Archive: July 2005

Xena, warrior planet

By now, you’ve probably heard that astronomers have discovered a tenth planet in our solar system, lurking out beyond Pluto, 9 billion miles from the sun. But did you know what astronomers are considering naming it? From today’s New York Times:

Informally, the astronomers have been calling it Xena after the television series about a Greek warrior princess, which was popular when the astronomers began their systematic sweep of the sky in 2000. “Because we always wanted to name something Xena,” Dr. Brown said.

Awesome. The name “Xena” is, of course, only provisional, since the name has to be approved by the International Astronomical Union. But I love the idea of naming planets after major pop-culture entities. It’s kind of like the way neuroscientists have a penchant for naming neurotransmitters after video-game characters.

eBay Strangeness Score Generator

As you probably know, the stuff that people auction on eBay can sometimes be awfully weird. Now an intrepid coder has produced a program that calculates precisely how weird an individual auction is. He calls is “The eBay Strangeness Score Generator”. The methodology, as Gizmodo describes it, is thus:

It’s a fascinating piece of code using high-level algorithms and math to prove that the post length and number of uppercase characters can be used to measure the total insanity of any eBay post.

Gizmodo ran the code on a couple of sample eBay entries, and it indeed seemed to produce accurate results. The auction for “EXTRA LARGE HOBO BIG GREEN PURSE BAG RING NEW” — which is pictured above, and of which the poster brags, “LOOK LIKE A MILLION DOLLARS WITH THIS TRENDY BAG” — received a healthy Strangeness Score of 1,273.

(Thanks to Gizmodo for this one!)

Them’s good eatin’

The giant squid and the sperm whale: Mortal enemies of the briny deep. The ocean trembles when these titans collide. Now your child can enjoy countless hours of re-enacting cephalopod/whale combat with these fluffy puppets from, which describes them thusly:

Squid-eating whale talks too. Let the imagination run wild and leave the science to the adults!

(Thanks to John T. Unger for this one!)

My invisible friends

With all the talk of “intelligent agents”, mail “daemons”, software setup “wizards” and the like, the high-tech age is riddled with the language of magic. It’s no wonder that so many computer programmers spring from the same communities obsessed with Dungeons and Dragons or The Lord of the Rings, because software is, in essence, precisely like magic: Words that “do” things. Nor is this merely part of coder-geek life. Today’s average computer user spends an inordinate amount of time memorizing and reciting passwords — their own little magical “Open Sesame” phrases that unlock the eldritch realms of email, newspaper sites, and Ebay accounts. And when you accidentally forget a password, you can wind up feeling rather like Gandalf before the locked Doors of Durin, unable to remember which incantation opens them. In a world of software, we live surrounded by weird and invisible forces.

Now some Japanese artists have produced “Kobitos” — a hilarious little project that touches on precisely this dynamic. They wired up a kitchen table so that a tea caddy can be dragged around by an unseen magnet beneath the wood. Then they wrote software in which little gnomes — Kobitos — “push” the caddy around. The only way to see the gnomes is to look through a nearby LCD screen that shows a video of the table with the Kobitos digitally superimposed.

There’s a video here showing people playing with the system. It’s quite trippy: When you look at the table, you see the tea caddy scooting mysteriously across the surface; then when you look in the screen you can see that the Kobitos are pushing it. The system’s haptics work both ways, too: When the user pushes back on the caddy, it bonks the Kobitos out of the way like little tenpins. As the artists write:

Kobitos can be good playmates, because they are invisible sometimes and visible at other times. When they are invisible, and they move something in the real world, they generate a sense of wonder. Interaction with such a creature could be a new type of entertainment.

(Thanks to Cook Design for this one!)

Shuttle produces a “Prandtl-Glauert” condensation cloud

Apparently if you look very closely at this video of Discovery lifting off (click on “WB-57 Chase Plane Video”), about 50 seconds in you’ll see a white puff of cloud form around the shuttle. I watched the video myself and can’t quite spot it, but I’ve been assured it’s there — it’s just that the video is really shaky. Anyway, the cloud is caused by the deeply cool Prandtl-Glauert Singularity — a sudden, supercold pocket of air generated by a wing that is moving at near the speed of sound.

A full explanation is here:

The clouds appear for the same reason that clouds always form, namely, that the air has cooled to the point that the ambient water vapor condenses. Flows around bodies and wings always change the temperature and pressure of the fluid … At speeds near that of sound, the temperature and pressure variations occurring at every speed can also be exaggerated in steady level flight. The mechanism for this near-sonic exaggeration of the temperature variations is the so-called Prandtl-Glauert singularity which requires that pressure and temperature perturbations approach ±¥ as the flight speed approaches the ambient sound speed.

