January 9th, 2014
James Bridle on How Britain exported next-generation surveillance. Good, but depressing.
As is often the case when it comes to governments and surveillance technologies, the problem isn't so much the technology itself as it is a reluctance on the part of officials to explain how the data gathered is being used, beyond a bland assertion that all relevant laws and guidelines are being followed. Plus, of course, mission creep on every possible front.
January 6th, 2014
Today's Guardian commemorated the passing of their parliamentary sketch writer Simon Hoggart by reprinting some of his finer moments. I always liked Hoggart best when he turned his attention to some of the less consequential figures From the back benches:
"Does Sir Peter Tapsell actually exist? I ask the question following his own question – nay, speech – on Wednesday, which was magnificent. It could have been a pastiche of the perfect Tapsell address.
I imagined his words being carved into tablets of polished black basalt, mounted in the British Museum, etched dee
p so that even the partially sighted can feel their way to his eternal wisdom.
Possibly Sir Peter is a mass thought form, created by Tory MPs, for whom he recalls their party as it used to be, and Labour MPs, who wish that it still was. Certainly it is true that the whole House looks forward keenly, yearningly, to his every word.
When the Father of the House arose in the middle of prime minister's questions, a great throb of excitement ran along all benches, rather like the moment in a Victorian seance when the eerie manifestation of a dead Red Indian appeared above the fireplace. This moment of glee was followed, as it always is, by a hushed and expectant silence."
- 14 September 2011
January 5th, 2014
Los Angeles Times reporter David Lazarus, prompted by a tip-off from a reader, tried registering with a UPS service that offered more control over parcel delivery schedules and found that UPS already knew quite a bit about him and his family:
In my case, UPS wanted me to name the city I'd formerly lived in. San Francisco, where I resided before moving back to Los Angeles, was on the list.
The next one was a trick question. It asked me to name the street I'd once lived on or "none of the above." The answer was "none of the above."
The third question asked me to name the city I'd never lived in. The list included three Connecticut cities I'd never visited and the one where I was born. Since you could pick only one answer, I picked "all of the above."
The UPS site then said it would need more information to verify my identity and asked for my birth date. Maybe this was just a glitch. Or maybe it was a sneaky way to get me to cough up this most important of data points.
I provided my birth date and was presented with a trio of much more specific questions. The first asked the month that my wife was born, and it included both the correct month and her full name.
The second one again identified San Francisco as my former home. The third question included the street in San Francisco that I lived on.
Like Miller, I was completely creeped out.
I'm not sure what's creepier about this: the notion that data mining lets companies know this much about potential customers, or the idea that they might have gathered incorrect information and there's no practical way for me to correct it because I don't know where they got it from.
January 5th, 2014
I can't remember where I found a link to this, but the Columbia Journalism Review's profile of my favourite internet sceptic, Evgeny vs. the internet Is well worth a read:
Evgeny Morozov wants to convince us that digital technology can't save the world, and he's willing to burn every bridge from Cambridge to Silicon Valley to do it.
January 5th, 2014
Adam Gopnik puts doom-laden talk of parallels between 1914 and 2014 in perspective by reflecting upon the impossibility of knowing whether we're travelling on board the Olympic or the Titanic.
January 4th, 2014
Paper Pong is a very strange, yet oddly appealing idea – a Choose Your Own Adventure-style implementation, on paper, of a very old video game. It almost seems like cheating to play a version of the book online…
As Sarah Werner observes in her musings on the alleged "death" of the "book":
I spent a lot of time as a kid playing Pong at home, so perhaps that's why I enjoy this book so much. But I love it, too, for its ridiculousness. It's a paper replication of a video game! Why would you do that? Why write lines of code to create a game of Pong that you then remediate in paper form? I don't know that there's a good reason to do that, other than you can. And, actually, that's a decent reason, one that drives more than a few novels.
December 31st, 2013
December 28th, 2013
Run is a little beauty of a story.
It's just a vignette, but that's all it needs to be: there's absolutely no need for it to be expanded into a full length feature. What counts is the economy with which the story unfolds, and the creepiness of the idea.
Watch out for the name of run's writer/editor/director Mat Johns in years to come. With a bit of luck and a decent budget to work with, he might well be bringing us something well worth watching.
[Via The Dissolve]
December 28th, 2013
Lol My Thesis wraps up years of study as succinctly (and flippantly) as possibly:
Really, really thin semiconductors look different and act differently than really thin semiconductors because quantum mechanics. Also, 10 nanometers sounds really big now.
Materials Science and Engineering, Northwestern University
You can't understand what hillly cities look like in two dimensions.
Architecture, Universidad Católica de Chile.
Vortex currents off a wing have weird effects on other wings AKA apparently helicopters shouldn't work.
