Archive: January 2004

A screwdriver smarter than you

Matsushita has created an intelligent screwdriver. As the dottocomu blog reports:

[It] allows you to record macros—slow start, fast midsection, slow again at the end, for example—and replay them with a single button-push. Record an expert’s macro and even the novice screwer will see a dramatic improvement, so they claim. It also has a learning function that allows it to gravitate to the speed range you’re using most often.

Carpenters, plumbers, and pretty much anyone who works with tools will tell you that they have a symbiotic relationship with their instruments. The more you use a hammer, the more the grip shapes to your hand. The reverse is also true: You change your style of hammering depending on its individual quirks. Your tools change you, and you change them. In a sense, all tools are smart. But it makes perfect sense to take some of the adaptive capabilities of computational technology and use it to make our tools adapt in ever more subtle ways.

(Thanks to Gizmodo for finding this one!)

I failed the Turing Test

To try and help stem the tide of spam comments here, I recently upgraded my version of Movable Type and am going to instal the MT-Blacklist app, which tries to automatically block spam.

But for a while there, I was fighting the spam simply by manually blocking the IP addresses of any spambot that posted here. The spambots tend to post in enormous packs: One will find my a blog, discover that it’s open to post to, then leave about 200 postings in the different items. So if you’re the blog publisher and you see the first few postings go up by the ‘bot, you can quickly ban its IP address and shut it down.

But that means you have to be doing a very quick, on-the-fly Turing Test: You have to be able to quickly look at a post and decide whether it looks like it was posted by a human or not.

I recently failed that test! Alfred Cloutier, a regular poster on the Collision Detection boards, was noticed that a spambot from an online gambling site had posted some spam. Alfred decided to intentionally post his own spam-like comment — he used his real name, but his comment was like one of the typically vague-but-friendly spambot sort (“nice site thx”). I saw it and automatically banned his IP, because I was moving so quickly I didn’t notice the name of the poster. Alfred emailed me to point out my error, and I unblocked his IP address, and also felt like an idiot.

It is, of course, yet another example of the difficulty of living in a world filled with so much pseudointelligence that you can’t recognize real intelligence.

gr8 bk!

A novelist in France has written a book that uses SMS slang. From Yahoo News:

Thus an example passage in the book has a Dtektive (detective) asking the villain: “6 j t’aspRge d’O 2 kologne histoar 2 partaG le odeurs ke tu me fe subir?”

Which, once expanded and translated, would come across as “What if I spray you with cologne so you can share the smells you make me suffer?”

Other sentences showcase the French equivalents of terms along the same lines as English Internet equivalents that have given rise to “LOL” (for Laugh Out Loud), D8 (for date), OMG (for Oh My God) and OvR8d (for overrated).

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)


The state government of Georgia has proposed guidelines that would remove the word “evolution” from their high-school biology classes. They’re even removing the word “long” from references to “Earth’s long history.” This is happening even though Georgia students have incredibly high failure rates in science — probably because what they’re being taught isn’t, er, science. Professors at universities say their first-year students are arriving for the first day of class barely knowing what fossils are.

Here’s the icing on the cake. In a story in today’s New York Times, Keith Delaplane, a professor of entomology at the University of Georgia, defends Georgia’s embrace of creationism. He says “the wholesale rejection of alternative theories of evolution is unscientific”:

“My opinion is that the very nature of science is openness to alternative explanations, even if those explanations go against the current majority,” said Professor Delaplane, a proponent of intelligent-design theory, which questions the primacy of evolution’s role in natural selection. “They deserve at least a fair hearing in the classroom, and right now they’re being laughed out of the arena.”

He’s wrong. Creationism has enjoyed an absolutely fabulous hearing in the classroom: It was the dominant teaching on Earth’s history for hundreds of years or even millenia, if you include pre-Christian concepts of creation. Indeed, Darwin’s theory of evolution is the new theory, historically speaking.

The deer hunter

In the wake of yesterday’s posting about dangerous toys, Bill Kennedy sent me notice of the above-pictured plaything, Kaba Kick. As the promotional text for the game explains:

Kaba Kick is russian roulette for kids. The points the gun at his or her own head and pulls the trigger. Instead of bullets, a pair of feet kick out from the barrel (which is shaped like a pink hippo). If the gun doesn’t fire, the player earns points.

And if the gun does fire, what? The kid has a ‘Nam flashback?

I can’t figure out what is more compelling here: The expression on the kid’s face, or the tiny illustrations carefully showing you how to load bullets into the gun.

(Thanks to Bill for this one!)

It’s all fun and games

Now that Christmas is a month old, it’s time for an annual Collision Detection tradition: Rolling up our sleeves to research which toys turned out to be not only fun and delightful, but completely and totally lethal.

So — it’s off to visit the web site for World Against Toys Causing Harm (WATCH), which compiles an annual list of the gleaming new playthings most likely to cause injuries worthy of the Gashlycrumb Tinies. My personal wince-inducing favorite? The “Stats Bounce Jump Around,” illustrated above with the two cherubs having a whale of a time. When the WATCH people examined the toy more closely, they discovered one of the more remarkable warning labels in the history of toydom:

Cautions found only on the package insert include: “Requires adult supervision at all times” and “Follow these rules to avoid drowning, paralysis or other serious injury”.

That’s right: Even the manufacturer is worried that the toy will turn your kid into a quadreplegic.

You can check out the rest of the list, and when you’re done — hey! Why not drop by Safe Child’s unspeakably gruesome Toy Recall Database, pump your favorite body part into the search engine, and find out precisely what toy would be most suitable for mutilating it beyond recognition. Predictably, a search for “eye” turns up some of the more bleak results. Apparently the “Flying Copters” produced by International Playthings has resulted in “permanent blindness not only to children but to adults as well.”

Enter the matrix

Ben Fry is a genius.

In case you haven’t heard of him, he’s a doctoral candidate at MIT who specializes in creating innovative ways to visualize information. If you have an hour free, I urge you to go to his web site and check out virtually everything there. A few of my favorites:

An enormous poster showing the software code for the original Super Mario Bros. video game, with delicate flow-chart arrows swooping around illustrating how the code worked.

An interactive map of the US that shows you how zip codes work. You type in a zip code number by number, and as you add each digit, it shows you the part of the country you’re slowly narrowing down to.

“Tendril”, an application that takes content from web sites and displays it as gorgeous 3D sculptures floating in a Matrix-like null space.

