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Online town

Like a lot of people, at the start of lockdown I ended up trying out a seemingly endless stream of video-chat services. For the most part, Zoom seems to have become the de facto standard, but during the brief moment that House Party was knocking around my friend group I wondered aloud whether a mashup of Habbo Hotel and House Party wouldn't make sense. Specifically, in large groups Zoom becomes unwieldy and makes conversation difficult; it forces everyone to have the same purpose.

Since then, I've seen a lot of people talking about how they miss the serendipitous conversations that office spaces enable, as well as the "water cooler chat". Again, it feels like a virtual office space, that you can navigate a la Habbo Hotel as an avatar, but which individuals would communicate via proximity-triggered video chat felt like a potential remote "fix" for these kinds of interactions. Sure, walking your avatar over to the kitchen isn't going to be that natural, but you get the idea.

Well, Online Town looks like it's trying something along those lines. You create a room, drop-in, and walk around as an avatar. As you get close to people, they appear on video squares and you can hear what they're saying. I hope that conversations become "louder" as you get closer, so you can effectively eavesdrop as you walk around. For me, that feels like a potentially quite interesting model for fully online social gatherings. Perhaps in an alternate universe where Google Glass was a runaway success, we could now be looking at integrations where literally going to your kitchen at home moved your avatar to the virtual "water cooler" and anyone else in there popped-up on your heads-up display. Personally, I think that would be quite interesting to try.

Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution | Richard Fortey

Reading notes from Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution:

  • The first few pages are an exceptionally accessible and interesting portrayal of geological processes and deep time. Really fantastic descriptions of strata folding and mineral deposition on the Cornish coast.
  • Apparently botanists are forced to describe new species in Latin for them to be recognised (may have ceased since publication). (pg 26)
  • Love the name Paradoxides paradoxissimus; translates to "the most paradoxical of paradoxes", a Cambrian trilobite species. (pg 30)
  • Incredible specimens from New York with pyrite infill to limbs and antennae, finally allowing us to get an idea of how they moved. However, it was initially very hard to explain why these fossils have such good preservation; all of a particular species that seemed to live in large groups without any other creatures. Then we discovered deep-sea clams that had developed a symbiotic relationship with sulphur eating bacteria, growing the bacteria on their shells and eating it to survive. The bacteria naturally creates pyrite/iron as a waste. That's what these deep-sea trilobites appear to have done, living off bacterial farms in their own legs and on the seafloor. (pg 66)
  • Trilobite eyes use perfect calcite crystals as the lens; unique in evolution and quite bizarre as a result. (pg 88)
  • A great description of how vision is imbued into our language: "This shared history of vision is far from trivial. In our visually-dominated world sight is almost synonymous with understanding. We acknowledge light dawning by saying: 'I see!' The metaphor of vision suffuses our attempts to convey comprehension: we bring issues into focus, we clarify our views, we sight our objectives, we look into things. We accept the evidence of our own eyes. The conjurer turns the veracity of sight head over heels: now you see it – now you don't. (pg 88)
  • The whole of chapter five is interesting in its dissection of Gould's Cambrian explosion theory. It cleanly argues (with the help of the author's own research) that cladistic analysis of the Burgess shale is able to group its denizens into clear genealogies. Far from being an explosion of forms and "endless failed evolutionary experiments", these animals show easily recognisable evolutionary affinities.
    Included in that argument are small tidbits, such as the trails found in Cambrian rocks classically attributed to trilobites (cruziana) may not be them at all, as many early arthropods had similar limb setups; also that further study of Hallucinogenia has shown it to be a velvet worm!
    (That said the last few pages are a weird summary of palaeontological gossip and bickering between Morris and Gould, with Dawkins at the edge, which doesn't really mean anything in the context of the wider book) (pg 114 onwards)
  • NHM London's fossil collection likely spans an area larger than a football pitch and has four floors. That's a huge area! (pg 144)
  • "It is genuinely difficult to catch the appearance of new species in the act of creation. [Much like] in a burglary, it is rare to come upon the scene with the miscreant standing there, caught red handed and carrying the swag: the subsequent mayhem is what people usually come home to." (pg 152-153)
  • The sad tale of Prof Kaufmann is depressing but fascinating. He discovered a clear example of punctuated equilibrium (and understood what it was showing) a good 40 years before it's mainstream acceptance/discussion, but his ideas were lost because he published in Germany, as a Jew, days before Hitler first took power. He lost his job almost immediately, so could no longer work, and spent most of the war on the run trying to get back to his girlfriend in Sweden. In fact, we only know the tale of his life from the letters he sent that girl, and yet despite spending the entire war trying to reach her, he was ultimately caught and killed in 1940 😢 (pg 162-164)
  • I've always assumed that the ancient microcontinent of Avalonia was named for it mainly being modern England and Wales (i.e. Avalon of Arthurian legend). Actually, it was named for the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland, which was the main piece of strata that linked the various locations all together! It's just a weird coincidence that it would be connected to England. Better yet, the continent's exact position during the Ordovician was proven by a species of trilobite: Merlinia! (pg 196)
  • Quite bizarrely, it would appear that tardigrades are closely related to (or in fact are) stem arthropods. (pg 246)

