Quiver Trees By Night 2

November 10th, 2012

Florian Breuer's Quiver Trees By Night 2 makes for one spectacular image of the night sky over Namibia.

For what it's worth, I prefer the pre-photoshop version of the shot that he revealed in this post discussing how he produced the final image. The tweaked version is more striking, but it's not as if the unedited image is less than breathtaking.

[Via Bad Astronomy]

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Healh & Safety: The Final Frontier

November 8th, 2012

It's elfansafety gone mad at the BBC:

[Professor Brian Cox…], the former pop star turned particle physicist, wanted to use the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire to listen in to the planet, Threapleton Holmes B, on his BBC2 series Stargazing Live.


"The BBC actually said, 'But you can't do that because we need to go through the regulations and health and safety and everything in case we discover a signal from an alien civilisation'.

"You mean we would discover the first hint that there is other intelligent life in the universe beyond Earth, live on air, and you're worried about the health and safety of it?

"It was incredible. They did have guidelines. Compliance."

Methinks Professor Cox might be stretching the truth just a tad here in the interests of having an amusing anecdote to relate when doing publicity work for his show.

Besides, we all know that the BBC nowadays would be more concerned about a) making sure that the aliens hadn't arranged for their fees for participating in the programme to go via some shady tax-efficient offshore company, b) checking that intercepting radio signals from a distant star couldn't possibly be classed as a form of phone hacking, and c) ensuring that the aliens were wearing a poppy while broadcasting their message.

[Via The Awl]

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Turning the map pink

November 5th, 2012

A new study reveals that the British have invaded all but 22 of the world's countries:

Every schoolboy used to know that at the height of the empire, almost a quarter of the atlas was coloured pink, showing the extent of British rule.

But that oft recited fact dramatically understates the remarkable global reach achieved by this country.

A new study has found that at various times the British have invaded almost 90 per cent of the countries around the globe.

The analysis of the histories of the almost 200 countries in the world found only 22 which have never experienced an invasion by the British. […]

That figure turns out to be a bit of a fudge, judging by the article linked to above. It was only reached by including any sort of armed incursion – however brief – and by including attacks by pirates and armed explorers if they were operating with British governmental approval. Surely the term 'invasion' demands a little more than a bunch of pirates shelling a port somewhere in the Caribbean before coming ashore to pillage and rape and burn and what have you.

(This being a Daily Telegraph article, and the subject matter being what it is, it'd be much better for your mental health if you left the resulting comment thread to your imagination.)

[Via The Morning News]

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November 3rd, 2012

Ever since Apple introduced the Reader feature to Safari, I've been forced to engage in the same ritual after every update to Safari. The thing is, Reader does quite a good job of rendering a cluttered web page readable, but it insists on doing it using justified text, which looks hideous. The (not very user-friendly) way to fix this was to find the Reader.html file buried inside the Safari application package and add a simple text-align: left; to the CSS embedded in that file and save it. Problem solved, except that after each Safari update you'd almost certainly have to repeat the trick. Better still, in some updates Apple changed the location of the damned file so you'd have to figure out where it lived now before you could apply the fix.

After the update to Safari 6 I found the latest home of the Reader.html file and applied my customary edit, but for some reason Safari ignored the revised CSS and kept on rendering justified text in Reader. In searching for hints as to why this might be happening, I came across a much better answer: CustomReader:

With CustomReader, you can change pretty much any aspect of Safari Reader's appearance. CustomReader's settings panel has a graphical user interface that lets you edit a few basic settings, like body font and background color, with a few clicks. But the true power of CustomReader lies in the Advanced tab, where you can directly edit the custom stylesheet that the extension inserts into Safari Reader. By editing this stylesheet, you can override any of Safari Reader's built-in styles with one of your own.

CustomReader has another feature that may be of interest to some. If you find yourself frequently invoking Safari Reader on a certain kind of page at a specific site – for instance, articles on the New York Times website – you can have CustomReader automatically enter the reader whenever you open that kind of page.