A ghostly poster that uses the president’s announcement of the imminent invasion of Iraq to try and illustrate the casualties it would cause.

This guy’s work is an elegant illustration of Edward Tufte’s argument: That in a world where we are increasingly asked to parse and manipulate huge amounts of inscrutable data, we need increasingly innovative ways to visualize it. Visualizing information can have a political effect, as with the Bush-war poster. Or it can simply be a way of making the intangible suddenly visible — as with that breathtaking flow chart of how the Super Mario code works. Either way, when it’s done well, it’s damn cool, and I’ve rarely seen it done better.

(Thanks to Jonathan Korman for finding this one!)


Let’s face it: Six-degrees-of-separation theory is now one of the dominant intellectual trends of our age. As I pointed out in a recent posting, we are now awash in applications that seek to track the social threads that tie us together. We’ve got Friendster, Eurekster, Feedster,, Orkut. And the king of them all is, of course, Google — an engine that ranks sites based on their popularity, measured in terms of how many links point to them.

It’s easy to see why social-network theory ports nicely to the Web. When you use Friendster, the interface feels very organic; clicking through to see your friends’ friends, and your friends’ friends’ friends, neatly embodies the nature of social links. Indeed, HTML hypertext is the perfect medium with which to explore this stuff. A hyperlink is both a metaphor and a metonym; in the online world, it not only represents the link between people — it is the link between people.

But for decades, network theorists did not have the Web as a visualization tool. So they were forced to figure out incredibly obtuse ways of illustrating the maddeningly complex relations between people. Carnegie Mellon’s Journal of Social Structure has an incredibly cool essay about this, and it includes pictures of some of these devices. Some were crazy 3D peg-and-bolt apparatuses; others were “sociogram boards” that look like Chinese Checker devices. And there were tons of connect-the-dots diagrams that tried to draw tiny lines showing who knew who and how. That picture I’ve excerpted above is from a sociogrammatic visualization of first grade class.

I particularly love that classroom drawing, because it reminds me of the oddly peurile edge to this theory. Because the funny thing about social-network theory is it is, at heart, high-school logic. Why’s that guy popular? Er … because he’s popular. Or, ah, his popularity is result of his, um, popularity. Such is the brutal logic of the power law, which rewards those who’ve already been rewarded, leaving the rest in the dust. Economists like Robert Frank have been understandably concerned at the ways in which power laws in social networks are inherently unfair. He’s written a couple of books noting how social-network dynamics have created much of the dizzying gap between the rich and the lower classes.

But the funny thing is, this sort of nuanced critique is quite hard to find amongst digital folks. The digerati who are most fascinated by social-network theory tend to be those who are — whaddya know — really hugely popular themselves. The pundits who continually obsess over the magic of social networks are the ones who have been enormously rewarded by them, which makes them, in a way, utterly unable to see the huge social problems that are created by network dynamics. Christ, it’s like asking a bunch of popular cheerleaders to determine whether high school is pleasant, fun, and a socially egalitarian place. (It’s also like asking the rich whether they think the marketplace is mostly fair and “rewards merit”. What the hell else are they going to say?)

This not to dismiss the actual value of network theory. I think it’s both demonstrably true and incredibly valuable in understanding how the world works! But these days, it’s coming alarmingly close to being a new form of social darwinism: If you’re popular and well rewarded, it’s because of incontrovertible forces that are beyond everyone’s control — and if you’re not, ditto. The world is fine just as it is!

Anyway, I think that’s why that image above so cracked me up. Those hilariously smug little expressions on the kids’ faces are a nice gloss on the super-weird politics of our networked age.

(Thanks to Abstract Dynamics for finding that study!)

“Stumbling”: the new Googling?

A trio of Canadian programmers has created a new, social way to surf the web — StumbleUpon. It’s a little application that recommends interesting sites for you to visit, based on the votes of other StumbleUpon users. I haven’t downloaded it to try it out yet myself, but it sounds a bit like the Alexa toolbar, which collaboratively filters people’s recommendations in a similar way (or at least, that’s how Alexa used to work that last time I used it; not sure if it still does.)

I’ll give these guys one thing: “Stumbling” is a superb word to describe the way people actually surf the web. “Surfing” and “browsing” always seemed to me like slightly self-congratulatory words. The former suggests a level of poise and elegance, and the latter a studious quality, that kinda doesn’t quite capture my average Net session — where I’m bouncing between joke Flash sites, weird-science white papers, news organizations and cryptoblogs, all in a desperate attempt to avoid doing any actual paying work. “Stumbling” has a sad-sack quality that more precisely captures the sheer aimlessness of most of my Internet activity.

The funny thing is, it seems like everywhere I turn there’s another piece of software promising to revolutionize my life with social networking — the everpresent meme du jour. In fact, there’s even a backlash brewing. While blogging recently about Eurekster over at Boing Boing, Xeni Jardin threw it down:

eurekster, “the only search engine with personalized results,” launched today after several months of beta testing. The site promises to “show you What’s Hot with your friends… results get better as you invite more friends.” Is there a word for that post-Friendster/Tribe/LinkedIn/SixDegrees oh-god-not-again feeling I’m getting as I read the launch announcement? Like, HTML rug burn? I mean, really — I haven’t played around with eurekster yet, and I mean no disrespect to whoever built the project. But if one more website asks me to “invite all of my friends,” I swear I’m gonna fucking throw up. Invite your own damn friends, you website.

(Thanks to El Rey for pointing out StumbleUpon!)

Remix your own U.S. oil policy

Dissatisfied with the Bush administration’s energy policy? Well, you could always try to roll your own. After reading my recent piece on political games, Michael Bean of Forio — a company that makes simulations of complex situations — emailed me the URL for an oil-policy simulator he recently created. You pick a bunch of conservation and fuel-efficiency policies, craft a speech in which the prez announces ‘em, and then it calculates how much your ideas would decrease the U.S.’s oil consumption. Easy, eh?

Except might be surprised how drastically you have to improve fuel efficiency — and how far you have to crank down our thermostats — to make much of a dent in things. I picked a couple of policies sufficiently intense that they would probably be considered politically unfeasable, such as requiring all cars and SUVs to increase their fuel efficiently from 25 MPG from 50. Even so, given the increases in U.S. population and vehicle sales, fuel consumption still went up — albeit less quickly.

