Archive: March 2004

Collision Detection on hold for a few days

Sorry I’ve not udpated the site for a couple of days! I’ve been going a bit crazy with work. But I’ve been collecting a pile of interesting stuff, and will be resuming posts on Monday.

Prostitutes agree: We lie less online

A few days ago, I blogged a New York Times Magazine essay I’d written about why people are more truthful online than in “real” life. I was inspired by research done by Cornell scientist Jeffrey Hancock, who found that his students lied in 37% of their phone calls but only 14% of their emails.

Now it appears that Hancock’s studies have support from a rather unexpected quarter: Prostitutes. In a letter to the New Scientist responding to an article about Hancock’s work, a woman revealed the following:

I have found a similar difference between phones and email in my business.

I am a prostitute, and to get clients I advertise in the local newspaper. Normal practice is to provide a phone number as an initial point of contact. Using my cellphone was getting rather expensive, as was advertising several days a week. I also work as a volunteer for several non-profit community organisations, and there I found many people preferred emails to the phone or postal services. So I decided to try an email address instead.

The difference really surprised me. With my phone number, guys would sometimes make bookings then not turn up. Others sounded very creepy. However, using email I have had only two cancellations, and in both cases I was paid in full for the time they booked with me.

The best video-game designer in the world

Over at Salon, there’s a terrific interview with Eugene Jarvis. Jarvis is, I think, one of the best video-game designers ever, if not the best — largely because of his creation of Robotron 2084 (pictured above), which had such a perfect balance of simple goals and difficult challenges that it is an object lesson in how to create good play. Interestingly, in this interview he complains about how game designers these days spend less time architecting play and more time just doing set design:

Sometimes I come to work and I feel like I’m an interior decorator, you know? It’s like: “Man, that green looks like shit!” “Don’t you know this year it’s purple, man! Green is out!” You’re worried about all these shadows and reflections and eye candy and you’re right, sometimes it’s more about that than the game. “Madden 2004” is a hell of a lot like “Madden 1004.” I think partly it’s a limitation of the human being. You make things too complicated and too wild and people just can’t deal with it. As much as there’s all this marketing bullshit about how real everything is and how great the A.I. [artificial intelligence] is and all this stuff, you know, the guys really aren’t a hell of a lot smarter than the guys that were running around on “Defender,” and for good reason. Because you don’t want a guy that’s so smart that he kills you. You want somebody stupid that you can destroy.

The technology of “ghost voting”

“Ghost voting” is a familiar trick by lawmakers in many states: You figure out some way to vote “yea” or “nay” even if you’re not physically in session. Some lawmakers will have their seatmate push their yes/no button when a vote is called. But in other cases, lawmakers use Rube-Goldberg-like hacks so cunning that I’d be tempted to call them “neato” — if they weren’t, y’know, making a total mockery of the entire concept of democracy.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has a great story on the tricks that Pennsylvanian legislators use:

On the day Gov. Rendell unveiled his budget to a packed House chamber, Rep. William Rieger voted in favor of all six bills that came up.

But Rieger wasn’t there. The Democrat was home on Feb. 3, 100 miles away in Philadelphia.

A wad of paper shoved into his electronic “yea” button atop his desk did the work for him.

Apparently, these guys will use pennies, paper clips, and pen caps — anything that’ll hold the button down. Does it matter? Since most legislation is passed by majority votes, has a single ghost vote ever brought a law into being? Yep:

One of the most infamous cases came during the controversial 1991 budget vote. A paper clip stuck in former Rep. Richard Hayden’s “yea” button accounted for the deciding vote, which led to higher taxes. Hayden, a Democrat from Roxborough, was en route to the airport to start a Hawaiian vacation at the time.

(Thanks to Fark for this one!)

Of class war and urban babies

There’s a totally amazing piece in today’s New York Times about Urban Baby, a web site where mothers post about their lives. As you might expect, there’s plenty of questions and advice about teething, naps, and feeding. But the site is also a hotbed of simmering class war. Why? Because child-rearing is the one sure place where the myth of the classless society falls apart — and supposedly liberal parents bicker over the virtues of suburban life, snipe about the value of a $700 Bugaboo stroller, and fight like rabid dingos to get their kids into elite preschools.

It is a curious feature of UB that in an atmosphere with a constant undercurrent of class antagonism, participants feel regularly compelled to divulge their assets and earnings. One afternoon last week a woman sent a query about whether she was doing decently on a salary of $100,000 a year, with two children and a one-bedroom apartment. Last month, another wrote in to say that her family’s income of $350,000 a year made it the poorest in her private preschool. The month of December provided frenzied speculation about Wall Street bonuses among many women who work in finance and wives of investment bankers who asked what they could all expect.

