Archive: May 2004

The open-source election: My essay in the New York Times Magazine

In today’s New York Times Magazine, I wrote a short essay arguing that the US ought to scrap all its buggy, untrustworthy, proprietary “closed source” voting machines made by private corporations — and instead develop its own voting-machine software as an open-source project. The piece is online at the Times’ site and will be for a week — I’ve also archived a copy below:

A Really Open Election


This fall, as many as 20 percent of American voters will be able to cast their ballots on A.T.M.-style electronic voting machines. But to put it mildly, these machines — where you simply touch a screen and a computer registers your vote — have not inspired much confidence lately. North Carolina officials recently learned that a software glitch destroyed 436 e-ballots in early voting for the 2002 general election. In a Florida state election this past January, 134 votes apparently weren’t recorded — and this was in a race decided by a margin of only 12 votes. Since most of the machines don’t leave any paper trail, there’s no way to determine what actually happened. Most alarmingly, perhaps, California’s secretary of state recently charged that Diebold — the industry leader — had installed uncertified voting machines and then misled state officials about it.

Electronic voting has much to offer, but will we ever be able to trust these buggy machines? Yes, we will — but only if we adopt the techniques of the ”open source” geeks.

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Manhattan’s “centerline sunset”

When you live in New York, you normally don’t get to see the sunset — because the huge buildings block all possible lines of sight.

Not tonight! Tonight, the sun will be perfectly lined up with the east-west streets of New York — so they’ll all be illuminated by the gorgeous spectacle you see in the photo above, where the sun appears to be touching down at the end of the road. According to NASA, this sort of precision lining-up only happens twice a year: May 28th and July 12th. Click over to NASA’s site and you’ll see a much bigger version of that picture, which was taken by Neil de Grasse Tyson.

(Thanks to Gwin for this one!)

Circular Breakout!

Plenty of programmers create quickie online knock-offs of Breakout, the classic arcade game. But very few ever actually alter the gameplay in any way. The basic design of Breakout is so well-crafted that it’s hard to improve. Indeed, this is one of the hallmarks of a truly superb game: The rules are so simple, well-balanced and intuitive that when you change any of them, the experience falls apart.

But now someone has actually managed to produce a genuinely new style of Breakout — by making the playboard circular. Over at Playaholics, they’ve released Plastic Balls. In this game, there’s a “drain” in the middle of the circle, protected by a paddle that revolves around it. The “drain” is magnetic — or has some sort of gravitational pull — so the ball falls toward it, and you have to continually bop it away and towards the circumference of the circle, to eliminate all the blocks.

This is utterly ingenious, for a couple of design reasons:

i) It allows for some weird new techniques and challenges in ball trajectory. In normal Breakout, you often had to use the walls intelligently, to try and reach difficult spots with your ball. But here the walls are curved, so you have to learn and master an entirely new style of bouncing. Plus, there are no “side” walls to collide off of. The ball can go 360 degrees around in a circle.

ii) The concept of making the center drain “magnetic” is lovely — because it allows for powerups that mess with the idea of magnetism. One powerup reverses the polarity of attraction: For 30 seconds or so, your paddle repels the ball like two south poles on two magnets pushing away from one another. This allows for ever weirder ball-bouncing strategies.

iii) Since your paddle rotates in a tight circle around the drain, you can spin it around and use the back of the paddle for some even cooler bouncing tricks.

iv) Most importantly, this is the first Breakout clone to use the mouse in a style that is germane to the design of the game. I’ve always disliked online versions of Breakout done in the old-school style — i.e. the paddle moves back and forth across the bottom of the screen — because it’s actually quite hard to control using a mouse. A mouse isn’t really designed to have you track something on an X or a Y axis alone. It’s designed to be pointer that fluently moves through both axes at once. With Plastic Balls, that’s precisely what you’re doing — moving the mouse around in two dimensions to control the paddle.

Anyway, this entry probably makes no sense at all unless you’ve played the game. Go try out, then re-read this and see if I’m making any sense!

Comcast’s army of zombies

Ever wonder where spam comes from? In the old days, spammers would rent or buy their own Net access directly; the problem was, angry antispam geeks would track them down and complain to the ISPs, who would kick the spammers offline.

The next technique was to create “zombie” computers — to send out worms and viruses that infect everyday computers and instal spam-sending relays. This way, a spammer can create thousands or millions of zombies which he or she can use to send spam. I heard a lot about this back when I was writing my feature on virus-writers for the New York Times Magazine; police told me the spammers were potentially linked to organized crime in China and Russia. But everyone wondered precisely how many “zombie” victim computers there were.

Finally someone’s measuring it. Comcast, the Internet cable-access giant, has started tracking how many messages are sent out by their users. Sean Lutner, a network engineer, told CNET that Comcast users send out 800 million messages a day — but only 100 million go through the company’s official servers. The other 700 million other ones are thus probably spam sent out by Comcast users infected with spam relays. They probably don’t even know they’re doing it — yet according to those stats, the average American family is sending out six to seven pieces of spam a day.

How did they generate these statistics?

“It’s not rocket science,” John Levine, co-chair of the Internet Engineering Task Force’s antispam research group, said of this technique. “Basically, you count the mail, and you give everyone a quota. If Grandma usually sends six messages a day and now tries to send 10,000 messages a day, what are the odds that she made that many new friends?”

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

Plush dice

Have you ever looked at your happy, well-adjusted three-year old child playing with a ball in the sunshine, and thought: Hmmmm. How do I turn this kid into a reclusive, pasty nerd who spends hours in the basement playing Dungeons and Dragons?

Why, with a set of plush 20-sided and 10-sided dice, of course!

The neckties of death

The next time you go to see a doctor, check if he’s wearing a necktie. If he is? RUN FOR YOUR LIFE. That’s the conclusion of a clever study conducted by Steven Nurkin, who, while an intern doing surgical studies at the New York Hospital Medical Center of Queens, noticed something interesting: Men almost never dry-clean their ties.

The thing is, cloth is well-known to harbor zillions of infectious viruses and bacteria. That’s why doctors regularly clean their medical coats and clothes, and change them between each shift: They don’t want to cross-contaminate sick people within the hospital. They even clean their pagers and PDAs, actually, because studies have shown that those devices can play host to bugs also.

