Finding Radiohead’s most depressing song, with R [Published articles]

Google Releases Open Source File Sharing Project 'Upspin' On GitHub [Published articles]

BrianFagioli quotes a report from BetaNews: Today, Google unveiled yet another way to share files. Called "Upspin," the open source project aims to make sharing easier for home users. With that said, the project does not seem particularly easy to set up or maintain. For example, it uses Unix-like directories and email addresses for permissions. While it may make sense to Google engineers, I am dubious that it will ever be widely used. "Upspin looks a bit like a global file system, but its real contribution is a set of interfaces, protocols, and components from which an information management system can be built, with properties such as security and access control suited to a modern, networked world. Upspin is not an "app" or a web service, but rather a suite of software components, intended to run in the network and on devices connected to it, that together provide a secure, modern information storage and sharing network," says Google. The search giant adds: "Upsin is a layer of infrastructure that other software and services can build on to facilitate secure access and sharing. This is an open source contribution, not a Google product. We have not yet integrated with the Key Transparency server, though we expect to eventually, and for now use a similar technique of securely publishing all key updates. File storage is inherently an archival medium without forward secrecy; loss of the user's encryption keys implies loss of content, though we do provide for key rotation."

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Universal Radio Hacker: investigate wireless protocols like a boss [Published articles]

Fidget Cube available directly from its inventor [Published articles]

Since the astounding success of Antsy Labs' Fidget Cube, clones have sprung up everywhere, such as the $3.78 Chirisen cube. I can report that one will last the weekend without springing an anxiety leak. A pack of six is $13.39, just two bucks and change for each one.

Update: readers point out not only that the Kickstarter original is still directly available from the inventor, but that the generic ones are likely to be Antsy Labs' own manufacturers ripping them off. So I've replaced the link to theirs with one to the real thing.

Richard Stack writes: "I have an actual FidgetCube and someone bought me a knock off for Christmas. The original is much much nicer."

"Europe's last dictator" finally finds the limits to power: taxing the unemployed during a recession [Published articles]

Belurusian leader Alexander Lukashenko calls himself "Europe's last dictator": he's a thug who steals elections and sends opposition politicians to forced labor camps, the kind of guy who can get away with arresting a one-armed man for clapping -- but when he imposed a "social parasite tax" on unemployed people in the recession-devastated country, it proved too much. (more…)

Alaska Gets 'Artificial Aurora' As HAARP Antenna Array Listens Again [Published articles]

Freshly Exhumed quotes Hackaday: The famous HAARP antenna array is to be brought back into service for experiments by the University of Alaska. Built in the 1990s for the US Air Force's High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, the array is a 40-acre site containing a phased array of 180 high-frequency antennas and their associated high-power transmitters. Its purpose is to conduct research on charged particles in the upper atmosphere, but that hasn't stopped an array of bizarre conspiracy theories. A university space physics researcher will actually create an artificial aurora starting Sunday (and continuing through Wednesday) to study how yjr atmosphere affects satellite-to-ground communications, and "observers throughout Alaska will have an opportunity to photograph the phenomenon," according to the University. "Under the right conditions, people can also listen to HAARP radio transmissions from virtually anywhere in the world using an inexpensive shortwave radio."

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Ten Rules From Marcus Aurelius [Published articles]

City Slickers was in Westworld?? [Published articles]

$5 Showdown: Linode vs. DigitalOcean vs. Amazon Lightsail vs. Vultr [Published articles]

Thousands Of Disabled People Are Living In 'Virtual Utopias' In Second Life [Published articles]

"For many disabled residents, who may spend 12 hours a day or more in Second Life, the most important moments and relationships of their lives happen inside the virtual world," reports Backchanel. "For them, the fevered fantasies of a decade ago have become reality: Second Life is where they live." mirandakatz shares this article: Wagner James Au, who has written extensively about Second Life, estimates they may account for roughly 20 percent of users. Some active members estimate the number higher -- at as much as 50 percent... Abundant research shows imagining movement, without actually moving the body, can have positive effects on motor skills, balance, and learning... Studies suggest the therapeutic benefits of virtual reality extend beyond movement disorders -- to chronic pain, cognitive functioning in people with ADHD and PTSD, and social skills for people on the autism spectrum. The article describes a 90-year-old former nurse, now living in a retirement community, who's spent eight years living in a Second Life archipelago called "Virtual Ability Island" with over a thousand other members. "Watching her avatar hike trails and dance gave her the confidence to try things in the physical world that she hadn't tried in a half decade -- like stepping off a curb or standing up without any help."

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Turns out they aren't as insane as I tought [Published articles]

I've written multiple accounts of human insanity. Venturing out into the wild with dozens to save one lost, trying to befriend feral animals, fighting over frivolities ... it looked insane. But they are not insane.

