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Brainiac

Introducing the remote hug jacket

And more recent highlights from the Ideas blog

melissa chow

Facebook has always tried to incorporate the idea that human beings just want to reach out and touch somebody. (Poke. Poke.) But while at MIT, Melissa Chow, Andy Payne, and Phil Seaton dreamed up a system that would turn connections made over social media into physical contact. They call it the “Like-a-hug.”

The inflatable jackets are activated when a
Facebook friend “likes” a photo or a message. The jacket encompasses its wearer in an embrace — a simulacrum of a hug, sent over the Internet.

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Appliance manufacturers want us to live in a world where the objects around us can speak to us via social media. Plants will alert gardeners when they’re thirsty, refrigerators will figure out which food has gone bad, and toasters will remind you that your toast is done. (Actually, I might need that last one.) But Like-a-hug has a different purpose: It’s taking virtual interactions that once happened in person and reintroducing a physicality to them.

It’s reminiscent of a short-lived project in the newsroom of Quartz, a new online business magazine. The team there hooked up a light bulb to Twitter, and whenever anyone tweeted at Quartz, the light bulb went on. “When you interact with us, our newsroom is literally brightened,” wrote senior editor Zach Seward. “It’s a nice manifestation of our relationship with Quartz users, without whom we’ll be in the dark.”

These little niceties give a whole new meaning to the concept of a “public display of affection.” And although a hug from a jacket will always lack a certain warmth, I’ve met people in long-distance relationships whom I could imagine enthusiastically adopting the idea. If you’re already separated by an ocean from a loved one, a hug from a jacket could be better than nothing.

Attack of the YELLOWISTS

Last weekend, the Tate Modern in London had to deal with a museum nightmare: In full view of other guests, a patron left a piece of graffiti on the bottom of a Mark Rothko painting: “Vladimir Umanets ’12, A Potential Piece of Yellowism.”

Why would anyone write on a painting that could be worth tens of millions of dollars? As it happens, Umanets has already told us exactly why. As the cofounder of a very small and not particularly influential intellectual movement, he has left a trail of writings across the Web—including a manifesto on “Yellowism.”

It’s short, as manifestos go, and is fairly successful at making the word “yellow” sound like nonsense. That’s part of the point. What Umanets and cofounder Marcin Lodyga are pushing for is a system where anything can be made, essentially, meaningless.

Other bits and pieces of writing make it clearer that Yellowism is supposed to be a sort of thought exercise: It’s up to you, as a viewer, whether to consider any particular object, image, or ideas as part of Yellowism. Just look at it, think about yellow, and try to see it as signifying nothing at all.

This is why Umanets tagged the Rothko as a “potential” Yellowist work. As a viewer, he’s giving you the option of seeing it, not as a masterpiece of abstract art, but as a blank. It would be convenient for him if he could at least convince Scotland Yard.

Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian’s SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
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