Archive: August 2004

No blood for coffee

While I’m in gross-out mode — as per my entry below — I seem to have found a new area of science that’s even more stomach-churning: A bunch of Russian scientists have engineered a method to turn blood into many ordinary foodstuffs. I’m not making this up, unless the “MosNews” news service is:

Voronezh scientists noticed that every meat packing plant wastes about 7 tons of blood daily. So they worked on a solution for utilizing it. They have already released test foods that do not differ in taste from traditional foods they imitate, the academy told Interfax.

The academy’s administration also noted that the foods created by Voronezh scientists contain unique blood proteins that are metabolized by the human body twice as fast as egg proteins, Interfax writes.


Roll-your-own new bones

Man, modern medicine is getting more Frankensteinian by the day — and I mean that in the good sense. Doctors in German have invented a technique that lets you grow new bone parts to be implanted in different parts of your body. Recently, they studied a man who needed a new jawbone part. They made a 3D model of the bone part, crafted it in titanium, and implanted it in his right shoulder blade.

The result? The shoulder blade interprets the titanium as part of itself and grows new bone around it. Presto: One new bone, grown by your own body. And the best part, as the doctor told the BBC:

He said implanting the cage into the patient’s muscle meant his own tissue developed around it.

“Because it was his own tissue, we don’t expect any problems of rejection.”

(Thanks to Jonathan Korman for this one!)

The cubicle turns 40

It’s the 40th anniversary of the cubicle! Back in 1964, Herman Miller asked designer Bob Propst to create some office furniture, and Propst decided to engineer something to break up the sprawling, open-air offices of the day. Though many today people loathe cubicles with all their might, Propst’s invention was intended to reduce the anonymity of the workplace:

The austere quality for which cubicle-filled offices are now criticized was entirely intentional. “We tried to create a low-key, unself-conscious product that was not at all fashionable,” says Propst. “The Action Office was supposed to be invisible and embellished with identity and communication artifacts and whatever you needed to create individuation. We tried to escape the idea of being stylish, which is gone in five years. We wanted this to be the vehicle to carry other expressions of identity. That’s why we provided tackboards and all kinds of display surfaces.” When a member of the Herman Miller sales staff brought a plastic gorilla to his workspace, even the enlightened furniture company’s management looked at him askance, but Propst insisted that this was exactly the kind of thing he had intended.

This snippet is taken from a terrific profile of Propst that appeared in Metropolis magazine a couple of years ago.

Propst’s point actually strikes me as kind of interesting, because it reminds me of Anne Hollander’s point about suits and conformism in her superb book Sex and Suits. Hollander describes the effect of walking into a ballroom filled with people in formal attire. As she points out, one would expect that all the men would look like copycat robots, because they’re all in identical tuxedos, while the women — each one in a unique, specially-designed ballgown — would look really individual. But she finds the reverse is true. Because the women’s gowns are so diverse, the eye tends to be drawn to the similarities between the women: Their common woman-ness, as it were. As Hollander puts it, the women look like “the same Barbie doll dressed in a hundred different gowns”. In contrast, because the men are all wearing the same uniform, when you get up close to each one and talk to them, the eye is drawn to what makes them most unique: Their individual faces, skin, hair, expressions, gestures, etc. Uniforms, paradoxically, can allow for a greater sense of true personal uniqueness. I’m not sure I entirely buy Hollander’s thesis, but I have a lot of fun trotting it out at parties and watching hipsters — so maniacally devoted to the idea of personal expression and individualism — sputter and flail.

But what does this pendantic digression have to do with cubicles, you might ask? Well, Propst seems to have had the same idea. By putting everyone in the same bland cubicle, it would allow their individuality to flourish, since it would call attention to the things they’d done to personalize their workspace: A picture, a calendar, a plastic gorilla. And maybe this sounds the final death knell for both Propst and Hollander’s points: Office slaves may call their cubicles many things, but one thing they don’t call them is a vehicle for self-expression.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)


You may not have heard of Eunoia by the Canadian poet Christian Bok. It’s the weirdest literary tour de force you’ve ever seen: In each of five chapters, Bok writes gorgeous, flowing surrealist sentences in which the words use only one of the five vowels. There’s one chapter per vowel. You can’t believe how improbably successful this experiment is until you’ve read it.

