Sunday, September 25, 2016

Stuff happens outside the world of computer science, too

All kinds of stuff.

  • Truth, beauty and annihilation: my quest for chess mastery
    At the outset of my odyssey, I had hoped chess would be good for me – that it would make me a better, more complete, more focused person, able in some way to engage with life in a less superficial manner than in my first five decades. I had largely been disappointed. I had become a marginally better chess player, but there was no great evidence I had become a better, more focused person. I was still overweight – my dietary and gym regime, designed to back up my assault on this chess Everest, had never quite clicked into place; my commitment to work, in both chess and my rather understated career, remained uneven; I still felt I was underachieving and too inclined to drift along.

    Chess was supposed to change all that – to make me a more driven, purposeful individual, and teach me the life lessons espoused by Kasparov. Some hope! Siegbert Tarrasch said “chess has the power to make men happy”, but I thought that the former British champion James Plaskett’s observation that “the pure and solitary nature of chess attracts some fragile minds and helps hold them together” was nearer the mark.

  • A Nonfiction Literary Map Of The United States
    And what better way to do that than by reading? While Welty was referencing the importance of place in fiction, there is little doubt that its importance in nonfiction is similarly essential. The very best writing about a place can bring the reader a whole new understanding of a life different than their own, as well as, per Welty, a better grasp of their own place in the world. Here then, are some of the best pieces of nonfiction from every state in America. (Plus D.C., naturally; and with a special shout-out to New York City, because, obviously.)
  • John McPhee Burps Toothpaste: Stop what you’re doing and read his blog post
    Just look at that title. Could anyone else get away with that? No, because John McPhee is a drop-everything-and-read kind of writer, and for all I care he could title his blog post “This Is My Blog” and it would be perfect. Go forth and click, my friends. Everything out there in the world is bad and gloomy, but it doesn’t have to be that way because now you have a delightful morsel to read.
  • The Making of Lemmings: How DMA Design created a classic, and what happened next
    Very early in development the team knew killing lemmings was entertaining, with traps already including hands that squashed the unfortunate creatures together and fans that chopped them up. As work progressed, they implemented even more dastardly devices: mincers, flamethrowers, horrible nooses. ‘We liked to kill lemmings in funny ways, and this was the comedic nature of the game coming through,’ says Dailly. ‘Lemmings were expendable. [The traps] really were there to just help guide the player around, otherwise many levels would have been dreadfully dull.’

    But it was never a game about killing lemmings. ‘You always had to save them,’ says Dailly, ‘And the nuke was always a way to abort the level. It’s one of the few original games I’ve worked on where the core idea never changed much.’ This hints at one of the quieter revolutions involved in the development of Lemmings. At the time, a developer would typically code their game, then export it to an editor to check it worked. But for Lemmings DMA created an integrated tool for designing the levels, based on the interface of the Amiga’s Deluxe Paint program, which allowed anything built or changed to be tested immediately. This made the construction of Lemmings’ levels a much faster, more iterative process.

  • Myst connection: The rise, fall and resurrection of Cyan
    As the Obduction Kickstarter campaign was fond of reminding people, Cyan's CEO, co-founder and Myst co-director Rand Miller is still in charge. What a lot of people don't realise is that Miller never left. Neither did Cyan, for that matter, despite serious financial woes nearly killing the company off 11 years ago.

    So where was he? Where did the money go? How did the developer of one of history's most popular computer games fade into relative obscurity?

    To understand Cyan's troubled history I spoke to Rand Miller on Skype last Wednesday, the very day the studio launched Obduction. His story is a tragic one of ambition, bum luck, and a woeful miscalculation of where the gaming zeitgeist was heading. At a distance it may seem like Cyan withdrew from society after Myst's sequel, Riven, but really the opposite is true: Cyan didn't leave the world, the world left Cyan.

  • This map of London's tube shows disused stations, track layout and more
    Actually, this one isn't really new: it's dated 2009, and emerged from a Freedom of Information request sent in 2013. But it's
    1. geographically accurate,
    2. fascinatingly detailed, and
    3. genuinely interesting and informative if you're a nerd, which – let's be honest – you are.
  • The Math Inside the US Highway System
    This is thinking mathematically. It's not about doing arithmetic quickly, or memorizing formulas, it's about connecting patterns. Math is a zoo of made-up objects that we relate to ones in the real world. The "usefulness" of the made-up objects depends on our imagination.
  • Are social security numbers recycled? What do the numbers mean?
    Prior to 1973, the first three digits indicated the state of the issuing Social Security office. Since 1973, the first three digits "are determined by the ZIP Code of the mailing address shown on the application for a Social Security number," it says here. But it's still basically done by states.

