kottke.org posts about Clive Thompson
From Clive Thompson, a history of the infographic, which was developed in part to help solve problems with an abundance of data available in the 19th century.
The idea of visualizing data is old: After all, that’s what a map is — a representation of geographic information — and we’ve had maps for about 8,000 years. But it was rare to graph anything other than geography. Only a few examples exist: Around the 11th century, a now-anonymous scribe created a chart of how the planets moved through the sky. By the 18th century, scientists were warming to the idea of arranging knowledge visually. The British polymath Joseph Priestley produced a “Chart of Biography,” plotting the lives of about 2,000 historical figures on a timeline. A picture, he argued, conveyed the information “with more exactness, and in much less time, than it [would take] by reading.”
Still, data visualization was rare because data was rare. That began to change rapidly in the early 19th century, because countries began to collect-and publish-reams of information about their weather, economic activity and population. “For the first time, you could deal with important social issues with hard facts, if you could find a way to analyze it,” says Michael Friendly, a professor of psychology at York University who studies the history of data visualization. “The age of data really began.”
Clive Thompson’s article for the NY Times about Minecraft captures what many players, parents, and teachers find exciting about the game that seems like more than just a game.
Presto: Jordan had used the cow’s weird behavior to create, in effect, a random-number generator inside Minecraft. It was an ingenious bit of problem-solving, something most computer engineers I know would regard as a great hack — a way of coaxing a computer system to do something new and clever.
In addition to learning about logic and computer science, various educators have also touted Minecraft’s lessons in civics, design, planning, and even philosophy. If you’ve ever seen little kids playing with blocks, you’ve noticed that some of those potential lessons there too.
Block-play was, in the European tradition, regarded as a particularly “wholesome” activity; it’s not hard to draw a line from that to many parents’ belief that Minecraft is the “good” computer game in a world full of anxiety about too much “screen time.”
Among the parents I know, Minecraft is not classified as a game…it’s very much tied to education.1 And when listening to the kids and their friends talk about it, if you can get past the endless chatter about zombies and diamond armor, their understanding of the whole world of possibilities is quite sophisticated.
And I can’t resist commenting on this little aside about Lego:
Today many cultural observers argue that Lego has moved away from that open-ended engagement, because it’s so often sold in branded kits: the Hogwarts castle from “Harry Potter,” the TIE fighter from “Star Wars.”
Until very recently, I was in that camp of cultural observers, frustrated by the brands and paint-by-number aspect of contemporary Lego kits. But my kids play with Lego a ton and I’ve observed plenty of open-ended engagement going on. Sure, they sit for 20-30 minutes putting the kits together using directions, but after they’re “done”, the real play begins. Ollie’s Star Wars ships dock at Minna’s birthday party. Soon, beach goers are wearing Stormtrooper helmets and Vader’s eating cupcakes. None of the “finished” products survive more than a few minutes without being augmented or taken apart to make something different. Ships take on wheels from previous kits and become delivery trucks (with cool laser cannons). Parts from every station, house, vehicle, and landscape get remixed into whatever’s necessary for their dramatic play. It’s like jazz with injection molded plastic.
Clive Thompson writes about the newest innovation in junk mail marketing: handwriting robots. That’s right, robots can write letters in longhand with real ballpoint pens and you can’t really tell unless you know what to look for. Here’s a demonstration:
But it turns out that marketers are working diligently to develop forms of mass-generated mail that appear to have been patiently and lovingly hand-written by actual humans. They’re using handwriting robots that wield real pens on paper. These machines cost up to five figures, but produce letters that seem far more “human”. (You can see one of the robots in action in the video adjacent.) This type of robot is likely what penned the address on the junk-mail envelope that fooled me. I saw ink on paper, subconsciously intuited that it had come from a human (because hey, no laser-printing!) and opened it.
Handwriting, it seems, is the next Turing Test.
There is also a company that provided handwritten letters for sale professionals and I don’t know if that or the robot letters are more unusual.
Clive Thompson recently saw the moons of Jupiter with his own eyes and has a moment.
I saw one huge, bright dot, with three other tiny pinpoints of light nearby, all lined up in a row (just like the image at the top of this story). Holy moses, I realized; that’s no star. That’s Jupiter! And those are the moons of Jupiter!
I’m a science journalist and a space buff, and I grew up oohing and aahing over the pictures of Jupiter sent back by various NASA space probes. But I’d never owned a telescope, and never done much stargazing other than looking up in the night unaided. In my 45 years I’d never directly observed Jupiter and its moons myself.
So I freaked out. In a good way! It was a curiously intense existential moment.
