A couple of months ago, Psychology Today magazine asked me to write a profile of Will Wright, braniac creator of The Sims — looking at how he crafted the game by borrowing concepts from various big-thinkers in anthropology, psychology, architecture and economics. The story is on the newsstands now, and and here’s a copy for archival purposes:
The most popular computer game in history features sprawling tract homes, rabid consumerism and bickering families. How did The Sims creator Will Wright get it so right?
by Clive Thompson
Lisa Anne Craig knew she was in trouble when the social worker knocked on her door.
Five months into her first pregnancy, Craig had decided to take a high-tech approach to parenthood. She bought a copy of The Sims, the hugely popular computer game that lets you create and direct a household and family — building a suburban home, finding jobs for the parents, and scrambling to keep everyone happy and healthy. She fired it up, selecting a young professional couple with a newborn. Hey, it was a game. How hard could it be?
One of the big hazards of being a technology journalist is that probably one-third of the time I can’t tell whether the stuff I’m researching is real or an elaborate hoax. Such is the case with Tornado Fighters, a project set up by Brad Mason. He wants to assemble a crack team of munitions-equipped guys to destroy tornados, using the following process:
We’ll make a rocket that travels 3300 ft. then explodes (a safe distance to operate from a tornado). Let the solid fuel burning inside the rocket burn through a thin protective membrane and detonate the explosive. Since tornados are large in diameter + or - 50 ft. should be accurate enough. We’ll also make one that travels 5280 ft. Our current knowledge of tornado structure is drawn. More than one salvo may be needed to stop a tornado.
If nothing else, this would make a hell of a video game. And if Mason is doing this as a media prank, he’s being impressively thorough. He even applied for funding from the National Research Intitiative Competitive Grants Program, and when he was rejected, posted a .gif of their letter to him on his web site here. (While they admit that “it would be highly desirable to have the ability to exterminate tornadoes”, they point out that most tornadoes strike with less than 15 minutes of warning, “thereby making it highly unlikely for any one vehicle to position itself quickly enough to impact the average tornado in a timely manner.”) Undeterred, Mason has forged ahead, setting out a budget for a single tornado-fighting team, including an $80,000 “armored vehicle” and a $5,000 “rocket launcher”.
(Thanks to Dave Barry’s blog for this one!)
One of the complaints about Playboy centerfolds is that they’re oddly homogenous — the same big hair, the same inflated breasts, the same frozen Joker-like smile, over and over again. Does this really represent the average American woman?
Now the artist Jason Salavon has produced a set of images that riff wittily on the culture of the centerfold. Salavon’s known for taking “found” images and using algorithms to manipulate them in interesting ways. For his installation entitled “Every Playboy Centerfold, The Decades,” he took all the centerfolds for each 10-year period and smooshed them together — producing a single image that is the statistical average of the lot. That picture above? It’s “the 80s.” But you knew that, heh.
On his site, Salavon also notes that he’s become interested in “abstract board games,” and intends to post a few when they’re developed. I love love love the idea of artists creating games as a vehicle for their work.
Just when you thought mobile-phone behavior couldn’t get worse, here comes a lovely bit of news from the BBC. Apparently, a couple of British police officers in Haddington, East Lothian recently noticed a car weaving erratically down a busy street. When they caught up to it, they realized why: The driver was attempting to use two cell phones simultaneously:
As Sheriff Kenneth Pritchard told him: “Driving is sufficiently difficult with the amount of traffic on the roads without the added distraction of mobile phones and to use two mobile phones is the height of stupidity for someone in your position.”
(Thanks to Techdirt Wireless News for this one!)
As you may have read, Courtney Love has just been booked on drug charges for alleged illegal possession of prescription drugs — including Oxycontin. At which point you may have thought, hmmm, waitaminute, Oxycontin … doesn’t that ring a bell?
Indeed it does. It’s precisely the same drug that Rush Limbaugh recently admitted to buying by the boxload. The confluence of these two incidents prompted Steven Johnson to muse on his blog:
The other day I was reading some of the appalling stories about Courtney Love and her take-your-daughter-to-your-overdose parenting strategy. And suddenly it occurred to me that this latest Love scandal was perfectly — one might say deliciously — timed. Just as all the Dittoheads are coordinating their message that Rush Limbaugh was only using “prescription medication” and thus wasn’t some kind of debased drug addict, the ultimate incarnation of everything Limbaugh hated in the drug-addled, Hollywood long-hair, rock-n-roll, ‘dead doper’ milieu — Courtney Love, god bless her — goes and overdoses on the very same drug that Limbaugh was abusing. If people who’ve had a long dalliance with heroin, and who no doubt could get their hands on some if they wanted to, are nonetheless choosing Oxycontin, you know there’s something more than just “prescription medication” at play here.
It’s just too rich.
In July, a British man was cleared of charges that he had downloaded child pornography. How? He claimed that a trojan-horse program had been the culprit; the program had downloaded the porn without his knowledge or consent. Now, a teenager in the U.K. has successfully used this defense for a hacking crime — he claimed a trojan horse had infected his computer and used it to break into a remote corporate server. As CNN.com reports:
Caffrey had been charged with breaking into the system and crippling the server that provides scheduling information for all ships entering the world’s sixth-largest port.
Although authorities traced the hack back to Caffrey’s computer, he said that someone must have remotely planted a program, called a “trojan,” onto his computer that did the hacking and that could have been programmed to self-destruct.
It’s a fascinating defense — because while it might at first blush seem scoffworthy, the fact is that computers these days are crammed full of more spyware than ever before. There are probably a half-dozen bots on your computer as we speak. They’re communicating with the outside world, sending out requests, transmitting data, doing stuff of which you have no clue.
This is yet another aspect today’s Turing world. We spend our days trying to screen out spam, or to pass spambot-screens so that we can use services like Yahoo mail or Ebay. In effect, we’re constantly attempting to verify who’s actually human, while also trying to prove our own humanness. The flip-side is also true: In a trojan-horse defense, you have to prove that the bot did it — that when your computer sent out that HTTP request to load a page from a sketchy child-porn site, that it wasn’t really you. There were no human hands on the keyboard.
