One of these days I’m going to publish a coffee-table book about the incredibly strange industry of “corporate desk gewgaws” — i.e. the weird little tchotchkes that people buy for their fathers (or mothers) to put on their desks at work. Back when I was a kid, we bought my dad everything ranging from those ubiquitous golf-tee games to cheap wooden plaques with vaguely alcoholic “witticisms” on them. Wander into any corporate office and you’ll find hundreds more of these things: Miniature brass golf sets, pencil sharpeners in pornographic shapes, magic-eight-ball decision-makers, personally monogrammed poker chips, ashtrays in the shape of toilets. None have any actual function, other than to gather dust and serve as a Jungian symbology of the corporate soul.
Which is why I was so tickled to see the work of Kaden Harris, a Canadian artist who builds “Dangerous Things” — minature, desk-sized replicas of guillotines, trebuchets, and ballistas. These are, of course, the devices that medieval warlords, in an attempt to terrify their foes into surrendering, would use to lob the severed heads of vanquished soldiers into a besieged city, all of which makes them singularly resonant in the cubicle culture of the modern firm.
But my personal favorite of Harris’ inventions is the HypnoDisk — a note-perfect evocation of the spinning spirals that evil villians have long used to subdue heroes. As Harris’ web site describes it:
Guaranteed to intimidate the living daylights out of visiting salespeople, and sure to figure prominently in your newly fasttracked career path, the Eccentric Genius Hypnodisk brings a new level of subtlety to office politics.
Each Eccentric Genius Hypnodisk is assembled from re-utilized brass componentry of uncertain provenance, with precision bearing movements, silent motors, and your choice of battery, AC adaptor or USB power supply.
Can I convince myself to cough up $350 for one of these things?
Can you accurately judge the results of your actions? This is a big question in the legal system, when it comes to deciding whether you’re guilty for a particular action — and, if you’re guilty, the size and type of your sentence. So the neuroscientist Abigail Baird lobbed a mind-bomb into the legal community last month when she presented a paper arguing that teenage criminals are considerably less able to judge the unpredicted consequences of their actions. As the New Scientist reports:
In Baird’s experiment, carried out with colleague Jonathan Fugelsang, teenagers and adults were shown scenarios on a computer screen, such as eating a salad or swimming with sharks. The subjects had to judge whether each was safe or dangerous. Both groups took longer to decide a scenario was dangerous, but this difference was greater in teenagers. Adults took 1.6 seconds longer to reach a decision while teenagers took 1.75 seconds more.
Brain scans taken during the test show that the prefrontal cortex was more active in the teens, suggesting they were making a greater effort to judge the results of each situation. The adults had more basal ganglia activity, pointing to a more automatic response, Baird told a meeting on Law and the Brain at the Institute of Advanced Legal studies, part of University College London, UK, this week.
Freaky, eh? Neuroscience is one of the most insanely revolutionary areas right now — challenging some of our most dearly-held Enlightenment ideas about personal agency, autonomy, and responsibility.
Though much of this also makes intuitive sense. It’s long been a truism that younger people are more likely to experiment wildly with different behaviors, while older people are more conservative. That’s what experience is, after all: A corpus of data sufficiently large that you can begin to find linkages and patterns unobservable in smaller data sets. Even if their brains are moving at a slower clock speed, older folks can draw inferences that can be much richer than those of younger people. The problem tends to be when older people cease to gather new data, and/or when the inferences they’re drawing from already-gathered data produce conclusions that prevent them from even recognizing new data that lies before them. Then you turn into an old crank.
(Thanks to SciTech Daily for this one!)
Suppose you’re heading into a federal courtoom in Florida. Suppose you’ve got your phone with you. It’s probably got a camera on it — which means you won’t be allowed to bring it into the courtoom; the state has banned cameras because they don’t want the identities of protected witnesses revealed.
This is happening all over the country, and it’s producing a hilarious industry of merchants who, for a fee, will hold your phone while you go inside. According to a story in the Monterey Herald, there’s hot-dog stand outside the Monterey federal court that will store your phone for 10 bucks. And if he’s not free? One women recently tried to get the guard to let her take her phone inside, and wasn’t able to:
After begging failed to sway him, she walked outside to a nearby planter, rearranged some shrubbery and buried her Nokia camera phone.