They are controlled by evolutionary neurotransmitters which cause them to act this way ... for the better.

Generally speaking we tend to frown upon beings which seek to satisfy their primal urges. Hedonistic and short sighted, it tends to lead to the downfall of societies, or keeping them from civilizing altogether.

On Sol-3, the opposite happens.

When humans see an abandoned or orphaned wolf cub, they will not identify it as a predator or a threat or an easy prey. They will think of it as cute and seek to touch it, hold it, stroke it, cuddle it. These actions flood the human brain with chemicals which induce pleasure and comfort.

In order to satisfy this comfort over and over again they keep the cub around, feed it, care for it. The cub will grow fond of humans. In a few rotations, the cub is no longer a harmless thing. It will grow larger than a human, it will be faster, stronger, deadly. But it has grown fond of the humans.

Their hearing keeps them safe at night, their nose leads them to prey (I assure you, they do not cuddle all animals), their claws and teeth make them formidable allies in battle.

By indulging in the desire to care, a long term investment with excellent return is made.

Humans like to consume ethyl hydroxide. Again, chemicals - brain - pleasure. The immediate effect are very negative. Lazyness, violence, the breaking of promises. But they desire it in such amounts that they will clear out land for agriculture to a degree far greater than strictly necessary to feed them.

Entire forests and acres of brushland are cleared, tilled and plowed so they can get drunk on their ethylated beverages.

But then, when a phyto-plague wipes out half of their crops ... they end up having plenty of food not to starve.

Humans appear insane. They're not. The proof lies in the fact that despite all of their perceived flaws, we are glad to call them our allies.

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GM said to be fielding thousands of self-driving test Bolts with Lyft in 2018 [Published articles]

Cruise Chevy Bolt Self-driving fleets of cars might be sharing the streets with human drivers sooner than many thought; Reuters reports that GM will field “thousands” of self-driving electric test vehicles, primarily based on the Chevrolet Bolt platform, starting in 2018. The fleets will primarily be used with partner Lyft for on-demand ride-hailing service, according to the report. Read More

Neil Gaiman is writing a NEVERWHERE sequel [Published articles]

Neil Gaiman has confirmed that he his currently working on a sequel to Neverwhere, his 1997 novel based on the BBC TV mini-series he developed with British comedian Lenny Henry.

Gaiman has been easing back into the Neverwhere world for the last few years. There was a major BBC radio adaptation starring James McAvoy, Natalie Dormer and Christopher Lee in 2013, followed by a spin-off novella, How the Marquis Got His Coat Back, the following year. This in turn was adapted for BBC Radio last year. It seems that the new novel will be about the Seven Sisters (as previously hinted by Gaiman) but will also focus on refugees, presumably arriving in London Below from some external conflict. He was inspired by his work last year with the UNHCR in the Syrian reugee camps in Jordan.

Gaiman is also currently writing the Good Omens TV series for the BBC and Amazon, and a big-budget adaptation of his novel American Gods starts airing on Starz in the US in April.

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Why did Brinks "mindlessly copy" an old defective padlock design? [Published articles]

Locksmith Bosnian Bill experienced deja vu upon seeing a new padlock offered in stores by Brinks. It looks awfully similar to a Master-brand padlock withdrawn from sale due to a critical flaw that makes it easy to spring open. And wouldn't you know, the same trick works!

It's advertised as "medium security," but all you need is a mini boxcutter and you're in.

"I can't believe it," Bill says. "The battle we won to tell everyone about this master, here we are again. Don't buy this even for your kid's tricycle. ... Brinks, stay out of the lock business." [via]

Google's Not-so-secret New OS [Published articles]

According to reports late last year, Google is working on a new operating system called Andromeda. Much about it is still unknown, but according to the documentations Google has provided on its website, it's clear that the Fuchsia is the actual name of the operating system, and the kernel is called Magenta. A tech enthusiast dug around the documentations to share the followings: To my naive eyes, rather than saying Chrome OS is being merged into Android, it looks more like Android and Chrome OS are both being merged into Fuchsia. It's worth noting that these operating systems had previously already begun to merge together to an extent, such as when the Android team worked with the Chrome OS team in order to bring Update Engine to Nougat, which introduced A/B updates to the platform. Google is unsurprisingly bringing up Andromeda on a number of platforms, including the humble Intel NUC. ARM, x86, and MIPS bring-up is exactly what you would expect for an Android successor, and it also seems clear that this platform will run on Intel laptops. My best guess is that Android as an API and runtime will live on as a legacy environment within Andromeda. That's not to say that all development of Android would immediately stop, which seems extremely unlikely. But Google can't push two UI APIs as equal app frameworks over the long term: Mojo is clearly the future. Ah, but what is Mojo? Well it's the new API for writing Andromeda apps, and it comes from Chromium. Mojo was originally created to "extract a common platform out of Chrome's renderer and plugin processes that can support multiple types of sandboxed content."

