August 30, 2007
The Arc of the World
Dan just emailed me a link to this video of Hans Rosling from TED. I'd seen his Gapminder data visualizer before, of course -- but his actual talk is really really good, and made me want to go play with it again. Which I just did.
Dark, Ethereal, Floating Heavenward
A major challenge in economic policy is figuring out how to make people "see" externalities -- the costs of their decisions that they don't directly pay for, but instead pass on to society as a whole.
Well, what if every externality was a black balloon?
P.S. Also here on YouTube, but what is up with this new genre? I have seen a bunch of them -- sort of ragtag musical slideshows.
August 27, 2007
Contingency and Counterfactual
Dani Rodrik, in the closing of a post on historical determinism and development:
This may seem discouraging if you are interested not only in understanding the world, but also in changing it. On closer look, though, [Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson]'s historical determinism leaves plenty of room for human agency and policy choices to make a difference, as I have argued here. Statistically, plenty is left unexplained by historical factors.
Ha. Neat. I sort of like that: We get to be the error term.
Related: My train reading these days is Virtual History, a collection of counterfactuals edited by Niall Ferguson. Fun discovery: To spin an even mildly convincing counterfactual, you have to make sure the fundamental facts leading up to your branch-point are really solid. So oddly it's in the fake-history book that I'm learning about all these real events (a lot of World War II stuff, etc.) in more detail than I ever have before. I think Ferguson and other fans of counterfactual would say yes, that's the point.
Just discovered: Philip Tetlock, the terrific Berkeley researcher I saw give a Long Now talk on experts and forecasting earlier this year, also has a book of counterfactuals! Why was I not told of this earlier??
Psst: Any favorite what-if scenarios?
August 26, 2007
Beijing Traffic Lesson
Henry B. diagrams the Beijing left. You really need to see this. Excerpt:
[B] proceeds to swerve right, cutting off [C], a tiny red Peugeot with a gold plastic dragon hood ornament, spoiler and assorted knobs glued on. Since [B] is just accelerating, and [C] is now decelerating, this has created a low-density 'dead space' in the intersection. [D], a strange blue tricycle dumptruck carrying what appear to be 40 of the world's oldest propane tanks, sees this and makes a move.
But it's nothing without the visuals.
Via Tim Johnson.
The Motion of Motion
- Select video, e.g. "Run Lola Run."
- Display thousands of copies of said video on a gigantic wall-spanning video matrix, each offset from its neighbor by a single frame.
The patterns that emerge out of different kinds of motion in the movie, and different kinds of cutting, are pretty nutso.
August 25, 2007
Update: High rez. Oh, and the artist is Gerhard Richter who, if not already famous, would have to be made famous on the basis of his name alone.
The NYT's Chang W. Lee in China. Bump it up to full screen and just watch. What a brilliant piece of journalism.
August 24, 2007
All You Need is the Cloud
Half way into the flight, after responding to about a half hour's worth of e-mail, my laptop hard disk crashed. [...]
On the plane and afterwards in my Vancouver hotel room, I went through the predictable stages of grief that accompany data loss. First you assume that the problem is software and then after employing several disk utility programs you begin to realize that you are really in the soup.
How was I going to write the three articles I had promised without a computer?
[...] I considered a number of stopgap measures. There was the possibility of asking the paper to ship out a replacement laptop overnight. (My call to the paper's computer support hotline was answered three or four days later). And there was the possibility of resorting to the hotel's $15-an hour business center.
Then, while hunting through my bag for some elusive stopgap measure, I came across a CD disk with a copy of Ubuntu Linux. A number of versions of Linux now come with a demonstration feature that makes it possible to run the program without actually installing it on a hard disk.
Inserting the disk, I was able to restart my computer, this time it was running Ubuntu, instead of Apple's OS X version of Unix.
What I discovered was that - with the caveat of a necessary network connection - life is just fine without a disk. Between the Firefox Web browser, Google's Gmail and and the search engine company's Docs Web-based word processor, it was possible to carry on quite nicely without local data during my trip.
Seriously... I find I care about which computer I'm using less and less. This is awesome.
P.S. The NYT's Bits blog is terrific.