I predict this area is going to become indescribably weirder in the years to come.
Everyone knows parrots can speak simple sentences. But most scientists have assumed parrots aren’t capable of more complex forms of language; that’s the province of higher-order animals like humans and chimps. In the last few years, though, the MIT professor Irene Pepperberg has been conducting some rather amazing experiments with her pet grey parrots. One of them, Alex, has been able to grasp some incredibly nuanced uses of language, as Pepperberg desribes in an interview at The Edge:
We test him not only through direct questions about these concepts (e.g., “What color bigger?” for two differently sized and colored blocks), but also by using questions that involve complex structures—recursive phrases or conjunctive, recursive phrases—such as, “What object is green and three-corner?”; he answers all these questions with about 80% accuracy. We think the reason he doesn’t achieve 100% accuracy is boredom; he seems to get tired of repeatedly telling us about colors and shapes and materials. For example, he sometimes will state every color but the correct one, behavior that suggests that he is carefully avoiding the right answer; statistically, he couldn’t do that by chance.
Check out the rest of the interview; it’s pretty stunning. There’s more info at The Alex Foundation, Pepperberg’s research institute on the “communication and intelligence of parrots.” Ultimately, she sums up the parrots thusly:
What I’ve tried to explain to parrot owners is that what they have in a cage in their living room is a creature with the sentience of a four- to six-year-old child. I try to convince them that you can’t just lock it in a cage for eight hours a day without any kind of interaction.
Check it out: A clock that displays the time in binary numbers. Eerily beautiful, in geeky way, isn’t it? And it’s only 23 bucks! The only question is, will I actually become good enough at reading binary that I can rely on this as my main timepiece?
For additional Kubrikian goodness, you can actually get these clocks with retro-70s rounded-wood frames.
We all know the crisp smell of a new car — that heady bouquet of antiseptic cleaning agents and new plastic. It’s such a desirable odor that Cadillac has actually distilled it into a perfume. It’s called “Nuance,” and they now use to liberally coat the inside of their cars, to make them smell extra new. There’s a story in the New York Times business section today:
“You pay the extra money for leather, you don’t want it to smell like lighter fluid,” said James T. Embach, G.M.’s manager for advanced features. “You want it to smell like a Gucci bag.” …
The new-car smell need not stop at leather, however. “We believe there is growth potential in people wanting to be in this big burly S.U.V. with rich walnut and they want it to smell like wood,” said Jeff Rose, senior vice president at Collins & Aikman.
Interestingly, this tweaking of a car’s sensual appeal isn’t just about smell. It’s now also about sound:
Ford used computers to generate, and focus groups to confirm, a signature rumble for the engine of its redesigned F-150 pickup truck … Visteon added four resonators to the engine’s intake system. The devices, which cost a few dollars apiece, produce sound waves tailored to cancel certain sound waves from the engine, peeling back excess white noise to reveal what Mr. Green called “a classic V-8 sound.”
This is a really trippy ontological moment here: The marketers are separating out the sound of a high-performance engine from the actual question of whether the engine truly performs, uh, highly. Would it be possible, one wonders, to add that testosteronic rumble to cars that otherwise totally suck, like Hyundais?
I probably shouldn’t be too surprised by this development. Cars have always been evaluated by aesthetics; even if you can’t actually afford real horsepower, you can sort of look bad-ass by adding fakoid big-ball wheels and an enormous spoiler to your hatchback. Taken to its extreme, this produces the much-ridiculed “rice boy” phenomenon, in which teenage boys add racing-car stylings to Honda Civics, the lamest of all possible vehicles. They’re still stuck driving something that handles like a rider-mower, but the chicks dig it, so what the hell.
But this Cadillac-smell stuff goes even deeper, I think. Cars are one of the most highly mediated toys we have — so everpresent in action movies that, as in the case of The Italian Job or 2 Fast 2 Furious, the cars are essentially the leading actors (with Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron existing merely as glorified “The Price Is Right” girls, seductively stroking the products). Once you’ve spent your youth watching kickass cars fishtail through A-Team moves, soar through the air with Dukes of Hazard improbability, or race backwards at 100 miles underneath 16-wheel trucks on the highway, a la The Fast and the Furious … well, the prospect of put-putting along in your four-cylinder Ford ZX2 starts to seem kinda anticlimactic, doesn’t it? Video games have the same effect. J.C. Herz, the digital-culture writer, once told me a couple of years ago about a consulting visit she did to a major carmaker. She told them that in ten years, they’re going to have a lot of very demanding customers on their hands — because today’s kids are learning about cars by driving incredibly cool race-car simulators that let them actually design their own rigs from scratch, tweaking everything from the shocks and fuel-injection to the freakin’ military-class heads-up-display. So the first time these kids actually get behind the wheel of a real, live car, they’re going to go, jesus, is this it? This sucks.
The point is: We’re so drenched in car media that we have essentially separated out “carness” from actual, well, cars. The platonic ideal of the car has detached from anything that actually has to do with real automobiles — the crappy, leaky, expired-warranty boxes of metal we drive every day, which groan like busted Soviet technology and reek of a McDonald’s Happy Meal that mysteriously vanished two months ago and has since been quietly decomposing under the front seat. No wonder we’ve created a market for a detached smell du Cadillac. It’s the pure essence of industrial bloat — the gorgeous odor of a piece of high-end technology lovingly assembled by robots, untouched by human hands, and gently loitioned in ultracarcinogenic disinfectants.
My personal fetish is somewhat related: I become almost alarmingly turned on by the smell of new electronics. When I was kid, I cracked open my first electronic toy — a LED car-racing game — then held it up to my nose and inhaled the pure essence of fresh circuitry: The smell of the future.
Check out this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, and you can read a piece I wrote about the advent of “neuromarketing” — scientists who are applying the techniques of brain-scanning to try and understand the behaviors of consumers. The story is online at the Times’ web site for the next week, but a permanent copy is below:
There’s a Sucker Born in Every Medial Prefrontal Cortex
By Clive Thompson
WHEN HE ISN’T PONDERING the inner workings of the mind, Read Montague, a 43-year-old neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, has been known to contemplate the other mysteries of life: for instance, the Pepsi Challenge. In the series of TV commercials from the 70’s and 80’s that pitted Coke against Pepsi in a blind taste test, Pepsi was usually the winner. So why, Montague asked himself not long ago, did Coke appeal so strongly to so many people if it didn’t taste any better?