But neckties fall into an interesting cultural blank spot, because, almost alone amongst clothing items, they are rarely cleaned. As the Toronto Star reports, Nurkin decided to check them out:

So he and some colleagues from the hospital’s infectious disease lab swabbed the ties of 42 doctors, physician assistants and medical students, and cultured the swabs to see what, if anything, would grow. They compared the results to swabs taken of the ties of 10 hospital security guards, who were used as a control because though they work in a similar environment, they rarely come in contact with patients.

Nearly half of the doctors’ ties were positive for bugs like Staphylococcus aureus, which can cause wound infections, pneumonia, meningitis and food poisoning, among other things. Only one of the security guards’ ties tested positive.

“How to make a fake”: My art-forgery story in today’s New York magazine

New York magazine just published a feature I wrote about Ely Sakhai, an art dealer who has been accused by the FBI with running an amazing forgery scheme. Sakhai, the FBI claims, would buy Impressionist paintings, make copies of them, then sell both the copy and the original. The story is online at New York’s web site, but here’s a taste of the opening few paragraphs:

How to Make a Fake

Buy a mid-level Gauguin. Duplicate it. Slap the original papers on the copy. Sell both paintings to gullible collectors, while the art world looks the other way.

By Clive Thompson

Vase de Fleurs (Lilas) is not one of Paul Gauguin’s greatest works. It’s a “middle market” painting, which means it changes hands usually for only a few hundred thousand dollars, and without much fanfare. But in May 2000, the painting proved it could still turn heads. When Christie’s and Sotheby’s released spring catalogues for their modern-art auctions, they were alarmed to discover that each was offering the painting — and each house thought it had the original.

One of the paintings, clearly, was a fake. So the auction houses flew both paintings to Sylvie Crussard, a Gauguin expert at the Wildenstein Institute in Paris. She put them side by side and in a few minutes saw that Christie’s version was, in the delicate argot of the trade, “not right.” (The auction house just barely managed to yank its catalogue back from the printers in time.) Still, it was the best Gauguin counterfeit she’d ever seen. “This was a unique case of resemblance. You never see two works which are that similar,” Crussard marvels.

The rest of the piece is here! That picture above, by the way, is of Gauguin’s Vase de Fleurs.

Wanted: Young, hot workers with symmetrical bodies

Every once in a while I read stories that remind me of just how deranged are the labor laws and markets in other countries. I’m not just talking about the obvious stuff: The unregulated sweatshops, the job-slave trade, the sexual bondage. I’m talking about the incredibly weird standards that thrive even in supposedly middle-class jobs.

Ever heard of Daksh? It’s one of the biggest Indian outsourcers — Amazon was one of the first customers back in the 90s, as it frantically pitchforked phone-service jobs across the Atlantic. IBM has been so impressed by Daksh’s ability to keep prices down it decided to buy the company. But recently, a Slashdot user was poking around on the Daksh job boards and discovered that the company has “age requirements for job applicants [that] make Logan’s Run seem progressive.” On its Opportunities page, Daksh notes that Customer Care Specialists must be no older than 25, and team leaders no older than 27. Nice.

Meanwhile, over in China, the New York Times reports that the Communist party has been rejecting people for legal-affairs jobs because they’re too short. That’s only the tip of the iceberg: Apparently, the party is obsessed with hiring people for publicly prominent jobs only if they’re, like, way hot:

In Hunan Province in central China, for example, women seeking any government jobs had to demonstrate that they had symmetrically shaped breasts. The requirement was dropped only in March, but only after a public outcry by women who had been denied jobs on those grounds.

When the government-run Nanchang Institute of Aeronautical Technology vets candidates for jobs as flight attendants for the national airlines, applicants are asked to parade on stage in swimwear.

The sleepiness equation

Apparently, the scientists at AWAKE — a British “sleep management consultancy” — have developed an equation that predicts when you’ll be most tired, depending on your average daily sleep and waking patterns. The equation is …


… where CDA is the hour of our daily dip is alertness, CT is our “chronotype” (our personal daily rhythm), and KF is a set of influencing factors such as prior sleep quality and alcohol intake. The result, TMT, is the time of day that we’re most likely to feel tired.

The web site KnackerFactor has created an online version of this algorithm, which asks you a bunch of questions and then spits out a chart showing how sleepy — or alert — you’ll be throughout the day. I punched in my stats for last night, including the following data points: I’m generally a night owl; I generally struggle out of bed; however, last night I went to bed around 11:30; I had one glass of wine with dinner; and I woke up at 7:30 am.

The result? Check the chart above. Apparently, the first couple hours of my workday were supposed to be among my most alert and productive. Reader, allow me to express just how insanely wrong was that prediction. Sure, I managed to drag myself out of bed, but I moved around the office like a snail. I am really not a morning person. Interestingly, the chart also predicts that I’m supposed to be heading into a “noticeably sleepy” zone right now — around 1 pm — but since I’m on my second bucket of coffee, I’m actually feeling quite alert and efficient!

Of course, being a total idiot, I’m spending these high-productivity hours blogging instead of doing actual, paid work.

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

Clock coolness

Dig this incredibly cool clock — the Coulheur. It’s described on the web site of design firm Moco Loco:

“Bettina Dadon’s clock takes the three primary colours, shades them off and divides them… on three transparent disks which are associated with the three time units respectively.”

Coulheur is, as the designers point out, a play on the words “color” and “hour” in French.

(Thanks to El Rey for this one!)

DIY cereal box

It is, by now, an official trend: Someone creates a do-it-yourself online tool, and then smartalecks like me come along to see how badly they can mess with it. I recently discovered that the PBS Kids site has a tool that lets you design a cereal box. It’s extremely cool, actually, because it’s intended to show kids how advertisers design products to lure them in.

But here’s the thing: The tool seems to have no language filters at all — not even for the most depraved profanity, it appears — so whatever deranged cereal-name you come up it, it’ll happily slap on the box. The box of “steroid flakes” above is my personal creation.

(Thanks to Michael for this one!)

Sharks with frickin’ laser beams

Or the next best thing — military planes with “airborne ray guns.”

(Thanks to Joyce for this one!)

