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July 27, 2006

Happy birthday Bugs!

image from A Wild Hare

A big "Happy Birthday" today to Bugs Bunny! It was on this date in 1940 that Warner Brothers released A Wild Hare, the first cartoon starring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. The first lines of each character have become timeless...

Elmer Fudd: Be vewy, vewy quiet, I'm hunting wabbits.
Bugs Bunny: Eh, what's up Doc?

The great Tex Avery directed A Wild Hare, with music by Carl Stalling and the voice of Bugs provided by Mel Blanc. It was an immediate hit, earning an Academy Award nomination.

I wouldn't want to live in a world without Bugs Bunny.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 05:15 AM | Comments (0)

Jupiter's colliding storms

NASA photo of the storms of Jupiter

For more than 300 years (ever since we've had telescopes) we've been watching an unimaginably huge storm on the surface of Jupiter. Known as the Great Red Spot, it's an anti-cyclonic storm as much as three times the size of the entire earth.

It now looks like the second biggest storm on Jupiter (lovingly known as "Red Spot Jr."), may merge into the Great Red Spot, as early as in the next few days. NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day had a great image of the storms earlier this week.

This has no practical effect on us here on Earth of course, but if it happens it'll make for some kick-ass time-lapse videos.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 04:04 AM | Comments (0)

Slate's mideast chart explains it all to you

excerpt of Slate's Middle East Buddy List

OK, I admit it, I yearn for intractable geo-political issues to be reduced down to manageable info-graphics. When it comes to the current Israel v. Hezbollah conflict, Slate magazine has heard my plea. They've knocked out this clever little Flash application that shows just who's friends with whom. Check it out here.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 03:49 AM | Comments (0)

July 25, 2006

Write your name upon the water

photo of device that can write on water

According to a post on Pink Tentacle, Japanese researchers have prototyped up a device that forms letters on water...

The device, called AMOEBA (Advanced Multiple Organized Experimental Basin), consists of 50 water wave generators encircling a cylindrical tank 1.6 meters in diameter and 30 cm deep (about the size of a backyard kiddie pool). The wave generators move up and down in controlled motions to simultaneously produce a number of cylindrical waves that act as pixels. The pixels, which measure 10 cm in diameter and 4 cm in height, are combined to form lines and shapes. AMOEBA is capable of spelling out the entire roman alphabet, as well as some simple kanji characters. Each letter or picture remains on the water surface only for a moment, but they can be produced in succession on the surface every 3 seconds.

As you might expect, the first application of this technology will be in resorts and amusement parks.

I wonder what would happen if you replaced the water with a very viscous fluid? Would each letter linger longer?


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 04:08 AM | Comments (0)

The battle over wind farm aesthetics

image from reimaginations.com

In the search for alternative sources for energy in America, wind power seems to be a no-brainer... prices are competitive, many parts of the country have abundant wind resources, wind farms are infinitely scalable in size and variable in configuration. Yet, wind farms are voted down in many communities, largely for NIMBY-based aesthetic reasons(*)(**).

To fight against that sentiment, the wind power industry recently created a website called reimaginations.com that offers fine art prints of art inspired by or featuring windfarms.

I love the idea of policy decisions being hashed out on artistic grounds ("Fellow members of Congress, I can not support this proposed change to the Social Security law. The decision to print the bill in Century Schoolbook shows that the opposing party has completely failed to grasp the typographic techniques that will guide our great nation into the new century.")

(*)Personally, I think that a wind-farm can give a lovely futuristic sci-fi look to a landscape. But then, I've also been known to admire a particularly complex arrangement of drainage pipes.

