Archive: September 2003

Pimp Art

Okay, that’s a slightly misleading headline. It’s not pimping so much as barter. My friend the artist El Rey has set up an intriguing barter system on his web site. Instead of paying for his art with cash, you can check out a list of various things he needs, for which he’s willing to trade art. Got anything on this list that you don’t need?

Bulk coffee (I bet this is a surprise)
PC peripherals and upgrades (decent video or sound cards, ink cartidges for a Lexmark Z32, blank CD-Rs)
Any Tekken for the PS1
A desktop paper cutter (12” or so? probably no bigger that 18”)
Tubes of acrylic paint
Junky old guitars/mandolins/ukes/banjos/
A working cassette 4-track recorder (doesn’t have to be super-fancy)
Beat-up old (but not cracked) mirrors for my back deck
A fishtank with all the pieces (filter, stand, etc.), for the kitchen (say, 20 gal. and up)

Send it to him and take your pick of his current paintings, a pictorial list of which are online here. (That’s only a partial list I’ve reprinted above, by the way; check his site for the full list of barter items.)

It’s pretty freakin’ excellent art; I personally have five El Reys, making my walls happy as we speak. Though I’m starting to think I also need a “Tickle the Pig” print. Hmmm.

Pruno: official drink of the California prison system

Ever heard of pruno? It’s an illicit drink made secretly by prisoners in the California prison system. Over at The Black Table, Eric Gillin created a step-by-step, illustrated guide on how to ferment your own batch. And oh, does he make it sound good!

By most accounts, pruno isn’t something a normal human would want to drink, so potent that two gallons is said to be “a virtual liquor store,” enough to get a dozen people mindblowingly wasted. And while it tastes so putrid that even hardened prisoners gulp it down while holding their noses, they’ll go to incredible lengths to make it, whipping up batches from frosting, yams, raisins and damn near everything.

It’s Miller Time.


This is cool. A CalTech student named Adam D’Angelo was thinking about Instant Messenger buddy lists, and realized they formed a massive network. If I have person A on my buddy list, and person A has person Q on their list — then I am effectively linked to person Q.

So D’Angelo created BuddyZoo — a tool that lets you upload your buddy lists and then generate a visual map showing how you’re linked to the world. For even more fun, he’s crunched data on buddy lists from college students — and determined that CalTech has the most popular students on the planet, heh.

The celebrity Turing Test

Back in 1995, a New Yorker cartoon made a classic joke: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” And that has long been a truism of digital culture. It’s pretty easy to pretend you’re someone else.

But the flip side is also true: It’s sometimes hard to prove that you are who you say you are. A superb example of this paradox recently emerged at, the fan site for Frank Black, lead singer of the Pixies. Recently, the Pixies have announced a reunion tour for 2005, and all the fans at the site were discussing it excitedly. Then suddenly, a new poster showed up with the screen name frnck blck, claiming to be none other than Black himself.

Here’s where it gets fun. The fans didn’t believe it was Black. The singer is known to be awfully reclusive, so they figured it was just some lame poser playing tricks. But frnck blck insisted he was the real thing. So the fans set up a sort of celebrity Turing Test, throwing questions at him that only the true Frank Black would know. Some fans even pasted in examples of Black’s prose style — from a letter he wrote about bootlegging — to prove the imposter wasn’t real. And indeed, the prose did seem awfully different from that of frnck blck. Case closed, right?

Except that a few days later, the moderator of the web site chimed in to clarify that, in fact, frnck blck really was Frank Black. Oops.

Over at Idle Words, Maciej Ceglowski has written a superb account of this incident, and neatly summarizes the social dynamics of the Internet:

The best thing of all about this thread was watching FB try, and fail, to prove his identity on internal evidence alone. Sitting in a room together, or even on a phone line, all of the participants in the thread would have known immediately the man was telling the truth. But on the Internet, it’s just text, baby.

Even more wittily, Ceglowski points out that the problem of identity-verification has been a staple of folk mythology for years:

It’s the old plot of the unrecognized hero playing itself out in real life. In 1929, a Russian folklorist named Vladimir Propp wrote a book called Phenomenology of the Folk Tale, where he laid out a 31-point generic schema for all hero stories, across all cultures — a kind of Universal Plot. The Frank Black episode is a perfect fit, if we skip all the business about him leaving home in the first place:

(23) The hero arrives home unrecognized
(24) A false hero makes unfounded claims
(25) The hero must perform a task
(26) the hero is recognized
(27) the false hero is exposed
(28) the hero is given a new appearance
(29) villain is pursued
(30) hero marries and ascends the throne

And as it turns out, there actually was a “false hero” in this episode. After frnck blck started posting, someone else on pretended to be him, to try and confuse things further.

(Thanks to Andrew Rickard for this one!)

Copyright smackdown — the art show

If you’re in Philadelphia next month, check out this superb exhibit — “Illegal Art: Freedom of Expression in the Corporate Age”. It’s a collection of various pieces created using copyrighted images, many of which caused the copyright holders to call in the lawyers and demand total stomp action. The picture above was created by Noel Tolentino for the first issue of his ‘zine Bunnyhop. He sent a copy of the magazine to Matt Groening with a gushing fan letter. Groening — the arch-ironic critic of power and hypocrisy so beloved by the soi-distant fans of The Simpsons — responded with a cease-and-desist letter. (Hey kids? Here’s a newsflash: When it comes to puncturing social mores and annoying the squares, your Hollywood heros are right out there with you on the front lines of dissent. Fight the power, dude. But when it comes to property and capital? You might as well be dealing with Alan Greenspan.)

