Blog posts

  • Late-life planning

    Mary Beard finds herself facing up to one of the early indications that retirement is starting to appear on the horizon, turning her attention to bringing her book collection under control:

    We have just built a new bit of book-shelf extension onto the house […] The fact is that I have two shared offices half full of books, and every floor in the house is piled high. So now is the moment to take action (I am thinking about retirement when those two half-offices no longer exist) and to put the old books on the new shelves. The fact is that we are now coming to see what librarians have been working on, and trying to sort out, for centuries.

    First of all, how do we manage between us (husband and me) to have so many duplicates or triplicates. When I bought (cheaply) a second-hand of the 2003 National Gallery Titian Exhibition a few weeks ago, did I not realise that we had two already (no, because they were in those unsorted piles on the floor)?

    But just as pressing is the size and shape of the books. […]

    Presumably to be followed in a year or so by another post updating us on their efforts to weed out duplicates. (I'm guessing that scanning/digitising chunks of their collection will never seriously be considered.)

  • An Alarming New Skill

    In which the very liberal1 Ursula Vernon decides to go and equip herself with a rifle so she can learn to hunt deer:

    This was insane. I could kill someone with this! I mean, if I could hit them, which honestly, it'd be easier to club them to death with the stock (or the butt?) at this point, because looking at the bit through the thing seemed very haphazard, so they would have to stand very still unless they were right in front of me, and I'd probably forget to take the safety off and I didn't know how to load it yet and shouldn't they make sure I knew what I was doing before they let me give them money for a gun?!

    "I don't need to take a class?" I said weakly.

    "You will need to take a hunting safety class to get a hunting permit," he explained. "You go to the NC dot gov website and you can find class listings from there."

    "But I can just shoot the gun. Without a permit?" (Oh god, I wanted a piece of paper that said I wasn't an idiot and knew not to point the end at anything I liked. Maybe that would make it true. Truer. Extra true. Maybe I should take the hunting safety class before I shot at anything. Maybe I should take the class before I loaded it. Or touched it. Maybe I should have my head examined.)

    I have a particular gift–or curse–that occasionally I am so absolutely incompetent that I can negate the competence of others. This man owned a gun-store named after his father. He taught handgun certification classes. I had successfully baffled him so hard that he began to sound as uncertain as I was.

    I ended up feeling slightly sorry for the gun shop owner, faced with such a reluctant customer. Not so sorry that I didn't laugh out loud several times over2 before the piece was done.

    [Via MetaFilter]

    1. In the US sense of that word.

    2. That's more at Vernon and her internal monologue, not at the owner's understandable confusion over his latest customer.

  • Destination Brexit FAIL

    Nice work by James Meek at the LRB blog: Destination Brexit, worth quoting at length…

    Since she unexpectedly started up and began to move on her election campaign, Theresa May has looked a lot like a driverless car – one of those vehicles built by Apple or Google that is supposed to be able to drive itself to its destination autonomously, using the vast computing power and clever sensors provided by its powerful designers to trundle safely from the car park to the shops and back without any intervention from a human at the wheel. Just punch in where you want to go – Brexit, via a quick stop at General Election to fuel up with extra seats – sit back and let the computer do the work.

    One of the things that really foxes driverless cars, apparently, is when a cyclist glides in front of them at the lights and, while waiting for the lights to change, idly rolls back and forth on his wheels. The car detects each motion as a cue – stop, go, stay, move. Its powerful sensors and processors heat up as it tries to cope with conflicting and unexpected data. Its destination is programmed in by outside controllers. It must continue on its way, even at the risk of a systems crash, or a crash of a more traditional kind. Even when it is obvious to other road users that the driverless car has a problem, it is no use honking at it or yelling at the driver. It doesn't have one. It just has a destination.

    When Jeremy Corbyn sailed past May on his fixie bike last night and stopped in front of her, battered courier bag over his shoulder, gnarly tattooed calves impatiently pumping the pedals to and fro, May suffered the most serious so far in the streak of system crashes that have bugged her software since the launch. The data line IF SEATS LOST > 6, LOSE, RESIGN was in conflict with the data line IF RESIGN, DESTINATION BREXIT FAIL. The biggest design flaw with May 1.0 is that when the data conflicts like this, the default priority is always the destination, rather than the safety of anybody else, or even the integrity of the car itself. […]

  • Without Javascript

    A day without Javascript:

    As I write this it's raining outside, and I'm trying to avoid having to go out into the murk and watch the Germans conduct their annual diversity maneuvers. I've therefore decided to pass my time by doing the one thing that counts as a religious crime in web dev land: I'm going to turn off javascript in my browser and see what sites work and what sites don't.