(**)Philosopher Justin Good examined the interaction between of aesthetic view of technology and the aesthetic view of nature in a recent post on Design Observer.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 03:31 AM | Comments (0)

July 23, 2006

Cursor Kite

photo of the cursor kite

That's not me adding the large cursor pointing at the woman in the bikini. Look closely and you realize that it's a kite...a giant, 4-string kite designed to perfectly mimic a computer cursor arrow. It's a creation of the high-end kite designers Windfire Designs. They plan to offer the kite for sale, but haven't given a price yet. They're also working on other cursors. [Spotted on Make]


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 02:40 PM | Comments (0)

Groucho Marx: Copyright Activist!

image of Groucho Marx

It's been around for 60 years, but I've just discovered this brilliant letter that Groucho Marx sent to some dipsh*t lawyers at Warner Brothers, who thought that the Marx Brothers couldn't release a movie called "A Night in Casablanca" because Warner Brothers had released the Humphrey Bogart film "Casablanca" five years earlier. Groucho sends back one of the great replies in legal history. You can read the whole thing on ChillingEffects.org, a brilliant website chronicling the ongoing erosion of all of our personal freedoms when it comes to intellectual property, but here's an excerpt:

Apparently there is more than one way of conquering a city and holding it as your own. For example, up to the time that we contemplated making this picture, I had no idea that the city of Casablanca belonged exclusively to Warner Brothers. However, it was only a few days after our announcement appeared that we received your long, ominous legal document warning us not to use the name Casablanca.  It seems that in 1471, Ferdinand Balboa Warner, your great-great-grandfather, while looking for a shortcut to the city of Burbank, had stumbled on the shores of Africa and, raising his alpenstock (which he later turned in for a hundred shares of common), named it Casablanca.  I just don’t understand your attitude. Even if you plan on releasing your picture, I am sure that the average movie fan could learn in time to distinguish between Ingrid Bergman and Harpo. I don’t know whether I could, but I certainly would like to try.

In the wake of Groucho's letter (you really dowant to read the whole thing), the Warner Brothers legal department demanded that the Marx Brothers at least provide them with an advance copy of the plot of their movies. Groucho responded with a series of insane plots, including one where he said he intended to star in the movie as "Bordello, the sweetheart of Humphrey Bogart." Warner Brothers eventually either came to their senses, or just threw in the towel. "A Night in Casablanca" came out in 1946.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 02:04 PM | Comments (0)

July 22, 2006

Want to get high? Solve a hard problem.

Homer Simpson in 3-D world

Maybe Homer Simpson isn't just trapped in 3-D land here... maybe he's trying to get a good buzz going by seeing if the equation behind him is a counter-proof to Fermat's Last Theorem. Because it turns out solving a really hard problem releases a burst of natural opiates in the brain. Irving Biederman of the University of Southern California, who's just published his research in American Scientist, says the brain's craving for a fix motivates humans to maximize the rate at which they absorb knowledge.

It doesn't have to be completely new knowledge to trigger this reaction (*), it just has to be new to you. This may be one of the reasons that having a great teacher, one that exposes you to great new ideas, may have such a long-lasting effect upon you...you're also remembering the high you got while in their class.

USC has a press release about Biederman's work.

(*)Though I bet Andrew Wiles was high as a friggin' kite when he proved Fermat's Last Theorem after more than seven years of solid work.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 01:58 PM | Comments (0)

Meet Second Life's top reporter

photo of W. James Au, and image of his SL avatar, Hamlet Au

The We Make Money Not Art website has an interview with someone who works one of the oddest beats in all of journalism... W. James Au (in the guise of his online persona Hamlet Au) covers the mean streets of the virtual world Second Life. First hired by Second Life creators Linden Labs to chronicle what they rightly predicted would be a groundbreaking online phenomenon, Au now files his reports for his blog, New World Notes. Here's a quick snippet from the interview:

How much can people cheat, pretend and lie to others in virtual life? is there any limit? When does it get back to you?

There's quite a bit of that, especially for those looking for love or at least a night of sexual gameplay, and much of it is not necessarily unethical, part of the roleplaying experience. (Is it lying if your avatar is a gorgeous babe in her 20s, when you're really a heavy-set dude in his 40s? What's the standard for truthfulness when the world is *defined* as a second life?) What's interesting is that people in Second Life, unlike traditional MMOs, are generally attached to their avatars as an extension of their real life selves, so there's a tendency to self-regulate. Of course, you could always burn people and create an alternate persona afterward, but then, you lose any reputation value that comes with having a long-term presence in the world. "Griefing", for this reason, is usually a one-shot phenomenon.