When she returned to the planter to retrieve her phone, she ran into another lawyer digging away at the same soil.
”The guards were laughing,” she said.
(Thanks to Textually for this one!)
Recently, I’ve been playing with music-filtering software and hardware — like the superbly cool Filter Factory by Electrix. Then I read this cool piece on Nature.com, in which acousticians have analyzed Mayan tombs and found that they were designed to produce incredibly weird sound effects. If you stand in front of the staircase of the El Castillo pyramid and clap your hands, you’ll hear an echo that sounds like the chirp of a bird. If you walk up the stone steps, it produces a flurry of echoes that sounds like rain falling into a bucket. As Nature reports:
Declercq’s team has shown that the height and spacing of the pyramid’s steps creates like an acoustic filter that emphasizes some sound frequencies while suppressing others. But more detailed calculations of the acoustics shows that the echo is also influenced by other, more complex factors, such as the mix of frequencies of the sound source.
Since the Mayans were hardcore mathematicians, it’s entirely possible they did this stuff intentionally, though Declerq and his team won’t know until they do more measurements.
(Thanks to SciTech Daily for this one!)
Here’s some more interesting physics about tsunamis, from an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times:
Oddly, a tsunami cannot be felt as it passes ships on the open ocean, for the wave is usually small, one to two feet, and traveling very fast, as fast as airliners. It is only as it approaches shallow water that it begins to break; as the bottom of the wave slows, the top keeps traveling at the higher speed and increases in height, hitting landfall at 30 to 40 miles an hour. In 1958, an earthquake in Lituya Bay, Alaska, caused a landslide into the ocean that created a tsunami 1,720 feet high, a wave that could have swept over the Empire State Building. Fortunately it headed into a wilderness area and did not travel across the ocean to Hawaii or Japan.
The really sad thing is, despite the difficulty of detecting an earthquake-generated tsunami, scientists did in fact figure out that one was headed for Sri Lanka — and in fact they had several hours of warning. It’s just that there wasn’t a warning system in place for that part of the world.
In other news, several experts have noted that there’s a 12-mile-wide chunk of Cumbre Vieja volcano on the Canary Islands that is ready to fall into the Atlantic. Apparently it was loosened by a 1971 eruption, and as the New York Daily News reports:
If and when the 500 billion tons of barely hanging rock finally barrels into the Atlantic, it could make the disaster flick “The Day After Tomorrow,” look like a joke, experts say. Prof. Bill McGuire, of the Benfield Hazard Research Center at University College in London, said the largest tidal wave ever would race across the Atlantic at up to 600 mph and hit New York as well as shorelines from the Caribbean to Boston.
Towering waves of up to 75 feet would engulf the city, traveling miles inland, destroying everything in their path, he told the Daily News in August.
(Thanks to Rachel for the Daily News link!)
By now, you’ve probably heard about the horrifying earthquake in the Indian Ocean, and the estimated 8,000 people it has killed. As a metric of just how powerful this quake was, consider the following facts, courtesy News 14:
“All the planet is vibrating” from the quake, said Enzo Boschi, the head of Italy’s National Geophysics Institute. Speaking on SKY TG24 TV, Boschi said the quake even disturbed the Earth’s rotation.
Evolutionary theory has long been puzzled by left-handedness. Southpaws are in the minority, and they get into many more accidents than do the right-handed; in the modern context, this is partly because so many quasi-lethal tools are engineered primarily for right-handed use. So the question is, given that left-handedness is so dangerous to one’s health, why haven’t southpaws evolutionarily vanished?
