Wednesday, June 14, 2006

It's what you make of it.

Princess and pauper: who had the richer life?

Richard Morrison

Beauty, vivacity, wealth, privilege: how can you go wrong if you are blessed at birth with those assets? And while you ponder that question, let me lob its converse at you. Ugliness, depression, poverty, persecution: how can you go right if you are blighted by that quartet of misfortunes?

By a fluke of timing I have been thinking about two 20th-century women whose lives offer contrasting answers to those contrasting questions. The first is Princess Margaret. Her hoard of baubles, bangles and beads — not to mention Fabergé clocks, Cartier cigarette cases and Wedgwood teapots — is under the hammer at Christie’s today and tomorrow. The sale is ostensibly to pay the £3 million death duties on her estate, though the auctioneers can scarcely contain their gleeful expectation that it will raise up to ten times that figure.

And the other woman? She is nothing like as well known, but should be. In the 1930s, while Margaret was toddling round Buckingham Palace, Nina Lugovskaya was growing up in a slum Moscow flat. Those were the years of Stalin’s political purges, when two million Russians were imprisoned and 40,000 executed. Nina’s family was seen as dangerously free-thinking, her father continually in prison or exile. And in 1937 the 17-year-old Nina was also incarcerated, along with her mother and two sisters: sentenced to five years’ hard labour in a Gulag camp, followed by seven years’ exile in Siberia.

None of which we would know today were it not that, from the age of 13, Nina kept a diary, like Anne Frank a decade later in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. It is an astonishingly well-written and perceptive chronicle of what life was like under Stalin, as well as what life is like for teenage girls everywhere in every era. When Nina was arrested the diary was confiscated and the passages where she rages against the State’s lies and iniquities, or contemplates poisoning herself, used as evidence against her (suicidal tendencies being regarded as a “thought crime”). It was recently discovered in the KGB’s archives and is now published by Doubleday in an excellent new English translation titled I Want to Live. Everybody should read it. Especially teenagers.

Bizarre though it may seem, I see both Nina and Margaret as victims — of their circumstances and of a callous century. Margaret’s lifestyle, swanning round Mustique and London’s swankiest watering-holes, may not immediately suggest her as a worthy recipient of sympathy. But you can’t survey the 890 items in the Christie’s sale without being struck by the hopeless hollowness of her existence. All those pointless jugs from far-flung colonial outposts of an evaporating empire. All those ceremonial scissors for a life of snipping ribbons. All that expensive but tasteless tat, inherited from a weird family that had started the century ruling a quarter of the world and ended it as little more than a mega-budget soap opera.

And in the middle of all this pompous nonsense, not some pliable Stepford Wife but a wilful, passionate and strikingly attractive woman. (The auction’s most celebrated item, the Annigoni portrait of Margaret as a luscious, ruby-lipped Renaissance goddess, may be idealised, but it isn’t a complete fabrication.) Yet she was a woman compelled by duty to suppress her true emotions, and at the same time to accept smaller and smaller bit-parts in a royal roadshow that was itself becoming irrelevant. Born and bred to bask in the limelight (at the age of 7 she was two heartbeats away from the throne), she was later unceremoniously elbowed into the wings. And she hated it.

By contrast, Nina’s childhood held the promise of nothing except a life of gathering gloom. Perpetually cold, half-starved, one shoddy dress to her name, and living in dread of the ominous knock on the door, she was also acutely conscious of a congenital squint which (she felt) made her the laughing-stock of boys she fancied. Yet in her diary she lacerates the shortcomings of the system with such sardonic wit that the reader senses that she will have the indomitable spirit to survive anything that Stalin throws at her. And she does. The trauma of having her diary used against her apparently ended her dream of becoming a writer. But in exile she fell in love with a fellow prisoner, a painter. They married, settled in a remote town and she, too, became a respected landscape artist (a book of her art was published in the West), living long enough to see the Soviet Union collapse.

So she turned her life around. Margaret’s trajectory, by contrast, went the other way. Brittle, haughty, spoilt rotten, trapped by status, she frittered her inner life on doomed relationships and then fell into a long, lonely, alcohol-soaked decline. Very sad. She started with so much, but was able to do so little with it.

Their stories have nothing in common, of course, except for this moral: when people are forced to play a role that is not truly themselves, it is impossible for them to unlock their full potential as human beings. Princess or pauper, political prisoner or modern wage slave, they are living a lie — a certain path to unhappiness. But how many of us have the courage to break out, as Nina Lugovskaya did, and be ourselves?

Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.

Literary science?

What's Your Favorite Novel?
A recent survey of men's and women's favorite books points to a more fundamental question—and a fascinating answer.
Nick Gillespie

Over the past year or so, the British cultural historians Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins conducted two surveys designed to pin down a consensus on novels that had "changed reader's lives." First, they interviewed 400 women, most of them involved in the arts, media, and university life. "Absolutely every woman we spoke to had her favourite," they reported recently in Britain's Guardian newspaper. Beyond the enthusiasm evinced by the interviewees, Jardine and Watkins were struck by the wide range of responses:

The top titles that emerged were surprisingly varied. They ranged from The Lord of the Rings and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to Catch 22, Gone With The Wind, Rebecca, Heart of Darkness and The Golden Notebook. This was alongside such perennial favourites as Jane Eyre (our way- out-in-front eventual winner), Mrs Dalloway, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch and Anna Karenina. Jeanette Winterson's Passion and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Toni Morrison's Beloved and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale had bands of loyal followers.

When they got around to interviewing men on the same topic, the results were decidedly different. For starters, many male respondents took issue with the question itself, either refusing to name a text or picking a non-fiction work instead of a novel. "Many men we approached really did not seem to associate reading fiction with life choices," wrote Jardine and Watkins. The men's responses also didn't vary as much as the women's. The women they interviewed coughed up about 200 different titles, whereas the men's picks congregated mostly around four works: Albert Camus's The Stranger (traditionally translated into British English as The Outsider), Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five.

"The men's list was all angst and Orwell. Sort of puberty reading," Jardine cheekily told the Sydney Morning Herald. "We found that men do not regard books as a constant companion to their life's journey, as consolers or guides, as women do... They read novels a bit like they read photography manuals."

This is all good fun, to be sure, even the genial gender-bashing, and the top 20 choices for women and men are online here, so you can argue with the poor taste of either or both sexes. (Alas, it's with a heavy, stereotyped heart that I cop to being a Camus man myself--though contrary to Jardine and Watkins's characterization of male reading habits, I find myself perusing the novel every couple of years at the very least.)

Jardine and Watkins did have an ulterior motive in compiling their lists: to focus attention on the way they believe Britain's publishing world systematically devalues female authors. After noting that, "on the whole, "men between the ages of 20 and 50 do not read fiction, Jardine told the Herald, "What I find extraordinary is the hold the male cultural establishment has over book prizes like the Booker, for instance, and in deciding what is the best... On the other hand, the Orange Prize for Fiction [which honors women authors] is still regarded as ephemeral." That may or may not be the case—my knowledge of the U.K.'s literary prizes is about as deep as my interest in the same. To my mind, though, Jardine and Watkins' exercise raises another, more fundamental question: Why do we—men and women, boys and girls, Brits and Americans—read fiction in the first place?

As it happens, there's a rich new book out on precisely that topic: Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, by Lisa Zunshine, who teaches English at the University of Kentucky. Zunshine is a Russian emigre who earned her Ph.D. at University of California at Santa Barbara, where she worked with two of the major players in evolutionary psychology, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides. Zunshine uses recent developments in cognitive psychology known as "Theory of Mind" to explain why human beings are drawn to both the creation and consumption of narrative texts. "Theory of Mind," writes Zunshine toward the end of her book, "is a cluster of cognitive adaptations that allows us to navigate our social world and also structures that world. Intensely social species that we are, we thus read fiction because it engages, in a variety of particularly focused ways, our Theory of Mind."

In a recent email exchange with me, she explains further. We have an "evolved cognitive predisposition to attribute states of mind to ourselves and others" that is also known as "mind-reading." "These cognitive mechanisms," writes Zunshine, "evolved to process information about thoughts and feelings of human beings, seem to be constantly on the alert, checking out their environment for cues that fit their input conditions. On some level, works of fiction manage to cheat these mechanisms into believing that they are in the presence of material that they were 'designed' to process, i.e., that they are in the presence of agents endowed with a potential for a rich array of intentional stances."

In a sense, then, we read novels about Meursault and Heathcliff, Montana Wildhack and Elizabeth Bennett, because they allow us to practice what we do elsewhere in our lives: Figure out the world by figuring out, or at least trying to figure out, what other people are thinking and feeling. Zunshine fills in the details with bravura chapters about novels with notoriously unreliable narrators (e.g., Lolita and Clarissa) and a long section on the detective novel, which underscores the desire and need to assign motives to whole casts of characters. The result is nothing less than a tour de force of cutting-edge lit-crit.