Someone once told me that just before the Concorde broke the sound barrier, if passengers looked out the window they could “see” sound waves forming along the wings. That’s got a lovely poetry to it, but it’s not true: What Concorde passengers were seeing were Prandtl-Glauert condensation clouds.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

With this incredibly gross ring, I thee wed

The wedding ring you see above is made from human bone. It was created by extracting bone fragments from the groom’s jaw, during a wisdom-tooth operation. The bone cells were cultured in lab until they grew into a big enough chunk that a jeweller could carve it into a ring. The same process, repeated on the bride, produced a couple of extremely unique items they exchanged during their wedding ceremony. This was all done as part of the “Biojewelry” project, the brainchild of Tobie Kerridge and Nikki Stott, two design researchers at the Royal College of Art in the U.K. They advertised online for couples who wanted to give it a whirl, and received many eager replies, such as this one:

Many aspects of the Biojewelry Project interest me. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the idea of using our own own flesh and blood, so to speak, rather than metals and gems, to connect my partner and I fascinates me. I can not imagine anything more intimate, anything more symbolic of our bond, as two individuals, to each other.

Me, I can’t imagine anything more unbelievably ghastly. While the scientific and engineering aspects of this project are undeniably neat, this thing is just a little too Tolkienesque by half. Go check out the splash page for the Biojewelry site: There’s a lovely, sepia-toned photo of a couple standing in their back yard, blissfully married, smiling broadly, and WEARING A PIECE OF EACH OTHER’S BONE AS AN ORNAMENT. I was sort of thinking this had to be a media prank, until I clicked through the site and, nope, there they are: Exhaustively documented pictures of doctors extracting blood-flecked chunks of bone from some dude’s mouth. Man, if this is what these people are willing to do for their wedding tokens, I tremble to think of what was in their vows. One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them … and one ring to totally creep everybody out.

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

Take your medicine

Now this is the sort of science for which the public clamors: A study has found that eating dark chocolate reduces your blood pressure.

In the new issue of Hypertension, the paper — “Cocoa Reduces Blood Pressure and Insulin Resistance and Improves Endothelium-Dependent Vasodilation in Hypertensives” — reports a study in which half the patients with hypertension were fed dark chocolate, and half fed white chocolate. Dark chocolate is high in flavanoids, antioxidant compounds also found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The folks who ate white chocolate saw no change. But the ones chowing down on dark chocolate had an 11.9 mm Hg drop in their systolic blood pressure — the top number in a blood pressure reading — and a 8.5 mm Hg drop in diastolic blood pressure, number on the bottom. As one of the scientists told Forbes:

“It turns out that chocolate is not only a pleasurable food, but it fits in quite nicely with the other healthy recommendations,” said coauthor Jeffrey B. Blumberg, a professor of nutrition and a senior scientist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. “We found that three ounces of dark chocolate per day over several weeks reduced blood pressure in patients with essential hypertension and also seemed to provide a benefit on their insulin sensitivity,” he added.

Right on. First wine, then beer, now chocolate can be good for you. I can’t wait for the study that gives me the green light on crack.

(Thanks to F!LTER magazine for this one!)

The blind gamer

Seventeen-year-old Brice Mellen is a typical teenage boy: Totally into video games, and wickedly good at them. The only thing is, he’s blind. Wired News has a story about him today, in which the reporter watched as Mellen ploughed his way through opponents in the sword-fighting game Soul Caliber 2:

“I’m getting bored,” Mellen said in jest as he won game after game.

Blind since birth when his optic nerve didn’t connect because of Leber’s disease, Mellen honed his video-game skills over the years through patient and not-so-patient playing, memorizing key joystick operations and moves in certain games, asking lots of questions and paying particular attention to audio cues. He worked his way up from games such as Space Invaders and Asteroid, on to the modern combat games.

“I guess I don’t know how I do it, really,” Mellen said, as he continued playing while facing away from the screen. “It’s beyond me.”

I love it: Playing a game while not looking at the screen! It reminds me of a game concept a few friends and I had a couple of years ago. We wanted to create a game that was purely audio-based: You’d load it into your GameBoy, put on earphones, and the game would consist purely of sounds that you would try to respond to, using the D-pad to move closer or further away from things, and firing in their direction. Since audio resolution has gotten pretty good lately, the game would, in effect, be 3D — it’s just that it would be 3D audio. Part of the fun of this game is that it could, of course, be played by blind people. But even sighted individuals could enjoy it: You could play it while on the subway or walking along the street, situations in which it can be hazardous to be staring down at a screen.

Have cigarette taxes made America fatter?

The percentage of Americans who are considered clinically obese began to rise dramatically in the 1970s — climbing from 14 per cent to 30 per cent. Interestingly, the 1970s is also when the US began taxing cigarettes. Are the two related?

Some scientists now suspect that’s the case. After all, nicotine stimulates your metabolism, which is why many people who quit smoking begin to gain weight. As taxes on cigarettes rose — driving the price from 63 cents in 1980 to $3.37 today — tons of people quit. (Economists estimate that for every 10 per cent rise in cigarette prices, 5 per cent of smokers quit.) As Daniel Gross reports in today’s New York Times:

In a 2004 study, [City University of New York economic professor Michael] Grossman, along with Shin-Yi Chou of Lehigh University and Inas Rashad of Georgia State, mined state-by-state behavioral surveys from 1984 to 1999 to get to the root causes of rising obesity. While they found that the prevalence of fast-food restaurants was responsible for most of the climb, they concluded that the decline in smoking accounted for about 20 percent of it. Over all, they found that “each 10 percent increase in the real price of cigarettes produces a 2 percent increase in the number of obese people, other things being equal.”

Mind you, as Gross reports, some academics dispute these findings, and claim any increases in weight are only short-term.

