May 17, 2011

Fixing Boston's potholes

data output from street bump

Man, do roads in Boston suck. I swear there are streets when it seems new potholes form in front of you as you drive, like some sort of cruel video game come to life. The city wages a constant war against fixing the potholes, but even just finding them all is a huge task.

To help with that, the city of Boston has rolled out an Android phone app called Street Bump. The app automatically records GPS and accelerator information and sends it on to the city. The idea is that if enough phones record sudden jolts at the same spot there's a good chance there's a pothole there.

Unfortunately, so far the results are mixed, and the data isn't doing a good enough job finding potholes. But they're not ready to give up yet. Boston's offering a prize of US$25,000 to the person who can use the existing data and do a better job predicting where in the cities the potholes are. If you'd like to try, here are the official rules.

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April 30, 2011

Star Wars meets Jean-Paul Sartre

Star Wars with Jean-Paul Sartre subtitle

It's well known that George Lucas used a a number of central themes from mythology when he created Star Wars.

But what if he had taken a different tack? What if he turned to...wait for it...French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre? The results might have been a little like this series of Star Wars clips. The sub-titles are all direct quotes from Sartre's works. Enjoy!

Thanks facilegestures.

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April 06, 2011

The FBI's toughest unsolved code

excerpt of the code written by murder victim Ricky McCormick

The FBI wants your help in solving one of the biggest challenges in current cryptography. Back in 1999, the body of a murdered man named Ricky McCormick was found near St. Louis, Missouri. McCormick's killer has never been identified, but the FBI believes the key to finding him may lie in two coded messages found in the victim's pocket.

The FBI thinks McCormick himself wrote the members say he wrote coded messages ever since he was a little boy...but no family member knows how to read them. Since the murder, FBI code experts have tried and failed to figure out what the notes say, as have amateur cryptography fans.

Want to give it a shot? The FBI has the full details.

Comments welcome via email to

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September 03, 2009

Does less evening Internet mean Europeans lead better lives?

cafe in Paris. Photo used via a Creative Commons license. Details at

A new study has highlighted interesting differences in the ways Europeans and American surf the Net. It turns out that a large percentage of Americans keep surfing until 11 PM or so, while in Europe the percentage more quickly drops off starting at around 7 or so local time.

So what's going on? The report's authors suggest that perhaps Europeans enjoy evenings more filled with face to face social interaction...hanging in cafes, talking with friends, eating better food, etc.

I'd be curious to see if these differences diminish as the seasons change. Northern Europe is at a higher latitude than most of America, a contributing factor to those wonderful long European summer twilights and early evenings. In the winter of course, the situation is reversed. Do Net users in Amsterdam, Paris, and Copenhagen surf later into the evening in February?

BTW, there's also a writeup of the report on Ars Technica.

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March 14, 2009

Done Manifesto poster

excerpt of Done Manifesto poster

Recently Bre Pettis and Kio Stark sat down and came up with a list of 13 rules called The Done Manfesto to help you get your projects done. The list (which contains a surprising number of items that don't so much tell you how to finish a project as how to tell when a project is finished) has hit a real nerve with many online folks, who are searching for anything that will help them get more stuff done.

Now James Provost has turned the 13 rules into a poster, using Rubik's cubes as a metaphor. Print one out, put it up in your cubicle, and accomplish more while confusing your office mates. It's available on Flickr here.


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February 09, 2009

Where are all the extraterrestrials?

radio telescope

For at least a century scientists have speculated on the existence of extra-terrestrial life. Many, perhaps most, scientists are of the opinion that given the vast number of stars and planets in just our galaxy, the possibility of Earth being the only planet with life is virtually zero. The galaxy must be TEEMING with life.

Back in the 1950s, Nobel Prize winning physicist Enrico Fermi heard the arguments in favor of extra-terrestrial life and posed a simple question: if the odds say there should be many other civilizations scattered throughout the Milky Way galaxy, why haven't we heard from them? Why have we yet to detect a single signal from an alien civilization? In other words, where is everybody?

That simple question, known as the Fermi Paradox, has stymied astronomers ever since. But Reginald Smith, from the Bouchet-Franklin Institute in Rochester, New York, thinks he's gotten around the paradox.

Smith says physicists have neglected to take into account the fact that radio signals get weaker the further they travel, and that eventually the signals become so weak they are drowned out by background radiation.

After doing some calculations on the size of the galaxy and the distance typical signals can travel before they become too weak, Smith has determined that it would take at least 300 alien civilizations before we earthlings would have a decent chance of discovering one. Or for that matter, before any civilization could detect any other. If there were only, say, 100 advanced civilizations we could all think we were alone forever.

You can check Smith's math, and plunge into the pro and con comments on his research, at


the inverse-square law into account

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November 30, 2008

History's Greatest Conspiracy Theories

The Philadelphia Experiment

Here's a quick supply of rabbit holes to fill out your weekend. The Telegraph newspaper in the UK has an overview of the 30 greatest conspiracy theories of all time. Take your pick...Elvis lives...the moon landings were faked...Jesus was married...AIDS was made in a lab...there's something for everyone.

Is there really a secret supply of government coffins near Atlanta?

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November 29, 2008

How to do a X-Prize

photo of Peter Diamandis

Peter Diamandis is the man behind the X-Prize, the 10 million dollar prize that went to the first team to make a 3-person reusable space vehicle that could reach 100 kilometers in altitude twice in two weeks.

To say it was a success would be a tremendous understatement... 26 teams entered the competition, spending more than $100 million dollars in their attempts to win. And the flights of the winning design (by Burt Rutan) captured world-wide media attention.

Diamandis' X-Prize Foundation is building on the success of that first competion, offering X Prizes in lunar exploration, energy conservation, and medicine.

But he's not stopping there. Diamandis wants to launch mega X-Prizes, with purses of up to a billion dollars for solving such seemingly impossible tasks as communicating at speeds faster than light or being able to predict an earthquake.

Diamandis gave a great talk about the future of the X-Prize, as well as what it takes to start your own X-Prize type competition, a couple of months ago at The Long Now Foundation. Read about the talk, watch it, or listen to it.

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August 07, 2008

The tragedy of the anti-commons

photo of sheep. Image available via a Creative Commons license at

You're no doubt familiar with the concept of The Tragedy of the Commons, the principle that says allowing uncontrolled access to a limited resource inevitably leads to over-use of the resource. (The over-fishing of the world's oceans is a classic example).

There's a good article in this week's New Yorker magazine looking at the opposite having too much control over resources can also have harmful societal effects. Author James Surowiecki cites the oppressive force that copyright holders have on the legal and Fair Use of content, how wind power would have been much more prevalent by now if it weren't for the power of private land owners blocking needed new power lines, and how we'd all be benefiting from new drugs if pharmaceutical companies weren't so rapacious in slapping patents on everything in sight.

Good ammo next time you're trapped at dinner with some "private property is all" doofus. (I'm talking to YOU, stereotypical fathers-in-law!)

[Creative Commons licensed photo by alasam/]

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July 05, 2008

The perils of perfectionism

photo of baby available via a Creative Commons license at

There's a good article in Psychology Today about all the ways that being a perfectionist screws you up. In addition to the more obvious things the article discusses... such as how perfectionists are filled with anxiety and low self-esteem... the thing that caught my attention was how being a perfectionist can actually make you less likely to achieve perfection...

The truly subversive aspect of perfectionism, however, is that it leads people to conceal their mistakes. Unfortunately, that strategy prevents a person from getting crucial feedback—feedback that both confirms the value of mistakes and affirms self-worth—leaving no way to counter the belief that worth hinges on performing perfectly. The desire to conceal mistakes eventually forces people to avoid situations in which they are mistake-prone—often seen in athletes who reach a certain level of performance and then abandon the sport altogether.

See the article on PT's website.

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May 27, 2008

Robotic jellyfish

robotic jellyfish

I've talked before about our innate predilection to like cute friendly robots... 'bots like Keepon, and R2-D2, and WALL-E(*).

Science observer Kevin Kelly has been thinking along the same lines, inspired by recently seeing some extraordinarily graceful robotic jellyfish.

The jellyfish come in two varieties, one that moves through water and a balloon-based one that gently pulses through the air. They're the creation of a German automation company called Festo, put together to demonstrate their technical prowess. But Kelly says they accomplish more than that...

I think we are primed to find lifelikeness in machines. E.O. Wilson calls it our biophilia -- our intense attraction to living things. As we design machines to approach the complexity of organisms and mimic their behavior (as these do), we will be very quick to include them in our love.

Isn't it strange we rush to love these bots, but not to the same degree, say, automobile fuel pumps? The pumps are no less complex or capable. These mechanical jellies tell me that when we make artificial intelligences even 1/2 as smart as a dog, we will love it to pieces.