Possibly because southpaws are extremely good at one thing: Killin’ people. In a recent Proceedings of the Royal Society, professors Charlotte Faurie and Michel Raymond published a study noting that left-handed people traditionally excel at combat sports, such as fencing and boxing, because their attacks so flummox the majority of opponents who are overaccustomed to right-handed attacks. They theorized further that this would mean that societies prone to violence would have an overabundance of left-handed people. When they gathered some data, it seemed to support their hypothesis; as The Economist summarized their findings:
One of the highest proportions of left-handers, for example, was found among the Yanomamo of South America. Raiding and warfare are central to Yanomamo culture. The murder rate is 4 per 1,000 inhabitants per year (compared with, for example, 0.068 in New York). And, according to Dr Faurie and Dr Raymond, 22.6% of Yanomamo are left-handed. In contrast, Dioula-speaking people of Burkina Faso in West Africa are virtual pacifists. There are only 0.013 murders per 1,000 inhabitants among them and only 3.4% of the population is left-handed.
You can read the actual paper itself online here in PDF format.
(Thanks to John for this one!)
Sorry for the slow December around here, folks, but I’ve been on the road almost the entire month; first the honeymoon, now visiting relatives in Canada! I’ve only had a few minutes of online time this entire week.
But it wouldn’t feel like a proper Xmas without at least one cranky, what-the-hell-is-the-world-coming-to post about increasingly surreal holiday toys. Which brings us to Exhibit A: The “Youniverse” ATM Machine for kids. As the Washington Post describes it:
Tweens and beyond can insert the supplied ATM card into the silver machine, punch in their PIN, be greeted by name on the electronic display, peer into the pretend security camera and wait for that seminal capitalistic moment — when crisp bills miraculously appear, ripe for the plucking. Unlike in a real ATM, a cash drawer opens in the toy ATM, allowing an avaricious child to grab every last cent and run. What do you want for $24.95? But the machine does automatically count coins.
Toys R Us sold 10,000 of these things in four days, and Amazon has been completely cleaned out. Apparently, the company that makes a “brightly colored toy armored car”.
(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)
In The Lord of the Rings, Gollum is clearly nuts. But just how crazy is he? In a paper posted to the medical-journal website BMJ, a bunch of medical students try to diagnose Gollum’s precise mental-health difficulties. As they write:
There is no disorder of the form of thought. He uses neologisms such as “triksy” and “hobbitses.” Gollum has nihilistic thoughts, believing that he is a murderer, liar, and thief; although there is some basis in fact for this and he shows little guilt or remorse. He is preoccupied with, and deeply desires, the ring. He has obsessive thoughts but no compulsions, though he would do anything for the ring. He is hostile towards Frodo, the current owner of the ring. He has paranoid ideation about Sauron (“the eye is always watching”) and about Samwise Gamgee (“the fat hobbit… he knows”). Gollum has difficulty controlling his thoughts and actions, exacerbated by prolonged contact with the ring. As Gandalf and Frodo have similar symptoms in the presence of the ring, we can attribute this somatic passivity to the ring. There are features of dissociation. Sméagol has separated his personality and is now Gollum as well.
He shows no evidence of any cognitive impairment. He has poor insight into his condition but he is aware of the Gollum-Sméagol dissociation.
They rule out a “space occupying lesion such as a brain tumour”, since Gollum’s symptons have been longstanding. He also doesn’t quite fit the ICD-10 criteria schizophrenia. Ultimately, the students figure he suffers from anameia, hyperthyrodism, starvation-caused paranoid psychosis, and schizoid personality disorder.
(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)
If you needed further evidence that American parents have become increasingly unhinged with terror at the thought that their children might turn in a subpar performance on the laughably-inaccurate-at-measuring-anything-other-than-income-inequality SATs, consider the Time Tracker. It’s a bestselling toy by Learning Resources, and it exists solely to teach kids “time management”, as their web site argues. Why, precisely, would a preschooler need to learn time management? Because it’ll potentially improve their performance on the SATs they’ll be taking in, oh, ten years or so! The most crucial educational skill now is neurotically subdividing tasks into five-minute increments. As the Time Tracker’s creators admit in a piece in today’s New York Times:
“It’s obviously not the type of thing kids would want for themselves,” said Andrea Galinski, product development manager at Chelsea & Scott, a Lake Bluff, Ill., company that owns Leaps and Bounds. But, she added, “We’ve had a very positive response from parents.”
