Thursday, March 28, 2013

March: Executive Summary


Some cool T-shirts, and some not-cool T-shirts.

From Tim Maly's "Quiet Babylon's Algorithmic Rape Jokes in the Library of Babel," object spam in Second Life:

Why is it always the T-shirts with the sexist slogans? Why are so few other clothes sexist in this way? Name three sexist macs.

Also: Neatorama's perfunctory timeline of the T-shirt. Also, a game: contort your T-shirt into a t-shirt. Now do an R-shirt.

Compare Pete Ashton's early comments on the T-shirts episode (& his later reflection on how those comments got widely disseminated, and led to phone calls from news networks, and getting called a sub human piss man and worse (not by the people ringing up from the news networks. Just by some twerts)).

Scott Lash on Bruno Latour's parliament of things: "Objects that Judge."

My incident report from my e-vendory tower. "As seems to be the case pretty often with net culture, the theory we devise for it turns out to be applicable to things that pre-dated it." Has anyone seriously attempted to theorise ideology as code from the perspective of computer science, not semiotics, information theory and systems theory? For all that the humanities' construal of ideology draws on the imagery of programming, and stresses process and autonomous virulence, my sense is that the default analogy for some aspect of ideology would be inert data. Anyone want to give me some tips / a reading list?

"Or to put that another way, is Solid Gold Bomb now aware of just how much nasty is stuff is out there, waiting to be said?" Compare nick-e melville's planned/ongoing Imperative Commands project.

In South Africa the horse meat scandal may contain giraffe meat scandal. (Reuters).

A piece from last November about 3D-printing and crapjects (Changeist). "In my mind's eye, I picture the trashpickers of LA, wandering over a field of discarded chess pieces and napkin holders, tossing aside misshapen busts of Mozart and two-headed Star Wars stormtroopers, pushing past a half-finished TV stand or crunching through the remains of several attempted drone-prints."



A short film based on Tim Maughan's short story "Paintwork":

Credits over at Wired. La Jetée cited as an influence. Bruce Sterling comments, "Very convergence culture. I wonder what it would look like if a hundred million dollars had been spent on it?" Maybe like it was influenced by 12 Monkeys?

Martin Lewis of Everything is Nice has an interesting review of Maughan's "Limited Edition".

"On one level, I honestly wanted them to get away with their Smash/Grab! Then I remembered myself." Like Lewis, Niall Alexander is reviewing the BSFA-nominated stories, except almost heroically law-abidingly.

"Limited Edition" itself available in Arc. Free, because they know you'd just nick it.

Also compare: my Crot riot Hax tumblr from August 2011. But I miss its old skin.



Keep Calm and Groupon. I may have been fired as Groupon CEO, but I have knowledge of a very advanced level of Battletoads. Basically this is still a win. (Wired).

Nima Shirazi on Argo. "Over the past 12 months, rarely a week - let alone month - went by without new predictions of an ever-imminent Iranian nuclear weapon and ever-looming threats of an American or Israeli military attack. Come October 2012, into the fray marched Argo, a decontextualized, ahistorical "true story" of Orientalist proportion, subjecting audiences to two hours of American victimization and bearded barbarians, culminating in popped champagne corks and rippling stars-and-stripes celebrating our heroism and triumph and their frustration and defeat." Compare some of Shirazi's earlier comments.

Solar-system-in-context-visualisation. @DJSadhu's "deep space hand cam." (Via Metafilter).

Max Planck (b. 1858), an inspiration to all workers in the field of theoretical physics, has piecemeal replaced his body with CMB measurement and imaging instruments, solar arrays, attitude control thrusters etc., and launched himself into a massively elliptical orbit to capture the oldest light in the sky. Planck's portrait of the infant universe (

Wired article: I will seek "most badass" moon in solar system.

"Visceral" attempt at playground autism simulator.

The lorem ipsum is a standard piece of dummy text used by typesetters. BLOKK is for "clients who don't speak Latin." Hipster ipsum: "Forage stumptown pork belly DIY, vegan do american apparel ad irure art party bicycle rights tofu carles. Try-hard et id fingerstache mustache. Enim single-origin coffee beard fap. Disrupt williamsburg farm-to-table, accusamus odio assumenda elit street art aliquip. Consectetur photo booth put a bird on it trust fund, blog actually sed meh wayfarers leggings +1 gentrify placeat. Whatever et YOLO VHS butcher, occaecat umami intelligentsia do mollit brunch food truck farm-to-table anim. Pitchfork vinyl organic, next level labore magna non bespoke salvia letterpress neutra pug synth 8-bit."