Read Kevin Kelly's thoughts here. Check out a video of the robotic jellyfish on Design News.

(*)Disclosure: I work for Disney, which owns Pixar, which made WALL-E.


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April 15, 2008

Reports as comic books

photo of comic report taken from

Is there anything more boring than reading another dry report? Of course not. But what if you your next report was a comic book? That would kick all kinds of ass.

Well, it turns out comic (or magna) format can be a surprisingly effective way to communicate important information. At this year's CHI Conference (a conference devoted to human-computer interaction) Evangeline Haughney from Adobe talked about what happened when she turned a normal dry usability report into comic format. It turns out more people read her report all of the way through. The biggest downside was that she had to print more copies, since people tended to hoard the report instead of passing it around. Not bad!

Here's a four-page pdf of Haughney's research.

(Thanks to Rachael Hinman at Adaptive Path)


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March 17, 2008

How to think

woman thinking

When Ed Boyden applied for a teaching gig at MIT's famed Media Lab, he pitched the idea of teaching a course called "How to Think". The best I can tell, that course has yet to make it into the official curriculum, but Boyden has written up 10 rules for thinking and posted them on his blog on Technology Review. Among his suggestions...

Learn how to learn (rapidly). One of the most important talents for the 21st century is the ability to learn almost anything instantly, so cultivate this talent. Be able to rapidly prototype ideas.

It's worth reading the full list, as well as the thoughts of the commenters. I also highly recommend the O'Reilly book Mind Performance Hacks.

(Photo of woman thinking by Grace Fell/flickr and made available via Creative Commons license. Thanks!)


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February 06, 2008

How do you say goodbye in Eyak?

native Eyak speaker Marie Smith Jones

The world got a little bit less interesting last month, with the passing of an 89 year old Alaskan woman named Marie Smith Jones. Smith Jones was the last full-blooded member of the Eyak tribe, and the last native speaker of the Eyak language. And as such, she was a living example of a global concern.

All around the world, languages are dying out, falling victim to the forces of globalization. According to some estimates another language disappears every two weeks.

Why care? Well, according to the National Science Foundation there are plenty of reasons. For instance, by studying the variation in human language we gain valuable insight into the workings of the brain. But perhaps more profoundly, individual languages are repositories for the values and world-views of the cultures that speak them. Don't believe me? Check out this talk by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis.

The BBC website has this obit of Marie Smith Jones. Also, National Public Radio aired a brief obit of Smith Jones last month that features of few seconds of her speaking Eyak.


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February 03, 2008

The year of Solastalgia

photo under CC license. Available at

It's only been a few weeks since 2007's word of the year was announced (in case your forget, the word was "w00t"), but I'm making an early prediction for this year's winner.

I think 2008's word of the year will be Solastalgia.

So what is Solastalgia? It's defined as a sense of homesickness or nostalgia one gets when still at home, because the home environment has been altered by climate change. Picture how a Swiss shepherd feels when he stares up at the Alps and remembers how... when he was a kid... the peaks were all covered with snow. What that shepherd is feeling is solastalgia.

The word was coined by Glenn Albrecht, a philosopher and professor in environmental studies at the University of Newcastle in Australia. He spends a lot of time talking to people whose homelands have been devastated by things like strip mining, and he found himself searching for a word to capture the mix of nostalgia and despair that his interview subjects felt. Read about the creation of his word here.

As more and more stories are told about the human impact of climate change, expect to see the word solastalgia more and more.

(Thanks Geoff!)

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December 29, 2007

The rise of brain doping

bottles of Provigil

A friend pointed me to this recent article in the Los Angeles Times. According to the article, the Next Big Thing will be the use of drugs to improve mental acuity. Businesses like the computer industry has run on caffeine and sugar for decades of course, but now there's a growing trend... by all sorts of folks... to use more powerful prescription medications.

"There isn't any question about it -- they made me a much better player," said Paul Phillips, 35, who credited the attention deficit drug Adderall and the narcolepsy pill Provigil with helping him earn more than $2.3 million as a poker player.

Provigil seems to be the drug of choice with the brain augmentation crowd. I'm looking forward to a stranger in a sleazy bar offering to sell me some fresh Provigil, instead of the same old grass and meth. I would definitely be interested! If you're interested in the world of brain augmentation, a good place to start is Quinn Norton's great Body Hacking talk.


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November 13, 2007

One Laptop Per Child sale underway

photo of the XO laptop

Heads up! The Christmas/Kwanza/Robotikah gift of the year is now available! The One Laptop Per Child organization has come up with a cleverly pragmatic way to kick-start the goal of getting cheap, rugged, versatile laptops into the hands of kids throughout the developing world.

Sign up for their Give one, get one program (it costs $400) and you'll pay for one laptop earmarked for the developing world, and you'll get a second one of the revolutionary XO laptops for yourself! The deal is a limited time offer, closing on November 26th, so act now and score yourself one of the coolest pieces of technology of the year. I've already ordered mine, burn with envy, iPhone owners!

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October 27, 2007

Space money

photo of space money

We earthlings have come up with an endless variety of means of monetary exchange. At various times we've used woodpecker scalps, blocks of salt, lumps of metallic elements, wheels of grain, tulip bulbs, intricately printed pieces of paper, magnetically encoded plastic cards, and god knows what all as ways to transfer wealth from person to person. (I happen to have a nice little reserve of Linden dollars at the moment).

But what about when tourists... and therefore commerce... reaches outer space? What will we use for money in orbit, on the Moon, on Mars, and beyond?

Travelex, a UK based company that specializes in currency exchange, has come up with a modest proposal... the QUID (short for Quasi Universal Intergalactic Denomination). It's a series of coin-like tokens molded from polytetrafluoroethylene (otherwise known as PTFE or Teflon). They are resistant to corrosion, can handle extremes of temperature, have no sharp edges (in case you get smacked with one in zero-G), and are easy to handle while wearing heavy space gloves.

Each GUID has a unique bar-code serial number, but no magnetic or RFID device, since those could be fried by the harsh radiation of space.

Space currency will almost certainly not end up looking like GUIDs (since the future almost never ends up looking like we think it will) but it's cool to see a company make a wild-ass guess.

In case you're wondering, Travelex is going to start actually making GUIDs available at their exchange kiosks (though they haven't set a roll-out date yet). They've set the current exchange rate at about US $12.50 to 1 GUID.

Here's the Travelex press release about the whole thing.

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September 24, 2007

The rise and fall of left-handedness

photo of a left-handed person writing from the left handed writer's page at

The rate of left-handedness is one of those odd little areas of scientific investigation that plugs along unnoticed for years, until a clever new bit of research catches the public eye. Just such a bit of research showed up in the new issue of Current Biology. Researchers there report that they've used a clever new technique to determine how many people were left-handed a century ago.

The researchers got a hold of 90 minutes worth of early film footage, taken between 1900 and 1906. The film is full of mundane "home movie" type scenes, including images of nearly 400 people waving at the camera. Since there's a direct correlation between left-waving and true left-handedness, it was a simple matter to work out the rate of southpaws a century ago.

So who cares how many people are left handed? Well, first of all it's just cool to know stuff like that. But there's also possible connections between handedness and conditions like schizophrenia, dyslexia, stuttering and autism.

There's an article about it on Scientific American's website.

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September 11, 2007

How to read 100 books in 100 days

photo of a woman reading by anna_t/

If you're a judge of the prestigeous Booker Prize for literature you face a daunting task...reading more than 100 challanging complex novels in just a few months. That works out to about a novel a day. How in the world can they do it?

The BBC put that question to speed reading expert Tony Buzan. This article on the Beeb's website lays out some tips for more efficient reading.

(CC-licensed photo by anna_t)

Tags: reading

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August 24, 2007

People who invent their own languages

screenshot of the Klingon language version of Google

There's a fascinating article in today's Los Angeles Times about people who invent their own languages. There are nearly 2,000 deliberately constructed languages (or "conlangs") out there...everything from Esperanto to Klingon(*) to languages known only to their inventors.

There's an amazing diversity in the motives of these language creators. The article profiles one woman who created her own language as a way to come to grips with her depression, others who want to speak a tongue that sounds just exactly right, and still others who make language from scratch as a way to learn more about the evolution of language.

(*)BTW the screenshot above is from the Klingon version of Google. Really, I'm not kidding. Go to the Google preferences page and change the Interface Language.

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August 21, 2007

The Seven Fortean Wonders of the World

photo of Easter Island available via Creative Commons at

Last month's unveiling of 7 New Wonders of the World has inspired the Charles Fort Institute to kick off their own search for their own Seven Wonders.

