phone and my Danger Hiptop to create the illusion that I’m pretty much always seated behind a big metal 40s-style desk, with, like, a fedora with a “press” card on my head.

Now you know.

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

Incredibly cool online game

Check out this free, Shockwave-driven game at Incredibly easy to learn, but virtually impossible to master!

UFO flight simulator

This is excellent. A bunch of UFO conspiracy nuts have created an add-on for Microsoft Flight Simulator — which simulates a TR-3B Astra Locust, a supposed antigravity-style plane being engineered at Area 51. Load this freeware into MFS, and you can pilot your own UFO! From their web site:

This TR-3B is a heavy tactical reconnaissance aircraft equipped with a magnetic field disruptor that reduces the weight by 89 percent (it is not the same as anti-gravity, though). It has been created for FS2002 PRO, but will run on FS2002 as well. All gauges are included.

The TR-3B can float like a speedboat at Mach 1.5 over water, fly like a heavy helicopter, like a bush plane, a business jet, like a military jet and lift like a rocket. Cruise speed is approx Mach 4.7 at FL340 and above, and approx Mach 2 at sea level. Service ceiling approx 69,000 feet ASL. Super stable.

The ergonomic new age panel (over 130 gauges!) can be switched between shades of holographic titanium and has digital and analog gauges, including autopilot, engine controls, GPS coupled NAV, ADF, VOR/NAV, 3D HUD, 2D ILS HUD, engine controls, light controls, NAV/COM, AIradar, cabin crew calls, including a fully referenced kneeboard and FS2002 ATC & MAP enabled. The panel has slightly changed now, leaving out a few redundant gauges.

Extensive documentation, including graphic panel chart, helps you learning to fly this complex craft. You will need a mouse and joystick with both hands to operate this craft.

The picture above illustrates the size of a TR-3B, compared to a 747. You gotta go to this site and check out the screenshots of the instrument panel for this craft.

Looks like that looooong graphic is stretching my blog template sideways. Oh well!

(Thanks to Boing Boing for finding this one!)

Take my wife, please

Once again, an entry that needs no comment. From Ananova:

A conman left his “wife” as a deposit to swindle a mobile phone from a shop in China.

The man, who claimed to be an investor from Taiwan, asked to test a Nokia phone in a shop in Lingyuanxilu.

He wanted to try the £250 phone outside the shop and left his “wife” and a packet of “money” as security.

But he never returned and the woman then told shop staff she hardly knew the man, reports China Daily, quoting Guangzhou Daily.

When the shop manager asked the “wife” to pay for the phone, she said she had only known him for three days and didn’t even know his name. The envelope was full of waste paper.

(Thanks to Techdirt Wireless News for this one!)

Disney deflates a Pixar short

I recently went to see Finding Nemo, and I must say, it rocks the house with furious vengeance. Before the main feature, though, Disney shows the classic Pixar short movie Knickknack — which Pixar first created in 1989, to showcase the potential for 3D animated flicks. I first saw Knickknack back when “festivals of animation” used to tour college campuses.

But it appears now that Disney — which distributes Pixar films — decided the old short needed some editing. According to a story in USA Today:

The short follows the hapless attempts of a lonely snow-globe snowman to escape his domain and join a plastic Miami beach bunny. The movie was released on a G-rated 1996 video collection called Tiny Toy Stories. But in that version, the Miami beauty and a mermaid who appears at the end of the short were more well-endowed than they are today.

“In the original, the girls have breasts the size of large grapefruit,” says animation fan Raymond Tucker of Greensboro, N.C. “In the new version, the breasts just aren’t there.”

It’s not clear whether Disney or Pixar made the changes. The story goes on to point out some really fascinating examples of other edits that Disney has made to classic animated movies, including:

In the short The Three Little Pigs (1933), the wolf originally tried to get into a pig’s house by pretending to be a Jewish salesman, with a mask and a Yiddish accent. The scene was re-animated, probably in the 1940s, to make the wolf look and sound more like he does elsewhere in the cartoon.

