Today I read …

Image from the first page of "The Art of Computation" by David White Goorich, 1873

Opening illustration from “The Art of Computation”, David White Goodrich, 1873

The Art of Computation: This was an 1873 book by David White Goodrich, a “lightning calculator”, capable (by his own boast) of doing fantastic feats of mental arithmetic. In this book he details dozens of mental algorithms for adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing figures in your head. He bemoaned the fact that students were taught tons of mathematic theory, but weren’t taught practical, everyday techniques for doing everyday sums: “Pupils who can discourse learnedly upon permutations and combinations, make labored and lamentable blunders in adding a ledger column. They know arithmetic as a science; they have not mastered it as an art.” Since this was a period long before the common use of calculating machines, the ability to quickly rattle off mental math was crucial for everyone from bankers to carpenters to grocery-store owners. It’s a fascinating record of the world decades before mechanization began to take over routine calculation. The whole book is a free PDF here via Google Books.

“To Write Better Code, Read Virginia Woolf”: An interesting piece in today’s New York Times by a programmer who did a liberal-arts BA and only later became a coder. He argues that of the programmers he’s worked with, some of the most useful problem-solvers had liberal-arts degrees. For example, at one point his team was working on a project and had a problem with pointers. “In programming language, a pointer is an object that refers to some master value stored elsewhere. This might sound straightforward, but pointers are like ghosts in the system. A single misdirected one can crash a program. Our pointer wizard was a philosophy major who had no trouble at all with the idea of a named ‘thing’ being a transient stand-in for some other unseen Thing. For a Plato man, this was mother’s milk.” For my new book on “how programmers think”, I’ve been interviewing a lot of coders. One thing that’s struck me is how frequently the very-talented ones — the ones who launched difficult, new products that were pounded on by tons of users — came from a dual background: They studied computer-science and some liberal art. A lot of them double majored in CS and something like philosophy, art, literature, or drama.


Beautiful failure

I’ve recently become addicted to the new iPhone game INKS — because it lets you fail beautifully.

Je explain. INKS is a pinball game where you have to complete each level by hitting all the colored targets on the pinball board. Lose a ball? No biggie, there’s an infinite supply. But the goal is to complete the level on a single ball. The fewer balls you use per level, the higher your score. Fun, yes?

Yes! But what makes this pinball so distinctive is … the ink.

Each time you hit a colored target, it splatters a big glob of ink onto the game board. Whenever your ball passes through that sploosh, it leaves a trail behind. As your ball crisscrosses the board, it keeps on running through inksplot after inksplot, leaving splats upon splats and trails upon trails, with the ink mixing and reflowing until you’ve got an gorgeous little inadvertent work of art.

It’s easier to appreciate this when you see it — so, a wee video:

As it turns out, this ink-splattering creates a really interesting experience of failure.

As the game progresses, you fail more. The levels get harder, requiring you to bankshot the ball into some lunatic-inaccessible nook of the board. So I’d try and fail and try and fail — which means I’d begin leaving crazed, fingerpaint-style trails of ink all over the place. I’d also start losing balls, and as you lose balls they change color; by the time you get to your fourth ball, the ball is black, and it leaves a trail of that dark ink. So now my accidental art creations were spiderwebbed with black too.

Behold some screenshots of what I’m talking about. These are several games, showing the levels getting harder and my increasing fail-itude:

The worse I play, the more crazy the designs become; they’re a record of my flailing. But the designs are also quite charming and thought-provoking. You see loops of physics written in ink, the iterated attempts and collisions turning into visual poetry. This is a game that turns your failure into art. 

Better yet, it lets you study your failure, because you can see the common patterns in what you’ve been doing wrong. I can’t say I necessarily learned anything from regarding the flight-paths of my errant pinballs, but when I really screwed things up, it was kind of impressive to behold.

I dig this game-design concept: Making your failure interesting. It reminds me of one of my all-time favorite racing games, Burnout 3: Takedown, which took the normal fail-state — crashing your car — and turned into something new. Whenever you crashed, you could flip into a bullet-time slo-mo where you’d view your car slowly tumbling through the air. You could very slightly control the direction of the tumble, and if you could successfully smash your car into one of your opponent’s cars, you’d gain points and “boost” for you car. It was insanely fun and transgressive, and tweaked the game’s emotional import in a really curious fashion, because after a while you’d start looking forward to the next time you crashed.

