All posts made in Jan. 2018:

Filtered for water in history


In 2003, the artist Natalie Jeremijenko built a robotic goose.

The robotic goose interface allows people to approach the birds, follow them closely and interact in a variety of ways that would not otherwise be possible without this interface.

The remote-controlled, human-haunted goose can speak:

The goose drivers can 'talk to' the geese, issuing utterances through the robotic interface, delivering prerecorded goose 'words,' their own vocal impersonations, or other sounds (such as goose flute hunting calls). Each utterance via the robotic goose triggers the camera in the robot's head to capture 2-4 seconds of video recording the responses of the actual biological geese. These video samples upload to the public web-based goosespeak database that the participants can annotate, i.e. "the goose was telling me to go away," "he was saying Hi." As this database of goose responses accretes, redundancy and correlations in the annotations may provide robust semantic descriptors of the library of video clips.

Speaking to animals not by attempting to translate, but by entering their world.

Here is a video of Jeremijenko's project.

See also: Umwelt, the semiotic world of the organism, including all the meaningful aspects of the world for any particular organism. A bat will see and inhabit a different world than a human, than a goose, than an artificial intelligence.

See also: Timo Arnall's film Robot readable world, an experiment in found machine-vision footage, exploring the aesthetics of the robot eye.


From 2007, 3D Mailbox is an email client that visualises your messages as a virtual reality 3D environment.

The BBC covered the application, a virtual Miami Beach, a place where your e-mails are represented as bikini clad avatars.

When you receive an e-mail the avatars appear at the entrance to the hotel's pool. Your spam manager acts a gatekeeper, only allowing through genuine messages to lounge by the pool.

Spam is dispatched to the beach, where they are represented as overweight tourists. Hitting delete results in the spam taking a deadly swim in shark infested waters.

Meanwhile your unread e-mails perform lengths in the pool. Read e-mails tan themselves on the sun loungers.

There are pictures.


It used to be, when I went hiking, I'd step across where a stream was marked on a map or mentioned in the guide, and it would be a measly trickle or a torrential river. Well that's clearly not a stream, I'd think.

For me a stream is a permanent feature of the landscape. It's a constant, regardless of rainfall or time of year. It flows gently and runs in a ditch maybe a metre wide. It is probably clear.

It turns out this is rare.

My conception of a stream is a chalk stream.

Underground chalk acts as an aquifer, and then

Bubbling up out of thousands of springs, chalk streams collect first in ponds and then ripple over gravel beds through chalk hills towards the sea. They are typically wide, shallow and crystal clear, their alkaline waters pure thanks to the constant purifying and filtering in the chalk.

They are an irreplaceable relic of our past, created as the ice sheets retreated from England 10,000 years ago.

The temperature remains static.


There are at least 210 chalk streams in the world, and 160 of those are in England.

In particular, in the south of England. And in particular, in particular: where I grew up.

I never realised that my picture of a stream isn't how most people will think of a stream. Who knew.


Stafford Beer was the cyberneticist and business management pioneer who, in the early 1970s, built Project Cybersyn for the revolutionary government of Chile. Command economy meets socialist proto-internet.

In the early 1960s, he was running a more esoteric experiment, in pursuit of his desire to build an automated factory.

From historian Andrew Pickering's essay, The Science of the Unknowable: Stafford Beer’s Cybernetic Informatics:

The T- and V-machines are what we would now call neural nets: the T-machine collects data on the state of the factory and its environment and translates them into meaningful form; the V-machine reverses the operation, issuing com- mands for action in the spaces of buying, production, and selling. Between the T- and V-machines lies the U-machine -- the homeostat, or artificial brain -- which seeks to find and maintain a balance between the inner and outer conditions of the firm

The U-machine.

By the way,

The cybernetic factory was not pure theory. By 1960 Beer had at least simulated a cybernetic factory at Templeborough Rolling Mills, a subsidiary of his employer, United Steel

It is a core tenet of (early) cybernetics that sufficiently complex learning systems are somewhat equivalent, whether they are made of flesh and blood, or vacuum tubes. It is this tenet which allowed the audicity of the cyberneticists to consider building "intelligent" machines, or to model the brain as a network of moving information.

And sure enough, when I went to the library to consult Beer's collected papers, How Many Grapes Went into the Wine: Stafford Beer on the Art and Science of Holistic Management, Beer discusses the search for his ideal U-machine:

a self-organizing system need not have its circuitry designed in detail -- otherwise what virtue is there in the self-organizing capability? Furthermore, if systems of this kind are to be used for amplifying intelligence, a fixed circuitry is a liability. Instead we seek a fabric that is inherently self-organizing, on which to superimpose (as a signal on a carrier wave) the particular cybernetic functions that we seek to model

And he continues:

Dr Gilbert, who had been trying to improve the Euglena cultures, suggested a potent thought. Why not use an entire ecological system, such as a pond?