The full interview is here.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 01:29 PM | Comments (0)

July 21, 2006

Are cities the new countries?

photo of London from the BBC website

According to some sociologists who study cities, the cultural and political realities of the world's mega-cities are changing so fast that they've reached the point where they have more in common with each other than with the countries in which they happen to be located. Check out this quote from sociologist Richard Sennett:

"The most important place to London is New York and to New York is London and Tokyo," Prof Sennett says. "London belongs to a country composed of itself and New York."

Mega-city leaders are increasingly wondering why they have to put up with the financial burden of dealing with their enclosing state or nation...they provide the lion's share of the jobs, wealth, and culture, why shouldn't they get more political autonomy in return?

Cities like Shanghai already have a huge amount of independence...expect more from places like London, Mumbai, and New York. And a growing sense of outrage from the rural areas, and from national governments faced with their cities acting more and more like recalcitrant teens. The BBC's weekly Magazine program has been covering this issue.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 09:15 PM | Comments (0)

New McDonalds billboard hits Chicago

McDonalds billboard in Chicago

McDonalds has rolled out a clever new billboard in Chicago, turning the billboard into a giant sundial, and the McDonalds' logo into the sundial's gnomon, casting its shadow onto the recommended food for that hour.

There's an article about it in Chicago Business magazine, and on the BILLBOARDROOM blog.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 08:58 PM | Comments (0)

Yet more proof of how cool flickr is

screenshot of flickr contest

Flickr is consistently held up as a web application that does everything right. The latest example came just the other day, when the site experienced a brief outage. Flickr posted a message (see it above) apologizing for the inconvenience, and turned the outage into a contest. So far, more than 1,000 people have submitted entries!

(Thanks to Cool Hunting for grabbing the screenshot of the contest).

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 04:49 AM | Comments (0)

July 20, 2006

Spore in BusinessWeek

screen shot from Spore

The countdown to Spore, Will Wright's astonishing new video game, is in full swing. The release date may be as much as a full year away (no official release date has been given, but various statements put it anywhere from fall 2006 to June 2007), but whenever it appears, the consensus is that you've never seen anything like it. The current issue of BusinessWeek magazine has an article about the game and what it's like to play it...

In many ways, the next phase – creature design – will be the core element of the game. And we were able to dive into the editor, design a creature, and send it out into the wild. The Creature Editor is astonishingly easy to use and powerful. You start by picking a backbone, which you can stretch by pulling the ends, and deform by grabbing and pulling (Maxis calls it a metaball). It comes with a standard thickness of flesh around it, which again, you can adjust, creating a body which could resemble your favorite animal or something never before seen in nature.

I can't wait.

P.S. Last month Spore creator Will Wright and musician Brian Eno shared a stage for one of the mind-expanding Long Now Seminars. They had a wonderful discussion about the nature and process of creativity. The audio of their discussion is available.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 06:30 PM | Comments (0)

The new project from the star of Mystery Science Theater

still image from rifftrax website

Mike Nelson, the star(*) of late, brilliant, Mystery Science Theater 3000, is once again ripping bad movies a new one. His new venture, rifftrax.com, features Nelson cracking wise on the plots (or lack of plots) of Hollywood films. You purchase his audio commentary from rifftrax ($1.99 download), rent the DVD of the movie at your local video store, start them both playing at the same moment, and enjoy. Right now they're only offering one film, Patrick Swayze's masterpiece "Roadhouse", but others are in the works.

(*) Yes, I know that Joel Hodgson was the original host of MST3K, and than many consider him the only MST3K host. Those folks should really just relax.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 05:50 PM | Comments (1)

Bible II: Heretic Boogaloo

bible 2 logo from wulad.blogspot.com

If, in these uncertain and troubled times, you feel a need to Turn To The Bible, may I humbly suggest that you turn to the version now being lovingly crafted on WULAD? It's Bible II: Heretic Boogaloo!!! Our story is currently somewhere in Genesis:

Ah ha! shouteth the Lord, and snapped His fingers (and somewhere, a solar system was destroyed). He reached down into Adam’s torso, pushed aside some partially-digested Bugles, and yanked out a rib, which Adam would later describe as the “worst pain of my life, until I had to pass a kidney stone in under two minutes in the bathroom at LaGuardia so I could catch my flight which proceeded to sit on the freaking tarmac for three hours.” (God would later admit in group therapy that this was in retribution for Adam's calling Him a “c*cks*cker” after a bad day at the track.)

