Brain Pickings

Gadgetry, Widgetry and You-name-itgetry

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A shirtless Tiger Woods, a very ethical octopus, how the fabric of culture makes a great quilt, why you may be a municipal light fixture, and what possessed 8,058,860 people to hurl sheep at each other.

THE TENTACLES OF INNOVATION

Gone are the days of boxy, bland gadgets. These days, if peripherals don’t come built into your computer, they’d better come in great design that makes you wanna showcase them as much as use them. But how about a mashup of this new thinking about gadget design and the new green ideology?

U.K. sustainable development tech company United Pepper, in a partnership with digital technology group EuroTech, has just released two adorable oddballs: Lili (an octopus webcam) and Oscar (a starfish hub) who are just as green as they are functional and cute: they boast fully recyclable bodies made from cotton, sand, Kapok (a tree fiber) and paperboard, 100% recycled packaging, recyclable PET, and 70% of parts produced in a free trade environment. (C’mon now, even Mother Theresa couldn’t know what sweatshop the fabric for her glorious attire was weaved in.)

Lili’s top-notch 1.3 megapixel webcam and microphone go for £29.99 (or $59.95, but we’ll have to hold off until the U.S. release.) Oscar’s asking £19.99 for his four 2.0 USB hubs (or $7.99 per tentacle). Both come in red, green and blue.

We’d be temped to whine about the little quirksters not being Mac-compatible. But then, of course, we remember this. And proceed to feel really, really, really cool. And superior. Yep, definitely superior.

HANDS OF THE TIMES

We’ve started seeing it everywhere. From products to services to communication to culture. The first Mini Cooper racing stripes designs. The home-delivered diet systems. The user-generated ads. Etsy.com. Forget pre-canned and factory-sealed, it’s the age of personalization and customization.

All over America, millions of hands are busy making, creating, crafting things. Things driven by visions, things that have something to say. And one artist-filmmaker spent most of 2006 traveling 19,000 miles to document the phenomenon. Fifteen cities, 50 indie artist interviews and 80 hours of video later, Faythe Levine was ready to start splicing together Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY Art, Craft & Design, the first documentary to really delve into what drives some of the most creative minds in the nation. The film, a deep-dive into DIY, art, craft and design, is still in production, but the trailer gives you a pretty good idea of the scope:

True to the culture it explores, the project is a low-key production almost entirely by the artist’s Etsy shop. And although its budget may be tiny, its scope and mission aren’t. It pushes us to step outside our daily microcosms, outside our own creative heads, and see how other minds make sense of the world, from the grand creative visions down to the nitty-gritty of paying the electric bill.

Now that’s not something you often get to do on the couch questioning yet again why you even bother with primetime TV.

UNTRIVIA

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If you’re like us, Facebook‘s 23-year-old CEO Mark Zuckerberg is your ultimate hate-what- he-does-to-my-ego-but-worship-him-anyway hero. Okay, maybe not that far. But, at the very least, unless you’re still not over big hair and leotards, you have the sense to acknowledge that when he opened up Facebook’s platform to developers a few months ago, he became the 2.0 mover-and-shaker of the year. Perhaps even of the decade. (And that only months after making the previously college-exclusive net available to anyone, .edu email or not. At that point, the social phenomenon that started out as a small online hub for a few Ivy League universities had raked up 24 million users, a toll growing by 150,000 a day.)

As a result, over 4,200 application widgets have popped up on Facebook, many of which ended up embedded in millions of profiles. Yep, profiles heaping with as much or as little demographic and psychographic information users choose to provide. But, unlike MySpace, the majority of Facebook users are not at all shy about sharing the info. (Because, after all, you only facebook-friend people you know or think you know, there’s virtually no spam, the interface is much cleaner and reassuring, and it still carries that insiders-only vibe from the pre-everyone-on-the-boat days). So you can get anything from a person’s age and location, to relationship status, to favorite music, TV shows and books, to intersts, to latest hangouts and even hookups.

Point is, all this embeddable apps and widgets are also heaping with advertising opportunities to people who actually welcome them. And thanks to a Bay-area start-up Adonomics (previously Appaholic), there’s now a very sophisticated app performance ranking and tracking system based on installs and active users. Think of it as Digg (who, by the way, just added a ton of super-cool features) for Facebook. Here are the must-know-about top 10:

1. Top Friends: 2,820,950 daily active users, 15,671,900 total installs

Lets you add a box of 32 of your best friends to your profile in a world where friend count is by the hundreds. Made by Slide Inc.

2. Video: 943,493 daily users, 9,434,930 total installs

Lets you publish personal video and tag your Facebook friends. You can even use your webcam to record and your cell to tag. This one’s a Facebook original.

3. My Questions: 516,474 daily users, 8,607,900 installs

Instantly poll your friends on whatever you’re pondering at the moment. Made by Jeremiah Robinson of said Slide, Inc.

4. Super Wall: 806,572 daily users, 8,065,720 installs

Upgrades your standard wall (the space in your profile where friends use to give you a publicly heard shout) to include photos, videos and more. Crafted by Stanford grad student Jia Shen. (Who, by the way, launched his first app, a photo slideshow, on MySpace, it caught on like wildfirewall, but because MySpace offered no monetization for developers, it ended up crashing Shen’s servers and costing him a fortune.)

