If it worked, I would look like beef jerky

This is brilliant. How do you raise awareness for a common, but boring health danger? Put up a hoax website that appeals to people’s vanity. And just wait for the suckers to sign up.

A new technology that harnesses the rays of a computer screen to give office workers a tan while they type was today revealed as a charity hoax, after 30,000 people visited the ComputerTan website in 24 hours to register their interest.

The aim of the campaign, […] is to make British people more aware of the damage that tanning and sunbathing may be doing to their bodies.

via Over 30,000 people fall for ComputerTan hoax

Where’s my eight-track?

Just when did Compact Disc players disappear?

Sure, I know that kids these days don’t buy CDs anymore. In fact, they won’t even accept them as gifts!
“Gee, thanks for that shiny plastic platter, Gramps. I’ll keep it with the writing paper you gave me last year.”

But it was a real shock over the holidays to find out that you can’t even buy a CD player in stores. I was visiting my parents in Canada. They had a ten year old CD player attached to their stereo receiver. Remember those? The kind that doesn’t come with earbuds or an iPod dock? Anyway, the player went all Theremin on me – generating otherworldly noises when I waved my hands above the unit.

Like the helpful son I am, I volunteered to go buy them a new CD player, and install it for them. “Should only cost 30 or 40 bucks”, I assured them. “A bit more if you want a multi-disc player”.

The first sign of trouble was when I consulted Amazon for some quick product reviews. Sure, they list CD players in their electronics section. And you can find cheap portable CD players, or integrated compact stereo systems, or extremely expensive high-end audiophile players. But you can’t buy basic single disc players.  Unless you want to try eBay.

So off I went to the local mall. In an ice-storm. And this was just after Boxing Day – the busiest shopping day of the year. The big-box stores were still mobbed with bargain hunters, and looked like New Orleans convenience stores after looting. But they hadn’t sold out of CD players. They just never had any. And the retail drones just looked at me with disdain. “Maybe you should get them an iPod instead”.

No, this is my parents we’re talking about. They’re not exactly cutting-edge. They value ease of use, and consistency. My mom is still using a 20-year old coffee maker. And a film camera for gosh sakes.

After going through four stores, I finally found a reasonable alternative. I bought them a small Sony DVD player. Sure it had component video outputs and upscaling, which we’ll never need. But it had stereo audio output, and a nice bright LED display.

I brought it home and hooked it up to their old system. Hopefully this one will last until the next big consumer electronics revolution. And in the meantime, they can still listen to Billie Holiday. I just hope their turntable doesn’t break down next.

Come upstairs to look at my code fragments

Adam over at derwiki talks about the beauty and creative process of programming. Why, he asks, do we say someone could have a passion for painting, or a photography hobby, but not be driven to program in their spare time?

A well designed component or architecture has elegance and sophistication; simplicity yet robustness. You step back, look at the code, say “Damn, that’s gorgeous”, and you know when you’ve created beauty instead of just hacking out a quick fix. This element of beauty is something that I’ve found lacking in a lot of code and with a lot of programmers. Too often programming is treated like a boring job of necessity than the passionate job of creativity that it can be.

Researching the spam economy

An amazing experiment to map the spam economy – by hijacking 75,000 computers in Storm Worm’s botnet! Surprisingly, researchers estimate that spam campaigns still earn a profit, even at a response rate less than 1 in 107!

Researchers Hijack Storm Worm to Track Profits

A single response from 12 million e-mails is all it takes for spammers to turn annual profits of millions of dollars promoting knockoff pharmaceuticals, according to an unprecedented new study on the economics of spam.

The research team estimates that about three-quarters of all e-mail sent by the Storm worm was snagged by junk e-mail filters, ISP blacklists, and other e-mail security applications.

“Under the assumption that our measurements are representative over time, we can extrapolate that… Storm-generated pharmaceutical spam would produce roughly $3.5 million dollars of revenue a year,” the team concluded.

“By the same logic, we estimate that Storm self-propagation campaigns can produce between 3,500 and 8,500 new bots per day.”

I’m So Totally, Digitally Close to You

Clive Thompson has written a very interesting piece for the NYT magazine about how social networking has changed people’s relationships to friends and acquaintances: I’m So Totally, Digitally Close to You.

There’s a lot of good stuff in this article – Thompson actually makes the best case for micro-blogging services like Twitter that I’ve ever seen.

Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting.

The article says that even with all this technology, people still can only really keep track of so many close friends – our “Dunbar number”. Social network users say that their relationships to those close friends have become deeper and richer as a result of these tools. And they’ve also greatly really increased the number of “weak ties” to loose acquaintances that they can call on from time to time.

The flip side of the coin is that most kids these days have no choice but to participate in social networks. They’re living in the equivalent of a small town, where everyone is talking about everyone else. If you don’t make a regular appearance, and try to express yourself, others will define you against your will.

