The New York Times Magazine Archives

December 11, 2004

The Virtual Sketch Artist

For years, crime witnesses have been asked to come down to the police station and describe crime suspects to sketch artists. Recently, though, psychologists have found that when witnesses try to describe a face, they often distort their memory of it. Could there be a better way?

Police stations in the English county of Kent say they believe they have found one. This spring, they will introduce EigenFIT, one of several new programs that present a witness with a screen full of various photorealistic portraits. The witness chooses the portrait that seems to bear a resemblance, however slight, to the person he or she remembers. The computer then uses the chosen photo to produce a new generation of potential suspects, which the witness will again narrow down. Once more, the computer clones and mutates the chosen faces, slowly closing in on the face in question.

In order to create fresh sets of faces with enough variation, EigenFIT borrows tricks from evolution's playbook, causing traits to appear in a variety of combinations. After dozens of cycles, the computer-generated faces can no longer be distinguished from one another, and the police are left with a single lifelike portrait that no human sketch artist could possibly have drawn.

There is one potential problem: our memory of faces can be hazy and coarse, but the software creates images of fine-grained detail. In order to reduce the chances of a mistake, researchers have toyed with letting witnesses blur out the features they simply don't remember.

December 12, 2004

Underwear for Animated People


When Pixar animators were creating this year's hit movie ''The Incredibles,'' they noticed a certain limpness in the movements of a key character, the diminutive fashion diva Edna Mode. Her skirt appeared to sag and crumple as she walked. The animators could have taken the trouble to iron out the glitches frame by frame. But they devised a more clever solution: the studio fitted Edna with a virtual petticoat. While her underwear is never actually seen onscreen, it nonetheless helps keep her clothing in place.

Welcome to the world of invisible animation. Hollywood's computer animators have had great success when it comes to depicting the human body in motion. Their portrayal of shirts, pants and jackets has proved to be equally lifelike and impressive. But when animators program computer systems to mimic the way interwoven fibers interact with skin -- that is, when virtual clothing is put on the virtual person -- the results are hard to predict and often go awry. Simulated cloth routinely gets snagged in armpits and groins or flutters and tangles spontaneously. Directors simply do not know in advance what an ordinary shirt will do once it is fitted to a moving torso.

In the face of persistent wardrobe malfunctions, animators have discovered the virtues of introducing a virtual garment that cannot be seen onscreen but nonetheless alters the computer modeling in a desirable way. For instance, when Tom Hanks's conductor's jacket in ''Polar Express'' kept flapping violently in the wind, it was easier to wrap him inside an invisible shroud than to smooth the jacket out by hand.

And while testing a scene of ''The Incredibles'' in which the once-dashing Mr. Incredible is demoted to a dead-end insurance job, animators noticed that his barrel chest kept tugging his button-down shirt out of his trousers. Rather than repeatedly halting production to tuck the shirt back in, they fell back on an old costuming trick and simply sewed his shirttails into a custom-fitted pair of virtual briefs.

December 10, 2005

The Porn Suffix

Establishing a new Internet suffix like ''.com'' or ''.org'' takes deep pockets and patience. This has not deterred Stuart Lawley, a Florida entrepreneur, from trying to establish a pornography-only ''.xxx'' domain. In such a realm, Lawley could restrict porn marketing to adults only, protect users' privacy, limit spam and collect fees from Web masters. The .xxx proposal was finally slated for approval in August by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), but because of a flurry of protest, it has been shelved for now.

Lawley's scheme has aroused support and dissent across the political spectrum. The Family Research Council warns that it will simply breed more smut. But Senator Joe Lieberman supports a virtual red-light district because he says it would make the job of filtering out porn easier.

Meanwhile, some pornographers, apparently drawn by the promise of catchier and more trustworthy U.R.L.'s, have gotten behind Lawley. Other skin-peddlers, echoing the A.C.L.U., see the establishment of a voluntary porn zone as the first step toward the deportation of their industry to a distant corner of the Web, where their sites could easily be blocked by skittish Internet service providers, credit card companies and even governments.

