Steven Wright used to say, “I’ve been doing a lot of abstract painting lately, extremely abstract. No brush, no paint, no canvas. I just think about it.”
With Mr. Picassohead you can make a Cubist portrait in about 60 seconds. I spent a little longer on this one, pretending to get the composition right, but it’s hard to go wrong with drag-and-drop noses.
Even simpler is the Mondrian Machine — even a dead guy could produce a neoplasticist masterwork if you clicked the mouse for him.
I suppose the masters wouldn’t approve of these pushbutton knockoffs; Picasso seemed to take a dim view of technology in general. “Computers are useless,” he once said. “They can only give you answers.”
“The bow is a simple weapon, firearms are very complicated things which get out of order in many ways … a very heavy weapon and tires out soldiers on the march. Whereas also a bowman can let off six aimed shots a minute, a musketeer can discharge but one in two minutes.”
That’s Colonel Sir John Smyth in 1591, advising the British Privy Council to skip muskets and stick with bows.
InfoToday collected a lot of similarly farsighted advice into an online feature, appropriately called OOPS!
The Museum of Unworkable Devices debunks a whole fleet of perpetual-motion machines.
Ambigrams are word renderings that can be read both right-side up and upside down (or, sometimes, in a mirror). They’re hard to do convincingly, though some designers are pretty good at it. The one above was actually generated by a computer: Word.Net’s Ambigram.Matic. It’s not as elegant as the others, but I’m surprised that a machine can do this at all.
The exact layout of Air Force One has always been classified, but How Stuff Works has figured it out and rather recklessly published it online.
When they retire the plane in 2010, I’m hoping they put it up on eBay. At 4,000 square feet, it’s twice the size of my house, and my house doesn’t have a pharmacy, an operating table, 85 telephones, 19 televisions, radar jammers, hand-crafted wooden furniture, and flares to confuse heat-seeking missiles.
Also, Air Force One holds 2,000 meals and feeds 100 people at a time, and it can carry 70 passengers halfway around the world without refueling. I think that would be handy on vacations. I can probably fit 10 people in my dining room if we set up an extra card table, but it doesn’t go anywhere.
Earth’s city lights, seen by satellite. You can make out major transportation networks: the American interstate highway system, the trans-Siberian railroad, the Nile. 100 years after the invention of electric light, only Antarctica is entirely dark.
Theseus and the Minotaur is a series of Java-based puzzles in which you have to escape a maze without getting mashed by a computerized monster that moves predictably. There are 14 levels, and I can’t get past level 4.
The interesting thing is that the puzzles were designed by a computer, and they’re now being used in AI experiments at the National University of Ireland. So computers are now solving puzzles designed by other computers.
The Library of Vanished Sounds includes steam engines and teletypes, telephone rings and LP records.
In 1610, Ludolph van Ceulen died of exhaustion after deriving 35 decimal digits of pi.
They’re engraved on his tombstone.
“Rx.com is no longer filling prescriptions.”
The Museum of E-Failure collects the farewell pages of 900 failed dot-coms. Bring flowers.
If there’s a master’s cup for science-fiction visionaries, it might actually belong to Herman Hesse. In a late novel, the German author seemed to imagine the World Wide Web, and its kaleidoscopic hyperlinks, fifty years before it existed.
Das Glasperlenspiel, which won the Nobel Prize in 1946, centers on “the Glass Bead Game,” in which players combine the symbols of world cultures into new and insightful combinations. Here’s his description of the game — see if this doesn’t sound like the Web:
“The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.”
Hesse never quite explains how the game is played, which has set a lot of modern designers working on playable variants. The most popular is Charles Cameron’s HipBone Game (here’s an example of a board game, but Cameron’s working on a web-based version). This bears watching: The web is constantly evolving, and perhaps Hesse’s vision is still ahead of us.
The This Page Intentionally Left Blank Project “offers Internet wanderers a place of quietness and simplicity on the overcrowded World Wide Web.”
Where can you see pi expressed to 1 million decimal places?
Some questions are pretty easy.
Last month, Donald Rumsfeld got into a flap when it was revealed that his condolence letters to troops’ families were signed by a machine.
Some critics, like retired Army colonel David Hackworth, compared using a machine to “having it signed by a monkey.” But in the digital age, signing your name on paper is a pretty quaint custom. Was Rumsfeld’s decision really inappropriate?
Legally, your signature shows you’ve deliberated about something and given your informed consent. So if you asked Donald Trump to “autograph” your mortgage, you couldn’t claim he’d agreed to pay it.
But if it’s really the act of consent that’s significant, then how you express it shouldn’t matter, right? When I sign a credit-card receipt, most retail clerks don’t even glance at my signature.
Congress even ratified this view when it passed a new law in 2000, legally recognizing an “electronic sound, symbol, or process” as a signature. That means you can now “sign” an Internet transaction with an e-mail message or even a Touch-Tone beep.
So is Rumsfeld still wrong? Unfortunately, yes. In this case his signature is neither an autograph nor an endorsement, but a sign of his personal attention.
As Hackworth told Stars and Stripes, “Using those machines is pretty common, but it shouldn’t be in cases of those who have died in action. How can [officials] feel the emotional impact of that loss if they’re not even looking at the letters?”
That may be one thing a technocrat can’t understand.