📆 13 Jun 2020  | 🔗

  • L-Space
  • Natural World
  • trilobite
  • palaeontology
  • fossil
  • evolution
  • geology
  • strata
  • Cornwall
  • pyrite
  • mineralisation
  • clam
  • bacteria
  • eyes
  • Rudolf Kaufmann
  • World War II
  • King Arthur
  • palaeogeography
  • Natural History Museum
  • London
  • Stephen Jay Gould
  • Cambrian explosion 

McCarthy's Bar | Pete McCarthy

A collection of interesting thoughts, quotes, and facts from the book McCarthy's Bar (reviewed here):
  • "I can't see that a pint or two during the day is a sign of moral turpitude, especially far from home." (pg 61)
  • (Quoted from Wibberley) "Parliament in London voted £100,000 to famine relief, in the same year that it gave £200,000 to the beautification of Battersea Park. 'Anyone who knows Battersea Park' he observes, 'will quickly admit that such a sum was totally inadequate for the purpose'." McCarthy finds solace in Wibberley's bleak humour re: the potato famine, in which 1 million starved to death and a further 1 million became refugees to America and other colonies, whilst standing in the famine pit near Skibbereen with an estimated 9,000 bodies were found.
  • Bantry Bay, in Glengariff, is meant to have the best climate in Ireland and appears to be generally exceedingly beautiful. Probably worth a visit someday. (pg 112)
  • "One of the most distinctive qualities of the English landscape is that over the centuries virtually every acre has been designed. The hand of man is everywhere, and you either like it or you don't. But here, in the elemental west of Ireland, a manicured and cultivated oil painting is the last thing I want to be walking around in." McCarthy's thoughts on Muckross and an excellent quote on how I feel RE: the English landscape. (pg 166)
  • "Clearly corruption on a massive scale must be involved if someone is flying bottles of water from Canada to the wettest country in the world and still making a profit." Thoughts on bottled water, yet another thing we agree on. (pg 195)
  • The journey from Dingle to Slea Hea (via Ventry Harbour) is renowned for its beauty and is frequently described as "mythological". Another for the bucket list. (pg 196)
  • McCarthy has a discussion with a landlord on Galway that involves the details of the mayor in 1493: James Lynch FitzStephen. He hosted a Spanish lad as thanks for his own accommodation on a business trip to Spain, whom his own son murdered over a woman. James then tried his son, found him guilty and, when he couldn't find an executioner to do the deed due to the boy's popularity, hung him himself from the upper window of their house. McCarthy's landlady was uncertain if this is where lynching comes from; Wikipedia feels that it's very unlikely and classes the event as near myth, though the term does appear to come from an American family name... (pg 234)
  • "Inishmore has no native soil to speak of; what you see is a vintage blend of sand and seaweed, created by the Islanders themselves over countless generations. Inches, or feet, below the topsoil, depending on the age of the garden, lie virgin sand and stone." (pg 242)
  • "I pass a pub... with dozens of hyperactive chickens and cockerels swarming outside, like bewitched drinkers who are paying the price for offending the local sorcerer last night." 😂 (pg 243)
  • "On either side of the road, tiny postage stamp fields stretch off into the distance, divided up by more dry stone walls than I've ever seen in my life. At some point in the past, these stones were picked from the ground to create the fields. The plots are so small, and the walls so numerous, because of the poverty, and also because you didn't want to be carrying them far. If you'd made big fields, the walls would have been about forty feet high." On Inishmore. (pg 244)
  • "Long before the Celts came to Ireland in the fourth century BC the country was occupied by tribes of obscure origin, who have now taken on near-mythical status. Until about 1000 BC, a small dark race called the Fir Bolg held sway; but then they were swept aside by the Tuatha de Danaan, a fair-skinned people who were also reputed to be powerful magicians. The decisive battle – the first ever recorded in the history of the country – was fought at Moytura, on the edge of the present-day village of Cong." Of course, there are standing stones and stone circles here, which McCarthy visits. He goes on: "The archaeologists and mystics who are still arguing over what stone circles are for could perhaps take heed of the explanation given by the ancient bards. The Fir Bolg's star warrior was Balor of the Evil Eye, a three-eyed giant who used his extra one to turn opponents to dust. This is the kind of thing you'd want to take into account when you were working out your game plan the night before the battle. According to the bards, the de Danaan's tactic was to erect these stones and paint warriors on them; so when Balor gave them the evil eye, and they didn't disintegrate but, rock-like, stood their ground, he presumed he'd lost his power, and left the battlefield in disgrace. The Fir Bolg then found themselves on the wrong end of a fearful drubbing." (pg 267-268)
  • Nearby to the battle of the Fir Bolg is an enormous stone cairn. The legend behind it is that it was made on the first day of the battle. Every Fir Bolg had to bring their king the head of an enemy and a stone, which were piled into the cairn. "If true, it makes you wonder how they lost". Apparently there are five such cairns across the ancient battlefield, purported to mark entrances to underground passage and a cremation pit. Further down the road sits the Long Stone, the supposed grave of Lu of the Long Hand, son of the de Danaan king, who was killed in the battle (again, how did the Fir Bolg lose?). (pg 269)
  • "The Tuatha de Danaan may have won the day at Moytura, but they in turn were defeated by the invading Celts. When they knew the game was up, it's said that they used their magical powers to turn themselves into the little people of Irish legend, and flee underground. The area around Cong is honeycombed with the caves and underground passages into which they disappeared." There's even a field nearby where the fae-folk are supposed to still feast the victory over the Fir Bolg. (pg 270)
  • "I think everyone has an inner voice, and we can all learn to listen to it. You don't need to analyse where it comes from, but you can attune yourself to it. If you can learn to follow it, it will lead to fulfilment." (pg 371)
  • Celtic monks would wander around Europe once they'd completed their training, searching for a place that spoke to them. They never knew precisely what they were looking for, but roamed until they found it, then settled and made their community where they did. They called this practice "seeking their place of resurrection" as they felt this sense of belonging proved that this was the "spot in the firmament that would one day lead them to heaven". (pg 371)