But enough of my grouchy, holier-than-thou politics. Samples of the exhibit are posted online, and they look just insanely brilliant. My favorite is the piece by Kembrew McLeod:

In 1998, he trademarked the phrase “Freedom of Expression” and created a zine with that title. He enlisted a friend, Brendan Love, to pose as the publisher of an imaginary punk rock magazine also called Freedom of Expression, whom he then pretended to sue. McLeod hired a lawyer and didn’t let her in on the hoax. The lawyer sent a cease-and-desist letter to Love:

“We represent Kembrew McLeod of Sunderland, Massachusetts, the owner of the federally registered trademark, FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION … Your company has been using the mark Freedom of Expression … Such use creates a likelihood of confusion in the market and also creates a substantial risk of harm to the reputation and goodwill of our client.”

It’s a little mean to not let the lawyer in on the hoax, of course. But it nicely illustrates the role that lawyers play in today’s copyright mess: They’re just cogs, autobots that launch into action no matter how ludicrous the supposed property infringement is.

(Thanks to Marc Kelsey’s Squidlink for this one!)

Weekend weather

Ah, the subtle joys of global warming. As you may have read, the largest ice shelf in the northern hemisphere broke in half last week, scaring the living bejesus out of climatologists. They knew things were getting warmer, but they didn’t think that was going to happen for a while now. And, of course, greenhouse-gas naysayers immediately jumped all over it, claiming it had nothing to do with human activities warming the planet.

Now comes some much more unusual — and weird — evidence that human activity really does have an effect on the temperature. Two scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration analyzed data collected over 40 years by 10,000 surface stations. They looked at the “diurnal temperature” (DTR) — the difference between the hottest temperature recorded during the day, and the coldest one recorded at night.

The result? Weekends had distinctly different DTRs. And the week is, of course, a completely human construct — it’s a totally artificial timescale. As Scientific American reported:

Because weekly cycles are rarely if ever found in nature, the observed fluctuations must therefore be anthropogenic in origin, the researchers write. In particular, they propose that cloud changes associated with aerosol particles in the atmosphere could be causing the weekend effect, though other pollution processes cannot be ruled out at this time. The authors conclude that “the data strongly support the view that human emissions play an important role in climate change and represent a key test for climate change theory.”

Of course, this will all seem kind of beside the point twenty years from now, when Manhattan — which lies right at sea level — is three feet deep in water. I’m sort of intrigued as to how Manhattan will deal with massive global warming, actually. My theory is the local government will build 20-foot dikes to surround the city, and it’ll become a lovely sort of walkway: A place for a pretty afternoon stroll, brought to you by apocalyptic climate change.

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

DIY “Playstation Portable”

Earlier this year, Sony announced that it would try to vanquish Nintendo’s GameBoy by launching its own portable gaming system. It’s slated to come out in 2004.

Too late. As it turns out, this geek has already built his own.

(Thanks to El Rey for this one!)

Mirror, mirror, on the wall

When you go to the gym, do you check yourself out in the mirror? That’s maybe not such a good idea, according to a new report by McMaster University professors. They found that young women who rode an exercise-bike in front of a mirror felt worse than those who did so without mirrors. As reports:

When women rode while they could watch themselves in the mirror, they wound up feeling worse than they did when they could not look at themselves, the study found. For example, the mirrored rides left women feeling less calm and more fatigued.

Apparently, the scientists kind of expected to find this mirror-depression effect, since “other studies had found that gazing into a mirror tends to make a person feel worse”. And you know how exercising has been proven to make people feel better about themselves? This new study found that working out in front of a mirror eradicates that positive spin. As far as your self-esteem goes, you might as well have not exercised in the first place.

There is, of course, one exception: Hard-core gym freaks who have already sculpted their body into a piece of die-cast precision machinery. “Other researchers have found that highly active women who exercised in front of a mirror felt better for it, possibly because they got to show themselves how good they did,” as delicately puts it.

Nice. To sum it all up: Beautiful hot narcissists love staring at themselves in the gym; the rest of us just get demoralized and depressed.

No wonder I haven’t exercised in 15 years.

How Canada can save the music industry

By now, we’ve all thrilled to the gorgeous spectacle of the RIAA slapping piracy lawsuits on 12-year-old kids who live in public housing. But insiders who are close to the RIAA say their goal isn’t really to sue the minor users, the folks who take a toke and don’t inhale. No, they want to bust the real drug-pushers: The folks who have thousands, even tens of thousands, of songs on their hard drives. Aparently, this l33t group of pirates constitutes a mere one per cent of all filesharers, but create a majority of the problem; they are the sources for most of the files we download. Bust them, and you can mostly shut down MP3-swapping, right?

Except for one problem: Canada. As Jay Currie points out in a brilliant article at Tech Central Station, copying music is legal in Canada. So even if the RIAA manages to shut down these “supernodes”, they might just reappear north of the border. And the RIAA can’t strongarm Canadian prosecutors to bust those kids, because there isn’t an easy law with which to do so:

In fact, you could not have designed a law which more perfectly captures the peer to peer process. “Private copying” is a term of art in the Act. In Canada, if I own a CD and you borrow it and make a copy of it that is legal private copying; however, if I make you a copy of that same CD and give it to you that would be infringement. Odd, but ideal for protecting file sharers.

But what’s really interesting is why it’s legal to make a digital copy of your music in Canada. Back in the 90s, the Canadian music industry had gotten worried about losing revenues from people making cassette-tape copies of albums. (How quaint!) But the government suspected, even back then, that it wouldn’t be a good idea to blow millions of dollars prosecuting teenagers for making mixed tapes. So they struck an intriguing compromise: The government created a tax on blank media — specifically, blank cassettes and blank CDs — and passes the revenues on to the music industry. Every time someone buys blank media in Canada, money goes right into the music industry’s cash register, 77 cents for a CD and 29 cents for a blank tape.

