Archive: July 2004

Staplers of the world, unite

I just found out my stapler is broken, so I went online to find a new one. That’s when I discovered “The Red Stapler”, a big, heavy, old-school model by Swingline. The best part? The text that accompanies it on the Swingline web site:

Up the Revolution: The Red Stapler! Staple and be heard! WHAM-cubicles! WHAM-dress code! WHAMWHAMWHAM! By popular demand, we´re offering this desk stapler in screaming, gleaming red.

How can I not get one?

It’s “System Administrator Appreciation Day”!

Okay, cubicle-mates: It’s time to give it up for the humble system administrator. You know, the company nerd who comes to fix your computer when it’s busted. If you work in a big firm, there are probably sysadmins you’ve never even met — working selflessly in unnumbered sub-basements, madly configuring routers all day long, all so that you can pretend to work while actually watching the Big Brother live feeds and playing Bookworm.

Well, July 30 is System Administrator Appreciation Day, so get off your butt and go buy your sysadmin a gift. Need ideas? Check out the official web page, which has one crucial suggestion: Avoid the following stuff …

- Promotional marketing gifts (also known as “Swag” or Schwag”) with your OWN company’s corporate logo on it. I’ve already got it. When I signed for the box, I opened it and helped myself. I’ve got plenty of [ CoffeeCups | MousePads | Pens | SweatShirts | NylonJackets | GolfBalls | MemoPads | TeeShirts ] for my whole family.

- Swag (also schwag), noun: 1. promotional toys given freely by companies in a attempt to get you to use their product or service; 2. Booty; 3. good swag: food, chocolate, items that have a high monetary value; bad swag: tooth brush, keychain, absolutely useless trinkets that a even monkey would find completely pointless.

(Thanks to Flashes of Panic for this one!)

The science that dare not speak its name

A couple of days ago, John Kerry was touring Cape Canaveral when the scientists asked if he was interested in seeing the inside of the space shuttle Discovery. Of course, he said yes; hell, who wouldn’t want to check out the inside of a shuttle? So he put on a protective jumpsuit and went in. At one point, someone took his picture …

… at which point it became a national controversy. Republicans — including Dick Cheney at a speech — mocked him for looking ridiculous. Conservative papers and TV shows nationwide went faintly berserk with glee, and even the New York Times devoted an entire piece to the outfit. The Washington Post actually ran an opinion piece carefully explaining that it was “An Unsuitable Costume For the Manly Candidate” … and that’s just the headline.

Of course, Kerry was wearing completely standard-issue scientific gear. He was dressed the way scientists dress all the time. Which is what makes this little media pile-on so chemotherapeutically nauseating — because of course, the point is that scientists are about as “unmanly” as you can get. If you’re a candidate on the hustings, you can dress up like a soldier, businessman, or fireman: All good stuff. But a scientist? Those guys are faggots. Everyone knows that.

Hey, I’ve got an idea. If political pundits and right-wing assholes find scientists such laughable fools, why don’t they all go live on an island somewhere utterly devoid of scientific progress past, say, the 13th century? Then they can all foam at the mouth with scurvy and beat each other to death with human thighbones.

I hate everything today.

Catch the wave

Yesterday I argued that the ocean is the weirdest place on earth — and then I opened today’s paper to discover yet more evidence. European satellites have apparently discovered proof that enormous 100-foot “rogue waves” are far more common that was previously thought. Scientists used to think that such monstrosities so deeply violated the normal state of the sea that they could only occur once every 10,000 years.

Whoops. After conducting some careful satellite scrutiny, the European team detected 10 giant waves — over 75 feet tall — in a three week period. This may help explain the disappearance of over 200 enormous cargo ships in the last two decades. Some examples, given by Deutsche Welle:

In February 1995 the cruise liner “Queen Elizabeth II” met a 29-meter high (85 feet) rogue wave during a hurricane in the North Atlantic. Ronald Warwick, the ship’s captain, described it as a “great wall of water, it looked as if we were going into the White Cliffs of Dover.” [snip]

As recently as 2001 two tourist ships, “The Bremen” and “The Caledonian Star,” encountered turbulent 30-meter-high waves in the South Atlantic. The latter ended up drifting without navigation or propulsion for two hours.


Today’s New York Times has a great story about “blobologists” — marine scientists who study the enormous blobs of mysterious flesh that occasionally wash ashore. (Giant-squid aficionados may recall the one that floated up in Chile last year.) Historically, the blobs have caused plenty of florid mythmaking about the Kraken and whatnot, but as you might imagine, when the scientists study the flesh, they usually find it’s not so mysterious after all: Old whale blubber, usually. But what’s particularly hilarious is the reaction of the scientists themselves to these findings. The Times quotes the report from the guys who analyzed last year’s Chilean blob:

“To our disappointment,” the scientists wrote last month in The Biological Bulletin, “we have not found any evidence that any of the blobs are the remains of gigantic octopods, or sea monsters of unknown species.”

And back in the 90s, some other scientists studied age-old chunks of a mystery blob from 1869. Their conclusion?

“With profound sadness at ruining a favorite legend,” they wrote in the April 1995 issue of The Biological Bulletin, published by the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., a distinguished research institution, “we find no basis for the existence of Octopus giganteus.”