The Free Speech Coalition, a lobbying group for the pornography industry, supports an entirely different approach to Web architecture. It recommends that children be confined to a wholesome ''.kids'' domain. This ''walled garden'' theory of Internet safety is not original. It is borrowed from Lawley himself, who has since dropped it because he deems it impractical.

December 11, 2005

Consensual Interruptions

1. A call comes in on your cellphone.
2. Others' finger rings vibrate.
3. If someone doesn't want you to answer your phone, he can veto the call by touching the ring, and you won't get to talk.

The problem is all too familiar: You're chatting with a group of people when someone's cellphone goes off, interrupting the conversation. What makes the intrusion irritating isn't so much the call itself - the caller has no way of knowing if he has chosen a good time to cut in. It's that the group as a whole doesn't have any say in the matter. Until now.

Stefan Marti, a graduate of the M.I.T. Media Laboratory, who now works for Samsung, has devised a system that silently surveys the members of the group about whether accepting an incoming phone call would be appropriate. Then it permits the call to go through only if the group agrees unanimously - thus creating a more consensual sort of interruption.

The system, it must be said, is highly elaborate. It begins with a special electronic-badge or -necklace device that you and everyone else you might be conversing with must wear. Your badge can tell who is in conversation with you by comparing your speech patterns with those of people nearby. (Anyone within a few feet of you who is not talking at the same time you are is assumed to be part of your conversation.)

Each badge is also in wireless contact with your cellphone and a special ring that you wear on your finger. When a caller tries you on your cellphone, all the finger rings of the people in your conversation silently vibrate - a sort of pre-ring announcing to the group the caller's intention to butt in. If anyone in the group wants to veto the call, he can do so by simply touching his ring, and the would-be call is redirected to voice mail. If no one opts to veto, the call goes through, the phone rings and the conversation is interrupted.

Having solved the problem of when phone calls should interrupt us, Marti is now working on how they should do so. Inspired by the observation that the best interruptions are subtle and nonverbal but still somewhat public, he has designed an animatronic squirrel that perches on your shoulder and screens your calls. Instead of your phone ringing, the squirrel simply wakes and begins to blink.

—Jascha Hoffman

December 10, 2006


New York Times Magazine
Year in Ideas

[full text at]

Surveillance, from the French for ''watching over,'' refers to the monitoring of people by some higher authority -- the police, for instance. Now there's sousveillance, or ''watching from below.'' It refers to the reverse tactic: the monitoring of authorities (Tony Blair, for instance) by informal networks of regular people, equipped with little more than cellphone cameras, video blogs and the desire to remain vigilant against the excesses of the powers that be.

In a primitive form, sousveillance can be traced to 1991, when footage from a home video camera exposed the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King. Today, with the spread of cheap, lightweight cameras and the rise of Web video sites like YouTube, sousveillance has proliferated. The Internet overflows with civilian footage of police abuse in Malaysia, gay-bashing in Latvia and union-busting in Zimbabwe. The Web site encourages women to post a photo of any man who tries to harass them.

A British newspaper even tried to harness the power of sousveillance to better cover the recent political campaign in Britain. Concerned that the Labor Party was insulating Blair from media coverage, The Guardian's Web site asked its readers for help in keeping track of him. ''Limited access means we need your help to keep up with Mr. Blair,'' the paper announced. ''So today we announce the Blair Watch Project, where we ask you to send us your photos of the P.M. on the campaign trail.''

December 11, 2006

The Ambient Walkman


The popularity of the iPod has given new urgency to an old criticism of the portable music player: namely, that it isolates the listener by tuning out the world around him. As one response to this problem, Noah Vawter, a graduate student at the M.I.T. Media Lab, has created a pair of headphones that tunes the listener back in.

