Archive: December 2003

Self promo: My Slate piece on why retro games are back

I forgot to blog this, but two weeks ago I published a piece on Slate about why retro games — like Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Joust — are so big now, even amongst teenagers who weren’t alive when these games first made their debut. The piece is online here!

Vote Chris Allbritton “Media Person of the Year”

I Want Media and The Week magazine is holding an online poll to vote for “Media Person of the Year”. One of the candidates is my friend Chris Allbritton of Back To Iraq — the journalist who went to Iraq during the war for a totally independent reporting trip paid for solely by donations from his blog audience!

Drop by and vote for him; he singlehandedly created a new format of journalism in 2003. While you’re at it, consider donating to Chris’ next trip: This month he announced that he’s going to return to Iraq this spring to do more indie reporting on Iraq, one year later.

Philadelphia Inquirer on spam poetry

Daniel Rubin wrote an excellent piece in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer about how today’s spammers are becoming increasingly poetic, as they seek to route around spam filters. Rubin noticed that I’d blogged about this before and interviewed me about the subject, which was fun:

To Brooklyn journalist and blogger Clive Thompson, the word salad echoes the literary technique that T.S. Eliot used in “The Waste Land” — “essentially an enormous pastiche of phrases, metaphors, lines from and allusions to other pieces of literature and mythology, including many directly quoted lines.”

Actually, I forgot to blog this earlier, but a few weeks ago the BBC ran a cool story on this subject and quoted directly from my posts.

NASDAQ attack on Grand Theft Auto

Ever since Rockstar Games introduced Grand Theft Auto 3, moral-majority folks have been complaining nonstop about the game’s ultra-graphic, over-the-top violence. But now Christopher Byron, a financial writer for the New York Post, is trying a new tactic: He’s using NASDAQ to attack the parent company. In today’s Post, Byron published a 1,200-word screed that savages Take Two Interactive, which owns Rockstar Games.

The thing is, Byron can’t actually find much wrong with the company’s financials. Sure, it’s slightly off its peak of roughly $40, but it’s still about double where it was two years ago — and keep in mind, most of that increase took place during a bear market that mauled tech stocks mercilessly. Bryon also notes that the company’s accounting practices may soon be investigated by the SEC.

Still, that isn’t enough to really alarm a serious investor. So Bryon devotes more than half the article to attacking the morals of Grand Theft Auto — and, rather remarkably, urging investors to do “your fellow man a favor” by dumping the stock. He rails floridly against the game:

You can kill a cop, steal his gun, and then use it to shoot someone else. Or you can pick up a prostitute and have sex with her in the back of your stolen car, then beat her to death - or shoot her, bludgeon her, whatever you want. …

People, this is insane. This is 10,000 times worse than the worst thing anybody thinks Michael Jackson ever did to a little boy — or than any lie the feds think Martha Stewart ever told them, or any line in any song that Bruce Springsteen ever sang that rankled a cop in the Meadowlands.

And trust me when I tell you, Mr. Mayor, what Take-Two Interactive is blowing into your face every day is a whole lot worse than second-hand cigarette smoke.

Wow. Grand Theft Auto 3’s gameplay is worse than pedophilia, breaking stock-market laws, or causing lung cancer with cigarette smoke? I’m almost in awe of this guy’s moral dudgeon.

My mother, the car

A Russian expatriate inventor has patented a car that automatically weighs you when you sit in it — and yells at you if you’re getting fat. As the New York Times reports:

“The best way to ensure people have information about their weight and they don’t forget is to create a system that does it by itself and they don’t have to think about,” Mr. [Yefim] Kriger said. “This system weighs you and collects the data and gives you trends of what will happen with your weight in three months or three years.”

Patent #6,649,848 — entitled “Vehicle with on-board dieters’ weight progress indentifying and control system and method” — is online here. While reading it over, I noticed that Kriger has helpfully designed the system so that it won’t function during “hard traffic” — i.e. moments when the car is moving faster than 10 miles an hour. That’s to prevent you from accidentally mowing down a pensioner while distracted by your car sniping about the Atkins diet.