So try a taste — by checking out the lovely Flash preview put online by the publisher, Coach House Press. The dots at the bottom of the page represent each page in the chapter for “e”. As you glide your mouse over each, the page appears; click on the dot, and the page zooms in and pans crazily. It’s a nice evocation of the mental state of the book — and, probably, of the reader.

If you want, you can also read the entire book online for free: Coach House has put it up here. But if you do, I’d also suggest sending the author a tip or buying a print copy of the book. Work this devoted deserves to be rewarded.

(Thanks to BookNinja for this one!)

Hey kids! Free lunch!

Toronto has just launched a pioneering project to air-condition downtown office buildings by using ice-cold water from Lake Ontario. It’s a very neat idea, and it works like this: A company called Enwave pumps water from the bottom of the lake into a heat-transfer plant. At the plant, the coldness of the lake water cools down water in adjoining pipes — transferring the chill to Enwave’s system. That coldness is used to cool down the buildings. The lake water is never physically mixed with any other water, to prevent contamination; it is eventually pumped back out to the lake, albeit a bit warmer.

According to the Toronto Star, it’ll save so much energy — and thus reduce so much greenhouse-gas output — that it is the equivalent of taking 8,000 cars off the city’s streets. Enwave’s web site points out:

A permanent layer of icy-cold (4°C) water 83 meters below the surface of Lake Ontario provides naturally cold water. This water is the renewable source of energy that Enwave’s leading-edge technology uses to cool office towers, sports & entertainment complexes and proposed waterfront developments.

But here’s the problem: Just how “renewable” is the coldness of the lake? If the Enwave system were to grow massively, and every city on the shores of Lake Ontario were to set up heat-exchange systems, wouldn’t it eventually start to warm up the lake? That could lead to some pretty wild environmental effects, partly because the warming would be happening not at the surface — where the flora and fauna are more adaptive to fluctuations in heat — but down deep below.

I don’t mean to be alarmist about this. I actually think it’s a really cool idea, and odds are an environmental-impact study would show a net benefit from Enwave systems: i.e. even if they warmed the world’s oceans and lakes, they’d offset global warming in general by reducing greenhouse gases.

But what bothers me is how the language of this project fudges the basic laws of physics. The lake’s coldness isn’t “permanent” at all. It’s a historic and environmental artifact of the evolution of that region of the world’s geography, and it can and will change. When you pump coldness out of that system, you are — by definition — pumping heat back in, and there are no magical elvish air-conditioners sitting at the bottom of Lake Ontario making things colder just, y’know, because. Sure, the warming effect might be non-noticeable, but it’s not non-existent. I’d expect this sort of magical, free-lunch, 2+2=5 crap to come from the dinosaur thinkers in the oil, gas and coal industries, or their political cronies — but not from a genuinely environmental company.

Again, none of this is to detract from the coolness — no pun intended — of Enwave’s technology. I love it! But the public already misunderstands the basic physics of how the world works, and we don’t need more misdirection.

Did the Old Masters trace their paintings? Pt. 2

A year ago, I blogged about David Hockney’s controversial book — which argues that the secret behind the explosion of realism in the Renaissance was the camera obscura. Hockney thinks the old masters were using cameras obscura to project their subjects onto canvases, and then traced them from life.

But now there’s a rebuttal, from two computer scientists. David Stork and Antonio Criminisi did a close analysis of the chandelier in “Portrait of Arnolfini and His Wife” by Jan van Eyck. Their verdict? Not that realistic, according to The New York Times:

The problem, as Mr. Stork and Mr. Criminisi see it, is that the chandelier in the Arnolfini portrait is hardly painted in perfect perspective. Relying on digital image registration techniques, Mr. Stork and Mr. Criminisi applied projective geometry to one of the arms of the Arnolfini chandelier to see what the others should look like given the various angles that the painter would have seen them from. Then, as Mr. Criminisi described it during a phone interview yesterday, each painted arm was compared with its ideal perspectival projection; they were not identical.

You can read Stork and Criminisi’s paper here online — and check out their way-kewl illustrations showing how the vanishing point for the perspective on the chandelier is slightly off.