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Disney wants to build an "aerial tramway" between the Disney World parks [Published articles]

Disney's "skybuckets" are fondly remembered as the best place in the themepark to do some sneaky kissin', but they were also a magnet for antisocial behavior, from smoking weed to spitting on people to jumping out of them -- and they proved lethal to park maintenance crews. (more…)

ISRO PSLV-C37 onboard camera showing 104 satellite separation [Published articles]

Cloud Swirls around Southern Jupiter from Juno [Published articles]

Juno just completed its fourth pass near Jupiter. Juno just completed its fourth pass near Jupiter.

Tell Your Special Someone you Love Them to the Wall and Back with These Game of Thrones Valentines Cards! [Published articles]


Are you still looking for the perfect way to tell your loved ones that they mean all Seven Kingdoms to you? Well, you are in luck: Winter is Coming shared these hilarious Valentine’s Day cards! The HBO Shop took some of their favorite Game of Thrones merchandise and created cards that range from adorable to, frankly, disturbing. Check them out below!

This pretty much cuts to the chase:



Although we’re not sure how the recipient of the “You’re My Tormund” mug should feel…



But this one does a great job of combining the darkness of Game of Thrones with the silliness of love:



While these are great, this begs the obvious question: where is Tyrion? If any Game of Thrones character should be honored with a card, it’s him. And maybe Pod…anyway. You can head over to the Culturess to download the cards for free!

Engineers On Google's Self-Driving Car Project Were Paid So Much That They Quit [Published articles]

According to a new report from Bloomberg, most of the money Google spent on it self-driving car project, now spun off into a new entity called Waymo, has gone to engineers and other staff. While it has helped retain a lot of influential and dedicated workers in the short run, it has resulted in many staffers leaving the company in the long run due to the immense financial security. The Verge reports: Bloomberg says that early staffers "had an unusual compensation system" that multiplied staffers salaries and bonuses based on the performance of the self-driving project. The payments accumulated as milestones were reached, even though Waymo remains years away from generating revenue. One staffer eventually "had a multiplier of 16 applied to bonuses and equity amassed over four years." The huge amounts of compensation worked -- for a while. But eventually, it gave many staffers such financial security that they were willing to leave the cuddly confines of Google. Two staffers that Bloomberg spoke to called it "F-you money," and the accumulated cash allowed them to depart Google for other firms, including Chris Urmson who co-founded a startup with ex-Tesla employee Sterling Anderson, and others who founded a self-driving truck company called Otto which was purchased by Uber last year, and another who founded Argo AI which received a $1 billion investment from Ford last week.

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University’s IoT devices went fishing for information – how did it happen? [Published articles]

How a university IoT devices were turned into a botnet carries lessons for all of us

Four of Iceland's Main Volcanoes Are All Preparing For Eruption [Published articles]

Vulcanologists always watch Iceland carefully -- it's the one exposed place on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, with 130 different volcanoes -- and something big may be brewing. Applehu Akbar writes: Now that four of Iceland's largest volcanoes are showing signs of impending eruption, the world may be in for another summer of ash. Katla, Hecla, Bárðarbunga and Grímsvötn have all had major activity in the past, including vast floods from melting glaciers, enough ash to ground aircraft over all of Europe, volumes of sulfur that have induced global nuclear winter for a decade at a time, and clouds of poisonous fluoride gas. When the mountains of Iceland speak, the whole world listens. Eruptions are already overdue for both Hekla and Katla -- Hekla's magma chamber has filled up, and Katla last erupted in 1918. "The Katla eruption would lead to the melting of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, resulting in a glacial flood," reports Tech Times, "likely to hit areas where large crowds are found at any given point of time, especially the black sand beaches of Sólheimasandur and the village of Vik in Southern Iceland."

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The Man Who Broke Ticketmaster [Published articles]

Jason Koebler quotes a report from Motherboard: The scourge of ticket bots and the immorality of the shady ticket scalpers using them is conventional wisdom that's so ingrained in the public consciousness and so politically safe that a law to ban automated ticket bots passed both houses of Congress unanimously late last year, in part thanks to a high-profile public relations campaign spearheaded by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. But no one actually involved in the ticket scalping industry thinks that banning bots will do much to slow down the secondary market. Seven years after his Los Angeles office was raided by shotgun-wielding FBI agents, Ken Lowson, the man who invented ticket bots, told Motherboard's Jason Koebler he's switched teams. Now, he's out to expose the secrets of the ticket industry in a bid to make sure tickets are sold directly to their fans.

