Archive: March 2005

“Attention Deficit Trait”

Dr. Edward Hallowell has studied Attention Deficit Disorder for a decade, and now he thinks he’s diagnosed a related sydrome: Attention Deficit Trait. It has basically the symptoms as ADD — such as an inability to concentrate on one task at at time — except it’s context dependent. ADT is caused by the technologies of constant interruption in the modern workplace and the modern home, such as email, instant messaging, SMSes, mobile phones, and endless meetings (or endless preplanned children’s sports). The thing that makes the two conditions different, he says, is that ADD seems to be hardwired, while ADT goes away when you’re on vacation or in a relaxing, non-hyper-stimulated place.

CNET has interview with him, and I found this comment particularly intriguing:

No one really multitasks. You just spend less time on any one thing. When it looks like you’re multitasking—you’re looking at one TV screen and another TV screen and you’re talking on the telephone—your attention has to shift from one to the other. You’re brain literally can’t multitask. You can’t pay attention to two things simultaneously. You’re switching back and forth between the two. So you’re paying less concerted attention to either one.

I think in general, why some people can do well at what they call multitasking is because the effort to do it is so stimulating. You get adrenaline pumping that helps focus your mind. What you’re really doing is focusing better at brief spurts on each stimulus. So you don’t get bored with either one.

That makes sense to me. Sometimes when I catch myself endlessly flipping back and forth into email when I’m supposed to be doing research or writing, I initially think I’m procrastinating. But then I wonder whether I’m doing something weirder: Using email almost like a sip of caffeine, a way to tickle my brain.

I’m torn over the pathologization of high-tech interruptions. On the one hand, I certainly do find that I need serious, serious bouts of monomaniacal concentration to produce my best work. When I’m in the middle of a six-hour writing jag, the last thing I want is an interruption. But at the same time, the backlash against multitasking seems to a strange melange of purse-lipped Puritanism and psychotherapeutic/hippie/prechewed-Eastern-philosophy concepts of how the ultimate goal in life is just to, y’know, empty your mind. Hey, I love it when my mind is still, but I love it when it’s crazy too. The riot of a multithreaded workday — when I’m simultaneously Googling, talking on the phone, IMing, emailing, and thinking — can have a creative energy of its own.

(Thanks to Techdirt for this one!)

How to fake an ATM

Next time you use a bank machine, check closely to make sure it’s the real thing. Cops in San Francisco report that thieves are now installing fake overlays on banking ATMs. The fakes swallow your card, record your PIN, and report that they’re out of service; the thieves show up later to remove the fake overlay and harvest the cards and collected PINs.

As crimes go, I gotta had it to these scam artists: That takes work. It’s also quite successful, according to a story in last week’s San Francisco Examiner:

Daly City nurse Elaine Flaherty’s ATM card was swallowed at a Washington Mutual bank in the West Portal district March 13, and within hours thieves had milked $4,000 from the card, using it from San Mateo to Los Angeles.

After poking around online a bit, I discovered a fascinating summary written up by Diebold — the leading manufacturer of ATMs — of the latest card-scamming techniques (PDF link). Some of the tricks are pretty low-fi. In some cases, the scam artists put a simple jamming device on the ATM’s card-slot that gets the card stuck inside. Then they put a fake sticker on the ATM saying that “if your card doesn’t work, try typing your PIN again”, which gives the shoulder-surfing thieves a chance to watch and remember it again. When you give up and walk away, they retrieve your card and withdraw all your cash. But some of the cons are more high-tech. In some cases, the criminals also put a fake 12-button keypad over the ATM’s real keypad; their fake records your PIN. And that artificial overlay for the entire machine, pictured above, is the ne plus ultra of this flimflammery.

It occurs to me that one of the reasons the fake overlays work is that real ATMs these days are often so shoddily designed that they already look fake. Sure, the ATMs embedded into the side of banks are usually pretty gleaming and high-tech. But the bank machines you find in crummy corner bodegas, composed of cheap aluminum and early-80s-vintage all-green video displays? Those things look like badly-assembled droids from the first Star Wars. No wonder it’s so easy to dupe banking customers. Using materials I’ve got lying around my kitchen, I could probably create a reasonable facsimile of the ATMs in most Manhattan bagel shops.

(Thanks to El Rey for this one!)

