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All Kinds of Shakers

Brainy like a pro, Someguy, down with Pac-Man, brass balls, staying on top of the world, Web World War I, what Frida Kahlo and Popeye have in common, and why ugly old warehouses belong at the heart of every city. Welcome to the All Kinds of Shakers issue.

BEGGARS CAN BE CHOOSERS

As the recent proud purchasers of a Canon PowerShot Pro S3 IS, we’re quite aware of the onerous endeavor that is researching stuff online, and the crucial role product reviews play. Which is why we dig SmartRatings, a new service that aggregates expert reviews on gadgets from across the web and serves them up to you in a nifty, easily digestible format.

You get an overall product score based on the scaled and averaged ratings different experts gave it so you can base your decision on a total score in a unified 1-100 scale. The computer, electronics and camera reviews come from all across the range, from gadget-god-truth-bestowing CNET to casual-opining Stuff. And while they don’t weigh experts differently based on their perceived reputability, they do curate sources to only include solid, legit experts.

Once you’re ready to commit, SmartRatings uses PriceGrabber software to show you where you can snag the thing at the best deal. And if you need more than just gadgets, the Price Finder tool (also based on PriceGrabber) lets you browse any category you fancy, from baby stuff to outdoor gear.

Apparently, you can save a buck on Boy Butter if you get it at drugstore.com over other retailers.

MASHIEST MASH-UP

Here’s a thought: using the capacity of the digital age to spark real creative collaboration. And we’re not talking about video mash-ups and other ephemeral CGC stints. We’re talking about 1000 Journals, an incredibly smart project that meshes the traditional, pen-scissors-and- paper art of journaling with the concept of digital distribution and collaboration, building a tightly knit community around it all.

The way it works is simpler than it sounds: you either start a real paper-based journal, scan it in and upload it, or you join other people’s already uploaded journals and contribute creatively. You control the level of others’ involvement in your own journal — you can make it fully public so anyone can chip in creative content, or you can make it personal and just share with others to look at.

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If you choose to share your journal, it can be either a travelling one (mailed to people who sign up to contribute) or a location one (staying at one public location, such as a cafe, shop, or bookstore). The travelling kind can have a theme if you so with and can be by invitation only or open to everyone who signs up. And the location one is always open to all contributors, but they have to make a trip to the location. You can download instruction bookplates to glue to the inside covers of your creation so people would know what the hell just hit them.

So far, 1000 Journals is sporting close to 3,500 members, more than 600 personal journals, 54 location ones, and over 1,000 travelling. And they’ve already published a best-of book cleverly listed as authored by Someguy.

We must say, the work is sometimes weird, sometimes absolutely brilliant, often dark, but always strikingly honest. Take a look.

PAC-MAN’S NIGHTMARE

Got pixelation nightmares but don’t wanna shell out a grand on Adobe Cs3? The good folks at Stanford are there for you with a free web-based service that lets you turn raster pixelation debacles into great-at-any-size vector images. (For those getting the Huh’s right about now, raster images are pixel-based and get worse as you enlarge them, but vector drawings are made up of geometric shapes that you can resize all you want with zero fuzziness.)

VectorMagic, unlike other similar apps, is seamlessly optimized for any operating system. And, unlike the Adobe stuff, it takes zilch out of your pocket. Plus, completely web-based, so your broadband takes all the slow-down weight from your hard drive. No more Illustrator-crashing-Photoshop-crashing-everything lovelies.

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For your Luddite benefit, these nice folks have an instructional video showing you exactly how to make your vectorization dreams come true. It’s simple, really: you upload a JPG, PNG, GIF, BMP or TIFF, configure what file format you want back (EPS, SVG or PNG), let the vector magic happen, then just review and download your effortless payoff.

Great on everything from pencil-on-paper hand sketches to fuzzy vacation photos, VectorMagic actually outperforms Corel and matches Adobe in a side-by-side comparison of results. And, speaking of results, how about these bad boys?

BALLS FOR RIGHTEOUS BRAWLS

If you’ve touched any piece of media lately, you’ve heard of the WGA strike, writers’ first stance against studio monopoly since 1988. You may have even heard that Steve Carell, in a heroic we’re-all-in-this-together act of support, called NBC and refused to report to work due to not just merely “enlarged balls” but “brass balls.” Whatever their size, he clearly has them to stand up to the giants.

