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Sex and Sensibility

18th century hoaxes, Al Gore’s favorite shopping portal, the U.S. vs. Bulgaria, why we need a brain appreciation day, the world’s most digital fabric pattern, and, oh, hot sex. Welcome to The Sex-and-Sensibility Issue.

HUMAN VS. MACHINE: CHECK-MATE

In every sci-fi movie we’ve seen, androids always seem to come short on something, be it intellectual flexibility, or social skills, or adaptation capacity. This seems to be the quintessential problem with artificial intelligence: it just can’t fully replicate the mind-blowing capabilities of the human brain.

Enter Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, an extremely smart yet not recognized nearly enough concept that aims to reconcile human and machine, solving the biggest shortcoming of 2.0 services.

First, the brilliant name. The original “Turk” was a mechanical chess-playing automaton invented by Austrian-Hungarian baron Wolfgang von Kempelen. The machine, a life-sized model of a human upper body complete with a black beard and grey eyes, was so good it went on to defeat Napoleon Bonaparte and our very own Ben Franklin. Which must’ve made them all the more infuriated, especially after they found out it was, you know, a hoax. You see, our boy Wolfgang had a real human chess master pretzeled inside the machine, operating it. The point: human intellectual mastery is always king.

So Amazon decided to tackle the intellectual shortcomings of complex software applications by introducing “artificial artificial intelligence,” reversing the traditional relationship between humans and applications wherein the human gives a command and the application executes it. Instead, the Amazon Mechanical Turk allows applications to send requests to real humans and have flesh-and-blood brains complete tasks. The said humans are, of course, paid to go to the website, search for tasks and complete them.

Yeah, well, who cares? Most businesses and web developers (a.k.a. “requesters”) do. Or should. Because the Amazon Mechanical Turk allows them to do what they used to do the traditional algorithm-driven way in a smarter, higher-quality, more cost-efficient one. The service can be used for anything from precise image search filtering to hardcore search child safety. To ensure quality and make sure they’re not getting ripped off, requesters can approve HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks) before they pay for them. Amazon also keeps contributors’ records over time to make sure the human machinery involved is top-notch.

Yep, it’s a brilliant concept, but it’s also a lot to digest. So take some of Amazon’s Pepto on the subject and give your own human brain an appreciative pat on the occipital lobe for being such a brilliant, unsurpassed piece of intellectual machinery.

DOLLAR, MEET THE OTHER GREEN

In the midst of all the campaigning and finger-pointing as to who exactly is responsible for global warming, it’s easy to forget it’s less about culprits and blame and gripes, and more about simple, daily ecological sensibility. So any effort to make that whole sensibility thing a bit easier is refreshing and commendable. Which is why we dig Spring.com, a portal of sorts where you can shop for all things green.

spring.png These folks have sifted through the retail world, online and off, for the greenest in food, fashion, beauty, home, and lifestyle products. You can browse by conveniently narrow sub-categories (such as Finance, Tech, Kids, and Pets, among others, all within the Lifestyle category), and you can sort products by price or by “type of green” (waste-reducing, vegan, sustainable, organic, recycled, and more). And, of course, you can always search.

But what makes Spring.com more than a shopping site is the little (or, in this case, a lot) extra stuff. Like their instructional, informative, or merely entertaining videos on anything from how to cook a chef-level organic meal, to who the latest green movers and shakers are, to how to sport the best organic home bar.

Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that their slogan is “Sexy people are into green.” Kind of reminds you that the green movement isn’t run entirely by balding, middle-aged, overweight politicians. There are, in fact, some rather hot (not in an environmentally harmful way) people involved, people like this ecological Indiana Jones.

REAL TIME, REAL SCARY

While we’re at it, in this age of global competition, why not apply all the mine-is-bigger-than-yoursing to the subject of global warming? That’s exactly what Breathing Earth is doing by providing a snapshot of each country’s carbon footprint via carbon dioxide emission crossed with a real-time animation of birth and death occurrences to illustrate birth and death rates. The US, of course, tops it all at 1000 tons of CO2 emitted every 5.4 seconds (with a person dying every 12.8 seconds and one being born every 7.5). Just for comparison, Bulgaria emits those same 1000 tons of CO2 every 12.5 minutes. (Yes, minutes.)