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How New York City Gets Its Electricity [Published articles]

Microsoft Allowed To Sue US Government Over Email Surveillance [Published articles]

A judge has ruled that Microsoft is allowed to sue the U.S. government over a policy that prevents the tech company from telling its users when their emails are being intercepted. From a report on Bloomberg: The judge said Microsoft has at least made a plausible argument that federal law muzzles its right to speak about government investigations, while not ruling on the merits of the case. "The public debate has intensified as people increasingly store their information in the cloud and on devices with significant storage capacity," U.S. District Judge James Robart in Seattle said in Thursday's ruling. "Government surveillance aided by service providers creates unique considerations because of the vast amount of data service providers have about their customers."

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Two-way LEDs could turn screens into touchless chargers [Published articles]

The LED array could also be used in electronic whiteboards

Could it one day be possible to top up your phone's battery simply by ambient light? Companies like Japan's Kyocera, who have solar-powered displays in the works, certainly think so, as do material scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who have developed multi-purpose LED arrays that absorb light and turn it into electricity, (and pack a number of other neat tricks as well).

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How to Watch Tonight's Ultra Rare Eclipse and Comet Flyby [Published articles]

Cancel all your plans immediately: tonight, stargazers will be able to view a penumbral lunar eclipse, a stunning full moon, and a comet flyby. It’ll make for a fantastic Friday night, and it’s totally free!


Science shows that anyone could become an online troll [Published articles]

It's easy to dismiss internet trolls as freaks. Surely they weren't raised well, right? Don't be so quick to judge. Cornell and Stanford researchers have published a study suggesting that anyone can engage in trolling if the circumstances are right....

The First Trailer for Bill Nye Saves the World Brings Science and Joy [Published articles]

Bill Nye Saves the World trailer Netflix

Bill Nye has always been the Science Guy even after his PBS show went off the air almost twenty years ago, but his return has never been more needed. And now we know just when Bill Nye Saves the World: Netflix has released the first trailer for Nye’s new talk show/live lab experiment, which will premiere April 21.

The official Netflix page for the show describes it succinctly: “Bill Nye hosts a talk show exploring scientific issues from space exploration to fad diets. Guests join for lab demos and myth busting.” The original announcement from last August gives a sense of the structure: “Each episode will tackle a topic from a scientific point of view, dispelling myths, and refuting anti-scientific claims that may be espoused by politicians, religious leaders or titans of industry.”

And he’s not doing it alone. He’s got five field correspondents from a variety of backgrounds: Xploration Outer Space host Emily Calandrelli, comedian/writer Joanna Hausmann, comedian Nazeem Hussain, fashion model Karlie Kloss (who has already come up with the show’s tagline, “No, get science-y, that’s my jam!”), and science YouTuber and educator Derek Muller. They’ll assist Bill in tackling sex, global warming, GMOs, technology, and more.

Back at the studio, in front of a live audience, Nye will welcome guests like Alton Brown (Good Eats, Cutthroat Kitchen), Rachel Bloom (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), Joel McHale (Community), and Project Runway’s Tim “Make It Work” Gunn.

Also, fist bumps. Lots of fist bumps.

All thirteen episodes of Bill Nye Saves the World will premiere on Netflix on April 21, the day before Earth Day.

How a car's differential works [Published articles]

There are many admirable things about this 1937 video that explains how a car's differential works, but my favorite thing is the way they use a very simple model, and add complexity in stages. All explainer videos should be so clear!

We're Sorry About This Seriously Bummer Proxima B News [Published articles]

Bad news if you’re looking to ditch this planet for another one far, far away. According to new research from NASA, planets in the habitable zone in red dwarf star systems—including much-hyped exoplanet Proxima b—might lose too much oxygen to support liquid water, and therefore, life. Goddammit.


NSA contractor indicted over mammoth theft of classified data [Published articles]

Archaeologists uncover first Dead Sea Scrolls cave in 60 years [Published articles]

Archaeologists have discovered a 12th cave that once contained unknown Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls are among the most important historical texts ever discovered, dating as far back as the third century BCE. These texts were spread across 11 caves, and for decades archeologists have been searching for more. Now, for the first time in 60 years, a new cave has been excavated that "beyond any doubt" once contained more Dead Sea Scrolls. Sadly, looters got there first.

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Sean Whitton: reclaiming conversation [Published articles]

On Friday night I attended a talk by Sherry Turkle called “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age”. Here are my notes.

Turkle is an anthropologist who interviews people from different generations about their communication habits. She has observed cross-generational changes thanks to (a) the proliferation of instant messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger; and (b) fast web searching from smartphones.

