Archive: August 2003

“Please stand by”

Sorry for the quiet blog lately — but I’m on vacation until Sept. 4th! I’ll be gathering tons of blogging stuff during that time, though, and will return with a veritable cornucopia of weirdness.

Enjoy the heat!

The calculus of poetry

In recent months, I’ve written a couple of times about online poetry generators. But now I’ve found a physical computational device — a poetry calculator called the Verse-O-Matic. The prototype was created by James Robinson, a student at the Interactive Technologies Program at New York University, and as Robinson describes on his site, it works like this:

The Verse-O-Matic looks almost exactly like a regular printing calculator, although the digits are replaced by nine themes (love, happiness, beauty, humor, age, nature, separation, sadness, and despair). When a key is pressed, the calculator searches its memory to select all of the 70 poems in memory that refer to that theme. Additional themes can be added (“+” = AND) or subtracted (“-” = AND NOT) from the poetic equation simply by pressing the appropriate keys. When the user presses “=”, the equation is completed and the calculator prints a poem that fulfills all of the thematic boundaries that the user has set.

For instance:

“This bud of love, by summer’s ripening breath,
May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet.”
[William Shakespeare]

Do you write like a girl? Try this test and find out!

As you may recall, I wrote a piece last month for the Boston Globe about an artificial-intelligence program that can tell whether a piece of anonymous writing was composed by a woman or a man. The New York Times Magazine ran a short essay on the subject, and within days, a very cool blogger named Rich rendered the program on a web page called The Gender Genie. Go there, input in some text, and it’ll tell you whether it was written by a man or a woman!

Interestingly, I fed this very entry into the Gender Genie and found out that it was indeed written by … a man!

I’m strangely relieved.

(Thanks to Misha for finding this one!)

Self promo: My piece on “Confessions Of A Playah Hatah” — the politics of envy

A few months ago, I published an essay in THIS, a superb magazine of alternative politics. It was my defense of envy — and a critique of what I’m calling today’s “backlash against envy.” It’s online at the magazine’s site, but here’s a permanent copy for reference:

Confessions of a Playa Hata
Conservatives have mounted a war against envy—blasting anyone who questions CEO pay or tax cuts as a jealous, green-eyed wannabe. What are they so scared of?

by Clive Thompson

Martha Stewart was searching for the perfect word.

She was trying to describe her disastrous year to Jeffrey Toobin from the New Yorker. It began last summer, when Stewart was accused of insider trading, and her good friend, ImClone CEO Samuel Waksal, was hauled off to jail. While the government investigated Stewart herself, the media piled on—mercilessly mocking her, questioning her ethics, and making the obligatory “Martha Stewart Living in Jail” jokes. Investors dumped her stock, shaving $400 million off her net worth. As she told Toobin her story, she wandered through her sprawling mansion, showed off her collection of china, had her personal cook serve a five-course meal, described the in-flight caviar she’d served some friends on her personal jet, and fretted over why everyone seemed to have it in for her. “My business is about homemaking. And that I have been turned into or vilified openly as something other than what I really am has been really confusing,” she said. “I mean, we’ve produced a lot of good stuff for a lot of good people.”

Is it schadenfreude? Toobin asked. “That’s the word,” she replied. “I hear that, like, every day.”

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Do you know this sore?

Here’s an item that manages to seem both incredibly cool — and incredibly gross. Mark Frauenfelder, one of the bloggers at BoingBoing, recently moved to the remote Pacific island of Rarotonga. This week, he developed a strange sore, and since there are no dermatologists on the tiny island, he scanned the sore and put it online — to see if any readers could diagnose what it is.

Consider this the first case of “distributed medicine”. Geeks have used the technique for years to diagnose computer problems; they’ll use bulletin boards to post error messages that they’re getting from code, and see if anyone can help them out. Invariably, the infinite-monkeys approach of the Internet can solve the problem — when you toss out a question to an audience of millions, odds are good that someone will instantly know the answer. So Mark’s experience is an interesting experiment. Could we apply the same approach to diagnosing illnesses?

So far, he’s received several diagnoses on BoingBoing’s comment boards, including:

“in guam we got those - never knew if it was a bug bite or what - but being sweaty, maybe not too clean, in the ocean (everyday/all day), they just never healed well. what we did: scrubbed them with bristle brush first - bleeds, but cleans it out (we were camping…maybe you’re in better conditions) - dressed them with HP and kept them dry - in a couple of days all was well…”

“this looks just like something I had last month. it was a staph infected insect bite. the nurse said there had many here recently and the staph was highly antibiotic resistant. Very important to treat with the correct antibiotic. have a culture made if possible to determine the correct meds. if this is a resistant bug, treatment can be difficult if not caught in time.”

Then again, as one reader posted, it might be ringworm — but “I’d think we should let the medical personnel over there have their chance before we diagnose via Internet.”

“Two Buck Chuck”

You know, there is just nothing wrong with the concept of a high-quality, drinkable two-dollar bottle of wine.

