Blog posts

  • 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.

  • Patrick has muscles in places where other men simply do not have places.

    Rob Smyth has written a fine piece commemorating the England cricket team's 1986 tour of the West Indies. As it happens, for a various reasons this was the last England tour not to have been televised, so even those of us who were paying attention couldn't see the carnage.

    The funny thing was that some folks thought England had a decent chance of coming away with a result:

    It was only 18 months since the West Indies had won 5-0 in England, but the common perception was that they had aged and England had matured. The argument for England said they had the best batting line-up in the world (in 1985 they averaged a whopping 52 runs per wicket, miles clear of everyone else), and the best spin-bowling attack too. (Two Tests were to be played at Trinidad, which usually took spin.)

    […] By contrast, the Windies had an inexperienced captain in Viv Richards, and an ageing team with six regulars in their thirties. In 1985, they had even lost a Test match.

    Yeah, whatever happened to that I.V.A. Richards guy?

    I did like this anecdote from the comments describing just how good the West Indies were:

    alanrusbriger 10h ago

    Great article. I seem to remember an England player of 80's vintage being asked out in Australia some years after he'd retired who would win if the great West Indian team described above played the then all conquering Australian side containing Waugh, Warne, McGrath Ponting, Gilchrist et al. He paused and said that it would be pretty close, but the Australians would shade it… Mind you, Clive Lloyd is 65, Viv Richards is in his mid 50's by now and Joel Garner doesn't bowl except on special occasions. If the two sides faced each other at their best Australia would be lucky to make the fourth day.

  • To Make a Book…

    Craig Mod describes a vital stage in producing his latest book; namely, walking the book…

    Deciding to make any book is an act of creative faith (and ego and hubris, but these aren't all exclusionary). But before Dan and I sold any copies of Koya Bound, we walked atop the pages that would become the book, not really knowing if there existed an audience for the book.

    Koya Bound isn't the first book I've worked on that involved the floor. And I'm definitely not the first person to walk on books or lay them out like this.


    The ability of the physical world  -  a floor, a wall  -  to act as a screen of near infinite resolution becomes more powerful the more time we spend heads-down in our handheld computers, screens the size of palms. In fact, it's almost impossible to see the visual patterns  -  the inherent adjacencies  -  of a physical book unless you deconstruct it and splay it out on the floor.

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