Archive: April 2005

Why fan-based art will rule: My latest Slate column

For my latest Slate column, I wrote in praise of Star Wars Revelations — a 40-minute movie produced, funded, and distributed entirely by volunteer fans. It’s utterly amazing — the most impressive piece of fan art yet. And, as I argue in the article, this might be the salvation of our slowly-dying sci-fi franchises: Open-source ‘em and let the fans take over.

Our most cherished sci-fi franchises are in a creative trough. Lucas’ movies have spiraled into unwatchability; Paramount has so exhausted its ideas for Star Trek that it’s folding up its tent and going home. The fans, in contrast, still give a damn: The director of Revelations, Shane Felux, is clearly more knowledgeable about the strengths and weaknesses of the material than Lucas himself. Felux’s movie retains the funky vibe of the original Star Wars, down to the kitschy, ’70s-style wipes, the obligatory scene in an alien bar, and Darth Vader’s throat-choking technique. Better yet, it jettisons Lucas’ most loathed innovations — neither Jar Jar Binks nor any Ewoks make an appearance. Fans may be pointy-headed and obsessed with useless trivia, but they have excellent bullshit detectors.

The fans can also give Industrial Light and Magic a run for its money. When it comes to special effects, Revelations is nothing short of astonishing. Early on, there’s a jaw-dropping chase scene in which the heroes’ ship darts like a nimble fish through a cluttered space-yard, a fleet of TIE fighters in hot pursuit. Later, a stunning attack on an Empire Destroyer left me laughing in sheer surprise.

You can read the rest of the piece online for free here, and if you’ve any thoughts, feel free to post them in The Fray, Slate’s discussion area!

The white knight is talking backwards

Why do so many chess players wind up with severe mental illness? People have long noted connections between madness and a talent for math and logic; in his excellent book Engines of Logic — a history of the people who brought us conceptual framework of the computer — Martin Davis discovers that easily half the guys were wildly ill. But in modern times, it’s the ravings and antics of Bobby Fischer that pose the question most directly: Did chess trouble his mind, or is it simply that people with troubled minds seek out chess?

Could it be that chess is a palliative? Does someone with that much logical talent literally need chess as a steam-release-valve, or a meditative focus for their brains? British chess Master Bill Hartston once quipped that “chess doesn’t drive people mad, it keeps mad people sane”. I’ve spoken with chess masters who describe their mental states in fascinating ways: “The chess pieces eventually just vanish,” as one once told me, “and you just see the board in your mind as vectors of force and movement, like the purest geometry ever.” He also told me that when he lies in bed he can’t get the images out of his head; this causes insomnia, which itself, of course, can trigger depression or manic episodes. Everyone who’s played a few hours of Tetris or Halo knows what it’s like to have that stuff stuck in your head; imagine how much more intense it is for people who think about chess for hours and hours a day.

This question — whether the playing of serious chess can loop into a self-reinforcing spiral — is damn interesting, and Charles Krauthammer, of all people, recently tackled in it a Time column. He notes that while chess requires monomaniacal focus, so do sports like golf, and nobody’s worried about Tiger Woods going mad. Then Krauthammer makes his most intriguing points:

Well, then, this must be monomania of a certain sort. Chess is a particularly enclosed, self-referential activity. It’s not just that it lacks the fresh air of sport, but that it lacks connections to the real world outside — a tether to reality enjoyed by the monomaniacal students of other things, say, volcanic ash or the mating habits of the tsetse fly. As Stefan Zweig put it in his classic novella The Royal Game, chess is “thought that leads nowhere, mathematics that add up to nothing, art without an end product, architecture without substance.”

But chess has a third — and unique — characteristic that is particularly fatal. It is not just monomaniacal and abstract, but its arena is a playing field on which the other guy really is after you. The essence of the game is constant struggle against an adversary who, by whatever means of deception and disguise, is entirely, relentlessly, unfailingly dedicated to your destruction. It is only a board, but it is a field of dreams for paranoia.

Research into the relationship of chess and mental illness will reveal some really cool things about the mind, I predict.

(Thanks to Filter for this one!)

1337 h@x0r 0wnz0rs himself

This is just beautiful: A moronic script-kiddie, while boasting about his mad coding skillz, was conned into erasing his own hard drive.

“bitchchecker”, the idiot in question, was in an IRC room and thought he’d been thrown out by the moderator, “Elch”. He demanded that Elch reveal his IP address so that bitcchecker could attack him. Elch gave him the address — which was actually bitchchecker’s computer, though bitchchecker was too stupid to actually know this. Thus, bitchchecker launched a ferocious drive-erasing attack against himself, gloating as he watched his “victim’s” hard drive evaporate — then abruptly blinking offline when his computer died.

There’s a funny story about it here, and Elch saved a copy of the chat online. He’s an excerpt, slightly edited to aid comprehension:

<Elch> You’re a real computer expert

<bitchchecker> shut up i hack you

<Elch> ok, i’m quiet, hope you don’t show us how good a hacker you are ^^

<bitchchecker> tell me your network number man then you’re dead

<Elch> Eh, it’s

<Elch> or maybe

<Elch> yes exactly that’s it: I’m waiting for you great attack

<bitchchecker> in five minutes your hard drive is deleted

<bitchchecker> elch you idiout your hard drive g: is deleted

<Elch> yes, there’s nothing i can do about it

<bitchchecker> and in 20 seconds f: is gone

<bitchchecker> and d: is at 45% you idiot lolololol

<bitchchecker> your d: is gone

<bitchchecker> elch man you’re so stupid never give your ip on the internet

<bitchchecker> i’m already at c: 30 percent

* bitchchecker ( Quit (Ping timeout#)

(Thanks to Morgan for this one!)

One giant boing for mankind

In the wake of my recent posting on the insanity of jetpacks, Brian Corcoran pointed out yet another example of innovative technology designed to augment human abilities, and break every single bone in our bodies: The Springwalker. Pictured above, it’s a spring-powered exoskeleton that lets you boing along at high speed; in a demonstration video, the Springwalker looks and sounds eerily like one of those shuffling, Ewok-vulnerable AT-ST walkers from Star Wars. (Yes, I just wrote the phrase “Ewok-vulnerable”.) As the inventors told Fortune:

“Nature spent millions of years engineering us as running creatures. It will take some doing to better that — but we’ll soon be running at 30 miles per hour,” says NASA physicist John Dick, who co-invented this walking device at his Claremont, California, startup company in his spare time. “This is just a clumsy prototype, but it will give rise to a whole family of enhanced-gait machines the likes of which we’ve never seen.”

I gotta admit, it looks like a lot of fun — but you’d be picking road-gravel out of your larynx if you did a face-plant on one of these things.

(Thanks to Brian for this one!)

