Archive: November 2005

Fire and ice

Mount Belinda, an active volcano on an island in Antarctica, has started to blow — and is producing this totally awesome collision of fire and ice. There are some really gorgeous color-enhanced images coming out of NASA’s Earth-monitoring satellite Terra, one of which is above.

The changes to the local environment will be quite interesting to watch. Outside of the fact that the island is home to much of the world’s population of chinstrap penguins — who are probably freaking out right now — the melting ice will inject an enormous amount of freshwater into the ocean. (A smaller eruption in Iceland in 1996 produced a volume of freshwater outstripped only by the Amazon river.)

Volcano experts are predictably thrilled, as news@Nature notes:

“I’d give my right arm to be down there now,” says John Smellie, a volcano expert at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, UK. “It’s very rare that we get to make direct observations of eruptions under ice sheets.”

Heh. He’d “give his right arm” to be down near A MASSIVELY UNSTABLE GEYSER of 1250-degree lava. Man, I love scientists. They’re willing to risk full-body mutilation just to acquire good data. More proof that the scientific method is the finest moral product of human civilization.

Of course, Robert Frost would have loved this event too.

(Thanks to SciTech Daily for this one!)

Are smarter people better at ignoring things?

People frequently complain that they can’t remember things — and they wish their brains had more storage capacity, like today’s ever-expanding computer hard drives and RAM. If we could just improve the sheer size of our memory, we’d be able to retain and manipulate more data, and we’d become smarter and smarter — right?

Not according to an intriguing new experiment by brain scientists at the University of Oregon. Edward Vogel and a team of students took a handful of volunteers and tested their “visual working memory” — their ability to maintain awareness of events and objects around them. The test asked them to pay attention to red or blue bricks in a visual picture.

Now, visual working memory is highly correlated to intelligence: People with a bigger VWM tend to score much better on an array of cognitive challenges. For years, scientists have assumed that VWM is roughly analogous to cramming info into your head: The more you can fit in there, the smarter you are.

But when Vogel mapped the brain-wave activity of the volunteers, he noticed something much weirder. The people with the largest capacity in their VWM weren’t retaining tons of information. No, they were being quite selective. Their genius lay in being able to strip out inessential information: To pay attention only to the red bricks — to hold only those “in mind” — and to ignore the blue ones. The upshot, as the editors at Nature summarize, is that …

… this also implies that an individual’s effective memory capacity may not simply reflect storage space, as it does with a hard disk. It may also reflect how efficiently irrelevant information is excluded from using up vital storage capacity.

That chart above shows this relationship: The more efficiently the subjects’ brain worked, the bigger their memory capacity. This is not to say that people who can’t screen out stimuli are dumber. As Vogel noted, “Being a bit scattered tends to be a trait of highly imaginative people.” The more you rattle the marbles around in your brain, the more creative new connections you make, as it were — connections that might be lost on those focusing intently on just the red ones.

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

American Guernica

John T. Unger, an artist and longtime commenter on Collision Detection, recently announced an intriguing art project called “American Guernica: A Call for Guerilla Public Art”. He’s calling upon artists nationwide to post replicas of Guernica, Picasso’s famous antiwar painting, on billboards and the sides of buildings — as in the Photoshopped example above.

Why Guernica? Because Picasso intended it to depict the horrors and insanity of war, particularly the human destruction wreaked by bombings. Guernica caused a stir when it was unveiled back in 1937, and apparently it still does. John says his inspiration for the project came from an Iraq-related incident, as detailed by Wikipedia:

A tapestry copy of Picasso’s Guernica is displayed on the wall of the United Nations building in New York City, at the entrance to the Security Council room … On February 5, 2003, a large blue curtain was placed to cover this work, so that it would not be visible in the background when Colin Powell and John Negroponte gave press conferences at the United Nations. On the following day, it was claimed that the curtain was placed there at the request of television news crews, who had complained that the wild lines and screaming figures made for a bad backdrop, and that a horse’s hindquarters appeared just above the faces of any speakers. Diplomats, however, told journalists that the Bush Administration leaned on UN officials to cover the tapestry, rather than have it in the background while Powell or other U.S. diplomats argued for war on Iraq.

As John writes, “If the painting intimidates warmongers into covering it, then why not make sure that it goes up in as many public spaces as possible?”

