Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

10 JULY, 2008

Artist Spotlight: Alice Wang


What Isaac Asimov has to do with your body image and why your friends would rather you got 8 hours of sleep.

Every once in a while, we come across an artist so innovative and conceptually brilliant that we have the compulsion to stalk them. This, however, gets kinda hard if they’re halfway across the world, which in most cases they are. So we just spotlight them instead.

Today, we take a stalker’s stare at Alice Wang, a Taipei-born, London-educated, is-gonna-be-big-take-our-word-for-it product designer. We’re obsessed with Alice because her work isn’t just an aesthetic: it’s informed and inspired by genuine insight into human behavior, cultural taboos and sociological patterns. In other words, the Brain Pickings mission materialized.

Her Audio Sticks project explores how digitization will change our complex relationship with music. In Pet Plus, Alice projects the way we treat our pets as human surrogates onto products like the pet wineglass set that live in the extremities of the human-pet relationship.

She looks at the complex issue of body image through the prism of Asimov’s First Law — the idea that artificial intelligence can never harm a human — and the weight we place on that number on the bathroom scale.

Three different scales challenge the absolutism with which we think about body image.

White lies allows you to manipulate the weight reading depending on where you stand on the scale’s surface. Half-truth shows the weight reading to your friend or partner, who can choose the level of truthiness in relaying the number to you. Open secrets texts your weight reading to a friend’s mobile phone, binding said friend to share the results next time the two of you hang out. (“Hey, Anna, you brought suntan lotion, right? Oh and by the way, you’ve gained 5 pounds.”)

And then there’s the tyrant alarm clock. It hijacks your phone and starts randomly dialing one of your contacts every three minutes until you get out of bed and make it stop before your social circle has shrunk to the size of a sleeping pill.

Wang’s work is sometimes serious, sometimes tongue-in-cheeck, and always thoughtful. Just the way we like it.

05 JUNE, 2008

Customization Gone Wild


70% fabulous, respecting your inseam, how to add a 29th bone to your foot, and why a bear is missing an “e” but has plenty of nuts.


In this I-me-mine age, customization is already the expected norm. But what happens when it all runs rampant with made-to-order stuff offering OCD-worthy precision? Freud would sure have a field day with the anal-retentive nature of today’s consumerism, and who are we to stand in Freud’s way? Welcome to the Customization Gone Wild issue.

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Since we last featured Freddy&Ma, the design-your-own-handbag getup (named after founder siblings Anthony and Amy Pigliacampo’s childhood partners-in-crime nicknames) has branched out into more cool design-your-own stuff: plates and pillows, to be exact.

The concept is still all about rebelling against the mass-marketed fashions of today and takes a simple approach: to design your own handbag, you get to pick the bag style (tote, pouch, bowler, hobo, clutch and more), the leather trimmings (black, white, tan, brown, maroon) and one of the thousands of patterns (retro, geometric abstract, minimalist, flashy, you name it).

Then they make it for you.

Prices are based on the “canvas” you pick and range from $65 for the wallet-like metro clutch to $295 for the bowler. Or, if you’re feeling lazy and generous at the same time, just pick one of their Carry for a Cause Bags — 30% of your bag money goes towards Art Start or Crate Now, and 70% goes towards making you feel like a good person who just happens to be fabulous.

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Back in the day, you went to the tailor to get your custom-fitted suit, made from a fabric of your liking and with those buttons you inherited from your grandmother. Today, you are the tailor.

At least at, where you get to do just that: make your own jeans. You simply submit your precise measurements and pick a denim wash. Then, these guys (who we’re pretty sure are Santa’s little helpers moonlighting those other 51 weeks of the year) stitch your unique pair together and enzyme-wash it so it’s all pre-shrunken and even-colored. The rest is between you and FedEx guy.

We dig the concept not only because the big O gave it a nod-off, and not merely because non-cookie-cutter style makes us feel special, but also because we believe everyone’s inseam is a very, very special place and should only be clad in something very, very special.

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Fact: there are 28 bones in each of your feet. Another fact: feet are ugly, especially the really bony ones. But guess what: now, you can have 29 bones and killer foot style.

We’re taking about Skins Footwear, the tech- meets-design hybrid that features a two-part shoe structure consisting of an orthopedic “bone” core and an outer collapsible “skin.” The idea is you get yourself a perfectly fitting, super comfortable bone and then pick a number of skins so you can mix up the look and keep the comfort.

These guys launched less than a year ago, and they’ve already been featured in The New York Times. (Which is almost as good a nod-off by Oprah.) Not bad for a skin-and-bones concept.

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We’re not quite sure if this next über-customizer is the result of dyslexia or pure genius, but YouBar is one “e” short of the Build-a-Bear concept: it’s a fresh-baked, handmade nutrition bar that you build yourself by picking the exact ingredients and even naming your concoction.

And you do it all online.

Here’s how it works: you choose one or two nut butter “bases,” up to 3 different protein sources, some nuts and seeds to add, throw in your choice of dried fruits and berries, add the sweetener you prefer (they even have Stevia!), stir in your favorite seasonings or a bit of chocolate, and add some grains and cereals if you’re so inclined. You can even infuse it all with a shot of vitamins, greens and/or fiber.

Many of the ingredients come in organic version and you can manipulate the proportions of all your choosings within a category (say, 1/3 soy protein + 2/3 whey protein) as well as the levels (not too sweet, extra nuts, etc.) It even calculates the bar’s nutritional value for you — talk about full control.

Then you give your Frankenfood a name and get 12 of your very own lovable, edible monsters for $40 plus shipping.

We, needless to say, absolutely love the concept — it indulges both our health-nutness and our control-freakness. And to think people settle for PowerBars.

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02 JUNE, 2008

RFID vs. Honor


What third world children have to do with NYC commuting and why RFID beats honor systems every time.


Remember when the One Laptop Per Child program first made waves and everyone thought a $100 laptop for the third world was anywhere from laughable to plain undoable? Well, two years later OLPC has had the last laugh with its world-changing success, and the design team behind it is after a brand new revolutionary initiative.


The guys at Continuum have just concepted Ubicycle: a high-tech yet brilliantly user-friendly public bike-share system. It’s simple: you “rent” a bike using the same funds-loaded Smart card you use on trains and buses. It’s RFID-enabled, so whenever you use it to unlock a bike from the rack, the system knows who’s taking the goodie. (Sure beats a may-or-may-not-honor honor system.)

And speaking of the rack, each nifty modular station holds 2 bikes and the racks can be stacked horizontally. Seven of them (that’s 14 bikes for the mathematically- challenged) take as much space as a single parked car. The lock mechanisms are powered by the solar panels coating the kiosks for the ultimate cherry on top.

(Meanwhile, Philly is still trying to get the very, very 1.0 Philly BikeShare program off the ground. Hey, at least we’re trying.)

via PSFK

21 SEPTEMBER, 2007

Gadgetry, Widgetry and You-name-itgetry


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.


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.


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. 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.



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 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?


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.)


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.


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.


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