Joan Slonczewski on Charlie Stross's blog on mitochondria and outsourcing the human; mitochondria have been in the public eye in the wake of some slightly misnomered "Three Parents?" articles.


Clarkesworld in March included: Alethea Contis on fairy tales. "Do we even know who our children are?" Compare Tolkien. Also includes Aliette de Bodard's tale of rebellion, e-ancestors, "The Weight of a Blessing." De Bodard talks through the process of writing it on her blog. Also includes: "The Last Survivor of the Great Sexbot Revolution," by AC Wise. Compare article about sexbots (h+), the uncanny valley, and "Shiri: buttocks humanoid that represents emotions". Roxxxy is the best-known existing sexbot. David Levy's Love and Sex with Robots ( SexBot at TVTropes. Black Mirror "Be Right Back" Q&A with Charlie Brooker. Wong Kar Wai's 2046:

Related: Kyra-Wardog on Clarisse Thorn's Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser (FerretBrain).

Also cf. weird to the Wise: "Where Dead Men Go To Dream" by A.C. Wise at Weird Fiction Review.



NASA's Curiosity continues pootling around Mars having infinitesimal adventures (BBC).

Dennis Tito's forecast private Mars flyby: poop shields up! Evacuative action!

Do you know of Mars One, the nonprofit-with-profit-elements that plans to put humans, hopefully including me, on Mars but doesn't plan to bring us back? Its financial model focuses on media revenues. Is this really possible?

A BBC reporter embedded with the French Foreign Legion in Mali takes the "Mars" angle.

A candle flame in zero G:


The 64th Eastercon was held in Bradford at the end of March.

"Though you don't know it, at the heart of the Internet's magic is a router that can manage TCP/IP over destiny. It can send packets where they will fulfill the truest desires of true love, where they will turn farce into tragedy, where truth is weighed in the balance and whence inspiration comes." Some flash fiction Cory Doctorow wrote at the con.


Syndicate: had the first in the series, with Sophie Robinson, Dorothy Butchard, Calum Rodger and Iliop. Prompted me to reinstall JanusNode (see TED talk titles) & fend off carious PiP with image macros.
No writing whatsoever. Reading: Peter F. Hamilton's Great North Road. Read Asher's "The Other Gun." Musil paused. Saw Lust/CautionCharade, some Bradley.
No kip-ups. One leg squat. Khan: v. minor; intro to exponents, radicals, scientific equation, & some linear equations & functions stuff.

Some arithmetical knowledge seems to exist in me an odd hybrid form between a fact (e.g. 2+2=4) and a rule or set of rules in action (e.g. 2553+14885=32323). It perhaps relates to the different forms of doubt/reliability in the phenomenal experience of doing arithmetic. One way of describing the difference between those forms of doubt/reliability is as the difference between knowing that some procedure will work, and also knowing why it works. I think that's a pretty common way of putting it. I was wondering if that expression could mask alternatives though, or deter usefully baroque and obsessive explorations of that feeling? What is it that will satisfy you, phenomenally, that you know why a procedure works? I was trying out some percentages. "So-and-so has x in her bank account on Wednesday, y on Thursday. By what percentage has her bank account increased?" First of all, (a) smash capitalism. And (b), I could familiarise myself with the contour "y-x=z, z/y*100 is the answer I need." I think that I might feel I knew why I should apply that pattern, and not only which pattern to apply, if I can shift around one variable and the others correspond in the right proportions, and perhaps with the self-moving quality of dreams. The sense of the appropriateness of those proportions presumably comes from that moving system coinciding periodically with knowledge stored more like a fact. The ghostly joints briefly line up with 1 being 50% of 2, etc., and you feel that you have tested and confirmed your deeper knowledge of this percentages procedure. I wonder also if there's actually an interplay between visual and linguistic forms of knowledge here? If so, would some aspects evolve into another irreducibly arithmetic form, once you got really good? Compare perhaps those moments where a mathematics teacher completely fails to teach. "You can see that the answer is . . . you can just see that, right?" Is that only a failure of pedagogy or also of introspection? Also think of someone's mathematical capacities atomising along lines derived from the familiarities of expertise. Many bridges evolving into fewer. Disused connections subtly destroyed as one heuristic gets ninja-substituted for another, etc.