To date, over $70 million has been raised from the levy. Not a huge chunk of cash, but then again, Canada is a pretty small place. If the US government struck a similar deal, it could probably start pumping an awful lot of money into the coffers of the American music industry. And if you added those levies to other blank media — such as hard drives, flash cards, or MP3 players — you could raise even more dough.

This strikes me as an eminently reasonable solution, and quite frankly, one heck of a lot easier to enforce than the byzantine digital-rights-management systems that Microsoft is trying to create. Those systems will only make life more insufferable. Technically, they’ll be designed to make a computer “smart,” so that it knows not to copy a MP3 file that’s designated as “copyrighted”. But judging by how screwy software tends to be, it won’t be long before you try to email someone a Word file at work — only to be told by your malfunctioning computer that the file is “copyrighted” and “can’t be shared over the Internet.” You just watch; it’ll happen.

So why not ditch these attempts to police individual files, throw the gates open to copying — and make the money back with levies? Many geeks have suggested a similar approach to filesharing: Why not let people pay 10 bucks a month for all the downloading they can handle? The Pew Internet Project recently estimated that 26 million adults in the US are using filesharing systems. Let’s say that we imposed the 10-buck-a-month fee. Okay, maybe half the users would get pissed off and would refuse to use paying systems. Hell, let’s say two-thirds of them refused to do so. That still leaves you with about 9 million paying users, or just over $1 billion a year in filesharing revenues. Not bad. Add that in with a levy on blank media, and you’re talking serious cash.

Of course, one could argue that a filesharing-service fee wouldn’t work: People would simply set up alternate, encrypted systems, and never pay the fee. I don’t agree. If the music industry got together with smart hackers and built their own robust, killer filesharing app — one that was devoid of spyware and adware — I think people would flock to it and gladly pay. Hell, I’d pay $10 a month just to avoid the creeptastic spycrap that comes with every new iteration of Kazaa. And don’t forget, the power of networks is in how many people are on them, and how committed those people are. If the music industry actually created a robust, powerful, non-invasive P2P program (and really, most of the existing ones are horribly designed), that one-third of people would indeed use it, and they would attract more people, and so on, and so on.

Actually, the bigger problem, I’d say, would come with imposing taxes on blank media in the US. I’m not sure the anti-tax culture of the US would tolerate it. In Canada, few people get seriously huffy about taxes; they just shrug their shoulders and, aaaahh, whaddya gonna do. In the US, it might not be so easy. Try to tax their blank CDs and they’ll blockade themselves in log cabins with Uzis and boxes of canned tuna, awaiting the eschaton.

But anyway. Politics aside, Canada has shown that it’s possible to forge a compromise — to find new money for the music industry, while keeping consumers happy.

Is the universe in tune?

Hey, it’s a relevant question — particularly since astronomers at the Chandra X-ray Observatory have found that the Perseus galaxy is emitting a B-flat drone. Mind you, it’s 57 times lower than the lowest note on a piano, so unless you have subwoofer in your stereo that’s oh, about four million feet tall, you’re unlikely to hear this particular note sampled in the latest electroclash compliation.

And hey? What does the Perseus nebulae care about musical trends? It’s been humming that note for 2.5 million years — the longest-running celestial Top-40 hit, as it were. If you want the details on how they managed to hear this tone, check out the story at

The Perseus cluster is the brightest known in X-rays, making it a good target for study. It has two large, bubble-shaped cavities that extend away from a central black hole. The cavities are formed by jets of material ejected from the black hole’s surroundings, and the jets have been suspected of heating the outlying gas. But scientists couldn’t see how.

A special image-processing technique was used to bring out subtle changes in brightness that revealed the presence of ripples — the sound waves.

Fabian and Allen figure the sound waves, observed spreading out from the cavities, heat the gas. The amount of energy involved is staggering, equal to what would be produced if 100 million stars exploded.

The best blog ever …

… is right here.

Nuking hurricanes

On the web site for the Hurricane Research Division of the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, there’s an interesting FAQ that contains the following exchange:

Subject: C5) Why don’t we try to destroy tropical cyclones by nuking them:

During each hurricane season, there always appear suggestions that one should simply use nuclear weapons to try and destroy the storms. Apart from the fact that this might not even alter the storm, this approach neglects the problem that the released radioactive fallout would fairly quickly move with the tradewinds to affect land areas and cause devastating environmental problems. Needless to say, this is not a good idea.

Now for a more rigorous scientific explanation of why this would not be an effective hurricane modification technique. The main difficulty with using explosives to modify hurricanes is the amount of energy required. A fully developed hurricane can release heat energy at a rate of 5 to 20x1013 watts and converts less than 10% of the heat into the mechanical energy of the wind. The heat release is equivalent to a 10-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every 20 minutes. According to the 1993 World Almanac, the entire human race used energy at a rate of 1013 watts in 1990, a rate less than 20% of the power of a hurricane.

Okay, I’m convinced. But my question is … who the heck are these people who “always” suggest nuclear attacks whenever hurricane season comes around?

(Thanks to Memepool for this one!)

How you sleep reveals your personality

A new study claims to have found links between your personality and the position in which you sleep. Professor Chris Idzilkowski, director of the Sleep Assessment and Advisory Service, says he has divined some of the following sleep-personality groups, as well as the percentage of people who belong to them. According to the BBC:

The yearner (13%): People who sleep on their side with both arms out in front are said to have an open nature, but can be suspicious, cynical. They are slow to make up their minds, but once they have taken a decision, they are unlikely ever to change it.

Soldier (8%): Lying on your back with both arms pinned to your sides. People who sleep in this position are generally quiet and reserved. They don’t like a fuss, but set themselves and others high standards.