I bet you didn’t even know there was such as thing as National Caps Lock Day.
Either way, I confess I think this is a national holiday entirely worth celebrating! It’s a quintessentially modern event. After all, all-caps writing has been with us for millenia. But it’s only in the Internet age that we’ve come to learn just how EXQUISITELY ANNOYING IT IS when people who are TOTALLY NEW TO THE INTERNET write ENTIRE EMAILS IN ALL CAPS.
And hey: Today’s all-caps culture might even be a sign of the times. Given that America has massively annoyed the rest of the world by pursuing a shout-‘em-down foreign policy, bullying and goading anyone who gets in its way, and given that America’s opponents aren’t a whole lot more subtle themselves — one could argue that we are now living in an age of ALL-CAPS POLITICS.
After I wrote yesterday about the United Nation’s robot census, Ryan Bigge emailed me to point out another major population-count that is currently underway: The fish census. It’s a multi-university study, and it’s discovering about three new fish species per day. They figure there are at least 5,000 types of fish we’ve never or rarely encountered, as the Associated Press notes:
“We’ve tended to be interested in the things that we eat,” said Jesse Ausubel, an environmental scientist at The Rockefeller University in New York City. He helps run the census for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which provided $20 million in funding.
“We’ve tended not to be interested in the things that pass through our nets or don’t taste good,” Ausubel said. “But the small critters are tremendously important in the ecosystem … and in an evolutionary sense, the small things came first. They’re ancient, and they’re survivors.”
“We’ve tended to be interested in the things that we eat.” Could someone translate that into Latin for me? I want to put it on the Collision Detection coat of arms.
How tall are you? How much are you making? Those two data points are actually linked, if you believe a couple of scientists at the Universities of Florida and North Carolina. They crunched longitudinal numbers on various American’s careers — and heights — and found that the taller you are, the more you get paid. In fact, you make an average $789 more per year for every inch of height. As Netscape reports:
Think $789 isn’t all that much? Think again. Even after accounting for gender, weight, and age it means that someone who is 7 inches taller, say 6-feet vs. 5-foot-5, would be expected to earn $5,525 more annually. If you add this up over the course of a 30-year career and compound it, it’s literally hundreds of thousands of dollars of earnings’ advantage that a tall person enjoys.
“Height matters for career success,” Florida researcher Timothy Judge wrote in the news release announcing the study he lead along with UNC’s Daniel Cable. “These findings are troubling in that, with a few exceptions such as professional basketball, no one could argue that height is an essential ability required for job performance nor a bona fide occupational qualification.”
Interestingly, this effect also exists for women, and according to the story, “height is even more important than gender in determining salary, and its effect does not wane with age.” (I wonder if that’s really true, and/or what “more important than gender” means. The discrepancies between women’s and men’s wages are simply enormous — far bigger than the differences we’re talking about here.) Nonetheless, as a guy who’s one inch shorter than the 5’9” average height for American men, I guess I’d better get used to my smaller paycheck.
This data will no doubt be harnessed in the blistering debate over Humatrope, the “human growth hormone” being hawked by Eli Lilly and Co. Originally, the drug was recommended solely for kids who were seriously short. But now they’re hawking it at people who are merely kinda short. Shortness itself is being pathologized. Indeed, the FDA has approved the use of Humatrope for “idiopathic short stature” — basically, boys who will grow up to be shorter than 5’3”, and girls headed for less than 4’11”. Critics argue that “idiopathic short stature” is a prettty weaselly medical definition, and basically means nothing other than that your parents think you’re a shrimp and don’t want you to be bullied. Nonetheless, there’s now a lobby group devoted specifically to pushing growth hormones on short kids: The Human Growth Foundation. (There’s a really terrific recent story in the L.A. Times about this.)
There’s more than a slight whiff of Gattaca hanging about all this stuff, I’d say. But if this height-pay correlation proves to be true, it’ll add far more fuel to the fire. It’s an interesting existential question. Would you change your height, if you could?
So you think you’re having problems getting broadband? The guys from Time Warner cable refuse to visit your house at a convenient time? Gettin’ kinda steamed about how hard it is to get online?
Try getting wired in Zambia. Josh Benton, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News and a Pew Fellow in International Journalism, has been blogging about his experiences while abroad. A few days ago he posted a blow-by-blow account of what it’s like to try and get Net access over there, and there’s one really gorgeous detail:
- Fill out three forms, the third requiring the signatures of four witnesses and a process similar to notarization. Watch a woman pull out a huge ledger entry book — perhaps two feet long and a foot tall closed — and enter your name, email address, and password. Realize that every email address is Zambia is handwritten in this book. Wonder what would happen if that book got lost. Realize that no computers have been used in this process of getting Internet access.
(Thanks to Andrew for finding this one!)
There’s a profile in the current issue of Scientific American of Joe Armstrong, a 70-year-old who decided to build a device you could use for kicking yourself in the butt. And hey — this being the Age of Copyright, Joe wasn’t content merely to build one o’ these babies. Nope: He also patented it. Thus we have the magnificent spectacle of the drones at the US Patent and Trademarks Office officially stamping and approving patent number 6,293,874, which is for a “User-operated amusement apparatus for kicking the user’s buttocks”. I urge all good citizens to drop whatever they’re doing and immediately check out this patent, which reads something like a co-operative project between Leonardo da Vinci and the Marx Brothers:
An amusement apparatus including a user-operated and controlled apparatus for self-infliction of repetitive blows to the user’s buttocks by a plurality of elongated arms bearing flexible extensions that rotate under the user’s control.
