Tags: science

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Thursday, May 17th, 2018

I Played Fortnite and Figured Out the Universe - The Atlantic

Robin Sloan smushes the video game Fortnite Battle Royale together with Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem trilogy and produces a perfect example of game theory, cooperation, and the prisoner’s dilemma.

Based on my experiments in the laboratory of Fortnite, I think Liu Cixin is wrong. Or at least, he’s not entirely right. Fortnite is more Dark Forest theory than not, and maybe that’s true of the universe, too. But sometimes, we have a lever against the vise of game theory, and in this case, it is a single bit of communication. I mean “bit” in the programmer’s sense: a flag with a designated meaning. Nothing more. My heart emote didn’t make Fortnite cuddly and collaborative, but it did allow me to communicate: “Hold up. Let’s do this a different way.”

Sunday, May 13th, 2018

Unworn Pleasures

I’ve made no secret of my admiration of Jocelyn Bell Burnell, and how Peter Saville’s iconic cover design for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures always reminds of her.

There are many, many memetic variations of that design.

Spaghetti, All Lined Up Quite Nicely. Furr Division. Depeche Mode, Boys Don't Cry. What is this? I’ve seen it on Tumblr.

I assumed that somebody somewhere at some time must have made a suitable tribute to the discover of those pulses, but I’ve never come across any Jocelyn-themed variation of the Joy Division album art.

So I made my own.

Jocelyn T-shirt.

The test order I did just showed up, and it’s looking pretty nice (although be warned that the sizes run small—I ordered a large, and I probably should’ve gone for extra large). If your music/radio-astronomy Venn diagram overlaps like mine, then you too might enjoy being the proud bearer of this wearable tribute to Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

Thursday, May 3rd, 2018

Orion Magazine | State of the Species

A great piece from Charles C. Mann from five years ago, where you can see the genesis of The Wizard And The Prophet.

For hundreds of thousands of years, our species had been restricted to East Africa (and, possibly, a similar area in the south). Now, abruptly, new-model Homo sapiens were racing across the continents like so many imported fire ants. The difference between humans and fire ants is that fire ants specialize in disturbed habitats. Humans, too, specialize in disturbed habitats—but we do the disturbing.

Sunday, April 22nd, 2018

the Origins of Opera and the Future of Programming – The Composition

An interesting piece by Jessica Kerr that draws lessons from the histories of art and science and applies them to software development.

This was an interesting point about the cognitive load of getting your head around an existing system compared to creating your own:

Why are there a thousand JavaScript frameworks out there? because it’s easier to build your own than to gain an understanding of React. Even with hundreds of people contributing to documentation, it’s still more mental effort to form a mental model of an existing system than to construct your own. (I didn’t say it was faster, but less cognitively strenuous.)

And just because I’ve spent most of last year thinking about how to effectively communicate—in book form—relatively complex ideas clearly and simply, this part really stood out for me:

When you do have a decent mental model of a system, sharing that with others is hard. You don’t know how much you know.

Tuesday, April 17th, 2018

House of Lords - AI in the UK: ready, willing and able? - Artificial Intelligence Committee

Design fiction from the UK parliament. I mean, it’s not exactly a classic of speculative fiction, but it sure beats a white paper.

Friday, April 6th, 2018

2001 + 50

The first ten minutes of my talk at An Event Apart Seattle consisted of me geeking about science fiction. There was a point to it …I think. But I must admit it felt quite self-indulgent to ramble to a captive audience about some of my favourite works of speculative fiction.

The meta-narrative I was driving at was around the perils of prediction (and how that’s not really what science fiction is about). This is something that Arthur C. Clarke pointed out repeatedly, most famously in Hazards of Prophecy. Ironically, I used Clarke’s meisterwork of a collaboration with Stanley Kubrick as a rare example of a predictive piece of sci-fi with a good hit rate.

When I introduced 2001: A Space Odyssey in my talk, I mentioned that it was fifty years old (making it even more of a staggering achievement, considering that humans hadn’t even reached the moon at that point). What I didn’t realise at the time was that it was fifty years old to the day. The film was released in American cinemas on April 2nd, 1968; I was giving my talk on April 2nd, 2018.

Over on Wired.com, Stephen Wolfram has written about his own personal relationship with the film. It’s a wide-ranging piece, covering everything from the typography of 2001 (see also: Typeset In The Future) right through to the nature of intelligence and our place in the universe.

When it comes to the technology depicted on-screen, he makes the same point that I was driving at in my talk—that, despite some successful extrapolations, certain real-world advances were not only unpredicted, but perhaps unpredictable. The mobile phone; the collapse of the soviet union …these are real-world events that are conspicuous by their absence in other great works of sci-fi like William Gibson’s brilliant Neuromancer.

But in his Wired piece, Wolfram also points out some acts of prediction that were so accurate that we don’t even notice them.

Also interesting in 2001 is that the Picturephone is a push-button phone, with exactly the same numeric button layout as today (though without the * and # [“octothorp”]). Push-button phones actually already existed in 1968, although they were not yet widely deployed.

To use the Picturephone in 2001, one inserts a credit card. Credit cards had existed for a while even in 1968, though they were not terribly widely used. The idea of automatically reading credit cards (say, using a magnetic stripe) had actually been developed in 1960, but it didn’t become common until the 1980s.

I’ve watched 2001 many, many, many times and I’m always looking out for details of the world-building …but it never occurred to me that push-button numeric keypads or credit cards were examples of predictive extrapolation. As time goes on, more and more of these little touches will become unnoticeable and unremarkable.