The Fort Institute specialize in studying the odd, unusual and unexplained, and they reckon the world has plenty of strange and wonderful places worthy of recognition (the statues of Easter Island pictured above are just one possibility).

Got a nomination? You've got 'til the end of September to let the Fort Institute know about it.

(Photo by vtveen/

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August 14, 2007

You're almost certainly a computer simulation

Neo confronts the architect in The Matrix Reloaded

Check out the big brain on the New York Times. Today's Science Times section of the NYT has an article on the work of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom. Bostrom puts forth a theory that at first sounds crazy -- that all of us and everything we know -- that the entire world -- is just the creation of a very large and sophisticated computer program.

I know, this all just sounds like The Matrix, but Bostrom has a well thought-out argument. It basically goes like this... in the not too distant future computers will be powerful enough to completely simulate the human brain. If computers will theoretically be able to simulate humans, there's every reason to believe that someone will go ahead and have a computer do just that. Further, if computers will be simulating human consciousness someday, there's every reason to believe that it's already happened...that it's actually already the future, and we're all just little subroutines in a massive computer program.

Want to have your mind blown? Read John Tierney's article in the Times, or Bostrom's website on his theory,

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July 08, 2007

Waiting for the Maes-Garreau point

part of the cover of Joel Garreau's Radical Evolution book

On his Technium blog, Kevin Kelly recently discussed an interesting trait of human nature... it seems many of us think things are going to get better just before we die.

Kelly starts out by talking about how often futurists are wrong, how anyone who attempts to predict the future can't help but be influenced by... and blinded by... the present(*).

But then he talks about some fascinating research by MIT's Pattie Maes that shows a much more personal bias. Maes noticed that several of her colleagues were optimistic that one day we'll all be able to upload our minds into computers. And if you can do that, you can live forever. But here's the interesting thing... Maes noticed that when she asked her colleagues when this would all happen, they all tended to give a date that just happened to be right before they could be expected to die of old age. Journalist Joel Garreau has noticed this type of thing happening with other predictions of cool, wonderful, transformative advances that will make all of our lives wonderful... the person making the prediction tends to think that the advance will happen right before they die.

Kelly has named this magic future The Maes-Garreau Point. Read his full essay on his Technium blog.

(*)I've always thought a much better alternative to predicting the future is the type of scenario planning practiced by Stewart Brand and his colleagues at the Global Business Network. Don't try to predict the future, take a look at multiple possible futures, and plan how you'll react to all of them.

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July 01, 2007

The future of the book

photo of Manolis Kelaidis' blueBook

From several accounts, the high point of the recent Tools of Change Publishing conference (an O'Reilly conference devoted to exploring the future of print, books, publishing, knowledge organization and the like) was designer Manolis Kelaidis' demonstration of blueBook.

blueBook is an old-school traditional paper book, but printed with electrically conductive ink. Touch a word or picture and your finger completes a circuit, sending a message to a tiny circuit board in the book's cover, which then transmits a message via Bluetooth to your nearby computer. Voila!, additional information about the selected text or image appears.

Kelaidis' elegant demo earned him a standing ovation at the conference (when was the last time you saw someone get a standing O at a tech conference?) and I can understand why. For far too long there's been this "paper or plastic" type of debate about the future direction of publishing, pitting those who are convinced that everything we read should be on some sort of uber-sophisticated electronic device against those who scoff at such ideas and sing the romantic and economic glories of traditional paper books.

Kelaidis showed this group of movers and shakers that hybrid solutions are not only technically possible, they may be the best way to go. There's a nice write-up of the demo on the Institute for the Future of the Book's if:book blog.

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April 28, 2007

Do schools kill creativity?

still image of Sir Ken Robinson speaking at the TED Conference

For more than a year I've been forcing friends to watch this 20-minute presentation by creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson on what's wrong with our educational system. Now it's your turn. His talk (filmed at the 2006 TED Conference) is funny, profound, inspirational, inflammatory, and paradigm shifting Watch it and see if you don't also want to throw out our K-12 and college curricula and start over.

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April 19, 2007

The bigger the city the better

photo of Times Square by Christopher Chan,

One of the great cliches in the arts is that people driven by creativity migrate to large cities. Think of all of the stories you've heard...Dylan moving to New York City, Picasso moving to Paris, Jackie Chan moving to Hong Kong, blisteringly fast African guitarists moving to Kinshasa. Now some researchers have quantified the relationship between city size and creativity.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and titled "Growth, innovation, scaling and the pace of life in cities", shows that the bigger the city becomes the more creative it becomes (they quantified creativity by looking at statistics like the number of patents issued, number of "creative" jobs, and number of people working in R&D). And the rise in creativity increases faster than the population, so a city twice as large tends to be more than twice as creative. Meanwhile a city's negative aspects (things like waste created and power and water used) do not rise as quickly. In short, the bigger the city, the more bang for your buck.

According to Jose lobo, an economist at Arizona State University and one of the paper's authors, "Cities are really one of the most important innovations in humans history... We need a different perspective about cities, one that is away from thinking of large cities as a source of problems but as possible sources of solutions."


(Photo by Christopher Chan/

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April 16, 2007

Nikon Universcale

screen image from Nikon's Universcale

We humans are prisoners of our perceptions. We see only a tiny sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum, we hear only a tiny fraction of the sounds that other animals can hear, and we have a hell of a time getting our heads around the massive range of sizes that make up our universe.

Back in the 70s designers Charles and Ray Eames created a brilliant short film called The Powers of Ten to demonstrate the scale of the universe(*). Now Nikon has created their take on The Powers of Ten, an interactive presentation called Universcale.

Universcale presents you with an endlessly expandable timeline-like interface, letting you experience the size of objects as large as galaxies and as tiny as a subatomic particle. Check it out!

(*)I made an appreciation of Powers of Ten a couple of years ago for the public radio program Studio360. You can listen to it here.

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March 13, 2007

The rise and fall of flash mobs

photo of a typical flash mob

I hadn't thought of this until I read this article on the website for Stay Free! magazine, but you don't hear much about flash mobs anymore. Which is odd, given all of the press and hype they were getting just a couple of years ago.

"Bill", the guy who started the New York flash mob craze, gives a great account of their origin, explosion in popularity, inevitable backlash, and how and why he decided to move on to something else. Well worth reading.

P.S. It's also once again reminding fans of flash mobs and related art genres the debt they owe to the late Allan Kaprow, creator of the '60s "happenings".

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March 12, 2007

Deleting selective memories

still image from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Remember the 2004 movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet play former lovers who undergo a medical procedure to have their painful memories of each other removed from their brains. A cool movie, but certainly not something that could be done in real life. Right?

Well, hang on bucko, because that exact idea is now one step closer to reality. According to a new paper in Nature Neuroscience, researchers have been able to remove one specific painful memory from rats while seemingly not affecting a different painful memory.

The experiment so many neurology experiments shocking rats. This time, the rats are zapped while hearing one of two different musicial tones. As you expect, after a while the rats associate the tones with pain, and become agitated when hearing either tone.

They then gave the rats something called U0126, a drug that induces limited amnesia. While under the influence of that drug, they played just one of the tones and shocked the rats some more. A day later (after the drug had worn off) the rats were no longer scared of the tone that accompanied the shocks they received while they were drugged. Somehow, UO126 broke the link between the sound and painful memory associated with it.

This isn't exactly something you're going to be able to pick up at your corner drugstore any time soon (UO126 is not approved for even experimental use on humans) but scientists are already excited about the possibility of using it on patients with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

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March 11, 2007

Happy pi day!

first digits of pi

This coming Wednesday, March 14th, is known for many things. It's the day the Birmingham Six were freed(*), the day legendary railroad engineer Casey Jones was born, the day Karl Marx died.

It's also Pi Day (March 14, or 3/14, being close to 3.14, the first three digits of pi). The AP has a nice story about the people who obsessed with the mathematics and mysticism of this most special of all the numbers.

(*) Forget who they were? Go rent In the Name of the Father.


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March 10, 2007

New symbol for radiation danger

New radiation warning symbol

The International Atomic Energy Agency has unveiled a new graphic symbol designed to warn people that they're in the presence of dangerous radiation. The symbol, meant to supplement the ubiquitous trefoil radiation symbol that filled us all with dread and fear back in the Cold War days, will be used in situations where proceeding further could result in grave consequences. For instance, you might find the symbol inside of a food irradiation device, on the internal hatch covering the radiation source. The message being "Dude, you don't want to take this cover off". Most people will go their whole lives and never see this symbol.

The new symbol was the result of five years of work that included testing in 11 different countries all around the world. But not everyone is happy with it. For instance, check out this critique by usability expert Andrew Crow from Adaptive Path.