But level of informity aside, if you’re like us, you still need some clarifying nudging to really get what the whole shebang is about. So here’s a neat and pretty compelling clarifier straight from the source:

Pity that audiences, the currency of network ad sales, won’t feel the impact until months later (because season shows are written several episodes ahead), which means networks will sit and wait, hoping writers starve to death, before they do anything proactive. And, for what it’s worth, we’re calling to cancel our Comcast today. How’s that for a 0.00000001% chip at your currency pie, network meanies? We may even mention something about brass balls to the cusomter service rep.

DIGITAL GRAPEVINE

Care to know what’s on the minds, lips and eyes of the world? You could spend half your day sifting through Digg, del.icio.us, YouTube, Fark, Reddit, and all their other web-mates. Or, you could just go to the super-nifty PopUrls, which aggregates, well, popular url’s from every possible buzz source: the video giants (YouTube, Metacafe, iFilm, AOL video and more), the photo hubs (think Flikr and friends), the social bookmarking beasts (your Digg, Fark, del.icio.us and on and on), the news leaders (Yahoo and Google News, among others), and the weird new media hybrids (you know, Twitter, Mahalo and what not).

popurls.pngThis bad-ass lets you customize your view and presentation, from actual content displayed to layout, page background, and font size. It also has a nifty Scrapbook feature that lets you store URL’s on a sticky-note-looking thingie so you wouldn’t have to clutter your bookmarks or open Stickies (if you’re not PC Guy and actually have them).

PopUrls is the rather ingenious brainchild of self-proclaimed “web communications maverick” Thomas Marban, an entrepreneurial Aussie who back in the day co-founded werk3, one of Australia’s first web agencies. This latest project is easily the best execution we’ve seen of the so-called Single Page Aggregators concept.

Just one thing on our wish list for the cool app: tagging content from all the different buzz sources so we can see broader themes and subjects that emerge across the web in real time.

UNTRIVIA

brainiac.gifIn case you’re not following the social networking tumults of the past two weeks, here’s a quick recap: Facebook announced their new “business solutions” platform of hyper-targeted advertising (SocialAds), friend-linked e-commerce recommendations (Beacon), and deep behavioral tracking (Insights), on top of a Microsoft deal. Google, still the laggard in the SN game, responded with a groundbreaking OpenSocial platform, an ad-serving alliance with various high-traffic SN sites.

To give you an idea of the extent of this Google/Facebook face-off, here’s a list of who the OpenSocial allies are and how they fare traffic-wise.

Pretty impressive, given Facebook’s 65 million. But, of course, results will depend entirely on the actual competing platforms and how each handles content. Because, in the end, it always comes down to relevance and engagement, not total eyeball numbers.

Meanwhile, the talk of the town has it that all the Google-Goliath pressure may force Facebook to dump their own recently released proprietary advertising platform and become another sheep in the Google alliance herd. Our plan: wait and see. Sounds like a solid one, no? We’re also not opposed to some wager cash changing hands.

CONSTRUCTING / DECONSTRUCTING CULTURE

Inspired by the classical busts of the Roman Republic, Seattle-based artist Scott Fife works sculptural wonders out of cardboard and pencil. The artist’s architectural training meshes brilliantly with his anthropomorphic studio work to deliver something completely immune to the seen-it-before epidemic.

Scott grew up in the golden age of advertising and large-format magazines, which bred a fascination with pop culture. Then one day, as a student at Cronbrook, he was cleaning up an Andy Warhol show and was taken with the irreverence of the legendary Warholian pop art.

Twenty-five years later, Fife has coined his own strikingly distinct style of culturally-relevant pop art — and pop it is: he’s done sculptures of anyone from Frida Kahlo to Bob Dylan to Popeye. And his scope of vision encompasses culture in its entirety, from the raw to the avant-garde. He’s also sculpted revolutionaries, pin-up girls, Witness his creative process in the making of Lionel Hampton in stop-motion.

We dig the tangible human element in his art: the process of constructing by hand, the indulgence of the traditional by using only old-school tools, the promise of accomplishment engrained in the sense of building. And, for what it’s worth, Scott Fife’s creations strike us more than Warhol’s ever did.

