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2 years ago

3DConnexion SpaceNavigator


When Google Earth launched a few years ago, it captivated the imaginations of many computer geeks and map nerds. Today, when you download the program onto your computer, you can encounter panoramic photos, Wikipedia factoid pop-ups, virtual travel itineraries, 3D renderings and all kinds of other geographic Easter eggs. But you'll only find them if you know how to navigate Google Earth's virtual globe. PC gamers are comfortable moving through 3D environments with just mouse and keyboard. They don't need any help swooping and diving around Google Earth like Superman. I guess I'm more of a Lex Luthor: it took the assistance of a mad scientist's tiny rubber-and-metal device for me to glide from here to there.

The SpaceNavigator isn't a joystick, nor is it a trackball. It is a wheel, anchored to a rewardingly heavy base, that you twist, tilt, nudge, press and pull to move up, down, forward and back, and also pitch and yaw. (Sorry, aviators: no roll.)

When it came to manipulating Google Earth, I found the SpaceNavigator incredibly useful. When my wife and I were browsing real estate near New York City, we located all of the Metro North train stops out of the city then virtually navigated the route, seeing where each town was in relation to the rest, and comparing relative commutes. A quick lift of the rubber wheel and we get a bird's-eye view; press down again and we're back at street level.

There is a Google Earth plug-in you can download at that shows realtime flight traffic for many airports, and even has an hourly snapshot of all planes currently in the air that have a U.S. departure or arrival. (Once you have Google Earth installed, go to and click on the "Google Earth Primer" button.) It's a dramatic piece of software: there you are, in your own home, and you can monitor planes taking off and landing at LAX, O'Hare or a handful of other impossibly busy airports. The SpaceNavigator improves the experience, by giving you a manageable way to, say, find a particular plane then zoom in and level off next to it, to get a pilot's view of the flightplan.

The annoying thing about the SpaceNavigator is that you can't use it for much else. It comes with a Windows-based photo viewer, so you can more easily scrutinize high-megapixel shots. But as I said it's just a viewer, not an editor, and Photoshop and other leading photo software doesn't support SpaceNavigator at this point. You can't even use it as a mouse replacement, and it isn't yet compatible with Macs, though I assume that will be remedied in the near future. Complaints aside, it's a very well made piece of hardware for the $60 it costs, one whose unique ability to let you move effortlessly through three-dimensional space will no doubt, in time, find countless uses. In the meantime, you've got the Earth.,8599,1573203,00.html

2 years ago

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was a Baptist minister and civil rights leader. In November 1983, President Reagan signed legislation creating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, making it the third national holiday born in the twentieth century. The first was Veterans Day, created as a "prayer for peace" in 1926. Memorial Day came second in 1948. In 1956, Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Honor King's memory with this online expedition into his life and achievements.

2 years ago

This Valentine's Day, I'm Loving The Boyfriend I Built For Myself

Javier Pierini/Getty Images

Javier Pierini/Getty Images

Have your parents ever asked you if you're dating someone, and just to get out of the situation, you lie and say, "Yes, I am. His name is Rick Jagger"?

No? Really? Me neither.

But one new company is betting that many people do feel very awkward about being single. Matthew Homann says he came up with the idea a few years ago, when he was newly single from a divorce and people wouldn't stop asking him if he was seeing anyone.

Hey there, Alejandro. courtesy of Invisible Boyfriend hide caption

itoggle caption courtesy of Invisible Boyfriend

So he co-created a service called Invisible Boyfriend and Invisible Girlfriend. And unlike the face you painted on your knee when you were 10 and made out with incessantly, it has a lot of interactive features.

Here's how it works:

Alejandro does not know the meaning of "I'm going to play video games here on the couch all day"! NPR hide caption

itoggle caption NPR

Alejandro does not know the meaning of "I'm going to play video games here on the couch all day"!


The basic service costs $25. You sign up, and start building your partner: looks, interests, hobbies. You also pick his personality: "saucy and sarcastic" or "lovingly nerdy"? You describe yourself, and why you are signing up for the service. Among the reasons you can list are that you are trying to fend off a coworker who won't stop hitting on you, you aren't ready to come out as gay, or you want to make your ex jealous.

I imagine my ex is chewing his fingers off in a jealous rage as he reads this, because I built myself a hottie with a great outlook on life. My new beau's name is Alejandro and he loves reading books, writing and volunteering. We met while surfing.

Of course, I am terrified of sharks and undercurrents, and this is all a huge lie, but you wouldn't know that. Alejandro texts me twice a day. (You can also get handwritten cards and voice mail.)

Professor Eli Finkel, who teaches social psychology at Northwestern University, says it's a bit sad how easily you can deceive people about your personal life.

"In a non-digital world, it would be strange that you never saw your friend's girlfriend," he says. "But in a world where a huge amount of our communication happens on the Internet already, it's easier to lie if people aren't actually dropping by your house."

The service employs more than 500 professional romantics to send all those messages on behalf of the 50,000-plus "boyfriends" and "girlfriends" created so far, Homann says.

Homann says the service has tapped into something more than just helping people lie. "I know we have some users who are telling their [invisible] boyfriends and girlfriends secrets," he says. "We've got other people who are using them to practice their flirting."

Finkel isn't buying it. He says people should just be able to say they are single. "There are lots and lots of people who are single and quite happy about it. They don't require any pity from us. I wish we lived in a world in which people who are single had just as much social status as people who aren't."

At the end of the day I decided to break it off. Alejandro isn't taking it very well.

But on a serious note, the experience made me reflect on how at times in my life I have lied about having a boyfriend, almost always to fend off unwanted advances. I think a lot of women have done this. I do want to live in a world in which I can just say that I'm single. I also want to live in a world in which it's OK to say, "I'm not interested, just back off."

Having said that, Alejandro was fun, and I'm thinking of setting him up with a friend.