'Having Ideas Is Not Very Parallelizable'
It's a powerful observation if you can make your way through the context (which is computer programming):
In fact, if you look at the way software gets written in most organizations, it's almost as if they were deliberately trying to do things wrong. In a sense, they are. One of the defining qualities of organizations since there have been such a thing is to treat individuals as interchangeable parts. This works well for more parallelizable tasks, like fighting wars. For most of history a well-drilled army of professional soldiers could be counted on to beat an army of individual warriors, no matter how valorous. But having ideas is not very parallelizable. And that's what programs are: ideas.
August 23, 2007
P.S. Okay, I admit it: I just wanted to steal the title "Hypercity Novo." It sounds like an anime series, doesn't it?
The Opening Lines
I have not read any Nabokov. However, based on these amazing opening lines, I think I am going to have to.
"Enaalso," he said in Iraqi slang. It's a new Iraqi word, a phrase used to explain being turned in by an informant to a militia and then being killed. Literally it means he was "chewed up."
August 22, 2007
A Database of Facts
Great power can flow from default reference link status; think Wikipedia, IMDB, etc. Can PolitiFact achieve default reference link status for political claims? Would be very cool if it did. Snarkmarket will assist with link love whenever possible.
As an aside: It's totally rad to see the St. Pete Times stepping up in a national way like this. More, more!
August 21, 2007
William Gibson and the New Baroque
Terrific interview with William Gibson over at The Onion A.V. Club -- it includes this bit:
I don't know what constitutes "noir" in 2007. I mean, would The Wire be noir? I don't think so. Actually, noir -- I was taught in college -- is a kind of baroque pop version of literary naturalism. Anyway, that's the way some critics have looked at it. I think that a show like The Wire is the closest we come these days to naturalism. It's a genuine, authentic attempt at naturalism. I've never really attempted naturalism before, but I value it a lot, so all of its more baroque forms have been very valuable to me. One of them, I think, is noir.
I haven't thought about stuff like that since I was an undergraduate. [Laughs.] I'm amazed I can still do it.
Any more nominations for modern baroque in any medium? Or, jeez, good definitions? I feel like I know what it means but can't necessarily articulate it with any great precision.
Realize it's old news to some, but just in case: elbo.ws is a crazy music blog meta-aggregator. Plug directly into brain.
August 20, 2007
Catacombs Are Rad
BLDGBLOG (who lives in my neighborhood now! Yes!) on underground cities. As always the key thing is that he writes about this stuff with such glee:
Today's city planners need to read more things like this! How exciting would it be if you could visit your grandparents in some small town somewhere, only to find that a door in the basement, which you thought led to a closet... actually opens up onto an underground Home Depot? Or a chapel. Or their neighbor's house.
Via Design Observer, which is so worth subscribing to.
Chance and Will
Nassim Taleb says nobody can predict anything, so:
Random tinkering is the path to success. And fortunately, we are increasingly learning to practice it without knowing it -- thanks to overconfident entrepreneurs, naive investors, greedy investment bankers, confused scientists and aggressive venture capitalists brought together by the free-market system.
Note however that the corollary is not that life is random; it's that success must therefore come through the recognition of amazing accidents and lucky breaks, and the grabbing hold of them with both hands.
Grawww this is too cool: Webhead polymaths Schulze and Webb have built a prototype social radio. Think for a second about what you think a "social radio" might be before clicking that link... then check it out. The second of their three big ideas is my favorite.
Xeni Jardin just posted the oddest thing over at Boing Boing: ten minutes of ambient audio from La Antigua, Guatemala.
It's very well-recorded, quite weird, and somewhat transporting (as I sit here listening, typing away on other things, in a San Francisco office basement).
Do these things exist en masse anywhere on the web? I know lots of people (well, you know: musicians, documentary filmmakers, etc.) record them. Seems like someone must have assembled an archive.
And, I am now officially in love with the idea of capturing stretches of ambient noise in cities that I visit -- as a means to teleport back, on demand, any time in the future.
August 19, 2007
On the Ground
Seven U.S. infantrymen and non-commissioned officers finishing up a 15-month tour in Iraq have written an op-ed describing the situation there as they see it. It's a must-read.
Still undecided on my 2008 pick, as it is still 2007 and there's, er, no rush -- but I have to admit, Barack Obama's willingness to go meta and discuss the very framework of politics in the U.S. is pretty awesome.