As someone who did graduate studies in English in the late 1980s and early '90s, I find Why We Read Fiction memorable for reasons that go beyond whatever light it might shed on our experience with individual texts. A decade ago, it was a given that literary studies had for a variety of reasons written off truly serious engagement with most scientific research. While it was permissible—indeed, virtually required--to use quasi- and pseudo-scientific theories drawn from, say, Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis to explain texts, then-hegemonic academic heavyweights were quick to follow Foucault in arguing that all discourses were myths, fictions, or socially constructed "truths" that masked a will to power more than anything else (the only discourse that was exempted from such withering skepticism was, predictably, the critic's own).

From such a poststructuralist or postmodernist perspective, "science"-embedded as it was in naive Enlightenment narratives about Progress (with a capital P) and the possibility of objective knowledge-was viewed through a jaundiced eye, just one cultural construct among countless others, and more suspicious than most since it seemed to be dominated by men. (As I've written elsewhere, this critique possesses "considerable rhetorical and explanatory power.")

Writing in 1996—the same year as "The Sokal Hoax", in which an NYU physics professor* humiliated the editorial board of the leading poststructuralist cultural studies journal of the day by publishing a bogus article in its pages—Robert Storey, a former professor of mine and one of the first of what have come to be called "bio-critics," thundered:

"If [literary theory] continues on its present course, its reputation as a laughingstock among the scientific disciplines will come to be all but irreversible. Given the current state of scientific knowledge, it is still possible for literary theory to recover both seriousness and integrity and to be restored to legitimacy in the world at large."

Why We Read Fiction—and related work being done by critics such as Nancy Easterlin, Alan Palmer, and Donald R. Wehrs, to name three who appeared on a cognitive psychology panel at the last Modern Language Association conference—serves notice that literary studies is already in the thick of a serious engagement with science, to the benefit of critics and readers—and scientists, too, who need the human implications of their work to be explored fully—alike.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Mob rules.

link to original.

The Rise of Crowdsourcing

Remember outsourcing? Sending jobs to India and China is so 2003. The new pool of cheap labor: everyday people using their spare cycles to create content, solve problems, even do corporate R & D.

By Jeff Howe

1. The Professional

Claudia Menashe needed pictures of sick people. A project director at the National Health Museum in Washington, DC, Menashe was putting together a series of interactive kiosks devoted to potential pandemics like the avian flu. An exhibition designer had created a plan for the kiosk itself, but now Menashe was looking for images to accompany the text. Rather than hire a photographer to take shots of people suffering from the flu, Menashe decided to use preexisting images – stock photography, as it’s known in the publishing industry.

In October 2004, she ran across a stock photo collection by Mark Harmel, a freelance photographer living in Manhattan Beach, California. Harmel, whose wife is a doctor, specializes in images related to the health care industry. “Claudia wanted people sneezing, getting immunized, that sort of thing,” recalls Harmel, a slight, soft-spoken 52-year-old.

The National Health Museum has grand plans to occupy a spot on the National Mall in Washington by 2012, but for now it’s a fledgling institution with little money. “They were on a tight budget, so I charged them my nonprofit rate,” says Harmel, who works out of a cozy but crowded office in the back of the house he shares with his wife and stepson. He offered the museum a generous discount: $100 to $150 per photograph. “That’s about half of what a corporate client would pay,” he says. Menashe was interested in about four shots, so for Harmel, this could be a sale worth $600.

After several weeks of back-and-forth, Menashe emailed Harmel to say that, regretfully, the deal was off. “I discovered a stock photo site called iStockphoto,” she wrote, “which has images at very affordable prices.” That was an understatement. The same day, Menashe licensed 56 pictures through iStockphoto – for about $1 each.

iStockphoto, which grew out of a free image-sharing exchange used by a group of graphic designers, had undercut Harmel by more than 99 percent. How? By creating a marketplace for the work of amateur photographers – homemakers, students, engineers, dancers. There are now about 22,000 contributors to the site, which charges between $1 and $5 per basic image. (Very large, high-resolution pictures can cost up to $40.) Unlike professionals, iStockers don’t need to clear $130,000 a year from their photos just to break even; an extra $130 does just fine. “I negotiate my rate all the time,” Harmel says. “But how can I compete with a dollar?”

He can’t, of course. For Harmel, the harsh economics lesson was clear: The product Harmel offers is no longer scarce. Professional-grade cameras now cost less than $1,000. With a computer and a copy of Photoshop, even entry-level enthusiasts can create photographs rivaling those by professionals like Harmel. Add the Internet and powerful search technology, and sharing these images with the world becomes simple.

At first, the stock industry aligned itself against iStockphoto and other so-called microstock agencies like ShutterStock and Dreamstime. Then, in February, Getty Images, the largest agency by far with more than 30 percent of the global market, purchased iStockphoto for $50 million. “If someone’s going to cannibalize your business, better it be one of your other businesses,” says Getty CEO Jonathan Klein. iStockphoto’s revenue is growing by about 14 percent a month and the service is on track to license about 10 million images in 2006 – several times what Getty’s more expensive stock agencies will sell. iStockphoto’s clients now include bulk photo purchasers like IBM and United Way, as well as the small design firms once forced to go to big stock houses. “I was using Corbis and Getty, and the image fees came out of my design fees, which kept my margin low,” notes one UK designer in an email to the company. “iStockphoto’s micro-payment system has allowed me to increase my profit margin.” Welcome to the age of the crowd. Just as distributed computing projects like UC Berkeley’s SETI@home have tapped the unused processing power of millions of individual computers, so distributed labor networks are using the Internet to exploit the spare processing power of millions of human brains. The open source software movement proved that a network of passionate, geeky volunteers could write code just as well as the highly paid developers at Microsoft or Sun Microsystems. Wikipedia showed that the model could be used to create a sprawling and surprisingly comprehensive online encyclopedia. And companies like eBay and MySpace have built profitable businesses that couldn’t exist without the contributions of users.

All these companies grew up in the Internet age and were designed to take advantage of the networked world. But now the productive potential of millions of plugged-in enthusiasts is attracting the attention of old-line businesses, too. For the last decade or so, companies have been looking overseas, to India or China, for cheap labor. But now it doesn’t matter where the laborers are – they might be down the block, they might be in Indonesia – as long as they are connected to the network.

Technological advances in everything from product design software to digital video cameras are breaking down the cost barriers that once separated amateurs from professionals. Hobbyists, part-timers, and dabblers suddenly have a market for their efforts, as smart companies in industries as disparate as pharmaceuticals and television discover ways to tap the latent talent of the crowd. The labor isn’t always free, but it costs a lot less than paying traditional employees. It’s not outsourcing; it’s crowdsourcing.

It took a while for Harmel to recognize what was happening. “When the National Health Museum called, I’d never heard of iStockphoto,” he says. “But now, I see it as the first hole in the dike.” In 2000, Harmel made roughly $69,000 from a portfolio of 100 stock photographs, a tidy addition to what he earned from commissioned work. Last year his stock business generated less money – $59,000 – from more than 1,000 photos. That’s quite a bit more work for less money.

Harmel isn’t the only photographer feeling the pinch. Last summer, there was a flurry of complaints on the Stock Artists Alliance online forum. “People were noticing a significant decline in returns on their stock portfolios,” Harmel says. “I can’t point to iStockphoto and say it’s the culprit, but it has definitely put downward pressure on prices.” As a result, he has decided to shift the focus of his business to assignment work. “I just don’t see much of a future for professional stock photography,” he says.

2. The Packager

“Is that even a real horse? It looks like it doesn’t have any legs,” says Michael Hirschorn, executive vice president of original programming and production at VH1 and a creator of the cable channel’s hit show Web Junk 20. The program features the 20 most popular videos making the rounds online in any given week. Hirschorn and the rest of the show’s staff are gathered in the artificial twilight of a VH1 editing room, reviewing their final show of the season. The horse in question is named Patches, and it’s sitting in the passenger seat of a convertible at a McDonald’s drive-through window. The driver orders a cheeseburger for Patches. “Oh, he’s definitely real,” a producer replies. “We’ve got footage of him drinking beer.” The crew breaks into laughter, and Hirschorn asks why they’re not using that footage. “Standards didn’t like it,” a producer replies. Standards – aka Standards and Practices, the people who decide whether a show violates the bounds of taste and decency – had no such problem with Elvis the Robocat or the footage of a bicycle racer being attacked by spectators and thrown violently from a bridge. Web Junk 20 brings viewers all that and more, several times a week. In the new, democratic age of entertainment by the masses, for the masses, stupid pet tricks figure prominently.

The show was the first regular program to repackage the Internet’s funniest home videos, but it won’t be the last. In February, Bravo launched a series called Outrageous and Contagious: Viral Videos, and USA Network has a similar effort in the works. The E! series The Soup has a segment called “Cybersmack,” and NBC has a pilot in development hosted by Carson Daly called Carson Daly’s Cyberhood, which will attempt to bring beer-drinking farm animals to the much larger audiences of network TV. Al Gore’s Current TV is placing the most faith in the model: More than 30 percent of its programming consists of material submitted by viewers.

Viral videos are a perfect fit for VH1, which knows how to repurpose content to make compelling TV on a budget. The channel reinvented itself in 1996 as a purveyor of tawdry nostalgia with Pop-Up Video and perfected the form six years later with I Love the 80s. “That show was a good model because it got great ratings, and we licensed the clips” – quick hits from such cultural touchstones as The A-Team and Fatal Attraction – “on the cheap,” Hirschorn says. (Full disclosure: I once worked for Hirschorn at But the C-list celebrity set soon caught on to VH1’s searing brand of ridicule. “It started to get more difficult to license the clips,” says Hirschorn, who has the manner of a laid-back English professor. “And we’re spending more money now to get them, as our ratings have improved.”