I love it. The scientists are themselves so swept up in the blob mystery that they feel the need to apologize for debunking it. But really, who can blame them? Being a marine scientist is probably the single strangest job on the planet. The vast majority of the ocean is completely unexplored, we’ve never seen a giant squid live, and the biodiversity of the briny deep outstrips the Amazon by probably an order of magnitude. Hell, for all we know, there are bioluminescent aquatic chupacabras crossbreeding with half-ton sea monkeys down there somewhere. The next mystery blob really could turn out to be a new life form. Marine biologists, more than any other variant of scientist, get out of bed each morning with the possibility of discovering the most impossibly weird shit imaginable.

And by the way, isn’t “blobology” the finest word in the English language?

A car with feelings

Automobiles have a strange relationship to human emotion. Much like the Internet, a car gives its driver a sense of pseudoanomity and isolation, coupled with a sudden sense of enhanced abilities. That produces the same sort of id-release and overblown emotions that one typically sees in discussion boards and email. I’d argue that dense traffic behaves kind of like a flame war.

Yet while cars stir the emotions, they don’t allow us many ways to communicate them. This is particularly weird when you consider that highways are insanely dangerous places that could really benefit from greater communication between each hurtling 2-ton vehicle. But cars only give us very few ways of explaining our intent or feelings to other drivers. We can blast the horn (annoying), use the body English of the car itself (incredibly dangerous), flick our turn signals (accurate but useless for communicating anything other than “I’m turning”), or wave frantically to other drivers (simply cryptic).

This is why I was intrigued to open the New York Times today and find a story about some Toyota designers who have patented a system that would give a car “expressions” like a human. The system would instal lighting on the hood, as well as “eyebrow” accents over the headlights; it would also control the antenna and window wipers to communicate emotion. The result, as the Times reports, is an interesting array of ways to “talk” to other drivers or pedestrians:

For anger, the hood lighting color glows red while the eyebrow lights up and the headlights, antenna and height are in standard position.

But if the driver is joyful, the car may “wink” to let another car go first by changing the hood lighting and the eyebrow to orange, shading the headlight so it appears half-closed and causing the antenna to vibrate from left to right as if it were wagging.

The chart also indicates that a car with mechanical trouble might “cry” by displaying dark blue hood lighting, a shaded headlight, a lit eyebrow and a blinking “tear” light.

And if the “sudden appearance of a vehicle or pedestrian causes sudden braking,” the car will express surprise by having its hood lights turn orange, its eyebrows light up red, the headlights shaded and the vehicle height lowered in the rear.

The question is whether these “emotions” would be too cacophonous. Could we really figure out what the cars were saying to us?

Similarly, I once had an idea for a simpler, stripped-down improvement upon brake lights. The problem with brake lights is that they don’t communicate very well how hard or how suddenly the driver is applying the brakes. Sure, you can visually see whether the car ahead of you is rapidly slowing down — except in low visibility, when it’s often hard to judge the speed of a vehicle ahead of you. Some brake lights go on more “intensely” when they’re applied hard, but intensity can also be tricky to judge from a distance. So why not re-engineer brake lights to give a bit more information? Put a set of three brake lights on each side of the car, and have them light up in combinations that indicate how rapidly the driver is braking: One light when the brakes are being applied gently, two lights when they’re being applied more firmly, and all three when the driver is really slamming them hard.

The new Hiptop!

I’ve been using a Danger Hiptop for almost two years now, and it’s a superb, superb piece of engineering. Why? It’s the first device I’ve ever seen that uses a scroll wheel intelligently, and the brilliant conceit of hiding the keyboard behind the flip-up screen means that the QWERTY layout is easily 40% bigger than a Treo or Blackberry. That means you can type about 30 words a minute on a Hiptop. And I have: Several times when I’ve been out on assignment, I’ve received an email from an editor needing a quite rewrite on a few paragraphs of a magazine article. (It once even happened on a mountaintop; I did some quick research on the Hiptop’s superb web browser — which moves almost an order-of-magnitude faster than any Treo browser I’ve ever seen — then rewrote the article and sent it back, without the editor having any idea that I wasn’t just sitting at my desk.) Even cooler, the scroll wheel has ambient-information capabilities: You can program it to glow different colors depending on what type of message is arriving (email, Instant Message, etc.)

Sure, the Hiptop is riddled with problems, not least of which Tmobile’s insane lockdown: You can’t instal your own apps on the device, nor can you back up information using the USB dongle. But for my data-intensive needs, it’s still the best piece of mobile engineering, ever, and no other mobile phone or device comes close. Not even vaguely close.

This is why I immediately freaked out to read news that the next generation of Hiptop is shipping in a few months. Check out Danger’s government filings with the FFC, online here, including pix and a user’s manual. Hot damn.

(Thanks to Gizmodo for this one!)

A picture’s worth a thousand lies

By now, photoshopping — and, yes, Adobe lawyers, I’m afraid I just violated every single one of your language rules by writing “photoshopping” in lower case — is so popular a pasttime that the Internet is flooded with photos that are cunning pastiches. And as the John-Kerry-Jane-Fonda flap of several months ago proves, the venerable Stalinist tradition of tampering with photos for political gain is alive and well amongst Bush’s supporters. But are there any ways to tell if a picture has been digitally tampered with?

Yes there are — and my friend Noah Shachtman has an excellent piece in today’s New York Times on how it’s done. Professor Hany Farid of Dartmouth College has developed a cool way to analyze the pixels in a photo:

Take a picture that is 10 pixels by 10 pixels, for a total of 100. Stretch it to 10 by 20 pixels, and image-editing software like Adobe Photoshop will assign the picture’s original pixels to every other slot in the new picture. That leaves 100 pixels “blank,” or without values. Image-editing software fills in the gaps by examining what their neighbors look like, and then applying an average. To oversimplify, if pixel A is blue, and pixel C is red, the blank pixel B will become purple.