Give peace a chance

I’ve written before about Massive, the computer program that created the sprawling thousand-orc armies for the Lord of the Rings movies. As you may recall, the program worked by creating each orc as an independent agent, driven by a few simple goals: Kill enemies, while trying to stay alive and avoiding overly-congested areas of the battlefield. When you combine thousands of these agents together, they create a highly realistic sense of the army being “alive” — teeming with ripples of emergent behavior that could never be predicted or hand-coded.

But one behavior was particularly unexpected: Pacifism. Faced with a blood-soaked battlefield where hundreds of orcs were dying every second, the agents decided just to get the hell out — and started running away. As special effects head Richard Taylor told The Montreal Gazette:

“For the first two years, the biggest problem we had was soldiers fleeing the field of battle,” Taylor said.

“We could not make their computers stupid enough to not run away.”

So some extra computer tinkering was required to ensure that the trilogy’s climactic battle worked the way Jackson wanted.

Which is kind of poetic, when you think about it. The urge to avoid bloodshed and combat is so primal that even artificial intelligence constructs will stay away. And, as with real-life people, actually getting them to go to war means you have to subvert their natural instincts. In the computer, a few new lines of code will do it; in the real world, you need dark warnings about weapons of mass destruction. Call it “reality hacking.”

(Thanks to Fark for this one!)

It’s for you

Want to get rid of that crappy $9.99 Radio Shack phone you’ve got in your living room, and replace it with something classier? Well, hie thee to the Bell South Pioneers web site, where you can buy a decommissioned payphone for $135. According to the site:

Due to downward trends in payphone usage, BellSouth plans to discontinue providing services to its payphone location provider customers. Payphone usage declines are the primary drivers of BellSouth’s decision to exit the business. Customers are opting for new technology options, such as wireless telephones and personal communications devices.

(Thanks to Fark for this one!)

Sci-fi: Almost like literature!

Oh, this is lovely. A&E has done a Flash site to promote Lathe of Heaven, a movie adapted from the Ursula K Le Guin novel — and it includes this nauseatingly pandering little bit of analysis about the state of science fiction. This is typical of the sort of intellectual chicanery so greasily practiced by the culturati: Sci-fi is hemmed in by the “boundaries” of its “medium,” while, presumably, literary stuff is free to explore the true depths of humanity’s soul. Never mind the fact that a huge fraction of today’s literary fiction focuses almost exclusively on the emotional minigolf of upper-middle-class America, carefully cleaving to the existential anxieties of the Ivy-league twits who write the stuff, publish it, and, by and large, review it. The genre of “literary” fiction in this country is so rigid and inflexible that it might as well be haiku.

I love that little nod to Le Guin’s vast intellectual scope: “… many perceive her writing as veiled philosophy.” Well, sure. That’s what’s nice about sci-fi: It is the only literature of ideas we have left. It’s the only place in fiction where you’ll stilll find living, breathing philosophy. When’s the last time you read a mainstream novel that offered you a radical new idea about the way the world works? I’ll answer for you: “Pretty damn infrequently.” Maybe “never”.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for finding this one!)

Terror for breakfast

I love it. The fine folks at Goopymart have released a Terror Alert Chart color-coding our panic level as breakfast cereal.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

Earth’s magnetic field disappearing?

You may recall the summer sci-fi movie The Core; it sported some of the most howlingly awful science of any film in history. Nevertheless, life is now imitating bad art — because apparently the Earth’s magnetic field has weakened by 10 per cent in the last 150 years. Scientists wonder if this is the beginning of an inversion of the North and South poles, an event that has taken place several times in the planet’s lifespan. As the New York Times reports:

The magnetic field last flipped 780,000 years ago, but the time between reversals has varied from a few thousand years to 35 million years.