You are god

This is one of the more face-melting science stories I’ve encountered in a while. Over at Slate, Jim Holt wrote a terrific piece about Andrei Linde, a physicist with an unusual theory about the origins of the universe. He argues that a universe isn’t terribly hard to create: Indeed, theoretically, one could create one in a lab, using only one hundred-thousandth of a gram of matter. Assuming all goes well, it would expand, but with such curved space that it would — for all intents and purposes — implode, vanishing from “our” reality while expanding in its own dimensionality.

Here’s the fun part: According to Linde’s theory, the creator of a universe would be able to determine the basic constituent elements of its reality, such as its level of gravity, the speed of light, etc. And in doing so, the creator could essentially communicate with her or his creation:

The creator, by manipulating the cosmic seed in the right way, has the power to ordain certain physical parameters of the universe he ushers into being. So says the theory. He can determine, for example, what the numerical ratio of the electron’s mass to the proton’s will be. Such ratios, called constants of nature, look like arbitrary numbers to us: There is no obvious reason they should take one value rather than another. (Why, for instance, is the strength of gravity in our universe determined by a number with the digits 6673?) But the creator, by fixing certain values for these dozens of constants, could write a subtle message into the very structure of the universe. And, as Linde hastened to point out, such a message would be legible only to physicists.

This is a really lovely thought. Maybe Earth phyicists will eventually piece together some grand pattern in the design of our universe, and discover a message encoded … by a sessional grad student at Stanford.

Back-to-Iraq blog heads back to Iraq

Last year during the war, my friend Chris Allbritton raised over $13,000 in donations from readers of his blog — Back To Iraq — to pay for a reporting trip to Iraq. The idea was to provide for some truly independent journalism, since with no need to please a publisher or editor, he could write about whatever he wanted, without fear or favor. He produced some spectacular essays and snapshots of everyday life in Iraq under the invasion, which you can still read on his blog today (click on archives in the top right corner).

A few months ago his blog readers started asking him if he’d be willing to return to Iraq and file more stories about what everyday life is like, one year after the invasion. Once again, his readers poured in the donations, and he raised over $11,000. Last week, he left New York, and today he arrived in Baghdad.

Part of what’s excellent about Chris’ tales from Iraq is that they capture the ground-level aspects of life, including his own responses to the sheer weirdness of travelling in the region. It’s blog journalism at its best. Here’s his description of arriving on the flight — which spirals down to the ground in a viciously steep corkscrew, to avoid shoulder-mounted missiles:

First of all, the flight from Amman to Baghdad was startingly normal. A couple of flight attendants served refreshments and vile airline food, just like a normal flight. Except this one was in an all-white South African-registered plane (the irony should be lost on no one, there) and populated by a bunch of Parsons, KBR and other assorted contractors. I’m not going to call them mercenaries at this point, since the guys I talked to were all there to work at oil refineries or on cellular services. Hardly the mercenary types.

The landing was anything but typical though. After a normal flight, we went into a tight, corkscrew dive that sent your stomach up into your throat — and in the case of two passengers, out their mouths and into their laps. It’s a vomit-comet experience. But if you like roller coasters in a sealed container where you can’t really see anything, it’s a lot of fun. Just don’t think about the very real threat of shoulder-mounted SAMs.

I also dig the fact that in discussion after this posting, Chris’ mother posts to say she’s glad he’s still alive.

If you like his stuff, consider donating to the cause via Paypal! The more donations he gets, the longer he’ll be able to stay abroad and file slices of life from one of the most fraught regions on Earth.

“Game Theories”: My article for The Walrus on the economic life of virtual worlds

The Walrus a cool new political magazine up in Toronto — just published a piece I wrote on Edward Castronova, a brilliant economist who pioneered the study of how money, value, and property flow inside online games like Everquest. It starts off talking about Castronova’s well-known work on the Everquest economy, in which he realized that the game’s annual GDP is almost as big as Russia’s. Then the article goes on to talk about the ways in which different questions about economic fairness are reflected in these games.

It’s already been Slashdotted, so you can read the discussion there if you want. While you’re at it, also check out Terra Nova, an excellent blog on virtual-world economics that Castronova contributes to. (Castronova’s personal site is here.)

The story is online at The Walrus, but since it’s currently struggling under the enormous load from Slashdotters, I’ve mirrored the piece here:

Game Theories
On-line fantasy games have booming economies and citizens who love their political systems. Are these virtual worlds the best place to study the real one?

By Clive Thompson

EDWARD CASTRONOVA HAD HIT BOTTOM. Three years ago, the thirty-eight-year-old economist was, by his own account, an academic failure. He had chosen an unpopular field — welfare research — and published only a handful of papers that, as far as he could tell, “had never influenced anybody.” He’d scraped together a professorship at the Fullerton campus of California State University, a school that did not even grant Ph.D.s. He lived in a lunar, vacant suburb. He’d once dreamed of being a major economics thinker, but now faced the grim sense that he might already have hit his plateau. “I’m a schmo at a state school,” he thought. And since his wife worked in another city, he was, on top of it all, lonely.

To fill his evenings, Castronova did what he’d always done: he played video games. In April, 2001, he paid a $10 monthly fee to a multiplayer on-line game called EverQuest. More than 450,000 players worldwide log into EverQuest’s “virtual world.” They each pick a medieval character to play, such as a warrior or a blacksmith or a “healer,” then band together in errant quests to slay magical beasts; their avatars appear as tiny, inch-tall characters striding across a Tolkienesque land. Soon, Castronova was playing EverQuest several hours a night.

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Private space

Many, many bloggers have already posted about Friday’s flight of SpaceShipOne — the first privately-funded space ship to reach 40 miles in altitude, or 212,000 feet. It definitely looks like Burt Rutan, creator of the ship, has a good shot at claiming the X Prize, the $10 million award for the first private company that can send three people to 100 kilometers high, return them safely to Earth, then repeat the feat within two weeks.

So you’ve probably heard about this. But you may not have seen the utterly mind-frying video that was taken by a tiny webcam on the corner of the craft’s wing. CNN has it online here (go halfway down the page), and I totally urge you to check it out. You see the ship’s engine blasting away for 30 seconds or so, then shutting off, whereupon the craft spins around in an atmosphere so thin that you can see the blackness of space, and the sun looking more like a huge star than, well, the sun. Far down below you see the Earth, and though I suspect some of this effect is due to the webcam’s fisheye lens, it looks awfully rounded — precisely the sort of view you’re accustomed to seeing from the Shuttle.