This kind of averaging becomes “pretty obvious” after some analysis of the image, Professor Farid said.

The only problem with the technique is that it doesn’t work on highly compressed digital images, such as JPEGs.

The war over paint by numbers

When I recently read William Bird’s superb book Paint By Number: The How-to Craze that Swept the Nation, I learned how controversial the hobby was. Introduced in 1951, the fad instantly exploded, and one company alone sold 12 million kits in three years. Indeed, the trend grew so rapidly partly because of America’s increasing post-war leisure: The country was so wildly productive that salarymen suddenly had more free time than ever before, and the deportment of spare time became one of the burning questions of the day. But pretty soon, the pseuds were decrying paint-by-numbers as yet more evidence of the decline of American civilization. All those obedient grey-suited hordes, numbly filling in the blanks, working by rote instead of being creative! Writers sent incensed letters into art magazines bemoaning the “morons” who bought paint-by-number kits. Within a few years, paint by numbers had declined into joke status, “by the numbers” had become the supremest of all insults, and in an award-winning image for the cover of Esquire, Richard Hess illustrated Lyndon Johnson as an incomplete picture.

Yet despite the cultural war, paint-by-numbers never died, because of one central fact: They’re fun. And as the two-decade-long family-values moral assault against video games has proven, no matter how hard you try to make people feel like mindless drones, if there’s something they really enjoy doing … you just can’t stop ‘em. Given my own frequently hyper energy levels — and my occasionally ADDish attention span — I’ve wondered whether I might actually find it zenly calming to spend an evening painting some dogs playing poker.

Which is why I was pleased to discover the next best thing: Segmentation, an online java-based application that lets you do hundreds of different paint-by-numbers on your computer. That picture above is a detail of Monet’s Sunflowers, with me halfway through. Computer-based paint-by-numbering isn’t as physically satisfying as the real thing, mostly because it’s pretty brutal on your wrist. But as with the original hobby, part of the pleasure is discovering how a few simple shades produce an amazingly complex image. It’s oddly similar to when I was kid and pressed my nose against the arcade-game screen so I could figure out how many pixels it took to make Mario.

Indeed, the Segmentation folks have closed the loop on the game/painting connection, because they’ve produced a time-trial version of the software: On “expert” level, a countdown clock challenges you to finish the artwork in a few minutes. Intentionally or not, it’s a lovely gloss on that age-old debate about the hobby: By turning artwork into a mechanized twitch game, it fulfils the glummest prophecies of those post-war aesthetes. Yet damn, it’s pretty fun too.

Inadvertent mashups

I listen to a lot of music on my computer, particularly since I I subscribed to Rhapsody, the superb music-streaming service. But lately I’ve been noticing more and more online ads that incorporate sound clips. It’s not just the banner ads; half the time when I start up AOL’s Instant Messenger, it plays a tiny movie trailer at the top of the buddy list. It’s insanely annoying.

But here’s the thing: Since I’m usually listening to music at the same time, these ads often blend into the song — producing what I call an “inadvertent mashup”. For example, I was just listening to Akon’s “Locked Up”, which includes the following lyrics …

Headin up town to ria / Back with a couple peeps / Caught a blocks on fire / Under covers dressed as fiends / Makin so much money / Ride up smooth and fast / Put away the stash / And as i sold the last bag fucked around and got locked up

… but just as that section ended, I was surfing a page on Wired News with a banner ad that piped out the following, in a chirpy young-phone-operator-chick voice:

Hi, my name is Tina. In the next 30 seconds, I’ll show you how to earn your college degree without ever stepping foot in a classroom!

It blended in perfectly over the phat beatz. That a picture of the ad above, by the way. Has anybody else out there experienced a particularly hilarious inadvertent mashup?

Can a crowd produce art? My latest Slate column

Slate has just published my latest column, which explores the question “can a crowd produce a work of art?” I talk about some of the interesting smart-mob theory floating around these days, and then explore the example of Typophile: The Smaller Picture, a fascinating project by Kevan Davis that allowed thousands of strangers to collaboratively design a font. The font was a success, but when Davis tried to extend it to more open-ended art, it didn’t work:

When the mob tried to draw a few simple pictures, it couldn’t. Davis told it to draw a television, but the image never congealed. The group agreed that the tube should be represented by empty space, but it couldn’t generate any other details. An attempt at drawing a face produced an even more shapeless mess. The only partially successful picture was a goat: At around 4,000 votes, it looked pretty goatlike, and at 5,000 votes the mob revised it to make the horns curvier. But after 7,000 votes the picture decayed into a random jumble of pixels, as if the group could no longer agree on what a goat should look like. Mobs, it seems, can’t draw.

You can read the entire article here for free! If you have any thoughts on it, I’d encourage you, as always, to post ‘em in The Fray, Slate’s discussion threads.

Seven … days …

Dig this: Down in Nigeria, a new urban legend is terrifying mobile-phone users. A list of “killer phone numbers” is circulating around — including 0802 311 1999 and 0802 222 5999 — along with the warning that if you answer a call from one of these numbers, you’ll die immediately. The level of panic is now sufficiently high that the local mobile carrier has been forced to issue an official rebuttal, as News24 reports:

“We wish to state categorically that from an engineering point of view, it is absolutely impracticable, and there is no such record whatsoever anywhere in the world, that anyone has died or can die from merely receiving or making a phone call on GSM or any other telecommunications platform.”