Monday, March 18, 2013


Following Calum Rodger's discussion of his(ish) JanusLOLs at the Inspace event last week, I supplied PiPLOL services to last night's P(r)o(s)etry in Progress meeting (first drafts low on LOL but sassily snatched from the unbending decimating rigour of the Pip gauntlet). Two from poems by Iain Morrison & Lila Matsumoto:

Friday, March 15, 2013


TED talk titles generated by JanusNode (tweaked):

These days Islam can produce thousands of terabytes of data. How can we deal with all this data? Recent McCarthy award winning illustrator Imogene Intintinca started 'the Islam Project' to teach actual infants how they can get young, ignorant children involved in Islam from as young as seven.

You may not know as much as you think about ancient monuments! Oscar-winning intern Imogen Tawfiq, having lived with iatrogenic irascibility for 36 years, describes how (after over 300 tries) she and her team created a visually stunning, eco-friendly hydraulic ram that will change the way you think about adaptive robotics.

What can be learned about flying cars from the study of fleas? Gonzo unskilled laborer Ulysses Underwood shows how urban waste can connect urban waste with urban transportation systems.

Are problems with literature insurmountable? Oscar-winning lumberjack Lex Leblanc presents the optimistic business education packages she makes from leaves.

There are 30,000 indigenous creative industries practitioners in Eritrea. Lamp lighter Lure Leonardo, having almost lost his life mountaineering, wanted to study the CERN particle collider - until he discovered libraries.

Imagine if everyone on the planet could understand developmental disorders. Just back from a world bicycle tour, housewife Ette-ette Hugo Hugo Hemheu-Hug Mouse, having been severely beaten by rebels, wanted to study unprecedented amounts of data - until she discovered education.

Also: "Great Ideas demand precisely the opposite of TED thinking."
Umair Haque on TED talks: thinking, ideas, solutions, commodities.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Keep Calm & Put It On

These cool T-shirts are cool. 

A little background, for those who don't just care about looking cool, but also about the background to their looking cool.

This season's must-have scandalcore permutationwear recalls the phrase "Keep Calm & Carry On," which originated with some WWII propaganda posters, posters which, from the sounds of it, somebody really meant to get round to putting up. The phrase returned during the naughties as a mildly disappointing piece of post-Cool Britannia retro-smug knick-knack in framed prints, on the sides of mugs, etc., and eventually mutated into a phrasal template-type meme.

It's been all over the news the last few days because someone spotted on Amazon that a T-shirt company called Solid Gold Bomb listed items emblazoned with some totally mindbogglingly violent misogynist permutations. The company pretty quickly issued a forlorn and shambolic apology, explaining (as Pete Ashton and others had already guessed) that the listings were the result of an automatic script which generated thousands of possible designs.

It looks like the script drew on a long list of verbs and permutated them with a short list of words with a decent chance of grammatical agreement - intensifiers, prepositions, and pronouns. Including the verb "rape" and the pronoun "her."

Behind the product was a script; behind the script a company; behind the company a human. But the trail needn't have been so simple. What if behind the algorithm, there was an algorithm-writing algorithm, something which didn't require supervision, which might go on long after its maker was dead? What if our tangible world of commodities were to start to behave a little bit more like online viral ecologies, like worms, spam and malware?


Compare Bruce Sterling's "Kiosk," text or podcast.

Algorithmic print-on-demand books with deceptive listings have been around a while (NYT). See also Lara Buckerton on recombinant literature (and copyright and other things).

Do such books not exist till you order them? Or do they exist, but with a print run of zero?

Compare also the clothes of Many of these are probably machine translations of typical shirt discourse, but the more interesting ones seem to be bits of text selected at random, or for purely visual aesthetic qualities.

A sort of inverse is Hanzi Smatter, who takes understandable pleasure telling people what their Chinese character tattoos actually mean. (A lot of folks seem to get inked with "free" in the sense of "gratis.")


Has Solid Gold Bomb broken the law?

In the UK, quite possibly. Negligence isn't enough for Part 4A of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994; there has to be an intention to cause distress or harm. I wonder if listing an item on Amazon counts as "sending a message"? The extraordinarily spongy, zanily designed and haphazardly applied offences of the Malicious Communications Act 1998 and the Communications Act 2003 could potentially suck up Solid Gold Bomb's mistake. Should it be a crime? I'm not sure. I have a kneejerk reaction against any criminalisation! One thing is clear: the laws which cover these matters have their origin in things like sending poison pen letters or waving placards in the street, and are still oriented to such activities - activities with deep structural differences to the kinds of things that happen online.