All of which is why this video so thoroughly blew me away. I’ve known about the X Prize for years, and expected someone to win it pretty soon. But it was only after seeing this video that I realized just how nutty it was that a private company would — with a budget laughably tinier than NASA’s Shuttle payments — send people into space. This video has something of the emotional effect you get when you see the video from the Saturn V launch that blasted the first humans at the moon. It seemed so crazy and outlandish that, when I first clicked on the CNN footage, I thought I was looking at at CGI animation of the SpaceShipOne flight — not the real thing.

Can you hear me typing?

Okay, conspiracy freaks, here’s a fun new technology: A scientist has developed a way to spy on what you’re typing — by listening to the sound of your keystrokes. Every key on your keyboard produces a noise, and IBM research scientist Dmitri Asimov suspected that the sounds were probably quite distinct. As reports, he recently decided to test his hypothesis. It succeeded beyond his wildest dreams:

Asonov found that by recording the same sound of a keystroke about 30 times and feeding it into a PC running standard neural networking software, he could decipher the keys with an 80% accuracy rate. He was also able to train the software on one keyboard to decipher the keystrokes on any other keyboard of the same make and model.

Good sound quality is not required to recognize the acoustic signature or frequency of the key. In fact, Asonov was able to extract the audio captured by a cellular phone and still decipher the signal.

Pretty mind-blowing, eh? The thing is, it reminded me of an old detective story I’d read as a kid. I was a fan of the “Thinking Machine” stories written by Jacques Futrelle. They detailed the adventures of Dr. Augustus S. F. X. Van Deusen (can you dig that crazy name?), an arrogant brainiac who liked to go around boasting about how he could solve any crime with his machinelike logic. Anyway, there’s one story called “The Mystery of the Silver Box”, in which Van Deusen is hired by a rich CEO — “Mr. Grayson” — to help figure out how his most important business plans are being leaked to his competitor. Grayson is particularly puzzled because the only person who ever hears his plans is his secretary, Miss Winthrop; he dictates his letters and she types ‘em up. Since she sits at a desk within eyeshot of Grayson, the CEO knows that she doesn’t call anyone to leak information. He can’t figure out how the hell the information is getting out.

But Van Deusen, since he is The Thinking Machine, figures it out. He notices that Miss Winthrop keeps a little silver box on her desk next to her phone. He deduces her scheme: She uses it to prop the phone receiver up a little bit and open up a line to Grayson’s competitor. Then, while she types one of Grayson’s letters, she hits the keys in a rhythm that spells out the content of the letter in Morse code. The competitor deciphers the Morse code and, presto, learns of Grayson’s secret plans. As Van Deusen notes at the end of the story:

“Miss Winthrop is a tremendously clever woman,” replied The Thinking Machine. “She never told you that besides being a stenographer-typist she is also a telegraph operator. She is so expert in each of her jobs that she combined the two. In other words, in writing on the typewriter, she was clever enough to be able to tap her keys in a pattern that is exactly like the Morse telegraphic code. Any other telegraph operator at the other end of the phone could translate the clicks of the keys into words.”

This completely fried my noodle when I read it back in grade four. And now some IBM scientist is using A.I. to do almost the same thing!

By the way, you can read “The Mystery of the Silver Box” here — at a web site that has full-text copies of all of the “Thinking Machine” stories. While you’re at it, check out “The Problem of Cell 13”, the most famous of the tales. In it, Van Deusen escapes from a high-security prison in only four days. The stories were all written between 1905 and 1912, so there are some wonderfully dated moments; I just reread it myself and cracked up at this exchange:

“Nothing is impossible,” declared The Thinking Machine with equal emphasis. He always spoke petulantly. “The mind is master of all things. When science fully recognizes that fact a great advance will have been made.”

“How about the airship?” asked Dr. Ransome.

“That’s not impossible at all,” asserted The Thinking Machine. “It will be invented some time. I’d do it myself, but I’m busy.”

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

Totally badass wheelchairs

Motorized wheelchairs have come a long way. These days, you can get models that are so powerful and robust that you’ll see people in them whipping down Manhattan streets, moving at speeds that outpace the gridlocked traffic. Of course, these people are not necessarily out in the streets by choice; often, they’re stuck out there because curbside design prevents them from easily getting back onto the sidewalk. The wheelchairs may be awfully good, but they’re still stymied by urban design that discriminates against people using the devices.

That’s why I was so tickled to run across Permobil. It’s a company that produces the most insanely hotrodded, tricked-out, powerful wheelchairs I’ve ever seen in my life. They’re designed to be fearless with outdoor environments, particularly the TRAXCorpus — the model pictured above. It’s got a 22-to-31-mile range, with a top speed of 9 miles per hour. Damn.

(Thanks to Plastic for this one!)

Lemur genius

Lemurs have gotten a bad rap for years. Like humans and animals, they’re primates. But for years scientists have assumed they’re basically pretty stupid: Friendly and social, but dumb. Duke University professor Elizabeth Brannon decided to test this thesis by offering the lemurs a computer test: If they could complete a pattern on a touch-screen, they’d get a sugar-pellet treat.

Whaddya know? They all started lining up and completing really complex patterns. As a story in Reuters notes:

Although lemurs are social, they would often stop what they were doing to play on the computer.

“Occasionally, one animal would come over and finish the sequence started by another to get the reward,” said Brannon.

It appears that lemurs are indeed able to count — it’s just that normally they couldn’t be bothered. But dangle a couple of sugar pellets in front of ‘em and hell, they’ll learn calculus. As Brannon notes, this may help explain how human intelligence evolved; at some point in the distant past, homo sapiens might have hit upon the sweet spot of challenge-and-reward that got our brains to wake up and start inventing fire, tools, and Melrose Place.

The upskirting law

Representative Mike Oxley is pushing a new law that would throw people in jail for up to a year if they’re caught using cameraphones for upskirting or voyeurism. As CNN reports:

The legislation also would make it illegal to sneak photos of a person’s “private parts” when “their private parts would not be visible to the public, regardless of whether that person is in a public or private area.”