(Thanks to Howard Sherman for finding this one!)

The artistry of Flash games

I’ve babbled on before about the wonderful creative freedom of online Flash games. Because they’re cheap and quick to make, and can be designed by a single individual, they don’t have to fall into the same categories as typical, buy-in-a-box video games like Quake or Half-Life or The Sims. Which is to say, Flash games can exist for a reason that isn’t just about getting you addicted. They can serve another purpose. For example, as I argued last year in Slate, Flash games be harnessed as a form of political commentary — a game you play once or twice to absorb a political argument.

They can also be quite deeply artistic. I’ve recently been playing a bunch of games created by Ferry Halim, an artist in Fresno, Calif. They’re online here, and I urge you with cattle-prod intensity to go visit and play them now. They’re a perfect example of games that aim to be artistic, and not merely addictive. Each game is like a tiny hallucination-dream, done in dreamy pastels — like a children’s book brought to life.

A few of my favorites: “Summer Walk” — which is in the top left-handed corner of Halim’s game grid (sorry, it’s impossible to link to an invidual game.) Or the one that’s one column over and two rows down — illustrated by a kite. This stuff is just beyond superb.

David Bryne’s Powerpoint art!

Dig this: David Bryne has released a book of art he created using PowerPoint. There’s a great story in the New York Times today about it, which quotes Bryne on the genesis of the project:

It started as a parody. “I was doing mock sell presentations, using mock PowerPoint slides as visual aids,” he says. “That’s how I learned the program originally. But then it evolved into something else. It was no longer enough to make fun of the corporate stuff. I realized that PowerPoint was a limited but a valid medium.”

To view the medium creatively, he says, “You have to try to think like the guy in Redmond or Silicon Valley. You feel that your mind is suddenly molded by the thinking of some unknown programmer. It’s a collaboration, but it’s not reciprocal.”

Starting with parody, he adds, even incompetent imitations, is a legitimate first step. Eventually, if you persevere, the obsessive nature of the process yields unexpectedly beautiful results. For him, then, the challenge became “taking a form that’s purportedly logic and rational and making it poetic.”

I think he’s on to something here. Recall Edward Tufte’s recent pamphlet The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, in which he savages the program — claiming it is so blunt and useless a tool that it forces presenters to mangle their data. That mangling might be problematic in any situation where you’re trying to make a rational decision. But what if you’re aiming at the irrational? Presto: Maybe PowerPoint would be an even better artistic canvas than Photoshop, heh.

In fact, maybe this explains why businesses are so devoted to PowerPoint. After all, rationality isn’t always good for business. For all their pretensions to being empirical and hard-nosed, most business decisions are guided by pure intuition and wild hunches. As the old advertising joke goes, “I know half my advertising money is wasted — I just don’t know which half.” Everyday, American businesspeople arrive at work faced with an enduring paradox: Needing to appear rational, while in reality being guided by faith-healing and intellectual finger-painting. So maybe PowerPoint is, for businesspeople, the most appropriate technology around: Something that appears to be about cool, calm data-presentation, but which in reality is a device of surreality worthy of Dada.

Self-promo: My Boston Globe essay on “is science a young person’s game?”

Today, the Boston Globe published a piece I wrote about a new scientific study arguing that scientists peak in the early 30s. The reason? Marriage — and evolutionary psychology. The piece is online at the Globe site, but here’s a permanent copy archived:

Do scientists age badly? A researcher says marriage ruins a beautiful mind
By Clive Thompson

Is science a game for the young?

The stereotype of the brilliant young turk has been around for years, and it’s not hard to see why. Physics and mathematics are filled with prodigies who erupted with ideas in their 20s, only to spend the rest of their lives failing to replicate their early strokes of genius. A 26-year-old Einstein revolutionized physics with three barn-burning papers published in a single year but spent his final decades trying, and failing, to develop his “unified theory.” James Watson co-discovered the double helix of DNA at 25 but never had another major breakthrough. John von Neumann, a founder of modern computer science, once claimed that the intellectual powers of mathematicians peaked at the tender age of 26.

Armchair theorists have offered plenty of reasons why. Perhaps younger minds are more unformed, and thus inclined to the sort of kooky risk-taking necessary for major discoveries. Or maybe it’s just that back in the late 19th and early 20th century, there was simply less science — making it easier for a researcher to strike it big while young.

But earlier this summer, a brash new study claimed to discover the real culprit, and a rather unlikely one: Marriage. In a paper for the Journal of Research in Personality, Satoshi Kanazawa, a psychologist at the London School of Economics and Political Science, declared that evolutionary psychology explains why male scientists, at least, lose steam as they age. Scientists achieve great things, he argued, because, like rams butting heads on the African veldt, they’re attempting to woo mates and ensure their genetic heritage. Once they marry, their drive to achieve declines.

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Stop the ride, I want to get off

During the recent blackout, you might have suffered some rather annoying inconveniences. Maybe your TV shut off during a good show, or the fridge melted your favorite dish. But you know what? Just thank god you weren’t one of the luckless souls who decided to board the Cedar Point roller coaster — because when the power went off, they were stranded three-quarters of the way up the first hill. After almost half an hour, they had to walk down the rails.

