Blog posts

  • 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.

  • James T. Kirk >>> Zapp Brannigan

    Freshly Remember'd: Kirk Drift

    The extent to which even critical people believe that Kirk proper was at least brash is evident in Strange Horizons's own "Nimoy and Spock: Reflections and Farewells." I cite this example not to drag anyone, but rather to point out the pervasiveness of this conception among people whose critical faculties and interest in the text I take more seriously than I do those of Thewurstboyfriend.

    Serious, logical, balanced - [Spock] was the perfect counterpoint to the rash, bold Captain Kirk. Whatever gave you the idea that Kirk was rash?

    There is no other way to put this: essentially everything about Popular Consciousness Kirk is bullshit. Kirk, as received through mass culture memory and reflected in its productive imaginary (and subsequent franchise output, including the reboot movies), has little or no basis in Shatner's performance and the television show as aired. Macho, brash Kirk is a mass hallucination.

    Erin Horáková mounts a strong defence of James Tiberius Kirk's qualities as an effective starship captain during the Five Year Mission and beyond.

    It would probably be more effective at half the length, but it needed to be said, lest everyone assume that the J.J. Abrams / Chris Pine take on the character is the new default for stories about Star Fleet's greatest starship captain.

    [Via MetaFilter]

  • Nicholas Gurewitch

    Notes on a Case of Nicholas Gurewitch:

    It has to be said, the artwork he's producing looks delicious. Worth the wait? I can see how his Kickstarter backers might be torn on that point.

  • Grand

    From the guy who gave us a look into the distant future of the human race's expansion into the solar system with Wanderers, a visualisation of a scenario that's set to play out for real, later this year: Cassini's Grand Finale

  • Not Smart Enough

    We desperately need computer systems smart enough to know when they're not smart enough:

    Our answer machines have an over-confidence problem. Google, Alexa, and Siri often front that they're providing a definitive answer to questions when they're on shaky ground - or outright wrong.

    To be fair, it'd be ideal if computer users maintained a healthy sense of proportion about the likelihood that the question they'd just posed was ever likely to yield a single, indisputable answer in the first place in a world where powerful interests would be happy to poison the well if that means that their targets are likely to be fed the answers they want them to believe.

    [Via Subtraction]

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