The blindingly ironic thing, of course, is that Tayloresque time-management was originally designed not to help groom society’s elites, but to take auto-assembly working-class shlubs and train them to perform with robotic, mindless efficiency. And indeed, today’s low-paying wage-slave jobs are the same way. The ability to execute tasks measured to picosecond gradations is crucial these days not for lawyers and doctors but for Wal-Mart shelf restockers and phone-bank workers, whose performance is tracked with Soviet precision by their bosses, eager to shave a few half-hours off the proles’ weekly paychecks. So hey: If the Time Tracker doesn’t help your kids get into Harvard, at least they’ll have finely honed a skill set that’s absolutely crucial in flipping burgers!
In the helicopter-sploitation flick Blue Thunder, the main character — played by Roy Scheider — worries that he’s losing his mind, and notes that one of the first signs of insanity is an inability to accurately judge the passing of time. So he continually runs a little test on himself, closing his eyes and trying to measure out 15 seconds precisely. With the Time Tracker, we’ll reverse the proposition: Driving kids crazy, one second at a time.
Originally, the word “dude” meant “an old rag”. A “dudesman” was a scarecrow, built out of scrap cloth. In the late 1800s people started using it to describe a overly-well-dressed dandy. But then in 1981, Sean Penn’s use of “dude” in Fast Times at Ridgemont High singlehandedly caused a renaissance in the use of the word, to the point where an enormous cross-section of America now uses it.
So what, today, does “dude” mean? To find out, University of Pittsburgh linguist Scott Keisling decided to mount an investigation. He listened to conversations with fraternity brothers that he’d taped back in 1993, and had his undergraduate class record the situations in which they heard “dude” used in a three-day period.
What’d he find? The reason “dude” is so big these days, Keisling says, is that it evokes “cool solidarity” — a sense that you’re familiar and close to the person you’re talking with, but not, uh, too close. As Keisling notes on his web site:
The term is used mainly in situations in which a speaker takes a stance of solidarity or camaraderie, but crucially in a nonchalant, not-too-enthusiastic manner. Dude indexes a stance of effortlessness (or laziness, depending on the perspective of the hearer), largely because of its origins in the “surfer” and “druggie” subcultures in which such stances are valued. The reason young men use this term is precisely that dude indexes this stance of cool solidarity. Such a stance is especially valuable for young men as they navigate cultural Discourses of young masculinity, which simultaneously demand masculine solidarity, strict heterosexuality, and non-conformity.
In other words, if you’re a guy, “dude” lets you appear casually relaxed around other men, while still ensuring everyone knows you’re not gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. As you might expect, men use “dude” much more than women, but some women do use it to refer to other women, and as Keisling notes in a paper he wrote on the subject, “Men report that they use dude with women with whom they are close friends, but not with women with whom they are intimate”.
If you want to see the paper yourself, it’s online as a PDF here — and, perhaps as befits the topic, is quite stylishly written, so it’s fun to read. But to really bake your noodle, download the Excel file Keisling compiled of his raw data: Records of all the instances in which his students heard “dude” used. That graphic above is a snapshot of one part of the file.
For ever more “dude” scholarship, check out the excellent debate on the Language Log blog discussing the polysemous uses of “dude” — when it is the sole word used in extended conversations, as in a Zit cartoon and a witty scene from BASEketball.
(Thanks to Plastic for this one!)
American society loves to scrutinize pregnant women and shriek at them if they’re doing anything — puffing a cigarette, sipping some red wine — that might endanger their payload. The presumption, of course, is that women are morally bound to carefully abstain from any activity that might damage even a single fragment of the impending-bundle-of-joy’s DNA. And hey: Fair enough. But what about men? There’s a big double standard here, because as plenty of studies have shown, genetic defects can just as easily be caused by men accidentally cuisinarting their own reproductive materiels with booze, nicotine, goofballs, or what have you. And does anyone yell at men of reproductive age for endangering the nation’s unborn generations by getting sozzled during the Super Bowl?
But anyway. This windy, tendentious prologue is merely a setup to the scientific nugget du jour that has been careening around the blogosphere. Apparently, a new study argues that the heat from laptops can harm male fertility. As The Globe and Mail reports:
Research published today in the journal Human Reproduction has found that laptops, combined with the thighs pressed-together posture needed to balance them, give off enough heat to raise the temperature inside testicles by nearly three degrees Celsius (5.4 F).
