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nybooks.com ·
“In academia the Soviet Jew has long been seen as an ideological suitcase ripe for stuffing.” Gary Shteyngart reviews a new book about the national ethnic group that’s usually been marked more by what it’s not than what it is:

The True Origins of Lorem Ipsum

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 02, 2023

lorem-ipsum-generator-custom-placeholder-text.jpg

“Lorem ipsum” is a shorthand for placeholder text, usually beginning with this not-quite-meaningful-Latin phrase. Many folk genealogies date the practice to the Latin-loving Renaissance humanists, and who knows? Maybe Aldus Manutius did have some dummy Latin that he liked to use to test a page design. But it probably wasn’t the same text we use today, and Aldus himself only enters the story in a marginal way.

Jack Shepherd argues persuasively for a much more recent lorem ipsum origin story.

The source text is definitely Cicero, although it’s two mishmashed quotes from De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (About the Ends of Good and Evil) with words cut in half:

lorem ipsum loeb 1914.png

You’ll notice that this image, from the Loeb Classical Library 1914 opposing-face translation of Cicero’s work, doesn’t cut off “delorem ipsum,” or rather it does: this page is the second half of the cut. And that’s one clue that we have that this particular truncation of the text is a twentieth century practice, not a fifteenth century one.

The earliest example that anyone seems to have been able to find of Random Selections of the 1914 Loeb Facing Translation of Sections 1.10.32 and 1.10.33 of Cicero’s De Finibus Used as Dummy Text (aka, mercifully, Lorem Ipsum) is from the 1960s. At the time, if you wanted to mock up an ad or a flier for a punk show and you didn’t have a bunch of bespoke font settings on your Imperial Model 70 typewriter, your best bet was a British company called Letraset, which sold adhesive transfer sheets with different typefaces.

Letraset used Lorem Ipsum in their advertisements, and the layout-design software company Aldus (maker of the popular PageMaker layout tool) duplicated the practice in the ’80s, which is presumably the origin point of ChatGPT’s tall tale about Aldus Manutius using Lorem Ipsum in the 16th Century.

Aldus Pagemaker Lorem Ipsum.png

You might feel a little deflated by this revelation. You mean, that’s it? It’s been software all along? We don’t stand in a noble tradition of humanist lettersetters?

Ah, but the thing is we do! Nothing screams “Renaissance humanism” more than inventing a practice and then assigning it a venerable pseudo-archaic origin. Imitation here is genuinely the sincerest form of flattery. This is perfect.

informationisbeautiful.net ·
What’s the most successful Hollywood movie of all time? By gross = Avatar. By inflation-adjusted gross… still Avatar. But if you start to look at other metrics, like return on investment, the data gets a little more surprising…
slate.com ·
The Academy loves the gritty, gory new German adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front, rewarding it with nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Who hates it? German critics.

Note: You can find more Quick Links in the archive.

We Don’t Need To Go To Mars

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 02, 2023

Volunteers carry out a mock mission at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah (photo: Brian van der Brug)

Buckle up, this one is fun: Maciej Cegowski has begun what promises to be a multi-part essay arguing against a crewed mission to Mars. It’s called “Why Not Mars,” it’s 8000 words long, with 66 footnotes, and it sings. I’m not even sure I agree, but I enjoy the hell out of it.

The goal of this essay is to persuade you that we shouldnt send human beings to Mars, at least not anytime soon. Landing on Mars with existing technology would be a destructive, wasteful stunt whose only legacy would be to ruin the greatest natural history experiment in the Solar System. It would no more open a new era of spaceflight than a Phoenician sailor crossing the Atlantic in 500 B.C. would have opened up the New World. And it wouldnt even be that much fun.

A few choice lines:

Even billionaires who made their fortune automating labor on Earth agree that Mars must be artisanally explored by hand.
There is a small cohort of people who really believe in going to Mars, the way some people believe in ghosts or cryptocurrency, and this group has an outsize effect on our space program.
I think it’s time we brought the Mars talk down to earth, and started approaching a landing there as an aerospace project rather than the fulfillment of God’s plan.
The things that make going to Mars hard are not fun space things, like needing a bigger rocket, but tedious limits of human physiology.
I would compare keeping primates alive in spacecraft to trying to build a jet engine out of raisins. Both are colossal engineering problems, possibly the hardest ever attempted, but it does not follow that they are problems worth solving.
I would pay large sums of American money to be a fly on the wall at the meeting where someone tries to pitch senior career civil servants on working for Elon Musk.

And so forth. If you don’t find yourself persuaded, you should at least be hectored into entertainment. (And what a position it is, to be a citizen of a civilization in the 21st century, where one ought to be persuaded to attempt interplanetary flight).

Via Baratunde Thurston.