Freefall (7%): Lying on your front with your hands around the pillow, and your head turned to one side. Often gregarious and brash people, but can be nervy and thin-skinned underneath, and don’t like criticism, or extreme situations.

I would almost be tempted to believe this research — and, possibly, if I looked at the data, it would hold water. But Idzilkowski’s use of those smug little categorical descriptions — “The Soldier”, “The Yearner” — leads me to suspect that in reality, this is a pile of steaming horseshit on par with astrology. And man, you DO NOT WANT TO GET ME STARTED ABOUT ASTROLOGY. Christ almighty. This stuff is like softcore eugenics, for god’s sake. Why the hell is everyone so desperate to create these glib generalizations about entire categories of human behavior?

Bleh. Enough blogging for today. I need a drink.

Survey: People are dumber and more narcissistic than we ever dared dream

Okay, maybe that headline is a wee bit hyperbolic. But dig the results of a recent study Harris Interactive. They asked people about their cell-phone etiquette, and got the following results:

… 86 percent of wireless phone subscribers believe they rarely or never engage in discourteous cell-phone use. However, 50 percent believe Americans are generally discourteous when using cell phones.

Nice. So, Houston, we have a problem: At least 36 per cent of the population are too self-absorbed — or too stupid — to notice that they’re pissing everyone else off.

Actually, to be fair to these legions of morons, I think some of the problems are latent in mobile-phone design. Mobile phones have become so tiny and small that they no longer resemble, well, phones. Pick up the average mobile phone today, and it doesn’t look much different from holding a stapler to your head. And therein lies the ergonomic problem. Old-fashioned phones, which I collect, are an example of good ergonomic design: They cradle your head and wrap around directly in front of your mouth, so the machine feels like it’s listening to you. You feel like you can whisper into it. But because today’s tiny mobile phones have no sense of phone-ness, we have no sense that the phone is listening to us. The tiny speaker-hole is floating off somewhere near our earlobe. On some level, we can’t help but feel that there is no way in hell this is picking up our voices. So we bellow. We yell. No matter how much experience we’ve had using mobile phones, we bawl into them at full volume.

(Thanks to Techdirt Wireless News for this one!)

Ultrasound ghosts

Continuing in my recent mini-theme of ghosts, here’s another supernatural item: British researchers are hypothesizing that people’s experiences of ghosts may be due to hearing “infrasound” — very low-frequency noise. Infrasound occurs in the natural world, and the scientists decided to test precisely what effect it has on us. As reports:

In the first controlled experiment of infrasound, Lord and Wiseman played four contemporary pieces of live music, including some laced with infrasound, at a London concert hall and asked the audience to describe their reactions to the music.

The audience did not know which pieces included infrasound but 22 percent reported more unusual experiences when it was present in the music.

Their unusual experiences included feeling uneasy or sorrowful, getting chills down the spine or nervous feelings of revulsion or fear.

(Thanks to SciTech Daily for this one!)


I’ve written before about Gamelab — my personal favorite video-game designers on the planet. They’re the philosopher kings of the game world, producing stuff that is not only insanely addictive and artistically lovely, but often quite philosophical.

They just came out with their latest offering, Arcadia, and it’s a truly brilliant concept: You play four early-80s video games, simultaneously. It’s like the ultimate game for our multitasking, ADD world. Each individual game is really simple, but when you get all four going at once, the emergent complexity is really nutso. I can manage things pretty well on “easy” mode, but things get way too frantic on “normal”; I’m slightly terrified to try “expert”. (The game is online here at

But what’s particularly brilliant about the game is how it riffs on the current trend for revisiting old-school video games. They games they’ve created — a pong-like tennis game, an Intellivision-style baseball game — are all note-perfect parodies of the early-80s greats. Those games have come back in vogue partly because their simplicity is refreshing; in the context of today’s supersophisticated RPGs and first-person-shooters with gazillions of controls, playing Pac-man is a blast of raw energy. It’s like putting on some Little Richard after having spent years listening to techo. But the Arcadia games are rather sly and jokey. There’s an adventure game called Jumpy McJump — a kind of hilarious riff on the phalanxes of crappy me-too sidescroller games that came out after Pitfall and Mario Bros. became hits. And there’s Strathreego (a version of the tabletop game “Connect Four”) with a little robot on-screen that “thinks” while it makes its move, in a cute nod to the “it’s alive! it’s a thinking machine!” wonder that greeted the first home computers.

But the most sly joke of all is the scoring system. In early games like Space Invaders, an alien ship was worth about 20 or 30 points; hitting a “bonus” UFO got you, like, another 100 points. An impressive high score on an early machine was something like two thousand points. But as time went on, games in the 90s started developing ridiculously higher and higher scoring systems, to the point where in today’s pinball machines, you get a half-million points every time you hit a single bumper. In Arcadia? After you play, go check out the top scores. The last time I checked, one of them was 22 quadrillion.

Who ya gonna call?

I love it. Tony Cornell, the head of the Society for Psychical Research, argues that mobile phones are scaring off ghosts:

“Ghost sightings have remained consistent for centuries. Until three years ago we’d receive reports of two new ghosts every week,” said Cornell, of Cambridge in Eastern England.

“But with the introduction of mobile phones 15 years ago, ghost sightings began to decline to the point where now we are receiving none.”

The $50-million bridge

You may have seen the by-now-rather-famous Riverbend blog, written by a young Iraqi woman living in Bagdhad. You probably also know that U.S. estimates of rebuilding Iraq are incredibly high — around $90 billion so far. Well, when it comes to government contracting, and particularly where it comes to handing out the pork, prices aren’t always what they seem. Here’s a recent posting by the Riverbend woman:

Listen to this little anecdote. One of my cousins works in a prominent engineering company in Baghdad- we’ll call the company H. This company is well-known for designing and building bridges all over Iraq. My cousin, a structural engineer, is a bridge freak. He spends hours talking about pillars and trusses and steel structures to anyone who’ll listen.

