Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Ephemera, Part 1

The future seems grim these days, so our usual 'Links of the Future' feature will appear at a future date (presumably this presents no problem to time travelers). Instead this week we treat you to links of the strange, the obscure, the trivial and the sublime. Enjoy.

Man in Turkey discovers entrance to underground city while renovating his home
The elaborate underground city in Derinkuyu, Turkey runs 18 stories deep. It has its own wells and ventilation shafts, and rooms for individual quarters, livestock, shops and even a school complete with study room.
75% of the images in the IKEA catalog are computer generated
"[T]he real turning point for us was when, in 2009, they called us and said, 'You have to stop using CG. I’ve got 200 product images and they’re just terrible. You guys need to practise more.' So we looked at all the images they said weren’t good enough and the two or three they said were great, and the ones they didn’t like were photography and the good ones were all CG"."

There is an annual Boring Conference in London for people with boring hobbies
The conference celebrates people who collection staplers and stationery, photograph IBM cash registers and meticulously blog their sneezes. You might say they were uncool before being uncool was cool.
IBM has a corporate hymnal
Ars Technica dives deep into the weirdness behind a corporation that once encouraged its employees to sing songs of adulation to their founder and CEO. It is worth noting that this practice has mostly fallen out of favor at Big Blue since the 1960's.

'Untouchables' now worshiping The Goddess of the English Language
The two-foot-tall bronze statue of the goddess is modeled after the Statue of Liberty. She holds a pen in her right hand which shows she is literate. In her left hand, she holds a book which is the constitution of India. She stands on top of a computer.
What is Bayhem?
A short video analyzing the technique of a Hollywood filmmaker known for his cinematic excess: director of the Bad Boys and Transformers movies, Michael Bay.

The Life and Times of Robot Dance Party
A guy in a homemade robot suit sparks impromptu dance parties in San Francisco.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Recursion: The Story of 'Transistor'


This post will be a little bit different.

I recently finished the game 'Transistor' by Supergiant Games. Actually, I finished it twice, because the game immediately invites a second playthrough. This is primarily because of the nature of its story. SuperGiant has chosen to parcel out the story through nudges and hints rather than spoon feed it to us as most games do. This is a story that invites discussion. What does the ending mean? What is the nature of the world the game takes place in? Having completed a second playthrough, I thought I had the basics, but I headed to the forums in hopes of filling in some gaps in my knowledge.

But for once the collective wisdom of forumers failed to inform. There is a lot of speculation about the story and the significance of the ending, some of which I found helpful, but generally I think players who have finished the game are confused. There are some relatively straightforward clues that I think most players are missing. So in this post I'm going to set my thoughts on Transistor's story down in writing. I don't claim to have all the answers, but I hope I can nudge people in the right direction. I think this is the rare game that will reward deep and meticulous analysis, and I have faith that fans of the game will provide that in the future and have a great deal to add to this.

But first, let me start with a brief overview of the beginning of the plot for the uninitiated. This is the plot as it can be gleaned from the first fifteen minutes of the game:
Transistor begins with a woman named Red kneeling next to the body of a man impaled with a giant sword. The sword lights up and says, "Hey Red, we're not gonna get away with this are we?" We quickly learn that Red is a pop singer who lives in a futuristic city named Cloudbank, where the citizenry vote on everything, including the weather, the color of the sky and the layout of the city itself.
Red has survived an assassination attempt by four individuals who call themselves the Camerata, however her voice has been stolen. The sword that they attempted to kill her with is known as 'the transistor'. When Red retrieves the Transistor she discovers it gives her special powers, including the ability to absorb what appear to be the souls of dead people. Red sets out looking for answers as a mysterious, robotic force known as 'The Process' pursues her. 
So much for what you might call 'the known world'. We now set out for the speculative edges of our map, emblazoned with the dread words Here be spoilers!


Monday, May 5, 2014

Links of the Future

Greetings traveler, and welcome to Monday, May 5th, 2014. Pop quiz time! Clear your desks and take out your number two pencil and a sheet of scratch paper. Your time starts now.

Once you've put down your pencils and turned in your answers you may enjoy this tongue-in-cheek scientific paper illustrating the limits of randomized controlled trial. Or these pictures of bicycle taxidermy.

Friday, May 2, 2014

English vs. Mandarin Chinese

The curious thing about English's status as the global lingua franca is that it is not in fact the most widely spoken language in the world. That honor goes to Mandarin Chinese, which clocks just over a billion speakers. English is only the second most widely spoken, and it has barely half the number of native speakers that Mandarin has. This would not appear to be bode well for English, right?