This news actually pleased me, because I’m too chicken to ride rollercoasters and am continually looking for excuses to explain my terror. Though really, if you want arguments against roller coasters, one need look no further than the Saferparks watchdog group and their report on “Amusement Ride Passenger Containment Failures”, which is precisely as ghastly as the title suggests. A few examples:

“Sidewinder”, Darien Lake Theme Park, 10-Aug-98
Child ejected from car due to centrifugal force. Child’s parents said he fell from between the lap bar and the side of the car.

“Gyroscope/Spiroscop”, Carnival Services, 18-Jun-00
Victim came out of waist and ankle restraints, was struck by spinning bar, and ejected from the ride, striking the ground.

“Flying Dragons,” Jersey Shore Beach & Boardwalk Co., 22-May-99
While buckling patron in ride child began to cry, operator asked dad if he wanted to remove him, dad said no. For 15 mins. into ride child cried, op stopped ride dad removed belt while ride still moved. Lifted scared child over fence & fell.

Mangled limbs, blinding-force blows to the head, small infants hurled like meaty cannonballs off into space by centripal force … oh, yes, amusement-park rides sound like a blast. Read that third entry again, and note how wonderfully it captures the gorgeous family dynamics of park rides: A cackling father forcing his terrified child to ride some rusting torture device, probably to “toughen him up” or something. Lovely stuff, alright.

It reminds me of the horrible and fatal accident that happened at the West Edmonton Mall in 1986. Three people died when the wheel assembly of a roller-coaster car came off and the car smashed into a concrete pillar. During investigations into how it all happened, the government discovered that — among other deliquencies — the mall hadn’t bothered to have the roller coaster’s operations manual translated from German.

Star-power Trivial Pursuit

The folks at Trivial Pursuit have decided to put out a new video-game version of the game. According to USA Today, they’ve hired a few celebrities to be the voices asking the questions:

Among the celebrities whose voices grace Trivial Pursuit Unhinged, a video game being developed by Atari, are Whoopi Goldberg, who will deliver arts & entertainment questions; Fox NFL Sunday analyst Terry Bradshaw, sports; cover girl Brooke Burke, people & places; former Monty Pythonite John Cleese, history; Bill Nye “The Science Guy,” science; and actor John Ratzenberger, wild card. The categories differ slightly from the original game, which has sold more than 70 million copies since its launch in 1982.

Okay, most of these make generic sense: Whoopi Goldberg is an entertainer, hence “entertainment”; Terry Bradshaw’s a sports analyst, hence “sports”. But what’s up with John Cleese doing history? What cultural algorithm is at work here? As far as I can tell, he has a British accent, which connotes, uh, old-ness, and maybe his ironic delivery will enhance the fact that the Americans playing the game think history is sort of weird and irrelevant to everyday life. Far weirder is using Brooke Burke, Photoshopped bimbette du jour of the Maxim crowd, for “people and places”. What possible semantic connection can one forge between Burke and the category of “people”?

Anyone know “marcie” near Rittenhouse Square?

So, I’m still in Philadelphia — stuck here while Amtrak gets power going. Since I want to go online, and also want a coffee, I head over to the downtown Starbucks. I figure, what the heck, I’ll spent six bucks on their usuriously-priced daily wifi.

But whoops — the wifi isn’t turned on at this location. The staff haven’t been trained at all in dealing with data requests, so they’re clueless. So I buy a coffee and leave to go back to …

… Rittenhouse Square, the park where I found free wifi spilling out the windows of nearby citizens. This time, I’m logged on via a node called “marcie”. So, two points come to mind:

i) Does anyone reading this know who “marcie” might be? I’d like to write a thank-you note — she saved my butt today!

ii) Starbucks really ought to figure this wifi thing out. First off, as the folks at Boing Boing and Techdirt Wireless News have been arguing eloquently for weeks now, Starbucks ought to realize that they shouldn’t be selling wifi — they should be giving it away. Selling wifi is like charging for the lights in your restaurant. Moreover, they should train staff in making sure the wifi’s on. I mean, the staff is trained to make sure the lights are on, aren’t they? This stuff, I might point out, is also not rocket science. Half of today’s wifi nodes work perfectly when you simply plug them in; a staff of rhesus monkeys could keep the data flowing at a Starbucks.

And why should they be giving it away? Because of the enormous number of clients they’re losing by not doing so. I actually don’t like sitting out here in the sunny park. I’m a geek — generally horrified by the outside world, much happier in a dank, dark cafe. (I mean, there are people suntanning out here. What the hell, people? There’s no freakin’ ozone layer. There are like cosmic rays and shit pounding down on you. Go inside and play a video game, for chrissake.) I’m also a caffeine addict. So I would infinitely rather sit in a Starbucks and spent $10 on coffee for the morning while I surf. If they’d had their wifi running, they’d have sold several cups of coffee to me. In one single morning, I — one single customer — would have paid about 1/4 of the entire monthly cost of providinig wifi. But they didn’t have their act together, so I bailed, and now I’m buying coffee from a greasy spoon near the park.