As May was drawing to a close, his manager told him that someone from the CPA wanted the company to estimate the building costs of replacing the New Diyala Bridge on the South East end of Baghdad. He got his team together, they went out and assessed the damage, decided it wasn’t too extensive, but it would be costly. They did the necessary tests and analyses (mumblings about soil composition and water depth, expansion joints and girders) and came up with a number they tentatively put forward- $300,000. This included new plans and designs, raw materials (quite cheap in Iraq), labor, contractors, travel expenses, etc.

Let’s pretend my cousin is a dolt. Let’s pretend he hasn’t been working with bridges for over 17 years. Let’s pretend he didn’t work on replacing at least 20 of the 133 bridges damaged during the first Gulf War. Let’s pretend he’s wrong and the cost of rebuilding this bridge is four times the number they estimated- let’s pretend it will actually cost $1,200,000. Let’s just use our imagination.

A week later, the New Diyala Bridge contract was given to an American company. This particular company estimated the cost of rebuilding the bridge would be around- brace yourselves- $50,000,000 !!

Sure, she’s probably biased, so this story may be factually skewed. (Indeed, critics jumped all over her story at Chris Albritton’s Back-to-Iraq blog.) But then again, government contracting has historically proven to be so frequently skewed that it’s as if we were shovelling money straight through Lewis Carroll’s looking-glass.

(Thanks to Ross Judson for finding this one!)

The weirdest clock I’ve ever seen

Okay, well, maybe it’s not the weirdest . But a Flash-animation clock composed of cables hooking and unhooking themselves sure is funny-lookin’. Oddly mesmerizing, though.

Update: It turns out if you go to the main page of this site — which is the portfolio of German Flash designer Andre Michelle — and click on the “downloads” pull-list, you can download this clock as a screensaver! While you’re at it, check out his incredible collection of audiovisual Flash experiments and games. This guy is insanely brilliant.

(Thanks to the Viridian List for this one!)

National Video Games Day

I had no idea that the American Greetings card company had proclaimed Sept. 12 to be “National Video Games Day.”

(Thanks to SaveKaryn for finding this!)

Watch Galileo burn

On Sept. 21 at 2:57 Eastern Daylight Time, the space probe Galileo will fly into the planet Jupiter, destroying itself in the planet’s 1200-degree atmosphere. NASA is intentionally destroying it; they’re worried that it might have Earth microbes aboard, and don’t want it to crash into Europa and accidentally infect that planet — a strong prospect for harboring its own, germane forms of life. NASA, being filled with fun-loving geeks as it is (and I am actually not saying that ironically), has set up a countdown clock so you can follow the space-probe’s fate, down the final instants.

If you want to further stoke your Galileo nostalgia (and who wouldn’t?), check out the superb piece Michael Benson wrote in last week’s New Yorker about the probe. Galileo truly was The Little Spacecraft That Could. Pretty much everything that could go wrong did go wrong, yet the Xtreme hackers at NASA managed to pull their fat out of the fire every time. For example, at one point, NASA techs discovered that Galileo’s antennas had been so badly damaged that they could send back only one picture per month — instead of the originally-intended one picture per minute. To fix the problem, they actually rewrote the entire code for Galileo remotely, from Earth: “a complete brain transplant over a four-hundred-million-mile radio link”, as one team member put it.

Here’s another delightful moment. One of the scientists looked at two different pictures Galileo had taken of the moon Ida, seperated by thousands of miles. He realized he use them to produce the first-ever 3D image of a foreign moon.

“So I processed those pictures, and shot negatives of them, and brought them home—that was late on a Friday,” he told me. “I had a darkroom at home, and later that night I made eight-by-tens of these two, and I had pinched a stereoscope from work. I popped in these two wonderful eight-by-tens and became the first human being to see a stereo image of an asteroid at high resolution!” Geissler chuckled. “That entire weekend, anyone who came close to my door was dragged over—‘Look at this!’ You know, the mailman, the babysitter. That was really a thrill.”

The “seeing-eye tongue”

Researchers are the University of Wisconsin have developed what is surely the weirdest visual aid ever: A device that lets the blind see — by using their tongues. As a story in The Science News reports:

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin­Madison are developing this tongue-stimulating system, which translates images detected by a camera into a pattern of electric pulses that trigger touch receptors. The scientists say that volunteers testing the prototype soon lose awareness of on-the-tongue sensations. They then perceive the stimulation as shapes and features in space. Their tongue becomes a surrogate eye. …

“You don’t see with the eyes. You see with the brain,” contends [Wisconsin neuroscientist and physician Paul Bach-y-Rita]. An image, once it reaches an eye’s retina, “becomes nerve pulses no different from those from the big toe,” he says.

People who’ve tried it out — including sighted people who wear blindfolds — describe the tongue sensations as “tingling or bubbling”. The only problem right now is that the tongue sensor can only output signals with three levels of gradation; the eye can perceive regions that are 1,000 times brighter than the dimmest ones. And the grid that lays on your tongue is only 12 pixels by 12 pixels — pretty low resolution. But, if you’re blind, better than nothing.

There’s some sort of joke/pun to be made here using the phrase “I’d give my eye teeth”, but I can’t figure out what it is.

(Thanks to Matthew’s SelfUnfocused for this one!)

The ethical sneaker?

Unless you spent the last decade on the moon, you’re undoubtedly aware of the politics of Nike shoes. As activists have ably documented, the company — whose empire is built on whipping up and then servicing the transcendental urges of teenagers — has, bad pun intended, feet of clay. Their shoes are made in developing-world sweatshops with dubious health, safety, and worker’s rights records. Indeed, an Ernst & Young audit of a Vietnamese factory in 1997 found inadequate water supplies and general disregard of safety equipment (the leaked document is available online).

