Archive: November 2003

The ugliest building in the world

The board of the Ontario College of Art must have been dropped on its collective heads, because they just approved the above design for their new building. It’s so ugly that I am completely bereft of words. I’ll let the folks at Eyesore of the Month do the talking, since they — quite sensibly — bestowed the award on this ghastly exercise in CAD design:

Behold the new $30 million Ontario College of Art & Design classroom and studio building by British architect Will Alsop — a totemized retro-futuroid coffee table joined umbilically to its Soviet-style predecessor below. The message, apparently: art and design are nothing but fun fun fun. Nothing to get serious about. A playful spirit of induced hazard will keep students wondering when the checkered box might wobble free of its cute swizzle-stick legs and come crashing down on their heads. This exercise in hyper-entropic avant garde faggotry is so cutting edge that it is already out of date. The only question: which of the two conjoined buildings is more cruelly ridiculous?

Okay, “faggotry” might not be quite the word I’d use myself, but otherwise I couldn’t agree more. I’m from Toronto originally, and the sad thing is, this building may not even be the ugliest one in town. the city has very strange architecture: Lovely Victorian buildings are mixed cheek-by-jowl with brutalist concrete nightmares that look as if they’d been picked up from Vladivostock, or perhaps a Doctor Who episode.

(Thanks to the J-Walk blog for this one!)

Bless this house

I can’t stop laughing. Go to The Subversive Cross Stitch and you can buy gorgeous, heartwarming little hand-crafts, created in a classic motherly tradition … then outfitted with Pulp-Fiction-class sentiments. The artwork above is 75 bucks, and I’m seriously considering getting it for a friend, to hang in their office.

Indeed, these handicrafts were inspired by horrible office politics. As the artist, Julie Jackson, notes on her web site:

Subversive Cross Stitch began in 2003 as a form of
anger management therapy when I was dealing with an idiot boss.

(Thanks to Lonnie Foster’s Tribblescape for this one!)

Emotional fractals

That image above is an online art project called the “Emotional Fractal”. It’s a little Flash application that picks words randomly from the dictionary and displays them in a recursive format, with words interlaced between others in progressively smaller and smaller sizes. When the words get too small, you can zoom in and find even tinier words nested between the tiny ones. (Click here and you can see it in action!) It’s produced by the artist Jared Tarbell, and Lonnie Foster describes it nicely on his blog Tribblescape:

I could reload the page for hours on end as it generates random bits and bobs of juxtaposed adjectives. It’s a lot like magnetic poetry, only instead of placing the words one at a time, you scoop together the entire set of magnets and throw it at the refrigerator.

Copyright protection, Eddie-Van-Halen-style

According to Wikipedia:

[Van Halen’s] debut, self-titled album was released in 1978 and featured a new soloing technique called tapping: a technique utilizing both left and right hands on the guitar neck. Leading up to the release of the album, Eddie would play his solos with his back to the audience during club dates, to hide his technique until the album came out.

(Thanks to Little Things for this one!)

Little voice

Ever wished you had a nice, booming soulful voice — perfect for screeching out treacly love ballads? Well, you could take singing lessons. Or you could just buy a copy of “Virtual Male Solo Vocalist”, a piece of software that will sing whatever words you type into it. As the website says:

LEON is a virtual male soul vocalist modelled on a real professional singer, and when he is installed into your PC he will literally allow you to create singing of superb quality and realism. LEON will sing ANY words you ask him to in English - literally anything - be they beautiful lyrics or comical trivialities, Monteverdi madrigals or manic chants. You can create vocal tracks of soulful singing in any lyrics you want. You just type in lyrics, and synthesize. Then add expression to taste. LEON is under your total control, and the really mind-blowing thing is - he can truly sound like a professional singing voice. With very little practice the results you get from LEON will completely fool your friends - they will believe they are listening to a real singer performing. The question you will hear will always be “WHO is that?”, and not “What is that?”.

(Thanks to Technovelgy for this one!)

If you work for AT&T, don’t read this blog entry

Apparently, AT&T has initiated a plan called “Project Pinnacle,” a companywide effort to cut costs while boosting profit margins as high as 40 per cent. Part of how they’re doing is by doing what many service-based US companies are now doing: Outsourcing service jobs to India. Last week, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran an article leaking AT&T’s plans, suggesting that as many as 70 per cent of the company’s IT US-based people could lose their jobs.

When AT&T employees went online to read the piece, they found that the company was blocking access to it. There’s a note about this on the web site of Washtech, the IT-workers’ union:

“Warning Notice,” the alert reads. “You have attempted to access a site that has been deemed inappropriate by our business and blocked from ALL internal access. A record of this request has been logged and will be provided to Business Security upon request.”

Below the message, in capital letters, a line reads, “PLEASE REFRAIN FROM ANY FURTHUR ATTEMPTS!”

Company employees who spoke to WashTech News on the condition that they would not be identified said that currently navigating from their work computer to any Internet site that carries news reports critical of AT&T Wireless produces a similar alert, but the sites are now accessible.

Hacking Billy Bass, or, “open source hardware”

Remember those “Big Mouth Billy Bass” toys that came out about five years ago — an animatronic fish that would wiggle and sing various songs? These days you can get one for about a dollar at a junk store, so hackers have started opening them up, installing embedded Linux chips, and using the fish for other things. For starters, they’ve installed an algorithm that plays audio out the fish’s speaker while co-ordinating its mouth movements. Click here, and you can see video of Billy Bass speaking in Bill Clinton’s voice as he says “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.” Finer entertainment cannot be had.

And dig this: The hackers are eventually going to use Billy Bass as a telepresence object:

By adding a microphone and CCD camera to the system, the toy will be transformed into a webcam or a videoconferencing station … It will be possible to use Microsoft NetMeeting or CUSeeMe to connect to your bass at home and talk with your loved one ones!

And now we enter the “blatant self-congratulation” part of this blog entry. Two and a half years ago, I was writing the technology for the Report on Business magazine at The Globe and Mail, and I did a column about what I called “open source hardware” — the trend of hackers opening up high-tech toys and rejigging them to do different things. Much like open-source software, hardware hacking often relies upon disparate groups of geeks sharing info; a worldwide consortium of programmers, for example, worked together to assemble the super-secret schematics to the Furby toy. (In fact, they even formed a competition around it: Hack Furby.)

Obviously, tinkerers have been opening up gadgets for centuries and mucking with them. But open-source hardware hacking has undergone a renaissance in recent years, because of several trends: i) Toys these days frequently have extremely complex microprocessors and motion/light/sound sensors, stuff that was literally NASA-class only ten years ago; ii) these toys are nonetheless extremely cheap, so thousands of hackers worldwide can and do buy them; and iii) the Internet makes it possible for them to collaborate on breaking open the toys and assembling schematics.

If you want to read the whole column I wrote, I put a copy of it below — click “more” and it’s there in full!

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

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These days, many mobile phones come equipped with Bluetooth — a technology for sending data up to 30 feet to another device. It’s kind of like wifi, except more flexible, albeit with a shorter range. But the point is, a lot of phones can use Bluetooth to send contact information from one to another, much the way you used to “beam” information from one Palm Pilot to another. Except with Bluetooth, you don’t need to be pointing your device at the recipient. Indeed, you could be thirty feet away in a crowded room.

This has given rise to a new trend: “bluejacking”. Bluejacking is when you use your phone to locate another phone nearby that has Bluetooth — and then send that person some contact info, and possibly a cryptic little message. Often you’re doing it to a total stranger, anonymously. As the bluejacking web site puts it:

On their phone, a message will popup saying “‘Hello, you’ve been bluejacked’ has just been received by Bluetooth” or something along those lines. For most ‘victims’ they will have no idea as to how the message appeared on their phone. So, personalised messages like ‘I like your pink top’ and the startled expressions that result is where the fun really starts.

