Tag Archives: long-form

Things 115: Long-form Special – 5 Great Reads

I’ve built up quite a backlog of links to great long-form content to go in Things, so it’s time for a long-form special!

You’re unlikely to have time to read all these things now, so if you haven’t done so already I recommend getting Read It Later (or some prefer Instapaper) so that you can time-shift some of these links to somewhen more convenient.

Alternatively you may prefer to read these articles in printed form, in which case you might like to download this 27-page pdf I made, which contains each article in full.


1) Charlie Stross: Invaders from Mars

(1oth December 2010)

This is the shortest (at just over 500 words, so not really long-form) and probably the most important of the articles I’ll link to here, so you should really just read it right now.

If you can’t or won’t do that, here’s the key parts:

Corporations do not share our priorities. They are hive organisms constructed out of teeming workers who join or leave the collective: those who participate within it subordinate their goals to that of the collective, which pursues the three corporate objectives of growth, profitability, and pain avoidance.


Corporations … live only in the present … and they generally exhibit a sociopathic lack of empathy.


We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of [these] non-human entities with non-human goals.


In short, we are living in the aftermath of an alien invasion.

Put another way: it’s easy and instinctive to direct ire at individual humans that we see as being to blame for our woes – maybe bankers, politicians, lobbyists, or the 1%. But more importantly, the actions of those individuals are just emergent properties of the system we have created. Which is pretty terrifying.


2) Paul Ford: Nanolaw with Daughter

(16th May 2011)

With the above in mind, this makes for a particularly interesting slice of sci-fi about a potential emergent behaviour of the systems we’re building now. The most succinct part I can find (quoted below) also happens to be the driest, so if you think this sounds remotely interesting, do go ahead and read the story in full (~2,000 words).

My daughter was first sued in the womb … I’d posted ultrasound scans online for friends and family … A giant electronics company that made ultrasound machines acquired a speculative law firm for many tens of millions of dollars. The new legal division cut a deal with all five Big Socials to dig out contact information for anyone who’d posted pictures of their babies in-utero … The first backsuits named millions of people, and the Big Socials just caved, ripped up their privacy policies in exchange for a cut. So five months after I posted the ultrasounds, one month before my daughter was born, we received a letter … We faced, I learned, unspecified penalties for copyright violation and theft of trade secrets, and risked, it was implied, that my daughter would be born bankrupt.


Read the full version here


3) Johann Hari: How Goldman Sachs gambled on starving the world’s poor – and won

(2nd July 2010)

Once again, keep in mind the idea of emergent properties of the system while reading the story behind this (~1,600 words):

At the end of 2006, food prices across the world started to rise, suddenly and stratospherically. Within a year, the price of wheat had shot up by 80 percent, maize by 90 percent, and rice by 320 percent. In a global jolt of hunger, 200 million people – mostly children – couldn’t afford to get food any more, and sank into malnutrition or starvation. There were riots in over 30 countries, and at least one government was violently overthrown. Then, in spring 2008, prices just as mysteriously fell back to their previous level. Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, called it “a silent mass murder”, entirely due to “man-made actions.”


Read the full version here


4) Alan Bellow, Damn interesting: Who Wants to be a Thousandaire

(12th September 2011)

All this is somewhat heavy going, so here’s some good news: after a prolonged period of silence, Damn Interesting is now back up and running, and kicked things off with a characteristically interesting story about something that happened back in 1984:

The scoreboard on Larson’s podium read “$90,351,” an amount unheard of in the history of Press Your Luck. In fact, this total was far greater than any person had ever earned in one sitting on any television game show. With each spin on the randomized “Big Board” Larson took a one-in-six chance of hitting a “Whammy” space that would strip him of all his spoils, yet for 36 consecutive spins he had somehow missed the whammies, stretched the show beyond it’s 30-minute format, and accumulated extraordinary winnings. Such a streak was astronomically unlikely, but Larson was not yet ready to stop. He was convinced that he knew exactly what he was doing.

You’ll have to read the full story to find out quite what was going on.


5) Eben Moglen: Freedom in the Cloud

(transcript from talk given on 5th February 2010)

This final link is the most extraordinary thing I’ve read in at least the last five years. Extraordinary because Eben Moglen discerns the big picture around where the internet came from and where it is headed. Extraordinary because he has put his finger on the defining emergent property of our age. And most of all, extraordinary because  he also has a strong and compelling recommendation on what to do about it.

In a nutshell: client-server architecture encourages centralised services, which create irresistable temptation for surveillance. So we should decentralise the architecture.

That doesn’t remotely do it justice though, so you should really read the whole idiosynratic, fascinating piece here (all 7,000 words of it!).