But Hirschorn knew of a source for even more affordable clips. He had been watching the growth of video on the Internet and figured there had to be a way to build a show around it. “I knew we offered something YouTube couldn’t: television,” he says. “Everyone wants to be on TV.” At about the same time, VH1’s parent company, Viacom, purchased iFilm – a popular repository of video clips – for $49 million. Just like that, Hirschorn had access to a massive supply of viral videos. And because iFilm already ranks videos by popularity, the service came with an infrastructure for separating the gold from the god-awful. The model’s most winning quality, as Hirschorn readily admits, is that it’s “incredibly cheap” – cheaper by far than anything else VH1 produces, which is to say, cheaper than almost anything else on television. A single 30-minute episode costs somewhere in the mid-five figures – about a tenth of what the channel pays to produce so noTORIous, a scripted comedy featuring Tori Spelling that premiered in April. And if the model works on a network show like Carson Daly’s Cyberhood, the savings will be much greater: The average half hour of network TV comedy now costs nearly $1 million to produce.

Web Junk 20 premiered in January, and ratings quickly exceeded even Hirschorn’s expectations. In its first season, the show is averaging a respectable half-million viewers in the desirable 18-to-49 age group, which Hirschorn says is up more than 40 percent from the same Friday-night time slot last year. The numbers helped persuade the network to bring Web Junk 20 back for another season.

Hirschorn thinks the crowd will be a crucial component of TV 2.0. “I can imagine a time when all of our shows will have a user-generated component,” he says. The channel recently launched Air to the Throne, an online air guitar contest, in which viewers serve as both talent pool and jury. The winners will be featured during the VH1 Rock Honors show premiering May 31. Even VH1’s anchor program, Best Week Ever, is including clips created by viewers.

But can the crowd produce enough content to support an array of shows over many years? It’s something Brian Graden, president of entertainment for MTV Music Networks Group, is concerned about. “We decided not to do 52 weeks a year of Web Junk, because we don’t want to burn the thing,” he says. Rather than relying exclusively on the supply of viral clips, Hirschorn has experimented with soliciting viewers to create videos expressly for Web Junk 20. Early results have been mixed. Viewers sent in nearly 12,000 videos for the Show Us Your Junk contest. “The response rate was fantastic,” says Hirschorn as he and other staffers sit in the editing room. But, he adds, “almost all of them were complete crap.”

Choosing the winners, in other words, was not so difficult. “We had about 20 finalists.” But Hirschorn remains confident that as user-generated TV matures, the users will become more proficient and the networks better at ferreting out the best of the best. The sheer force of consumer behavior is on his side. Late last year the Pew Internet & American Life Project released a study revealing that 57 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds online – 12 million individuals – are creating content of some sort and posting it to the Web. “Even if the signal-to-noise ratio never improves – which I think it will, by the way – that’s an awful lot of good material,” Hirschorn says. “I’m confident that in the end, individual pieces will fail but the model will succeed.”

3. The Tinkerer

The future of corporate R&D can be found above Kelly’s Auto Body on Shanty Bay Road in Barrie, Ontario. This is where Ed Melcarek, 57, keeps his “weekend crash pad,” a one-bedroom apartment littered with amplifiers, a guitar, electrical transducers, two desktop computers, a trumpet, half of a pontoon boat, and enough electric gizmos to stock a RadioShack. On most Saturdays, Melcarek comes in, pours himself a St. Remy, lights a Player cigarette, and attacks problems that have stumped some of the best corporate scientists at Fortune 100 companies.

Not everyone in the crowd wants to make silly videos. Some have the kind of scientific talent and expertise that corporate America is now finding a way to tap. In the process, forward-thinking companies are changing the face of R&D. Exit the white lab coats; enter Melcarek – one of over 90,000 “solvers” who make up the network of scientists on InnoCentive, the research world’s version of iStockphoto.

Pharmaceutical maker Eli Lilly funded InnoCentive’s launch in 2001 as a way to connect with brainpower outside the company – people who could help develop drugs and speed them to market. From the outset, InnoCentive threw open the doors to other firms eager to access the network’s trove of ad hoc experts. Companies like Boeing, DuPont, and Procter & Gamble now post their most ornery scientific problems on InnoCentive’s Web site; anyone on InnoCentive’s network can take a shot at cracking them.

The companies – or seekers, in InnoCentive parlance – pay solvers anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 per solution. (They also pay InnoCentive a fee to participate.) Jill Panetta, InnoCentive’s chief scientific officer, says more than 30 percent of the problems posted on the site have been cracked, “which is 30 percent more than would have been solved using a traditional, in-house approach.”

The solvers are not who you might expect. Many are hobbyists working from their proverbial garage, like the University of Dallas undergrad who came up with a chemical to use inart restoration, or the Cary, North Carolina, patent lawyer who devised a novel way to mix large batches of chemical compounds.

This shouldn’t be surprising, notes Karim Lakhani, a lecturer in technology and innovation at MIT, who has studied InnoCentive. “The strength of a network like InnoCentive’s is exactly the diversity of intellectual background,” he says. Lakhani and his three coauthors surveyed 166 problems posted to InnoCentive from 26 different firms. “We actually found the odds of a solver’s success increased in fields in which they had no formal expertise,” Lakhani says. He has put his finger on a central tenet of network theory, what pioneering sociologist Mark Granovetter describes as “the strength of weak ties.” The most efficient networks are those that link to the broadest range of information, knowledge, and experience.

Which helps explain how Melcarek solved a problem that stumped the in-house researchers at Colgate-Palmolive. The giant packaged goods company needed a way to inject fluoride powder into a toothpaste tube without it dispersing into the surrounding air. Melcarek knew he had a solution by the time he’d finished reading the challenge: Impart an electric charge to the powder while grounding the tube. The positively charged fluoride particles would be attracted to the tube without any significant dispersion.

“It was really a very simple solution,” says Melcarek. Why hadn’t Colgate thought of it? “They’re probably test tube guys without any training in physics.” Melcarek earned $25,000 for his efforts. Paying Colgate-Palmolive’s R&D staff to produce the same solution could have cost several times that amount – if they even solved it at all. Melcarek says he was elated to win. “These are rocket-science challenges,” he says. “It really reinforced my confidence in what I can do.”

Melcarek, who favors thick sweaters and a floppy fishing hat, has charted an unconventional course through the sciences. He spent four years earning his master’s degree at the world-class particle accelerator in Vancouver, British Columbia, but decided against pursuing a PhD. “I had an offer from the private sector,” he says, then pauses. “I really needed the money.” A succession of “unsatisfying” engineering jobs followed, none of which fully exploited Melcarek’s scientific training or his need to tinker. “I’m not at my best in a 9-to-5 environment,” he says. Working sporadically, he has designed products like heating vents and industrial spray-painting robots. Not every quick and curious intellect can land a plum research post at a university or privately funded lab. Some must make HVAC systems.

For Melcarek, InnoCentive has been a ticket out of this scientific backwater. For the past three years, he has logged onto the network’s Web site a few times a week to look at new problems, called challenges. They are categorized as either chemistry or biology problems. Melcarek has formal training in neither discipline, but he quickly realized this didn’t hinder him when it came to chemistry. “I saw that a lot of the chemistry challenges could be solved using electromechanical processes I was familiar with from particle physics,” he says. “If I don’t know what to do after 30 minutes of brainstorming, I give up.” Besides the fluoride injection challenge, Melcarek also successfully came up with a method for purifying silicone-based solvents. That challenge paid $10,000. Other Melcarek solutions have been close runners-up, and he currently has two more up for consideration. “Not bad for a few weeks’ work,” he says with a chuckle.

It’s also not a bad deal for the companies that can turn to the crowd to help curb the rising cost of corporate research. “Everyone I talk to is facing a similar issue in regards to R&D,” says Larry Huston, Procter & Gamble’s vice president of innovation and knowledge. “Every year research budgets increase at a faster rate than sales. The current R&D model is broken.”

Huston has presided over a remarkable about-face at P&G, a company whose corporate culture was once so insular it became known as “the Kremlin on the Ohio.” By 2000, the company’s research costs were climbing, while sales remained flat. The stock price fell by more than half, and Huston led an effort to reinvent the way the company came up with new products. Rather than cut P&G’s sizable in-house R&D department (which currently employs 9,000 people), he decided to change the way they worked.

Seeing that the company’s most successful products were a result of collaboration between different divisions, Huston figured that even more cross-pollination would be a good thing. Meanwhile, P&G had set a goal of increasing the number of innovations acquired from outside its walls from 15 percent to 50 percent. Six years later, critical components of more than 35 percent of the company’s initiatives were generated outside P&G. As a result, Huston says, R&D productivity is up 60 percent, and the stock has returned to five-year highs. “It has changed how we define the organ-ization,” he says. “We have 9,000 people on our R&D staff and up to 1.5 million researchers working through our external networks. The line between the two is hard to draw.”