Obviously, bluejacking is kinda creepy — for the victim, it’s rather like being stalked, or a digital-age version of the classic horror movie When A Stranger Calls. (“The call’s coming from inside the house!!!”) But apparently the victims often find it kind of funny. On the Bluejacking site, there are a couple of stories written by bluejackers, including that kid in the picture above: In the photo, he’s bluejacking the girl in the pink-and-white top behind him. The full story is here, and for balance’s sake, they also include a rather hilarious story told from the perspective of a bluejacking victim.

I predict Bluejacking will appear in a spy movie — or horror movie — within the next twelve months.

The picture above is copyright the original bluejacking site, BTW!

Stopping spam with poetry

Okay, this is cool: Here’s an innovative way to stop spam — and hit spammers with an intriguing use of copyright law.

Habeas, an anti-spam corporation, has created a set of special “x-headers” that you insert into your outgoing mail. Essentially, it’s a little watermark that indicates that your email is genuine and valid. ISPs can set up a simple filters that allow email through that includes these special x-headers.

But hold it — couldn’t the spammers themselves also put these x-headers into their junk mail, and thus get past the filters? Sure. Except here’s the thing: The headers are written in the form of haiku — a copyrightable art form. (That’s an example you see above.) If a spammer copies one of Habeas’ x-headers and uses it to send out millions of pieces of spam, they’ve just broken copyright law on a massive scale: They have illegally distributed copies of an artwork. Habeas can launch an enormous lawsuit against any spammer, and indeed, they’ve already successfully shut down a few.

As Habeas points on its web site:

Fighting spam with poetry and the law
The thing that makes The Habeas Warrant Mark so unique is that it is written as haiku, an ancient Japanese poetic form. Since our headers are actual works of art, Habeas can use the powerful legal tools available for copyright and trademark protection to prosecute violators.

I could not possibly love this more! Email servers spraying poetry across the Internet — and using it to bust the most annoying advertising ever.

I’ve written pretty extensively in recent months about the peculiar literary appeal of auto-generated text, and about ‘bots that write poems. But what really charms me is how the Internet is causing a strange, quiet revolution in the utility and prominence of poetry — an otherwise neglected art form. Poetry, with its short, tight compression of expression, is perfectly suited to applications that need to send tiny bursts of text; and poetry’s constant remixing and resampling of former literature makes it oddly ‘bot-like in nature. Indeed, of all literary forms, poetry is the one closest to computer programming itself: An art form where compression, efficiency and elegance are highly prized.

Which is why it’s probably no surprise that Habeas users have begun to write their own haiku and send them in to Habeas. You can read some examples here, including this one:

Dear old friends send mail.
As do incorporeal
robot pretenders.

-James Kobielus

The case for open-source voting softare, pt. 3

I’ve written before about the Diebold computer-voting-maching scandal, and why I think voting software should be developed in an open-source mode — so that citizens can see for themselves how the software works, and whether it’s secure or insecure. Diebold has always publicly claimed that its secret, proprietary software is safe and reliable — while in private, Diebold engineers have written panicked memos talking about the security holes.

Yesterday, the Register reported that Diebold’s automated teller machines were infected by the Nachi worm. Why? Amazingly, they run on Windows XP Embedded — a platform that is just shot through with holes.

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

What gender are Ramen noodles?

Most languages have a gender for nouns; in French, a pencil is male, and a pen is female. But the thing is, this isn’t just a quirk of language: People often seem to feel that objects actually have a gender. I once roomed with a women who insisted that toasters were male, for example.

I can’t remember how the hell I got in that particular argument, but now we can settle it once and for all — because Paul Grzymkowski has set up an online project where people can vote on the gender of a particular object. That pack of Ramen noodes? According to the votes so far, 60.62% of people think it’s male. Meanwhile, 45.98% of people think ice pops are female, a sizeable 78.10% of people think a deck of cards is male, and 68.42% felt that disposable paper cups are female.

If you don’t see an object in there you’d like to see classified? Gryzmkowki’s taking suggestions here. Me, I’m wondering about whether a typewriter is a he or a she.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

Robot Hall of fame

Carnegie Mellon University recently decided that the world needed a Robot Hall of Fame. So they founded one this year, hired a jury of experts, and had them decide on the first four robots to be inducted this year as hall-of-famers.

The winners? None other than the Soujourner Mars probe, the Unimate industrial robot, the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and R2-D2.

Of course, the interesting thing is that the jury decided to include robots that do not actually exist, other than in the movies. I like this, insofar as it points to the fact that robots are cool not so much because of what they are, but what we imagine them to be. If you want to see an actual robot — in the original sense of the Czech word “robot” meaning “servant” — well, go to the kitchen and behold your dishwasher. But if you want an idealized robot, watch a movie. Robots are, at heart, a philosophical pleasure: By meditating upon them, we think about the nature of ourselves — what makes things seem human-like, lifelike, or intelligent. As Jim Morris, the jury moderator for the Hall of Fame, said of R2-D2:

R2-D2 represents our highest hope for what robots might do for humans. He performs countless services and save the lives of humans many times. He seems to understand technology deeply and responds to human needs unerringly. He does not try to imitate humans or compete with them. He’s all robot!

Sorry, I have to get this

A Belgian family was attending the funeral of their son when the corpse’s mobile phone started ringing:

Marc Marchal, 32, was killed when his motorbike collided with a tractor near his home town of Rochefort. Mr. Marchal was so badly injured in the accident that the undertakers advised his family that the coffin should remain closed as they said their last farewells.

The night before the funeral, the family gathered at the undertakers for a final private farewell, when they heard the sound of his cellphone ringing from within the sealed coffin. Several distressed members of the family had to leave the funeral home whilst staff rushed to remove the cell phone.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

With Friendsters like this, who needs Enemysters?

Unless you’ve spent the last few months living on the moon, you’ve heard of Friendster — the funky, upbeat site for hooking up with like-minded, amiable folks. Fittingly, the original investors in Friendster were also, in real life, actual friends themselves: Jonathan Abrams, who runs Friendster, and Reid Hoffman and Marc Pincus, who respectively run the alternate social-networking sites LinkedIn and All very chummy.

Until, of course, the money comes along — and the daggers come out. Now that the sites are scrambling for venture capital, the founders are practising all manner of bullet-time CEO jujitsu. While Abram was off securing another $13 million in financing from Benchmark Capital and Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, his pals Hoffman and Pincus were sneaking around behind his back: They formed a limited partnership to secretly buy up a $700,000 patent on the “Six Degrees” technology that underpins all three sites. Obviously, if they own the technology, they could drive Friendster out of business in a flash. As ZDNet reports:

“I didn’t involve Jonathan because I thought Kleiner and Benchmark would try to bid me out,” Hoffman said. “It’s better to be safe than sorry.” Hoffman described the Six Degrees patent as “central to this field.”

I wonder if Abrams is off erasing the testimonials he wrote on Friendster for his good pals Hoffman and Pincus?

(Thanks to Jeff Heer for finding this one!)

The love that dare not speak its name

As astute readers may have noticed, I’ve recently cultivated a sort of giant-squid beat here at Collision Detection. Now another fascinating bit of squid trivia has just come across the transom.

