Each day a different image or photograph of our universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.


Matthew Butterick:

They contradict Unicode. Unicode is a standardized system—used by all contemporary fonts—that identifies each character uniquely. This way, software programs don’t have to worry that things like the fi ligature might be stashed in some special place in the font. Instead, Unicode designates a unique name and number for each character, known as a code point. If you have an fi ligature in your font, you identify it with its designated Unicode code point, which is 0xFB01.

In addition to alphabetic characters, Unicode assigns code points to hundreds of symbols. Many of the programming ligatures shown above are visually similar to existing Unicode symbols. So in a source file that uses Unicode characters, how would you know if you’re looking at a => ligature that’s shaped like ⇒ vs. Unicode character 0x21D2, which also looks like ⇒? The ligature introduces an ambiguity that wasn’t there before.

This is from Connections, James Burke’s documentary television series produced by the BBC in 1978, on how technology and change happens. It’s a personal account of how we got to now, how ideas spread and technology evolves; overall I think what Burke does well is showing how everything is connected. Throughout Connections knowledge is analysed foremost as a distributed system within a community, rather than as a personal asset (as something that I, as an individual, have or not). In Burke’s view then progress happens when a new detail of reality becomes widely known to a group of people, to one civilisation.

His point is also that — as we add layers of technology to our society — it becomes impossible for each and one of us to have a solid understanding of how everything works. Knowledge has to be distributed, by necessity. In our everyday interactions — when we open the tap, flush the toilet, flip the switch — we don’t have to think about how something works: it just works. The functioning of the systems which support the technologies is abstracted for us.

As as result, we’re mostly clueless: we move between abstractions, failing to notice the model, unaware of the complexity of the network we built. To say it differently: any mature technology eventually recedes to the state of nature, to background, to part of the environment and of how things are, unquestioned and taken for granted. What Burke also seems to say is that although our strength — our ability to survive and adapt — derives from technology, the complexity that technology has introduced over time has reduced (if not removed) our individual ability to survive.

I sympathise with this argument — it’s why I was never charmed by the escape to the pond kind of literature. It’s naive at best to believe that at this stage any single one of us is not totally reliant on the layers of technology (water supply, electricity, and so on) that we put in place and on the outsourcing of the knowledge required to keep them running.

Which is another way of saying that reality has an infinite amount of details, most of which we’re unaware of. As soon as we look closely into something, we realise the stark vastness of our ignorance. It might be a useful thing to remind ourselves of, before entertaining any dream of self-sufficiency outside of society.

Toby Shorin:

In both the medieval and traditional forms of society, mankind was at the whim of God and nature. We could die in any number of ways. A locust wave (sent by God) ruined our crops, or you ate a poisonous berry, were bitten by a snake, or attacked by a bear, or some other cruel fate. To mitigate these eventualities the best we could do was pray to God, or for traditional humans, participate through ritual in the regeneration and renewal of the cosmos, an effort to help reinstantiate the natural order. So humans, weak and marginal, were just one figure in a cosmos of acting, agential beings and spirits.

Is this too not a form of full autonomy? Could we not say that human beings lived in a fully automated world then? One in which we were not at the center, but at the edges, just one part?

What if our desire for full autonomy is not a desire for “maximal mastery and total liberation, but the desire for limited agency? The desire to live once again in a naïve state of belief, one in which we are not paralyzed by optionality?

Twenty years ago (Jan 5th, 2020) Steve Jobs demoed Internet Explorer 5 for Mac. The app was chosen by Jobs for its bold UI, which was developed in complete secrecy within Microsoft but had an uncanny resemblance of the yet-to-be-unveiled Acqua interface of Mac OS X.

Maf Vosburgh, one of the developers who worked on the project, writes:

Coming from the artist-influenced multimedia world, the visual style Microsoft had in progress for Mac IE 5 looked ancient to me. Everything was the MacOS platinum style, shades of gray like cement, with a horde of tiny 16 by 16 pixel toolbar icons (in 4-bit color with a 1 bit mask) most of which had obviously been designed by engineers in a pixel editor like ResEdit.

I had the idea of making our browser chrome match the actual hardware you were on. If your Mac’s bezel was Bondi blue, we’d make our UI Bondi blue. That way our “frame” around the web page would match the bezel and so would be seen as part of the background and be distinct from the content. By being more vivid we would paradoxically blend into the background, and look more at home. […]

I put my idea to the rest of the Mac IE team, and they loved it. […] It rapidly came together and in Summer 1999 we demoed the secret New Look build of Mac IE5 to Steve Jobs, the first person to see it outside Nykris and a few people on the Mac IE team. Steve gave it his enthusiastic approval. Yeah!

So eventually MacWorld January 2000 came along, the venue for unveiling the Mac IE 5 beta. Steve Jobs insisted on doing the Mac IE 5 demo himself. Tnis is where things got a little surprising. Steve first showed a new build of Mac OS X which had a new user interface called “Aqua”. This looked, well, just like the Nykris design we’d been using for half a year at that point.