Pragmatism, Politics, and God
Stop reading this post right now and go read Mark Lilla's stunning NYT Mag article adapted from his forthcoming book. The past year has seen a horde of devout atheists -- Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris -- gathering arms against religion and its place in the civic sphere. But no matter how they title their books, Harris et al aren't speaking to a Christian nation, but to a small subset of fellow thinkers. Lilla's scholarship as summarized in this article feels like the scaffold for a bridge between the staunch secularists and the political theologists. Put him in a room with Reza Aslan, and you have the makings of a serious conversation, one that might begin to answer the question, "How do we live together?" Much better than this beautiful-but-doomed dialogue, at least.
Are you really still reading my rambling? GO READ LILLA. Then read No god but God. (Then read Rousseau's "Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar," which I'd never heard of until reading Lilla's piece. It's fantastic.) Then get into a conversation with an open-minded person on the opposite side of the secularist/theologist divide.
August 18, 2007
The Global Warming Gold Rush
Still, I am excited by the prospect that there might be winners from climate change. The Arctic contains vast reserves of gas and oil (25% of the world's undeveloped hydrocarbons), minerals and even diamonds. A new gold rush is already beginning. Norway is just completing its huge "Snow White" gas development off northern Norway. Russia will ship oil in new ice-breaking tankers out of the top of Siberia and has just begun work on the enormous Shtokman field, 350 miles off its Arctic coast and a technological challenge beyond anything so far attempted in the Arctic. As the ice melts, the Northern Passage around Siberia will open to commercial shipping, cutting costs off the voyage to Europe from Japan and China. An even shorter direct route close to the North Pole may follow and then the Northwest Passage around Canada. Fish will provide another treasure. Most of the world's commercial fish come from the colder waters away from the tropics. Already the retreating ice is opening up seas that have potential as rich, new fishing grounds. The people who see a new frontier in the Arctic are some of the most remarkable men and women I've met, prepared to make huge financial gambles and push technology to new limits. Environmentalists may not like them but they are part of the story of climate change too.
Wow. Visions of Lord Asriel readying his fleet...
Holy Collection, Batman
So my friend Corey has an insanely huge collection of Batman posters, puzzles, mugs, lunch boxes, shirts, cereal, underwear -- you get the idea --
I love it that he is administering the contest via Flickr. I also love it that all the photos are tagged "iwanttobebatmanwhenigrowup."
But I do I think Corey should probably require entrants to hold up a sign that say "gimme the loot, Jones" or something... otherwise, how do we know this is really George (age 27) and James (age 8)?
Anyway. Now's the time to get that Riddler costume out of the closet.
August 17, 2007
Deep History (in 160 Characters or Less)
Went to the Long Now talk tonight and took my parents. Unfortunately: way longer than the normal (snappy) Long Now talk. Fortunately: totally awesome subject, and loads of interesting details. The presenter was Alex Wright, an information architect. He's written a book called Glut about the history of information systems -- the deep history. Like, all the way back to bacteria.
My new habit of notetaking is to text messages to myself. Thus you can gauge the interestingness of a Long Now talk by the pile of weird short emails that's waiting for me when I get back home. Here's what I'm looking at now:
(Okay, actually, one of them is a note about a dream I remembered during the talk. I'll leave it to you to guess which.)
August 16, 2007
The Poe Toaster Revealed?
Edgar Allen Poe's masked fanatic has allegedly unmasked himself. A 92-year-old Poe-head named Sam Porpora claims to be the originator of the annual tradition of celebrating Poe's birthday with roses and cognac. But he says he's not sure who's continued the toast each year since 1976. The mystery remains ...
August 15, 2007
Perfect Windsor Knot
August 14, 2007
Make RSS Work Again
When David Weinberger talks about how effective the Internet has been at evolving sophisticated filters for processing all the stuff that's on the Internet, this is what he means. AideRSS is a Godsend. It analyzes the activity around each item in an RSS feed -- Technorati hits, comments, Del.icio.us links, traffic reports, etc. -- and calculates a score for the item. It then creates four feeds from the original feed, each set to a higher activity threshold.