Heh. It’s pretty surreal, obviously, but I can understand how rumors like this get started — because when you think about it for a second, mobile phones (and phones in general) are actually an incredibly creepy technology. I mean, you hold this device to your head and a teleported voice from across the world talks to you? What’s up with that? As Erik Davis pointed out in a 1999 article, the history of telecommunications has been shot through with physic supernaturality:

From the moment that human beings started communicating with electrical and electromagnetic signals, the ether has been a spooky place. Four years after Samuel Morse strung up his first telegraph wire in 1844, two young girls in upstate New York kick-started Spiritualism, a massively popular occult religion which attempted to fuse science and seance. One of the movement’s main newspapers was called “The Celestial Telegraph,” and many of the spirits contacted by mediums were electricity geeks. Totally legit scientists like Thomas Edison, the radiographer Sir Oliver Lodge, and Sir William Crookes (inventor of the cathode ray tube you are probably reading this on) all suspected that spirits were real and that the afterlife was electromagnetic in nature. Edison even built a device to communicate directly with the dead.

(Thanks to Techdirt Wireless News for this one!)

On the road = no entries

This is one of my occasional lame notes explaining that I haven’t posted in a few days because I’m on the road, and probably won’t post for another two.

Graffiti archaeology

This is pretty mindblowing: Graffiti archaeology. Cassidy Curtis, a brilliant artist and programmer, created a little Flash application that lets you view pieces of graffiti around San Francisco — as they’ve evolved over time. He got a group of photographers to share their pictures taken of certain areas of graffiti, dating back years. Then he stitched them together into layered images: You can view a particular wall, then peel back each layer like an onion skin, showing the graffiti that existed before it. You can even zoom in if you want to look at something up close.

It’s a lovely interface — neatly evoking the idea of time passing in an urban environment.

(Thanks to Tom for this one!)

The shape of a song

Here’s an incredibly cool app: The Shape of a Song. Load the MIDI file of any song into it, and it’ll scan for repeating passages. Then it draws a arch connecting each repetition together. The more passages that repeat — and the more frequently they repeat — the more arches there’ll be. As the designer, Martin Wattenberg, notes:

By using repeated passages as signposts, the diagram illustrates the deep structure of the composition.

This is particularly interesting in light of my blog posting a month ago that asked the question “is music like language?”, and described the work of a physicist who compared the grammar of various types of music. He discovered that “difficult”, atonal music has less repetition in it, which is pretty much what you’d expect — since repetition is partly how a piece of music creates meaning. He singled out Schoenberg’s opening movement from “Three Piano Pieces, Opus 11” as particularly challenging. I’d love to find the MIDI file for that song, load it into this program, and see what patterns it produces — or doesn’t. How many arches would it produce?

By the way, the song illustrated above is “Hold On” by Yes. Yeah, yeah, shut up.

The music of the spheres

I was checking out the excellent MemeFirst blog, where Stefan had posted a gorgeous color picture of Saturn’s rings, taken by NASA’s Cassini space probe. I totally agreed with Stefan’s writeup (“Best. Wallpaper. Ever.”) but when looked at the picture, I was suddenly reminded of Coagula, a cool little application that transforms the data from pictures into sound effects. I blogged about this a while ago, when I used Coagula to transform a picture of my face into music. So I thought, hmmm, I wonder what sound you’d get out of that picture of the rings?

Voila: I booted up Coagula, ran the picture through, and produced this little MP3 file — the music of the spheres. Fittingly for an image produced in deepest space, it sounds kind of like a Dalek firing on helpless earthlings. Exterminate! Ex-ter-minate!

Man, I should get back to work. I can just imagine one of my editors calling me to find out the status of their overdue copy. “Oh, sorry — I’ve been busy generating sound effects from photos of Saturn’s rings.” Dead silence.

(Thanks to MemeFirst for this one!)

The art of coffee stains

This is one of the most ingenious design concepts I’ve seen in a while: Stamp Cups. You know how you’ll be enjoying a cup of coffee in the morning, when suddenly a tiny spill pools underneath the cup — and, due to surface-tension stickiness, winds up staying on the cup and slowly leaving marks all over your tablecloth?

The Stamp Cup has a little floral design on the bottom, which turns coffee stains into instant, impromptu art. Cooler still, the two different patterns match up so you can join them — slowly covering your tablecloth in a winding tapestry of art.

Of course, this means I’d have to get a tablecloth.

(Thanks to Sensory Impact for this one!)

Keep your eye on those Cubists

When Picasso wrote the essay “Why I Became A Communist”, he attracted the attention of the sweatily paranoid J. Edgar Hoover — who subsequently ordered his spooks to amass as much intel as they could on the artist. These days, the FBI has unsealed all these files and — rather amazingly — put them online. Click here to see all 188 pages of the Picasso files. While you’re at it, check out the many other luminaries that the FBI kept its eye on, including Albert Einstein, Louis Armstrong, and Desi Arnez.

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

My fellow Americans

Ever listen to George W. Bush deliver a spech and think, hell, I could do better than that? Well, now you can — thanks to BushSpeech, a fun little online app that lets you construct sentences for the virtual president to speak. Each word is a separate clip taken from his actual TV appearances. I got him to say “My fellow Americans, the threat to our country is California”. Unfortunately, you’re limited to a fairly small dictionary of words, so you can’t get the application to say “make the pie higher”.