This, ultimately, is the brilliance of using game-like simulations to teach people about politics. Because the best way to learn about a complex system is by poking and prodding it. Indeed, that might be the only way to truly internalize something really complex: You have to experience it for yourself. If you’d explained to me, in words, just how hard-core our conservation would have to be to truly reduce oil usage, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. But after playing around with the sim for a while I’m kind of stunned into re-appreciating the magnitude of our oil problem.

(Thanks to Michael for pointing this one out!)

Campaign ‘84: The video game!

Last week I wrote an article for Slate about the Howard Dean online video game. I called it the first-ever game to explicitly model the dynamics of a U.S. political campaign.

I was wrong. Vince wrote in to point out that back in the 80s, the ancient ColecoVision system had a game called Campaign ‘84. Follow the link in that last sentence and you can read a full writeup of it at Classic Gaming, which neatly describes the satiric gameplay:

After you pick your issues, you receive generous grants from AiPAC and immediately start funnelling all your campaign contributions to your secret offshore Cayman Islands holding corporation. No, wait… actually you pick your political affiliation. You can either be a Donkey, a political animal noted for its stubborn steadfastness and quiet elegance, or an Elephant, a proud beast known for its ability to squash smaller creatures beneath its mammoth heel. Then you must campaign across the entire United States (except Hawaii and Alaska), collecting money and avoiding scandal. See the realism?

Speaking of realism, one of the “scandals” is apparently “your intern being discovered nude in a pile of Cuban cigars”. Christ, who programmed this thing? Tiresius?

Anyway, all you truly hard-core gaming freaks can download a ColecoVision emulator — and then a version of the Campaign ‘84 game itself, from Classic Gaming.

(Thanks to Vince for finding this one!)

Survey: Cell phone most loathed piece of technology

An MIT survey asked 1,023 adults to rank which great technological inventions they hate the most. The winner? The mobile phone — with a vote of 30 per cent. As the Associated Press writes:

“The interconnectedness you get from the cell phone is a very positive thing, and I think that’s one of the most important things, the bringing together of people. The downside of that is that you sometimes want to be alone,” said [MIT] Lemelson Center Director Merton C. Flemings.

Alarm clocks were a close second, with 25 percent, followed by the television with 23 percent and razors with 14 percent. Microwave ovens, computers and answering machines also earned spots as detested technology.

Oy vey

An Israeli rabbi has written a prayer to be recited by devout Jews if they accidentally — or not so accidentally — view porn on the Internet. As CNN reports:

“Please God, help me cleanse the computer of viruses and evil photographs that disturb and ruin my work …, so that I shall be able to cleanse myself,” reads the benediction by Shlomo Eliahu, chief rabbi in the northern town of Safed.

(Thanks to Greg for finding this one!)

Virtual reality reality

An Austrian camerman is building the Tholos — a pair of panoramic high-definition displays that will be installed at the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, so that the crowd at each can interact with the others in real time. According to a writeup of the project in Reason:

The device, which features a 23-foot wrap-around screen some 10 feet high, works in pairs: People gathered at one Tholos can see real-time, life-size HDTV images of people around a distant partner device, with microphones enabling users to converse. Invented by Austrian cameraman Andreas Traint, the first proposed pair will link Londoners and Viennese in 2004.

Dig the crazee 3D CAD images of a full-sized Tholos, available at the web site of manufacturer Tholos Systems. They look like mirrorshade UFOs.

(Thanks to Ryan Bigge for this one!)

Zoloft parody

You’ve probably seen those ubiquitous Zoloft commercials — where the little ovoid creature is incredibly sad and depressed. (There’s one above, in an example of a teensy Zoloft ad.) They’re actually incredibly affective commercials, I think, in part because they do a superb job at evoking the deep weariness that accompanies depression. Though it’s probably true that antidepressant medication is overprescribed right now in America, it is nonetheless a crucial way for depressed people to get help. Real, serious depression is nothing to scoff at.

But still … when I saw the Zoloft-ad parody that’s been making the rounds online, I couldn’t help but giggle my head off. It neatly skewers the bathetic pseudoscientific illustrations that Zoloft uses in its ads. Check it out online here!

(Thanks to Gwin for this one!)

Do tennis players use Bayesian filtering?

Bayesian logic is a type of analysis that violates old-school logic — because it incorporates conventional wisdom. For example, when a doctor examines a patient, she’s analysing not just the symptoms of that particular person. She’s also drawing on a pile of previous experience: Her interactions with other, similar patients, her knowledge of the disease in general, and the life history of that particular patient. Old-school logic doesn’t like using things like previous history because it seems muddy and subjective. But these days, everyone’s using it. Most spam filters use Bayesian logic to deduce whether your incoming mail is likely to be spam or not, based on its previous experience of observing not just your mailbox — but often the mailboxes of the world. Ultimately, Bayesian logic works so well because it seems eerily human-like.

And in fact, there’s evidence that our brains may in fact be performing Bayesian analysis. A story in today’s New York Times discusses a few economists who studied pro tennis players and how they choose which way to serve and volley. Since tennis is a very fast sport, the athletes aren’t making entirely conscious choices about what to do; their brains are doing a lot of sophisticated preconscious on-the-fly crunching. The economists found that the athlete’s brains may be doing explicitly Bayesian math:

Mark A. Walker and John C. Wooders, economists at the University of Arizona, recently studied old videotapes of tennis matches involving stars like Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras. The economists looked at the serves in each match to see how well players randomly altered playing the ball to an opponent’s forehand or backhand.

Many people do poorly on similar tests when they are conducted in a laboratory. Ask somebody to write down a list of hypothetical coin-flip outcomes, for example, and the result will probably contain too few streaks of heads or tails. Because people know that the overall odds are 50-50, they underestimate how often three straight tails or four straight heads turn up.

But professional tennis players realize, on some level, that their opponent will have an advantage if he knows that a serve to the forehand is likely to be followed by one to the backhand. They do a relatively good job of mixing serves, though still not as randomly as a computer program would, Professors Walker and Wooders reported in a 2001 paper.

The weirdest substance on Earth

Behold a piece of “silica aerogel” — possibly the weirdest substance on Earth. Remember two weeks ago when the Stardust space probe gathered material from a comet’s tail? It was using a big chunk of this material as a net. Silica aerogel is made by mixing silicon dioxide with liquid alcohol, then drying out all the alcohol until you have the least-dense matter on earth: A piece of silica aerogel is 99.6 per cent empty space. When you look at it, your eyes can’t quite focus because it scatters light the same way a hologram does.