The logic of this argument is so screamingly obvious that I would imagine even the dimmest executive is going to pick up on it soon.

Phonecam shots of the blackout

This is neat — within hours of the blackout beginning, someone set up a photoblog to archive pictures of a dark New York shot using cameraphones.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

Of wifi, Hiptops, and blackouts

I was in Philadelphia today on a journalism assignment, and it was a typical digital moment: I was simultaneously talking to my girlfriend Emily, who was in New York, on the phone, and instant-messaging with a few friends on my Danger Hiptop. In the middle of a sentence, her phone went dead. Then, a minute later, all the New-York-based people on my instant-messaging buddy list went offline.

The moment was a creepy echo of 9/11 — everyone in New York suddenly vanishing. Thankfully, my non-New-York friends were still online, so I quickly IMed with them and found out what was happening; they were getting the news off I began to realize I was probably stranded in Philly, because Amtrak was also shut down. But I wanted to know more, and surfing via the Hiptop isn’t great when you’re in a big rush. So I got my IM friend to do a quick hunt for hotels with wifi, figuring I’d check into one.

As it turns out, I walked by Rittenhouse Square — a downtown Philly park — and figured it might have some free wifi nearby. Bingo: No sooner than I turned my laptop on than I had about four different strong signals. None had WEP turned on, but all had customized access-point names, which suggests they were left open intentionally for others to share. Once online, I got filled in on all my travel options (bleak, of course) and booked a nearby hotel. When I got to the hotel, I found it had ethernet, but the drivers for my ethernet card were busted. No problem: I wandered down to the park and quickly downloaded the 2.5-meg driver database, thanks to the fine philanthropic wifi sharers of Philadelphia. Then I headed back to my hotel room, where I am right now.

A nice day to illustrate a few of my favorite memes-du-jour: The wonderful crisis-value of portable Hiptop-style phones, and of open community wifi.


First there was Friendster. Then came the various parodies thereof — such as Fiendster and Enemyster. My new personal favorite is Introvertster, which has wickedly hilarious text:

Introvertster is an online community that prevents stupid people and friends from harrassing you online. You can use Introvertster to:

Avoid invites to chat, filter out annoying invitations for Meetup, birthday parties, or after-hours get togethers.

Packet flood a friends Internet connection making it impossible for them to send you an instant message.

Help your friends get a clue that you really don’t like people or care for idle chit-chat.

Create your own barrier to protect yourself against interaction with people. It’s easy and fun!

Does anyone own a Segway?

Okay. I’ve got a bottle of Oban scotch sitting here on my desk. It’s very nice stuff — not too peaty, but with enough bite to make it tasty. It’s a reasonably expensive scotch, probably about $50 a bottle. I love Oban, would prefer to drink this bottle myself.

But you know what? I’ll gladly give to anyone can prove, with documented evidence, that anyone on the planet has ever actually bought a Segway. One. Single. Segway. Has anyone in the known or unknown universe bought one of these supremely useless, blisteringly overhyped, rideable vacuum cleaners? I mean, I keep on seeing news stories about it. Alaska cops have bought a bunch of Segways to use on patrol; announces a winner in its Segway giveaway contest; a few students at LA Tech are using them to pick up chicks. But you know what? They all have the distinct whiff of stories planted by the inventor, Dean Kamen, in a desperate attempt to pretend this quintessence of lameosity is actually selling.

And hell, he ought to be desperate. The guy built a factory in Bedford, N.H., that’s capable of cranking out 40,000 Segways per month — and yet which right now is probably alive with the sound of crickets.

It’s a fascinating paean to what can be wrought by the whiplash interia of hype. Remember the hype around the Segway? How Jeff Bezos sank millions of his own investment cash into it? How venture capitlalist John Doerr salivated at the sight of the gyroscopic wonder, and said it would be “as big as the Internet, as far as making a difference”? How author Steve Kemper got a quarter-million-dollar book advance to describe Kamen’s brilliant work on the Segway?

So anyway. That bottle of Oban is sitting here. And I will give it to the first person to prove — I mean prove, with, like, pieces of paper and shit — that anyone has actually used their own hard-earned cash to buy one single Segway.

And hey! While I’m in such a weirdly nasty mood, let’s revisit a column I wrote two and a half years ago about the Segway, back when I was doing a weekly gig for Newsday. I love a good “told you so” moment:

It’s a new Internet! A new gold rush! It’s “Ginger”!
by Clive Thompson

You have to pity high-tech boosters these days. Their fondest dreams have gone bust. E-commerce tanked; the “wireless web” is a non-starter; and according to some recent reports, some long-time Internet users are actually abandoning the Web. Swell. Andrew Wyeth could scarcely have sketched a bleaker picture of modern life.