The Lord, meanwhile, using His holy whizbangs, morphed Adam’s gooey, schmutz-dripping rib into a 5’7”, 36-26-36 stack of smokin’ she-goodness, most likely inspired by a certain lingerie catalog He had been stealing from the mailbox and stashing under his bed since the age of 14 (million). God’s eyes--not like the craft project you made in art class with the sticks and yarn--promptly shot clear out of His head, which had temporarily turned into that of a whistling cartoon wolf. (This resulted in the total destruction of several small galaxy clusters.)

I dub thee, sayeth the Lord, EVE.

Now that is The Word. (BTW, the public radio feature The Writers Almanac had an interesting little item on the creation of the King James Bible a while back. I love how they deliberately decided to use "thee" and "thou" because it would make the Bible sound older. Kinda like the bad, overly stilted dialogue that shows up in crappy gladiator movies from the 50s. Or any of the Star Wars sequels.)

P.S. My all time favorite creation myth was written by Paul Rudnick for The New Yorker.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 04:01 AM | Comments (0)

July 18, 2006

Scientists embrace the Thagomizer

thumbnail of Gary Larson's thagomizer cartoon

You ever wonder what that thing with all of the pointy spikes on the end of a Stegosaurus is called? Paleontologists needed to come up with an agreed upon term for it, and (as reported in New Scientist), it looks like they adopted thagomizer, in honor of a cartoon that Gary Larson drew back in 1982. In the cartoon a caveman is giving a lecture on the Stegosaurus, saying...

"Now this end is called the thagomizer, after the late Thag Simmons."

You can see the cartoon on Wikipedia.

There's no official governing body for dinosaur anatomical nomenclature (the way there is for, say, the names of newly discovered moons), but the term thagomizer is being used in journal articles, in dinosaur reference books, and (coolest of all) on the sign next to the Smithsonian Institution's stegosaur fossil display.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 08:37 PM | Comments (0)

The Sky Orchestra

photo of sky orchestra

When you think about it, the goal of any art is to mess with your mind. By that measure, The Sky Orchestra is art on a grand scale. Seven hot air balloons glide over a city at dawn, each playing parts of a musical score down on the city below. (The project is based in the UK...they last showed up over Stratford-Upon-Avon). If you happen to be awake you'll hear it (there are audio samples here), but the real goal is to hit the townsfolk while they're still asleep. If it works just right, people all over the city will wake up with the images of a half-remembered beautiful dream bouncing around their heads.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 04:32 AM | Comments (0)

July 17, 2006

You sunk my battleship!

image from Julian Bleeker's battleship game

I've run into Julian Bleeker, the director of the mobile and pervasive lab at the University of Southern California's Interactive Media Division a few times, and he always seems to be creating some sort of crazy cool game. This time he's using Google Earth to turn the city of Los Angeles into a giant version of Battleship. To make a move, players go to a specific physical location and then enter their location via a GPS equipped cell phone. (Now if only giant red and white pegs would descend from the clouds).

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 07:36 PM | Comments (0)

Blogging for peas

photo of Justin from Birds Eye

Russell Davies in the UK pointed me to this charming little blog by a pea grower for Birds Eye Peas. It's an interesting slice of life... what it's like to manage an industrial scale farm. Rudyard Kipling once wrote that there's nothing on earth more interesting than how another man earns his bread. This blog is a perfect example... I look forward to taking a few minutes off from my job each day to catch up on how the pea harvest in England is coming along.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 07:03 PM | Comments (0)

Interactive map of the current Israel v. Hezbollah crisis

part of the NYTimes interactive map

The New York Times website has a nicely designed interactive map of the escalation of events that led to the current Mideast crisis. You can start with the capture of an Israeli solder on June 25, and go from event to event all the way up to July 14th(*), with each event highlighted on a scrolling map. It's fascinating to click on each event in sequence and watch the map scroll to and fro...you get a sense of how the conflict is being waged on multiple fronts at once.

