April 30, 2004
No Superheroes Here
As you may recall, last Saturday I drew a comic book. It consumed twenty-four hours, a buncha pens, and one of those super-fat "Magnum" markers. I consumed five Cokes and three bagels.
Here's the result: Ornithology (1.7MB PDF, 23 pages)
You'll probably enjoy it most if you print it out, but it reads pretty well on screen, too.
Check out the last page to see the seeds of the story: sentences and scenarios from friends, revealed at the stroke of midnight. I didn't quite manage to use them all... I think the one I most regret leaving out is "warm weather = girls in backless shirts." Maybe if it was "warm weather = dots with lines around them" I would have had time to work it in.
I'm tempted to make a bunch of disclaimers here, but nah. Perhaps a reminder that the entire comic was produced in 24 continuous hours of feverish and progressively less-coherent rendering will set your expectations at the right level.
April 28, 2004
Welcome Aboard, Viscountess
Whoah, check out the ridiculously comprehensive list of honorifics available to British Airways passengers. (Click on the Title drop-down menu.)
"Tengku"! I love it!
(Link via Boing Boing.)
What Stomps In the Shadows
The small South Asian nation of Bangladesh has plenty of problems: poverty, disease, overpopulation, illiteracy, corruption, flooding, cyclones... and now, apparently, wild elephant attacks.
I don't know about this, though:
Wild elephants frequently raid human habitation during harvesting season. At nightfall they enter the fields and damage crops, trees and homes. The entire herd then melts into the forest at daybreak.
What are these, ghost ninja elephants??
April 26, 2004
I Eye My Coke Warily
Let me just repeat: Gah!!!
(Link via Boing Boing.)
I'd Like Some Personal Audio Entertainment Services, Please
So, this is pretty interesting: Clive Thompson has a new column up about the online music service called Rhapsody.
For iTunes, as you may know, you pay $0.99 and get a music file that you can play or burn onto a CD. Rhapsody's different: According to Clive, $10 a month gets you access to the service's entire library of music -- but you don't get any of the files. You just get the music, streamed to your speakers.
This reminds me of the excellent book "Natural Capitalism" which argued that we ought to get more goods as services instead of products. Example: Light bulbs. Does anybody want a light bulb? Does the product itself deliver any satisfation? No -- clearly, it's household illumination services that we're after. But to get them we must purchase fungly light bulbs.
So wouldn't it be interesting, the book suggests, if instead of peddling bulbs, General Electric sold lighting services for some small annual fee. It'd cost the same as a year's supply of bulbs, and we'd get the same ultimate product: Light. But now, absent the need to maximize bulb sales, it'd be in G.E.'s interest to aggressively innovate super-efficient light technology -- 'cause then it would cost them less to provide the service, and they could take the difference as profit. (Thus, "Natural Capitalism," in which good business is aligned with good environmental values.)
Interface, a commercial carpet company, is in fact moving towards selling interior comfort services, not carpet. They have lots of info at their sustainability site. And apparently it hasn't totally ruined the company or anything.
It's interesting to extend this model to music. What is it we really want? Well, if it's merely personal audio entertainment services, then Rhapsody is a great idea. Rhapsody is in the business of providing music, not selling tracks, so it can behave differently, right? It can spend its research dollars on faster, smoother, cooler music-playing technology instead of elaborate copy-protection schemes. Excellent.
But, not every commercial activity fits the "Natural Capitalism" service model. Think of automobiles: Yeah, we want transportation services; but many of us also want a car. The product-ness of it -- having it in the driveway, having your junk in the back seat -- is important.
So is music more like carpet or more like a car? For me, it's probably carpet. I think I could groove on Rhapsody, as I a) am musically clueless, and b) score no points with anyone for having cool music.
In general, though, I suspect it's more like a car: People want sounds to listen to, yeah, but they also want to own music -- music as cultural signifier, music as collection. Music in the driveway. (Although, as Clive points out, with iTunes and its ilk you "own" your music in a somewhat more limited sense than you did with CDs and tapes.)
