Bright Galaxies, Dark Matter, and Beyond | The MIT Press
A new biography of Vera Rubin by Ashley Jean Yeager. One for the wishlist!
A new biography of Vera Rubin by Ashley Jean Yeager. One for the wishlist!
Well, this is timely! Cassie mentioned recently that she was reading—and enjoying—the Earthsea books, which I had never got around to reading. So I’m reading them now. Then Craig mentioned in one of his newsletters that he’s also reading them. Now there’s this article…
To white protestors and accomplices, who say that they want to listen but are fearful of giving up some power so that we can all heal, I suggest you read the Earthsea cycle. You will need to learn to step away from the center to build a new world, and the Black majority in this fantasy series offers a better model than any white history.
I sometimes watch programmes on TG4, the Irish language broadcaster that posts most shows online. Even though I’m watching with subtitles on, I figure it can’t be bad for keeping my very rudimentary Irish from atrophying completely.
I’m usually watching music programmes but occassionally I’ll catch a bit of the news (or “nuacht”). Their coverage of the protests in America reminded me of a peculiar quirk of the Irish language. The Black community would be described as “daoine gorm” (pronunced “deenee gurum”), which literally translated would mean “blue people”. In Irish, the skin colour is referred to as “gorm”—blue.
This isn’t one of those linguistic colour differences like the way the Japanese word ao means blue and green. Irish has a perfectly serviceable word for the colour black, “dubh” (pronounced “duv”). But the term “fear dubh” (“far duv”) which literally means “black man” was already taken. It’s used to describe the devil. Not ideal.
In any case, this blue/black confusion in Irish reminded me of a delicious tale of schadenfreude. When I was writing about the difference between intentions and actions, I said:
Sometimes bad outcomes are the result of good intentions. Less often, good outcomes can be the result of bad intentions.
Back in 2017, the Geeky Gaeilgeoir wrote a post called Even Racists Got the Blues. In it, she disects the terrible translation job done by an Irish-American racist sporting a T-shirt that reads:
Gorm Chónaí Ábhar.
That’s completely nonsensical in Irish, but the intent behind the words was to say “Blue Lives Matter.” Except… even if it made grammatical sense, what this idiot actually wrote would translate as:
Black Lives Matter.
What a wonderful chef’s kiss of an own goal!
If only it were a tattoo.
There are intentions and there are outcomes. Sometimes bad outcomes are the result of good intentions. Less often, good outcomes can be the result of bad intentions. But generally we associate the two: we expect good outcomes to come from good intentions and we expect bad outcomes to come from bad intentions.
Perhaps it’s because of this conflation that we place too much emphasis on intentions. If, for example, someone is called out for causing a bad outcome, their first response is often to defend their intentions. That’s understandable. When someone says “you have created a bad outcome”, I understand why the person on the receiving end would receive that feedback as “you intended to create this bad outcome.” Cue a non-apology that clarifies the (good) intention without acknowledging the reality of the outcome (“It was never my intention to…”).
I get it. Intentions do matter …just not as much as we give them credit for. I mean, in general, I’d prefer bad outcomes to be the inadvertent result of good intentions. But in some ways, it really doesn’t matter: a bad outcome is a bad outcome.
Anyway, all of this is just to preface something I’m going to say about myself:
I am almost certainly racist.
I don’t intend to be racist, but like I said, intentions aren’t really what matter. Outcomes are.
Note, for example, the cliché of the gormless close-minded goon who begins a sentence with “I’m not racist, but…” before going on to say something clearly racist. It’s as though the racism could be defanged by disavowing bad intent.
The same defence mechanism is used to defend racist traditions. “Oh, it’s not racist—that’s just something we’ve always done.” Again, the defence is for the intention, not the outcome. And again, outcomes matter far, far more than intentions.
I really don’t intend to be racist. But how could I not be? I grew up in a small town in Ireland where literally everyone else looked like me. By the same token, I’m also almost certainly sexist. Growing up as a cisgender male in a patriarchal society guarantees that my mind has been shaped in ways I now wish it weren’t.
