Entries for April 2010

April 21, 2010

Idea: eBooks that watch you read

Every device is an eReader these days. Some are dedicated e-ink devices, and some are multipurpose gadgets that have (or will soon have) front-facing cameras. Presumably those cameras are intended for video chat. But as long as the cameras are there, I think eReader software should take advantage of those cameras, too.

Using existing face detection technology, here are some things your eReader could do:

Gather analytics data: Movie studios do test screenings where they gauge how much audiences laugh or cry, and at what point in the movie. Books can’t do that. But what if the book were watching you? It could anonymously (with your consent) send data back to the publisher about where you were in the book when you smiled. This could be good feedback for the author, who would learn which jokes were hits and which were misses.

Dynamically change text size: Instead of setting your preferred font size, you can set your preferred apparent font size. As you move your head closer and further away from the page, the font adjusts accordingly. (Although I can’t come up with a real reason why I would use this feature).

Automatic page scrolling: With eye-tracking, the device could see when you’re reaching the bottom of the page, and scroll accordingly.

Advertising fodder: Imagine an ad for Stephen King’s new book: it’s a photo grid of real people’s faces while they’re engrossed in the pivotal and terrifying chapter where something really gruesome happens. Perhaps the eBook takes the photo without telling you, and it’s saved locally on your device. At the end of the book you get the opportunity to submit it, and you get some cash and a free copy of his next book if they use your photo to advertise this one.

Special edition of 1984: Every time you get to a page with the phrase “Big Brother,” the camera takes a photo of you and posts it on-line.

UPDATE: Well, it didn’t take long for someone to point out in the comments that Wired has already covered this territory. Hrm. I guess I’ll do some more research before I post my other related idea: eye-tracking high dynamic range photos that adjust the exposure according to the part of the image you’re looking at.

Previously: Idea: Fun With Facial Recognition

April 13, 2010

Announcing a new blog: SundayMagazine.org

Short version:
I’ve launched a spinoff blog from Ironic Sans called Sunday Magazine. Every Friday I post the most interesting articles from the New York Times Sunday Magazine that was published exactly 100 years ago that weekend. You can get each week’s articles (probably one to six per week) by subscribing to the RSS feed, or following @sundaymagazine on Twitter, or by becoming a fan on Facebook.

It is not in any way affiliated with the New York Times. All of the Times articles I post are from before 1923, which means they are in the public domain.

Long version:
The New York Times Sunday Magazine is full of interesting articles about politics, science, crime, life, language, and human interest. It features fantastic writing and photography. It’s my favorite section in the paper.

It turns out that no matter how far back you go towards the supplement’s 1896 debut, the Magazine Section (as it was called back then) was always filled with amazing long-form articles, including many that are as interesting today as they were then. Some even more so. I stumbled upon this fact on April 1, when I began to get annoyed with every website’s need to pull some sort of prank. I wondered if companies did this sort of thing back at the turn of the last century. Searching for old articles about April Fool’s Day, I found this great article published in the Times on March 31, 1912:

(Note: All images of articles in this post can be clicked to enlarge; even bigger PDFs available via links below each image)

Now April Fool Originated And Some Famous Pranks


Everything about that article is wonderful. The writing style, the stories, and the illustrations are all quaint by today’s standards, but that makes it all so charming. It’s worth downloading the PDF to read it all, or any portion of it. Here is one of my favorite passages:

A hundred years ago [children] used to say, “Sir, your shoe’s unbuckled.” Today, their successors cry out, “Mister, your shoe’s untied!” A more elaborate piece of waggery has endured up to the present time practically its original form.

“Sir, there’s something out of your pocket.”
“Your hand, sir!”

Or again a boy and a lady enter into this dialogue.
“Ma’am, you have something on your face.”
“Indeed! What is it?”
“Your nose, ma’am.”

In all cases the ultimate rejoinder is accompanied with a burst of laughter and the shout of “April fool!”

Another passage describes a prank pulled by the Evening Star newspaper in London, which comes closer to the kind of corporate pranks we see today, although a bit more mean-spirited:

On March 31, 1846, that paper solemnly informed its readers that a magnificent collection of asses would be exhibited in the Hall of Agriculture at Islington. A great crowd of staring and struggling human being filled up the hall long before noon, and not for some time did it dawn upon anybody that they themselves were forming the collection that had been advertised.

Could you even fill a room today by advertising a donkey exhibit? The article is full of stories like this, pranks and characters long forgotten. I thought I might sit on it for a year, and post it next April Fool’s Day. But I wanted to learn more about the article so I could post it with context. I needed to research the various background characters and then-famous pranksters mentioned in the article to provide annotation. And the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder: could I find other interesting articles in the Times from around the same period?