I can't wait 'til I start seeing these stickers on skateboard decks.

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March 07, 2007

Planetary Defense Conference

PDC logo

Right now you're missing the most bad-ass conference EVER. The Planetary Defense Conference in Washington DC brings together scientists, astronauts, politicians and futurists to come up with a master-plan on how to keep an errant asteroid from smashing into Earth and bringing life as we know it to an end.

Conference attendees will be talking about how to detect oncoming asteroids, what's the best way to nudge potential planet killers into safe orbits, and what's the right way to tell all of humanity they're about to die. Now that's what I call a conference.

If you want to get in on the action, you still have time. The conference runs through Thursday.

P.S. Think this whole threat of being hit by an asteroid thing is something we don't have to worry about for a million years? You obviously don't know about 99942 Apophis.


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March 03, 2007

The emergent mythology of Club Penguin

screen shot from Club Penguin

If you're a sociology grad student looking for a dissertation subject, look no further, I have the perfect topic for you... the rise of collective myth in Club Penguin.

If you're older than 15, you've probably never heard of Club Penguin. But if you're a kid or tween (or have one in your house) then you know all about this online analogue of crack cocaine.

Briefly, Club Penguin is a online world where everyone's avatar is a cute, waddling, cartoon penguin. The world is filled with games to play, igloos to decorate, and places to explore. It's ad-free, free to join (though you have to be a paid member if you really want to get into serious igloo decoration and penguin haute couture) and has all sorts of behind the scenes intelligence to block potentially unsafe chat.

It's only been around a bit more than a year, but Club Penguin already has more than three million members. And when you get that many people together in a culture... even a virtual one... cultural histories and mythologies develop.

another Club Penguin screen shotFor instance, watching my 9-year old daughter play Club Penguin, I noticed time and time again collections of penguins trying to tip one particular iceberg over. They're convinced that if they can just get enough penguins to dance on the edge of the 'berg, it'll flip over and reveal some sort of fabulous prize. There's no evidence that there's any truth to this... as far as I can tell the people who run the game have never said anything like this... but somehow this idea spawned and then spread like a virus. I think this is fascinating as hell. There's definitely a paper in it.

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February 23, 2007

Accomplished people more likely to fail under stress

photo of a kid under stress. Photo by Nick Dimmock/ Available at

Are you a highly motivated, highly intelligent, highly accomplished person who... despite all of that... totally screws up at EXACTLY the wrong moment? Well, it turns out there's a reason for that. According to research out of the University of Chicago, when faced with a problem highly accomplished people rely on their memories of past experiences more than less accomplished folks. That makes sense... folks who have a lot of past success probably have more memories of having successfully solved past problems. But here's the rub -- in times of great stress the part of the brain that grabs past memories and uses those experiences as a springboard to solving current problems doesn't work all that well...the feeling of stress can kind of overwhelm the memory recall process. As a result the mechanism that serves you so well most of the time craps out just when you're counting on it the most. Meanwhile, less accomplished people more often use other problem solving techniques, ones that work just as well in times of stress.

Ya gotta love the irony.

There's a write-up of the study on Eureka Alert.

(Photo: Nick Dimmock/


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February 17, 2007

Invent the next generation of the wiki

page from wikipedia

The extraordinary success of wikipedia has not been lost on the scientific community. (After all, what is science if not the collaborative writing of knowledge?)

The National Science Foundation has just awarded $200,000 to the University of Colorado looking for someone to invent the next generation of wiki... one that will allow collaboration way beyond the current simple text editing. They'll demo what they come up with a year from now. Could be interesting. There's a write=up about the project on O'Reilly Radar.


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February 11, 2007

The return of braille

close-up of a finger moving across braille text

A quick heads up that I have a piece in the Boston Globe today about the decline...and slow revival...of braille. Back in the '60s, fully 60% of blind kids learned to read braille. Now it's about a quarter of all kids. The reason for the decline, and current slow rise, is a mix of good intentions, unintended consequences, over-hyped technology, and hard-won experience.

By the way, did you know that braille has its own set of contractions, different than sighted text? I sure didn't.


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February 08, 2007

Writing a novel by wiki

million penguins logo

Wikipedia proved the power of free-for-all collaboration when it comes to creating an encyclopedia. But will the same process work when it comes to creating a novel? That's the question being answered by A Million Penguins, a wiki-based novel in progress.

Give it a read, tell me what you think. And if you hate it, why not log in and change it?

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February 06, 2007

Steve Jobs imagines a world without DRM

photo of Steve Jobs

Apple CEO Steve Jobs today made an extraordinary statement today. In an open letter posted on Apple's website, Jobs laid out the reasons why he thinks record companies should stop injecting their online music with anti-piracy digital rights management (DRM) software. Jobs explains how it was the music industry, not Apple, that insisted that music sold via Apple's iTunes music store be treated with DRM.

Jobs talks about the futility of the arms race between companies like Apple creating new DRM schemes and hackers cracking them, and how the music companies make millions by selling CDs...even though CDs don't have DRM.

Most amazing, Jobs says that he would happily rip all DRM out of iTunes if the music companies would agree to it. Music companies have been fighting a losing battle over DRM for years, Jobs missive may just be the first nail in the coffin.


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February 04, 2007

Welcome to the golden age of robot kits

a typical Pico cricket project

Being the disposable-income-laden adult with a penchant for well designed products that you are (hey, I know my audience) you are no doubt on top of things when it comes to advances in consumer electronics -- your iPhones, your slingboxes, etc. But you may have completely missed the explosion of creativity in one specific area -- electronic robot kids for kids.

A few years ago, if you were a kid who wanted to build a robot or other electronic gizmo your choices were pretty much limited to cardboard boxes and your imagination. Not anymore! Now there are all sorts of powerful electronic and robot kits...easy enough for children to use, but powerful enough for serious hacking.

Kids are already going great things with LEGO Mindstorms and the Vex robotic system).

Now there's another entry in the field, called PicoCricket, a kit specially designed to make it easy for kids to create electro-mechanical art. PicoCricket's design comes out of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT's Media Lab, and they've taken a wonderfully fun, wide-ranging view of the types of things kids will do with the kit. I can't wait to see what kinds of things kids kids armed with a bunch of these things will come up with.

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January 27, 2007

Many Eyes and the rise of data for the people

typical Many Eyes data chart

If knowledge is power, then a clear interactive visualization of data is power on steroids. And in the past few months there's been an explosion of tools that let the average duffer create powerful data displays. A few weeks ago Swivel appeared, with the promise of doing for data what flickr has done for photos. Now IBM alphaWorks has rolled out their free data visualization suite, called Many Eyes.

Many Eyes lets you upload data and then show that data in lots of different ways...treemaps, pie charts, on world and U.S. maps, scatter graphs, stack graphs, and lots more. And since the data runs inside of java applets the displays are interactive, allowing the user to turn data on and off, zoom in and out, change colors, etc.

Right now you can link to the completed data chart, but you can't embed it directly in your own page. But I'm sure that's coming...being able to embed an interactive chart the way you can embed a YouTube video is just too powerful a feature not to offer.

By the way, IBM's alphaWorks may be the best-kept secret in the world of online hacking. They seem to knock out all sorts of crazy tools and ideas on a regular basis.

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January 24, 2007

Traffic safety at the Hajj

photo of pilgrims at the Hajj

I have an unusual interest in the psychology and mechanics of traffic control (here's a recent article of mine), so it was like a big pipe of crack on Christmas morning for me when I saw this item on Boing Boing about traffic control at the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage of Muslims to the holy sites in and around Mecca.

Dirk Helbing, a professor of traffic modeling who makes a specialty of studying crowd movement, analyzed videos of pedestrian traffic flow at last year's Hajj, where more than 350 people where crushed in crowds. After implementing Helbing's traffic flow suggestions, not a single Hajj pilgrim was crushed at this year's Hajj.

The website of the science journal Nature has a write-up of Helbing's work. On Helbing's site there are lots of photos, a pdf of the article, and some haunting videos of Hajj crowds.


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January 21, 2007

Simple test to see if your boss is a self-centered jerk

photo of the letter E. Photo available via Creative Commons at

Are people in positions of power and authority more likely to be self-centered a-holes, or does it just seem that way? That's the question taken on by some psychological researchers in this clever and funny study. The researchers ranked a group of test subjects based on their perceived level of power/control/authority over others, and then had them perform a simple task...