So Stafford Beer captures a woodland pond, and attempts to train it to run a factory:

Accordingly, over the past year, I have been conducting experiments with a large tank or pond. The contents of the tank were randomly sampled from ponds in Derbyshire and Surrey. Currently there are a few of the usual creatures visible to the naked eye (Hydra, Cyclops, Daphnia, and a leech); microscopically there is the expected multitude of micro-organisms. In this tank are suspended four lights, the intensities of which can be varied to fine limits. At other points are suspended photocells with amplifying circuits which give them high sensitivity.

The intention was to communicate information about the factory into the pond via optical couplings. Earlier attempts, reported by Pickering, included attempts to induce small organisms -- Daphnia collected from a local pond --to ingest iron filings so that input and output couplings to them could be achieved via magnetic fields.

The state of this research at the moment is that I tinker with this tank from time to time in the middle of the night.

I have this picture of Beer, in his slippers in his basement, trying to figure out not only how to speak to this tank of water and algae in its own language, but attempting to put it through business school.

What would be the management style of such a factory foreman? Risk averse? A deep sympathy with the principles of sustainability and the circular economy? (Given it sits in a closed-system tank.)

Our modern efforts into machine learning and artificial intelligence have a familiar feel: we place the neural network at the heart of the system... and just turn it on. And although we can't tell how the neural network recognises a face or optimises a system, we can tell that they have some natural politics: AIs are unable - or unwilling - to correct for their implicit racism and sexism.

What is the umwelt of a pond? What is the umwelt of an AI?

Uber's marketplace and Facebook's newsfeed are run by captured artificial intelligences -- unreasonably efficient optimisers, blind to human feelings, natural free market libertarians; a warp core of tremendous ability and held only just in check. We don't know how these things make their decisions, but we are beginning to see the biases in their actions.

Obviously Stafford Beer's experiments came to nothing: the factories of China are not run by captured, semi-sentient woodland ponds.

Or. Who knows. Maybe we should put one in charge of Facebook.

Filtered for recent computer exploits


Recents hacks are about finding holes in the deep physics of computing.

Here's a technical explanation of Spectre and Meltdown, the two recent big ones. The words alone are beautiful: Spectre can be thought of as a (previously unknown) fundamental risk of speculative execution, one that can now be weaponized.

Here's a metaphor explaining both exploits, to do with librarians. In short, they involve measuring how long it takes for the computer to look up hidden data. Even if the data is eventually not shared, the computer has a terrible poker face.

I see this as a kind of information asymmetry. Computer chip architecture is about the regulated control of information. The design never anticipated that unregulated information - time - would be brought in from the outside.

See also: Rowhammer, which is an exploit of how memory chips work where the wild information, intruding from the outer reality, is electromagnetism and geography.

As DRAM manufacturing scales down chip features to smaller physical dimensions, to fit more memory capacity onto a chip, it has become harder to prevent DRAM cells from interacting electrically with each other. As a result, accessing one location in memory can disturb neighbouring locations, causing charge to leak into or out of neighbouring cells. With enough accesses, this can change a cell’s value from 1 to 0 or vice versa.

That is, the fact that two memory address happen to be physically close to one another is completely outside the computer's knowledge of itself. Geography and electromagnetism have no presence in the computer's inner reality. But bring that knowledge in from the outer reality...

Rowhammer was able to use this to induce bit flips ... and hence gain read-write access to all of physical memory.


Long profile in the New Yorker of Sam Altman, the head of Y Combinator (the incubator behind startups such as Airbnb, Dropbox, Stripe, and reddit).

This line:

Many people in Silicon Valley have become obsessed with the simulation hypothesis, the argument that what we experience as reality is in fact fabricated in a computer; two tech billionaires have gone so far as to secretly engage scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation.

Emphasis mine.


Here's an interesting exploit that I feel should be better known: System Bus Radio.

Some computers are intentionally disconnected from the rest of the world. This includes having their internet, wireless, bluetooth, USB, external file storage and audio capabilities removed. This is called "air gapping". [However] Even in such a situation, this program can transmit radio.

Computers can now write to memory with a high enough frequency that it's in the radio spectrum. Now you're hitting the RAM fast enough, you can play it like a xylophone and carve radio waves into the air.

There is demo code provided. And:

Run this using a 2015 model MacBook Air. Then use a Sony STR-K670P radio receiver with the included antenna and tune it to 1580 kHz on AM.

You should hear the "Mary Had a Little Lamb" tune playing repeatedly.

So what happens when my mobile web browser loads an ad that loads some Javascript that reads my bitcoin exchange password and then runs tight array loops that hammer out arpeggios on memory, broadcasting access to all my worldly possessions to anyone standing nearby with a old-fashioned AM radio tuned into 1580 kHz?