This posting is not a piece of viral marketing

During the Superbowl, Pepsi ran an ad called “Pop the Music”, which technically was supposed to be a spot for its iTunes tie-in. But the commercial inadvertantly made a star out of a Mandy Amano, a woman who appears in the ad for about three or four seconds. Geeks swooned over her and began posting frantic mash notes on discussion boards planetwide.

But perhaps the most fervent admirer is Justin, some dude in Michigan who set up an entire blog devoted to tracking every last media-mention and photo of Amano. Justin is so crazily devoted that some bloggers have began to wonder whether he’s actually a secret viral-marketing campaign run by Pepsi — or maybe just an extraordinarily creepy stalker. The thing is, Justin liberally quotes from all of these critics, which could either mean that he’s nothing of the sort … or perhaps all the more of the sort. When someone who has been accused of being a piece of viral marketing winds up actively discussing the perception that he might be a piece of viral marketing, we have clearly arrived at the end of history: Please remove your brain and pack it in the closet, folks; won’t be needing that any more!

Interestingly, Justin also quotes from other Amano-stalkers who seem even more devoted yet. Consider this note, which he cobbled from a blogger who analyzed Amano’s listing on the Internet Movie Database:

Her filmography is rather short, and I think she only shows up for about 4 seconds in Coyote Ugly (if she’s one of the short-haired girls dancing on the bar). If you have the DVD (and I identified her properly), her first scene is at time point 1:05:39 for two seconds (under the ceiling fan) and her second and last scene is at 1:05:49 (at the left of the screen). There’s going to be a special unrated edition released in June, but only 7 minutes of restored footage, who knows what is in those scenes.

(Thanks to Morgan for this one!)

Microsoft Jetpack Simulator

To fly a jetpack you must, of course a) have access to the cutting edge of Jetsons-era technology and b) be completely and utterly out of your mind. Jetpacks have absolutely no stability; the slightest draft of wind from a butterfly can tip you over and send you careening headfirst into the nearest wall at like 100 miles an hour. Ever since the first-ever public jetpack flight in 1961 — when Hal Graham zipped across the Pentagon lawn — very few people have ever actually flown these little screamingly loud, compressed-air suicide machines.

But now there’s finally a safe way to enjoy the delights of jetpackery — because the folks at Spalab have developed an add-on unit for Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004 that precisely models Graham’s original device. No word yet on when it’ll be ready for downloading, but for now, the site is hosting some excellent screenshots (as above), a video of Graham’s flight, and a cool story about the history of jetpacks. Apparently …

Due to the very loud operation, and the limited flight duration, the rocketbelt was not what the Army and civilians expected. Funding stopped, and Bell Aerosystems sold their patents.

Man, who still owns the original jetpack patents?

(Thanks to Greg for this one!)

Once more unto the breach

Astute readers may recall my attempt last year to get Photo Stamps to print some stamps customized with pictures of “Surly Squid” — an artwork by my friend El Rey. Though Photo Stamps had already blithely printed stuff featuring such mass murderers as Slobodan Milosevic and Ted Kaczynski, they decided that a squid stamp strayed beyond the boundaries of good taste — and refused to print my order. I was thus thrilled when the company summarily went outta business.

But now it turns out they’re back again, claiming that their intial foray was not so much an exercise in clown-show ineptitude as a “test”, as a spokeswoman told the Direct Marketing News. As the News reports:

Pets and children have been the most popular categories of images, according to, which has content guidelines prohibiting obscenity, copyright infringement and images of celebrities and public figures.

Maybe I should try my order again.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

Vote for America’s Top Blog

In the last few years, there have been various documentaries on blogging celebrities. But who, precisely, ought to be proclaimed a web star? After all, you can’t very easily buy or shill celebrity in the blogosphere; you have to earn it, post by post and link by link.

So the producers of a new documentary — The Weblog Project — have taken this logic to its extreme, by putting up a website at which anyone can vote on who ought to be the 20 top bloggers who’ll be interviewed in the doc. I’ll be intrigued to see if anyone tries to game the system!

But the project isn’t just about talking-head commentary from the Big Names. The meat of the documentary is apparently going to be short videos shot by bloggers worldwide, in their homes. Anyone can contribute, as the site urges:

We ask all the world bloggers to send us a short video (min. 30 seconds, max. 2 minutes). This can be a recording of the screen, a videoblog post, a clip shot with your videocamera, an interview, even just an audio clip if you feel more comfortable with an audio-only approach.

It sounds like fun, though I note that for their funding the producers also intend to appeal to the blogging community — and ask for donations. We’ll see how well that turns out, heh.

(Thanks to Mario for this one!)

“Glove’s Harbour? Oh yeah, that’s the town with that giant squid.”

On November 2, 1878, the world’s largest squid — according to the Guiness Book of World Records — landed on the beaches of Glove’s Harbour, a little fishing town in Newfoundland. About 125 years later, the town erected an enormous, life-sized model of the squid, so that all who look upon it might be awestruck.

Interestingly, this info comes to me via a web devoted to archiving 274 of the enormous, weird statues that towns in Canada have erected — including massive Canadian geese, moose, and a colossal Kielbassa. As the site’s owner notes:

It is funny, even though communities erect these big things, they sometimes seem embarrassed by their pressence. I am always surprised at some communities with “Big Things” that do not include pictures of them in their own tourist brochures. The irony is that the pictures they do include make their communities look just like any other. What is sometimes unique about their community is their “Big Thing”.

(Thanks to John Tinmouth for this one!)

Weeeeoooo … EEEEEoooowhoooooooo ….

The theme song to Doctor Who is an ur-masterpiece of electronic music. When it came out in the 60s, the swirling, flanged tones must have sounded positively extraterrestrial. Even in today’s world of electronic music, they’re still quite unique; I’ve tried emulating some of those sounds with analog filters and utterly failed. In fact, I always wondered precisely how the engineers created such a weird-sounding tune.

Now I know — courtesy this excellent site that tells the story of the song’s creation! An excerpt:

The swooping sounds were created by manually adjusting the pitch of the oscillator to a carefully-timed pattern. The rhythmic hissing sounds were created by filtering white noise to “colour” it, as were the “bubbles” and “clouds”. Examination of the original makeup tapes suggests that one of the two bass lines alone is a “concrete” sound, a plucked string sample. [snip]

Now the fun really started. They had all the sounds, all the notes, and now had to create the music. So each individual note was trimmed to length by cutting the tape, and stuck together in the right order. This was done for each “line” in the music - the main plucked bass, the bass slides (an organ-like tone emphasising the grace notes), the hisses, the swoops, the melody, a second melody line (a high organ-like tone used for emphasis), and the bubbles and clouds. This done, they ended up with a number of lengths of cut tape with the individual parts on. Most of these individual bits of tape, complete with edits every inch, still survive.

Chunks of the original tape still survive?? Now I’m going to spend years restlessly combing Ebay in hopes of finding one.