“Grassroots industrial design”: My latest Slate column

By now, you’ve no doubt heard of casemodding — the geek craze for stuffing the guts of a computer into an interesting, weird, or useful case. My latest column for Slate uses casemodding as a jumping-off point to argue that what’s happening is the rise of “grassroots industrial design”: Cheap electronics components making it possible for people to design their own digital-age tools. As I argue:

When was the last time you trimmed goose quills to make a pen? The genius idea of industrialism was the concept of the Model T: In exchange for something cheap and well-made, we’d forgo unique, lovely design.

But the Model T is old news. Nowadays, people want consumer goods to have serious aesthetic appeal. If they can’t find what they want in stores, they’ll build it themselves. You could call it “grass-roots industrial design.”

You can read the rest of it for free — and if you have any thoughts, post ‘em in Slate’s discussion area The Fray! That casemod above, by the way, is the lead example in my piece: The gorgeous “Osh-Kosh”, a computer stuffed into an old-school vanity case for use as a portable DJing device, created by Dustin Smith.

The Dartfish Olympics

If you’ve been watching media coverage of the Olympics, you’ve probably seen Stromotion — that software that breaks an athlete’s fluid movements into stop-motion-style freeze-frames. The tres cool software is made by the Swiss company Dartfish, and apparently Olympians have been using it to train in an incredibly innovative way: They take a performance of a classic Olympian from the past and run it alongside their own, with both broken down into Stromotion frames. As the Associated Press reports, US pole vault star Toby Stevenson uses Dartfish to virtually “compete against” video of Sergey Bubka, the world record holder:

“I use it until smoke comes out of the machine. It’s great,” said Stevenson, who has secured a spot on the Olympic team.

Stevenson can review his practice jumps on a laptop within seconds of a vault. Within two hours of a track meet, he can watch himself on an LCD projector back at the hotel. Or he can have his day’s work burned onto a CD.

While Stevenson’s muscles tell him one thing, the digital video might reveal something else.

“It’s a big reason for my success,” Stevenson said. “I jump, and between every jump I watch my jump, and after practice I watch every jump on Dartfish.”

This reminds me of the idea of the “ghost” competition in many popular video games. I first encountered it in the original Mario Kart back in 1996: You could race around a track, and then do it again, competing against a recorded “ghost” version of yourself — to see if you could do it faster. Competing against your “ghost” — or that of a world-ranked competitor — is now a pretty common thing in many games, and it reminds me of how game innovations have constantly pioneered techniques that are transforming how we view, and play, real-world sports.

There’s even a debate about whether this is a good thing or not. Some famous judges — such as Cynthia Potter, NBC’s famous diving analyst — wonder whether Stromotion is harming the sport, because it’s encouraging judges to give demerits for things they normally wouldn’t see. As USA Today reports:

“With the naked eye, you don’t see these tiny little things that might be called deductions,” said Potter, as divers lined up for midday practice plunges at the Olympic venue Monday. “I don’t know if you’d even need judges if you could program all this into a computer.”

But, she says, “Human judges allow for artistic judgment — and it’s allowed divers to put personality in their dives.”

Of course, this isn’t an entirely new thing. The photo finish has been around for decades in many sports — and it’s caused huge controveries in everything from the 100-meter dash to greyhound racing. But modern media are likely to make things even stranger. I can easily envision the next few Olympics, when fans are getting personalized Stromotion streams sent to their mobile phones, which they can view and then vote on which athlete did the best dive.

Self-counting coin jar!

Check it out: A jar lid that keeps a running tally of the coins you shove in by recognizing the shape — and thus the denomination — of each one. This is one of those “why the hell didn’t I have that idea” ideas; so elegant and simple that it should have existed long ago.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

Are iPods too perfect?

Astute readers of this blog will have noticed my weird anti-iPod rants — which mostly consist of poking fun at hipsters who insist they absolutely need to have 10,000 songs at their beck and call, but who upon closer inspection turn out to listen to the same Maroon 5 album on infinite loop for three months at a time.