P&G is one of InnoCentive’s earliest and best customers, but the company works with other crowdsourcing networks as well. YourEncore, for example, allows companies to find and hire retired scientists for one-off assignments. NineSigma is an online marketplace for innovations, matching seeker companies with solvers in a marketplace similar to InnoCentive. “People mistake this for outsourcing, which it most definitely is not,” Huston says. “Outsourcing is when I hire someone to perform a service and they do it and that’s the end of the relationship. That’s not much different from the way employment has worked throughout the ages. We’re talking about bringing people in from outside and involving them in this broadly creative, collaborative process. That’s a whole new paradigm.”

4. The Masses

In the late 1760s, a Hungarian nobleman named Wolfgang von Kempelen built the first machine capable of beating a human at chess. Called the Turk, von Kempelen’s automaton consisted of a small wooden cabinet, a chessboard, and the torso of a turbaned mannequin. The Turk toured Europe to great acclaim, even besting such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon. It was, of course, a hoax. The cabinet hid a flesh-and-blood chess master. The Turk was a fancy-looking piece of technology that was really powered by human intelligence. Which explains why has named its new crowdsourcing engine after von Kempelen’s contraption. Amazon Mechanical Turk is a Web-based marketplace that helps companies find people to perform tasks computers are generally lousy at – identifying items in a photograph, skimming real estate documents to find identifying information, writing short product descriptions, transcribing podcasts. Amazon calls the tasks HITs (human intelligence tasks); they’re designed to require very little time, and consequently they offer very little compensation – most from a few cents to a few dollars.

InnoCentive and iStockphoto are labor markets for specialized talents, but just about anyone possessing basic literacy can find something to do on Mechanical Turk. It’s crowdsourcing for the masses. So far, the program has a mixed track record: After an initial burst of activity, the amount of work available from requesters – companies offering work on the site – has dropped significantly. “It’s gotten a little gimpy,” says Alan Hatcher, founder of Turker Nation, a community forum. “No one’s come up with the killer app yet.” And not all of the Turkers are human: Some would-be workers use software as a shortcut to complete the tasks, but the quality suffers. “I think half of the people signed up are trying to pull a scam,” says one requester who asked not to be identified. “There really needs to be a way to kick people off the island.”

Peter Cohen, the program’s director, acknowledges that Mechanical Turk, launched in beta in November, is a work in progress. (Amazon refuses to give a date for its official launch.) “This is a very new idea, and it’s going to take some time for people to wrap their heads around it,” Cohen says. “We’re at the tippy-top of the iceberg.”

A few companies, however, are already taking full advantage of the Turkers. Sunny Gupta runs a software company called iConclude just outside Seattle. The firm creates programs that streamline tech support tasks for large companies, like Alaska Airlines. The basic unit of iConclude’s product is the repair flow, a set of steps a tech support worker should take to resolve a problem.

Most problems that iConclude’s software addresses aren’t complicated or time-consuming, Gupta explains. But only people with experience in Java and Microsoft systems have the knowledge required to write these repair flows. Finding and hiring them is a big and expensive challenge. “We had been outsourcing the writing of our repair flows to a firm in Boise, Idaho,” he says from a small office overlooking a Tully’s Coffee. “We were paying $2,000 for each one.”

As soon as Gupta heard about Mechanical Turk, he suspected he could use it to find people with the sort of tech support background he needed. After a couple of test runs, iConclude was able to identify about 80 qualified Turkers, all of whom were eager to work on iConclude’s HITs. “Two of them had quit their jobs to raise their kids,” Gupta says. “They might have been making six figures in their previous lives, but now they were happy just to put their skills to some use.”

Gupta turns his laptop around to show me a flowchart on his screen. “This is what we were paying $2,000 for. But this one,” he says, “was authored by one of our Turkers.” I ask how much he paid. His answer: “Five dollars.”

Contributing editor Jeff Howe ( wrote about MySpace in issue 13.11.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Information-seeking behavior.

Perceptual Pleasure and the Brain

Biederman, Irving; Vessel, Edward A
3698 words
1 May 2006
American Scientist
Volume 94; Issue 3; ISSN: 00030996
Copyright (c) 2006 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

A novel theory explains why the brain craves information and seeks it through the senses

As you picked up this magazine and leafed through it just now, your eye likely was drawn to certain images, words or phrases. Did you merely glance at a series of unrelated pictures as you turned the pages-or did you stop to examine one closely and read its caption? If so, what compelled you to want more? Why is it that you find the experience of looking at some illustrations or texts more engaging or rewarding than others?

If you're beginning to suspect that this article is nothing but a marketing survey, relax! These questions are in fact matters of serious interest for neuroscientists studying cognition and perception. All of us have felt the pleasure of acquiring information-a view of a dramatic landscape, a conversation with a friend, or even a good magazine article, can all be profoundly gratifying. But why is this so? What makes these experiences so pleasurable?

We believe that the enjoyment of such experiences is deeply connected to an innate hunger for information: Human beings are designed to be "infovores." It's a craving that begins with a simple preference for certain types of stimuli, then proceeds to more sophisticated levels of perception and cognition that draw on associations the brain makes with previous experiences. When the hunger becomes even moderately starved, boredom sets in. Consider, for example, the last time you enjoyed staring at a blank wall or listening to a repetitive airport-security announcement.

In our view, infovore behavior is activated only when other motives are not engaged. When people are trying to satisfy a need for food, are avoiding harm or are otherwise involved in some goal-oriented behavior, then the infovorous instincts take a less active role. The infovore system is designed to maximize the rate at which people acquire knowledge under conditions where there may be no immediate need for the information. Of course, the knowledge obtained may have some practical value in the future. But even if there is no direct use of the new information, there is, in evolutionary terms, adaptive value to its acquisition. People generally perceive those who are knowledgeable as being more intelligent, a trait that is strongly correlated with mate selection in every human culture that's been studied.

If infovore behavior is so valuable to our species, one would expect the brain to have cellular and molecular mechanisms that encourage the acquisition of information. We believe we have identified such a system, and it is associated with a reward network that relies on the brain's natural opioids. Here we present a hypothesis for how this mechanism works. Although our model pertains to the brain's visual system, we believe that similar mechanisms may be involved in other senses as well.

The Joys of Opioids

There is ample evidence that the brain is wired for pleasure. Indeed, human beings have been searching for chemical substances to stimulate these neural systems for thousands of years. Among the most rewarding substances ever discovered are compounds derived from the opium poppy. Historical records of the poppy's cultivation date back to 3400 B.C. in lower Mesopotamia, where the Sumerians referred to it as hulgil, the "joy plant." However, the active ingredient of opium, morphine, was not identified until the early part of the 19th century. (Heroin, a more potent opiate, was synthesized from morphine just a few decades later.)

After millennia of experimentation, it's quite obvious that opiates alter the brain's activity, but it wasn't until the early 1970s that scientists understood why this is so. In 1972, Solomon Snyder and Candace Pert, at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, discovered that opiates target certain molecular receptors located on the surfaces of brain cells. When opiates bind to these opioid receptors, they modulate the activity of the cells. Neurobiologists have since described at least three major subtypes of opioid receptors, identified by the Greek letters IUH, delta and kappa. The mu-opioid receptors readily bind morphine, and are also activated by endogenous morphine-like substances. In 1997 these eudoiuorphiiis were isolated in brain tissue by scientists at Tulane University School of Medicine.

Not surprisingly, mu-opioid receptors are generally localized to parts of the central nervous system that are implicated in the modulation of pain and reward. In the early 1980s, however, Michael Lewis at the National Institute of Mental Health and his colleagues discovered these receptors in a part of the macaque monkey cerebral cortex that is involved in processing visual information. What's especially intriguing is their finding that the receptors are distributed in a gradient that gradually increases in density along the so-called ventral visual pathway, which is involved in the recognition of an object or a scene. Subsequent work has found evidence for a similar gradient in the homologous human areas. The receptors are sparsest in the early stages of this pathway, the so-called Vl to V4 areas, where an image is processed as local bits of contour, color and texture. Intermediate stages of visual processing such as the lateral occipital area and ventral occipitotemporal cortex, which integrate local information to detect surfaces, objects, faces and places, contain greater numbers of opioid receptors. The receptors are densest in the later stages of recognition, in the parahippocampal cortex and rhinal cortex, where visual information engages our memories.

Why would a mechanism that's involved in reducing pain and providing reward be associated with a system concerned with processing visual information? Furthermore, why is the greatest density of receptors found in the parahippocampal cortex, a so-called association area? We think that the muopioid receptors are the key to the pleasures we derive from acquiring new information, the pleasure we hope you're deriving from reading this article.

Consider the function of association areas. They are repositories for both semantic memories (such as facts and concepts) and episodic memories (such as autobiographical experiences, including the time, place and emotions associated with an event). These areas are activated when the brain tries to interpret what it's seeing or hearing. If a stimulus contains a great deal of interpretable information, it should lead to more neural activity in the association areas and hence to a greater release of endomorphins and increased stimulation of mu-opioid receptors. As more opioid receptors are stimulated, there should be a boost in the pleasant effects associated with opioids. So, for example, a visual stimulus that elicits many episodic or semantic memories should be more pleasing (or more interesting) than a stimulus that brings forth fewer mental associations.