Mechanical Engineering, Colorado State
I wonder if the Daily Mail will bother to mention how few of the entries come from UK institutions of higher learning when they pick out some choice extracts in order to demonstrate the absurdity of spending hard-working taxpayers' money on such unproductive postgraduate research, before demanding that Michael Gove go further in order to root out the Marxists who have been running our universities for the last four decades? Because obviously all that money should have been devoted to finding a cure for cancer.
To be fair, there's the odd thesis on the list that even the Mail might just approve of:
Why Is The Security Council Dysfunctional? Because the Russians Are Devious Liars
Political Science, University of Pennsylvania
December 28th, 2013
Speaking as someone who adores the 1971 film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof but knows not a thing about the source material beyond the fact that the story had been a successful stage play before being filmed, I found William Deresiewicz's introduction to Tevye's creator Sholem Aleichem fascinating:
Dracula, Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe: it takes a special kind of greatness for a literary character to achieve autonomy from his creator. Like those "folk songs" that are actually the products of a single pen ("This Land Is Your Land," say), such figures come to seem as if they'd sprung directly from the popular imagination, effacing their originators altogether. Everyone has heard of Frankenstein; not many know who Mary Shelley is.
Such is the case with Tevye, the jocular giant of Yiddish literature. With his trio of marriageable daughters and his eternal little town of Anatevka, his largeness and simplicity, he seems to come to us directly from the pages of a folktale. You'd almost have to be a Yiddishist to recognize the name of his creator, Sholem Aleichem. Yet once he was a giant, too: the voice of Eastern European Jewry by universal acclamation; the creator, Jeremy Dauber tells us in his new biography, of modern Jewish literature as well as modern Jewish humor; the man to whom the author of Huckleberry Finn replied, upon being introduced to "the Jewish Mark Twain," "please tell him that I am the American Sholem Aleichem." His death in 1916 was the occasion of the largest public funeral New York had ever witnessed. [...]
Damn. More reading to catch up on.
December 26th, 2013
I'm always interested to read about the reasoning behind the decisions software developers make:
It took more than a year and three distinct attempts to get Google Docs in Basecamp … and still, the damn thing almost didn't get built. Why was it so hard?
We knew we needed it. Integration with Google Docs was a super-popular feature request, and usage in general is on the rise. Since Basecamp is a repository for everything project-related, it made sense to show the same love to Google Docs we show to any other type of file you can store in a Basecamp project.
Problem was, we don't really use Google Docs ourselves. [...]
December 26th, 2013
I can well believe that this story from the letters page of the London Review of Books is variant #35 of one of the standard jokes told wherever two or three translators get together, but I still reckon it's worth telling:
Like Chris Sansom's story about translators, mine too is possibly apocryphal (Letters, 19 December 2013). A friend of a friend was the personal staff officer (PSO) to an air marshal. The great man was told, at short notice, to address a Nato meeting. He said he'd use the speech he'd delivered recently at the RAF Staff College. The PSO pointed out that it contained a joke about cricket which only the Brits would understand. He was assured that all would be well. When he got to Brussels, the PSO took a copy of the speech to the instantaneous translators. They agreed that the joke was impossible, but said they knew how to cope. When the air marshal approached the difficult section, the delegates heard in their headphones: 'The air marshal is about to tell a joke. It is about cricket. It cannot be translated. In the interests of Nato solidarity, please laugh when we say – "Laugh."' On the way back to London, the air marshal said: 'Didn't the joke go well. I told you it would.'
December 25th, 2013
Courtesy of Jo Walton, Joyful and Triumphant (St Zenobius and the Aliens):
It's a bit of a cliche, but the first thing I thought when I came to Heaven was that I didn't expect aliens. It's a cliche because it's the first thing we all think — aliens are a surprise. And what a delightful surprise! Welcome, everyone, whatever your planet of origin. Joy to you! Heaven welcomes you. My name is Zenobius, and I am from Earth. Earth is a perfectly ordinary planet. We had a perfectly standard Incarnation. If we're known for anything it's our rather splendid Renaissance, which I'm proud to say has been artistically quite influential, but although that happened in my own city of Florence I can't take any credit for it because it happened centuries after my death and I didn't really participate. [...]
[Via Making Light / Particles]
December 24th, 2013
(Part of me can't stop thinking "But you could fit so many more books on there if you'd just straighten those shelves up a bit!" Which isn't the point, I know, but I can't help myself.)
December 21st, 2013
I'm a girl! No, no! I'm not a girl. I'm still not ginger. There's something else, there's something important. I'm, I'm, I'm…
December 20th, 2013
December 17th, 2013
Buzzfeed's predictions of How The Media Will Report The Apocalypse is gets so much right:
Their version of the Daily Mail's response to the bad news is also pretty much spot on, but it's way too long to fit here. Go and see.
[Via More Words, Deeper Hole]
December 17th, 2013
EmmyC's webcomic Scarf is gorgeous. The first half dozen or so pages don't look like anything special, but once her main character looks out of the window to see why it's so light in the middle of the night the story gets going properly and she gets to show off her lovely way with snow and ice and a strikingly red scarf.