Fine, let the hate mail pour in.

STREET PICKINGS

Midway between Chinatown and Center City stands this architectural pariah and social darling.

Graffiti

And while graffiti sightings are as common as big pharma claims ED to be, this one’s an interesting burst of colorful self-expression in a bland surrounding of industrial murk.

Ah, the power a spray can holds to a face-in-the-crowd teenager.

BP

Things To Look At, Things To See

Snobby sorbet, bands in town, circus in Brooklyn, the looked-at unseen, global warming in aisle 9, an imaginary nail in the record industry’s coffin, and how Google is saving the world while, you know, taking over it. Welcome to the Things To Look At, Things To See issue.

BETA WAY TO GET AROUND

Okay, most of us geek types can already recite Google Labs’ project list in their sleep and madly worship the Labs graduates (say, Docs & Spreadsheets, GOOG-411, Scholar and, of course, Google Earth.) But we’re particularly goo-ga over the latest one.

logo_idea.jpgGoogle Transit, naturally in Beta (as, by the way, good ol’ Gmail still is), helps you get around town without using a car. Just plug in your starting point and your destination, and you’re on your way. (How does it feel to walk in those shrunken-carbon-footprint feet?) The neat service uses Google Maps to get bike/walk route ideas and directions using public transporation down to the specific bus route number, the cost of the trip and the estimated travel time.

Alas, this transportation genius is only available in 19 US cities — and Japan (?!) But we know how fast the Google folks can churn out their magic (yep, if you haven’t gathered by now, we’ve been drinking the Goolaid), so no doubt Philly will make the cut at some point. (Especially given our very own Septa already has a similar but much more low-tech service on their website that can only benefit from being picked up by high-traffic, high-buzz Google.)

We only have one question — given the brilliance of the serivce itself, how come no one in Mountain View had the same “d’oh” moment we did and thought of the oh-so-obvious bike-tires-over-two-O’s logo? Do we have to come up with everything? Come on now.

OFF-ISLAND FASHION

Trailing behind the buzzing publicity beehive that was New York Fashion Week, Brooklyn Fashion Weekend kicks off today at Empire-Fulton State Ferry Park. It’s a showcase for emerging design talent (including unforgettable character Malan Breton from Project Runway 3) and a chance for fashionistas to get the goods before they get hit the way-out-of-95-percent-of-the-population’s-budget price range.

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This year’s event, themed Circus Couture, is part theatrical magic, part runway (and part major Target sponsorship).

Behind the show is the BK Style Foundation, a non-profit inspired by the recognition that Brooklyn is brimming with artists and underexposed talent. The org aims to assist young desingers in building and bettering their lines, while also providing a professional backdrop for business. And because they’re a non-profit, proceeds from the show end up in various charity causes.

That should make you feel a little better about shelling out a year’s lunch money on one of Malan’s creations.

FRASIER’S FAVORITE DESSERT

Although it may not feel like it around here these days (yes, it is always sunny — and warm — in Philadelphia and Al Gore was probably right that we’re on our way to bathing in a soup of melted glaciers and our own sweat), summer’s winding down. Time to trade in the sherbet for that alluring glass of oh-so-autumny cabernet sauvignon.

Wait, wait. Now you can do both, thanks to Wine Cellar Sorbets: “The adult desert for sophisticated palates.”

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The concept is the brainchild of wine-head-meets-culinary-artist David Zablocki and scientist-with-an-MBA Bret Birnbaum, a couple of childhood friends from Queens. Today, the two vinopreneurs have various stores in New York, New Jersey and Florida already carrying their creation, their sorbets are served in a bunch of upscale restaurants, they’ve been covered by a number of top-tier magazines, and they cater private A-list events.

All sorbets are seasonal and come from vintages, varietals and viticulture regions from where the wines were produced. On top of all the flavors already available, the sorbet sommelier is planning to make Tuscan Sangiovese and Port Wine Sorbet paired with a dark chocolate top hat.

Mouth watering, drool may drip on keyboard. Must step away.

UNTRIVIA

You may remember last year when a non-profit called RenewUS set out to mobilize people to get their energy from alternative sources and pressure their utilities providers to make those available. A pretty hefty task, you may say. RenewUS made quite a bit of buzz in the eco-blogging community with their envirol video.

