August 21st, 2014
No doubt about it, the Curiosity Rover has totally lost that showroom shine.
No doubt about it, the Curiosity Rover has totally lost that showroom shine.
Katie Baker unveils1 a tale of an Oregon ghost town and the army of brides that keeps it alive:
Six days a week, Geri Canzler packs her lunch and commutes on winding roads through thick Oregon forest. When it's nice out, she can walk the route, but on this late March day Canzler is tired and the rain hasn't stopped. So she drives her white SUV to her workplace, the second-smallest free-standing post office in the United States. She estimates the wooden shack to be no bigger than 10 feet by 10 feet, though there is also that 3-by-4 storage shed off the back if you're going to get technical about it.
Canzler is the postmaster of a once-thriving lumber town that has been shaved down to just a few splinters. […]
[The little post office…] has been kept barely alive – in an era of Postal Service downsizing – thanks almost entirely to an annual army of finicky brides who covet its picture-perfect postmark for their wedding invitations. Bridal Veil, Oregon, 97010 is the name of the town, and Canzler is one of its only employees. She may well wind up being its last. […]
On Southern California Public Radio, Fernando Guerra, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, suggested a radical solution to increasing voter turnout: Enter all voters automatically into a $1 million lottery.
"Wouldn't we get a lot of people who know nothing about politics or the candidates jumping in and voting and just checking the box so they could get a million bucks?" the radio host asked Guerra.
"Absolutely," Guerra responded. But, he added, that might not be a bad thing. "That might produce better results. There is no data to show that uninformed voters make worse decisions than informed voters."
Let's just hear that last line again…
There is no data to show that uninformed voters make worse decisions than informed voters.
Good to know…
Danny Crichton's argument that Algorithms Are Replacing Unions As The Champions of Workers is a doozy:
At the heart of this movement is the right of workers to choose how and when they work. Uber, for instance, doesn't require strict hours for drivers, instead letting them choose schedules that match their needs. If a driver wants to take a two-hour lunch break or pick up their kids after school and only work late mornings and evenings, the system provides them the flexibility to do that. Carefully-tuned algorithms provide incentives through prices to ensure that the market is meeting the demand of customers and workers. The same flexibility holds true for most on-demand startups including TaskRabbit, Postmates, oDesk, Crew, and Guru.
Such convenience used to be the exclusive preserve of elite talent. Professionals like lawyers, doctors, engineers and consultants have had the flexibility in their work to take vacations and use "flex time" policies for many years now. Such policies make it easier to do everything from building a family to improving one's skills through education.
It also helps that all those professional types were earning hourly rates that allowed them to forego a week's work without substantially affecting their ability to make that month's mortgage payment.1 As if that weren't enough, Crichton also has some strange ideas about how a startup-driven labour market might work:
There is a long-tail to labor markets that startups are finally exploiting. Maybe I want to do a mix of cooking, Egyptian hieroglyphic travel blogging, and some regression analysis of health data. In the past, that would mean getting a job in marketing and living a corporate life until such time that one could quit and pursue their interests. Today, it is entirely possible to stitch together a set of opportunities to bring all of those passions together.
Let's just hope that the guy who is paying for the health data analysis doesn't want his report finalised the very same week in which you'd promised to supply one of your patrons with pre-publishing access to a meaty piece you're just getting to grips with about the hieroglyphs at Amenemhet I's pyramid at Lisht.
We can but hope that our multi-talented individual doesn't have a passion for, say, eating regularly, or being able to plan more than a few weeks ahead. Startups and those who make money from the sharing economy ideally want people with no family complications to mess up their schedules, and who will be at the beck and call of the business on what amounts to a zero-hour contract. Also, it'd be nice if as many regulations as possible governing established industries could be swept away/regarded as not applying to those doing exactly the same type of work but as part of the sharing economy. And this is an environment in which trades unions are obsolete?
Shoulda been published in The Onion.
A short film set in Barcelona about a woman who is unable to listen to herself.
Paul Ford has thought a lot about How to Be Polite:
Here's a polite person's trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you'll know how to apply it wisely: When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: "Wow. That sounds hard."
