Ben Crair in The New Republic:
In most written language, the period is a neutral way to mark a pause or complete a thought; but digital communications are turning it into something more aggressive. “Not long ago, my 17-year-old son noted that many of my texts to him seemed excessively assertive or even harsh, because I routinely used a period at the end,” Mark Liberman, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, told me by email.
Elizabeth Preston summarizes a paper in Science Education:
Researchers at King’s College London gave a simple task to 232 people: “Draw a neuron.” […] Some of the subjects were undergraduates in a neurobiology lecture. A small group were experienced neuroscientists who led their own research labs at the college. And a third, in-between group included graduate students and postdocs.
The researchers saw marked differences in how the three groups drew their brain cells. To confirm what they saw, they also pooled the drawings together and asked a new batch of subjects to sort the drawings into categories. These subjects agreed: the drawings clustered into distinct styles.
Being comfortable with a scientific concept means being comfortable eliding the details unless and until they’re actually necessary.
In Systems Performance: Enterprise and the Cloud, Brendan Gregg shows how long it would take a computer to perform various tasks if each CPU cycle—typically about 0.3 nanoseconds—took an entire second. Suddenly it becomes clear that all of these processes, usually “too fast to notice”, actually span eleven orders of magnitude in time. (The difference between accessing data from RAM and from disk, even a solid-state one, is amazing.)
(Via Ryan Zezeski.)
So: the technical reason we start counting arrays at zero is that in the mid-1960’s, you could shave a few cycles off of a program’s compilation time on an IBM 7094. The social reason is that we had to save every cycle we could, because if the job didn’t finish fast it might not finish at all and you never know when you’re getting bumped off the hardware because the President of IBM just called and fuck your thesis, it’s yacht-racing time.
(Via Michael Tsai.)
Tap Tap Tap, the makers of Camera+ for iOS, got some heat a couple of weeks ago for Camera+ 4.2’s release notes:
[Those changes were] enough to justify calling it version 4.1. And then we thought about jumping on the bandwagon where we put Camera+ out as a whole new app and let existing customers pay for it all over again. And of course there’d be the ensuing sh__storm where those customers felt cheated and we’d have to backpedal and reverse that shortsighted decision.
So it was Clear that that would’ve been a knuckleheaded move so instead, we decided to treat our lovely customers fairly and make Camera+ 4.1 a free update as we’ve always done. But then we felt like it was all give and no take… so to make us feel better about giving-in too easily, we chose to call it version 4.2. That’ll teach you to mess with us.
This is a dig at Realmac Software, which in September released the new version of Clear as a separate app, meaning that existing users had to pay for the new version. After some users raised a stink Realmac backpedaled by backporting many of the changes into the existing Clear app (while releasing the rest as a new app called Clear+).
Arjun Srinivasan of the CDC:
We are quickly running out of therapies to treat some of these infections that previously had been eminently treatable. There are bacteria that we encounter, particularly in health-care settings, that are resistant to nearly all—or, in some cases, all—the antibiotics that we have available to us, and we are thus entering an era that people have talked about for a long time.
For a long time, there have been newspaper stories and covers of magazines that talked about “The end of antibiotics, question mark?” Well, now I would say you can change the title to “The end of antibiotics, period.”
(Via Jason Kottke.)
This is pretty cool.
Apple’s introduction of a fingerprint sensor in the iPhone 5S has made a lot of people reconsider whether they should be locking their iPhones or iPod touches with a passcode. For those who bought the 5S, turning Touch ID on has been a pretty easy decision: it works well enough that it’s not a hassle even for people who had never before passcode-protected their phones. Regardless of whether you have Touch ID, though, should you be locking your phone so that some random person who picks it up can’t use it? I say yes.
James Fallows in The Atlantic:
If the House of Representatives voted on a “clean” budget bill—one that opened up the closed federal offices but did not attempt to defund the Obama health care program—that bill would pass, and the shutdown would be over. Nearly all Democrats would vote for it, as would enough Republicans to end the shutdown and its related damage. (And of course it has already passed the Senate, repeatedly, and would be signed by the president.) […]
So far House Speaker John Boehner has refused to let this vote occur. His Tea Party contingent knows how the vote would go and therefore does not want it to happen; and such is Boehner’s fear of them, and fear for his job as Speaker, that he will not let it take place.