Hydrostatic bipedal movement!

It wouldn’t feel like a genuine re-launch of this blog without fresh news of our cephalopod overlords. That’s why I was so pleased to hear of the recent discovery that some tropical octopi have learned to wrap six of their legs around their heads — and walk on the remaining two, upright like humans. Check out the video here: It is, as UC Berkeley grad student Crissy Huffard excitedly reports, the first-ever example of “hydrostatic bipedal movement”. If these things ever develop opposable thumbs we are, clearly, screwed.

I had sort of hoped the octopi had decided to walk on two legs just because they thought it would totally rock. But it appears to be a defense mechanism, as one of the investigators notes:

Huffard and coauthor Robert Full, professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley, think that this bipedal walking is a strategy octopuses use to backpedal away from predators while remaining camouflaged. Octopuses camouflage themselves by changing both color and shape, but when startled and forced to move quickly, they have to give up their camouflage.

Not so when walking.

“This bipedal behavior allows them to get away and remain cryptic,” said Huffard.

(Thanks to Plastic for this one!)

Rental justice

Ten years ago, I graduated college and moved into a cockroach-infested flophouse in the Kensington Market, which back then was one of Toronto’s most decrepit neighborhoods. I rented the house with three other people, but we had a problem: All the rooms were different sizes, and we were all incredibly broke. Who should get the bigger or smaller rooms, and what rent should they pay, respectively? In essence, we faced a classic problem of “fair division” — how to assign values to differently-sized and differently-valued slices of a pie.

The problem with fair-division solutions is that they rarely satisfy everyone; there’s always someone who winds up feeling the acid sting of envy, certain that they were screwed by the others in the negotiation. But as it turns out, there are in fact reasonably solid game-theory ways to solve a fair-division problem to produce that cherished grail of economic hocus-pocus: The “envy-free” result. Back in 1999, mathematician Francis Edward Su wrote a paper for Scientific American explaining his solution and applying it, coincidentally enough, to the problem of apartment-rent division (PDF link).

Then he did something even cooler: He created the Fair Division Calculator, a java app that you can fire up the next time you’re fighting over how to divide a cake. You set the application running, and it enacts his fair-division algorithm. As he describes on his site:

- Players are named A, B, C, …

- The applet will suggest divisions and successively ask players which portion she would prefer.

- After polling several players though various scenarios, the “Suggest Division” button will light up. When it does, press it to see an approximate solution, good up to the displayed precision.

- Press “Continue Iteration” to run the algorithm longer and obtain solutions with better precision.

I am so going to try this out.

(Thanks to Jim Jazwiecki for this one!)

My New York Times Book Review piece on Norbert Wiener

The New York Times Book Review asked me to review an excellent new biography of Norbert Wiener — who was the famous pioneer of “cybernetics”, and who had a life more insanely strange that I could possibly have imagined. The review ran last Sunday; it’s online here, and I’ve archived it below too:

The Original Computer Geek

by Clive Thompson

To be a truly famous scientist, you need to have a hit single. Einstein had E = mc2. Newton had the apple and gravity. Even the lesser rock-star scientists have one shining achievement for which they’re known — such as Niels Bohr’s theory of the atom.

But there’s another kind of scientist who never breaks through, usually because while his discovery is revolutionary it’s also maddeningly hard to summarize in a simple sentence or two. He never produces a catchy hit single. He’s more like a back-room influencer: his work inspires dozens of other innovators who absorb the idea, produce more easily comprehensible innovations and become more famous than their mentor could have dreamed. Find an influencer, and you’ll find a deeply bitter man.

Norbert Wiener — the inventor of “cybernetics” — is precisely this type of scientist. Odds are that you are only dimly aware of cybernetics, if at all. (A friend asked me, “Isn’t that like Dianetics?”) “Dark Hero of the Information Age,” by the journalists Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, intends to correct this, but their book struggles with the circular tautologies of fame: it must continually plead the case of why the guy ought to have been better known.

» MORE...

Back online, finally

So, I’m finally back posting — after a two week hiatus. But there’s one big change: From now on, anyone who wants to post comments will have to sign in using the free TypeKey system. Why?