Well, it turns out there’s an even more interesting — and considerably more sophisticated — anti-iPod rant out there. It’s written by Dan Hill of the BBC, and he starts off by noting the one truly huge problem with the iPod: The short battery life. As users discovered last winter, an iPod battery can last as little as 18 months, but the warranty expires after 12. If it wasn’t under warranty, of course, Apple charged you $255 to replace the battery — and the tech-support people basically just told you to go buy a new iPod. It seemed like a transparently cynical ploy to get people to throw out their used iPods and buy new ones; it also caused one New York hipster to irrevocably lose his shit and shoot a hilarious movie called “iPod’s Dirty Secret”, which was promptly downloaded by about 17 billion horrified iPod owners, whereupon Apple — whaddya know — instantly issued a special $59 warranty extension, and a $99 battery-replacement kit. A nice ending, right?

Except that, as Hill notes, this episode illustrated a bigger and more subtle problem with the iPod: That’s it’s too “perfect”. You’re not supposed to muck with it or tinker with it in any way. You’re never supposed to inquire about what’s happening beneath that gorgeous shiny exterior. Of course, Apple’s genius has been in making machines so wonderfully designed that — most of the time — you don’t need to inquire what’s happening under the hood. That’s why iBooks are so easy to use! The problem is, Apple also actively tries to keep you from ever finding out what’s happening in there, even if you’d like to know. Back in the early days of Macintoshes, Apple engineers would reportedly get into arguments with Steve Jobs about creating ports to allow people to add RAM to their Macs. The engineers thought it would be a good idea; Jobs said no, because he didn’t want anyone opening up a Mac. He’d rather they just throw out their Mac when they needed new RAM, and buy a new one.

Of course, we know who won this battle. The “Wintel” PC won: The computer that let anyone throw in a new component, new RAM, or a new peripheral when they wanted their computer to do something new. Okay, Mac fans, I know, I know: PCs also “won” unfairly because Bill Gates abused his monopoly with Windows. Fair enough.

But the fact is, as Hill notes, PCs never aimed at being perfect, pristine boxes like Macintoshes. They settled for being “good enough” — under the assumption that it was up to the users to tweak or adjust the PC if they needed it to do something else.

What does this have to do with the iPod? Well, the iPod was designed with this idea of perfection, and Apple went too far. They made it virtually impossible to replace the battery. If you don’t pay the extra money to Apple to do it for you, you can use the self-replacement kit — at which point you’ll discover that opening an iPod is like “cracking open a lobster”, as Hill notes: A curiously indelicate thing to do to such a lovely gadget. Hill puts it nicely:

The shock — which inspires the visceral response of the iPod’s Dirty Secret — isn’t that you can’t necessarily replace the battery at all — as many have made clear, at great length, you can — but that the design of the iPod suggests you don’t need to worry about this. Then, when you realise you do, you’re helpless and reliant on either after-sales service pushing you into buying a new iPod, or sending your device off to strangers. Or treating your beloved like a lobster.

Because the product wasn’t designed to look and feel as if it could change, the product itself appeared to be perfect, impervious to the ravages of time … No matter how many times you revolve the gorgeous beast in your hands, there is simply no way in — and no way out for the festering, dead battery.

The emphasis above is mine. A simpler way of putting it would be to say there’s a certain smugness to the design of an iPod — a way of saying, we know what’s good for you. In fact, we know it better than you do.

(Thanks to The Mystery Contributor for this one!)

The X-box warrior: My New York Times Magazine article

The New York Times Magazine just published a piece I wrote about the military’s increasing use of off-the-shelf video-game technology to train soldiers. It talks about how they’re using There, an online multiplayer world, to model a Baghdad-like city; it also talks about Full Spectrum Warrior, a game the military designed to help soldiers practise urban-warfare strategic movement. A sample of the piece:

In fact, the virtual world offers some unequalled ways of visualizing a battlefield. Consider how the game faciliates ”after-action review,” a key part of training. After soldiers practice a technique, they talk about it to analyze what went wrong. Typically, soldiers will argue about precisely what happened on the field. With video games, however, they can literally replay the scene to find out.