(*) The map doesn't show the latest events of the last three days. I bet they'll get an updated version online, but the URL will no doubt be different than the one I link to above.

Looking at the map, I'm also struck with what a small area all of this is going in... a strip of about 120 by 30 miles... and the whole world is watching. More than anything else, it reminds me of a toothache...an intense amount of misery, that's all coming from this tiny tiny cluster of nerves.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 07:40 AM | Comments (0)

July 16, 2006

Coming soon: the answer to too much choice

photo of ranqueen shelves

Face it, we all feel assaulted at times by Too Much Choice... a typical supermarket in the U.S. has 100 types of soup, more than 30 types of toothpaste... is that huge a selection really helpful? Or just confusing?

If you'd like your universe of choices reduced for you, take heart, help is on the way from Japan. Ranking Ranqueen (here's their website, in Japanese) is a Tokyo retain chain that sells the top listed items in a wide variety of categories. Instead of 100 types of soup, just the top three. Instead of 30 types of toothpaste, just the top five. The rankings are updated based on sales at the big Tokyo department stores and via other sales research.

This is the other side of Chris Anderson's Long Tail... actively removing any niche markets. If your favorite soup falls to number four in soup popularity...poof!...it's gone from their shelves. (But then of course having a store that refuses to deal in niche markets is itself a niche market...no wonder Tokyo remains ground zero when it comes to cultural dissonance).

The folks at Springwise spotted this. They say there are no stores like this in the U.S. yet, but the market is wide open for them. They also have a great newsletter.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 03:17 AM | Comments (0)

July 15, 2006

National Film Board of Canada puts 50 classic shorts online

image from The Big Snit

The National Film Board of Canada has put 50 of their brilliant animated short films on line for free viewing. The collection spans 60 years and includes Norman Mclaren's groundbreaking experimental films from the 1950s and some of the most hilarious cartoons ever created (personal favorite, Richard Condie's The Big Snit). The collection includes several Oscar nominated shorts, and it's a good demonstration of why the NFB has a global rep for nurturing brilliant animation.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 07:28 AM | Comments (0)

New thoughts on the causes of obesity

photo of obesity and food billboards, taken by ktheory, flickr.com

There's a very interesting article about obesity on slate.com. Sydney Spiesel, who's a professor of pediatrics at Yale and who's been looking at some recent scientific papers on the subject, explains why the simple "you eat too much and exercise too little" view may be missing some other significant factors:

Not enough sleep -- Inadequate sleep may change the levels of two hormones that induce feelings of hunger.

Heating and air conditioning -- Hot sleeping temperatures depress appetite, cold sleeping temperatures cause the body to burn more calories during sleep.

Chemical contamination -- There's growing evidence that a number of chemical pollutants in the environment mimic the behavior of female hormones, which can stimulate the body to accumulate fat.

But I thought the most interesting part of the article comes at the end, where Spiesel talks about a study by T.J. Wilken et al in Nature that examines attempts to get some obese schoolkids to lose weight. It turns out that increasing physical activity almost never helps these kids...they seem to have an amazing (and only semi-conscious or unconscious) ability to adjust their total amount of activity throughout the week. Make them go to gym class an hour a day, and they'll end up expending less energy the rest of the day.

This all may leave parents of an obese kid bit depressed, but then Spiesel talks about one thing that he has seen work in his patients...positive self image:

...adolescents who lose weight are more likely to have acquired a positive sense of themselves, because they've had some academic or athletic success, or some other notable accomplishment. Sometimes they have embarked on a successful romantic relationship. And often parents and other adults in their life focus on their strengths rather than harping on weight and appearance.