My bet is that we’ll see far more of this revisionism as time goes on. After all, it’s not that easy to seamlessly edit a hand-drawn classic animated movie; matching the style of an old master is quite tricky. That’s why, in some cases, Disney has simply excised scenes that are too hard to alter. When the movie Melody Time from 1948 was released on DVD and video in 2000, Disney removed Pecos Bill’s cigarette from every single frame. And one entire scene — where Pecos Bill grabs a thundercloud and squeezes out a lightning bolt to light his cigarette — is entirely removed.

The point is, it’s infinitely easier to edit a digital movie than a hand-drawn one. After all, it’s just bits: You can go back in and completely rewrite the script if you want. Indeed, today’s special-effects masters think of a movie as being “shot” in the camera. You create the scene, render it as a 3D environment, then decide where to “place” the virtual camera — the way the audience will view the scene. But that scene remains as a full, 3D environment, which you could dust off 30 years later and completely “reshoot” if you wanted to.

In a way, that’s kind of cool; I’d be interested to see what would happen if — 20 years from now — you let the makers of Toy Story back into the data and redo their film, with a bunch of different cinematic ideas! Indeed, if Disney were to play its cards right, it could resell the same movie over and over and over again, letting different directors take a crack at shaping the material, much as a you can sell the same rock tune or hip-top track by giving the raw material to a different producer (with a totally different style) and turning them loose.

But on the other hand, cultural revisionist work is problematic. After all, when Disney cuts out that antisemitic scene from The Three Little Pigs, it robs us of a document that helps society remember just how blatant antisemitism has been throughout history.

SARS from space

Here’s something to really bake your noodle: A bunch of scientists are now theorizing that SARS might have arrived on Earth from another planet.

I am not kidding. From

In a letter to the British medical journal The Lancet, Chandra Wickramasinghe, from Cardiff University in Wales, and other scientists, propose that SARS may have originated in outer space then fallen down to Earth and landed in China, where the outbreak began.

It sounds like a headline from a supermarket tabloid, but the idea may not be as outlandish as it first appears. One hundred tons (90 metric tons) of space debris fall on Earth every day; some scientists believe as much as one ton (0.9 metric ton) of bacteria from space is part of that daily deposit.

Particles carrying the SARS virus could have come from a comet, the researchers say, and released into the debris trail of the comet’s tail. The Earth’s passage through the stream would have led to the entry of the culprit particles.

“We’re not saying this is definitely what happened,” said Wickramasinghe, who is also the director of the Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology, a research effort that seeks evidence of extraterrestrial life. “But the theory should not be ruled out.”

Okay, I guess you can take or leave this question of whether SARS could have come from little green men. But let’s back up a bit: One ton of bacteria falls from space every day? One ton? Of space bacteria? EVERY DAY?? Why haven’t we been, you know, like, told about this kind of thing?

Mind you, not everyone is convinced of this SARS-UFO theory:

“We have no scientific evidence that SARS or any other infectious disease has dropped off a meteor at this point in time,” Julie Gerberding, director of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a recent briefing. “Should we discover any evidence supportive of that, we would let you know.”

(Thanks to Chris for this one!)

Biz-card origami!

This one’s great — step-by-step instructions by Ned Batchelder on how to fold six business cards into an origami cube!

If that isn’t enough for you, Batchelder points to the web site of Dr. Jeannie Mosley, who organizes the Business Card Menger Sponge Project — an attempt to build a “depth 3 approximation to Menger’s Sponge” out of 66,048 business cards. A Menger’s Sponge is an enormously fractal cube — i.e. a cube made out of tons of other cubes:

Menger’s sponge (sometimes wrongly called Sierpinski’s Sponge) is a fractal solid that can be described as follows. Take a cube, divide it into 27 = 3 x 3 x 3 smaller cubes of the same size and remove the cube in the center and the six cubes that share faces with it. You are left with the eight small corner cubes and twelve small edge cubes holding them together. Now, imagine repeating this process on each of the remaining 20 cubes. Repeat again. And again …

To develop this, Mosley designed a bunch of angular solids you can make out of business cards, and assemble into the massive uber-cube. You can check them out here, and then see what they look like when assembled into a “depth 2” Menger’s sponge — she actually built one of these using 3,456 business cards, and took a picture of it.