But if Grossman were right, it would raise an interesting question. Given the relative morbidity rates of diseases caused by smoking versus diseases caused by obesity, is there an optimum price for cigarettes — i.e. a price at which it discourages the most amount of people from smoking, while creating the smallest possible new population of obese people? I’d love to see that math.

A virtual author

Sci-fi author and blogger extraordinaire Cory Doctorow has for two years been experimenting with an intriguing publishing model: Every time he writes a novel, he sells the print edition at normal bookstore prices, but also freely gives away an electronic copy of the text online. His believes — and I agree — that an author’s worst fear is not piracy but irrelevance: He’d rather have more people reading it than not. As it turns out, his strategy worked: The free giveaway created buzz and word-of-mouth, and his books have sold far more than his publishers originally expected.

What’s particularly neat is that Doctorow is now releasing his books with licenses that allow people to make “derivative works” — to remix, edit, or re-present the book in an entirely original format. Again, traditional publishers thought he was insane, and again they were wrong. Designers and webheads created all manner of cool byproducts that created yet even more buzz, and his sales went even higher. By allowing people to muck with his work, he effectively benefits from hundreds of hours of free labor of supercreative folks around the world.

The coolest remix of all? Second Life, the online virtual world, held a contest to see which of their player/citizens could design the coolest in-game version of Cory’s latest book, Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town. A guy named Falk Bergman won, and he invited Cory to log into the game to do a virtual book signing. Now a Second Life player called lilith Pendragon has designed an avatar for Cory — based on his real-life appearance — for when he logs into the game. Wagner James Au, Second Life’s “embedded” reporter, has a great post about it on his blog:

lilith’s Cory Doctorow joins an esteemed list of her celebrity tributes which also include Frieda Kahlo and Shirley Manson of Garbage (lilith most often wears her Ms. Manson, on herself). Her Cory is so exacting, I initially assumed she’d created a custom skin of him in Photoshop. But as she tells it, she brought Doctorow into this world “just using the [default avatar creation] sliders and looking at his pic. Then I made all the clothes in Photoshop.”

She did have a challenge recreating Cory’s skull-hugging haircut, however.

“I tried to do his hair with prims to get the flat top, but it just looked horrid, and I’m not patient,” she says. “Made a hair texture for his head, similar to how I did the corn rows for Snoop, and tweaked the hair sliders to make a little stick up in front.”

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

Smoke ‘em out

Last week, I blogged about Don Watson’s crusade to stamp out business-speak jargon. In the comment area to that post, longtime Collision Detection poster Laura pointed out Bullfighter — a piece of software that scans any document and identifies “bullshit” words, to help people reduce their jargon quotient. It’s pretty funny and works quite well; the creators also write a witty blog devoted to exposing managementese.

That’s where I first heard about White Smoke, a piece of software that has the opposite goal: It takes a normal document and adds management doublespeak. This is not some Orwellian parody, either. This is a real, serious $49.95 tool intended for a business audience. Check out the Flash demo here, or read the the White Smoke press release, which notes:

By successfully “understanding” context, WHITESMOKE ENRICHMENT can optimize any sentence or text without changing its meaning. For example, the sentence “I am happy with your work” may be upgraded to “I am completely thrilled with your outstanding achievement,” or any other agreeable combination. The program also offers a unique “Suggested Phrase” feature. For example, the word “risk” may be replaced by the phrase “walking on thin ice.”

My jaw lies on the ground. I knew, of course, that various forms of managment-project software exist; PowerPoint includes a “project wizard” to help you take even the simplest 30-second-long pitch and transform it into a bloated, Soviet five-year-plan that requires an entire morning to click through. But White Smoke — “White Smoke”?? — is in a class by itself.

The guys at the Bullfighter blog came up with an ingenious test to find out just how badly White Smoke will mangle a document. They took the following paragraph …

Our customer service could be better. We have four customer complaints for every 100 items we sell — slightly worse than our competitors. But what’s worse is that it takes two phone calls and 20 minutes to straighten things out. In the meantime, our customers have software that isn’t working right. If you believe the research, they’re spreading bad news about our software until we resolve the installation problem. Even then, we probably haven’t converted them into real fans.

Then they ran it through White Smoke. The result?

Our quality customer service could be better. We have four customer complaints for every 100 individual articles we sell — slightly worse than our weak adversaries. But what’s worse is that it eventually extracts two business calls and 20 minutes to straighten entities out. In the meantime, our enthusiastic clients have computer software that isn’t effectively performing right. If you seemingly accept the scientific scrutiny, they’re disseminating bad news about our computer software until we suitably settle the innovative installation problem. Even then, we probably haven’t transformed them into real fans.

Fascinating. Not only does White Smoke insert blithering nonsense — it transforms “straighten things out” to “straighten entities out,” for example — but actually changes the meaning of the sentences, by injecting a constant stream of self-deluded preening. “Clients” become “enthusiastic clients”; “competitors” become “weak adversaries”. White Smoke literally transforms a normal document into propaganda: Every single sentence is purged of any possible thoughtcrime, any suggestion that one’s corporate goal is not striding confidently forward on its shining path.