Because of comment spam. The whole reason this site crashed two weeks ago was because I’d received so much comment spam — about 10,000 messages in the last year — that it had corrupted my database. The only way to get the blog back up and running was to upgrade to the next version of Movable Type. But then I had a bigger problem: My spam-blocking software, MT-Blacklist, for some reason isn’t compatible with this new version of Movable Type. Since I can’t use it to block spam, the only other way to prevent a new flood of spamming is to require that anyone who wants to post has to sign in. That, theoretically, should prevent any spambots from posting here. (Or so I pray.)

The downside, of course, is that I suspect the commenting will be far less lively around here, which sucks. I far prefer it when someone can instantly and anonymously leave a comment. It creates a far more dynamic — if occasionally psychotic — atmosphere of debate, which I enormously enjoy; one of the main reasons I blog is to read the wildly perceptive and informative comments that people leave here. I suspect that requiring people to register before they comment will eliminate half, or more, of the one-time commenters who pass through this blog, and it may well chase away most of those who otherwise would become regular commenters. Sigh.

There’s a slim chance that I’ll eventually figure out what’s wrong with Blacklist, and get it working. If I do, terrific! Then I can probably get rid of the registering, and re-open it to anonymous, unregistered posters.

In the meantime, I heartily encourage any of this blog’s longtime posters to go over to TypeKey and get a registration I.D. so you can keep posting here! It only takes about 53 seconds, really, and you only have to do it once. Whine, plead, whine.

Having trouble posting comments, using Internet Explorer? Here’s how to fix it …

To fight spam, I had to start requiring that people who want to post on this blog log in using TypeKey registration. (You can get an account free here; it takes about one minute.)

But if you use Internet Explorer, you may find that TypeKey doesn’t let you log in. Here are two fixes:

Simple fix

After you’ve logged into TypeKey and you’re back at the blog posting, hit “refresh”. That usually does the trick: You’ll be able to see the posting field.

If that doesn’t work …

Slightly less simple fix

… try doing this quick, easy tweak of your browser.

1. In the menu items at the top of your browser window, go to the “Tools” menu, then choose “Internet Options…”

2. When the “Internet Options” dialog box pops up, click the “Privacy” tab at the top of that popup box.

3. In the “Web Sites” area at the bottom of the box, click the button “Edit.” (If the “Edit” button isn’t clickable, that’s because your privacy options are set too low. See that slider in the area just above the “Edit” button? You’ve probably got it set at “Accept All Cookies.” Slide it one notch higher, to “Low”. Now you can click the “Edit” button below.)

4. In the “Address of website” field, type “” (don’t type the quotation marks, of course) and then click “Allow.”

5. Click “OK” at the bottom of that dialog box.

6. Click “OK” on the Privacy tab.

From now on, you should have no problem logging in to comment on this site!

(If you care, here’s a technical explanation for why this bug exists: My blog domain is, but the blog is hosted at a domain called When you first try to use TypeKey to comment on my blog, TypeKey issues you a cookie for But then Internet Explorer has to talk to the domain — and it sometimes freaks out because it thinks it’s a “third party”. So you have to tell Internet Explorer that cookies from are permanently allowed. Interestingly, the problem doesn’t seem to happen in any other browser — not Firefox, Netscape, or Safari.)

Postings temporarily broken — please do not adjust your blog

Sorry folks — for some reason that seems to be related to the functioning of MT-Blacklist, the anti-commentspam software, comments on this blog aren’t working. I’m working on fixing it ASAP.

I can sing a raaaiiiin-bow

If you’ve heard of Flickr, you know it’s a very cool photo-sharing application where users can upload their photos, show them to other people, and browse the photos of everyone else. Flickr also allows you to put a “tag” on a photo — a word or catchphrase explaining what the photo represents — which makes for another fun way to peruse its offerings: Try pumping in “lazy” or “wonderful” into the Flickr directory and see what you get.

Now Jim Bumgardner has created an even cooler browsing mechanism: Colr Pickr, in which you point to a particular color on a color-wheel mandala, and the app displays a set of Flickr photos that are all precisely that hue. Anyone know how he did this? He doesn’t explain on his site. Either way, it’s mesmerizing.

Why you can’t get that song out of your head

Two years ago, I blogged about “earworms” — songs you can’t get out of your head. Apparently there are a lot of people out there suffering from this, because that posting is still on the first page of Google results for “earworms”. But today I read about a study that helps explain why songs can become so firmly implanted.

