World of Change

September 29th, 2013

NASA's Earth Observatory posted a slideshow depicting Devastation and Recovery at Mt. St. Helens:

The 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens, which began with a series of small earthquakes in mid-March and peaked with a cataclysmic flank collapse, avalanche, and explosion on May 18, was not the largest nor longest-lasting eruption in the mountain's recent history. But as the first eruption in the continental United States during the era of modern scientific observation, it was uniquely significant.

In the three decades since the eruption, Mt. St. Helens has given scientists an unprecedented opportunity to witness the intricate steps through which life reclaims a devastated landscape. […]

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Jaws: The Previous Generation

August 14th, 2013

Ever since seeing Jaws back in 1976, I'd taken it as read that Americans had always been afraid of shark attacks. Apparently this was not the case:

In 1891, Herman Oelrichs, a multimillionaire with a thirst for adventure, made a peculiar offer in the pages of the New York Sun. Oelrichs said he would provide a reward of five hundred dollars for "such proof as a court would accept that in temperate waters even one man, woman, or child, while alive, was ever attacked by a shark." Fond of diving off yachts to swim with whatever creatures might be lurking in the deep, Oelrichs conducted an annual "shark-chasing" swim off the coast of New Jersey's most fashionable resorts. Like his friend Theodore Roosevelt, Oelrichs believed sharks were merely part of a larger ecosystem that had been conquered by science and American enthusiasm. In a time when men could vacation in Africa and come back with hunting trophies twice their size, how could we have anything to fear from the natural world? […]

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Life imitates The Onion

July 24th, 2013

The word 'ironic' comes to mind:

The NSA is a "supercomputing powerhouse" with machines so powerful their speed is measured in thousands of trillions of operations per second. The agency turns its giant machine brains to the task of sifting through unimaginably large troves of data its surveillance programs capture.

But ask the NSA, as part of a freedom of information request, to do a seemingly simple search of its own employees' email? The agency says it doesn't have the technology.

"There's no central method to search an email at this time with the way our records are set up, unfortunately," NSA Freedom of Information Act officer Cindy Blacker told me last week.

The system is "a little antiquated and archaic," she added. […]

How suspiciously convenient for them.1

[Via Memex 1.1]

  1. For what it's worth, I'm quite prepared to believe that they don't have all their employee email in a single spool that can easily be searched by or on behalf of their FoIA team. The question is whether that was a desired outcome or just a happy side effect of their last email migration.

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Hawaii volcanoes at night

June 11th, 2013

This time lapse film of Hawaii's Volcanoes is exactly as spectacular as you'd imagine.

[Via The Awl]

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All guns are wanted. Americans are waiting to adopt them.

May 19th, 2013

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Wesson Goes to Church:

When does life begin for a gun? Is it first casting, first barrel boring, first test fire? Is it before the gun is formed when the metal is mined, or the carbon fiber manufactured?

A thoroughly mischievous little piece.

[Via The Browser]

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Bing Crosby, Nazis and Silicon Valley

May 13th, 2013

Paul Ford on How Bing Crosby and the Nazis Helped to Create Silicon Valley:

The nineteen-forties Bing Crosby hit "White Christmas" is a key part of the national emotional regression that occurs every Christmas. Between Christmases, Crosby is most often remembered as a sometimes-brutal father, thanks to a memoir by his son Gary. Less remarked upon is Crosby's role as a popularizer of jazz, first with Paul Whiteman's orchestra, and later as a collaborator with, disciple to, and champion of Louis Armstrong. Hardly remarked upon at all is that Crosby, by accident, is a grandfather to the computer hard drive and an angel investor in one of the firms that created Silicon Valley. […]

Ford mentions one other technical innovation in broadcasting that Crosby allegedly inspired, but you'll have to read the article to the end to find out about that one. It's worth it.


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Within a week there will be at least two sitcom producers shopping round a show based on this character

April 19th, 2013

The Most Deranged Sorority Girl Email You Will Ever Read:

If you just opened this like I told you to, tie yourself down to whatever chair you're sitting in, because this email is going to be a rough fucking ride.