Indeed, in this respect, White Smoke neatly blurs the mendacities of the corporate world with those of the political one. It’s like the Bush aide who last year infamously told the New York Times Magazine that top administration officials are not members of the “reality-based community”. Much like White Smoke, they can generate good news merely by claiming it’s true. In politics, it seems — as in business — sometimes reality needs a little faith healing.

Who you gonna believe? Me, or your lying eyes?

I’m coming to this late, but a week ago Matt Bai wrote a superb piece for the New York Times Magazine in which he profiled the linguist George Lakoff — a man whose analysis of political speech is having a huge impact on the Democrats. Lakoff recently wrote Don’t Think of an Elephant, in which he argues that the Republicans have been spectacularly successful in the last 10 years because they have set the language — the “frames” — by which political issues in Washington are discussed.

An example? “Tax relief”. As Lakoff points out, the phrase presumes that taxes — any taxes — are inherently so oppressive that one necessarily craves relief from them. Crafting the perfect phrase has been so important to Republican victories that in 1994, the Republican pollster Frank Luntz wrote a memo called “The 14 Words Never to Use”: He urged Republicans to say “exploring for energy” (a positive, upbeat phrase) rather than “drilling for oil” (which sounds dirty and ugly); rather than attack “government”, he told them to criticize “Washington”.

As Bai reports:

In Lakoff’s view, not only does Luntz’s language twist the facts of his agenda but it also renders facts meaningless by actually reprogramming, through long-term repetition, the neural networks inside our brains. And this is where Lakoff’s vision gets a little disturbing. According to Lakoff, Democrats have been wrong to assume that people are rational actors who make their decisions based on facts; in reality, he says, cognitive science has proved that all of us are programmed to respond to the frames that have been embedded deep in our unconscious minds, and if the facts don’t fit the frame, our brains simply reject them. Lakoff explained to me that the frames in our brains can be “activated” by the right combination of words and imagery, and only then, once the brain has been unlocked, can we process the facts being thrown at us.

Yikes. In the end, Bai argues that Lakoff is incorrect. The Democrats, Bai says, are grasping at Lakoff’s theories because it allows them to simply write off Bush supporters as “deluded”: If only these foolish voters could somehow be persuaded to see the truth of Bush’s dismal record, why then, they’d vote for Democrats! And of course, since the Democrats are already right about everything, they don’t need to come up with new ideas; they just need only wait for the idiotic public to see things their way.

I think Bai’s right about the Democrats. But unfortunately, I think Lakoff’s analysis is depressingly correct too. Right now, the problem with politics in America is not that people cannot agree on ideological points: They can’t even agree on what the basic facts of reality are. While I think both the left and right in the US bend the truth to make their points, the level of blatant canards that have come out of pro-Republican media and pundits have been absolutely breathtaking in recent years.

One lovely example occurred in January when Ann Coulter was being interviewed on The Fifth Estate — Canada’s main investigative TV show — and, in the course of criticizing Canada for not sending troops to Iraq, noted that Canada sent troops to Vietnam. Of course, Canada didn’t send troops to Vietnam: As with Iraq, Canadian politicians did not buy the justification for the war. But even after the host of The Fifth Estate pointed this out, Coulter refused to believe him. She literally argued about it back and forth. There’s a transcript here, and you can watch the video here. It’s weirdly fascinating, because Coulter — at first — does not actually appear to be lying. Indeed, she looks a bit baffled; she seems to be so deeply committed to her political framework that she genuinely can’t imagine there would ever be facts that would contradict her. Then suddenly she seems rather pissed off, because the journalist doesn’t let her off the hook.

Personal outsourcing

Everyone assumes that outsourcing is trend for major corporations to save money. But journalist Ben Hammersley has recently discovered that he himself is outsourcing more and more tasks — virtually anything that can be done digitally. As he wrote in a recent Guardian column:

I needed a webpage built. Web designers are everywhere, and web hosting is cheap. It is just much cheaper in India. So, £30 paid via to got me a website design, an hour of the designer’s time for changes, and a year’s hosting for good measure. In 24 hours, and for less than the price of a few rounds in a pub, I had a new, uniquely designed website up and running. For small businesses needing a home page, why spend hundreds of pounds on a domestic designer, when something just as good can be commissioned from designers in India or Bangladesh?

I should also note that I’m not actually writing this. I’m dictating it. Like many journalists, I interview a lot of people, and find that transcribing the interviews afterwards is the least fun part of the job. So I don’t any more. Like many legal firms and large hospitals, I have found a company that will do it for me. Mine is in New Zealand, where the time difference works in my favour.

Personal outsourcing. Man, the world in about four years is gonna be so very weird.

The ransom model of publishing, pt. 2

Last month, I blogged about Greg Stoltze, a board-game designer who developed a “ransom” model of publishing: He would finish designing his strategy game Meatbot Massacre as soon as he received $600 in online donations; once the game was done, he put it online for anyone to download for free. It was an elegant, clever way of routing around the problem of piracy, and it worked. Indeed, it worked so well that he’s set up a new ransom — $750 — for his next game, “… in Spaace!”