    I know, I know, my life is simply too exciting. […]

    Good to see Wikipedia and the BBC News site perform so well. Shame about Feedly and YouTube.

    [Via Scripting News Links]

  • Catching up

    Not that any of you will have been able to notice the difference given the way my posting rate round here has fallen away over the last year and a half, but my latest feeble excuse for failing to update the site has been that I've just spent several weeks in hospital. 1

    For all but the last few days of my hospital stay I was without internet access - I had my iPad Mini 4 with me 2 but it's the WiFi-only model and the hospital ward I spent most of my time in didn't offer patients internet access. Fortunately, I had my Instapaper queue downloaded so I've spent the past few weeks getting caught up with that (and reading a few novels, courtesy of my Kindle library) and now I want to share some of the highlights from the last umpteen Instapaper entries that I found worthwhile. Apologies if some of these are a bit old: one of the features of Instapaper is that it's a nice place to stash articles that you want to get back to some day, but unless you have more discipline about attending to your queue than I do then 'some day' can end up receding into the distance.

    Not all the following items are from my queue; I had internet access again for the last few days of my stay and made maximum use of it, but am only getting the chance to blog about them now I'm back at home.

    First up, Maciej Cegłowski's Build a Better Monster: Morality, Machine Learning, and Mass Surveillance is excellent on what's driving the private Surveillance State:

    I came to the United States as a six year old kid from Eastern Europe. One of my earliest memories of that time was the Safeway supermarket, an astonishing display of American abundance.

    It was hard to understand how there could be so much wealth in the world.

    There was an entire aisle devoted to breakfast cereals, a food that didn't exist in Poland. It was like walking through a canyon where the walls were cartoon characters telling me to eat sugar.

    Every time we went to the supermarket, my mom would give me a quarter to play Pac Man. As a good socialist kid, I thought the goal of the game was to help Pac Man, who was stranded in a maze and needed to find his friends, who were looking for him.

    My games didn't last very long.

    The correct way to play Pac Man, of course, is to consume as much as possible while running from the ghosts that relentlessly pursue you. This was a valuable early lesson in what it means to be an American.

    It also taught me that technology and ethics aren't so easy to separate, and that if you want to know how a system works, it helps to follow the money.


    Next, Gary Kasparov talking to Tyler Cowen about AI, Chess, and the Future of Creativity:

    This is a cycle. The only difference with what we have been seeing throughout human history is that now, machines are coming after people with college degrees, political influence, and Twitter accounts.

    [Via Memex 1.1]

    Geoff Manaugh points to the gorgeous artwork from a recent remastering of Ennio Morricone's score for the 1982 version of The Thing.

    Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper tells the story of Falling in Love with Words:

    Because gabbing around the watercooler isn't encouraged, lexicographers are perhaps a little awkward when it comes to the niceties of casual human interaction. When I was being given my tour of the building after joining the staff, we came up to one editor's desk to find it was chock-full of historical Merriam-Webster ephemera: old advertising posters and giant prints of historical illustrations and, above them all, a black-and-white portrait of a man. The editor happily explained what all the pictures and posters were, then pointed at the portrait. "And that," he said, "is an editor who used to work here, and one day he went home and shot himself." My eyes widened; he merely crossed his arms and asked us where we had all gone to college.

    And finally for today, a story from yesterday with a title that I defy you to resist: Jumping Spiders Can See the Moon

    An unexpected rain of spiders led to a lovely Twitter geek-out between astronomers and arachnologists.

    That's about it for now. I'm back, and as I'm still on sick leave I'll have plenty of time to keep up with the internet so I fully expect that barring any relapses I'll be keeping this weblog up to date better than I have been for a while.

    1. Nothing life-threatening, just a combination of things that knocked me off my feet for a while and led to my consuming what seemed like ever-increasing numbers of pills as the doctors figured out what was going wrong and how to treat it. The NHS did their thing and put me back on my feet at no charge, and now I'm back down to a more reasonable number of pills so they've discharged me.

    2. Wonderful machine. And it looks as if iOS 11 is due to make it even more useful what with all the improvements to using multiple applications in concert. Which is just as well really, since I can't afford Apple's desktop machines any more.

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