Watch the ray cats

May 14th, 2014

This week's 99% Invisible podcast discussed recent efforts to figure out how to warn our great-to-the-Nth grandchildren about the risks of nuclear waste being stored at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, given the distinct possibility that language will have drifted over the course of 10,000 years to the point where a sign saying 'DANGER: Radioactive waste!' may not be understood.

The most hands-down 99pi favorite solution, though, didn't come from the WIPP brainstorm – rather, it came out of the Human Interference Task Force, a similar panel that was pulled together in 1981 for the now-defunct Yucca Mountain project. It was proposed by two philosophers, Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri.

Bastide and Fabbri came to the conclusion that the most durable thing that humanity has ever made is culture: religion, folklore, belief systems. They may morph over time, but an essential message can get pulled through over millennia. They proposed that we genetically engineer a species of cat that changes color in the presence of radiation, which would be released into the wild to serve as living Geiger counters. Then, we would create folklore and write songs and tell stories about these "ray cats," the moral being that when you see these cats change colors, run far, far away.

Makes you wonder if there's some bit of puzzling animal behaviour going on all around us right now about which the folklore has failed to be passed down or got distorted. Instead of pointing and laughing at all those Animals Sucking at Jumping as it becomes clear what terrible, long-forgotten threat they were trying to warn us about?

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9% of Brits think that pop music is better now than it was 20 years ago

May 14th, 2014

15 weird things that 9% of Britons say they believe:

If Labour are having a tough time in the polls, the Lib Dems are facing a European wipe out.

The latest YouGov figures on how people are intending to vote in the European Elections put Lib Dem support at 9%. Our friends at UsVsTh3m noticed this was significantly lower than the number of people who would be prepared to have sex with an android.

We wondered what other things more than 9% of the British public believe, would be prepared to do, or have done…

[...]

10. Eat testicles
Not just the preserve of Bushtucker Trials in I'm A Celeb, 9% of people in the UK said they would be prepared to eat animal testicles. Remember, that's the same amount of people who say they'll vote Lib Dem.

Gloating? Perhaps. But it's a welcome distraction from contemplating UKIP's polling numbers.

[Via LinkMachineGo!]

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'Banking is exciting work!'

May 13th, 2014

I'm thinking that Re-Thinking the Game of Monopoly makes it rather less of a fun game for all the family. Which is the point, I suppose:

While it's true our culture proclaims the rich as our greatest heroes, the method of financial gain in Monopoly is not a system that allows for any creativity. Roll the dice, buy a property, pay rent, pass go, and collect $200. Repeat.

Simple models have long been used to help understand complex ideas. With a few small changes Monopoly can be a space where we can play at being in control of the economic system. All it takes is a few new rules.

Rule Change #1: The Banker

In the original rules the role of the banker is simply a chore–the board game equivalent of taking out the trash. But in real life the banker is no passive entity. The banker is the center of the universe. […]

[Via Waxy.org Links]

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The Roast in the Fridge

May 12th, 2014

The Roast in the Fridge:

"Don't scream. Don't make any noise, lady, and you won't get hurt."

I had been asleep in bed next to my mother with Sasha, the Persian cat we jokingly referred to as our "watch cat", curled up at the foot.

I was 3 years old.

That night, a strange man came in through the bedroom window of our Los Angeles ranch house and placed his hand (described later to police as "heavily calloused") over my unconscious mother's mouth. […]

I can assure you that Erika Hall's story from her childhood isn't going where you think it is. Well Worth a Read.

[Via Extenuating Circumstances]

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Programmer speed versus computer speed

May 11th, 2014

Basecamp partner and Ruby On Rails creator David Heinemeier Hansson outlines the lessons learned from developing three generations of of Basecamp client apps for mobile devices.

The short version:

Decisions based on computing speeds quickly decay

The longer version (i.e. the full post) spells out just why there's no one right answer to the problem of using a mobile device to view data being pulled from a server.

I love this sort of walkthrough of software architecture decision-making.