For my birthday when I was seven or eight, my dad bought me a telescope. (It was a Jason telescope; didn’t everyone have a telescope named after them?) We lived in the country in the middle of nowhere where it was nice and dark, so over the next few years, we looked at all sorts of celestial objects through that telescope. Craters on the Moon, the moons of Jupiter, Mars, and even sunspots on the Sun with the aid of some filters. But the thing that really got me, that provided me with my own version of Thompson’s “curiously intense existential moment”, was seeing the rings of Saturn through a telescope.
We had heard from PBS’s Jack Horkheimer, the Star Hustler, that Saturn and its rings would be visible and he showed pictures of what it would look like, something like this:
But seeing that with your own eyes through a telescope was a different thing entirely. Those tiny blurry rings, visible from millions of miles away. What a thrill! It’s one of my favorite memories.
2008 article by Clive Thompson on how Weight Watchers is like a RPG (role playing game).
Think about it. As with an RPG, you roll a virtual character, manage your inventory and resources, and try to achieve a goal. Weight Watchers’ points function precisely like hit points; each bite of food does damage until you’ve used up your daily amount, so you sleep and start all over again. Play well and you level up — by losing weight! And the more you play it, the more you discover interesting combinations of the rules that aren’t apparent at first. Hey, if I eat a fruit-granola breakfast and an egg-and-romaine lunch, I’ll have enough points to survive a greasy hamburger dinner for a treat!
Even the Weight Watchers web tool is amazingly gamelike. It has the poke-around-and-see-what-happens elegance you see in really good RPG game screens. Accidentally snack on a candy bar and ruin your meal plan for the day? No worries: Just go into the database and see what spells — whoops, I mean foods — you can still use with your remaining points.
And those 35 extra points you get every week? They’re like a special buff or potion — a last-ditch save when you’re on the ropes.
It’s funny how quaint this seems now…the quantified self and gamification of diet & health is everywhere now. (via @arainert)
In 2006, New York magazine published a piece by Clive Thompson about what climate change is doing to New York’s weather.
Nobody really knows what’ll happen more than a week in advance, of course. But if we assemble these major climatic trends, a rough snapshot of New York’s future begins to emerge.
First off, El Nino will keep our winters reasonably mild and reduce hurricanes in the immediate future, possibly until as late as 2008, because El Ninos usually last for only one or two years.
Meanwhile, the AMO will remain in its warm phase, charging up storms and hurricanes off our shores, for much longer, probably another twenty years. So while El Nino may be driving a temporary reprieve in our nasty weather, once it dissipates, the long-term trend is back to tumultuous hurricane seasons.
The final ingredient in the mix is global warming. In the past century, the average temperature in New York has risen by two degrees, and the trend shows no sign of slowing down. Indeed, the computer models reviewed in the “Metropolitan East Coast Climate Assessment” — a 50-year prediction of New York’s changing climate, developed by nasa and Columbia University — suggest that the city will continue to heat up by as much as one degree by 2010, two degrees by 2020, and accelerate on a gentle curve until we reach as much as nine degrees warmer than now in 2100. It doesn’t particularly matter whether you believe the warming is man-made or a natural cycle (most, but not all, climatologists believe the former). The point is, pumping that much extra energy into the system is bound to have some effect.
The impact on our daily life, though, is the big question. A few degrees of warming won’t turn New York into a Miami-class shirtsleeves town. The effect will be more subtle: Climate scientists suspect that a warmer climate will produce more weather volatility. It’s not that we’ll have more rain overall, more snow overall, or more storms overall. But each event will be more intense than before.
“We’re more likely to get hotter heat waves,” says Mark Cane, a climatologist at Columbia University. “And increased storminess” adds Cullen. Both effects are due to the additional energy that global warming pumps into the “hydrological cycle,” the water and energy that circulates through the atmosphere — and it’s water that creates weather.
As they say, “nailed it”. The term “global warming” continues to be a misleading when it comes to the effect of the Earth’s increasing temperature on our weather; as Thompson notes, it’s not that it’s just gonna get a little hotter in the summer or a little less snowy in the winter, the weather’s gonna get weirder. Which is a problem…it’s difficult for society to measure and talk about “weird”.
After pretty much solving chess with Deep Blue, IBM is building a computer called Watson to beat human opponents at Jeopardy. It’s not quite at Ken Jennings’ level, but it’s holding its own versus lesser humans.
Deep Blue was able to play chess well because the game is perfectly logical, with fairly simple rules; it can be reduced easily to math, which computers handle superbly. But the rules of language are much trickier. At the time, the very best question-answering systems — some created by software firms, some by university researchers — could sort through news articles on their own and answer questions about the content, but they understood only questions stated in very simple language (“What is the capital of Russia?”); in government-run competitions, the top systems answered correctly only about 70 percent of the time, and many were far worse. “Jeopardy!” with its witty, punning questions, seemed beyond their capabilities. What’s more, winning on “Jeopardy!” requires finding an answer in a few seconds. The top question-answering machines often spent longer, even entire minutes, doing the same thing.