“It’s really funny, because it allows me to really see into the economy and where the bonuses are going,” said Raquel Palmer, a principle in private equity at KPS Special Situations Funds in New York. A mother of two, she was drawn into UB after a single visit when she read a posting about a woman trying to seduce her doorman. “A lot of the people on the site will consider themselves middle class, and they’re getting $200,000 bonuses,” she said.

“The Honesty Virus”: My New York Times Magazine essay

Today, the New York Times Magazine published an essay I wrote on “The Honesty Virus” — discussing why people behave more honestly online than they do offline.

Here’s a permanent archived copy of the piece:

The Honesty Virus

by Clive Thompson

Everyone tells a little white lie now and then. But a Cornell professor recently claimed to have established the truth of a curious proposition: We fib less frequently when we’re online than when we’re talking in person. Jeffrey Hancock asked 30 of his undergraduates to record all of their communications — and all of their lies — over the course of a week. When he tallied the results, he found that the students had mishandled the truth in about one-quarter of all face-to-face conversations, and in a whopping 37 percent of phone calls. But when they went into cyberspace, they turned into Boy Scouts: only 1 in 5 instant-messaging chats contained a lie, and barely 14 percent of e-mail messages were dishonest.

Obviously, you can’t make sweeping generalizations about society on the basis of college students’ behavior. (And there’s also something rather odd about asking people to be honest about how often they lie.) But still, Hancock’s results were intriguing, not least because they upend some of our primary expectations about life on the Net.

» MORE...

Rumsfeld eats his words

Quite apropos of my Times article I blogged about above — which suggests that our machine age is making it harder for people to get away with lies — there’s a funny video of Donald Rumsfeld circulating the Internet. It’s a recent appearance on Face the Nation, in which he claims neither he nor the president ever used the phrase “immediate threat” to describe Saddam Hussein. (The context, I believe, is his increasing attempts to get away from the WMD justification for war.)

The Face the Nation guys immediately confront Rumsfeld with his own direct quotes from last year, in which he used the precise phrase “immediate threat”. One of them is:

“No terror state poses a greater or more immediate threat to the security of our people and the stability of the world than the regime of Saddam Hussein.”

I don’t know how the heck they pulled up that quote so quickly, but I suspect the show’s producers sit there with the Nexis newspaper database open, allowing them to instantly fact-check anything that comes out a guest’s mouth — and then instantly display evidence if the person is lying. Either way, the point remains the same: In a world where more and more text, audio and video is being constantly and permanently archived, mere lying doesn’t work as well any more.

By “mere” lying, I mean “saying one thing and then later claiming you said no such thing.” That level of deception simply isn’t as possible now. But another style — what you could call “hegemonic lying” — is alive and well: Lying in which you do not explicitly deny what you’ve previously said, but merely claim that nothing in the past matters at all, because you are ultimately a trustworthy person. You simply proclaim your honorability and decency over and over and over again, making it your sole message, and refusing to engage or debate any particular facts that might dispute this. That is the Bush administration’s main strategy in this campaign, and it works quite well, since it plays to the ahistoricism of the American mind. Actually, these days, it’s getting worse and worse: Politicians and right-wing media are increasingly good at denying not merely the lessons (and existence) of history in general, but the mere factual existence of anything that happened, like, one week ago. It’s less ahistoricism than “achronologicality” — a refusal to admit that anything other than the immediate here-and-now could possibly matter.

This attitude to history is the nasty B-side to the solid-gold A-side of America’s greatest global hit — its fantastic, sunny optimism. Their wonderful, upbeat sense that things will progress and get better is precisely what makes Americans so damn cool, so hard working, and so much more fun to live amongst than people in, say, Europe. But optimism always requires a leap of faith, a wilful ignorance of what’s gone before.

Mars attacks!

“The US Spirit rover on Mars has seen a UFO streak across the Red Planet sky.” Man, you just know that is the most-fun lead the science editor at the BBC online has ever written in his entire life.

Apparently, Spirit snapped this picture recently; it’s particularly rare given that the rover mostly has it camera focused downwards, and almost never points it at the sky. But what, precisely, is in the picture? As the BBC notes:

Astronomers say it could be the first meteor seen from the surface of another world, or a redundant orbiting spacecraft sent to Mars 30 years ago.

“We may never know, but we are still looking for clues,” said Dr Mark Lemmon, from Texas A&M University.