At the current rate of decline, the field would disappear in 1,500 to 2,000 years. That is much faster than if the iron flows had somehow completely stopped, because then the electric currents generating the field would still persist for 15,000 additional years. This has led scientists to conclude that the changes in iron flow have produced kinks in the magnetic field that are weakening it.

“They’re twisting the field the wrong way,” said Dr. Peter L. Olson, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Johns Hopkins University.

Yamaha origami

Nothing says “the holidays” quite like … downloadable plans for insanely complex 3D paper origami models of Yamaha motorcycles.

(Thanks to Slashdot for finding this one!)

Interplanetary Britpop

Today, Mars probe “Beagle 2” landed on the red planet — but no-one is yet sure if it arrived intact and functional. As the BBC wrote a few days ago, a Mars landing is a pretty dicey affair. To figure out if the Beagle 2 is operating, the British scientists who created the probe designed it to send a signal back to Earth — so right now, they’re anxiously sitting by the radio telescopes waiting to hear it.

The signal? According to the BBC:

Confirmation of a safe landing would come in the form of a nine-note musical signal from the craft, written by the British pop band Blur.

Okay, that officially — and quite precisely — rocks. Apparently, the Blur guys are quite the math geeks, because in an interview with The Scotsman, the bass player Alex James explained that their tune was based on the Fibonacci sequence, a mathematical pattern that occurs in nature, and in which each number is the sum of the previous two. The sequence goes like this: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, etc. The pattern can be spied in everything from the spirals of sea shells to the shape of pine cones.

As James put it:

“We were given a lot less limitations doing Beagle 2 than you get in a standard music industry contract. It didn’t have to be catchy or anything.”

Blur actually used the tune on the B-side of their single “No Distance Left to Run”.

Do you have any idea how fast you were going, sir?

Virtually all police cars now have computer terminals connected to the police info-network. Apparently, Verizon left open a connection to the Internet in Philadelphia, and the cops began getting bombarded with Viagra-style pop-up ads:

“It was, to say the least, an inappropriate pop-up for a police department to see,” said Deputy Commissioner Charles Brennan. “Most of the officers took it as fake and I think they actually got kind of a chuckle out of it.”

(Thanks to Techdirt Wireless News for this one!)

“Powerpoint Makes You Dumb”: My essay in the New York Times Magazine

This week, I contributed five short essays to the New York Times Magazine’s annual “Year in Ideas” issue. I’ve posted them all below, one by one.

Of the ones I wrote, however, this first one seems to have have been the biggest hit. <BEGIN EGREGIOUS BOASTING> Apparently, this piece on Powerpoint has been on the Top 10 of the most-forwarded stories from the entire New York Times archive in the last four days since it was published — including, good lord, the day that Saddam Hussein was caught, which you figure was a pretty busy news day. Nonetheless, this piece was at #3 yesterday, and started today at #5 before climbing back up to #3. </END EGREGIOUS BOASTING> The story gets taken off the New York Times archive this coming Saturday, so it’ll vanish from the Top-10 list then too.

Still, that’s an interesting index of how fraught PowerPoint must be in the corporate world. Probably, many users have suspected precisely what Edward Tufte is quoted as saying: That PowerPoint is a medium that directly shapes — and degrades — its message. Somewhere, Marshall McLuhan is smiling.

PowerPoint Makes You Dumb

In August, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board at NASA released Volume 1 of its report on why the space shuttle crashed. As expected, the ship’s foam insulation was the main cause of the disaster. But the board also fingered another unusual culprit: PowerPoint, Microsoft’s well-known ”slideware” program.

NASA, the board argued, had become too reliant on presenting complex information via PowerPoint, instead of by means of traditional ink-and-paper technical reports. When NASA engineers assessed possible wing damage during the mission, they presented the findings in a confusing PowerPoint slide — so crammed with nested bullet points and irregular short forms that it was nearly impossible to untangle. ”It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation,” the board sternly noted.