Clive Thompson writes up the Netflix Prize — which offers $1 million to the first team to improve upon Netflix’s default recommendation algorithm by 10% — and the vexing Napoleon Dynamite problem that is thwarting all comers.
Bertoni says it’s partly because of “Napoleon Dynamite,” an indie comedy from 2004 that achieved cult status and went on to become extremely popular on Netflix. It is, Bertoni and others have discovered, maddeningly hard to determine how much people will like it. When Bertoni runs his algorithms on regular hits like “Lethal Weapon” or “Miss Congeniality” and tries to predict how any given Netflix user will rate them, he’s usually within eight-tenths of a star. But with films like “Napoleon Dynamite,” he’s off by an average of 1.2 stars.
The reason, Bertoni says, is that “Napoleon Dynamite” is very weird and very polarizing. It contains a lot of arch, ironic humor, including a famously kooky dance performed by the titular teenage character to help his hapless friend win a student-council election. It’s the type of quirky entertainment that tends to be either loved or despised. The movie has been rated more than two million times in the Netflix database, and the ratings are disproportionately one or five stars.
This behavior was flagged as an issue by denizens of the Netflix Prize message board soon after the contest was announced two years ago.
Those are the movies you either loved loved loved or hated hated hated. These are the movies you can argue with your friends about. And good old ‘Miss Congeniality’ is right up there in the #4 spot. Also not surprising to see up here are: ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ (I hated it), ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ (I loved it), and ‘The Passion of the Christ’ (didn’t see it, but odds are, I’d hate it).
After finding that post, I wrote a little bit about why these movies are so contentious.
The thing that all those kinds of movies have in common is that if you’re outside of the intended audience for a particular movie, you probably won’t get it. That means that if you hear about a movie that’s highly recommended within a certain group and you’re not in that group, you’re likely to hate it. In some ways, these are movies intended for a narrow audience, were highly regarded within that audience, tried to cross over into wider appeal, and really didn’t make it.
Clive Thompson on Weight Watchers as an RPG (role playing game).
As with an RPG, you roll a virtual character, manage your inventory and resources, and try to achieve a goal. Weight Watchers’ points function precisely like hit points; each bite of food does damage until you’ve used up your daily amount, so you sleep and start all over again. Play well and you level up — by losing weight! And the more you play it, the more you discover interesting combinations of the rules that aren’t apparent at first. Hey, if I eat a fruit-granola breakfast and an egg-and-romaine lunch, I’ll have enough points to survive a greasy hamburger dinner for a treat!
A new study shows that if a person’s friends become obese, that person is at a great risk of obesity themselves. For close mutual friends, the risk factor for transmitted obesity increased by 171%.
Update: Dr. Jonathan Robison calls the above study “junk science”. “How does one conclude a direct causal relationship from an observational study? Bald men are more likely than men with a full head of hair to have a heart attack. Can we conclude from this that they should buy a toupee or begin using Rogaine lotion to lower their risk?” (thx, robby)
Update: Clive Thompson’s NY Times Magazine article (Sept 2009) covers this study in more detail. In addition to obesity, the study indicates that smoking, happiness, and drinking may be contagious.
Clive Thompson on the new way to make it big in the music biz: spend hours a day communicating with your fans via the web. “Virtually everyone bemoaned the relentless and often boring slog of keyboarding. It is, of course, precisely the sort of administrative toil that people join rock bands to avoid.”
Update: Related: How to Be a Star in a YouTube World.
Clive Thompson on the invention of new sports. “Why don’t more people invent new sports? After all, we live in a golden age of play. The video-game industry is bristling with innovation.” When I was in the Caribbean a few months ago, some folks on the beach were playing this newish game that they called Golf Toss. It’s also called Ladder Ball and is kind of like horseshoes except your throw two golf balls on a rope instead of a horseshoe.
Clive Thompson on Life Hackers in the NY Times. I’d informally heard about the benefit of larger screens on productivity (I feel more productive with a larger screen), but this article describes some study results: “On the bigger screen, people completed the tasks at least 10 percent more quickly - and some as much as 44 percent more quickly.”
Clive Thompson enjoys the miniest of mini games, one-button games (more here and here): “video games that have a single button to control all the action”. Many of the mini games in Wario Ware use only one control and only last 3-4 seconds.
Don Watson and Clive Thompson on the assembly-lining of thought and discourse via modern jargon. “That’s the true malaise of modern jargon: It forces people to treat any subject as if it were always a managerial problem of inputs and outputs.”