As you may know, no giant squid has ever been observed alive; we’ve only ever recovered dead carcasses. But according to the BBC, a bunch of scientists have figured out a way to lure a male giant squid to the surface: By tempting him with squid genitals. The scientists have apparently been saving cephalapod unmentionables for some time, to use as bait. As one explains:

“The freezer bag at home — to my wife’s disgust — is actually full of giant squid gonad samples. We’re going to grind all of this up, and we’re going to have this puree coming out from the camera, squirting into the water. Hopefully the male giant squid, absolutely driven into a frenzy, is going to come up and try to mate with the camera.

“This is the dream - we’re going to get this sensational footage of the giant squid trying to do obscene things with the camera.”

(Thanks to Jessica’s Peace Dividend for finding this one!)

Bottoms up

This is one of those entries that needs no comment. From the Sydney Morning Herald:

Russian dies after winning vodka-drinking contest

A vodka-drinking competition in a southern Russian town ended in tragedy with the winner dead and several runners-up in intensive care.

“The competition lasted 30, perhaps 40 minutes and the winner downed three half-litre bottles. He was taken home by taxi but died within 20 minutes,” said Roman Popov, a prosecutor pursuing the case in the town of Volgodonsk.

“Five contestants ended up in intensive care. Those not in hospital turned up the next day, ostensibly for another drink.”

Mr Popov said the director of the shop organising this month’s contest had been charged with manslaughter.

(Thanks to Emily for finding this one!)

German safety video — or forklift massacre??

You may have missed the teensploitation flick Final Destination when it came out a while back. The concept was quite neat: A teenage guy is about to board a flight with a bunch of friends, when he has a premonition that the plane will crash. He convinces his friends not to board, and the plane does indeed crash. But death doesn’t like being cheated — no sir! So death essentially “reclaims” all the kids who escaped, one by one, by subjecting them to seemingly random accidents. The thing is, the accidents are all hilariously complex, like Rube Goldberg machines; as the movie wears on, they become more and more obtuse until eventually it’s like getting killed by a Mousetrap-class contraption.

Which brings me to the German “forklift safety video” that’s been making the rounds online. It’s a rarity in safety literature, because: a) It illustrates people being severed in half, having their hands torn off, and blood coating the walls, yet b) it somehow maintains a Monty-Python-like sense of humor about it. The final death scenes are about as excellent as anything from Final Destination.

(Thanks to Gwin for this one!)

Of tiny robots, Danny Dunn, and geek poetry

Seiko Epson has just invented the world’s smallest flying robot. No word on how light it is, but I’m guessing it’s measured in grams. According to Epson’s web site, the robot …

… causes levitation by use of contra-rotating propellers powered by an ultra-thin, ultrasonic motor with the world’s highest*4 power-weight ratio and can be balanced in mid-air by means of the world’s first*5 stabilizing mechanism using a linear actuator. Furthermore, the essence of micromechatronics has been brought together in high-density mounting technology to minimize the size and weight of the circuitry’s control unit.

Okay, that’s enough technical jargon for me. But now for the inevitable digression:

This robot reminds me oddly of the sci-fi Danny Dunn series I read as a kid. Danny was the nephew of an eccentric scientist who was always inventing stuff that was deeply cool — and, what’s more, stuff that eerily presaged modern technology by about 20 years. In one book, Dunn commandeered his uncle’s ENIAC-style computer to help do his homework. (In another one, he used “antigravity paint” to travel to Saturn … so, okay, the predictive accuracy of these novels isn’t really all that hot.)

But one novel stood out: Danny Dunn, Invisible Boy. Dunn’s uncle invents a tiny flying robot that’s shaped like a dragonfly; a user dons a helmet and gloves with haptic force-feedback sensors (!), so that he or she can see everything the dragonfly sees and actually feel everything the dragonfly feels as it flits about, spying on people. The Epson robot is amazingly close to this construction, and in fact, the overall model — telepresence via teensy flying spybots — is something that the military is actively investigating as a new spy tool.

Here’s an even bigger digression. While surfing around for Danny Dunn resources (I can’t believe I just typed that sentence), I happened upon what is surely a literary first: A Danny Dunn poem — an existential meditation on failed marriages that is written in the voice of the boy genius. And what’s even more fucked up is that the poem’s actually kind of good. It’s crammed full of so many Dunn references that virtually no-one but the geeks who read all those books will understand it, but if you do, it’s really kind of chilling. It’s called “Danny Dunn and the Heartbreak Machine”, and it’s written by Chris Tannlund.

And who, you may ask, is Chris Tannlund? Well, to plant the needle on the Surreal-O-Meter here, I should point out that in addition to being a pretty good poet, he’s “an independent Missouri-based UFO investigator.”

(Thanks to Slashdot for finding that robot item!)

The poetry of spam

I used to pretty much skip past the scores of penis-enlargement spam in my mailbox. But recently, I’ve started to read it, because it’s becoming weirdly literary. Consider the following email I just received; the subject line was “the big unit”, and the text was:

Xlli hgmkcfpe ni Are you ready? I suppose I ought to give the wooden dummy a good start of me, growled Jim You are right! exclaimed the demon, striding up and down the room, and causing thereby such a crackling of electricity in the air that Rob’s hair became rigid enough to stand on end

Hell, that might as well be a direct quote from Ulysses. In fact, maybe it is. I’ve been reading about spam software lately, and one of the ways that spammers try to get around spam filters is to include unusual and unique text in the message. Many spam filters watch for keywords like “penis” and “big” and “rod” or whatever, which occur in a particularly recognizable frequency. So to dodge that, the spammers have text generators that throw in tons of weird stuff like that passage above. But since the goal is to emulate human-style writing, merely using random text wouldn’t be enough. So it wouldn’t surprise me if some spammers are stripping passages out of novels — traditional literature, bodice-rippers, websites with stories on them — and automatically remixing it as spam text.

Either way, the results are pretty hilarious, eh? I particularly like that little randomized utterance at the beginning — “Xlli hgmkcfpe ni”. It’s almost like the computer is clearing its throat, spitting up a bit of ASCII caught in its vocal cords, as a prelude to singing.

When a robot says “dude

As I never tire of saying, artificial intelligence is most successful not when it aims high — but when it aims low.

Computer scientists have tried for years to get a computer to talk intelligently about philosophy and art and politics. They’ve all failed. But what they don’t realize is that this goal is kind of beside the point, because real-life humans themselves almost never talk about philosophy and art and politics. No, we mostly just sit around yelling “wazzup” and “right on” at each other. To emulate a human realistically, you don’t have to realistically capture the empyrean majesty of our imaginations. All you have to do is program a ‘bot to goof around and flip people off. That is, after all, what most of us do, 90% of the day.

This is nowhere more true than in the world of online games. Any ‘bot that’s been programmed with a few basic bits of trash talk is virtually indistinguishable from the zillions of folks playing, say, the online game Star Wars Galaxies. To prove it, Dave Kosak at GameSpy recently created a ‘bot to play as his character “Farglik.” He called it Autocamp 2000, and gave the ‘bot very simple rules of behavior:

1. Join any group that invites you
2. When in a group, follow behind the leader
3. Attack any monster you see
4. Accept all trade requests from other players, then give them a melon

He also gave it an incredibly small number of conversational gambits:

1. If someone says something ending in a question mark, respond by saying “Dude?”
2. If someone says something ending in an exclamation point, respond by saying “Dude!”
3. If someone says something ending with a period, respond by randomly saying one of three things: “Okie,” “Sure,” or “Right on.”
4. EXCEPTION: If someone says something directly to you by mentioning your name, respond by saying “Lag.”

Pretty simple, eh? Nonetheless, ‘bot did a reasonably good job of passing itself off as human. They provide several transcripts in the story site, one of which I’ve excerpted below; click on the “more” button below, and you’ll see just how convincing a ‘bot can be.