Cummings showed me a game called Full Spectrum Command, currently in use at Fort Benning, Ga., in which you control a company of up to 150 people. For my benefit, he had a staff member run a mission infiltrating a building where terrorists were holed up. The soldiers advanced, blowing a hole in the gate, and terrorists began firing back. All of a sudden, Cummings froze the scene, as in a ”bullet time” moment in ”The Matrix.” Red lines onscreen showed the flight paths of enemy bullets. The camera zoomed along one of the lines, showing us what the bullets ”saw” as they raced toward the soldiers. With another keystroke, Cummings made the walls on the buildings vanish so we could see where the enemy had been crouching.

He pointed to a red line that showed where one of the soldiers was hit. ”See that?” he said. ”That was our vulnerability.”

You can read the whole thing online for free at the Times’ web site!


I’ll be back posting tomorrow after my week off, because I just got back from — my wedding! Sunday I was married to the lovely Emily, whom I occasionally namecheck in these entries and who is wonderful beyond words.

We now return you to your regular programming.

Sorry for no postings lately

Hello all — sorry for the lack of postings in the last week! It’s the usual complaints: Crazy deadlines, massive work backlog, woof woof, meow meow. Things should go back to normal this weekend, at which point I will have an enormous pile of things to post, including some truly marvellous items sent in by readers.

Squid stamps!

There’s a new online service called PhotoStamps that lets you upload any picture you want — which they’ll print on a set of stamps and send for you to use. It’s kind of expensive — it costs about $1 for each .37-cent stamp — but I couldn’t resist. I sent in a picture of one of the pieces of El Rey art I own, a “Surly Squid” painting, and ordered 20 stamps. Interestingly, I had to edit out the word-bubble that floats above the squid’s head; in the real painting, he’s saying “goddamit”. But I suspected that would have violated PhotoStamp’s predictably squeamish terms of service, which demands that you promise to not …

… upload, order for print, or otherwise transmit or communicate any material that is obscene, offensive, blasphemous, pornographic, unlawful, deceptive, threatening, menacing, abusive, harmful, an invasion of privacy or publicity rights, supportive of unlawful action, defamatory, libelous, vulgar, illegal or otherwise objectionable;

Much as I like the idea of customized stamps, it strikes me that it’s sort of a sad moment for philatelism. Stamps are one of the most successful examples of public art — one of the few times Americans regularly interact with the amazing creative powers of the nation’s visual artists. When you’re mailing in your Verizon bill with a stamp made from your 4-year-old’s face or the family dog — cool, sure, but a little bathetic too, isn’t it?

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

Woman molecularly bonds with sofa

Man, this is just about the most revolting thing I’ve heard in a long time. Apparently a 480-pound woman in Florida was so huge sat down on her sofa and did not get up again — for six years. During that time, she continued to eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom. When she finally got mortally sick, hospital workers were finally called to take her to the hospital.

And that’s when they discovered that her skin had fused to the sofa material. According to the Palm Beach Post:

Unable to separate the skin of the 39-year-old woman from her sofa, 12 Martin County Fire-Rescue workers slid both onto a trailer and hauled her behind a pickup to Martin Memorial Hospital South. She died a short time later.

I am not making this up — nor, really, would I want to. As my friend Bill Kennedy said when he emailed me this tidbit, “all those cyberpunk authors out there who predicted that the post-humans of the future would fuse their bodies with cool mechanical and electronic gadgetry had obviously never been to florida.”

(Thanks to Bill for this one!)

Free video games!

Who says there’s no free lunch? Over at the AnandTech boards, users have compiled an incredibly cool list of computer games entirely free for the downloading. And we’re not talking crappy Flash knockoffs of Space Invaders and Breakout. The list includes many great, immersive 3D games — like Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory and the first two versions of Tribes. Even Rockstar Games is apparently now giving away the 3D vehicle-combat game Wild Metal, and the original, retro 2D version of Grand Theft Auto, which is still an amazingly fun game.

What’s particularly interesting is that in some of these cases, it’s a major game publisher who is giving away copies of games that are about four or five years old. Their logic, I suspect, is that a) the games are still lots of fun, but b) they’d sell for so cheap today that no stores would keep them in stock. Thus, why not c) just give ‘em away for free, which builds d) enormous goodwill amongst gamers, and also — as Vivendi clearly understands with its giveaway of the Tribes games — serves as superb free advertising for the upcoming new versions of the games. It’s brilliant: Give away the old game for free, get people hooked, and they’ll almost certainly cough up $50 when the new one comes out.