It works!1 And with any luck it'll keep working after the next Safari update.

  1. I do have one small quibble. That 'invoke Reader automatically if you visit a specific site' option requires you to enter an escaped version of the site's address: not www.independent.co.uk/, but //www\.independent\.co\.uk/.+. I understand why it's doing that – using a regexp allows for more flexibility in choosing which subsections of a site should trigger Reader – but surely there could be a simple 'trigger-for-this-entire-domain' option that would do the job for 95% of prospective users. But then, probably 98% of Safari users either don't care about text justification badly enough to see this as a problem that needs resolving, or else wouldn't want to touch the CSS for Reader anyway.

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London's Overthrow

November 3rd, 2012

China Miéville contemplates London's Overthrow:

This is an era of CGI end-times porn, but London's destructions, dreamed-up and real, started a long time ago. It's been drowned, ruined by war, overgrown, burned up, split in two, filled with hungry dead. Endlessly emptied.

In the Regency lines of Pimlico is Victorian apocalypse. Where a great prison once was, Tate Britain shows vast, awesome vulgarities, the infernoward-tumbling cities of John Martin, hybrid visionary and spiv. But tucked amid his kitsch 19th Century brilliance are stranger imaginings. His older brother Jonathan's dissident visions were unmediated by John's showmanship or formal expertise. In 1829, obeying the Godly edict he could hear clearly, Jonathan set York Minster alight and watched it burn. From Bedlam – he did not hang – he saw out his life drawing work after astonishing work of warning and catastrophe. His greatest is here. Another diagnostic snapshot.


'London's Overthrow'. Scrappy, chaotic, inexpert, astounding. Pen-and-ink scrawl of the city shattered under a fusillade from Heaven, rampaged through by armies, mobs, strange vengeance. Watching, looming in the burning sky, a lion. It is traumatized and hurt.

The lion is an emblem too
that England stands upon one foot.

With the urgency of the touched, Martin explains his own metaphors.

and that has lost one Toe
Therefore long it cannot stand

The lion looks out from its apocalypse at the scrag-end of 2011. London, buffeted by economic catastrophe, vastly reconfigured by a sporting jamboree of militarised corporate banality, jostling with social unrest, still reeling from riots. Apocalypse is less a cliché than a truism. This place is pre-something.

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What's That Blue Thing Doing Here?

November 2nd, 2012

They Might Be Giants' Fingertips meets Star Wars

and Buffy

So, so good.

[Via MetaFilter]

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Hurricane Sandy: After Landfall

October 31st, 2012

Hurricane Sandy: After Landfall.

I found #48 particularly striking – surreal, even.

[Via The Browser]

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Making purple

October 29th, 2012

Elizabeth Williamson of the Wall Street Journal has coined what might well be the definitive metaphor of the 2012 US presidential election campaign. Or at any rate, the most memorable:

In this neck-and-neck, ideologically fraught presidential election season, politically active singles won't cross party lines. The result is a dating desert populated by reds and blues who refuse to make purple.

I'm pretty sure I've read a story like this about whether people of differing political inclinations can get (it) on away from the polling station and the political fundraiser at some point during every presidential campaign I've followed – when was the last time a campaign was other than fraught/divisive/momentous?1 – but I don't think the prospect of couples declining to … ahem … make purple has come up before.

[Via The Awl]

  1. I suppose it would have been one of the campaigns where the outcome wasn't in that much doubt and the challenger was something of a sacrificial lamb. Clinton vs Dole? Reagan vs Mondale?

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Metal versus Prog

October 28th, 2012

We should probably be glad that Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan's story of Dracula fighting the Silver Surfer only took up a single issue of The Tomb of Dracula; with any luck, such brevity should protect it from ever being adapted for the big screen. Chris Sims tells the tale:

[Cult leader Anton Lupeski …] has dreamed up "quite a unique" means for destroying Dracula. And he ain't kidding.