Human beings also prefer novelty. For example, although one may thoroughly enjoy a particular conversation, the same conversation a second time around would be banal. The same can be said for any number of visual stimulations-the visual pleasure experienced on first seeing a painting, a movie or even a magnificent vista like the Grand Canyon may be unrepeatable. How does our hypothesis account for the reduction in reward when a stimulus is repeated?

We think that a phenomenon called competitive learning may be involved. Let's assume that an initial presentation of a stimulus pattern activates a large population of neurons. A relatively small number of these cells are strongly activated, while much larger numbers are moderately or weakly engaged. One model of neural plasticity, called Hebbian learning, holds that the strength of a synaptic connection between two neurons increases with the repetition of a stimulus, so that it becomes progressively easier for a presynaptic neuron to activate a postsynaptic neuron on subsequent occasions. The greater the activity of the postsynaptic neuron, the greater the increase in the strength of the connection.

However, strongly activated neurons also inhibit those neurons that are only weakly engaged, so the repetition of a stimulus reduces the activity of these cells. With repeated presentation of a pattern, only a few neurons (those with the strongest connections) will respond, while the rest respond weakly, if at all. If most of the initial activity is generated by neurons that will be subsequently inhibited, then repetition results in a net reduction of neural activity. One advantage of competitive learning is that the inhibited neurons are now free to code for other stimulus patterns.

So our hypothesis proposes that the rate of endomorphin release in the parahippocampal cortex determines, at least partially, the human preference for experiences that are both novel (because they have yet to undergo competitive interactions) and richly interpretable (because such patterns would initially activate an abundant set of associations in brain areas that manifest dense opioid receptors).

Readers familiar with the neurochemistry of opioids, which usually act as inhibitory neurotransmitters, may wonder how opioid activity results in pleasure. It turns out that in several systems where neural connectivity has been studied, neurons with mu-opioid receptors make synaptic connections with socalled GABAergic neurons, which release the inhibitory neurotransmitter gammaaminobutyric acid (GABA). Thus the activation of mu-opioids serves to inhibit these inhibitory neurons. It appears that much of the brain is immersed in an inhibitory "GABA bath," which probably serves to prevent seizures caused by entrained oscillations of neuronal activity. The release of endomorphins inhibits the local release of GABA and so allows local excitation to be propagated with greater intensity to the succeeding stages of information processing.

The complex response to a pleasing stimulus is mediated by a variety of cognitive, motor and hormonal pathways. We are not sure what the next stages might be, but they may ultimately increase the release of dopamine within the corpus striatum, a structure deep in the brain that is implicated in the control of movement, cognition and habit learning. The corpus striatum is directly connected to the visual areas and also to the hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal areas of the brain, any of which could serve an intermediary role in rewarding information acquisition with a neurochemical frisson of pleasure. The release of dopamine in the corpus striatum is also believed to be involved in the cravings associated with drug addiction.

Testing with Pictures

Our hypothesis would be merely another speculation about the brain if it could not be tested. Fortunately, the technology of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) allows us to observe the brain's response to a stimulus. An fMRI scanner measures the flow of blood to the brain with a precision of a few millimeters, allowing scientists to identify regions that are using significant amounts of oxygen-a measure of neural activity. With fMRI we can present a stimulus to a subject while observing neural activity in different parts of the ventral visual pathway. If our hypothesis is correct, "interesting" stimuli should elicit greater activity in the visual association areas of the brain, such as the parahippocampal cortex, but not necessarily in those areas involved with the initial processing for visual information.

In our experiments, we presented a series of images depicting real-world scenes to a group of subjects whose brains were not observed by fMRI, but who were asked to rate their relative preference for each picture. The images were presented several times to each subject. With each repetition, their preference for an image declined. The same images were then shown to another group of subjects lying within an fMRI scanner. These subjects viewed the images passively, without voicing their preferences. Each scene was presented for one second, and then shown again after the subject viewed an average of 15 other scenes. There were five repetitions of each scene. In order to provide consistent context for each viewing, and to pace the experiment so that an estimate of each discrete fMRI response could be extracted, we inserted "buffer" images strategically into each sequence; we also continually introduced new scenes over the course of a session, so that "first" presentations of images and subsequent presentations were scattered throughout the experiment. These tactics were also intended to remove any confounding effects of time with repetition.

As our theory predicts, scenes that were rated highly elicited the most fMRI activity in the parahippocampal cortex, especially the posterior portion. The activity in this area was not the result of a simple "feed forward" mechanism, because a region involved in the early processing of visual information, the lateral occipital area, showed its greatest activity when the subject was viewing scenes of low preference. Moreover, the activity in a portion of the ventral occipito-temporal cortex centered in the collateral sulcus and adjacent to the parahippocampal cortex, declined with each repeated presentation. This decline with repetition took place for all of the images, whether they were initially rated high or low. "Early" visual areas of the brain, such as V1 and V2, did not show a consistent decline in activity with repeated presentations.

The Psychology of Pleasure

It should not be surprising that the brain has information-acquisition mechanisms that reward us for learning about the environment. As we mentioned earlier, such mechanisms would have an evolutionary advantage. This may explain why the highly rated pictures we used in our experiments had a few things in common. Preferred pictures often contained broad views of the landscape, especially scenes that provided a hidden vantage point where an observer could view the terrain from a place of refuge. Scenes with an element of mystery, where something was happening or could happen, were also favored. Moreover, natural settings were generally preferred to man-made environments. These factors accounted for about 62 percent of the variance in average ratings. They are also consistent with anthropological explanations, which suggest that such predilections arise from a primitive need to find the best location for a camp or a village. A house on a hilltop still demands a premium in the real estate market!

We also wish to emphasize that perceptual preferences arise from the connections the brain makes with stored information. That's because the brain's association areas have the greatest density of mu-opioid receptors. In other words, it is the interpretation of a visual pattern that leads to the feelings of pleasure. This point is nicely illustrated with the visual humor of droodles, which were popular several decades ago (Figure 8). By itself, a droodle is a simple pattern that elicits little in the way of a positive emotional response. Reading the droodle's caption makes it funny, because the reader activates a train of associations that reconcile what is otherwise a meaningless pattern.

What about the human preference for novelty? This issue is a little more complicated than one might expect. For one thing, there appear to be some counterexamples. What psychologists call the mere exposure effect, in which the familiar is preferred to the unfamiliar, seems to contradict our hypothesis and our results. However, we believe that the key here is the subject's ability to understand the stimulus. For example, as one struggles to comprehend a new idea, there is increased pleasure with repeated exposure, which peaks at what has been called the "click" of comprehension. In our view, that click corresponds to the release of endomorphins in the association areas as the brain makes rich connections with stored information. Habituation and decline in preference may set in afterward as the associative activity becomes immediately subject to competitive learning, which reduces endomorphin release on the next exposure.

In other words, the time course of perceptual and cognitive pleasure can be described as an inverted U-shaped function. The mere exposure effect should be confined to the relatively brief, ascending initial portion of this function. Insofar as the vast range of our experiences are understood as they happen, the phenomenon of increased preference with exposure should be the exception rather than the rule.

We should add that the time course of cognitive pleasure may be somewhat protracted for children. A child may wish to hear the same story read to her over and over again (much to the chagrin of an adult reader), even to the point where sections of the story are memorized verbatim. However, when the youngster is questioned about the story-for example, why a particular character acted in a certain way-the child often reveals a lack of comprehension. It's only after a child fully understands the point of the story that she tires of hearing it again. This may be analogous to an adult's experience of mastering challenging subject matter. The payoff is in the click of comprehension, however difficult the path to that point.

It may also be the case that some childhood behavior does not engage the reward system considered here. Video games are replete with repetitive perceptual inputs that seem to be endlessly amusing to young people. We suspect that children can tolerate the repetition because they are rewarded with everincreasing scores until the game is mastered. It would be rare for someone to seek the repetitive stimulus of a game without having access to the controller! In general, many repetitive activities expressed during childhood may serve to build motor skills or improve performance, rather than increase knowledge.

Our hypothesis also suggests that there is a preferred rate of presenting information that may correspond to the release of endomorphins. People typically experience an aversion to perceptual inputs that are presented much more slowly than the rate of comprehension. A familiar example is the impatience experienced by users of the Internet who must wait for images to be delivered over a narrow-bandwidth modem. Artifacts of popular culture-MTV videos, modern television editing and video games-are paced at the edge of the viewer's comprehension. Our work in the laboratory shows that individuals enjoy searching for target images in rapid serial presentations (about 100 milliseconds each) as long as they can maintain a reasonably high level of accuracy.


Our proposed mechanism for perceptual pleasure has focused primarily on the visual system, but we suspect that other sensory systems may have a similar arrangement. There is, for example, a mu-opioid receptor gradient in the auditory system of the macaque. Here the receptors are relatively sparse in the primary auditory cortex and denser in the secondary auditory cortex. In the early 1980s, the Stanford University psychopharmacologist Avram Goldstein reported that people who normally experienced "chills" while listening to certain stirring pieces of music did not have the same sensations when they received the drug naloxone, a mu-opioid antagonist that prevents endomorphins from binding to their receptors. Such observations suggest that, at the very least, the pleasures we associate with sounds may be mediated by mu-opioid receptors in the auditory cortex. Whether similar mechanisms are involved in touch, taste and smell remains to be seen.