And then they disappeared.

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Well, turns out, they didn’t. They just rebranded as ClimateCounts, “a collaborative effort to bring consumers and companies together in the fight against global climate change,” and set out to fight global warming from the bottom up. Maybe they realized people need easy, actionable everyday changes to start making a difference, and the whole face-off with utilities companies may have been just a bit much.

So ClimateCounts started simple: they measured the carbon footprints of common household brands so consumers can start making a difference right at the store. So far, they’ve got 56 companies — they started with the most popular ones — but the list is growing. They ranked them using a 22-criteria scoring system, assessing 4 key benchmakrs: how the company measures its carbon footprint (22 posible points), how much they do to reduce it (56 points), how they support (or whether they try to block) progressive climate legislation (10 points), and how publicly transparent they are about all that (12 points). As a result, brands scored red (“Stuck”), yellow (“Starting”), or green (“Striding”) based on their overall score out of the possible 100 points. Here’s a topline of the scorecard‘s best and worst performers:

Top Striders: Cannon (77/100), Nike (73/100), Unilever (71/100), IBM (70), Toshiba (66), Stonyfield Farms (63)

Top Stuckers: Wendy’s, Jones Apparel Group, Darden Restaurants, CBS, Burger King, Amazon (all zilch)

On each company’s profile, there’s even an easy-email button to let the company CEO climate efforts are important. And just so you’re in the know when you’re in the store, you can download the ranking pocketpiece or the full-blown scorecard.

Worth mentioning: the entire non-profit is funded by Stonyfield Farms and Clean Air – Cool Planet. But despite the company affiliation, this sounds like the real thing: Stonyfield Farms has been donating 10% of their profits to, well, non-profits since their very inception, and they were also the ones who produced, quietly and publicitly-stunt-free, the aforementioned RenewUS A Crisis Averted film last year. (Not to mention the objectivity oozing from the fact they were ranked number 6, not 1.) We can help but get a bit warm and fuzzy when we see such a rare, genuine just-get-out-and-do-it approach.

IMAGINE

With the record industry ashambles these days, bands , artists and musicologists alike are looking for new ways to publish and relate to talent. There’s podcasting, free-market album sales, open-source remixing for legal sharing, and more.

imagine.pngBut one music dream machine is taking things to a whole new level. Imaginary Albums is an “imaginary place dedicated to the imaginary dissemination of excellent music: full albums encoded at high quality, and available for free download.

And by “excellent” they mean really, really what-are-the-major-labels-thinking-not-signing-this-band good. Like The Harvey Girls, whose eponymous album is a deep dive into melodic melancholy with a tint of snarky liveliness, all brilliantly harmonized. Or Laura Palmer‘s curious instrumental interpretation of still life. (Who knew acoustic guitar and an alarm clock could make sweet inanimate love together.) Or Tiny Creatures‘ bizarre-yet-brilliant foray into sonic electro-lounge.

As you’ll notice, a lot of this music is very experimental. And a lot of it you may hate. But here’s the thing with mainstream record labels (and perhaps the reason they’re no longer king in music culture): a long, long time ago they’ve stopped caring about the progressive, left-of-center players and have instead eaten themselves into blobs of Top-40-sales fat, sitting idly in a comfort zone of mainstream taste and lowest-common- denominator demand.

Sure, it’s the mainstream’s taste that drives a lot of music culture, but if “the mainstream” never gets exposed to novelty, controversy and a level of discomfort, that taste never gets the chance to grow. It’s a vicious cycle. An open-exchange market free of corporate constraints may just be the only way to put compelling conversation back into music culture.

Imagine that.

GIGS TO GO

While we’re on the music note, every once in a while we come across an underrated but super-utilitarian new service. Like Bands In Town — a social media outlet for the music-obsessed. Despite the leaves-something-to-be-desired interface, the actual service is pretty nifty (and rather similar to iConcertCal, which you may recall from way back in the Brain Pickings 1.0 days) and simple: just fill in a bunch of your favorite bands and artists (the little wiz already knows your location from the IP address) and you’re good to go. (Or, if you have Last.fm — which you may also remember from the extensive praises we sang it back in the day — BandsInTown lets you automatically synch with your existing music profile.)

bands.pngYou get a tag cloud of upcoming shows near you, then you can narrow it down by when you wanna see a concert (tonight only or not), distance from the city, max price range, and label type (unsigned, indie or major). You can also filter results by genre or tag. Needless to say, all the goodness is free. (Sign of the times, no? Social connectivity services could never live on a paid-subscription model now, great news for advertisers, especially the behavioral-targeting-smart ones.)