See, at this point in the series, Dracula had more or less settled down, apart from the occasional murder. He'd married a woman named Domini and gotten her knocked up with his hellish seed, and taken over Lupeski's "Church of the Damned" so that he could sit upon the Throne of Satan. It's all very metal.

So metal, in fact, that Lupeski seems to believe that the only way to battle it is through prog. Thus, his "unique" plan: To magically invade the mind of the Silver Sufer and send him to fight Dracula. Again: If you've got a better plan for dealing with that guy, I'd like to hear it. […]

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Like a leaf on the breeze

October 26th, 2012

London Heathrow Approach Time-Lapse.

I love the oddly jittery motion as the airliners bob around in the crosswind, lining up their final approach. It's strangely soothing.

[Via MetaFilter]

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Additional Information from the Tube

October 25th, 2012

"For the benefit of passengers using Apple iOS6…"


[Via The Risks Digest]

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Epic Tea Time with Alan Rickman

October 25th, 2012

Epic Tea Time with Alan Rickman.

There really is no getting round it. Epic is the only word for it.

[Via The Morning News]

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ADA. What a tightass.

October 24th, 2012

A bit of programming language nostalgia, courtesy of a contribution from Rupert Baines to this Quora thread on describing programming languages in layman's terms:

Pascal. Your grade-school teacher. A bit prim, a bit prissy but at the time you thought she was the way everyone should be. Funnily enough, none of the grown-ups had the same high impressions and afterwards you can see why.

Modula – Pascal's daughter. Died young

Forth – she was a strange girl. Creative, idiosynratic, flexible (the things she did sometimes! WOW! It could blow your mind).

But a little bit Ayn Rand, a little bit survivalist: everything had to be self-reliant. None of this co-operation malarkey. Last you heard she was somewhere in Patagonia, where she'd built a complete city from first principles, using just the forest & natural resources, from her own unique design, her own energy and a lot of bloody-minded persistence.

That said, you still have a beautiful bracelet she made for you, from metals she smelted herself, from rocks she dug up in the woods & forests: "FORTH LOVE IF SMILE THEN !"

I have to admit to having had quite the schoolboy crush on Pascal back in the day. Forth, not so much.1

  1. I understand in principle why Reverse Polish Notation and stack-based storage are efficient and map well onto how a CPU manipulates data, but I always felt that part of the joy of computers was that they could deploy some of their processing power to take care of such distracting background details and leave us humans to deal with higher order problems.

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Oxytocin and Zombies

October 24th, 2012

Oxytocin and the Zombie Apocalypse:

If you've been watching AMC's riveting series about zombie apocalypse, The Walking Dead, then you're probably into blood and guts like me. You might also be watching because you're interested in the moral dilemmas that the characters face during each twist and turn of fate. As the misfortune adds up and the body count rises, some of the most honest and trustworthy people must do some pretty terrible things all in the name of survival! […]

When I was watching the opening to season 3 this week, I couldn't help but think about how much the zombie apocalypse genre of television and cinema can teach us about oxytocin. That's right, we can learn more about the mislabeled "cuddle hormone" by thinking about both the benevolent and terrible things that people do in the name of survival. […]

[Via The Morning News]

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133 to 1

October 21st, 2012

Michael Frayn, writing in 1995, on the problem of titles:

This year, for various reasons, four different works of mine will have reached the point where they need titles, and I've reached the point where I need hospitalisation. It's not that I can't write titles. I've written far more titles than anything else in my life. For one of these four projects I have 107 titles. For another – 74. For the third – 134. 134 titles! For one short book! 134 pretty good titles, though I say so myself. The trouble is, you don't want 134 pretty good titles. You want one perfect title.

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October 21st, 2012

Everything you need to know about the RunPee app:

The RunPee app is primarily here to help you enjoy your movie going experience by telling you the best times to Run and Pee without missing anything important. The RunPee family – Dan, Mom and Sis – see each wide release movie that comes out on opening day. We watch for 3-5 minute spans in the movie where nothing really exciting, or funny, or important happens. (Obviously this can be next to impossible for really good movies but we do our best.)


