Friday, 21 July 2017

collyer’s mansion or messie-syndrom

In Germany, the rather inelegant received translation for a compulsive hoarder is a “Messie,” which neither sounds very clinical nor sympathetic, but this terminology is certainly to be relished by our source that bought us the fascinating and tragic archetypal tale of the brothers who cultivated a dangerous drive for acquisition and an unwillingness to part with anything.
Though by all accounts, at the turn of the century the Collyer family was of the finest pedigree (Columbia-educated, mother an opera-singer and father a gynaecologist and descended from Mayflower-stock) and their two sons were promising in their respective fields, both ended up in 1947 entombed in some one hundred and forty tonnes of junk stuffed to the ceiling of their Harlem brownstone. By inheritance and volition, the sons, Homer and Langley jointly occupying the family home after the death of their parents, began obsessively collecting books, furniture and musical instruments as the two began to withdraw from society, having grown suspect of their neighbourhood during the Great Depression (though never suffering from deprivation) and owing to Homer’s failing eye-sight. Probingly, Langley began saving old newspapers for his brother to catch up on once his sight had been restored—consulting one of the fifteen thousand medical reference books found in the apartment included in the manifest and created a warren—notably booby-trapped, for them both, tunnels and chambers nested within the nearly impenetrable strata of garbage and treasure. Many of the recovered artefacts—many more than were ever catalogued—became curios for other collections (possibly inspiring the same) and after being condemned as unsuitable for habitation, the Collyer’s mansion was razed and transformed into a neatly corralled public garden.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

an ox is as good as a best

Lewis and Quark have been allowing neural networks to be expressive in many different creative venues and now the intrepid duo (previously here and here) have given their project a compilation of idioms and proverbs to try to understand.
Although the computer’s interpretation of human mythos is rather inscrutable, it seems to have an unexplained affinity for oxen, despite there being only three references in the entire data-set. Some of the phrases that the machine produced could almost pass as parables, especially foreign language ones that need to be translated and explained for the sake of non-native audience: “Death when it comes will have no sheep.” “A good face is a letter to get out of the fire.” “A good anvil does not make the most noise.” Others made far less sense: “No sweet is half the barn door after the cat.” “There is not fire and step on your dog and stains the best sermon.” Be sure to visit the link above for more examples and more on the methodologies of machine-learning.


Incredibly—though at the same time we learn that there’s already a niche market of applications to serve many of one’s paranormal needs, including an app to tell one if their house is haunted—an app for one’s digital accessories from the Institute for Noetic Sciences, a parapsychological research facility located in Petaluma California founded by an astronaut who had an epiphany after going into orbit and walking on the Moon—can gauge two different types of extra-sensory perceptions: telekinesis and precognition (both conscious and subconscious). Reviewers are not leaving very stellar ratings for the app, but I suppose that might be an expected reaction from someone having their status as someone without psychic superpowers confirmed and told they were quite normal in their mental abilities.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

carrot and stick—tomato, tomato

While of course toil with or without motivation is certainly possible—and in fact, most of us are either compelled to at the end of a whip or in involuntary indenturehood that’s a bit of a looser leash, I enjoyed reading this little bit of cheerleading on how to be smarter about procrastination and focus.
It’s of course too easy to get distracted by shiny-objects or going for low-hanging (what’s beeping or vibrating and clawing for our attention) fruits to the perpetual off-putting of addressing more pressing and systemic matters (or even trivialising them to convince ourselves what we’re avoiding isn’t all that important after all) but there is value to be had in structured procrastination, especially if it’s something that might put one more in the flow. Given oneself license to engage in doing nothing can also be productive in the long term, rather than fight against apathy and lethargy to the point of exhaustion. It does appear vital, however, that we allocate a certain amount of time—not to complete a task, but rather to work on it, or take a break from it. One timeboxing technique to explore is called the Pomodoro (an efficiency-expert named his method after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that he used in his student years) whose steps are pretty straightforward but could prove effective for some people struggling to stay on task: commit to something that needs doing, set the timer for twenty-five minutes, work until the bell rings and repeat—taking ever longer breaks between iterations. While I am sure there’s an app for that, I imagine that they’re already too culpable in indulging our interruptions or at least a convenient scapegoat.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