An interesting question: Are business cards actually strong enough to support the weight of a massive “depth 3” cube? She thinks so, and has the math to prove it.

You simply cannot get weirder than this.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for finding this one!)

The Google Dance

A few hours ago I posted about how the Google rankings for this blog had dipped suddenly lower — if you searched for Clive Thompson, you found Collision Detection only on the second page. Waaah!

But then some posters quickly noted that my blog was, in fact, appearing at different places on Google — it was sort of moving around, flipping from high on the first page of results to low on the second page. What was going on?

In a posting on my discussion boards, Bud pointed to one possible explanation: The Google Dance. A bunch of geeks at the Germany firm use that name to describe the effect, which they outline in a really fascinating essay on their site:

The name “Google Dance” is often used to describe the index update of the Google search engine. Google’s index update occurs on average once per month. It can be identified by significant movement in search results and especially by Google’s cache of all indexed pages reflecting the status of Google’s last spidering. But the update does not proceed as a switch from one index to another at one point in time. In fact, it takes several days to complete the index update. During this period, the old and the new index alternate on At an early stage, the results from the new index occur sporadically. But later on, they appear more frequently. Google dances.

What I didn’t know is that when Google updates its indexes, before it releases them on the public it demos them on a couple of “test” domains available to a group of webmasters — and

As soon as Google’s test community of forums members does not find any severe malfunctions caused by the new index, Google’s DNS records are ready to make resolve the the data center that is updated first. This is the time when the Google Dance begins.

These guys are insanely smart. They’ve also written the coolest exploration I’ve ever read of Google’s Pagerank technology — the main genius that makes Google rock.

Whack-A-Mole and computer crashes

Lately, Microsoft Word has been crashing a lot on my Windows XP machine. It always happens because of the same combination of stresses — if I try to save a file using “Ctrl-S” and then, a split-second later, try to close the document using “Ctrl-W”, the program crashes. The document sits there, uncertainly, not closing, not doing anything, and then about five seconds later, I get the crash dialog box popping up asking me if I’d like to “report this error automatically to Microsoft.” I always click “no.”

But since it’s been happening so frequently, I’ve begun to try and anticipate the precise location of the pop-up box — so I can click on “no” the instant it comes up. I’ve been doing that, too, with other repetitive dialog boxes that crop up, such as little annoying ones asking “are you sure?” on certain web sites. I’m so intimately familiar with most applications that I can usually position the pointer precisely in the center of where the pop-up box will emerge, nailing it a nanosecond after it crops up.

And it occurred to me that I’ve invented a game. It’s like Whack-A-Mole — trying to speed up annoyingly slow computer-processes by predicting where to click!

<kidding>All I need now is a name for it, and I can file a patent and then charge everyone 10 bucks whenever they do it.</kidding>

It also occurred to me that I should get a life.

I’m still losing Google juice …

Man, this sucks. I just punched “Clive Thompson” into Google and, where Collision Detection used to be the number one result, I have now slipped to the bottom of the second results page.

God in heaven.

Why hast thou smitten me so, Google?

The weirdest auction ever at Ebay …

… is right here.

(Thanks to Jeff for hunting this one down!)

Surrealist Hiptop pix!

This is the most incredibly cool thing I’ve seen in weeks. I was checking out May’s site and noticed a neat visual experiment she’s trying: Taking the tiny, postage-stamp-sized pictures from a Danger Hiptop, then using photomanipulation packages to turn them into amazingly gorgeous art.

It’s now a bona fide trend, and several photobloggers are producing some striking images. curiousLee has done a bunch of New-York related ones, including the skyline you see above. Mike Popvic, the guy who created Hiptop Nation, has done a couple of his own which you can see here — check out the second image, a manipulation of trees at dusk. It’s hauntingly pretty!