Thinking about INKS and failure made me go to the shelf and rebrowse one of my favorite books about games — Jesper Juul’s The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games.


Juul is fascinated by the fact that failure is an absolutely central part of playing a video-game; indeed, as he points out, failing inside a game is so common an experience that we could regard it as the central point of playing a game.

Juul opens his book by talking about playing two games, one that was incredibly hard and frustrating, and one that was the opposite — too easy. It turns he found the latter game more annoying. I quoted him on this three years ago in a different blog post, but it’s worth quoting here:

I dislike failing in games, but I dislike not failing even more. There are numerous ways to explain this contradiction, and I will discuss many of them in this book. But let us first consider the strangeness of the situation: every day, hundreds of millions of people around the world play video games, and most of them will experience failure while playing. It is safe to say that humans have a fundamental desire to succeed and feel competent, but game players have chosen to engage in an activity in which they are almost certain to fail and feel incompetent, at least some of the time. In fact, we know that players prefer games in which they fail. This is the paradox of failure in games. It can be stated like this:

1. We generally avoid failure.
2. We experience failure when playing games.
3. We seek out games, although we will experience something that we normally avoid.

This paradox of failure is parallel to the paradox of why we consume tragic theater, novels, or cinema even though they make us feel sadness, fear, or even disgust. If these at first do not sound like actual paradoxes, it is simply because we are so used to their existence that we sometimes forget that they are paradoxes of all. The shared conundrum is that we generally try to avoid the unpleasant emotions that we get from hearing about a sad event, or from failing at a task. Yet we actively seek out these emotions and stories, art, and games.

The paradox of tragedy is commonly explained with reference to Aristotle’s term catharsis, arguing that we in our general lives experience unpleasant emotions, but that by experiencing pity and fear in a fictional tragedy, these emotions are eventually purged from us. However, this does not ring true for games—when we experience as a leading defeat we really are filled with emotions of humiliation and inadequacy. Games do not purge these emotions from us — they produce the emotions in the first place.

Or, as he sums it up:

Video games are for me a space of reflection, a constant measuring of my abilities, a mirror in which I can see my everyday behavior reflected, amplified, distorted, and revealed, a place where I deal with failure and learn how to rise to a challenge.

When I pulled out the book again, a couple of other passages struck my eye. More below if you’re interested …

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Today I read …

Bicycle woodcut from 1908 Popular Mechanics

  • More proof that teenagers still prize hanging out F2F — and doing so, crucially, while away from adults. This was also the big takeaway from danah boyd’s wonderful book It’s Complicated, which is: a) kids want to spend time with each other, away from authority figures, but b) parents have created a world where that’s less possible than ever, so c) they moved it all to social media, which even they regard as a less-robust version of F2F, but still … better than nothing. <rant>These are the sensible, informed conclusions that generally come from field researchers who do in-depth, in-the-field, shoe-leather reporting, instead of engaging in the sort of lazy, deskbound chin-stroking that propels most “teens today!” punditry.</rant>

The beauty of old, cheap Soviet watches

Vintage Wostok soviet watch

This is an old “Vostok”, made in the Soviet Union back in — probably — the 80s. I got it off Ebay for about $25, which has become one of my new addictions: Buying odd, good-looking watches from the former USSR.

A year ago I wrote a story for the New York Times Magazine about the elite Swiss wristwatch industry, and how it was coping with the advent of the smartwatch. (The short version: They were mostly ignoring it.) Anyway, after spending several days oohing and aching over gorgeous, precision-engineered mechanical watches, I wanted one myself! Alas, I don’t quite have $5,000 in spare change kicking around to get myself an entry-level Swiss timepiece.

So I started poking around on Ebay … which is when I discovered crazy old Soviet watches.

There had been watchmakers in Russia for a long time before the Soviet revolution, but in the years after WWII, Stalin was insistent the USSR develop its own inexpensive, quality watches. That was, according to one account, because he’d noticed that Soviet soldiers had developed a taste for them. From Charles M. Lee’s Meeting at Potsdam:

[Stalin] perceived a new and vital danger: Millions of Russian soldiers had seen foreign lands, foreign wealth, foreign freedom. Thousands and thousands had traded everything they had with British and American soldiers for — wristwatches. Wristwatches, gold plated, silver plated, with seventeen-jewel movements: What unimaginable wealth they represented, and every single British and American soldier seemed to have one, and treat it casually, as though it were a mere convenience.

