Dan Phiffer Dan Phiffer builds websites, makes art, and teaches in NYC

The Author of the Acacia

This Ursula K. Le Guin story is so good!

No known dialect of Ant employs any verbal person except the third person singular and plural and the first person plural. In this text, only the root forms of the verbs are used; so there is no way to decide whether the passage was intended to be an autobiography or a manifesto.

Seeds 14-22

Long are the tunnels. Longer is the untunneled. No tunnel reaches the end of the untunneled. The untunneled goes on farther than we can go in ten days [i.e., forever]. Praise!

The mark translated “Praise!” is half of the customary salutation “Praise the Queen!” or “Long live the Queen!” or “Huzza for the Queen!”—but the word/mark signifying “Queen” has been omitted.

Thanks to Matt Webb for transcribing it from The Compass Rose. You can also listen to Le Guin reading the latter half of the essay (with an additional footnote!) in a 2014 talk.

Link via Hugo Reinert

Self-driving cars: “utterly inevitable”

Mat Honan wrote about the experience of riding in Google’s cute self-driving cars.

“One also suspects that the cars look intentionally nonthreatening. That they very much are not intended to look like [some of Google’s other robots](” Mat Honan / BuzzFeed News
“One also suspects that the cars look intentionally nonthreatening. That they very much are not intended to look like some of Google’s other robots.” Mat Honan / BuzzFeed News

The first time I rode in a fully autonomous car, what really impressed me was when the car saw something that I could not. As I rode down a residential street in Mountain View, the car slowed, for no apparent reason. Yet in the front seat, a laptop showed everything the car could “see.” And up ahead, there was a man, in the street, standing behind a double-parked vehicle. He was concealed from my eyes, but the car detected him. And it slowed down, anticipating that he might step out unexpectedly.

It anticipated this because each and every one of Google robot cars has experienced the totality of everything all its siblings have experienced. Google’s cars have driven a total of 1.2 million miles on the roads. We tend to think of this as combined experience — an aggregate number. But what it really means, effectively, is that every single car has driven that distance, has experienced it. This is a machine that learns. And in addition to that on road time, the cars log, Google said yesterday, 3 million miles every day running scenarios.

This car is a better driver than me, or you, or any of us.

Link via Andy Baio

Why we don’t have much good data on

From Michael Luo’s 2011 series on guns and public safety, this gets at the heart of the political limitations on doing research into the health risks of guns in America.

C.D.C. financing for research on gun violence has not stopped completely, but it is now mostly limited to work in which firearms are only a component.

The centers also ask researchers it finances to give it a heads-up anytime they are publishing studies that have anything to do with firearms. The agency, in turn, relays this information to the N.R.A. as a courtesy, said Thomas Skinner, a spokesman for the centers.

Invariably, researchers said, whenever their work touches upon firearms, the C.D.C. becomes squeamish. In the end, they said, it is often simply easier to avoid the topic if they want to continue to be in the agency’s good graces.

Emphasis added. I’m curious if these circumstances have changed much in the past 4 years.

Link via southpaw

Adam Gopnik on the Virginia Tech

Max Fisher writes in Vox “this is the best paragraph I’ve ever read on gun control and mass shootings,” quoting from Adam Gopnik in the April 30, 2007 issue of the New Yorker.

The cell phones in the pockets of the dead students were still ringing when we were told that it was wrong to ask why. As the police cleared the bodies from the Virginia Tech engineering building, the cell phones rang, in the eccentric varieties of ring tones, as parents kept trying to see if their children were OK.

Gopnik’s Comment piece ends just as strong.

There is no reason that any private citizen in a democracy should own a handgun. At some point, that simple truth will register. Until it does, phones will ring for dead children, and parents will be told not to ask why.


My friend almost got eaten by a

I am very glad she was not eaten by a bear.

And then around 10:15, I woke up, suddenly, to a crunching noise. Crunch, crunch, crunch. I opened my eyes to the five inches or so of space between the ground and the vestibule of my tent, and — woah. Four big paws. Interesting. I was still fighting my way out of sleep and halfway processing those paws when I looked up to the wall of my tent, which was lit up from the almost-full moon. And there, silhouetted perfectly against the fabric, was a bear head.

Also, I can’t help but think of this Far Side cartoon (sorry Stasia!).


In Search of Personalized

My friends Taeyoon and Roon have been working on a project called In Search of Personalized Time. Last year they were collaborating remotely, with Taeyoon working on-site at a festival in Seoul coordinating with Roon here in New York on a very different timezone.

It was, as if, we are living in someplace else—in-between New York and Seoul—and doesn’t completely belong to either of those two places.