As curiousLee points out:

I think what tickles me about this trick is the transformation of these tiny iconized moments into impressionistic scenes that can be enlarged to monumental scale without additional loss of detail. It’s a refreshing reversal in an age of relentless miniaturization. I just got access to a 42” poster printer at work today, so I am itching to run off some prints.

This low-rez stuff is also a refreshing contrast to current trends in digital photography. These days, digital cameras are all super-realistic, seventy-gazillion-megapixel high-resolution shots. But as modernism originally suggested, and as these nifty Hiptop pix are proving … sometimes surrealism’s even better at capturing what’s really there.

“He said, she said” — do men and women use different words when they write?

Do men and women use words in different ways? A group of Israeli artificial-intelligence experts think so. They crunched a bunch of English texts by men and women, both fiction and nonfiction, and looked for interesting patterns. The results? In this paper, they argue that it’s possible to figure out the gender of an author merely by paying attention to a few everyday words — and their guesses are accurate 80 per cent of the time, or higher.

For example, they discovered that in fiction, men are more likely than women to use the words a, the, and as; meanwhile, women are more likely than men to use the words she, for, with, and not. In nonfiction, men are more likely than women to use that and one. Women, however, are more likely than men to use for, with, not, and, and in.

Here’s another weird data point: Men use the pronoun he with roughly the same frequency as women, but women use the total set of all other pronouns — he, she, they, etc. — than men.

Interestingly, there are also some differences between the way everyone uses language in fiction and nonfiction. All authors — both male and female — used pronouns and negation more in fiction than nonfiction.

Did this technique make any mistakes? Yep. The professors crunched 920 English-language texts, and misclassified 12 texts, which were:

Possession, by A. S. Byatt
The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Now We Are Thirty-Somethings, by Charles Jennings
Now Then Davos, by Martin Wiley, David Harmer, and Ian McMillan
The Seige of Krishnapur, by J. G. Farrell
A Landing on the Sun, by Michael Frayne

Thank you for having me, by Maureen Lipman
A Crowd is not Company, by Robert Kee
T.S. Eliot: A Friendship, by Frederick Tomlin
Walking on Water, by Andy Martin
Unpublished Letters and manuscripts, by an Unlisted Female Author
Falling for Love: How Teenaged Mothers Talk, by Sue Sharp

As the scientists note, of the six misclassified non-fiction documents, all are biographical or diary-like. That’s intriguing, insofar as one might expect that people would write most “like” their gender when they’re writing about personal experience. Meanwhile, of the six misclassified fiction documents, all are by men, except for Possession. What’s up with that? Are these men writing “like” women? (Heh — maybe this is a subterranean reason why Jonathan Franzen freaked out so badly when Oprah picked The Corrections for her book club.) On the other hand, decades of gender theory has ably pointed out that gender is an insanely slippery thing: Men can so often act “like” women, and vice versa, that the whole idea of drawing hard lines around what’s male and what’s female is sort of bonkers. It’d be interesting to replicate this study with texts solely by gay men, lesbians, or transgendered people — the folks who often mess directly with society’s concepts of male and female roles — to see if it generates any different results.

The scientists don’t offer any theories as to why they these differences exist. But for me, what’s most interesting is that the words they’re focussing on — the ones that create the “fingerprint” identifying the document — are very common, throwaway words like at, she, but, or that. You wouldn’t expect such simple words to be so important in determining meaning.

Actually, almost all artificial-intelligence research into language backs this up. A decade ago, Thomas Landauer pioneered Latent Semantic Analysis — a way of automatically figuring out the “content” of a piece of writing by looking at a fingerprint of its words. Again, you’d expect that the most “important” words in a document, in terms of identifying what it’s about, would be the ones most individually freighted with meaning. For example, if you looked at this blog entry, you might think the words artificial, intelligence, gender, fiction, nonfiction, men and women would be significant. But what Landauer found is that you could strip out those big-meaning words, leaving all the other stuff behind — the buts, ands, ors, whiches, etc. — and you could still figure out what the document was about. Spooky, eh?