Now, on the surface, this makes perfect sense: Voyeurcamming is a huge invasion of privacy. That’s why it’s already against the law to spy on people with hidden cameras, actually. So why the new law? Apparently the existing laws are a hodgepodge that change from state to state: “Victims will go to the police and be told that ‘We’d love to arrest this person, but it’s not technically against the law,’” said Susan Howley, public policy director at the National Center for Victims of Crime.

What I wonder, though, is about the abuses of such a law. I wrote a couple of days ago about the rise of “sousveillance” — the use of cameraphones by individual citizens to record and publicize injustices by corporations, governments, and the powerful. If the new anti-peeping law is too broad, I could easily imagine it being used to shut down the use of cameraphones for activism and whistleblowing. I can just see a CEO, a security guard company, or a government agency getting pissed off when they see activists using cameraphones, and cracking down by claiming they were voyeuring the place.

Robot love

There’s a fun story over at about how NASA engineers bond emotionally with the Mars space probes they build. My favorite part? When the scientists muse over their individual temperaments:

Although the NASA robots are mechanized twins at birth, each has a distinct personality, Wallace observed.

Undergoing testing here on Earth prior to Mars sendoff, Wallace felt that Spirit exhibited a tendency to be less well-behaved, the more adventurous of the two vehicles. “Opportunity tended to kind of toe the line…a little more staying inside the lines,” he related.

Not so crazy when you consider there are people out there who name their cars, of course.

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)


Back in 2001, the nanotechnologist Jim Gimzewski learned something interesting: When living heart cells are put in a petri dish with appropriate nutrients, they continue to beat. He started wondering if all cells might similarly pulsate — and if so, would they make noise? After all, sound is nothing more than vibrations travelling through the air.

So Gimzewski decided to find out — by building the tiniest amplifier on the planet. He took an “atomic force microscope”, a device so precise it can measure the bumps on the outside of a cell’s wall. Then he held it lightly against the membrane of a yeast cell, so that like a record needle, it would record any movement and translate it into sound.

The result? The cell wall rises and lowers a distance of three nanometers — about 15 carbon atoms stacked up — 1,000 times a second. When you amp that up to the level of human audibility, according to a report in the Smithstonian Magazine, here’s what you get:

The frequency of the yeast cells the researchers tested has always been in the same high range, “about a C-sharp to D above middle C in terms of music,” says Pelling. Sprinkling alcohol on a yeast cell to kill it raises the pitch, while dead cells give off a low, rumbling sound that Gimzewski says is probably the result of random atomic motions. The pair also found that yeast cells with genetic mutations make a slightly different sound than normal yeast cells; that insight has encouraged the hope that the technique might eventually be applied to diagnosing diseases such as cancer, which is believed to originate with changes in the genetic makeup of cells. The researchers have begun to test different kinds of mammalian cells, including bone cells, which have a lower pitch than yeast cells. The researchers don’t know why.

Gimzewski calls his new science “sonocytology,” though he freely admits he’s not sure whether the cells are really making the noise; they could be absorbing vibrations from elsewhere, including the microscope itself. But if it’s true that cells make distinct sounds, this could be a weird — and neat — new diagnostic tool.

Mexican UFOs

Mexican air force pilots just filmed some totally crazy video of eleven UFOs. According to The Globe and Mail:

The lights were filmed March 5 by pilots using infrared equipment. They appeared to be flying at an altitude of about 3,500 metres and allegedly surrounded the air force jet as it conducted routine anti-drug trafficking vigilance in Campeche. Only three of the objects showed up on the plane’s radar.

“Was I afraid? Yes,” said radar operator Lieutenant German Marin in a taped interview made public Tuesday.

Mexican UFO researchers — and, yes, there are indeed Mexican UFO researchers — were ecstatic, naturally. Though it all reminds me of how wonderfully vague the phrase UFO is. Since it means “unidentified flying object”, the object merely needs to be “unidentified”. The longer we can keep from identifying it, the longer it stays a UFO.

(Thanks to Gord Fynes for this one!)

Blob lander!

Old-school gamers may recall the joys of Lunar Lander, one of the earliest arcade games ever. The basic concept was to tip your spacecraft in the right direction and press “thrust” to try and bring it to a gentle landing on the moon. It was a gorgeous moment of early digital culture — a game composed of nothing but a war against physics. (There’s an emulation of it here if you want to give it a whirl.)

If you liked that, try out Blob Lander — an modern, hip update of that classic. This time, you have to pilot a blob in some sort of weird egg-craft around mazes, but the same basic rules apply: You’re fighting gravity and the ruthless precision of Newton’s rules of movement. It’s oddly compelling.

Public enemy number one

This item is so surreal I don’t need to comment on it. From U.S. News & World Report:

It was the lead item on the government’s daily threat matrix one day last April. Don Emilio Fulci described by an FBI tipster as a reclusive but evil millionaire, had formed a terrorist group that was planning chemical attacks against London and Washington, D.C. That day even FBI director Robert Mueller was briefed on the Fulci matter. But as the day went on without incident, a White House staffer had a brainstorm: He Googled Fulci. His findings: Fulci is the crime boss in the popular video game Headhunter. “Stand down,” came the order from embarrassed national security types.

(Thanks to Morgan for this one!)

Did someone out there just try to IM me?

I was just using AOL Instant Messenger when a stranger tried to IM me out of the blue. Since they weren’t on my normal buddy list, IM popped up an approval request — i.e. “do you want to accept this chat or not?”

The problem was, I was typing away madly in another window. When the approval box popped up, I was — purely by coincidence — typing an ‘n’, and so I accidentally declined to accept the chat invitation.

Whoever you were, if you’re reading this, try to IM me again! Or, failing that, email me. I didn’t mean to decline your invitation!

Actually, it also occurred to me that this is an unusually bad piece of design on the part of AOL’s IM client. Since ‘n’ is the sixth-most-common letter in the English language, there’s a high degree of likelihood that when the chat-approval box pops up, the user might be typing an ‘n’ — and might thus accidentally decline a chat. (Indeed, there are 89 n’s in this blog posting, and they comprise almost 7 per cent of the entire entry — which means that if you sent me that chat invitation while I was writing this, I had a one in fourteen chance of accidentally declining you.) Worse, the IM client does not, as far as I can tell, keep a log of strangers who are sending you chat invitations. So if you accidentally decline an invitation, as I just did, you have no way of knowing who it was.