So I spent the first few weeks of 2001 calling around various high-tech analysts and dot-com braniacs, the folks who own stock that’s now worth 53 cents. They craved a new dream. They needed to find religion again. “We need a new revolution,” said one, morosely. “There’s gotta be something out there!”


(NOTE: in addition to reading the full text of this entry, check out the commments area at the end! A couple of Segway owners have already written in. Woo!)

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Self-promo: My review of Black Ice in the Washington Post

The Washington Post asked me to review Black Ice: The Invisible Threat of Cyber-Terrorism, a new book about, uh, the invisible threat of cyber-terrorism. The review appeared yesterday and is online — but since they take it down after a week or so, here’s permanent copy below.

Note: The author, Dan Verton, has posted a response in the comment fields for this blog item! Check it out here, or at the end of the item.

Digital Doomsday
Black Ice: The Invisible Threat of Cyber-Terrorism By Dan Verton
McGraw-Hill/Osborne. 312 pp. $24.99

Not long ago, cyber-terrorists were Public Enemy Number One. In the summer of 2000, a malicious, reclusive hacker released a computer virus called “I Love You” that raced around the globe, destroying $10 billion worth of data. Spies worldwide scrambled to hunt him down, and newspapers ran horrified above-the-fold coverage. Cyberspace seemed like the scariest place on Earth.

Then two planes flew into the World Trade Center — and the real, physical world became instantly scarier. Terrorists were real, but they weren’t invading our desktops, and they weren’t even very technologically innovative. On the contrary, their tools of choice — box cutters — were so savage and low-fi they wouldn’t have been out of place in an invasion of a suburban home.

Explosions, destroyed buildings — that’s the stuff that scares the pants off America. So ever since Sept. 11, it’s been hard to get worked up about hackers, viruses and digital mayhem. It all seems like a narcissistic indulgence of the dot-com era, when the Internet was the biggest thing going. When a Manhattan friend recently saw me reading a copy of Black Ice, he scoffed: “That stuff is crap. They’re not gonna attack us on the ‘Net. They’re going to set off car bombs in Times Square. They want dead bodies.”

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Homestar Runner — and the boom in “homebrew” Atari 2600 games

Check it out. Programmer Paul Slocum is working on a Homestar Runner game — for the Atari 2600! You can check out the details here, but the project makes a weird sort of sense. After all, Homestar Runner is a web cartoon designed in Flash, a vector-based animation engine — which gives it a sort of ontological provenance in the world of computerized simulations. Plus, Homestar Runner is intentionally low-fi, making it exquisitely translatable to the chunky graphics of the Atari 2600. Porting web ‘toons to early gaming platforms: I think this guy has discovered a sort of Rosetta Stone for digital content!

Actually, Slocum is one of the most prominent artists in a strange subculture — programmers who create new games for the Atari 2600, and sell them in old-school cartridge format. There’s a host of these games for sale at Atari Age, including Solcum’s earlier masterpiece, Marble Craze. In that game, you use both paddle-wheels at once — giving you an extraordinarily high degree of control over a marble, as you attempt to wend it through a series of mazes and puzzles. Atari Age reviewers went faintly berserk with praise for the game, which also makes sense: By abjuring high-end graphics, Slocum imposed a sort of sonnet-like restriction upon his design that forced him to focus on the nature of play. I actually think every game designer on the planet should be required to produce a fun, addictive game for the Atari 2600 before they’re allowed to produce a game for the Xbox, Playstation or computer. That way, they’d actually learn how to come up with things that make for good play, not merely good eye candy.

Actually, some of these homebrew games look pretty cool. Consider the description for “SCSIcide”:

If you’re a fan of fast-paced paddle games like Kaboom!, then you’ll love SCSIcide. In SCSIcide you play the role of a hard drive read head. As the different colored bits scroll by on the hard drive platter, you need to quickly read them in the correct order before you suffer a buffer underflow. As you complete each level, the data scrolls by more and more quickly! How far can you go?

This reminds me of a neat argument about games I once read. Back in the late 80s, the American Museum of the Moving Image held an exhibit devoted to early-80s video games. In an essay commissioned for the show, the author (sorry, I can’t remember who it was) argued that because early video games were a) severely limited by memory and graphics, and b) programmed by geeks who were fascinated by the internal mechanics of chips and code, the games were essentially metaphoric projections of the internal life of computers. And it’s actually kind of true. Consider the language of early games: They were all about navigating mazes (file systems), figuring out how to open doors (files and drive sectors), “saving” things, etc. As I later joked, “video games are what computers think about when we’re not using them.” So this SCSIcide game forms a neatly recursive loop. It’s a game that is based on the dynamics of a modern computer drive, yet played on game system so old that it formed the inspiration for millions of kid geeks to get into programming.

Did the Old Masters trace their most famous paintings?