The device, which Vawter calls Ambient Addition, consists of two headphones with transparent earpieces, each equipped with a microphone and a speaker. The microphones sample the background noise in the immediate vicinity — wind blowing through the trees, traffic, a cellphone conversation. Then, with the help of a small digital signal-processing chip, the headphones make music from these sounds. For instance, percussive sounds like footsteps and coughs are sequenced into a stuttering pattern, and all the noises are tuned so that they fuse into a coherent, slowly changing set of harmonies.

The overall effect is a bit like listening to U2 with the vocals removed. Vawter is working on a version of the device that would rearrange the noises around the user to approximate any given pop song.

October 21, 2007

Criminal Element

Has the Clean Air Act done more to fight crime than any other policy in American history? That is the claim of a new environmental theory of criminal behavior.

In the early 1990s, a surge in the number of teenagers threatened a crime wave of unprecedented proportions. But to the surprise of some experts, crime fell steadily instead. Many explanations have been offered in hindsight, including economic growth, the expansion of police forces, the rise of prison populations and the end of the crack epidemic. But no one knows exactly why crime declined so steeply.

The answer, according to Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, an economist at Amherst College, lies in the cleanup of a toxic chemical that affected nearly everyone in the United States for most of the last century. After moving out of an old townhouse in Boston when her first child was born in 2000, Reyes started looking into the effects of lead poisoning. She learned that even low levels of lead can cause brain damage that makes children less intelligent and, in some cases, more impulsive and aggressive. She also discovered that the main source of lead in the air and water had not been paint but rather leaded gasoline — until it was phased out in the 1970s and ’80s by the Clean Air Act, which took blood levels of lead for all Americans down to a fraction of what they had been. “Putting the two together,” she says, “it seemed that this big change in people’s exposure to lead might have led to some big changes in behavior.”

Reyes found that the rise and fall of lead-exposure rates seemed to match the arc of violent crime, but with a 20-year lag — just long enough for children exposed to the highest levels of lead in 1973 to reach their most violence-prone years in the early ’90s, when crime rates hit their peak.

Such a correlation does not prove that lead had any effect on crime levels. But in an article published this month in the B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis and Policy, Reyes uses small variations in the lead content of gasoline from state to state to strengthen her argument. If other possible sources of crime like beer consumption and unemployment had remained constant, she estimates, the switch to unleaded gas alone would have caused the rate of violent crime to fall by more than half over the 1990s.

If lead poisoning is a factor in the development of criminal behavior, then countries that didn’t switch to unleaded fuel until the 1980s, like Britain and Australia, should soon see a dip in crime as the last lead-damaged children outgrow their most violent years. According to a comparison of nine countries published this year by Rick Nevin in the journal Environmental Research, crime rates around the world are just starting to respond to the removal of lead from gasoline and paint. “It really does sound like a bad science-fiction plot,” says Nevin, a senior adviser to the National Center for Healthy Housing. “The idea that a society could have systematically poisoned its youngest children with the same neurotoxins in two different ways over the same century is almost impossible to believe.”

The magnitude of these claims has been met with a fair amount of skepticism. Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economist, wonders how lead could have had such a strong effect on violent crime while, according to Reyes, it showed almost no effect on property crimes like theft. He also doubts that the hypothesis could explain the plunge in the U.S. murder rate from the 1930s through the 1950s. “I certainly think it’s a reasonable exercise,” Miron says. “We just have to be appropriately suspicious of how much you can actually show.”

The theory will be put to the test as children grow up in Indonesia, Venezuela and sub-Saharan Africa, where leaded gasoline has just recently been phased out. Meanwhile, the list of countries that still use lead in gas — Afghanistan, Serbia and Iraq, as well as much of North Africa and Central Asia — does not rule out a connection with violence.

No matter how suggestive the economists’ data, it takes a doctor to show that some of the people most damaged by lead are out there breaking the law. Herbert Needleman, the University of Pittsburgh psychiatrist and pediatrician whose work helped persuade the government to ban lead in the 1970s, recently studied a sample of juvenile delinquents in Pittsburgh; the group had significantly more lead in their bones than their peers. And lead may not be the only source of damage. The National Children’s Study will soon begin to track more than 100,000 children to determine the effects of exposure to common pesticides, among other chemicals.