(Thanks to Music Thing for this one!)


Image-searching engines have an oddly philosophical quality to them. The searches are always a little imprecise, because they hunt for pictures not via actual content of the images — Google and Yahoo and Flickr’s engines cannot actually “see” what’s in the picture — but via the keywords associated with the picture, such as the words the webmaster used when they put the pic online.

The upshot is that when you pump a word like “lazy” into an image-searching engine, the results are kind of like a tone-poem of ontology — a drifting set of vaguely-connected pictures, each one illustrating some facet of the word’s meaning. In Flickr, “lazy” gives you pictures of sleeping cats, dogs, and, weirdly, some line-art of a face. Over at Google Images, however, “lazy” produces a shot of Homer Simpson crashed out on a couch, some polar bears — but also the perennial sleeping cats, which seems to be the Jungian archetype for laziness. I’ve often spent several minutes paging through the results of a particular search, fascinated by the various things people think a word “looks like”.

Now Grant Robinson has reversed these propositions in a great little online game called Guess the google. It pumps a word into Google Images, gathers 20 pictures from the results, presents these you in a 5-by-4 grid — and you have to guess what was the original word. It’s time-limited, so the faster you guess the higher your score is.

Robinson’s a brilliant designer. While you’re at his site, check out his iteration of John Conway’s Game of Life — one of the prettiest versions I’ve ever seen!

Coke can + chocolate = fire

Since I’ve recently been posting about next-generation Boy-Scout equipment, here’s a brilliant little hack that has been making the rounds on blogs: How to light a fire using a Coke can and a chocolate bar.

The bottom of a Coke can has a neatly parabolic shape, which makes it terrific as a reflector; hold it up to the sun, and it can concentrate the rays into a point so tightly focused that it is of ignition intensity. The problem, as the Tracker Trail wilderness-survival blog points out, is that if you look at the bottom of a normal can …

… note the fine straight lines in the aluminum. These scatter the sun’s rays, and prevent them from being focused together into a single bright point. [snip] It needs polishing. The chocolate does an excellent job of this.

Chocolate as a polishing agent? Who knew? Apparently, it only takes about half an hour to achieve a sufficient shine; the astonishing, gleaming results are pictured above. Also check out the way-cool pix on the site to see the reflector in action, igniting some tinder!

This is totally the stuff I would have loved doing back in the Boy Scouts: Using everyday materials — and ingenious applications of science — in the service of burning an entire forest to a charred stump. Indeed, the Boy Scouts always had a hacker vibe: The handbooks were always filled with crazy projects, encouraging you to jerry-rig water filtration systems, long-distance signalling mechanisms, and ham radios. And then there was that excellent Harper’s story about the Boy Scout who built a nuclear reactor in his back yard …

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

The Christian Science Monitor > The Wall Street Journal

Many newspapers have begun locking their content behind paid firewalls; unless you register and pay, you can’t read their stories. The logic is that they can’t afford to give the news away for free anymore, because their advertising is getting decimated. (Craigslist is utterly destroying the traditional classified-ad market, and classifieds are the most profitable ads in any paper.)

But what happens to a paper’s readership and influence when it puts up the gates in cyberspace? Bloggers don’t link to it, which means it vanishes from Google and spirals into a cycle that eventually erases it from the mindspace of the Internet. The Wall Street Journal has a print circulation of 2,106,774, making it the second-biggest paper in the country, but you’ll almost never find a link to a Journal article in a Google search — because the content is inaccessible and thus never linked to.

In contrast, consider the Christian Science Monitor. Its print circulation is a measly 71,000, ranking it 242nd in size, way behind the Journal. Yet it has 1.7 million unique visitors per month to its web site, because the content is free — and good — and thus bloggers link to it promiscuously. Media pundits often note that more people read the New York Times online than in print, but the Monitor is an even more extreme example of the trend: Its online audience, and thus its online influence, is more than ten times larger than its print one.

Now Berkman fellow Ethan Zuckerman has pioneered a brilliant way to rank papers, based on a super-cool ratio: How many blog-links point to a paper, per thousand copies of print circulation. The short form is “LpkC”; you could also think of it, Zuckerman adds, as a measure of a paper’s “blogginess.” The bigger your LpkC number, the more disproportionately huge is your online influence.

He crunched the numbers on the 20 US papers with the biggest circulation, and added in the 30th, 40th, and 50th, etc., up to the 150th, to get a wide sense of the field. He also threw in the Christian Science Monitor, even though it’s way smaller than the smallest on that list. According to his calculations, here are the top papers, ranked by LpcK number:

Christian Science Monitor - 134.90

New York Times - 63.08

Washington Post - 58.44

San Francisco Chronicle - 38.32

Boston Globe - 29.80

Seattle Post Intelligencer - 18.56

New York Post - 12.48

LA Times - 11.21

Check it out: The tiny Monitor more than doubles the number for the monolithic Times. Interestingly, the mean LpkC for all papers Zuckerman studied was 14.43. When he calculated the papers with the lowest LpcKs, here’s what he got:

Charleston Post and Courier - 0.06

New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News - 0.22

Middletown (NY) Times Herald-Record - 0.39

The Wall Street Journal - 0.40

Fort Myers News Press - 0.50

I love it — the Journal’s rating is 337 times smaller than the Monitor’s! Of course, there’s no doubt that the Journal is still a much more influential paper, though given these numbers, I wouldn’t be surprised if its closed-down gamble eventually blows up in its face. If online advertising continues to grow, the Monitor could wind becoming unduly profitable for its size, while the Journal goes in precisely the opposite direction.

The ecology of influence is changing, and fast. Will the ecology of advertising change too?

(Thanks to Techdirt for this one!)

Click here

Oh, the hours of fun that can be had from making your own Apple-style glassy HTML buttons.

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

The feel-bad comic of the year

For a few years now, Nicholas Gurewitch has been drawing some of the hilarious black-comedy strips I’ve ever seen in my life. His imagination is as black as the pits of Tartarus, and his artwork is just insanely expressive: Check out the look on that bear’s face above, then read the entire strip to figure out what’s going on. Then spend the next hour reading Gurewitch’s entire backlog of strips here.

I’ll have fries with that, thanks

You’ve probably heard about recent Wendy’s flap — in which a diner, Anna Ayala, claims to have found a finger in her chili. There’s a really terrific story in today’s New York Times business section that explores the CSI-like questions of precisely how a finger could get into the chili in the first place. Along the way, you learn some neat details about how Wendy’s works, including …

The company concluded it would have been highly unlikely for an employee to overlook a finger, given the way the chili is made. A worker chops ground beef into small chunks with a spatula — using the same two- and four-ounce patties used for hamburgers — adds kidney beans and small beans from cans, seasoning from a packet, and tomatoes. A 48-serving batch is mixed into a 22-quart pot and cooked for four to six hours, stirred every 15 minutes.