Breaking out of the simulation.


By volume, the Sun produces about the same amount of heat as a reptile.

Also the average density of the Sun is 1,410 kg per cubic meter: 1.4x that of water. Or to put it another way, the same as honey.

So yeah. The Sun. A million times bigger than the Earth. As hot as a reptile. As thick as honey.

Filtered for nice turns of phrase


How to award the contracts to run the overground railways in London:

Risk is like a balloon with a price tag attached to it

Nice turn of phrase.


PCalc is a calculator app, and it's 25 years old. From the announcement of the original version, in 1992:

Enclosed is a binhex file containing a submission for your archives. PCalc is a neat simulation of a programmable scientific calculator.

A simulation of a calculator! Now simply a calculator. Since the 90s, software has become part of the real world. The virtual no longer exists.


I like words and I like how they change. I like that sometimes everyone is using a particular word or phrase for a year or two, but look at the word closely and you'll see how weird it really is. Or there are some new words that are weird now, but I know they will be commonplace in the future.

I keep a list of words on Twitter.


From Rolling Stone's coverage of the unveiling of Magic Leap, the (potentially) groundbreaking augmented reality device:

"You're basically creating the visual world," he says. "You're really co-creating it with this massive visual signal which we call the dynamic analog light field signal. That is sort of our term for the totality of the photon wavefront and particle light field everywhere in the universe. It's like this gigantic ocean; it's everywhere. It's an infinite signal and it contains a massive amount of information."

Beautiful nonsense.

Fave 10 books from 2017

I only read 23 books in 2017. (31 in 2016; 42 in 2015.)

My favourite 10:

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard. I've been getting interested in Ancient Rome, thanks mainly to Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast -- in particular the series Death Throes of the Republic and the episodes on the Punic Wars. Beard has broadened my awareness to the social. The grand sweep of time - and the fact we're all still Roman in so many ways - makes this fascinating.

Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, Peter Frase. This book looks at two macro trends: abundance (via A.I. and automation) and scarcity (climate change). To see how these interact, Frase reintroduces the term class, built from first principles from the logics of capitalism and group allegiance. A vital term to navigate the late 2010s. Bonus: his four futures are illustrated with science fiction from books and movies.

Radical Technologies, Adam Greenfield. The first nine chapters are worth it in their own right, deconstructing technologies and asking the question: is the trade-off worth it. They serve to equip you for the barrage in the second half of the eponymous 10th chapter -- escape velocity ideas told with beautiful, luminous words.

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel. I'm late to Mantel's semi-fictionalised story of Thomas Cromwell's rise and fall (chief minister to Henry VIII and driving force of the English Reformation). The TV series is startlingly good: Mark Rylance is the embodiment of still waters running deep. It's the only TV that comes close to the 1979 BBC adaptation of Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy with Alec Guinness. Like the TV series, the books - for complexity, legibility, and a gentle but relentless pace - do not disappoint. This is the first of a trilogy; the third is out in 2019. I'm reading the second now.

The Control of Nature, John McPhee. Nobody writes about nature like McPhee. He narrates complex tangles of people, history, fire, and water -- highly situated (the Mississippi, a volcanic eruption in Iceland, and an L.A. fire) but moving between the particular and general. Not my favourite by McPhee (that would either be his four volume Annals of the Former World for its weight and scope, or Encounters with the Archdruid for its humanity) but his deft sentences and ability to draw pictures are always a treat.

Neutron Star (collection), Larry Niven. I read a bunch of sci-fi. This year I've been enjoying collections of short stories all told within the same universe: it's neat to see an author explore ideas and consequences from a ton of different angles, and the the whole feels a lot bigger inside my head because of that. I've somehow missed reading into Niven's Known Space future history so far. He's got big ideas, and some cracking yarns. Great storyteller.

How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet, Benjamin Peters. Why didn't the Soviet Union build its own internet? The argument in From Newspeak to Cyberspeak (Slava Gerovitch) is that the political insistence on materialism stripped cybernetics (and therefore computing research) of metaphorical yet inspirational ideas like "memory" and "learning", constraining the vision of computing to simple calculation. Through detailed examination, Peters instead puts the blame on bureaucracy. Some interesting lessons here for institutions adopting (or not) new technologies.

(Peters has also shifted my attention from our familiar dichotomy of public vs private enterprise - that is, the state vs the individual - to polis vs oikos. When the state is, in parts, captured by private interests, it makes more sense to look at the two ends of the spectrum being the national community (polis) vs the household, or your flesh and blood (oikos). It's stuck in my head; worth thinking about more.)