Shame on John Boehner for bowing to these extremists. Shame on the Tea Party for acting like children. And shame on all of us for putting them into office in the first place. We need to reform our parliamentary procedures as soon as possible so that this kind of obstinacy cannot bring the entire federal government to a halt.
In McSweeney’s, an anonymous employee recounts some of the tribulations and joys of working in the Apple Store.
This is the dilemma of working for a technology company that is also perceived as a luxury brand: We attract clients who understand that we provide the latest and shiniest things that they must have, while at the same time they have no idea whatsoever how to use them.
I don’t know who writes “wait but why”, but they’re spot-on with this:
With a smoother, more positive life experience than that of their own parents, Lucy’s parents raised Lucy with a sense of optimism and unbounded possibility. And they weren’t alone. Baby Boomers all around the country and world told their Gen Y kids that they could be whatever they wanted to be, instilling the special protagonist identity deep within their psyches.
This rings true, even the uncomfortable parts. It’s harsh, but more in a tough-love way than a judgmental way. Well worth the quick read.
Nicole Perlroth, Jeff Larson, and Scott Shane of the New York Times report:
The agency has circumvented or cracked much of the encryption, or digital scrambling, that guards global commerce and banking systems, protects sensitive data like trade secrets and medical records, and automatically secures the e-mails, Web searches, Internet chats and phone calls of Americans and others around the world, the documents show. […]
The agency treats its recent successes in deciphering protected information as among its most closely guarded secrets, restricted to those cleared for a highly classified program code-named Bullrun, according to the documents, provided by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor.
The Times isn’t reporting specifically which algorithms have been broken or are susceptible—to do so would immediately drive people away from those algorithms. They only mention SSL, VPNs, and the encryption used on 4G cellular networks.
Bruce Schneier has written a manifesto urging engineers to rebuild the internet to make it harder for governments to spy. He’s also written about what you can do to stay safe in the face of pervasive government spying.
I recently read this article by Will Kurt in which he generates diagrams to show how closely related the lines of a poem are to each other. The diagrams look something like this:
Each square shows the relation between a pair of lines: a brightly-colored square represents two lines that have a lot of words in common, while a dim square represents lines with few or no words in common. The square in the first row and second column shows the relationship between the first and second lines; the square in the fourth row and seventh column shows the relationship between the fourth and seventh lines, and so on. The diagonal is so bright because each line is identical to itself.
I thought this was a neat way to visualize a poem, and when I heard Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” I had to create my own visualization. “Get Lucky” consists almost entirely of repeated hooks and I thought it would fun to illustrate that. Along the way I’ll make Kurt’s process more explicit and rigorous. This article will be accessible to anyone who’s taken first-semester linear algebra.
Moxie Marlinspike argues that social progress requires people to bend the existing rules, and that that isn’t possible in a state that knows everything about you:
If the federal government had access to every email you’ve ever written and every phone call you’ve ever made, it’s almost certain that they could find something you’ve done which violates a provision in the 27,000 pages of federal statues or 10,000 administrative regulations. You probably do have something to hide, you just don’t know it yet.
Robb Lewis has put together this great resource: instructions for how to delete your user account on any of thirty websites. I recently went on an account-deletion spree and it’s clear that most web developers don’t consider (or don’t care) that you may want to close your account later. This site at least tells you how difficult it’s going to be to get rid of each one.
(Via Michael Tsai.)
Groklaw’s PJ has announced that she is shutting the site down. She uses e-mail extensively to communicate with her readers, and now that it’s apparent that the U.S. government has the means to read every e-mail sent through or within its borders, she feels too violated to continue.
The foundation of Groklaw is over. I can’t do Groklaw without your input. I was never exaggerating about that when we won awards. It really was a collaborative effort, and there is now no private way, evidently, to collaborate.