This increase, researchers warn, could endanger the production of healthy sperm and lead to infertility.
(Thanks to Gord Fynes for this one!)
In January 2003, while I was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, the program took all the fellows for a trip to Cuba to meet with some of their lead scientists — who’d had some startling successes in biotech. We met with Concepcion Campa Huergo, the scientist who created the world’s first vaccine for meningitis B. That’s a disease which ravages poor countries but barely touches developed ones, which is why the Pfizers of the world weren’t willing to tackle the problem: No money in it. But Cuba, a poor but otherwise startlingly well-educated country, immediately saw the value in a drug that could save the lives of the world’s have-nots.
The scientists also had a pretty wacky sense of humor about Cuba’s geopolitical position. Back in 2003, the Bush administration was making noises about how Cuba might — just like Iraq! — be generating piles and piles of bioweapons. So when we met with the head of the main biotech lab, the first thing he asked us was, “Do you want to see where we make the biological weapons?” We were stunned, then immediately recovered and said, “hell yes!!” Whereupon he just laughed and was like, psych.
Of course, being in Cuba also gave me a chance to see just how hideous was the country’s human-rights record. We met with one of the very few independent journalists in the country, and he was thrown in jail a month later. Cuba struck me as a curious blend: It’s half Soviet creepiness, with the hoi polloi skulking around terrified of the national police, yet it’s also half Irish can-do high-tech optimism. What I mean is this: Given how well-educated the Cuban population is, if the country were able to trade freely with the US, it could easily transform into something resembling the Irish tiger of the 90s — with a high-tech boom in Havana that parallels the one in Dublin. Whether or not Castro would allow such a flowering is another question; educated well-off middle classes tend not to like having dictators running their affairs, as I’m sure he well knows. But the ingredients of a powerful Cuban boom are there.
Which is why I was interested to read a piece in Wired News yesterday, noting how Cuba’s scientific success is creating a nice little market for its pharmaceuticals — yet running headlong into the country’s anti-market culture:
“They just don’t get capitalism,” a diplomat tells me over coffee in Boston. “The elite may watch American TV and read The Wall Street Journal on the Web, so they have a conversational familiarity. But on a fundamental level they don’t get it and don’t want to get it. They still think there’s something immoral about profit.”
Borroto, of CIGB, remembers talking to colleagues about using patents to protect their expanding market. That was the moment Castro decided to pop into the lab. “What’s all this about patents? You’re sounding crazy!” he said. “We don’t like patents, remember?”
(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)
Today, the New York Times Magazine has published its fourth annual “Year in Ideas” issue — in which it surveys the most innovative, thought-provoking, and just-plain-weird inventions and trends that defined 2004. I contributed seven essays to the issue, so for posterity’s sake I’m blogging all of them here in seven separate entries. The first one is pretty surreal:
by Clive Thompson
When you first see the FanWing, you think: there’s no way that thing is going to fly. After all, it looks less like an airplane than a big, lumbering combine harvester that has somehow strayed from its wheat field. It has a hollow cylinder where its wings ought to be, and when it trundles down the runway, it moves barely faster than a bicycle. But then it lifts off, angles up and — whoa — soars up into the sky.
”People think it’s a hoax, even when they see it for themselves,” says Patrick Peebles, the inventor. Peebles is a former ice-cream-machine-repair instructor and amateur pilot. About 10 years ago, he had an idea for how to radically redesign the airplane so that it would not use wings. Wings, of course, keep a plane aloft in part because of their curved upper surface, which creates lower air pressure above than below, thereby pushing the plane upward. Peebles envisioned something different: he would replace the wing with a tube filled with blades that rotated like the water wheel on a Mississippi riverboat. If the blades spun fast enough, he reasoned, they would reduce the drag on top, allowing the plane to fly. He spent five years tinkering in his living room until he finally got a tiny model airborne. By this year, he was flying a prototype with a 10-foot span, which he introduced to the public at the Farnborough International Air Show in Britain.
