Of all the sound, fury, and quiet voices of reason in the storm of controversy about tech culture and what is to become of it, quiet voice of reason Zeynep Tufekci’s “No, Nate, brogrammers may not be macho, but that’s not all there is to it” moves the discussion farther forward than any other contribution I’ve seen to date. Sadly, though, it still falls short of truly bridging the conceptual gap between nerds and “weird nerds.” Speaking as a lifelong member of the weird-nerd contingent, it’s truly surreal that this distinction exists at all. I’m slightly older than Nate Silver and about a decade younger than Paul Graham, so it wouldn’t surprise me if either or both find it just as puzzling. There was no cultural concept of cool nerds, or even not-cool-but-not-that-weird nerds, when we were growing up, or even when we were entering the workforce.
That’s no longer true. My younger colleague @puellavulnerata observes that for a long time, there were only weird nerds, but when our traditional pursuits (programming, electrical engineering, computer games, &c) became a route to career stability, nerdiness and its surface-level signifiers got culturally co-opted by trend-chasers who jumped on the style but never picked up on the underlying substance that differentiates weird nerds from the culture that still shuns them. That doesn’t make them “fake geeks,” boy, girl, or otherwise — you can adopt geek interests without taking on the entire weird-nerd package — but it’s still an important distinction. Indeed, the notion of “cool nerds” serves to erase the very existence of weird nerds, to the extent that many people who aren’t weird nerds themselves only seem to remember we exist when we commit some faux pas by their standards.
Even so, science, technology, and mathematics continue to attract the same awkward, isolated, and lonely personalities they have always attracted. Weird nerds are made, not born, and our society turns them out at a young age. Tufekci argues that “life’s not just high school,” but the process of unlearning lessons ingrained from childhood takes a lot more than a cap and gown or even a $10 million VC check, especially when life continues to reinforce those lessons well into adulthood. When weird nerds watch the cool kids jockeying for social position on Twitter, we see no difference between these status games and the ones we opted out of in high school. No one’s offered evidence to the contrary, so what incentive do we have to play that game? Telling us to grow up, get over it, and play a game we’re certain to lose is a demand that we deny the evidence of our senses and an infantilising insult rolled into one.
This phenomenon explains much of the backlash from weird nerds against “brogrammers” and “geek feminists” alike. (If you thought the conflict was only between those two groups, or that someone who criticises one group must necessarily be a member of the other, then you haven’t been paying close enough attention.) Both groups are latecomers barging in on a cultural space that was once a respite for us, and we don’t appreciate either group bringing its cultural conflicts into our space in a way that demands we choose one side or the other. That’s a false dichotomy, and false dichotomies make us want to tear our hair out.
Meredith Patterson, “When Nerds Collide: My intersectionality will have weirdoes or it will be bullshit”, Medium.com, 2014-04-23.
June 22, 2016
May 26, 2016
Ten years ago, Terry Teachout finally got around to watching D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and found (to his relief) that it was just as offensively racist as everyone had always said. He also discovered that silent movies are becoming terra incognita even to those who love old movies:
None of this, however, interested me half so much as the fact that The Birth of a Nation progresses with the slow-motion solemnity of a funeral march. Even the title cards stay on the screen for three times as long as it takes to read them. Five minutes after the film started, I was squirming with impatience, and after another five minutes passed, I decided out of desperation to try an experiment: I cranked the film up to four times its normal playing speed and watched it that way. It was overly brisk in two or three spots, most notably the re-enactment of Lincoln’s assassination (which turned out to be quite effective – it’s the best scene in the whole film). For the most part, though, I found nearly all of The Birth of a Nation to be perfectly intelligible at the faster speed.
Putting aside for a moment the insurmountable problem of its content, it was the agonizingly slow pace of The Birth of a Nation that proved to be the biggest obstacle to my experiencing it as an objet d’art. Even after I sped it up, my mind continued to wander, and one of the things to which it wandered was my similar inability to extract aesthetic pleasure out of medieval art. With a few exceptions, medieval and early Renaissance art and music don’t speak to me. The gap of sensibility is too wide for me to cross. I have a feeling that silent film – not just just The Birth of a Nation, but all of it – is no more accessible to most modern sensibilities. (The only silent movies I can watch with more than merely antiquarian interest are the comedies of Buster Keaton.) Nor do I think the problem is solely, or even primarily, that it’s silent: I have no problem with plotless dance, for instance. It’s that silent film “speaks” to me in an alien tongue, one I can only master in an intellectual way. That’s not good enough for me when it comes to art, whose immediate appeal is not intellectual but visceral (though the intellect naturally enters into it).