So after the war, several Soviet factories set about making inexpensive mechanical watches that were pretty rugged and inexpensive. They were produced in huge quantities, so while they’re technically vintage, they’re not rare. There are thus tons kicking around on Ebay for not much money: I’ve picked up a few for $15-$40.

If you want to look around yourself, the main brands to search for are Raketa, Vostok (sometimes spelled Wostok or even Bostok, and I usually add “vintage” with this brand name), and Pobeda — which means “victory” in Russian, and was a brand name picked by Stalin himself.

The best thing is how distinctive these things look! Say what you will about the USSR — it was an absolute nightmare for human rights, obviously — but man, they had a rad design aesthetic. Here are a couple I hunted down just now on Ebay …

Obviously “buyer beware” applies if you decide to pick up one of these. As you can see, most of these watches have dings and scratches — they’re not pristine. Me, I kind of like that banged-up look; it certainly matches the Soviet vibe, in a grim sort of way. The watch “crystals” tend to be plastic, and the hands and decorations on the watch-faces are similarly cheap. (That lovely blue watch at the top of this post? A few weeks after I got it, the second hand dislodged and needed to be popped back on.)

But the actual mechanical movements are, in experience, in pretty good shape — the one I’m wearing right now …

Me repairing a old soviet watch

This watch came without a band, so I had to put one on myself.

… hasn’t lost a minute in the last few days of running.

I also find the tick-tick-tick of a mechanical watch oddly … soothing, I guess? It’s a nice metronome to have clicking along in my otherwise silent, digital workplace.

Astronomers crack the secret of this gorgeous poem by Sappho

sappho poem tonight-ive-watched

This is one of my favorite poems by the ancient Greek poet Sappho. She was a master of packing a lot into a very tiny lyric — which is good since, tragically, only 200 scraps of her verse survive. This one is magnificent. In a mere eight lines, she paints the melancholy of middle age onto the canvas of the night sky.

There’s something else about this poem, though: Its astronomical specificity!

Sappho talks about the Pleiades, a cluster of extremely bright stars near Taurus. What’s more, Sappho mentions two interesting facts:

  • she watches the Pleaides go down, sinking beneath the horizon. And …
  • … this occurs before midnight.

Recently, two scientists got interested in the poem, because they realized these two facts could be used to determine precisely what time of year Sappho wrote the poem.

After all, constellations change their position in the sky as the year progresses. That means in different months they’ll sink beneath the horizon at different times of day. Since we know that Sappho saw the Pleiades go down before midnight, first you have deduce where Sappho was located — geographically — when she wrote the poem (because this will determine what part of the sky she was looking at). Then you check the star charts from that vantage point, and figure out what time of the year the Pleiades would have been visible right until midnight.

That’s what the scientists did, in their fascinating paper “Seasonal Dating of Sappho’s ‘Midnight Poem’ Revisited”.

You can read the paper here — it’s really fun — but the tl;dr is this: They started by working with the year 570 BCE, around the time that Sappho died. (This year is, they admit, fairly arbitrary; but a deviation of a few years wouldn’t change the position of the Pleaides noticeably.) They assumed that she wrote the poem in Mytilene, which was the capital city of the island of Lesbos, and where most scholars suspect Sappho lived at that point in her life.

Then they used a bunch of software, including Starry Night, to visualize the night sky from precisely Sappho’s vantage point. They discovered that Sappho could have seen the Pleiades before midnight from the late winter until the early spring. 

To quote the paper for more precision:

Assuming that Sappho observed from Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, we determined that in 570 BC the Pleiades set before midnight from 25 January on, and were lost to the evening twilight completely by 6 April.

As one of the scientists noted, this is one of the rare pieces of literature with which one can engage in this sort of analysis, because typically writers aren’t quite so exact in their descriptions of astronomical events:

“Sappho should be considered an informal contributor to early Greek astronomy as well as to Greek society at large,” Cuntz added. “Not many ancient poets comment on astronomical observations as clearly as she does.”

True, though there have been some other surprisingly nuanced bits of astronomy tucked into literature. As Jennifer Oulette notes in a terrific post in Gizmodo, Donald Olsen — a “forensic astronomer” — has used astronomic calculations to analyze several works of art; he concluded, for example, “that Mary Shelley was probably telling the truth about a moonlit ‘waking dream’ that inspired her to pen Frankenstein.” And the Pleiades have cropped up in other famous poems, including “On the Beach at Night” by Walt Whitman …

Up through the darkness,
While ravening clouds, the burial clouds, in black masses spreading,
Lower sullen and fast athwart and down the sky,
Amid a transparent clear belt of ether yet left in the east,
Ascends large and calm the lord-star Jupiter,
And nigh at hand, only a very little above,
Swim the delicate sisters the Pleiades.

