Homo Mentis

January 16th, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

What separates humans from animals? Having a chin:

“It’s really strange that only humans have chins,” says James Pampush from Duke University. “When we’re looking at things that are uniquely human, we can’t look to big brains or bipedalism because our extinct relatives had those. But they didn’t have chins. 

With ‘er ‘ed tucked underneath ‘er arm

January 15th, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

The big question in medieval art – when a decapitated saint carries their own head, where do you put the halo?

A cephalophore (from the Greek for “head-carrier”) is a saint who is generally depicted carrying his or her own head; in art, this was usually meant to signify that the subject in question had been martyred by beheading. Handling the halo in this circumstance offers a unique challenge for the artist. Some put the halo where the head used to be; others have the saint carrying the halo along with the head.

Final word goes to Stanley Holloway:

Medieval Death Metal

January 15th, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

Metal is the true cultural heritage of Scandinavia. Proof is the Arab merchant who visited 10th century Denmark and reported: “Never before I have heard uglier songs than those of the Vikings in Slesvig (in Denmark). The growling sound coming from their throats reminds me of dogs howling, only more untamed.” [This is the immediate source, though it seems to be one of those too-good-to-be-true…

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Mental Waste Collection and Disposal Service

January 14th, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

Via MeFi:

The MWCDS turns psychic garbage into physical trash. A telephone landline (AT&T) and cassette tape answering machine (Panasonic KX-T 1920 EASA PHONE) is available 24/7 for waste drop off. All calls are confidential. All cassette tapes are sealed in concrete after recording. After the cassette tapes are sealed in concrete a site is determined for burial or storage. The placement into this site involves a ritual administered by the GROUNDSKEEPER. 

Tracking dots in printers — a history in government documents

January 13th, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

Tracking dots in printers — a history in government documents

For twenty years, many color laser printers have included a hidden tracking code on each page they print. Made of microscopic yellow dots, the code can reveal to the police the unique identity of your printer.An example of the yellow-dot tracking pattern The EFF and others have reverse engineered a few of these codes, shedding light on how the system works technically. What they have not…

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Speed dating in Iran

January 13th, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

Speed dating in Iran

I don’t 100% believe this, but it tickles me anyway. Supposedly, car-based flirting in Iran avoids the (potentially illegal) need to be alone with a member of the opposite sex: Rules of the game? Pile in a car and head with your same sex possie to one of the city’s flirt strips, cruise up and down until you spot a likely target, being careful to pick a car that’s broadly your car’s equal and then…

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January 12th, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

We’ve just (re-)launched Aleph, the project I’ve been working on with OpenOil. It’s a specialized search engine for oil, gas and mining, aimed at helping activists, journalists and government officials make sense of the torrent of regulatory and financial information that comes out of those industries. Julien Bach made a beautiful video to explain what’s going on:…

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January 11th, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

in Greek mythology ‘Hyperborean’ refers to the people who lived in a land of sunshine beyond the north wind, though the word was employed in the 19th century to describe either frozen zones populated by barbarians or (conversely) communities of forward-looking thinkers.

Interplanetary Kangaroos

January 11th, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

Among crank mail received by Seymour Cray was “a long treatise from an inmate at the county jail who had a theory of interplanetary transportation involving kangaroos whose energy output would be measured in “gigahops”.”


January 10th, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

Things are awful. Everything is terrible. And the worse it gets, the more energy I feel. It’s like some generator that only feeds on horror. I mean, I’m terrified for my kid, and for my own old age, but goddamn I love getting up in the morning (well, afternoon) and seeing what new shapes the world has twisted itself into. Everything is on fire and I love it. I dole out advice on how to deal with these ice storms of shit that we’re living through and counsel people on how to protect their brains from it all and console people and tell them that we’re all going to find ways to get through it and I am seriously just sitting there with my feet up and an espresso in my hand and feeling fine as the planet eats itself.

January 9th, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

Apparently, during second-wave feminism, socialist feminist housewives and sex workers considered each other to be allies because, frankly, if your livelihood depends on you having sex with a man, you’re a sex worker. It’s fascinating to me how radical feminists and socialist feminists came to basically the same conclusion and had radically different responses: radical feminists were all “therefore sex work and marriage both need to be abolished!”, while socialist feminists were like “therefore both sex workers and housewives are members of the proletariat who need to organize for better conditions in the short term and work for the revolution in the long term!”

January 9th, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

One day, deep within the forest, Agaso, then about 13 years of age, found himself with a rare good shot at a cuscus in a nearby tree. But he only had inferior arrows. Without the slightest comment or solicitation, the straightest, sharpest arrow of the group moved so swiftly and so stealthily straight into his hand, I could not see from whence it came.

At that same moment, Karako, seeing that the shot would be improved by pulling on a twig to gently move an obstructing branch, was without a word already doing so, in perfect synchrony with Agaso’s drawing of the bow, i.e., just fast enough to fully clear Agaso’s aim by millimeters at the moment his bow was fully drawn, just slow enough not to spook the cuscus. Agaso, knowing this would be the case made no effort to lean to side for an unobstructed shot, or to even slightly shift his stance. Usumu similarly synchronized into the action stream, without even watching Agaso draw his bow, began moving up the tree a fraction of a second before the bowstring twanged.