It is also the best insulator on the planet. That picture above? It’s hard to make it out at that tiny size, but it’s a flower resting on a piece of thin slab of silica aerogel, perfectly insulated from a blowtorch going full steam below. According to a piece on the stuff in today’s New York Times:

“It has 14 Guinness Book of World Records-type properties,” Dr. Tsou said. “It’s the lowest density of any solid, and it has the highest thermoinsulation properties. Though it would be very expensive, you could take a two- or three-bedroom house, insulate it with aerogel, and you could heat the house with a candle. But eventually the house would become too hot.”

The true science geeks among you can check out the full Silica Aerogel web site.

Sorry about the spam here on Collision Detection

The spambots have really been raging out of control here, I’m afraid. It used to be that I’d get one or two spambot postings a day, but now gangs are tossing up dozens of postings in each item — about 100 comments every 15 minutes, actually.

I’m in the process of installing spam filters, and will have them up and running by the weekend. The filters will also retroactively erase all the existing spam.

So, things will continue to get worse around here for a couple of days, after which they’ll get much better.

In the meantime, my apologies for the massive amount of spam around here!

Save the whales

The folks at Atari Protos have uncovered “Save the Whales” — an unreleased Atari 2600 game whose proceeds were supposed to benefit Greenpeace. The description:

You control a submarine that must “Save the Whales” by shooting the harpoons or nets thrown by the ship at the top of the screen. You can choose between harpoons or nets by changing the difficulty switch, harpoons are smaller and faster than the nets so they’re harder to hit. If a harpoon or net hits your sub you’ll have some damage, if you take five hits it’s game over and all the whales die!

Given the pace at which whales have become extinct in the last 25 years, it’s perhaps unsurprising that “the game is very fast and very hard, so lasting for more than a few minutes is a real achievement.” Even better is the fact that the guy who created this — Steve Beck — originally intended to release two other eco-games, “Dutch Elm Defender” and “Attack of the Baby Seals”. Okay, that Dutch Elm thing, whatever … but I would so play a game called “Attack of the Baby Seals.”

But if you really want to bake your noodle, check out Atari Protos’ writeup of “Mind Maze” — “first (and only) Atari game to be based on the unproven (yet still popular) theory of ESP (Extra Sensory Perception).” That’s right: The goal is to try and sense what the next card displayed will be.

(Thanks to Fark for this one!)

My Slate article on the “Howard Dean online game”

To help try and recruit volunteers to go to Iowa, Howard Dean’s campaign recently released what is surely a campaign-year first: Their own online video game. Go to The Dean For America Game, and you can play a simulation of the subtle joys of tramping across frozen-ass Iowa trying to get out the vote.

Slate asked me to write a piece about the game, to sort of follow up my 2002 essay on how Flash games have become the latest tools for political commentary. The full Dean piece is online here, but here’s an excerpt:

In Slate last month, Steven Johnson wondered why U.S. politics had never been the subject of a simulation game. He suggested it’s because politicking is too complex to be captured in a game’s artificial intelligence. That’s certainly true of the stuff that happens on K Street; it’d be pretty hard to sim a carbon-emissions-quota lobbying effort.

But Iowa-style campaigning? That’s just a numbers game—flooding the state with as many volunteers as you can. It’s hard, but it ain’t rocket science. Indeed, getting out the vote is the closest that politics comes to pure algorithmic physics: If your opponent has X volunteers and you have X+10, then you win. A political game hits with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but that’s the point; like a political cartoon, its simplicity tries to clarify the issues.

Hot hot webcam action

Apparently, an Iowa woman was helping her horse give birth when it accidentally kicked her, leaving her almost uanble to move. But the whole thing was being broadcast live via a webcam, so viewers from as far away as Germany called local Iowa authorities get help. As CNN reports:

Holzrichter said her husband is a truck driver and she is frequently alone at their eastern Iowa stables. She said without the Web cam she could have laid in the barn for days before anyone would find her.

“I managed to drag my self out of the stall, but I couldn’t close the door,” she said. “So the horse could have finished the job.”

DIY Segway

Last summer, while in a rather bad mood, I decided to vent my spleen upon Segways — writing a bloated rant in which I referred to them as, among other things, “supremely useless, blisteringly overhyped, rideable vacuum cleaners”. Ahem. Many, many Segway owners wrote in to point out that Segways were, in fact, quite useful, particularly for people with mobility problems. That is obviously very very true and I was clearly wrong about its usability.

But the point about being overhyped? I’m sticking with it. So many people have gushed fulsomely about the way-kewl technology behind the Segway (including, heh, me), that you’d assume Dean Kamen reverse-engineered the damn thing from a crashed UFO.

But now it turns out it isn’t that hard to make one yourself — out of parts you can find at a local hardware store. Trevor Blackwell did, and he put up a big web site explaining how:

Self-balancing scooters, like the Segway™ are often thought to be technological miracles, but it is not actually very hard to build one. I built the one described here in about a week using off-the-shelf parts. I spent another week tweaking the high-speed stability, improving the steering control, and writing about it.

Although the Segway has several exotic components, mine is built from common low-tech parts like wheelchair motors and RC car batteries. The parts, even at small quantity retail prices, cost less than half of a genuine Segway. It also doesn’t need complex or high-performance software. The first version was written in Python and used serial ports to talk to the gyroscope and motor controller. The current software, now in C running in an onboard 8-bit microcontroller, is only 500 lines of code.

Photoshopping your Xerox of a Kleenex

If you’ve been surfing the blogs lately, you’ve no doubt seen the recent furor over Adobe. First it was discovered that the company inserted code into its latest version of Photoshop that checks to see whether an image you’re tweaking is one of the world’s major currencies — and if it is, Photoshop won’t let you open it. Users, quite understandably, flipped out, pointing out that there might be plenty of valid reasons one wants to photoshop a piece of currency. They also noted that the new counterfeit-detection algorithm sucks up a healthy amount of processor speed, slowing Photoshop down significantly. But hey: The government demanded that Adobe insert the code.

Which, once again, gives us a lovely illustration of Larry Lessig’s central thesis: That in the modern world, code is law. Ever wonder why America Online won’t let more than a couple dozen people convene in a single chat room? It’s not because it isn’t technologically possible. It’s because they just don’t want more than a few dozen people using AOL to convene. That could be for plenty of reasons, but one of them easily might be political: Protest and dissent rely on people convening together, and AOL likely doesn’t really want to be a vehicle for that. It has essentially designed “public spaces” out of AOL-land; the code is as specific and powerful as a federal law prohibiting groups from gathering, a popular tactic amongst banana-republic dictators. (I’m not suggesting that AOL’s designers are behaving like dictators, of course; in a private-enterprise setting, the comparison is politically meaningless. Though it’s also funny to note, as Lessig does, that while AOL puts strict limits on how much interaction AOL “citizens” can have with one another, AOL’s “king” — Steve Case — can and does often send out an email to all seven bazillion of AOL’s members, much like Castro blasting a message island-wide via the P.A. system. Comrades, lend me your ears!)