Of course, the really fun thing is that the BBC isn’t actually stretching the truth by calling it a UFO — since “UFO” is just something you saw in the sky that hasn’t been identified.

(Thanks to Plastic for this one!)

Text on things

The Text On Things blog consists of nothing but a guy who occasionally picks up a random everyday product — then transcribes every bit of text on it. The text on a battery is quite suggestive:


… though my personal favorite is the sunglasses:


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

Courtney’s high-tech Love

Here’s a mobile-culture moment of empyrean weirdness. A while back, Courtney Love started seeing the rock-music-video-director Chris Milk. They kept it secret for a while. But then it got leaked to the press because Love is, apparently, a major Blackberry freak — and she accidentally left her device in a restaurant. Someone scooped it up, and according to the New York Daily News, found the evidence:

“Someone saw these really juicy, poetically pornographic things going back and forth between them,” says our snitch. “They were dirty, but beautiful. Just a sign of how much she loves him and how much he loves her.

“She said on these text messages, ‘You are the best in all ways, especially in the sack, between Ed Norton and Kurt Cobain,’ ” our source reveals.

Why demographics creeps me out

Remember “identity politics”? Back in the 80s, it was one of the intellectual hallmarks of the left, because it espoused one simple but powerful philosophical idea: That one’s background — ethnic, national, gender, etc. — informed a heck of a lot of one’s experiences, and thus one’s attitudes towards society and life. It isn’t a terribly new idea; hell, half of The Republic is devoted to Socrates intellectually bitchslapping people based on the inherent limits of their subjectivity and personal experiences.

Nonetheless, by the early 90s, identity politics got an incredibly bad name. Partly it was the fault of pointy-headed left-wing pundits, who used it to shout down people whose arguments they didn’t like. But partly it was right-wing backlash: Conservatives didn’t like all these emerging discussions of racism or sexism or poverty, and went on the counterattack by arguing insistently that one’s identity just didn’t matter. If you were successful, it was because you deserved it. If you weren’t, it’s because you sucked. Identity politics, claimed the right, was an intellectual abomination. It ignored people’s individuality.

Yet the thing is, back in the 90s, the free-market right became obsessed with its own style of identity politics: Demographics. Marketers began carving up the public into increasingly smaller cohorts, convinced that if they could just know enough basic points about your background — age, gender, zip code, education — they could figure out exactly what you’d want to buy. They had your ticket punched. Who cared about your actual personality? A person was nothing more than a set of tick-boxes filled in by a telephone survey profiler. It was Irshad Manji (the writer who’s currently author of a cool book about the fate of Islam in the modern age) who first made this point in a conversation with me. “Demographics,” she said, “is the conservative version of identity politics.”

Just like left-wing identity politics, demographics is an powerful and useful idea that becomes incredibly creepy when taken to its logical extreme by bug-eyed converts. This occurred to me recently while surfing the marketing section of MSN, where its salesforce has assembled a few “personae” in which they try to explain the different people who use the service. There’s nothing unique about their categories — they’re pretty standard-issue marketing-speak — but they do remind you of how weirdly smug demographics can be. There’s this weirdly high-school vibe to it all. It’s like listening to some self-satisfied Queen Bee cheerleader reel off all the categories into which she’s slotted the people around her: Punk, emo, b-boy, preppy.

Check out MSN’s list of characters. That woman in the picture above? It’s “Marie”, who is “age 33-44”, and “a married mom trying to juggle the demands of her family, along with handling her part time business.”

(Thanks to the Plasticbag blog for this one!)

Wood that works

David C. Roy is a crazy-brilliant artist who creates “Wood That Works” — wall sculptures composed of interlocked wood gears that move and shift in hypnotic patterns. They look like the inner guts of extraterrestrial watches. Check out his page here and you can see Flash animations — and actual video — of these things in motion. If I had about three grand kicking around, I would so get one of these.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

Orlando Soto is why spam exists

Ever wonder why there’s so much spam? Because people actually respond to the stuff. The Wall Street Journal recently wrote an excellent profile of Orlando Soto, a guy who buys a ton of stuff that he reads about in spam. Check it out:

Mr. Soto’s wife, Paula Kennedy, offered a tour of the results of Mr. Soto’s past spam sessions. On shelves in one bedroom were dozens of bottles of essential oils: clary sage, cinnamon, tea tree and carrot seed. Ms. Kennedy uses the oils in homemade soaps she sells via her aromatherapy business. Mr. Soto bought the oils via spam, she said, as well as ribbons, bags and other supplies for her business — all stored in boxes piled on chairs and around the dining-room table.