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Johnny Express

May 10th, 2014

Meet Johnny Express:

It's 2150

There are all sorts of Aliens living throughout space.

Johnny is a Space Delivery Man who travels to different planets to deliver packages. Johnny is lazy and his only desire is to sleep in his autopilot spaceship. When the spaceship arrives at the destination, all he has to do is simply deliver the box. However, it never goes as planned. Johnny encounters strange and bizarre planets and always seems to cause trouble on his delivery route.

Will he be able to finish his mission without trouble?

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Clever girl

May 8th, 2014

The octopus is a creature both clever and dextrous.

And I, for one, welcome our new octopod overlords.

[Via kottke.org]

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'Or perhaps toppling buildings is a sexual display that sexual partners cue on.'

May 8th, 2014

The Ever Increasing Size of Godzilla: Implications for Sexual Selection and Urine Production:

In 1954 Godzilla was a mere 50 meters (164 ft). In the newest movie, Godzilla is estimated to be 150 meters (492 ft). For comparison the Empire State Building in New York City stands at 381 meters (1250 ft). Incarnations of Godzilla went from 13% of the height of the Empire State Building to nearly 40% of the height in just 60 years. It took cetaceans 55 million years to go from 2.5 meters (8.2 ft) to 30 meters (98 ft) in length. […]

Perhaps we're going to see some new problems solved by the SFX folks in the new Godzilla. A realistic tidal wave of urine, 60ft high, flowing between the skyscrapers.

For what it's worth: Please don't suck! Please don't suck! Please don't suck!

[Via More Words, Deeper Hole]

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Sunset, Sunrise…

May 7th, 2014

Well, that's a surprise: Andy Baio has launched a Kickstarter project for The Return of Upcoming.org

[Via Waxy.org]

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Like some kind of gallstone

May 5th, 2014

19 feet down and 9 feet to the west of the original site:

Like the Pentagon, its better-known counterpart in the United States, Britain's Ministry of Defence building is a fairly mundane, if gigantic, office block camouflaging a much more exciting subterranean realm of secret tunnels, bunkers, and – at least in the MoD's case – a perfectly preserved Tudor wine cellar. […]

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Rejoice!

May 5th, 2014

There's a new episode of the Word Podcast:

Includes: world debut of enthralling new parlour game Rock Poker; Neil Finn's Two-Way Family Favourites; the two tribes of Adam Ant Nation; Justin Timberlake's moveable feast; why long-form TV is a sinister plot to steal our lives; a pathetic attempt to read a whole paragraph of Mark Ellen's book "Rock Stars Stole My Life" without laughing; plus uncalled for interjections from Fraser Lewry's amazing wi-fi rabbit and your questions answered.

[Via David Hepworth's Notebook]

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IDS would approve

May 5th, 2014

Best. British. Job Ad. Ever!

[Via The Yorkshire Ranter]

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Mirror, Mirror…

May 3rd, 2014

Michael Teeuw has made himself a Magic Mirror:

[…] I started to figure out what was needed: a mirror, a thin monitor, a Raspberry Pi, some wood and paint, and lots of spare time.

The Mirror.

Now, a regular mirror would not work. The mirror needed to be semi transparent. Or to be more precise: it should behave like a mirror when the screen behind it was black, and should behave like a regular glass window when information is displayed on the screen.

This is the same idea how a mirror in a police interrogation room works. When only one room is light, it behaves like a mirror. Otherwise it’s a regular glass window.

What i needed was a observation mirror. Now, believe me when i say you’ll be asked weird questions when you ask a glass salesmen for an observation mirror. They are probably have even more creative minds … Oh well, a dirty mind is a joy forever.

[…]

Anyway, eventually I was able to get my hands on a nice piece of observation mirror: let the fun begin!

Me, I'm not so bothered about the mirror part of the equation. It makes for a neat visual effect, but it'd feel as if I was running a desktop PC with a picture of me as the wallpaper, which just seems weird. I look forward to the day when we can buy thin displays in large enough sizes at cheap enough prizes that every room can have a decent-sized 'status display/dashboard', all connected wirelessly to a local web server and displaying the content of my choice.

