The Accidental Power of Design – The New York Times

The Accidental Power of Design – The New York Times

Do we know what we’re talking about when we talk about design? Design is both noun and verb, covering work that ranges from the composition of a tattoo to the amelioration of climate change. We design spoons and rooms, houses and cities, power grids and national identities, international treaties and defense systems and, when all else fails, military campaigns. If design refers to that which is planned and brought to fruition by human ingenuity, we’ve reached the point where, as Mark Wigley and Beatriz Colomina, curators of this year’s Istanbul Design Biennial, aptly observe, “the planet itself has been completely encrusted by design as a geological layer.” Even the few undesigned places left exist because we design the borders around them.

The basic motivation for design is the very human desire for coherence. With so much designed in the world, we begin to take its results for granted. Often, what we have conjured assumes the sheen of inevitability, as if its results were inalienable facts in the world rather than the product of someone’s ideas and actions. In other words, design solidifies, and naturalizes, things that start off as opinions, stories and traditions, supplying form to the fictions by which we live. We rarely stop to consider the faith-based proposition represented by our paper money or the imagined national narratives engendered by borders. Unlike words, the meaning of which can be debated, the objective materiality of designed objects exudes a unique power. Once established, it’s difficult to think outside the systems and structures these objects represent.

Consider the current public bathroom kerfuffle. Recently, several states have introduced legislation that would compel citizens to confine themselves to the bathrooms that align with the sex designated on their birth certificate. So one designed system, the binary “M” or “F” box on the birth certificate, is used to justify another: men’s and women’s bathrooms. Never mind that we’re perfectly comfortable sharing unisex bathrooms at home, in trains and on airplanes — the male or female designation, at least in most public spaces, is taken as self-evident. That division of bathrooms, however, is a historical relic. As women began to enter the industrialized work force in the 19th century, employers started to segregate bathrooms, ostensibly to protect delicate sensibilities.

Over the course of the next 150 years, this division of the sexes, which had begun as a product of ideology, was legally codified. Now, building codes and the Americans with Disabilities Act stipulate detailed requirements for how public bathrooms must be designed, and architects are required by law to follow them. As the origin story fades into the past, the presence of the two distinct spaces is cited as proof that the difference they identify is sacrosanct, when in fact the twin rooms are, essentially, architecturally codified ideology.

In 2013, after California passed the law guaranteeing any public school student the right to use the bathroom facility they felt aligned with their gender identity, a Republican state assemblyman withdrew his 13-year-old son from school, declaring: “The public schools are no longer interested in education. They’ve become government-indoctrination centers.” His mistake was in not recognizing that all design is indoctrinating, because design manifests the distinctions by which we order our world. The overheated rhetoric spinning around the bathroom debate claims we are creating a “recipe for disaster” by entering “unknown territory.” But this territory is hardly unexplored; it’s just that a century and a half of architecture, icons and ideology has done its work. Now change seems unimaginable, even dangerous, despite the fact we designed it that way in the first place. What seems self-evident can no longer be imagined as arbitrary. It’s only when our belief systems shift, and culturally we experience a seismic disruption, that we suddenly recognize the underlying fictions on which our designed world is built. Design always depicts the things that matter to us … until they don’t.

Source: The Accidental Power of Design – The New York Times

The paradox of play: Real fun should be terrifying | New Scientist

The paradox of play: Real fun should be terrifying | New Scientist

A COUPLE of weeks ago, I took my not-quite-3-year-old to the local swimming pool. We splashed about a bit, both of us slightly bored. I followed her as she clambered in and out of the pool in one of those loops toddlers get stuck in. Then I accidentally did something fun. Helping her hop into the water, I hoisted her into the air slightly more than usual. She landed in the shallow water with a little skid and ended up on her bottom. “Again, again!” she cried with delight. And then: “What’s this game called?”

Familiar things – my hands, the pool, her feet – used in unfamiliar ways. It’s the secret of play. Somewhere between the ages of 4 and 40 we forget how to have fun in quite this way.

