Your kid does crappy art

My niece Sarah is in town for the week. While we were out eating dinner, her friend Paul mentioned the deranged and wonderfully cranky Maddox site, The Best Page in the Universe. Specifically, we talked about the page I am better than your kids, in which he criticizes the bad artwork of children. Because, you know what? Your five year old can’t draw his way out of a paper bag. It’s hard to argue with the guy. He’s got a lot of good ‘n’ cranky noise up on his site. For an example, see his latest post, poetically entitled “Not sure if you’re an idiot? Play it safe and don’t send me email.”

While we were on our making-fun-of-the-very-young jag, Sarah remembered the old Onion article Study Reveals: Babies are Stupid. Once again, it’s hard to argue the point. Or as the lead for the story says

A surprising new study released Monday by UCLA’s Institute For Child Development revealed that human babies, long thought by psychologists to be highly inquisitive and adaptable, are actually extraordinarily stupid.

Scott Berkun is obsessed with design

A few years ago, my friend Rob (who works at Microsoft) pointed me to the work of Scott Berkun. Up until very recently, Berkun was a sort of in-house evangelist for good UI design at Microsoft. He has lots to say about design at his UIWEB.COM site. There are many web sites out there about web and user interface design, but Berkun seems to be particularly good at dishing out practical advice that you can put right to work. Here’s an essay that caught my eye: How to get the most out of conferences. Anything can be designed and optimized, including how to go to a conference. Is this obsessive or helpful? Maybe both… I found it entertaining, at any rate.

I have always enjoyed asking people how they solve problems that nobody teaches you answers to. How do you read the newspaper? Where do you start and how do you know when you’re done? How do you choose which line to wait in at the grocery store? And this conference question is another good one: how do you like to “do” conferences? Do you float and filter-feed like a jellyfish or attack like a shark? Mary Beth, our usability lead at the MathWorks, likes to focus on a big question for each conference. It gives her a way to start conversations and solve a real problem that’s on her mind. For instance: what is your company doing about online vs. paper documentation? As for Berkun, giving a presentation is highest on his list of things worth doing, and watching a paper session is lowest. It may be better to give than to receive, but if everybody’s talking and nobody’s listening then… hello? Are you still there? Hello?

Give Money to Fight Autism

This is my son Jay. Jay is four years old. He’s very handsome and good-natured. He’s also autistic. He can’t talk, he doesn’t know how to wave goodbye or point, and he pays no attention to the comings and goings of his parents or his little sister. Autism is a brutal disease, and it costs a ton of money to treat and manage (in general it is incurable). Even if you don’t know anybody with an autistic family member, you can be sure that working to prevent and cure it is a wise investment.

My writing here doesn’t generally get very personal, but I am making a direct appeal today. Later next month (September 20th), there will be a fund-raising walk here in Boston to support autism research. All proceeds will go to the National Alliance for Autism Research. If you are within the sound of my voice, please consider sending me a check for Jay’s team. If you’re thinking “well, maybe, but I don’t know how much to give” then do this: make a $20 check out to NAAR and mail it to

Jay’s Team
11 Belknap Terrace
Watertown, MA 02472

I will thank you on behalf of Jay and his whole family.

(If you want to know a little more about Jay, you might want to read this essay that I wrote soon after his diagnosis two years ago)

Some like it hot, some like it cold

Scientists working with Strain 121, a heat-loving bacterium that lives deep in the ocean, recently revealed that it can not just live but thrive at 121 degrees Celsius. That’s 250 degrees Fahrenheit to you and me, or the temperature of a working autoclave that’s designed to sterilize medical equipment. These little guys don’t even break a sweat in boiling water.

At the same time, researchers in Antarctica have uncovered a cold-loving bacterium that lives at the bottom of an oxygen-starved lake in that coldest of continents, a place that never rises above a balmy 33 degrees Fahrenheit (see Extremophiles, Antarctica, and Extraterrestrial Life on the GNN site). Together, these hot and cold bugs are grouped under the label “extremophiles,” but nobody really asked them what they think of that name. It’s not clear they’re happy about where they live, for one thing. Anyway, I have it on good authority that they refer to us as “boring-ophiles.” The GNN article ends on this intriguing note.

Other research suggests that some methanogens could survive life on Mars. Scientists at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville have grown methanogens in Mars-like soil and under Mars-like conditions.

Actually, I’m pretty impressed that they can live in Fayetteville, Arkansas, but that’s another story. I am convinced that there’s already life on Mars, because we’ve sent it there. The Viking and Pathfinder landers could not possibly have been completely sterile when launched, and who knows what stowaways might have survived the journey? I like to picture our brawny earthling bacteria hopping off the lander and throttling their pale, scrawny Martian counterparts. It would be great to find a thriving colony of our own bacterial brethren when we finally arrive in force on Mars. Who knows… they might even be holding little banners emblazoned with the words “Welcome Boring-ophiles!”

See Rhon’s Studio

My friend Rhon has been working on his web site for a year or more, I think. He’s a graphic designer at our company, and a serious perfectionist, so I guess that’s to be expected. Check out his new site: Rhon Porter Studio Design. A lot of it is STILL under construction, but the illustrations he posted are really impressive.

When I ask Rhon about design sites that he goes to, one that he recommended was Design Is Kinky. Apparently they regularly feature work by lots of different artists, but the real churn is on the mugshots page where you can submit a picture of yourself and a link to your [portfolio/design] site. It’s a good example of how the web levels the playing field, but also makes the world more competitive. You’d look pretty lame if your mugshot appeared, but your site was really crappy. Most of the sites are pretty good, though, if a little cryptic in that what-the-hell’s-going-on-with-this-weird-Flash-animation kind of way. So many people!