... We used a procedure created by Hass (1984) in which participants are asked to draw an "E" on their foreheads. One way to complete the task is to draw an "E" as though the self is reading it, which leads to a backward and illegible "E" from the perspective of another person. The other way to approach the task is to draw the "E" as though another person is reading it, which leads to production of an "E" that is backward to the self (see Figure 1). We predicted that participants in the high power condition would be more likely to draw the "E" in the "self-oriented" direction, indicating a lesser tendency to spontaneously adopt another's perspective, than would participants in the low power condition.

...and that's exactly what happened. Those in the high power group were almost three times more likely to draw a self-oriented E than those who were in the low power group. The researchers say this is related to a lessened ability to emphasize, sympathize, and see other people's points of view.

There's a write-up on the study on EurekAlert, and here's the paper, in Microsoft doc format.

(Thanks Collision Detection) (Photo by tednmiki/

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January 14, 2007

Walk like a cockroach

still image from cockroach robot

One of the greatest advances in robotics occurred about twenty years ago, when a number of researchers realized it was a colossal waste of time to try making robots look and behave like humans (I'm talking to you, Asimo) and turned to the insect world for inspiration. Here are a couple of great example videos I've recently discovered at Case Western University's Biologically Inspired Robotics Laboratory:

Case Western has a robot that uses simulated cockroach antennae to figure out how to navigate. They use a split screen to show the machine moving the same way as a real-life cockroach. Here's a link to the video (Watch out! It's 29 MB).

They've also built a flying robot called MMALV (Morphing Micro Air-Land Vehicle) that lands and then scuttles across the ground. It's a technique that's common in the insect world, but amazingly difficult for a robot. Check out that video too. (This one is just over 9 MB).

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January 10, 2007

Bruce Sterling on what's in store in 2007

Photo of Bruce Sterling by James Duncan Davidson/O'Reilly Media

Each year on the venerable virtual community The Well author, journalist and futurist Bruce Sterling speculates on the year ahead. These conversations with the Well community are wide-ranging, insightful, and filled with Sterling's patented acerbic world-view:

I don't think it was popular indignation at his policies that drove Bush into this corner. If gas was a buck-fifty and there was a calm puppet government in Baghdad, everyone would think W. was Teddy Roosevelt. The guy is losing a war he didn't have to start and is blowing out the bank. That's what really scares his former backers, not the one-party state, the imperial signing statements, the loss of civil liberties, spying, torture, and all the rest of it. People watch the guy make power-grab after power-grab, then he either does nothing or he blows it. The more you hand over to him, the more he screws up.
He's delusionary.

Putin is doing all the anti-democratic things that Bush is doing and then some, but Putin is hugely popular, seventy percent ratings. The Russians enjoy watching him work. They think he's the Man, he's poisoning traitors and turning off gas taps to entire countries... If Bush could have satisfied the angry and vengeful Red States with some similar competent acrobatics, we'd be looking at Republican dominance as far as the eye can see.

Read the whole thing here. While you're at it, read Tomorrow Now, Sterling's book of predictions about the next 50 years. Best book about the future I've ever read.

(Photo by James Duncan Davidson/O'Reilly Media).

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Periodic Table of Visualizations

periodic table of visualizations

Can't remember the difference between Venn diagrams and Gantt charts? Or between entity relationship diagrams and feedback cycle diagrams? Well bucko, you need the Periodic Table of Visualization Methods. Based on Mendeelev's famous periodic table of the elements, the table of visualization methods lists 100 different ways to display data or abstract ideas.

(Thanks Information Aesthetics).

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January 06, 2007

Land of the skive

Skive image from the Guardian newspaper

I have several dear friends in England (Hi Jeremy! Hi Hattie! Hi James! Hi Mike!) and this weekend my heart goes out to them and their fellow countrymen. For this is the final weekend of the Great British Skive...a growing phenomenon in the UK where workers don't just take off the week between Christmas and New Year's (a trend that's been growing there for about a decade) but have also increasingly decided to (in the words of an article in the Guardian Newspaper) "give a chunk of January a miss too".

All during the past week in the UK there's been lots and lots of people taking some extra vacation time (British workers typically get four weeks of vacation a year, not the paltry two weeks that's normal in the U.S.), and a 30% increase in employees calling in "sick".

Some business leaders see the Great British Skive as dangerous to the nation's economy. Me, I think it's a sign of a more civilized society.

(Thanks once again to Russell Davies).


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January 05, 2007

The world's first time capsule

interior of the time capsule at Oglethorpe University

In the bowels of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta is perhaps one of the oddest rooms ever, the Oglethorpe Atlanta Crypt of Civilization. The room... built within an underground swimming pool, lined with porcelain and granite walls, covered by a seven foot thick stone ceiling, sealed behind a massive stainless steel door that's been welded the world's first time capsule.

The room was designed and built in the late 1930s and sealed in 1940. If everything goes to plan (one big, hairy, whopping, mother of all "if"s), the room will be opened again in the year 8113 A.D.(*)

All time capsules are wonderfully naive mixes of optimism about the future and cluelessness about what future civilizations will consider important, and this one is no exception. Consider some of the objects lovingly preserved for the future:

1 coffee set (drip coffee maker, cream and sugar)
1 Comptometer, Ser. no. J246635
1 transcription (Premier of Canada)
a device to teach the English language to the Crypt's finders
6 recordings (Artie Shaw)
1 set Lincoln Logs
1 container of beer (about one quart)
1 package containing 6 miniature panties, 5 miniature shirts, 3 drawers

So far the Crypt of Civilization has made it 1.08% of the way to the day it's scheduled to be opened, so it's still pretty early to get cocky. For instance, it's amazing how often time capsules get broken into, stolen, or just plain misplaced.

Thanks to the extraordinary Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society website for the pointer.

(*)Why the odd opening date of 8113 A.D.? Well, the first known recorded date in human history is 4241 B.C. There were 6177 years between then and 1940, the year the Crypt of Civilization was sealed. Go another 6177 years in the future, and you reach 8113 A.D.

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December 31, 2006

Daisy chains

photo of daisy-chained locks

Hiking in the mountains around southern California, I often come across access roads barred by gates secured with long chains made up of padlocks, all linked together. These daisy chains of locks are the physical manifestation of a wonderfully complex social system, filled with possibilities of cooperation and betrayal.

The locks themselves are owned by various agencies (fire, sheriff, forest service) and companies (cellphone carriers, radio and TV stations, logging companies) who need access to the road. Opening up any one of the locks breaks the loop of locks chaining the gate, so everyone in the chain has equal power to use the road.

photo of daisy-chained locksBut consider what it takes to get your lock added to the chain. You can't add it unilaterally...someone who already has a lock on the chain has to open it and allow you to connect your lock to theirs, as well as to the lock they were formerly attached to, thereby re-forming the chain. From that moment you are a co-equal member of the chain, able to lock and unlock the gate at will.

If you ever want to quit the chain you can of course just stop using your lock without effecting anyone else... you often see old, rusted, obviously no longer used locks on daisy chains.

But to get your lock back, you again require the aid of a lock neighbor -- this time to reconnect the chain after you've been removed. Unless of course you just take your lock and go home, leaving the gate open.

There's one other bit of social interaction possible with daisy chained of betrayal and exclusion. It's possible for someone to connect their lock not to the next lock in the chain, but to one further down the line. That action leaves the skipped over locks literally out of the loop and dangling like a pendant. The only way those cut-off locks can get back into the loop is if one of three locks (the lock from which the cut-off pendant lock(s) hang, or one of its immediate neighbors) reconnect it.

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December 24, 2006

The secret world of the coffee judge

screen-shot of barista judges instructions

We all know about the years of dedication and training needed to become a top competitor, but how often do we think about the dedication and training needed to become a competition judge?

I just discovered that not only is there a whole world of barista competition, there's a whole sub-world of barista judges. And the qualifications can be a real killer.

For instance, potential judges with the Speciality Coffee Association of America face a surprisingly difficult taste test. The test has nothing to do with identifying different flavors of coffee, it's much more basic, and more challenging. You're given a series of clear solutions with different concentrations of sweet, sour, and bitter. All you have to do is sort them and put them in order.

But, man, it's a killer! Read one judge's account of the test, and another judge's hints for passing.

If you're interested in why taste tests are so hard, there's a great chapter on just that topic (complete with a great profile of, of all things, a mayonnaise taster), check out Malcolm Gladwell's Blink.


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December 22, 2006

The kidz R alright

photo of text messaging girls by Moritz/ Original, and Creative Commons licensing, at

Nothing angers me more than pundits who spout off about how today's crazy mix of video games, text messaging, music videos, TV, film and rock and rap music is somehow destroying the minds of our youth. They particularly love to make the claim that kids and teens are reading less and are therefore, ipso facto, becoming less intelligent. The fact that there's a big pile of evidence showing just the opposite seems to not matter at all.(*)

An article on Technology Review's website should help shut those people up. In it, Timothy Shanahan, president of the International Reading Association, points out that inventions like e-mail, instant messaging, and mobile text messaging are causing kids to put more emphasis on reading and writing skills than a generation ago.