Ian Bogost realised this with his own young daughter in a shopping mall. In Play Anything, he recalls rushing her through a crowd, dragging her by the hand. She should have been miserable, but she used his pull across the tiled floor as a new constraint that made her don’t-step-on-the-cracks game more fun than usual.

As adults, our lives are just as filled with constraints. But we’re worse at dealing with them. Bogost, who is a writer, video game designer and professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, wants us to find the fun in everyday things. Doing so will let us lead happier, more meaningful lives – and find pleasure in work, trips to the supermarket, mowing the lawn and long-haul flights (“the closest an ordinary person can come to state-sponsored torture”). The problem is our flawed grasp of what fun is. “We’ve misunderstood fun to mean enjoyment without effort,” he writes.

Part personal meditation, part guide to living a happier life, Play Anything is a Walden for the 2010s. But instead of Henry Thoreau’s 19th-century Massachusetts woodlands, Bogost invites us to celebrate strip malls, household chores and ready meals. Finding fun in these things involves work, he says – but it’s work in the same way that carpentry or exercise is.

Along the way, he picks a fight with Mary Poppins, arguing that “that renowned philosopher of fun” had it all wrong. A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down, but as a maxim for dealing with the drudgery of everyday life her song was a sham. It is a mistake to dress things up as something they are not.

This way lies gamification. These days there’s an industry of consultants and app developers trying to make boring, miserable surveys, dead-end jobs or exercise fun through contrived rewards and meaningless metrics. Bogost is quick to take gamification apart. “Fun is not a feeling,” he writes. “And it’s certainly not the feeling of enjoying ourselves by doing exactly what we want, by making something easy or by rewarding ourselves with points, as if life is some… version of Space Invaders that turns chores into chortles.” Rather than push difficult things away by sugar-coating them, we must see them for what they are.

For Bogost, there’s fun to be had in things that are not obviously fun, but have to be done. “This is the pleasure of limits, the fun of play,” he writes. “Not doing what we want, but doing what we can with what is given.”

Such a change of outlook will be hard for some and Bogost knows it – especially when our default mode is often irony. We celebrate everything from Instagrams of Egg McMuffins to T-shirts of Macaulay Culkin, but commit to none of it. But who said finding the meaning of life was easy? “Terror is at work in real fun,” he explains. “The terror of facing the world as it really is.”

Acidity in atmosphere minimized to preindustrial levels — ScienceDaily

Acidity in atmosphere minimized to preindustrial levels — ScienceDaily

New research shows that human pollution of the atmosphere with acid is now almost back to the level that it was before the pollution started with industrialisation in the 1930s. The results come from studies of the Greenland ice sheet and are published in the scientific journal, Environmental Science and Technology.

The Greenland ice sheet is a unique archive of the climate and atmospheric composition far back in time. The ice sheet is made up of snow that falls and never melts, but rather remains year after year and is gradually compressed into ice. By drilling ice cores down through the kilometre-thick ice sheet, the researchers can analyse every single annual layer, which can tell us about past climate change and concentration of greenhouse gases and pollutants in the atmosphere.

Acid in the atmosphere can come from large volcanic eruptions and human-made emissions from industry. You can measure acidity in the ice by simply passing an instrument that can measure conductivity over the ice core. If there is a high level of acidity, the measurement turns out and it works great for measuring the climate of the past all the way back to the last interglacial period 125,000 years ago. But if you want to measure atmospheric acidity for the last 100 years, it is more difficult as the annual layers are located in the uppermost 60 metres and there the ice is more porous as it has not yet been compressed into hard ice.

Measures pollution from year to year

But the last 100 years are interesting for climate researchers as it is the period where we have had massive pollution of the atmosphere from industrialisation, vehicle use and people’s energy consuming lifestyles.