PowerPoint is the world’s most popular tool for presenting information. There are 400 million copies in circulation, and almost no corporate decision takes place without it. But what if PowerPoint is actually making us stupider?

This year, Edward Tufte — the famous theorist of information presentation — made precisely that argument in a blistering screed called The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. In his slim 28-page pamphlet, Tufte claimed that Microsoft’s ubiquitous software forces people to mutilate data beyond comprehension. For example, the low resolution of a PowerPoint slide means that it usually contains only about 40 words, or barely eight seconds of reading. PowerPoint also encourages users to rely on bulleted lists, a ”faux analytical” technique, Tufte wrote, that dodges the speaker’s responsibility to tie his information together. And perhaps worst of all is how PowerPoint renders charts. Charts in newspapers like The Wall Street Journal contain up to 120 elements on average, allowing readers to compare large groupings of data. But, as Tufte found, PowerPoint users typically produce charts with only 12 elements. Ultimately, Tufte concluded, PowerPoint is infused with ”an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.”

Microsoft officials, of course, beg to differ. Simon Marks, the product manager for PowerPoint, counters that Tufte is a fan of ”information density,” shoving tons of data at an audience. You could do that with PowerPoint, he says, but it’s a matter of choice. ”If people were told they were going to have to sit through an incredibly dense presentation,” he adds, ”they wouldn’t want it.” And PowerPoint still has fans in the highest corridors of power: Colin Powell used a slideware presentation in February when he made his case to the United Nations that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Of course, given that the weapons still haven’t been found, maybe Tufte is onto something. Perhaps PowerPoint is uniquely suited to our modern age of obfuscation — where manipulating facts is as important as presenting them clearly. If you have nothing to say, maybe you need just the right tool to help you not say it. — Clive Thompson

“Text Messager’s Thumb”: Another NYT mag “Year in Ideas” piece

Here’s the next of the short essays I wrote for the “Year in Ideas” issue of the New York Times Magazine this Sunday:

Text Messager’s Thumb

Dr. Robert Bacon says he can recognize the symptoms right away: ”Employees coming in complaining of sore thumbs.” Bacon, an in-house chiropractor for Rogers Wireless Communications in Toronto, says that in the last year and a half he has handed out 16 ”thumb braces” to help employees who have inflamed the tendons that snake along the hand and wrist — a painful condition known as ”tenosynovitis.”

The culprit? Incessant ”text messaging” — using your thumb to peck out thousands of short messages on a mobile phone’s 12-button keypad or on a Blackberry-style hand-held communicator. These days, peripatetic students and workers send messages all day long as they walk down the hallway or ride the subway; over 1.4 billion short messages are sent each month in Britain alone. But as hand and wrist complaints multiplied this year, experts began to wonder whether we’re facing a strange new 21st-century health hazard: text messager’s thumb.

If our thumbs are feeling the pain, it’s because of a strange cultural evolution. They have suddenly become our most important digit. In Japan, where kids band together in ”thumb tribes,” one company actually invented a phone-style keypad that plugs into your computer, because kids now prefer that to the traditional (and more ergonomic) qwerty keyboard. Since young people are the most fanatic texters, doctors worry that they’re on the verge of a new tenosynovitis outbreak. ”They’ll be developing workplace-style injuries before they’ve ever set foot in a workplace,” says Andrew Chadwick, head of the British Repetitive Strain Injury Association.

Virgin Mobile has even started an ad campaign called ”How to Practice Safe Text,” offering shoulder-shrugging exercises and a phone-shaped squeeze toy in hopes of getting its subscribers to change their hand-crippling ways.

”We have not evolved as fast as our technologies,” Bacon concludes. — Clive Thompson

“Proving You’re Human”: one more of my NYT mag “Year in Ideas” essays

Continuing in this slew of postings, here’s the third of my five essays in this week’s New York Times Magazine “Year in Ideas” issue:

Proving You’re Human

Want a free e-mail account at Yahoo? It’s yours, once you pass a little test. When you sign up, Yahoo now presents you with a small picture of a distorted word, something that looks as if it had been written on cellophane and stretched out of shape. If you can read the word and type it correctly into a response box, then you’ll get your free e-mail.