I always love the incredibly dry, spare tone of the Times when it approaches über-weird subjects. Indeed, the gothic the subject matter, the more tinder-dry the writing becomes, until it nearly combusts — such as in paragraphs like this one:

It is still not known whether the finger was cooked, and if so, for how long. A thoroughly cooked finger might indicate that it came through Wendy’s food supply chain. If the tissue is uncooked, that might indicate that it was added to the chili after the fact.

It’s worth noting that this whole thing could easily be a scam, since Ayala has a case history of trying to sue companies for damages — and for reasons that are unclear, she was arrested this morning.

I answered the email, but I didn’t inhale

According to a new study commissioned by Hewlett Packard — and conducted by psychologists at King’s College in London — extensive use email and instant messaging can drop your IQ by 10 per cent. In comparison, as the researchers hasten to note, the regular smoking of pot dents your IQ by only 4 per cent. The psychologists argue that the problem emerges when the brain tries — and fails — to multitask, as infoconomy reports:

“The impairment only lasts for as long as the distraction. But you have to ask whether our current obsession with constant communication is causing long-term damage to concentration and mental ability,” said Dr Glenn Wilson, psychologist at the University of London.

Eh. I’d like to know more about this study before I comment on it. Personally, I’m less intrigued by the actual content of any of these studies than in the mere fact that psychologists and pundits are convinced that the world is going to be destroyed by people, y’know, communicating. I’ve always felt the anti-messaging panic carries a faint whiff of Reefer Madness; it’s nice to have a critic finally come clean and explicitly connect those dots.

For a truly excellent discussion of whether email interruptions wreck your brain, go to the posting I did last month on “attention deficit trait” — and read the ensuing conversation in the comment area. The points made there are just superb.

(Thanks to Steve Emrich for this one!)

Old Man mannequin

Last year I wrote a column for Slate about the “Uncanny Valley” — the moment when an animated version of a human becomes so photorealistic that it’s creepy. The theory is that a highly stylized person, like an animated Charlie Brown, is so low-fi that it’s cute; our brains fill in all missing information that isn’t present in the intentionally low-resolution image. As the resolution goes up, we often find virtual humans more and more appealing … until they’re almost totally real, at which point they suddenly look horrifyingly weird. That’s because when something is 99% real, we suddenly start noticing all the 1% that isn’t quite right: We see that the eyes aren’t quite moist enough, or the skin doesn’t hang right. Suddenly, the CGI person looks like an animated corpse.

Now I’ve found the precise analog in the 3D world: These unbelievably creepy Japanese mannequins, created — I think — as training aids for nurses.

Ay-yi-yi. I can think of no more efficient way of permanently scaring someone away from a career in nursing than by dragging one of these freaktastic zombies out of whatever industrial coffin it’s shipped in. That little thing in the corner? It’s the wig. In case you want the zombie to have, you know, dark hair.


(Boing Boing beat us here, but thanks originally to Chris Walsh for this one!)

The female Turing Test

Most high-tech folks assume they know what a “Turing Test” is: You ask an interrogator to chat online with a human and a computer, and to try and figure out which is which. Right?

Nope. In his famous 1950 essay “Computer machinery and intelligence”, mathematician Alan Turing described a test that was quite different. Turing called his invention “the imitation game”, and he described it thusly:

It is played with three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart from the other two. The object of the game for the interrogator is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman. [snip]

We now ask the question, ‘What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?’ Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman? These questions replace our original, ‘Can machines think?’

Dig it: The goal is not to figure out which one is a ‘bot; it’s to figure out which is female. That sounds weird, sure, but the thing is, this version of the Turing test is actually far better at determining whether a chatbot can pass as human. It’s more fair.

That’s because the Turing test, as it’s popularly misinterpreted , is heavily skewed against the robots. In this version, the interrogator is forewarned; he’s told that one of the chatters will be a machine, so he’s on the lookout for robot-like behavior. And of course, if you already know a robot is lurking out there somewhere, it’s easy to smoke it out. You just ask a content-heavy question, such as “What’s the capital of Uzbekistan?” or “What do you think of Putin’s latest move against Yukos Oil?” The robot can’t deal with that.

But this is inherently unfair, because these sorts of questions rarely occur in normal, everyday human conversation. On the contrary, the average conversation is composed of completely content-free exchanges that rarely go beyond the “wazzup” stage. (“How’s it going?” “Can’t complain. How about you?” “Ah, could be worse.”) Most real, adult humans spend the day not discussing philosophy, but vaguely pinging the people around them with completely formulaic conversational gambits. On that playing field, most chatbots are perfectly capable of holding their own. Indeed, if you’re not on your guard, it’s extremely easy to get fooled — at least temporarily — by a chatbot, as did the victims of AOLiza, and as even I did last year when someone sicced a ‘bot on me without my knowledge. The reason why chatbots never win in formal Turing-tests is that the interrogator is suspicious from the get-go, and does not engage in realistic conversation.

To make the Turing test fair, you have to introduce a ‘bot into a quasi-normal conversation — one in which the interrogator is unaware of the possibility that he might be talking to a machine. And that is precisely why Turing introduced that weird bit of gender misdirection in his “imitation game”. Because the interrogator is concentrating on the question of “am I talking to a woman or not?”, he’s focusing on how the chatter uses language, and wondering whether it sounds “female” enough. He’s not obsessing over whether the chatter is human or not. This means the ‘bot is, finally, on an even playing-field with its human competitor. But since no-one bothers to read Turing’s original essay, Turing tests are never conducted in this fashion.

Until now! Last weekend, a bunch of students at Simon’s Rock College ran a Turing test using the original, punk-rock version. Better yet, they used ALICE, the open-source chatbot created by Richard Wallace, who I profiled for the New York Times Magazine. True to Turing’s suggestion, the students told their subjects that they would be participating in “The Guessing Game” — a test of whether they could disambiguate male and female chatters. They didn’t tell the subjects that robots would be involved. Over 80 people participated, and I can’t wait to find out what data they collected. (That’s a picture of a participant above.)

Given that Turing was a closeted gay man for most of his life, his original test is almost fractal in its multifaceted weirdness. What precisely did he think would be different about how men and women communicate? Did he wonder whether a suspicious observer could spot someone passing himself off as a “different” gender — something that doubtless resonated deeply with Turing? His essay gives no clues, so I’m just speculating here. As a related irony, you may remember the computer program that Israeli scientists wrote two years ago that can, in fact, figure out whether the author of an anonymous text is a man or a woman.

Maybe in the future we’ll be turning the Turing test on its head. When a computer is finally smart enough to be considered alive, will it be able to figure out that it’s talking to a human?

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

… or are you just happy to see me?