Okay, we just found out Madeleine Peyroux (oh, only the best neo-French jazz vocal to come by in decades) is coming to South Orange, NJ next month, so we’re off to plotting that getaway. Who’s in?

AS SEEN IN PHILLY

It’s frightening how, buried in our daily grind, we hardly ever look up and really see things. Just this week, we biked by something we’d passed a thousands times before but never noticed.

An unexpected gem tucked between Chinatown and crack row, this building stands proud right on high-traffic Callowhill as a delightful hallmark of the looked-at unseen.

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Tomorrow, look up.

BP

This Week…

Smurfs on drugs, little kids, a three-way call with McDonald’s and your BFF, where to have the best affair in Zambia, what Einstein and a bunny have in common, and how to butter up your boss for the holidays. Welcome to Brain Pickings.

SWEETLY PRETENTIOUS / PRETENTIOUSLY SWEET

Unadmitted intellectuals, self-admitted New Yorkers at heart, culture hogs and cheapos alike: rejoice. The holy grail of web publishing is finally being handed to us on a digital platter. Yes, it’s true: The New York Times has made its online content available for…gasp…free. Which leaves us with in an oh-so-familiar paradox: so much to explore, so little free time.

Luckily, we’re all kinds of nice here. So we’re sifting through it all for you at 5th-gear-full-throttle rates to bring you the very best. Stuff like painter and experimental filmmaker Jeff Scher’s The Animated Life, a blog (but, oh, so much more) about the abstract and the nitty-gritty of life, beautifully written and marvelously animated. What more is there, really?

Granted, the man’s credits make him sound a bit pompous (and by “a bit” we mean Niles Crane pompous): he has screened at the Guggenheim, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Pompidou Center in Paris, and opening night at the New York Film Festival, among other distinguished venues. And he’s done work for HBO and PBS, among other distinguished acronyms.
But we, regardless of our general tendency to go for the darker stuff, dig that he’s not a trend-follower. That whole “dark” trend, that is. Because we’ve noticed that in recent years, that whole generation of teen-angst-ridden kids has grown up to become a generation of twentysomething-jaded artists who, however talented, often exorcise it all through the aforementioned “darker stuff.” And a lot of it is painfully alike. Good, sometimes even great, but alike.

Jeff Scher’s work is anything but. Dark and seen-it-before, that is. Part 50’s Russian animation, part Wizard of Oz, part early Disney, part French cartoons from the early 90’s, it’s truly whimsical and feels eerily timeless, and yet it captures those can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on things about modern life. No wonder NYT kept it in their private Fort Knox for so long. Hell, we would, too.

Except we’re nicer than the Ochs-Sulzberger family.

YOU’D BETTER BELIEVE IT

Okay, we’re not in the business of putting people at risk for getting overcultured. So let’s hurry and offset any damage we may have done.

The interesting thing about click-and- mortar warehouse Amazon.com is that it lumps together serious, reputable products (like, say, one Options Playbook) with, well, let’s just say less reputable ones. Stuff like our product pick of the week which, had we seen it elsewhere, we would’ve instantly taken for some sort of viral gag.

Well, it ain’t.

Alas, it ended up in Amazon’s digital clearance bin and garnered no reviews whatsoever, so we guess people were unable to not believe and therefore refused to buy.

Now here’s something to kick off our holiday gift shopping early.

WHEN A MOTEL WON’T DO

Long before bad movie remakes put the name on public lips, Mr. & Ms. Smith was a niche travel website that bridged couples with their dream romantic escapes, at the world’s most luxurious destinations. The allusion to the original movie, in the team’s own words, is “a wink to couples everywhere, who fancy checking into a fabulous hotel under this classic dirty-weekend pseudonym.” Ah, marriage.