But je digresse.

Let’s get back to Adobe — a company that seems hellbent on exquisitely ruining its reputation amongst its web-savvy fans. On the heels of being outed as the latest enforcement wing of the US Treasury, Adobe decided it was also time to join in on America’s hot new pasttime: Policing your trademark! They’ve apparently decided that too many people are using “photoshop” as a verb (including — whoops — me above, in this very post). So they’ve issued a set of directives clarifying the appropriate use of their name:

Trademarks are not verbs.

CORRECT: The image was enhanced using Adobe® Photoshop® software.
INCORRECT: The image was photoshopped.

Always capitalize and use trademarks in their correct form.

CORRECT: The image was enhanced with Adobe® Photoshop® Elements software.
INCORRECT: The image was photoshopped.
INCORRECT: The image was Photoshopped.
INCORRECT: The image was Adobe® Photoshopped.

Barristers, start your engines.

By the way, notice the lovely bit of corporate bumphery up there: Adobe continually suggests that the correct way to refer to using Photoshop is to say that you “enhanced an image” with Photoshop. But what if what you did with the image isn’t really “enhancement”? What if you made the image suck more? I think I’m going to take a bunch of pictures and render them virtually unreadable; I could then follow Adobe’s guidelines to the letter, by using the following perfectly-legal explanation:

The image was made to massively suck using Adobe® Photoshop® software.

(Thanks to Fark for this one!)

Idiocy simulator

Julie Olearcek recently dropped by a Staples to inquire about buying a copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator for her son. The Staples attendant got worried that she was a terrorist trying to learn how to crash planes into buildings, he called the cops. And then, according to Court TV:

A few hours later, a State Trooper showed up at Olearcek’s house incognito, shining a flashlight through a sliding door and tapping on the glass.

Olearcek was frightened at first, but the State Trooper identified himself and asked Olearcek if she had inquired about the video game.

The kicker? Olearcek is an Air Force Reserve pilot. The kicker to the kicker? She didn’t mind the state inquiring as to why she was buying a video game. “At first I felt like, ‘Wait a minute, this is America.’ But we also have to understand it takes everybody to pay attention,” she said.

Now, I am not one of those high-octane privacy-at-all-costs nuts who have been driven apoplectic by today’s security measures. I don’t mind being subjected to running my shoes through airport scanners. But there’s something awfully weird about the criminalization of Microsoft Flight Simulator, which is the best selling flight sim in history.

(Thanks to Watercooler Games for this one!)

That cow isn’t mad — it’s furious

From Ananova:

runaway cow has demolished two police cars in Austria.

Officers used the vehicles to set up a roadblock after the animal escaped from a slaughterhouse in Graz.

It ran into a car park, chased shoppers and then attempted to head out on to the road.

The animal charged into the vehicles which had been set up at the car park entrance.

Police caught the cow with a rope as it settled down on top of one of the flattened cars.

It was then led back to the slaughterhouse.

(Thanks to Carol’s Chaotic Collection of Curiousities for finding this one!)

Search-query poetry

When you have a blog or a web site, you quickly realize that many people are stumbling across your site because of a Google search. There are plenty of tools that can analyze your log files and tell you precisely what Google searches people are typing that lead to your blog. (Back in the fall, I discovered — to my mild horror — that I was a first-page result for “upskirting” on Google, because of a post I once made about mobile-phone voyeuring. Thankfully, these days I seem to have fallen back to the third page of results.)

Now bloggers have started to collect together the weirdest searches that led to them. One cool site in this regard is Disturbing Search Requests. Another one is Search Extract Poetry — searches assembled into often-striking bits of verse:

the most unevenly matched game of Twister
and you for me So…
Right there!
Something had gone terribly wrong…
Oh, wait!

Unfortunately, the site hasn’t been updated for a year or so.

(Thanks to Jessica for this one!)

Proverbs 30:29-31

Apparently there are Bible-study-groups specifically for furries.

(Thanks to Memepool for spotting this one!)

The science of stone-skipping

God, I love scientists. Nature has a story about Christophe Clanet, a physicist who recently calculated the perfect angle for skipping stones. To do so, he built his own stone-skipping machine:

The motorised catapult fires aluminium discs into a two metre-long pool of water. High-speed video cameras record the moment of impact, which normally lasts for less than one hundredth of a second.

The result? “To achieve the maximum number of rebounds, the angle between a spinning stone and the water should be about 20 degrees, advises Clanet: ‘This is the magic angle.’”

Interestingly, this actually has real-world implications. As Clanet points out, his system might help physicists model the way that spacecraft bounce across the planet’s atmosphere on their descent back to Earth.

Of course, I’d imagine that there are a bunch of other factors one could build into a stone-skipping model. When I was a kid, part of the fun was going out to a lake in really rough weather and trying to see if we could skip stones across two-foot-high waves. Actually, I bet stone-skipping would make a fun online Flash game. Has anyone ever seen anything like that?

(Thanks to SciTech Daily for this one!)

People of earth, I come in peace

Behold the mighty T522 Enryu, a Japanese rescue robot:

Co-developed for the last three years, the 3.45-meter(11-foot)-tall, about five-ton robot can be operated manually by a man aboard it as well as remote control and lift heavy objects that weigh up to about one ton with its two arms that move like ones of a human. The developers plan to improve the robot to be used in rescue operations at the actual disaster sites by the end of this year.

It can also be used to fight off alien invaders.

(Thanks to El Rey for this one!)

A soldier’s best friend

There’s a great story on Wired about how the military is trying to develop robotic dogs:

Today’s soldiers carry as much as 100 pounds of equipment. That’s exhausting, even for the toughest grunt. In the future, the Army wants to dump up to half that gear onto the back of a drone. But military scientists are worried that robots with wheels won’t be able to follow their human masters across mountain passes, up stairs and through forest trails.

To make their way across that kind of terrain, the drones will need legs — maybe even four of them. So the Army’s Tank-automotive and Armaments Command, or TACOM, has just doled out $2.25 million to two robotics firms to prototype a big, mechanical dog capable of carrying ammunition, food and supplies into battle.