SMS your laundry machine

Three years ago when everyone starting making noise about “location-based services” for mobile phones, pundits claiimed the killer app would be crap like “restaurant finding”: You pull out your phone and it automatically locates the Italian bistro nearest to you. I always argued that this was fundamentally wrong. What’s cool about mobile phones is that each one is inherently personal — each one is attached to a living, breathing human. And phones are quintessentially social: They’re about making contact with people. The first location-based services would be about making social connections, not about finding a Duane Reade.

Oh, how I savor each “told you so” moment. Now that the first bunch of location-based services are cropping up, it turns out they are, indeed, entirely social. There’s a great story in MIT’s Technology Review that covers the cool social-geographic services you’ve probably heard about — such as Dodgeball and toothing . But then discusses an incredibly cool Italian project called Fluidtime. It’s an SMS-based tool for letting people negotiate with each other over access to certain resources … such as washing machines:

One Fluidtime project targets a mundane task: scheduling the washing machine shared by 50 students at the institute. The Fluidtime team built an online scheduling system that allows students to book time on the machine via SMS text messaging. If a student suddenly realize that he desperately needs the machine, the laundry system lets him negotiate with the person who has it booked. The system also gives updates on the status of the laundry, which lets students manage it more closely. For instance, you can visually track how close your wash is to being done, which turns out to be far more helpful than receiving a simple alert when it’s completed.

(Thanks to Techdirt Wireless News for this one!)


Yesterday I blogged about my recent New York mag essay, in which I mused over why today’s artists are so joyfully plundering old retro video games. Then today I went to Boing Boing and discovered Pac-Mondrian — a hilarious mod of the game created using the style of the famous artist. You can play the game online for free here!

As the creators note, Piet Mondrian’s signature gridlike style was inspired by Manhattan’s urban life — as well as the boogie-woogie jazz scene, which he loved. In the game, you pilot a traditional Pac-Man around a Mondrianesque maze, munching portions of the painting while pursued by ghosts. Better yet, the munching triggers synchopations in the jazz, as the creators note:

Pac-Mondrian disciplines the syncopated rhythms of Mondrian’s spatial arrangements into a regular grid, then frees the gaze to follow the viewer’s whimsical perambulations of the painting: a player’s thorough study of the painting clears the level.

Each play of the game is an act of devotion. Mondrian’s geometric spirituality fuses with his ecstatic physicality when Pac-Mondrian dances around the screen while the Trinity of Boogie Woogie jazz play ‘Boogie Woogie Prayer’.

Each play of the game is an improvisational jazz session. Pac-Mondrian sits in as a session drummer with Ammons, Lewis, and Johnson, hitting hi-hats, cymbals, and snares as he eats pellets.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

Workplace Klingon

My friend Michele Tepper recently used Klingon in her workplace. You just can’t top that.

Video games invade the world of art: My New York column

New York magazine has just published an art column by me, in which I talk about the increasing use of old-school video games in today’s art. I reference various pieces, ranging from hip-top tracks that sample gaming sounds to Lucky Wander Boy to Cory Arcangel, who hacked a Super Mario cartridge so that it would produce only a blue sky with an infinite parade of those hallucinogenic Nintendo clouds:

The piece — Super Mario Clouds — was part of this year’s Whitney Biennial, and when you look at it, you realize those early games were practically Impressionistic in their stripped-down beauty. Since they have no complex 3-D to hide behind, gazing at these images is like observing the internal life of a computer: You can peek through the screen and see the truly alien mind of the machine. Retro video games are what computers think about when we’re not around.

You can read the entire column online here for free!

The technology of naps

Afternoon naps are a serious logistical problem. If you’re at work, odds are a) your employer wouldn’t be pleased by you napping on the job, and b) you’re too far from home to zip back for a quick forty winks. If you live in Manhattan, though, you now have a third option: MetroNaps. You can visit their offices, conveniently located in the Empire State Building, and for $14 you get a 20-minute siesta in one of their specially-designed rest pods, pictured above.

But hey! Napping in the afternoon isn’t just fun … it’s scientifically proven to be good for you. Well, maybe not proven as yet, but a recent study found that people performed better at cognitive tests if they got an afternoon nap:

Subjects performed a visual task, reporting the horizontal or vertical orientation of three diagonal bars against a background of horizontal bars in the lower left corner of a computer screen. Their scores on the task worsened over the course of four daily practice sessions. Allowing subjects a 30-minute nap after the second session prevented any further deterioration, while a 1-hour nap actually boosted performance in the third and fourth sessions back to morning levels.

The scientists suspect this is because the nap gives our brains time to absorb new information, as well as time for visio-neural circuitry to recharge.

But whatever. Quite apart from any palliative effect on cognition, I’d pay $14 just for the privilege of sitting in one of those cah-razy pods. Look at those things! They rock! Who’s doing the industrial design for these guys? Ridley Scott? Stanley Kubrick? Check out the nutty picture here of a room full of six pods: I keep on waiting for the creature from Alien to show up and implant everyone with extraterrestrial larvae that will later burst out of their chests. Now that’s refreshing!