Each peetime has a synopses (sic) of what happens. So if you do need to run and pee then you'll be able to come back to the theater knowing exactly what happened while you were taking care of business.

One more thing you need to know: yes, this appears to be for real.

[Via A Cup of Jo, via swissmiss]

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H+, C+

October 21st, 2012

I bookmarked H+ The Digital Series a few weeks ago, but only got round to watching it yesterday evening:

A groundbreaking new series by acclaimed producer Bryan Singer, H+: The Digital Series takes viewers on a journey into an apocalyptic future where technology has begun to spiral out of control… a future where the world's population has retired its cell phones and laptops in favor of a stunning new device by Hplus Nano Teoranta, an innovative technology company that has found a way to connect the Internet to the human mind 24 hours a day.

The production values are reasonably high and as the series has been running for three months now there are enough 5 minute episodes up that you can dive in and watch a run of them to get an idea of the scope and style of the story. Which brings me to the problems: one story-related, and one structural.

First the story: simply put, I've watched the first dozen episodes and the story they're telling us has the stink of FlashForward/The Event all over it. A big world-changing event arriving out of the blue, nobody letting us in on how it happened or why, but with hints being dropped that at least one recurring character knows more than they're letting on. Stories happening in different parts of the world, and involving (apparently) unrelated groups of characters. None of those things precludes this turning into an interesting story, but after so many shows tried and failed to replicate the Lost effect it's only natural to be a little gun-shy.

The structural issue is trickier. Strip out the title sequence and the credits and there's only some 3:30 of story per episode. Essentially, you find yourself getting a couple of scenes with a character/group and then there's an enforced switch to a different person, place and point in the timeline. Even if I disregard the fact that once I've caught up I'm going to have to wait a week between these tiny chunks of story, breaking your story up into such small chunks does the rhythm of the storytelling no favours. Little cryptic snippets of story are fine for seeding the initial mystery, but it doesn't leave characters much room to breathe as the situation gets more complicated.

I suppose that there's a bright side to this – if you find one particular story thread dull then you can rest assured another one will be along within 5 minutes1 but I do wonder how well they'll be able to tell their story as it gets more involved.

They've done enough in the first dozen episodes that I'm willing to stick around and find out, though, which is a start.

[Via fuck yeah, science fiction!]

  1. Or within a week, if you've caught up.

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October 17th, 2012

"Take away your Batsuit and what are you?"

[Via LinkMachineGo!]

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Quantified Self 1 – 2 Paris (aet)

October 17th, 2012

Craig Mod versus a Fitbit:

I bought a Fitbit on a whim. It was spring 2012. I bought it to understand how devices like this worked. If they worked. What it meant, precisely, for them to work. Between JawBone's Up, Nike's FuelBand, and now Fitbit, the entrepreneur in me wanted to understand this emergent product space and know how these devices affected awareness.

I assumed our relationship would proceed like this: I'd use the Fitbit for a few weeks, think it was neat, and then forget to wear it. One forgotten day would turn into a week would turn into a month. It would start off as a novelty, devolving quickly into another well-intentioned, dust-covered tech product.

Boy, was I wrong.

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Shut up and deal …

October 16th, 2012

Jenny Diski has posted a fine essay she had published in Harper's Magazine in January 2012 contrasting Mad Men's Don Draper with a couple of his fictional contemporaries:

The televison show Mad Men's central emptiness is heard in its echoes. The series derives directly from the movies of the time it is portraying. It doesn't just hint or casually nod at North by Northwest, or that film's near contemporaries The Apartment (Billy Wilder, with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine) and Lover Come Back (Delbert Mann, with Doris Day and Rock Hudson), it rolls them as credits. The crucial difference between these movies and the modern series that nods at them is that each of the movies was made about their time in their time. They offer, as thriller, drama, romance, and high comedy, their contemporary view of social relations and notions of self-worth in the period that concerns Mad Men's makers and viewers only retrospectively.

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