Ever go to the Louvre and wonder how the hell Caravaggio made his faces so crazily lifelike? A controversial book suggests that the Old Masters were quietly getting some technological help on the side. Artist David Hockney has a new book — Secret Knowledge — that claims da Vinci and his contemporaries were using camera obscuras and mirrors to project their real-life subjects onto the canvas, and then simply tracing the images. As CBS reports:

Hockney says it started in Bruges, Belgium, one of Europe’s great 15th century commercial centers, where that optical look, a photographic look, first appeared in the works of Flemish masters like Jan van Eyck.

“[He was] a painter who knew about optical projections and had looked at them,” says Hockney. “One thing the mirror projections do is project surfaces quite amazingly, especially shiny surfaces. And there’s lots of shiny surfaces.”

As Hockney points out, plenty of artists like Leonardo da Vinci were keenly aware of the camera obscura — hell, they practically invented and refined the device. And the “smoking gun,” Hockney argues, is that as soon as Old Masters art became hyperrealistic, there was a profusion of paintings of left-handed people. That would seem to support the idea that the artists were tracing right-handed figures that had been reversed in a camera obscura.

Art critics argue, quite rightly, that there is no written evidence proving Hockney’s theory; no artist of the period has ever discussed using optics and tracing. But there may be a reason for that:

Even today, he says, the artists wouldn’t tell: “They’re very secretive. Remember, they’re competing in business as well.”

It was also the time of the Inquisition, when mirrors and lenses were associated with witchcraft.

“When Caravaggio is painting in Rome, around the corner in the square, they’re burning Claudio Bruni for looking through lenses,” says Hockney.

If you’re intrigued by this, check out an exhibit the New York Institute for the Humanities held in late 2001 to evaluate Hockney’s claims. It’s fascinating stuff, and there’s an archive of other stories that have been written about it here.

Personally, I doubt the tracing thesis, for one simple reason: I simply don’t think the Mona Lisa looks particularly lifelike at all. Truth be told, she creeps the hell out of me. That weird pointy chin. Yeeee.

(Thanks to Plastic for finding this one!)

To serve and protect

Apparently, they take their crime news pretty seriously over at the Star Courier in Kewanee, Illinois (population 12,944). They print an exhaustive “police blotter” that lets no malfeasance go unreported. A sampling of events from today’s listing includes:

A subject reported losing a wallet somewhere in the city.
Junk titles were issued to a business on Sixth Street.
A tall grass complaint was received from the 300 block of Beach Avenue.
A complaint of a neighbor draining water from a washing machine out a window into a next-door yard was investigated at Reecy’s East Trailer Park.
Tall weeds were the source of complaint at Beach and South Streets.
Suspicious activity was reported in the 100 block of East McClure Street.
Domestic problems were handled in the 600 block of Stokes Street and at Lake Village Apartments.

That prose is so dry I’m surprised it doesn’t catch fire. Who’s writing this stuff? James Joyce?

There’s no Easter Bunny, either

According to a new book by Harvard English professor Daniel Donoghue, Lady Godiva never existed. According to the legend, Godiva was the wife of Leofric, the lord of Coventry England. He was sticking the serfs for exorbitant taxes, and Godiva continually pleaded for him to show mercy. He told her he’d lower taxes if she rode through the streets naked — so she did.

Or, actually, didn’t. As the Harvard Magazine reports:

“The story,” he notes, “was based on the life of Godifu, a real woman who lived in Coventry in the latter part of the eleventh century and was married to one of the most powerful men in England” … But Donoghue points out that “two centuries after her death, chroniclers in the Benedictine abbey of St. Albans inserted a fully developed narrative into their Latin histories” and the legend of Lady Godiva was born. “Nobody knows quite why the legend was invented and attached to her name,” he says, “but it does seem to function as a kind of myth of origin for the town of Coventry. At the end, Count Leofric seals the agreement about taxes with his own seal.”

Computing with flowers

Can you do computing with plants?

Back in the 18th century, the Swedish botanist Carolinus Linneaus created the Horologium Florae, or “sundial of plants.” It’s described on this web site:

It consisted of flowers that opened or closed at specific times every day. For example, morning glory is appropriately named for its tendency to open in the very early morning. The plants were arranged by the hours that their flowers opened or closed and was laid out like a clock.

Linnaeus studied the opening and closing times to design his “sundial of plants.” The daylily closes between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. Cat’s ear opens at 6 a.m. and closes between 4 and 5 p.m. So you see, if you study the habits of enough plants, most hours can be accounted for by such a natural timepiece.

Reading this got me to thinking: Wouldn’t it be cool to create a computational logic gate out of flowers? You could rig several different flowers with a set of lights, and set of sensors to determine whether the flowers were open or shut. Under the proper lighting a flower would open (or close, if it were a night flower). And when the flower opened (or closed) it would trigger a sensor that would, in turn, control the lights on a different set of flowers. You could thus set up sets of flowers that would open or shut other sets of flowers, and vice versa.

Seems to me that you could thus pretty easily create the basic logic switches that drive computer chips — like AND, OR, NOR, or XOR switches. Of course, given how slowly flowers open and close, they’d be the most glacial computer processors on the planet. You could set up a circuit to, say, add two binary numbers — and then sit back and watch as it takes, like, three hours for the flowers to open and close enough times to do the calculation.