As for The Birth of a Nation, I’m glad I saw it once. My card is now officially punched. On the other hand, I can’t imagine voluntarily seeing it again, any more than I’d attend the premiere of an opera by Philip Glass other than at gunpoint. It is the quintessential example of a work of art that has fulfilled its historical purpose and can now be put aside permanently – and I don’t give a damn about history, at least not in my capacity as an aesthete. I care only for the validity of the immediate experience.
[…] Thrill me and all is forgiven. Bore me and you’ve lost me. That’s why I think it’s now safe to file and forget The Birth of a Nation. Yes, it’s still historically significant, and yes, it tells us something important about the way we once were. But it’s boring — and thank God for that.
May 18, 2016
May 9, 2016
James Pinkstone talks about the time he discovered that Apple Music had helpfully deleted over 100 Gb of his music files on his local hard drive:
What Amber explained was exactly what I’d feared: through the Apple Music subscription, which I had, Apple now deletes files from its users’ computers. When I signed up for Apple Music, iTunes evaluated my massive collection of Mp3s and WAV files, scanned Apple’s database for what it considered matches, then removed the original files from my internal hard drive. REMOVED them. Deleted. If Apple Music saw a file it didn’t recognize — which came up often, since I’m a freelance composer and have many music files that I created myself — it would then download it to Apple’s database, delete it from my hard drive, and serve it back to me when I wanted to listen, just like it would with my other music files it had deleted.
This led to four immediate problems:
1. If Apple serves me my music, that means that when I don’t have wifi access, I can’t listen to it. When I say “my music,” I don’t just mean the music that, over twenty years (since before iTunes existed), I painstakingly imported from thousands of CDs and saved to my computer’s internal hard drive. I also mean original music that I recorded and saved to my computer. Apple and wifi access now decide if I can hear it, and where, and when.
2. What Apple considers a “match” often isn’t. That rare, early version of Fountains of Wayne’s “I’ll Do The Driving,” labeled as such? Still had its same label, but was instead replaced by the later-released, more widely available version of the song. The piano demo of “Sister Jack” that I downloaded directly from Spoon’s website ten years ago? Replaced with the alternate, more common demo version of the song. What this means, then, is that Apple is engineering a future in which rare, or varying, mixes and versions of songs won’t exist unless Apple decides they do. Said alternate versions will be replaced by the most mainstream version, despite their original, at-one-time correct, titles, labels, and file contents.
3. Although I could click the little cloud icon next to each song title and “get it back” from Apple, their servers aren’t fast enough to make it an easy task. It would take around thirty hours to get my music back. And even then…
4. Should I choose to reclaim my songs via download, the files I would get back would not necessarily be the same as my original files. As a freelance composer, I save WAV files of my own compositions rather than Mp3s. WAV files have about ten times the number of samples, so they just sound better. Since Apple Music does not support WAV files, as they stole my compositions and stored them in their servers, they also converted them to Mp3s or AACs. So not only do I need to keep paying Apple Music just to access my own files, but I have to hear an inferior version of each recording instead of the one I created.
I didn’t sign up for the free Apple Music trial when it was introduced because I have a data cap on my internet connection: just a few hours of listening to my own music might well make a big dent in my internet usage for the month. That would be ridiculously wasteful. Even so, every now and again, iTunes cheerfully lets me know that this or that song from my collection can no longer be played (and has deleted it) with no chance to fix it on my part. When it’s a song I recorded from the original CD (and I still have the CD), it’s merely an inconvenience. When it’s a song I paid Apple to download, it’s much more than that. It implies that everything I’ve downloaded from Apple is actually just a rental with an indeterminate-length rental period.
It is, however, a sign of the future:
For about ten years, I’ve been warning people, “hang onto your media. One day, you won’t buy a movie. You’ll buy the right to watch a movie, and that movie will be served to you. If the companies serving the movie don’t want you to see it, or they want to change something, they will have the power to do so. They can alter history, and they can make you keep paying for things that you formerly could have bought. Information will be a utility rather than a possession. Even information that you yourself have created will require unending, recurring payments just to access.”
When giving the above warning, however, even in my most Orwellian paranoia I never could have dreamed that the content holders, like Apple, would also reach into your computer and take away what you already owned. If Taxi Driver is on Netflix, Netflix doesn’t come to your house and steal your Taxi Driver DVD. But that’s where we’re headed. When it comes to music, Apple is already there.