Can a game be too hard? My latest Slate column

Slate just published my latest video-game column — on the subject of “hard” games. As it begins:

Some video games are hard. Some are really hard. And some are so freakishly, spoon-bendingly difficult that they take 10 hours of solid play before you’ve even begun to master the basics. Whenever I slip one of these nasty little backbreakers into my game system, I usually discard them in frustration after a couple of hours and wonder: What’s the point? What adult has the time to master this stuff? Could it ever be worth it?

Recently, I’ve decided the answer is yes, even if you’re reduced to tears by a hellish game, it can be worth it to plug through. Why? For the same reason it’s often worth struggling through many other pieces of art or entertainment that we consider “difficult.” Anyone who’s slogged through the experimental swamp of Ulysses knows that it seems like a pointless chore at first. But if you’re patient, the literary payoff is powerful—er, so I’ve been told—perhaps all the more so because you’ve worked hard for it.

You can read the rest of it free over at Slate! And, as always, if you write any comments here, feel free to cut and paste ‘em over at Slate’s discussion board, The Fray, where intelligent comment is always welcome.

Hey, hey, 16K

A while back I blogged about MJ Hibbett, a British geek who writes catchy tunes about programming, code, and computers. He just released an online Flash video for his latest tune, “Hey, hey, 16K”, and it is just jaw-droppingly good — intercut with surreal scenes from games on old Sinclair home computers. Watch it here!

But what cracks me up most are the hilariously ironic lyrics. It opens up with:

We bought it to help with your homework

We bought it to help with your homework

And the household accounts

If your dad ever works it all out

Of course, the rest of the song is about how he spent all his time writing crappy games. Hibbert has put his finger on that odd cultural moment back in the 70s and early 80s, when a family could only justify buying a personal computer if it served “serious” purposes, such as household budgeting. Countless advertisements for Commodore 64s and Vic 20s would talk about how your mother could use it for “organizing recipes”. Even though a 70s-issue personal computer was just spectacularly unsuited to databasing recipes in kitchen, it didn’t matter: We still needed to pretend that these damn things were good for something important.

That’s because we all knew, secretly, that personal computers were really about games. Games were the reason young geeks pestered their folks to buy a computer; games were also the reason those geeks learned to program, so they could try to roll their own. Indeed, if it weren’t for games, the computer revolution would never have moved at such a lightning pace.

Yet still, the idea of wasting all that computing power on games seemed kind of silly. We couldn’t admit what we were doing with computers, even while we were doing it. There’s something about play that seems so frivolous that we cannot take it seriously — even when it’s a driving force in society.

Dinosaur Adventure Land

Ah, those playful creationists. They’ve begun to realize that debating evolutionary scientists in public forums and newspapers isn’t really the way to go — it’s too “intellectual”. No, the real way to convince people of your religio-scientific theories is to build a Disney-like theme park. And thus it was that minister Kent Hovind in 2001 created Dinosaur Adventure Land in Florida, offering dinosaur exhibits upon which kids can romp and read about how “God made dinosaurs on Day 6 of the creation as described in Genesis, 6,000 years ago.”

The New York Times wrote a story about it yesterday, and it quotes a parent who was “bitterly disappointed” by her visit to a Disney dinosaur theme park last year, since it dated all the brachiosauruses and apatosauruses to prehistoric times:

“My kids kept recognizing flaws in the presentation,” said Mrs. Passmore, of Jackson, Ala. “You know — the whole `millions of years ago dinosaurs ruled the earth’ thing.”

Dinosaur Adventure Land, on the other hand, offers no such pernicious liberal illusions about the duration of time and space:

At Dinosaur Adventure Land, visitors can make their own Grand Canyon replica with sand and read a sign deriding textbooks for teaching that the Colorado River formed the canyon over millions of years: “This is clearly not possible. The top of the Grand Canyon is 4,000 feet higher than where the river enters the canyon! Rivers do not flow up hill!”

You can’t find stuff like this in The Onion. Indeed, I almost wondered if this were a Joey Skaggs media prank — some deeply subtle attempt to discredit the creationist movement by pushing its already-ludicrous arguments right off the edge of the flat earth. But then I checked the Dinosaur Adventure Land web page, and I gotta say, it looks real. If you poke around the site, you’ll find such gems as their page on “The Giant” — a leg bone purportedly from a 12-foot-tall human of Biblical vintage:

Come and see this great big leg bone found in Egypt that belonged to a person who was almost 12ft tall! This is a great way to show that before the flood, people were living to be much larger and also much older. Many things have changed since the creation, this is an example of how much the world, and people have changed as a result to the fall of man. Goodness, we are so tiny now!

As it turns out, the founder Kent Hovind not only doesn’t believe in prehistory — he doesn’t believe in taxes. Last week some IRS agents got a warrant to extract some documents from his home and offices, saying Hoving had stopped paying Uncle Sam.

Automatic for the people

When the construction worker Isidro Mejia was recently rushed to an L.A. hospital, doctors didn’t expect him to live. His nailgun had accidentally gone off and embedded four nails in his skull and one in his spinal column. It took doctors five days to fully extract all the steel from his head.

And how, might you ask, did this poor guy wind up in this state? As the BBC reports:

“His colleagues said Isidro was using a nailgun that has both manual and fully automatic settings,” said deputy sheriff Dan McPherson.

They make fully automatic nail guns? Good grief. Why not just outfit construction workers with AK-47s? Interestingly, a Google search for “automatic nail gun” mostly turns up pages that describe nail-gun fighting techniques in first-person shooter video games, as well as stories from The Journal of Light Construction discussing the troublesome industry regulations that are preventing nail-gun manufacturers from developing, you know, nuclear powered home-improvement weapons. Er, tools.

(Thanks to Debbie for this one!)

I just went to search Google, and mis-typed the URL as “”. It still went to Google — because as it turns out, the company has registered that domain and pointed it to their main page, just in case all us idiots out here in the aether can’t spell. (Check it out for yourself: Click the link in that last sentence, see where you wind up, then look up in the “address” bar of your browser to see what the precise spelling of the URL is.)

I poked around for a while on some WHOIS databases and discovered that Google has also registered several other misspellings, such as “” and “”.