I’m really sorry that it’s so. I loved doing Groklaw, and I believe we really made a significant contribution. But even that turns out to be less than we thought, or less than I hoped for, anyway. My hope was always to show you that there is beauty and safety in the rule of law, that civilization actually depends on it. How quaint.
I was never a regular Groklaw reader, only stopping by when someone directed me there. But I think it’s absolutely chilling to see such a website—the product of a legal expert—shuttered by fear of the government, here in this nation that still views itself as a paragon of freedom.
Ethan Watters in the Pacific Standard:
The human brain is genetically comparable around the globe, it was agreed, so human hardwiring for much behavior, perception, and cognition should be similarly universal. No need, in that case, to look beyond the convenient population of undergraduates for test subjects. A 2008 survey of the top six psychology journals dramatically shows how common that assumption was: more than 96 percent of the subjects tested in psychological studies from 2003 to 2007 were Westerners—with nearly 70 percent from the United States alone.
The article explains that by many psychological criteria, Westerners in general (and Americans in particular) are not representative of humanity, but instead exist near an extreme. This means that, looking back, a hell of a lot of studies have suffered from severe selection bias.
The entire article is interesting, but this passage caught my eye:
As Norenzayan sees it, the last few generations of psychologists have suffered from “physics envy,” and they need to get over it. The job, experimental psychologists often assumed, was to push past the content of people’s thoughts and see the underlying universal hardware at work. “This is a deeply flawed way of studying human nature,” Norenzayan told me, “because the content of our thoughts and their process are intertwined.” In other words, if human cognition is shaped by cultural ideas and behavior, it can’t be studied without taking into account what those ideas and behaviors are and how they are different from place to place.
To me this doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no “underlying universal hardware”; it just means that the hardware layer is further down than we thought.
Ali Arikan, one of Roger Ebert’s Far-Flung Correspondents, argues that the destruction of Vulcan should be the sociological basis of the Star Trek reboot universe:
Talk about diverging timelines: this one bold, perhaps reckless plot improvisation, annihilating Vulcan, calls for a page-one rewrite of the whole Roddenberry-inspired mythos. Imagine if France or Japan were destroyed by a madman and its displaced citizens were left without a home, or a focal point for their cultural memories. That’s what the citizens of the Federation must have experienced after the death of Vulcan. It is an event that must have changed everything, as we humans have said of our real-world knowledge of mass death and destruction and other cataclysmic historical events. […]
Abrams’ “Trek” films have been criticized for shifting the original series’ focus away from exploration and onto political and military intrigue, but this needn’t necessarily represent a betrayal of what the original stood for. The destruction of Vulcan could let Abrams formalize an interest that’s already evident to anyone who’s seen “Star Trek” and “Star Trek Into Darkness,” and let the new series look at many of the classic “Star Trek” philosophical and moral issues through a fresh prism.
It’s a good idea, and I’d love to see a movie focusing on the Vulcan diaspora. That would be quite the change of direction, though, from Star Trek Into Darkness, which was action-packed to a fault. In fact, it was the relative lack of thoughtfulness, not “political and military intrigue” that detracted from Into Darkness for me. That intrigue was present in the series well before the latest movie, and it was actually the basis of some of my favorite episodes of Deep Space Nine.
(And why does the author feel the need to invoke Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle? Is it no longer possible to make a point without tossing in an inapt reference to quantum mechanics?)
Ezra Klein explains why we’re so offended when we find out about government programs that were secret from top to bottom:
Surveillance types make a distinction between secrecy of laws, secrecy of procedures and secrecy of operations. The expectation is that the laws that empower or limit the government’s surveillance powers are always public. The programs built atop those laws are often secret. And the individual operations are almost always secret. As long as the public knows about and agreed to the law, the thinking goes, it’s okay for the government to build a secret surveillance architecture atop it.
But the FISA court is, in effect, breaking the first link in that chain. The public no longer knows about the law itself, and most of Congress may not know, either. The courts have remade the law, but they’ve done so secretly, without public comment or review.
(Via Bruce Schneier.)
There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.
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