More generally. The things we buy and sell tell us, indirectly, about what is and isn't okay to do. The law in modern complex societies is vast, complex and opaque, known by most people mostly through inferences, heuristics and non-propositional savoir faire. Lots of little hints overlap to reinforce a norm. There are all kinds of institutions and practices which nudge us down lawful paths (and in fact, often without teaching us why they're nudging us). Markets are an important part of this. Markets don't just transmit information about demand and supply: they disseminate all kinds of information about all kinds of things.

How would pervasive 3D-print-on-demand production chains, fronted by script-generated vendors, alter the ways in which such signals are disseminated?


I like Calum Rodger's suggestion - in the context of computer-generated poetry - that The Function of Criticism at the Present Time is perhaps to investigate the algorithmic objects that give rise to texts encountered by readers, rather than the texts, readers or encounters. (This was in a paper for the Forms of Innovation conference in Durham last year. He may well touch on the topic again in two weeks in Edinburgh).

Pete Ashton usefully adopts the rubric of digital literacy. "Nobody made, or approved, the design," he points out, and, "there’s no cost involved. The shirts don’t exist. All that exists is a graphics file on a computer ready to be printed onto a shirt if an order comes through." I guess his implication is: the appropriate response isn't to go ballistic on Twitter versus strawfolk, it's to Keep Calm And Email Amazon And Solid Gold Bomb That There's A Glitch With The Algorithm. Don't waste your energy and don't try to score political points off it. Those are points which are prone to vaporise, taking some of your more valid manna with them. Compare some of the folks on this thread, who just don't believe there could be any such accidentally sexist algorithm. Ashton also shouts out Rushkoff's Program or be Programmed.

But I'm not entirely convinced. It feels to me like it lets Solid Gold Bomb get off too lightly. There is culpability here. I have to say I didn't notice any "him" statements, but a lot of "her" statements. Did Solid Gold Bomb perhaps intend to unleash some jocular, low-key, "Battle of the Sexes," market-acceptable sexism? And did Solid Gold Bomb carefully excise cuss-words from the source list, but not think of words like "smack" and "rape"? Does Solid Gold Bomb now appreciate that stochastic language, far from being free, is the most easily colonised by existing power structures and the brutal means by which they are enforced? Or to put that another way, is Solid Gold Bomb now aware of just how much nasty is stuff is out there, waiting to be said? Would a feminist have made Solid Gold Bomb's mistake? Is Solid Gold Bomb a feminist?

Anyway, my hunch is that we unlettered digi-bungaloids are slow to change, and instead the new production chains will to adapt to digital illiteracy. New Quality Assurance processes are going to be developed which are oriented to precisely this kind of permutated commodity. Or perhaps operations like Solid Gold Bomb will have some detectable signature and get all their listings slapped with warning signs. "This Item May Not Exist (Unless You Want It To). Click Here If This Listing Is Inappropriate."

UPDATE: It looks like Amazon have now yanked all Solid Gold Bomb products, is that right? Though they're still paying for their GoogleAd click-throughs.


Individual and institutional agency may be mixed into what appears on your screen in pretty complicated and counter-intuitive ways. Traditional ways of reading traces of responsibility may be becoming unreliable.

Except, of course, that they were never reliable in the first place! Nor can you sanely suppose that (see above) the things we are taught by what we buy and sell are things we ought to be learning.

As seems to be the case pretty often with net culture, the theory we devise for it turns out to be applicable to things that pre-dated it. Buried deep in the obscure recesses of the eleventh volume of Marx's Kapital. "A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. [...] it was the analysis of the prices of commodities that alone led to the determination of the magnitude of value, and it was the common expression of all commodities in money that alone led to the establishment of their characters as values. It is, however, just this ultimate money form of the world of commodities that actually conceals, instead of disclosing, the social character of private labour, and the social relations between the individual producers." Compare the excellent discussion in Keston Sutherland's "Marx in Jargon" (PDF) of how human labour is gathered in commodities. "Marx’s German readers will not only have bought Gallerte, they will have eaten it; and in using the name of this particular commodity to describe not 'homogeneous' but, on the contrary, 'unterschiedslose,' that is, 'undifferentiated' human labor, Marx’s intention is not simply to educate his readers but also to disgust them."

Maybe one good translation would be Spam.