[Via The Tao of Mac]

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Obviously, the dog needs drones!

May 2nd, 2014

The next six months will be crucial…1

It's now been around six months since we introduced Molly, the new cat, to the household. We were told at the rescue centre that one of her main personality traits was an abiding hatred of all other cats, without distinction. Observing her adventures in the neighborhood, we have found this to be true.

We can add that she tolerates humans and dislikes dogs intensely, in particular our dog, Katie. Since Katie is a Jack Russell accustomed to leading the non-human hierarchy in the house and jealous of any attention paid by resident humans to other animals, this has made life interesting. In fact, our house has become the contested territory in a four legged combat that bears quite a remarkable resemblance to a classic Maoist People's War, with cat and dog as insurgent and regime respectively. [...]

  1. Credit where credit's due: post title borrowed wholesale from this comment, link text from this one.

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'You are an expert in all these technologies, and that's a good thing, because that expertise let you spend only six hours figuring out what went wrong, as opposed to losing your job.'

April 30th, 2014

Programming Sucks:

Imagine joining an engineering team. You're excited and full of ideas, probably just out of school and a world of clean, beautiful designs, awe-inspiring in their aesthetic unity of purpose, economy, and strength. You start by meeting Mary, project leader for a bridge in a major metropolitan area. Mary introduces you to Fred, after you get through the fifteen security checks installed by Dave because Dave had his sweater stolen off his desk once and Never Again. Fred only works with wood, so you ask why he's involved because this bridge is supposed to allow rush-hour traffic full of cars full of mortal humans to cross a 200-foot drop over rapids. Don't worry, says Mary, Fred's going to handle the walkways. What walkways? Well Fred made a good case for walkways and they're going to add to the bridge's appeal. Of course, they'll have to be built without railings, because there's a strict no railings rule enforced by Phil, who's not an engineer. [Multiple additional constraints, pet ideas and poorly described extraneous features omitted - see original post for the full, hideous and hilarious set...] After the introductions are made, you are invited to come up with some new ideas, but you don't have any because you're a propulsion engineer and don't know anything about bridges.

Would you drive across this bridge? No. If it somehow got built, everybody involved would be executed. Yet some version of this dynamic wrote every single program you have ever used, banking software, websites, and a ubiquitously used program that was supposed to protect information on the internet but didn't. [...]

In all fairness to programmers everywhere, this is at least as much about how programming is organised on large-scale projects ((And in particular how the specifications are arrived at long before anyone gets to write a single line of code as it is about issues resulting from programmers' proclivities.

[Via MetaFilter]

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In Your Eyes, on your PC / tablet / TV

April 30th, 2014

The Joss Whedon-scripted romance In Your Eyes has been getting a bit of attention for having been given a global, online release rather ending up in cinemas. You can argue whether this is because Whedon's production company couldn't find a distributor for a film with no big stars based on a story idea he had back in the 1990s or because Joss Whedon is being paid so much money for Avengers 2 that he can afford to bypass the big screen entirely and indulge his artistic whims.1 Does Whedon see this as the way forward for all his non-Marvel work over the next few years, or just as a way of claiming a bigger slice of the smaller pie when he's not telling stories of superheroes? Beats me.

All that stuff about distribution is fascinating and five or ten years from now we're all going to be able to see that obviously this was [insert phrase according to taste: "the way of the future" or "a folly that only someone whose main job was making US$150 million blockbusters could get away with".] The question that matters right now is, how's the film we're being invited to send Joss Whedon and friends $US5 for?