For those of you that have your heads stuck under rocks, which apparently is the majority of this chapter, we have been FUCKING UP in terms of night time events and general social interactions with Sigma Nu. I've been getting texts on texts about people LITERALLY being so fucking AWKWARD and so fucking BORING. If you're reading this right now and saying to yourself "But oh em gee Julia, I've been having so much fun with my sisters this week!", then punch yourself in the face right now so that I don't have to fucking find you on campus to do it myself. […]

That was just her getting warmed up. It gets so much better once she gets into her stride.

(I'm moderately sure that the whole thing was written tongue in cheek, but it's so entertainingly batty that I don't particularly care.)

[Via The Morning News]

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Not Facebook's fault (again)

March 1st, 2013

Is Facebook Destroying the American College Experience? asks danah boyd, referring to prospective students looking up their classmates on Facebook and trying to establish links to those who share a common interest:

At first blush, this seems like a win for students. Going off to college can be a scary proposition, full of uncertainty, particularly about social matters. Why not get a head start building friends from the safety of your parent's house?

What most students (and parents) fail to realize is that the success of the American college system has less to do with the quality of the formal education than it does with the social engineering project that is quietly enacted behind the scenes each year. Roommates are structured to connect incoming students with students of different backgrounds. Dorms are organized to cross-breed the cultural diversity that exists on campus. Early campus activities are designed to help people encounter people who's approach to the world is different than theirs.

To be fair to Facebook1 – as danah boyd notes later in her post – this isn't in any sense a Facebook problem: the site just happens to be the tool students are curently using to do this pre-college reconnaissance. The trick to curbing this habit is going to lie in persuading students of the benefits of mixing with people they might not normally choose to rub shoulders with.

  1. Again. Twice in a fortnight; is this turning into a trend?

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Flop sweat

February 16th, 2013


I didn't see Marco Rubio's speech but I just got a residual check.

[Here's the context, for those of you who aren't American politics junkies. If you don't know why Albert Brooks would be connected with Marco Rubio, go and watch Broadcast News. You won't regret it.]

[Via The New Yorker]

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February 1st, 2013

Being a statistician, a feminist and a fan of the outgoing US Secretary of State, Hilary Parker couldn't resist investigating whether it's true that the name Hilary/Hillary is the most poisoned baby name in US history.

A lot of screen-scraping and many R sessions later, she shares her conclusions and reasoning with the rest of us, As a bonus, she explores fascinating side issues, like the reasons why some names saw short-lived leaps in popularity:

For each of the names that "dropped in" I did a little research on the name and the year. "Dewey" popped up in 1898 because of the Spanish-American War – people named their daughters after George Dewey "Deneen" was one name of a duo with a one-hit wonder in 1968. "Katina" and "Catina" were wildly popular because in 1972 in the soap opera Where the Heart Is a character is born named Katina. "Farrah" became popular in 1976 when Charlie's Angels, starring Farrah Fawcett, debuted (notice that the name becomes popular in 2009 when Farrah Fawcett died).

I couldn't resist doing a quick-and-dirty search across the data files on the relative frequency of given names in the population of U.S. births where the individual has a Social Security Number1. It appears that in 2008 and 2009 the name 'Barack' saw a tenfold rise in popularity compared to 2007 (albeit from a small base):

Screen shot

Interestingly, no hits came up for the name 'Barack' in the files representing years prior to 2007. Could it be that I've uncovered evidence, from data files supplied by his very own Administration, that Obama wasn't born on American soil after all?2

[Via Links Miniblog]

  1. Downloadable here.
  2. You'll be shocked to hear that the answer to that question is a resounding No. To quote from the documentation that accompanied the data files: "To safeguard privacy, we restrict our list of names to those with at least 5 occurrences." So 2007 – when Obama was a first-term US Senator – was merely the first year the name was given to as many as 5 children.

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