You will also have done something considerably weirder: you will have proved that you’re a human being.

The Yahoo test is intended to screen out ”spambots,” pieces of software that sign up for Yahoo e-mail addresses and then use them to send millions of pieces of junk mail. The test relies on a fundamental distinction between humans and machines: we can identify pictures, but robots can’t. ”Computers still can’t see things very well, but even very young kids are good at it,” says Manuel Blum, a Carnegie Mellon computer scientist who invented the test (though Hewlett-Packard holds the patent). ”They can read stuff on cereal boxes and bottles, curved words, upside down. No computer can do that.” Spam has become so ubiquitous that Blum’s technique has been eagerly adopted by e-commerce companies worldwide, including eBay and Ticketmaster. Other companies, like Spam Arrest and Knowspam, have introduced services that let you implement the test personally: the people who send you e-mail must first prove they’re human. If they can’t do that, they’re probably robots.

In 1950, the British mathematician Alan Turing imagined a ”Turing test” — in which a human tries to guess whether the typed messages he is receiving are from a person or a computer. In Turing’s day, this was merely an effete philosophical question, but these days it’s a basic task of everyday life, equal parts humdrum and surreal. Is that a message from a spambot? Or maybe your sister? In a world crawling with so many forms of pseudo-life, you need a machine to help you figure out who’s human. — Clive Thompson

“Hit Song Science”: another of my NYT mag pieces

Here’s yet one more of my essays in this week’s New York Times Magazine’s “Year in Ideas” issue:

Hit Song Science

When Norah Jones released her first album, she was a long shot at best. ”Come Away With Me” was filled with mellow, sultry tunes — precisely the opposite of the histrionic diva pop crowding the charts. Virtually no one expected Jones to score a major hit.

No one, that is, except for a piece of artificial intelligence called Hit Song Science, a program that tries to determine, with mathematical precision, whether a song is going to be a Top 40 hit. When the scientists fed Jones’s album into that computer, alarm bells went off: the program predicted that eight tracks would hit the charts. ”We were like, whoa, that’s funky,” says Mike McCready, the C.E.O. of Polyphonic HMI, the Barcelona-based company that developed the software application. A few months later, Jones’s album went multiplatinum — and Hit Song Science had proved it could pick a hit as well as Clive Davis.

But how? At the heart of the program is a ”clustering” algorithm that locates acoustic similarities between songs, like common bits of rhythm, harmonies or keys. The software takes a new tune and compares it with the mathematical signatures of the last 30 years of Top 40 hits. The closer the song is to ”a hit cluster,” the more likely — in theory — that the kids won’t be able to resist it. Yet the weird thing is, songs that are mathematically similar don’t necessarily sound the same. The scientists found that U2 is similar to Beethoven, and that Van Halen shares qualities with the piano rock of Vanessa Carlton. Even more bizarrely, 50 Cent’s throbbing rap tune ”If I Can’t” correlates with ”(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me,” a twangy country ditty by Ronnie Milsap.

This year, several record companies began using Hit Song Science to help pick which songs on an album to promote. Others are now using it in the studio, taking a rough mix of a new song, checking to see how hit-worthy it is, then tweaking it until it has ”good mathematics,” as McCready puts it. He can foresee a day when most major hits will have been vetted by algorithms.