The Tenth Anniversary of the Twentieth Anniversary Groundhog Day Liveblog

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 02, 2023

Weatherman Phil Connors and would-be-acquaintance Ned Ryerson smile grimly at each other in a still from Groundhog Day

I know, I know — recursive humor is tricky, and most of the time, it doesn’t really work. But I was nearly as thrilled as Ned Ryerson bumping into an old friend when I noticed that my guestblogging time was going to coincide with the Thirtieth Anniversary of the classic Bill Murray / Andie MacDowell / Harold Ramis romantic comedy Groundhog Day — i.e., the tenth anniversary of Kottke.org’s 2013 twentieth anniversary Groundhog Day liveblog, written by Jason Kottke, Aaron Cohen, Sarah Pavis, and me.

Can you believe it’s been ten years? Feels like both just one day and a whole lifetime. It’s true; sometimes today is tomorrow.

For those few of you not content with reliving old Groundhog Day content, here are some deleted scenes of Phil Connors shooting pool and bowling a perfect game. (Look how gloriously 1993 it is! Scoring by hand!)


bookforum.com ·
Bookforum the magazine has ceased publication, but Bookforum the website has (probably temporarily) made its full archive open to the public

“The Coding Is The Easy Part”: A Conversation About Accessibility In Journalism

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 01, 2023

below a traditional keyboard is a braille interface for computing for sight-impaired users

I enjoyed this Nieman Lab interview with Holden Foreman, the first-ever Accessibility Engineer at the Washington Post. I’m particularly pleased to see that Foreman is thinking about accessibility as, well, not solely a problem that can be solved by better engineering:

The coding is the easy part. Centering our work in listening, and elevating voices that have long been marginalized, is essential to improving accessibility in journalism. Trust has to be earned, and I think this is the biggest opportunity and challenge of being the first in this role. It’s counterproductive for accessibility work to be siloed from broader audience engagement and DEI work. Keeping that in mind, a lot of my initial work has included conversations with various stakeholders to get a better understanding of where and how engineering support, education, and documentation are needed. Accessibility may be viewed as a secondary concern or just a technical checklist if we don’t engage with real people in this area just as we do in others…

It’s essential to think about accessibility not just in the context of disability but also in the context of other inequities affecting news coverage and access to news. For instance, writing in plain language for users with cognitive disabilities can also benefit users with lower reading literacy. [The Post published a plain language version of Foreman’s introductory blog post.] Making pages less complex can make them more user-friendly and also possible to load in the first place for folks in areas with bad internet, etc…

There are nuances specific to the accessibility space. Not everyone with a disability has access to the same technology. Screen reader availability varies by operating system. JAWS, one of the popular screen readers, is not free to use. And there are many different types of disability. We cannot focus our work only on disabilities related to vision or hearing. We need separate initiatives to address separate accessibility issues.

Ultimately, better accessibility tools for disabled users translates to better services for everyone. That’s not the only reason to do it, but it is an undeniable benefit.

nytimes.com ·
“If you had to make a list of the 10 most important airplanes ever built since the Wright Flyer, the 747 needs to be on that list. It was a quantum leap.”

Cell Phones In Prison

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 01, 2023

a sketch of different ways cellular phones are used by prisoners. 1) two women view an image of children in a field outside 2) a man uses a cell phone to make money 3) an older man uses a phone as a study aid

In most jails and prisons, cellular phones are considered contraband and can be confiscated if they’re found in a prisoner’s possession. If they’re lucky, that’s the limit of the punishment. But just because something isn’t allowed doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and phones inside lockup are popular for most of the same reasons they’re popular on the outside: they’re fun, useful tools for work or communication.

Keri Blakinger writes about the wide range of uses inmates have found for mobile phones:

Most of what I knew about illicit electronics came from press releases and news stories that offered example after example of all the bad things people could do with contraband phones, things like trafficking drugs, making threats and running scams. While it’s true those things can happen, over the past three years I’ve also seen a lot of people use their phones for good. Some use them to self-publish books or take online college classes. Others become prison reform advocates, teach computer skills, trade bitcoin or write legal briefs. I’ve seen a whole plethora of savvy and creative uses that fly in the face of stereotypes about people behind bars. “Our cell phones have saved lives,” a man in prison in South Carolina told me.

Along with communication, activism, and journalism, cell phones are popular not least because they can be used for profit (helped, not hindered, by the peculiarities of the prison economy):

Even though contraband phones can cost anywhere from around $300 to $6,000, sometimes the devices pay for themselves, because a lot of prisoners use them to earn money. One Texas prisoner I interviewed had been selling his artwork online, while others say they have used their phones to learn how to trade stocks or do online gig work. More commonly, I know guys who use their phones to get work as freelance writers. You might read their stories and not even know the author penned them from prison. Unfettered internet access makes research quicker, and one man explained that a pricey contraband phone can still end up being cheaper and more reliable than communicating in approved ways.