In any case, our hypothesis may also extend to other forms of visual preference. For example, people enjoy viewing images in stereo; stereograms have been a popular form of amusement for over a century, even though they provide little information about a scene. Functional MRI studies show that subjects who are viewing stereo images exhibit dramatic activity in visual-cortex regions just outside the primary visual cortex. These stereoresponsive brain areas may prove to be sufficiently rich in endomorphin activity. A similar neural basis may also underlie our species' fondness for color. The lingual gyrus has been implicated in processing information about the color and texture of an image, and endomorphin activity in this region may account for this fondness (see Figure 2, bottom).

There is much that remains to be explained about the human obsession with information. Our preliminary work suggests that the quest for knowledge can never be sated-as long as mu-opioid receptors remain unbound in the human brain.


Alreja, M., M. Shanabrough, W. Liu and C. Leranth. 2000. Opioids suppress IPSCs in neurons of the rat medial septum/diagonal band of Broca: Involvement of μ-opioid receptors and septohippocampal GABAergic neurons. lminml of Nettrosciencc 20:1179-1189.

Goldstein, A. 1980. Thrills in response to music and other stimuli. Physiological Psychology 8:126-129.

Hirsch, J. R., K. Kim, N. R. Relkin, J. Victor, K.-M Lee, D. R. Moreno, S. Kalik, R. L. De La Paz, N. Rubin and R. Shapley. 1996. Extrastriate loci for the perception of stereo depth and illusory contours: Evidence from fMRI. Supplement to Imvstigatiiv Ophthalmology and Visual Science 37:934.

Lewis, M. E., M. Mishkin, E. Bragin, R. M. Brown, C. B. Pert and A. Pert. 1981. Opiate receptor gradients in monkey cerebral cortex: correspondence with sensory processing hierarchies. Science 211:1166-1169.

Stanford, I. M., and A. J. Cooper. 1999. Presynaptic μ and δ opioid receptor modulation of GABAA IPSCs in the rat globus pallidus in vitro. Journal of Neuroscience 19:4796-4803.

Zajonc, R. B. 1968. Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Monograph 9:1-28.

For relevant Web links, consult this issue of American Scientist Online:

Below the fold.

Petroski, Henry
3529 words
1 January 2005
American Scientist
Volume 93; Issue 1; ISSN: 00030996
Copyright (c) 2005 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

About two years ago, I published in these pages a nostalgic article on folding and delivering newspapers-at least the way we paperboys did in the New York City borough of Queens in the mid-1950s (see "Engineering," May-June 2002). That article, and my memoir on the same subject, prompted an uncommon amount of mail from readers, many of whom hailed from different geographical locations and different times. Many of them had delivered newspapers in their youth, and most of them had dealt quite differently with the technological design problem of preparing the paper for tossing onto a subscriber's stoop or porch. The correspondence, which was often accompanied by samples of folded newspapers, reminded me of the variety of ways available to address any technological problem. Unlike in science and mathematics, engineering does not necessarily offer universally natural and certainly not unique solutions.

The commonly accepted laws of physics are the same everywhere in the world. If we speak of, say, Japanese science as opposed to U.S. science, we refer not to the underlying principles but to the cultural and sociological differences that govern styles of thinking and interaction among scientists. The truths of such culture-bound endeavors are universal and so the same no matter who the scientists are or where they are practicing. Cultural and even individual differences among engineers, on the other hand, can have profound effects on what is produced. Thus, some things made in China have a different look to them than things made to serve a similar purpose in America. They reflect the culture within which they were created. Automobiles made in Japan are recognizably different-though perhaps increasingly less so-from cars made in Sweden, Germany, France or Detroit. They are all automobiles, of course, but they represent different end results as manifested not only in styling and amenities but also in mechanical details and performance. They may exploit the laws of nature in different ways, but they are all immediately recognizable as automobiles.

Reading Above the Fold

Newspapers are also distinguished by their cultural origins, and not just in their language. We can see this whenever we travel internationally and sit among people of different cultures reading newspapers in different languages. We might note the incidental differences: Some newspapers are read horizontally and some vertically, some left to right and others right to left. Some use color in distinctive ways, and some rely on photographs more than others. Such differences allow us to distinguish from a distance the New York Times from the London Times, the Wall Street Journal from the Financial Times, Le Monde from der Spiegel, and USA Today from the New York Post. Still, whether they are tabloids or broadsheets, they all share common qualities that we recognize as the essence of newspaperness. We know a newspaper when we see one.

The act of reading a newspaper is also obvious and worldwide, but the styles of doing so are as varied as the papers themselves. Reading a tabloid is perhaps the easiest, in large part because its smaller size and single crease enable the paper to be kept more or less neat and compact, even when opened. Broadsheet newspapers are creased twice in the process of being made, which gives them not only a more collapsible geometry but also one that is more expansive when open. In crowded spaces, such as airplanes or other public conveyances, an open newspaper tends to encroach on neighbors. Readers solve the problem in a variety of ways. Some read only the front page of each section, forgoing the continuation of any story until they reach a place with more freedom of movement. Other readers fold the paper back on itself, a process that encroaches on neighbors only as long as the paper is opened full width to turn the page.

Readers in the New York City in which I grew up employed a special technique, one in which the broadsheet newspaper never had to be opened to full width. In this "New York fold," the paper was first creased lengthwise, thus reducing its width by half. In this configuration, pages could be turned in a much more compact manner, though one had to become adept at folding and refolding the paper back on itself to expose a story or its continuation. In a New Yorker article a few years ago, George W. S. Trow recalled being taught this "fairly complicated" technique by his father. Trow wrote that the skill, which he didn't think he had retained, "proved almost useless" to him. My experience has been different. Although it was developed for the crowded city subways, or so we believed, the urban fold has served me well whenever I have found myself in the middle seat on a fully booked air-shuttle flight.

Manifold Surprise

Perhaps Trow read but did not deliver newspapers as a boy. We often hear that once we master riding a bike, we never forget the skill. The same can be said of tying shoelaces, telling time and (for a paper deliverer) folding newspapers. When I have given talks about being a paperboy-they were all boys in my neighborhood, but as I was reminded by readers, not everywhere-I have often demonstrated the way we folded the papers not for reading but for delivery, and on not a few occasions members of the audience have come up to me afterwards and showed me how they folded their papers differently. Each of us could perform his own style of industrial origami in a flash, even with our eyes closed, but neither could easily follow what the other was doing. Reverse engineering a folded paper can be surprisingly confusing, since so much of what goes into the process is lost in the finished artifact.

This was made abundantly clear to me when I began to receive letters containing step-by-step instructions, drawings and curiously folded newspapers in the mail. If for no other reason than to compare their efficacy, I tried to replicate the foreign folds, but it was often difficult to do by just following some instructions or sketches or without unfolding the single example. This latter action was something I was reluctant to do, lest in the process of unfolding the paper I not only destroyed its special configuration but also left myself with no exemplar against which to check my own attempts. On more than one occasion, I had to write back for more explicit step-by-step instructions.

One correspondent whose drawings I had little trouble deciphering is Charles R. Siple, who grew up in the Pittsburgh area and who went on to be a patent draftsman. Siple recalled his father riding the streetcars to work and "when the seating was squeezed" folding the paper in a manner much like the New York fold recalled by Trow. In the 1930s, Siple was a "Press boy," delivering the final edition of the Pittsburgh Press each day, supporting the flat papers at his side with the aid of a strap and folding them as he walked his route. The simplest fold that he recalled reminded me of the one I used almost exclusively, but he also described two other folds that were totally new to me. One involves a final twist that tightens the paper; the other is a variation on a square fold that we used only when the paper had so few pages that the standard fold would not hold. Perhaps because of his background working with patents, which typically do not have physical models associated with them, Siple did not include examples of papers folded according to his instructions.

Another reader, J. Kenneth Smail, a professor of anthropology at Kenyon College, did not send drawings, but his written instructions were accompanied by examples of folded papers. According to Smail, his experience delivering the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the early 1950s involved using a "5 fold plus end twist" technique to prepare the papers for tossing onto porches. The steps in his folding procedure were:

1. Fold loose edge on right of paper over, about 4/5 of the paper's width (or a little less).

2. Fold this already-folded portion (see instruction 1) over once again.

3. Tuck/insert upper half of this doublefolded part into closed edges on left.

4. Twist bottom of paper to tighten tube (usually by inserting fingers).

I might never have deciphered this last step without the benefit of the finished product and Siple's drawings showing the steps in achieving his own twist fold.

Carl E. Locke, Jr., "threw papers" around mid-century in Fort Worth, Texas, before going on to become a chemical engineer and dean of engineering at the University of Kansas. He described delivering papers on foot, carrying them in a canvas bag slung over his shoulder and also folding them for just-in-time delivery as he walked from house to house. He delivered both the Forth Worth Press and the Star-Telegram, and he used different folds for each, as well as different folds for different days of the week, reflecting the different problems presented by the widely varying size of newspapers from day to day. All told, he used six different folds, which he called: square fold; Saturday fold; Press fold; Star-Telegram twist fold (which is distinct from the twist fold of Siple and Smail); Sunday fold; and screen fold. Collectively, they represented most of the variations I had been exposed to by readers.