Anyway, how about you? Car or carpet?... Read more ....
April 25, 2004
Truly Gleeful Miscellany
And speaking of illustration, congrats to Robin, who completed his 24-hour comic, in case you didn't see it.
April 23, 2004
The Thirteenth Labor
But did Hercules ever write and draw a 24-page comic book in 24 hours?
I thought not.
That's because a challenge like this ain't for chumps. Luckily, I'm an old comics pro.
I'm sure you recall the adventures of the Baker Bobcat in The Torpey Talk-About, Baker Middle School's paper of record.
Perhaps you were a fan of my, er, avant-garde editorial cartoons in The State News.
Or maybe you saw the Poynter.org centerpiece. Disclaimer: Not my finest hour.
Well, that was all just preparation.
Pop Comics in Sarasota. Midnight tonight to midnight on Saturday. 24 hours. 24 pages.... Read more ....
April 20, 2004
The Man in Black
Sometimes dorkdom conquers reason.
If I were a rational movie-goer, I wouldn't waste eight bucks on "Star Wars: Episode III" in May 2005, because Episodes I and II were boring and lame.
(Well, actually, if I were a rational movie-goer, I wouldn't be talking about movies that aren't coming out until 2005 at all. But, yeah.)
Clearly, some sort of Lucasian culture module was implanted in my brain early in life, because when I see a story about the first glimpses of Darth Vader, the disappointment of the first two movies evaporates and I am filled only with geeky anticipation.
Darth Vader. Of all the mythology-lite characters in Star Wars, he is the most archetypal. He's our Cronus, the deposer and the deposed. And, come on! "Darth Vader"! Dark Father! He might as well be named Primordial Ancestor of Power. Jeez.
(Thanks to Julie for the tip!)
April 19, 2004
'The Secret Sauce'
The debate over funding for renewable energy research (see below) hinges in some ways on a simple question: Can we count on private companies to invest adequately in new inventions?
Across industries, the answer to this question seems to be "no." Although the potential rewards are great, so are the costs, as well as the chances of coming up with a big fat zilch. Companies, like people, are risk-averse; losing a million on a dud of a research project feels a lot worse than making a million on a winner. And what if you invent something that has nothing to do with your business? Most companies don't even bother.
So, I was interested to see that Nathan Myhrvold, erstwhile founder of Microsoft Research, is starting a private company devoted entirely to invention. Evan Schwartz writes in Technology Review:
The new venture, Myhrvold says, has no mission other than to invent what the inventors believe should be—or can be—invented. "Invention is the secret sauce," Myhrvold says. "It has the highest concentration of value compared with any task in a company. But because it’s so risky, it also has the lowest amount of focused effort." Showing what can happen when that effort is intensified is Myhrvold’s main reason for creating the laboratory, which he is funding in part from his own Microsoft-made fortune.
What a coincidence. I'm funding Snarkmarket in part from my Microsoft-made fortune.
April 15, 2004
Tales from Deep Space
That shape would fit with data from NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, a satellite the size of a car, launched in 2001, now stationed at a point in space between the Earth and the Sun. It monitors cosmic background radiation, the energy left over from the Big Bang.
Let's just be clear: It's a Volvo launched into space that has successfully made its way to a little gravitational cradle a million miles away, and now it's detecting heat waves 13 billion years old.
And some scientists, looking at that data, are like, "Dude, the universe is totally a horn."
How is this stuff even possible??
Anyway, the horn shape is pretty cool. The flare at the end has the spatial properties of the video game "Asteroids": If you fly out beyond the edge of the universe, you just appear on the other side.
It's still just a hypothesis. Meanwhile, the WMAP satellite is out there, tethered between terra and stella, staring into space, gathering more data.
April 14, 2004
Am I late to a now-tired Web meme? Because Subservient Chicken is really funny.
BTW, wow. Just, wow.