Her main concern is that conversation is being trivialised. Consider six or seven college students eating a meal together. Turkle’s research has shown that the etiquette among such a group has shifted such that so long as at least three people are engaged in conversation, others at the table feel comfortable turning their attention to their smartphones. But then the topics of verbal conversation will tend away from serious issues – you wouldn’t talk about your mother’s recent death if anyone at the table was texting.

There are also studies that purport to show that the visibility of someone’s smartphone causes them to take a conversation less seriously. The hypothesis is that the smartphone is a reminder of all the other places they could be, instead of with the person they are with.

A related cause of the trivialisation of conversation is that people are far less willing to make themselves emotionally vulnerable by talking about serious matters. People have a high degree of control over the interactions that take place electronically (they can think about their reply for much longer, for example). Texting is not open-ended in the way a face-to-face conversation is. People are unwilling to give up this control, so they choose texting over talking.

What is the upshot of these two respects in which conversation is being trivialised? Firstly, there are psycho-social effects on individuals, because people are missing out on opportunities to build relationships. But secondly, there are political effects. Disagreeing about politics immediately makes a conversation quite serious, and people just aren’t having those conversations. This contributes to polarisation.

Note that this is quite distinct from the problems of fake news and the bubbling effects of search engine algorithms, including Facebook’s news feed. It would be much easier to tackle fake news if people talked about it with people around them who would be likely to disagree with them.

Turkle understands connection as a capacity for solitude and also for conversation. The drip feed of information from the Internet prevents us from using our capacity for solitude. But then we fail to develop a sense of self. Then when we finally do meet other people in real life, we can’t hear them because we just use them to try to establish a sense of self.

Turkle wants us to be more aware of the effects that our smartphones can have on conversations. People very rarely take their phone out during a conversation because they want to escape from that conversation. Instead, they think that the phone will contribute to that conversation, by sharing some photos, or looking up some information online. But once the phone has come out, the conversation almost always takes a turn for the worse. If we were more aware of this, we would have access to deeper interactions.

A further respect in which the importance of conversation is being downplayed is in the relationships between teachers and students. Students would prefer to get answers by e-mail than build a relationship with their professors, but of course they are expecting far too much of e-mail, which can’t teach them in the way interpersonal contact can.

All the above is, as I said, cross-generational. Something that is unique to millenials and below is that we seek validation for the way that we feel using social media. A millenial is not sure how they feel until they send a text or make a broadcast (this makes them awfully dependent on others). Older generations feel something, and then seek out social interaction (presumably to share, but not in the social media sense of ‘share’).

What does Turkle think we can do about all this? She had one positive suggestion and one negative suggestion. In response to student or colleague e-mails asking for something that ought to be discussed face-to-face, reply “I’m thinking.” And you’ll find they come to you. She doesn’t want anyone to write “empathy apps” in response to her findings. For once, more tech is definitely not the answer.

Turkle also made reference to the study reported here and here and here.

Scientists Have a Crazy Hunch About Why the Sun Is Spinning Too Slowly [Published articles]

Physicists have long known that the Sun spins, like the Earth. But a few decades ago, they realized the surface of the Sun spins more slowly than their models predicted—not by a lot, but enough to signal that something they didn’t understand was going on. This kicked off a solar mystery and some scientists started to…


TIL the Terminator series was a cautionary tale about testing your software thoroughly before pushing it into production. [Published articles]

The T-800 is what happens when you fast track.

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The Met Makes 375k Images Available for Free [Published articles]

Make: a $5 ACLU-donation Dash button you can press every time Trump makes you angry [Published articles]

Nathan writes, "Wanting a more immediate and responsive way to do something about the outrage a friend and I felt every time we read about the latest assaults on civil liberties, I built an Amazon Dash button that sends $5 to the ACLU every time I press it. Repurposing the technology to do good, not just buy goods." (more…)

Romania's anti-corruption protests are massive, growing, and they're playful and serious at once [Published articles]

When the government of Romanian PM Sorin Grindeanu announced that they would gut the country's anticorruption statutes, removing criminal sanctions for official corruption, the country erupted into mass protests. (more…)

A bill requiring the government to obtain a warrant to search your email just flew through the House [Published articles]

hacking-surveillance1 A bill set to update online privacy laws dating back three decades just cruised through the House by unanimous vote for the second time. The bipartisan bill known as the Email Privacy Act (H.R. 387), introduced by Colorado Rep. Jared Polis and Kansas Rep. Kevin Yoder, would require the government to seek a warrant in order to access the email of American citizens. As it stands, ambiguity… Read More

Russians Engineer a Slot Machine Cheat that Casinos Can't Fix [Published articles]

Did you enjoy Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? [Published articles]

I just finished the book and I was really disappointed. I've always heard that it was a giant in the scifi genre, but it seemed both heavy-handed and poorly developed to me.