blind fAIth or rapture-ready

Writing for ร†on magazine, contributor Beth Singler of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion explores the alignment problem, which like the zeroth law of Asimov begs what if any morals and norms ought to be imposed on artificial intelligence.
Despite how the technocracy might deride religion and insist that it’s a hindrance to peace and progress (like some interpreting the parable of Eden as justification for abusing the Earth), the optimism, the zealotry, the fire and brimstone and even the language that discussions of the technological and economic singularity are couched in ring very similar to that of the clerics that many try to hold at a distance. What do you think? A synthetic theology and subsequent hope of deliverance and reprieve resulting from an ultra-intelligent machine might be more like contemplating the mind of God than we are ready to admit.

Monday, 12 June 2017

la trahison des images

Via Boing Boing, we are introduced to a pacifying, surrogate social network called Binky that fulfils every compunction, range of motions that one has come to expect from such a platform and delivers the satisfaction of being so engaged and focused on one’s device—except that the application is a meaningless one and the “content” streaming by that one can re-bink or otherwise endorse or scold (it doesn’t matter) is randomly generated before being cycled off into oblivion.
Communication and sharing is important but it’s not necessary to telegraph one’s fidgety compulsion to one’s future selves, perhaps, as indiscriminately as those we feel obligated to do for those in between times. Comment is encouraged but punching keys—deliberately or not—returns auto-complete gibberish for as long as one cares to type. What do you think? Two decades after Bill Gates declared that content was king, we have to wonder what it’s to signal when content becomes wholly optional and perhaps even too taxing sometimes. Meaning can be burdensome, obliviously, and our habits are surreal—ceci n’est pas une pipe.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

amplifying random noise

Via Kottke, this take by Randall Munroe of the web-comic xkcd fame (previously here and here) on those viral maps of the USA circulating on the internet made us grin.

Monday, 5 June 2017

executive function or appeal to emotion

The outstanding NPR podcast Invisibilia (previously here and here and here) is back for a third season and opens with a rather arrestingly provocative two part episode that has too much on offer to effectively summarise blow-by-blow but really delivers a wallop in the form of an alternate way to view the nature of human emotions. Rather than an unconditioned reaction to outside stimuli, feelings might be the product of one’s brain continually assessing the body’s internal functions to make sure everything is working as it should be.
Instead of some finely calibrated and detailed status report on our various systems, the brain only makes a few distinctions spread out over all the organs—hunger, satisfaction, arousal and repulsion. Anything more, on a conscious level at least, would prove overwhelming and might even be beyond our mental capacities. These internal senses and their input are called interoceptions. Consider how one’s sense of sight is compartmentalised and far different than the illusion of continuous perception that we’re presented or how our brain directs the body to adjust the blood-pressure with one’s intention to stand. There’s quite a bit of housekeeping going on behind the scenes. These internal, primitive emotions become—following the somatic theory of evolutionary psychology, which was en vogue in the nineteenth century but has fallen out of favour, dismissed as being not far removed from the idea of bodily humours ruling our moods only to enjoy a very recent resurgence—magnified and informed by our experience and upbringing. Surely it would be hard to divorce oneself from the notion that fear and anxiety—and by extension, the positive experiences too—are not something intrinsically connected to the encounter or experience (and the dread or excitement of anticipating it) but rather the product of strongly cultural and idiomatic enforcement. Of course too that mode of thinking manifests itself extrinsically by framing situations with their culturally endorsed, emotional window-dressing. Regardless of the completeness of explanation for one’s temperament, it is a comfort to keep in the back of one’s mind that one’s emotional response is provisional and very much subject to change.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