The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla. What does it mean to be black, Asian, another ethnic group, or mixed in Britain? An immigrant or born here; in a race-based community or not; recognised or not? What do expectations from yourself and others feel like; what is identity. Here are 21 personal stories from different authors. Mind-expanding, thought provoking, intelligent, empathy-building, and it gets you in your heart -- not least because of my own story. A side note: I hope that this British perspective on race can contribute to an unpacking (and a reckoning) of our repressed memories of colonialism. This poisonous history is all the more poisonous for not being aired.

Platform Capitalism, Nick Srnicek. A look at the dominant technology platforms - Apple, Google, etc - not through the lens of technology as something new, but from the perspective of capitalism. Srnicek makes it possible to see that Uber's platform approach doesn't have any legs (it's just about exploiting labour, nothing new there) but that data extraction and processing does imply labour, and can help explain the weird adjacencies in the platform business models (e.g. why Google would get in such different businesses as advertising, email, virtual reality glasses and hardware.) This framing supports the view that data is the new oil.

One complaint: Platform Capitalism feels an introduction, like it's defining terms for a much bigger argument. And one misgiving: Srnicek says that social interactions cannot be seen as labour as (I paraphrase) they are not competitive. I disagree as online - whether on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, or a dating app - per Zygmunt Bauman's Consuming Life, we are marketing ourselves and competing for attention, such attention making ourselves more marketable. Given this misgiving, I don't know how stable Srnicek's set of ideas is as a foundation for debate. Stimulating none-the-less.

Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life, Gaby Wood. A series of interlocking essays on the history of automata from the construction of mechanical people and simulated animals, to Edison's recording of the human voice and the early history of cinema in France. What Wood does is focus on the individuals, the movement of ideas and artefacts, and the historical context.

Filtered for music and history


Mechanical Techno machine:

Cut-up records on turntables stand in for samples and synths. Electrical contacts produce buzzes of sound as wires touch copper. Cowbells become kinetic, robotic sculptural elements. Basically, every rhythmic element is mapped into physical space, into locations on discs.

Also: Wintergatan's Marble Machine which is a mechanical musical instrument using 2000 marbles.

Also, my friend Tom Armitage has released an album and it is excellent. Listen: Between the Years, by Telechir. Equal parts live recordings and arranged work, for piano and/or electronics.


For 40 million years, trees were not biodegradable.

430 million years before present, the first vascular plants emerged from early tide pools. In order to stay upright, these plants employed cellulose, a chain of simple sugars ... it was easy to make and offered rigid yet flexible support

This is from How Fungi Saved the World.

90 million years later, heralding the Carboniferous period,

plants developed a new kind of support material, called lignin. Lignin was an improvement development over cellulose in several ways: it was harder, more rigid, and, being more complex, almost impossible to digest, which made it ideal for protecting cellulose. With lignin, plants could make wood, and it lead to the first treelike growth form.

But lignin made the lycopod trees a little too successful. Because their leaves were lofted above many herbivores and their trunks were made inedible by lignin, lycopods were virtually impervious to harm.

Dead trees piled up without decomposing. Compacted by weight, they turned to peat and then to coal. 90% of all today's coal is from this period.

Wood pollution lasted 40 million years.

Finally, however, a fungus belonging to the class Agaricomycetes - making it a distant cousin of button mushrooms - did find a crude way to break down lignin. Rather than devise an enzyme to unstitch the lignin molecule, however, it was forced to adapt a more direct strategy. Using a class of enyzmes called peroxidases, the fungus bombarded the wood with highly reactive oxygen molecules, in much the same way one might untie a knot using a flamethrower. This strategy reduced the wood to a carbohydrate-rich slurry from which the fungus could slurp up the edible cellulose.

Which leads me to think:

There's a ton of plastic in the ocean. Why not engineer a fungus to rot it? Having this magical material that lasts forever is absurd. This is a controversial idea I admit. But although I agree that we need to reduce plastic pollution (via social change and by regulatory intervention), cybernetics tells me that's a fragile solution. Homeostasis is to be found in a ecosystem of checks and balances: instead of eternal plastic, we need plastic plus a plastic-rotting fungus plus an effective-but-hard-to-apply fungicide. Then balance can be found.


Ancient Greek statues dressed in modern clothes.

Several images.


From 1878, here's a photo of Billy the Kid playing croquet.

It is only the second photo ever to be confirmed of the infamous outlaw and the only known photo of Billy the Kid with his gang, The Regulators. (They're all playing.)

Here's a thing:

Croquet became popular in the 1860s because it was the first sport that women could play on the same terms as men, and men and women could play each other



Billy the Kid and his gang were the subject of the film Young Guns (1988). A quote from this film was sampled and opens the classic Regulate ft. Nate Dogg, by Warren G (1994).

Please refamiliarise yourself with the lyrics.

Now follow @GerryMcBride taking a Google Maps journey through Long Beach as described in the song. Seriously, do this thing.