Sunday, July 5, 2015

Links and quotes, May 2015

On race politics and gun culture:

"American guns are meant to represent the white man’s freedom to protect himself from government and from the colored hordes that surround him," Messiah Rhodes writes. "When a black man handles a gun of his own accord, he reverses the gun’s supposed purpose, and white people get scared."

Maths: Steven Wittens illustrates How to Fold a Julia Fractal. This visual essay is full of excellent illustrations and animations, including a beautiful demonstration of the square-and-shift operation on polar coordinates which really helps build intuition for why the Julia fractal is shaped the way it is.

I'm linking to Marsaglia's Random numbers fall mainly in the planes (1968) solely for the puntastic title, though its content -- finding unwanted patterns in a simplistic modular-exponentiation based random number generator -- is nothing to scoff at either. (Unless, presumably, you're currently making your living hawking said RNGs, in which case, scoff away.)

A pale red-haired centauress and a clothed, dark-skinned human wearing jockey boots curl up together on the ground, sharing a tender hug.

Source: Tumblr / jinamong.
Other slice-of-life fantasy creature sketches by the same artist: 1, 2.

I'm continually finding interesting perspectives on the "activist language merry-go-round" -- a term coined, I believe, by Serano in the last few years to describe a certain focus within activist communities on the fastidious quarantine of words known/found to be problematic. Cristan Williams describes the exercise as "[chasing] the ghost of empowerment through the reactionary policing of highly nuanced lexical epistemologies", and further notes that which words are considered accepted or problematic is a relative notion even between different activist communities.

I am fascinated by the implication here: the Internet provides the illusion of a global homogenised speech community, but organic language usage still happens subject to the constraints of geography and social group structure. Whomever's interpretation of various terms becomes canonised happens to be enjoying an unusual privilege.

The prose in In Flight, an extract from Mark Vanhoenacker's book, Skyfaring, is gorgeous through-and-through. The following extract is technical and poetic in equal measures:

Planes following altitudes referenced to the standard atmosphere collectively and continuously adjust their degree of wrongness — gently climbing or descending in a collective, school-of-fish-like movement as the true air pressure below changes with time and location. Locked for hours at what our altimeters show to be 31,000 feet, our true altitude may vary constantly. Think of an ocean, of all the boats across its vast expanse rising and descending on their local swells. All the boats are on the surface, though their true elevation varies. An altitude referenced to the standard atmosphere is called a flight level and it is just like such a surface: a membrane encircling the Earth, pressed with indentations and textured with rises, shimmering invisibly on the aerial imperfections of the world.

Alok Jha wrote a lovely popsci piece for The Guardian on how and why water is so damned weird. (Spoiler alert: hydrogen bonding.)

I am not holding my breath for a place where I do not have to explain myself. I am just working on creating a space where the explanation is welcome.

Rocko Bulldagger, “The End of Genderqueer”, in Nobody Passes.

Minimalist, abstract vector animation with a warm palette on a cool grey background. Somewhat psychedelic; evocative of fluid dynamics.
Source: Tumblr / featherfurl

Patrick Kalzumeus on process and system failures:

You know what causes 99% of problems with cars? Moving parts.

It is astronomically more likely for something which moves to fail than something which doesn’t: it is subject to friction, wear, foreign particles, and a thousand other sources of failure. By comparison, all the chassis of the car has to do is not decompose into its constituent atoms, and since it hasn’t done that until now it is a good bet that today will not be the day it picks to do so.

Patrick Kalzumeus

During his tenure at Valve, current Greek economic minister Yanis Varoufakis detailed his own theory of the firm.

Key thesis: "[Firms/companies] are the last remaining vestiges of pre-capitalist organisation within... capitalism." Co-ordination and resource allocation within firms doesn't hinge on price signals or supply/demand the way that co-ordination in ideal markets does. (Things typically get done via autocracy/hierarchy; in Valve's case things are much more employee-driven.)

Of course, that's not to say you can't use price incentives as part of a firm's internal structure. Stokley + Grimes's Using a Market Economy to Provision Compute Resources Across Planet-wide Clusters (2009) springs to mind (for all the obvious reasons). But even so, most internal markets of this sort are strictly insulated from the outside world, with information flow and arbitrage opportunities limited to within the system. So at first blush I'd say there's definitely something to Varoufakis's account.

Maciej Cegłowski describes his visit to Queensland, Australia with a sardonic wit I'd usually expect from Aussie locals. Gems include:

The platypus is an animal that looks like it was designed in a pub, by a committee, the night before it was due.

No one can touch Australians when it comes to stretching a thimbleful of local history into hundreds of board-feet of laminated prose.