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They keep things out or enclose them within. They're symbols of power, and a means of control. They're canvases for art, backdrops for street theater, and placards for political messages. They're just waiting for when nobody's looking to receive graffiti. Walls of all kinds demarcate our lives. -- Lane Turner (41 photos total).
Note: You can now follow @bigpicture on the social network App.net, where you own your own data. If you'd like to try it out, we've also got some free invites for our readers.
Workers clean the curtain wall of the 40-story National Bank of Economic Social Development in Rio de Janeiro on December 12, 2012. (Vanderlei Almeida/AFP/Getty Images)     

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For the last year or so, I've been getting these two page energy assessment reports in the mail from Pacific Gas & Electric, our California utility company, comparing our household's energy use to those of the houses around us.

Here's the relevant excerpts from the latest report; click through for a full-page view of each page.

Pge-page-1-small

Pge-page-2-small

These poor results are particularly galling because I go far out of my way to Energy Star all the things, I use LED light bulbs just about everywhere, we set our thermostat appropriately, and we're still getting crushed. I have no particular reason to care about this stupid energy assessment report showing our household using 33% more energy than similar homes in our neighborhood. And yet… I must win this contest. I can't let it go.

  • Installed a Nest 2.0 learning thermostat.
  • I made sure every last bulb in our house that gets any significant use is LED. Fortunately there are some pretty decent $16 LED bulbs on Amazon now offering serviceable 60 watt equivalents at 9 watt, without too many early adopter LED quirks (color, dimming, size, weight, etc).
  • I even put appliance LED bulbs in our refrigerator and freezer.
  • Switched to a low-flow shower head.
  • Upgraded to a high efficiency tankless water heater, the Noritz NCC1991-SV.
  • Nearly killed myself trying to source LED candelabra bulbs for the fixture in our dining room which has 18 of the damn things, and is used quite a bit now with the twins in the house. Turns out, 18 times any number … is still kind of a large number. In cash.

(Most of this has not helped much on the report. The jury is still out on the Nest thermostat and the candelabra LED bulbs, as I haven't had them long enough to judge. I'm gonna defeat this thing, man!)

I'm ashamed to admit that it's only recently I realized that this technique – showing a set of metrics alongside your peers – is exactly the same thing we built at Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange. Notice any resemblance on the user profile page here?

Stack-overflow-user-page-small

You've tricked me into becoming obsessed with understanding and reducing my household energy consumption. Something that not only benefits me, but also benefits the greater community and, more broadly, benefits the entire world. You've beaten me at my own game. Well played, Pacific Gas & Electric. Well played.

Davetron5000-tweet

This peer motivation stuff, call it gamification if you must, really works. That's why we do it. But these systems are like firearms: so powerful they're kind of dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. If you don't think deeply about what you're incentivizing, why you're incentivizing it, and the full ramifications of all emergent behaviors in your system, you may end up with … something darker. A lot darker.

The key lesson for me is that our members became very thoroughly obsessed with those numbers. Even though points on Consumating were redeemable for absolutely nothing, not even a gold star, our members had an unquenchable desire for them. What we saw as our membership scrabbled over valueless points was that there didn't actually need to be any sort of material reward other than the points themselves. We didn't need to allow them to trade the points in for benefits, virtual or otherwise. It was enough of a reward for most people just to see their points wobble upwards. If only we had been able to channel that obsession towards something with actual value!

Since I left Stack Exchange, I've had a difficult time explaining what exactly it is I do, if anything, to people. I finally settled on this: what I do, what I'm best at, what I love to do more than anything else in the world, is design massively multiplayer games for people who like to type paragraphs to each other. I channel their obsessions – and mine – into something positive, something that they can learn from, something that creates wonderful reusable artifacts for the whole world. And that's what I still hope to do, because I have an endless well of obsession left.

Just ask PG&E.

[advertisement] What's your next career move? Stack Overflow Careers has the best job listings from great companies, whether you're looking for opportunities at a startup or Fortune 500. You can search our job listings or create a profile and let employers find you.

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WARNING: SOME IMAGES CONTAIN GRAPHIC CONTENT OR NUDITY
From the uprisings across the Arab world to the devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan, there was no lack of news in 2011. Reuters photographers covered the breaking news events as well as captured more intimate, personal stories. In this showcase, the photographers offer a behind the scenes account of the images that helped define the year.

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September 30, 2011 marked the 76th anniversary of the dedication of Hoover Dam. The dam straddles the border of Arizona and Nevada in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River and was dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935. Rising 726.4 feet from its foundation, Hoover Dam was constructed in five years, beginning in [...]

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"The Murderer of Your Heritage" is a immense new site-specific installation piece from Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas. The work, which is currently on display for the 54th Venice Biennale, took almost two months for multiple sculptors, builders and engineers to assemble using clay, cement and wood. The piece also makes 31-year-old Rojas the youngest artist to be nationally represented at the Biennale.

Source: Yatzer

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POLITICAL SCUFFLE
POLITICAL SCUFFLE: Shiite and Sunni National Assembly members fought during a heated debate Wednesday in Kuwait about Kuwaitis held at Guantanamo Bay. The speaker of parliament suspended sessions after the fight. (Yasser al Zayyat/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

BY THE NECK
BY THE NECK: Vice speaker of Ukrainian Parliament Adam Martynyuk, right, grabbed deputy Oleg Lyashko during a legislative session in Kiev Wednesday. (Tatyana Bondarenko/Reuters)

UNDER WATER
UNDER WATER: A home was nearly submerged in Vicksburg, Miss., Wednesday. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

X-RAY IMAGE
X-RAY IMAGE: This X-ray, provided by officials in Chiapas, Mexico, shows migrants from Latin America and Asia inside a truck heading to the U.S. Local police said they found more than 500 migrants Tuesday inside two trailer trucks. The red arrows mark distance. (Chiapas state attorney general/Associated Press)

RESCUED
RESCUED: A man grabbed a woman who jumped from a building in Changchun, Jilin Province, China, Tuesday. The 22-year-old had attempted suicide after her boyfriend tried to end their four-year relationship. (ChinaFotoPress/Zuma Press)

FILLING IN
FILLING IN: A Palestinian worker poured cement at the base of an Israeli separation barrier that cuts through the West Bank village of Walajeh, just south of Jerusalem, Wednesday. (Jim Hollander/European Pressphoto Agency)

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Here's an Australian TV documentary about China's housing bubble which has given rise of bizarre ghost malls, ghost highrises, and even ghost cities. It's symptomatic of the growing divide between China's rich and poor, which has left many Chinese without adequate housing. Unlike the US bubble, the Chinese property bubble isn't founded on cheap credit, which makes the analyst hosting the show believe that it won't burst in the same way as American one.

China's Ghost Cities and Malls

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