Acknowledging my racism—and sexism—doesn’t mean I’m okay with it. On the contrary. It’s a source of shame. But acknowledging my racism is a necessary step to changing it.
In any case, it doesn’t really matter how I feel about any of this. This isn’t meant to be a confessional. What matters are outcomes. Outcomes aren’t really the direct result of intentions—outcomes are the direct result of actions.
Most of my actions lately have been very passive. Listening. Watching. Because my actions are passive, they are indistinguishable from silence. That’s not good. Silence can be interpreted as acquiescence, acceptance. That’s not what I intend …but my intentions don’t matter.
So, even though this isn’t about me or my voice or my intentions, and even though this is something that is so self-evident that it shouldn’t need to be said, I want to say:
Black lives matter.
An organisation has formed here in the UK as a response to the increasing threats to the web:
We are called to come together in response to growing political and social uncertainty, direct threats to the profession, and a lack of vocal and proactive representation to organise as a representative, independent, and politically responsible industry body.
The inaugural AGM is happening in Edinburgh tomorrow. Get along to that if you can. Otherwise, there’s always Slack.
I like their manifesto; let’s put it to the test-o.
Here’s a fun cosmic hypothesis on the scale of an Olaf Stapeldon story. There are even implications for data storage:
By storing its essential data in photons, life could give itself a distributed backup system. And it could go further, manipulating new photons emitted by stars to dictate how they interact with matter. Fronts of electromagnetic radiation could be reaching across the cosmos to set in motion chains of interstellar or planetary chemistry with exquisite timing, exploiting wave interference and excitation energies in atoms and molecules.
Shane gave a talk recently where he outlined his reasons for publishing on the indie web:
Most people reading this will probably have an account at most or all of these sites: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo, Tumblr, Wordpress. Many also had accounts at Friendster, Tribe, MySpace, Delicious, Magnolia, Gowalla, Geocities. But no one has an account at any of those (on the second list) anymore. And all of the content that we created on those sites is gone.
All of those super emo feeling you posted to MySpace, they’re all gone. Some of the great web designers of our generation got started on Geocities. That stuff is gone forever. And sure, it was sparkling animated GIFs and neon colors. But that’s important history. Yahoo bought it, left it alone for a while, and then decided one day to turn it off.
A collection of cli-fi and cli-fact.
Ant told us this harrowing story in the office two weeks ago. I honestly can’t imagine what it would be like to be in this situation.
Tuesday evening saw the inaugural Connections event at 68 Middle Street, home to Clearleft. It was a rousing success—much fun was had by all.
There was a great turn-out. Normally I’d expect a fairly significant no-show rate for a free event (they’re often oversubscribed to account for this very reason), but I was amazed how many people braved the dreadful weather to come along. We greeted them all with free beer, courtesy of Clearleft.
The talks had a nice yin and yang quality to them. Honor talked about darkness. Justin talked about light. More specifically, Honor talked about dark matter and Justin talked about Solarpunk.
Honor made plentiful use of sound during her presentation. Or rather, plentiful use of electromagnetic signals converted into sound: asteroseismology from the sun; transient luminous events in the Earth’s upper atmosphere; the hailstorm as Cassini pirouettes through Saturn’s rings; subatomic particle collisions sonified. They all combined to eerie effect.
Justin’s talk was more down to Earth, despite sounding like a near-future science-fiction scenario: individuals and communities harnessing the power of the photovoltaic solar panel to achieve energy-independence.
There was a beer break between the talks and we had a joint discussion afterwards, with questions from the audience. I was leading the discussion, and to a certain extent, I played devil’s advocate to Justin’s ideas, countering his solar energy enthusiasm with nuclear energy enthusiasm—I’m on Team Thorium. (Actually, I wasn’t really playing devil’s advocate. I genuinely believe that nuclear energy is the cleanest, safest source of energy available to us and that an anti-nuclear environmentalist is a contradiction in terms—but that’s a discussion for another day.)