Next, there were the spam-bought vitamins. “Let me show you,” she said, retrieving a shoebox filled with plastic containers of bee-pollen complex, betaine hydrochloride and something called Oxy-Gen. Then Ms. Kennedy pointed to her doll and butterfly knick-knack collections, pieces of which Mr. Soto bought via spam. Elsewhere were other stacks of spam booty: a $220 computer server, computer parts and hundreds of software discs. A combination humidifier-air-conditioner that cost $650 sat unused on the living-room floor. The dining table was pushed against the china cabinet to make room for boxes that arrive almost daily.

Ms. Kennedy isn’t bothered by her husband’s fondness for spam. But for her part, she adds, “I don’t fall for those.”

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

Night of the living dead lobsters

Apparently the company Trufresh — and you can already tell this is going to be gross, merely because the prefix to their name is “Tru” — has figured out a way to freeze lobsters and then bring them back to life later on. This, they claim, will allow them to transport lobsters longer distances while keeping them frisky and healthy and full of vigor, right up until you kill ‘em in a pot of boiling water.

According to the Associated Press, they’re still working out the kinks:

Company chairman Barnet L. Liberman acknowledged that its lobster testing is limited and only about 12 of roughly 200 healthy, hard shell lobsters survived the freezing. In addition, the company hasn’t researched how long a frozen lobster can survive — overnight is the longest period so far.

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

Oscar winners who act in video games: My latest Slate gaming column

Slate just published my latest video-game column — on “why Hollywood actors are starring in your Playstation”. The piece essentially talks about why A-list movie stars have decided in the last year that it’s cool for them to do voice-acting in video games. An excerpt:

Now A-list actors have taken notice of games, and it’s not hard to see why. They’re a quick route to digital-age street cred. Appearing in a game gives an actor a sense of being on the cutting edge of technological “convergence” (whatever that is), as well as a vague whiff of indie flava. More important, it keeps a star current among young men. Any canny star—or, more likely, any star with a canny agent—eventually winds up looking enviously at a hot video game like the Grand Theft Auto series, which is objectively cooler than almost anything that’s come out of Hollywood in years. The list of voice actors for the GTA titles reads like a deranged Who’s Who of ’70s celebrities so out-of-date—Debbie Harry, Burt Reynolds, Lee Majors—that they are newly ironically famous.

You can read the entire piece online here. And hey! If you decide to post something in the discussion boards on my blog here, take a minute and copy your comment to the Fray — Slate’s discussion boards. They’re insanely well-read, and can always use smart additions.

This book will change your opinion

Ever since the infamous “red vs. blue” map of the American electorate that emerged during the last election — a color division with, I might note, unintentionally hilarious subtextual references — pundits have claimed that the US is a country divided. In one corner, we’ve got the snarling Republicans, devoted to church, the family, lower taxes and the war on Iraq; in the other corner are the Democrats, growling about presidential deceit, the deficit, giveaways for the rich and nonexistent WMDs. Is there any middle ground?

Possibly, if you believe the network theorist Valdis Krebs. He conducted an interesting experiment to find out who was reading what. He took all the rabidly political books off the New York Times’ bestseller list and plugged them into Amazon and Thanks to the “readers who liked this also bought” feature, he was able to see what other books the readers had bought or browsed.

The result? A map of the nation, showing that — whaddya know — readers of left-wing books tended to read only other left-wing books, and readers of right-wing books other right-wing books. As the Times’ Emily Eakin reports:

His map showing how the titles are connected by buyers reveals a readership — or at least a book buyership — as fiercely polarized as the national electorate is said to be. On the left is a cluster of several dozen liberal polemics (the blue nodes) linked by a dense thicket of crisscrossing gray lines. On the right is a nearly identical cluster of conservative tracts (the red nodes). Connecting the blue and red sides of the map are just a few gray lines and gray nodes, all politically moderate or nonpartisan titles, including Sleeping With the Devil by Robert Baer, Bush at War by Bob Woodward and All the Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzer, a cultural correspondent for The New York Times.

Go check out the story and you’ll see the entire map. But what interested Krebs’ mostly were the very few books in the middle — like Bush at War and Sleeping with the Devil. Possibly, he argued, these represent those rare talking points that might bring the country together:

“It’s through those books that people can get to both sides.” Or, as he puts it on his Web site, “See someone reading `Sleeping With the Devil’? That is someone you can talk to about your candidate.”