Interestingly, they weren’t able to get the phonetic misspelling — “” — which, I suspect, is typed in pretty damn frequently by the barely-literate and utterly-innumerate products of the US’s fine, fine public high-school systems. It looks like some domain-name camper called “” has snapped up, and is probably asking $100 million for it. Don’t hold your breath, suckers.

Can anyone out there find any other misspellings of Google that Google itself has registered?

“Sousveillance” and the politics of cameraphones

We live in an age of surveillance — with a zillion security cameras all over the place. And if you know your French, you’ll know that “surveillance” means “watching from above.” Steve Mann has a different idea: “Sousveillance”. That means “watching from below”. Instead of having the authorities snoop on you, you turn the camera on them — and let them know their surveillance is itself being surveyed and noted.

Mann, of course, is in a good position to do this type of thing. He invented the “wearable” computer, and for decades he’s been building and wearing his own units that keep him online every waking minute, broadcasting the Internet into his eye via a headmounted display. But Mann has also spent years doing the reverse: He wears a camera that records everything he looks at, and broadcasts that online. What he sees, the world sees. As it turns out, this frequently makes authorities incredibly nervous; they like putting cameras on you, but become incredibly distressed if you do the same to them. Mann has regularly gotten into conflicts with security people who demand he remove his cameras and stop recording them. It’s as if these guys had ripped pages out of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and were using them as script.

Over at The Feature, Howard Rheingold muses on Mann’s idea of “sousveillance”, and points out that it may become a regular part of life — because more and more people are carrying around cameraphones.

I used to think that citizen smart mobs of wearcam-wielding surveillants would have to wait for the era of affordable wearable computing, but I’m beginning to believe that Mann’s vision is just the image we need to help us think about what we can DO with a world full of cameraphones.

The advent of connected cameraphones changes the political stakes in a rather neat way, because …

… whenever police abused their power in past political demonstrations, they made a point of breaking or confiscating cameras. Whether you are a violent demonstrator or an abusive police officer, it doesn’t do a lot of good to disguise your misbehavior by trashing a camera if it has already sent images to the Whole Wide World.

(Thanks to Techdirt Wireless for this one!)

More invader art

Over at Curiousity Killed the Cat, they’ve assembled an excellent collection of art made using famous video-game icons. One of them is … the Space Invader block prints done by my friend El Rey, a superb San Francisco artist! They’re pictured above, and I’ve blogged about them before. Want one of your own? Go to his site and order one — they’re only 15 bucks (20 bucks framed).

Collision detection

Recently, the Saint George Island bridge in Florida was decommissioned and slated for destruction. That gave bridge engineers an interesting idea: Why not get a barge and smash it into the bridge a bunch of times, to see if the bridge survives? After all, intentionally causing collisions is precisely how the auto industry checks to make sure cars are safe; building-materials and airplanes and almost everything else is similarly stress-tested. But apparently the engineers did some research and found that nobody had ever tested a bridge for barge-collision endurance. As a story in Nature noted:

“You cannot run a barge into a bridge intentionally if the bridge is in service,” says Gary Consolazio of the University of Florida, lead engineer on the project. “There are just massive safety issues involved.”

So for the last month, they’ve been repeatedly slamming a 635-ton barge into the bridge. It’s still standing.

(Thanks to John Fleck for this one!)


I’m coming to this one late, but dig this: 22-year-old Jim Nelson put up an Ebay auction offering an intriguing marketing proposal. He promised to tattoo the corporate logo of the highest bidder on the back of his head, visibly, for five years.

The winner? The web-hosting company C|Host. According to the company, Nelson’s headvertisement has generated them 500 new clients. I can’t find any mention of how much Nelson is being paid for this, though.

As a C|Host spokesperson says:

“He is the best sales person I have - he passes out flyers, talks to people and does not ask for a salary or commission,” Faulkner stated.

(Thanks to the Viral Marketing Blog for this one!)

Incredibly hot chick invents the mobile phone

It is almost certainly unfair to describe Hedy Lamarr merely as an “incredibly hot chick”. She certainly was that, but she was also a supertalented actress of 40s flicks like Samson and Delilah. And in case that wasn’t impressive enough, she also invented a central technology behind the mobile phone.

Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. In the 30s, Lamarr was in an unfortunate marriage to a control-freak Austrian munitions manufacturer. While sitting in on his business meetings, she learned that one of the German army’s main problems was dealing with radio-signal jamming. Lamarr escaped the marriage — by drugging the maid and climbing out a window (!!) — and came to America. She later had an epiphany, as a story in The New York Times today explains:

Lamarr’s insight was to realize that continuously and randomly changing the radio frequencies would defy jamming. In early 1940, she and the composer George Antheil devised a system for airplanes to direct torpedoes toward their targets. Inspired by player pianos, Antheil conceived of a pair of paper rolls, one in the airplane, one in the torpedo, to specify the sequence of changing frequencies. “It’s the damnedest Rube Goldberg you ever saw,” said David Hughes, a retired colonel and a communications expert who will be the scientific consultant to Ms. Somerfeld. “But the seminal idea was there.”

Antheil and Lamarr patented their scheme, which they called “frequency hopping,” and donated it to the government. The Navy, doubting that the paper-roll devices could be built, declined to try to pursue it but nonetheless classified the idea …

An article in The New York Times on Oct. 1, 1941, briefly noted Lamarr’s invention, saying, “So vital is her discovery to national defense that government officials will not allow publication of its details.”

Hot damn. Gretchen Somerfield, a Los Angeles writer, has produced a screenplay about Lamarr, and I hope like hell it gets turned into a movie! “Had she been born in another era,” Somerville told the Times, “she could have really gone for it and lived up to her potential.” Seriously.

Of texting, teachers, and reefer madness

Okay, I’m accustomed to hearing about teachers and principals doing utterly berserk things — and violating just about every expectation of privacy a student might have — under the guise of “protecting the school” from nasty influences. This is a country, after all, where the police are now regularly summoned to inspect students’ short stories if they contain any outrageous, fantastic, or violent elements.