A couple of researchers from Dartmouth University put some people in fMRI tubes, and scanned their brains while they listened to songs that were both familiar and unfamiliar; as you might imagine, there was all sorts of activity in the auditory cortexes. Then, the scientists would hit the “mute” button for a second or two. When the song was familiar, the subjects’ auditory cortexes kept on firing — as if the subjects were still hearing the songs. (In fact, when they were later asked about the experience, they reported still “hearing” the music even when it was briefly muted.) But when the song was unfamiliar? The subjects’ brains didn’t have that same level of activity, as the BBC reports. That seems to suggest that our brains get highly trained by a catchy, memorable song — which is why it can feel like we can’t get it out of our heads.

Interestingly, lyrics also made a difference. As Dartmouth officials reported in a press release:

The researchers also found that lyrics impact the different auditory brain regions that are recruited when musical memories are reconstructed. If the music went quiet during an instrumental song, like during the theme from the Pink Panther, individuals activated many different parts of the auditory cortex, going farther back in the processing stream, to fill in the blanks. When remembering songs with words, however, people simply relied on the more advanced parts of the auditory processing stream.

“It makes us think that lyrics might be the focus of the memory,” says Kraemer.

(Thanks to for this one!)

A virtual body for the paralyzed

In the last month I’ve written articles about two seemingly disparate topics: Online multiplayer games, and “brain-computer interfaces”, devices that allow paralyzed patients to control computers. That got me thinking: Wouldn’t it be cool to merge the two? Why not take one of the brain-computer interfaces and hook it up to a 3D online world, so that a paralyzed person can walk around in the game?

As the old joke goes, on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog — and that’s even more true in online games, where you mostly care about someone’s avatar, not their actual identity. While recently playing World of Warcraft, I spent an evening killing thieves, tarantulas and monsters with a powerful magician, only to discover at the end of the evening that the player was a 13-year-old girl in Ohio. (She was even more freaked out to discover she’d been playing alongside a 36-year-old journalist.) But the point is, once you’re inside the game, everyone’s equal. If a paralyzed person could successfully control an avatar, their online “body” would be precisely as fully-abled as that of any other player.

So I opened up the latest Wired and discovered that, yep, some brain-computer interface people have indeed been wiring quadriplegic patients up so they can successfully play video games and use remote controls. Richard Martin writes about the case of Matt Nagle, a 25-year-old who’s been paralyzed from the neck down, but who can kick your ass at Pong:

Nagle turned the TV on and off and switched channels (trapped in his hospital room, he’s become a daytime-TV addict). Then he opened and read the messages in his dummy email program. “Now I’m at the point where I can bring the cursor just about anywhere,” he said. “I can make it hover off to the side, not doing anything. When I first realized I could control it I said, ‘Holy shit! I like this.’”

What are you thinking about when you move the cursor? I asked.

“For a while I was thinking about moving the mouse with my hand,” Nagle replied. “Now, I just imagine moving the cursor from place to place.” In other words, Nagle’s brain has assimilated the system. The cursor is as much a part of his self as his arms and legs were.


An artist took a Pringles can and used it as a pinhole camera — with incredibly amazing results, as he documents on his web site polaroids & pinholes. The images are weirdly haunting, like everyday objects seen through the eyes of an alien. The experience of using the camera is also aparently quite meditative, as the artist writes:

Total darkness as the colour paper is curled into the case of the tube.

Lid on, out into the light.

From half a minute to five minutes or more. A vague look at the watch, but more importantly, a calmness as the camera does its thing.

Back into the dark.

Always surprised at the results. Sometimes great patience is required to get a good result.

(Thanks to Ektopia for this one!)

The iMac of chicken coops

Continuing in my recent blogging about chicken technology, I’ve just found out about the Eglu — a personal chicken coop that looks eerily like a hollowed-out iMac. A creation of the British company Omlet, the Eglu is aimed a citydwellers who want to raise a couple of chickens in the backyard; as the site notes, “we wanted it to be as easy as looking after a goldfish but more rewarding than owning a dog”, an emotional algorithm of sufficient precision that I couldn’t stop laughing for about five minutes.

Given that my last chicken entry was about the creeptacular E-Z Catch Chicken Harvester, I was charmed to discover that Omlet offers comprehensive instructions on how to pick up your chickens:

As a rule the best way is to quickly grab their feet from under them. Do NOT chase your chickens around grabbing at their tails or wings. This will only cause them panic which could be bad for their health or at the very least, affect egg production.