Meanwhile, reading of traditional printed books has become more fun for kids in the past several years. The article talks about the explosive popularity of the Harry Potter and Series of Unfortunate Events books; works that are longer, more challenging, and more literary than the most popular youth books of a decade or two ago.

Shanahan says the best mix is to let your kids do everything...text and IM their little fingers raw plus have them read great stories.

Take that, book only snobs.

(*)For a good overview of the distortions of the anything-but-reading-is-bad crowd, read Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good For You.

(Photo by Moritz/


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December 20, 2006

Coolest psychology experiment ever

series of images from Simons and Levin's psychology experiment

On his Mixing Memory blog, the cognitive psychologist who goes by the nom de blog "Chris" describes what he calls the coolest psychology experiment ever.

Having read it, I totally agree! This is one of the weirdest, oddest, coolest example of how the brain works that I've ever heard of. I won't spoil the details of the experiment here, you'll just need to go over to Mixing Memory and read all about it.

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December 18, 2006

Do traffic signs make you less safe?

traffic sign in Friesland. Photo by jacco de boer/ (

A quick ego-based heads-up. My brief article on the idea that in some cases removing traffic signs can actually improve highway safety ran in the Boston Globe yesterday.

The article's titled "No Signs Ahead", and here's a link to it.

(Photo from jacco de boer/flickr)

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December 17, 2006

The Darfur wall

part of the Darfur Wall

As is the case with many things that go on in Africa, the industrialized First World has paid too little attention to the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. The Burke family of Seattle Washington decided to throw a bit of light on the issue, so they created The Darfur Wall, a haunting and eloquent online memorial to the 400,000 men, women and children who have died there.

Visually the centerpiece of the site is a series of black screens filled with tiny dark grey numbers, one for each victim. Click on a number and you are given the chance to donate $1 to Darfur relief. Make the donation and the tiny number turns white.

It's simultaneously shocking and a bit uplifting to see the huge collection of dark numbers and...scattered among them...tiny bits of white; places where someone has taken a moment to care and contribute.

Visit the Darfur Wall.


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December 09, 2006

More or Less

sign at the U.K. national statistics office by niznoz/

It seems impossible, but the BBC has pulled it off... they've made an interesting, enjoyable radio program about...of all things...statistics.

More or Less is a half-hour series that turns a mathematical eye to all sorts of things. Recent shows examined if mortality statistics can catch murdering doctors (in England, a physician named Harold Shipman was found to have killed more than 200 patients over the course of his career), how you can tell if an athlete's testosterone level is just naturally high or the result of drugs, and why one city's airport can always has more people departing than arriving.

There's no podcast of the show, but it is available for online listening.

(Nice photo of the sign at the U.K. national statistics office by niznoz/


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Data for the people!

some typical swivel data

There's nothing I like more than a good stiff trend analysis or histogram, so I'm very excited about a new web application called Swivel. Swivel wants to do for data what Flickr has done for lets you upload your data, tag it, share it with friends or the world and, best of all, display it and analyze it. Here are just a few of the bits of infoporn that people have already created...

Temperature vs. solar radiation in Cupertino, CA

Wine consumption vs. violent crime

Bush approval ratings vs. Microsoft stock closing price

The site is in beta (or, as they call it, Preview) so it's not always as fast as it should be right now. But never mind! This is going to be an amazing resource, one that could change how everyday people deal with the world of data.

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December 06, 2006

It's raining, time for math class!

photo of schoolkid in the rain, from

This is one of the coolest things I've heard of in a long time... kids at the Pott Row First School, in Norfolk, England, have all been issued one-piece waterproof jumpsuits and slip-on rain boots. Why? Because they plan on having half of their classes outside...regardless of the weather.

Teachers there had long noticed that the kids were happier and tended to concentrate better when they were outside. Parents say their kids love the new outdoors half the time plan. Brilliant!

Here's an article about the program from


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November 20, 2006

Is driving safer without traffic signs?

traffic signs

Right now in Europe, several cities are testing a counter-intuitive idea...that removing all of a town's traffic signs can actually make driving safer. The theory is that the thicket of traffic signs lulls drivers into a false sense of don't check for oncoming traffic if oncoming traffic has a stop sign, you trust that they'll see the sign and obey it. But if you don't know what the hell might happen at the intersection, you'll proceed with caution.

So the European Union is trying out the theory in 7 cities, towns and rural areas, pulling out traffic signs and stop lights, erasing highway lines, even removing no parking zones. Proponents of the plan attending a conference called "Unsafe is Safe" in Frankfurt last month say things are going well...drivers are both safer and more courteous.

But not everyone is convinced. Detractors worry that removing traffic signs could turn well-ordered western European driving into something like this intersection in India.

There's an article about the idea (in English) in the German Spiegel magazine.


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Inventing by sketching

early sketch of the Brannock shoe fitting device

The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History has a great on-line mini-exhibit showing the original sketches and doodles that eventually led to commercial products. Pictured above, Charles Brannock's early design sketch for the foot measuring device that is part of every kid's shoe store in the universe.

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November 10, 2006

International symbol for breastfeeding

finalist for the breastfeeding icon contest

AIGA elevator symbolEver since the AIGA designed 50 universal travel icons (like this elevator symbol) back in the 70s, they've become part of the venacular of modern life.

But those symbols don't cover every situation. Recently Mothering magazine sponsored a contest to design a universal symbol for a breastfeeding area. Check out the 12 semi-finalists in the competition, as well as some also-rans.

The magazine will announce the winner on November 13, and release the winning image into the public domain for free worldwide use.

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November 07, 2006

How to be interesting

coffee cup from Russell Davies blog

Russell Davies is an English advertising account planner with a great blog that often touches on the areas of inovation and creativity. Case in point, Russell's great post titled "How to be interesting". You too can become interesting, in just 10 simple steps:

4. Every week, read a magazine you’ve never read before

Interesting people are interested in all sorts of things. That means they explore all kinds of worlds, they go places they wouldn’t expect to like and work out what’s good and interesting there. An easy way to do this is with magazines. Specialist magazines let you explore the solar system of human activities from your armchair. Try it, it’s fantastic.

The whole set of suggestions is fantastic. Check it out!

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November 06, 2006

All hail Schott’s Almanac

images from Schott’s Almanac

Looking for the perfect way to remember 2006? Look no further than the strange and wonderful Schott’s Almanac. It's wonderfully quirky summation of 2006 (*), with straight-ahead stuff like the members of the Cabinet and who won the Stanley Cup, but also vital facts like when Fashion Week is and Seven Things Not To Be Trusted ("A strong dog" "The flattery of an enemy"). It's like an almanac meets The Museum Of Jurassic Technology.

(*) Yes, I know there's almost two months left to 2006, but don't worry, nothing much will happen.

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October 31, 2006

TED Prize 2007: A great prize deserves a great sculpture

Tom Shannon's TED Prize sculpture

The TED Conference folks have announced this year's recipients of their TED Prize, an a very impressive trio it is...

Photojournalist James Nachtwey
Biologist E.O. Wilson
Former President Bill Clinton

The three of them each get to address the ultra-exclusive TED conference, and present one world-changing wish that the attendees will focus their attention (and considerable wealth) upon. It's a great award (details here), won by three very deserving individuals, but what caught my eye was the other thing they receive... a commemorative sculpture by artist Tom Shannon.

The sculpture is a lovely ten-inch sphere that hovers in mid-air above a wooden base. It perfectly embodies the beautiful and improbable feel of the's a thousand times more appropriate than the typical etched block of Lucite.

Shannon's made a number of pieces that use magnetic fields to achieve haunting levitations. Check out his online gallery at


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October 23, 2006

Palaeography tutorial

excerpt from an 18th century will

Can you understand any of the words in the image above? If you're like me the answer is "not too damn many". Welcome to the world of Palaeography, the study of old handwriting. That example above (part of the 1722 last will and testament of an English shipwright named Thomas Pike) was plain as day to people in the 18th century, but it's almost completely incomprehensible to most of us here in the 21st century. This is a big deal to historians, who rely on old texts as one of the main ways of learning about the past (My ex-wife, an European historian, could easily read marriage records from 15th Century Amsterdam. I couldn't even recognize the letters).

The British National Archives has a very cool mini site on palaeography. The site includes lots of tricks and techniques for deciphering old script and, best of all, interactive tutorials that let you try your eye at deciphering more and more difficult texts. It sounds uber-nerdy, but it's actually a lot of fun.

Kind of like studying history.