April 11, 2016
In a way most of us don’t really understand how differently we live from even a very short time ago. Read the comments in this excellent piece from Sarah Hoyt.
The fact is that right now just about everybody in the Developed nations can afford products that are better and cheaper than anything has ever been made. For instance my car is almost ten years old and has never required major maintenance and the body is as free of exterior rust as when it was new. The computer I’m writing this on is more powerful than ANY computer that you could buy in 1980. The clothes I’m wearing are more durable and sewn better than anything you could buy in 1950. And everything is essentially so cheap that just about everybody can afford it.
The fact is that, because of the constant improvement of manufacturing techniques the difference between the highest quality and lowest quality goods has become essentially nonexistent.
The great gap in lifestyles due to wealth is by and large gone, which begs the question, what can the wealthy buy with their money? The answer isn’t very pleasant.
What they buy is access and power. You don’t have to look much further than Warren Buffett, George Soros or Tom Steyer to see that. Or the Koch Brothers for that matter. All of these people and other have created large influence building organizations for the sole purpose of influencing the rest of us stupid schmucks to do what they want us to. What they want us to do all too often is to give up the liberties and standard of living that our parents and grandparents worked so hard to build and retreat back to a lifestyle that will not compete with our “betters.” Sorry, but I’m not going for that.
J.C. Carlton, “What Can A Billionaire Buy That Most People Can’t?”, The Arts Mechanical, 2016-03-30.
April 4, 2016
March 29, 2016
Charles Stross has a theory:
A lot of people are watching the spectacle of Apple vs. the FBI and the Homeland Security Theatre and rubbing their eyes, wondering why Apple (in the person of CEO Tim Cook) is suddenly the knight in shining armour on the side of consumer privacy and civil rights. Apple, after all, is a goliath-sized corporate behemoth with the second largest market cap in US stock market history — what’s in it for them?
As is always the case, to understand why Apple has become so fanatical about customer privacy over the past five years that they’re taking on the US government, you need to follow the money.
Apple see their long term future as including a global secure payments infrastructure that takes over the role of Visa and Mastercard’s networks — and ultimately of spawning a retail banking subsidiary to provide financial services directly, backed by some of their cash stockpile.
The FBI thought they were asking for a way to unlock a mobile phone, because the FBI is myopically focussed on past criminal investigations, not the future of the technology industry, and the FBI did not understand that they were actually asking for a way to tracelessly unlock and mess with every ATM and credit card on the planet circa 2030 (if not via Apple, then via the other phone OSs, once the festering security fleapit that is Android wakes up and smells the money).
If the FBI get what they want, then the back door will be installed and the next-generation payments infrastructure will be just as prone to fraud as the last-generation card infrastructure, with its card skimmers and identity theft.
And this is why Tim Cook is willing to go to the mattresses with the US department of justice over iOS security: if nobody trusts their iPhone, nobody will be willing to trust the next-generation Apple Bank, and Apple is going to lose their best option for securing their cash pile as it climbs towards the stratosphere.
March 24, 2016
Published on 7 Apr 2015
What is tying and how is this a form of price discrimination? An example of a tied good is an HP printer and the HP ink you need for that printer. The printer (the base good) is often relatively cheap whereas the ink (the variable good) has a high markup, and eventually costs you far more than what you paid for the printer. Other examples include cell phones and data plans or the Kindle Fire and the accompanying books or music you purchase from Amazon. The base good is sold close to marginal cost, and the variable good is sold at above marginal cost. Why do companies tie their goods? Tied goods make it easy to price discriminate in a way that increases output and social welfare. Does tying increase or decrease social welfare? What is the difference between bundling and tying? We discuss these questions and others in this video.
March 20, 2016
It’s only a rumour rather than a definite stand, but it is a hopeful one for civil liberties:
The spirit of anarchy and anti-establishment still runs strong at Apple. Rather than comply with the government’s requests to develop a so-called “GovtOS” to unlock the iPhone 5c of San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook, The New York Times‘ half-dozen sources say that some software engineers may quit instead. “It’s an independent culture and a rebellious one,” former Apple engineering manager Jean-Louis Gassée tells NYT. “If the government tries to compel testimony or action from these engineers, good luck with that.”
Former senior product manager for Apple’s security and privacy division Window Snyder agrees. “If someone attempts to force them to work on something that’s outside their personal values, they can expect to find a position that’s a better fit somewhere else.”