Elvish fonts

I was a serious Tolkien geek as a boy. Around sixth grade I taught myself the Elvish writing that Tolkien invented for the Lord of the Rings. In fact, he created both a language and a character set; these characters, you may recall, decorate the One Ring.

If you don’t mess with the actual Elvish language, you can just use the beautiful characters to spell out English words. It’s not that hard, but there are a few tricky bits to work out, so if you’re a sixth grade Tolkien geek you can feel pretty darn self-satisfied. It’s also turned out to be a useful life skill to have a private code in which to take notes. I never forgot my Elvish writing skills (that’s my name to the left) and still use them to this day. My graduate school notebooks, for example, were littered with sloppily lettered Elvish declarations like “I am so sleepy,” and “please let this class end soon.” Top secret stuff like that. Also, chicks dig it when you write their name in Elvish.

Given all this, I was pleased to see that someone has gone to the trouble of making an Elvish font called Tengwar. Now if you’re itching to write your own powerful ring inscriptions, you know where to start.

Potter’s Curiosities in Peril!

Some months ago I described an unusual museum in England put together originally by the slightly mad Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter. Potter’s strange Museum of Curiosities apparently is in grave danger of being liquidated and may go under the gavel this fall if nothing is done. Apparently the inn needs more space for rooms. A gentleman named Richard Taylor posted a message to this site pleading for help and directing us to the
Campaign to Save Mr Potter’s Museum of Curiosities site. Eccentricity is rare in this world and should be preserved. If this museum is sold in small lots at auction, the individual pieces will remain, but the eccentricity will be smashed into oblivion. As Taylor points out on the campaign site…

On its own, a “box containing early Australian travelling salesman’s gin sample bottles” might be of marginal interest. But next to the “shoes worn by Charles Wykeham-Martin MP at Queen Victoria’s fancy dress ball 1845” and “a deformed perch” – it’s extraordinary!

Take a look at this exhaustive inventory of unusual loot and ask yourself where else could I go to see stuffed rats playing dominoes, smoking, and being raided by police? Want to help? If so, go here:

Vaccine shortcuts

Making vaccines is a bad business. If you do your job well, your healthy customers may suspect that they didn’t really need that shot in the first place. And there are multiple ways to screw up: the vaccine might be ineffective, or it might cause an adverse reaction, opening you up to expensive legal attack. Then there are the business complications. If it surfaces that you developed a vaccine, but didn’t make it available for reasons of profitability, you will be pilloried by press and politicians. Altogether, the downside tends to outweigh the upside, so vaccine research hasn’t always been well-funded or hotly pursued.

Some recent research with the Ebola virus is very encouraging, though, and signifies the rise of the genomic approach to medicine. Viruses are recognized in our bodies by their surface coating. Suppose we just take a gene that codes for part of the coat of a disease-causing virus and stick that in another harmless virus? Then the harmless virus can be used to instruct the body about the evil one, just as the sheriff might wave an escaped convict’s shirt under a bloodhound’s nose. Sic ‘im, boy! Neat trick, eh? Read about it here: Fast vaccine offers hope in battle with Ebola. Here’s another good summary courtesy of Corante: But Did They Get A Cold?

All the kids are doing it

Hey, check it out: blog fever is running rampant at work. With increased media coverage about how Google and AOL are taking blogging to the masses, now even the people who have zero interest in blogs at least know what the word means (more or less). Kristin and Mike now have blogs (Snowboard Girl and Mike’s Blog, respectively), and they’ve linked to some other folks I know. Of course Matt has been blogging for some time now, and Kim is a Live Journalist from way back.

It’s interesting to see each person’s approach to the question “what the hell will I write about?” Live Journal steers people, naturally enough, in the direction of a dear-diary kind of journal. Blogs can swing both ways: “My car broke down again this afternoon” or “Christopher Hitchens thinks Ariel Sharon is a butthead, and I couldn’t agree more.” Predictably, women are more willing to share personal details than men. Regardless of gender, I’m often surprised at the things people are willing to share online… I learn things in five minutes that I wouldn’t learn in five years’ worth of work conversations. For the most part this is charming and a good antidote to the closed countenance we generally show the world. But the real test of a blogger is: will you keep it up? It reminds me of a quote by Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad.

At certain periods it becomes the dearest ambition of a man to keep a faithful record of his performances in a book; and he dashes at this work with an enthusiasm that imposes on him the notion that keeping a journal is the veriest pastime in the world, and the pleasantest. But if he only lives twenty-one days, he will find out that only those rare natures that are made up of pluck, endurance, devotion to duty for duty’s sake, and invincible determination may hope to venture upon so tremendous an enterprise as the keeping of a journal and not sustain a shameful defeat … If you wish to inflict a heartless and malignant punishment upon a young person, pledge him to keep a journal a year.

Smart Mobs Happen

I’ve been working my way through Howard Rheingold’s timely book Smart Mobs, wherein he talks about the new and transformative properties of crowds that are in constant communication by mobile phones and other such devices. This new technology gives heretofore amorphous crowds a robust nervous system, allowing them to precipitate from the clear blue sky, strike like a fist, and then dissipate again. Rheingold likes telling the story from the point of view of smart crowd activists unseating the government in the Philippines. But Americans seem to prefer zany crowd stunts. Here’s a good article that Nabeel sent along about a flash mob in Texas: Stunts involving ‘mob’ silliness latest e-mail craze. Look for flash mobs appearing (and then quickly dissolving) near you. The overall effect is surprisingly similar to the life cycle of a cellular slime mold, in which lonely amoebas congregate, form a slug-like party on wheels, and then dissolve in a dusty sprinkling of lonely spores. That’s progress for you.