A few years ago, I wanted to go to a Hallowe’en party dressed as my subconscious. For the costume, I’d simply wear one of my usual suits — except around my neck I’d hang a scrolling LED sign that would randomly display a few dozen messages, such as “Did I forget to turn off the oven?”, “Holy moses I’m bored” and “Up up left right A B B”. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a working sign in time for the party, so it all came to naught.

You can thus imagine my delight today when I discovered the Scrolling Pants Belt Buckle — which displays the subconscious of your, ah, midsection. From the web site:

Is this for real?

Yes. In fact, here’s a video to prove so.

Can I program it with custom phrases?
Yep. It can hold up to six unique messages at a time, with each message being 256 characters long. You can change these messages at any time.

This is just beyond superb. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — there simply isn’t enough innovation in the area of pants technology. The last major breakthrough was in 2003, when Dockers introduced its stain-resistant “nanopants”. But otherwise, the field’s wide open, people!

(Thanks to the Book of Joe for this one!)


By now, you may have heard that Joseph Ratzinger has been elected the new pope. As it turns out, this is precisely what most people predicted — because, over at, almost 25,000 people voted for their favorite, and Ratzinger won by a decent margin: He got 21% of the vote, with Jean-Marie Lustiger coming in second at 17.6%. Once again, the wisdom of the mob wins out.

How to destroy the Earth: A DIY guide

Ever wanted to indulge your inner evil genius — and destroy the Earth? Sam Hughes, a 21-year-old math student in England, has assembled a list of the currently most-feasible methods for ending life as we know it. Though he cautions that “Destroying the Earth is harder than you may have been led to believe,” he nonetheless boils it down to two dozen techniques, and presents them with a how-to thoroughness that reads sort of like a Martha Stewart feature on cooking a turkey. My favorite method:

Gobbled up by strangelets

You will need: a stable strangelet

Method: Hijack control of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider in Brookhaven National Laboratory, Long Island, New York. Use the RHIC to create and maintain a stable strangelet. Keep it stable for as long as it takes to absorb the entire Earth into a mass of strange quarks. Keeping the strangelet stable is incredibly difficult once it has absorbed the stabilising machinery, but creative solutions may be possible.

Earth’s final resting place: a huge glob of strange matter.

(Thanks to Erik for this one!)

“I don’t care whether it’s a boy or a girl, just so long as it’s healthy and has all eight tentacles”

If you’re a cultural conservative, worried about the decline of family values, hope has just arrived — from our cephalopod comrades, and a heartwarming tale of the special love that burns between an octopus and her kids.

Aurora, an aging, 4-year-old giant Pacific Octopus in captivity, recently gave birth to an enormous mess of eggs. But since she was really old and the eggs didn’t look too good, her attending scientists figured they probably wouldn’t hatch. And indeed, things looked grim. Though Aurora tended the eggs for six long months — constantly blowing fresh water over them and refusing to eat, while she tended her unborn children — the eggs showed no signs of hatching.

According to CNN, the scientists had pretty much given up by the end of last year, when they got a surprise:

Aurora didn’t even give up in December when aquarists, convinced the eggs weren’t fertile — began draining her 3,600-gallon tank. As the water went down and she was going down with it, she sprayed her eggs, now exposed and drying on a rock.

Sharp-eyed intern Meghan Kokal saved the day. Some eggs were placed in her palm and she gave them a close look, asking about the two red dots. The dots turned out to be developing eyes.

Sure enough, the eggs were hatching — more slowly than usual because Aurora is in an Alaskan tank and the water is colder than her natural habitat. That’s one of the babies above.

I can’t believe how cute baby octopi are. Look at those tiny ‘lil tentacles! And the big head!

Headless, remote-controlled flies

Now there’s a headline I never expected to write. But such is the inexorable march of science that, in this issue of Cell, there’s a cool study in which some Yale professors stimulated the neurons of fruit flies with laser pulses — and were able to remotely control their behavior, like tiny robots. At one point, they removed the heads of several flies and discovered it was still possible to sufficiently stimulate the remaining neurons to induce activity. Indeed, they even managed to get the headless ones to fly — which you can see for yourself in this video that Cell has put online. (That’s a screen grab above.)

This research could help us identify brain cells identified with specific behaviors — from schizophrenia to overeating and aggressiveness, as one of the professors told the Associated Press:

“Ultimately, that could be important to understanding human psychiatric disorders,” Miesenbock said. “That’s really futuristic stuff.”

Yet another example of the wonderful humanitarian results that can stem from insanely creepy research. I mean, mad props to these guys, but seriously: HEADLESS FLIES? That video looks like some sort of ghastly outtake from The Ring. I am so not going to sleep tonight.

(Thanks to Andrew for this one!)

The joys of “button mashing”

Slate has just published my latest gaming column, which folds in two mini-reviews: The time-travel game TimeSplitters, and the fighting game Tekken 5, pictured above. My thoughts on Tekken 5 are mostly a defense of the “button mashing”: When you play a game by frantically and semirandomly mangling the controller, while praying for the best. Button mashing is generally scorned by hard-core gamers, but I argue that it’s actually a valid learning technique:

When you’re a masher, you approach the game humbly, accepting your absolute inability to control your character. By flailing away with no pretensions that you know what you’re doing, you’ll eventually pull off a few killer combos by accident. Then you’ll forget them and figure out a couple of new ones. By the time you’ve played for 12 hours in a row, a few will have stuck. Soon, you can reliably pull them off again and again without being entirely sure how the hell you’re doing it.

That’s precisely what happened to me. After being flummoxed by Tekken 5 initially, I swallowed my pride and surrendered to the flow of mashing. Once I accidentally mastered some marvelous attacks, I learned to calm down and become dispassionate in battle — to step outside of myself, observe what I was doing, and learn and execute even bigger and better combos. It’s a terrific lesson for life: Begin with fake Zen, and you’ll wind up with real Zen.

You can read the rest of the piece here — and feel free to comment in The Fray, Slate’s discussion forum!

“Hello? Oh, hi! Nothing, really. What’s up with you?”

According to a study by BBDO Worldwide and Proximity Worldwide, 14% of all mobile-phone users worldwide say they’ll interrupt sex to answer the phone. The biggest buzzkillers are in Germany and Spain, with rates of 22 percent; the smallest are in Italy, with 7 per cent practicing cell phone interruptus. As Ad Age reports:

“People can’t bear to miss a call,” said Christine Hannis, head of communications for BBDO Europe. “Everybody thinks the next call can be something really exciting. And getting so many calls proves social success,” she said. “It fulfills a fundamental insecurity.”