“Typewriter ribbons here are extortionately priced,” one federal prisoner explained. “Talk-to-text makes writing articles so much cheaper, even including the cost of the phone and the rate plan”… Some people earn money by renting out their phones or charging people to use them as hotspots to secretly connect their prison-issued tablets to the internet. “You can buy hotspot time for $1 a day,” a prisoner in one Southern state told me. “A dollar is two ramen noodle soups, and that’s how it’s paid for.”

But the most popular use for a phone in jail or prison is simply to keep in touch with friends and family outside.

When the California prisoner I spoke to got his first phone about a decade ago, the first thing he did, he said, was call his wife and ask to speak to his son. Ordinary uses like that, he said, are why most people in prison want phones.

“I mean, there are some people where you might have legitimate concerns about them having phones, and they might want to order a hit,” he said. “But in the prison I’m at, the only thing we want to order is a pizza.”

stereogum.com ·
Dr Dre’s 1992 album The Chronic is once again available on music streaming services for its 30th anniversary (which, yes, was technically back in December). Enjoy!

Google’s MusicLM Generates Music from Text

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 01, 2023

A screenshot of Google's Music LM's examples of Painting Captioning Conditioning -- Dali's the Persistence of Memory, a portrait of Napoleon, and Henri Matisse's Dance are all converted to captions and then music is created from the captions

Google Research has released a new generative AI tool called MusicLM. MusicLM can generate new musical compositions from text prompts, either describing the music to be played (e.g., “The main soundtrack of an arcade game. It is fast-paced and upbeat, with a catchy electric guitar riff. The music is repetitive and easy to remember, but with unexpected sounds, like cymbal crashes or drum rolls”) or more emotional and evocative (“Made early in his career, Matisse’s Dance, 1910, shows a group of red dancers caught in a collective moment of innocent freedom and joy, holding hands as they whirl around in space. Simple and direct, the painting speaks volumes about our deep-rooted, primal human desire for connection, movement, rhythm and music”).

As the last example suggests, since music can be generated from just about any text, anything that can be translated/captioned/captured in text, from poetry to paintings, can be turned into music.

It may seem strange that so many AI tools are coming to fruition in public all at once, but at Ars Technica, investor Haomiao Huang argues that once the basic AI toolkit reached a certain level of sophistication, a confluence of new products taking advantage of those research breakthroughs was inevitable:

To sum up, the breakthrough with generative image models is a combination of two AI advances. First, there’s deep learning’s ability to learn a “language” for representing images via latent representations. Second, models can use the “translation” ability of transformers via a foundation model to shift between the world of text and the world of images (via that latent representation).

This is a powerful technique that goes far beyond images. As long as there’s a way to represent something with a structure that looks a bit like a language, together with the data sets to train on, transformers can learn the rules and then translate between languages. Github’s Copilot has learned to translate between English and various programming languages, and Google’s Alphafold can translate between the language of DNA and protein sequences. Other companies and researchers are working on things like training AIs to generate automations to do simple tasks on a computer, like creating a spreadsheet. Each of these are just ordered sequences.

The other thing that’s different about the new wave of AI advances, Huang says, is that they’re not especially dependent on huge computing power at the edge. So AI is rapidly becoming much more ubiquitous than it’s been… even if MusicLM’s sample set of tunes still crashes my web browser.

deadline.com ·
Michael Jackson’s nephew Jaafar (one of Jermaine’s sons) will play MJ in a new biopic directed by Antoine Fuqua (Emancipation) and produced by Graham King (Bohemian Rhapsody)

Were the Earliest Cave Paintings Calendars?

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 01, 2023

A series of early cave paintings isolating proto-writing elements

Since striking ancient cave paintings in southern Europe were first discovered more than a century ago, modern humans have tried to figure out if they have a meaning beyond being staggering works of art. Are they early animations? Examples of a primeval need to tell stories? An antique backdrop for us to project contemporary mistakes?

A new theory proposes that the repeatedly occurring nonfigurative signs (the ones that don’t look like anything concrete) are a kind of protowriting. This guess has been floated before, but this time, a number of earlier proposals are synthesized, and there’s a semantics attached: the symbols in the caves, these researchers argue, were used to mark time:

We hypothesize that the number of lines/dots, or the ordinal position of symbols, in sequences associated with depictions of prey taxa in Upper Palaeolithic art, convey information about events in those animals’ annual lives important to hunter-gatherers, expressed in lunar months RBS, i.e. anchored to the start of the bonne saison. That information is likely to reflect birthing, and possibly mating and/or migration of the animals of concern in the region in which the images are found (or originated).

