Back to the bazaar

I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time at the mall this Christmas season, and I’ve been amazed to see how many little knickknack stands, kiosks, and wagons there are in the main concourse these days. There seem to be at least five different cellphone booths (do they all make money?), several devoted to Beanie Babies, and various “put your smudgy digitized picture on a t-shirt/bib/necktie/cap” counters. More disturbing than this is the fact that now I regularly get accosted by these people who want to sell me mobile phone plans, back massage widgets, and flapping-wing airplanes. It’s as if our commercial culture has come full circle from the old noisy high street market to a quiet climate-controlled mall back to a noisy high street market.

It’s easy enough to see the economic incentive for the mall: that space is going to waste otherwise. Why not turn it into cash? I found a good article about this phenomenon in a Knoxville newspaper: Temporary retailers becoming holiday fixture. According to the article, rent for one of these wagons (in Tennessee) can run as high as $6000 per month (and if you want, I can set you up with a can’t-miss espresso cart for a bargain $12,999!).

From the mall’s point of view, it looks like a good deal. From my point of view, it feels like I’m applying lessons I’ve learned in the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Mexico: how do you avoid aggressive crap vendors without ruining your mood? I’m trying to think of it as a little tropical vacation in the middle of a New England winter.

Demagnetized Earth?

NOVA recently did a show on the Earth’s magnetic field that is pretty sensationalistic, as science reporting goes. It turns out that the field is plummeting like a figurative rock, and that given present rates of decline it could drop away to zero within a dozen centuries or so. Zero magnetic field… is that a bad thing or a good thing? It’s a bad thing. Some scientists speculate that Mars was a reasonable place to hang out and swim in the ocean until it lost its magnetic field. Once magnetically denuded, the undeflected solar wind blew away all that life-giving water. A solar storm for us now just leads to pretty auroras in the arctic sky, but in the not too distant future (relatively speaking) it might be a scorching harbinger of planetary death.

It’s bad enough that we’ve gotten used to hearing about the sun vaporizing the Earth, say, ten billion years from now. Now we might fry up like a fritter in mere millennia. Fortunately, there’s another possibility: the magnetic field might just be swapping directions. A somewhat more sanguine NY Times article on the same topic bears a hopeful title: Magnetic Field Is Fading, but No Dire Effects Are Foreseen. Whew! I was starting to get worried.

Mondo funky

Ever wonder where the word mondo comes from? As used in a phrase like “a mondo party” or the old magazine title Mondo 2000, it has connotations of bigness and hipness and weirdness. It gets used precisely because of its imprecise implication of coolness. Brandish it with a swagger and nobody will challenge you, being thereby intimidated by the Louis Armstrong principle: “Man, if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know.” Of course, the word mondo is Italian for world, but how far does that get you? Why does the Italian word for world mean big and weird in English? The answer comes from the wildly successful 1962 mondo movie, Mondo Cane, or A Dog’s World, sometimes called the very first shockumentary. Old hat now, but wildly outrageous at the time. Here’s a good NY Times article about it:
Dispatches From a World Gone Wonderfully Wrong.

Pop culture words implying coolness are famously difficult to pin down. My favorite is funky. Try to explain to a foreigner just exactly what funky means. You can’t do it. But you can happily use it in a sentence. How does that work? Here’s a lovely quote from about the word history of funky.

When asked which words in the English language are the most difficult to define precisely, a lexicographer would surely mention funky. Linguist Geneva Smitherman has tried to capture the meaning of this word in Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America, where she explains that funky means “[related to] the blue notes or blue mood created in jazz, blues, and soul music generally, down-to-earth soulfully expressed sounds; by extension [related to] the real nitty-gritty or fundamental essence of life, soul to the max.” The first recorded use of funky is in 1784 in a reference to musty, old, moldy cheese. Funky then developed the sense “smelling strong or bad” and could be used to describe body odor. The application of funky to jazz was explained in 1959 by one F. Newton in Jazz Scene: “Critics are on the search for something a little more like the old, original, passion-laden blues: the trade-name which has been suggested for it is ‘funky’ (literally: ‘smelly,’ i.e. symbolizing the return from the upper atmosphere to the physical, down-to-earth reality).”

The Star Chamber ProseCam

Webcams are now passé. Anybody can install a camera pointing at a ski slope or a bored coed (or a bored naked ersatz coed). But if a picture is worth a thousand words, we can agree at least that more work is required to paint a prose picture of what’s going on in front of the computer. In fact, the Rambles Weblog (actually, its Star Chamber parent organization) owns a Texas Instruments TI-2100 ProseCam. Take a look at these scenes captured on the ProseCam. The latest models are apparently much more lyrical… our 2100 is already a few years old now. TI is planning to introduce a TI-5000 PoetryCam next spring (see Gizmodo), but I heard they’re having big problems integrating the Taiwanese scansion unit. (You may have seen the HaikuCam for sale at Spencer Gifts; it’s a joke and should be avoided.)

The Tamagotchi effect

Do you have an emotional response to your car keys?

A few years ago I bought a new car with one of those nifty keychains that magically unlocks the car when you push a button. Everybody has them now; I was just a late adopter. I assumed that it would be an added convenience, and it was. What surprised me was that using this little wireless gadget would have a noticeable emotional component as well.

Let’s say that, after a long day, I am walking across a cold dark parking lot towards my car. I reach into my pocket as my car comes into view, and I push the little button that unlocks the car. When it flashes its lights and opens its doors for me, I am pleased. And if I’m relatively far away when it “catches sight of me,” so much the better. It’s just like a dog wagging its tail because it’s happy to see me. On the other hand, if the battery is running out and it stops working reliably, it feels just like rejection. The question of a spurned lover forms in my head: “You would make me use the key?”