I’ve always thought that videogame companies are particularly innovative when it comes to dealing with content, copyright, piracy, and the many issues that bedevil entertainment firms in the digital age. The movie and music industries should pay closer attention to what gaming companies do.

(Thanks to El Rey for this one!)

“Good morning. You have 457 voice-mail messages. Press ‘1’ to listen to them.”

Imagine showing up for work and discovering you’ve got 457 voice-mail messages. Almost all of them are telemarketing junk — but somewhere in the mess, there’s probably a few important voice-mails from actual co-workers. How long would it take you to listen to them?

That may soon become a reality for many people, because of “voice over IP” phone numbers. Why? Well, as you probably know, VOIP routes phone calls over the Internet as packets of data, instead of using normal phone switches. That means VOIP phone companies can offer steep discounts on long distance. Indeed, that’s why many corporations are turning to VOIP — to cut costs! Even better, because the phone number is entirely, VOIP can do some cool tricks: Your number can be directed to any VOIP number in the world, so it can travel with you. And you can access your voice mail by checking a web page, because your voice mail is, of course, just data stored on a server, like email. VOIP will only get cooler and cooler as time goes on, because new phone tools can be rolled out at the speed of software.

But here’s the incredibly depressing downside: voice-mail spam. Since a VOIP phone number is just a locator to an online address, a spambot could automatically deluge VOIP voice-mailboxes with telemarketing calls. Indeed, a few VOIP users have already started receiving this stuff. There’s a terrific story on CNET about this, and the reporter discovered something alarming:

Consider software from Frederick, Mass.-based Qovia, which seeks out the IP addresses assigned to phones, then sends each a 30-second recording. Its pace — 1,000 synthetic calls every five seconds — is a quantum leap from the automated “Demon Box” dialers that telemarketers use now.

Qovia Chief Technology Officer Choon Shim said the company didn’t create its VoIP spam generator to send “30-second calls about Viagra to millions of phones.” Rather, it was to serve as a wake-up call of what could be a devastating problem for the growing Net phone industry, Shim said.

I have no idea if the VOIP companies are actually taking this seriously. But even assuming they are, I have no idea how they’re going to tackle it. Gad, look at how hard it is to stop old-fashioned email spam. We’ve spent years developing Bayesian filters, blacklists, and IP-activity sniffing tools, and we’re still getting flooded with the crap.

What’s worse, audio is infinitely harder to screen than text. Plain-text email is simple and easy to scan; but disambiguating the content of a complex spoken-word audio message is, like, intergalactically hard, as anyone who’s tried to use a voice-recognition system to write a letter would know. I am kind of fascinated to see how bad this problem gets.

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

The weirdest e-commerce store ever

The weirdest online store ever has just opened. It’s called Woot!, and here’s the deal: Each day at midnight (except for Saturdays) it posts one piece of electronics for sale. It’s only one item per day, and there’s usually a very limited amount of them, but it’s always on a crazily deep discount. Today, for example, they had 6-piece Dell sound system pictured above $30, which is less than half of what I could find at the cheapest discount. Of course, at prices like this, the stuff tends to sell out instantly — so the only way you can take advantage of it is to show up at midnight Centrla Standard Time and hope your mouse finger is faster than the other 10,000 geeks trying to buy this stuff.

But the best part about Woot is their FAQ, which includes material like this:

I missed yesterday’s item, can I get one still?

No. Each product is discontinued at 11:59 central time monday-thursday and sunday. We may get more at a later date if we’re lucky, but we offer no guarantees, we allow no backorders, and we have no waiting / notification lists. Too bad.

I want to talk to a live person there, can I call you?
No. We are busy sourcing new products and shipping orders. You can post a comment to our community board, but we don’t guarantee to respond. You should google for the manufacturer contact to get product answers – we suggest a dating service, magic 8 ball, or ouija board for general life solutions.

(Thanks to El Rey for this one!)

