Enhance button solves crime

One of the standard scenes in science fiction movies and TV shows is the image enhancing scene.

PROTAGONIST (furrowing brow): “Computer, zoom to grid 24 14 and enhance.”

Like all good screenplay tropes, it has its own page on the TV Tropes site.

My friend Steve, who has an image processing blog, wrote about the phenomenon here and the follow-up comments suggested a raft of funny scenes. Image processing guys, as you can imagine, love this stuff. And here’s a video montage of “enhance scenes”:

I’m telling you this to set up this excellent real life story. Gizmodo posted this recently: Accidental Photobomb Leads to Bag Thief’s Capture. I like to flip between the two pictures while saying “Computer, enhance” in an English accent.

Mr. Hookworm saves the day!

I’ve written before about the hygiene hypothesis (here and here). To recap: filth is bad except when it’s good. We seem to be discovering a lengthening list of diseases that either didn’t exist or were quite rare back when squalor was mankind’s boon companion. And now that we’ve cleaned up our collective act, autoimmune diseases from asthma to Inflammatory Bowel Disease are billowing like mushroom clouds. When people blame the environment for their ills, they are usually thinking of pollution. Big joke on us to to learn that the problem is pollution’s mirror image. Savage Clean.

Your immune system is a powerful and high-strung jungle cat. It likes nothing better than to rip into its hapless prey. But it’s not in the jungle anymore. Pacing back and forth in its scrubbed little modern cell, it is impatient for action. But nothing ever happens. Pacing, pacing back and forth, back and forth. Eyes darting, nostrils flaring. It hates the smell of disinfectant, and so help me, if they don’t turn off this goddamned Muzak, somebody’s going to get hurt.

So it goes.

I used to think of the hygiene hypothesis as a quirky story, but it’s gone mainstream, gaining tremendous media play in the past few months. Here’s the Wall Street Journal bouncing some commentary off the movie Babies.


But the best story of all, and the one I recommend most highly, is this
Radiolab episode on parasites. One of the pieces is about a man with debilitating allergies who decides to give himself hookworm in the hope that it will cure him. How does he do this? After all, you can’t just buy hookworms online. Instead, he flies to the smelliest part of Africa and walks around barefoot in other people’s poop. It worked: he got hookworm, and he lost his allergies. You might say that he gave his caged panther a chew toy, and everybody was better off for it.

The coda to this story is that hygiene hypothesis has taken off so quickly that now you can buy hookworms online. Well, actually you have to fly to Mexico to pick them up, but WormTherapy.com will sell you live hookworm eggs so that you can effect your own “helminth induced immune modulation.” My favorite sterilized clinical language on the site reads as follows: “Hookworm ova are collected from a known source.” I.e., “we poke through the poop of our prized hookworm host.”

You know, one of these days we’re going to discover that squeaky-clean prose is bad for the brain.

Hanging around in Cambridge: More parkour

Via Jon’s Twitter feed, I came across this gem.

By now you’ve seen many parkour videos. The novelty has worn off. You’re ready to move on. But wait! Look at this one. It’s a nicely edited little film, the music is fun, and the skills on display are remarkable. The two protagonists have obviously practiced so much on these few buildings, I kept thinking they must have made some enemies, or at least seriously annoyed, some of the occupants.

Xtranormal videos: Automated deadpan

A couple of months ago, Best Buy employee Brian Maupin ended up in hot water for making a video about someone trying to buy an iPhone. He got in trouble (and was briefly suspended) because his video makes fun of obsessive iPhone fans. Here it is:

I find a couple of things interesting here:

1. The deadpan delivery of the actors is the main thing that makes it funny.
2. There are no actors.

This video, created on a site called Xtranormal, takes your script and turns it directly into a cartoon complete with computerized voices for the animated characters. It seems like a horribly cheesy effect, but I think they’re onto something big here. The animation compels you to watch and listen. If it were just a naked script, you would be unlikely to read the whole thing. So the animation places a critical role, BUT improving technology means the animation is essentially free.

Put it all together, and I’m guessing we’re going to see a lot more of these little movies, and others like it. And sure enough, just yesterday I came across this video about the lame efforts of a film maker to “hire” a sound man for free. The format is similar to the iPhone video above: clueless loser won’t listen to informed hipster. Ironical slacker sarcasm, it would seem, is a good fit for monotone mechanical deadpan. And it really is ironic that this ultra-cheap video is itself about a guy who is trying to make a movie on the cheap.

Calvin & Hobbes Search Engine

This is a wonderful tool, but my advice is to take advantage of it quickly before the lawyers make it vanish. It’s a Calvin & Hobbes Search Engine. Type in a word and find all the Calvin & Hobbes strips that match. I remember the glory days, back when it was still in the papers. It’s fun to look up specific strips that I can still recall. For instance, a search for bridge brings up this classic dialogue.

