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The future of camouflage

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog


We think of camouflage as mainly a concern for hunters and soldiers, but that might be too limited. If you think about it, our lives are filled with objects we wish blended a little better into their surroundings: The wireless router in your living room, a port-a-potty beside a soccer field, a trash can in a public park. Now, a team of computer scientists at MIT is on the case. Led by graduate student Andrew Owens, they’ve created an algorithm that analyzes pictures of incongruous objects and creates custom camouflage that makes them fade into their surroundings.

The researchers’ biggest challenge was figuring out how to make the camouflage work from multiple perspectives: If a box sits between a black leather couch and a smooth yellow wall, a pattern that makes it blend in best from one angle would make it striking from another. There’s no perfect way to solve this problem, but the MIT researchers found that the best algorithm came up with a camouflage design that blended in from as many angles as possible and created rounded contour lines, allowing for smooth transitions as you walk from one side of the object to another. (See box on bookshelf in photo.)


For now, the camouflage designs exist largely as computer renderings, and Owens explained by e-mail that “there are a lot of issues we don’t account for, like stereo vision and the difficulty of printing a realistic texture.” Even if the camouflage isn’t perfect, though, it might be good enough. In the test images, the camouflaged objects don’t disappear completely, but it does take a few extra moments of scrutiny to find them, which might be just enough for that wireless router not to bug you.

Welcome to your reading pod By all accounts, bookstores were supposed to be dead by now, killed off by Amazon, but they hang on. What might they look like in an ever-more-digital future? In the May/June issue of the Economist’s Intelligent Life magazine, four top architecture firms offer their answers with designs that are by turns fanciful and abundantly practical, and all of which involve very few actual books.

The San Francisco firm Gensler imagines a multipurpose space fronted with a touchscreen facade that pedestrians could use to download e-books as they stroll by on the sidewalk. Inside, the store would be staffed by “literary sommeliers” akin to the widely knowledgeable bibliophiles who staff the best independent bookstores, and would feature individual-sized pods offering customers an immersive reading experience: crack a copy of “The Great Gatsby” while sipping a gin rickey, listening to Roaring Twenties jazz, and inhaling a sea breeze to simulate Long Island Sound.

Two other firms, 20.20 and Coffey Architects, emphasize self-publishing in their designs, assuming that even if people are no longer interested in reading other people’s words in print, they’ll still want to see their own. Coffey’s is a particularly theatrical mix of futurism and nostalgia: Floating robots help you choose paper, ink, and a font, before sending your work to be produced on antique printing presses and binding machines. A fourth firm, Burdifilek, took a more purely business-minded approach: Their design calls for bookstores to hawk related merchandise along with their titles.


All of this may be wishful thinking—just because bookstores survived the first decade of e-commerce doesn’t mean they’ll last much longer. But there’s hope in the very fact that we’re discussing this question. After all, who’s bothering to daydream about the future of the video store?

Do pleas increase gun violence? Plea bargains have become a fixture of American criminal justice; modern crime trials usually end with a defendant agreeing to plead guilty to a lesser charge. What effect is this having? A new study suggests it might fuel gun violence.

In the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers Mona Wright and Garen Wintemute explain there’s an important difference when a defendant pleads to a misdemeanor instead of a felony: Felons are prohibited from buying guns. Not so for people convicted of a misdemeanor.

Wright and Wintemute looked at 787 people convicted of violent misdemeanors who went on to legally purchase handguns in California from 1989 to 1990, 40 percent of whom had pled down from felony charges. The researchers found that nearly 25 percent of the total group ended up committing violent or gun-related crimes sometime after being

convicted. The researchers calculated that “Handgun purchasers with violent misdemeanor convictions are 9-15 times more likely to subsequently be arrested for violent crimes,” and worry that prosecutors are not taking this elevated risk into account when doling out plea deals.


Are prosecutors really ignoring that risk? I sent the study to a friend of mine who is a Massachusetts prosecutor. (He asked not to be named because of restrictions about speaking to the press.) He had another view: that gun cases in particular can be so hard to prosecute, and are so aggressively challenged, that plea bargains may represent the only way to be sure a charge sticks. One approach to cutting down on subsequent violence, he suggests, would be to tighten the rules for misdemeanor offenders.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.