Virtual Economies

I’m a technology fan, really. Shotgun gene sequencing, faster computers, cars that parallel park themselves…all sweet. But for whatever reason, reading about “virtual worlds”— computer-simulated environments in which human users interact via cartoon avatars—makes me shiver. One of the most famous virtual sets is World of Warcraft, where thousands of players compete against one another, sometimes for months or years, in a weapon-and-token-driven quest to take over the world. These virtual games have taken on lives of their own; on eBay, for instance, real dollars can now buy these virtual tokens.

A piece in today’s Washington Post profiles Veronica Brown, a real person who makes her living--$60,000 a year!—by designing fashions for a virtual world called Second Life. One of her creations is pictured above.

To me, her job in itself is fascinating/creepy. But the Post’s story one-ups even it: Brown’s work is being copied by a “rogue” software program that copies animated objects. Apparently, even virtual entrepreneurs need virtual patents.

As the article explains:

As virtual worlds proliferate across the Web, software designers and lawyers are straining to define property rights in this emerging digital realm. The debate over these rights extends far beyond the early computer games that pioneered virtual reality into the new frontiers of commerce.

"Courts are trying to figure out how to apply laws from real life, which we've grown accustomed to, to the new world," said Greg Lastowka, a professor at Rutgers School of Law at Camden in New Jersey. "The law is struggling to keep up."

I need to get away from my computer. Right now.

(In the blogosphere: Read what Jake has to say about WoW; or Matthew on the pros and cons of virtual communities. )


Amazing nerd website of the week, or maybe the month: Ingenius, a new site from the UK’s National Museums of Science and Industry (NMSI) that “brings together images and viewpoints to create insights into science and culture.” Ok, sounds cheesy, but I promise it’s, well, ingenius. NMSI puts together a huge collection of well researched—and well-written—articles (when’s the last time you read about Thalidomide? or how a science museum builds its collection?); forums to discuss scientific and cultural ideas (“Should the state pay to make ugly people beautiful?” or “Has technology given us a home life filled with opportunities?"); and best of all, 30,000 science-related images. I know I’ll be spending many future procrastinating hours at this site…here are a few of the cool photos I’ve found so far.

"Jedi" Helmet
Used by Ian Young at the Hammersmith Hospital as an experimental device to get the best possible pictures of a child's brain. The helmets are named after and resemble those used for training by apprentice Jedi knights in the 'Star Wars' films; this name was chosen to encourage children to put them on. The coils on the helmet are 'aerials' for picking up MRI signals. MRI builds up pictures from the magnetic behaviour of water molecules inside the body. It is used to diagnose diseases and injuries affecting the brain, nerves, bones, muscles and internal organs, especially the liver.

First Brain Chemicals
Test tubes with original hand-written labels containing the firstchemicals isolated from the human brain, prepared by John Louis William Thudichum (1829-1901) at St Thomas's Hospital, London, between 1865 and 1871. They are: choline platinochloride; lecithin cadmium chloride; phrenosine; kerasine. These test tubes are icons of the earliest history of biochemistry. J L W Thudichum made a significant contribution to neurochemistry and the Biochemical Society awards a Thudichum Medal to those who have made outstanding contributions to neurochemistry and related subjects.

The Taj Mahal of Astronomical Instruments
This is one of a series of models (scale 1:36) made between 1884-6, showing the astronomical instruments of the Jaipur Observatory in India. Built of masonry, the Jaipur instruments were used to accurately measure the position of the Sun, stars, moon and planets. They did not have telescopes but used naked eye sights and massive, but precise construction. Known as Narivalaya ('Double Equinoctial Dial'), it was built and designed under the supervision of Maharajah Jai Singh II (1686-1743). Finding European, Islamic and Hindu astronomical tables inaccurate, Singh decided to make his own observations to improve matters. As ruler of Rajasthan he built several observatories, starting in 1724 with one near Delhi.

All images credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Bored? Browse the collection for yourself!


Holiday Humor


Best Christmas Present…Ever.

I've been window shopping quite a bit lately in this most-fabulous-of-fabulous window-shopping cities. But this year’s hottest gifts—the Gucci black ankle boots, the Pierre Hardy animal print tote, the Tickle Me Extreme (TMX) Elmo, a subscription to Murray’s Cheese-of-the-Month Club—they’re they’re all so stale, so impersonal. I want to give gifts to my nearest and dearest that are perfectly tailored for them. Something that just says, “I know you better than you know yourself. You will never be able to match my good gift-giving ability. I am a better friend than you are.”

And today I’ve finally found that perfect choice: the DNA 11 personal portrait. The description from the company website says it all:
DNA 11 creates personalized and original abstract art from a sample of your DNA or fingerprints. Each piece is as unique as you. Personal. Beautiful. Absolutely one-of-a-kind. Modern masterpieces that are truly the timeless portraits of this millennium.

Basically, after you pick out the color and size of your print, the company will send you a "collection kit" with complete instructions on how to sample your own DNA. (They don't say whether this sample is from a cheek swab, blood, hair...) Then you send your (or your lucky recipient's) DNA back to their labs, where it is electrophoresed in a gel, photographed, and finally printed on canvas.

And the cost? The DNA portraits (like the lovely saffron piece above) start at only $380; “FingerPrints” at $190.

Alas, this king of gifts has a major downside: the process takes about four weeks. So sorry guys, I guess this year you're stuck with cheese.


Ok, this is cute but...

...there is an error in the logic. Points to anyone who catches it! (hat tip, Steve)