But that’d be the cool part about it! As my friend Greg said when I told him this idea, “it’s like a crazy version of the Clock of the Long Now” — a clock that a bunch of geeks are building that will tick once a year, to remind us humans of how long time is, and how brief our lives actually are. The planet “thinks” awfully slowly, which is precisely what a circuit made of flowers would also illustrate.

It’d also potentially generate some weirdly odd results. After all, computer circuits are designed to be precise and regular. Live things like flowers aren’t — they might open or close unpredictably. A flower computer would thus occasionally produce some wonderfully cock-eyed results. Even better, imagine what would happen when the flowers began to pollinate and grow and spread — “growing” new switches in the circuit and producing new logic that the planter/builder didn’t intend.

Damn, now I wish I had a back yard.

(Thanks to Greg for pointing this one out!)

Inkjet ink worth more than champagne

Apparently, the ink in your inkjet printer is seven times more expensive than Dom Perignon, by volume. According to a story in the Chicago Sun-Times:

“I remember how someone once put it,” said Tricia Judge, editorial director of Imaging Spectrum magazine, a printing industry journal.

“Pound for pound, forget gold, forget diamonds. There is nothing more valuable on Earth than an inkjet cartridge.”

If the ink were gasoline, it would cost you $175,000 to fill your gas tank.

The story goes on to note something rather funny that’s happening: The backlash against the inkjet-printer industrial complex. Ever wonder why such a wonderfully high-quality inkjet printer can be bought for 99 bucks? It’s a loss leader. The printer companies lose money on the printers — but make money hand over first with the cartridges, which cost less than $3 to make, and often sell for ten times that. Various mom-and-pop shops have begun to sell “refilled” cartridges for about 1/4 the price of a new one, which has prompted a David-and-Goliath battle — with the big printer companies hurling lawsuits all over the place to protect their lucrative business. Lexmark recently won an injunction to prevent anyone else from making cartridges that work in their printers.

What’s more, it turns out that “empty” printer cartridges may not be empty after all. When your printer says it’s out of ink, it may still be up to 38% full, according to some recent studies. Nice.

(Thanks to The Shifted Librarian for this one!)

I can’t even think of a clever title

Man, Japan just keeps on getting weirder and weirder.

Someday we’ll find it / The fridge-cellphone connection

So. It’s the future now. We’ve got cameraphones. We’ve got Internet-enabled fridges. And we’ve got Matsushita, the company that has realized these are two great tastes that taste great together. Dig this new project they’re working on:

The system consists primarily of an Internet-connected digital camera that will take a series of photographs of the inside of a refrigerator each time the appliance’s door is closed. The pictures are then uploaded to a server, where users can access them over any Web-connected computer or a WAP-enabled mobile phone.

The idea behind the system is to allow consumers who are out shopping, or who may head to the supermarket on the way home from work, to have a better idea of what they need to buy.

“One of the needs of customers is to know what’s inside their fridge when they are not at home,” said Claudio Cenedese, manager primary electronics at Electolux’s Core Technologies and Innovation. “This is something that can help solve that problem.”

I should point out that this story contains my all-time-favorite quote in any news story, ever, in all recorded history: “Cenedese acknowledged that other technologies had already been launched to help people remember what is in their fridge.”

Ah yes. Technologies like, say, your freakin’ brain, or maybe a piece of paper and a crayon.

(Thanks to Techdirt Wireless News for this one!)


Now that it’s impossible to smoke in most bars in New York, a new trend has emerged: “Nicotinis.” They’re martinis that are spiked with nicotine — so you can get your nicotine buzz while perched atop your barstool. As the Sun-Sentinel reports:

The regular nicotini has more bite than a martini and leaves a noticeable aftertaste in the throat. The menthol variety contains crème de menthe and has a cough drop taste, while the “Black Lung” includes Kahlua and has a coffee flavor.

“It tastes like a cross between vodka and chewing tobacco,” said Fort Lauderdale resident Jonathan Cook after trying his first nicotini. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

I don’t smoke but, given that I have an addictive personality, I empathize strongly with smoking addicts. I’ve wondered about other ways to let people get their nicotine hit in bars — including, say, chewing tobacco. Sure, it’s kinda gross, but you could instal spittoons and give all those upscale Manhattan bars a nicely Wild West feel.

This isn’t entirely fanciful, by the way. A couple of years ago, I was interviewing a major young American novelist, and he spent the entire hour-long talk sipping from a styrofoam cup. I assumed he was drinking a coffee, but no: He was actually chewing tobacco the entire time, and raising the cup to discreetly spit in it. “It’s great for transatlantic flights,” he said. “All the smokers are jonesing like mad and dragging their nails across their faces. Meanwhile, I’m happily sitting here chewing and spitting.” We reminisced a bit about “chaw”. Back when I was in the Boy Scouts, we used to buy it to take on camps, whereupon we’d all get insanely stoned — since none of were old enough yet to smoke — and then throw up. Anyway, the novelist offered me some of his chewing tobacco. Since I still don’t smoke, I again got instantly baked out of my mind (it’s amazing how powerful nicotine’s effect is on the untrained lung). When I came to spit it out, he offered me the cup, so I was was forced to expectorate into a three-inch deep slurry of chewing tobacco and Major American Novelist Spit.