The machines are already in production, as Scientific American notes:
Smokey the hound dog, the mascot of the University of Tennessee, has deployed the butt kicker to taunt fans of rival Vanderbilt at a basketball game, beckoning them to descend from the stands for posterior stimulation. “It was lucky we won that game; otherwise we really would have been embarrassed,” Armstrong says. He has sold several machines for $600 to $800, including one to an amusement park in Blackpool, England, and another to a Christian fun park in North Carolina. The latter requested that labels on the machine that used the word “butt” be changed to “rear.”
It’s ingenuity like this that keeps America strong, son.
Hey, you know one of the main reasons we should keep the United Nations around? Because it’s the only organization that does an annual global robot census. According to this year’s figures, the world robot population is booming. You can download the entire PDF report here, but a few highlights include:
- there are currently 53,500 “domestic robots” — mostly vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers
- there are currently 545,000 robots for “leisure time, entertainment, and hobbies”
- there are 20 robots working in “marketing”
- there are 8,300 robots in “education”
- there are 1,450 “robotic systems for milking”
Of course, the report is also shot through with delirious proclamations about how much money you can save by firing your humans and hiring robots: “Profitability studies have found that it is not unusual for robots to have a pay-back period as short as 1-2 years,” the authors note.
(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)
It’s amazing the incredibly weird stuff that a nation feeds its children. In America, we’ve got “loaf” — that nightmare meal of noodle-and-cheese studded bologna.
In Japan, they’ve got lunches with facial expressions.
(Thanks to Debbie and John for this one!)
Okay, the apocalypse is now officially nigh. Some kid in Kentucky just found a two-headed snake. As CNN reports:
“I ran in the house and said, ‘Dad, this snake has two heads.’ And he said, ‘What?”’ [the kid] said. It “kind of freaked me out a little bit.”
“A little bit?” Christ, I can’t even look at that picture any more. Apparently, the snake hasn’t eaten anything since they found it two weeks ago. This may be because — as a snakeologist points out — “the snake might be unable to determine which is the dominant head”.
Two Canadian scientists have just discovered a unique new way to create electricity — merely by squirting water through a set of tiny tubes. The concept is based on a simple principle of physics, as the Globe and Mail reports:
It’s been known for many decades that when a liquid such as water comes into contact with a non-conducting solid such as glass, ceramic or stone an interaction occurs between the two at a microscopic level that creates a charge on the surface, Prof. Kostiuk said.
Because of the movement of positive and negative ions, the solid becomes negatively charged and the water next to the surface positively charged.
So they took a syringe, filled it with water, and squirted it through a 2-centimeter glass filter which has 450,000 tiny holes in it. Then they attached metal electrodes to either end of the glass filter, where the positive and negative charges would be created. Presto: They created electricity running at 10 volts with a milliamp current, enough to power a small lightbulb.
Amazingly, this is the first new way to generate sustained electrical current invented since 1839. And the thing is, modern cities are shot through with running water, all of which could be outfitted with converters to turn our plumbing into a new source of energy. The scientists figure that a couple of simple parts could be used to modify your tap at home, so that every time you turned on the water, you could also generate electricity to charge your Palm Pilot or mobile phone.
A month ago, I started getting a strange flood of postings to the Collision Detection comment fields. The postings were like this:
SPAM report to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Will be eliminated.
Posted by: Viagra on October 2, 2003 09:59 AM
You can see an example here, in the comments to an item I wrote about JetBlue. The comments weren’t put there by humans; they were written by spambots. Essentially, spam artists have created a new generation of bots that crawl through blogs and leave spam messages as postings to the boards. There are now over 100 such postings on my blog alone, and probably tens of millions worldwide. I’m probably going to have to spend an hour deleting them all manually.
Welcome to yet another battle in today’s Turing-Test world — where the line between humans and artificial intelligence is increasingly blurring. This isn’t because A.I. has become particuarly smart or lifelike. It’s because, oddly enough, A.I. doesn’t have to be particularly smart or lifelike to pass as human. After all, if you can write some text in my comment boards and click “enter”, you are, by blog standards, real enough to be sidered a person. Same deal with email spam. A bot can crank out a “hot chicks R waiting 4 U” email and send it to your inbox. So can I. So who’s more real?
Thankfully, some programmers have been concocting simple-but-effective techniques for preventing spambots from posting to blogs. One example is Jay Allen’s concept for modifying a several simple Movable Type plug-ins, so that you can quickly blacklist any posting that mentions a particular spam URL. That’s cool, but it requires knowing quite rather more plug-in kung fu than the average blogger would have. With luck, the brainiacs at Movable Type will soon release a single plug-in that autoconfigures this technique, making it point-and-click simple. Either way, it’s emblematic of the surreal task that we face every day online, where we increasingly must a) use spam filters to figure out whether someone emailing us is actually a real person; and even more weirdly, b) pass spam-stopping tests to prove to other people that we ourselves are real humans (as I’ve written about many times before).
Ironic, isn’t it? We’ve been worrying for years that intelligent machines would take over the planet and make humans obsolete. We’ve obsessed over the war between robots and humanity — in which evil, stone-cold metallic monsters blast us into dust with Death Rays. Now the war is truly here, but the real danger is not that the robots will kill us; it’s that they’ll bury us alive in penis-enlargement ads.
Ever more evidence that the true sci-fi prophets weren’t H.G. Wells or Orson Scott Card, with their tales of Earth menaced by evil bug-like aliens. They were Philip K. Dick and William Gibson — the guys who wrote bleak, sad predictions of holographic pitchmanship and the neural hawking of breakfast cereal.
When it comes to the future, we’re not facing the “new new thing” so much as the “same old same old.” Sigh.
For several months now, Electronic Gaming Monthly Magazine has been running a series of gutsplittingly hilarious Q&As — where they take games, find an ironically weird bunch of people to play them, and transcribe the results. A few months ago, they had a former mafia boss play a couple of true-crime games like Grand Theft Auto, with predictably surreal results.
But now they’ve done something even wittier: They took a gaggle of pre-teens and sat them down to play the classics of early gaming, such as Pong, Space Invaders, and Electronic Football. I won’t bother describing them; they’re just too funny. An excerpt from the reaction to Donkey Kong:
Tim: Mario dies way too easy. Oh, grab the umbrella. Those are cool. Unfashionable, gay, but cool. Oh, 300 points. That’s it? All you get is points? That’s lame. Can’t you do something with the umbrella?