It reminds me of K9, the robotic dog who used to hang out with Doctor Who and get him out of jams. The really hilarious thing was that K9 was pretty much just a metal box that slid along the floor on a few hidden wheels, so technically it ought to have had all the mobility problems that the military is worried about. It shouldn’t have been able to handle rough terrain. But of course, this is sci fi!!! So whenever the Doctor would get in an adventure where he’d be racing through dense woods, or along on the scarred, rocky surface of a planet … sure enough, there’d be K9 bouncing improbably along, like a microwave oven being dragged across the bombed-out rubble of Baghdad.

Ebay — the visible “invisible hand”

I was looking at the “musical equipment for sale” section in the New York Craigslist site, and I noticed a posting where a musician is selling a whole pile of gear for different prices. At the end of his listing, he put the following note:

all prices are compatible with average EBAY winning bids.

Ebay, it seems, has become the voice of the marketplace — the way to definitely determine what something is worth. Indeed, I’ve frequently used it that way myself. I often buy musical equipment from Craiglist, because it’s less hassle than Ebay (everyone’s local, so you just wander over to their apartment to check out what they’ve got). But before I buy something, I want to know if the price is fair, so I check out what the product is selling for used on Ebay.

My So-Called Blog

Back when blogging first erupted — three or four years ago — it was known primarily as a form of diary-keeping. Indeed, when I went to a seminar at SXSW in 2001, the trend was called “journalling”. And when John Dvorak wrote his infamous PC World column in February 2002 slamming blogs, he sneered that “with the few hobbyist exceptions, Blogs are mostly personal diaries”. But then the Andrew Sullivans and Instapundits and Gawkers of the world erupted, and everyone started talking about blogs as a form of journalism — a way of getting news out without the normal, button-downed restrictions of the mainstream press. The personal blog — the confessional diary — seemed to fade into the background.

But as it turns out, it never went away. Indeed, one could argue that blogs are still primarily a diarist tool, and that the abovementioned blogs (or even mine here) are the exception, rather than the rule. Indeed, in a superb piece for today’s New York Times Magazine, Emily Nussbaum — a writer and my girlfriend — decided to explore the world of teenage blogs by going to a high school and looking at its secret world of journalling. As it turns out, more than one half of all blogs in the US are written by kids aged 13 to 19, and they’re primarily using them as a tool for personal reflection:

A result of all this self-chronicling is that the private experience of adolescence — a period traditionally marked by seizures of self-consciousness and personal confessions wrapped in layers and hidden in a sock drawer — has been made public. Peer into an online journal, and you find the operatic texture of teenage life with its fits of romantic misery, quick-change moods and sardonic inside jokes. Gossip spreads like poison. Diary writers compete for attention, then fret when they get it. And everything parents fear is true. (For one thing, their children view them as stupid and insane, with terrible musical taste.) But the linked journals also form a community, an intriguing, unchecked experiment in silent group therapy — a hive mind in which everyone commiserates about how it feels to be an outsider, in perfect choral unison.

I’ve long argued that the Internet’s central effect on society is that it makes us weirder. All that writing — in email, in IM, on web pages — has an unconsciously therapeutic effect on people. It’s like an id-release valve. Indeed, if you go to most therapists in a crisis, they’ll usually tell you to “keep a journal”: The mere process of writing — even if you don’t write about yourself — is inherently exploratory, because it involves constructing a new version of yourself and your voice in words. You’re taking part of yourself and making it external, on a page, and as any philosopher or poet can tell you, that’s a surprisingly weird existential experience. Even if you’re writing about synthetic motor oil, writing forces you to meditate on who the heck you are.

And the thing that most writers and pundits don’t realize is that, before the Internet came along, the vast majority of Americans never wrote anything — ever — after they left high school or college. There was neither any need (their jobs didn’t require it) or any vehicle for doing it in their spare time. What the Internet did was give us all a reason to write — and write tons. Which is where things get cool, because that helped Americans realize that they are, beneath the surface, a hell of a lot more outre and odd than they’re normally allowed to be in polite company. Hence all the flame wars, the brobdignagian emotions, the playful grandstanding that characterizes so much of online life. (To say nothing of things like The Hamster Dance.)

The Internet will go down in history not as a democratizing force, not as a revolutionary moment in commerce … but as the world’s largest uncontrolled experiment in mass therapy.

More quotes from literature in spam

I got another piece of spam today that quotes from classic pieces of literature. This time it’s Alice in Wonderland:

ucfogr rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and aesij then dipped suddenly down, so hqywgpp Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself she found jjopik down a very deep ovdeubknjl.

A complete and total waste of time

I’ve just discovered “Hold The Button”. At this web site, you click on a blue button and see how long you can hold it while a timer clocks your endurance. It is, of course, a clever little meditation on the existential drudgery of our cyberage, remixed with a sort of little-boy-and-the-dike flava.

Except that after you finally give up and let go of the mouse button, the counter shows you the average amount of time that users in the last week have held the button. I only held it down for 6.93 seconds; the average user held it down for a staggering 14 minutes and 2 seconds, which means that to counterbalance my measly button-push, someone else out there must have held it down for over 28 minutes.

This transforms the game into a hands-on-the-idol type of battle straight out of Survivor — except that instead of $1 million, we’re competing furiously for the elite right to brag that we have more time to waste than any other loser online.

At which point the whole procedure becomes a breathtakingly subtle gloss on The State of Life Today. In particular, it made me think about how many of our digital-age activities involve endless waiting. Indeed, half the time we’re actually competing with other people to see how much of that ultimately nonrenewable resource — our lives — we’re willing to expend in gorgeously pointless tasks. Think about being on hold with any major corporation: Half the time, the voice-prompt will tell you how many people are waiting along with you and how much time you’ll be left hanging. (“You are now 76th in line! Your expected call wait is two hours and thirty-two minutes.”)

I’m also reminded of The Sims Online, where you tried to make money by engaging in numbingly repetitive tasks, such as making pizzas. But since you only made a small amount per pizza, game-players would sit there for hours and hours at the keyboard, hitting the “make pizza” button over and over and over again. Eventually, some players got the bright idea to simply jam a penny in the slot next to the relevant key, allowing them to go off and watch TV while their avatar spun infinite pizzas into the howling void. So the trick to succeeding at the game is, in essence, not really play at all. Who the hell designed this thing? Harold Pinter?