I can understand that might be quite intimidating, and this is important stuff. So if you can’t see yourself ever reading that, I’ve edited it down (brutally) to fewer than 500 words that take you through the main points here:

It begins with the Internet, designed as a network of peers without any intrinsic need for hierarchical or structural control. It was the great idea of Windows to create a political archetype in the Net which reduced the human being to the client and produced a big, centralized computer, which we might have called a server. [So] now the Net was made of servers in the center and clients at the edge.


Now, one more thing happened about that time … Namely, servers kept logs. That’s a good thing to do … But if you have a system which centralizes servers and the servers centralize their logs, then you are creating vast repositories of hierarchically organized data about people at the edges of the network that they do not control and, unless they are experienced in the operation of servers, will not understand the comprehensiveness of, the meaningfulness of, will not understand the aggregatability of.


All of those decisions architecturally were made without any discussion of the social consequences long-term. So we got an architecture which was very subject to misuse.


In fact, what we have are things we call platforms, [which] mean places you can’t leave. And the Net becomes the zone of platforms and platform making becomes the order of the day.


Now, where we went on is really towards the discovery that all of this would be even better if you had all the logs of everything because once you have the logs of everything then every simple service is suddenly a goldmine waiting to happen, and we blew it because the architecture of the Net put the logs in the wrong place. They put the logs where innocence would be tempted.


Stallman was right. It’s the freedom that matters. The rest of it is just source code.


What do we need? We need a really good webserver you can put in your pocket and plug in any place. In other words, it shouldn’t be any larger than the charger for your cell phone and you should be able to plug it in to any power jack in the world and any wire near it or sync it up to any wifi router that happens to be in its neighborhood. It should know how to bring itself up. It should know how to start its web server, how to collect all your stuff out of the social networking places where you’ve got it. In other words, it should know how to be your avatar in a free net that works for you and keeps the logs. You can always tell what’s happening in your server and if anybody wants to know what’s happening in your server they can get a search warrant.


What we need is to make a thing that’s so greasy there will never be a social network platform again.

This speech gave rise to Diaspora, and Eben Moglen went on to create The Freedom Box Foundation to bring about exactly what he’s describing here. I’m continuing to monitor both projects, so if you’re happy to delegate your attention on this then stay tuned to find out when I think they’re ready for the mainstream to jump in.

(Twitter is part of the same problem, of course, so I just set myself up on Identi.ca)

Things 49: Galaxy Rising, Tube Time Visualisation, Back Flip Variation

(Originally sent May 2009)

Time lapse of the stars at night – be sure to watch to the end to see the Milky Way rising:

Galactic Center of Milky Way Rises over Texas Star Party from William Castleman on Vimeo.

A simplistic but interesting data visualisation showing travel times from and to different parts of the tube network – this explains why everything in London seems to be about 30 minutes away:

In a self-consciously long and disappointingly poorly argued article titled “In Defence of Distraction“, the following quote made reading it all worthwhile:

“Priorities are like arms: If you have more than two of them, they’re probably make-believe” – Merlin Mann

An animated gif (2MB) showing a fantastic variation on a back flip.

Puzzle: Newspaper eyeball value
We often hear that newspapers are in terminal decline and it’s all the internet’s fault. But much of a newspaper’s revenue comes from advertising, and many have created their own ad-supported websites, and many of these websites reach very large numbers of people. So they are losing eyeballs looking at print and gaining eyeballs looking at a screen, both of which will also see adverts. Why isn’t this helping?

(Perhaps more than other puzzles I have set in the past, there are many possible answers. Don’t hedge your bets – if you have multiple solutions, put them in order of importance! I’ll summarise the results and stick my own oar in next week.)

Things 102: Bionic Cat Ears, Brilliant Journalism, Drawable Monsters

This Week’s Puzzle
I have a Tumblr on which I post daily things to draw, called Now Draw This. I really want to make sure I credit the relevant artist when I post a piece of artwork. (I should do that with the photos too, but for various reasons that’s not as important to me).

TinEye is an awesome reverse image search engine, which in the past has helped me track down artwork even when the version I had turned out to have had the colour palette significantly edited. Pretty clever.

The problem is, this site posted the above image (of Ico and Yorda from the game Ico), and neither TinEye nor wily Googling is helping me track down the original artist.

Can you find out who created the above image originally?

Technology expands the range of things we can do. As a society we try to keep up by generating some kind of idea of what we should do. For example, mobile phones enabled us to use ostentatious ringtones. For a while they were everywhere. Now, it seems we’ve collectively decided that’s not such a good idea.

So here’s something I hadn’t even considered: what if you could collect some kind of real-time usually-invisible data about yourself, and then manifest it with a clear physical signal? Would that ever be a good idea?

