Tag Archives: Special

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 58: Video Special

(Originally sent September 2009)

I’ve built up a backlog of interesting videos I think are worth sharing, so it’s time for a Video Special. Whenever someone links me to a video I always have two questions I want to know before committing to a click – how long is it, and do I need sound – so I include this information after each link. [In the blog version videos are embedded so you can see the run time; I’ll just note if you need sound – T.M. 7th August 2011]

Everything is amazing, nobody is happy
Standup Louis C. K. gets some great mileage out of how the incredible speed of technological change is still exceeded by the human capacity to adapt to and take for granted new concepts (sound is all you need):

Mad Skills
“A man who taught himself rock climbing and acrobatics to escape poverty in India” – most amazing climbing move features at 30s (no sound needed):


The idea mill
Assuming I saw the same trigger video, this is the fastest turnaround from an individual’s creative work going viral to the same idea being used in an ad I’ve ever seen (sound optional for all of these):

9th April 2009: “Wolf vs Pig”, using a kind of meta-Stop Motion:

2nd July 2009, 84 days later: same concept used in an ad for the Olympus PEN:

A bit later (as it doesn’t seem to have been officially uploaded), the same thing again, this time for Land Rover:


I find this kind of video reassuring – a simple concept and attention to detail in the execution, rather than incredible extravagance, can still produce a really nice result (sound essential):

Teaser trailer
Christopher Nolan (Memento, Dark Knight) has a new film coming out next year. I think this is my favourite teaser trailer ever, for conveying just an atmosphere and a single fun idea (sound not essential but awesome):

Things Christmas Special 2008

(Originally sent… okay, you can probably guess)

It’s Christmas and Things has been running for over a year. I’m taking that as an excuse to break with the usual format, and also to highlight what I (and some others) consider to be the best of the year’s Things.

Urgent matters first
I bought 10 tubs of Celebrations chocolates, discovered the average distribution of the different types, then created tubs of each kind and put them on eBay for charity to determine their value. I wrote up the initial results in my new blog:


The auctions end AT LUNCHTIME TODAY!

Check out how they are doing, or bid if you are so inclined, here:


[It’s long over now, read the final results here – T.M. 22/1/11]

Here are some videos that I like.

1) Tim ‘Speed’ Levitch is an extraordinary fellow that speaks in paragraphs that would take most other people hours to come up with. In the following video he holds forth on the New York grid plan and builds to a brilliant conclusion.

To sell you his style just a bit more, here’s his spontaneous introduction to a comment on a homeless person he passes while walking down the street: “[that person], under the white comforter, cuddled up with 34th street and Broadway, existing on the concrete of this city, hungry and dishevelled, struggling to crawl their way onto this island, with all of their machinated rages and hellishness and self-orchestrated purgatories…”


2) Somebody put a few frames of an anime featuring a woman spinning a leek around to a brilliantly loopy sample from an obscure band. A massive internet meme was born. Here’s where it all started (reposted).

Wikipedia article on the phenomenon.

3) This is my favourite tune and music video right now, and the intro guy is awesome too:


This guy makes armour for cats and mice. Or perhaps more accurately, scale sculptures that resemble such things:

Best of Things 2008

Worst translated menu in the world

XKCD on dreams and possibilities.

Acoustic Resonance – rice is used to illustrate standing acoustic waves on what I presume is a metal plate:


Analemma (click for big):

If you don’t know what an Analemma is, try to work it out from the photo.

The rainbow paradox, remains one of my favourite and (as far as I am concerned) unresolved puzzles:

Soundwaves can vary in frequency across a vast range, part of which we can hear. The lowest part we perceive as a deep bass, the highest as a high squeak.

Similarly, the electromagnetic spectrum consists of a vast range of frequencies, a small range of which we are able to see. The lowest frequency we can see is what we call red, and the highest frequency is what we call violet.

However, while we perceive the ends of the audible sound spectrum to be very different, the ends of the visible light spectrum, red and violet, seem very close to one another, and we even have a colour we call purple that is a mix of the two yet does not actually appear anywhere in the spectrum between them. In fact, we can draw a circle of the colours we perceive and it is not at all clear where the ‘ends’ are.

Why is this?

That’s it for Things until 2009.

Happy Thingking!


Things of the year 2010

It’s time to look back at the year in Things.

The Things newsletter was sent throughout 2010, although I only started blogging it in April with Things 67. Here I’m going to pick out my favourite 3 Things from each of the main categories, including some from the pre-blogging era.

But first:

Tim Link
I compiled a list of my top 10 movies to watch at Christmas, not because they’re Christmassy but because they are perfect for the hazy lawless dreamlike days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Click through to see trailers, summaries, and other handy links, or if you just want to know what I chose, here’s how they stack up in terms of IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes ratings, with bubbles scaled by number of IMDb votes (as a proxy for famousness):

Last Week’s Puzzle
Last week I asked why our ears ‘pop’ when a plane takes off or lands, given that the cabin should be airtight and thus immune to changes in pressure.