Me, I don’t entirely buy it — or more precisely, I don’t entirely care. I’ve never entirely understood the punditocracy’s concern for “partisanship”. What the hell is wrong with partisanship — with people fiercely believing things and fighting for them, and disagreeing vehemently with other people about them? The pundits behave as if the ultimate goal of all political life is to have the parties in smooth, frictionless agreement with one another. What’s so great about that? A world in which all your political leaders have one political opinion? Last time I checked, they had names for that: Fascism. Actually, totalitarianism works nicely too. All the leaders in China and Cuba agree with one another, but that doesn’t make them terrific polities. This we-must-agree-at-all-costs attitude is even more bizarre coming from citizens of a country the political spectrum of which is barely wide enough to support two parties, let alone the three or four or five of most other modern nations.

The problem isn’t that the map is divided into red and blue. It’s that it isn’t also divided into green and yellow and orange.


Back in the spring of 2000, a bunch of friends and I decided to experiment with mobile phones as a publishing tool. So we created, a sort of Yahoo/Geocities engine — it was a web-based tool that let anyone quickly create a little site that could be viewed over a mobile phone. We did it for free, just to see what, if anything, people would do it with it; even though we didn’t advertise it at all (hell, we didn’t spend a penny developing it, either) about 20,000 people somehow found it and started building tiny mobile sites.

Just for fun, we decided to publish the world’s first “m-novel” — a novel serialized on mobile phones. So we got Douglas Clegg, an insanely technologically forward-thinking novelist, to syndicate his psychological thriller Purity on our site. Wired News wrote about it on Nov. 21, 2000:

An m-novel, according to Greg Sewell,’s owner, is for those moments you are stuck in a ticket line or waiting for a friend at a bar.

“We’re trying to put culture on the wireless Web — not just stock quotes and sports scores,” said Sewell. “The real power of the Internet isn’t in e-commerce. It’s in culture — the really weird, thought-provoking stuff that people create, like Douglas Clegg.”

We eventually got busy with our day jobs and had to abandon (It’s not online any more, though you can see screenshots via the Wayback Machine.)

But today I read a story in Trends in Japan reporting on a new trend in novels for mobile phones. Apparently some writer named Yoshi started publishing a novel The Story of Ayu as a phone site; with an investment of only $909 he 20 million hits in three years, generating so much buzz that his book was published in print and is now being made into a movie. (He also got feedback from readers as he wrote, and he incorporated some of their suggestions on the fly.) Now major publishers are jumping on board, distributing novels on phones at prices ranging from $.091 to $6.36. Interestingly, Japanese readers say phones have several unique advantages as e-book devices:

Readers of these novels enjoy the medium for a variety of reasons, most having to do with the convenience and possibilities that mobile phones offer, such as not having to go to a bookstore, being able to read anywhere without carrying a book around, and being able to read in the dark.

Of course, the secret reason I wrote this entry is so I could brag shamelessly about having pioneered this concept three and a half years ago, right around the time Yoshi started work on his novel. Heh.

(Thanks to Techdirt Wireless News for this one!)

Madrid, the game

The guys over at Newsgaming — a web site devoted to producing online Flash games that comment on news events — have released a little game commemorating the terrorist attack in Madrid. Unlike their previous title, Sept. 12, this one is a more about creating a moment of emotional affect, as opposed to an intellectual riff on the event. Considering they released the game in only two days, it brings the concept of games-as-commentary an intriguing step closer to reality.

Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end

Here’s a cool online engine: You input your date of birth and it’ll tell you what song was #1 on the charts. So I put in my birthday from 1968 and found out that it was … “Those Were The Days,” by Mary Hopkin.

And my first reaction was: What the hell kind of lame song is that to usher in your birthday? I thought this was supposed to be 60s! Was this sort of aural sludge still dominating the charts? Christ, couldn’t a song by, I don’t know, the Kinks or something have been on the charts instead? Dang.

(Thanks to Chris’ Cynic-C blog for this one!)

Star light, star bright

Want to see stars? Then get the heck out of the East coast, judging by this very cool map that government scientists have made of light pollution.

(Thanks to Chris’ Cynic-C blog for this one!)

Porn in your car

First there was the problem of people talking on their phones while driving. Now CNN reports on a whole new hazard: Drivers who watch porn while cruising down the interstate. The proliferation of in-car DVD-players has apparently had some unexpected side effects:

A driver in Schenectady, New York, was arrested last month after rolling past police with a DVD titled “Chocolate Foam” playing on the passenger-side sun visor in his Mercedes-Benz, authorities said. The movie also was rolling on screens set into the car’s headrests.