In America! | Stephen Fry

Reading notes from Stephen Fry in America:

  • In the lowlands of South Carolina and the islands of Georgia you can find the Gullah, a distinct ethnic group derived from slaves. The name may come from Gola, the same root as Angola, but it's unclear. They speak a Creole mix of English, Native American, and African languages and retain far more language and culture from their African roots than most African-Americans, because of malaria. Slave ships tended to bring malaria mosquitoes with them, but in most places they died out. Not in the swampy South Carolina; instead they bred into huge swarms and create a near plague. The African slaves had a tolerance and resistance, but the whites didn't.
    "'The slaves brought with them – all the slave ships did – the mosquito. Now in the other parts, in the land where cotton grows, Mr Mosquito he couldn't survive, but down here in the Low Country, he loved all them marshes. And Mr Mosquito he flourish and the malaria was bad. The Africans had the resistance and fore you knew it South Carolina had a larger black population than white!' Miss Anita chuckles at this curlicue of history. 'They have a word in the cotton fields - "de-Africanise". The cotten slaves were de-Africanised good, but here in the rice paddies things were different. Not so many whites around so the slaves weren't never so integrated into the white world.'"
    "Her dialogue is full of references to 'the Masser' and 'white folks' and the 'birthin' of babies', the sort of Mammy-talk which is straight out of Butterfly McQueen's famous lines in Gone with the Wind and which I had thought so politically incorrect as to be virtually illegal. It is rather liberating to know that this language has been reclaimed by its originators and to hear it spoken with such gusto and relish." [On a Gullah play Stephen watched, with Miss Anita performing lead.](pg 125-127)
  • The official rock of Mississippi is petrified wood. (pg 161)
  • "Yes, Ohio's State Beverage really is tomato juice. Not a word of a lie. I have not included the other states' choice of beverage because all but five choose milk (mostly because they are states that have cattle in them) and the lists would become repetitive. [Here referring to lists at the start of each chapter on key facts about that state] Only Ohio goes for tomato juice. Maine has Moxie listed, a weird fizzy potion composed of gentian root and other bitter herbs. It claims to be America's first soda pop. Alabama is the only state to elect an ardent spirit, Conecuh Ridge Whiskey. California has wine, predictably enough, while Florida and Massachusetts each opt for their native orange and cranberry juices. Indiana, pathetically, chooses water. Twenty-three states do not have a State Beverage at all. What spoilsports. Boo to them." (pg 182)
  • Detroit, Michigan, is home to the US car industry. It's the centre of production for Ford, GM, and Chrysler, though only GM can be considered in good stead at point of writing. Ford is in decline, Chrysler a steady third place, but GM is still going strong and owns Cadillac, Chevrolet, Buick, Pontiac, Saab, Opel, and Vauxhall. The Ford Rouge Works was once the largest industrial centre in the world. (pg 189)
  • On the rural, traditional sport of ice fishing in Minnesota: "The equipment is ready to be put into operation. First there is the Icemaster King Power Auger. A pull on the start-rope and the sound of fifty chain saws rends the air. Tim grins widely. An American in heaven. He is a noble pioneer pitting his wits against nature and he has the plaid and power tool to prove it. [...] So now we have a hole. But technology has more to offer. Down the hole is lowered a long tube at the end of which is sonar equipment. Yes. Sonar. The same sonar that was developed by the Royal Navy in the war to defend shipping against the U-Boat wolf packs. At the surface a screen reveals the results of the sonar's soundings in green shapes that represent fish. Now Time lowers a camera. A colour video camera. Finally I am handed a little rod which is weighted, baited and lowered. Ice-fishing is now a question of watching the sonar, which shows fish from some distance, and - as they approach the hook - turning your attention to the television monitor. When a fish swims into view you can twitch your rod a little to interest the fish in it and then - evil cackle - they are yours. Mwah-haha. Poor creatures. They really don't stand much of a chance do they?" (pg 211)
  • North Dakota has record temperature levels at 49'C and -51'C, some of the highest variability in the world... and yet the main occupation in the state is farming! They also have a large Scandinavian population and an even larger German-American population; almost 2.5% of North Dakotans speak German still as the primary home language. In the capital of Bismarck, over 50% of citizens are of German stock. (pg 233)