“You know that old cartoon? ‘On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog’? On the Internet today, everybody knows you’re a dog! If you don’t want people to know you’re a dog, you’d better stay away from a keyboard.”

Of course, people often act far worse online than they would ever behave in person. We see that in email discussions and message boards. That additional degree of separation allows people to act without considering the consequences. And when those actions are broadcast for all to read, it can really be destructive. Just imagine if people behaved in person like they do on Facebook.

The Future Is So Yesterday

The Washington Post reviews Disney’s Tomorrowland in Anaheim: The Future Is So Yesterday.
They’ve updated a bit since it opened in 1955. But some things are reassuringly retro.

What’s interesting about Tomorrowland’s newest future is its focus on what doesn’t change. This Dream Home future at 360 Tomorrowland Way in Disney’s original California park is intentionally reassuring. The cast evokes a multigenerational intact nuclear family, the Eliases, which includes one daughter (“Princess”) and two sons and two vigorous grandparents who live so close as to routinely drop by. This future has the sound of crickets outside the front door, and a light breeze forever blowing through its flowering vines. This future, in Dad’s room, has Lionel trains.

Of course, the future in this house-of-the-future has plenty of whiz-bang gizmos, but most of them are already on the market. If you want a drink of water, the kitchen sink is a kick. It is controlled by a joystick. Hit the trigger button on top, and — vooop– a curved chrome spout slides up and forward like a snake from where it has been hiding in its cabinet. […] Arguably the most futuristic item is the mock-up of an affordable “fab lab.” It effectively is a printer — industrial versions of which exist — that takes objects you design on the computer and manufactures them in three dimensions. Since one of the Home’s sponsors is Microsoft, we also know the future has Windows crashes. “Photo Browser 2 has stopped working. Windows can check online for a solution to the problem,” proclaims the study’s screen-topped table during a recent visit.

It’s nostalgic and a bit sad to look now at theme park visions of the future. But Danny Hillis, computer pioneer, former Disney fellow, and Long Now founder, thinks Disney is giving people what they need with this retro view.

“It was very surprising to me, getting to the future, that nobody was all that interested. Things just started to happen so fast, we were overwhelmed. With the microchip, we stopped being able to imagine the future — we had so much trouble handling what was being brought out in the present.

“The second thing, everyone was imagining the future was about universal prosperity — kids being much better off materially than they were. To see that attitude today, you have to go to China and India. They are very future-oriented. The Chinese are sort of the way we were in the ’60s. Everything’s going to get better. There will be glitches, but we’ll overcome them by progress and effort.

“We are future overwhelmed. I don’t think people try to imagine the year 2050 the way we imagined 2001 in 1960. Because they can’t imagine it. Because technology is happening so fast, we can’t extrapolate. And if they do, it’s not a very positive thing to imagine. It’s about a lot of the unwanted side effects catching up to us — like global ecological disaster. […]

“What I think it says is that we are nostalgic for a time when we believed in the future. People miss the future. There’s a yearning for it. Disney does know what people want. People want to feel some connectedness to the future. The way Disney delivers that is to reach back in time a little bit to the past when they did feel connected.

“It’s a bit of a cop-out. There was a time when the future was streamlined jet cars. Rather than create a new sense of the future, they say, ‘Ah, remember when we believed that the future was streamlined jet cars?’ It’s a feeling of connection to the future, rather than connection to the future.

“It’s a core ache. Something is missing that we’re searching for.”

Paying for your right to TV

An article in Popular Mechanics estimates the cost of the upcoming transition to digital TV in the US: Digital Television Transition Funding – Do Americans Have a Right to TV?

The federal government is spending about $1.5 billion of taxpayer’s money on education and incentives.  Is this really how we want to be spending money from the sale of public spectrum?

Just for comparison, the proposed 2009 federal budget for adult literacy education is just $575 million.

Don’t invite her – she’s so … MySpace

Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace

Class divisions in the United States have more to do with social networks, social capital, cultural
capital, and attitudes than income. Not surprisingly, other demographics typically discussed in class terms are also a part of this lifestyle division. Social networks are strongly connected togeography, race, and religion; these are also huge factors in lifestyle divisions and thus “class.”The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other “good” kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college. They are part of what we’d call hegemonic society. They are primarily white, but not exclusively. They are in honors classes, looking forward to the prom, and live in a world dictated by after school activities.

MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, “burnouts,” “alternative kids,” “art fags,” punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn’t play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm. These are kids whose parents didn’t go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school. These are the teens who plan to go into the military immediately after schools. Teens who are really into music or in a band are also on MySpace. MySpace has most of the kids who are socially ostracized at school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers.

A month ago, the military banned MySpace but not Facebook. This was a very interesting move because the division in the military reflects the division in high schools. Soldiers are on MySpace; officers are on Facebook.