Sometimes your chicken may think that you are a cockerel and flatten themselves to the ground in anticipation of mating. This will actually make them easier to pick up!

Once you have your chicken by the legs try to get it into a position in which you can carry it whilst supporting its body. Use one hand to support it from underneath by putting your index finger between its legs and securing the legs with your thumb and forefinger.

My mother grew up on a farm in Winnipeg, and I recall her once describing the sight of one my Ukranian great-grandmothers — who was about five feet tall and maybe 98 pounds — expertly grabbing a chicken and using a hatchet to hack off its head in one lethal chop. Now there’s a skill you don’t often need on the streets of Manhattan.

(Thanks to Emily Gordon for this one!)

An MMORPG on your back: My latest Slate gaming column

Slate just published my latest gaming column, which is about the “massively multiplayer online games” — and why they have such a reputation for destroying your life. It’s true: Uniquely amongst games, MMORPGs are renowned for sucking players in to 20, 40, or even 80 hours a week of gameplay, and occasionally just flat-out wrecking marriages. As I note in my column:

Why are online games so addictive? It’s mostly the narcotic appeal of “leveling.” When you create a new character—in World of Warcraft, I made myself a Paladin—it starts life as a weakling. Completing specific quests and destroying wolves, evil marauders, and mechanical golems jumps you to the next level, where you suddenly have more endurance, more strength, and stronger spells. The sense of accomplishment is incredible but fleeting. To make these games challenging, designers make the mathematics of leveling logarithmic: The higher you go, the longer it takes to reach the next level. Leveling is thus precisely like a drug whose effect weakens the more you use it. Early on, you’re flush with achievement as you quickly zip from Level 1 to Level 5. But then everything slows down, and you’re grinding away for hours to get your next fix.

But hope is finally here; as my column notes, the latest generation of MMORPGs — specifically World of Warcaft and City of Heroes — are designed to make it easier to play without signing your own divorce papers. You can read the whole thing online here for free, and if you have any thoughts about it, feel free to post in Slate’s forum, The Fray!

The chicken vacuum

Behold the E-Z Catch Chicken Harvester. Once upon a time, chicken farmers had to spend hours running around manually grabbing chickens and stuffing them into coops. So a company called BrightCoop has invented what is essentially a vacuum for chickens — it has rotating circular sweeps, much like the ones you see on street-cleaning machines, that automatically gather up the chickens and hoover them into pens. BrightCoop has a site — which cheerily boasts “LIFE JUST GOT EASIER” — that lays down the technical specs for the E-Z Catch:

Position of rotating drums hydraulically adjustable for: various chicken sizes, distance between drums, speed of rotation of the 11.5” rubber fingers and height for house conditions. Drive wheels on drum assembly are hydraulically driven and steered independent of main power unit.

Rotating drums can be tilted forward or backward, hydraulically, to adjust for litter condition.

To truly fry your noodle, check out the video BrightCoop posted online, in which a worker mows the device straight into a massive herd of chickens and the E-Z Catch sucks them into its maw. I’m no animal-rights freak and eat plenty of meat, but seriously, this thing looks like some sort of freak bastard love-child of The Matrix and Soylent Green. PETA couldn’t have imagineered a more perfect image for the utter creepiness and sociopathy of industrial animal-farming. I have to admit, at first it made me giggle a bit — c’mon, a chicken vacuum? — but after a while it queazed me right the heck out.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

Let us now praise the ringtone

In the current New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones has a superb little essay in praise of the ringtone. Most specifically, he’s intrigued by the aesthetics of creating something catchy out of the teensy, MIDI-like constraints of ringtone polyphony. As Frere-Jones points out, every ring includes a zillion tiny aesthetic decisions:

The ringtone also teaches us how songs work. Which clip best exemplifies a song? Did the ringtone’s maker select the right bit? Do you even need to hear the singing? Perhaps the part of the song that arouses our lizard brain is the instrumental opening. It may be stranger and more sublime to hear a polyphonic impression of George Michael’s voice than to listen to the real thing one more time. If a song can survive being transposed from live instruments to a cell-phone microchip, it must have musically hardy DNA. Many recent hip-hop songs make terrific ringtones because they already sound like ringtones. The polyphonic and master-tone versions of “Goodies,” by Ciara, for example, are nearly identical. Ringtones, it turns out, are inherently pop: musical expression distilled to one urgent, representative hook. As ringtones become part of our environment, they could push pop music toward new levels of concision, repetition, and catchiness.