Tim: They just put totally random stuff here for points. Oh, you’ve got an umbrella. You’ve got a purse.
EGM: Who’s that chick Mario is rescuing up there?
Brian: It’s Princess Peach.
Kirk: It’s a hooker.
Niko: She looks cut in half.
Tim: Oh wow—she’s one of those pole dancers.
(Thanks to El Rey for this one also!)
When I was a kid, one of the greatest joys of the TV series Lost in Space was watching the interactions between Dr. Zachary Smith and the robot. Smith would lose his shit about every two or three minutes and hurl an insult at the machine. Since the show ran for three years, that’s a whole lot of name-calling — as the folks at Promised Planet discovered, when they watched all the episodes and transcribed every single epipthet in an alphabetized list. It’s online here, and this is a sample:
fugitive from a junkyard
incompetent walking ingot
misguided mechanical misery
veritable transistorized tiger
That’s only a small fraction; there are a couple hundred epithets there! Someone should perform that at a poetry reading.
(Thanks to El Rey for this one too!)
(Thanks to El Rey for this one!)
There’s really just nothing at all wrong with the idea of a robot that can do sumo wrestling stances.
(Thanks to El Rey for this one!)
Dig this: “Read Regular” is a typeface designed specifically to be legible to dyslexics. Among other things, letters that typically “mirror” one another — such as “b” and “d” — have been slightly tweaked so they are not, in fact, mirror images. That apparently helps dyslexics keep from confusing them, as the Read Regular web site explains:
Used in the content of words, sentences and text, the following or the previous character does not try to interfere in its readability process. Ascenders (bdfhkl) and descenders (gjpqy) are long to ensure their legibility. Inner shapes for example within the o, e, a, u and openings in e and g are kept open to prevent from visually closing in.
(Thanks to Boing Boing for finding this one!)
So, we’re heading into another pre-presidential campaign. And we all know what that means: Glowing speeches about “integrity.” Impassioned debate about the future of the nation. Photo ops of candidates pitching in to help out local communities.
Now, every candidate decries “going negative,” and most voters claim they hate mudslinging. Normally, pundits and Joe Sixpack say what they want is “civility”; if a candidate expresses an opinion clearly and rationally, voters will listen to it and weigh it carefully. According to this “normative” model, voters read about the candidates’ positions, compare and contrast them, and pick the politician best suited to their interests. In this context, attack ads are just noise, unwanted distractions — a blight on the wholesome quest for civility.
But according to a pair of political scientists, attack ads are common because of one simple reason: They work.
After all, politicking is all about crazed emotion, not hard facts. That’s particularly true when it comes to TV ads — since TV is a medium far better suited to delivering heightened narrative and emotion than hard-facts data. So when it comes to political advertising, the scientists figured that the better way to analyze things is by using “behavioral decision theory”, which explains our choices by investigating our irrational, emotional urges. When the scientists looked at attack ads that way, they realized why going negative is so singularly effective. As a report on Allsci notes:
Unlike the normative model, which argues that all political advertisements are considered equally, prospect theory states that, say, voters are willing to take risks when they’re going to face a loss but otherwise, when they perceive only gains, they take as few risks as possible. This helps to explain when negative political advertising is used. Challengers against incumbents, prospect theory predicts, should use negative ads more often. According to Fox and Farmer’s research, this is true; challengers are more likely to use negative ads.
In case you didn’t recognize that picture above, it’s taken from the ad that forms the solid-gold standard of political crepuscularity: The infamous “Willie Horton” TV spot that the Republicans used to utterly demolish Michael Dukakis.
(Thanks to SciTech Daily for this one!)
The Milky Way is kind of nice-looking, but for sheer aesthetic appeal, you can’t beat the Sombrero Galaxy. NASA just put up some new pictures of it taken using the Hubble telescope:
The galaxy’s hallmark is a brilliant white, bulbous core encircled by the thick dust lanes comprising the spiral structure of the galaxy.
Now that is a stylin’ piece of cosmos. You can go here for a full-screen view, or if you really want to zoom in and see close detail, view an enormous 7.12-meg JPEG file. It’s about four feet tall and eight feet wide, but you can move it around onscreen to look at the amazing tendrils of stars.
Okay, drop what you’re doing and look down at your keyboard right now. If you’re using a PC-style keyboard, go over to the block of six keys with “home,” “end,” and “page up / page down”. Look at the set of three keys above.
If you’ve got a standard keyboard, you’ll see these: “Print Screen / SysRq”, “Scroll Lock”, and “Pause / Break”. Have you ever used them in your entire life? Do you even know what they mean?
Fortunately, The Straight Dope web site has put together a quite hilarious primer on why these keys exist and what they’re originally used for. As it turns out, they’re a relic of early computation — a sort of left-over byproduct of Darwinian evolution, a ghost echo of weird things that people used to do on old-school DOS systems. For example:
The main intent of the Scroll Lock key was to allow scrolling of screen text up, down and presumably sideways using the arrow keys in the days before large displays and graphical scroll bars. You can see where this might have been handy in the DOS era, when screen output typically was limited to 80 characters wide by 25 rows deep. For some types of programs, spreadsheets being the obvious example, it’s still handy now. In Microsoft Excel, Scroll Lock allows you to scroll a spreadsheet with the arrow keys without moving the active cell pointer from the currently highlighted cell. In Quattro Pro, another spreadsheet program, Scroll Lock works in a similar manner, although in contrast to Excel it’s not possible to scroll the active cell pointer completely off the screen …
The ancient DOS adventure game “Rogue” (one of my all-time favorites) used Scroll Lock to scroll your character’s movement through the ASCII dungeons on the display.
(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)
I’m a night owl, and pretty much useless in the mornings. I frequently work until aobut 2 or 3 at night, and then slide out of bed around 10 or 11, and by noon am still barely functioning.
