Real Fake

Job losses, national security fears and natural disasters can make the future seem bleak. Companies are manufacturing alternate realities that consumers can embrace, leaving the real world behind...for now.

Last Updated September 15, 2014

Here There Be Dragons

Many of us know that Avatar was a smash hit in China, both in terms of attendance and tickets sold; less well-known is what a huge social presence it had. One recent echo of its impact comes from the scientific community, where a group of Chinese paleontologists decided to name a newly discovered species of pterosaur "Ikrandraci avatar" – Latin for "the Ikran dragon from Avatar." Coverage over at the Verge indicates that Ikrandaci probably looked more like an extra large pelican than a dragon, but as a scientist with a fondness for big Hollywood action movies, you probably don't get too many opportunities to bring the two worlds together.

Read the rest of the story at The Verge.

Oh Beer

It’s happened before – remember Júzcar! – and it’ll doubtless happen again, but last weekend, a brand took over a whole town. Crested Butte, CO, a sleepy mountain village of 1,500, painted the streets blue for Bud Light, welcoming 1,000 young people for 48 hours of unlimited drinks, a few concerts and a tremendous amount of… Whatever. Seriously – that’s what Bud Light renamed Crested Butte, temporarily: Whatever, USA. The townsfolk were predictably upset, but consoled by a $500k payment to help them through the “shoulder” season between summer and winter sports. On Monday morning, Twitter erupted with reports of trouble among guests leaving their debauch, after several were found in possession of cannabis while trying to board flights home.

The York Times has a balanced report; USAToday has hyperbole.

The Awesomest Governor Ever?

Zephyr Teachout, a constitutional law scholar, wants to run for Governor of New York (yes, Zephyr Teachout is her real name). The campaign is real – Timothy Wu, a professor of economics at Columbia noted for his work on net neutrality, is her running partner – but according to The New Yorker,Teachout doesn’t really want to be governor. Instead, she and Wu want to shine a light on corruption in politics, and they agree that a traditional campaign may be the best way to get their message across. Success in next week’s primary would let Teachout debate New York’s sitting governor Andrew Cuomo, who she plans on confronting with questions about campaign financing and the effect of centralized power on politics.

Read more about Teachout and Wu’s campaign at their official website, or check out

Main Street, UK

When age-related dementia strikes, people’s ability to create new memories is often profoundly affected, but older reminisces tend to remain intact (that’s why Gramma can recall the good old days, but forgets where where she put her purse). Architecture and infrastructure critic Nicola Twilley writes about a design trend aimed at soothing the afflicted elderly called retro-decorating, and one facility in the UK that has taken the idea to extremes. Grove Care’s Blossom Fields is a pseudo-high street straight out of Bristol circa 1950, complete with a pub, greengrocer and phone booth. The details are faithful, from prices to packaging, and the effort has met with rave reviews from residents, who benefit from having a safe space to wander and are comforted by the more familiar left-behind world.

Read more at Twilley’s consistently fascinating blog, Edible Geography.

A LARP at the End of the World

LARP stands for Live Action Role Play, a type of immersive, participatory gaming that’s long been the domain of vampire enthusiasts and sword-and-sorcery types, when a simple session of Dungeons and Dragons isn’t enough. Recently, though, the growing popularity of the zombie and post-apocalyptic genres--as well as dramatically-enhanced obstacle courses like the Zombie Run--have opened dystopian LARPing up to a much broader audience. One such organization, fittingly called “Dystopia Rising”, now has 10 locations throughout North America, offering participants an opportunity to spend a weekend in armor and makeup, getting chased, confused and possibly (fake) killed.

The Verge spent two days at Dystopia Rising’s New Jersey location, and lived to tell about it.

CG Stories

Imagine a computer program capable of creating compelling new stories. We can – but computers can’t, or at least can’t yet. Artificial intelligence researchers in Australia found that while they were able to provide a computer program with the rudiments necessary to concoct simple, original fables – characters, plotlines and, crucially, morals – the resulting stories lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. It was the inclusion of moral ends, extracted from Aesop’s fables (like retribution, greed, or pride) that was supposed to help the software spin entertaining yarns, but without “common sense,” the resulting fictions didn’t work. The researchers are confident that artificial intelligence will produce commercially viable fiction within the next ten years, the scripts of Michael Bay movies notwithstanding.

Read more – including an example of a computer-generated fable – at Kill Screen.


Good Enough for TV, Good Enough for Research

The quest for believability has prompted great efforts from TV and film directors to get small details right – 2003’s “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” for example, earned almost as much press for its painstaking costumes as for Russell Crowe’s crowd-pleasing performance. The recent HBO show “Silicon Valley” has achieved something of a realism coup, though, by working with a Stanford professor to come up with some convincing techno-jargon. The show references a particular algorithm’s “Weissman score” as a measure of compression efficiency, a term not actually used among coders. But the show has proven so popular among the actual denizens of Silicon Valley that the term itself has been embraced, and now shows up in technical discussions about algorithm efficiency. Several researchers and computer science classes now use “Weissman scores” to rank algorithms, without a trace of apparent irony.

The Verge has the article.

The Future Isn’t What it Used to Be

Every Venice Biennale features drawings and renders of unbuilt or speculative architecture, but most often it comes from world-renowned architects. This year, a British tour agency owner funded examples of Futurism from an anonymous architect at one of the world’s most secretive bureaucracies: the North Korean government. Nick Conner owns the Koryo Group, which holds the dubious distinction of being the most popular way to travel to one of the least popular places on earth. Conner contacted a state-educated, state-employed architect and commissioned “Visions of Utopia,” the future of what ecotourism might look like in the DPRK. Near-totally cut off from contemporary outside media, the resulting paintings appear grounded in Jetsons-era aesthetics.

Wired has the story (and more images.)

Is (Corporate) Twitter Real Life?

There is a place where Twitter, relational aesthetics and marketing meet: “[t]he thought of a traditional corporate entity, which has historically had no direct ‘voice,’ suddenly distilling itself into an eccentric, devil-may-care character is instantly affecting, precisely because of how uncanny, even creepy, it is.” Culturally-savvy Tweets like the Denny’s mashup parody masterpiece pictured here are produced by professionals striving for topical #relevancy and #value. Oreo’s 2013 Superbowl tweet – which would have been vastly more satisfying had it come during a blackout during an NBA final, IMO – and much of the #weirdtwitter universe represents the professionalization of a formerly private, person-bound medium. Whether this level of artifice makes Twitter any less real, however, is up to you.  

Read more at The New Inquiry.

Kickstarter and the $50,000 Potato Salad

Some days it seems like everybody has a Kickstarter, whether to fund an album, an invention, or a vacation. Last week, Columbus, OH resident Zach (Danger) Brown took a look around and said to himself, why not Kickstart a potato salad?  The world was ready. Funding took off like a rocket, even though Brown acknowledged in the post’s “Risks & Challenges” section “[i]t might not be very good. It’s my first potato salad.” The story went viral; with 17 days to go, and over $50k raised, the entire internets is invited to a potato salad party. The moral of the story may be that a sense of humor is underacknowledged as a business skill.  

There’s still time to fund the potato salad.