Category: Literature

A picture of "Plimpton 322", a 3,700-year-old clay tablet

A 3,700-year-old clay tablet may contain the earliest evidence  of trigonometry, according to a new theory. A truly gorgeous electric car, by Jaguar. A javascript emulation of bpNichol’s work First Screening, a group of poems he originally in 1984 wrote in BASIC. Home videos shot using the Fisher Price PXL 2000 camera — which recorded in black-and-white onto cassette tape — are stylish and weird. How Popular Science covered the launch of the Voyager probes, back in 1977. So, it turns out that floating balls of fire ants thrive in hurricanes; GREAT. Behold “twistron” yarn, woven with carbon nanotubes, which generates electricity when twisted. “DolphinAttack” is a wickedly clever exploit for voice-activated agents like Siri and Alexa: You take control of the device by issuing verbal commands in frequencies inaudible to humans, but which the hardware accepts. In truly great science writing, “the gradual realization that you are falling behind the author is part of the thrill.


Painting of an eclipse, originally published in the New York Times

How to paint an eclipse. (Pro tip: Work quickly!) How the military changed food science, with the MRE. Audio recordings from the 1930s and 40s of former slaves, reflecting on their lives during and post-slavery. A short anthropological history of human sleep arrangements. A short history of communist bookstores. Border collies can “fast-map” (infer the name of a new, unfamiliar object) with the acumen of a three-year-old human. A graveyard of software. Datacrunch of the lexical complexity and affective metrics of YA fiction. The problems of, in the digital age, having the last name “Null.


Picture of a Walmart in MadAllen, Texas, that has been turned into a huge library

When WalMart shut down in McAllen, the townspeople turned it into a mammoth, gorgeous library. “Pussy and Her Language”: an 1895 book on how to talk cats. (Via the superb Atlas Obscura!) The inner-ear mechanism that may lie behind some out-of-body experiences. An essay-length biography of Keats, who, TIL, was quite a brawler as a youth. “8 rabbits, aka 1 rabbyte“. How cheap paper led to the moral panic over 19th-century dime-store novels. A ghostly Russian radio station that has been broadcasting weird tones for three decades. (Also, as @BWJones pointed me to, there’s “The Conet Project”, online audio archives of shortwave “numbers stations”.) Writing a 2D game in Nim. The science behind recursive sadness. Goldfish survive frozen winters by producing alcohol. Via @gnat, here’s Wick, a cool tool for scripting interactive thingies.


Image of an old National Enquirer article claiming that "Hackers can turn your home computer into a bomb"

“Hacker Madness”, a wonderful article from issue 8 of Limn magazine, devoted to “Hacks, Leaks, and Breaches.” The answer to this mathematical question turns out to be insanely interesting. Is a Sharknado actually possible? According to the Washington Post … “It could happen.” Some in-depth, on-the-scene reporting of a small-factory line employees getting used to their new workmates: Robots. Over at Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow notes some unexpected reasons why so many stories today are dystopic. Indians are spending less on salty and sugary snacks, and instead using the money to buy data on their mobiles. The engineers piloting the 1970s Voyager probes are still on the job, four decades later. Behold the New Optimists.


Beijing toilet-paper dispenser scanning someone's face

A Beijing bathroom-paper-towel machine that scans your face before dispensing, to make sure you’re not trying to take paper towels too often. Some listener sent @jessebrown a spreadsheet detailing, with timecode, every time he said “um” during a radio interview. How “The Apprentice” made Donald Trump’s presidency possible. The advent of computational psychiatry. Is writing style predictive of scientific fraud?. Some giant deep-sea worms may be 1,000 years old. Homeless planets.



Animated charts showing how the age of marriage has changed over time

Animated charts showing how the age of marriage has changed in the US over the last century. The myth of drug expiration dates. The obituary for the inventor of the first — and only — “self-cleaning house”. (Her patent is here.) Data considered as a gift. From 1908: “School is largely concerned with the transformation of a playing child into a working man with some of the play still left in him.” The long history of mocking Thoreau. Experiments, some successful, to evoke emotions in psychopaths. A video showing the patient, lovely restoration of an old two-person saw.


Screenshot of ebook made from Jack Kerouac's novel rendered as turn-by-turn driving instructions

The route that Jack Kerouac drove in On the Road, rendered as Google-Maps turn-by-turn driving instructions, and published as an ebook. “Strange Signals from the Nearby Red Dwarf Star Ross 128”. (A note from the astronomers: “In case you are wondering, the recurrent aliens hypothesis is at the bottom of many other better explanations.”) A chilling gif that shows Mosul before and after its devastation by war. How to make Martian concrete. Oh, and ravens? They plan.


A photograph of the moon using a game boy camera

Photographing the moon using a Game Boy Camera. The “third thumb”, a kooky experimental prosthetic. “A daughter discovers her a cache of her dead grandfather’s Read It Later bookmarks and wonders about his regrets”: @hondanhon composes brilliant tweet-length story-plots that explore grief and digital memory in the future. A grim chart showing how the US spends more on health care for worse results. Why you shouldn’t interrupt programmers. Find a quiet half-hour to read/behold 17776, an astonishing online story about space, time, and the future of football. (Make sure to see it on a screen bigger than a phone. And thanks to @debcha for pointing it out!)