So I was rather delighted to find that, according to a new study, my work-and-sleep patterns may be perfectly designed to maximize how much I learn. A group of scientists at Harvard and the University of Chicago trained people on a difficult skill — such as how to understand murky speech on a tape recorder. Then they tested people later to see how well they’d learned the new skill. One group of people were trained in the morning and tested later in the day. A different set were trained late at night, and then tested after a good night’s sleep.
The results? People who worked late and then slept well performed best. As the Associated Press reports, this may be because sleep is when the brain “absorbs” the knowledge it learned during the day:
The people trained late at night might have performed better because they went to sleep not long after their training, while their counterparts who were trained in the morning were exposed to an entire day of memories before being tested.
Seems like that old aphorism, “sleep on it,” was more prescient than you’d suspect.
You probably can’t read the type on that poster above, so let me type it out for you:
For information leading the return of the feline 2000X: Half Robot - Half Cat Super Techno Cyber Hybrid
Can be recognized by these features:
- black and white “fur” coating
- infrared optics in eyes glow red day & night
- stainless steel claws with poison tips
Programmed to speak six languages but will answer to the name “Cicil.” Escaped from lab on April 1st, 1999. Last seen near Inner Mission.
DO NOT PET THE CAT! Any contact can be deadly! If seen contact Dr. Steven Lambert at email@example.com
Apparently, the flyer has been put up in San Francisco, San Diego, New York, and Park City Utah during the 2002 Olympics. You can download your own copy of the poster to put up in your neighborhood here.
(Thanks to El Rey for this one!)
You’ve probably heard of Tibetan prayer wheels. But now digital-age buddhists have realized there are much better devices for praying, and they’re all around us: Hard drives. Hard drives are, of course, spinning wheels — disks overlaid with language, whipping around at thousands of revolutions a second. Drop by Deb Platt’s site and you can download a mantra. Once it’s on your hard drive, it will become, in effect, a supercollider for karma:
To set your very own prayer wheel in motion, all you have to do is download this mantra to your computer’s hard disk. Once downloaded, your hard disk drive will spin the mantra for you. Nowadays hard disk drives spin their disks somewhere between 3600 and 7200 revolutions per minute, with a typical rate of 5400 rpm. Given those rotation speeds, you’ll soon be purifying loads of negative karma.
If you occassionally post articles to netnews, you can exponentially increase the good karma that is generated by including the mantra in your .sig file. Shortly after posting an article, every news server in the world will be spinning your mantra round and round. If we assume that the news servers are Unix machines that operate continuously, a single news posting with this .sig will probably spin over 5 trillion times before the article expires. Sentient beings everywhere will be thanking you.
There’s a very sly, jokey humor about Tibetan prayer wheels, almost as if Tibetan buddhists are well aware of how the wheels riff off the mechanistic aspects of spiritual observances. (After all, the rituals of most religions can be quite blatantly algorithmic, as if they’d been conceived as a set of IF/THEN statements. Do X, don’t do Y, and presto: You’ll attain unity with [insert theistic-being/spiritual-nullstate of your choice].)
Indeed, the hard-drive prayer wheel makes me think of the famous Arthur Clarke story “The Nine Billion Names of God.” It’s online here in its entirety, and if you haven’t read it, it’s about a bunch of Tibetan monks who hire two computer engineers to set up a computer for them. The computer’s job is to generate a list of all the possible letter combinations that spell out the nine billion names of god. The monks had been doing this task by hand for hundreds of years, and had assumed it would take them 15,000 more years to complete the task. With a computer, they can do it in three months. The programmers eventually find out that, according to the monks’ beliefs, once all nine billion names have been written out, humanity’s purpose will be fulfilled and God will step in to end the universe; th-th-that’s all, folks! The story ends as the two programmers, having finished the task, walk down the mountain:
“Look,” whispered Chuck, and George lifted his eyes to heaven. (There is always a last time for everything.)
Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.
Which is, really, one of the best endings to a sci-fi story ever. But for our purposes, the real punch line occurs much earlier on. When the programmers show up to instal the computer, they ask where they’re going to get electricity to power it. The monks reply that they already have a diesel generator, which they use to power … their prayer wheels.
(Thanks to Boing Boing for picking up this one!)
Everyone who plays video games knows the fun part about “finishing” a game: You get to watch some sort of special feature while the credits roll. (As an aside, isn’t it weird that video games only put the credits at the end of the game? Many television shows and movies begin with at least some mention of the director and even the producer — but video games generally only refer to the company that produced it. If you want to find out who’s responsible for the fun you’re having, you have to play so well that you complete the game; the knowledge is your reward. That’s a really weird relationship between the artist and the audience.)
But anyway, since many games are either too hard to complete — or too boring to bother — the fine folks at the Video Game Museum have collected screenshots from the final moments of “completed” games. They’re hilariously overwrought yet often oddly touching. Since many of these games are old, SNES-style titles, the creators couldn’t use lavish animated sequences. Mostly, they just use static images with text beneath.
But here’s the thing: Given how emotionally purple most of these stories are, they wind up feeling precisely like silent films — Kabuki-like, stylized drama delivered via text-box speech bubbles. A lovely example of that is the final sequence to the SNES game Art of Fighting, where the combatants finally unveil their long-lost father and have a tearful reunion. (That’s the father in the screenshot above.)
Though I’m a huge game fan, I’ve never really agreed with the argument that games are “art”. They’re “play”, which is an entirely different — and entirely nifty — category of human creativity. (Games might be artistic, but that’s different from being art.) Nonetheless, these little dramatic sequences are a totally wonderful reminder of what dramatic range you can squeeze out of the most retrograde tools. These guys were just desperate to tell these huge, Kurosawa-grade epic stories, but could only use grainy 8-bit game engines to do so. It reminds me of the genuis of David Rees, who has intentionally embraced these limitations in Get Your War On — where the use of static, repetitive clip-art is the prime reason the strip is funny.
(Thanks to Memepool for finding this site!)
This one’s fun. Dean Waters, a bat expert at the University of Leeds, has developed a surroundsound technology that lets you locate an object by using bat-like sonar. From the New Scientist:
Humans cannot generate or hear the high frequency sound waves generated by bats. So Waters created a virtual system that sends out bat echolocation sounds and returns echoes that are slowed into the human range of hearing.