It’s also like the epiphany of Donald Foster — the professor who analyzes word occurrence to determine the author of texts that have been left anonymous by history. He’s the one, you may recall, who figured out that Joe Klein wrote the book Primary Colors. As he noted in his book on the subject, the words that are most revealing of one’s identity are not the high-meaning words — because those are the ones we pay attention to, and sculpt like clay. The ones that reveal our identity are the low-meaning ones — the ifs, the ands, the buts — because we use them unconsciously. They aren’t as subject to our will, and thus are a lot harder to obfuscate.

Maybe I should just stop writing blog entries in full sentences. I’ll just use pronouns and conjunctions.

“I in and the but the they or and.”

(Thanks to Rachel for pointing out this study to me!)

Location, location, location

Here’s yet more evidence that the next big wave in technology is going to be mobile devices that know where they are — and deliver information based on it. As the New York Times reported in a story yesterday, a slew of patents have recently been granted for location-based tools. Specifically:

An Israeli inventor in Jerusalem has won a patent for using cellphone signals to determine where people are driving in their cars so traffic signals can be timed to reduce congestion. David Myr has invented a system that gathers location information from cellphone signals and uses mathematical formulas to calculate the travel times of those phones’ owners as they drive along roads, through intersections, around corners and while waiting at lights. Those times can then be used to adjust traffic signals to ease vehicle flow. Mr. Myr received patent 6,539,300.

Another inventor working on behalf of I.B.M. has won a patent for using cellphone signals to alert drivers of the speed limit on the roads they are using. Faisal M. Awada’s invention uses a Global Positioning System receiver to detect a cellphone location. It then looks up the speed limit for that location in a database. The legal speed limit is transmitted to the car driver via his cellphone speaker or display. The system can also compare the speed limit to the driver’s actual speed, and set off a warning if the driver is speeding. Mr. Awada, of Round Rock, Tex., won patent 6,515,596.

And dig this: Another guy won a patent for a phone — pictured above — that detects your heartbeat and blood pressure and communicates it to your doctor!

Coffee art!

I was having a coffee in Starbucks today, and it occurred to me — what the heck is up with their logo?

I mean, a mermaid? That’s not really an image I associate with a fine cup of dark-roast coffee. When I think about mermaids, I think about lots of things: The enormous, briny deep; creepy little Graeco-Roman body-loathing ideas about women; maybe those chicks in mermaid suits in the otherwise totally forgettable movie Analyze This. But you know, mythological creatures that evoke seaweed tend not to suggest a superior caffeinated-beverage experience. I know that the name “Starbucks” references the guy in Moby Dick who loved coffee, but, you know, isn’t that a bit of a stretch?

So in this spirit, I direct your attention to the latest work of my friend, the artist El Rey. On his web site, he’s just posted some images of this latest coffee-related work: A set of paintings called “Urban Apparition”, one of which is printed above. They’re super-inexpensive pieces of art, only 20 bucks a pop.

More importantly, I think they’re a far better logo for Starbucks than their current one. A radiant cup of coffee floating over an urban landscape! How much better can you get? I’m going to email Starbucks now and tell them to pay El Rey, like, $87 million for the rights to his image, so they can use it as a new corporate logo. You can email the company yourself using this form if you agree.

Will Tivo make networks love reality TV?

Tivo has finally announced that it’s going to start selling information on its users’ TV-watching habits. For privacy watchdogs, this isn’t news; Tivo has been planning to do this for some time. But what’s interesting is the early results of its data-mining.

As you probably recall, TV network executives freaked out in all directions when Tivo was first launched. The service made it insanely easy to skip past ads; once you’d recorded a show, you could blast through three or four minutes of ads in a matter of seconds. So the big question for TV network executives was, how to battle this evil menace?

Easy: Convince people to watch TV live, instead of recording it. Tivo’s ad-skipping capabilities are greatly diminished when TV is played live. But what types of TV will people watch live? Mostly reality TV, it seems, as Tivo noted in its press release of today. The release is here, but it’s in PDF format, so here’s an excerpt:

The report also showed “stickness” of the programs varied greatly depending on genre. Situation comedies and General Drama programs tended to have the lowest retention and commercial viewing rate. Reality TV, News and “event” programs often scored significantly better in their ability to retain viewers in programming and during commercials because more viewers tended to watch these programs “live”.