It reminds me of a moment in the infamous Paris Hilton sex tape, in which Hilton’s phone rings and she lunges across the bed to answer it. Her crepuscular boyfriend — who’s operating the night-vision videocamera — immediately bitches her out for the interruption. What a lovely diorama of modern high-tech romance: The boyfriend criticizes her for answering her phone during sex, while he’s busy voyeurcamming it. Classy.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

The Folksonomic Zeitgeist

The hot new word in online culture is “folksonomy” — a pretty brutal word for a very cool concept. A “folksonomy”, in essence, is a taxonomy done by the masses. Normally, taxonomies are composed by experts, as when a librarian enters a book into a catalogue and picks the keywords that most germanely identify the book. Technologies like Flickr or, in contrast, are situations in which anyone can enter something into the common pool —photos, in the case of Flickr, or hotlinks in the case of — and pick their own “tag”, their own keyword, to describe it.

Initially, this concept horrified info-mavens, because they figured that people would be too sloppy: People would use a stupid or irrelevant tag to describe a photo, and it would be thus pretty much unfindable; or they’d use an overly-broad word to describe a specific picture. As it turns out, folksonomies work pretty well. People tend to pick a bunch of not-too-broad but not-too-narrow tags to use, and they stick to ‘em. Sure, it’s not as precise as expert librarian tagging. But as Clay Shirky has pointed out, folksonomies are — on a volunteer basis — doing a terrific job of something that would be otherwise impossible to do: To pay experts to go around the Net tagging up photos and collections of links to make them searchable. If you want a snapshot of folksonomies in action, Flickr offers a page you can visit that shows the tags people are currently using — with the words getting bigger the more popular the tag.

Now The Guardian has done the same thing with its blogs — and created a “Folksonomic Zeitgeist”. As they describe on their site:

The writer adds keywords to each post to more finely describe the subject matter. These are called ‘tags’. The folksonomic zeitgeist shows the tags that have been used over the past seven days, sized in relation to the amount they have been used. This way you can see the subjects that have been on our mind the most over the past week.

When I looked at the page, I expected to see a few words — “election”, “tories,” “labour” — to dominate the entire page, reflecting the typical pack-journalism feel of the media, where a few subjects are blown out of proportion on a rolling basis. But it appears things are more democratic at The Guardian: The words are pretty uniform in size, and the big ones aren’t enormously bigger than the others.

I wonder: Does the editorial control of The Guardian — the fact that people are paid to ponder relatively diverse topics — acts as a hedge against the normal pull of popularity online? Normally, popularity online follows a power law, with a small number of items/blogs/sites dominating most of the traffic. But power laws exist in a state of near-perfect competition, where everyone “votes” on what they think is interesting, and each vote influences the next voter, creating the winner-take-all effect. In a newspaper, it’s more like a Soviet economy — centrally planned. The editors force their writers to sprawl out evenly over the world’s many topics; they’re not allowed to monomaniacally obsess over Brad and Jennifer.

Maybe this is the real difference between the appeal of folksonomies and taxonomies: It’s the difference between the relative advantages of open and planned economies.

(Thanks to Morgan for this one!)

The evil voices in my head are telling me to play this Sony game

Sony has just received two patents for a “method and system for generating sensory data onto the human neural cortex”. In plain English, that means they’ve designed a technique to implant thoughts in your head — to make you smell something, taste something, or perhaps even feel a particular feeling. It’s like a supercharged version of Smell-O-Vision, except in this case it’s Sony, y’know, controlling your mind. As the New Scientist reports:

The technique suggested in the patent is entirely non-invasive. It describes a device that fires pulses of ultrasound at the head to modify firing patterns in targeted parts of the brain, creating “sensory experiences” ranging from moving images to tastes and sounds. This could give blind or deaf people the chance to see or hear, the patent claims.

You can check out the patents — 6,729,337 and 6,536,440 yourself.

(Thanks to Steve for this one!)

Oolong, the “head performance” bunny

Oolong was a bunny in Japan with an unusual talent: He could balance almost anything on his head. His owner discovered this on May 24, 1999, and began taking pictures of his pet’s “head performance”, with an increasingly remarkable array of household objects perched atop Oolong’s head. He posted all the pictures on a web site; several of them are archived here.

In an interesting example of the Mahir-esque chaos dynamics of online popularity, the site was small and unvisited for four years, save by the owner and his small group of friends. One day a blogger from Syberpunk — a blog devoted to “quirky Japanese culture” — stumbled across the site, was utterly amused, and decided to keep it a secret, too. He sent pictures of Oolong to all his friends, but wouldn’t say where he got them. Then one day, as he writes, he accidentally posted a link to the Oolong site. It was the Patient-Zero moment: Delighted hipsters began excitedly forwarding the link to their friends, and millions of visitors swarmed over to check it out. Rarely is it possible to so precisely identify the moment when a Net meme is born.

Sadly, many people started emailing Oolong’s owner to accuse him of cruelty to animals, while others wrote Onionesque paeans to his subversive genius. Interestingly, both reactions annoyed the owner, and he wrote a public letter, including this rather sweet passage:

Oolong is so calm and patient — he never gets angry when I take pictures of him. When I put various objects on his head, he stays still for a minute. This is just a result of an intimate relationship between me and Oolong. The main theme of my site is not to show these ‘headperformance’ links, and it’s not my hope to propagandize nothing but the strangeness of his headperformance over the world. Oolong’s headperformance — many foreigners seem to feel it ‘crazy’, but Japanese people feel it just cute and funny. It is the difference of international feeling.

One could probably get a cultural-studies master’s thesis outta this one. Unfortunately, Oolong passed away in January.

(Thanks to Culture Raven for this one!)

Virtual infidelity, virtual spy

For a decade now, cybercheating has been an ethically weird question in online behavior. What precisely, constitutes, cheating? Hot chat with someone outside your marriage? Webcamming yourself for other people? Googlestalking ex-spouses?

Now there’s a new dimension to think about: Avatar relationships. Inside online multiplayer games, plenty of people have virtual hookups. I’ve talked to women who have virtual husbands inside Everquest, who they’ve “married” in well-attended online virtual marriages, and with whom they share their virtual property. Yet these women are also married in real life; sometimes their husbands know they’ve got online partners, and don’t care.

Psychologists have long noticed that the combination of distance and pseudoanonymity on the Internet tends to unlock people’s ids — hence all the flame wars, the UPPER CASE SHOUTING, and the rampant flirting in chat rooms. I think the addition of 3D avatars in games adds a new dimension to this behavior, because people can get pretty psychoactively charged by their new bodies. When I went into the online world There for the first time, I was kind of stunned at how hot all the avatars were; they were like some freakishly potent remix of anime and J. Crew sensibilities. So it didn’t surprise me to discover that online cheating in virtual worlds has begun to boom, and that many real-life partners aren’t too thrilled about it.

In fact, over at his brilliant New World Notes blog, James Wagner Au — the first journalist to be “embedded” in a virtual world, Second Life — recently reported on a new phenomenon: Virtual-world detectives who you can pay to put a tail on your partner and find out if he or she is cheating. One of the detectives is a woman; she’s pictured above. Another is Bruno Buckenberger, who describes his job thusly:

To prove their case, Bruno prefers that his agents take an incriminating screenshot with the target— or just as good, have the agent teleport the client right to their location, to catch their unfaithful partner in a compromising position.