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Their travel portfolio includes the poshest destinations and independent hotels across the globe, each reviewed anonymously by a professional Mr. & Mrs. Smith reviewer. And speaking of the team, besides the three key chronic entrepreneurs, it features a reviewer panel made up of writers, restaurant critics, designers (including Stella McCartney) and rock stars. If these guys don’t know luxury and incognito, we don’t know who does.

Exclusive memberships come in three ego sizes — BlackSmith (£10), SilverSmith (£75), and GoldSmith (£250) — all promising cardholders various levels of very, very special offers. (No, not in that Asian massage parlor kind of way.)

BIG BROTHER WANTS TO CALL YOUR MOTHER

Convenience is the new capital. We pay more to get places faster (hello, overpriced Accela Express), do things with less effort (Amazon.com, thank you for sparing us many a shopping trip), watch things on our terms (TiVo, anyone?). But it was only a matter of time until smart business models started popping up, offering convenience in exchange for something other than money. Ours, at least.

San-Jose-based Pudding Media is one such interpreneur — using the Internet to revolutionize telecommunications. Last week, they launched The Pudding (in Beta), a VoIP service that allows free calls to anywhere in North America straight from a web browser, sans annoying application downloads.

The business model also includes “breakthrough technology that makes your conversations even more interesting by displaying content that is relevant to your conversation.” Read: repurposed contextual targeting technology that nudges highly targeted ads into your conversation. For the Gmailholics among us, it’s nothing new: you know those contextual ads to the right of your message? Same deal, only The Pudding’s technology uses voice recognition software (the same thing that lets you add voice commands to your cell’s call options.) But it’s made it into The New York Times, so we guess it’s significant enough an innovation to warrant the big guns’ attention.

The Orwellian privacy police of the blogasphere is already going at it. But, really, who’s forcing their fingers over t-h-e-p-u-d-d-i-n-g-.-c-o-m on the keyboard? We’re just glad the option is out there.

And, more than anything, we’re fascinated by the most interesting finding of all: while running some testing, Pudding Media CEO Ariel Maislos found that the advertising content actually influenced the course of the organic conversation between the caller and the callee. How’s that for proof of the very real feedback loop and Conversationality potential between brands and everyday folk?

WHAT LIVES UNDER THE DIGITAL BED

What happens if you take the Smurfs, get them high on psychedelic drugs, have them watch Six Feet Under for seven hours, read them selected excerpts from your favorite Stephen King novel, and let them loose with a bucket of paint and a brush? Zoomquilt II happens.

Zoomquilt IIDubbed “a collaborative art project,” it’s really a digital mashup of various artists‘ illustrations, pieced together in Flash to produce a mesmerizing, dizzifying, endless loop of interlocking images sure to give you more optical illusions than walking into Disneyland after downing five Purpletinis.

Originally conceived by mastermind artist and developer Nikolaus Baumgarten, the first generation of Zoomquilt was born in 2005. Over 100,000 Google hits later, it was retired to make room for 2007’s upgrade: Zoomquilt II.

Check it out and see how long you can last before your head starts spinning and your recurring childhood nightmare about that creepy clown living under your bed comes back.

ANIMAL PLANET MEETS NIP/TUCK

Most of us have moments when we feel weird, awkward, odd, and generally unfitting. (Some of us more frequently than others.) So it’s nice to know that there are other weirdos out there in the global high school that is the Biosphere.

yeti_crab.jpgFor your viewing pleasure, we present you with “25 of The World’s Most Interesting Animals.” (And, dare we add, our 8th grade English teacher’s words of literary peevishness — that “interesting” is what you call an ugly baby — never seemed more fitting.)

We’re having a hard time picking a favorite. There’s the blob fish, which looks like a certain great uncle of ours; the tarsier, which finally helps us make sense of Simon Cowell’s comments regarding a certain American Idol contestant’s appearance; the aye-aye, which gives us a sneak preview of what next century’s anthropologists will see when they exhume Paris Hilton’s dog; the angora rabbit, which looks like it proposed the Theory of Relativity; and, of course, the Komondor dog, which we’re pretty sure can be purchased at the Pottery Barn.

Pick your own favorite oddball, or just sit back, check yourself out in the mirror, and be grateful you didn’t end up on nature’s aesthetic shitlist.

BP

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.

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.

BP

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