Which is, depending on how you look at it, either a wonderful breakthrough for science or an incredibly bleak statement about the music industry. Critics for years have complained that record labels produce only bland albums that mimic what’s already popular. But Hit Song Science takes that trend to its logical absurdity: it does not merely aim at the middle of the road — it calculates it, with scientific precision. — Clive Thompson

More of my NYT mag ideas-pieces: “Airborne Humans”

Here’s another one of my essays from this week’s New York Times Magazine “Year in Ideas” issue:

Airborne Humans

On July 31, Felix Baumgartner jumped out of an airplane at 30,000 feet and began plummeting to the English countryside below him. But within seconds, his wings caught the air, and he spun around, straightened up and peacefully soared off into the distance like an eagle. Baumgartner was no ordinary skydiver: he was wearing a six-foot-wide carbon-fiber fin strapped to his back, making him look something like a human version of a Delta-winged military jet. He began his glide over the east coast of Britain, but before long he was heading out over the English Channel toward France, streaking through the air at 220 miles an hour.

”It’s such an incredible feeling, because it’s just you, the sky, your wing and your skills,” he says. With no power supply, he couldn’t stay aloft forever. But his wing allows him to travel four feet horizontally for every foot he descends, which meant he could cover 22 miles in this six-minute flight. As he descended to 4,000 feet, he broke through the cloud cover and saw the coast of France below him. A thousand feet later, he opened his parachute for a landing. He had become the first person to fly across the English Channel without using an engine.

Even in a world jaded by extreme sports, that’s a pretty cool stunt. Yet it may soon become commonplace. An Austrian company plans to begin selling the Skyray, the fin-shaped wing of which Baumgartner used a slightly modified version.

An experienced Skyray user can perform aerobatics, doing barrel rolls and slaloming through clouds. The advent of personal wings could even become a new military tool, allowing parachute troops to deeply infiltrate enemy territory, evading radar and heat-seeking missiles and traveling faster than many Cessna-class aircraft. The Skyray’s inventor, Alban Geissler, has already had inquiries from the German and American militaries, as well as a U.S. defense contractor (though ”I can’t tell you who it is,” he adds quickly). But either way, the age-old dream of flying has now become less mechanical and more human. — Clive Thompson

I’m travelling Dec. 11 to Dec. 21 — so no blogging!

Hey all — I’m on the road, reporting a magazine piece, from Dec. 11 to Dec. 21. I doubt I’ll have any time to blog, so I’m afraid this page will get rather empty.

But, when I get back, I’ll probably have collected all manner of weird stuff to post. As always, email me with anything you thing is interesting!

Google bombing, pt. 8

Oh, the subtle art of the Google Bomb.

Try punching “miserable failure” into the world’s biggest search engine and see what you get.

Poor guy — he’s been getting it for years.

(Thanks to El Rey for this one!)

Arcades are dead. Long live arcades

Here’s a blast from the past, and I mean that quite literally: It seems that Taito Corp. has decided to rerelease Space Invaders in the United States — as an arcade cabinet. As Yahoo News reports:

There has been a rebirth of classic video games in America,” said Taito spokesman Kengo Naka. “We thought it would coincide nicely with the 25th anniversary of its debut in the U.S.”

I once described early video games as the hit singles of the digital era — much like the first rock ‘n roll songs that blasted out of jukeboxes in the 50s, back when we still still called it rock ‘n roll. (Actually, my original sentence was an alphanumeric mess: “Games transformed the late 70s and early 80s like 45s transformed the 50s.” Save me from myself.)

Anyway, the point is, yes, this is all very cool — not the least because people like me have yammered on at numbing length about how the design of early games is so uniquely pared down that it boils game-ness down to its platonic essence.

But what I’m really wondering is: Where are these Space Invader cabinets going to go? There aren’t any arcades any more. And by “arcades,” I mean the precise dictionary definition, which is: “A dark, dingy room in a mall that is so ugly and terrifying that parents never dare to enter, thereby giving teenagers one tiny oasis of independence in an otherwise totally surveilled and overly-coordinated life.” So, you know, those horrifyingly Disneyfied “game palaces” they’ve been erecting in most major cities don’t count. They’re not arcades. They’re “game experiences” where creepazoid MBAs from Wall Street go to drink beer and pay, like, four dollars to play House of the Dead for about 23 seconds before they get killed.