It is enough | Carlos Ruiz Zafón

It isn't worth wasting your time trying to change the world; it is enough not to let the world change you.

The Watcher in the Shadows, page 34.

Dark mode in Gatsby | Josh W. Comeau

Josh outlines the various steps required to get a dark mode theme working properly in Gatsby. I've been wondering about adding a dark mode at some point and, honestly, I'm amazed by the number of steps required. Figured I should probably bookmark this for later as a result.

Seams and edges | Ethan Marcotte

Just after the 10-year anniversary of his Responsive Design article on A List Apart, Ethan has published some interesting thoughts on the nature of seams within responsive designs. Seams are the point at which a design fails. These can be viewport related – we've all resized a page in dev tools and suddenly realised that it's unusable at a specific aspect ratio – but, of course, also points out that seams can exist in non-visual elements of the page as well.

He ties that to design systems and their needs to consider individual patterns as mini responsive designs. Instead of fighting seams, he proposes looking back to Mark Boulton's concept of "content-out design".

Instead, [Mark] suggests that designing from the content out can create more interconnected, more harmonious layouts.

I love this concept. Even now, my first thought when beginning to design something in Photoshop, Illustrator, or wherever else, is to start by defining a canvas and (probably) a grid. Then I – as Ethan puts it – fill in that grid. However, the more I work with components, the more I find this a silly way of doing things. I end up stretching bits here and squeezing them there to get the component to span a certain number of columns or rows. Instead, what I've started doing is designing the component apart from everything else, to be the size and shape that feels right for whatever it (and it alone) contains. I hadn't considered doing that at a site-level, but I'd be excited to give it a try.

Racism in palaeoart and #BlackLivesMatter | Mark Witton

Palaeoart has actually been associated with suppression of non-white people both indirectly and rather pointedly, and not through obscure works or people, either. Famous historic figures, who are justifiably held in high regard for their scientific and palaeoartistic work, are part of this story.

There's some really interesting/disturbing stuff here. Cuvier worked on academic papers outlining biological divisions within races – i.e. racist pseudoscience – whilst De la Beche (the first palaeoartist in some senses) actively opposed the abolition of slavery, likely because he owned a plantation in Jamaica... Even Charles Knight's mentor, Cope, was outspoken on "white superiority" and believed Black Americans should be deported "back" to Africa.