Now the culturejamming magazine Adbusters has hit upon an interesting way to take on Nike: To make their own “ethical” sneakers. They’ve launched their own brand — Black Spot Sneakers. At the web site, you can pre-order your own $60 pair of sneakers, and when they get $5,000 orders, they’ll commission a unionized shop in South Korea to produce the shoes. As Adbusters founder Kalle Lasn said in an interview at the Eyeteeth blog:

Sure we’re selling a shoe, but what we’re really selling is an idea. The idea that you can whine against Nike, you can bite at their heels, you can try to boycott them and all the rest of it, but it’s possible also to develop an anti-brand that uses their multibillion-dollar cool and subverts it in some way and actually reduces their market share—and then uses that money to fuel the sort of ideas and campaigns that we believe in. I know it’s a very controversial idea, but I like the idea. I like the idea of going head-to-head with Philly Boy [Nike CEO Phil Knight]. I’ve already got hundreds of people who preordered the shoe, just in the three days the website’s been up—it’s not even properly up yet.

In a way, it’s not much different from the excellent work that Global Exchange has done in setting up ethical-trade co-ops, and getting Starbucks to buy some of its coffee directly from South American farmers, instead of from exploitative middlemen. And I kind of like this idea of using pre-ordering to limit their financial exposure. That economic trick has been around for years. In fact, it’s the same way a lot of literary publishing used to happen: Ezra Pound’s publisher would take out a couple of ads touting his next book of poetry, and ask for preorders; when they got enough to afford printing it, they would.

As for the idea of Adbusters using a sweatshop? Lasn makes an interesting point:

I traveled around the poorest countries of the world for three years when I was young, and I know that some of these factories aren’t sweatshops, and some of them are the best factories in those countries. I know that we can find a factory that we can be absolutely proud of in Indonesia or in China or god knows wherever we decide to go. I don’t like the idea that every factory in China is dubbed a sweatshop. That’s not right. This is a big mistake the activist community has made. It’s more driven by the trade union people than it is by the activists. The activists are making a big mistake.

(ERROR REPORT: In my original posting, I mistakenly listed it as “North Korea” instead of “South Korea”. This caused some confusion in the message boards; my apologies! Thanks to Marc for pointing out my mistake.)

(Thanks to William Blaze’s Abstract Dynamics for finding this one!)


A friend of mine just sent me this link — a Flash animation available at Canada’s Agriculture and Agri-Food department. It’s the tale of Robocow:

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, it’s RoboCow. Able to leap tall silos in a single bound, this animated environmental advocate uses her ground-scan radar vision to detect on-farm perils. Like the best of all superheroes, she maps out solutions to hazards like improperly stored chemicals, pesticide run off and stream contamination. Once her mission is successfully accomplished, she flies off to seek other pastures in need of greening. This Flash animation, conceived to make students from grades six to 10 aware of best farm management practices, won an award of merit from the Association for Media and Technology in Education in Canada based in Etobicoke, ON.

One can only wonder what the pitch meeting for that animation was like.

(Thanks to Misha for finding this one!)

“Hello, World!”: An SMS to the planet

Remember the HelloMrPresident project? Back during the 1991 Davos World Economic Forum conference, the designer Johannes Gees set up a web site where anyone could type a message to send to the conferencegoers. The messages were routed to a laser-projection system that displayed them in enormous letters on the side of a mountain facing the Davos ski resort.

Well, this December 10-13, the World Summit on the Information Society will take place — and Gees is at it again. This time, he’s doing the “HelloWorld” project, and setting up four projectors to display the messages on the UN building in New York, as well as three other sites in Geneva, Bombay, and Capetown. You’ll be able to SMS a message to be displayed to power elites worldwide.

As he puts it in his PDF explanation of the project:


The message of the HELLOWORLD installation is:
- The world is one place. Information technologies are the highways along which ideas travel.
- Technology allows people to share their thoughts and insights.
- The power of words can overcome dissent.
- Information technology can strengthen the voice of every person, worldwide.

I love the sly reference in the project title. It is, of course, a nod to the use of “Hello, world!” as the first-ever piece of code that most people use when they’re learning a new computer language. Crack open just about any manual on a computer language, and the author will begin with a lesson on how to display text, and they’ll use “Hello, world!” — a witty evocation of sci-fi visions of artificial intelligence, where the machine comes awake and greets us with childlike innocence. Of course, half the time the A.I. winds up being a wonderful salvation and helpmate for humanity … and other half the time it becomes self-aware and rains hell down on the planet and everybody screams and screams and screams.

Ah, the razor’s edge between utopia and dystopia. What fun! This is something that most everyday people don’t realize about computer culture. Coders almost always know that when their software and networks become complex, things can often spin out of control. They won’t accidentally give birth to HAL-style A.I. — just good old-fashioned chaos, both destructive and creative. It’s lesson that applies to global politics as well, and it is, in a very subtle way, something underpinning Gees’s project too.

(Thanks to for this pointer!)

Robot love

You know the whole trend in “affective” computing? Making robots appear to have feelings? Making ‘em seem emotional? You know what the problem is with that stuff?

The problem is, pretty soon you’re going to have Katie Couric dancing with a bunch of disembodied-head and garbage-can-shaped robots.

That’s the problem with it.

Cybersen: Chile’s left-wing Internet from the 1970s

Okay, this has officially ripped the top off my skull.