I originally found the article on the NYTimes website, where all of their content pre-1923 is freely available, having fallen into the public domain. But their online archives are difficult to browse unless you have specific keywords you’re searching for. I noticed that this article was published on a Sunday, but I didn’t know what section it was in. I didn’t know if the Times even had a magazine back then. To find out, I went to the Microforms Room of the main branch of the New York Public Library.

Sure enough, the article was in the “Magazine Section” of the newspaper. I wondered what other interesting articles I could find the in the Magazine Section. So I rewound the microfilm one week and found the Magazine Section for March 24, 1912.

I think my jaw actually dropped when I saw this:

French Savant Tells of Life on Venus and Mars

FRENCH SAVANT TELLS OF LIFE ON VENUS AND MARS: Conditions Resemble Those on the Earth (PDF)

What the hey-now? Check out those awesome drawings. They depict the zoologist Edmond Perrier’s descriptions of “frogs as big as cows” on Venus and “beautiful plumage” of birds on Mars. It’s almost like he imagined the world of Avatar 98 years ago, a bit closer to home. And look at those large-chested Martians with headlights on their fingertips!

Here’s how Perrier described Venus:

The dampness of the atmosphere on Venus favors the growth of ferns. The development of flowers from the more primitive forms of plants must be slow and probably has not yet been accomplished on Venus. This lack means the absence also of bees, butterflies, perhaps of ants and of other insects which depend partly or entirely on flowers for their food.

Venus, then, is the home of insects like grasshoppers, or dragon-flies, or roaches, grown to an enormous size; of large batrachians, frogs as big as our cows, of innumerable and gigantic reptiles like those which once filled our earth, ichthyosauri, pterodactyls, iguanodons. Man is absent; indeed the race of mammals may not yet have appeared, in even the humblest form.

That’s not the case on Mars, where people evolved similarly to Earthlings:

[The Martian] is very tall, because the force of gravity is so feeble; he is very fair, with blue eyes, because there is so little light or heat; his jaws are narrow and the top of his head is large, because he has been evolving away from the animals for a much longer period than we. The Martian noses would be long and the ears large. The Martian’s lungs and consequently his chest would be enormous, on account of the thin atmosphere, and his legs would be very slender, because little effort is needed to walk.

What a find.

This fantastic article seems like something out of Amazing Stories, and it’s just been sitting there in the New York Times Magazine archives for the past 98 years. As far as I can tell, nobody has written about it. A Google Search for the article brings up only one result: the PDF buried in the nytimes.com archive. It hasn’t been mentioned anywhere else that Google indexes, although a little more information is available about the French scientist. (I’ll have more to say about that on the new blog on March 24, 2012.)

I was eager to find other gems like this. But with so many years of archives available, where would I begin? I decided to start with the New York Times Sunday Magazine from exactly 100 years ago, and make my way forward. So I found the microfilm reel for April, 1910. In just the first week’s issue, I found several interesting articles. Zooming ahead, I found several more. Every week there were articles that made me think I just had to write a blog post about this treasure trove of fascinating reading material.

I started working on a post featuring some of the articles I found covering a two month period of Sunday Magazines. Omitting all but the ones I found most interesting, I was able to pare it down to just 30 articles. But that’s still too many to reasonably expect any of you to read at once. That’s 30 articles stuffed into one blog post.

And so I decided the best way to share my findings is to dole out a few of my favorite articles from each week on a new blog: SundayMagazine.org. I have a couple weeks’ worth of posts up, and the next two months’ worth already in the hopper. They range from historically interesting to downright bizarre. I hope that you’ll see it as a new source of reading material. You can find out about new articles, posted every Friday, by subscribing to the RSS feed, or following @sundaymagazine on Twitter, or by becoming a fan on Facebook.

April 9, 2010

Shower Poll

Sometimes I get blog post ideas in the shower. You won’t be surprised to learn that this is one of them.

I noticed that I always get in the shower on the end opposite the shower head. My thinking is that if the water is the wrong temperature, it’s only going to hit my feet. But I’ve heard of people who get in the shower on the head-side. I don’t understand this. What do they do to protect their faces and bodies against possibly-wrong-water-temperature? Duck below the water level?

So that got me wondering:

[People reading via RSS may need to visit the site to see the poll]

And then I started thinking about the movie Psycho. Marion Crane gets in the shower on the side opposite the shower head, but has the curtain pulled back so far that she’s practically entering in the middle. But then she turns on the shower after she steps in. That seems like a terrible idea. How do you know the water is the right temperature? I always turn on the water before stepping in.

So that got me wondering:

[People reading via RSS may need to visit the site to see the poll]

If the answer to any of these is “other,” or if you have any other shower insights you’d like to share (Do you do anything weird in the shower? No, I mean like washing dishes or something), please do so in the comments.

Related: Eyeglasses and the pushing up thereof
Related: Choose Wisely