With the 'news' this week that China has surpassed the US as the world's largest economy by certain, highly specific measures, a person might reasonably wonder if Mandarin Chinese won't soon become a threat to the privileged status of English.

Over at Lingua Franca, Geoffrey Pullum says, Sorry, not a chance:
Accidents of history conspired to determine the present status of English.

Which language was spoken by the people who managed to gain lasting political control in North America and Australasia, and had temporary political dominance in all of southern Asia and most of eastern, western, and southern Africa?

Which language is spoken in the one place on earth where blockbuster movies for worldwide release are made on budgets running into the hundreds of millions of dollars?

Which is the main language used by the closest to approach Radio Earth, namely the BBC World Service?

Which is the only language used officially for government purposes in more than 60 countries?

Which has been chosen as the norm for all air-traffic control conversations?

A long succession of such accidents has put English so far in the race for dominance in global communication that it can hardly even be called a race now.

Some people talk as if Mandarin Chinese was gaining on English. It is not, and it never will. A Tamil-speaking computer scientist explaining an algorithm to a Hungarian scientist at a Japanese-organized scientific meeting in Thailand calls on English, not Chinese. Nowhere in the world do we find significant numbers of non-Chinese speakers choosing Mandarin as the medium for bridging language gaps. There are no signs of that changing.
I've previously written about language longevity and how some languages survive for millennia even as most die off. Linguist Nicholas Ostler contends that strongly centralized societies with high population densities are the most likely to preserve their languages for the long term. The poster children for this are Egyptian and, yes, Chinese. Chinese has been spoken in some form or other for at least 5,000 years. It seems very well positioned to continue to be spoken within eastern Asia for another few thousand.

But the requirements for being a successful lingua franca are quite different. Virtually every lingua franca has started as a language of trade and commerce, or sometimes religion. First the British and then the Americans have been busily colonizing and exporting for the last few centuries, taking English with them wherever they went. Even when they have left a place the inhabitants have often found it convenient to continue using English to communicate with other colonial nations.

This is all to say nothing about how English speakers found themselves sitting on top of the explosion of mass communication technologies during the 20th century.

Meanwhile, one might say, the Chinese have been mostly concerned with the enigma of being Chinese. There hasn't been any big push to bring Chinese religion, Chinese technology, Chinese movies or Chinese thinking to the rest of the world. Perhaps the Chinese feel that mastering their own society is difficult enough without also trying to foist it on the rest of the world. Or perhaps the sheer gravitational pull of one-and-a-half billion people and five thousand years of history makes it difficult for them to escape their own cultural orbit.

We would have to see a pretty serious change in China's outlook for Mandarin to have any real prospects as a global lingua franca. In the meantime, English's dominance only continues to grow.

For more thoughts on English as a global language, see these posts:

Monday, March 17, 2014

Links of the Future

Greetings traveler, and welcome to Monday, March 17, 2014. Medical science will some day instantly diagnose disease, cure illnesses painlessly and make us smarter and fitter human beings. Someday. In the mean time, we have this:
Also, there's bad news for corporate good old boys: booth babes don't work. And, infrequently asked questions: are there any super bad-ass Catholic weapons? And, you can't dig a tunnel straight through the earth and come out in China. This map shows why.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Links of the Future

Greetings, traveler, and welcome to Friday, January the 31st 2014. Technology is doing weird stuff to us, traveler. Weird stuff.
In case that wasn't silly enough for you, here are cats taking selfies. Also, a hilarious write-up of the latest questionable Japanese invention: a bra that can only be opened by 'true love'.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Should Genetic Testing Be Required After Successful Fertility Treatments?

That's the question one family is asking after learning that their daughter Ashley is genetically unrelated to her father Jeff. Accidental specimen mix up at the University of Utah fertility clinic where Ashley was conceived? Nope. It appears to have been the deliberate work of a troubled but intelligent clinic employee named Tom Lippert.
Paula discovered that after marrying his third wife and being released from prison, Tom had lived in Minnesota for a few years. He eventually moved to Salt Lake City, taking classes at BYU, and his first job was working in the Reproductive Technologies fertility clinic where he was employed for nine years from 1986-1995. This begs the question: Could he have fathered hundreds of children? Paula realized that those dozens of photos that Tom so proudly displayed behind his desk may have been his biological children.
You can read the whole, bizarre saga here. The story appears on a geneology and genetic testing website and has a strong slant in favor of services like 23andMe, but is fascinating nonetheless.

The University of Utah's refusal to follow up on the Lippert case and see if he may have surreptitiously fathered children for other clinic patients is troubling, to say the least.