In another instance of Apple’s company culture clashing with what the federal government demands, the development teams are apparently relatively siloed off from one another. It isn’t until a product gets closer to release that disparate teams like hardware and software engineers come together for finalizing a given gizmo. NYT notes that the team of six to 10 engineers needed to develop the back door doesn’t currently exist and that forcing any sort of collaboration would be incredibly difficult, again, due to how Apple works internally.
March 18, 2016
Published on 31 Jul 2014
The use of massive bombs and charges by the Royal Engineers was crucial during the war. See slow motion footage of them using explosive devices such as the Bangalore Torpedo today.
March 13, 2016
Published on 8 Feb 2016
Are electric cars greener than conventional gasoline cars? If so, how much greener? What about the CO2 emissions produced during electric cars’ production? And where does the electricity that powers electric cars come from? Environmental economist Bjorn Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, examines how environmentally friendly electric cars really are.
March 9, 2016
Published on 7 Mar 2016
Indy and Flo sat down for one of our live streams about historical firearms again. Othais from C&Rsenal explained the various Austro-Hungarian rifles and pistols of the First World War. Among them of course the famous Mannlicher rifles. In our next episode we will also have a look at the iconic Austro-Hungarian pistols.
March 5, 2016
ESR posted this video on Google+, saying “Mind…utterly…blown. This is how computers worked before electronic gate logic. There’s a weird beauty of mathematics made tangible about it.”
Uploaded on 13 Jul 2011
A 1953 training film for a mechanical fire control computer aboard Navy Ships. Amazing how problems of mathematical computation were solved so elegantly in “permanent” mechanical form, before microprocessors became inexpensive and commonplace.
February 12, 2016
The period of Colonial expansion coincided with three major developments in weapon-power: the general adoption of the small-bore magazine rifle, firing smokeless powder; the perfection of the machine gun; and the introduction of quick-firing artillery.
By 1871, the single-shot breech-loading rifle had reached so high a standard of efficiency that the next step was to convert it into a repeating, or magazine, rifle. Although the idea was an old one, it was not fully practicable until the adoption of the all-metal cartridge case, which reduced jamming in the breech. The first European power to introduce the magazine rifle was Germany who, in 1884, converted her 1871 pattern Mauser rifle to the magazine system; the magazine was of the tube type inserted in the fore-end under the barrel, it held eight cartridges. In 1885, France adopted a somewhat similar rifle, the Lebel, which fired smokeless powder — an enormous advantage. Next, in 1886, the Austrians introduced the Mannlicher with a box magazine in front of the trigger guard and below the entrance to the breech. And two years later the British adopted the .303 calibre Lee-Metford with a box magazine of eight cartridges, later increased to ten. By 1900 all armies had magazine rifles approximately of equal efficiency, and of calibres varying from .315 to .256; all were bolt operated, fired smokeless powder, and were sighted to 2,000 yards or metres.
Simultaneously with the development of the magazine rifle proceeded the development of the machine gun — another very old idea. Many types were experimented with and some adopted, such as the improved Gatling, Nordenfeldt (1873), Hotchkiss (1875), Gardner (1876), Browning (1889) and Colt (1895). The crucial year in their development was 1884, when Hiram S. Maxim patented a one barrel gun which loaded and fired itself by the force of its recoil. The original model weighed 40lb., was water cooled and belt fed, and 2,000 rounds could be fired from it in three minutes. It was adopted by the British army in 1889, and was destined to revolutionize infantry tactics.
The introduction of quick-firing artillery arose out of proposals made in 1891 by General Wille in Germany and Colonel Langlois in France. They held that increased rate of fire was impossible unless recoil on firing was absorbed. This led to much experimental work on shock absorption, and to the eventual introduction of a non-recoiling carriage, which permitted of a bullet-proof shield being attached to it to protect the gun crew. Until this improvement in artillery was introduced, the magazine rifle had been the dominant weapon, now it was challenged by the quick-firing gun, which not only outranged it and could be fired with almost equal rapidity, but could be rendered invisible by indirect laying.
J.F.C. Fuller, The Conduct of War, 1789-1961, 1961.
February 9, 2016
Published on 8 Feb 2016
Zeppelins pioneered the skyways, could fly long distances and reached heights like none of the British fighter-interceptor aircraft before. Because of that, they were used for scouting and tactical bombing early in the First World War. In this special episode we introduce these majestic floating whales and their usage in WW1.