Appropriate Folding

Ironically, for a medium that trades so heavily in words, narrative accounts of how to fold a newspaper are seldom effective: A picture is indeed worth a thousand words-and a finished product worth a thousand pictures. To describe his library of folds, Locke employed a newly gotten digital camera and created a PowerPoint presentation, which he sent to me via e-mail. By that time, I had seen just about all the folds in his repertoire, but the Press fold remained stubbornly elusive to me-until Locke sent me a further PowerPoint presentation, in which the fold was developed step by step.

As we know, the thickness of most American newspapers varies considerably from Sunday to daily, and it also can vary quite a bit from Monday through Saturday, largely depending on how many advertisements are carried. Because of the wide variation in thickness (and hence weight) of the papers (in my case, ranging from as few as 12 pages on a Monday or Saturday to well over a hundred on Thursdays, when sales were advertised), a fold that worked for one day's paper did not work for another. Hence Locke's range of folds: The Saturday fold was physically impossible to execute with a Thursday paper, and the Press fold impossible with the Sunday.

It was only on Mondays and Saturdays, when the paper could be very thin, that we who delivered the Long Island Daily Press departed from our standard daily fold and used a square fold instead. According to Dennis R. Morgan, who delivered newspapers in Cincinnati in the mid-1950s, paperboys in the Midwest might have "required an increased throwing range" because yards were somewhat larger than on the East Coast, so they found it "customary to 'box' the paper," which he described with the following instructions: "first fold once along the long edge, then into thirds, then bend down one side in an ear, and tuck the final third inside." According to Morgan, this resulted in "a compact 6'' × 6'' × 1/2'' projectile that could be accurately and reliably thrown 100 feet or more (imparting a spin for stability)."

The manner in which a paper was folded could also depend on the shape of the paper. Dave Gomberg, who delivered papers contemporaneously with me, wrote describing the "tomahawk fold" that was his paperboy culture's preferred one for thin papers. When I asked him to describe the fold, he set out to reproduce it with a recent issue of the San Francisco Chronicle but had first to trim it to the proportions of the papers he had delivered. According to Gomberg, a paper so folded "could be thrown well over 50 feet." Locke's "screen fold" superficially resembles the tomahawk, but it lacked a final tuck and so was a configuration that did not stay closed by itself. But that did not matter, since it was not designed to be thrown. Indeed, Locke reports having used the screen fold on rainy days, its pointed triangular shape being well suited to inserting the paper into the handle of a screen door, thus keeping it out of the rain.

The tomahawk fold was also used in the East Bay area of San Francisco in the 1950s, according to Wesley Schlotzhauer, Jr., a senior professor at DeVry University. He recalls more than just the folds, demonstrating how even the smallest detail of a technological system can play a significant role in the smooth functioning of the entire system:

We carried our papers in double bags with a poncho-style head hole. The bags were supported by both shoulders with one bag hanging in front of our chests and the other hanging down our backs. We stuffed the papers in the bags, alternating the base of the folded triangles up and down. On bicycle or on foot, we pulled out and threw the apexup papers [from the front bag], and then we reversed the bags and threw the apex-up papers from [the new front] "pouch." (New paperboys would frequently empty the front bag completely and then struggle desperately to overcome being choked due to the weight of the back bag pulling down.) When we had again half-emptied the now front bag, we reversed the bags again. Now there was room to get our hands "deep" into the bag and grab the down apex of the triangle. So it went until we had emptied both bags.

So as important as the folds that they used were, paperboys also had to be clever at carrying their loads. Joe S. Herring, a professional engineer, grew up in Rockport, Illinois, around 1950. Though he did not have his own paper route, he occasionally filled in for friends and remembers how the papers were prepared for delivery. Herring recalls that small editions of the Rockport Pilot were folded into "a flat, approximately square package which could be sailed like a Frisbee." Larger editions were not folded in the strictest sense. In this case,

Papers were typically rolled with the axis of the roll parallel to the main fold. Several turns of fine twine were then wrapped around the end of the rolled paper, and then the wrapped twine rolled to the center of the rolled paper. This twisted the several turns of twine sufficiently to secure it without any knot.

He also remembers that for larger routes the papers were carried saddle-bag style: in two bags straddling the rear wheel of the bicycle. According to Herring, the "dual rear bag arrangement made throwing the papers more efficient since the [rolled] paper could be picked out of the bag and thrown to the opposite side with the throwing arm following a single, smooth, arc, and with the choice of right or left hand throws depending on which side of the street the particular customer was located."

Another reader described wrapping not his papers but his bicycle tires with rope, in order to gain traction in the snow. Cliff Sayre, a retired mechanical engineering professor from the University of Maryland, anticipated his professional acumen by cutting off the handle of his wagon so that the shaft could be inserted into the throat of a spare bicycle fork, which in turn could be attached to the rear axle of his bicycle. In this manner, he could carry all the papers for his rather large and long route, even though they did not all fit into the basket attached to his handlebars. When he had to stop to replenish the basket with papers from the wagon, the bike was held upright by the attached makeshift trailer.

Folds, Old and New

Paper folding certainly predates paperboys. It is at least as old as the making of books. Bookbinding is essentially the sewing together of folded sheets. Printing itself involves considerable paper folding, and the very names of book formats refer to the number of times the printed sheets must be folded before binding takes place. Thus, a folio results when the sheets are folded once, a quarto when folded twice (producing four double-sided pages), an octavo thrice, et cetera. At least as early as the 18th century, print shop workers made a pressman's hat by folding a sheet of paper in origami fashion. These hats are believed to have helped keep hairs off of the inked type and wet paper, as well as keep the tacky ink out of the pressman's hair. Modern pressmen, working in large newspaper plants with rooms filled with massive presses, continue the tradition of wearing the hats.

Paper folding is also the subject of serious mathematical and scientific study, with applications ranging from packing airbags to compacting lenses to be launched into space. There is an emerging field of computational origami, which is also termed origami sekkei. The coding and information theorist David Huffman was a pioneer in this field of technical folding, and his folded paper figures remain strikingly elegant works of art. Former laser physicist Robert Land, who is now described as a computational origamist, has written a book on relevant mathematical methods and has developed appropriate software. The objective of much origami sekkei is to fold paper in such a way as to put no strain on it. The possibility of achieving such a configuration, which sometimes involves even curved folds, is an ideal that has relevance to the forming of sheet metal in the automotive industry.

But paperboys seldom if ever folded papers for any purpose other than delivery. And few if any considered the etiquette of folded newspapers, which of course had to be unfolded to be read. The more complicated and tight folds naturally creased and disfigured the papers more severely than the simpler ones. Overly tight folds could even result in the customer tearing the paper trying to open it. This appears to be what caused some customers to request (read, demand) that their papers be delivered flat, but they were in a distinct minority. The overwhelming majority of subscribers accepted their papers folded, just as we accept our letters folded in an envelope. There is, of course, a proper and an improper way to insert a letter or card into an envelope, and those who appreciate such distinctions can derive not a little pleasure in unpacking such a letter. It is nice to think that equally appreciative newspaper subscribers admired the properly folded paper that opened easily and presented for reading a minimally creased artifact.

To me, however, the folded newspaper is a metaphor for an engineering solution to a practical problem. There is virtually no science involved, but the projectile so formed follows the laws of physics as surely as does an intercontinental ballistic missile. No doubt, a science of newspaper folding could be developed, perhaps employing combinatorial topology or some other esoteric mathematics, but it would not likely capture the art and etiquette practiced and remembered so vividly by countless paperboys (and -girls) of a different era. Not all engineering needs science and mathematics to explain its mysteries or its realities.


I am grateful to the many readers-both those named in this column and those whose letters I did not have space to quote-who have shared with me their experiences folding and delivering newspapers. I am especially thankful to Charles Siple, who shared with me the pages of his memoirs containing his illustrations of how to make various paper folds. In addition, I am indebted to Jim McGill for the title of this column-and for sending me an example of a paper sack incorporating a strong and secure handle made with just three folds and a tuck.


Lang, Robert J. 2003. Origami Design Secrets: Mathematical Methods for an Ancient Art. Natick, Mass.: A. K. Peters.

Petroski, Henry. 2003. Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer. New York: Vintage Books.

Trow, George W. S. 1998. Folding the Times. New Yorker, December 28 and January 4, 1999, pp. 48+.

Wertheim, Margaret. 2004. Cones, curves, shells, towers: He made paper jump to life. New York Times, June 22, p. F2.

Petroski explores the different facets of reading a newspaper, which are as varied as the papers themselves. Among other things, he mentions that reading a tabloid is perhaps the easiest, in large part because its smaller size and single crease enables the paper to be kept more or less neat and compact, even when opened.

Virtual resume for the real world.