Similarly, in our perceptions, those conference calls were happening not in New York or Seoul’s local time, but possibly elsewhen—sometime else, that the participants from both places share momentarily.

Perhaps, we could create a time device, that shows your personal time, so that you can interact with it without syncing back with the GMT. Then perhaps, we could network these devices, and think about how to negotiate these personal times from person to person. then perhaps, we could create an alternative time-system, a consensus time, the bottom up approach towards deciding what time it is now.


After showing the piece at LACMA earlier in the year, they participated in the Art Book Fair this past weekend along with Sam Hart, editor of

After syncing the devices to their personal clocks, the volunteers were asked to spend the afternoon on a “scavenger hunt for time,” taking the Art Book Fair as an opportunity to begin new conversations about their sense of lived time and the significance of publication as an act of preserving a particular moment.


Look at your

I recently upgraded my phone and discovered that the new version of iOS was running way too slow on my iPhone 5. But the new San Francisco font sure does look nice. I suffered with a slow ass phone for a few days, and then decided to just burn it all down and reinstall everything from scratch with iOS 8.

It worked! My phone is much faster, and I got rid of dozens of apps that I never use in the process.

As I was deciding which things to re-install, I came across Robin Sloan’s Fish in the (embarrassingly long) list of app store previous downloads. It had been a while, so I tapped through it again. It is still so good! If you have never tried it—and if you have an iPhone, I think it may only work on iPhones—you should absolutely install it.


Or if you haven’t in a while, give it another read.


Theory of

Despite his best efforts to avoid settling on a specific definition, Benjamen Walker has arrived at the raison d’être for his podcast Theory of Everything, paraphrasing Luc Sante:

My podcast is alive to the entire prospect. I focus on the ephemeral and the perishable, and the immemorial. I’m in the show-business of negative capability. I cover things that are about to occur without warning, as well as things that are subtly absent, and things that are silently waving goodbye.

Another episode has just gone up, Recent, Relevant, Random (r), which is—fittingly, given the discussion of recentness—a rerun. I was glad to return to it.


Which U.S. State Performs Best in the New Yorker Caption Contest?

As you might expect, New York and California have the highest number of total Cartoon Caption Contest wins with 87 and 76, respectively. But they also have the most losing entries.

The United States of the New Yorker Caption Contest: Wins Per 10 Thousand Submissions
The United States of the New Yorker Caption Contest: Wins Per 10 Thousand Submissions

This map shows that Alaska is actually the most successful state in terms of wins per ten thousand submissions! Though Alaska has only won the contest twice, the fact that it had a mere 2,102 documented contest entries renders its rate of approximately 9.5 wins per ten thousand submissions the highest in the country. Mississippi, another state not commonly associated with the New Yorker crowd, comes in at a close second, with 8.14 wins per ten thousand submissions.

Link via Caitlin

T. C. Boyle’s

I’m just getting back into listening to podcasts again, and noticed that the New Yorker Fiction podcast hit episode number 100. Congratulations to Deborah Treisman! If you’re not a subscriber already, definitely listen to some of the old episodes, there’s a lot of great stuff in there. This T.C. Boyle story is up there with the best of them.


Could a Bank Deny Your Loan Based on Your Facebook Friends?

Facebook recently filed a rather unsettling patent application describing (among other things) a hypothetical social-graph-based credit scoring system. What level of freaked out would be an appropriate response?

Facebook makes its money by encouraging people to have large friend networks and create lots of content for it to show ads against. And given that that’s the primary profit driver for Facebook, as a practical manner, it would really surprise me if they decided to get into the credit-scoring business, just because I think that’s going to make people feel panicked and uncomfortable. If I were them, I would not be in a giant rush to do that.

This makes me wonder if a lot of people suddenly started blocking ads, would companies like Facebook move quickly to adopt more dystopian business models? Or would they be more likely to start embracing those business models much earlier—quietly, secretly, mischievously—in anticipation?

Link via Ingrid

What Happens Next Will Amaze

Maciej Cegłowski on the perilous surveillance of online advertising:

Ad fraud works because the market for ads is so highly automated. Like algorithmic trading, decisions happen in fractions of a second, and matchmaking between publishers and advertisers is outside human control. It’s a confusing world of demand side platforms, supply-side platforms, retargeting, pre-targeting, behavioral modeling, real-time bidding, ad exchanges, ad agency trading desks and a thousand other bits of jargon.

The winners in this game are the ones running the casino: big advertising networks, surveillance companies, and the whole brand-new industry known as “adtech”.

The losers are small publishers and small advertisers. Universal click fraud drives down the value of all advertising, making it harder for niche publishers to make ends meet.

Link via Ethan Marcotte