swap meet

Hyperallergic contributor Mark Dery pens a thoughtful essay lamenting eBay’s transformation to a model more akin to other on-line retailers who specialise in plying wares similar to ones that a given shopper has already expressed an interest in from its origins as an on-line flea market (Flรถhmarkt, les puces), souk, arcade or yard sale.
Rather than trying cater to consumers by gainsaying what they might like, eBay encouraged critical meandering, the bailiwick of the committed flรขneur. The dissonance and the disconnect are essential for experiencing serendipity, the non sequitur, and are patently more character building than having everything that one is interested in or concerned for served to them in tidy package. Ghost malls are a bellwether and a parallel casualty to marketing but in their homogenising brought about their own demise. Old eBay was the emporium that facilitated the exchange of items befitting a Wรผnderkammer like bizarre taxidermy specimens, celebrity detritus or the simulacra of Jesus and Mary in food items and was a source of associated folklore for some of these transaction, but the new eBay hardly has any auctions any more with the trend towards the bourgeoisie smug and no place for the weirder categories.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

ux or peer-review

Albeit the ubiquitous and public institution has weathered criticisms by academia in the past citing the platform for unreliable references and is constantly under siege by vandals and revisionists, Wikipedia’s record for dealing and dispatching with fake-news (following Cunningham’s Law) is far better than that of other social media networks.  Without question consumers of such streams of likes and like-mindedness ought to be encouraged to be more savvy, critical and literate when it comes journalism.
Like the argument espoused by Big Thinker Katherine Maher, social media users would be as quick to extinguish a self-serving falsehood as an encyclopรฆdist in many cases but the difference in virality and endurance is not in giving users a means to conduct fact-checking but diverges much earlier—in the sequestered and opaque (probably even as unclear to the merchants of doom that profit from them) decisions of algorithms and market-models to promote one particular news item to one particular individual over another. Each user experience (UX) is of course unique and personal and no two people would be able to share that same tailored barrage of content, unlike being spectators at a sports event or rally or even being exposed to a suite of commercials on television. Until social engineers and mediators can be more forthcoming about the profit-motives and why, to the best of their knowledge, one headline, advertisement was served to you instead of another.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

implicit bias

Academics looking forensically into the melt-down and subsequent transformation of the chatbot Tay to an obscenity-spewing misanthrope after being exposed to the ravages of internet for only a brief time, finding that the way artificial intelligences learn language—basically digesting the whole of on-line text exchanges—can magnify unconscious word associations and reflect them back at us in a very unflattering way. The tokens and markers of speech that the machines repeat and rely on for guidance contains a lot of latent prejudice but also shows that in context it truly is communication and language that drives consciousness and informs culture.

Friday, 27 January 2017

supernatural or deus ex machina

I recall coming across in the afterward of some assigned reading for a class designed to teach empathy or some such thing whose inspiration and circumspection is doubtless virtuous but tends to wither too quickly a confession on the part of the author of a touch of agnosticism but was more than willing and desirous to entertain there being a God, especially a personal and benevolent one. The author went on—the book was otherwise forgettable and a bit embarrassing to endure—to ponder if civilisation did not only invent the concept of the divine through myth-making and trying to understand the natural world but also (by being worthy) created the gods.
There was no talk of a technological singularity or philosophical mechanism but broached the idea, like the concept of some religious tradition that human beings were not animate with souls from birth but rather earned them in epiphanies. One expert in the field of artificial intelligence, coming from a slightly nuanced angle, conjectures that in order to gain and keep the trust, faith of humans, robots as they become by degrees omnipresent and omnipotent in a non-supernatural fashion, they only way to guarantee that that power will be used wisely and compassionately is if all power is surrendered right away unconditionally. This God-fearing nature in many of us, fretting over idolatry, job-security and future-shock, is fraught with paradox as it is precisely what is holding us back from relinquishing control to an albeit hypothetical artificial god and possibly ensures that the progress of artificial intelligence going forward will appear to humans as rather Old Testament punishing and oppressive—and out of our control altogether. I wonder if all sufficiently sophisticated civilisations create gods such as these and whether these titans are heir to or destroyers of the elder gods. What do you think about this? Like the plot device, a god from the machine, perhaps the resistance, the fear of God is present in part because to be otherwise and more receptive and welcome might betray the blandishments of laziness and masking ineptness with a twist that ensures a happy ending.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