Because nearly everyone in the world believes their job to be difficult. I once went to a party and met a very beautiful woman whose job was to help celebrities wear Harry Winston jewelry. I could tell that she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt, but when I told her that her job sounded difficult to me she brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson. She kept touching me as she talked. I forgave her for that. I didn't reveal a single detail about myself, including my name. Eventually someone pulled me back into the party. The celebrity jewelry coordinator smiled and grabbed my hand and said, "I like you!" She seemed so relieved to have unburdened herself. I counted it as a great accomplishment. Maybe a hundred times since I've said, "wow, that sounds hard" to a stranger, always to great effect. I stay home with my kids and have no life left to me, so take this party trick, my gift to you.
Anil Dash digs deep into the evolution of Purple Rain and It Is Glorious:
While Prince and the Revolution had been carefully rehearsing Purple Rain all summer, adjusting each detail of how the song was structured and played, Prince's nearly-unequalled ability to spontaneously take a live performance to the next level was certainly on display that August night.
Exemplifying this ability is the repeated lilting motif that Prince begins playing on his guitar at 4:40 in the song. For all the countless times they'd practiced the song, even earlier on the same day as the First Avenue performance, Prince had never played this riff during Purple Rain before. In the original live show, it's clear that Prince realizes he's found something magical, returning again and again to this brief riff, not just on guitar but even singing it himself during the final fade of the song.
Just as striking is how this little riff shows the care and self-criticism that went into making the song Purple Rain. Like any brilliant 25-year-old guy who's thought of something clever, Prince's tendency when he thought of this little gem was to overdo it. In the unedited version of the song, Prince keeps playing the riff for almost another minute, pacing around the stage trying to will the audience into responding to it.
But during those same sessions where the strings were added to the song, Prince ruthlessly chopped down a riff he clearly loves, keeping just enough to serve as a stirring melodic hook for his guitar solo, and leading the song to its soaring vocal climax.
To this day I still think that When Doves Cry is the best track from Purple Rain, but I've got to bow to the majority view on this one: come the sad day when Prince Rogers Nelson passes on it's the title track that's going to be played to remind us of the talent we'll have lost.
It's both amazing and mildly depressing to think of how many of the interfaces catered for by xkcd's Universal Converter Box I have within an arm's length of where I'm sitting as I type this.
Most of them still passing bits or electrons back and forth just like they were built to. I'm pretty sure my F Connector1 would be a wee bit confused to find itself plugged into an adapter that sends the PAL signal my aerial provides on to a USB2 port.2
Did you ever wish you could just transform any text anywhere on the Internet with "I am Groot"?
Of course you did. Or should.
For what it's worth, I keep seeing people say that Guardians of the Galaxy came out a bit like a Marvel Cinematic Universe version of Firefly/Serenity. Seems to me that it's a much closer match for Farscape:
I'll freely acknowledge that four seasons of TV gave Rockne S O'Bannon and friends way more scope to develop their characters than James Gunn and co. had, but even so I've got to say that Scorpius (and Harvey) was a much more fun villain than Ronan The Accuser or Thanos.1
[Via The Dissolve]
Chris Brooke has been reading The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark's book on the outbreak of the First World War.
[What…] I was repeatedly struck by were the sheer number of quite extraordinarily belligerent actors that I encountered along the way, and I ended up a bit surprised that continental war didn't break out much earlier than 1914. […]
[French diplomat…] Paul Cambon takes the prize:
Underpinning Cambon's exalted sense of self was the belief – shared by many of the senior ambassadors – that one did not merely represent France, one personified it. Though he was ambassador in London from 1898 until 1920, Cambon spoke not a word of English. During his meetings with [Foreign Secretary] Edward Grey (who spoke no French), he insisted every utterance be translated into French, including easily recognized words such as 'yes'. He firmly believed – like many members of the French elite – that French was the only language capable of articulating rational thought and he objected to the foundation of French schools in Britain on the eccentric grounds that French people raised in Britain tended to end up mentally retarded.
Today, I was cooking bacon while my dog watched me, drooling. I thought this was funny and I teased her a bit. I then slipped in the drool as I was carrying the bacon and she got to enjoy it. FML
I understand that the increasing prevalence of Arctic melt ponds is probably telling us something rather depressing about the rate at which glaciers are melting, the implications for global climate change and the chances that at some point within the remainder of my lifetime I'm going to find myself commuting to work in a canoe. I really do.
But on the other hand, those little turquoise jewels nestling in an expanse of whiteness sure are just so goddam pretty that sometimes I think it's worth the impending disruption of modern civilisation.