This time, Stoltze is hosting his project on — a web site that is a sort of like an Amazon for ransom programs. Anyone can create a project, set a funding goal, and see who’ll contribute. There aren’t a whole lot of projects online yet, but my favorite is “The ‘Send our Friend Nicholas to QuakeCon’ Fund”:

This purpose of this group action is to collect the necessary funds in order to allow our friend, Nicholas, to attend QuakeCon on August 11-14 of 2005. The amount: $125. The intended use of these funds: $70 for Hotel accomodations, and $55 for Gas to cover the 1500 mile trip.

That’s so delightfully brazen — and small-bore, given that the kid is gonna drive 1,500 miles across the country — that I think I might actually donate 10 bucks.

(Thanks to Greg for this one!)

Celebrity math

One hazard of being an attractive starlet is that many people assume you’re not that smart. This, however, is no problem for Danica McKellar, a 30-year-old former star of The Wonder Years and regular on The West Wing, because she’s actually got documented proof of her brilliance: She’s the author of the mathematical proof “Percolation and Gibbs states multiplicity for ferromagnetic Ashkin-Teller models on Z-squared” (PDF), which she cowrote while doing a degree at the University of California.

There’s an excellent profile of her in the Science section of yesterday’s New York Times, which tells the life-imitates-art story of when McKellar auditioned for the lead role in a San Diego production of the play Proof, in which a young woman claims to have solved a complex mathematical proof:

At an audition, the casting director asked about what she knew of math. Ms. McKellar said she was co-author of a mathematics proof.

“She went into a five-minute explanation,” said Sam Woodhouse, the artistic director of the San Diego Repertory Theater. “Which was a stunning and mystifying five minutes.”

McKellar even managed to talk about math during a Q&A in the current issue of Stuff magazine, in which she also appears in the cover wearing black lingerie:

Q: After [The Wonder Years], you attended UCLA, became a genius and published a paper on Percolation and Gibbs states multiplicity for ferromagnetic Ashkin-Teller models on Z2. I really enjoyed the part on infinite occupied clusters.

A: It’s really complicated and not that interesting to most people.

Heh. Perhaps the coolest and weirdest thing about McKellar is that she actually gets fan mail about math. High-school kids email her complicated math questions; she walks them through the answers on her web site. Check it out and bone up on your probability theory, puzzles about rates, and the physics of tossing a baseball from the outfield to the catcher.

Words, words, words

Like most of us, Don Watson hates corporate jargon. But Watson, a former speechwriter for the Australian prime minister, is trying to do something about it — this year, he published Death Sentences: How Clichés, Weasel Words and Management-Speak are Strangling Public Language, a witty and incendiary attack on the jargonization of everyday life.

One good example? The current US president. George W. Bush recently said “We need to counter the shockwave of the evildoer by having individual rate cuts accelerated and by thinking about tax rebates” — a statement that Watson argues is symptomatic of the jargon mindset. “Bush has got a few catchphrases in his mind and he tacks them together whether they make sense or not,” as Watson recently said in a Q&A with MSNBC. This, for him, is the central problem with jargon: It helps people get away with saying nothing, by allowing them to simply remix meaningless blather. Later on in the interview, Watson drives this point home:

I was answering letters of frustration and despair every week from people who say everything is infested with marketing language. Teachers have resigned because of it. They say how much they hate their work because they have no idea what’s being said to them … One of my favorites is from a high-school [evaluation]: “Just as the skill and processes are not compartmentalized in the creation process, the evaluation of outcomes will occur against a background of understanding that separation of outcomes into discrete components is subordinate to the evaluation of the total process as a comprehensive outcome.” Nobody has any idea what that means.

I think Watson’s got it wrong. That sentence is not incoherent at all. On the contrary, it’s perfectly understandable. The teacher is saying that when evaluating students, the most important thing is to organically assess their overall performance — not to focus on specific markers of skill, or individual outcomes in tests or essays. It’s not elegantly said, but it’s not mysterious.

No, the problem with that sentence, and indeed with today’s jargon, is not its meaninglessness — it’s the manner in which it generates meaning. That quote from the teacher, and indeed Bush’s quote above, are delivered entirely in the rhetoric of business. That is what’s truly appalling about this teacher: She thinks it’s appropriate to discuss a child’s intellectual development as if she were assessing the number of Corvette engine-blocks rolling off the conveyor belt at Magna International. That’s the true malaise of modern jargon: It forces people to treat any subject as if it were always a managerial problem of inputs and outputs.

Despite what Watson argues, the language of business is neither imprecise nor devoid of content. Sadly, it has a very precise style — and one that is absolutely wretched for civil discourse.

Stormy Monday

Designer Johanna Balusikova recently got interested in what colors people associated with the days of the week. So she organized the Colour of the Day Project, in which she polled 75 “creative field workers” to find out what color they thought most characterized Tuesday, Friday, and the others. And, as typotheque reports …

The result is a series of t-shirts, one for each day of the week, the colour of each having been selected by majority vote. The shirts could either be worn according to the calendar days, or more intuitively, according to the actual mood of the wearer.

Chronological synesthesia: I love it! I want to get the whole set, which apparently I can, here, for $120. Also, Balusikova has set up a page where you can register your vote on what color each day should be. Maybe she’ll eventually release another t-shirt set, this time reflecting the overall wisdom of the mob. Would we decide on different colors than the ones above?

(Thanks to Andrew Hearst for this one!)