Long story short, I'm looking to understand why some people like it (or don't). If you're up for a discussion about it, that would be awesome... but I'm mostly just curious about people's views on the book.

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Wal-E: Continuous Archiving for Postgres [Published articles]

Will the W3C/IDPF merger really change anything? [Published articles]

Last week, the W3C and the IDPF—the organizations responsible for the HTML standard and the EPUB ebook standard respectively—finalized their plan to merge. The plan has not been without controversy. Proponents have said that it will give the IDPF the reach and power of a larger organization to push for its improvements in the ebook standard, whereas opponents have been concerned that it will lose its identity, and publishing-related organizations will lose their voice, as the IDPF is subsumed into the larger W3C.

Last month, Digital Book World carried dueling editorials from people against and for the merger. The opponents, including execs from Overdrive, Impelsys, and Open Road Integrated Media, would prefer to see the IDPF revitalized on its own, and have a ten-point plan they want to implement to make that possible.

On the other hand, long-time IDPF member Bill McCoy thinks that this merger could move EPUB to the mainstream, rather than letting it peter out like the WAP mobile web implementation did when everyone else moved to HTML5. He also feels that incorporating EPUB directly into ongoing web development could allow ebooks to move beyond “ebooks that are skeuomorphic digitized equivalents of print editions.” The bigger organization will have more people doing the same work and a louder voice to be heard, and McCoy adds that using the W3C’s royalty-free licensing model will ensure that EPUB remains free and open for all to use.

In a CNet editorial, Stephen Shankland anticipates that this could potentially bring all sorts of “smart” features to digital textbooks, such as pop-up tables, embedded video and 3D models, and so forth. Such textbooks could be updated automatically without requiring the repurchase of a new edition. However, The Digital Reader’s Nate Hoffelder points out that iBooks has already supported this sort of thing since 2012, as have a number of failed textbook startups. It’s not exactly new, but neither is it in very wide use.

But interactive ebooks? pop-ups? embedded videos?

We have all that, and ebook developers can use it when they want. The reason they don’t is that frequently the market doesn’t want it.

It is true that Field of Dreams had it wrong: just because you build it doesn’t mean anyone will come. But I foresee another problem with all this pie-in-the-sky talk of a broader EPUB standard for everybody.

When I was talking to David Rothman about possible angles I might use in this piece, he suggested that Amazon’s recent changes to its Kindle ebook format—making it more difficult to convert even DRM-free titles into other formats—might show the need for a more powerful standard-setting organization.

But here’s the problem with that. What do you call a standard that almost nobody actually uses? Yep, that’s right…you still call it a standard. And EPUB is exactly that kind of “standard” that effectively isn’t one.

Perhaps it’s not entirely correct to say that “almost nobody actually uses” EPUB. Because, really, just about every ebook vendor who isn’t Amazon uses EPUB. The problem is that the vast majority of ebook customers use Amazon, whose format isn’t compatible with EPUB. (Or, to be more precise, whose format can’t be (legally) made compatible when DRM is involved.) So, as far as all those readers are concerned, Amazon’s non-standard standard is their standard standard.

We’ve seen multiple ebook businesses crash and burn (most recently, Shelfie) because they simply couldn’t get enough customers—their would-be customers were already strolling through Amazon’s garden. And while it might not be a completely walled garden—customers can still sideload books from elsewhere if they choose—the way it works out in actual practice, it might as well be.

To the average person, sideloading stuff is hard, or at least too inconvenient to want to mess with. Even if other ebook stores released their ebooks in Kindle-compatible DRM-free Mobipocket format, most Amazon customers couldn’t be bothered to step outside their tap-a-button-to-get-a-book comfort zone.  (That’s why Baen neutered its own ebook store’s subscription bundles in order to get onto Amazon—that’s where all the customers are.)

So, even if the newly merged W3C/IDPF is the most powerful method ever for promoting EPUB as an open standard, what good is that going to do? Amazon already has all the customers, and it’s not interested in switching things up. EPUB can be as “standard” as it wants to, and the W3C can use as big a megaphone as it wants to tell everyone how awesome it is—but that’s not going to pry one customer loose from Amazon when that’s where all his or her books are. Nor is it going to force Amazon to add EPUB capability to the Kindle if Amazon doesn’t think that’s in its best interests. It would probably take some kind of antitrust action to change that, and as long as the current “consumer welfare” paradigm of antitrust enforcement holds sway, I don’t see that happening.

I hope something about this surprises me, and the newly-merged W3C means some kind of sweeping change will come about that could revitalize the e-publishing industry and change the balance of power. But I suspect it’s going to go right on being business as usual.