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So being the data geeks we are, we have our reservations about it. While most of the data come from legit sources (World Factbook, the UN, the US Census), some of it, such as data on the smaller countries for which there are no stats available, is merely an estimation (based on their economy, population and neighbors, so maybe an educated guess rather than a shot in the dark, but still an estimation.) Still, the concept, the slick visual and the real-time cool factor earn the project some serious Brain Pickings kudos.

Breathing Earth is the brain child of Polish-born, Australia-dwelling multimedia design student (yes, student) David Bleja, a.k.a. StillWater. Based on his other work, he seems just like the kind of talented, socially-conscious young chap that initiates and inspires real change. (Unlike, you know, the latest celebriho endorsing a mandatory post-jail face-saving cause.)

UNTRIVIA

brainiac.gif In this culture, and especially in this business, it’s hard to deny the impact of powerful sexual imagery. But not all erotic stuff is created equal. So the thoughtful (and by now probably very, very horny) folks at the Nerve Film Lounge have partnered with the Independent Film Channel to bring us The 50 Greatest Sex Scenes in Cinema.

We’re pretty sure you’ll opt for their presentation, complete with visuals and video, over our plain-spoken one. But, just in case, here’s a round-up of the top 10:

10. Madeline Kahn’s intense, innuendo-driven, one-liner-for-foreplay encounter with Frankenstein in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974)

9. The unlawfully steamy exchange between Ellen Barkin and Dennis Quaid in The Big Easy (1987)

8. The climax of the mentally and sexually charged relationship between Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader in Secretary (2002)

7. Daniel Day-Lewis’ passionate yet romance- driven affair with his Pakistani business partner in My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) at a time when society’s acceptance of gay rights was a far cry from the Brokeback Mountain critical acclaim

6. The opening scene of French movie Betty Blue (1985) in which Beatrice Dalle and Jean-Hugues Anglade flirtatiously open a 2-hour nudity fest

5. Tereza (Juliette Binoche) taking nude photographs of her lover’s (Daniel Day-Lewis again) wife Sabina (Lena Olin) under sexually charged silence in Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

4. Tom Cruise’s semi-delusional (ed: so that’s when it all started…) sexual encounter with Rebecca De Mornay in Risky Business (1993)

3. The impromptu yet mind-blowingly intense makeout-leads-to-more between Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001)

2. Maria Bello and Viggo Mortensen’s violent stairwell sex in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005)

1. Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland’s voyeuristic interstitial collage of lovemaking in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973)

And since we’re not ones to give you any of that don’t-try-this-at-home crap, please do. By all means, do try this at home if, and whenever, you’ve got the opportunity. Just don’t get too cinematically inspired. Because we all know where those home tapes always end up.

DONATELLO COULDN’T PULL THIS OFF

We got to wondering whatever happened to plaid. So we decided to bring it back with the help of a Burberry-for-geeks effort called Tiny Plaid Ninjas. Part arbitrary entertainment, part foray into delightful flash animation, this digital weirdo even has its own gear store.

Tiny Plaid Ninjas The whole thing, along with other similarly borderline idiotic yet incredibly amusing projects, is the doing of a mysterious University of Michingan Computer Engineering grad who wouldn’t even reveal his name, but would reveal the fact that he has sold a Plaid Ninja thong on June 4th, 2005. We dig his (or her?) irreverent approach to, well, everything, plus we feel compelled to root for villain-or-underdog-depending-on-how-you-look-at-it Argyle Ninja.

BP

Mmm-Hmmm

Invisible furniture, molecular ad cuisine, pricing out the art of living, 1406 ways a photo lens can change your outlook, why the world is 774% friendlier than this time last year, and what Regis Kelly has to do with iTunes’ impending demise.

TUNING OUT OF ITUNES

itunes.gif No question the iTunes empire is one to be reckoned with. And many have. Last year, Microsoft released Windows Media Player 11 jukebox software, which included Urge, MTV’s digital music store. At that point, the Microsoft/MTV partnership had been around for a few months, so the new player/store platform sent bloggers and business analysts alike on a rave spree.

Well, all that stuff went down the crapper.

Take 2: Viacom is dumping the PC guys tribe for RealNetworks, whose struggling Rhapsody music service could use a symbiotic partnership with MTV, a brand so digitally challenged its iconic status pedestal is shaking like a polaroid picture.