There was a bittersweet tinge to the evening. The first Connections event was also Honor’s last public speaking engagement in Brighton for a while. She is bidding farewell to Lighthouse Arts and winging her way to a new life in Singapore. We wish her well. We will miss her.
The evening finished with a facetious rhetorical question from the audience for Honor. It was related to the sonification of particle collisions like the ones that produced evidence for “the God particle”, the Higgs boson. “Given that the music produced is so unmusical”, went the question, “does that mean it’s proof that God doesn’t exist?”
We all had a laugh and then we all went to the pub. But I’ve been thinking about that question, and while I don’t have an answer, I do have a connection to make between both of the talks and algorithmically-generated music. Here goes…
Justin talked about the photovoltaic work done at Bell Labs. An uncle of Ray Kurzweil worked at Bell Labs and taught the young Kurzweil the basics of computer science. Soon after, Ray Kurzweil wrote his first computer program, one that analysed works of classical music and then generated its own music. Here it is.
H.P. Lovecraft meets James Bridle in this great little story commissioned by the Institute For The Future.
In a piece for Medium commissioned by Matter, Jon Norris describes a little-known aspect of the UK’s information technology history:
Gender equality is still a major issue in the technology industry, but 50 years ago one British company was blazing trails.
The news is finally public: Bobbie’s Matter has been bought my Ev’s Medium. Fingers crossed that they don’t fuck it up.
When I was preparing my Responsive Enhancement workshop for last year’s dConstruct, I thought I should create an example site to demonstrate the various techniques I would be talking about to demonstrate how responsive design could be combined with progressive enhancement to make something works great on any device.
Round about that time, while I was scratching my head trying to figure out what the fake example site should be, I got an email from Bobbie asking if I wanted to meet up for a coffee and a chat. We met up and he told me about a project he wanted to do with his colleague Jim Giles. They wanted to create a place for really good long-form journalism on science and technology.
“The thing is,” said Bobbie, “we want to make sure it’s readable on phones, on tablets, on Kindles, everything really. But we don’t know the best approach to take for that.”
“Well, Bobbie, it’s funny you should mention that,” I said. “I’m currently putting together a workshop all about responsive design, which sounds perfect for what you want to do. And I need to create an example site to showcase the ideas.”
It was a perfect match. Bobbie gave me his design principles, personas, and—most importantly—content. In return, he would get a prototype that would demonstrate how that content could be readable on any device; perfect for drumming up interest and investment.
The workshop went really well, and some great ideas came out of the brainstorming the attendees were doing.
A few months later, Bobbie and Jim put the project—now called Matter—up on Kickstarter. They met their target, and then some. Clearly there was a lot of interest in well-written original journalism on the web. Now they had to build it.
They got hold of Phil to do the backend so that was sorted but Bobbie asked me if I knew any kick-ass designers and front-end developers.
“Well, I would love to work on it,” I said. “So how about working with Clearleft?”
“I didn’t think you guys would be available,” he said. “I’d love to work with you!”
And so we began a very fun collaboration. Paul moved his desk next to mine and we started playing around with the visual design and front-end development. Phil and Bobbie came by and we hammered out design principles, user journeys, and all that fun stuff.
It was really nice to work on a project where readability took centre stage. “Privilege the reading experience” was our motto.
Paul did some fantastic work, not just on creating a typographic system, but also creating a brand identity including what I think is a really great logo.
I started putting together a system of markup and CSS patterns, using the device lab to test them. Phil started implementing those patterns using Django. It all went very smoothly indeed.
Today is launch day. Matter is live. If you backed the project on Kickstarter, you’ve got mail. If not, you can buy the first issue for a mere 99 cents.
The first piece is a doozy. It’s called Do No Harm:
Why do some people want to amputate a perfectly healthy limb? And why would any doctor help them?
If this is indicative of the kind of work that Matter will be publishing, it will definitely live up to its ambitious promise:
MATTER commissions, crafts and publishes unmissable journalism about science, technology and the ideas shaping our future.