He goes on to lament the rise of the “master tone”, which is not a polyphonic recreation of the original pop song, but a literal sample — a snippet of the song itself. Since it’s merely a cut-and-pasted chunk of the original, it doesn’t have any of the through-the-looking-glass qualities that make polyphonic recreations so necessarily surreal. But since the master tone is now taking over, as Frere-Jones concludes, “polyphonic-ringtone nostalgia is approximately six months away.”

I kind of agree with him. Though many ringtones annoy the heck out of me — and, as I discovered while doing research for New York in January, ringtones can actually increase your body’s histaminic stress levels — they’re a curious artform, part metaphor and part metonym: Both a version of the thing and the thing itself.

This is your brain on blogs

Two doctors who specialize in children with learning difficulties run a blog, and they recently wrote a short essay explaining why blogging may help improve critical thinking. They offer a few suggestions, but the most intriguing to me was this:

Blogging is ideally suited to follow the plan for promoting creativity advocated by pioneering molecular biologist Max Delbruck. Delbruck’s “Principle of Limited Sloppiness” states we should be sloppy enough so that unexpected things can happen, but not so sloppy that we can’t find out that it did. Raw, spontaneous, associational thinking has also been advocated by many creativity experts, including the brilliant mathematician Henri Poincare who recommended writing without much thought at times “to awaken some association of ideas.”

It is, of course, incredibly self-serving for these bloggers to blog about why blogging makes your smarter, and probably even more self-serving for me to blog about a blog entry on why blogging makes you smarter. Eh. Still, I think that quote above is on to something. There’s a quality to blogging that is like brainstorming — thinking out loud — yet as the doctors pointed out, the fact that each brainstorm session is permanently Googled forces you to think a little harder about what you’re saying. Though I still believe, as I’ve previously argued, that the Internet may actually wind up being recognized more for its psychological impact than its intellectual one: “The world’s largest uncontrolled experiment in mass therapy,” as I once put it.

(Thanks to Steve Emrich for this one!)

Hey there, Remington

As I’ve blogged about before, one of the sucky things about being called “Clive” is that it’s such a rare name in North America that a) everyone always misspells it, b) everyone always mispronounces it, and, perhaps worst, c) when you’re a kid you can never get one of those little license plates with your name BECAUSE THEY NEVER EVER MAKE ONE WITH “CLIVE” ON IT. I remain bitter to this day. Two years ago I was slightly redeemed when I discovered the existence of Clive Bags, the hipster/skatepunk/snowboarding company that makes incredibly cool bags customized for Xtreme sports.

Anyway, I was intrigued to happen upon NameVoyager, a little web that lets you type in a name and create a chart showing how, over the last 100 years, it has waxed or waned in popularity amongst the most common 1,000. It’s unbelievably fascinating! Type in an old-fashioned name like “Mabel”, and you can watch it start at the top-most part of the chart in 1900, then rapidly drop to the bottom and vanish by the 1970s. “Pamela” began rising from nothing in the 1930s, hit the top in 1950, then declined just as steeply. Isabel was minorly popular in the early 20th century, faded low in the 70s, then in the last ten years suddenly rocketed to the top. Perhaps most frightening is that “Remington” was, justly, a completely unused name until the early 80s … when Remington Steele went on the air, and the name began climbing upwards.

I’m like, Remington?? What sort of crack addict names their kid after a freaking TV show? Actually, the sad fact is that pretty much any celeb who makes the charts will inspire a frighteningly large number of idiot parents to stick their child with said name. “What should we name our precious little boy?” “Well, I don’t know, honey. What’s on TV tonight?” Christ almighty. Forty years from now the CEO of General Motors will probably be named Kid Rock Johnson or something.

One of the things that particularly horrifies my wife, Emily, is that her name is not only popular — it has been the single-most popular name for female babies for the last eight years’ running. So I generated the chart for “Emily” and, sure enough, that’s it above — the appelative giant that bestrides all American girls like a colossus.