A relatively simple statistical analysis shows good correlation with the number of marks and the number of lunar months between cycles of mating/birthing. In this way, early hunter/gatherers might have been able to track the availability of bird eggs, or to find new prey.

This would be a revolution in the history of recorded information:

Although a series of marks can of course be ambiguous, the Upper Palaeolithic written system was thus clear, unambiguous and permanent, and could have widespread meaning irrespective of any linguistic barriers (about which, of course, we know nothing), particularly given the fact that our database contains samples from across western—and some central—Europe. It made possible the accumulation and transmission of intelligible information over multiple generations, independent of the need to maintain parallel oral explanations (although of course we do not propose that these simply disappeared). This was clearly much more than a simple ‘tally’ of accumulated information. We believe that the numeric notational marks associated with the animals constituted a calendar, and given that it references natural behaviour in terms of seasons relative to a fixed point in time, we may refer to it as a phenological calendar, with a meteorological basis. It may be of greater significance, however, that it significantly backdates by thousands of years the permanent combination of information (in the form of numerosity/ordinality) with its subject (the animal/symbol).

But is it writing?

In our reading, the European Upper Palaeolithic system functioned to record a subject and information about the behaviour of that subject expressed in relation to natural events; it therefore expressed far more than the tablets recording numbers of commodities from Uruk-period Mesopotamia (Steinkeller 1992). In the sense of the Sumerological use of the terms, we suggest that we can accord it the function of a script. But could the information that it recorded really be intelligible without at least the underpinning nouns for the animals, the moon and its phases, and the bonne saison and its defining events, in addition to the actions of mating and birthing? We will presumably never know the specific words for these in whatever languages were spoken in Upper Palaeolithic Europe, but we can assume that our script could be communicated orally by using them. Is this, then, not the definition of writing?

We may not be convinced that the Upper Palaeolithic sequences and associated symbols can be described as written language, given that they do not represent grammatical syntax, but they certainly functioned in the same way as proto-cuneiform… We do not want to press the controversial (and in many senses, semantic) question of whether writing was a Palaeolithic invention; perhaps it is best described as a proto-writing system, an intermediary step between a simpler notation/convention and full-blown writing. Assuming we have convinced colleagues of our correct identification, there will no doubt be a lively debate about precisely what this system should be called, and we are certainly open to suggestions. For now, we restrict our terminology to proto-writing in the form of a phrenological/meteorological calendar. It implies that a form of writing existed tens of thousands of years before the earliest Sumerian writing system.

To translate this out of scholarly passive-aggressiveness: “you don’t have to call it writing if you want to be dicks about it, but we all know it’s writing, chumps.”

Apollo, As Seen by Young Girls

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 01, 2023

Three girls quoted in a 1971 Billings Gazette article about the Apollo program -- Betsy Longo, Amy Ponich, Jennifer Dettmann

On February 7, 1971, the Billings Gazette, a local Montana newspaper, ran a story by Carol Perkins titled “Apollo — As Kids See It.” They interviewed young kids, from 5 to 11, and a range of boys and girls, to get their opinion about NASA’s then-current manned moon missions. Paleofuture’s Matt Novak zeroes in on the girls:

“I wouldn’t like to go to the moon. It’s not really a place for girls,” said 7-year-old Joan Anderson, who would be about 58 years old now.

“I think it would be fun to marry an astronaut. He would be rich and famous,” said 5-year-old Gail Standard.

“He’d be gone away a lot, so I would go with him. I’d wear a girl’s astronaut uniform and cook a lot of potatoes,” said 6-year-old Jennifer Dettmann, speaking of her potential astronaut husband.

There are a lot of myths about the Apollo space program. Chief among them is that most Americans fervently supported the space program’s enormous costs. In reality, most Americans of the 1960s thought the Apollo space program wasn’t a good use of taxpayer funds, with many people asking why that money wasn’t being spent to fight homelessness or hunger in the U.S.—the same criticisms you hear today.

In fact, one of the girls quoted in the article, 11-year-old Betsy Longo, expressed a similar sentiment.

“I don’t think they should use so much money to go to the moon,” Longo said. “They should use it to stop cancer and help people here on Earth.”

One 10-year-old, Amy Ponich, was the only girl in the article who seemed receptive to the idea that she could have a role to play in America’s exploration of space, telling the reporter that she wanted to be a scientist to “discover more frontiers.”

“We need to know what the moon is made of and how it related to the Earth,” Ponich said.

The US Apollo program only included men, but the USSR’s Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space in 1963. Sally Ride was the first American woman in space in 1983, twelve years after this article. Since the Apollo program ended in 1972, no human beings have landed on the moon.