Compared with a traditional airplane, the FanWing can fly at much lower speeds and with much greater stability. It can take off from a relatively small runway and cruise at the leisurely pace of a car. If it ever catches on, the FanWing would make a good air taxi, ferrying people on short hops from city to city, or out to airports. It is more fuel-efficient than a helicopter and potentially safer than a normal plane, since a FanWing cannot stall, no matter how sharply it points up or down. The only real danger is if the fan blades jam and cease spinning — then, Peebles admits, ”it drops like a rock.” Peebles is currently talking to military experts in the United States and Britain about using FanWings as unmanned surveillance vehicles, since they could stay aloft for eight hours on one tank of gas. But whatever the FanWing’s commercial success, Peebles can already claim one singular achievement: he has created one of the few truly new aircraft since the Wright brothers.
This was one of my favorite essays I wrote for this year’s New York Times Magazine issue on the “Year in Ideas” — about scientists who deduced the optimum way to skip a stone:
The Best Way to Skip a Stone
by Clive Thompson
Want to break the stone-skipping record? Here’s a hint: throw the stone at an angle of precisely 10 degrees to the water. That’s what a team of French scientists discovered when they constructed a machine to determine the ideal technique. Lyderic Bocquet, a physicist at the Universite Claude Bernard Lyon, became interested in the mechanics of skipping two years ago, while out tossing stones with his son. ”He asked me, why is the stone skipping and not sinking?” he recalls. Bocquet realized that while stone skipping had been around since the ancient Greeks, no scientist had ever deduced the ultimate equations for mastery. He wrote a short paper pondering ”the stone-skipping problem,” whereupon a fellow physicist, Christophe Clanet, suggested they solve it with the aid of a robot. They went on to create a device that could whip metal disks at a tank of water with utter precision.
As they began blasting away, the scientists quickly noticed something remarkable. No matter how fast or slow their robot threw, the disks always seemed to skip farther if the stone hit the water at an angle of roughly 20 degrees. Why? In a January paper for Nature, titled ”Secrets of Successful Stone-Skipping,” they concluded that this was because such an angle produced the briefest impact with the water and thus the least drag on the stone. Armed with this knowledge, they could figure out how to break the world record — a bouncy 40 skips, set in 2002 by Kurt Steiner. They began pitching stones faster and faster, but at its top performance, the robot could only manage 20 skips. ”It was vibrating, and pieces were falling off it,” Bocquet says. Nonetheless, the experiment this fall gave them the answer they needed. To achieve a record-breaking 41 skips, you’d have to throw a stone four inches in diameter at 60 miles an hour and at an angle of 10 degrees. You’d also want to perform this trick on a glass-smooth pond, since the scientists’ tests were conducted in a perfectly still experimental tank.
The scientists admit that there is probably no practical use for this knowledge. For his part, Bocquet admits that he can’t manage more than 15 skips himself. ”Going from theory to practice,” he says, ”is still difficult.”
Here’s the third essay I wrote for this week’s New York Times Magazine issue on the year’s biggest ideas. It’s about the freaky phenomenon of “rogue waves”:
by Clive Thompson
In March 2001, the first officer of the cruise ship Caledonian Star saw a wave that chilled his soul. It stood almost 100 feet tall, towering over the surrounding waves, and it didn’t slope — it was a sheer wall of water. It smashed into the ship with such force that it broke windows and flooded the command deck.
This watery beast was what scientists are now calling a rogue wave. According to a study released this year, there are more of them roaming the oceans than anyone ever imagined. In July, the European Space Agency announced that it had conducted the first satellite study of the oceans, looking specifically for rogues. In a three-week period, the satellites discovered 10 rogues, some taller than 85 feet. The scientists involved said they were stunned by the results, because for centuries skeptics dismissed reports of gigantic waves as myths. Wave equations normally describe an average wave height; they don’t describe rogues.
Now scientists are rushing to produce models that illustrate the behavior of rogues — which rear up and tower twice as high as nearby waves. ”They come out of nowhere, and they’re short-lived,” says Martin Holt, a scientist with Britain’s meteorological office. ”You could be in the same area of sea, and you wouldn’t even know they were there.” Holt is a member of the MaxWave project, a three-year effort to understand what causes rogues. In Norway, one researcher has successfully created his own minirogues in a tank of water.