Internal combustion patent

In the early days of the US patent office, the pace of innovation was sufficiently slow that patents were signed by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson themselves. But pretty soon, Americans were inventing all manner of cool stuff and sending in patent forms. In the first 46 years, about 10,000 patents were issued, but here’s the thing: They were all lost when the patent office burned down in 1836. They’re now known as the “X-patents”, and every once in a while one of them comes to light.

Two lawyers recently struck the motherlode, when two lawyers discovered a clue that led them to finding copies of 14 of the X-patents. That includes the original patent for the internal combustion engine! (That’s a picture of them above from the New York Times, with a replica of the engine.)

Gaming the Olympics

I was just checking out the front page of the New York Times’ web site, when I noticed a prominent ad in the right column, just below the financial news … for the World Cyber Games. That event is, of course, an annual multinational fragfest where kids worldwide vie to be the best player of Halo, Unreal Tournament, and others. It’s pretty cool, and the online video of the matches is really stunning. It’s run by Samsung, who advertises it heavily every year.

But … on the main page of That’s a rather remarkable moment in the mainstreaming of games, I’d say.

The Filth Epiphany

Rob Walker has an excellent column today in the New York Times Magazine about the Dyson Vacuum cleaner, which is engineered with a clear recepticle — so that you can see the dirt it picks up. Why? Previously, all vacuum cleaners have kept the dirt hidden in a bag, with the assumption that it would simply gross you out to see how dirty your house is. But the Dyson vacuum, as Walker notes, has an entirely different psychology behind it:

It uses Root-12 Cyclone technology, but really, you can talk all day about ”centrifugal force” and ”microscopic particles”; show someone a gunk-filled container and you’ve got their attention. This is why the Filth Epiphany seems much more effective than simply showing someone a strikingly clean carpet. In fact, the cleaner the carpet looks before vacuuming, the more effective the demonstration of the previously invisible grime. Imagine the mites, the lurking potential health hazards. See, your tidy-looking floors are an elaborate and dangerous lie! That vivid display of purged ugliness is an essay on paranoia, and on the belief in the power of technology to conquer threats we’ve never seen but always suspected were out there.

Does gaming have auteurs? My latest Slate column

Slate has just published my latest gaming column — in which I ask the question, are really good video games the product of single visionaries? Does gaming have auteurs, as does film?

Assessing the recently released Doom 3 — which kicks all manner of ass — I answer the question “yes”, and go on to speculate about why game designers labor in anonymity:

One reason game designers aren’t typically considered auteurs is that their artistry isn’t necessarily on the screen. The most important innovations in video games are invisible, deep in the guts of the software. Much like Venetian artists perfecting the camera obscura to trace figures from life, or George Lucas creating high-end special effects so he could shoot Star Wars, the best designers create new tools to midwife their games into existence. Carmack’s brilliance came in coaxing the low-power chips of 1991 to display a speedy “first person” view of a 3-D world. Will Wright conjured new artificial-intelligence models to govern the behavior of his Sims. Peter Molyneux hired a philosopher to help him craft the moral galaxy of Black and White.

Molyneux, Wright, Miyamoto—odds are you’ve never heard of these guys. How about Alexey Pajitnov? Probably not, though I’d wager you’ve played his game Tetris. That’s because the mainstream media almost never profiles the creators of games or talks about how games get made.

You can read the rest of the column here for free, and if you’ve got any thoughts on it, visit The Fray, Slate’s discussion forum!

Darwinian color selection is an extremely cool web site that attempts to determine the most popular color-combinations in the world. If you register at the site, you can take a 2x2 cube grid and select colors for each four quadrants. Then your cell goes online and people can vote on their favorite color combos, in a sort of crazed blending of Darwin and Martha Stewart.

Any color combo that is top-ranked for 10 days goes into the Hall of Age, but when I checked out the Hall, I couldn’t quite believe the incredibly weird color combo that is at the very top. My personal fave was a cell called “f+s”, the ninth-most popular Hall of Ager, pictured above. It looks like a logo for the corporation I have not yet founded. Indeed, any new startup firm in Silicon Valley could skip the $3-million “branding” fee and just grab one of the colorful cells as their logo.