The hive-mind Seurat

A year ago a wrote a piece for Slate called “Art Mobs”, in which I wondered whether it would be possible for a smart mob to create a work of visual art. I noted the example at Typophile, where a web designer allowed people to vote on individual pixels as they attempted to design a font or draw a picture of a goat. (The Typophile project appears to be dead now, unfortunately.)

Typophile offered only a relatively small grid, and the only possible pixel colors were black and white. So I was intrigued to see a new project called Pixelfest — which offers the same collaborative concept, except with a way bigger grid and pixels in a dizzying array of colors.

The emerging picture appears to be a sunny landscape with a tree! That’s the sun excerpted above; click here to see the whole thing. It’s quite mesmerizing: A democratized version of pointillist style.

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

If it’s too loud, you’re too young

Dig this: A Welsh inventor has created a device intended to shoo teenagers from hanging out near your house or store — by emitting an annoying sound so high-pitched that adults cannot hear it. The inventor, Howard Stapleton, got the idea by recalling a time when he was 12 and visited a factory with his father; the sound of high-frequency welding equipment totally annoyed him, but his father couldn’t perceive it. This, he later realized, is because of a physiological quirk of aging: Children can hear higher frequencies than adults.

Stapleton began experimenting, trying to find the acoustic sweet spot — the precise frequency that will annoy the heck outta the kidz yet remain undetected by the middle-aged. There’s a terrific story in today’s New York Times about it:

Using his children as guinea pigs, he tried a number of different noise and frequency levels, testing a single-toned unit before settling on a pulsating tone which, he said, is more unbearable, and which can be broadcast at 75 decibels, within government auditory-safety limits. “I didn’t want to make it hurt,” Mr. Stapleton said. “It just has to nag at them.”

Apparently the noise sounds like “pulsating chirp” reminiscent of tinnitus. The Mosquito has only been tested in one convenience store in South Wales, but hey presto, as soon as it was turned on the teenagers fled.

As for the science behind all this? It’s certainly true that hearing sensitivity declines with aging — the technical term is presbycusis — but it’s hardly a linear process. The danger is that many older folks could hear the noise (indeed, one 34-year-old who visited the convenience store could). But the overall concept is pretty hilarious. That’s a picture of Stapleton above, by the way, from the Times story.

Actually, it’s smaller on the inside than it is on the outside

Does Toronto look like New York? According to Hollywood, it sure does. Movies like The Cinderella Man and Kojak and TV shows like 111 Gramercy Park have all been shot in Toronto, because of the cheaper dollar and generally lower operating costs. Indeed, so many filmmakers go north for their New York scenes that Toronto’s local government has actually set up a web site with pictures of various locations for filmmakers to consider. It’s certainly true that many of the locations have a sort of generically big-city-urban look, such as the National Trade Center, Osgoode Hall, or the main train nexus, Union Station — “a poor man’s version of Grand Central Terminal”, as Dominic Basulto put it over at Corante.

But what really cracked me up was Toronto’s officials promoting the campus of Scarborough College — a distant suburban satellite about 45 minutes’ drive away from the main, downtown University of Toronto. When I went to U of T, special pity and horror was reserved for the poor schlubs who had to attend Scarborough College. U of T downtown is replete with gorgeous architecture, a vibrant night life, and dozens of superb international cuisines in local restaurants; Scarborough is a joyless moonscape of food trucks.

And those poured-concrete buildings! My god. You can see an example of ‘em in that picture above. They look like postapocalyptic bunkers designed to keep rampaging mutants at bay after some ghastly, accidental thermonuclear holocaust. Seriously, I’ve been to that location … it looks like something out of a vintage Dr. Who episode. You keep on waiting for Daleks to appear in the corridors and slaughter everyone. Exterminate! Ex-TER-minate!

(Thanks to Corante New York for this one!)

Dolphin game-designers

Scientists who study animal behavior have long noted that intelligent species play games. But a couple of marine biologists have recently published a paper analyzing 317 games they observed in dophins — and arguing that the games are so complex they wouldn’t be out of place on an Xbox 360. Indeed, as World Science reports, young dolphins appear to deliberately design their games to be as hard as possible, perhaps because this makes them a good learning experience. Dig this one:

One calf became adept at “blowing bubbles while swimming upside-down near the bottom of the pool and then chasing and biting each bubble before it reached the surface,” the researchers continued. “She then began to release bubbles while swimming closer and closer to the surface, eventually being so close that she could not catch a single bubble.”