Correction/Update: Firebrand Technology reversed its opposition to the merger, as Chair Fran Toolan mentioned at a January 18 meeting in New York, and in fact has provided a royalty-free grant in support of the transfer of EPUB IP to W3C. We’ve removed Firebrand from the list of merger foes in an earlier version of the post. Others may also have changed their minds.

Common cold prevention and treatment remedies compared (evidence-based) [Published articles]

US Navy decommissions the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier [Published articles]

It's the end of an era for the US sea power, in more ways than one: the Navy has decommissioned the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The vessel launched in 1961 and is mainly known for playing a pivotal rol...

16 Years of GPS Space Weather Data Made Publicly Available [Published articles]

"It's not often that a scientific discipline gains a 23-satellite constellation overnight," reports Science magazine, describing 16 years worth of radiation measurements from GPS satellites finally released by Los Alamos National Lab. "Although billions of people globally use data from GPS satellites, they remain U.S. military assets." Scientists have long sought the data generated by sensors used to monitor the status of the satellites, which operate in the heavy radiation of medium-Earth orbit and can be vulnerable to solar storms. But few have been allowed to tap this resource... That attitude changed in October 2016, when the outgoing Obama administration issued an executive order aimed at preparing the country for extreme space weather. Such bursts in charged particles, originating in a solar flare or coronal mass ejection, could disable the electrical power grid or divert flights away from the Arctic, where radiation exposure is heightened. The GPS data, which dates from December 2000, fill a hole in studies of space weather, the complex interplay of Earth's magnetic field with bombarding radiation from cosmic rays and the sun.

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It takes 3.5% of a population engaged in sustained nonviolent resistance to topple brutal dictatorships [Published articles]

Erica Chenoweth, co-author of Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, says "nonviolent resistance has actually been the quickest, least costly, and safest way to struggle" effectively against dictatorships.

From The Guardian:

In the US on Tuesday, dozens of lawmakers have said they will boycott confirmation votes for Trump nominees. Numerous police departments countrywide have announced that they will not comply with unethical federal policies (particularly regarding deportations). And the federal government employs more than 3 million civil servants – people on whose continued support the US government relies to implement its policies. Many such civil servants have already begun important conversations about how to dissent from within the administration. They, too, provide an important check on power.

The Women’s March on Washington and its affiliated marches – which may have been the largest single-day demonstration in US history – show a population eager and willing to show up to defend their rights.

Of course, nonviolent resistance often evokes brutality by the government, especially as campaigns escalate their demands and use more disruptive techniques. But historical data shows that when campaigns are able to prepare, train, and remain resilient, they often succeed regardless of whether the government uses violence against them.

By Jonathan McIntosh - Own work, CC BY 2.5, Link

Fan re-edits The Hobbit single, reasonable movie [Published articles]

Sara writes, "It has been a few years since The Hobbit has its theatrical release and some fans have been toiling since then on the perfect edit. Joblit has posted links to his latest versions.They include the personal favourite Theatrical Edition (runtime 2:42), a somewhat indulgent Extended Edition (runtime 3:45), and a brisk Ludicrous Edition (runtime 2:10). He notes to keep in mind that the credits are 13 minutes long, so playback is considerably shorter. If you're a fan of the films and also like an early night then these film edits are for you." (more…)

Plex for Alexa will get the party started with your voice [Published articles]

It seems like Amazon has been adding new Alexa skills nearly every day lately. The latest trick is voice control for the popular home media streaming server Plex. Just use your voice to ask Plex to bring up any movies or music you have stored on your...

This Bad Lip Reading of "NFL 2017" is absolutely hilarious [Published articles]

I don't follow football, but Bad Lip Reading hit a grand slam with this one! I'm literally LOLing over here, people...

Where to See the American Eclipse [Published articles]

Are you planning to see the Are you planning to see the

Five Roger Zelazny Books that Changed My Life by Being Awesome [Published articles]


You always get asked, “When did you know you wanted to be a writer?” And, of course, there’s no answer, or a thousand answers that are all equally valid. But I usually say, “In high school, when I read Zelazny’s Lord of Light.”

You see, until then, I had never known you could do that. I never knew you could make someone feel all those different things at the same time, with all of that intensity, just by how you used 26 characters and a few punctuation marks. What was it? Well, everything: Sam and Yama were the most compelling characters I’d come across; it was the first time I’d ever stopped reading to just admire a sentence; it gave me the feeling (which proved correct) that there were layers I wouldn’t get without a few rereadings; and, above all, it was when I became of what could be done with voice—how much could be done with just the way the author addressed the reader. I remember putting that book down and thinking, “If I could make someone feel like this, how cool would that be?” Then I started reading it again. And then I went and grabbed everything else of his I could find.