And while the corporate powerhouses are busy forging all sots of anti-iTunes alliances, a grassroots army of boycotters is afoot. Remember how years ago non-profit Mozilla‘s free, open-source Firefox made Microsoft’s Internet Explorer obsolete even for hardcore PC-ers? Goliath iTunes may be headed down that same road thanks to Songbird, a fresh new David born out of open source king Mozilla. It’s a piece of web/desktop mash-up genius that lets you find and organize music, on and offline, in a beautifully integrated way, far beyond what iTunes can offer.

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Besides the neat design, Songbird has infinite, mind-blowing capacities: it’s cross-platform (so Mac Guy, PC Guy and, um, Linux Guy can play nice and share), comes in 39 languages (so you can finally get original song titles for that Zimbabwean album there), and will play any music file format, including mp3, OGG, AAC, FLAC, WMV and more (suck that, MPEG-4). And that’s just the beginning. Best part? Songbird will pull all media files from a web page you’re viewing (say, Bitter:Sweet‘s band website) into a playlist you can, well, play on your desktop. Plus, it’s got all sorts of community features like blogs, forums, website buttons and super-cool merchandise (profits, of course, go to funding the project). Overall, that birdie is getting the Brain Pickings seal of approval right smack in the middle of its birdie forehead.

But the bigger point is, all these developments show one thing: the whole iTunes monopoly, with its proprietary bullshit and various usage limitations (how many computers have you authorized to listen to your library?) is quickly turning into Regis Kelly — old, pompous and annoying. We say time for change.

UNKODAK MOMENTS

The trouble with the whole digital thing is that it makes it super easy for everyone and their mother to take pictures and splatter them all over the web. They do it, too. And we can only take so many photoblogs and albums of people’s chubby kids playing with other people’s chubby kids. Good thing there are folks out there claiming photography back from the overexposed and the cliche. Folks like those at FILE Magazine, a “collection of unexpected photography.”

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FILE mag aims to reinterpret our way of looking at imagery and the world at large. They also make a point of what they’re not: a photoblog, a photography contest, a home for family albums, a source of glossy fashion spreads. It’s an actual magazine in that involves actual editors curating unconventional photography wherever they spot it, then contact the authors and ask to include it in The Collection, currently 1406 photos wonderful.

We were pretty taken with all projects we looked at, but a couple of favorites did emerge:

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Back of the House explores the culinary world behind the scenes, zooming in on the human element in the fine dining subculture. Endless Summer takes on the postcardish, touristy, aging-boomer-stereotype side of Florida and counters it by delving into its opposite. In Misspent Youth, photographer Andrew Newson takes a trip to his childhood school some 16 years later, looking at simple memory triggers with the complex eyes of a life-worn adult. The aptly titled Untitled steals glimpses of scenes, places and objects that no one seems to notice, letting their static, geometric qualities take on a hypnotic, haunting vibe.

Pick your own favorite projects or submit your own off-center photography.

ART IMITATES COST OF LIFE

A fundamental rule of art is that it’s not to be taken at face value. Another fundamental rule of art is that there are no rules. So a 20-something couple from New York, originally propelled by creative vision and starvation, has rolled with the latter and turned the former on its head.

Wants For Sale is a strikingly how-come-no-one-thought-of-this- earlier concept that challenges the starving-artist stereotype head-on.


Here’s how it works: Artist wants iPhone. Artist paints iPhone in acrylic on 2″-deep gallery canvas. Aritst posts painting for sale at $649.17, the exact price of iPhone. Art enthusiast sees painting, loves it and buys it. Artist gets iPhone. Genius.

Once a painting is bought, its online status changes from “Want” to “Have” so you can see the kind of stuff that people buy. Wants range from daily cravings like a buffalo wings (have; $12.70) and beer (have; $7.00) to nitty-gritty living stuff like one month’s rent (want; 1,056.07) to intangibles like financial security (want; $1,000,000) and a night of booze-induced amnesia (have; $100.00). So much for the whole artists-can’t-do-business-to-save-their-life notion. Although we do have to wonder why only beer snob beer would do and what kind of superhuman workouts are involved in getting a six-pack in just a month. (While having buffalo wings and beer.)