“We have therefore developed a new method that can directly measure the acidity of the ice using a spectrometer. We have an ice rod that is cut along the length of the ice core. This ice core rod is slowly melted and the meltwater runs into a laboratory where they take a lot of chemical measurements. With our new method you can also measure the acidity, that is to say, we measure the pH value and this is seen when the water changes colour after the addition of a pH dye. We can directly see the fluctuations from year to year,” explains Helle Astrid Kjær, postdoc in the Centre for Ice and Climate at the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen.

For many years, there has been a quest to solve the problem of measuring acidity in the porous annual layers of the ice and now scientists from the Niels Bohr Institute have succeeded. The method is a Continuous Flow Analyses or CFA method and it was originally invented in Switzerland, but Helle Astrid Kjær has spearheaded the further development of the system so it can also measure acid.

Distinguishes between natural and humanmade sources

In addition to being able to measure the pH value more accurately using the new method, the CFA system can also distinguish whether the emissions come from volcanic eruptions, large forest fires or industry. The researchers can therefore filter out both volcanic eruptions and forest fires in the assessment of industrial pollution and the new results are revolutionary.

“We can see that the acid pollution in the atmosphere from industry has fallen dramatically since humanmade acid pollution took off in the 1930s and peaked in the 1960s and 70s. In the 1970s, both Europe and the United States adopted the ‘The clean air act amendments’, which required filters in factories, thus reducing acid emissions and this is what we can now see the results of. The pollution of acid in the atmosphere is now almost down to the level it was before the pollution really took off in the 1930s, explains Helle Astrid Kjær.

The new pH method has already been used on ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica by research teams from New Zealand, the United States and Denmark.

Our secret’s out. – VanMoof – Medium

Our secret’s out. – VanMoof – Medium

Since we started shipping bikes eight years ago, here at VanMoof we’ve struggled to find shipping partners that give our bikes the same obsessive love and care that we do.
Trust us, we’ve tried them all.

The big ones.
The niche ones.
The expensive ones.
The start-up-ey ones.

Yet no matter who was doing the shipping, too many of our bikes arrived looking like they’d been through a metal-munching combine harvester. It was getting expensive for us, and bloody annoying for our customers.

With a big hairy goal to sell 90% of our bikes online by 2020, we had to find a fix. Anyone in the ecom world knows you’re only as good as your shipping partner. Your covetable products, your frictionless website, your killer brand — they all count for nothing when your delivery partner drops the ball.

Earlier this year our co-founder Ties had a flash of genius. Our boxes are about the same size as a (really really reaaaally massive) flatscreen television. Flatscreen televisions always arrive in perfect condition. What if we just printed a flatscreen television on the side of our boxes?

And just like that, shipping damage to our bikes dropped by 70–80%.

As a we go from tiny Amsterdam bike-maker to global city-cycling company, this bike box hack has got us thinking about the power of small tweaks with disproportionate impact.

Could we use them to make Brooklyn safer and smarter for cyclists, bring more diversity to city cycling in Berlin, or put more Amsterdam bike thieves out of business?

We were hoping to keep this small tweak quiet, but thanks to Twitter, the secret’s out.

Just don’t tell FedEx.

Source: Our secret’s out. – VanMoof – Medium

Customer/Sales-Assistant Translation Phrasebook – The New Yorker

Customer/Sales-Assistant Translation Phrasebook – The New Yorker

This bilingual dictionary is designed to translate common phrases from the language of the customer to that of the sales assistant (and vice versa). In the past, misinterpretation has often resulted in hurt feelings, and sometimes even physical altercations, which makes this an essential text for navigating the stressful world of client-associate relations.

Customer: “Are there any in the back? Surely you’ve got to have some more in the back.”
Translation: “I know you’re hiding more of what I want in there, out-of-stock sign be damned.”

Customer: “So, do you guys do samples, or . . . ?”
Translation: “I want a sample, but am too polite and embarrassed to ask you outright, in case you think I’m cheap or wasting your time.”