According to a story in yesterday’s Guardian, revolutionary Chile of the 1970s constructed a prototypical Internet that spanned the country. It was constructed by Stafford Beer, a British management guru famous for his books comparing biological and man-made systems. Sure enough, he designed something that worked almost like a river, draining out of dozens of tributaries:

Until now, obtaining and processing such valuable information - even in richer, more stable countries - had taken governments at least six months. But Project Cybersyn found ways round the technical obstacles. In a forgotten warehouse, 500 telex machines were discovered which had been bought by the previous Chilean government but left unused because nobody knew what to do with them. These were distributed to factories, and linked to two control rooms in Santiago. There a small staff gathered the economic statistics as they arrived, officially at five o’clock every afternoon, and boiled them down using a single precious computer into a briefing that was dropped off daily at La Moneda, the presidential palace.

This wasn’t mere wankery. In 1972, the info-network became essential during a political crisis:

Across Chile, with secret support from the CIA, conservative small businessmen went on strike. Food and fuel supplies threatened to run out. Then the government realised that Cybersyn offered a way of outflanking the strikers. The telexes could be used to obtain intelligence about where scarcities were worst, and where people were still working who could alleviate them. The control rooms in Santiago were staffed day and night. People slept in them - even government ministers. “The rooms came alive in the most extraordinary way,” says Espejo. “We felt that we were in the centre of the universe.” The strike failed to bring down Allende.

Totally wild.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for finding this one!)

When Google erases you, do you exist any more?

Recently, the file-sharing company Kazaa discovered that some hackers had made a copy of their software, and were circulated it online as “Kazaa Lite”. The normal Kazaa program includes adware and spyware; the program serves up ads and spies on your online activity, the better for Kazaa to sell you to advertisers. With Kazaa Lite, the hackers stripped out all spyware and adware, so that users could now download Xtina MP3s without any commercializing extras.

As you might imagine, Kazaa is trying to quash Kazaa Lite, because it’s eating into their revenues, and constitutes an illegal hack of their program. But how precisely do you stop people from downloading a program that’s already posted a few dozen of web sites, for free?

By making it invisible on Google, that’s how. A few weeks ago, Kazaa fired off a nastygram letter to Google, demanding it remove links to any sites hosting the Kazaa Lite program. So if you search for Kazaa Lite, you’ll find several results removed, and a message from Google:

In response to a complaint we received under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, we have removed 10 result(s) from this page. If you wish, you may read the DMCA complaint for these removed results.

I have to give Google props. They’re hardly ethically perfect, but they consistently resist outsiders mucking with their search engine, and when they’re forced to comply, they usually protest. And they do, after all, have enormous power and thus enormous responsibility to keep their results clean. That search engine is the ontological basis of online reality: If you can’t find something on Google — son, it probably don’t exist.

Here’s something weird, though. I originally heard about this via a story on Cnet — but when I went back to try and find the story, it was gone. You can read the story on — touchéa cached copy of the story I found on Google. But Cnet never removes any old stories from its archive, to my knowledge, so this is kind of odd.

“Ghyslain, I am your father.”

You may recall the saga of Ghyslain, the 15-year-old French Canadian kid — otherwise known as “The Star Wars Kid”. Using recording equipment at his high school, he taped himself performing a complex — if thoroughly bumbling — Darth-Maul-style light-saber battle, using a golf-ball retriever. He accidentally left the tape in the camera, whereupon it was discovered by some other kids at the school, whereupon it was scanned and put online … whereupon about two or three billion people downloaded it and laughed hysterically at this exquisite display of dorkitude. Sure, you and I have probably, at one time, embarassed ourselves in front of our peers. Ghyslain humbled himself before the entire planet.

I actually think this incident may be the most humiliating thing that has happened ever, to anyone, in all of recorded and unrecorded history. Imagine Ghyslain logging on to discover various remixes of the video set to music, an animated ASCII rendition of his moves, and an entire online store devoted to selling t-shirts and bumper stickers commemorating his cringe-inducing performance (including the above image).

Now there’s a petition to actually turn Ghyslain into a Jedi — by getting him a role in the next Stars Wars film. It’s online here, and I quote:

Yes, we’ve all had our dorky, private moments, but this poor kid is living the nightmare of having his private dorkiness projected across the world to giggling Web users.

I’m never entirely sure how to feel about these things. Sure, people are laughing at Ghyslain — but it’s clear that a lot of geeks, myself included, spent our teenage years doing things even dorkier than he did, and so we sympathize. Thus, most people say the Ghyslain fan material is quite affectionate: We’re not laughing at him, we’re laughing with him.

Except that Ghyslain himself doesn’t appear to be laughing. Indeed, he doesn’t appear to have come out from underneath his bed for about six months. The Globe and Mail reported that he’s under “psychiatric care” over his experience, and when the BBC called Lucasfilm to get a comment about whether they might really include the kid in the film, spokespeople said:

Lucasfilm, who make the Star Wars films, told Newsround: “Obviously there has been a tremendous show of support for Ghyslain with tens of thousands of fans rallying around him.

“However, we are deeply saddened by the current situation and any difficulties this unwanted publicity might be causing him and his family.”

Yikes. “Deeply saddened?” Lucasfilm has, I gather, intuited the extra layer of irony hidden inside this particular onion of humiliation. To wit: 1) Many people like to laugh at dorks. But we like to pretend this cruel fact is leavened by the corollary: 2) Many more people sympathize with the dorks. But this itself is ruined by the secret third rule: 3) Even more people like to hide their genuine scorn for dorks by pretending they’re sympathizing, while actually, just, you know, laughing their heads off.

Post-irony! It’s not just for breakfast any more.

(Thanks to Slashdot for pointing out the petition!)

Roll-your-own roadsigns!