give me that old time disruptor

Collectors’ Weekly has an interesting review of some of the gimmicky, vintage gadgets of the Industrial Revolution that were touted (at least by the tinkerers who had them on offer) as game-changers for industries yet to be established and plied eagerly on early-adopters.
Some of these inventions and interventions—called revelatory due to the times—or their ideas are still with us, like various punch-clocks and time-verifiers, much like those productivity-boosters and service-tickets built into our infrastructure to make sure our utilities aren’t putting their thumbs to the scales, which is sometimes just as much as a time-thief. What do you think? Some inventions create problems to solve.  Will digital-signatures, encryption, kick-starter campaigns, drones and the formalised sharing-economy (in all senses, models built on gigs and renting out one’s time and property as well as platforms for interaction) look like snake-oil and tonic compared to the real innovations of the age to the next generation (perhaps authentically, 3-D printing, gene-editting and immersive virtual reality for therapy and exploration) and are only capitalising on the excitement of the present? Of course, I suppose the trick is in recognising the hucksters from the brokers and engineers and for most of us, that’s usually only gained in hindsight.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016


While the year might have been vituperated with “post-truth,” the rubric and culture that are a reflection of the term is not one of propaganda machines and the memory-holes of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Ministry of Truth (Minitrue in Newspeak) or even the counter-factual insistence that two plus two equals five.
If anything the rhetoric spurns authority figures and the establishment—insofar as the appeal to our vanities and fears allow—and would not suffer even a benign dictator for long out of fear that he would become an expert, dispensing a bit of knowledge and experience in addition to the justice, which was the only thing bidden or expected. It’s not that we proles are lorded over by the fictions of an eternal struggle and those interested in perpetuating it—rather, it’s us that creates the demand for disinformation and hand back a manufactured crisis for the charismatic to champion. What do you think? We didn’t liberate ourselves from them it seems—if they ever were in control—and have ceded what agency we did have to oppressors of our own making, which is a perfectly paradoxical case against facts and edification.

Friday, 23 December 2016


Via Kottke’s Quick Links, there’s an interesting editorial from the New York Times’ magazine exploring one major social site’s attested commitment to combating the spread of fake-news by enlisting users and fact-checking organisations—like the deputised urban-legend dispeller Snopes—is less about encouraging critical thinking among its community but rather policing the rest of the internet, already regarded by many as the same as the internet, and filtering out more and more attention-merchants that might siphon users off of their platform.
Sensational headlines are just the latest iteration of the catchpenny clickbait that the platform wants to counter but it is of course the chief propagator of the same and its “content” rather than something inward-looking, news generated by what connected and kindred users were doing (don’t get nostalgic, however, for a golden, pure age of social media that never happened) and personal details and accomplishments (updates, checking-in) that they wanted to share has become overly reliant on “pedigreed” outside sources. As the platform becomes more restrictive of dalliances down the garden-path and thus outside their sphere of influence (and revenue stream), leaving those confines become an experience perhaps something less and less comfortable, spammy and something one would regret sharing and all news becomes native. What do you think? That doesn’t sound as if it is promoting diversity of opinion and community discourse either—and perhaps worse than fake-news.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

separation anxiety or we can remember it for you wholesale

Writing for The Atlantic, Rebecca Searles explores a strange new sort of metaphysical detachment that some users experience after testing out virtual-reality and then forced to confront their mundane, authentic realities. Somewhere on the scale between awakening from an odd dream and Total Recall, unreality can be a lingering thing (as sophisticated as it has become) and once oneironauts get their sea-legs and can cope with the physical disorientation, some can start to develop symptoms of post VR sadness when the experience is over. What do you think? Given that the point of VR is to deliver an experience as realistic as possible—and perhaps even a hyper-realistic one where humans aren’t bound by mortal weaknesses, perhaps it ought not come as a surprise and accepted as a natural consequence, especially when the sheltered existence is perceived to be something better than the everyday alternative.

