The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

Bob Stepno § The structure of journalism today / 2014-03-10 18:42:32
Anne Field § The booster pack / 2014-02-15 16:15:39
Josh Rubenoff § The booster pack / 2014-02-09 04:29:20
David Lang § The right flavor of fame / 2014-02-07 15:13:49
Robin § The booster pack / 2014-02-06 16:41:42
Navneet Alang § The booster pack / 2014-02-06 03:40:31
Sam M-B § The booster pack / 2014-02-06 03:32:35
Chris Baker § The booster pack / 2014-02-06 02:38:57
G Love § Conversation Media / 2014-01-30 07:26:22
Navneet Alang § Calculating the Weight of the Object / 2014-01-26 16:07:58

From the hands that made…
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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.

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Masters of their environment
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“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.

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Disguise detection
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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.)

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Flux
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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?

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The ghost is the machine
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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.

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Combing the number line
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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.

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A Palimpsest of Code

I don’t know enough to assert one way or another whether the Google Books ruling is ultimately a “good” or a “bad” decision. What I do know is that it is fascinating.

US District Judge Denny Chin’s decision is, to my mind, far more interesting than a legal ruling has any right to be. I say this because at the core of the legal decision is a mind-twisting idea:

The display of snippets of text for search is similar to the display of thumbnail images of photographs for search or small images of concert posters for reference to past events, as the snippets help users locate books and determine whether they may be of interest. Google Books thus uses words for a different purpose — it uses snippets of text to act as pointers directing users to a broad selection of books.

Similarly, Google Books is also transformative in the sense that it has transformed book text into data for purposes of substantive research, including data mining and text mining in new areas, thereby opening up new fields of research. Words in books are being used in a way they have not been used before. Google Books has created something new in the use of book the frequency of words and trends in their usage provide substantive information.

Google Books does not supersede or supplant books because it is not a tool to be used to read book. Instead, it “adds value to the original” and allows for “the creation of new information, new aesthetics, new insights and understandings.” Hence, the use is transformative.

Think about that: turning text, already one form of “data”, into another form of data is “highly transformative”. It’s a translation of sorts, but if translation is a kind of chemical reaction, then the source material here is both reactant and catalyst, the thing being changed and the thing left untouched.

It’s as if on a printed page you have letters and words functioning one way, and then underneath it, as a kind of a trace, is an  entirely separate code system that contains meaning temporarily invisible to the reader. It’s a palimpsest of code!

Now, here’s what I’m wondering: What are the narrative possibilities of a text that is always operating in two, mutually incompatible but still comprehensible languages — as if a printed page or a section of text always has hovering just above or below a holographic page of code? What might a book look like or do if it put itself forth in two distinct ways, as always both prose and programming language, narrative and the database?

In a sense, we have something like an analogous precedent. You could, if you wanted to, read Ulysses utterly unaware of the sprawling network of references, focusing on the ostensible narrative. “Underneath” — or perhaps more accurately, alongside — is another sign system of meaning, working its way “invisibly” through the text. Diving into that set of code opens and up and eluciates the text in no end of rich, meaningful ways, situating the novel in both its aesthetic and ideological context.

Can we do that with code? What I do not mean is an executable hidden in the margins, opening up a game or a movie about the book. Instead I’m talking about bits of meaning, marked out in inconspicuous ways that only reveal themselves if the interpreter approaches them in the right “language” — patterns, repetitions, cadences, or rhythms, only readable by the machine but full of human possibility.

Imagine a novel about a musician that reveals its off-kilter time signature through measured instances of the word “beat”, or a text about the immigrant experience that ran unseen contradictory interpretations of key moments backwards through a narrative.

Have we been going at the connections between literature and code all wrong? Should we instead be focusing on an interrelationship between the two that is as constitutive as it is invisible, unreadable?

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Don’t touch that USB drive
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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.

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An image for winter
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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.

THIS IS SNOW.

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

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A book for winter
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I believe that shout-it-to-the-rooftops book recommendations should be treated like super bombs in video games: rare commodities that must be husbanded closely, saved for special moments. 1

It’s because the investment is so asymmetrical, right? On the recommender’s side, a moment of enthusiasm; on the recommendee’s side, what? I already have ten books on my pile!

So here’s my great detonation for winter. You’ll hear not a peep from me until some future level, when my stock of super bombs has been replenished.

Hild.

hild-cover-9780374280871

On the surface, Nicola Griffith’s book is not the kind I usually gravitate towards — which, maybe, ought to make the recommendation count for even more? Hild is set in 7th-century England, and it traces the life of its namesake, the woman known today as St. Hilda of Whitby. I got my hands on an advance copy earlier this year and found myself utterly absorbed. It’s been a long time since I was so happy reading a book this fat; a long time since I was so sad to see it end.

Full disclosure: Hild is published by FSG, and was edited by Sean McDonald there — so it’s the same team that brought you Penumbra. It is a very (!) different kind of book, and yet… Clay Jannon would like Hild. In fact, he’d love it. Early reviews have compared the book to George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, and it does push many of the same buttons — there is plenty of royal intrigue — but this story is also subtler and, I think, less cynical.

As I read, I found Hild’s way of thinking seeping into my brain. She is a scientist before science, a flâneuse before modernity. She is a watcher, a pattern-finder, a naturalist growing into a politician. In an email, I told Nicola that after I read her book, I found myself

paying more attention the natural world, & not just in passing, but with patience. I thought specifically of Hild the other afternoon when I was in my backyard & saw a giant spider on its web. I bent down close, inspected it, watched it for a while. It really does require patience, and a conviction that, you know, this is a totally legitimate way to spend your time.

This truly is a winter book — big and heavy, with a warm heart. It will look good wrapped in colorful paper. I bought three copies for that purpose. I don’t know what else to say. The power of the super bomb recommendation is that you don’t have to say it just right; all you have to do is press the button. You only get a couple of these. You should only use them when it counts. This books counts.

Notes:

  1. As opposed to personalized book recommendations, which are totally different — more like boss weapons in Mega Man.
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