The driver was accused of breaking state laws prohibiting watching TV while driving, as well as another law making it illegal to exhibit sexually explicit material in a public place.

“The detective had a clear view of what was playing through the window. Anyone walking by on the street could have seen it,” Schenectady police Lt. Peter Frisoni Jr. said of the nighttime traffic stop. “If he had dark, tinted windows where you couldn’t see in, that wouldn’t be a public display.”

(Thanks to Jeff MacIntyre for this one!)


Ah, interactive democracy. It appears that the Republicans have become a bit jealous of the remarkable things that Democrats like Howard Dean have been doing with Internet technology. So the Bush/Cheney folks decided to set up their own super-fun interactive tool — a slogan generator. You can input a few words of text and it will immediately produce a poster with your slogan floating above the Bush/Cheney logo. It’ll even give you a PDF of it, suitable for printing and displaying in your window.

Here’s where it gets fun. The political blog Wonkette discovered this little tool, and decided to see if the Bush/Cheney folks had banned any words. She quickly found out that it won’t let you make a poster with the words “penis” or “Prince of Darkness”. It also won’t let you make one reading “Not Hitler!”, or “910 Days Since Last Terrorist Attack”.

However, it does accept “homophobe” and “racist” — as Wonkette readers discovered as they raced over to check it out. They also found that it’ll accept “queer,” “faggot,” “fascism”, “evil,” “lying,” “scum,” and “sodomy”.

Interestingly, if you’ve got a popup blocker, you’ll have to disable to get the generator to work.

UPDATE: Well, it seems as if the fun was a little too much for the Bush/Cheney team. As Chris — who used the Sloganator to produce a totally hilarious poster himself — pointed out, they’ve already removed the field where you enter your own slogan; you can only use their prepackaged slogans now.

Of course, a cynic might find this whole incident deeply metaphorically appropriate. Bush and Cheney, it seems, are very committed to interactive democracy and having you involved in the polity … so long as you say precisely what they want you to. It’s interesting that Dean, who ran a campaign so insanely open that anyone could organize anything without approval from head office, never got culturebombed this way. Of course, Dean also failed miserably in his bid for public office, while Bush and Cheney clearly know their way to the Oval Office. So perhaps that’s the real lesson here: The main path to electoral success is to get the voting public to shut the hell up.

(Thanks to Misha for this one!)

You type, it talks

This is cool: AT&T Labs has put up a free online demo of its Natural Voices Text-to-Speech Engine. Type in whatever you want into the text box, and it’ll read it out in an eerily realistic human voice. You can even pick male or female voices and a few different languages or accents.

Warning: This site is seriously addictive. I’ve got friends who have spent hours and hours getting the prim-and-proper British female voice to say some just nasty things.


Ever heard about the enormous legal battle over blue LEDs? It’s a very hard color to produce using diode technology, and for years it was a holy grail — because only by including blue could LED arrays be able to produce a truly massive array of colors, suitable for photorealistic LED displays. After years of experimenting, a Japanese inventor cracked the problem about ten years ago. His company paid him about 200 bucks — then went on to make hundreds of millions off blue LEDs. He sued, and recently won $189 million.

Anyway, blue LEDs are now cropping up all over — including the incredibly cool “pimpin’ ain’t easy” watch from Tokyo Flash. Their description:

This limited production 72 Blue L.E.D. watch lights up brighter than any other watch available. The time is read by reading the hours on the left and the minutes on the right. When the button is pressed for the time it will spiral all the lights on and off then show the time. Press the button again and the day and date will be displayed. Now what really makes this watch stand out, is the light up feature, the watch lights up every light in a spiral and then off in a spiral every 2 minutes. Super flashy and you will be Pimpin large.

I would totally not object if someone bought me this watch.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

Porn: The driving force of technology

I once interviewed Danni Ashe, the soft-core porn star who founded the hugest online porn empire in the world. She told me that she’d been invited to speak at a couple of business events — not for the obvious cheesecake reasons, but because she knew a lot about developing web-based applications. When she first went online in 1995, there were no e-commerce or rich-media tools in existence. “I had to hire geeks,” she told me. “We had to build our own online billing system. We had to invent our own technologies for streaming media.”

