“Flash Mob” in 1800s Australia?

July 10th, 2006

Just when I thought I could stop writing about flash mobs, more strange news emerges.

For the record: it seems I wasn’t the first person to use the words “flash” and “mob” together. Apparently “flash mob” was a name used in the 1800s to describe an Australian subculture of female prisoners, based on the term “flash language” for the jargon these women used. For whatever it’s worth, the 1800s Australian term “flash mob” referred to a segment of society, not an event, and had no other similarities to the modern “flash mob” term.

Details at Boing Boing and at Derek Lackaff’s weblog. (Note that the postcard image at the top of these entries was created in 2004, not in the 1800s.) More about the 1800s “flash mob” subculture in Tasmania here.

Unkind Donuts

June 30th, 2006
Unkind Donuts

“Put the ‘D’ at the end, you get ‘Unkind Donuts,’ which I’ve had a few of in my day.”

– Merl Reagle, in Wordplay

Flash Mob Flashback

March 29th, 2006
flash mob retrospective

Nobody asks anymore, but now I can finally tell people who invented flash mobs.

He’s Harper’s magazine editor Bill Wasik, and he revealed his identity to the public in this month’s issue.

In the article Bill credited me with naming flash mobs flash mobs.

Bill, thanks for kicking off the fun. I don’t share all your interpretations of what flash mobs were. I certainly don’t view Stanley Milgram through your eyes. And I think flash mobs turned out less hipster-centric than you expected, at least beyond Manhattan. (How many hipsters can you count in these photos?)

But bravo; this was one the funniest spectacles I’ve taken part in. Core to the fun for me were all the wild interpretations people put forth, how earnest and sure of themselves most commentators seemed, and the vast differences between interpretations. Now the guy who started it all finally chimed in with the most surreal interpretation yet, closing the circle.

Thanks Bill and the rest of the flash mobbers. If nothing else, we slipped a bit of prankster graffiti into the Oxford English Dictionary.

(A minor correction: the article claimed that I named the phenomenon after “Flash Crowd,” a 1973 short story that I’d never heard of until the flash mob fad was in full swing. For the record: Howard Rheingold’s book “Smart Mobs” probably influenced the name, but “Flash Crowd” didn’t.)

[tags]flash mobs, flash mob, memewrangling, culture hacking, situationism, flash crowd[/tags]

Strange Advice

July 12th, 2005

I dreamt that I was sneaking through Bill Gates’ house with a friend.

We hadn’t been invited, but we hadn’t broken in and we hadn’t planned this adventure. (Looking back, I’m not sure how that could be. Perhaps we found a door that had been left open?)

As we slinked around this dark expensive house, Bill strode in and flicked on the lights. He didn’t seem surprised to see us. He offered us each a drink and showed us around the place a bit.

He said a few small-talk things. He glanced at me, offered me an opening to speak. I froze and couldn’t say anything. That’s what always happens when I’m face to face with a celebrity or a legend: I freeze up. Later I always kick myself because I didn’t say things that I should have.

As I pondered this Bill said:

“If you freeze up in front of a famous person
and you know that later you’ll remember 100 things
that you should have said,
you should say:

‘I freeze up in front of famous people.
Later I’ll think of 100 things that I should say now.

But I can’t say them now.’

That will break the roadblock.”

At “roadblock” I awakened with hot sunlight in my face.

I closed the blinds. I tried to go back to sleep and speak to Bill Gates but I couldn’t.

I’m not Bill’s biggest fan, but I’ll try those words next time I meet Jeff Bezos or Satan or Jesus.

SNOCAP: Morphine for the Dying

December 3rd, 2004

One of my favorite classes this semester is Larry Downes’ “Strategic Planning During Technology Revolutions.”

Among other things, Professor Downes teaches us to apply lessons from the psychology of death to firms and industries that face dramatic change.

In her 1969 book On Death and Dying, psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross introduced the “five stages of grief” model to explain the emotions that dying people and their families often experience: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Patients diagnosed with terminal diseases often find transition between these stages quite painful, and many never reach the acceptance stage.

The behavior of corporations that face disruptive change often seems to fit this model. (For more details and great examples of this, see chapter 8 of Downes’ The Strategy Machine). Too many of these organizations have tremendous difficulty accepting the fact that “business as usual” is no longer possible. Too many executives find acceptance of change excruciating and avoid facing it for as long as they can.

I’ve been thinking that nowadays, when so many industries are grappling with disruptive change, there might be a good bit of money to be made by selling morphine to megacorporate malingerers. This morphine can take the form of products and services that don’t have any real promise of profitability, but that provide some comfort to frustrated executives in the form of soothing illusions. Indulgence in such fiction can make it easier to languish in the stages of denial and bargaining.

Napster founder Shawn Kevorkian Fanning is way ahead of me on this; his new business venture makes him the music industry’s primary Morphine supplier. And its name even sounds like a drug: SNOCAP!

The SNOCAP recipe:

  • Start with a networked music-sharing service, similar to the original Napster.
  • Remove most of the music.
  • Make the following tasks extremely difficult: downloading songs, listening to songs, transferring songs between devices.
  • Pretend that music fans will abandon the free file sharing networks and will pay good money to endure these hassles.

    Big Music executives have already lined up to buy the Morphine; they’re fawning over Fanning’s fix in press interviews. Universal already signed on.

    Bravo Shawn; thanks for another big hit!