What’s more, the dolphin varied the number of bubbles it blew at different depths, apparently so that it could time things such that it would catch the last bubble just before it hit the surface. And it would also modify its swimming style — “one variation involving a fast spin-swim” — to make it harder to catch all the bubbles.

In another incident, the researchers watched some dolphins off the coast of Honduras passing a plastic bag back and forth in a game of catch. When the adults passed it to the young dolphins, they “they did so more carefully than to each other, releasing it just in front of the youth’s mouth, as if to make it easier to catch.”

(Thanks to Erik Weissengruber for this one!)

Genetically-altered peas make mice sick

The anti-frankenfoods people have been arguing for years that sooner or later, a genetically modified food would behave in some unexpected and creepy fashion. It looks like researchers have documented the first case of this: A pest-resistant GM pea has been found to make mice sick when they eat it.

Researchers at Australia’s national research organisation, CSIRO, genetically altered a pea so that it expresses a protein — normally found in the common bean — that can kill pea-weevil pests. Normally this protein doesn’t cause any problems when eaten by mice.

But when expressed in the pea, the protein took on some unexpected properties — and when the mice ate it they suffered an allergic reation. Even spookier, as The New Scientist notes …

… the effect was the same whether the protein was taken from raw or cooked peas — so whether the protein was active or denatured. “To my knowledge, this is the first description of inducing experimental inflammation in mice” with a GM food, Foster says.

Because this research was publicly funded, it was published in a peer-reviewed journal. But as one of the researchers pointed out, experiments like this go on all the time in private labs, which virtually never publicize negative results — so who knows how many other experimental genetically-altered foods have caused similar adverse reactions.

(Thanks to Erik Weissengruber for this one!)

“Will the representative for Zeta Riticuli please stop waving his tentacles?”

As they say, “all politics are local”. But what about the political nuances of relations with extraterrestrials?

I speak, of course, of the nascent field of “expolitics.” I was blissfully unaware that expolitics even existed until this morning, when my friend Rachel alerted me to story about how Paul Hellyer — Canada’s Minister of Defense from 1963 to 1967 — has officially requested that the Canadian government “hold public hearings on Exopolitics — relations with ‘ETs.” Hellyer is apparently convinced that aliens are regularly visiting our planet, that the government knows about this, and that the coverup is so profound that “the vast majority of U.S. officials and politicians” aren’t in the loop. Now, if you were a former high-level Defense official possessed of knowledge that aliens walk among us, what would you do? Run screaming with photographic proof to the media? Fire the proton torpedoes? Reverse the polarity?

Nope: Convene a multinational commission and figure out our policy response. Thus was born the first-ever Expolitics conference, held last September in Toronto, my hometown and a virtual magnet for the howlingly weird. One of the upsides of Canada’s famed reputation for tolerance is that the country has one of the highest ratios of UFO-investigators-to-regular-citizens of any nation on earth — so it probably makes sense that it would be the natural home for expoliticians. And with expolitics, holy moses does the rabbit hole go deep. Go to one of the main Expolitics web sites, and you’ll find an enormous stack of essays on the subject, including this one on “The Weaponization of Space and the Targetting of Extraterrestrial Vehicles”:

The national security threat posed by extraterrestrials is a covert one that exists through the classified agreements established by the secret government with some extraterrestrial races. The motivation of extraterrestrials that have entered into these agreements is very questionable and gives considerable cause for suspicion as to their overall intent. Certainly the great number of abductions that have occurred give rise to the ‘take over’ scenario promoted by Jacobs and other researchers.

I love it: Midwestern farmers are getting anal probes while these guys debate whether the agreements between the Shadow Government and aliens are, y’know, legal? For more fun, check out the essay written by expolitics expert Michael Salla on the “Typology of the Most Significant Extraterrestrial Races Interacting with Humanity”, in which he outlines 57 different races and their astropolitical motivations — including these reptilian dudes who totally roll twenties:

The most controversial ‘whistleblower’/’contactee’ reports concern an off-world ‘master Reptilian race’ described as the Draco-Reptilians who are claimed to originate from the Alpha Draconis star system which is 215 light years distant and was formerly the pole star. According to Alex Collier, the Draconians or Dracos have two main castes, the first of which is a warrior caste that are in the 7-8 foot range, who are apparently feared throughout the galaxy for their fighting abilities.