January 8th, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

I often reflect on the fact that I rarely (more accurately, almost never) have come across the term “masochism” in hundreds of books I’ve read on battle, warfare and soldiers. The title of Steven Gardiner’s paper, “Heroic Masochism,” provides illumination.

The Unknown Citizen: WH Auden on the limits of data

January 7th, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

The Unknown Citizen: WH Auden on the limits of data

As the best and the brightest pour their brilliance into chasing our data-trails, WH Auden’s take still feels fully applicable: The Unknown Citizen He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be One against whom there was no official complaint, And all the reports on his conduct agree That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint, For in everything he did he served the…

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Why I love Howl

January 6th, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

Why I love Howl

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl is permanently associated for me with winter in Berlin. It fixed itself there in the winter of 2009-10. I’d fallen in love, in a way that I’d not believed myself still capable of, and my emotions had burst open into areas I hadn’t felt since I was a teenager. It was also one of the coldest winters, and cold has always energised me. I’d go out the door in the morning, onto…

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Daniel Quinn vs Meditations on Moloch

January 6th, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

Daniel Quinn vs Meditations on Moloch

Paul, seeing my post on Howl, pointed me towards a (much) longer essay, Meditations on Moloch, which also takes its start from the poem. It’s an impressive chain of thoughts by Scott Alexander, stretching from the start of agriculture through to superintelligence. Moloch is the name Alexander plucks from Ginsberg to describe all of them. Moloch is civilization, or the tragedy of the commons, or…

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Dead languages on Genius

January 5th, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

Dead languages on Genius

The street may find its own uses for things, but so does the academy. RapGenius started as a way to comment on rap lyrics. The expansion to other song lyrics — accompanied by dropping ‘Rap’ from the name — was pretty obvious. Less so is the appeal to the extreme highbrow. Perpetual super-student Chris Aldrich turned me on to the “off-label” uses in a glowing blog post. He mentions a Harvard MOOC…

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Vote Trepanation!

January 4th, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

This must be one of the best election campaign posters of all time. No, it wasn’t a joke. Amanda Feilding, Countess of Wemyss and March, trying in 1979 to become an MP, had at that point had a hole in her head for the best part of a decade. In 1970 she drilled through her skull with a dentist’s drill. Then she wiped off the blood and went off to a fancy dress party. Her husband Joey Mellon filmed…

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Pitman, Esperanto, FLOSS

January 4th, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

This LRB comment on the history of shorthand picks up on the slightly unnerving first wave of enthusiasm around Pitman’s shorthand. It appealed to the same kind of geeky idealists who in other generations would speak Esperanto or write open-source software: men who believed that the road to brotherly love was through mastery of a new, better means of communication: You can still read every…

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Fiasco, or how I returned to roleplaying

January 3rd, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

In the last few months, I have got excited about roleplaying for the first time in a decade.

It’s thanks to Fiasco. Fiasco is the most fun, creative, simple roleplaying game I have ever encountered. In fact it seem weird even to call it ‘roleplaying’, considering how different it is from the complex combat heavy rules of Dungeons and Dragons and the like. I’ve even take to describing Fiasco as a ‘storytelling game’, to avoid scaring away potential players. My experience is that people can play through a game and have a great time, without ever associating what they are doing with the word ‘roleplaying’.

Fiasco takes place in a single setting. There is no Game Master. There is no plot prepared in advance. Everything is collectively improvised. The only seed is the ‘playset’, a bare-bones list of possible places, objects, motivations and relationships. These are designed to nudge you towards a black-comedy caper style of play. Fiasco describes itself as a game of ‘people with powerful ambition and poor impulse control’, and names Coen Brothers movies as a major influence.

You start just with a list of 36 possible relationships between characters, and similar lists of places, objects and motivations. Through a semi-random process of selecting them, you collectively sketch out your characters.

The main game is a series of improvised ‘scenes’. Each player in turn is the protagonist of a scene. She sets up a situation and acts it out. Other players perform their own characters as required, or switch and take on minor roles. At some point the other players decide whether it will turn out well or badly for the protagonist (symbolised by handing them a white or black die), and the improv moves seamlessly towards its end.

A game of Fiasco feels something like the roleplaying equivalent of a jam session. You aren’t trying to beat the world, or overcome the obstacles placed by a game-master. You aren’t even trying to get the best outcome for your character. You are trying to have fun.

We found ourselves stripping down even the minimal game mechanics which existed. Provided everybody is on the same wavelength, the stories create themselves, and the rules become just a background rumble.

Fiasco claims to be for 3-5 players. My experience is that 3 works better than 5. That’s mainly because Fiasco lacks a mechanism for time-keeping, and would definitely benefit from having one. It’s very easy to get caught up in a scene and lose track of time, with the effect that any players not involved in a scene get bored. With 3 players, it’s likely that every player will be involved in a scene. With 5, there are likely to be a couple of bystanders.

Even with 3 players, Fiasco tends to go on much longer than its theoretical 2-3 hours’ playtime. I’ve found myself often cutting games short, to avoid people drifting off into exhaustion. Being a single-session game is a curse as well as a blessing — I can’t imagine stopping a game of Fiasco in mid-flow, only to take up the chaos the next week.