The folks even offer to paint anything you want, with the fair disclaimer that it has nothing to do with the Yankees. Yep, Christine and Justin seem like quite the characters, which is also evident in their minimalist, sweetly quirky self-intro.

AD SERVING A LA CARTE

Earlier this month, Australian ad-personalization-solutions pioneer Qmecom unveiled a platform truly revolutionary, a much-needed marriage of today’s two biggest marketing trends: customization and that whole 2.0 experience thing. No, it’s not your grandmother’s behavioral targeting. It’s a beautiful system of complex algorithms that goes by the (not-so-catchy) name of Personalized Video Advertising Platform and does just what the name implies: allows advertisers to personalize a video ad to the individual viewer. Their explanation of the platform is a bit wordy and confusing, so we’ll digest it for you and spit it out.

Here’s how it works:

The algorithm engine takes your regular Flash file and breaks it down into molecular-level creative components. (These can be any video and static elements, including colors, text, sounds, images, calls to action, offers, message tags and more.) The system then uses these to generate a library of possible creative templates. Next, the templates are matched against the viewer’s site visit patterns, any CRM and data profiles, or historical and/or real-time behavioral data. The template that best matches the viewer’s personal patterns is delivered, resulting in the most engaging creative possible.

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So say you’re doing a shoe campaign for adidas. You decide to run a Flash banner on Amazon. Frequent shopper John Doe stumbles upon it after having just looked at desks and messenger bags. You know from his Amazon profile that he’s 19. And his user history tells you he always buys stuff eligible for Amazon’s “free super saver” shipping option. Oh, and he’s recently bought a couple of kelly-green shirts. A-ha, you say to yourself (if you’re a Qmecom algorithm, that is) and figure he’s a college student shopping for back-to-school stuff who likes green and is a sucker for price-related promotions. So you deliver that neat stop-motion animation of the green Campus sneaker and throw in your “free overnight shipping” promotion for shopadidas.com. J.D.’s all “oooh, check thiiiis out…” and you’re all “sweeeeet.”

If you’re still not buying/getting/fully appreciating it, check out some samples of campaigns they did. We were particularly impressed with the BMW 3 Series email campaign and Virgin Blue Airlines web stuff. We just can’t wait to see what Qmecom can do with ad delivery on social network platforms where info on personal preferences is rich and aplenty, supplied eagerly and willingly straight from the source.

UNTRIVIA

brainiac.gif And speaking of social networks, anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock knows they’re on fire. But 774% on fire? That’s how much worldwide traffic to newcomer Tagged grew between June 06 and June 07 according to comScore. Boy-hee.

So while this may be standard fare for a newly launched net as it garners its first members, the major social networks (MySpace, Facebook, Hi5, Friendster, Orkut and Bebo) have also been rolling in the traffic dough. MySpace is keeping at its steady climb with 72% growth and development beast Facebook is soaring with 270%, probably largely due to the recent addition of numerous widgets, mini-platforms and other developer fare.

And just in case you’re suspecting traffic stats are driven by “samplers” who rarely visit the websites, rest assured daily visits are also growing like the number of celebrihoes making trips to jail: MySpace is up 72%, Facebook 299%, Hi5 65%, Friendster 96%, Orkut 75%, and Bebo 307%.

This leaves us wondering how much time and engagement all the online dwelling displaces from good ol’ face-to-face conversations, hanging out with friends and other such pre-2.0 social activities. But oh how much easier it is to befriend someone by clicking a shared music interest link than by, you know, learning actual social skills and getting out there. And who cares if your new buddy happens to be one of those 29,000 registered sex offenders, you both dig High School Musical. (Although probably for very different reasons.)

LACK-A-RACK

If you happen to share our love of minimalist design and our disdain for applied physics, then you’ll also happen to dig the Self Shelf.

It’s pretty much what it sounds like: a shelf that looks like a book. It attaches to the wall invisibly thanks to a back bracket and holds up to 8.5 lbs. (That’s almost 3 War and Peaces, or almost 23 US Weeklys. Your choice.)

Get it for $29.95 from Firebox or pass it on to your friend who, you know, actually has something display-worthy to put on it. (Nope, Harry Potter doesn’t cut it.)

BP

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