All posts made in Jan. 2018:

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.