Example: So far today, BoingBoing has posted a liver-curdling 18 entries. I could cut that down to two entries by subscribing to the feed of what AideRSS has deemed to be BoingBoing's "best" posts. (Today, I'd be reading the obit of the fellow who could dial a phone by whistling, and a post on this "John Hughes meets George Romero" graphic novel. Among other things, I'd miss cheap plastic toys, fugly sweatshirts, a clay iPhone, and politically-themed crafting projects. Think I'd live.) If I really only want to hear from BoingBoing every couple of days, I could go for just the hits.
For those of you overloading on RSS feeds, but hoping not to miss anything big, this is totally key.
'No One Makes My Kind of Television'
I want to see a miniseries that opens with a long zoom from New Jersey into Manhattan: a mile-long zeppelin moors itself to the World Trade Center. Stairs lower from the gondola and a woman of a certain age emerges in harem pants, smoking, takes off her goggles and hands them to an attendant. She is here to collect an orphan just in from Shenzen, one she picked from a lithograph that appeared on her elliptical scope (which is connected by radiowaves to a groaning terawatt transmitter the size of a battleship). Container ships filled with Chinese babies prowl the seas. She is the woman who patented the platonic solids. But her empire is at risk.
Paul Ford is like a comet: He doesn't come around very often, but it's usually worth the wait.
August 13, 2007
Abandoned Soviet-era trains in Abkhazia. Is it weird that I am seized with the desire to go there and wander among them? Who could resist?
Use the Force (When No One's Looking)
My former Current colleague OldschoolBrian shares this nerdy revelation:
When the train arrives on the platform, if I am the first person waiting to get on, I wait for the train to stop, then I raise my right hand to the level of my abdomen, extend my index and middle finger and slowly move it about 4 inches from left to right as the subway doors open. I do this to emulate the appearance that I have opened the subway doors using nothing but the shear will of my mind. People see me do this all the time. I don't mind. I have been doing this for years. Still don't mind. I do not do this upon exiting the train. BUT I DO, DO IT.
Go ahead, act like you don't do some weird shit when you think no one is looking.
I've started to realize that I actually talk to myself a lot. I think I am pretty good at doing it only when no one is around, though. Not sure if that makes it better... or worse.
Club Bill Gates
Oh man. I so want to go here.
If you owned a small diner in a grim Eastern European capital... which tech entrepreneur would you name it after?
August 12, 2007
Jan Chipchase has a fun anecdote about our pattern-seeking brains. It involves dance clubs and movies playing backwards.
The Thermodynamics of the Internet
Over at Wired's great Danger Room defense-tech blog, there's a post up about DARPA's new programs to monitor internet traffic even as the volume of that traffic keeps increasing exponentially:
But the Navy has been pioneering an approach, called "Therminator," which might be able to do the job a little better. It's one of a number of potential new net-defense tools that DARPA would like to see in action. The idea is to monitor the flow of traffic, rather than the individual packets. To treat it like to movement of temperature -- thermodynamics -- rather than the travels of ones and zeros. "If, all of a sudden, we see a big flow to China, we know there's a problem," Hearing says.
Yeah, I realize the whole "whoah, the net, it's like, it's like, a giant BRAIN" thing is a cliche by now, but even so, it's wild to see this weird creation begin to exhibit more and more of these macro-properties that we associate with other physical or biological systems.
August 11, 2007
Democratization of Manipulation, Part 3
Hey, speaking of democracy... this set of Photoshop tutorials that shows you how to do effects from movies, besides being rad and fun, is also totally subversive.
Seriously! It's one thing to vaguely understand that all images presented by the entertainment industry are massively processed... it's another to learn how to do it yourself.
The Challenge of Authoritarian Capitalism
Argh! Must read this Foreign Affairs article! But it is available only to paying subscribers! Oh well -- the blockquote's pretty good on its own:
Today's global liberal democratic order faces two challenges. The first is radical Islam -- and it is the lesser of the two challenges. Although the proponents of radical Islam find liberal democracy repugnant, and the movement is often described as the new fascist threat, the societies from which it arises are generally poor and stagnant. They represent no viable alternative to modernity and pose no significant military threat to the developed world. It is mainly the potential use of weapons of mass destruction -- particularly by nonstate actors -- that makes militant Islam a menace.
The second, and more significant, challenge emanates from the rise of nondemocratic great powers: the West's old Cold War rivals China and Russia, now operating under authoritarian capitalist, rather than communist, regimes. Authoritarian capitalist great powers played a leading role in the international system up until 1945. They have been absent since then. But today, they seem poised for a comeback.