You know that bit in my last post about people being all gung ho about a technology at first, then glimpsing the consequences of its misuse and reflexively banning not the misuse, but the technology?
The Dead City
A motorcycle ride through the ghost town of Chernobyl:
A story about a town that one can ride through with no stoplights, no police and no danger of hitting any living thing.
Watching all these movies about the end of the world, I sometimes forget that it basically happened, in a shimmering cloud over Russia in 1986. Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes, many more died in radioactive fire, and a whole generation wear the meltdown in their bodies.
This website helped me remember. It starts off slow, but once the author gets going, the visuals are creepier than anything Danny Boyle could dream up -- a real, recognizable city, suddenly emptied of all life.
If anything can reduce American reliance on fossil fuels in the near term, it's a turn to nuclear energy, but that's politically untenable, because the mere mention of the word "Chernobyl" conjures up images of babies not even a politician could love.
My uninformed impression of the history of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island is that public and political enthusiasm for nuclear technology sent us off into ReactorLand before we knew what we were doing, and then everything exploded. But one thing we learned is that there is major risk to the stuff, and due to the complexity of the technology, we can only mitigate that risk, not eliminate it.
It would be good, though, I think, if we could both confront that risk and consider its advantages with equal boldness.
(Last reminder: Don't forget to look at the creepy photos.)
April 13, 2004
Playing By the Rules, But Whose?
In the libertarian mag Reason, Kevin Parker writes about the politics of video games:
... But as a political vehicle, games may have an inherent bias. Bridging an ideological chasm, libertarian Iain Smedley and socialist Julian Stallabras agree that computer games possess a native individualism. Writing a decade ago, Smedley noted the "heroic and individualistic philosophy" of video games, in which the player "does not merely cheer on the hero in [his] struggle; the player’s actions determine the outcome." Writing contemporaneously in New Left Review, Stallabras concurred: In games, "the passivity of cinema and television is replaced by an environment in which the player’s actions have a direct, immediate consequence on the virtual world." For Stallabras, this makes computer games "a capitalist and deeply conservative form of culture."
I do think Parker makes a good point about the rules embedded in games, especially games like SimCity:
Certain rules are embedded -- sometimes consciously, sometimes not -- in video games. What are these rules? The question may become a refrain, at least for perceptive parents and teachers, because games can communicate ideas not merely through exposition but through the experience of playing them.
Political economy is a natural frontier for gaming. As some PlayStation-savvy Marxists have noted, many games incorporate "simulacra" of work and exchange. (In postmodern jargon, a simulacrum is a copy of an original that never existed -- Disneyland’s Main Street, for instance.) We don’t slay the dragon or blast the alien just for the fun of it. There’s treasure in that thar dungeon or asteroid! Newer games are asking, What do we do with the booty?
Quite a bit. Multiplayer online games routinely feature emergent economies. Programmers, absorbed in the business of turning imagined ogres, grenade launchers, and nebular vistas into stable computer code, now find themselves puzzling over inflation, product shortages, and property disputes. Just how realistic the economic models should be is a topic of continuing debate. But at least one development house, Artifact Entertainment, actually hired an economist to assist with its modeling.
"PlayStation-savvy Marxists"? Cool!
I'm now slightly frightened by the specter of an age, decades hence, when the "common sense" argument for some new tax policy goes something like this: "Of course a tax cut will stimulate the economy! Didn't you ever play SimWorld on the Playstation 4? That's how you won the game, man. You had to drop taxes, especially on the rich."
(Thanks to Penny for the link!)... Read more ....
April 9, 2004
Tela Totius Terrae
Oh, sweet: a list of computer terms in Latin. Among them:
FAQ -- Frequenter Allatae Quaestiones
Internet -- 1. subst. Internetum; Interrete,is n. 2. adj. Internetalis,e; Interretialis,e
(Link via Languagehat.)
What Year Is It?
As I'm typing this, there's a big banner headline on NYTimes.com that says "Fighting Continues to Rage Across Iraq."