Jascha Hoffman is on the staff of The New York Review of Books.

December 11, 2008

Scrupulosity Disorder

8th Annual Year in Ideas: Scrupulosity Disorder

In a paper published in the August issue of The Journal of Anxiety Disorders, Chris Miller and Dawson Hedges of Brigham Young University estimate that as many as one million Americans may suffer from a moral-anxiety-cum-mental-illness known as “scrupulosity disorder.” They define it as obsessive doubt about moral behavior often resulting in compulsive religious observance — and they warn that it can lead to depression, apathy, isolation and even suicide.

As the believing man’s version of obsessive-compulsive disorder, the diagnosis raises questions about where, exactly, the line is to be drawn between probity and perversity. It isn’t obvious how to treat someone who can’t sleep for worrying about their rectitude — or a devout Christian who is seized by the urge to exclaim, Goddamn! and repeatedly reproaches himself for it. Rather than try to fight off obsessive worrying, therapists might ask patients to give in to it, so that they can see that their supposed transgressions might be harmless. “If you believe in a God that’s all-knowing, you should trust him to know these blasphemous thoughts are mental noise and not what’s in your heart,” says Jon Abramowitz, director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Clinic at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The diagnosis might raise some difficult issues. Ritual hand washing could seem compulsive in an atheist, but surely it isn’t for a Muslim, for whom such behavior is ordinary religious observance. Are the anxieties and fears that may accompany a passionate religious life themselves pathological? Abramowitz, who has treated scrupulous Christians, Muslims and Jews, is confident that a therapeutic approach to obsessive spirituality does not threaten religion. He says that when patients are gradually released from crippling doubt about their own virtue, they can emerge with a new sense of faith.

December 12, 2008

Carbon Penance

8th Annual Year in Ideas: Carbon Penance


We all contribute to climate change, but none of us can individually be blamed for it. So we walk around with a free-floating sense of guilt that’s unlikely to be lifted by the purchase of wind-power credits or halogen bulbs. Annina Rüst, a Swiss-born artist-inventor, wanted to help relieve these anxietes by giving people a tangible reminder of their own energy use, as well as an outlet for the feelings of complicity, shame and powerlessness that surround the question of global warming.

So she built a translucent leg band that keeps track of your electricity consumption. When it detects, via a special power monitor, that electric current levels have exceeded a certain threshold, the wireless device slowly drives six stainless-steel thorns into the flesh of your leg. “It’s therapy for environmental guilt,” says Rüst, who modeled her “personal techno-garter” on the spiked bands worn as a means of self-mortification by a monk in Dan Brown’s novel “The Da Vinci Code.” (Brown derived the idea from the bands worn by some celibate members of the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei.)

Rüst built her prototype while working at the Computing Culture group of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She also designed the band to punish wearers if they don’t spend enough time talking to their carbon-fixing houseplants. But first Rüst may have to address a more mundane matter. When the spikes dug in, Rüst says, she noticed that the device “doesn’t hurt that much.”

December 12, 2009

Killer Earth

Nagasaki%201945.png The Gaia hypothesis states that life preserves the conditions for its own survival. But Peter Ward, a paleontologist who specializes in mass extinctions, takes a dimmer view of life on earth. Seeing a tangle of organisms that have evolved to starve their competitors and pollute their surroundings, he argues that for billions of years the biosphere has been its own worst enemy... [text]

December 19, 2010

Perfect Parallel Parking

13art.pngLate last year, the mathematician Simon Blackburn devised a simple formula for “perfect parking.” When a Louisiana math teacher found the formula unrealistic, he set out to improve the model... [text]

Emotional Spellcheck

Picture%205.pngDrawing on the opinions of thousands of people who have been paid to evaluate the emotional charge of various phrases, ToneCheck offers typists a chance to reconsider their words. The program may eventually allow companies to prevent employees from sending e-mails that violate their “tone policy”... [video and text]

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