Check out this fun little java app — SignMaker! You pick the size of the size, the number of lanes, and any other elements you want … then it generates it against a lovely blue sky. The app was written by the husband-wife team at, who refer to themselves as “roadgeeks”. I’m coming insanely late to this one; apparently, SignMaker won a Yahoo “Pick of the Week” award in 1998. But hey — better late than never.

While you’re trying it out, go look at this sign — illustrating 86 East and 291 West, two interstates that were once planned but never built.

The next nuke

Apparently, the Department of Defense is researching the possibility of developing the next generation of incredibly-high-yield explosives. The new bomb emits gamma rays but only requires a tiny amount of the element “hafnium”, which means one could derive a nuclear-size boom from a very tiny bomb. There’s a story in the New Scientist about it:

The hafnium explosive could be extremely powerful. One gram of fully charged hafnium isomer could store more energy than 50 kilograms of TNT. Miniature missiles could be made with warheads that are far more powerful than existing conventional weapons, giving massively enhanced firepower to the armed forces using them.

The effect of a nuclear-isomer explosion would be to release high-energy gamma rays capable of killing any living thing in the immediate area. It would cause little fallout compared to a fission explosion, but any undetonated isomer would be dispersed as small radioactive particles, making it a somewhat “dirty” bomb. This material could cause long-term health problems for anybody who breathed it in.

(Thanks to Rachel for this one!)

Is this science — or science gone mad?

Or just a guy doing some really strange things to marshmallow bunnies?

Darwinian poetry generation

You may have heard of “genetic algorithms”. It’s an artificial-intelligence concept based on the idea of Darwinian survival of the fittest. When you use a genetic algorithm to solve your problem, you let the algorithm generate different possible solutions to a problem, then test their fitness against one another. It scans the “winning” solutions, and combines the elements of the winners into new possible solution (crossbreeding their DNA, as it were). After a while, one final solution — composed of bits of the best, surviving solutions — rises to the top.

But now comes an intriguing gloss on this idea: A genetic contest for poetry. David Phillip Rea, an architecture professor at the University of Colorado, wrote “Darwinian Poetry” — a program that randomly generates poems, such as the following:

the swain way
both and knows flesh love my world
nothing on we great and walk lived arms
back lights and beauty

It presents you with two of these poems, side by side, and you vote on which is the best. After it’s eliminated a bunch of “unfit” poems, the algorithm scans the “fit” ones that have made the cut — and recombines their lines into new poems that go back into the contest. According to evolutionary theory, this should eventually produce the best poem in the English language, ever.

Well, sort of. It’s slightly prank-like, of course, and is more a thought experiment than anything else. But it does make one think about the nature of creativity. After all, a lot of good poetry does, in fact, sample directly from the DNA of previous literature. It could be as gentle as e.e. cummings elegantly playing upon traditional metaphors of the rose in “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond”, or it could be the direct, DJ-style resampling of entire lines from previous literature that T.S. Eliot used to create The Waste Land. But clearly, much creativity is about borrowing and reusing in a way that has at least some analog in the idea of evolutionary fitness. Indeed, that’s arguably behind the whole concept of the canon — a body of literature that has fought its way to the top and remains read, centuries after its authors have died.

Of course, canons are highly political — that’s what the late-80s battles over “dead white men” were all about. And maybe canons are always a nasty bit of social Darwinism. Either way, there’s something charming about taking that concept and turning it into an algorithm.

And which poem is currently winning the contest? Rea has a page that tracks the top-ranked poem, and when I checked in, it was this one:

clouds in dying growing
of snow sing learned to remember war and that seduce
to light above one is

(Thanks to Boing Boing for finding this one!)

How much porn is online, anyway?

Check this out: A site that automatically generates a gallery of 104 pictures chosen randomly from Altavista. It’s programmed by the fine folks behind, and my friend El Rey found it for me.

Here’s the thing: Since the images are randomly selected, they’re an interesting way to divine the nature of online pictorial content. What do people post? Plenty of really horrible shots of family vacations, obscure inventions, and corporate infographics, for sure. But El Rey had his own observation: “Judging by what I’ve seen,” he wrote, “the Internet is about 5 to 10 per cent poorly-lit porn.”

Which is, you know, rather less porn than I’d expected. Remember the famous 1995 Carnegie-Mellon study that claimed to have studied newsgroup images and determined that 85% of them were pornographic? Wired issued an immediate smackdown of the study, but I’d still have expected that there would be a colossal amount of smut online. Still, judging by my own perusal of those Altavista images, I’d say the percentage is even smaller than El Rey suggested; it looks more like 3 to 4 per cent.

Which makes me wonder — how would that percentage stack up against the real world? Or to put it another way: Of all the content produced in the entire world in every medium (television, magazines, books, etc), what fraction is porn? Does such a metric exist? I surfed around a while looking to see if anyone had ever attempted to uncover such a weird statistic, with no luck (though I did find nearly-as-weird material, including a study of “how much pornography there is in Finland at the beginning of the 21st century”).

My favorite find, though, was Porncheck — an online tool that lets you “you make sure your computer always has exactly the right amount of porn.” It’s a joke, of course, but a funny one, and with a civil-rights edge:

Note: No actual porn scan was performed. This is just a bogus scare tactic for your amusement. We have no way of seeing what’s on your hard drive; we’re just echoing the http values back to you.

But if this demonstration frightened you, your reaction could indicate excess porn on your computer. On the other hand, if you weren’t scared at all, not even a little bit, that could be a warning sign of insufficient porn.

Only you can be the judge of whether your computer has too much pornography. (Actually, that’s not strictly true. A judge, for example, could be the judge.)

Oh, and by the way? If you’re at work and have a no-porn policy, do not click on that original random-Altavista-picture link. Or if you do, don’t come blaming me when you get fired.

(Thanks to El Rey for this one!)

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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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