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October 15, 2006

Another reason to watch what you say

photo by nathancallahan/

We've all heard that phrase "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." Well, it turns out that advice isn't just good etiquette, it's good science. A paper (pdf) in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology lays out some recent research into Spontaneous Trait Transference. Put simply, it's the phenomenon where people are perceived as possessing a trait that they describe in others... tell your co-worker that your boss is lazy, and your co-worker will start to feel, perhaps subconsciously, that you're lazy too.

Conversely, tell someone good things about someone else, and the person you're talking to will start thinking a little bit better of you too.

(Thanks Tasty Research) (Photo: nathancallahan/

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October 10, 2006

Happy Powers of Ten Day!

still image from The Powers of Ten film

Today, the tenth day of the tenth month, holds special importance for both fans of science and of the brilliant 20th century designers Charles and Ray Eames (I fall into both categories). It's Powers of Ten Day, a holiday inspired by The Eames' mind-blowing 1977 short film of the same name.

The film starts with a couple enjoying a picnic in a Chicago park. The camera, looking down from above, begins pulling out and up until it reaches the edge of the visible universe. Then is zooms back in until the view ends up inside the nucleus of a single atom in the hand of one of the picnickers.

In addition to being the single greatest tracking shot in the history of cinema, the film gives you a wonderfully clear insight into the vast size of the cosmos. I don't know a single scientist or artist who hasn't been inspired and/or stunned by this film.

Today and for the rest of the month, the website has the film available for free on-line viewing(*). By all means take nine minutes out of your day to watch!

If you want more info on the impact of "The Powers of Ten", check out the appreciation of it I did for the public radio arts program Studio360.

(*) Email registration requested.

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September 20, 2006

Happy MacArthur Day!

MacArthur logo

Yesterday was one of my favorite days of the year, the day that the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced this year's MacArthur Fellows. The Fellowships (unofficially but universally known as "genius awards") give a select few people working in the arts, science, or the humanities a cool half million dollars each, no strings attached.

The thing that I love so much about the MacArthurs (besides the basic karmic goodness of an organization that out of the blue just gives folks doing great work big-ass piles of cash) is that I get to learn about a bunch of amazing people I never would have heard of otherwise. Sure, like millions of parents, I've introduced my kids to the great picture books of new MacArthur recepient David Macaulay and I've listened to the music of John Zorn, but I had no idea about the amazing things being done by some of these other people.

For instance, check out D. Holmes Morton, a country doctor in Pennsylvania who specializes in treating genetic disorders in Amish children. Or Josiah McElheny, who creates astonishing sculptural works in glass. Or Linda Griffith, who's figuring out new ways to grow human tissue in the laboratory.

Tell you what... take five minutes, look at the full list of this year's MacArthur Fellows, and read the bio of someone you find interesting. It's worth it.

P.S. It was my great pleasure to once work for someone who later received a MacArthur fellowship, broadcasting visionary Bill Siemering.

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September 18, 2006

Jacque Fresco's Future by Design

image from one of Jacque Fresco's cities

For more than a half-century, inventor and futurist Jacque Fresco has been on a quixotic quest to redesign cities, transportation... hell, all of human society when you get right down to it. Envisioning changes on a scale right up there with R. Buckminster Fuller and Paolo Soleri, Fresco champions what he calls a 'resource-based economy' that replaces the need for the scarcity-oriented monetary economy we have now.

There's now a documentary film about Fresco called Future by Design. It's not exactly in what you would call wide release, but it looks like it would be worth keeping an eye out for it. And the trailer is definitely worth a look.

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August 26, 2006

Pocoyo: A little piracy can be a good thing

Pocoyo characters

Pocoyo is a completely charming cartoon series for little kids that airs (or is about to start airing) in about 40 countries around the world. David Cantolla, one of Pocoyo's creators, has been blogging about the show, discussing all sorts of behind the scenes stuff (designing new characters, finding the right marketing deal, discussing whether or not the characters should eat junk food).

In his latest post, Cantolla looks at the issue of piracy (specifically the appearance of Pocoyo cartoons on video sites like YouTube) and how it might effect his creation. He thinks about the issue from several points of view (the creators, the staff, the distributors, the TV networks, the toy marketers) and comes to the conclusion that a bit of illegal distribution... not a huge amount, just a little.. is actually good for the show.

It's refreshing to come across someone in the TV industry who isn't in complete lock-step with the extremist TV industry stance on unauthorized copying. His post is well worth reading. And of course, the show itself is well worth watching, even if you're not three years old. Here's one of the episodes on YouTube. (I'm particularly an fan of Elly, the elephant who's fond of ballet).


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Mental health first aid

Mental Health First Aid logo

Everyone should learn basic first aid of course. But while those classes prepare you to deal with a broken arm or someone who's choking, they teach you little or nothing when it comes to dealing with someone suffering from acute mental illness... things like bi-polar disorder, psychotic episodes, and severe suicidal depression.

An innovative Australian program called Mental Health First Aid is changing that. They've created a 12-hour course that teaches average people what to do if confronted with a wide variety of mental health conditions...

How to help a person having a panic attack

1) If you are unsure whether the person is having a panic attack, a heart attack or an asthma attack, and/or the person is in distress, call an ambulance.
2) If you know the person is having a panic attack and not a heart or asthma attack, move the person to a quiet safe place if possible.
3) Help to calm the person by encouraging slow, relaxed breathing in unison with your own. Encourage the person to breathe in for 3 seconds, hold for 3 seconds and then breathe out for 3 seconds (you can get them to use the second hand on a watch).
4) Be a good listener, without judging.
5) Explain to the person that they are experiencing a panic attack and not something life-threatening such as a heart attack.
6) Explain that the attack will soon stop and they will recover fully.
7) Assure the person that someone will stay with them and keep them safe until the attack stops.

This is a such a great idea on so many levels. Right now the course is offered throughout Australia, and there are plans to offer it worldwide. In the meantime, Mental Health First Aid has a pdf of their course manual, and a webpage of brief advice on what to do in a situation where someone's having mental health difficulties.

(Thanks Mind Hacks)

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August 20, 2006

Get rid of the Hudson River

Image of New York City from Modern Mechanix

Man, I thought Robert Moses was the worst thing that could happen to urban planning in New York City. Thank goodness a guy named Norman Sper never came to power. As outlined in a 1934 issue of Modern Mechanix magazine, Sper's master plan was...wait for it...dam the Hudson River at both ends of Manhattan Island, pump out the water, fill in the entire river channel, and...voila!'ve just doubled the size of New York City!

Never mind that you'd destroy a stretch of a great river, Sper had a city to build. Besides, the evil Soviets were watching...

"When every possible subterranean necessity had been anticipated and built," Sper points out, "a secondary fill would bring the level up to within twenty-five feet of the Manhattan street level.

"Upon this level would rest the foundations and basements of the buildings that would make up the new city above, planned for fresh air, sunshine and beauty. Thus, below the street level would be a subterranean system of streets that would serve a double purpose. All heavy trucking would be confined to it, but primarily it would serve as a great military defense against gas attack in case of war, for in it would be room for practically the entire population of the city.

"If the Russians had the vision and the courage not only to build huge cities from the ground up, but to practically rebuild an empire, surely America should not be frightened at a project as big as this."

Happily, Sper never had the mojo to pull this plan off...or as far as I can tell, any other plan. The article describes Sper as a "noted publicist and engineering scholar." If anyone knows anything more about this guy, let me know.

(Thanks to BLDGBLOG)

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August 19, 2006

Reason #2,432 that Iceland kicks ass

section of New Scientist chart showing acceptance of evolution in different countries

If you know me, you know that I'm a rabid fan of Iceland...the landscape, the location, the people, the music and art scene, the bar scene, the whole vibe of the place. I don't need any further reasons to think Iceland is totally happening. But new reasons keep popping up anyway. The latest is a study by Jon Miller of Michigan State University showing that Iceland leads the way when it comes to the percentage of people who believe we evolved from other forms of animal life. Miller and his colleagues quizzed people in 32 European countries plus Japan and the U.S. Nearly 85% of people in Iceland accepted the scientific explanation of human evolution. Shockingly, only 40% of American in human evolution. Only Turkey had a lower score.

According to Miller and his team, the low number for the U.S. is due to high percentage of fundamentalist Christians in this country. Happily, Iceland is not burdened with that nonsense.

There's a write-up of Miller's study in this week's New Scientist. magazine. The study itself is published in the August 11 issue of Science.

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August 04, 2006

Does a parasite shape your country's personality?