Of course, people may be similarly hacking “Hold the Button”. I notice that the current record-holder was able to keep the button pressed for over 13 days — which technically shouldn’t be possible, since the counter is supposed to only record week-long stretches. Though it may be that someone laid down a heavy book on their mouse button and left it there for almost two weeks, and actually overroad the counting program. That’s kind of like rolling over an old-school video game: In 1984, I rolled over the local Pac-man machine twice (it would only count to 1 million then start again) when I was a kid by playing it for almost four hours. I went home and proudly proclaimed my feat to my father, who regarded me with an expression of almost infinite sadness, and went back to watching football.

A paper camera

Okay, this rocks like an Aerosmith concert. There’s a web site that lets you download plans to build a Dirkon, a famous Czech camera made out of paper:

During the 1970s, magazines published in Communist Czechoslovakia were controlled by the state, like the majority of other enterprises. Very few good magazines were available and were difficult to get hold of, so people would borrow and exchange them when given the opportunity. This also applied to magazines aimed at young people, which was probably one of the reasons why almost everyone from my generation, when we get on to the subject of pinhole cameras, has fond memories of the cut-out paper camera known as Dirkon*, published in 1979 in the magazine ABC mladých technikù a pøírodovìdcù [An ABC of Young Technicians and Natural Scientists].

Its creators, Martin Pilný, Mirek Koláø and Richard Vyškovský, came up with a functional pinhole camera made of stiff paper, designed for 35 mm film, which resembles a real camera.

The plans are in PDF format for easy printing and pasting onto stiff cardboard. A picture taken with a Dirkon is shown above; it’s kind of blurry and out of focus, but, as with all retrotech — such as the Fisher Price Pixelvision video camera — the low-fi qualities are precisely what make it cool.

I am so going to make one of these things! Right after I make my paper Ipod, of course. (Actually, I’m almost seriously considering buying a small, crappy used flash-memory MP3 player and putting it inside a paper Ipod shell, just, well, because.)

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

Totally awesome galaxy, dude!

The New York Times has a story today about a new discovery concerning the age of the universe. What cracked me up is the phrasing here:

The galaxies then gathered in clusters, and the clusters gathered in long strings with humongous, almost empty, voids in between.

Heh. When did “humongous” become an official scientific term? Not that I’m complaining. I’ve long felt that “gazillion” ought to be given an official number — 10 to the 78th exponent, say? Or maybe 75th?

Christmas 2003 — Dr.-Who-style

One reason pundits love to make predictions about the future is that one is rarely called to account for accuracy. If you make some crazy statement about what life in the year 2023 is going to be like, odds are no one’s gonna keep track of your statements and check in to see how wrong you were.

That’s what’s so compelling about the following web site: A copy of an article printed in the 1974 Dr. Who Annual, called “A Space Age Christmas”, discussing what the baby Jesus’ holiday would be like in the year 2003. I’m not making this up. Some of the predictions include:

- The traditional decorated tree is very unlikely to be a real tree, but will probably be a plastic one, just as some homes already have today … If pollution and the effects of the population explosion go on at the present rate, there will probably be very few trees left in the world, and any forests which do still exist will be protected by stringent laws.

- Christmas messages might possibly also be sent on recording tape, and as this could well be the thickness of a human hair, such a tape would fit neatly into a small envelope.

- Because of the incredible advances in automation, machines might well be doing most of the work in our factories and offices, and so everyone might have much more leisure time. Many people believe that this will lead to a revival of handicrafts of all kinds, both because everyone will have more time for the craftsmanship involved and also because of the sheer unattractiveness of many mass-produced goods.

Personally, what I’m wondering is — what in hell are those people wearing? Some sort of Stalinist jumpsuit?

(Thanks to Tribblescape for this one!)

They forgot to do the baseball cap

This has already been blogged everywhere, but I’ll post it too: The story about the guy who went away for a trip, and came back to find that his friend had coated everything in the entire house in tin foil. All the appliances still worked, the CD covers still opened and closed, but even the individual coins on his dresser were covered in foil. The Olympian wrote a story about it and quoted the guy the day he got back to his apartment:

He hasn’t started unpacking his belongings and isn’t sure when he will.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said. “As I was trying to sleep last night, I realized that, actually, it’s creepy.”

There’s no illustration for this one, folks

Last night, NPR held a debate for the Democratic presidential candidate contenders. At one point, Dennis Kucinich used a pie chart to illustrate his point. A pie chart. On the radio.

As the New York Times reported:

The candidates were seated in a room without an audience to applaud or heckle them. At one point, Representative Dennis A. Kucinich of Ohio used a prop more suited for a television venue as a way demonstrating to Dr. Dean that he could not reduce the deficit without cutting Pentagon spending, drawing an incredulous if helpful bit of narration from the host.

“Congressman Kucinich is holding up a pie chart, which is not truly effective on the radio,” said Neal Conan, the host of “Talk of the Nation” and the moderator of the debate.

“Well, it’s effective if Howard can see it,” Mr. Kucinich said.

It reminds me of 1993, when I was running a radio show about comic books for CIUT, the college station at the University of Toronto. And, you know, in retrospect, maybe it wasn’t the hottest idea doing a radio show about a purely visual medium like comics. But I reached my own personal nadir the night that I interviewed Chester Brown, creator of the utterly brilliant Ed the Happy Clown, I Never Liked You, and Louis Riel comic books. The only problem is that Brown is a pretty taciturn guy, and at least two thirds of the time would answer my questions by either shaking his head “no” or nodding “yes”. On the radio. My attempts to actually get him to vocalize his points were so futile that I eventually was forced to explain to the audience what Brown was doing. “So, you’re nodding yes, Chester. Okay, well then, tell me about …”

Easily one of the most excrutiating interviews of my life.

21st century graffiti

Today, I bring you … Random Movement Printing Technology. From the website:

The printer has the length of a normal ball-point pen while its width and height are more or less equivalent to the width of a modern mobile phone. The total volume is less than 300 c.c. and weights around 350 grams. This first version of PrintBrush was designed to fit into a shirt pocket.
Internet content, SMS, pictures and other information is downloaded to the PrintBrush from PDAs, mobile phones and laptop computers via a Bluetooth wireless link. Then, by following the RMPT principle the device is hand operated by sweeping it across any type of print media, no matter what its shape, size or thickness. The printout will then start to appear right behind the sweeps. The device takes into account all the parameters of the hand movement, including rotation and sudden changes of speed and acceleration. The resulting image on the printed media is very much like its digital counterpart.