    The remaining digits are simply a serial number. To date recycling hasn't been necessary, but more on this in a moment.

  • The SSN Numbering Scheme
    One should not make too much of the "geographical code." It is not meant to be any kind of useable geographical information. The numbering scheme was designed in 1936 (before computers) to make it easier for SSA to store the applications in our files in Baltimore since the files were organized by regions as well as alphabetically. It was really just a bookkeeping device for our own internal use and was never intended to be anything more than that.
  • Social Security Number Randomization Frequently Asked Questions
    The nine-digit SSN will eventually be exhausted. The previous SSN assignment process limited the number of SSNs that were available for assignment to individuals in each state. Randomization affords the SSA the opportunity to extend the number of SSNs available for assignment for many years.
  • E-Books Die
    E-books used to be under ten bucks. Now, in some cases, they cost more than the physical iteration. That makes no sense, with no printing and shipping. The book business is making the same mistake the record business once did. Believing it was entitled to profits. That it was all right to sell an overpriced CD with one good cut, that the public didn’t mind, but that proved untrue.

    But at least people wanted to steal music. They don’t seem to want to steal books, they just want to ignore them, that’s the real disaster, how the book business has marginalized itself.

  • The Librarian's Bequest
    The university has sought to bridge the gap between the image of the tweed-wearing librarian and that of the macho athletic donor by saying Morin was a football fan by the end of his life. He started watching football games on television while living in an assisted living center in the 15 months before he died, university officials said, learning the rules and names of players and teams. University officials have also pointed out that Morin specifically did not give them instructions on how to spend most of his gift, except for the $100,000 for the library, trusting them and their priorities.
  • Investing For Geeks
    You can read a lot of books and waste a lot of time on these topics, but they have Right Answers. There are exactly two things you should consider here.
  • Music theory for nerds
    A few days ago, some of it finally clicked. I feel like an idiot for not getting it earlier, but I suppose it doesn’t help that everyone explains music using, well, musical notation, which doesn’t make any sense if you don’t know why it’s like that in the first place.

    Here is what I gathered, from the perspective of someone whose only music class was learning to play four notes on a recorder in second grade. I stress that I don’t know anything about music and this post is terrible. If you you so much as know how to whistle, please don’t read this you will laugh at me.

  • Iconic Death Valley landmark vandalized
    The Racetrack Playa at Death Valley National Park is named for an incredible natural phenomenon in which rocks appear to move across the surface of the dry lake bed completely of their own accord.

    But someone (or someones) thought the Racetrack was for their own amusement, and have badly vandalized the precious region as a result.

  • The California Ballot Is an Epic Joke
    I’m talking about the California November voter guide, which this year clocks in at 224 pages, thanks to 17 statewide ballot propositions—the longest ballot in a quarter-century. This morass includes multiple initiatives on the same issue, proposals to extend deadlines that the legislature has routinely extended itself, and ballot measures that force future policies to be decided by other ballot measures. In 2016, the Golden State’s experiment with direct democracy has imploded, producing little more than outsized salaries for a handful of political consultants. Somebody needs to tranquilize this beast and end our misery.
  • Meet the California Couple Who Uses More Water Than Every Home in Los Angeles Combined
    Lynda Resnick and her husband, Stewart, also own a few other things: Teleflora, the nation's largest flower delivery service; Fiji Water, the best-selling brand of premium bottled water; Pom Wonderful, the iconic pomegranate juice brand; Halos, the insanely popular brand of mandarin oranges formerly known as Cuties; and Wonderful Pistachios, with its "Get Crackin'" ad campaign. The Resnicks are the world's biggest producers of pistachios and almonds, and they also hold vast groves of lemons, grapefruit, and navel oranges. All told, they claim to own America's second-largest produce company, worth an estimated $4.2 billion.

    The Resnicks have amassed this empire by following a simple agricultural precept: Crops need water. Having shrewdly maneuvered the backroom politics of California's byzantine water rules, they are now thought to consume more of the state's water than any other family, farm, or company. They control more of it in some years than what's used by the residents of Los Angeles and the entire San Francisco Bay Area combined.

  • Alabama Shakes - Brittany Howard Tours Vinyl Plant
    Brittany tours the United Record Pressing plant in Nashville, TN
  • Highlining 2800m in winter.
    Before walking a 52 meter highline at 2800 altitude in midst winter, I asked Hayley about fear. She replied with her favorite quote from Frank Herbert's "Dune". A short film about Hayley Ashburn, filmed in the Torri del Vajolet, set to the hypnotizing soundtrack Tristana by Nils Frahm.

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