He put people wearing headphones into a room and asked them to hunt down a virtual insect, using only the echolocation sounds. “The trials were extraordinary,” Waters told New Scientist. “It’s a very intuitive process.”
This actually might be quite useful for military applications — such as giving fighter pilots a 360-degree “virtual vison” sense of everything around them, including things they can’t visually see: Planes or missiles beneath or behind them. It could even conceivably be incorporated into cars, so that when you drive, you constantly have a 360-degree sense of how far away every other car is to you.
(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)
It’s just so hard on all of us.
Need to write a corporate memo, but the muse just won’t visit? Try the “CorpSpeak” application built by the guys at LavaRnd, experts in random-number generation. Fill out the fields describing who the memo is to, who it’s from, and what it’s about — and their auto-memo-creation engine will do the rest.
I tested it out, and produced the following corporate missive:
To: All Readers
From: Collision Detection
Date: Wed Oct 8 22:39:29 2003
Subject: Important Announcement
A major action item for this fiscal quarter is a corporation rollout. Leading indicators would seem to suggest that win-win leadership positions improve the performance of scalable shared memory multiprocessor. A team next generation achieves a new all of you.
It used to be true that paradigm shifts do the right thing about the competitive market realignment, however throughout the fiscal year we have seen that protocols execute opportunity. We’ve got to do it in revolutionary challenges of strategies. So, a forward looking relationship is not going to help us in the concepting of the corporate titans. Our third parties tell us that shared objectives inevitably encapsulate customer partnerships.
Oh, and by the way? You’re all fired.
A while ago, I wrote about Bullfighter, a piece of software created by the Deloitte and Touche consultancy, which automatically eliminates jargon and meaningless weasel-words from corporate documents. Now I’m thinking it would be fun to link up these two applications, and have CorpSpeak funnel documents directly into Bullfighter. Voila: A perpetual-motion machine of corporate blather!
A computer-science student at Algoma University recently became the first person to create a system that routes data over bongo drums. See that picture above? That’s basically how it works. You type an internet command into one computer, and the software translates it into a set of bongo-drum beats — which the computer whacks out on the drums, using electrically-powered sticks. The second computer listens to the bongo pattern, then translates the commands back into computer-speak, and executes the command.
Now we know what to do during the next blackout.
(Thanks to Slashdot for finding this one!)
Ferrofluids — oily substances filled with tiny particles that respond to magnetism — have been around for decades, and now they’re actually becoming useful. Airlines use ferrofluids to help seal rotary valves. Loudspeaker manufacturers use them to make better speakers.
But mostly, ferrofluids are used to creep the living heck out of people. That’s because when you bring a magnet near a few drops of this stuff, it writhes like some sort of silicon-based alien substance that is about to COME TO LIFE AND CRAWL UP YOUR NOSTRILS AND KILL YOU.
Don’t believe me? Check out these videos on this page. In particular, dig this one where a bunch of ferrofluids pick up a penny and move it around. Yeeee.
(Thanks to El Rey for finding this one!)
One of the most interesting aspects of corporate history is the development of interoffice communication. After the skyscraper was invented in the early 20th century, large companies began to occupy increasingly spread-out places. That meant they had to rely on increasingly complex ways to move messages around — including pneumatic-tube systems, speaker-tube grids, and wax-cylinder recorders.
And now … blimps. A researcher at Hewlett Packard has developed the first ever intraoffice blimp: A tiny dirigible that ferries messages from one cubicle to another. You can watch a video of the blimp’s maiden voyage here, and there’s also a Q&A with the inventor, who notes some of the environmental problems of blimpmail:
I think the noise of the blimp’s fans was more of a problem than the color. I imagine that people will not like the airspace above their cubicles filling with buzzing objects, but I’m sure there are ways to design these systems responsibly. Perhaps they have to fly at least at a certain height, or only during certain times. And if it’s a useful service, I think people will get used to it.
Me, I’m kind of charmed by the idea; there’s something almost Blade Runneresque about the idea of massive objects floating around inside my office.
Joking aside, the inventor here actually made one interesting breakthrough. He quickly realized that any guidance-control system would be too heavy for the blimp to lift, so he made the blimp “dumb”. The control systems are in the room around it: A set of video cameras tracks the movement, calculates the vectors in which the blimp needs to fire its engines to reach its destination, and squirts the commands over to the balloon. This system means you could conceivably roll out a pretty big fleet of blimps pretty quickly, since it would only take one “brain” to route them all.
The inventor notes that when his blimp project was mentioned on Slashdot last month, he was beseiged with resumes from geeks who wanted to apply for jobs on Hewlett Packard’s “blimp team.” Heh.
Check out this game — it’s called RSVP. It’s a neat idea: An old-fashioned card game created using Flash. Like most good games, it starts with an incredibly simple goal and incredibly simple rules, yet quickly develops emergent complexity that rips your head off. The idea is to “seat” each card around a table, so that the colors on each side of the card match those of the adjacent cards. If the card is suitably matched, the face on the card becomes “happy” and you get points; the “unhappy” umatched cards lose you points.
I think this game is an incredible breakthrough, both aesthetically and ludologically. (Yes, I just used the word “ludologically”. Yeah, yeah, shut up.) Aesthetically, I love the way the designer — a guy named Howard at Bulletproof Baby — has captured the graphic-art style of early-20th-century card games. He’s even made the cards sepia-toned, as if they’d slightly yellowed with age.
Game-wise, I love the idea of using Flash to create a genuinely new card game. For a while, I’ve been amazed at how rarely game designers use the wonderful freedom of video games to reinvent classic play. Sure, it’s fun to create virtual versions of football, cribbage, or bowling. By why stop there? Why not create entirely new sports — or entirely new card games? The nice thing about a virtual environment is that you’re not bound by normal laws of physics. In a new, virtual-only sport, you can mess around with gravity to create new forms of play. And with a virtual card game, you could have cards that morph and change depending on how you use them — almost like the way magic books in fairy tales develop faces and start talking.