(Thanks again to Lonnie Foster at Tribblescape for this one!)

(NOTE: An earlier posting of this item inaccurately attributed the ‘bot to a blogger, but someone wrote in to the comments area to correct me; thanks, whoever you were!)

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My profile of Richard Wallace, creator of the ALICE chatbot

I’ve been writing about artificial intelligence a lot on this blog, and occasionally referring to the profile I wrote last year for the New York Times Magazine about Richard Wallace, the creator of the chatbot ALICE. Since the magazine doesn’t archive the story permanently, and since people have often asked me for a copy of it, I figured I should put it here on the blog permanently. So here’s a permanent copy:

Approximating Life
Richard Wallace created ALICE, the world’s most lifelike artificial intelligence. Now if only he could get along with people as well as ALICE does.
by Clive Thompson

“IT’S A GOOD THING you didn’t see me this morning,” Richard Wallace warns me as he bites into his hamburger. We’re sitting in a sports bar near his home in San Francisco, and I can barely hear his soft, husky voice over the jukebox. He wipes his lips clean of ketchup and grins awkwardly. “Or you’d have seen my backup personality.”

The backup personality: that’s Wallace’s code name for his manic depression. To keep it in check, he downs a daily cocktail of psychoactive drugs, including Topamax, an anti-epileptic that acts as a mood stabilizer, and Prozac. Marijuana, too — most afternoons, he’ll roll about four or five joints the size of his index finger. The medications work pretty well, but some crisis always comes along to bring the backup personality to the front. This morning, a collection agency for Wallace’s college loans wrote to say they’d begun docking $235 from the monthly disability checks he started getting from the government last year, when bipolar disorder was diagnosed. Oh, God, it’s happening again, he panicked: His former employers — the ones who had fired him from a string of universities and colleges — would be cackling at his misfortune, happy they’d driven him out. Wallace, 41, had raged around the cramped apartment he shares with his wife and son, strewn with computer-science texts and action-doll figurines.

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Corporate logo trends

Graphic Design:usa has assembled a list of recent trends in corporate logo design. What’s particularly interesting is how they link the trends to developments in printing and design technologies. For example, one of the trends they note is “transparency” in logos — including the example above:

Let’s face it: The old rule that dictated that any really well-designed logo had to (A) be reproducible in only one color, and (B) that color had to be solid, not screened, is gone. Sure, there are still challenges to be faced in playing fast and loose with these rules when a job must actually go on press, but the internet is much more forgiving. There are many logos today, like the MSN butterfly, that have transparent qualities that reveal themselves through multiple layers. These designs can be very compelling, especially since they are still novel enough to stand out from the already crowded world of flat one-, two- and three-color logos.

The politics of logos are quite hilarious. That logo above? It’s so pretty! It’s so cute! And it’s for Altria, the parent company of the immeasurably bleak corporate citizen Philip Morris.

Of course, Graphic Design:usa might want to consider rebranding itself. I’ve never seen a company whose name incorporates a more fey and annoying use of a semicolon. I mean, people, seriously: Get over yourselves.

(Another cool find from Lonnie Foster’s Tribblescape!)

CAPTCHA poetry

If you’ve tried to log onto a web service lately — such as Yahoo’s free email, or Ticketmaster — you’ve probably seen a CAPTCHA. That’s the ungainly acronym for a Completely Automatic Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. A CAPTHCA is a technique for stopping spambots from commandeering a web site. The test asks you to identify a little picture — usually a stretched or skewed word — before you go any further. Since people can identify pictures very easily, but computers can’t, it stops the spambots cold. The end result, though, is that the Internet is now flooded with these colorful little pictures of distorted words.

Now programmer Patrick Swiekowski has written a script that automatically collects CAPTCHA images from AOL’s screen-name signup process, and displays them four at a time on a web page, as a form of poetry. The page refreshes every few seconds, so it’s kind of like reading a robotized version of fridge-magnet poetry — four words juxtaposed in strange and often eerie ways. I watched it refresh for a couple of minutes and saw the following “poems”:

long flag
power even

bath with
dust market

side berry
feeble near

rice swim letter good

drop soup
thread there

That’s the most compressed literary form I’ve ever seen! Ultra-haiku.

(Thanks to Lonnie Foster’s Tribblescape for this one!)

“Solar flare”, the movie

You may have read last week about the insanely huge solar flares that erupted out of the sun — the biggest ones ever recorded. Apparently, these celestial events are rated on an “X” scale, with the average flares being around X3 or X5. In contrast, the recent one was X20. If you go to NASA’s site, you can find not only pretty pictures like the one above, but entire videos of the solar flares — shot with such stunning resolution that it’s as if you were in a spaceship floating near Mercury and watching the whole thing go kerboom.

Man, I had no idea the sun was so freakin’ dangerous. I mean, seriously, you look at that video and it’s like, what the hell are we still doing alive? Yeeee.

Thus it was with some alarm that I also read a BBC story noting that scientists have reproduced a 300-million-degree solar flare in a lab. They used a tokamak — a Russian invention, which traps white-hot plasma in between magnetic fields so it can’t escape and incinerate your arms — to produce the flare.

Geek trivia: “Tokamak” was also the name of a little-known villain from the ill-fated Cold-War-era comic book Firestorm. Firestorm was filled with all these people who’d gotten their superpowers through demented lab accidents involve nuclear reactors; Firestorm himself was created when a teenager and a middle-aged scientist, caught in a nuclear-bomb explosion, were fused together into one body. (The teenager controlled the body while the scientist was reduced to sort of floating around in an “astral state” and providing guidance during battles, a relationship that was simply sloppy with freudian undertones.) Firestorm ran from 1982 to 1987, but was read by only me and about 16 other people, I think.

(Thanks to Cosma for this one!)


So cool: 3D renderings of the London subway system!

(Thanks to Boing Boing for finding this one!)

Flash: the graffiti of the 21st century

Over a year ago, I wrote a piece for Slate magazine about how online Flash games were being used as the newest form of social comment. As I pointed out at the time:

As a game, however, it’s pretty dull. Most of these political games are. You’d never find yourself pumping quarters addictively into them. They’re low-tech, 2-D, cartoonish, and the game-play in most is so painfully simple that you can master them after one or two sessions at the keyboard. Yet this is, weirdly, part of the point. These games aren’t trying to get you hooked or make your thumbs sore. They’re trying to make you think.

These days, more people are starting to take this thesis seriously, which is deeply cool. In fact, there are now two new blogs that exist solely to track the growth of games as commentary — Water Cooler Games and Social Impact Games. And when the guys at recently launched a game called Sept. 12 — which essentially argues that trying to fight terrorism by bombing Middle-Eastern countries will only produce more terrorists — game-designer Greg Costikyan completely lost his shit; on his blog, he posted:

I don’t object too strenously, really—I mean, idiotic and banal editorials are written every day. And indeed, this is an idiotic and banal—well, I won’t call it a game, and they don’t either. Game-like editorial object. Once mustn’t get too exercised about idiotic and banal editorials; they are legion, and being idiotic and banal in expressing an opinion is a fundamental human right. Still and all, if the purpose is to demonstrate the utility of games as a means of illuminating current political issues and derive greater insight into them…. surely this has failed.

Costikyan is a smart dude, and he’s certainly right that Sept. 12 isn’t terribly subtle. But it doesn’t mean the idea of games-as-commentary is bankrupt. Indeed, New York Defender is a much more complex example of this genre. In the game, you try to prevent planes from crashing into the World Trade Center — but you always inevitably lose, which produces, as I argued in Slate, “a grim message about the hopelessness of anti-terrorism: Try as you might to knock every enemy out of the sky, one will always slip past.” More precisely, the game argues that in an open society like the U.S., one cannot prevent all terrorist attacks from succeeding; the key is to simultaneously be trying to change the world so that terrorism isn’t a necessary last resort of people who want to make a political point.