Actually, if you go to the bottom of the Hall of Fame, you’ll see an entry called “Clearskies” which nicely matches the ice-on-ice color scheme of Collision Detection. Maybe I should implement it as a permanent logo? How can I resist the will of the mob?

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

The skankiest wines on the planet

Heh. The folks at have sampled and ranked the worst wines on the planet, most of which cost about $1-$2. Among the scariest is Cisco:

Known as “liquid crack,” for its reputation for wreaking more mental havoc than the cheapest tequila. Something in this syrupy hooch seems to have a synapse-blasting effect not unlike low-grade cocaine. The label insists that the ingredients are merely “citrus wine & grape wine with artificial flavor & artificial color,” but anyone who has tried it knows better. Tales of Cisco-induced semi-psychotic fits are common. Often, people on a Cisco binge end up curled into a fetal ball, shuddering and muttering paranoid rants. Nudity and violence may well be involved too. Everyone who drinks this feels great at first, and claims, “It’s not bad at all, I like it.” But, you really do not want to mess around with this one, because they all sing a different tune a few minutes later. And by tune, I mean the psychotic ramblings of a raging naked bum.

In 1991, Cisco’s tendency to cause a temporary form of inebriated insanity led the Federal Trade Commission to require its bottlers to print a warning on the label: [THIS IS NOT A WINE COOLER. 8 SERVINGS.] The FTC also forced them to drop their marketing slogan, “Takes You by Surprise,” even though it was entirely accurate.

Smartmobbing the conventions

The idea of smart mobs came from politics: They were ad-hoc groups of demonstrators who used mobile devices to help co-ordinate their movements. Now there’s TxtMob, an SMS tool designed specifically to connect protestors of the Democratic and Republican conventions. According to a recent posting on a mailing list, it seems to work; a member of the protest Black Tea Society wrote:

“TXTMob was great! When the cops tried to arrest one of our
people, we were able to get hundreds of folks to the scene within

(Thanks to Smart Mobs for this one!)

Ancient media to unlock JFK mystery?

When it comes to JFK’s assassination, conspiracy theorists love to seize upon one political discrepancy: While the Warren commission concluded that JFK was shot by three bullets from a lone gunman — Lee Harvey Oswald — a Congressional committee 15 years later re-examined the incident and concluded that four shots were fired. One of the key pieces of evidence? A tape from a dictaphone at police headquarters. Apparently there was a live microphone on a police motorcycle near the Kennedy motorcade, and it caught the whole thing. The Congressional committee based its “four shots” theory partly on the sounds of that Dictaphone recording.

So why don’t we use modern computer techniques to analyze the recording and figure this out once and for all? Because, as the New York Times explains today:

Like old 78 r.p.m. records, the Dictaphone belt became worn and damaged through constant replay for analysis using a stylus. When it became property of the National Archives in 1990, the technical staff recommended that no further efforts be made to replicate its sounds through mechanical means.

This is a rather sober lesson for our digital age. Librarians have warned us that our supposedly “indestructible” media — DVDs, CDs, hard drives — are rarely so. What’s more, even when we still have functioning old media, we frequently lose the devices necessary to read it. (How many of you out there have a dictaphone at home? Hell, who’s even got a computer with a slot for 5.25-inch floppy?) And in a lovely gloss on the Soviet dictum “destroy this message before reading it”, many old forms of media can be ruined merely by the act of listening to them. Lest we think that this is limited to physical media like dictaphone tapes, it’s worth noting that when you open an old Microsoft Word document — such as something written in Word 5.0, for example — new versions of Word will actually reformat it on the fly, subtly deranging its code. That’s not a big deal for you or me, but for the courts — which require documents be forensically pristine when you read them — Word can be nasty little paper-shredder. Apparently that’s why so many lawyers use WordPerfect instead; it does not, in contrast, reformat a document merely by opening it.

Mind you, what technology wrecks, further technology can sometimes fix. As the Times reports, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are working on a device to digitally scan the contents of the dictaphone tape without perturbing it. I suspect it’s something like those newfangled laser-driven record players — in which a laser reads the vinyl grooves, so that you can play a record endlessly without eroding it the way a needle would.

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

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Collision Detection: A Blog by Clive Thompson