“How do they know the load limit on bridges Dad?”
“They drive bigger and bigger trucks over the bridge until it breaks. Then they weigh the last truck and rebuild the bridge.”
“Oh. I should’ve guessed.”

How about all the strips with Susie Derkins? I like the one where she convinces Calvin that a snowball has knocked out one of her eyeballs. The search term “cannonball” brings up this great splash attack. There’s Spaceman Spiff, Calvinball, and the best dancing tiger artwork you will ever see.

Oh Lordy, stop me now. Like I said, go enjoy it before it’s gone. What are your favorites?

Happiness = stuff, discuss

Here’s a NY Times piece on the much-discussed topic of happiness studies: Consumers Find Ways to Spend Less and Find Happiness. It starts off with a heart-warming vignette about a woman who reduces her personal belongings to a toothbrush and one shoe, discovering nirvana thereby. Perhaps I exaggerate, but she does get rid of a lot of stuff, and her story gives me the opportunity to tell you about the excellent Freecycle.

You probably already know that you could sell some of the crap in your basement on eBay. I would even say you can sell a surprising amount of it, considering how crappy that stuff in your basement is. But there’s a problem. You have to do a lot of work to make a listing on eBay, and you have to worry about your reputation, and really, you might as well just leave all that crap in the basement. PLEASE NOTE: I know it’s not actually hard to sell stuff on eBay. But if you’re as lazy as I am, it feels that way.

Freecycle is a simple concept wrapped around 5000 or so affiliated Yahoo Groups, each based in a different location. It’s like Craiglist for free stuff. What you do is describe what you want to be rid of, and someone shows up and takes it away. No money changes hands. Say, for example, you lived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and you wanted to get rid of your Patagonian Donkey Harmonica. You would end up on this page, join the group, and post a message with the words: “OFFER: Patagonian Donkey Harmonica.” And, here’s the really great part, someone will come and take it off your hands.

I’ve got too much stuff in my house. It’s not very valuable, and I can’t be bothered to sell it anyway. It makes me feel really good to get rid of something and know that it’s doing somebody else some good. We use it all the time. It’s particularly good for moving kid-related stuff out the front door once your kids are done with it. There’s no eBay reputation to manage, but you get plenty of soul-enriching karma and a cleaner basement. I call that win-win.

Old Color Photographs: America 1939-1943

Those people, the ones who lived back then, the ones who made us, what did the world look like to them? When I hear old family stories, I make pictures in my mind, but the details are so fuzzy. I want to look into those faces. How did they hold themselves? What did their clothes look like? Their dinner tables?

A good photo archive will reveal a lot, but most of the pictures from the 30s and 40s are black and white. Perfectly good stuff, but it doesn’t smack you in the face the way color does. Look at this spectacular color photo archive at the Denver Post: America in Color from 1939-1943. There are a lot of resonances for me here. My dad worked in a train yard and later served in the Army Air Corps. I live in Massachusetts now. I like the ads above the singing children. I remember seeing the last of these sideshow barkers back in the 70s (I might have even seen one of those very posters).

But mostly I like looking into those faces.

(via Steve Crandall)

Meta Consumption

When I was in high school, way back last century, there was a brief nationwide infatuation with generic food. Long stretches of shelf space at our local Kroger’s were devoted to yellow cans with plain text labels. You want sweet peas? Get the big yellow can labeled “sweet peas”. You want beer? Grab a yellow six pack of … “beer”. The price was low, which was the whole idea, but the idea that there was “no” packaging design always struck me as funny. After all, no-design is a design. Just look at the differentiation among these generics.

A similar attempt at generic no-design these days might be outed as ironical knowingness. In fact, I don’t know how you’d do generic packaging anymore. That’s why WalMart and Sam’s Club carry name brands these days. Everything’s cheap, and they might as well be generics. It all sorta runs together.

Via Twitter I recently came across this post, in which the author observed the impulse purchase items near the register were labeled “Impulse Items: Small $1.99 Large $4.99”. That’s either refreshingly honest or annoyingly meta-ironical, depending on your point of view.

I enjoyed reading what the author, Mimi O Chun, had to say, and I was about to add my own Twitter message about it, when I noticed something at the bottom of the page: a little section called Echo that displays all the Twitter messages about the post. If I tweeted something snappy, it would be immediately appended to this very page. It started to feel like a hall of mirrors, me watching you watching me. It’s the hall of mirrors we all live in now. If you start to feel dizzy, remember: the antidote is a simple and straightforward sincerity. For, as Groucho Marx once said, “The key to success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”