Feces powers Rwandan prison

That’s another of those headlines I really didn’t expect to write when I got out of bed today. Yet there it is: Last month, a prison that holds 120,000 prisoners charged with genocide in the Rwandan massacres of 1994 was given an Ashden environmental award for its innovative “biogas” program — which produces energy from the prisoners’ waste. Normally, to heat the water and power elecricity for the prison, the administration spends about $1 million a year in wood-fuel costs. Using the prisoners’ feces has cut that cost by 60%. As Wired News reports:

“It’s turning a negative social situation in terms of the Rwandan genocide into something that can benefit local people in the local area,” said Corrina Cordon, spokeswoman for the Ashden Awards.

Gotta love the corporatespeak: Referring to the slaughter of nearly 1,000,000 Rwandas with machetes as “a negative social situation”? Ahem. This is not to detract from the ingenuity of the prison engineers, nor the decision to give them an award. As Martin Wright, an Ashden Awards judge who travelled to Rwanda to inspect the system, noted: “I’ve sniffed the residue and there is no smell at all.”

The two-faced TV

I live in a televisually strange household. My wife watches TV; I play video games. This basically requires that we be in different rooms while we’re pursuing our respective leisure, because it would be too physically difficult — to say nothing of psychically alarming — to have two TVs in the same room.

You can thus imagine my delight to discover that Sharp has just announced a new TV screen that can display two different images at once, depending on what angle you view it from. As a story in The Weekend Australian notes:

The screen has been designed so that the two angles are well within the bounds of normal viewing behaviour. At about 90cm from the screen, two people sitting just 30cm apart would see different pictures. And in each case, the image would occupy the full screen.

That would make a big difference to video games, since if two people were playing they could both see the full screen, rather than have to put up with the present arrangement of splitting it in half.

I can just imagine the cognitive disconnect if you had one person watching Sophie’s Choice on the same TV as someone else is watching Dodgeball: One viewer quietly weeps while the other one laughs uproariously. One could scarcely ask for a more unintentionally ironic symbol of the microsegmented media universe — and our five-blind-men-and-the-elephant world of pop culture, where everyone insists their show is the most important thing on TV. (It’s even better if you imagine a household where one person watches Fox News while another screens Fahrenheit 9/11.) Neil Postman spins in his grave.

Nonetheless, of course I’m going to buy one of these things. As a gamer, it actually allows for a very cool multiplayer experience: You could play deathmatch Halo with a friend, each of you getting a full-screen experience, and neither being able to cheat by spying the action in the other person’s screen. If they put this technology in laptops, wily executives could use it to dupe shoulder-surfers by displaying fake business memos in the alternate-angle view.

It also makes me wonder how sitcom writers would cope if these TVs became omnipresent. They’d lose one of their most tired and nauseating devices: The squabble between spouses over what to watch, read as Yet More Immutable Proof Of How Alien Women And Men Really Are.

Sharp’s own press release is online here.

(Thanks to Nancy for this one!)

Shower panic

Yikes. According to a study published in the current issue of Medical Hypotheses, taking showers may cause brain damage.

A couple of scientists from Wake Forest University noted that water contains trace elements of manganese. That’s a metal that occurs in nature, so we’re naturally exposed to it all the time; but when it enters the body in higher concentrations than normal, it can cause brain damage. The scientists hypothesized that showers would would aerosolize any manganese in the air and make it inhalable, a particularly effect way of getting the metal into your system.

So they used animal studies to calculate how much manganese a human would absorb in a 10-minute shower, multipied it by the number of people taking showers — and average shower lengths — and came up with some hair-raising conclusions. As Fairfax Digital reports:

“If our results are confirmed, they could have profound implications for the nation and the world,” said Dr John Spangler, from Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, New Carolina.

“Nearly nine million people in the United States are exposed to manganese levels that our study shows may cause toxic effects.

“Inhaling manganese, rather than eating or drinking it, is far more efficient at delivering manganese to the brain. The nerve cells involved in smell are a direct pathway for toxins to enter the brain. Once inside these small nerves, manganese can travel throughout the brain.”

The abstract of the study is available online here.

(Thanks to Rebecca Skloot for this one!)

The “octodog”

Parents: Fear the weiner. As I’ve recently learned, choking is the #4 leading cause of death in children under the age of five, and of those foods that lead to choking, hot dogs are at the top of the list. Why? Because a hot dog is, in some subtle cognitive way, a food that just sort of inherently lends itself to uncontrollable gobbling, and thus the ingestion of unchewed, choke-sized chunks. The mortal danger of hot dogs has already prompted at least one piece of proposed legislation — Bill #HR 2773, the “Food Choking Prevention Act of 2003,” which would have required hot dog makers to put warning signs on the packaging. It has also prompted doctors to recommend that when parents serve hot dogs to young children, they cut them not only into small pieces, but slice them “radially” — like lumberjacks hewing great logs — to make the pieces even smaller. A sensible idea, to be sure, but for one issue: Isn’t it kind of hard to slice a hot dog radially?