You could argue that argument is way too idealistic, and not very new. But nonetheless, experiencing that argument as a game gives you, I think, a new way of grappling with the point of view. In games like this, you experience an argument through physics, as opposed to through words. Consider how weird that is: We now have game designers using physics as a rhetorical style.

Here’s another analog: Graffiti. Back in the 70s, it exploded as a cheap, quick way to produce colorful art and pointed political commentary. Flash is doing the same thing for the Internet. Flash games are graffiti for the 21st century.


For those of you looking for The Next Segway, your wait is over: the Quebecois firm has created a prototype for the EMBRIO, a one-wheeled concept vehicle. As Bombardier describes it on their web site:

Riding the Bombardier EMBRIO concept in the real world would be a thrill. With a riding position similar to a motorcycle, the EMBRIO uses a complex series of sensors and gyroscopes to balance one or more human passengers on a single wheel. Technology will be used to harness the laws of physics, with the gyroscopes and sensors, a high-performance braking system, active suspension, night vision and robotic assistance.

You really have got to love the delirious futuristic weasel words here: The EMBRIO will “harness the laws of physics” in some mysterious way, and employe “robotic assistance.” Clearly the engineers have no clue how the heck to build this thing, but do I care? No, I just want to know where I can put a downpayment on the first one to roll off the production line, which Bombardier figures should be sometime around 2025.

Astute sci-fi readers will no doubt have noticed the similarity between this vehicle and the one described in The Roads Must Roll, a short story by Robert Heinlein. In Heinlein’s tale, all the cities in the US are connected via a series of walkways that move in sequentially faster paces: Step onto the first one, and it’s going around 5 miles an hour; the adjacent walkway is moving at 10 miles an hour, and up and up, so that you can eventually walk out to a road moving at about 100 miles an hour, allowing you to travel from one city to another in a only a half-hour or so, merely on foot. Some insurgents decide to shut down a few of the faster-moving roads, which causes incredible havoc (because of course, the immobile road is right next to a road with people on it moving at 70 miles an hour … causing some ghastly collisions when people lose their balance). The mechanics who maintain and fix these roads ride around on one-wheeled gyroscopic devices that are almost precisely like the EMBRIO.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for finding this one!)

A virtual mansion for the homeless

Back in the summer, games journalist James Wagner Au became an “embedded journalist” in Second Life, the 3D virtual world — filing weekly reports about life amongst the avatars. I’ve just recently started reading the archive, and it’s incredibly cool stuff. In Second Life, people are allowed to build almost anything they want — vehicles, clothes, expansive homes. One of my favorite entries is from May, when Au ran into a woman name Catherine Omega, who is homeless in British Columbia, but built herself a huge virtual mansion in Second Life (pictured above). The posting is online here, but here’s an excerpt:

And how’d that make you feel”, I ask her, “Building a virtual home while not having an actual one?” (I apologize to her for sounding all Barbara Walters about it.)

“Oh, journalists.” She emoticon winks again, but she takes a while to respond. “Well, Second Life is an effective escape for most people — I was no different. It’s just that while most people use Second Life to unwind, or hang out with friends, I did the same, but I had more to escape.” To her, she says, the game “[w]as a means to keep busy and give me a means to working towards improving myself. I mean, obviously not as big a help as food banks and stuff, but it’s been very helpful…in terms of [learning programming] skills, but also in terms of just getting OUT. [W]hen you don’t have running water, or money, there aren’t a lot of places you can go. Contrary to popular belief, homeless people aren’t lazy, they just have a lot of spare time.”

My piece on “the culture of mobile phones”

In today’s New York Times Magazine, there’s an article I wrote about how the new tricks of mobile phones — messaging, picture-taking, and location-awareness — are changing society. The story’s online at their site here, but a permanent copy is archived below:

Remote Possibilities
The more our mobile phones change, the more they change us

WHEN CAT LOVERS GO ON VACATION and leave their animals behind, they usually worry neurotically: did they leave enough food in the bowl for Fluffy? But there isn’t much they can do about it. That is, unless they’ve got what Karen Lurker’s got — a pet feeder you can control from anywhere in the world using your mobile phone.

Lurker, a spokeswoman for NTT DoCoMo, a Japanese mobile-phone company, is in her gleaming showroom in Manhattan, introducing the gunmetal-gray ”I See Pet” feeder. It’s about the size and shape of a squat coffee-maker, and it stares at you like a cyclops with one robotized eye. ”That’s actually a Webcam,” she notes. ”It’ll broadcast whatever’s happening in your house and send the picture to your phone. So when you’re at work, you can pull out your mobile and see how the cats are doing.” If they’re looking hungry? Lurker hits a button on the keypad, and the robot feeder clicks once — then disgorges a pile of M&M’s into the food tray. (”That candy’s just for our guests,” she adds hastily. ”Obviously you’d be feeding them real pet food.”) Customers asked the manufacturer, AlphaOmega Soft, to install a speaker too, so that they could talk to their pets while away on a business trip. But the company ”figured that would probably just freak the pet out too much,” Lurker says.

» MORE...


By now, you’ve probably seen some machinima — the art of using video-game 3D engines to create little movies, by positioning the characters in dramatic situations and adding overdubs. And you may have seen one of the masterworks in this genre — the Warthog Jump movie, in which Randy Glass used the Halo engine to send cars, soldiers, and guns flying through the air.

Now the punk-rock of machinima has arrived: Mame Jump, where a programmer uses old-school video games to produce the most surreal video to Van Halen’s “Jump” that I’ve ever seen, nor hope to see.

The guy who created this thing is, by the way, completely insane. There’s a whole archive of his other stuff here. I’m almost afraid to click on Mame Love.

They’ll kill ya on the margin

Heh. A guy from the Monochom art collective put together a photographic flip-book in which he goes to a currency-exchange outlet, exchanges 50 euros to dollars, takes the result, changes that back into euros, takes that result, changes it back into dollars, and continues on and on until it’s all gone — eaten up by transaction fees. You’re sort of wondering where is this all going?, until you get to the end and the marxist hammer comes down:

“Now we have seen how that portion of the constant capital which consists of the instruments of labour, transfers to the production only a fraction of its value, while the remainder of that value continues to reside in those instruments.” (Karl Marx)

Hardly subtle — and hardly an inarguable point — but made me chuckle anyway.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

Back To Iraq nominated for Utne Independent Press Award!

Check it out — my friend Chris Allbritton’s web site Back To Iraq has been nominated for an Utne Independent Press Award! If you don’t know already, readers of Chris’ blog donated $13,000 to send him to Iraq during the war, so that he could report stories about what everyday life was like, purely for his blog — with no editors calling the shots. His entire archive of stories are still online, and they’re great reading.

Hack the vote, pt. 2

Recently, I’ve argued that voting-booth software should be developed only in an open-source fashion — so that anyone can look at how the code works. Right now, of course, that isn’t happening. Governments are buying their voting software from private companies who refuse to let anyone see their code. That means it’s impossible to really trust them that the software is secure. They might well lie, or simply be unaware of how bad their code is. And wouldn’t it suck if a bunch of computer bugs — or hackers — messed up an election?

Actually, we don’t have to imagine that — because it’s already happening. Boone Country recently bought some voting software from MicroVote, one of those closed-source, “trust that we know what we’re doing” private corporations. Boone Country has only 19,000 registered voters, but when the software tallied up the chits, it claimed that 144,000 votes had been cast.

