Reading list: March 27th

Oliver Ono / Read-Only Memory

“Despite its name suggesting otherwise, Dune II was a first – a real-time strategy game that sprang out of the box with almost every gameplay attribute and control system seen in every RTS since.” Cam Winstanley digs into the origins of one of the most influential computer games in this Read-Only Memory feature from a couple of years back.

“Ultimately, it has no limitations, so therefore can’t inhabit the true transcendent artistic experience. It has nothing to transcend!” Nick Cave talks about the prospect of AI songwriting in a wide-ranging New Yorker interview.

“In the small city of Bremerton, Washington (pop. 44,000), a ferry ride away from Seattle, the shock is not that a typewriter repair and retail store has kept its doors open. Rather, it’s that there are two in the same city—and that another just opened about an hour’s drive north.” Glenn Fleishman visits a typewriter hotbed in the Pacific Northwest.

“When a store closes and the sign out front is removed, the ghostly imprint of the name often remains on the side of the building for years if no other business replaces it. There’s a term for the lingering outline of the still-readable letters in the buildup of dust and grime: label scar.” In The Walrus, Monika Warzecha looks at the unlikely return of Zellers, and the wave of nostalgia that’s allowed it.

“Roughly 2,600 gigatons of carbon simply cannot be burned into the atmosphere. Biophysical reality says those assets must be stranded, and economic reality says that can’t be done without causing a super-depression — or even perhaps a breakdown of civilization.” Science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson makes that case that we need to pay ourselves to decarbonize.

Baseball classic

That was something.

Shi Davidi on the World Baseball Classic:

Even before the dream final pitting Japan against the United States and the dream ending of Shohei Ohtani versus Mike Trout with two out in the ninth, this was already the best World Baseball Classic ever.

High drama at nearly every turn. Pandemonium in the stands. Passion and patriotism from many of the sport’s best players. Epic moments like Trea Turner’s eighth-inning grand slam against Venezuela. Like Mexico’s three-run rally in the seventh inning to best Puerto Rico. And like Munetaka Murakami’s two-run, walk-off double to carry Japan past Mexico.

Then, as if all that wasn’t good enough, came the two best players of this generation, Los Angeles Angels teammates, squaring off for the title, Ohtani throwing two challenge fastballs at 100 m.p.h. down the heart of the plate before pulling a string to get a third swinging strike from Trout, in as classic a confrontation as any sport can generate.

Reading list: March 20th

Xerox Alto
Xerox PARC

“The reason it is so uncannily familiar today is simple: We are now living in a world of computing that the Alto created.” David C. Brock examines the legacy of the Xerox Alto 50 years later for IEEE Spectrum.

“In 1932, a sideshow magician known only as Mr. Electrico disappeared into the American heartland,” writes Erik Ofgang in Smithsonian Magazine, “The only evidence of the performer’s existence was a memory shared by the acclaimed science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, who credited a strange, seemingly mystical encounter with Mr. Electrico with changing his life.”

“25 years is more than half of my life, spanning four decades (the 90s, 00s, 10s, and 20s) and around 40,000 posts — almost cartoonishly long for a medium optimized for impermanence.” Jason Kottke marks 25 years of (See also: Chase McCoy on how blogs shaped the web.)

“I’m learning to trust that progress looks like different things at different times, and a big, fat word count is not necessarily proof of progress.” Nita Prose talks about her writing process with CrimeReads

“The 18 key conclusions in this report provide an impressively comprehensive yet succinct description of our situation—the ultimate TL;DR of Earth’s climate.” Ars Technica covers the IPCC’s latest Synthesis Report on the state of climate change.

The long game of space exploration

Volcano on Venus

NASA announced this week that scientists have found the first direct evidence of recent volcanic activity on Venus. It’s another example of a new discovery based on old data—in this case, radar images collected by the Magellan spacecraft in the early 90s—something that’s only set to increase as future missions collect exponentially more data.

That includes NASA’s next mission to Venus, which will involve getting as many eyes (and machines) as possible to examine the data:

VERITAS will use state-of-the-art synthetic aperture radar to create 3D global maps and a near-infrared spectrometer to figure out what the surface is made of. The spacecraft will also measure the planet’s gravitational field to determine the structure of Venus’ interior. Together, the instruments will offer clues about the planet’s past and present geologic processes.

And whereas Magellan’s data was originally cumbersome to study – Herrick said that in the 1990s they relied on boxes of CDs of Venus data that were compiled by NASA and delivered in the mail – VERITAS’ data will be available online to the science community. That will enable researchers to apply cutting-edge techniques, such as machine learning, to analyze the planet and help reveal its innermost secrets.


The Next Day at Ten

Last week marked the tenth anniversary of The Next Day, a Bowie album that was unexpected when it arrived—and which has inevitably been overshadowed by the one that followed, Blackstar. I’m really fond of it.

Chris O’Leary’s blog, Pushing Ahead of the Dame, has long been the first place I turn to for writing on Bowie. His retrospective on the album doesn’t disappoint:

As time spools on, the scaffolding drops away. It always does. There was a context that we no longer have for Young Americans—how a diehard Ziggy Stardust fan felt when he heard Bowie doing “soul.” How the soul Bowie fan felt when she first put on Low. How someone who loved Low felt when she first heard “Let’s Dance” on the radio, knowing Bowie was no longer hers. How a kid who only knew Bowie through “Let’s Dance” felt when he saw Bowie sing “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” on Letterman.

The privilege of a point in time is to experience something in a way that everyone who comes later can only approximate. The mistake is to think this will matter. Like a gambling house, the future always wins.

Blue Ice

Reading list: March 10th

Heavy Squall off the Start Lighthouse. John Brett, A.R.A., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“Since its creation, the coin had possessed a curious quality, a weight greater than its mass, and a worth beyond its face value. It had a way of changing lives.” Alexander Huls tells the tale of the big coin heist in Hazlitt.

“‘There’s a worldwide inventory of disks that were manufactured 10 or 20 or 30 years ago,’ Persky says. ‘That inventory is fixed. We’re just blowing through it day by day.'” Wired’s Jacopo Prisco looks at the persistence of the floppy disk.

“It’s pretty nice out there. It’s quiet, the view is spectacular. The storms are incredible, but you have to consider, you know, we’ve maintained a light station there since 1832. So they really got it down pat.” Grand Manan’s Ken Ingersoll talks to the CBC about landing one of the few remaining lighthouse keeper jobs.

“He could not worldbuild his way into a workable story; he had to muddle and discover and revise, just like the rest of us.” Robin Sloan reads Christopher Tolkein’s History of the Lord of the Rings and realizes just how much of the magic of J.R.R. Tolkein’s books arose from the revision.

“We’re losing a Hubble-telescope-type capability that we had for five decades.” An ocean-drilling ship that’s driven landmark research will be retired next year, Nature reports