July 21, 2007
The Compliment Machine
As they say in Swahili, "Kila jema halikosi sifa njema."*
Joshua Zumbrum's story in today's Washington Post Style section explores what happens when a seemingly innocuous box on a Washington, D.C. street unexpectedly utters random kind words as people walk by.
- The Art of Gratuitous Praise
Compliment Machine Gives Passersby Pats on the Back
Feeling blue? Unloved? As if nobody appreciates you? Maybe no one can see your inner wonderfulness. Or maybe you deserve to be forsaken. Maybe you are unloved because you're such a jerk, simply unlovable. Maybe you're a victim of the old maxim: "If you can't say anything nice..."
So when walking along 14th Street NW, you might be surprised to hear a chime followed by a reassuring voice:
"You help create a brighter future."
The avuncular voice calls out from a bright red-and-white-striped box perched on a platform of bricks, with a speaker at eye level and a grid of ventilation holes in the side. A small sign explains, "The Compliment Machine." The striking colors, stark lines and sharp corners lend the appearance of some strange installation of the municipality, perhaps from the Bureau of Self-Esteem or the Ministry of Happiness.
Ding! "People are drawn to your positive energy."
Is it true? It must be. The Compliment Machine looks as though it knows what it's talking about. Maybe it's a kinder, gentler cousin of Big Brother?
Ding! "You don't hate the player or the game."
Actually, the city has nothing to do with this. The Compliment Machine was conceived by Tom Greaves [above, installing his street art], 46, a visual artist who lives on Capitol Hill. It's part of SitesProject D.C., an exhibit by the Washington Project for the Arts\Corcoran, which features a collection of public art along 14th Street NW between P and V streets.
"It's a response to how on kids' soccer teams... win or lose, everyone gets a trophy," Greaves explains. Not soccer, specifically, but the saccharine culture in which everyone is special and unique, nobody can be criticized and everyone gets an award.
Some people can't stand that culture, others heartily embrace it, but if you're looking for a normative judgment from the creator of the Compliment Machine, you are looking in the wrong place. The machine is his entire comment.
The mellow, jeans-clad Greaves will only say that perhaps the nature of the comment is in the, well, ear of the beholder. As with an unearned trophy, Greaves says, "People can believe it or not."
Will they believe it? If everyone gets the trophy, if everyone receives the compliment, does it really mean anything?
On the other hand:
Ding! "You are always there when needed."
The machine calls to Tom Minter, 50, a resident of Q Street, who walks past the corner regularly. "It really makes you feel good," says Minter, a playwright. "If I'm having a really bad moment while I'm walking down this street, and it penetrates the fog, it's a good thing."
Ding! "Your eyes are beautiful."
The machine calls to a heavily muscled man in a snug black T-shirt, who pauses for just a moment to frown at the machine before heading on his way.
The Compliment Machine knows as much about its subjects as a fortune cookie knows about its eater. There's no science to it. Greaves simply read a hundred compliments in his most neutral voice — like the recordings telling people to watch for the end of the moving sidewalk in an airport — and put them on an iPod Nano. The Nano is inside the machine, plugged into a speaker and powered by a car battery (Greaves removes the iPod at night so it doesn't get stolen). The compliments play at random, and every night Greaves changes the compliments a bit, adding some and removing others. The machine operates from about 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day through July 27.
Between compliments is a gap of silence lasting several seconds to several minutes, to heighten the anticipation. Greaves picked up the idea at the Pompidou Center in Paris, where he observed a dummy with a bell hanging by its head; every few minutes, the dummy would lurch forward and bash his head against the bell.
Initially, Greaves thought of making some of the compliments subversive, but had a change of heart. "Why not make it completely positive? Everyone deserves to have a compliment paid to them."
And so the Compliment Machine has kind words for even the blackest of hearts. "Maybe if the compliment doesn't apply to them, they'll want to change that," says Greaves. Like a horoscope, there is the potential that the compliment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the machine says "You leave things better than you find them," then maybe, just maybe, the recipient will be inspired to improve one little thing.
But it's hard to catch a break in this world. When Greaves went to install the machine earlier this month, he was across the street from a crew of construction workers.
"You are a wonderf — " BUZZZZUZZZZ! A circular saw loudly interrupted the machine -- unintentional commentary, perhaps?
How difficult it is in this modern age to hear those rare words of praise over all the chaos of our lives.
"You have — " PRAP PRAP PRAP PRAP!
Or perhaps it's just the reality of public art on a bustling street in a gentrifying neighborhood in a busy city. In response to the noise, Greaves ratcheted up the volume of the machine so that, after a long day or week or month or year, a person pausing at the corner could hear:
Ding! "You're a star in the face of the sky."
*"Every good thing does not lack its proper praise."
It's got 'the look' — Rose Colander
From the website:
- Rose Colander
The oval shape and large curved rim of this sturdy silicon colander makes it easy to pour contents without spills.
Vertical holes direct water away from food and raised bottom helps drain completely.
Extremely flexible for easy storage and dishwasher safe.
Large 5 quart capacity.
Heat resistant to 675º.
Also in Grey.
Readymech.com: Make 20 different paper flatpack creatures — free
"Better click on over to readymech.com.... Graphic design firm Fwis has introduced a line of paper flatpack creatures in 20-plus designs, including a boxy sea monster, a drooling headhunter and a Japanese doll. Download the pattern, print it out, and build it yourself. All you need is some double-sided tape, scissors, and 15 minutes. Bonus: It's free!"