Just a few hours after launch, here’s the first review of Matter complete with some speculation on where it might go.
I’m really pleased to be working with Bobbie on Matter.
Bobbie’s new journalism project is up and running on Kickstarter. Get in there!
The difference between software and hardware; the digital and the instantiated.
I’ve finished my little bout of timezone parkour to Nashville and San Francisco. I attended a conference in each place and enjoyed both in very different ways.
Voices That Matter had an eclectic line-up of speakers. Whereas other conferences are organized around a theme or a set of technologies, the only commonality at this conference, organized by New Riders, is that the speakers have all published books through New Riders. While this means that the conference doesn’t have a specific focus, it does offer a nice varied range of subjects. Talks ranged from the specifics of using CSS for colour, typography and layout right through to discussions of user-testing and social networking.
I enjoyed getting the nitty-gritty details of CSS fonts from Jason Cranford Teague. He and Richard are clearly kindred spirits. The revelation of the conference for me was hearing a great hands-on presentation from Zoe Mickley Gillenwater on liquid and elastic layouts. Okay, so I might be a bit biased but I think it’s great that this subject is getting coverage and Zoe is just the person to do it. She’s currently writing a book for New Riders on this neglected area of web design. It should be out by December. Pre-order it now.
For my part, I gave a half-day workshop on Bulletproof Ajax, which seemed to go well, and I reprised a talk I had given once before called Microformats: what are they and why do I care?
I missed a few talks because I was whisked away to be interviewed for a future video podcast. Under the very professional-looking lights and cameras, I participated in a one-on-chat and also a thoroughly enjoyable discussion with Christopher Schmitt and Steve Krug. I missed more talks because I wanted to get outside the hotel and explore Nashville a bit. The highlight of that exploration was getting a guided tour —thanks to Ari—around the historic Hatch Show Print where they have been making letterpress posters for musicians for over a century; a great place to soak up some design inspiration.
My ulterior motive for escaping from the conference hotel was to seek out a mandolin for myself. I went to the Gibson outlet store at the Opry Mills shopping mall on the outskirts of town but even the cheapest mandolin there was still beyond my price range. They sure were a pleasure to play, though. Fortunately for me, I stumbled across a flea market in the same mall where I happened upon a cheap second-hand epiphone. It’s not brilliant but it’s suitable for my purposes; a decent little instrument that I can take travelling with me. I’ve got a suitable travel bag to go with it. It has the shape of a tennis racket case but all the pockets of a laptop bag. I may even try to pass myself off as some kind of freakish sporty geek hybrid.
All in all, I think I managed to get a good look around Nashville and get plenty out of the conference too. I was only there for a few days before it was time for me to head on to San Francisco for Supernova 2008. That was a different kettle of thought-leading fish.
The Voices That Matter conference just wrapped up here in San Francisco. My talk was the last one of the day apart from a lightning round of two-minute takeaway points from a phalanx of speakers, moderated by myself.
My presentation was entitled Microformats: what are they and why do I care? You can download a PDF of the slides. The presentation is licensed under a Creative Commons attribution license so do with it as you please.
The talk went okay—I have the horrible feeling that there were quite a few “um”s and “ah”s peppered throughout. I made sure to leave plenty of time for questions and, as usual, the questions turned out to be the best part. Tantek took notes of the Q&A and I’ve published them on the wiki page for the event (if you were at the presentation be sure to add yourself to the list of attendees).
When he wasn’t taking notes, Tantek was diligently folding cheat sheets for the attendees. They were popular. If you weren’t lucky enough to get a pre-folded one, you can always print out and fold your own pocket cheat sheet courtesy of Erin.
And now, with my speaking duties fulfilled, I’ve got a day to spend in San Francisco before I head home. I intend to make the most of it. If you’d like to join me in soaking up the last of the California sunshine, come along to the picnic tables in South Park at noon tomorrow (Friday) for a geek picnic. Be there or be even more square.