I believe I recently had my ass kicked by one of those in Everquest.

(Thanks to Rachel Sklar for this one!)

A machinima commentary on the riots in France

Here’s an extremely cool project: “The French Democracy”, a machinima film about the recent riots in France. It’s a little dramatization of the lives of three different black French citizens. One is a teenager who gets apprehended by police and thrown in jail for an evening because he doesn’t have his passport on him; another is an MBA graduate who can’t find a job because he doesn’t look “French” enough; and the third is a drug dealer. Each boils up with rage until they decide to start rioting.

Now, this flick is hardly going to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. But it’s easily one of the most impressive and emotionally affective pieces of machinima I’ve ever seen. When I was writing my feature this summer for the New York Times Magazine about machinima, I saw a lot of stuff that made me laff, but very little that made me think. This one accomplishes that, not merely because of its unexpectedly heartwarming political message, but because its cinematography has such a weirdly mongrel flavor: It borrows as often from the visual conventions of games as from film.

An example? At different points in the movie, the three main characters stand in the same place on a subway platform, fuming about their plight. Each time, there are characters in the background — one smoking, one just hanging around — and each time, although they’re different background characters, they’re in the exact same places, performing the exact same actions.

As anyone who’s played a lot of games knows, one of the funniest — or most annoying — elements in sloppily-designed games is that the game designers will simply create three or four basic figure models (a woman, a man, a child) with a few set expressions and movements, and then just replicate them ad infinitum around the world, while “reskinning” them to look individual. The upshot is that you keep on running into the “same” person over and over again, except with different clothes and hair. So there’s something lovely about the machinima creator explicitly referencing that in-game problem. It’s a clever metaphor that externalizes how the characters in this movie are feeling: Trapped in world where everyone around them is duplicitous, inhuman, and acting suspiciously alike.

There are plenty of other aesthetically nifty things about this movie, not least of which that the creator decided not to use voice-overs; the characters’ speech appears as slightly-mangled English along the bottom of the screen. This creates the odd effect of a movie that feels both incredibly new — it’s created using a video game — and incredibly old: It uses speech-frames straight out of silent movies. Better yet, the guy clearly didn’t do this to be selfconciously, superironically retro. He just doesn’t speak English very well and couldn’t afford voice actors who did. The raw DIY feel of this project is more punk rock than anything anyone’s done with music in about 20 years.

Anyway, enough of my jawing. Check this thing out now!

(Thanks to Paul Marino for this one!)

I like your style

When you play a video game, how do you play it? These days, many games offer you an open-ended world that you can explore in almost any way you want. Want to be a perfectionist and uncover every secret room? Want to go location-scouting for interesting vistas? Or maybe conduct physics experiments?

The upshot is that a British gamer posted an intriguing meditation on the Edge discussion boards, pointing out the different ways his friends play Grand Theft Auto. One of them is an Iraqi-American who’s into gangsta rap and “hasn’t yet completed the story because he doesn’t want the riot in Los Santos to end.” Another is an cocky Italian anti-authorian dude “who will steal police bikes in preference to any other vehicle on principle.” The author himself prefers to study the gameplay, trying to spy the influence of other games, “rather than waste my time giggling about the fact that I could sleep with prostitutes”.

The upshot, as he writes, is this point:

A Game is not merely the expression of the creator, but of the player also.

Game censorship is therefore not merely(?) censorship of art, it is a limit to our virtual and real freedoms.

If a piece of art depicts a world gone wrong in which bad things happen, we should look to solve the real life problem that inspired it, rather than analysing the gameplay or censoring content while we wait for the next big event (riots in paris/terrorist attacks in the west/hurricanes in New Orleans)to outline our real shortcomings.

I think “censorship” is a bit of a strong term, since the government hasn’t actually yanked any games off the shelves. But the idea is quite neat.

(Thanks to Tony Blow for this one!)

Darwin’s spiritual evolution

When you talk to Creationists and advocates of Intelligent Design, the honest ones will admit their core fear: That the teaching of evolution will erode Christianity. For those who espouse the doctrine of biblical “inerrancy” — the idea that every word in the Bible is literally true — then science is indeed an enormous danger, because it is so trivially easy to scientifically prove that scripture is not factually accurate.