Ah, but that’s where the “Octodog” comes in! This device, which came out a few years ago (I think), is an unusually cunning piece of hot-dog-preparation technology. The concept is pretty simple: You slide the Octodog down the length of the weiner, and it neatly slices it up to about 3/4 of the way through, leaving only the top part attached. It thus produces a weiner that sprawls across the plate like an octopus, pleasing the young tykes aesthetically while also reducing the choking hazard.

It’s a brilliant bit of engineering. The only problem is — holy moses does it look creepy, to saying nothing of queasily sexual, to be jamming a weiner inside the loving embrace of a cephalopod. Go check out the animated demo on the Octodogs site — “So How Does It Work?” When the weiner is finally extracted at the end of the process, the Octodog’s eyes go kinda blank; it’s the first kitchen implement that is actively designed to have a postcoital expression.

I cannot possibly imagine how many years on the psychiatrist’s bench are going to come out of children watching their smiling mothers and fathers repeatedly violating the hapless Octodog at lunchtime.

(Thanks to John T. Unger for this one!)

The truth is out there

Gary McKinnon is a 39-year-old British man who is a world of trouble. Over the last few years, he hacked into a pile of US governmental computers, ranging from US Space Command to various Forts (Fort Benning, Fort Meade). The government hunted him down and charged him with 20 counts, including stealing computer secrets, and he faces up to 70 years in jail.

But the really weird thing is the reason why, precisely, McKinnon was snooping — he was a UFO buff looking for evidence of extraterrestrial coverups. In a rather hilarious (if sad) profile in the Guardian, there’s this terrific exchange:

“What was the most exciting thing you saw?” I ask.

“I found a list of officers’ names,” he claims, “under the heading ‘Non-Terrestrial Officers’.”

“Non-Terrestrial Officers?” I say.

“Yeah, I looked it up,” says Gary, “and it’s nowhere. It doesn’t mean little green men. What I think it means is not earth-based. I found a list of ‘fleet-to-fleet transfers’, and a list of ship names. I looked them up. They weren’t US navy ships. What I saw made me believe they have some kind of spaceship, off-planet.”

“The Americans have a secret spaceship?” I ask.

“That’s what this trickle of evidence has led me to believe.”

“Some kind of other Mir that nobody knows about?”

“I guess so,” says Gary.

“What were the ship names?”

“I can’t remember,” says Gary. “I was smoking a lot of dope at the time. Not good for the intellect.”

(Thanks to Rachel for this one!)

Chaos Theory

Here’s a fun little Flash game — Chaos Theory. A bunch of blue balls, 50 in total per round, are thrown up in the air horizontally, then fall slowly downwards. You’re allowed to click one ball per round, which blows it up into a small yellow/orange explosion; that explosion ignites any blue balls it comes into contact with, and so on, and so on, until the explosions die out for lack of fuel. The thing is, the explosions are only about an inch wide, so you have to pick where you launch your first explosion very carefully. It’s surprisingly hard to create a chain reaction that will explode all fifty balls each round! My record so far is getting 121 balls per game.

Like all excellent simple “action” games, it follows the Path of Enticement and Infuriation: i) At first, it seems to be a matter of pure luck. Then ii) you quickly spy patterns in the game that drastically improve your ability. But then, iii) luck seems to take over again, limiting your score as you fluctuate ever closer to playing a “perfect” game, yet somehow unable to attain it.

Weirdly mesmerizing.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

The parrot that knows “zero”

A while ago, I blogged about the amazing intelligence of Grey parrots — which one MIT researcher claims have “the sentience of a four- to six-year-old child”. Today, I read about some new evidence: A Grey parrot that has developed — entirely under its own steam — an understanding of the concept of zero.

The scientists were playing some counting games with Alex, the 28-year-old Grey in question. After a few days, he got bored with the tests, and started offering a long stream of intentionally wrong answers, apparently because he enjoyed the frustration of the scientists. (Alex is not only smart, but weird, which arguably makes him even more human-like.) Anyway, when he finally agreed to resume the counting tests, he did something that demonstrated he’d evolved a sense of zero.

The tests worked like this: The researchers would lay out a bunch of objects of different colors and sizes, then ask questions like “what color four?” — meaning which color are the objects of which there are four. Alex, as I mentioned, had no problem tossing off correct answers over and over again. But then, as World Science reports …

… one day when an experimenter asked Alex “what color three?” Laid out before Alex were sets of two, three and six objects, each set differently colored.

Alex insisted on responding: “five.” This made no sense given that the answer was supposed to be a color.

After several tries the experimenter gave up and said: “OK, Alex, tell me: what color five?”

“None,” the bird replied. This was correct, in that there was no color that graced exactly five of the objects. The researchers went on to incorporate “none” into future trials, and Alex consistently used the word correctly, they said.

Now consider: The concept of nothingness eluded major Greek philosophers for centuries. Crazy, eh? Chimps and some squirrel monkeys have apparently been able to grasp the idea of zero, but only after being taught it. Though Alex had been taught the word “none” before, as a lack of information or stimulus, he seems to have ported it over to the world numerical quantities all on his own. However, obviously more research is needed here. The scientists want to study Alex further to see if he’s really grokking zero — by getting him to add and subtract small quantities, including zero.