Toxoplasma gondii parasites. Photo by Ke Hu and John Murray

When it comes to biology, there is nothing...and I mean NOTHING...weirder than parasitology. The latest proof comes from researcher Kevin D. Lafferty, at UC Santa Barbara. According to Lafferty's paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, some of the cliché differences between cultures ("You French are so neurotic!"You Japanese work so much." "You Americans are so loud and impolite.") may be partially caused by the parasitic protozoa Toxoplasma gondIii.

Toxoplasma often infects cats and other mammals, including humans. In humans, infection may cause some mild flu-like symptoms (often it causes no symptoms at all), but in small mammals like mice and rats it can cause significant behavioral changes. For instance, infected rats lose their fear of cats, making them easy prey (and thereby allowing the parasite to spread to the cat). There's long been speculation that Toxoplasmosis infection can also alter the brains of humans. For instance, people with Toxoplasma tend to be more self-doubting and insecure.

What Lafferty's done is to look at the rate of Toxoplasma infection in different countries (4% in Korea, 67% in Brazil) and compare it with psychologist's measures of traits like risk-adversion in different countries. And it turns out there is significant correlation.

Want to read more about the study? Seed Magazine writer Carl Zimmer has a great write-up on the study on his blog. By the way, Zimmer's book, Parasite Rex is a great introduction to parasites and their world.

(Toxoplasma photo by Ke Hu and John Murray)

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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'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.


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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.

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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.

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July 15, 2006

New thoughts on the causes of obesity

photo of obesity and food billboards, taken by ktheory,

There's a very interesting article about obesity on 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


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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).

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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).

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June 27, 2006

Talks from the TED Conference now online

TED talks logo

Like many people, I've wished I could attend one of the mind-bending TED Conferences. But like most people, I can't afford the $4400 US registration, and have had to make due with reading their excellent blog. But now the TED folks have started both video and audio podcasts of selected TED conference presentations. Up so far, Al Gore, Tony Robbins, David Pogue, Majora Carter, Hans Rosling and Ken Robinson.

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June 21, 2006

Excellent interview on the global youth market

Guy Kawasaki has posted an absolutely excellent interview on his blog with Kathleen Gasperini of Label Networks. Label Networks specializes are the quintesential "cool hunters", investigating what interests young people all around the world. They do first-hand observation and interviews in coffee shops, at music festivals, at the mall, any place that has a critical mass of 13 to 25 year olds. All of this research has given them great insight into what appeals to...and what offends...young people. Here's Gasperini on clueless marketing by big companies:

Young people don’t care about sweating and being hot, say, at an outdoor festival. Older people do. Success can truly smell! And young people can smell anything that smacks of insincerity a mile away. To them, some companies just stink. They are so removed from their reality. The reason so many companies try to do top-down trending is because they don’t know how to do bottom-up marketing or are afraid of change. Or of getting sweaty.

...and on some of the differences among young people in different countries...

The London kid right now isn’t as hopeful but thinks he’s trendsetting in his own head. The Munich kid is more philosophical, but socially “younger” than the 15-year-old in LA or Palo Alto, mainly because he’s not online as much and this isn’t encouraged by parents. For the Addis Ababa kid it depends on their socioeconomic level, but like the others, this kid is heavily influenced by music. Music is the common thread because it’s emotional and personal and taps into that mammalian cortex.

Completely fascinating stuff from someone who actually does first-hand research, instead of just spouting a bunch of marketing consultant-speak.

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June 17, 2006

Donald Norman sez: Maybe we're doing user observation all wrong

still image from Franklin Institute video of Don Norman

Human-based design pioneer Donald Norman has posted a provocative essay on his website about how we study the way people use the things we create. Norman and others have long proposed that we study our users in order to gain insight into how they could best use our product (be it a website, a kitchen appliance, or a weapons system) and then go ahead and build the product. Now he's not so sure:

Most projects are enhancements of already existing projects. Why do we have to start studying the users all over again? Haven’t we already learned a lot about them? Shouldn’t we be studying them all throughout the adoption period? Once a project starts, it is too late.

Norman talks about adopting the same type of iterative approach used in programming to endless weaving together of design, observation, and manufacture. The full essay is here.

In other Donald Norman news, earlier this spring my old stmping grounds, The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, awarded Norman the 2006 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer & Cognitive Science (press release). They made a nice little video (5:05, 17MB, mp4 format) talking about Norman's life and the influence of his work.

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June 13, 2006

Does this sound like where you work?

The slow leadership blog has a great essay called How to Kill Creativity. Recommended reading for all afflicted with clueless management. Quick excerpt:

In pressure-based cultures, old ideas are continually re-hashed, new ones tested to destruction, and any spark of innovation drowned in consensus-building. An idea that can't be grasped in under five minutes by executives so distracted they can't recall the next meeting on today's schedule—or what was agreed at the last—is dead meat. There's no time to be wrong, so there's no time to be right either. Stick to what you've done before and get a move on. With such penalties for trying anything new, is it any wonder everyone quickly gets the message that, whatever fine words executives use, innovation isn't wanted or valued?

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May 30, 2006

Why is it so hard to fool your sense of taste?

There's a really interesting discussion on the mindhacks blog around fooling your senses. It's super easy to fool our senses of vision (there's a great blog devoted to visual illusions), hearing and touch. But what about fooling our sense of taste/smell? Why aren't there lots of well know ways to trick our tongues and noses? It turns out there are such illusions, but not many of them. And there are some basic reasons that they're so rare.

(By the way, if you want to spend a weekend repeatedly going "Whoa! That is so cool!" pick up a copy of Mind Hacks by Tom Stafford and Matt Webb).


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May 05, 2006

Government by wiki

If the wiki idea works for compiling the world's knowledge, why not give it a shot for government? That's the idea behind wikocracy, a wiki site that lets you modify federal laws...Roe v. Wade, the PATRIOT Act, The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, even the Constitution. For instance, here's the Second Amendment, as crafted by the wikocracy community:

No person who has been unanimously judged by a jury of his peers to suffer from serious mental illness may own a firearm of any nature, nor can those convicted of any violent crime in any jurisdiction whether within or without the United States of America. Citizens may possess any type of firearm including but not limited to pistols, assault rifes and machine guns. The possession by any entity within the United States of Chemical or Biological weaponry is prohibited by this amendment. The United States military shall not have the power to possess any weaponry which its citizens do not themselves have the power to possess, particularly nuclear or radiologial weaponry. Congress shall have the right to increase, reduce or eliminate the stock of such weapons as it sees fit through appropriate legislation and the ratification of international conventions. Citizens may not possess weapons of mass destruction, except those with substantial nonweapon uses, including but not limited to airplanes.

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March 30, 2006

Mighty optical illusions

optical illusion

There are a zillion blogs, but only one Mighty Optical Illusions, a site fanatically devoted to images that mess with your mind. Great to poke around the site, even better to subscribe to the RSS feed and be confronted with a new illusion at random intervals.


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Bruce Sterling on life at the Art Center College of Design

Bruce Sterling spent the last year as "Visionary in Residence" at the Art Center College of Design, a wonderful little design school in Pasadena.

Sterling wrote a touching essay about his year at Art Center, and about the place's power to transform and inspire:

Those students work harder than oxen. By show time at the end of the term, they're physically collapsing from their own ambitions. They grieve. They tremble with burnout. They slumber on the library carpets. They change a lot. Designerhood steals over them. It's like character transformation in a novel. That ditzy illustration chick, who shambled in wearing her Goodwill dresses, somehow develops her own look; she's still a freak, but now she's all together about it. That digital-arts kid, twitchy from his misspent youth of computer games, somehow learns to exude geek chic. He once had a thousand-yard stare. Now he's got the polished arched-eyebrow look of the cell-phone techie on Verizon billboards. You can't teach that to anyone--it's self-inflicted. What happened to them? They have recognized certain aspects of their pre-designer selves that, to their newly trained eyes, are no longer apt and fitting. So they prune those parts off. They take the gum eraser to it. They X-acto it. They mill it down to sawdust over in the machine shop. It's spooky. Even their parents can tell

The full essay is in the current issue of Metropolis magazine.

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March 18, 2006

Is there a better way to learn math?

A guy named Steve Yegge has an interesting rant against the way that math is taught. He proposes an alternative way to re-learn all of that math that you learned in college and then forgot:

I think the best way to start learning math is to spend 15 to 30 minutes a day surfing in Wikipedia. It's filled with articles about thousands of little branches of mathematics. You start with pretty much any article that seems interesting (e.g. String theory, say, or the Fourier transform, or Tensors, anything that strikes your fancy. Start reading. If there's something you don't understand, click the link and read about it. Do this recursively until you get bored or tired.

OK, what the hell, I can scam 15 minutes somewhere each day. Off to start re-learning matricies...

Link to Steve Yegge's article

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