This is an old paradigm, of course; new technologies are always instantly dragooned into the age-old service of getting people off. Some of the oldest photos in existence are of nekkid women. So it wasn’t that surprising that USA Today decided to run a story yesterday on the ways in which the porn industry has become a leading high-tech innovator. However, one paragraph did give me pause:

Technology has paid off handsomely for porn sites in the USA. Led by sites like Danni’s Hard Drive and Cybererotica, they generated $2 billion in revenue last year, up 10% to 15% from 2002, says Adult Video News, a trade magazine. That’s about 10% of the overall domestic porn market. The number of porn sites has vaulted eighteenfold, to 1.3 million, since 1998, says the National Research Council.

Uh … the National Research Council is keeping track of how many porn sites there are?

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

A hand-drawn clock!

This one’s been blogged all over the place, but for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, dig it: An incredibly cool Flash clock in which a hand draws each number as the seconds change. Oddly spellbinding!

(Thanks to Rob for this one!)

Peeling rubber through Chernobyl

Okay, this is deranged. There’s a chick in Russia whose hobby is riding her 1100-cc Kawasaki motorcycle through the irradiated heart of the Chernobyl region of Ukraine. Apparently the whole region is still deserted, which makes it a totally bodacious place to cruise: No stoplights, no pedestrians. Nothing, indeed, except for the occasional security guard who waves a dosimeter around your bike to make sure you haven’t, you know, contaminated yourself while racing 140 miles an hour through one of the most gruesome casualties of the Cold War.

The woman has taken a bunch of wonderfully creepy photographs of the ghost town nearby the Chernobyl plant, which was entirely evacuated in 30 days and has never been repopulated. Many of the houses are still filled with stuff lying around the house — as in the photo above — from vintage Soviet days. She’s also added in some pictures taken by her father, a former Soviet nuclear physicist.

My favorite part is her description of the eerie silence of the town:

Usually a police officer who call himself a town guard was telling me that I was in town alone. then I could hit roads with no worry that I will run accross some car. This town might be an attractive place for tourists. Some tourists companies have been trying to arrange extrim tours in this town, but people- their customers scared and have been complaining about silence which is hard to stand in empty town. They charged 210 us dollars for 2 hours excursion and town guard say, they all were leaving in some 15 mins, complaining that silense is tremendous as if one got deaf.

UPDATE: Oddly, barely 12 hours after I posted this entry, the site was temporarily taken down — the author promises it will be back online in May. I’m not sure what’s up. Is this thing a hoax? It didn’t seem so.

(Thanks to HiddenPCMaster for this one!)

You learn something new every day

I had no idea they were doing three-hour-long operations these days to separate cojoined twin turtles.

The “tumbleweed” Mars rover

A while back, NASA was running experiments with big inflatable balls, when one of them broke loose and started rolling away. As the rocket scientists watched it boing away easily across the uneven, rugged terrain, they realized that an inflatable ball was a superb locomotive design.

Thus was born the “Tumbleweed” — a new style of Mars rover. It would land on the surface of the planet, inflate, and then skitter around the planet, propelled by nothing other than the howling Martian winds. They just finished testing a prototype Tumbleweed up in the Arctic, and as Astrobiology Magazine reports, it set astonishing land-speed records:

Tumbleweed managed an average speed of 1.3 kilometers per hour (0.8 mph) over the course of the deployment. Such speeds are unattainable in conventional, mechanical rovers—such as Spirit and Opportunity, currently operating on the surface of Mars—which average little more than 0.05 kilometers per hour (0.03 mph) on flat, dry ground.

Behar said the rover’s design is especially well suited for polar missions that use instrument packages to look for water beneath the surface of an ice sheet, a task that cannot be done accurately from orbit.

I also love the idea of a probe whose direction cannot be controlled. Astrophiles and NASA engineers already tend to anthropomorphize the Mars rovers — we talk about them being “sick,” being “confused,” or whatever. (As you may already have heard, someone even started a totally hilarious blog written from the viewpoint of the Mars rover.) The Tumbleweed would take this to a new level, since, being autonomous and controlled only by the wind, it would essentially behave much more like a sentient being. You’d have NASA scientists huddled around the screen like guys around the TV for Monday night football, wondering with bated breath what’s going to happen next: Where’s the rover going to go? Who knows? I bet you’d even have off-track salons taking wagers on where the probe will drift.

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

Tubes of the world!

Check it out: This site shows the subway systems of the world, presented on the same scale — so you can see how each city compares to each other directly. That’s Paris above. Moscow is this totally immense sprawl, and Barcelona looks like a ton of fun; it’s really comprehensive but teensy, so you get the sense that there’s a subway stop every 30 feet or so. My only complaint is that they didn’t include the Toronto and Montreal subway systems, two of my world favorites.