The article is a fine bit 'o science writing, worth reading. (The billboard photo is by ktheory on flickr.com)


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 04:20 AM | Comments (0)

July 14, 2006

World's largest photo

photo of the world's biggest photo

A group of photographers in Irvine, California, have made the biggest photo in history... an 108 by 28 foot monstrosity. They pulled it off by turning an airplane hanger into a giant camera obscura, and used a huge canvas impregnated with photo-sensitive emulsion as the film. There's an article about it on the MSNBC site.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 04:55 PM | Comments (0)

TV has lowest rated week ever

lonely TV. Photo by briancweed/flickr.com

An interesting statistic last week... according to Nielsen Media Research, last week marked an all-time low for viewership of the big four TV networks [article on CNN]. An average of 20.8 million viewers watched NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox, worse than the previous low of 21.5 million viewers during the last week of July, 2005.

This time the long Fourth of July weekend cut into viewership and contributed to the low numbers, but it's the growing number of alternatives (cable TV, DVDs, the Net) that's the big influencer. (Photo of the lonely TV by briancweed/flickr.com).

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 07:37 AM | Comments (0)

July 13, 2006

Visual analysis of the World Cup final

world cup field

Looking for a way to remember the final World Cup game between France and Italy? Check out this visualization of the match by the Austrian company FAS.research. It shows the passes from every player to those three team-mates he passes to most frequently. Arrow thickness equals the number of passes, the size of each player's circle indicates the influence (flowbetweenness) of a player.

The full-size image (available here) is 3565x3513 pixels. Perfect size for your cubicle wall. (Thanks Visual Complexity).

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 06:08 AM | Comments (0)

July 12, 2006

The Most Creative Program on Television

image from season two of Project Runway

...returns tonight. Project Runway, on Bravo TV, begins its 3rd season this evening with a new group of 15 designers. The show is kind of a shoot out for people who work in the fashion industry... each week the designers are given a specific task (redesign the post office uniforms, create a dress using only materials you can find in a grocery store, design an outfit for an Olympic figure skater) and a limited time in which to execute it.

I'm not particularly interested in fashion per se (my couture consists almost entirely of T-shirts from tech conferences, old chinos and blue-jeans, and ratty shoes with no socks) but what I *am* interested in is watching talented people being creative under extreme deadline and budget pressure. You can watch this show with no knowledge or interest in fashion whatsoever, and still be totally impressed with the skill and ingenuity of the participants. Watch an episode or two and see if you don't agree.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 12:31 PM | Comments (0)

July 10, 2006

The Real Life People and Places of "Cars"

cars before imagecars after image

The success of the latest Pixar film, "Cars", has triggered a wave of renewed interest in Route 66, and a whole new audience for the tremendous Route 66 News blog. This blog a real labor of love...dozens of posts each week covering everything from the latest renovation of some store or theater along the route to reviews of books about the highway and its history.

One of the recent gems is an amazing post about the real-life people and places portrayed in "Cars". For instance, did you know Sally the Porsche, portrayed in the film by Bonnie Hunt, is based on Dawn Welch, owner of the historic Rock Cafe in Stroud, Oklahoma? Or that Fillmore, the VW microbus voiced by George Carlin in the film, was inspired by Route 66 artist Bob Waldmire, who drives up and down Route 66 in his own VW microbus selling his wares? Or that the bridge that Sally and Lightning McQueen drive over is actually the Colorado Boulevard Bridge in Pasadena? Or that Ramone's body-art shop in the film (see images above) is directly inspired by the U-Drop Inn, a recently restored Art Deco gasoline station and restaurant complex in Shamrock, Texas? Check out the blog post for the real-life stories behind the people and places in the film.

Tags: cars  Route 66.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 11:12 PM | Comments (0)

Podcast of my "best geo hacks of the last 2000 years" now available

Last month I presented a talk at the O'Reilly Where 2.0 conference in San Jose titled "The Best Geo Hacks of the Last 2,000 Years";. O'Reilly's now made audio of the talk available... it's part of this week's installment of their "Distributing the Future" podcast.