Henry Fairfield Osborn was a proud eugenicist and Nazi supporter, who is well known to have abused his tenure as president of the American Museum of Natural History to promote a racist agenda. A prime example is his direction on the famous (infamous?) Neanderthal painting that Knight – whose own thoughts are not documented – produced for Osborn's "Hall of Man". It's an incredibly famous image still used frequently today, but ultimately the brutish nature of the people it portrayed were both based on racist themes and deliberately modelled on extant cultures that Osborn considered "primitive".

The symbolism here is as gross as it is obvious, and makes the Osborn/Knight Neanderthals the palaeoartistic equivalent of golliwogs, minstrels and mammy figurines.

Mark also outlines his intentions for acknowledging the racist associations with his field moving forward. These are noble and well-phrased, but I found this particularly pertinent:

I will not be derailing my talks into anti-racist events, but it's nothing to point out that 19th century science had links with slavery and attempted to scientifically prove the inferiority of black people. We shouldn't just let that slide.

Better image optimisation by restricting the colour index | Eric Meyer

When optimising images with only a few visible colours, reducing the output colour space can have massive savings (Eric is talking about the Acorn software here):

When I clicked the “Index PNG Colors” checkbox and changed the slider until I started getting dithers or obvious color loss, then brought it up a notch or two, the difference was astounding. Instead of a 30KB file, I got a 4.4 KB file. Instead of saving at 75% the original size, it was now 11%.

Hard to break | adactio

There's an idea at the core of Jeremy's thoughts here which struck a never, one that is best summed up in two quotes, one from Jeremy and another he quotes from Jamais Cascio (here given with Jamais first, Jeremy second):

When something is brittle, it’s susceptible to sudden and catastrophic failure.
It’s not that brittle sites don’t work. They work just fine …until they don’t.

I agree that brittleness is often a result of how things look fine. Jeremy makes the point that we have a "natural bias towards what's visible" and that's true. When the breaking points of our sites are invisible – because we're using fast connections, we're close to the server, we're operating on a desktop with a good screen, we're using a mouse to navigate – the site looks robust. But robust is not the same as "hard to break". It looks strong, but it may just be brittle.

Indieweb privacy challenges | Sebastian Greger

The IndieWeb was designed to be a better option for privacy, users, content authorship, and the open web. I think it largely meets those goals, but Sebastian has put together some excellent points on why it may fail on the privacy front at times:

  • Backfilling from silos can distort or misrepresent meaning. In other words, a "like" on Twitter may not be the same as a favourite or "like" on the IndieWeb. Nomenclature changes and people use these features for different purposes, for example for bookmarking posts;
  • Backfilling also adds unintended legitimacy to simple, spur-of-the-moment user interactions. Liking something on Twitter is considered fairly ephemeral by many: the author of the tweet will see I "liked" it, I will have a record, people can find that "like" if they dig deep enough etc. But backfilling onto a blog post means saving a person's digital identity – their profile photo, name, URL, details etc. – as well as their words to a more permanent store. Most importantly, you're doing so without asking their permission.
  • Relatedly, you're also not gaining permission to duplicate their content on your website. A reply that is backfilled is effectively stolen without authorial consent.

Sebastian has gone to lengths to solve these problems, anonymising his backfeed and generating pixelated avatars instead of displaying faces for any interactions that could be considered unintentional.

Example of anonymised feed with standard social sharing buttons and aggregated likes, favourites, and replies beneath. User photos have been pixelated and names removed.
I do think the idea of anonymising profile photos is pretty unique and looks great. I'd be interested to know if this method was random or if an image always output the same; the latter would be quite cool, but definitely has privacy concerns attached.

However, with the implementation of GDPR it seems that even that level of implementation may no longer fit privacy definitions. Whilst I would argue that many companies have since agreed that "public domain === consent" (that's certainly what I have been advised by multiple companies and legal firms), the right to delete is still a very valid point. As is the fact that – legal or not – you are copying someone's content and placing it somewhere else, without explicit consent. I have my own mixed and muddied views on that topic, but it is one that worries me.

Interestingly, it would seem that simply pulling total likes etc. from a silo would be fine and that makes sense. I see those interaction counts as ultimately the author's data, not each individual's who contributed, so only the silo would have a claim to stop you. Personally, that feels less creepy anyway, but it does lose the community feeling. Perhaps some kind of authorisation token within a person's own website (think IndieAuth) could be used to set your own privacy level to "always allow sharing", "never", or "only in X, Y, Z circumstances". As long as it was standardised it could work, though it would mean a separate fetch for each item in the backfeed (at a minimum, probably two: one to the silo profile, the second to the linked indie website).

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