Cover of fake O'Reilly book I generated, called "Incomprehensible Javascript"

Generate your own O’Reilly book cover. Picking up guys on Tinder using lines generated by a neural net. Palm cockatoos play the drums much like …. humans. (The study; video of a bird drumming right here!) The child of “Tay”: A new Microsoft chatbot says the Qur’an is “very violent”. A hidden underwater forest, 10,000 years old, is discovered! “Jaywalking while black.” Behold the booze requirements for 16th-century performers of mystery plays. What exactly is consciousness good for? Gorgeous library artwork made of bookends.


The odd pleasures of reading Proust on a mobile phone

The first page of Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" on an iphone

A year ago I wrote an essay about reading War and Peace on my iPhone. If you missed it, why hey! You can read the whole essay here!

When people found out what I was doing, they often claimed it was aesthetically bonkers. Isn’t it uncomfortable and weird, they wondered, to read such a massive book in tiny screenfuls? You can’t fit many words on a single screen. Indeed, I tend to blow my font-size up pretty big, so there’s barely one or two hundred words on each Kindle page.

But the thing is, this made the experience oddly retro. Visually, a Kindle screen on a mobile phone harkens back to … the early days of novels.

Back in the 18th and 19th century, people often read novels that were printed in the teensy “octavo” format. It made books extremely portable, so they were, in way, much like the iphones of the premodern period: Pocketable culture. Here’s a page from Conjectures on Original Composition, a book from 1759 by the English poet Edward Young:

Page from Conjectures on Original Composition, a book from 1759 by the English poet Edward Young:

Looks rather like a iphone Kindle screen, doesn’t it?

At any rate, today I discovered an essay by Sarah Boxer describing her even more Olympic feat of novel-phone-reading: The entire 1.2-million text of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. (That’s the first page, above, on my phone.)

Boxer did an even better job of describing the peculiar aesthetic delights of reading a ginormous book screen by screen. Let me quote it here at length:

Soon you will see that the smallness of your cellphone (my screen was about two by three inches) and the length of Proust’s sentences are not the shocking mismatch you might think. Your cellphone screen is like a tiny glass-bottomed boat moving slowly over a vast and glowing ocean of words in the night. There is no shore. There is nothing beyond the words in front of you. It’s a voyage for one in the nighttime. Pure romance.

In a curious way, I think reading Proust on your cellphone brings out the fathomless something in the novel that Shattuck calls “the most oceanic—and the least read” of 20th-century classics. It makes you feel like Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo in his submarine, which is just right. As Benjamin Taylor notes in his biography, Proust: The Search, this is how Jean Cocteau described the writer at work in his bedroom, the cork-lined retreat on Boulevard Haussmann that Proust called “a little bottle stop” muffling the sounds of the world.

Although Proust knew exactly where he was heading when he put together his masterwork—he began with the first and last parts, then turned to the middle—the same cannot be said for his readers, no matter how they tackle his text. They are at sea. This is what makes reading the novel such hard going, particularly in the middle. It is also what makes the experience extraordinary.

Knowing where you are, physically, in a bound book keeps you from feeling this oceanic feeling quite so much. It keeps you grounded. But reading the book on your cellphone emphasizes your own smallness, your at-sea-ness, in relation to the vast ocean. There you are, moving along without any compass. How brave you are in your little dinghy, adrift and amazed.

That’s such a great metaphor: The book as an ocean, the e-reader as a tiny porthole!

It reminds me of the way I look at paintings in galleries: I zoom in as close as I can, so I can examine the tiny individual brushstrokes in as much detail as possible.

I once read a piece by an artist noting that painters experience their painting in two modes — up super-close, and from far back. A lot of the time they’re hunched over the canvas, going stroke by stroke. So, as the artist pointed out, if you want to see what that experience was like, you want to get as close as physically possible to the completed painting, and study it from barely an inch or two away. (As you can imagine, shoving my nose right up to a canvas does not make me super popular amongst art-gallery guards; I’ve nearly been tazed at the Art Gallery of Ontario, trying to get myself with microns of Tom Thomson’s The West Wind.) But as the artist went on to note in his article, painters also frequently stand back ten or twenty feet to appreciate the overall scope of what they’re doing — so you too ought to zoom out often as you’re absorbing a painting. The painter’s experience of their own painting is simultaneously a) brushstroke by brushstroke and b) twenty feet away.

It occurred to me once, while nose-close with a painting, that novels (and other forms of longform writing) have a bit of the same dual-focus aspect: The writer composes word by word, sentence by sentence — but also has the entire text in mind. We readers experience the whole book both as a single bolus of culture and a collection of individual thrilling sentences or passages.

Boxer’s lovely metaphor comes the closest I’ve seen to evoking that literary duality.