The editing is a bit rough, and of course since it's audio only you're not seeing the slides that go along with the talk, but it mostly still makes sense. If you're interested in learning more about the hacks I talk about, I've put together a list of resources.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 10:33 PM | Comments (0)

July 08, 2006

Chance picks Hollywood's blockbusters

A few days ago there was an article in the Los Angeles Times that is every Hollywood producer's worst fear laid bare. The article, by physicist and mathematician Leonard Mlodinow, shows how much the success or failure of movies depends on chance and chance alone. As Mlodinow points out, this is bad news indeed for Hollywood execs:

That no one can know whether a film will hit or miss has been an uncomfortable suspicion in Hollywood at least since novelist and screenwriter William Goldman enunciated it in his classic 1983 book "Adventures in the Screen Trade." If Goldman is right and a future film's performance is unpredictable, then there is no way studio executives or producers, despite all their swagger, can have a better track record at choosing projects than an ape throwing darts at a dartboard.

That's a bold statement, but these days it is hardly conjecture: With each passing year the unpredictability of film revenue is supported by more and more academic research.

Mlodinow's article is a great, layman-friendly explaination of how random chance works, how some producers can be hot while others have flop after flop without talent having anything to do with it, and why after a studio head gets canned the studio will usually do better no matter who takes over. This is one of the best general readership pieces I've seen on probability in everyday life in a long time. Here's a link to the article.

P.S. Book publisher Tim O'Reilly has also been talking about this article on his O'Reilly Radar blog. He doesn't buy into all of Mlodinow's arguments, feeling that positive word of mouth plays a very important role in a film's success or failure. (But of course, since you can't predict word of mouth it becomes just another random element).

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 03:31 PM | Comments (0)

The Coffin of the Future...Today!

photo of uono cocoon coffin

No pine box for me when I shed this mortal coil... nosiree. Send me off in The Cocoon, by the Germany company Uono. This bad boy features a shape right out of a Star Trek movie, and it comes in a variety of shiny shiny space age colors. (I wonder if you can mount phasers and warp drive on it). They won't say what it's made out of, but they do say it decomposes in 10 to 15 years, and the finish releases no toxic fumes, if you're not into the whole buried in the ground in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection thing. They don't give a price but, hey, you can't take it with you!

Tags: coffin  death

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 02:49 PM | Comments (0)

Dinner In The Sky

dinner in the sky image

Oh man, I am so doing this when I become a billionaire. Dinner In The Sky is a company that will set you and twenty of your friends around a dining table, and then hoist the table, along with you and your friends (not to mention a gourmet chef and a couple of waiters) 50 meters into the air. Brilliant!

(The pesky details... it costs about 8,500 Euro, plus extras like the food and wine, photographer, permit costs, etc. But you get the set-up for 8 hours. You are wearing 4-point chest belts while in the seats, which could be a bit of a problem with evening wear. The seats swivel 180 degrees, giving you a great view, as well as making it easy to flirt with strangers on both sides of you).

If someone set this up over here in L.A. for an after-Oscar party they would rule.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 08:58 AM | Comments (0)

July 04, 2006

Happy Birthday Rube Goldberg!

Rube Goldberg invention

Today isn't just the birthday of America, it's also the birthday of one of the all-time great cartoonists, Rube Goldberg. Goldberg was the creator of those insanely crazy machines designed to perform mundane tasks:

As Tailor (A) fits customer (B) and calls out measurements, college boy (C) mistakes them for football signals and makes a flying tackle at clothing dummy (D). Dummy bumps head against paddle (E) causing it to pull hook (F) and throw bottle (G) on end of folding hat rack (H) which spreads and pushes head of cabbage (I) into net (J). Weight of cabbage pulls cord (K) causing shears (L) to cut string (M). Bag of sand (N) drops on scale (O) and pushes broom (P) against pail of whitewash (Q) which upsets all over you causing you to look like a marble statue and making it impossible for you to be recognized by bill collectors.

Rube Goldberg's machines have inspired countless homages...in the kid's game Mousetrap, in film characters from Wallace and Gromit to Wile E. Coyote to Pee-Wee Herman, in kinetic sculpture races, in the art machines at Burning Man and at Survival Research Labs shows, in Make Magazine, in this amazing TV commercial for Honda.

