Blog posts

  • Imagined elephants

    Seven hundred years of imagined elephants:

    After the fall of the Roman Empire, elephants virtually disappeared from Western Europe.

    Since there was no real knowledge of how this animal actually looked, illustrators had to rely on oral and written transmissions to morphologically reconstruct the elephant, thus reinventing an actual existing creature. This tree diagram traces the evolution of the elephant depiction throughout the middle ages up to the age of enlightenment. […]

    [Via Interconnected)]

  • RAH! RAH! RAH…

    Farah Mendlesohn has gone the crowdfunding route for her forthcoming study of the work of Robert Heinlein:

    The book is a close reading of Heinlein's work, including unpublished stories, essays, and speeches. It sets out not to interpret a single book, but to think through the arguments Heinlein made over a life time about the nature of science fiction, about American politics, and about himself. Although not a biography it tries to understand Heinlein's work both as product and insight into the man.[…]

    If you're of a certain age, whether you ended up reading Heinlein's work or the works of authors who strongly disagreed with him you couldn't help but engage with his work. Comfortably the most influential speculative fiction author of the 20th century.

    If you're in a position to direct some funds at Unbound to enable the publication of Mendlesohn's study then get over to Unbound and consider your options.

    [Via @amendlocke]

  • Other Minds

    Philosophy lecturer Amia Srinivasan reviews 'Other Minds' by Peter Godfrey-Smith:

    Since a comparison with the human brain tells us so little, scientists turn to the octopus’s behaviour as the best indicator of its cognitive power. But here researchers are often frustrated by what Godfrey-Smith describes as a ‘mismatch’ between anecdotal reports and experimental studies. In the lab, octopuses do fairly well: they can navigate mazes, use memory to solve simple puzzles and unscrew jars and child-proof bottles to get food (octopuses have also been filmed opening jam jars from the inside). Yet it can take octopuses a surprisingly long time to be trained in new behaviours, which some researchers have taken as a sign of their cognitive limitations.


    If only the octopus were more like us, we might be better at leaving it alone.

    Definitely something I'm going to have to pick up. At the moment I'm very much in the 'You want alien intelligences: they're right here.' school of thought.

  • The Hardest Working Office Design In America

    Content delivery network Cloudflare use a set of lava lamps to generate random numbers upon which to base their network's encryption:

    While Cloudflare uses industry-grade random number generators for its servers, it also decided to incorporate the backbone of its encryption into its office design. Inspired by an idea from engineers at Sun Microsystems, who thought that lava lamps could help generate randomness since modeling how fluid moves within the lamps is incredibly difficult, Prince decided to create an entire wall of lava lamps. Cloudflare calls it the "Wall of Entropy."

    Basically, their system uses a frequently-updated image of the wall of lava lamps as part of the input side of their random number generator: if you were an adversary attacking such a system, I wonder how much scope there would be to interfere with the lava lamps' power supply so that all the lamps were turned off for a few seconds and the contents of each lamp settled to a steady (and predictable) state in the absence of any power input. Might that allow an attacker who could arrange the timing of such an outage so as to be able to predict the state of the random number being generated?1

    1. Of course, I can think of potential countermeasures. For a start, presumably you'd have to allow a few seconds for all the lamps' contents to settle once you'd cut the power, and the system might be configured to notice if the output of the snapshots remained the same for more than x consecutive milliseconds and ignore the lava lamps until they started to produce different images in succession once again. Also, if the lava lamps are only part of the random number generator process, the system could be set to only use the lava lamps if they're producing different images in consecutive snapshots and otherwise fall back on other, more conventional, sources of randomness. (Or, given that part of the input from the lava lamps reflects the effect of staff walking past them and thus obscuring the view, perhaps if there seems to be a problem with the lava lamps some poor bloody intern automagically gets a notification ordering him / her to go and take a walk past the lava lamps Right Now!)

  • Nerds!

    I had no idea there was a Microsoft Office World Championship:

    At the world competition — and the nationals of more developed testing nations like the US and the UK — instead of following a test step by step, the students are given a bunch of assets (like datasets or images), a sheet of basic instructions, and a finished document, which they then have to exactly re-create. This shift, according to Certiport, rewards true fluency with the program, rather than rote memorization of the basic test.

    In a sense, this entire competition is really a companion piece to Certiport's real business of offering 'certification' programmes to schools which have committed to the notion that it makes sense to teach teenagers to use the sort of software they'd actually face in a real working environment. The fact that it's now 30 years since Microsoft Excel was launched and it's still taken as read that if they're using a spreadsheet it'll be Excel is pretty remarkable, but we live in a world where even free Excel-alikes like Google Sheets and LibreOffice/OpenOffice don't have much traction in the typical office. 1 2

    New Zealand, relatively new to the Certiport program, sent a team sourced entirely from one high school: Avondale College, in Auckland. The team wore all black, with kiwi bird badges on the breasts of their matching polo shirts.

    I'm thinking that the Excel haka would be quite a thing to see…

    [Via Extenuating Circumstances]

    1. My suspicion is that they might be used, but unless they're genuinely seamless in their ability to create and load Excel's file formats whatever work someone does in another spreadsheet is rendered invisible as soon as you want to share it with someone - inside or outside your business - whose computer defaults to using a pre-installed version of Excel to load the file. Throw in the learned helplessness of non-experts when faced with an unfamiliar user interface, and that's a tough issue to get round for potential competitors.

    2. For what it's worth, when I'm at work I use Excel a lot, simply because it is pretty flexible and good at what it does. Going back a while, for personal use back in the days when there was still a question about which office suite was going to win on Windows 95, I preferred to use Lotus 123 Release 5, part of what was by then IBM's Lotus SmartSuite alongside what used to be Samna's Ami Pro word processor and the Lotus Organizer personal information manager. The thing was, though, that in work environments if we had an office suite it was Microsoft Office and so if I did work something up in 123 it'd end up in .xls format.

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