That parallel between rock music and games is even more acute when you apply it to the arcade. Arcades scared the living hell out of parents the way that Elvis used to. These days, of course, both Elvis and arcades seem charming and even silly. But you have to remember that back in the 80s, parents went utterly bugshit with alarm when kids first started gathering in those dark, seedy dungeons — where blacklight would pick out every piece of lint on your body, and incredibly creepy guys who had tattoos long before tattoos were cool handed out change from paramilitary dispensers worn like codpieces around their waists.

So the point is: Arcades are gone. They’re dead. They do. Not. Exist. Anymore. Concerned citizens ran a 25-year campaign of groundless hype about how arcades caused juvenile delinquency and teenage torpor and loose sex. None of it was true; the last time I went searching for data on this topic, I was able to find only one single study (of an arcade in Victoria, British Columbia), and it concluded that the arcade had “no perceptible impact” on the moral fiber of the community. Yet nonetheless, the campaign against arcades was one of the most unqualified successes of 50 years of parental freak-outs. Parents have, at different times, flipped out baselessly over grunge, German “death metal,” Madonna, platform shoes, rap, and Britney Spears’ schoolgirl outfits … yet all those cultural icons still thrive. Not so with arcades. Arcades were squashed, city by city, shut down by moral freaks and/or transformed into imagineered playgrounds, until really none are left.

So sure, go ahead — bring back the Space Invaders cabinets! But where are you gonna put them?

(Thanks to El Rey for finding this one!)

Sorry for no postings

Sorry this blog’s been so quiet in the last few days — I’ve been travelling for work and it’s been hard to get to a computer! But tomorrow I’m back and have a backlog of strange things to note.

Ancient Roman dungeonmastering

This is the weirdest thing I’ve seen all week. Over at Christie’s, there’s a 20-sided die for sale — that dates back to the 2nd century A.D. (It’s pictured above.) These days, of course, the 20-side die is best known as a central element in any game of Dungeons and Dragons; it’s the original generator of randomness in geek culture. But what in hell were the Romans doing with these things?

As it turns out, nobody knows. From the auction writeup notes:

Several polyhedra in various materials with similar symbols are known from the Roman period. Modern scholarship has not yet established the game for which these dice were used.

Back to Iraq, the sequel!

You may have read the blog of my friend Chris Allbritton — the web’s first indie war correspondent, at Back To Iraq. Back in the spring, he raised $13,000 in donations from readers of his blog, to pay for a reporting trip to Iraq during the war. It was an incredibly cool experiment — since he had no editors calling the shots, he was able to write all manner of interesting essays and reports about life in Kurdistan and Baghdad during and just after the American attack. It was all posted on his blog, free, for anyone to read. The stories are still there if you ever want to read them again — as well as some remarkable photos.

Today, he got the following letter:

Mr. Allbritton:

As a contributor to your trip to Iraq earlier this year, I wish you would return to Iraq and provide an outlet for the collective voice of the Iraqi people.

I have always been against the invasion of Iraq. I continue to oppose our administration’s policies. I feel that we are imposing our will rather than respecting the wishes of our fellow human beings.

Would you consider returning to Iraq with the purpose of finding out just what the Iraqis want from us at this point?

So now Chris has announced he’s going Back to Iraq again. He got a letter today from a reader and a former donor, asking him to head back and provide some more stories from a fully independent point of view. Chris posted the letter, and already he’s received about $700 in new donations in the last couple of hours alone — including one from me.

If you want to see another dynamic example of public-minded journalism, drop by and join the “coalition of the willing,” as he calls it, heh.

Neologisms R Us

WordSpy is an online archive that tracks new English words. Today the new word is “neuromarketing” — and my recent New York Times Magazine article on neuromarketing is listed as a citation example.