  • Circus Contraption

    August 3rd, 2004

    Circus Contraption

    I love the dark postmodern vaudeville/caberet/circus/sideshow performances that are becoming popular on the West Coast. I thought that San Francisco and Black Rock City lead the way for this genre, but I was wrong. A Seattle troupe called Circus Contraption blows the polka-dotted pants off the other twisted circus shows that I’ve seen, they’ve been doing it for many years, and this week they’re coming to San Francisco.

    Circus Contraption serves up clever and astounding performances set to an entrancing live soundtrack. Each member of the troupe excels in a circus/erotic/dance specialty or two, and each doubles as a talented musician in a freakish, unforgettable band. The music doesn’t take a back seat; I’d still rush to see these people if they were just a band, and I happily bought one of their CDs.

    If you haven’t seen this nonprofit troupe, don’t miss them. I loved their Seattle performance on a recent Sunday night, but Bunny Lamonte told me afterwards that Friday midnight shows are best. On Fridays the performers and the crowd are at their peak energy levels and things get wild and raunchy.

    Circus Contraption’s latest show, “Grand American Traveling Dime Museum,” is coming to San Francisco starting this Friday, August 6. They’re playing at CELLspace in the Mission; tickets are $15 (or “pay what you can” on opening night.) Take it from a grad student — it’s worth the $15. But show up on a Friday night. And buy tickets early. (They kept selling out in Seattle — that’s why I went on a Sunday).

    The War on CapsLock

    June 17th, 2003

    In no way do I condone or encourage the development of pernicious new club drugs.

    But assuming that humans will keep inventing new ways to poison themselves, it might be funny to give the next big drug the street name “CapsLock.”

    As in: “Can you believe those five kids in Microsoft Butterfly suits shattered all the windows in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and then swallowed half of the stained glass shards before the cops and paramedics arrived? They must have been amped up on CapsLock.”

    Head Games

    April 20th, 2003

    Strange things are afoot in the world of Human-Computer Interactions. This month at CHI 2003, the biggest annual HCI-related conference on the planet, bathroom talk was all the buzz.

  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology students Dan Maynes-Aminzade and Hayes Solos Raffle presented what I assume is the world’s first urine-based computer interface: “You’re In Control.” They built a special urinal fitted with sixteen pressure sensors that detect the location of the user’s urine stream.

    At eye-level above the urinal a video game appears, complete with jumping hamsters and a simulated urine stream that’s mapped to the location and movement of the user’s real urine stream. Hit a hamster and it turns yellow, screams and spins out of control as your score increases by ten points. The MIT students even built a penis simulator that allows women to spray water into the urinal. A urinal like this might persuade the neighborhood pub’s patrons to refuel by purchasing more beer.

    Toilet Entertainment System

  • Swedish design students Par Stenberg and Johan Thoresson presented the Toilet Entertainment System, which collects a user’s interests while he or she sits on the toilet, and then prints out customized news content on the toilet paper. It “keeps you discreetly entertained while visiting the toilet,” according to the inventors. My advice for the future: be afraid. And prepare yourself for longer bathroom lines.
  • Human Factors International distributed free calendars to conference attendees. For the month of April the HFI calendar features a cartoon about potential toilet interfaces of the future.



  • Unabridged Excerpts

    March 13th, 2003

    This week I purchased the audiobook edition of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon.

    Instead of “Abridged,” they labeled the package “Unabridged Excerpts.”

    I’m halfway through the third cassette, and so far this audiobook is doubleplusgood.

    Sushi Freakshow

    February 14th, 2003

    click me - 31K
    click me - 44K and worth it!
    click me - 29K
    [ Click a photo strip to see the full-size version. ]

    Last night I went with housemate Dav to my new favorite restaurant: a crazy, cozy, wonderful sushi joint called Country Station. It was a bizarre meal, indeed.

    A strange drunk woman told Dav she was entranced by his “look.” She immediately began photographing Dav, and she continued to snap shots and compliment him for about an hour, until we paid our bill and headed out. Then she stumbled along after Dav, babbling and snapping photos on the street.

    Later we headed to a bar a few blocks away, and guess who was there? His new groupie lurched over and happily began a new photo session. Then I started photographing her photographing him.

    Things became interesting as the other bar patrons tried to figure out who this celebrity was. A smarmy yuppie sidled up next to me and said, “Yo bruh. Who’s your friend? Oh come on bruh, tell me his name.”

    click me - 29K
    click me - 27K
    click me - 31K
    [ Click a photo strip to see the full-size version. ]

    So I said, “Come on now, leave him alone. He never goes out anymore because people harass him like this wherever he goes. Do you know what I had to go through to drag him out tonight? I promised not to answer any questions about him; if you want his name you’ll have to ask him.”

    “Fine. My girlfriend will know anyway,” he said. “She knows who all the celebrities are.”

    Five minutes later, just as Groupie Number One wrapped up her final photo shoot, the girlfriend showed up and began interrogating Dav.

    “I know you’re someone famous, who are you? Are you David Navarro? Seriously, you are David Navarro aren’t you?”

    (Incidentally, who the hell is David Navarro?)

    [UPDATE: She was thinking of Dave Navarro, guitarist for Jane’s Addiction and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Thanks commenter Adam for pointing that out.]

    Dav — who emphasizes now that he did not adore the attention — had to escape eventually, so I hailed a cab and we headed to one of those oddball San Francisco parties where a naked woman lies on a table, and chefs carefully cover her body with freshly prepared sushi for the guests.

    Yes indeed. Last night, sushi was the magic word.

    click me - 41K
    click me - 35K
    [ Click a photo strip to see the full-size version. ]

    « Previous Entries Next Entries »