Indeed, devotees of inerrancy fight so hard precisely because they feel they’re on such thin ice. If they allow even one piece of science to refute one part of the Bible, their entire doctrine collapses like a shattered pane of glass. For them, the algorithm is simple: Exposure to science leads to the death of Christian belief.

But the biologist Edward O. Wilson argues that the situation is precisely the opposite: You have to ditch your belief in Biblical inerrancy before you can participate in science. In the current issue of Harvard Magazine, Wilson writes a terrific essay on the spiritual evolution of Charles Darwin. He makes the point:

The great naturalist did not abandon Abrahamic and other religious dogmas because of his discovery of evolution by natural selection, as one might reasonably suppose. The reverse occurred. The shedding of blind faith gave him the intellectual fearlessness to explore human evolution wherever logic and evidence took him. And so he set forth boldly, in The Descent of Man to track the origin of humanity, and in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to address the evolution of instinct. Thus was born scientific humanism, the only worldview compatible with science’s growing knowledge of the real world and the laws of nature.

It’s a great read.

(Thanks to Arts and Letters Daily for this one!)

Like, who can even pronounce “okadaic acid”?

The October issue of Vanity Fair included a profile of Paris Hilton, and at one point in the article the reporter spoke to Paris’ younger sister Nicky. Nicky asked the following question:

“I just want to say to these writers, ‘I’m 21 years old, I run two multi-million-dollar companies, I work my ass off. Like, what were you doing that was so fucking important at that age?’ I feel very accomplished for my age.”

The current issue of the magazine has several letters commenting on the Hilton story, including this one, which I’ve typed in full:

Nicky Hilton asked, “I’m 21 years old, I run two multi-million-dollar companies, I work my ass off. Like, what were you doing that was so fucking important at that age?” I would like to repond to that. When I was 21, I was busy working toward my Ph.D. in organic chemistry at the University of Minnesota. I was the first to synthesize the compound okadaic acid — shown to be the leading cause of breast cancer.

- Steven F. Sabes

Wayzata, Minnesota

Best. Letter. Ever.

The Bad Lieutenant: My latest Wired News gaming column

Wired News has published my latest video-game column — and this one is about why the most violent and brutal activities in games are usually committed by the forces of “order”: Police officers, soldiers, and marines. The column was inspired by my recent playing of True Crime: New York City — a screenshot is above — and the column is online here. A copy is archived permanently below!

The Bad Lieutenant

by Clive Thompson

When I opened my copy of True Crime: New York City, a white piece of paper fell out and fluttered to the ground. It was a disclaimer, hastily printed and stuffed into the case: “This game is not approved, endorsed or connected in any way to the New York City Police Department … The game is fictional and does not represent the views, policies or practices of the NYPD.”

It’s no wonder New York’s real-life cops were worried. In True Crime, you play as Marcus Reed, a reformed street thug who becomes a cop — and quickly discovers that the police force is a carnival of sleaze and corruption. As you wander the city on patrol, you’re allowed — hell, you’re encouraged — to break the law and enrich yourself.

» MORE...

The mouse that roared

A while ago, my wife showed me a teen-girl book called Fearless: A Girl Born Without The Fear Gene. The hero is a teenager who doesn’t feel fear, a fact that transforms her into this totally awesome crime-fighter. I howled with laughter when I saw the title — because, of course, human genetics are so crazily complex that the idea of linking an emotional state to a specific gene is utterly crappy science, right?

Whoops. Turns out that a couple of scientists just discovered that when you knock the gene strathmin out of mice, they’re much less fearful — and much more brave. As the New Scientist reports:

In the experiments, the stathmin-lacking mice wandered out into the centre of an open box, in defiance of the normal mouse instinct to hide along the box’s walls to avoid potential predators.

And to test learned fear, the mice were exposed to a loud sound followed by a brief electric shock from the floor below them. A day later, normal mice froze when the sound was played again. Stathmin-lacking mice barely reacted to the sound at all.

Apparently, Strathmin is located primarily in the amyglada, a brain area crucial to the regulation of fear. If the scientists can figure out more precisely what’s going on, they could potentially design drugs to help people who suffer from persistent anxiety disorders. Or pharmaceutically create a legion of crazed soldiers unafraid to die!! It reminds me of the drug Dylar in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, which would relieve patients of any fear of death, with one curious side effect: If you spoke a suggestive descriptive phrase out loud, they would vividly hallucinate it as if it were real.