On the space shuttle (or, perhaps better, space plane) the cabin looks very much like a modern airplane—which probably isn’t surprising, because things like Boeing 737s already existed in 1968. But in a correct (at least for now) modern touch, the seat backs have TVs—controlled, of course, by a row of buttons.

Now I want to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey again. If I’m really lucky, I might get to see a 70mm print in a cinema near me this year.

‘Black Mirror’ meets HGTV, and a new genre, home design horror, is born - Curbed

There was a time, circa 2009, when no home design story could do without a reference to Mad Men. There is a time, circa 2018, when no personal tech story should do without a Black Mirror reference.

Black Mirror Home. It’s all fun and games until the screaming starts.

When these products go haywire—as they inevitably do—the Black Mirror tweets won’t seem so funny, just as Mad Men curdled, eventually, from ha-ha how far we’ve come to, oh-no we haven’t come far enough.

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018

The Way of the Web | Jeremy Keith | Hooked On Code

Here are Torre’s notes on my talk at An Event Apart Seattle. (She’s been liveblogging all the talks.)

LukeW | An Event Apart: The Way of the Web

Here are Luke’s notes from the talk I just gave at An Event Apart in Seattle.

Friday, March 30th, 2018

Putting Civilization in a Box Means Choosing Our Legacy

A run-down of digital preservation technologies for very, very long-term storage …in space.

Brighton Brains

A directory of the regular science, technology, and creative events happening in Brighton.

Wednesday, March 21st, 2018

Empty half the Earth of its humans. It’s the only way to save the planet | Kim Stanley Robinson | Cities | The Guardian

Kim Stanley Robinson explores the practicalities of E.O. Wilson’s Half Earth proposal.

There is no alternative way; there is no planet B. We have only this planet, and have to fit our species into the energy flows of its biosphere. That’s our project now. That’s the meaning of life, in case you were looking for a meaning.

Sunday, March 18th, 2018

Hack for the craic: David McKeown on making hackathons fun for everyone

A great write-up of Science Hack Day Dublin—the 6th iteration is coming up next month.

What struck me about this hackathon is that the only end goal is for people to have a bit of fun and make stuff. There’s no flashy big-ticket prize and no commercial agenda. They’re not looking for start-up pitches or scalable business plans, and there’s no Dragons’ Den interrogation. Just good old-fashioned, high-tech making and mingling.

Thursday, March 1st, 2018

Gene Wolfe: A Science Fiction Legend on the Future-Altering Technologies We Forgot to Invent | The Polymath Project

We humans are not  good at imagining the future. The future we see ends up looking a lot like the past with a few things tweaked or added on.

Wednesday, February 28th, 2018

Souvenirs from the futures — GlobalFuturesLab

A collection of weird and wonderful design fiction.

This collection of “Souvenirs from the Future” envisions what the future looks like through the eyes of young and talented art, design and architecture students living in different parts of the world. Some are speculations on ideal tomorrows; others are projections and critiques on the present. Some reveal beautiful aesthetics, alternatives to the high tech; others bravely question critical issues around politics, religion or tradition.

List of Brighton & Hove Design, Development, and Various Other Tech / Nerdy Meetups

An up-to-date list of Brighton design and dev meet-ups. There’s quite a few!

Tuesday, February 27th, 2018

Andy Budd - De l’imaginaire à la réalité : panorama de la robotique on Vimeo

A thoroughly entertaining talk by Andy looking at the past, present, and future of robots, AI, and automation.

Andy Budd - De l'imaginaire à la réalité : panorama de la robotique

Sunday, February 25th, 2018

Cooking with Ursula K. Le Guin

Recipes inspired by The Left Hand Of Darkness.

I mostly stuck to Le Guin’s world-building rules for Winter, which were “no large meat-animals … and no mammalian products, milk, butter or cheese; the only high-protein, high-carbohydrate foods are the various kinds of eggs, fish, nuts and Hainish grains.” I did, however, add some hot-climate items found in Manhattan’s Chinatown for their space-age looks and good flavors (dragonfruit, pomelo, galangal, chilis, and kaffir limes).

Serve with hot beer.

Saturday, February 24th, 2018

The Future Will Have to Wait — Blog of the Long Now

As installation begins, it feels like a good time to revisit this twelve year old essay by Michael Chabon on The Clock Of The Long Now. It’s a remarkable piece of writing about our relationship to the very idea of The Future, and how that relationship has changed in just one lifetime.

Ten thousand years from now: can you imagine that day? Okay, but do you? Do you believe “the Future” is going to happen? If the Clock works the way that it’s supposed to do—if it lasts—do you believe there will be a human being around to witness, let alone mourn its passing, to appreciate its accomplishment, its faithfulness, its immense antiquity? What about five thousand years from now, or even five hundred? Can you extend the horizon of your expectations for our world, for our complex of civilizations and cultures, beyond the lifetime of your own children, of the next two or three generations? Can you even imagine the survival of the world beyond the present presidential administration?

Sunday, February 11th, 2018

How many dimensions are there, and what do they do to reality? | Aeon Essays

In this terrific essay by Marina Benjamin on the scientific and mathematical quest for ever-more dimensions, she offers this lovely insight into the mind-altering effects that the art of Giotto and Uccello must’ve had on their medieval audience:

By consciously exploring geometric principles, these painters gradually learned how to construct images of objects in three-dimensional space. In the process, they reprogrammed European minds to see space in a Euclidean fashion.

In a very literal fashion, perspectival representation was a form of virtual reality that, like today’s VR games, aimed to give viewers the illusion that they had been transported into geometrically coherent and psychologically convincing other worlds.