Interested, I clicked the link, and here's how the story begins:
KUWAIT CITY, April 7 -- American forces took control of a major presidential palace on the banks of the Tigris River in Baghdad early this morning in the strongest coalition thrust yet into the city. Explosions thundered and thick smoke covered portions of Baghdad as the Americans entered the city center in the early hours.
Now, at this point I was a little confused. I mean, dang, I knew it was a bad week in Iraq, but I didn't know it was this bad. Then I noticed the picture of Gen. Tommy Franks. Ah.
It was an Iraq story from April 7, 2003. Two thoughts:
- This is the linking error that every Web editor has nightmares of.
- It totally should not have taken me that long to realize it was news from a year ago!
Okay, looks like they fixed the link as I've been typing this. Back to the future! Which eerily resembles the past!
The point didn't need to be argued, but I was trying it anyway. I was attempting to illustrate my point to Robin that tech is the beat of the future -- technology increasingly informs everything we journalists journal, from the environment to foreign policy to ... gay marriage.
Only I was getting stuck on gay marriage. What does technology have to do with gay marriage? I briefly considered making a point about how maybe they'll come up with a way for men to have babies, but I thought better of it.
Fortunately, Snarkmarket-approved blogger and top-notch techie Clive Thompson has a much better imagination than I do -- and a better video game collection. He writes in Slate today about video games featuring same-sex unions.
Having created at least half-a-dozen gay Sims in my day, I'm definitely looking forward to some groom-on-groom action in The Sims 2. Er...
Thompson takes it one step further with a glance at the long, wonderful history of console cross-dressing.
How is it that the average gamer, whom I tend to think of as an adolescent boy (and thus casually homophobic by default), is so open-minded about the sexuality of his pixelated avatar?
File under: Fairy-Tale Marriage, Video Games
April 8, 2004
Eternal Sunshine of Omar Sharif
Matt liked "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," and so did I, but I must note: Like one of the main character's memories, the movie has completely evaporated from my mind. No lingering ideas, no haunting images. Even the day after seeing it, I had only a faint impression of the flick -- which is what I expect from, you know, "Hellboy," but not from a movie that scored 92% on the Tomatometer!
Not so with "Monsieur Ibrahim" (clearly a dud at a mere 89%) which I just saw at the glittering Tampa Theatre. (You know it's high-class when they spell it 'theatre.') A day later, impressions abound: The back alleys of Paris... the whirling dervishes, Sufis that "spin around their hearts"... the whacked-out 60's rock 'n' roll in French... Ibrahim's kindness... and Omar Sharif's grizzled, gap-toothed grin.
April 7, 2004
The Final Flight of Saint-Ex
An underwater salvage team has discovered pieces of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's plane in the Mediterranean.
Saint-Exupéry wrote "The Little Prince," which Agence France-Press calls "one of the best-selling titles on the planet, after the Bible and Marx's Das Kapital." He and his plane disappeared in 1944.
The plane was a P-38 Lightning: a beautiful, almost insectile combat craft.
Here are some Saint-Exupéry quotes. I like this one:
The machine does not isolate us from the great problems of nature but plunges us more deeply into them.
April 6, 2004
Home Sweet Home, 2024
Rob Pegoraro's tour through Microsoft's home of the future reminded me of my own tour through a conceptual future home, lo these many years ago.
It's circa 1990. My sister's in town for the weekend, and my parents tell me to find some suitable family activity for us to undertake. Flipping through the section in the yellow pages that describes all the things one can allegedly do in Orlando, I come across the perfect thing -- a useless only-in-the-land-of-Disney tourist trap created just to beguile naive children into dragging their hapless parents hence ... Xanadu.
When we get there, it's about an hour till closing time. Just as well, because the "tour" of the place only takes about half an hour. Also, I'll probably suffer legitimate emotional damage if I have to spend any more time in that godawful structure. Imagine, if you will, the graphical rendering of an explosion from Final Fantasy II built out of frozen shaving cream.