Monday, 19 December 2016


In the tradition of Douglas Adams’ The Meaning of Liff that crafts apt descriptors for common, relatable yet heretofore unnamed experiences Vice Magazine gives us pretty clever words for twenty-four new emotional experiences that this past year was responsible for creating.
Strangeloving is of course the demurred but undeniably vested thrill in watching the downfall of the institutions of western democracy. Other choice ones include infobia, reluctance to acquaint oneself with the buzz of the moment since that would be validating its impact and bearing on one’s existence going forward, and the condition of Cohentonia, the low-grade shame of admitting exhaustion over the endless chain of celebrity deaths. Can you think of other terms to describe this—on balance, dumpster-fire of a year?

Saturday, 10 December 2016

phubbing or the bowed head tribe

BBC Future magazine has a really fascinating article examining how language invents novel labels to delineate the rules of etiquette and protocol and how to characterise those who are seen as the transgressors. Public and private manners when it comes to engagement with one’s immediate surroundings and interlocutors or recourse to something or someone more interesting to be found at the other end of the telecommunications รฆther is a topic that perhaps is a little too close for comfort and the inspired terminologies—classifications like the phoney taxia of a cartoon coyote and road-runner, the former never giving up and the latter always evading capturing like some mythological beasts—which can indeed skewer their targets.
In Asia cultures, they recognise tribal and clan affiliation for the distant and distracted, though it’s Germany that’s putting cross-walk warnings on the pavement to reach inattentive pedestrians. Moreover, Germany’s Youth Word of the Year for 2015 was “Smombie,” a portmanteau of smart-phone and zombie. I had heard variations of these names beforehand that range from the self-effacing to the ironic to the cantankerous, something that an old man would shout—possibly not without warrant, but what most interested me was a new word for the very old concept of phubbing from Australia: phone snubbing. We’ve probably all been perpetrators or victims of the phenomena of sitting with some physically present friends or family and ignoring them in favour of one’s on-line ones. There’s probably a modern fairy tale with a nice morale to be found there as well. What’s your favourite label for those constantly networking and what would you choose for yourself?

Friday, 9 December 2016


I can recall when having to call in sick was—rather than being unburdened to do those things that one was going to do regardless without being bothered by tasks that came one’s way—a time for self-reflection and a privileged glimpse into the world of breakfast time television or early afternoon game-shows and by that time a little battery of assessments as to whether one’s well enough to return to work or school and whether or not one was allowed to be other than chaste and guilty for one’s truancy or goes easy on one’s self.
Fortunately, I haven’t often found myself incapacitated for any length of consecutive days, but after taking a tumble recently—and my impatient self is absolutely beside myself that it was only yesterday, am on doctor’s orders to rest and recuperate and contending with that second-opinion of cabin-fever (also a terrible malady). Maybe I’m growing too impatient for resiliency to kick in—what with work and the holidays, and unwilling to admit there are trap-doors in the stage for all these things, because being unwell isn’t the mediator that it once was with so much living and narrative loops accomplished vicariously and virtually. And now, getting better slowly but struggling with the basic steps of rolling over and getting out of bed, dressing and ambling across the room, it seems as if for the first time in a long time that the gaps in time and activity aren’t filled and obligated and I’m better for—struggling as I am with my limbs not cooperating properly and having to cost-out each movement in terms of the pain it’s expected to cause and making each step a very ginger one. Disabled, however temporarily, and finding one’s self halt and lame, give one an appreciation for dimensions, heights and what’s considered to be human-sized that’s nearly as significant lesson as is being sure-footed.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

with my sword and magic helmet or electric youth

Fast Company features a suite of wearables—an exoskeletal enhancement, that impart super powers on those who don them.
There’s a harness, a truss that provides gentle nudges to keep one oriented and an earpiece that promises to filter out unwanted environmental noises and enable people to have a conversation that rises about the general din without shouting themselves hoarse, but what I found most clever was a concept (that’s been in development for several years apparently) called the Ouijiband, referencing those involuntary, nervous motions that move a planchette across a Ouija board, that would attach to the user’s wrist to guide and refine one’s dexterity—be it improving on a surgeon’s hand or as a mechanical trainer to perfect one’s tennis-swing. What do you think? Once we have these prosthetic-assists available, is it negligent to try out anything without them? There is the question of ego versus responsibility on one hand, if one indeed foregoes the short-cut in the first place, but what happens to play and experimentation if none of us are willing to doff our accessories?