Whoops. As the IndyStar reports, “a lengthy collaboration between the county’s information technology director and advisers from the MicroVote software producer fixed the problem” — and showed that only 5,352 votes had been cast. But really, who’d trust MicroVote at that point? Who knows what really happened in that election?

(Thanks to Slashdot for finding this one!)

Would you like a subpoena with those fries?

In its latest, eleventh edition, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary included a new word: “McJob”. They defined it as “a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement.”

McDonald’s went nonlinear over this, and McDonald’s CEO Jim Cantalupo wrote an open letter to Merriam-Webster claiming it was “an inaccurate description of restaurant employment” and “a slap in the face to the 12 million men and women” who work in the restaurant industry. As Yahoo News reports:

Cantalupo also wrote that “more than 1,000 of the men and women who own and operate McDonald’s restaurants today got their start by serving customers behind the counter.”

A veritable land of opportunity. Except that, as the Yahoo reporter went on to note:

McDonald’s, the world’s largest restaurant chain, has more than 30,000 restaurants and more than 400,000 employees.


Anyway, McDonald’s officials also hinted that they’d file an trademark-infringement suit against the dictionary, since McDonald’s runs a training program for mentally and physically challenged people that is actually called “McJOBS”. All of which makes you wonder: Do these guys ever leave their offices? Do they even eat at their own restaurants? They actually thought it would sound kind of cool to title their mentally-challenged division “McJOBS”?

But I digress. The point is, under the force of the complaints, Merriam-Webster did something quite remarkable: They caved. As of yesterday, the word “McJobs” was still listed on the Merriam-Webster web site; but this morning, it had vanished. (You can view a Google-cached copy of the entry here, or see a PDF of it here — I’ve also copied the before-and-after shot above.)

Now, the word “Orwellian” gets thrown waaaay too much these days for its own good. (Seriously folks, go read 1984 again; things aren’t that bad.) Nonetheless, this is one situation that precisely fits what Orwell was thinking of when he coined the idea “Newspeak”, as Jonas notes on his blog:

The whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought (…) Its vocabulary was so constructed as to (…) excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words , but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings.

Words, of course, are deeply political. That’s why a dictionary is supposed to be agnostic, and merely report — as objectively as possible — how our language is evolving. Indeed, Merriam-Webster’s own FAQ explains how they choose new words to include:

“How does a word get into the dictionary?” That’s one of the questions Merriam-Webster editors are most often asked.

The answer is simple: usage.

To decide which words to include in the dictionary and to determine what they mean, Merriam-Webster editors study the language as it’s used. They carefully monitor which words people use most often and how they use them.

It’s hardly as if we needed proof, but anyway, I punched “McJob” into Google’s archive of newsgroups and found people using the word as far back as 1996.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for pointing this one out!)

Play hard, work hard

A couple of scientists at the University of Utrecht claim that playing computer games at work can actually enhance your job performance. They took 60 employees at a Dutch insurance firm and told half of them they couldn’t play any games at work, ever. They told the other half they could play up to one hour a day of simple computer games like Solitaire or Minesweeper.

The employees kept logs of their feeling about work, and it turned out that the game-players scored higher on job satisfaction. As the BBC reports:

The results suggest that, instead of games being a waste of time at work, they might help personal productivity and make people feel better about their jobs.

A round of Solitaire could be used as a strategy to break up the day and help people work more effectively because it gives their brain a break from complex work tasks.

“I compare games with a coffee break. If you are like me, you use them in strategic, functional, useful way,” Professor Goldstein says.

As someone who regularly warms up for the workday by playing two straight hours of Robotron online (please god I hope no editors are reading this), I am, of course, immeasurably cheered by these findings. It sort of makes common sense that giving employees a way to kick back at work would improve morale, right?

Ah, but here’s the dirty secret of management research: Morale does not necessarily correlate with productivity. Almost no-one will openly admit this fact, though it’s been well supported by many good managerial studies. The sad fact is, plenty of high-performing companies have positively sepulchral atmospheres, with employees who pretty much loathe their cipherlike existences. And vice versa: Plenty of companies with cheery, well-treated employees are careering towards total collapse. I remember plenty of dot-com companies where video games were freely distributed amongst the staff, and everyone had a grand old time at their cubicles … until, of course, their incredibly lame companies folded and pitched them out onto the street. Happy workers don’t necessarily mean high profits, and even the Utrecht scientists noted that “has been little research to show how playing games might positively change employee productivity, job satisfaction or reduce absenteeism.”

This is not to say that bosses ought not to strive to make their employees happy. Indeed, I think that’s just good moral behavior. But it’s a moral choice, not a strategic one.

But here’s one vote in favor of playing games at work. Bill Gates, one of the richest men in the world, is reportedly a major Minesweeper addict who can solve the puzzle in only four seconds.

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

Begun, the insane geekfest has

Apparently, the first Jedi initiate has emerged in the online game Star Wars Galaxies. The game is set up to require people to play for a long time before they get enough skill to evolve into Jedi-dom. Though it took months, and thousands of players whacking away at it, a player named “Monika T’Sarn” finally figured out the secret to “unlock her Force Sensitive Slot.”

Of course, I have no idea why the game designers decided it was a good idea to name this trick “unlocking your Force Sensitive Slot.” These are the same people who wonder why intelligent adults and women aren’t interested in video games. God almighty.

(Thanks to Slashdot for finding this one!)

I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave

Dig this: A bunch of engineers have developed a technology for stopping a truck by remote control. And I mean really remote control — the instructions come down from a satellite. Why? Because, they argue, this could make for a neat security application, as the New Scientist reports:

Engineers at Satellite Security Systems’ headquarters in San Diego, California, took less than 40 seconds to bring a truck in Sacramento, 850 kilometres away, to a standstill. They used Motorola’s satellite data transfer network with its network of base stations to beam instructions to a small transceiver in the truck.

Since 9/11, the US government has worried about terrorists using trucks transporting flammable or hazardous loads to attack buildings or bridges. The State of California has already drafted legislation that would make “stopping devices” a compulsory addition to all hazardous vehicles by 2005.

“A fuel truck could be used for a terrorist bombing since it contains an explosive potential roughly equivalent to that of a commercial jetliner,” says Bill Wattenburg, an engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

Of course, as with all security applications, the knife cuts two ways. Imagine the government being able to take control of your car — if they decided that you were about to do something “insurgent”.

Someone please stop me from buying this thing

I have a weakness for technology. I have a weakness for watches. When you combine the two together, it has a blindingly narcotic effect. I must own one of these things. If you go to the Tokyo Flash web site, you’ll see the incredibly ingenious way this watch tells the time:

The time is displayed in 3 colors. The left side represents the hours and can be easily read by looking at the digits to the left of them. The minutes are displayed in 12 rows of 5, in green, yellow, and red, with each row representing 5 minutes, each light representing a minute. To count the minutes after 15 minutes it is easiest to start by looking at the competed red row(s) and then start counting from there. Each completed red row is a 15, 30, 45, 60 minute indicator.

That’s a little hard to visualize, but if you go to the site, there’s a terrific graphic illustrating how it works.

Outside of the geek-chic appeal here, there is something intellectually interesting about this watch: It innovates a new analog way to tell time. And when you think about it, there isn’t a lot of innovation in this realm. We have the standard analog watch with two hands; we have the hourglass format, where we tell time using gravity and sand. How many other innovative ways of telling time have you ever seen?

Sigh. Sadly, I’m trying to save some coin, so it’s unlikely I’ll actually kick out any bling for this thing.