Richard pointed out that actually maintaining that pressure differential at altitude must take a lot of strength, and therefore weight, in terms of materials. By allowing the internal cabin pressure to reduce to still-tolerable levels, the pressure differential is reduced, less strength and therefore weight is needed, making the aeroplane more efficient. Makes sense to me.

Now, on to the Things of the year:

From Things 70, a perfectly self-explanatory animated gif:

In Things 85 I highlighted the growing trend of cat dubbing:


Most recently, in Things 88 I highlighted this beautiful short animation:


In Things 63 (not blogged), I linked to this really nice way to comprehend the scale of the universe.

The Swinger – swinginating music automatically. As featured in Things 74.

Finally, in Things 86 I linked to Steven Steinberg’s informed musings on AI and Car Insurance.

Things 70

Phil: Doing stupid things can have certain positive beneficial effects.

Things 72 (Art Special):

Flaubert: Art is born of restraint and dies of freedom

Things 87:

dragonfrog, commenting on this Boing Boing post: A quote from Bruce Schneier I think is applicable here: “If you think technology can solve your security problems, then you don’t understand the problems, and you don’t understand the technology.” If you leave out the word “security” I think it remains just as valid.

As featured in Things 66 (not yet blogged), from LukeSurl.com:

As featured in Things 81, from Cowbirds in Love:

Finally, from Things 87, because this never gets old for me:

Open-ended Puzzles
1) In Things 71 I asked what would be the best thing I could buy that would maximise hours saved per pound spent. This produced a wide range of responses, largely depending on which assumptions people chose to question, which I posted in Things 72:

  • Yasmin suggests Red Bull (and similar) to save time by needing less sleep.
  • Alam suggests a clone of myself
  • Xuan suggests slaves and a washing machine.
  • Angela suggests two books that could improve one’s efficiency and so save time — The Miracle of Mindfulness and Making Time. (Funnily enough I already own the latter… and I’ve now read it, and have applied the principle of Mindfulness, which was its main point, to rather good effect. But that’s another story).
  • John suggests grated cheese.
  • Phil points out anything free that saves any time would maximise the metric, such as DropBox. This technically lies outside the “buy” requirement. He also suggests a combi-microwave and a smartphone, and then finally a device to prevent time-wasting by cutting off internet access between certain hours. (I since got a Smartphone via work, saving a lot of time with the DropBox and notepad apps, but wasting a lot of time with Angry Birds).
  • Simon specifically attempted to address the “I” part of the question by recommending an iPad as being a particularly good purchase for me, by switching to digital goods (music, movies, comics, books); “Imagine all that time not wasted, going to shops, ordering physical products online and searching for things you can’t find.” I don’t exactly agree, but that’s a huge discussion for another time.

Finally, Laurence suggests a Time Machine, and insightfully adds:

The inevitable complexity of all the proposed solutions reminds me of
the following quote:

“If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create
the universe.”
– Carl Sagan

2) In Things 77 at Angela’s suggestion I set the Trigger’s Broom / Theseus’ Ship problem. While there was some excellent discussion, which I summed up in Things 78, my favourite answer came from Laurence, which I posted in Things 79:

“It has occurred to me that this could equally be applied to most armies,
governments, countries, football teams, religious cults, families, and
hell, humanity as a whole. At least one of these is the cause for things
like the situation in Northern Ireland, so I think if you could solve
Trigger’s Broom, then it could well go towards solving some larger
issues. (Albeit, possibly presenting people with some radically new ones
in the process!)”

3) Reacting to a ridiculous news item on Free Will, in Things 84 I asked:

given an arbitrary budget, and any science-fiction technology you care to imagine, how would you devise a test to see if Free Will exists? Feel free to use any definition of Free Will you think might be useful.

Again, there was some interesting discussion summarised in Things 85, but I had one preferred response, from Tarim:

I cannot think of ANY definition of Free Will.

Which I thought was a fair point.

Puzzles that had good answers that I didn’t know
Richard deserves a special mention for supplying quick, detailed and accurate answers to many puzzles where I had no idea what the answer was at the time I asked. Here’s my favourite three examples.

1) In Things 74 I asked why walk-in freezers have doors that cannot be opened from inside. Richard pointed out the answer is that actually, they generally don’t.

2) In Things 85 I asked about some very strange sequential spikes in searches for numbers on Google Trends:

As I posted in Things 86, Richard worked out that it must be people search for the latest fansubbed episodes of the anime series Bleach, which is pretty much confirmed by checking the search terms associated with these numbers over on Google Insights for Search.

3) The ear popping problem, as was posted in this very edition of Things.