I typed in “Clive”, but since it’s never penetrated the top 1,000 names, it didn’t even generate a chart. Sigh.

(Thanks to Andrew for this one!)

This will go on your permanent record

High school has always been a hotbed of forgery: I remember kids sitting in the cafeteria, practising their parents’ handwriting so they could generate fake notes. According to the New York Times’ Education section, the age of high-tech document manipulation has moved that subculture into overdrive. As they report:

In interviews with principals across the country, many mentioned the ease of altering report cards and transcripts using desktop publishing software like Adobe Photoshop, which allows students to capture a school’s seal off its Web site and paste it into a file to create an official-looking document.

One administrator told of a student who was caught forging his report card when the nearby Kinko’s called the school to report that a student had left a copy of his grades on the copier. One principal said he had heard of students forging transcripts with generic-embossed seals to avoid paying for official transcripts.

So many schools have begun using secure, hard-to-replicate document stock from Scrip-Safe that the company began offering a product line specifically for academic institutions.

The power law of the Oscars

This was an unusual year for the Oscars: No single film dominated the field and swept the board. Granted, two movies — Million Dollar Baby and The Aviator — did very well, and Million Dollar Baby grabbed all the “important” awards.

But as a couple of scientists found when they studied the data, in most years the Oscars are dominated by a single powerful film that stands out, much the way The Lord of the Rings did in 2003, or Titanic in its famously award-studded season. In 2002, Alan Collins — an economist at the University of Portsmouth — and Chris Hand, a media arts scholar at the Royal Hollaway University of London, gathered stats on the winners of Oscars and the Golden Globe awards from 1983 to 2000. They discovered that the winners follow a power-law distribution — or a Zipf-curve or Yule distribution, depending on what terminology you prefer. That means that a relatively small number of films snared the majority of awards: Sweeping the board is indeed the norm, not the exception.

But why? That’s an interesting question, because most often power-law distributions take hold in systems where the winners have a first-mover advantage — and can thus avail themselves of the “rich get richer” phenomenon. If you’re the first blog in your field, you’ll get linked to by every follower, ensuring you have the highest traffic; if you’re the first city to build a major airport, any new airports will connect to you, ensuring you’re the biggest hub; if your stock gets a little bump on NASDAQ, you might just find yourself benefitting from a herd-mentality stampede as everyone jumps on board.

But voting for the Oscars happens, theoretically, in secret. There’s no information flow, and thus no way for a power law to take hold, right?

Well, sure. Except of course it’s not really a secretive, traditionally democratic process — the members of the Academy talk all the time amongst themselves about their preference. As Collins and Hands drily note in the paper (which you can download as a PDF here):

It is the spread of opinion from colleagues which may result in the clustering of voters’ opinions. Information cascade models generally require decisions to be made sequentially and for the decision of the n+1th consumer to be influenced by the nth consumer. However … information cascade models based on local interactions can also produce heavy tailed / power law distributions.

In this case, for “local interactions” read “Academy members trading gossip while doing blow in the bathroom during a party”. That’s the beauty of network science: According to the theory, even Tara Reid is a potential source of data.

A pool cue even robots would love

When you play pool, one of the things that screws up your shot is “cue deflection” — when the cue hits the ball so hard it adds unwanted spin. Pros know how to control their shots so well they can avoid this; the rest of amateurs, not so much. To help out us lamers, the folks at Predator decided to make a cue that has a tip so slight in mass that when you take a hard shot, the ball’s mass pushes the cue aside — and not vice versa. They spent a huge amount of time engineering the cue, including splicing it together out of 10 pie-shaped wedges.

Then they built a robot. As the New York Times reports:

To test the Z Shaft’s novel shape, Predator enlisted the aid of Iron Willie, the company’s 70-pound robot. Equipped with an elbow that never tires, Iron Willie was charged with shooting a cue ball toward a piece of carbonless copy paper, moving five millimeters to the right or left and then shooting again - and again and again - until Predator determined exactly how much taper could virtually eliminate cue ball deflection without making the shaft susceptible to fracturing.

The shaft is so slender that it produces a fair amount of tactile feedback when it meets the cue ball. After a few hundred games, Z Shaft users can sense the pleasant vibration that indicates a perfectly struck cue ball, versus the rough twitter that accompanies an uneven stroke.

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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