(Thanks to Boing Boing for tormenting me eternally by finding this psychotically cool watch.)

Don’t drive and text, pt. 2

I recently wrote about a guy who was caught driving while trying to use two mobile phones simultaneously. Now an even more depressing case has emerged: An Australian woman was recently driving while trying to peck out a text message on her phone — and she struck and killed a man.

Yet the judge let her off without any jail time:

“It is tragic that a man’s life was lost in these circumstances but this case should serve as a stark warning to all that the risk is very real and with the extended use of mobile phones generally more public attention should be drawn to this risk,” Judge Cohen said.

However she said she took into account Ciach’s guilty plea, her excellent character and the fact the dead man’s parents did not wish her to be imprisoned.

I, of course, am pretending to be shocked by all this callous driving-while-texting stuff. But the sad fact is I’ve done it myself. At least twice in the last year, while driving a car on a reporting assignment, I’ve whipped out my Danger Hiptop and engaged in prolonged instant-messaging conversations with my girlfriend. Am I on crack or something?

(Thanks to Boing Boing for finding this one!)

Saved by the bell

I know people who’ve pretended to get a phone call so that they could duck out of a boring meeting, or even a boring date. (“Hold on, my phone’s buzzing … oh, sorry, I just have to take this.”) But now customers of Virgin Mobile can get something even better: An actual phone call. They’ve introduced “Rescue Ring” service; for 25 cents, you can preprogram a call to arrive at a time you pick. As the Virgin Mobile web-site details it:

We’ve all been there. Stuck in a nightmare blind date, meeting, class, or conversation with no way out. We’ve got your back. Just set up a Rescue Ring for a pre-determined time and your phone will ring. Pretend to have a conversation and take it from there.

IRS form for millionaires’ tax-cut

Back in the spring, the Bush administration claimed its budget-shattering tax cut would mean that “91 million taxpayers will receive, on average, a tax cut of $1,126”. Of course, that’s only if you factor in a statistically minute number of insanely wealthy households who will have huge tax cuts; they drag the average up. In reality, 53 per cent of all households in the country will get a tax cut of less than $100. About two thirds of those will get precisely no tax cut at all. (For a closer look at the stats, you can check here.)

But just in case you are one of the elite chosen few who’ll rake it in, the IRS last month released an entirely new document: Form 8302, which you fill out in case you’re getting a tax refund of $1 million or more.

(Thanks to Boing Boing — which has a new IP address, by the way — for finding this one!)

The sound of my face

Okay, this is hands-down the coolest thing I’ve seen in a while. Coagula is a little freeware application that turns the pixels of an image into music. You can use the program to create little colorful line-drawings, and then see what sort of tunes they make. Indeed, the simpler the drawing, the more cogent the tune is.

You can, however, load in a snapshot and see what you get. Since photos are much more pixel-rich, the result is less like music and more like nicely messed-up ambient noise from an old synth. As an example, I took a picture of my face (as seen above) and ran it through Coagula; the resulting sound file is here.

In case you’re wondering, I tinted the picture red so that it would get rid of any blue. The program renders blue as staticky noise. As the author, Rasmus Ekman, describes the algorithm:

Coagula reads image data and adds up masses of sine waves — each line in the image controls the amplitude of one oscillator at a certain pitch. The vertical position of a pixel decides the frequency, while its horizontal position corresponds to time. You can of course freely set the total time and the frequency range for your image. Red and green control stereo placement: Red is sent to left channel, while green controls amplitude of the right channel. The brighter the colour, the louder the sound.

Now all I have to do is crack out my snyths and guitars, and I can write a piece of music where the background sound is my face.

(Thanks to the J-Walk Blog for this one!

Car lighters: The new digital cupholders

Road warriors now carry so many electronic devices that automobile manufacturers are outfitting their cars with extra cigarette-lighter slots, for recharging. calls them “the new cupholders”, and reports:

In model-year 2004, there are 47 vehicles that come, standard, with five or six lighter sockets, according to In 1998, no vehicles came with that many.

Technically speaking, “lighter socket” is not even an accurate term since in many cases those extra sockets won’t work with a cigarette lighter, according to Ali Elhaj, president of Casco, an auto parts company that claims to have invented the automobile cigarette lighter.

Naturally, this has produced a profusion of everyday household devices that are now outfitted to work in a car-lighter slot. That curling iron pictured above? Yep: You can plug it in and tease some curls into your hair as you drive. I can only imagine the magnificent new accidents this little baby will produce; some PR chick en route to E3 will accidentally burn herself, jerk the steering wheel, and send a sidewalkful of geriatrics flying like ten-pins.

Not to be outdone, the computer geeks at FrozenCPU have responded with a nice bit of ourobouran logic. They’ve created a car-style cigarette lighter that you instal on your computer.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

The Meatrix

This is pretty hilarious — a little Flash movie in which a pig discovers “The Meatrix”: The horrifying world where animals are held in tiny pens by enormous industrial machines that scavenge their bodies for nourishment.

That’s sufficiently razor-sharp it’s almost not parody.

Church sign generator!

This one’s neat. Go to Ryland Sanders’ blog, and you can try out a fun toy he created: the Church Sign Generator. Type in the text you want to appear on the sign, click the button, and voila: Your own call to worship.


Allergic to cats? Is Fluffy making you sneeze? Well, for a mere $750 to $1,000, you could go to Transgenic Pets and get a cat that has been genetically engineered to be hypoallergenic. “We expect the birth of these first special kittens,” say the cheery scientists, “about two years from now.” Presto: A cute little kitten that does not produce dander.

Of course, it’ll also be a cute little kitten that can MOVE OBJECTS WITH ITS MIND, but whatever.

Update! Collision Detection reader Stoney wrote in to point me to a story at the Sinus News, stating that Transgenic Pets hasn’t been able to find funding for their project. My only question is: There’s a publication called the “Sinus News”?

Open-source voting

You may have been following the “Diebold memo” scandal, but if you haven’t, here’s a quick recap:

1) In the wake of the “hanging chad” Florida fiasco, the feds decide to start looking at computerized voting machines.
2) One of the main contenders is Diebold Election Systems. The only problem is …
3) Diebold is run by fiercely partisan Republicans, who donated boatloads of cash to the GOP in the last election; the CEO once said that he was “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year”. Nice. But even worse …
4) Diebold’s voting machines are so shoddily designed that, according to one study, a teenage hacker with a $100 card-printer could forge as many votes as he wanted. Diebold engineers know this, and over the last four years, they’ve written thousands of frantic memos to each other talking about how bug-ridden their software is.
5) Amazingly, the company posts these memos on public portions of their web site (accidentally, I assume).
6) In March, a bunch of college students take 15,000 of these memos and begin circulating them online, to warn about the danger to democracy.
7) Diebold freaks out and fights back — legally. Using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Diebold lawyers force universities to take the documents off servers, claiming they’re copyrighted information. Students rebel by posting the docs on peer-to-peer networks, spreading them around the world.
8) This forms an elegant object-lesson in why peer-to-peer networks are so politically powerful. If a document gets passed around enough, it’ll be on so many millions of hard drives that no legal order — or political despot — can quash the information. It’s a technology about which guys like John Milton could only dream.

So now you’re caught up. The reason I give this bloated preamble is to point to the real solution: Open-source software.

As the Diebold scandal illustrates, it’s incredibly dangerous to let a private company develop proprietary voting software. If they “own” the code, they’ll keep it a secret. That means we’ll have to trust them that the software is secure. If they’re lying to us — or, more likely, if they’re well-intentioned but just unable to realize how buggy their code is — democracy is screwed.