Michael Lewis writes long articles on complex but important topics, that are nonetheless incredibly engaging, thus creating pretty much optimal long-form journalistic pieces. I highly recommend that you make time for his article Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds (which I thought I’d linked to before but can’t find in my records), and if you like that then you should also read When Irish Eyes Are Crying.

Joe Cornish, director of Attack the Block, interviewed by Little White Lies:

If you look at a lot of the digital creatures in Harry Potter, you couldn’t go home and sketch them – you’d need a draughtsman’s degree. […] The charm is to go home and feel that it’s possible to figure out how they did it. When I was a kid, I’d go and see Ghostbusters and spend the next day trying to draw the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, or trying to get the logo right. They had a graphic simplicity that was much more infectious and warm and authored than a lot of the stuff now.”

I had the same childhood experience, and I think it’s a really fun rubric. Attack the Block‘s creature design succeeded in exactly that way.

Last Week’s Puzzle
Last week I asked what the purpose was of this insect-eye mirror I saw on the ceiling in a bank in Vienna, but nobody hazarded a guess.

You can tell from the shadow that there’s a bright spotlight pointed at the mirror, so my hypothesis was that it was some kind of way to generate a bright, ambient light throughout the room. But it seems like overkill / overdesign if that’s the goal. And why would you want to have a diffuse, shadowless light that badly anyway? I like to imagine, completely baselessly, that there’s a local superstition about some kind of money-stealing creature that inhabits shadows. But if you can think of something more plausible, do let me know.

Things 100: Spaceship Earth, Fake Hacking, List, Scientific Method, Owlbears

It’s Things 100. Time for some particularly epic Things.

I remember reading (in Critical Path, lent to me by John) that Buckminster-Fuller felt it was very difficult to watch a sunset or sunrise and intuitively apprehend that what you see is due to the earth turning – but that if we could succeed at doing so, we would come to better appreciate our place in the universe, and perhaps make wiser long-term decisions.

Even though I’ve seen plenty of night-sky time-lapse before, for some reason this video is the first I’ve seen that really gives me that feeling:

The Mountain from TSO Photography on Vimeo.

A while ago I thought it would be neat to make a program that took as input random keyboard mashing and produced as output  the appearance that you were doing some movie-style hacking, complete with big secret-service logos and password fields that flash up “ACCESS DENIED”, “ACCESS DENIED” and then “ACCESS GRANTED”, and obviously lines and lines of clever-looking code, but I didn’t have the know-how to make it happen.

Fortunately, the internet provides – it doesn’t do the whole window thing I imagined, but you do get to mash the keyboard while apparently producing reams of commented hacking-type code (none of which I understand). If you want a version that also makes bleeping noises for no reason, just like in the movies, you can use this one instead.

Tim Link
I blogged my responses to the first 10 questions in the “30 Days of Video Games Meme”. Probably worth reading if you’re interested in games, or in gamers, or the formative life experiences of me.

Quote kind of thing
Diving back into my own archive, I was quite pleased with this list of self-referential things I collected and created on my old Geocities self-referential page:

Imagine a world with no hypothetical situations.
This sentence has cabbage six words
There are no redundant redundant words in this sentence.
This statement is false
This statement is not provable by me. (Useful illustration of Godel’s incompleteness theorem)
The smallest number that cannot be stated in fewer than 22 syllables
Consider the set of all sets that have not yet been considered.
The ‘pre’ in prefix
Illiterate illiteration
“All clichés should be avoided like the plague” (attributed to Arthur Christiansen, found in “The Joy of Clichés” by Nigel Rees)
This is not the last example on the list.
Aibohphobia (credited to Imre Leader, although the Wikipedia cites the Wizard of Id)
Grammar message in Microsoft Word: “This may not be a complete sentence”
This sentence contains three a’s, three c’s, two d’s, twenty seven e’s, four f’s, two g’s, ten h’s, eight i’s, thirteen n’s, six o’s, ten r’s, twenty fives’s, twenty three t’s, three u’s, three v’s, six w’s, three x’s, and four y’s.
In order to understand the theory of recursion, one must first understand the theory of recursion.
I don’t speak English (Je ne parle pas Francais, etc…)
Stretching a metaphor to breaking point, then snapping it, shredding it into small pieces and mashing them into a pulp.
There are 3 kinds of people in the world; those that can count, and those that can’t.
Actually, there are 10 kinds of people in the world; those that can count in binary, and those that can’t.
“a7H.4hwJ?22i” is an example of a good password.
A rag man
This is the last example on the list.

What is going wrong with the scientific method? That’s a very long article, but it’s a very big question, so worth a read and a ponder. (And hey, this is Things 100 after all.)

And finally… what do Owlbears look like? The ArtOrder asked, and a bunch of different artists came up with a really fantastic range of answers.