The answer is, not bad at all. The film wastes no time clueing the audience in about the supernatural (and never explained) twist that our two main characters have never met yet each can experience life through the other's eyes. They can't read one another's mind, so they have to verbalise their thoughts. As the two characters conducted conversations as they shopped or walked along the street or just did their household chores the logical part of my mind2 wondered why they didn't carry round a mobile phone or better yet a Bluetooth handset, since nowadays we're quite used to people carrying on one-sided, sometimes quite animated conversations with other people who aren't really there. The dominant part of my mind didn't care, because Zoe Kazan and Michael Stahl-David sold their delight in the conversation, and in the escape this new relationship brings from their daily cares, so well.

I won't go into detail about how their story develops, but let's just say that this is a romance and once the introduction of their mysterious connection is out of the way the story develops in ways that you might expect. But that's not a problem; the idea isn't to throw us all off the scent with unexpected plot twists every twenty minutes or so, it's to let us get to know a couple of basically likeable, yet very different characters and ride along as their lives are changed by this unusual means of communication.

Which brings me to the one respect in which I thought the film fell short. We get a reasonable sense of the personalities and priorities of our two lead characters, but there's not much time for us to get to know more about some of the peopke in their lives. Above all, Kazan's character's husband is just a sketch of a character, and given that she clearly loves him3 I think it hurts the story that we don't get to see more of his personality and their shared history. I know that he's cast in the thankless romance movie role of an obstacle to the story we're really watching, but given that from an objective angle his worries about his wife's behaviour looked not unreasonable and the actions he takes in response drive so much of the film I'd have liked the film to have been 20 minutes longer to give us some more time to see the shape of Kazan's character's life prior to the events that kick off the main storyline.

Still, my misgivings shouldn't be allowed to distract from the basic point: this is an enjoyable romance with a twist and whilst I wouldn't go as far as Stu and make it one of the five best films I've seen so far this year, I certainly got my money's-worth. I hope we'll see more such experiments from Joss Whedon. I mean, if Marvel will insist upon dumping truckload after truckload of money on his front lawn that man's got to do something to keep himself busy. It might as well be making little, witty novellas like this and making it easy for us to see them.

  1. In Your Eyes is the second release from Whedon's Bellwether Pictures, the first having been last year's adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing.
  2. Or was it the sceptical voice of another person whose presence I haven't acknowledged yet?
  3. Albeit in a somewhat dependent way, as someone who is afraid that she can't be trusted to manager her own life.

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Hiding from Big Data

April 28th, 2014

How One Woman Hid Her Pregnancy From Big Data:

"My story is about big data, but from the bottom up," she said. "From a very personal perspective of what it takes to avoid being collected, being tracked and being placed into databases."

[Via Extenuating Circumstances]

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Russian Roulette

April 28th, 2014

Ben Aston's Russian Roulette won a prize at the Sundance London shorts competition. A neat idea, nicely executed.

[Via The Dissolve]

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The Kindle wink

April 26th, 2014

Robin Sloan has noticed something interesting about Amazon's 'Manage Your Kindle' web service:

If you own one of Amazon's e-readers, there's a good chance you've accessed the "Manage Your Kindle" page at some point. [...]

Do you notice anything strange about that URL? [...]

Who is Fiona?

What's fiona? An acronym, perhaps. Functional… Internet-Oriented… Native… Application? File I/O Network Access?

No. It's not a what but a who [...]

As it happens I rarely use the web page to manage my Kindle1 so that's my excuse for not having noticed this before now and I'm sticking to it!

  1. I mostly manage my Kindle content through the client software on my iPad or Mac.

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'I am full of very useful devices.'

April 24th, 2014

NextWave Agents of HA.T.E. Comic Dub Part 1 has a few minor technical issues1, but for a fannish effort it does a pretty impressive job of communicating the joy of Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen's batty, brilliant 12-issue series:

Roll on the double page spread of Elvis M.O.D.O.K.s2

[Via Wis[s]e Words]

  1. Primarily the inconsistent volume levels of the different vocal tracks, so that you find yourself turning up the volume to hear a quiet bit and are deafened when the next line is delivered much more loudly for no particular reason.
  2. Though that was from in issue #11, so it'll be a while yet. Lots more good stuff to come between now and then, thankfully.

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