So why not just develop voting software in open-source mode? If everyone can openly inspect the code, any bugs or hackable insecurities would instantly be noticed and removed. And given that many geeks are pretty psychotic libertarians, you’d best believe they’ll triple-check every line of the voting-software code to make sure no-one can mess with US elections. It’s perfect!

So perfect, in fact, that Australia has already thought of it. According to a Wired story today, an open-source project in Australia created completely secure and bug-free voting software — in only six months.

(Cool debate alert: Over at his blog, Barry Brigs wrote a post pointing out the dangers of open-source development, as well as a post in the boards here.)

Can science fiction save the short story?

There’s a great column by Laura Miller in this week’s New York Times Book Review, about the fate of the modern short story. I used to really like short fiction; now I confess that whenever I pick up a collection, I have the same reaction that Miller reports:

There are some very fine works in both collections, but at a point about midway through each book, I found myself approaching every new story warily. I wanted to buttonhole the central character with a couple of pointed questions: Is anything going to happen? Are you going to do anything? All too often, the answer was no. The stories that failed to rustle up much of a response weren’t necessarily quotidian or plotless, though. They just felt that way. For despite what its champions may assert, the short story doesn’t always demand the most from literary writers; instead it can coddle their weaknesses.

There is, however, one big exception to this rule, which Miller doesn’t note: Science fiction.

In sci-fi, the short story is still an incredibly vibrant form, largely because it doesn’t forgo plot. On the contrary, it slaps it right down in the center of the table. Sci-fi readers are a powerful corrective against sloppy plotting; they’ll instantly cast aside anything that doesn’t immediately offer them a strong, quirky, and smart plot. Granted, sci-fi readers will also tolerate unbelievably purple prose and 1.5-dimensional characters. It’s certainly not a genre for writers who cherish Franzenesque obsessions over the fate of lit-tra-cha.

But for what it’s worth, no self-respecting science fiction short story would ever maunder aimlessly about the living room like the hapless stories Miller reviewed. Indeed, what’s notable about sci-fi short stories is how frequently they’re turned into successful two-hour movies. Recall that Philip K. Dick’s original Minority Report was not only a short story … it was a really short story. The whole thing clocks in at barely 5,000 words or so. Yet even in that tiny space, Dick offers up a dizzying meditation on the nature of causality — and keep in mind, that meditation is delivered via aplot. It’s teased out by the slow, inexorable march of the protagonist towards the conclusion, not via the sort of 1,000-word mini-sermons mouthed by characters in today’s “hysterical realist” novels. Not that I dislike that stuff; I’m a huge fan of the hysterical-realist novel. I’m just pointing out that sci-fi is often amazingly good at including the very stuff that Miller finds lacking in short fiction. That may be why short fiction actually sells reasonably well in sci-fi, at least compared to sci-fi novels.

While Miller doesn’t talk about sci-fi — or mystery short fiction, another genre that crams a lot of plot into a short space — she does hint at them as a corrective force in her final paragraph:

In his contributor’s note, Chaon explains that Chabon had asked for a ”genre” story … ”I had originally conceived it as a melancholy piece about lost connections and guilt,” Chaon writes, ”but the mission to create a horror story gave me … the freedom to plunge the story into more extreme corners of loss and resentment that I might not have dared venture into otherwise.” The result isn’t really a ”horror story,” but rather a literary short story freed from an outdated and restrictive decorum.

One of these days, I’d love to write a piece about how the word “genre” has been drained of any meaning by its constant mis-use — i.e. people say “genre fiction” to distinguish sci-fi and mystery novels from literary fiction. The presumption, of course, is that the latter are ruled by their conventions while the former is governed only by the writer’s literary amibitions, and is thus a more open and creative canvas. That’s crap, of course; any writer — and programmer, actually — knows that limitations, not freedoms, are the things that give birth to creativity. What’s more, the modern literary novel is indeed a genre with its own often-rather-strict formal limits. And what’s-more-the-sequel, the use of “genre” to describe sci-fi and mystery fiction is really just a hilariously transparent ruse to elevate literary fiction over other types of fictive prose. What’s particularly sad is that genre fans now use the word “genre” themselves, aiding and abetting this laughable bit of snobbery. But I’ll save this rant for another time; at this point, I’m boring even myself.


I’m sure we’ve all been in this situation: You’re at a loud, noisy party, where the host is blasting 80s big-hair rock. Your friend is across the room, engrossed in conversation. You want to signal him that you’re going to leave — but the room is too loud. How do you communicate?

With Trouser Semaphore, that’s how! The folks at The Chap magazine have designed a complete alphabet using trouser signals:

The acquired skill known as Trouser Semaphore is swiftly gaining currency as the only way for people of quality to communicate in an age of rapidly escalating background noise levels.

(Thanks to the J-Walk blog for this one!)

Math geeking

Erich Friedman wins the Geek of the Decade award. The math professor at Stetson University has posted a massive web page that lists a special attribute for hundreds of numbers from 0 to 9999. Some examples:

8 is the largest cube in the Fibonacci sequence.
26 is the smallest non-palindrome with a palindromic square.
229 is the smallest prime that remains prime when added to its reverse.
375 is a truncated tetrahedral number.
750 is the Stirling number of the second kind S(10,8).
2801 = 11111 in base 7.
3599 is the product of twin primes.
9999 is a Kaprekar number.

(Thanks to Plastic for this one!)

Spambot spams about spambots

A while ago, I posted about “spambots” — little robots that troll around the Net looking for blogs, then leaving advertising messages in the comment fields. As public rancor about this problem has grown, the bots themselves have become oddly solicitous. For example, when I recently wrote a blog entry entitled “Automatic Butt Kicker,” a bot wrote the following comment:

Automatic butt kicker?! That’s classic! :)

Posted by: Online Pharmacy on October 31, 2003 01:05 PM

You can see the algorithm at work here. The bot’s been programmed to take the title to the blog entry — “Automatic Butt Kicker” — and simply regurgitate it as a statement, in classic Eliza fashion. The ad, such as it is, is very discreet: It’s just the URL for “Online Pharmacy.” The spambot even renders the echoed phrase in lower case, to make it look more realistic yet.

All of which might make you wonder: Why are spammers going to such incredible lengths? Because bloggers are starting to wise up and mass delete all these spambot postings. They can recognize the obvious pitchmanship from a mile away. Thus, the more human-like the spambot appears to be — the more its written comments seem to be that of a genuinely real Collision Detection visitor — the more likely I am to simply not notice that its comments are ads, and to leave them in place.

Consider just how Darwinian this is. We are witnessing, in essence, a multistage evolutionary fight. In stage 1), the spambots come online, filling blogs with product-shilling so brazen that we bloggers immediately recognize the bots are, well, bots. In stage 2), the spammers realize they have to pass the Turing Test — they have to create better artificial intelligence so that the bloggers won’t even notice that bots are posting to their boards. The hostile environment online is forcing spambots to evolve better and more lifelike A.I. At this rate, in six months they’ll grow opposable thumbs and kill us all.

It gets even weirder. Two weeks ago, I wrote about spambots for the first time, in a posting entitled “Spambots: The new scourge of blogs”. In the discussion area, several Collision Detection readers posted intelligent comments about different ways to block spambots, which was very cool. But then today I discovered a new comment:

I agree..

Posted by: Canadian Pharmacy on November 2, 2003 11:46 AM

It was my old friend, the Canadian Pharmacy spambot! The situation couldn’t be more dementedly self-referential: A spambot had posted its earnest agreement to a posting that was itself about how to get rid of spambots.

If that isn’t the nine billionth name of God, I don’t know what is.

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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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