“Dude,” I said. “That is the most revolting thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

For the record … no, I can’t tell you who the novelist was, because he threatened to punch me.

Call me on my “sheep shagger”

TDK Systems, which makes Bluetooth chips, decided to conduct a survey and find out whether people give nicknames to their mobiles. They do, as the company note on its press release for the results:

“There were quite a few Bluetooth devices that transcended the obvious and mundane names of the users,” said Dave Curl, head of public relations at TDK Systems. “We found ‘Predator’, ‘BluePower’ and ‘Boss 6310i’ but are still wondering about ‘Mike’s Smokin’ BT Machine’ and the curious ‘Sheep Shagger’ who took time away from his beloved flock to visit the show.”

(Thanks to Techdirt Wireless News for this one!)

Fog you can write on

Well, not quite. But a couple of brainiacs in Europe have developed a cool technique: They use a non-turbulent airflow to shoot a thin layer of fog vertically. Then you project a video image onto it and — voila! A screen that you can walk through.

Very cool — except that, as I read on their website:

The famous Finnish mime actor Markku Laitinen had his premiere of “Pierrot in Globalisation” in Joensuu, Finland on June 7th, 2003. He is the world’s first artist, who has integrated the fog screen into his performance (a sample video).

I love this technological idea. But … mimes? That just ain’t right.

(Thanks to Wired News for this one!)

Truck-crashing sim!

Back last year, I blogged about a little freeware game called “Stair Dismount”. Programmed by the incredibly cool programmer Jetro Lauha, it was a neat little physics sim, in which the goal was to cause the most damage possible to a small human figure — by figuring out innovative ways to shove him down the stairs. It was so queasily addictive that geeks soon began trading secrets on different ways to apply force — a push to the shoulder, a push to the legs — to produce the most heinously crumpled body.

Anyway, Jetro has a new game out — and this time, the goal is to cause the most damage as you crash a truck into a wall. I’ve downloaded it from his site, and am already totally addicted. And, I might point out, this neatly falls into my favorite argument about games: That what is most game-like about them is their ability to run interesting simulations of cool things you couldn’t or wouldn’t ordinarily do.

Unless, of course, you already happen to push people down the stairs a lot, in which case stay the hell away from me.

(Thanks to El Rey for this one!)

Dance to your printer

Okay space cadets, dig this: Music made from dot-matrix printers. A friend of mine recently pointed me towards the Symphony For Dot Matrix Printers, by the Montreal art-duo The User. Yes, that’s right — they hooked up a bunch of printers to a computer MIDI interface and scripted tunes from it. As they describe it on their web site:

The Symphony for dot matrix printers is a work which transforms obsolete office technology into an instrument for musical performance. The Symphony focuses the listener’s attention on a nearly forgotten technology: the dot-matrix printer. Specifically, it employs the noises the printers make as the sole sound source for a musical composition. Leaving the constituent elements untouched, the process imposes a new order upon them, reorganizing the sounds along a musical structure.

Dot matrix printers are thus turned into musical ‘instruments’, while a computer network system, typical of a contemporary office, is employed as the ‘orchestra’ used to play them. The orchestra is ‘conducted’ by a network server which reads from a composed ‘score’. Each of the printers plays from a different ‘part’ comprised of rhythms and pitches made up of letters of the alphabet, punctuation marks and other characters … The audience is also presented with live images of the sound sources: the motions of the mechanisms, rollers and gears are captured using miniature video cameras installed inside the printers and projected onto large screens.

Check out some sample MP3s of the music here! If you’re like me, you’ll find it strangely mesmerizing. The User have realized something quite neat about modern life — which is that office machinery has become the acoustic soundscape to most of our waking lives. Indeed, the hum of photocopies, faxes and phones in our lives is almost like the drone-note on a bagpipe or a sitar — the base sound against which compose all other of life’s melodies.

I’m not really kidding. I’ve always been fascinated particularly by the sound of photocopiers; with several hundred moving parts, they’re usually the most mechanically complex things in any office — a sort of throwback to the industrial age. And if you listen to them closely, each has a really quite cool rhythm. They wouldn’t be out of place in a piece of good electronica.

There is even, dare I say, a trend emerging in this area of art. Recall two years ago, when Golan Levin created the first symphony played by calling the mobile phones in the audience member’s pockets.

(Thanks to Maura for this one!)

Vote for invasion

My friend, the artist El Rey, is holding a poll at his site — to figure out which of his paintings to use as a t-shirt icon. Go to his site and vote! And while I’m at it, let me urge you to vote for his Space Invaders print, about which I’ve blogged before.

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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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