The definition that Wordspy gives is:

(new.roh.MAR.kuh.ting) n. The neurological study of a person’s mental state and reactions while being exposed to marketing messages. Also: neuro-marketing.
—neuromarketer n.

WordSpy’s a pretty cool site, actually. Check out their list of the Top 100 Words, and you can see which neologisms have been most clicked-on by visitors in the past seven days. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the zeitgeist in action; my personal favorite new phrase is “time porn”, which is defined as “Television shows and other media that portray characters as having excessive amounts of spare time.”

(Thanks to Maura for this one!)

What brand are you?

So. You want to have a personal brand name. Who doesn’t? But there’s one problem: You haven’t got $7 million kicking around so that a bunch of liberal-arts legacy assholes from Brown can get paid six figures to sit around playing Grand Theft Auto while they “develop” your brand concept. Hey, this sort of quality brand management is available only to companies with deep pockets and shallow vision.

But now you, too, can develop your own personal brand — with one mouse click! Hie thee to the What Brand Are You? page at The Design Conspiracy, and fill in your name with a few basic atttributes. Presto: It’ll give you a new corporate name, and explain the connotations.

I entered “Clive Thompson” for my name, “anarchy” as my core value, and “client satisfaction” as my “core goal”.

My personal brand name? “Vere”. What this brand name connotes? The value is “maybe, maybe”.

(Thanks to Rob Walker’s “Murketing”, via Jeff MacIntye!)


To promote its new video game 106AD, Acclaim Entertainment is launching a set of ads that will seep blood. According to Ananova:

In the adverts, cartridges of red dye will be placed behind clear sheets of film and released over a six-day period. The ‘blood’ will slowly appear to spill out on the streets and drip onto the pavements. The adverts will remain for a week.

Classy. Mind you, this isn’t the first time Acclaim has been playing with blood as a promotional item. Astute readers will recall that in September of 2002, I wrote about Acclaim’s Scent of Blood” marketing campaign for their video game Turok Evolution. For the campaign, Acclaim held a contest where they offered 500 British pounds and an Xbox to five people willing to legally change their names to “Turok” for a year. One of the winners works as a midwife.

(Thanks to Emily at for this one!)

Busting racism with mobile phones

I’ve written before about how cameraphones are turning us into a nation of “citizen reporters.” And a couple of weeks ago, I wrote an essay for the New York Times Magazine where I compared the growth of cameraphones to the “Rodney King effect.” After all, the Rodney King incident was captured on tape because of a technological shift: For the first time in history, videocameras were cheap enough — and portable enough — that the average American started carrying one around, ready to capture malfeasance on tape. Cameraphones take this trend and amp it up exponentially. Within one or two years, it’s estimated that fully half of all Americans will be carrying around a camerphone — or even a videophone. Hell, within a few months you won’t even be able to buy a phone that doesn’t have a camera on it. And that means that we’ll be living in a world with a million eyes — where it’s harder than ever for creepy behavior to go unrecorded.

In fact, that’s already happening. Last week in Portland, a few cops parked outside of a hip-hop club with a largely black audience. One of the cops mounted a stuffed toy monkey on the patrol-car hood — “the kind of thing you expect to see in the South, like a Confederate flag,” as one observer said. “They might as well paint their faces black with white lips.” One clubgoer whipped out his mobile phone and snapped a picture — and the next day, the picture appeared in the Portland Tribune.

Busted. In a followup story, the Tribune called it the dawn of “the age of technological vigilantism”, and even the police force had to admit the picturephone would probably lead to charges against its officers:

Portland police say they’ve not used cell phone photos as evidence in any cases, but the Independent Police Review Division of the city auditor’s office plans to use the Ringlers pictures to investigate the gorilla incident.

“We still don’t have the photos ourselves, but since it was in the paper, it obviously establishes beyond any doubt that there was a stuffed gorilla on a Portland Police Bureau car,” said Richard Rosenthal, the police review board’s director. “It’s not an issue that’s being disputed by anybody.”

(Thanks to for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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