Customer: “Hey, you. I want a sample.”
Translation: “I want a sample, and I was raised by wolves.”

Customer: “I would like to speak to the manager.”
Translation: “I’m going to intimidate you into giving me what I want by threatening your job security.”

Customer: “It’s such a shame that your products have all these chemicals in them!”
Translation: “I don’t actually know what the word ‘chemical’ means, but I see it printed a lot in the Daily News, so it can’t be good.”

Customer: “No, I’m just browsing.”
Translation: “It is five minutes before closing time, but it is imperative that I look at this lip balm, and that I be rude to you as I do so.”

Customer: “Come.” (N.B.: This may sometimes be accompanied by a forceful grab.)
Translation: “I have mistaken you for my pet dog.”


Sales Assistant: “We have a tester here if you’d like to try out the product.”
Translation: “For the love of all that is holy and good, please use the item marked ‘tester’ or ‘try me’ instead of the brand new one that you’re not actually going to buy.”

Sales Assistant: “No, it’s actually unisex!”
Translation: “Gendered products are usually nothing but marketing; I promise you won’t die if you wash with pink soap. I might die if you ask me again which products are for men, though.”

Sales Assistant: “Cool! I’ll leave you to have a look then.”
Translation: “You really could have just responded with ‘hello’ to me instead of scowling and opening that umbrella in my face.”

Sales Assistant: “Yes, the bag’s free.”
Translation: “I’m not sure why spending fifteen cents more on a bag would bother you when you’re already spending two hundred and fifty dollars on things that you’re going to wash down the drain, but yes, the shopping bags are free.”

Sales Assistant: “I’ll do my best! Wait here and I’ll be right back with an answer!”
Translation: “You’re actually behaving civilly, so I’m going to ask my manager that question for you even though I know that the answer’s no. When she does indeed say no, I’m going to stand at the back and down a whole water bottle, and regret every life decision that brought me to this point in time.”

Sales Assistant: “You’re so welcome!”
Translation: “You didn’t thank me, and this is the most aggressive way I can remind you that you’re mannerless without being reprimanded by my manager.”

Sales Assistant: “We close at ten, but you’re more than welcome to browse for a bit longer!”
Translation: “Don’t take me up on this. Don’t you dare.”

Vint Cerf’s dream do-over: 2 ways he’d make the internet different | Computerworld

Vint Cerf’s dream do-over: 2 ways he’d make the internet different | Computerworld

Vint Cerf is considered a father of the internet, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things he would do differently if given a fresh chance to create it all over again.

“If I could have justified it, putting in a 128-bit address space would have been nice so we wouldn’t have to go through this painful, 20-year process of going from IPv4 to IPv6,” Cerf told an audience of journalists Thursday during a press conference at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum in Germany.

IPv4, the first publicly used version of the Internet Protocol, included an addressing system that used 32-bit numerical identifiers. It soon became apparent that it would lead to an exhaustion of addresses, however, spurring the creation of IPv6 as a replacement. Roughly a year ago, North America officially ran out of new addresses based on IPv4.

For security, public key cryptography is another thing Cerf would like to have added, had it been feasible.

Trouble is, neither idea is likely to have made it into the final result at the time. “I doubt I could have gotten away with either one,” said Cerf, who won a Turing Award in 2004 and is now vice president and chief internet evangelist at Google. “So today we have to retrofit.”

The 128-bit address space, for instance, “wouldn’t have seemed realistic back then,” he said. Particularly given the effort’s experimental mind-set at the time, “I don’t think we could have forced that.”

There was debate about the possibility of variable-length addresses, but proponents of the idea were ultimately defeated because of the extra processing power associated with them, he explained. “Because computers were so expensive back then, we rejected the idea.”

As for public key cryptography, the notion had only recently emerged around the time the internet protocols were being standardized back in 1978.

“I didn’t want to go back and retrofit everything, so we didn’t include it,” Cerf said. “If I could go back and put in public key crypto, I probably would try.”