If rogues are truly common, the implications for sea safety are significant. Every year, big ships are lost at sea; are some being done in by rogues? Critics say today’s ships aren’t strong enough to withstand rogue waves, because they weren’t designed to face down massive walls of water. A rogue can hit with a force of more than 100 tons per square meter. Certifying agencies and oil companies — which operate offshore rigs — are now paying close attention to the MaxWave research. Because if the scientists are right, the biggest sea monsters aren’t beneath the surface — they’re right on top.
Yet another in the small pile of shorts essays I wrote for the “Year in Ideas” issue of the New York Times Magazine. This one is about Charles Leadbetter’s recent report on “The Pro-Am Revolution”:
by Clive Thompson
In January, a man named Jay McNeil peered into his telescope and discovered a nebula — a developing young star — out near the Orion constellation. Professional astronomers worldwide hailed the discovery. But McNeil himself is no credentialed scientist; he installs TV satellite dishes for a living. Today’s backyard skygazers, it seems, use equipment so sophisticated that they can beat out the world’s biggest, well-financed observatories.
And that, according to Charles Leadbeater, a social critic, should be no surprise. In a report titled ”The Pro-Am Revolution,” published by the London-based Demos policy center, Leadbeater argued that a new breed of demi-expert is evolving, collapsing the distinction between an expert and a tinkerer. Cheaper technology offers amateurs increasingly powerful tools; the Internet allows them to collaborate globally and train themselves more rapidly. The upshot is that amateurs are increasingly holding themselves to professional standards and producing significant innovations and discoveries. The Linux computer system was created by geeks working without pay in their spare time, yet it now rivals Microsoft’s best products. Patients arrive at hospitals sometimes better informed about their diseases than their doctors. And amateur lobbyists promoted the Jubilee 2000 campaign, which helped persuade Western nations to cancel more than $30 billion in third-world debt.
In a way, pro-ams represent a return to our past: until the 20th century, much science was conducted by amateur societies. But the rise of pro-ams also reflects recent social changes. We’re living longer, which gives us more time to grow bored with our cubicle jobs and to hunger for a richer life. ”You find people in their 40’s and 50’s going back to the things they always wanted to do in their youth,” Leadbeater says. ”So they’re becoming musicians, gardeners, astronomers. Normally, we regard leisure just as ‘nonwork.’ But these people treat their leisure very seriously. They want to get things out of it.”
Leadbeater says that governments ought to find ways to encourage the higher amateurism. After all, he claims that pro-ams live healthier, more satisfied lives — to say nothing of all the cool stuff they create. Professionals, too, should get used to sharing the stage. Because if Leadbetter is right, the future belongs not to the pros, but to the weekend warriors.
That picture above? It’s of yeast cells. And those, as it turns out, were crucial to one of the other topics I covered for this year’s Times magazine “Year in Ideas”. The essay is about listening to cancer:
Listening for Cancer
by Clive Thompson
Three years ago, the nanotechnology expert James Gimzewski realized something startling about human cells: since they have many tiny moving parts, they might be producing tiny vibrations. And since all vibrations produce noise, it would be theoretically possible to listen to the sound of a cell. Gimzewski set about adapting an extremely small device to measure these vibrations and then with another device proceeded to amplify them loud enough for human ears. He discovered that a yeast cell produced about 1,000 vibrations a second. When he amplified the signal, a musical hum filled the room. ”It wasn’t at all what I expected,” he recalls. ”It sounded beautiful.”
Beautiful, and also potentially revolutionary. Gimzewski says that his technique could become a unique tool in the war against cancer: to figure out if a cell is malignant, doctors could simply listen to it.
When a cell turns cancerous, its internal machinery alters: it might divide more rapidly, and its walls could take a new shape. Those changes, Gimzewski surmises, would produce distinctive rates of vibration and thus distinctive noises. He has already measured the acoustics of some cells going through death cycles. When he measured an inert yeast cell, its lack of movement produced a dead-sounding hiss. And when he immersed a bunch of yeast in alcohol, the cells emitted a creepy ”screaming” sound as they suddenly perished. Even minute changes — like getting warmer — make the cells sing differently. Gimzewski calls his technique sonocytology, and in August he published the first paper on this field in the journal Science.