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

Does Africa really need the $100 laptop?

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the “$100 laptop” being developed by a consortium of visionary geeks. The idea is to produce a computer so cheap — and powered by a hand crank — that it can be distributed affordably to impoverished African kids.

Every time this subject comes up, though, critics tend to ask: Laptops? Isn’t this a kind of ass-backwards priority? Poor African countries need clean water and basic medicine before they need freakin’ laptops, don’t they?

Well, yes and no. As the creators of this initiative explain in the online FAQ for their project:

Why is it important for each child to have a computer? What’s wrong with community-access centers?

One does not think of community pencils — kids have their own. They are tools to think with, sufficiently inexpensive to be used for work and play, drawing, writing, and mathematics. A computer can be the same, but far more powerful.

Precisely the point: A computer is a tool that creates new modes of thought — just like a paintbrush or a new language. As the seminal education thinker Seymour Papert argued in his superb book Mindstorms, one of the reasons people don’t learn math is that it is a language that requires immersion in “mathland,” much as learning French requires living amongst those who speak French. If you try and learn French in an English-speaking country, with no one and no place to practise it, you’ll fail. Same goes for math. Papert argued that computers — most specifically, basic computer programming — formed a virtual “mathland”.

These days, of course, computers have become pure consumer items. Since no one needs to know how to program to use them, they’re no longer really a “mathland”, I’m afraid. Nonetheless, computers do instil other useful modes of thought, such as the recombinatorial nature of cutting and pasting. Cutting and pasting began life as an avante-garde artistic technique, because the idea of semirandomly juxtaposing images and words seemed like such a neat way to stimulate new ideas. But now it’s a regular part of every kid’s intellectual toolbox, and a crucial one. (All the more reason today’s copyright battles are so important, by the way: By limiting our ability to aggressively remix the digital stuff around us, Hollywood and the recording industry are tamping down on an explosively cool mode of thinking. Imagine if you told academics they weren’t allowed to write down quotes from books on index cards and rearrange them on their desks to help think through a problem!)

Anyway, that’s the real reason to get computers and the Internet to impoverished Africa. If you want to think in a fully modern way, you need computers.

(Thanks to Scott McGowan for this one!)

Just a little more to the left. A liiiittle more …

If an asteroid were on a collision course with the Earth, how in god’s name would we deflect it? Sci-fi mavens have meditated on this question for years, including in the hilariously awful 1998 movie Armageddon, in which NASA sent up the Shuttle to blast a deadly asteroid out of place. (This was presumably before we realized the Shuttles are so brittle that you can permanently cripple them with pieces of foam.) When I visited NASA a couple of years ago, some scientists showed me a demo of a laser system that would focus heat on an approaching asteroid to shift it into a new orbit.

But now comes an even cooler idea: A gravity tug. A new group of NASA wonks proposes sending a 20-ton craft out to meet with an oncoming asteroid, and have the craft’s gravity field gently nudge the threat out of harm’s way. The brilliant part of this concept is that it doesn’t require actually landing on or physically interacting with the asteroid — which is crucial, because those physics are hellishly complex, not least because, as we’re learning, many asteroids are actually loose clumpings of rocks that could fly apart if a probe tried to land on them. Then we’d have a huge flotilla of multi-ton celestial popcorn flying at the Earth’s atmosphere, and who wants that?

What’s the actual danger of a near Earth asteroid (NEA) hitting us? There are an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 objects that are about 100 meters in size, and about 1,000 objects about 1 km. in size. Scientists have analyzed about 65% of them and concluded that they will not hit the Earth within 100 years; the other 35%, though, are still up for grabs. Even scarier are comets, which move much faster. A new comet doesn’t become visible until it hits Jupiter’s orbit, and from there it’s only a few months before it arrives at Earth. How bad would an NEA strike be? Well, one of the little ones — 100 meters or so — would produce about 80 megatons of damage, a pretty nasty, but localized, blow. One of the 1 km beasts? As the scientists describe it on their site:

A 1 km. NEA striking the Earth would penetrate the atmosphere as if it were not there and burrow into the solid Earth exploding with the energy of 70,000 megatons of TNT. An explosion of this magnitude threatens life around the planet. If it lands in the ocean (four times as likely as an impact on land) it will generally penetrate to the bottom of the sea and, while following a slightly different scenario of destruction, will similarly threaten life globally. The frequency with which one of these giants collides with the Earth is approximately once every million years.