[Both ideas are pure fiction.  At the time address space was limited.  Remember the Year 2000 problem? As for processing power if variable length addresses could not be handled there was no way cryptography would work.]

The ‘Alice in Wonderland’ mechanics of the rejection of (climate) science: simulating coherence by conspiracism | SpringerLink

The ‘Alice in Wonderland’ mechanics of the rejection of (climate) science: simulating coherence by conspiracism | SpringerLink

Science strives for coherence. For example, the findings from climate science form a highly coherent body of knowledge that is supported by many independent lines of evidence: greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from human economic activities are causing the global climate to warm and unless GHG emissions are drastically reduced in the near future, the risks from climate change will continue to grow and major adverse consequences will become unavoidable. People who oppose this scientific body of knowledge because the implications of cutting GHG emissions—such as regulation or increased taxation—threaten their worldview or livelihood cannot provide an alternative view that is coherent by the standards of conventional scientific thinking. Instead, we suggest that people who reject the fact that the Earth’s climate is changing due to greenhouse gas emissions (or any other body of well-established scientific knowledge) oppose whatever inconvenient finding they are confronting in piece-meal fashion, rather than systematically, and without considering the implications of this rejection to the rest of the relevant scientific theory and findings. Hence, claims that the globe “is cooling” can coexist with claims that the “observed warming is natural” and that “the human influence does not matter because warming is good for us.” Coherence between these mutually contradictory opinions can only be achieved at a highly abstract level, namely that “something must be wrong” with the scientific evidence in order to justify a political position against climate change mitigation. This high-level coherence accompanied by contradictory subordinate propositions is a known attribute of conspiracist ideation, and conspiracism may be implicated when people reject well-established scientific propositions.

[Follow the link for the full paper.]

The World’s Largest Radio Telescope Is Now Live | Motherboard

The World’s Largest Radio Telescope Is Now Live | Motherboard

So far 2016 has been a year of unprecedented achievement for China’s ambitious space program: the country has launched a dark-matter seeking satellite, put another satellite to test quantum communications in orbit, outlined plans to send rovers to Mars and the dark side of the moon, and successfully launched a new Long March rocket. This new Long March rocket will soon be ferrying Chinese astronauts (aka taikonauts) to Tiangong-2, China’s second crewed space station which was just put into orbit earlier this month.

Although China’s space program has accomplished more in the last nine months than many space agencies do in several years, the country’s progress is still not showing any signs of flagging. In July, Chinese engineers finished construction on the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), the world’s largest radio telescope. On Sunday afternoon, FAST came online for the first time and ushered in an exciting new era for Chinese astronomy.

“The ultimate goal of FAST is to discover the laws of the development of the universe,” said Qian Lei, an associate researcher with the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Construction on the FAST telescope (nicknamed Tianyan, or ‘Eye of Heaven’) began about five years ago in southwestern China. A natural basin in the area proved to be a perfect spot to put the massive dish, but the construction project will displace about 9000 people from their homes to reduce radio interference. Originally projected to cost around $100 million, by the time everything was said and done China had dumped some $180 million into the project.

At 500 meters in diameter, the FAST radio telescope is about 200 meters larger than the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico, which came online in 1963. Like Arecibo, the FAST telescope is a fixed dish telescope which means it can’t be moved and must observe the sky that is directly overhead—but that doesn’t mean it can’t be focused to look at different sections of that patch of sky.

FAST achieves this by having an adjustable detector suspended over the dish which can be manipulated with pulleys and objects moving across the sky can be tracked by adjusting the angles of the 4,450 panels that comprise the dish. Compared to Arecibo, this state-of-the-art radio telescope will be able to observe almost three times as much sky area, at twice the sensitivity and up to ten times the surveying speed.

For astronomers, the completion of FAST couldn’t come fast enough. Arecibo has been plagued by funding woes for years and today its future is entirely uncertain. Losing Arecibo would be a major blow to astronomy and SETI research, and although the FAST telescope could pick up some of the slack if Arecibo is decommissioned in the future, the two telescopes aren’t trying to do the same thing.