Even more interesting are the people who commissioned this new card game: Lifetime Television. This is another thing I love about the impact of Flash on games. Flash makes it so cheap and quick to produce a good game that game-design is no longer limited to the entertainment giants like Electronic Arts or Eidos. Virtually any company with about $20,000 kicking around could find a game designer to produce them a fun game, which they can then give away for free as advertising. And since the games are being made by nontraditional sources, they tend to step outside the kick-punch-shoot genres that dominate mainstream gaming (and bore the crap out of many adults).
I love this stuff.
So. The US government’s deficit is ballooning — soaring to a half-trillion this year alone. The president is cutting taxes like mad while spending big on Iraq, and the sea of red ink is mounting. At this rate, your kids’ kids will be probably still chipping away at the interest six decades from now.
Think you can do better? Then try your hand at the National Budget Simulator — a web page that lets you quickly adjust spending or taxes up and down to try and balance the budget.
Okay, you’ve had a tough day at the office. But at least you’re not working as a “barnyard masturbator”. Or a “corpse-flower grower”. Or a “flatus odor judge.”
Those are a few of what Popular Science has determined are “The Worst Jobs In Science.” Their list is online here, so you can check it out — in all its gut-wrenching glory — for yourself. Oh, and that “flatus odor judge”? In case you’re looking to change careers, the job description is thus:
Odor judges are common in the research labs of mouthwash companies, where the halitosis-inflicted blow great gusts of breath in their faces to test product efficacy. But Minneapolis gastroenterologist Michael Levitt recently took the job to another level—or, rather, to the other end. Levitt paid two brave souls to indulge repeatedly in the odors of other people’s farts. (Levitt refuses to divulge the remuneration, but it would seem safe to characterize it thusly: Not enough.) Sixteen healthy subjects volunteered to eat pinto beans and insert small plastic collection tubes into their anuses (worst-job runners-up, to be sure). After each “episode of flatulence,” Levitt syringed the gas into a discrete container, rigorously maintaining fart integrity. The odor judges then sat down with at least 100 samples, opened the caps one at a time, and inhaled robustly. As their faces writhed in agony, they rated just how noxious the smell was. The samples were also chemically analyzed, and—eureka!—Levitt determined definitively the most malodorous component of the human flatus: hydrogen sulfide.
I’m going to throw up right now.
Scientists at Toronto Western Hospital have discovered the function of a long-mysterious brain chemical — which might help them prevent Parkinson’s Disease. It’s a neurotransmitter, something that helps to manage communication between brain and nerve cells; Parkinson’s patients don’t have enough of this chemical in their brains. This finding is considered to be quite a significant breakthrough.
And the name of the mystery neurotransmitter? “Sonic Hedgehog.”
The hospital issued a press release to Canada NewsWire, which is simply breathtaking in its weirdness. To quote:
The findings suggest that increasing the amount of Sonic Hedgehog in the brain may be a potential treatment for Parkinson’s disease. …
“The research demonstrates that Sonic Hedgehog plays a surprising role in the brain’s control of body movement,” says Dr. Jonathan Brotchie, senior scientist with Toronto Western Research Institute, the research arm of Toronto Western Hospital.
“More importantly, we have shown that this function of Sonic Hedgehog is reduced in Parkinson’s disease, and that this reduction may be one of the causes of Parkinson’s disease.”
Apparently, scientists discovered this mystery gene seven years ago or so, and gave it the video-game nickname. Who knew? At any rate, a Google search for “sonic hedgehog neuroscience” produces a blizzard of equally bizarre medical citations, such as this lovely bit of prose from Columbia University Health Sciences:
Starting with mouse embryonic stem cells growing in vitro, the scientists sequentially added two signaling proteins known to differentiate neural cells in vivo. Retinoic acid stimulated the formation of spinal cord cells and, then, sonic hedgehog changed the cord cells to spinal motor neurons.
(Thanks to Sean for pointing this one out!)
Clearly, the AmIHotOrNot meme has metastasized to the point of collapse. I just got a press release for a new competition — to decide on The World’s Sexiest Gamer:
Our mission is to prove to the world that gamers are not joystick jockeys, glued to their keyboards. Our search for the Sexiest Gamer gives all you male and female gamers the opportunity to send in your hottest gaming related pic. Visitors to the site will be able to rate the hotness of each entrant.
There is, of course, no surer way to condemn yourself to geekiness than to desperately claim you are not geeky. But what the hell: I’m almost tempted to send my photo in.
I’ve always argued that portable technology is partly a type of performance art. Consider the Palm Pilot. Sure, the very first users were true zealots; they loaded everything onto their Palms and couldn’t imagine being without them. But within a few years, the trend had caught on, and zillions of people were frantically buying Palms. Did all those people actually need them? Did they use them?
I doubt it. They didn’t buy their Palms for function; they bought them exclusively for style. As I argued in my Newsday column in 1999:
Indeed, once you’ve established that you own and carry a Palm Pilot, you could pretty much leave the thing sitting on your desk to gather dust, or perhaps use it merely as a paperweight. You still look good. In essence, Palm’s central genius is not just in producing a great piece of technology. It’s that they’ve grasped a basic fact about the digital world — in which high-tech gadgets function primarily as a type of corporate performance art.
One friend of mine used her Palm solely to tell the time.
So I was rather tickled to find that the folks at the Mijnkopthee blog have created a cut-out-and-assemble paper template for an Ipod. Can’t afford to dish out $500 for a new 40-gig model? Print this .jpg, glue it onto cardboard, fold Tab A into Slot B, and presto: You, too, can appear to own the hippest digital tool du jour. Because hey — appearances still matter. Owning an Ipod isn’t just about having all 4,000 songs at your beck and call. It’s about letting everyone know that you own so much music — and are so culturally with-it — that you wouldn’t dare leave the house without the collected works of Wynton Marsalis, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Delibes at your fingertips. Rip, mix, burn, dude.
I wonder how many people load thousands of songs onto their Ipods and yet spend two months listening to the same one album over and over and over again. Heh.
Anyway, if you’re interested in reading my original column about Palm Pilots and this cultural effect, click “more” and it’ll appear at the bottom of this item!
(Thanks to Boing Boing for finding this one!)
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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