Altoids: The curiously weird role-playing game

Many companies have recently begun crafting little Flash games to advertise their products. Most are just simple, one-screen-sized renditions of classic old-school arcade titles. But the folks at Altoids have really gone the distance — they hired a cartoon artist and programmer to create an entire role-playing adventure.

You play the part of a zitty, sweaty shut-in who meets a girl on instant messaging and convinces her to go on a date. He has to make it to the club, cadge his way in, and impress her. Amazingly, it’s a pretty complex game, including many of the classic tropes of RPGS; there’s even an inventory of objects you carry around and manipulate to solve puzzles.

They get bonus points for the wittily self-referential dialogue. At one point early in the game, I’m trying to figure out how to get into the lineup for a nightclub — there’s a picture of it above — but the screen doesn’t scroll any further right. So I start talking to the woman on the far right:

Me: How did you get into the lineup?

Her: By walking to the end and standing behind the last person.

Me: But the screen won’t scroll that far.

Her: That’s because you’re a loser.

Okay, that’s cute enough that I want to buy some Altoids right now.

(Thanks to Laura for this one!)

Be prepared

Back when I was in the Boy Scouts — for over a decade, believe it or not — we used to go camping, and we’d eat out of mess kits. They were pretty low-fi devices: They consisted of a “plate” and a “bowl” that were supposed to “snap together” “snugly”. Needless to say, they didn’t, so if you had to transport them with anything inside, they’d leak all over the place and make your backpack look like a troll threw up in it. What did I expect? We bought ‘em for about seven dollars at Canadian Tire.

So I was delighted to discover that the design genuises at Sternform have developed a next-generation mess kit comprised of two thermal half-bowls which keep their ingredients hot or cold, and which are held tightly together by magnetic rims. (To find the product on their site, scroll to the second-from-the-right item on that page.) As they describe it on their web site:

Because of carbon dust included in the vacuum and the bowl like shape — hereby the ratio of surface to volume is minimal — the temperature is being preserved much longer as with standard insulating techniques and a high protection of damage is provided.

The magnetic connection of the bowls, as well as the “clipclap” function of the lids, which have to be pushed onto the green spot in their middle to open and at their sides to close, a very easy and precise use is possible, even with cold hands, with gloves or with just one hand. Additional to that, both mechanisms provide a better hygiene, because of their simple form without threads. The big openings of the bowls are easy to clean and even the lids are dishwasherproof. At the same time the lids can be used as saucers, as well as the grooves on their upside provide space to take up the strapband with its adapter.

Check out the way-cool pictures on the web site, too.

(Thanks to Sensory Impact for this one!)

The “Viditar”

These days, the video f/x at a live concert are as important as the musical performance. But up until now, a video-savvy band had only two options: i) To have a preprogrammed display, which can be kinda boring, or ii) have a video DJ. But the video DJ winds up being stuck behind a computer keyboard. To free these guys from the desktop, a music-tech company invented the “Viditar” — a video guitar. Strap this baby around your neck and you are now part of the stage act, cuing and remixing video on the fly while strutting around. The band Sinch uses one of these things, as they describe on their site:

The Viditar allows us to bring the visual part of the show out of the background and integrate it into the stage performance. The moving images are performed live in the same way that the guitar, bass, drums and vocals are. Presenting the visual information in this way allows the images to interact with the other band members and their instruments in real time so that what you are seeing is a unique part of that night’s performance, and not just the same pre-recorded movie played exactly the same way at every show.

There’s only problem. The Viditar is obviously technologically cool, but holy moses would you look like a moron wearing that thing around your neck. Remember when guitar-style “wearable” keyboards became popular in the 80s? Remember how transcendentally ludicrous those keyboardists were? It was the Himalayan peak of cringe-inducing 80s rock fashion, arguably worse than either the colored jumpsuits or asymmetric hair that also plagued that style-troubled decade.

What’s more, the Viditar seems to betray a weird insecurity about the “coolness” of having a computer and keyboard on stage. Personally, I love it when I go to a concert and I see the band pull out a computer or laptop. It indicates I’m about to hear some innovative music. The computer doesn’t need to emulate the guitar; it has supplanted the guitar as the central symbol of musical coolness in the 21st century. It far more deserves to be on stage than this Viditar thing.

(I say this, by the way, as someone who’s played the electric guitar for 20 years and owns six of the things.)

(Thanks to Brian Corocoran for this one!)


One of the big criticisms you hear about online dating is that people aren’t quite honest in describing themselves. So along comes, a site where people post reviews of those they’ve had dates with — and link to the original ad that sucked them in. As an example, here’s an ad on JDate, from a guy looking for “a date” or “a long-term relationship”:

Hi,I am a caring, thoughtful, kind & romantic man.I’m originally from Israel,I grew up in Canada. I enjoy meeting new people and doing new things. I have alot to offer and alot to give,and I am looking for that special woman to share it all with.

And here’s the review, written by a woman that went on a date with him …

His profile says that he is caring, thoughtful, and romantic. But when you meet him in person, he is definitely none of the above. Within the first 20 of meeting you - on the first date, he will try to force you to have sex with him. HE WILL DEFINITELY TRY FORCING HIMSELF ON YOU. He is not romantic because all he wants and all he can think of is sex. And he is definitely not thoughtful because no matter how many times you tell him that you don’t want to have sex, he won’t respect that! Girls, if you are only into sex, then he is the perfect guy for you!

It’s a really funny idea, but I have no idea how this service is going to survive its first libel suit. Though clearly the people running TrueDater are worried about this: Interestingly, I can’t link to the individual reviews, because — possibly to avoid the mass online mockery of individual daters by the blogosphere — doesn’t generate unique URLs for either their reviews or the original ads being reviewed.

(Thanks to Wired News for this one!)

I’m working on a story: Know any overseas investors?

I’m working on a personal-finance piece for a men’s magazine — about the relative wisdom of investing in overseas stocks, bonds, and currencies. Given that the US dollar is in a tailspin, plenty of people are thinking of putting more money offshore.

So, I’m interested in interviewing any 20something or 30something guys who are investing overseas. Any blog readers know someone who’s smart and fits that bill and is interested in filling me in? If so, tell them to send an email!

It’s four-thirty … no, sorry, six-twenty … no, wait, it’s … uh …

Yesterday I blogged how the old-school analog clock is the ultimate example of easygoing, “ambient” information. You can tell what time it is by just barely noticing the clock out the corner of your eye.