We now officially live in the future. I am buying one of these things right now and putting bar codes on my cats.

(Thanks to Little Things for this one!)

The newest NASA subcontractor: Your local comics store

The Spirit probe on Mars sent back some funky 3D, stereoscopic images, one of which is up on NASA’s web site today. The space agency helpfully provides some viewing instructions:

This is a cropped view of the first Navcam stereo mosaic from Spirit at Gusev crater. To see the image in 3-D, you will need to obtain a pair of 3-D glasses, with red and blue filters over the eyes. The glasses are often available at comic book stores.

Man, there is nothing more purely superb than NASA urging you to go to a comic book store. I can’t wait for their next bunch of announcements. “If you wish to fully enjoy our 40-page report on the potential of life on Mars, you will need to be wearing a pair of Spock ears. They are often available at Trek conventions.”

Want a $3 copy of BMX XXX?

Well, given that the game apparently sucked like an Electrolux, probably not. But if you’re ever looking for cheap deals on games — as I so often am — drop by the new site Cheap Ass Gamer, a blog that lists super deals as they occur on major game-seller web sites. They just listed the 3-buck deal on BMX XXX, as well as $10 for Red Faction, and an $80 Gamecube + Zelda deal at Walmart.

(Thanks to El Rey for this one!)

Google’s going public

Google has finally announced that it’s going public. This may actually help kick-start the stock market — but more importantly, it’ll help kick-start the profit margins of the investment banks doing the deal. The fees for midwiving this $4 billion offering would go as high as $280 million, as Bloomberg reports:

“On any given day there would be a line of 200 investment bankers that would kill their mothers to get the Google deal,” said Reed Taussig, chief executive officer at Callidus Software Inc., a San Jose, California based company that plans to sell shares in an IPO.

(Thanks to Fark for this one!)

Clive and Cabbage

One of the problems of being called “Clive” is that few major cultural figures share my name, other than a some horror and suspense writers, ballet dancers, and imperialist dudes who tore a swathe through India a couple hundred years ago.

So imagine my surprise to discover that Pasadena cartoon artist Kazu Kibuishi has created a new comic strip called “Clive and Cabbage” — and damn if it isn’t awfully good!

While you’re at it, check out his Copper strips. This guy’s art is incredibly lovely.

(Thanks to Memepool for this one!)

Ben Affleck parks at Google

Heh. Apparently Ben Affleck has been parking his huge-assed luxury sedan in someone’s parking spot at Google.

(Thanks to Memepool for this one!)

Luck, be a professor

You may have heard of professor Richard Wiseman — a British psychologist famous for debunking irrational ideas. Well, today he released a study about the usefulness of lucky charms. The result? According to The Learning Channel:

In the study, 100 people around Britain were asked to take a supposedly lucky Victorian-era penny coin with them for a month, and to keep a diary as to how their fortunes changed in areas such as finance and health.

While the University of Hertfordshire psychologists found no measurable difference in how fate had actually favored these people, 30 percent felt their luck had taken a turn for the better.

As it turns out, the only genuinely verifiable effect is that carrying a lucky charm enhances your confidence: “When it comes to totally chance events like the lottery, it made no difference, but when it comes to luck in life, it made a real difference in terms of opportunities and confidence,” as Wiseman put it.

(Thanks to Plastic for this one!)

The world’s first pocket calculator

Before the digital pocket calculator, there was the Curta — a mechanical device that could not only add-subtract-multiply-and-divide but also calculate square- and cube roots. It was developed a Curt Herzstar, an Austrian guy imprisoned by the Nazis:

Herzstark managed the company in 1930 and began work on his own design for a hand-held calculator. With the Anschluss of 1938, the company was again converted to war production, and produced custom gauges for German tanks. Herzstark, a Jew, was able to avoid arrest until 1943, when he was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp and worked as a technician. He recounts his arrest and internment, and how he completed the design of the CURTA hand-held calculator, a prototype of which was produced in Weimar, Germany, by Rheinmetallwerke at the end of the war. The Prince of Liechtenstein bought the design and the calculator was initially manufactured by the CURTA division of Contina AG of Liechtenstein. It was produced until 1972, when the electronic calculator forced it from the market.

That snippet of history is taken from Rick Furr’s awesome Curta Calculator Page, which has links to oodles of stuff, including schematics, Curta fan clubs, and shots of ‘em in action. I’d love love love to get my hands on one of these things, but I just checked on Ebay and they’re going for about $1,500-$2,000. Sadly, when it comes to my pocketbook these days, that does not compute.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

“Six minutes of terror”

If you’ve been following your geek news at, you’ll know by now that Spirit — NASA’s latest land-roving probe — has successfully landed on Mars.

But what you may not know is just how utterly berserk those landings are. When Spirit hits the Martian atmosphere, it’s going 12,000 mph — about 15 times the speed of sound. The heat shield burns as hot as the surface of the sun (!), yet it does such a good job of protecting its contents that the probe itself, only a few feet away, never goes much above room temperature. A parachute opens up at 1,000 miles an hour, rapidly slowing the probe’s descent to about 250 miles an hour.

At that point, the probe drops down on a tether that is as skinny as a shoelace, to keep it a safe distance away when the lander’s retrorockets fire. With barely seconds to go before it slams into the ground — at nearly half the speed of sound — the lander snaps three quick pictures of the approaching terrain to help calculate its height and direction, and uses that information to instantly calculate the correct burn for the retrorockets. They fire, slowing the probe down even more, and the tether is cut, releasing the probe for its final drop to the surface. At that second, a crapload of airbags inflate, so the probe is covered with a cocoon of bubbles — which is good, because when it touches down it’s still travelling so fast that it bounces about four stories in the air. It bounces up to 30 times more before coming to a rest.

Here’s the fun part: NASA put together a video illustrating the entire process with superb CGI animation — it’s online here. (Go to the “Entry, Descent and Landing” section and click on one of the links.)

After you’ve seen that video, you simply cannot believe these guys can actually pull this off. It’s one of the most insane pieces of engineering I’ve ever seen in my life, just demented beyond description. They call the landing “six minutes of terror,” and I can see why. I can’t imagine how tense the landing room must have been, as they waited to find out if the probe would survive. Christ, I’m surprised the NASA guys aren’t all massive crystal meth addicts; I don’t know how else you’d survive the suspense.

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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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Collision Detection: A Blog by Clive Thompson