Authoritarian capitalist states, today exemplified by China and Russia, may represent a viable alternative path to modernity, which in turn suggests that there is nothing inevitable about liberal democracy's ultimate victory -- or future dominance.
The EU is also a noteworthy model. It's of course not authoritarian by any stretch, but it's not exactly democratic, either.
The question will soon be posed: Do we favor democracy simply because it is effective? Or do we favor it because it is, in some deeper sense, right? And are we willing to defend the latter proposition even if the first is subverted -- that is, even if nondemocratic systems demonstrate equal or greater effectiveness?
Not well-worded, but perhaps you get the idea.
My answer to the latter question, for the record, is yes. And you?
Have not finished this weekend's NYT Mag article on marriage counseling, so do not know if it's recommendation-worthy, but I do know that I liked this paragraph enough to blog it immediately:
One of her basic tasks, she told me, is "titrating anxiety," challenging people enough so that they'll feel the pressure to change but not so much as to send them spinning off in alarm or confusion. As she put it another time: "Causing the right amount of trouble is an art form."
So applicable to so many things beyond counseling!
Doing It Right
In a nice bit of musical apologia, Gorilla vs. Bear writes:
So I was talking to that dude from Marathonpacks about his contention that the Go! Team is essentially "twee-as-all-holy-hell kiddie rap, it's ESG minus the sexuality and implied danger, it's perfect for roughly 74 percent of mp3 bloggers." I agreed that this was probably all true, but refuse to concede that these are necessarily bad things.
Indeed. There is a new Go! Team video waiting for you there as well. It might just be the perfect thing for a Saturday afternoon.
August 10, 2007
The World Heavyweight Champion... of Politics
I like the analogy of politicians as prizefighters near the end of the post. Well, actually: I don't like it... but I suspect it might possess some truth.
They Should Probably Just Call it Coruscant
Masdar, the zero-carbon, zero-waste city planned in Abu Dhabi, looks like something out of science fiction. Because it is. A 3.5-mile-wide walled city in the Middle East? Hello? Totally the setting for Blade Runner 2. (Via Buzzfeed.)
August 9, 2007
C'mon Snarkmatrix -- whatcha got? Can your neighborhood's walk score beat Cole Valley's astonishing 97?
August 8, 2007
The New Sincerity
This video is: hand-crafted, sweet, sad, weird, and beautiful.
This one is: also great, but it betrays its slick origins a bit.
Serious Games with Stephen Colbert
Seriously, is it just me, or did Bogost weather the Colbert interview better than almost any (sort of semi-serious) guest ever? And managed to get some subtle points across! I'm floored.
(I realize this could just be b/c I am pre-obsessed with this topic. Tell me if his performance wasn't actually as awesome as I think.)
Pidgin to Creole
Huh -- I didn't know "pidgin" and "creole" were actually semi-technical linguistic terms. In reply to this question:
If we shipwrecked a boatload of babies on the Galapagos Islands -- assuming they had all the food, water, and shelter they needed to survive -- would they produce language in any form when they grew up?
We get, in part, this answer:
Nobody refers directly to the historical conversion of pidgin languages (protolanguages) into creoles (full languages). This change has happened many times in the past centuries, and Derek Bickerton established nicely that it was the children who converted Hawaiian pidgin into Hawaiian Creole. This feat was not accomplished in a nonlinguistic setting. The pidgin pre-existed the children, so these speakers were not like the lone infants on the Galapagos, nevertheless, the babbling of infants, the creation of the Nicaraguan sign language, and the conversion of Hawaiian English from pidgin to creole offers a pile of positive evidence that humans are born with more than a language-ready brain.
I think this means it's only a matter of time 'til we have to start compiling the Oxford Lolcats Dictionary.
Related: Check out the second paper here, about genetically-coded behaviors that still have to be sharpened by experience (e.g. nest-building in birds). I love the term "free-lunch learning."
August 7, 2007
'No Real Than You Are'
"We saw something bobbing about in the sea and we decided to take it out of the water," said a stall worker. "It was a life-sized Lego toy."
It's just... I mean... wow.