A kinder, gentler kill: My Slate column on “stealth” games

Slate just published my latest gaming column, which is about the rise of “stealth” games. I ponder how the idea of sneaking around and avoiding conflict changes the gameplay, aesthetics, and implied morality of an otherwise violent game. At one point, I shove the needle on the Pseud-O-Meter into the red zone by namechecking some big thinkers:

Philosophers from Machiavelli to Hegel have pointed out that the weak must always pay nervous attention to the behavior of the powerful. That psychology is precisely what makes stealth gaming so gripping: You’re always fretfully observing your opponents. To get past a guard, you might spend five minutes just standing there, stock-still, spying on him to figure out his movements, the better to creep by. The upshot is that you feel like a minor character in a play, eavesdropping on conversations as you attempt to unravel Thief’s intrigues. (The enemy characters scheme and backbite with positively Elizabethan glee.) It’s like a video game designed by Carol Gilligan: You have pay attention to relationships and monitor everyone’s feelings.

You can read the entire thing on Slate for free, and, as always, if you have any comments to share, feel free to post ‘em Slate’s discussion area The Fray — where intelligent conversation is always appreciated!

Burning Man, from above

I’ve never been to the Burning Man festival in Nevada, but it’s always struck me as a really impressive feat: Zillions of people descending upon a barren chunk of desert and, for one week, turning it into the most creative space on earth. This year it begins on August 30, and preparations are already underway. Above, you’ll see a satellite image of Black Rock City, the annual temporary urban space that is Burning Man. Or maybe it’s not that temporary; as Maid Marian, the event’s “Mistress of Communications”, puts it:

Burning Man is truly something that can happen year-round. It’s like a deep artesian well with channels flowing out from it. It is a movable feast that might happen anywhere. Black Rock City is you.


(Thanks to Morgan for this one!)

The history of probability — in a single spreadsheet

My friend Erik Weissengruber runs the superb blog Roll The Bones, which is devoted to his explorations of ludology — the theory of play. A while ago, Erik started designing “concept maps” that graphically illustrate various concepts of gaming. My personal favorite is the enormous, sprawling timeline he created that tracks the development of various theories of chance and luck, as they’re represented in science, philosophy, history, drama, and other arts. The timeline begins in 4000 B.C. (!!) and goes up to 1999 — and includes a zillion swooping arrows showing how ludology developed.

It’s utterly gorgeous and mindbending. It’s kind of like looking inside Erik’s brain, which is an extremely interesting and weird place to be. You can go to his site and download it as an Excel file to read or print up. I visited Erik in Toronto last week, and he gave me the poster-size version, so be warned: This sucker is over six feet tall and two feet wide, and even at those dimensions, it’s so crammed with information that the base font size is only eight points. Hang the history of probability on your wall!

3D Windows

Innovations in desktop design don’t come along very often — which is what makes Sun Microsystem’s “Project Looking Glass” so intriguing. In their system, each window is represented as a 3D object, kind of like a thin piece of wood. To minimize them, you can spin them sideways; they’re identified by a few words on the thin side of the panel. As their web site describes it:

In the prototype, windows displaying applications are no longer stacked upon each other with flat icons and buttons to represent them; they are viewed in a 3D environment and manipulated as 3D objects. We are moving beyond the boundaries of old environments to revolutionize the use of the desktop.

I’ve always been kind of skeptical of 3D-like interfaces — I actually think the paper-and-file model is pretty intuitive. But one of the things that’s particularly nifty about Sun’s concept is that you can spin a window around — such as a web page or PDF file — and write notes on the back of it, like a photograph. Check it out here, the second-from-bottom link: It’s kind of hard to visualize unless you see a screenshot.

Still, if I wanted to truly design a groundbreaking interface, I wouldn’t go to the computer industry. I’d hire a bunch of designers from the video-game industry. The interfaces for most games these days are infinitely better and more intuitive than anything on a computer.

(Thanks to Jeremy for this one!)

Killer kangaroos

God in heaven, I had no idea marsupials could be so dangerous. Down in Australia, an ecologist has just issued a warning about deadly kangaroos. Apparently the country has been ravaged by drought, and starving kangaroos have begun to invade the suburbs — and, as CNN reports, they’ve attacked a woman and actually killed a dog:

Another woman told how a kangaroo drowned one of the four dogs she was walking with a friend, attacking it in a pond and holding it under the water with its hind legs while it hit out at one of the other dogs with its front legs.

“My friend started shouting: ‘There’s a kangaroo in the pond. It’s got Summer’. It was surreal, like your worst nightmare,” Christine Canham told the Canberra Times newspaper.

“She was screaming and screaming. The kangaroo just stared back at us. I will never forget that.”

And you thought your job was harsh …

… try being a combination police officer/engineer whose job is to reconstruct the physics of blood-splattered car wrecks, to figure out liability. Legal Affairs magazine has a rather spellbinding profile of these guys:

Other incidents are trickier to decipher. In a case this spring, a reconstructionist testified that a woman was driving when she and a Hartford businessman careered out of control on Connecticut’s Route 9. The attorney for the woman, on trial for manslaughter, claimed that it was the man who was driving. The lawyer suggested that the woman’s injuries, including a ruptured left breast implant, were consistent not with driving but with performing oral sex on the late businessman when he lost control of the car.

(Thanks to Arts and Letters Daily for this one!)

Is there a robot in the house?

I’ve frequently rambled on about the paradox of robotics: The more humanlike we try to make them, the less humanlike they seem. The converse is true: When a robot is particularly unhumanoid, we seem to find it all the more “alive”. I think it’s because “realism”, ultimately, takes place inside our brains, when we decide a robot is charming enough that we want to feel it’s alive.