Take a minute to check out The Official Rube Goldberg Web Site and the Rube Goldberg's entry in wikipedia.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 07:38 AM | Comments (1)

July 03, 2006

A New Wall Plug

new wall plug design

Well, a hundred years late is better than never. After a century of reaching behind couches and struggling to plug electric cords into wall outlets, someone has finally designed an outlet that's easier to deal with. The PLUG-IN’s tilted faceplate allows users to better orient themselves and the cord’s prongs before bending over or reaching behind furniture. It's also easier to unplug cords, particularly for the elderly. Julia Burke of Notre Dame University designed the PLUG-IN, and scored an Industrial Design Excellence Award from the IDSA for her efforts.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 05:00 PM | Comments (0)


woman riding a train in Switzerland

(Another train-based post). Planning a train trip through Switzerland? Be on the lookout for locosound, an interactive sound experience now under development. No simple audio travel book, locosound will have the ability to mix in narration, music, audio art and drama, you name it, all synchronized to the view out of the train window. Locosound uses GPS to keep the audio lined up with the scenery, passengers listen by tuning a FM radio to the appropriate frequency.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 04:18 PM | Comments (0)

July 01, 2006

Germany advances in the World Cup - Good news for train riders!

German train card

German soccer fans have another reason to celebrate Friday's amazing win over Argentina. Germany's Weltmeister-Bahncard (world champion train card) offers longer discounts the better the German team does. The card, which was available for purchase until the opening game of the World Cup, cost 19 euros and guaranteed a 25% reduction on train fares between 1 April and 31 July. But here's the fun part: with every round the German team advances, the card's validity extends for one month. 400,000 Germans bought the card before the Cup began, and the German team's already extended the card's 25% discount to the end of October!

Thanks Treehuger!

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 03:34 PM | Comments (0)

Mystery Science Theater 3000 in Second Life

second life photo from New Life Notes

This is so post-modern it makes my head spin. Folks in the online world Second Life have been staging their own version of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

(For those of you who are clueless on this, Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K for short) was a brilliant cable TV show with an odd premise... a slacker guy and his robot friends are imprisoned on an orbiting spaceship by a mad scientist who forces them to watch terrible movies. The gimmick of the show is that the guy and his robots make a running commentary on the film, wisecracking their way through the film with a rapid-fire steam of jokes, insults, double-entendres and puns).

From the screen shots on New World Notes, the SL folks are watching some of the very same terrible sci-fi movies that the original MST3K folks used. (In the photo above they're making fun of one of the great all time cinematic turkeys, "The Brain That Wouldn't Die").

So, let's think this through...you start with a '50s sci-fi movie, which 30 years later becomes the subject of a TV show where people (well, one person and two robots actually) watch the movie while you watch them watching the movie. Then, ten years later people sitting at their computers watch the computer representations of other people watching that same movie from the 50s in a recreation of the TV show from the 90s. Got all that?

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 12:25 PM | Comments (0)

Simon Norfolk's Supercomputer Photos

Simon Norfolk photo

Photographer Simon Norfolk has been traveling throughout the US and Europe photographing some of the world's most powerful supercomputers. These machines are technical marvels, but Norfolk is not at all comfortable with them...

These computers are not amiable assistants they are distant and sinister; cold and inscrutable. In a zero-sum game, it feels like they grow stronger not to help us, but at our expense.

You have to pick your way through Norfolk's flash-driven portfolio site a bit to find the supercomputer photos, but it's worth the extra clicks. For that matter, his other photos are pretty amazing too. (Thanks to BLDGBLOG).

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 06:20 AM | Comments (0)

Check In to the Hotel of the Future

sketch from WATG's Lost DiVinci notebook

When it comes to hotels, you may not be thinking past your next check-in, but a lot of thought is going into the hotels and resorts of the future. The international architectural design firm WATG recently got together with a bunch of hotel chains, manufacturing companies, Hospitality Design magazine, and a bunch of other folks to brainstorm. You can see some of their ideas... and get some sense of what your luxury hotel room might be like in 20 years, in this PDF that re-casts Leonardo DiVinci as a hotel guest.

WATG does a lot of thinking about extreme architectural futures. Check out their sketches for a undersea hotel.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 05:32 AM | Comments (0)