The Attention Deficit: The Need for Timeless Journalism
In Romenesko Letters today, Gordon Trowbridge makes a very good point about the coverage before the collapse of 35W: the press did see this one coming. Over the past several years, newspapers have published a number of prominent investigative stories on bridge/highway deficiencies. My own paper published a front-page story in 2001 headlined "A bridge too far gone? Repairs overdue on many spans." An excerpt:
Bridge work is getting increasingly expensive as a bubble of structures built after World War II are wearing out and requiring major renovation or replacement during the next 20 years. [The 35-W bridge was built in 1967.]... Read more ....
And some state highway officials warn that Minnesota isn't keeping up.
When Dan and I were preparing to spend a semester in Bangladesh, our favorite professor would joke that it was a place humans ought not to live. Normally that's an overstatement, but whoah: This is primal. I mean, seriously, it's nuts -- the whole world becomes water!
August 6, 2007
The Bridge and the River
If Gavin had asked me to link to the newest Revelator Press chapbook -- "The Bridge and the River," a collection of Tim Carmody's poems -- I would have happily done so. As it happens he did not, which gives me the opportunity to link naturally and of my own bloggy volition, for three reasons:
- Allegiance to Tim Carmody, who besides being a terrific blogger and poet (as you'll see), is a prolific & erudite Snarkmarket commenter. This domain is without exaggeration about 25 percent more interesting simply because he stops in as often as he does.
- The poems are really good! In particular, I like "Island," which is short but weighty; "February 13, 2002," which -- well, if movies should start with a murder, then poems should start with a moment you truly recognize, and this one does; and "Horn," which is just sort of titanic.
- The chapbook's design is pitch-perfect. Brandon Kelley knows what's up.
(Note: I love the word "chapbook." I suspect you do as well.)
If we falter in resolve
Just because the task is hard,
No accomplishment can follow:
It is the world's way.
Discovered, appropriately, while cleaning.
Law ~ Code
This is blowing my mind: Here's what it looks like when you apply the same visualization scheme to Project Gutenberg, the Windows kernel, and the U.S. Code.
Guess which two look the same?
Terrific conversation in the comments, too.
Hours of Fun
Jan in Rio
August 5, 2007
Woody Allen on Ingmar Bergman in TIME -- a nice interview, and a reminder to explore each of their films in more depth. (I've actually never seen any Bergman! And of Allen's movies I've only seen a handful.)
August 4, 2007
Favorite Voices, New Mediums
Hendrik Hertzberg has a blog and the first word, against all odds, is: "Bam."
August 3, 2007
Breaking News on Wikipedia
Someone pointed out today that Wikipedia has, very quietly, become an excellent synthesizer of big breaking news stories. For instance: the I-35 collapse.
August 2, 2007
Break the Sword
The madness in Minneapolis renders any potential blog-item inevitably trite and lame, but I guess if it's going to be anything, it could be this. From J. Glenn Gray's "The Warriors," via The American Scene:
It was one of the most discouraged thinkers who wrote the most hopeful of all paragraphs about a future warless world. His prophecy ought to be regarded as recognition of man's power to alter the course of events by undergoing an inner change. I refer, curiously enough, to Friedrich Nietzsche and to the following paragraph from The Wanderer and His Shadow:
"And perhaps the great day will come when a people, distinguished by wars and victories and by the highest development of a military order and intelligence, and accustomed to make the heaviest sacrifice for these things, will exclaim of its own free will, 'we break the sword,' and will smash its military establishment down to its lowest foundations. Rendering oneself unarmed when one has been the best armed, out of a height of feeling -- that is the means to real peace, which must always rest on a peace of mind; whereas the so-called armed peace, as it now exists in all countries, is the absence of peace of mind. One trusts neither oneself nor one's neighbor and, half from hatred, half from fear, does not lay down arms. Rather perish than hate and fear, and twice rather perish than make oneself hated and feared -- this must someday become the highest maxim for every single commonwealth."
There's a bit of satygraha in there, and a bit of Frodo, too. Also echoes of The Unconquerable World, which I never did write about. Maybe soon.
August 1, 2007
Nick Kristof and Greg Mankiw talk about the need for better economics education. But I scowled at Mankiw's invocation of textbooks. You know what'd be a great place to teach economics and statistics in a new, more effective way? A game school!