Xanadu is now an abandoned, molded-out pod in the middle of nowhere, and some urban adventurers have brought it to the Internet for us all to see, as well as giving us some of the building's history:
It was designed by architect Roy Mason. There were three of these built, one in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, one in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and this one in Kissimmee, FL. This is the last remaining house, as the others have been torn down. They were created by inflating large, walk-through balloons and spraying them with foam. After the foam hardened, doors and windows were cut out, and fireproofing and paint applied. The idea was to create a very energy efficient "smart" house controlled by a computer. The end result was something that looked like it came right out of Logan's Run. The place ended up as a tourist attraction and eventually went under as technology developed and it became obsolete. The Kissimmee Xanadu closed in 1996 and was put up for sale. It was used for storage for a while by the owners and still not been sold to this day.
If you do nothing else this year, please take the opportunity to relive a part of my childhood. Watch at least a few minutes of the documentary about Xanadu. You won't regret it.
(By the way, the future is clearly straw houses. You heard it here first.)
Go On, Get Outta Here, Find Somebody You Don't Already Know
Forget the global ultra-computer stuff. It's all about your former college roommates.
I like this blog note by David Weinberger, who was at a social software conference at Microsoft last week:
Shelley Farnham of Microsoft Research talks about the social goals of social software: To have meaningful relationships with friends. Research shows that we use technology primarily to interact with our friends, not strangers. ...
It's so true. If I sort my e-mail messages by sender, it looks like this: Friend X, Friend X, Friend X, Friend X, Friend X, Friend X, Friend X, ... some dude ... Friend Y, Friend Y, Friend Y, Friend Y, Friend Y, Friend Y, etc., etc.
That's sort've a banal observation, but I don't know that it's occurred to me before. I have often thought and spoken of the Web in terms of its ability to weave disparate people together. It's the Global Village, dawg! But the blogs I check most frequently -- and with the greatest interest -- are my friends'.
Steven Johnson, a top-notch science journalist also at the Microsoft conference, is afraid that too many people are behaving like me. Weinberger paraphrases:
Then he talks against the echo chamber idea: The Net is an echo chamber compared to what, he asks incredulously? TV? Even if you just follow bloggers in your general universe of interests, you're still following links out to more diverse ideas than ever before. He points out that the criticism used to be that the Net was nothing but flame wars. Now the criticism is that it's echo chambers. But, he worries, we are creating these social network tools in order to decrease our contact with others.
I'm not really worried. Friends are our primary connection to new ideas and new people. Sure, I get a lot of good stuff from the NYT Mag; but I think I get even more from my friend Penny. And the NYT Mag never introduced me to anybody.
And it's always extra good because Penny knows me, knows what I like -- and not just in a shallow "Robin ... likes ... articles about ... robots" kinda way. Penny knows my sensibility; and that's something only friends -- not super-computers, not magazine editors -- can claim.... Read more ....
The Age of Google
Follow the links in this chain:
Google announces a free e-mail service on April 1. And the joke is, it's not a joke.
How can Google give everybody a free gigabyte? Easy -- a side-effect of having the world's biggest, coolest search engine is that you have the world's biggest, coolest computer. Rich Skrenta expounds:
Google is a company that has built a single very large, custom computer. It's running their own cluster operating system. They make their big computer even bigger and faster each month, while lowering the cost of CPU cycles. It's looking more like a general purpose platform than a cluster optimized for a single application.
While competitors are targeting the individual applications Google has deployed, Google is building a massive, general purpose computing platform for web-scale programming.
This computer is running the world's top search engine, a social networking service, a shopping price comparison engine, a new email service, and a local search/yellow pages engine. What will they do next with the world's biggest computer and most advanced operating system?
But what good is a huge general-purpose computer without general data to purposefully process? Google has that, too. Jason Kottke writes:
So. They have this huge map of the Web and are aware of how people move around in the virtual space it represents. They have the perfect place to store this map (one of the world's largest computers that's all but incapable of crashing). And they are clever at reading this map. Google knows what people write about, what they search for, what they shop for, they know who wants to advertise and how effective those advertisements are, and they're about to know how we communicate with friends and loved ones. What can they do with all that? Just about anything that collection of Ph.Ds can dream up.(His version has all sorts of links and stuff. Check it out.)