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

The Flybar 1200

As a kid, pro skateboarder Andy Macdonald loved to bounce around on a pogo stick. To replicate the fun of boingingly soaring through the air, he decided to create an Xtreme pogo stick specifically for adults. He hooked up with an inventor who had created a rubber thruster that, when stretched to full extension, can produce 100 pounds of thrust. They crammed 12 of these thrusters into a next-generation pogo stick, and thus was born the Flybar 1200 — a device with a simply awesome amount of power. As a writeup on Gizmag notes:

The Flybar 1200 is like a pogo Stick on steroids, and was built to support the weight, strength, and demands of a world-class athlete. Fit co-ordinated humans can jump higher than five feet and people have been known to get nearly 8 feet of air using the aircraft-grade aluminium Flybar.

Eight feet? That’s incredibly cool — but honestly, you’d have to be irretrievably out of your goddamn mind to actually use one of these things. I mean, 1200 pounds of thrust shoving down on a region the size of a silver dollar? I can’t possibly imagine a less stable kinetic system. I headed over to Amazon to look at the customer reviews for the Flybar 1200, figuring I would find a litany of ghastly injuries. Sure enough, here’s a posting by one James Grissom, a father who won a Flybar 1200 in a radio-station draw and gave it to his kids:

About two weeks later I got to spend MANY hours in the Emergency room at the Trauma Center here in Seattle while I listened to my 14 year old son scream in pain as 4 doctors pulled on his leg to try and set the massive Open Fracture (Bones Protruding From The Skin) of his left Tibia and Fibula (Lower Leg) that he received when the Flybar slipped out from under him as he landed on it. It is now 2005 … My son is off his crutches now but still walks with a cane for support and is always in pain by the end of the day. The $3500 worth of Titanium implants will come out soon.

Ow. He let his 14-year-old son ride on that thing?

The “original” Turing Test: My latest piece in Wired 

Back in April, I blogged about “the female Turing Test” — a group of female students who realized that artificial-intelligence scientists had never conducted the Turing Test precisely the way that Alan Turing originally intended it. Wired asked me to write a short article about the students, and it’s printed in the issue currently on newsstands. You can read it online at Wired’s site — though it’s a great issue, so I’d highly recommend buying a print copy too — and I’ve also archived a copy below.

BONUS: The last two paragraphs got trimmed because there wasn’t enough space in the magazine, so I re-inserted ‘em here! Think of this as the Director’s Cut of this article. You lucky, lucky people.

The Other Turing Test

by Clive Thompson

Research subject: What do girls do at sleepovers?

Computer: They do their own thing.
Research subject: Do you wear skirts?
Computer: Only when I dress up.

Research subject: You are a female.

Everyone has heard of the Turing test, where you chat with a human and a computer and try to figure out which is which. But few know that this is not the only scenario Alan Turing proposed in his famous 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” In it, he suggested an “imitation game,” which plays like 20 Questions for transsexuals: first a man and then a computer pose as female, and the interrogator tries to distinguish them from a real woman. Scientists studying artificial intelligence have long argued over the meaning of this gender-bending experiment, and last fall Cameo Wood — a 28-year-old undergraduate at Simon’s Rock College of Bard in Massachusetts — got interested in the debate. But after scouring academic databases, she could find no record of any experiment that used Turing’s original drag-show formulation.

“So I thought,” Wood says, “we should actually do this.”

» MORE...

Robert B0rk: A man of his word

The resignation of Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor has produced a flurry of stories about Robert Bork — the jurist whose Supreme candidacy was shot down in 1987 after critics argued he was too nuttily right-wing, would likely repeal Roe v. Wade, and didn’t think a right to privacy existed. My favorite recent article about Bork is short column in last week’s New York Times, in which Bork revealed that he really digs the fact that “borked” has become a figure of speech. As the Times reported:

… Mr. Bork said he had found some satisfaction in his defeat. He noted that “Borking” is now used as a verb meaning “to attack with unfair means,” he said. “To have your name become a verb is to achieve a certain form of immortality.”

Heh. The thing is, I’m not sure Bork is correct about what “borked” really means.

As far as I can tell, “borked” is more often used merely to say that something is totally broken and busted — partly because of the association with Bork’s flame-out, partly because “Bork” is a near anagram and homonym of “broke”, and, perhaps most of all because “bork” is an awesomely onomateopiac word. Indeed, there are several entries at The Urban Dictionary with variations on this theme, including:

1. borked

To have totally fucked something up. Usually by doing something stupid. Specifically used to describe technology that is broken.

Example 1….
Admin: I totally borked my machine installing Win XP SP2.

Example 2….

“I can’t come over at the moment…my car is borked”.

Of course, since “borked” is so frequently used to described busted technology, it’s even tranformed into a piece of alphanumeric l33tspeak — as in Boing Boing’s frequent use of “b0rked”.

Interestingly, back during Watergate, Bork’s name was used as a verb in an entirely different context. Bork was Solicitor General for Richard Nixon, and Nixon demanded that Bork fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox after Cox requested access to tapes of Oval Office conversations. The firing was known as the “Saturday Night Massacre”, and, as Wikipedia notes …

In the years after the Saturday Night Massacre, a well-known joke said that “borking” was “firing a man for doing exactly what he was hired to do” (i.e. Judge Bork had “borked” Archibald Cox, whose job had been to investigate criminal activities in the Nixon White House).

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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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