The consortium proposes testing a prototype gravity tug on a harmless asteroid by 2015, which to me seems like a hell of a good idea. So far, NASA seems relatively keen. If you want to read more articles on this — as well as read their correspondence with NASA heads — check out their excellent archive of documents here.

(Thanks to Plastic for this one!)

Virtual avatar, realpolitik

You may have heard of Thomas P. Barnett; he’s a foreign-affairs wonk whose influential latest book is The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-first Century. He once worked for Donald Rumsfeld, yet is a lifelong Democrat who briefed John Kerry on his foreign policy during the last election. Barnett has an interestingly geeky way of describing politics. He calls the American style of government the “source code” for democracy; he argues that democratic countries need to form an armed deployment that will operate as the “SysAdmin force” to help negotiate peace and trade worldwide.

Perhaps because he’s so tech-savvy, Barnett recently agreed to a really unusual public event: He appeared as an avatar in the online game-world Second Life, and conducted a speech and Q&A session on his ideas. Avatars logged in from all over the world, including France, Britain, and China — many of whom hurled catcalls at him and threw tough questions. Wagner James Au, Second Life’s official in-game journalist, hosted the event — as his avatar Hamlet Linden — and he’s blogged the transcript. Here’s a sample moment from the Q&A:

HL: OK, this one from Hank Hoodoo. “What, if anything, should the SysAdmins in Iraq be doing differently right now?”

TB: Not a whole lot, given the reality that we didn’t have the numbers or the spread of “civilizations” that we should have had at the start. Most of the mistakes we could have prevented way back when by doing the SysAdmin right are now past that… particular fix.

Hank Hoodoo [from the audience]: Yes, that was what I was afraid you’d say.

My favorite part is at the end, when Barnett’s kids arrive home and begin distracting him (“…in my face like you wouldn’t believe!”) and his paragraphs become shorter and shorter until he’s almost typing in point form. This stuff couldn’t be more Snowcrashian if it tried. I love it.

How would you create a new language?

If you had to invent a new language, how would you go about doing it? What if you couldn’t use normal letters and numbers? What constitutes a “successful” lingo?

To find out, the Yale cognitive scientist Bruno Galantucci decided to run an intriguing experiment. He set up a computer game in which two people wander through a virtual bungalow with several rooms — each of which is marked with geometric symbol on the ground. Neither can see the other, but they can communicate by scrawling symbols on a rapidly-scrolling chalkboard that each can see on their screen. To figure out where each other is, they must develop a system of communication that is linked to the symbols on the ground, yet also which communicates complex concepts like the relative position of two rooms, the direction someone is heading, and the like.

Then he plopped a few subjects down to see what would happen. Nine out of ten pairs developed a communication system of three or four symbols, and solved the puzzle in three hours. A more complex version of the puzzle was solved in six hours, with 16 symbols created. But the thing is, each language was slightly different. As The Economist reports:

Dr. Galantucci had expected that the pairs would build their language on elements of the icons that appear on the floors of the rooms. A few did so, but they extracted different features of the icons — the number of vertices, say, or some linear abstraction of its shape. Others adopted a numbering system for the rooms — such as one slanting line for the first room and two for the second, moving clockwise or anticlockwise through the four rooms. Another technique involved labelling the rooms by their relative position in space, by placing marks on different parts of the screen.

So what was the spark — the birth of communication? Intriguingly, communication was born as soon as one partner decided to copy another’s symbols. This makes sense; there’s something cognitively deep about the act of mimesis between two sentient beings, since it’s inherently an attempt to communicate. But a couple of subjects never managed to communicate at all; one player was reduced to “the ideographic equivalent of a person shouting loudly in a foreign country where he does not speak the local language.” Doesn’t anyone speak ENGLISH around here?

Personally, I think this would make a kick-ass video game. Imagine if it were done in a massively multiplayer mode. What sort of language would 10,000 bored teenagers create at 2 am?

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

Take off your shoes

I just got back from a trip to China, and after having gone through airport security about seven bazillion times in the last week, I was pleased to discover that this experience has now been released as a game: Airport Insecurity. It’s a political game — a bit of game-as-speech — produced by the brilliant folks at Persuasive Games.