More evidence that Reality TV is among the best programming online, despite the carping that it’s destroying western civilization.

Polly wants a cracker

There’s an interesting story in the New Scientist about how people think their computer is more “lifelike” if it parrots back the user’s voice. A bunch of researchers did some experiments to test this effect:

To see if computers could establish such a rapport with their users, Suzuki asked some volunteers to work on screen with an animated character that they were told had the speech skills of a one-year-old child. Their task was to make toy animals out of building blocks on the screen, and at the same time teach the character the names of the toys being built.

In response, the character hummed back sounds that mimicked characteristic features, such as the rhythm, intonation, loudness and pitch of the user’s voice. The extent of the mimicry varied.

The users then rated the character in areas such as cooperation, learning ability, task-achievement, comfort, friendliness, and sympathy. The animated character scored highest on all these factors when its voice was mimicking about 80 per cent of the user’s voice.

Sherry Turkle has been noticing this effect for the last few years, while investigating people’s relationships with their robotic pets. As she points out, people form the deepest emotional attachments to robots that ask to be nurtured. The earliest example of that was the Tamagotchi — a toy that would wither away and die if you didn’t take care of it (pictured above). These days, the hottest robots are one that similarly require emotional attention, like Sony’s Aibo. In this voice-parroting research, the scientists are discovering that people connect most powerfully to computers that seem to be tiny children, learning to speak by aping our voices.

Which is, when you think about it, astoundingly weird. Weren’t robots supposed to be these brilliant, all-knowing things made out of brushed aluminum? Weren’t they supposed to be our manservants, diligently relieving us of all need for manual labor? Weren’t they supposed to hang around my apartment and bring me a beer?

So now the era of mechanical life finally arrives and all we’ve got is a bunch of robots that, like, whine.

Man, if I’d known the future was going to be this crappy, I’d have stayed in the past.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for the New Scientist link!)

Linksys and the gaming geeks

I love this. I just got a Linksys wifi router/hub for my apartment, and was having a bit of trouble configuring it. So I check out the Troubleshooting page and start reading. It’s the usual stuff — tweaking and checking various radio-buttons and fields in the router hardware, to make sure everything is as it’s supposed to be. But then in the middle of the document comes this stuff:

Q: I setup an Unreal Tournament Server, but others on the LAN cannot join. What do I need to do?
A: If you have a dedicated Unreal Tournament server running, you need to create a static IP for each of the LAN computers and forward ports 7777, 7778, 7779, 7780, 7781, and 27900 to the IP address of the server. If you want to use the UT Server Admin, forward another port (8080 usually works well), then in the [UWeb.WebServer] section of the server.ini file, set the ListenPort to 8080 (to match the mapped port above) and ServerName to the IP assigned to the Router from your ISP.

Q: How do I get Half-Life: Team Fortress to Work with the Wireless AP + Cable/DSL Router? A: The default client port for Half-Life is 27005. The computers on your LAN need to have “+clientport 2700x” to the HL shortcut command line; the x would be 6, 7, 8, and on up. This lets multiple computers connect to the same server. One problem: version won’t let multiple computers with the same CD key connect at the same time, even if on the same LAN (not a problem with As far as hosting games, the HL server does not need to be in the DMZ. Just forward port 27015 or 27016 to the local IP of the server computer. There remains, however, a problem with people being booted after a few minutes with an “illegible server message.”

It’s such an interesting glimpse into the geekcore consumer base for wifi. Half-Life and Unreal are the only applications actually mentioned by name in the entire FAQ (other than ICQ). Clearly, gamers must be among the most devoted users of wifi — and, more importantly, probably the most insistent and maniacal seekers of online assistance. Linksys was probably drowning in frantic email from Half-life freaks desperate to debug their routers so they could blow each others’ guts open in wireless tournaments.

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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