Unlike Arecibo, which is used for everything from listening for extraterrestrial transmissions to hunting for giant killer asteroids and studying Earth’s atmosphere, FAST will primarily be investigating the evolution of the universe as it is written in neutral hydrogen, the raw material of stars and the most abundant element in the universe. It will also be on the lookout for pulsars, the rotating remnants of dead stars which could reveal gravitational waves emitted from black holes. And yes, in the process it might even pick up a call from ET.

“In theory, if there is civilization in outer space, the radio signal it sends will be similar to the signal we can receive when a pulsar is approaching us,” said Qian.

Initial FAST tests have been encouraging: a recent test detected a pulsar that was 1,351 light-years away. Yet FAST is still not running anywhere close to its full capacity, and when it will be able to do so in uncertain. A report from Caixin, a Beijing news agency says getting the telescope fully operational will require dozens, if not hundreds of astronomers, but so far the country hasn’t even been able to track down 50 people for the job.

How NASA Prevents Alien Life from Contaminating Earth—and Vice Versa | Motherboard

How NASA Prevents Alien Life from Contaminating Earth—and Vice Versa | Motherboard

People love a good alien visitation story, whether it’s a heart-warming depiction of friendship like E.T. or a frightening tale of hostile invasion like Independence Day.

But for Cassie Conley, NASA’s planetary protection officer, keeping Earth safe from alien contamination isn’t just fodder for science fiction; it’s part of her job description.

As head of the agency’s Office of Planetary Protection, Conley is tasked with ensuring that sample return trips to extraterrestrial environments—for instance, the recently launched OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid Bennu—have a low risk of bringing alien life back to Earth.

Likewise, she ensures that Earth life does not hitchhike to potentially hospitable environments, like Jupiter’s moon Europa or the watery regions of Mars, where it might thrive and create false positives of alien life.

As Conley succinctly put it in the New York Times: “If we’re going to look for life on Mars, it would be really kind of lame to bring Earth life and find that instead.”

So lame. But given how endurant and adaptable some of Earth’s creatures have proven themselves to be (looking at you, tardigrades), there is a real possibility that they could tag along with interplanetary landers and set up shop on a brand new world.

“We have discovered that there are many more Earth organisms that have capabilities we didn’t expect,” Conley said in this new NASA video about planetary protection, released Sunday morning.

“If you had pizza last night, or if you put cheese on your salad last night or put cheese on your pasta, you probably have organisms in your mouth right now that could grow on Mars as long as they were protected from ultraviolet (UV) radiation, and they have some level of water and nutrients.”

Indeed, we know that despite sterilization measures, the Curiosity rover had all kinds of microbial passengers onboard when it landed on the Martian surface, which is why the vehicle is not permitted to mosey over to nearby areas thought to be rich in water or nutrients. While these regions are the most tantalizing to study from an exobiological perspective, they are also the places most likely to give opportunistic Earth life a chance to take hold, a process known as forward contamination.

Backward contamination, meanwhile, describes the possibility of alien life from extraterrestrial worlds hitchhiking back to Earth on one of our sample return missions, or even taking up residence in the bodies of the first Mars-bound astronauts.

“There is a lot of interest in trying to get samples back from Mars, not just for the really cool science you would get, but also for this backward contamination issue,” Richard Davis, the assistant director of science and exploration at NASA headquarters, told me last year. “It is low probability, but you can’t dismiss it and you need to do due diligence on it so ensure that you are not putting your crew members, or even Earth, at risk.”

To be sure, the notion of astronauts returning from Mars all doped up with weird alien beasties is not a particularly appealing one, though it might make a good horror flick. In real life, however, it’s good to know that NASA is taking due precautions in preventing the spread of Earthlings to untouched environments, as well as the return of potential hazardous alien life to our own front doorstep.