I actually got a chance to see an early demo of Airport Insecurity when company founder Ian Bogost blew through New York a few weeks ago. It’s really a hoot: The game forces you to manage a queue of people waiting in line to go through the metal detectors; if you hold up the line too long, they all start to freak out. The fun begins when you try to see whether you can sneak through “unallowed” items like scissors or cigarette lighters. Even cooler is the fact that the likelihood of getting busted is statistically determined by the real-life stats of the airport you’re in. Bogost actually researched how often “unallowed” items were actually getting past security officials at various well-known airports, and programmed them into the game.

You can thus travel to La Guardia in New York and, while waiting in line at airport security, play a round of the game in a virtual replica of your environment! Indeed, Bogost suggests that “to consider the game’s implications fully, players are encouraged to play the game while waiting in line at airport security.” That’s just lovely. When the underslept minimum-wage-slave who’s piloting the metal-detector wand asks you what you’re doing, the world will be sucked into a wormhole of recursive irony. As Bogost writes in his press release for the game:

Airport Insecurity is a game about inconvenience and the tradeoffs between security and rights in American airports. While the government wants you to believe that increased protection and reduced rights are necessary to protect you from terrorism, the effectiveness of airport security practices is uncertain.

You can buy the game here for $3.99, and play it on many java-enabled Nokia handsets!

The unacknowledged slaughterers of the world

Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader and war-crimes suspect, has been on the lam for almost a decade now, and though he’s been doggedly sought after by various world governments, no-one can find him. No-one, that is, except for his poetry publisher — who just released Karadzic’s latest book of verse, Under the Left Breast of the Century.

Apparently, some of the poems’ titles include “Plant A Rose”, “Dangerous Dream” and “Black Fairytale”; one chapter is entitled “I Can Look For Myself”. According to the Associated Press, a few bits of verse appear to suggest clues to where he’s hiding:

Some of the latest verses, like those from the poem Midday, may indicate where Karadzic is hiding, such as one section where he discusses “the mountain, on the road to wilderness,” and describes an encounter with a “tall and lean wolf.”

Heh. Yeah, well, that’ll narrow things down a lot, thanks. Karadzic’s publisher claims not to know where he’s hiding, and “I wouldn’t say even if I knew.” I suppose some might find it strange that Karadzic — a bloodthirsty horror if ever there were one — would be so attracted to poetry, but of course, fascist nutjobs have long been appealed to by non-narrative arts like poetry or, in the case of Hitler, architecture. It think it’s because these lyrical/abstract forms allow for a sort of ahistorical and egocentric viewpoint. Writing a novel or a play require one to step outside oneself — and embody someone else’s perspective — in a way that lyric poetry doesn’t. This is not to dis lyric poetry; I actually probably read far more of the stuff than I read of novels. But the fact remains that it’s an artform that seems to be particularly patronized by totalitarian freaks and fans of ethic-cleansing.

(Thanks to Bookninja for this one!)

Can a game make you cry? My latest Wired News gaming column

Can a game make you cry? Well, plenty of games have made me cry because they’re so bad; what’s more interesting is one that makes you weep because it’s so excellent. I discovered an interesting study on precisely this question, and wrote my latest Wired News column about it. The column is online here — along with a cool accompanying video — and a copy is permanently archived for free here:

Can a Game Make You Cry?

by Clive Thompson

I could tell something was wrong as soon as I saw my friend’s eyes. It was back in 1997, and he’d been playing the recently released Final Fantasy VII. That afternoon, he’d gotten to a famously shocking scene in which Aerith, a beloved young magician girl [pictured above], is suddenly and viciously murdered.

He looked like he’d lost a family member. “I’m just totally screwed up,” he confessed as he nursed a lukewarm beer at a local bar. Nearly all my friends were playing Final Fantasy VII too — so, one by one over the next week, they all hit the same scene, until every nerd I knew was sunk in a slough of despond.

Everyone knows video games have a powerful purchase on our intellects. But what about our hearts and souls?

» MORE...

Sorry for no entries — I’m on the road!

Sorry for how quiet it’s been around here — I’m on the road until the end of this week! I’ve been storing up tons of excellent suggestions emailed in by readers, though, so there should be some fine news, including but not limited to squids, when I get back in the saddle.

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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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