Today I happened upon the complete opposite: A clock you have to stare at to figure out what time it is. That’s the “Tix LED Clock” above; here’s the description of how it works:

Millions of patterns are possible with the futuristic-looking Tix clock, yet the clock is extremely simple to read once you grasp the basic concept. The four seperate fields act like the four digits of a digital clock. The value of each digit is simply the number of illuminated squares in each field. So any given time of the day may have thousands of different ways of displaying the time. The clocks in the image are displaying the time 12:34. It’s that easy! Of course your friends are just going to take a look at your Tix clock and think it’s just modern LED art.

Heh. It’s almost as bad, and equally as beautiful, as the LED Binary Clock.

(Thanks to Gizmodo for this one!)

A bracelet that says “i h8t u”

Two years ago I wrote a short essay about “ambient information” devices — technologies that, instead of forcing us to stare at a screen, convey their information via quiet cues that we see or feel in the periphery of our concentration. One simple example is an old-school, analog clock; mount one on the wall and you’ll always sort of “know” what time it is, even though you’ll rarely actually look at it. Another favorite example of mine is in AOL Instant Messenger, when someone on my buddy list signs on and there’s the sound of a door creaking open; it’s a lovely, neatly organic acoustic metaphor that lets me know someone in my posse has arrived. The main philosopher of ambient information is David Rose, whose company Ambient Devices created the now-famous Ambient Orb — which sits on your desk and glows different colors depending on, say, whether your stocks are up or down.

Now here’s an even cooler concept: A bracelet with beads that flash and glow to communicate messages between teenage girls. The beads have lights and sensors embedded in them so a girl can record a message by pressing a sequence of beads, which is broadcast wirelessly to her friends’ bracelets. The designer, Ruth kikin-Gil, created the concept for her master’s thesis, and describes it thusly:

Girl A chooses the type of message she wants to send (for example: I’m talking to the boy we like), records a sequence of presses that conveys her current mood (Excited) and sends it to her friend, which receive the message in her bracelet as a combination of light and vibrations. [snip]

The fact that beads can be added and removed from the bracelet supports the dynamic and flux structures of teenager groups. As the group changes, so does the bracelet’s composition. When two girls are no longer friends, they can remove their friend’s bead from the bracelet and keep it as a memory of their friendship. When they become friends again, few weeks later, the removed beads can be added to the bracelet once again.

I’m not clear on what wireless technology kikin-Gil plans to use; it seems like some sort of bracelet-to-phone-via-Bluetooth setup. Either way, the idea has gorgeous symbolic freight. I’d love to see the sequence of beads teens will use to communicate “best friends forever” vs. “you suck”. If kikin-Gil ever gets these things made, she’ll sell a zillion of them.

(Thanks to Smart Mobs for this one!)


In the music industry, the fate of “the single” is a rather fraught topic. The radical success of Napster, iTunes, iPods and MP3s seem to have proved what music fans had aruged for years: That the vast majority of pop albums had only one or two good songs on them, so buying an entire CD was a bait-and-switch ripoff. You’d hear a fabulous song on the radio (or in a video), rush out to buy the entire album, then discover that the rest of the songs are just outrageously bad. At that point, you’ve just paid $15 to listen to maybe two songs — or $7.50 per song, to be precise. No wonder the concept of buying a single song for 99 cents has been a hit.

I confess that I am a huge, huge fan of the pop single, because I think pop is a genre that is congenitally predisposed to bands and artists that have one — but only one — shining moment of greatness in them. This isn’t to say that an entire, continuous pop album is impossible or undesirable. Clearly, there are tons of ‘em. But pop — far more than serious country, folk, jazz, R&B, classical, etc. — is a creature of nanosecond fads. It consists of spinal-cord-shivering moments of angst and joy that are entirely contingent on the quantum-mechanical interplay of whatever breast-flashing starlets, lifestyle trends, nation-in-peril terrorism threats, two-month-half-life modes of fashion, recreational drugs, economic doom or boom, instantly-disposable-technology, 15-minute-long massive social upheavals and moral panic currently prevail upon the American psyche.

I don’t mean this as a criticism, by the way. Quite the contrary. Pop singles are the sonnets of the marketplace: They are the dominant artistic form for capturing ephermal cultural moods before they vanish, which is also why they’re so good at reminding us, decades later, of what the hell everyone was so worked up about. But that’s also why pop singles simply do not need to be part of an entire album to make sense.

Anyway, I was reminded of the cultural power of the single when I happened upon a way-cool piece of retro tech from 1959: The Braun TPI, a pocket-sized record player that could spin 7-inch singles. It was designed by Dieter Rams, a man who was quite ahead of his time, because he was obsessed with managing the chaos of everyday noise. Emily Gordon wrote some notes about Rams on her blog, emdashes:

Penny Sparke writes that colleagues have described Rams as “a man with an acute sensitivity to order and chaos—one in particular likening him to ‘someone who has a very keen sense of hearing but who is forced to live in a world of shrill dissonance.’ ” Sparke continues, “For him the role of machines in the domestic environment were to be that of ‘silent butlers’: invisible and subservient, and there simply to make living easier and more comfortable. They were to be as self-effacing as possible and leave room for the role of beauty to be played by, say, a vase of flowers (in Rams’s case, the white tulips that he frequently chose to accompany his otherwise austere environments).”

(Thanks to Emily for this one!)

Bas-relief clock

This is a really lovely bit of design: The “Pin Clock”, which displays the time as a shifting bas-relief surface. As it’s described on the web site:

The face of the pin clock is made up of 3,000 pins arranged side by side. As time passes, a precision engineered mechanism lifts and retracts selected pins to display hours and minutes.

(Thanks to El Rey for this one!)

Satellite fastball

Man, space travel is just getting weirder and weirder. For some time now, the International Space Station has been wretchedly maintained and sorely underfunded, such that it’s currently about as safe as a flying, pressurized Volkswagen. Worse, mission control keeps sending both astronauts out on space-walks simultaneously — leaving that leaky assembly of Meccano parts to fly on autopilot. What’s more, every time they actually do go outside, the nearly-extinct gyroscopes — responsible for keeping the whole mess in orbit — freak out, and the station begins pinwheeling slowly through space.

This week, though, our DIY space program outdid itself when it launched a new satellite … by hand. That’s right: Salizhan Sharipov grabbed a foot-long, 11-pound sputnik, wandered out onto the surface of the Space Station, and just sorta tossed it off into the howling void. As CNN reports:

Sharipov let go of Nanosputnik on the count of two as Chiao photographed the event. “Off it goes,” Sharipov said as the satellite floated away with a spin. Minutes earlier, he commented: “Everything is like in the movies, and it’s hard to believe.”

I admit I’m impressed at the sheer low-fi ingenuity of the launch. But it’s clear that the space program is becoming less and less governed by physics and engineering, and more and more by, I don’t know, punk rock or something. I wouldn’t be surprised if NASA announces that the astronauts are now permitted to smoke inside their space suits.

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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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