Gimzewski’s work has attracted some unusual enthusiasts. Representatives of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi contacted him (”they apparently thought I’d discovered ‘the language of life,”’ he says), and a horror-movie director asked if he could use the sound of screaming cells in his soundtrack. But cancer specialists are seriously interested, and Gimzewski is now trying to adapt his device to listen to human cells.
If you’ve spent any time online at all in 2004, this next item won’t come as any surprise. For the 2004 “Year in Ideas” issue of the New York Times Magazine, I wrote a piece about the grassroots surge of web-based political agitprop:
The Do-It-Yourself Attack Ad
by Clive Thompson
For a political ad, ”Bush Hates Veterans” is about as ferocious as they come. ”My question to Mr. Bush is, Do you support the troops? You’re the one who hates the troops,” shouts an angry male voice, as pictures of maimed soldiers fill the screen. ”And you sent them off to die so your friends could get rich!”
You might wonder which TV network would air such a blunt ad, and the answer is none of them. ”Bush Hates Veterans” is an online ad, viewable at BushFlash.com, the Web site of Eric Blumrich, a 34-year-old Web designer in Montclair, N.J. When the Iraq war began, Blumrich started creating spots attacking the Republicans. He has made 27 of them, and more than 3.2 million people have visited his site to watch them. ”I’d been yelling about politics for years, but no one listened to me,” he says. ”Then I put up a couple of animations, and everyone watches.”
Normally, we think of political ads as expensive products, financed by established parties and deep-pocketed organizations. But this election, technology made things drastically cheaper. Inexpensive home video cameras could shoot broadcast-quality footage; cheap software for editing could transform the footage into a punchy spot. Suddenly, virtually any average citizen could run his or her own campaign ad, and this year, it sometimes seemed, virtually any citizen did. Partisans who loathed Howard Dean remixed his infamous scream in parody music; others assembled ”American Betrayal?” an ad pillorying John Kerry over his Vietnam War protests. When MoveOn.org ran a competition for the best self-produced TV spot attacking Bush, 1,500 people submitted ads. ”They were terrific,” says Eli Pariser, the executive director of MoveOn PAC. ”They were much funnier than the ones you see on TV.”
They were certainly more savage. With no TV censors to appease, online ads could throw punches far below the belt. (Maybe too far: MoveOn was criticized for briefly posting two amateur ads that compared Bush with Hitler.) If this political season was more rancorous than most, it was partly because of this explosion of grass-roots advertising, swapped online by gleeful partisans.
Here’s the last of my essays for this year’s annual “Year in Ideas” issue of the New York Times Magazine:
by Clive Thompson
This January, the Danish company Aresa Biodetection announced that it had produced an unusual new variant of thale-cress, a small flowering weed: a strain that turns red in the presence of land mines. Aresa scientists had genetically modified the weed so that it reacts to nitrogen dioxide, a gas commonly emitted by explosives. A result is a new way to detect mines: sprinkle the seeds over a suspect area, wait a few weeks for the thale-cress to grow and — presto — wherever they turn red, you have danger. ”It’s much more efficient,” says Simon Ostergaard, Aresa’s C.E.O. ”It’s very tedious to clear mines the normal way. You’re putting a stick in the ground every three centimeters. One man can sometimes only do two square meters a day.”
Given that there are tens of millions of explosives still strewn across 80 countries — killing and injuring more than 8,000 people a year — the idea has intriguing merits. The plants could help free up precious abandoned farmland by showing farmers where it is still safe to tread. What’s more, the weeds can be genetically altered to detect many other environmental hazards, like heavy metals in the soil. Still, there are plenty of hurdles: Aresa is hoping its invention will pass Europe’s strict regulations governing genetically modified crops. Critics aren’t convinced the plants are accurate enough, since land-mine clearing cannot, for obvious reasons, tolerate errors. (Worse, cows might be attracted to the weeds growing over mines, with disastrous consequences.) Nevertheless, Ostergaard says he hopes to begin trials in Africa next year. If he is successful, the symbolism couldn’t be more lovely: the brutality of land mines quelled by a humble flower.
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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