The debate around 5G is being framed as if picking Huawei instead of an European vendor would upset the control telecommunication providers have over their networks. The reality is more grim: we’ve long crossed that bridge, and most providers already do not have a full understanding of their own infrastructure:

In a modern telecommunications service provider, new equipment is deployed, configured, maintained and often financed by the vendor. Just to let that sink in, Huawei (and their close partners) already run and directly operate the mobile telecommunication infrastructure for over 100 million European subscribers.

The host service provider often has no detailed insight in what is going on, and would have a hard time figuring this out through their remaining staff.

Steven Levy, writing on Wired around 30 years ago on the rise of spreadsheets:

Increasingly, however, businessmen are not telling but letting their spreadsheets do the talking. Because a spreadsheet looks so authoritative – and it was done by a computer, wasn’t it? – the hypothetical models get accepted as gospel. The spreadsheet presentation is becoming both more commonplace and more sophisticated: not only the numbers but the formats of the sheets themselves are designed to make eloquent points. This use of spreadsheets has less to do with productivity or insightful analysis than with the art of persuasion. “People doing negotiations now sit down with spreadsheets,” Bob Frankston said. “When you’re trying to sell a car, the standard technique is to ask for the other person’s objections, and then argue them away. If two people are in front of a spreadsheet, and one says, ‘Well, the numbers say this,’ the other can’t say, ‘Yes, but there’s something I can’t quite point to.’”

The Baffler:

Spotify specifically wants to be seen as a mood-boosting platform. In Spotify for Brands blog posts, the company routinely emphasizes how its own platform distinguishes itself from other streams of digital content, particularly because it gives marketers a chance to reach users through a medium that is widely seen as a “positive enhancer”: a medium they turn to for “music to help them get through the less desirable moments in their day, improve the more positive ones and even discover new things about their personality,” says Spotify. […]

In appealing to advertisers, Spotify also celebrates its position as a background experience and in particular how this benefits advertisers and brands. Jorge Espinel, who was Head of Global Business Development at Spotify for five years, once said in an interview: “We love to be a background experience. You’re competing for consumer attention. Everyone is fighting for the foreground. We have the ability to fight for the background. And really no one is there. You’re doing your email, you’re doing your social network, etcetera.” In other words, it is in advertisers’ best interests that Spotify stays a background experience.

The goal of Spotify (or Netflix, for what matters) is for you to always be streaming.

Kind of mind-blowing overview of the waste management of a specific item (Christmas tree lights), from Adam Minter.

I would also highly recommend to anyone who wants to understand recycling as a system (that exists outside of our daily reality) to follow Discard studies, which is how I stumbled upon the above:

Structures, not behaviours, uphold norms and practices of waste and wasting. In sociology and other fields, there is a constant tension between agency–what individuals and groups of people are able and want to do– and structure, the cultural norms and values, institutions, infrastructures, and power relations that constrain and even determine that agency. Because of this, we’ve argued against awareness as an ideal method for creating changes around waste and wasting, instead arguing for changes in infrastructure and other scaled up systems. To help understand this tension, we use concepts of scale and scalar mismatch to argue that waste occurs differently within different structures at different scales, and that action must match up with these scales. For example, if we want to address pollution and waste, then focusing 90% of our activist efforts on household waste that makes up less than 3% of a nation’s waste is not going to be effective. Consumer and citizen behaviour cannot impact 97% of the waste that’s out there.

I kind of hate messaging these days.

Over the years different software have imposed on their users FOMO inducing features that lead us to this ridiculous reality in which we all collectively agreed that a response to a text needs to be returned within minutes, no matter the content nor the urgency.

I sometimes choose emails over texts for this reason. I know — I am weird. BUT! Expectations are different with emails. We read less into it if someone takes a day or longer to get back to us (even though some people are trying to make emails obnoxious too).

The online status (last seen at), the typing indicator (is typing), and — worst of all — read receipts somehow ended up being our default, with all which that entails (mostly anxiety). It’s all working exactly as we designed it, as in: it’s all quite shitty:

Privacy remains one of the big and unresolved issues in our industry and while we often worry about data leaks and agonize over how much companies know about us, we often forget that it’s the small and barely noticeable losses of end-to-end user privacy that affect us socially the most. And while turning every privacy related decision into a setting might be enticing, it’s ultimately shortsighted. Designers are well aware that most users won’t bother changing a default. And the act of changing a default ironically always inadvertently reveals something about users, whether they want or not.

So what does a future that respects people’s micro-privacy feel like?

It’s knowing you can go online without having to fear what our online status may reveal about you. It’s about liking someone’s photo without the anxiety of being called out for it. And above anything, it’s about reading a message, without feeling guilty of not sending an immediate response.

Read-Only Memory publishes high-quality books that document videogame history.