Of course, I have now just admitted, in print, that I actually sit around thinking about what my favorite subway systems are.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

Programming as poetry — the song

For years, programmers have been arguing that writing code is oddly similar to writing poetry. In both cases, the idea is to write with the maximum compression possible — cramming the most amount of meaning and substance into a very short space. That’s why the best programmers are always praised for the elegance of their code — how spare and clean it is. It’s kind of like early modernist poetry, which tried to strip language down as far as possible, the epitome of which might be Ezra Pound’s famous “In a Station of the Metro”.

This comparison is not actually as fey and aesthetic as you might imagine: The question of the literary style of code is politically significant, insofar as there is a heated debate about whether a computer program would be protected by the U.S. courts as a form of speech. If you believe, as I do, that computer language has a literary style of its own, then it’s damn hard to explain why it shouldn’t be given free-speech protection. But many judges do not yet grok this, and maybe never will. I predict this fight will one day hit the Supreme Court in a big way, and have rather earthshattering implications for determining which programs can and can’t be written.

One guy who needs no convincing about the literary status of code is MJ Hibbert. He’s a U.K. musician who has written and recorded “Programming is a Poetry for our Time” — a totally deranged and hilarious song that makes my argument above, except wrapped in a trippy folk melody. You can download the song here, and view the lyrics here; they’re excerpted below:

Take a complicated idea

And make the underlying point of it clear

Compress it down to fit in memory

Now tell me what’s the difference

Between programming and poetry?

Programming is a poetry for our time
It’s a poetry for our time

Indenting every line
Sorted into stanzas so that you can find
Selected lines to quote or just a phrase to paste
Into the epics that live underneath
The Web and Word and Databases

Programming is a poetry for our time
It’s a poetry for our time

I wonder would Wordsworth have written in Perl?
Would Keats have used Notepad for HTML?
I reckon Byron would see
The irony
Of writing words to change the world that we
Can’t live without but no-one ever sees

I can’t imagine how surreal it is to be in a bar when he plays this thing.

(Thanks to Little Things for this one!)

The politics of game death

There’s an excellent piece in today’s New York Times Circuits Section, about the politics of death in online video games like Everquest. The question boils down to: When you die, what happens to your stuff? Because after all, people inside the games spend days or even months slowly making their characters more powerful and more wealthy. If you die suddenly, all sorts of creeps can instantly show up and loot your corpse. But then again, if you create a world where there is no cost in dying — i.e. you don’t lose any power or stuff — then death has no sting; anarchy breaks loose, as people recklessly attack one another just for the hell of it.

This has led game designers down some rather hilarious paths. My favorite anecdote is from Rodney Humble, a developer for Everquest:

Mr. Humble decided to make changes to EverQuest in 2001 after months of internal debate and at least one sleepless night. At 4 a.m. one wintry day, hours into a game session, his character died.

“I couldn’t log off because I needed to get back to my corpse before I logged off or else my corpse would decay and I would lose all my stuff,” Mr. Humble said. “That’s not fun. That’s when I decided, you know what, we’re going to modify this.”

So he changed the game, reducing the death penalty. Since Christmas 2001, EverQuest players have been able to spend days or even weeks taking their reincarnated characters on a “corpse run” back to the site of their death to recover magical items and weapons. Before, players had only hours.

Scientists: Coin tosses are never 50/50

This is weird: the Science News is reporting on a new mathematical analysis showing that coin tosses are inherently biased — because a coin is more likely to land on the same face it started out on.

Apparently, this new discovery is based on some 1986 work done by the famous mathematician Joseph Keller. He argued that the only fair way to toss a coin is to toss it so vigorously that it spins perfectly around the horizontal axis in the center. Since it’s impossible to throw it with such precision, every other toss becomes biased — because the coin spins around a tilted axis. The end result is a coin will land on the same face it started on 51 per cent of the time. You’d need to flip a coin 10,000 times before you noticed this bias, mind you, so for all human purposes a coin-flip is still 50/50.

Though if anyone ever tries to do a coin-flip by spinning the coin on its edge on a table, watch out:

This slight bias pales when compared with that of spinning a coin on its edge. A spinning penny will land as tails about 80 percent of the time, Diaconis says, because the extra material on the head side shifts the center of mass slightly.

This also makes me wonder: If the problem with a coin-toss is that humans cannot achieve perfect spin, what about robots? Maybe we could make a robot to do perfect coin tosses with genuine 50/50 distribution. Oh, hell — there’s probably already a robot somewhere in Japan designed specifically for that purpose.

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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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