One of the first ones that fell into my eager hands was This Immortal, the novelization of “…And Call Me Conrad.” And there is a moment in that book. (The rest of this paragraph is a spoiler, so skip it if you want.) There are hints from the very beginning that our hero may be a kallikantzaros, a Greek demon. We are introduced to the folklore: the sawing away of the tree of the world, other bits and pieces. One of them is the riddle of the kallikantzaros: “Feathers or lead?” You have to guess, and if you guess wrong, it kills you, and the answer is whatever the kallikantzaros wants it to be. All of this, because Zelazny was a master of voice, is conveyed in a slightly ironic, “Isn’t it an amusing story?” sort of way—up until our hero finds himself tied to stake in a radioactive pit with his enemy about to slice him open to see how far his intestines will stretch, at which point our hero says, “Feathers or lead?”

My heart dropped into my stomach, and started pounding, and what I felt can only be described as awe. I said to myself, “If I could write a scene that would do that to someone, how cool would that be?”

One could argue (hat tip to Teresa Nielsen Hayden) that the central challenge of all fiction is solving the problem of exposition—that is, what information to convey to the reader, and how best to do so. That argument aside, certainly exposition is one of the biggest challenges in science fiction and fantasy, because we need to explain, in essence, the difference between the world the reader is reading about and world the reader is living in, and we need to do it in such a way that said reader doesn’t get bored or confused or irritated and go back to that real world.

There are many ways to handle this problem, and many ways to screw up if you don’t do it well, but I’ve never seen anything like what Zelazny did in Isle of the Dead. He throws concepts at you, and bits of business, and characters, and purely on the strength of the narrator’s voice, carries you to a point about a third of the way into the book, where he stops cold and fills you in on everything you’ve been missing in what ought to be a boring monologue, but somehow isn’t. At the end of this, you are so caught up in the plot (that you didn’t even know was going on a few pages ago) that you can’t put the book down. I don’t know how he did it. I just shook my head and said, “If I could manage something like that, how cool would that be?”

Bridge of Ashes is a fun book, though not, by Roger’s standards, one of the best. But—read the prologue. Disjointed first person scenes, interesting, because just the way Zelazny writes makes you want to keep reading—but unconnected. Several of them. Wait, is that something that all have in common? I’m not sure. What? A longer scene, that explains a few things, but leaves the big question unanswered: What is going on? I’m intrigued, I keep reading. Another short scene, and somehow it comes together. “Oh … I get it now.” Suddenly I’m proud of myself for having solved the puzzle. And the next sentence I read is, “At last I begin to understand,” and I find myself holding the book, staring, going, “How did he do that? Man, if I could get so far into the reader’s head to be able to pull off something like that, how cool would that be?”

I had a strange relationship with Creatures of Light and Darkness. I didn’t much care for it the first time I read it. I read it again a few years later, probably about 1976 during a periodical total reread, and decided that, weird and disjointed as it was, there was some Cool Stuff there. I mean, the Steel General has to be one of the most remarkable characters in fiction, and then there’s Madrak’s Possibly Proper Death Litany, or the “agnostic’s prayer” as it has come to be called. The third time I read it I was blown away: the use of language, poetry imbedded in prose, the over-all sweep of the narrative finally hit. And the fourth time it had me in tears. This keeps happening, because every time I read it, I find layers and resonances and nuances I’d missed before. I remember thinking, “If I could write a book that kept getting better every time someone read it, how cool would that be?”

Pretty cool, I think. Pretty cool.


skill-thumbnailSteven Brust is the author of 26 novels, including the Vlad Taltos series and the Khaavran romances. His latest, The Skill of Our Hands (co-written with Skyler White), is available from Tor Books.

A Four Planet System in Orbit, Directly Imaged and Remarkable [Published articles]

Adventure Time GIF - Stoicism in a nutshell [Published articles]

The Dutch Reach: Clever Workaround to Keep Cyclists from Getting "Doored" [Published articles]

Booted up in 1993, this server still runs -- but not for much longer [Published articles]

Resources for electronic engineers and hobbyists [Published articles]

S5 0014+81, The largest known supermassive black hole compared to our solar system. [Published articles]

Sir John Hurt, 1940-2017 [Published articles]

Actor John Hurt, famous for his gravelly-yet-vulnerable voice and craggy appearance, is reported dead at 77. Known for his roles in Alien, Elephant Man, Nineteen-Eighty Four, Doctor Who and the Harry Potter series, Hurt was knighted in 2015 for services to Drama and won two Golden Globes, four Baftas and two Academy Award nominations. (more…)

No BS! Brass Band -- 3 AM Bounce [Brass/Hip-hop/BRASS] (2016) [Published articles]

The Penguin Podcast: Neil Gaiman discusses Good Omens and Sir Terry [Published articles]