We played our first game of content improv last night. When an audience shouts out a string of random words, sketch comedians don’t stare back blankly: they leap into action. They find connections; they make them entertaining. Last night, we spent time forming random connections between bits of pop culture and the topic at hand. What the punk movement portends for the future of digital security? Sure, why not. What online criminals can learn from Moonrise Kingdom? Yup. Beards and block ciphers? Check.
Out of this absurdity came a few surprising ideas and, ultimately, a fun new post. It’s not the next great American blog post, mind you, but it strikes balance between sweet and meat. Best of all: it was written in record time!
Content blogging is a grind. I post something new to the Cloak security blog every week, rain or shine. But I often find myself stuck along the way. Any process that clears out the creative cobwebs is worth mentioning; doubly so if it’s repeatable. There’s no magic to the improv; it’s simply a fun way to force us out of our mental cul-de-sacs and onto broader boulevards.
Big data is what happened when the cost of storing information became less than the cost of throwing it away. — George Dyson
My university had impressively old libraries filled with impressively older books. I’d wander through the stacks and try to spot the volume with the dustiest spine. If a book looked particularly unloved, I’d allow myself to open to its back flap and inspect the last stamped date of circulation. If it was old enough, I’d quickly thumb through the pages, cleaning interior dust as I went. Once in a long while, I’d find the time to read a page or two before I put the book back on its shelf — back into its information purgatory.
The Sciences Library was already fifteen stories tall, but I always imagined they could lift off its brutalist top and add unbounded new floors to house the growing collection. The architects had their work cut out for them, of course, as they’d probably need to grow the skyscraper exponentially fast. Over time, as I wandered the new floors above the clouds, I’d see fewer students — until one day I’d see none at all. After all, we could build the books but we couldn’t build ourselves fast enough to keep dusting off their pages, to say nothing of reading them. This realization was lovely if bittersweet: so many dusty books; so many pages so long forgotten. Without the hope of rediscovery, information purgatory looked indistinguishable from far crueler entropy.
Today, it’s bits, not pages. We can happily grow our library without bound. This time, there’s no need to break the endowment, and our structural engineers have the problem well in hand. Yet the same curves I imagined for the real apply just as well to the virtual: top-line information growth, an exponential over time; middle-line physical limits on our consumption, a linear function of our population; bottom-line limits on our ability to cogitate what we consume, a linear function of population at its hopeful best. Is the story again bittersweet: so many bits, soon to be so long forgotten?
We can never again visit all the bits by hand, but we now have tools that vastly amplify our reach. Today, search engines are seen as a powerful convenience; a means to find a thing we want. If the trends continue, perhaps they become something far greater: perhaps they become a light on our shared humanity. A century hence, what is a cultural anthropologist to do? Why, spin up a custom algorithm that explores a floor of the library long since unvisited, racing brilliantly amongst the stacks and dusting off a few forgotten bits along the way. Our understanding of ourselves will be inexorably linked to automated exploration of the bits we’ve left behind. We have the tools, but the algorithmic bestiary has only begun: a dizzying array of mechanical critters exploring our heritage. This, then, is George Dyson’s “big data”: a strange new land where information purgatory is hopeful and alive for perhaps the very first time.
Shopping online shouldn’t mean missing out on all that great holiday music!
Install my new Chrome extension to get in the holiday spirit when you shop at the world’s largest Cyber Monday destinations, like Amazon.com.
(Why, you ask? Why not, I say! I wrote this in under 30 minutes just to see what it takes to build and ship a Chrome extension. It’s pretty easy, as it turns out. If you’d like to “improve” it, the code is on GitHub.)
It’s also immensely clever on several levels: it surfaces lively musical metadata over previously flat videos; it makes extensive use of cutting-edge browser APIs; it crowd-sources content creation; it has the potential to become a genuine cultural resource.
Plus, Soundslice is fun. I was all smiles when putting together a transcription of Clifford Brown’s great tune, Joy Spring.
The New Yorker has a killer profile of Ahmir Khalib Thompson, aka Questlove:
At fifteen, Ahmir was already a seasoned professional. Yet he spent his high-school years wondering whether he was good enough to play drums at all. This was partly an accident of history. In the late nineteen-eighties, the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts was home to an astonishing crop of talent. Ahmir’s class alone included Christian McBride, Joey DeFrancesco, and Kurt Rosenwinkel — arguably the greatest jazz bassist, organist, and guitarist of their generation. As a junior, in the school’s talent show, Ahmir lost to future members of the R. & B. group Boyz II Men. As a senior, he took the jazz singer and future Grammy nominee Amel Larrieux to the prom.
If you’re a music lover, it’s worth picking up the November 12 edition for this article alone. Grab it on your iPad or, if you’re feeling old-school, on the shelves at your friendly neighborhood newsstand.
Referendum 74, permitting gay marriage in Washington state, has passed. It’s nice to know that 52% of my fellow Washingtonians aren’t bigots.
And, yes: I believe that if you’re against gay marriage, you’re a bigot.✝ At the very least, you’re prejudiced and fearful. Now, nobody’s perfect, and the reasons for our personal prejudices can be quite complex. So: if you’re against gay marriage, you’re wrong, but I can forgive you.
On the other hand, if you organize a coalition against gay marriage — if you actively rally people to deny the civil rights of others — well, then you’re straight fucking evil. Such evil I can’t forgive.
✝ This is obviously inflammatory, but that’s intentional. If you don’t know me, you might think it is also ad hominem. However, if you do know me, you know that I’ve spent serious time examining many common arguments against gay marriage. I find them all wanting. With one exception, I’ve concluded that most interesting arguments against gay marriage rest on hidden assumptions about (un)shared cultural values. The one exception is the extreme libertarian position that argues against all state-sponsored marriage, not just gay marriage. While I understand the appeal of this position, I find it unworkable in practice. At least it’s not bigoted, though.
Hi, I'm Dave Peck. I write software that makes hard things simple. My current app, Cloak, keeps you safe on public wi-fi.