Years ago the first Tamagotchi virtual pets appeared. They were laughably primitive, and yet they were a pop culture phenomenon. Some people, mostly girls, had a genuine emotional response to these chunky LCD glyphs. Since then, virtual pets have grown vastly more capable and more subtle as well. The emotional attachment that people have to them has grown correspondingly. Aibo the dog is treated as a member of the family. Here’s a good quote from a Mindjack article called Building Emotional Machines.

Aibo’s proud owners dress up their puppies (although this is not recommended by Sony) and teach them personalized tricks that help them develop their own personality. The connection between owners and their pets is so strong and personal, that at one Aibo get-together, owners were able to distinguish their pets from other Aibo dogs.

Expect lots more where this came from. Maybe my next car will run circles around me excitedly when I push the “unlock” button. Is this all good or bad? It’s hard to say, but I know for certain that I would never in a million years have similar feelings about opening a car with a key. If the key didn’t work, I would curse the key, but in no sense would I feel rejected. It’s funny; every time my car opens its door for me, it’s because I pushed a button. I understand the physics. I know how the engineering works. And still, somewhere deep in my limbic system, I think to myself: Oh good! It still loves me.

The earliest sunset

Living at 42 degrees north latitude (Boston, Massachusetts) I am jealous of the winter sunshine. I am sorry to see it depart and I am happy to see it return. If you’re like me and you live at a similar latitude, you’ll be glad to know that today is the earliest sunset. In Boston on December 9th, the sun sets at 4:11:32 PM. On December 10th, it sets exactly two seconds later, and on the 11th it sets a further four seconds later still.

But wait! Isn’t December 21st the shortest day? Yes it is, but because of some astronomical fudge factors, the latest sunrise, earliest sunset, and shortest day do not occur on the same day. The latest sunrise occurs on January 3rd. The fudge factor that throws things off comes from the fact the length of a single day is a surprisingly complicated notion. As Bertrand Russell said, “Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize until you have tried to make it precise.” The length of a day was originally defined as the time from one noon (when the sun reaches its zenith in the sky) to the next. But this definition gives a different length of day depending on where you are on the planet, what season it is, and where the earth is in its elliptical orbit around the sun. To keep our clocks regular and responsible, we have defined a uniform “mean tropical day” in which we imagine a fictional sun passing overhead everyday at exactly 12 PM. But the real sun isn’t typically overhead then. Sometimes it is ahead of and sometimes it’s behind this fictional sun. This variance in the occurrence of sundial noon and wristwatch noon is called the equation of time. If you’re curious about the astronomical details, be sure and check out Bob Urschel’s amazing Analemma pages. If, like me, you enjoy knowing when the sunsets will start getting later for you, download the SunGraph program from the same site.

Digital sundials

I like sundials. There’s something primal about how they turn time back into a personal relationship between you and the sun. Everything has been so thoroughly digitized and stylized these days, it’s easy to forget where our basic notions of time come from. So it is both cool and oddly disturbing to see that someone has built a digital sundial. There are no moving parts or electricity. Just set it up and off you go.

The basic idea is straightforward: as the sun moves through the sky, its rays form a slightly different angle with the ground minute by minute. Imagine standing at the bottom of a deep well and seeing the sun pass overhead and then disappear within a few minutes. You can think of a tiny narrow channel carved into a plate of metal as something like a well, but it is also like a pixel that will only light up at a certain time of day. Now it’s a simple step to build a clock image out of an array of well-tuned sunlight pixels. Read the patent to see how it works in detail, if you like. Also, don’t miss the pretty pictures.

You know, it is close to Christmas.

Iron Man novelizing

Here’s one that’s been around for a while, but I only heard about it this week: NaNoWriMo. What is it? NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, of course, but it’s already over. Every November 1st since 1999, a bunch of well-intentioned would-be writers give themselves 30 days to write a 50,000 word minimum (around 175 page) novel. I hear you saying “Word count!? That’s all there is to it? Just come up with 50,000 words and you’re a winner?” Well, yes, that IS all there is to it, but then again, it’s not like you win a big cash prize. What you win is a purple “WINNER” label next to your name and the warm glow of satisfaction. But people take it pretty seriously all the same, and the results are posted online. Wanna read some novels? Here are several hundred to choose from.

I was impressed with the guidelines for the site. Do you think bad prose will be the result of a 50,000 word forced march? So do they:

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly. Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.

If your end result is too dreadful to contemplate, perhaps you should sign up for (wait for it) … NaNoEdMo: National Novel Editing Month.

Calvin and Hobbes über alles

What does an artist owe you? Bill Watterson spent ten years drawing the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, and then he abruptly stopped. Do you deserve more from him? What does it mean for someone to sell out? Watterson steadfastly refuses to cash in his creation with anything other than sales of books of the strip itself, despite the fact that he’s sitting on a potential gold mine. No other comics artist has a problem with paraphernalia sales. Do you respect Watterson more now that you know this, or does it really matter?

Ultimately, your opinion doesn’t matter to Bill Watterson. He’s disappeared from sight. Here’s an investigative report from scenic Chagrin Falls, Ohio in which the author tries (unsuccessfully) to track down Bill Watterson: | Missing! Bill Watterson.
It sounds like the father of Calvin and Hobbes has checked out for good and is on the verge of a Salinger-like crackup. His intentions sound noble but… what happens if you start to think that “selling out” means any interaction with other human beings? First you don’t want to be the media’s whore, then you won’t be anyone’s whore, then you stop shaking hands. We’re all selling out all the time. Stop selling out and you stop living. Saints and fascists occasionally impress, but mostly they’re really really boring. [via MetaFilter]