The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13
Robin Sloan is one of the founders of Snarkmarket and the author of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. He lives in California. Follow him at

I think we found the Snarkmarket clubhouse

This 3D-printed “room” — really more of an architectural sculpture, as you’ll see — was designed by Michael Hansmeyer and Benjamin Dillenburger. They call it a (the?) Digital Grotesque, and in its totality, it’s pretty astounding —


— but it was the close-ups, in the video, of the object’s various twisting crenelated modules that made my jaw drop. Beautiful.


That gaze

Alan Shepard waits to become the first American in space, Cape Canaveral, 1961.

Alan Shepard waits to become the first American in space, Cape Canaveral, 1961.

One comment

From the hands that made…

I really like trailer #2 for The Boxtrolls here–specifically the fact that it’s basically an advertisement for human hands. (Penumbra readers know Mat Mittelbrand is all over this.)

Oh and speaking of animation, have you seen the Bravest Warriors? Highly snackable video popcorn. Tons of fun.


Masters of their environment

“Mushrooms don’t rely on a stray breeze to spread their spores; they generate their own air currents instead.” Well gosh. Look at that.

We’re finally going to have to give up the old notion that humans are nature’s great tool-users. Plenty of other species use tools; most of them just don’t look anything like ours, even though they’re arguably more powerful.

Overheard in the Mushroom Kingdom: “What do you mean humans can’t generate their own air currents? Jeez, that’s just… sad.”

Video via the always-entertaining Fuck Yeah Fluid Dynamics.


Disguise detection

Here’s a puzzle for you. This is a picture of a person wearing one of those creepy super-detailed silicone face masks:

Now, if you point a camera at this guy and pipe the feed into a face-recognition algorithm, it will say, yep! That’s a face! But what if you don’t want it to? What if you want to be able to differentiate between real faces and fake ones? How would you do it? I mean, those masks are pretty good.

The solution — and code to implement it (!) — is right here.

(Don’t miss the fairly surreal YouTube video at the end. That is pure 2013 right there.)

One comment


Frank Chimero has just posted a new essay, wonderfully wrought and lucidly written. For me, the most important part is right in the middle, in Frank’s conscription of flux into our nascent UX lexicon. He bolsters it with a bunch of examples, all terrific and/or delightful and/or revelatory.

If interfaces can be low flux (like this very web page!) or high flux (like this one), Frank is most interested in the middle of the range. I’m inclined to agree with him, and not only because this description —

… Medium level flux is assistive and descriptive animation, and restructuring content based on sensors. It clarifies interactivity by allowing elements to respond to that interaction and other, measured conditions.

— is so appealing. “Restructuring content based on sensors”! Ah! I love it precisely because I don’t know — and I’d argue that we, broadly, collectively, don’t know — what it means yet. We are living in the moment when we get to find out.

Frank is good at this — the naming of things. Remember steadfast and hot-swap?


The ghost is the machine

A glorious rant from Nick Harkaway on embodied cognition:

Because NO, NO, NO, you are not a ghost driving a machine. You are not a tiny green homunculus sitting at the controls of a steampunk automaton. You are not Spock trapped in a body that wants to be Kirk. You are not dual, you are not refined intellect riding gross matter like an unruly mustang. You are not Ariel carried by Caliban.

What are you, then? Please, allow Nick to explain.

What’s the difference between cognition and consciousness, anyway? Do brain scientists and/or philosophers of mind draw a sharp distinction? I think I like the word “cognition” about 10X better than “consciousness.” Consciousness feels flat, passive; a thing that is. Cognition feels sharp, active; a thing that does.


Combing the number line

There’s been a lot of news in the world of primes this year; a breakthrough paper-out-of-nowhere from Yitang Zhang on the distribution of twin primes (like 3 and 5, or 9929 and 9931) kicked off a season of super-productive work by mathematicians all across the world. I won’t attempt to summarize that work here, because I don’t understand it well enough to explain, and because Erica Klarreich has already done it with great vigor and clarity.

Her piece is actually about (at least) two pretty fascinating things:

  • these recent advances in the mathematics of primes, and
  • the contrast between the lone genius model and a more collaborative approach — both of which have proven effective here.

On the collaborative front, doesn’t this sound fun?

For the mathematicians working on this step [of the complicated collaborative process], the ground kept shifting underfoot. Their task changed every time the mathematicians working on the other two steps managed to reduce the number of teeth the comb would require. “The rules of the game were changing on a day-to-day basis,” Sutherland said. “While I was sleeping, people in Europe would post new bounds. Sometimes, I would run downstairs at 2 a.m. with an idea to post.”

More fun that tearing your hair out in your grim shadowed math-cave, for sure.

Finally, it’s worth reading this piece just to learn what the phrase “de facto admissible-comb czar” means.

Link via Trivium, reliably math-y and fascinating.


Don’t touch that USB drive

Smart, tech-literate reporting from Ralph Langner on the two Stuxnets:

… Stuxnet is not really one weapon, but two. The vast majority of the attention has been paid to Stuxnet’s smaller and simpler attack routine — the one that changes the speeds of the rotors in a centrifuge, which is used to enrich uranium. But the second and “forgotten” routine is about an order of magnitude more complex and stealthy. It qualifies as a nightmare for those who understand industrial control system security.

Aaand this seems important:

Stuxnet also provided a useful blueprint to future attackers by highlighting the royal road to infiltration of hard targets. Rather than trying to infiltrate directly by crawling through 15 firewalls, three data diodes, and an intrusion detection system, the attackers acted indirectly by infecting soft targets with legitimate access to ground zero: contractors.

Here’s something I’ve often wondered about: if you sprinkled an assortment of USB drives with provocative labels (“Project Z”? “Avengers FX reel”?) around, say, San Francisco’s Financial District, what proportion would get plugged in to office computers? I’m guessing 10%, maybe more. I consider myself as a test case here; I know the danger (most don’t) and it would still take all my willpower to throw a cool-looking drive away instead of checking it out.

Surely someone has conducted this experiment — is currently conducting it — driven, of course, not by curiosity but by malice. How many USB drives are lying in parking lots around the world right now, waiting to be picked up, carried inside…?

Link via Alexis Madrigal’s excellent 5 Intriguing Things email.


An image for winter

The fact that this is snow — I mean, really? REALLY? — seems important to me. Like, if you sat beneath a fig tree and meditated on that fact for a few years, you’d probably somehow understand everything.


It’s winter here. There are no mathematically-perfect ice crystals; we don’t get those in Berkeley. But boy is it cold.

One comment