And then Kottke, looking forward, asks: "Who needs Windows when anyone can have free unlimited access to the world's fastest computer running the smartest operating system?"
Famously, one of Google's central corporate directives is "Don't be evil." Can a world-spanning ultra-computer that knows all and tells all stick to that credo? Or might computational power corrupt the same way that political power does?
And what about a positive corollary to that rule: "Do good"? Can the power of a Google-sized computer help us solve our real problems?
(Shout-out to Penny for all the links.)
April 5, 2004
Gah! I Can't Handle This!
First it's on, then it's off, then it's on again, now it's off again (maybe)!
Gore TV, why must you torment me so?
(You know you are a huge, huge dork when the ownership of a digital cable channel becomes a quasi-emotional issue.)
April 4, 2004
Clergy vs. the Pledge of Allegiance
You know by now about Michael Newdow, the atheist who issued the legal challenge to the Elk Grove Unified School District, suing to have the words "under God" stricken from the Pledge of Allegiance. You may know that Newdow argued his own case before the Supreme Court of the United States, and apparently did a damn fine job of it.
But that may not even be the most compelling or striking thing about this case. Check out this spectacular amicus brief filed by 32 clergy of various denominations, arguing for Michael Newdow.
Their argument hasn't been entirely unmade by others in the debate over those two words, but nowhere else have I seen it made so forcefully. Part of the school district's argument in this case, and the foundation of the Justices' arguments so far, has been the idea that "under God" is a little bit of "ceremonial deism," that it doesn't actually mean anything, it's just a little nod to history and tradition.
The clergy say that if that's true, if "under God" has no meaning, then school districts are instructing children to take the Lord's name in vain, to violate the Sixth Commandment. It cheapens both patriotism and religion, they argue.
And the brief is not without its healthy share of snark. Marvel at the snark-quotes in this passage:
The United States is creative but unpersuasive in its efforts to imagine other possible meanings for the religious affirmation in the Pledge. It says the Pledge merely "acknowledges" the "historical" and "demographic" facts that the Nation was founded by individuals who believed in God and that most Americans still believe in God. ... But that is plainly not what the Pledge says. Teachers might easily ask children to pledge allegiance to "one Nation, most of whose citizens believe in God," or to "one Nation, founded by a generation that mostly believed in God."
That's some sass.
Anyway, see Leon Wieseltier's New Republic essay on the topic for more.
Another Ask MeFi Moment
First, read the question and try to solve the puzzle (it's pretty easy). Then join the commenters in trying to figure out the code. Then, toward the bottom of the thread, marvel as the code is cracked and revealed.
Open-source, distributed problem-solving. Amazing.
April 2, 2004
A Strong (Shark) Finish
Get it? Fin-ish?
Err, anyway, I can't leave Snarkmarket weighed down with New Yorker links on a Friday afternoon! So here, lookit this:
Apparently, sharks once had legs.
Menand Does McCarthy
As usual, Louis Menand takes a topic I have no special interest in and makes it fascinating. The closing paragraph is really beautifully written:
The vortex of the late nineteen-sixties swallowed up not only Eugene McCarthy. It consumed a whole generation of liberal politicians and radical thinkers and culture heroes, from John Lindsay and Marshall McLuhan to Tom Hayden and Buckminster Fuller -- a long list of "an idea whose time has come" types whose time abruptly ran out. The survivors wandered, as McCarthy did, through the decades that followed, caricatures of their former world-historical selves, like old heavyweight champions working as greeters in casinos. You could say that these people failed; but what would success have looked like? McCarthy was seized by the moment. He deliberately sacrificed his career to stand on ground that no other Democrat had the courage to venture out on. He was entitled, in the decades that followed, to a little resentment.