You Play World of Warcraft? You're Hired!
Why multiplayer games may be the best kind of job training.
By John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas

In late 2004, Stephen Gillett was in the running for a choice job at Yahoo! - a senior management position in engineering. He was a strong contender. Gillett had been responsible for CNET's backend, and he had helped launch a number of successful startups. But he had an additional qualification his prospective employer wasn't aware of, one that gave him a decisive edge: He was one of the top guild masters in the online role-playing game World of Warcraft.

Gaming tends to be regarded as a harmless diversion at best, a vile corruptor of youth at worst. But the usual critiques fail to recognize its potential for experiential learning. Unlike education acquired through textbooks, lectures, and classroom instruction, what takes place in massively multiplayer online games is what we call accidental learning. It's learning to be - a natural byproduct of adjusting to a new culture - as opposed to learning about. Where traditional learning is based on the execution of carefully graded challenges, accidental learning relies on failure. Virtual environments are safe platforms for trial and error. The chance of failure is high, but the cost is low and the lessons learned are immediate.

Simulation games have proven excellent tools for training people in manual skills; for example, X-Plane, a flight simulator that runs on home computers, has been certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. But accidental learning transcends intentional training. When role-playing gamers team up to undertake a quest, they often need to attempt particularly difficult challenges repeatedly until they find a blend of skills, talents, and actions that allows them to succeed. This process brings about a profound shift in how they perceive and react to the world around them. They become more flexible in their thinking and more sensitive to social cues. The fact that they don't think of gameplay as training is crucial. Once the experience is explicitly educational, it becomes about developing compartmentalized skills and loses its power to permeate the player's behavior patterns and worldview.

In this way, the process of becoming an effective World of Warcraft guild master amounts to a total-immersion course in leadership. A guild is a collection of players who come together to share knowledge, resources, and manpower. To run a large one, a guild master must be adept at many skills: attracting, evaluating, and recruiting new members; creating apprenticeship programs; orchestrating group strategy; and adjudicating disputes. Guilds routinely splinter over petty squabbles and other basic failures of management; the master must resolve them without losing valuable members, who can easily quit and join a rival guild. Never mind the virtual surroundings; these conditions provide real-world training a manager can apply directly in the workplace.

And that's exactly what Gillett is doing. He accepted Yahoo!'s offer and now works there as senior director of engineering operations. "I used to worry about not having what I needed to get a job done," he says. "Now I think of it like a quest; by being willing to improvise, I can usually find the people and resources I need to accomplish the task." His story - translating experience in the virtual world into success in the real one - is bound to become more common as the gaming audience explodes and gameplay becomes more sophisticated. The day may not be far off when companies receive resumesthat include a line reading "level 60 tauren shaman in World of Warcraft."

The savviest employers will get the message.

John Seely Brown ( is director emeritus of Xerox PARC and a visiting scholar at USC. Douglas Thomas ( teaches at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and edits Games & Culture: A Journal of Interactive Media.

You can always compete on the basis of service.

Especially in fields where there is none.


June 11, 2006
Off the Skids
Cash America

The core tenets of building a retail chain are well known. The stores need to be consistent and welcoming — a brand you can trust. This idea has guided chains for decades. It guides recent iterations selling organic vegetables, expensive lattes and well-designed kitchenware to what has been called the "mass affluent" consumer. And it guides chains of pawnshops. It turns out that there are several such chains, the biggest of which is Cash America: from one location in 1983 it has grown to 468 today, and it reported 2005 revenue of about $600 million.

Of course, when a new pawnshop location opens, it doesn't attract the same kind of attention as, say, a new Whole Foods. What attention it does get can be gauged by some of the "frequently asked questions" on the Web site of the National Pawnbrokers Association, a trade group for the industry: "Do pawnbrokers downgrade the neighborhood and hurt property value?" Or, "Do pawnbrokers attract indigents and derelicts?" (The site offers reassuring answers.) But if the pawnshop still seems, in the popular mind, like a seedy backdrop for some kind of illicit behavior, Cash America naturally takes a different view. According to the company's annual report (filled with images of happy and hard-working Americans), its "core purpose" is to "provide financial solutions that help ordinary people meet their needs and pursue their dreams."

More to the point, the chain sees pawnshop habitués not as the desperate riffraff of crime drama, or the exploited underclass described by critics of the industry, but as customers to be courted. Mary Jackson, spokeswoman for Cash America, calls those customers "young working families or single people who need a short-term loan." Maybe it's $100 for an emergency, or perhaps it's just a "cash management" issue, she says: "Some people use a necklace like others would a Visa card. You just use it continuously to get loans as you need them." Unlike other kinds of chains, Cash America doesn't really compete on price. After all, pawnbroking is regulated: interest rates vary from about 4 percent a month to 25 percent a month, depending on state laws, and in general the chain charges as much as it's allowed to. But Jackson says that it does do many of the same things any chain would. It conducts focus groups, stresses customer service, uses sophisticated software to track inventory as well as consumers' profiles and has even hired "mystery shoppers" to keep tabs on how individual stores are maintained and how friendly the staff is. "When you want to brand a store," Jackson says, "you are trying to separate yourself. We're separating ourselves from the independent pawnbroker."

When I mention "the unbanked," Jackson says that is not a term the industry cares for, because it "conjures up images of people who are ignorant or not sophisticated in their financial transactions." Cash America focus groups, she says, found that 60 percent of its customers do have bank accounts. Those who come to Cash America, she suggests, simply find borrowing $100 on that necklace to be more practical and easier to grasp than dealing with banks. It's also a "more disciplined" borrowing strategy, she notes, insofar as if you fail to pay off your short-term loan, Cash America will keep your necklace and sell it. Generally speaking, the chain would prefer that you pay back the loan, since it makes more money through those fat interest rates than it does from retailing seized collateral.

In any case, you don't have to buy into any negative caricatures of Cash America's customers to conclude that a thriving pawnshop chain tells a story about American consumers that undercuts the "mass affluent" theme. But maybe there's something useful in remembering the common ground between the Cash America constituency and every other chain-store customer. Jackson mentions the chain's entry into the Kansas City market, where a new location was able to thrive even though a locally owned rival took out a billboard to point out that his loan rates were better than Cash America's. But the local shop had "the old stereotype image," right down to a shirtless guy with a Doberman. Cash America competed with service, clean stores and employees with uniforms and name tags. "Just because you need cash for your personal items," Jackson says, "doesn't mean you don't want to be treated well."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Objectivity requires objections.


Wikipedia, the most democratic encyclopedia, is the new battleground for corporate spin.

Evan Hessel
556 words
19 June 2006
Volume 177 Issue 13
(c) 2006 Forbes Inc.

Wikipedia, the most democratic encyclopedia, is the new battleground for corporate spin.

The online encyclopedia Wikipedia, which allows almost anyone to write items for it, generates 360 million page views per day. Search for a company on Google and chances are its Wiki entry will be among the first hits. So perhaps it's no surprise that corporate spinmeisters are closely guarding their Wiki images.

A number of mysterious changes have popped up in the Wikipedia article devoted to McDonald's Corp. One anonymous contributor removed a link to Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, a muckraking critique of McDonald's food supply and labor practices. He or she replaced it with a link to McDonald's: Behind the Arches, a more obscure tome that covers the company's history in an unemotional fashion. Schlosser's book was a bestseller and has been turned into a movie (for release this fall).

Who made the edit? The user's Internet Protocol address belonged to McDonald's, according to the American Registry for Internet Numbers, indicating the editor was a company employee. A similar incident occurred last May on the Wal-Mart Wikipedia page, when an employee, also identified by a Wal-Mart IP address, cut a line stating the megaretailer paid its employees 20% less than its competitors did. Wal-Mart employees make "almost double the federal minimum wage," the gently spun replacement read. A Wal-Mart spokesman acknowledges that its publicity arm reads its Wiki pages but says that it has never encouraged employees to edit the page. McDonald's says it has no policy on Wikipedia.

Neither promotional fluff nor libel lasts long on these heavily trafficked pages. Wikipedia's 900 volunteer administrators enforce a "neutral point of view" rule and encourage users to delete copy displaying clear bias. On the McDonald's page theFast Food Nation link was quickly restored; a low-wages claim on the Wal-Mart page was reinserted but was eventually moved to a separate Wiki article devoted to critics of Wal-Mart.

Administrators can freeze a page from edits if users try to insert nonsense or cut relevant facts. Wikipedia editors have temporarily frozen Wal-Mart's page three times to stop warring parties from flooding the page with changes. Wikipedia tightened policies last fall after a former aide to Robert F. Kennedy complained that he was falsely listed as a suspect in his former boss' assassination.

Is there anything wrong with corporations putting their spin on Wiki? Edelman p.r. marketing strategist Steven Rubel argues that corporate flacks should feel free to edit inaccuracies out of Wikipedia as long as they identify themselves. But furtive attempts to turn Wikipedia into advertising copy could set off a backlash. "Marketing and Wikipedia are antonyms," Rubel writes in his blog.

Not all pitchmen are getting the message. In January a marketing manager for online gambling outfit Bodog Entertainment added 50 lines to the outfit's Wikipedia page, touting itself as a "revolutionary 21st-century media and digital entertainment giant." Wiki editors axed this breathless copy, prompting the author to write a plaintive note offering to have one of Bodog's copywriters produce a new article. The Wikipedians declined. Bodog's current article runs a spare eight lines.