But even so, assistant principal Marge Grube at Nazareth Area High School appears to have planted the needle on the Orwell-o-meter. Grube confiscated a kid’s mobile phone after claiming he was sending text messages in class. He denied this was the case. So Grube decided to read all his recent text messages to find out. That’s a deranged privacy invasion right there, but it gets much, much worse. Grube found a message from the kid’s girlfriend that read “I need a tampon!” Since “tampon” is also slang for a big, fat joint, Grube immediately deduced that the kid was possibly a secret drug dealer!

So Grube decided to investigate — by going undercover. Using the kid’s mobile phone, she made a bunch of calls to all his friends in his contact list. Then she sent a text message to the kid’s 10-year-old brother, pretending to be the kid. I’m not making this up. In a story in Nazareth’s local paper, the district superintendent attempted to justify Grube’s actions:

“Anytime our administrators are facing a situation that’s maybe drug- and alcohol-related, they’re going to do what they can, within the law, to make sure our kids are safe,” Lesky said.

Ah yes: Keeping the children safe from the hordes of godless communist hippie wiccan teenagers who are trying to find tampons for their girlfriends (which, as it turns out, the kid says was a thoroughly non-drug-related comment). By the way, the version of the story I’ve given above is Grube’s. If you believe the version given by the kids’ parents, things are much, much worse: They say Grube confiscated the phone merely because she wanted to pull off a cell phone sting. She used the kid’s phone to call his friends, to find out who else had brought their phones to school. She didn’t actually think he had any drugs at all, and merely retroactively claimed it was a drug-related investigation to make herself look good.

Whatever. Even if you believe Grube’s loopy tale, legal experts say she still violated the kid’s rights nine ways to Sunday. Maybe I’m just in a bad mood today, but I hope the parents take this all the way to the Supreme Court. Grube — and all the crazy, overzealous, hypocritical, sanctimonious teachers who behave like this too — are just crying out to be spanked with the Constitution.

I am so bloody glad I’m not in high school these days. I honestly don’t know how kids handle it.

(Thanks to Techdirt Wireless for this one!)


Popular Science has an incredibly cool section called “You Built What?!”, in which they detail strange hardware hacks and garage-built devices. This month they’ve got the R.I.O.T. wheel, a 1,100-pound monowheel which has a big weight inside — tip the device forward and the weight rolls you forward, at speeds of up to 50 miles an hour. At the magazine’s web site you can check out the breakdown of the schematic above, or go to the web site of inventor Jake Lylall, where you can find some pretty mindblowing video of the device in action.

My favorite part: Lyall takes a wonderfully sly stab the gibbering, self-deluded venture-capitalist hype that ushered the Segway into existence. Remember how proponents boasted that the Segway would “revolutionize how cities are engineered?” On Lyall’s FAQ:

Will they “design cities around it”?

“Prediction is hard, particularly of the future.” No.

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

Fixing Nemo

I have two cats, and every once in a while they get sick. Having a sick pet inevitably forces an animal owner into an uncomfortable moral calculus: How much are you willing to spend to save your pet’s life? Everyone has a different number. Depending on my debt/savings ratio, I’d kick out about $1,000, which many people would no doubt consider berserk; christ, aren’t there bigger problems in the world that could use that money? Yet I’ve heard of wealthy New Yorkers spending several orders of magnitude more than that.

But how far would you go for … a goldfish? In this week’s New York Times Magazine, my friend Rebecca Skloot writes a superb article about the emerging area of fish surgery. And we’re not talking about $10,000 prize goldfish. No, we’re talking about people spending buckets of money to save the lives of fish they bought for, like, 25 cents. But, as she notes, it’s still a pretty new field:

Ten years ago, the chances of finding a fish vet were slim. But true to its history, veterinary medicine is steadily evolving to meet the demands of pet owners. Through the early 1900’s, vets treated livestock mostly. You didn’t treat cats and dogs — you usually shot those. But by the mid-50’s, the world was in love with Rin Tin Tin and Lassie, and people started thinking, I shouldn’t have to shoot my dog. By the 70’s, dogs and cats could get human-quality medical care — but treating birds? That was insane. Instead, bird advice came from pet stores (and birds died of a ”draft,” a diagnosis akin to the vapors). Yet by the 80’s, avian medicine had its own academic programs, a professional society, at least one monthly magazine and a large clientele. Today we have surgery for parakeets, organ transplantation for dogs and cats, chemotherapy for gerbils. But people who want to take fish to the vet — those people are still crazy. At least for the time being.

See spot run

Check out the picture of Jupiter above. See the three white spots to the southwest of the Great Red Spot? They were first noticed in 1939, but then in 1998 they began to vanish: They merged into two, then into one. Scientists have been trying to figure out what the hell these things are for years, and running computer simulations. They grokked that the were “anticyclones”, the reverse of terrestrial ones: On earth, cyclones are pockets of low-pressure air, while these ones are pockets of high-pressure air. But every time the scientists tried to model them, they fell apart.

Then they had an epiphany. The anticyclones are spinning in different directions, such that they keep a delicate balance with one another. As the New York Times reports:

The newest simulations provide an answer to that problem. For every two anticyclones, he said, there is a cyclone rotating in the opposite direction, wedged between them in the neighboring jet stream.

“That’s an incredibly stable configuration,” Dr. Marcus said. “If they approach, they repel each other just marvelously.”

So why did the three big dots vanish? Climate change — which altered the spin and pressure of the area around the anticyclones. In the next ten years, they figure Jupiter will look even more different than it does today.

Jupiter rocks.

Rocket man

Stuntman Eric Scott recently broke the world record for jet-pack flights: He flew as high as a 12-storey building, pirouetted a few times, and then, crucially, landed. I say “crucially” because while this device was invented by the US military in 1961, it has never been operationally deployed because it’s derangedly unstable. A gust of wind that wouldn’t trouble a Monarch butterfly is enough to flip you over sideways and send you shrieking headfirst into the ground. The army did a review of the rocket pack a few years after it was invented and decided that rather than deploy the device in the field, it would probably just be more efficient to demand soldiers play russian roulette or something.

Anyway, so this lone nutcase has devoted his life to flying this indescribably stupid invention. As the F2 Network reports:

He was offered the chance to become a rocket pilot on a Michael Jackson tour in 1992. Since then he has become a veteran of almost 500 flights and claims to be the world’s only Rocketman.

He first flew the jetpack for A MICHAEL JACKSON TOUR?

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

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

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