Sadie Stein contemplates the state of the modern Genius:
Somewhere in the world there exists a clip of Hugh Hefner on one talk show or another. I can neither remember what the show was nor the exact wording of the exchange, but the following paraphrase has become legendary in my family:
INTERVIEWER: Do you consider yourself a genius?
HEFNER: Genius is a difficult word to define. But by any definition, I am one.
Hef may be a law unto himself, but genius, a word that used to be the sole domain of the upper reaches of the IQ scale, is now thrown around like grass seed. Maybe it's the effect of language evolution or intelligence inflation – after all, only recently has it became compulsory for one's child to be intellectually gifted – but it can't be denied that genius no longer packs the awe-inspiring punch it once did. […]
(And yes, her essay does involve a trip to an Apple Store at one point.)
If Marvel ever decide that they want to atone for the terrible job they did of depicting Deadpool in the first Wolverine solo movie, they're welcome to do so by giving the world 90 minutes of this version of the "Merc' with a Mouth" instead:
Now that's more like it.
In the wake of This American Life host Ira Glass commenting that he found Shakespeare's plays difficult to relate to, loisbeckett brings us This American Lear:
Bravo! Author! More! More!
Excellent piece from Evgeny Morozov on the downside to governments' infatuation with the notion that they can 'nudge' citizens into doing the right thing (whatever that is) without any of that messy politics getting in the way:
[…] consider a May 2014 report from 2020health, another thinktank, proposing to extend tax rebates to Britons who give up smoking, stay slim or drink less. "We propose 'payment by results', a financial reward for people who become active partners in their health, whereby if you, for example, keep your blood sugar levels down, quit smoking, keep weight off, [or] take on more self-care, there will be a tax rebate or an end-of-year bonus," they state. Smart gadgets are the natural allies of such schemes: they document the results and can even help achieve them – by constantly nagging us to do what's expected.
The unstated assumption of most such reports is that the unhealthy are not only a burden to society but that they deserve to be punished (fiscally for now) for failing to be responsible. For what else could possibly explain their health problems but their personal failings? It's certainly not the power of food companies or class-based differences or various political and economic injustices. One can wear a dozen powerful sensors, own a smart mattress and even do a close daily reading of one's poop – as some self-tracking aficionados are wont to do – but those injustices would still be nowhere to be seen, for they are not the kind of stuff that can be measured with a sensor. The devil doesn't wear data. Social injustices are much harder to track than the everyday lives of the individuals whose lives they affect.
By some margin my favourite response to the whole Thor-is-being-replaced-by-a-woman fuss:
The Fasinatng … Frustrating … Fascinating History of Autocorrect chronicles the work of Microsoft's Dean Hachamovitch, who implemented AutoCorrect back in Microsoft Word 6:
It wasn't long before the team realized that autocorrect could also be used toward less productive – but more delightful – ends. One day Hachamovitch went into his boss's machine and changed the autocorrect dictionary so that any time he typed Dean it was automatically changed to the name of his coworker Mike, and vice versa. (His boss kept both his computer and office locked after that.) Children were even quicker to grasp the comedic ramifications of the new tool. After Hachamovitch went to speak to his daughter's third-grade class, he got emails from parents that read along the lines of "Thank you for coming to talk to my daughter's class, but whenever I try to type her name I find it automatically transforms itself into 'The pretty princess.'"
Michael Lopp remembers how playing Mtrek set him on the path that led to his becoming a software engineer:
Mtrek is a real-time multiplayer space combat game loosely set in the Star Trek Universe. Sounds pretty sweet, right? Check out a screen shot.
Designed and written by Tim Wisseman and Chuck L. Peterson in the late 80s at University of California, Santa Cruz, Mtrek is completely text-based. To understand where an enemy ship was, you had to visualize the direction via the onscreen data. If this wasn't enough mental load, it was absolutely required to develop a set of macros on top of the game's byzantine keyboard commands in order to master a particular ship. Furthermore, if you weren't intimately familiar with the performance characteristics of your particular ship, you'd get quickly clobbered.
After months of playing, I learned that one of the the game's creators, Chuck L. Peterson ("clp") was a frequent player. After one particularly successful evening with my Romulan Bird of Prey, I mailed clp and asked if there was anything, however small, I could do to help with the game. Without as much a signal question to vet my qualifications, he gave me a project. […]
By way of contrast, consider Robin Sloan's piece, posted earlier today, on The secret of Minecraft. Twenty years from now, will we see a generation of coders inspired by Minecraft?