5. iLike: 805,931 daily active users, 8,059,310 total installs

Lets you add music to your profile, check out where your favorite bands are playing next, see which of your friends are going, and get free mp3′s based on your music likes. Product of iLike, Inc.

6. SuperPoke!: 886,475 daily users, 8,058,860 installs

Makes the super-popular Facebook poke function (sorry, out-of-loopers, you’ll need this to get it) into a contact fiesta: pinch, tickle, hug, pin, throw sheep. Crafted by Stanford alumni Nikil Gandhy, Jonathan Hsu and Will Liu.

7. Likeness: 440,929 daily users, 7,348,820 installs

Another Jia Shen creation that lets you see which friends and celebs you resemble.

8. X Me: 651,650 daily users, 7,240,560 installs

It’s not uncommon for many apps to offer similar functions and compete with each other. So app-master Jia Shen (again) decided to take on the SuperPoke! people above with this action-based poke upgrade.

9. Movies: 780,949 daily active users, 7,099,540 installs

Dish on movies via ratings and reviews, check out showtimes, view trailers, and see how your friends compare in cinematic taste. Brought to the film-hungry by Flixter.

10. FunWall: 839,575 daily users, 6,996,460 installs

Another competitor to a different top-10 app. Adds vids, photos, etc. to your wall — you know the drill. Crafted by Daniel C. Silverstein and Bobby Joe (poor kid) of — you guessed it — Slide, Inc.

Other rapid rank-climbers: Grey’s Anatomy Quotes, My Chatroom, Fashion IV, My Ruckus Music, and Halo 3 Service Record. Our personal favorite: the last.fm music widget, which turns your favorite music into a playlist of full-length tracks and makes a cool collage of album covers based on it, all embeddable in your profile.

So the virtual social world is eagerly embracing this new generation of widgets. And these are some big numbers to easily dismiss. Even more amazingly, a good portion of the apps are branded, including top-tier ones (hello, Flixter, Ruckus and XBox 360), which is just about the ultimate form of those over-pounded buzzwords “engagement” and “permission marketing.”

And a number of companies are already cashing in: besides good ol’ Google Analytics, upcoming niche ad network Lookery is zeroing in on Facebook and will offer clients extremely sophisticated profiles of their user base. Talk about ultimate targeting. And Gigya offers tools to help developers better distribute widgets, then track their performance in real time. That’s as hand-on-the-pulse-of-the-young-and-savvy as it gets.

And it doesn’t hurt that Facebook’s said user base grew a sweat-inducing 270% last year (and congratulations to one contributing Mr. Haag who can finally sit with the cool kids at the school cafeteria), leaving 72-percent-growth rival MySpace in the social networking dust. Mark Z, wanna go behind the school gym and make out?

VIRAL EMMIES

And speaking of trivia and 2.0 phenomena, 1,358,348 viewers can’t be wrong: animated vid “Internet People” is the best way to play Trivial Pursuit with yourself and test your viral pop culture knowledge.

So how many of the referenced vids do you recognize? (Hint: if it’s less than 10, you’re either too old or a lamp post.)

RIGHT UP OUR ALLEY

Keywords shmeewords. We don’t talk using operators and booleans, so why should we search that way?

We’ve seen hand-curated search and “artificial artificial intelligence.” And now one progressive start-up brings us another revolutionary concept: “natural language search.” Silicon Valley company Powerset Inc. is opening up its beta version on Monday, allowing the public to test out their natural language processing technology. The product of three decades worth of research at the iconic Xerox Corp PARC research center, this new kind of search will allow users to search the web using natural language.

In the great words of Powerset CEO Barney Pell, “Search today is like talking to a 2-year-old.” So he put his doctoral degree in artificial intelligence to use and decided to put intelligent conversation (Conversationality, anyone?) back into the quest for relevant information.

Once the Beta site launches, you’ll be able to check out two kinds of demonstration on how the search works. In one, “Cases,” you’ll get to see how conversational questions like “Does Tiger Woods shave that manly chest that lies beneath his Nike polo shirt when he bursts through walls?” produce better results than the standard keyword subject/verb fare. The other, “Powermouse,” shows the back-end of the search process, letting you see how the algorithms break down your search into grammatical components, revealing the underlying data links used to produce the results.

Sure, we’re completely conditioned to use traditional caveman search language. So it may take some time until conversation claims the online info world back. But we think this stuff is pretty neat and definitely something to keep an eye on. If only to see the day count until Google A) snaps it up or B) outsmarts, outintegrates and outmonetizes it with a way cooler version.

Get the full scoop from Reuters.

ONLY IN PHILLY

From the depths of the West Philly ghetto to your desktop. This elaborate grafittied garage door speaks volumes about what moves the urban culture needle. Dark? Maybe. Fucking amazing? Hell yeah.

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And we love that homie Homer S. shares our own sentiments about what appears to be Ozzy Ozbourne in profile.

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