… and Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall”

Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.

And John Milton crammed so much astronomy into Paradise Lost that there’s an entire book devoted to analyzing it (written in 1913, and thus freely downloadable for your reading pleasure!)

By the way, if you google this Sappho poem, you probably won’t find the precise translation in my picture above, because it’s not online. It’s from a book of Sappho translated by Mary Barnard, who is hands-down my absolute fave. Her renditions rock like a Rush concert; accept no substitutes, and in particular try to get your hands on the University of California printing, which is aesthetically lovely and out of print. To give you a sense of how superior are her translations, read the one I snapped a pic of above, then compare it to these three that are quoted in the scientific paper:

Translation of Sappho's "Midnight Poem"

Those are okay, but they lack the deft, bleak drama of Barnard’s version.

Particularly her second stanza! Night is “half-gone”, but youth goes; the former is a factual statement about this particular night, then the latter pulls the camera back about sixteen miles and boom, you behold the existential arc of a life. Then she leaves you with that little hang at the end of “I am” … and nails it to the wall with the final line.

Completely metal.

That cursed newfangled technology, “electric lights”


Up to the middle of the 19th century, cities were lit at night by gas lighting, candles, or flame — a soft, gentle radiance! But that changed around 1855 when electricians unleashed the first “arc lamps”, which were Promethean in their intensity.

What was it like when they turned on the first arc lights? Here’s a description from All The Time In The World:

“One could in fact have believed that the sun had risen,” a journalist wrote, reporting on scientific experiments with outdoor arc lighting in Lyon in 1855. “The light, which flooded a large area, was so strong that ladies opened up their umbrellas — not as a tribute to the inventors, but in order to protect themselves from the rays of this mysterious new sun.”

But not everyone was happy with this newfangled high-tech:

As demand for the technology grew, many resisted electricity’s brilliant new glow. It was just too bright. It lent a “corpse-like quality” to those subjected to its glare, one Londoner argued, and it could make a crowd look “almost dangerous and garish.”   Robert Louis Stevenson penned “A Plea for Gas Lamps” in 1878, hoping to dissuade London’s authorities from installing obnoxious electric streetlamps like those in Paris.  “A new sort of urban star now shines at nightly,” he wrote, “horrible, unearthly, obnoxious to the human eye; a lamp for a nightmare!”

Those damned millenials and their electricity. In a way, though, I can’t blame Stevenson. Version 1.0 of most technologies is often dreadful, and electric lighting was no different. Check out that picture above of New Orleans: Man, it looks like they’re walking around underneath an explosion. It reminds me of our current problems with low-energy lighting. I keep on buying super-efficient LED bulbs, but they always wind up making my house look like a surgical theater; I try to curl up with a book but it’s all horror-movie blue-spectrum pallor. They’ll eventually figure this out, but living through 1.0 of any new tech is always a pain.

How to discover a new type of cloud

Asperatus cloud formation, by Don Sanderson

Back in 2006, Don Anderson snapped this picture of an amazing cloud formation. He uploaded it the web site of the “Cloud Appreciation Society”, a deliciously-named organization founded 2004.

But it turns out that Anderson wasn’t alone. Other members of the Society were discovering, all around the world, this same formation — where the clouds cut deep, jagged valleys across the sky, producing a freaky, end-of-the-world look. These clouds weren’t new, of course; they’ve been occurring for aeons, and people have probably been taking pictures of them for aeons too. But before the Cloud Appreciation Society started up in 2004, they didn’t have anywhere to share them.

Now they did. Before long, submissions of this odd formation were coming in from all around the US, Europe, and Canada, including gorgeous shots like these:

As the founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, saw these submissions trickle in, he realized his group had collectively stumbled onto something interesting: A new type of cloud.

This formation wasn’t listed in the International Cloud Atlas, published by the World Meteorological Organization since 1896. So Pretor-Pinney devised a name for this cloud — “asperatus”, derived from “a passage in Virgil describing a roughened sea”. He’s been working for years to get it accepted into the next edition of the Atlas. In this week’s New York Times Magazine, there’s a superb piece by Jon Mooallem detailing the whole story.