Exhibit A is the TUG hospital robot made by the Aethon corporation. The TUG ferries documents, linens, x-rays, and other materials around the hospital. It speaks several languages to warn people that it’s coming and going, but otherwise it’s not very humanoid. (Actually, judging by the picture above, it looks like a filing cabinet on wheels.) Nonetheless, as CNN reports, the staff of the hospital frequently find themselves staring at the object and wondering about its psychology and “motivations”:

On a recent run in the University of Pittsburgh’s Magee Women’s Hospital, a TUG en route from the pharmacy to another floor went silent and idle for several minutes while waiting for an elevator.

The robot’s behavior baffled Aethon President Aldo Zini, but after a call to headquarters, he figured it out. The TUG was being too cautious. It won’t get on an elevator if a button is pushed — an indication someone else is on the elevator — or if the elevator is heavy, perhaps full with carts or beds.

There were other oddities. Later in its run, the TUG crawled inches away from a wall, apparently trying to avoid two scraps of paper on the floor.

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

Virgin seat-bouncing game

A few years ago, corporations decided that it would be really cool to create tiny Flash games inside online banner ads. The concept was that it would lure people into clicking on the ad. The problem is, these weren’t games at all: They were little bait-and-switch scams. Sure, it looked like you were supposed to “pin the tail on the donkey” or putt a hole-in-one — but as soon as you touched the ad, it would merely click through through to the corporate website. These were among the most annoying things I’ve ever seen online.

The weird thing is, corporations finally seem to have gotten the message. The smartest ones have ditched those stupid quasi-games, and are now creating tiny Flash ads that are genuinely playable — and, what’s more, rather fun and clever. I blogged a while ago about the brilliant GE ad that let you play a set of water droplets like a violin. And today I saw another excellent one one: An ad by Virgin Atlantic where you try to bounce a man off a plane seat-cushion, and see how high you can get him flying in the air.

What’s particularly cool is that it doesn’t even advertise itself as a controllable game. I was simply reading the web page that had the ad, when I looked over to notice something funny: The way the man jumps correlates to the way I moved my mouse. So I started experimenting, and quickly figured out a few techniques to get him to jump so high he vanished out the top of the ad. But nowhere did the ad say “click here to play this.” There are no instructions. It’s just designed so organically that you can instantly intuit what you’re supposed to do. I’ve seen commercial games developed for $10 million that haven’t achieved this. And I gotta say, it nicely conveys a message that Virgin is a fun company.

The only problem is, I’m not sure how to guide you to the game. I was reading this story at Business Week online when I saw it, so you could try looking there to see if it crops up; unfortunately, you have to register to view the page, I think.

How loud is Manhattan? My noise survey for New York

Last month, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg declared war on noise — drafting new laws that would make it easier to impose fines for the city’s many acoustic offendors. But how loud, precisely, is the city? New York magazine has just published a special issue devoted to noise, and they asked me to drive around the city with a couple of acoustics engineers to measure decibel levels. The engineers were incredibly funny and smart guys, and taught me quite a bit about the psychology of sound:

Schiff and Lally are engineers who make buildings quieter, but they also do detective work, answering calls from enraged tenants who want data on just how loud that new punk club downstairs is. Schiff and Lally’s job, in essence, is to listen to buildings. Their sound meter is a thick wand with a supersensitive microphone head, protected by a grapefruit-size foam sphere; when they work the sidewalk, people think they’re Feds, or perhaps Men in Black.

The whole story is online at New York’s site! While you’re there, check out the excellent infographic by Carl Swanson, showing how the canyonlike effect of tall buildings can drive noise far higher than the street.

Wheels within wheels

In a technological version of the Russian nesting doll, some hipsters have created the RetroPod — an old-skool Sports Walkman that’s been renovated to house a regular Ipod. Presto: You can enjoy all the 10,000-song pleasures of a digital-age media player, while rocking a soi-disant vibe of early-80s steampunk chic. No, I can’t believe I wrote that last sentence either.

Actually, what this brings to mind is my long-standing rant about the Ipod. For those who’ve never suffered through this dreary and dubious argument, you can read previous versions of it here and here.
The gist of is that I suspect the vast majority of people never really listen to more than a fraction of the music on their Ipod in any given one-month period. As researchers have found, they just listen to the same album or playlist over and over and over again until, weeks later, they finally get sick of it and pick a new one. If that’s true, why does anyone actually bother buying a $500, 349-gig Ipod? Why not just stick with a Walkman?

Because it’s got nothing to do with utility. It’s about snobbery: It’s a signal to the world that you are a true music aficionado, the type who wouldn’t dream of leaving the house without having thousands of songs at your beck and call. The Ipod helps preserve this illusion — even if you’ve secretly had Avril Lavigne on infinite loop for the last three weeks.

It’s possible that the new world of gazillion-gig media players — and the omnipresence of “shuffle” — will change listening habits in the long run, as some have suggested. But it’s also possible that we have an innate apetite for repetition. Perhaps most of us are predisposed to listen to the same few songs over and over until we abruptly tire of them.

That’s why I find the RetroPod so charming. It neatly embodies the contradictions of our digital age: A media player that has the capabilties of the computer, but which we use pretty much the same way we used a Walkman.

(Thanks to Gizmodo for this one!)

T9’s Freudian slips

Ever used T9, the “predictive-dialing” way of typing text on your mobile phone? As you probably know, it works in a cryptographic fashion. It tries to figure out what you intend to write based on the most common words that can be spelled using the numbers you’re pressing.

But of course, it sometimes makes mistakes — as when you’re trying to type an uncommon word. Indeed, most forms of artificial intelligence break down whenever they encounter behavior outside some fairly strict norms. But as Cameron Marlowe notes on his blog, sometimes T9’s mistakes can be oddly literary — or even Freudian.