The way we like it.
[via the August 2007 issue of Wired magazine]
Solar-Powered Twin Beam LED Keychain Flashlight
A lot going on in a small space.
From the website:
- Solar LED Keychain
Never be without light when you need it.
This unique keychain flashlight has a built-in solar cell and a Ni-Mh rechargeable battery that stores solar power.
Provides three hours of continuous use when fully charged.
Two super-bright LED lights last for up to 100,000 hours.
2.75" x 1.37" x .5".
BehindTheMedspeak: Alien Hand Syndrome
It's also called "Dr. Strangelove syndrome" or "anarchic hand."
I'd never heard of it until I read WebMD's Miranda Hitti's July 18, 2007 story about it.
"In alien hand syndrome, the patient's hand moves involuntarily, sometimes forcing the patient to use their healthy hand to restrain the alien hand's actions."
Here's the WebMD article as carried by foxnews.com.
- Brain Glitch Spurs Alien Hand Syndrome, Doctors Find
Scientists have new clues about the roots of an unusual condition called alien hand syndrome.
In alien hand syndrome, the patient's hand moves involuntarily, sometimes forcing the patient to "use their healthy hand to restrain the alien hand's actions," Swiss doctors report in today's early online edition of the Annals of Neurology.
Alien hand syndrome is "rare and distressing," write the doctors, who include Frederic Assal, MD, of the department of clinical neurosciences at University Hospital in Geneva, Switzerland.
Assal and colleagues studied a 70-year-old man who developed alien hand syndrome after suffering a stroke.
Alien hand syndrome affected the man's left hand. The stroke also affected his vision on the left side of his body, so he sometimes didn't know what his left hand was doing.
"For instance," write the doctors, "his left hand could grasp and manipulate parts of clothes or objects, even tear them into pieces, while the patient was [sitting] in his armchair and unaware of these involuntary movements."
Assal's team scanned the man's brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The brain scans were done while the man's arms and forearms were strapped down, out of the man's sight, while he was resting or while he deliberately moved his right or left hand.
While the man deliberately moved his right or left hand, the brain scans showed activity in several brain areas.
But while the man rested, the fingers on his left hand flexed and relaxed slowly and repetitively. Those were involuntary movements, according to Assal's team.
During those alien hand movements, the brain scans only showed activity on the right side of the brain in an area called the motor cortex.
Voluntary movements involve the motor cortex, but they also engage other parts of the brain, the doctors note.
Assal and colleagues didn't study any other people with alien hand syndrome, so it's not clear if this particular patient represents all people with alien hand syndrome.
However, the doctors note that their findings may shed new light on the brain's control of voluntary and involuntary motions.
Here's a link to the abstract of the Archives of Neurology article; the abstract itself, published online on July 17, 2007, follows.
- Moving with or without will: Functional neural correlates of alien hand syndrome
Alien hand syndrome is a rare neurological disorder in which movements are performed without conscious will. By using functional magnetic resonance imaging in a patient with alien hand syndrome after right parietal lesion, we could identify brain regions activated during involuntary or voluntary actions with the affected left hand. Alien hand movements involved a selective activation of contralateral primary motor cortex (M1), presumably released from conscious control by intentional planning systems. By contrast, voluntary movements activated a distributed network implicating not only the contralateral right M1 and premotor cortex but also the left inferior frontal gyrus, suggesting an important role of the dominant hemisphere in organizing willed actions.
Satin Pillowcases — End Bedhead
From the catalog and website:
- Satin Pillowcases — No More Morning Hair Disasters!
Keep Your Hair In Place While You Sleep
Sleeping on a satin pillowcase is one of the top beauty secrets recommended by professional hairdressers.
One of the most inexpensive hair care products available, our satin pillowcases are not only luxurious, they’re practical too!
Washable satin pampers delicate facial skin while your hair easily glides over the pillow as you sleep.
Smooth 100% polyester satin pillowcases keeps your hairdo in place.
Fits standard sized pillows.
21"W x 30"L.
Beige, White, Blue or Rose.
Two for $16.95.
Is Nancy Pelosi President of the United States — and unaware of it?
According to today's 9:33 a.m. (ET) story by Deb Riechmann on WashingtonPost.com, President Bush, about to undergo anesthesia for a colonoscopy, transferred presidential authority at 7:16 a.m. this morning to Dick Cheney.
Cheney became acting president at that moment and will remain in that capacity until Bush sends "... follow-up letters to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. [above] and Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., president pro tempore of the Senate, advising them that he immediately [is] resuming the powers of his office."
I wonder if news of a sudden medical emergency involving Cheney — say, a recurrence of his previous problems with venous thrombosis and multiple heart attacks, perhaps causing his implanted cardiac defibrillator to discharge — would make it out of the temporary seat of power on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where Cheney is said to be at the moment.
My bet is no — that such destabilizing, disturbing information would never, ever see the light of day until the publication of Cheney's memoirs, when he'd drop that bomb.
Instead, the office of the acting president would simply sit on it until Bush emerged from his anesthetic, at which time he'd send his letters and resume his job.
A Democratic Party fever dream.
Coughing Screaming Ashtray — A New Approach to Quitting
From the website:
- Coughing Screaming Ashtray
If nothing else works, pick up one of our specially designed ashtrays that looks like a real pair of lungs!
Place a cigarette on it and it starts coughing and screaming!
Uses 2 AA batteries (not included).