The discovery of asperatus clouds is a lovely side-effect of what, in my book, I call “public thinking”: When disparate folks publish their observations online, they quickly discover the other people who share their seemingly niche obsession. As Mooallem writes:

Pretor-Pinney assumed that this phenomenon was so rare that, until now, no one had recognized it as a repeating form and given it a name. “As the hub of this network, a network of people who are sky-aware,” he said, “it’s easier to spot patterns that, perhaps, weren’t so easy to spot in the past.”

Today’s wave of “citizen science” is, of course, predicated on precisely this epiphany: The number of everyday folks interested in the natural world massively outnumber the scientist population, so why not harness them? There are now organizations set up have citizens classify galaxies, count hummingbirds, report coyote sightings, and parse reports of plankton.

But what charms me about the story of asperatus is that the discovery was unintentional.

Pretor-Pinney didn’t create the Cloud Appreciation Society specifically so he could identify a new cloud formation. No, he created it because clouds are rad; because staring up the darkening sky brings deep aesthetic delight. (As Mooallem notes, this is the rare group of people who, when their annual convention takes place on a crystal-blue day of gorgeous weather, are utterly crushed.) As goes the koan of open-source software, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. Collect together enough people intrigued with some corner of culture or science or history, let them talk long enough, and odds are they’ll stumble into something the world hasn’t yet seen. Inquiry is often sparked by joy.

BTW, my single favorite picture of asperatus is this one, taken by Elaine Patrick. The sky looks so tangible!

Asperatus cloud formation by Elaine Patrick

Asperatus cloud formation, by Elaine Patrick

“Genius hesitates”

I read Carlo Rovelli’s book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, a layperson’s description of the big breakthroughs in modern physics. It’s a blast, but one throwaway comment really struck me.

Rovelli is discussing Einstein’s 1900 paper about photons and light. He quotes what Einstein wrote …

It seems to me that the observations associated with blackbody radiation, flourescence, the production of cathode rays by ultraviolet light, and other related phenomena connected with the emission or transformation of light are more readily understood if one assumes that the energy of light is discontinuously distributed in space.

Then Rovelli makes a nifty point …

These simple and clear lines are the real birth certificate of quantum theory. Note the wonderful initial “It seems to me …,” which recalls the “I think … ” with which Darwin introduces in his notebooks the great idea of that species evolve, or the “hesistation” spoken of by Farraday when introducing to the first time the revolutionary idea of magnetic fields. Genius hesitates.

Genius hesitates. I love that! When we approach a truly enormous idea, of the sort that tilts the world on its axis, we’re not excited and arrogant and confident. We’re unsure; we hesitate. I’ve noticed this in the scientists I interview. The ones who are doing really groundbreaking work are tentative, cautious, almost unsettled by the implications of what they’re saying.

It’s not a bad litmus test for the people around us in everyday life. The ones who are proposing genuinely startling and creative ideas are liable to be … careful about it. It’s the ones with small ideas who are shouting them from the rooftops.

By the way, that notebook of Darwin that Rovelli mentions? It’s online, and here’s the page he talks about. You can see Darwin scribble “I THINK” at the top …
darwin's notebook
The full scan of the page from Rovelli’s book is below the jump if you want to see it …
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The life-changing magic of being a total slob: My Wired column

cat lying on a desk
When I read Marie Kondo’s hit book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I thought it was terrific — but not quite right. She argues that cleaning up will leave you with your mind and spirit clear, which is correct; but it can also leave you with your mind empty. That’s because, as I’d found in reading years of social science about the way we organize our desks, sometimes mess can be useful for sparking new ideas.

So I wrote my latest Wired column about this. Several friends emailed me in horror after reading it. “I’m never going to let my kids read this story,” they said, “because then they’ll use it as an excuse not to clean their rooms.”

Put Down the Broom: Why Tidying Up Can Hamper Creativity
by Clive Thompson

If clutter drives you nuts, you’re in good company. There’s been a burst of excitement recently about neatness, propelled by The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo’s best-selling guide that urges us to toss out anything that doesn’t “spark joy.” If we can succeed at decluttering, Kondo says, we will feel pure bliss. “The lives of those who tidy thoroughly and completely,” she writes, “in a single shot, are without exception dramatically altered.” As the biggest neatnik and picker-upper in my casually messy family, I thrill to this idea.

But one kink, though. A strand of recent research suggests that mess can, counterintuitively, sometimes be useful.

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