Marlowe, it seems, hates eggs. He was walking home got an SMS from a friend asking if she could borrow some eggs. He tried to type:

i have eggs but i can’t vouch for them since i only bake with them and i haven’t baked in a while

… but when he looked at the keyboard, he realized that T9 had mucked up several of the words. Instead, it read:

i hate eggs but i can’t touch them since i only able with them and i haven’t baked in a while.

Heh. T9, reader of humanity’s subconscious id.


On March 20, The New Scientist published an article about ChatNannies, a company that makes chatbots specifically to detect pedophiles in chat rooms. Apparently, ChatNannies’ bots are so good as pretending to be real children that they can lure pedophiles into hitting on them — at which point the bots can also detect whether an adult is trying to seduce them, and report it to the police. As the New Scientist reported:

To converse realistically, ChatNannies analyses the sentences other users type, breaks them down into verb and noun phrases, and compares them with those in sentences it has previously encountered. ChatNannies includes a neural network program that continually builds up knowledge about how people use language, and employs this information to generate more realistic and plausible patterns of responses.

Hot damn. Apparently the bot also scours the Internet on its own to learn about pop culture, the better to pretend to be a cool, with-it pre-teen. If you want an example, check this transcript of the bot’s apparently remarkable abilities here, recorded by MIT student Cameron Marlowe when he convinced the bot’s creator — Jim Wightman — to let him talk to it.

Now, artificial-intelligence fans must be wondering: What the hell is going on? What genius programmed this thing? The ChatNannies bot can i) chat well enough to fool other humans, ii) observe another speaker well enough to detect that it’s an adult hitting on them, and iii) amass new knowledge on its own by scouring the Internet.

God in heaven. i) and ii) are barely, barely doable today, and even so, only in the most primitive, crappy fashion. But iii) is so over-the-top sci-fi impossible that serious A.I. researchers weep when they think about it. Could Chatnannies be real?


A couple of A.I. experts read the New Scientist story, got suspicious, and asked to see the bot in action at Wightman’s house. But when they tried chatting with it, the results were considerably less humanlike. Wightman claimed that it wasn’t working as well because the bot’s full knowledge-base is 20 terabytes in size and wasn’t on-site. But when they quizzed him closely, Wightman seemed pretty sketchy on details of precisely how the ChatNannies bot amasses new knowledge, as one of the skeptics, Andy Pryke, wrote in his own blog posting on the meeting. Things got even more dubious was when Pryke realized that ChatNannies’ conversational gambits were eerily identical to ALICE, the famously cool bot created by Richard Wallace (who I profiled for the New York Times Magazine two years ago). Pryke did a side-by-side comparison:

USER: I like opera

WINTERMUTE : A lot of people like that. Yes Opera is a perfect art form combining all the others.
ALICE: I’m not sure if I like it. Yes Opera is a perfect art form combining all the others.

USER: do you work?

ALICE: Of course I work, do you work buddy?
WINTERMUTE : Of course I work, do you work buddy?

So it looks like Wightman pretty much just reskinned the free, open-source ALICE and claimed it was his own. Then how did Wightman pull off such fabulously realistic chats to fool the press? One explanation is he just faked ‘em, by having a human pretend to be the bot. The New Scientist pulled its original story, and replaced it with another one noting the inconclusive results from Pryke’s visit. If you go to ChatNannies’ site, you’ll see enormous 20-point text claiming “Rest Assured! We are not, and never have been, a hoax” … which is pretty what you’d plead if your technology was, in fact, a hoax.

It’d be a lot easier to achieve true artificial intelligence if we didn’t have to suffer through so much real-life stupidity.

(Thanks to Richard Wallace for pointing this one out!)

Is The Sims 2 nixing gay marriage?

A month ago or so, I wrote a Slate column about how video games were embracing gay marriage. One of the boldest examples I cited was The Sims 2: The FAQ noted that new game would include marriage — and that same-sex would be an option. I suggested that this would have an explosive cultural impact, because The Sims is the biggest selling video game of all time. And I linked to the online FAQ.

A reader recently checked the FAQ and noticed that Maxis has updated it. They recently renovated the Sims site, it appears — and for some reason, the FAQ no longer mentions of gay marriage at all.

I wonder if Maxis has changed its mind on this — or whether it’s still in there, but the company is just trying to downplay it a bit? It could also be a simple editorial mistake that they left this out of the new FAQ.

Stealth wallpaper

By now, we’ve endured endless scaremongering stories about how Wifi is insecure, how hackers are snooping on your wireless email, woof woof, meow meow. That stuff is rather dim, given that there have been almost no reports of crimes committed by anyone snooping on anyone else’s signal. Nonetheless, it is true that Wifi is leaky, and sprays your signal — crypted or unencrypted — outside the room you’re in.

Unless you have “stealth wallpaper”, that is! The UK military contractor BAE Systems took the technology they used to stealthify bombers — layers of printed copper circuitry on Kapton polymer — and turned it into panels that you can use to wallpaper a room. Presto: Wifi signals cannot escape. Even cooler, as a story on notes, you can modularly switch ‘em on and off:

They come in two varieties: passive, which is effectively permanent, and active, where various areas can be switched on and off to enlarge or limit the area of the network.

(Thanks to Techdirt Wireless for this one!)

Search This Site


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).

More of Me


Recent Comments

Collision Detection: A Blog by Clive Thompson