Pen Type-A#

Pen Type-A

I'm definitely getting one of these bad boys, even though I can't read my own writing and probably haven't written more than 10 sentences per year since graduating from high school in 1998.

It will come as no surprise that a long time ago I was obsessed with pens (because, well, I obsess), and I'm just enamored with the minimalist aesthetic of this beautiful hunk of steel. If anything it'll be a great desktop accessory, and who knows, maybe I'll actually use it every once in a while.

Religion running scared#

Religion is running scared from advances in science, particularly brain science such as neurology. Why? Because the brain is the final frontier in uncovering the reasons for belief in superstitions, religion and a higher power. After all, the brain is what interprets everything we see, read, think, do or believe, and also it determines how we react to these things. The brain is the start and the finish of our life experiences, the alpha and omega of any and every action we make in our lives. [...]

It seems to me that the ammunition that religious leaders once had, an exclusive ownership of all things moralistic, is running out. As we make more and more advances in the sciences of the brain, we are steadily filling the God-gaps with real explanations, physical explanations of not only how we think what we do, but why we think what we do. The answers to the "Why" questions also used to be the exclusive realm of religions, and as these questions are answered, we see religion becoming less and less relevant.


Astronomers find largest, most distant reservoir of water#

Two teams of astronomers have discovered the largest and farthest reservoir of water ever detected in the universe. The water, equivalent to 140 trillion times all the water in the world's ocean, surrounds a huge, feeding black hole, called a quasar, more than 12 billion light-years away.

Lost in the waves#

Yet another lost-at-sea tale. I told myself I wasn't going to read this one, because I knew the duration of the ordeal was much shorter than the stories I've linked to recently, but I was compelled to get through it when I realized it involved a father and his young autistic son, and took place near my Florida hometown.

I teared up a couple of times.

Christopher grabbed for him again, jumping out of the water to get away from the fish, splashing salt water into Walt's eyes. Walt went under, gulping a throatful of ocean that made him vomit again. Crying, desperate to breathe, he yelled at Christopher, at the situation. Christopher was screaming again, too. What could Walt do? There was really only one thing he could do, for the both of them. He was forced to make a horrible decision: If they stayed together, if Christopher kept clutching his father, they would both drown. Their only chance was for Walt to separate himself from Christopher, to hope that his son could stay afloat on his own. It was the only choice that made any sense. He looked at his son again, then pushed him away into the ocean. [...]

Only his breath in the darkness, a silence as everything settled in. For half an hour, Walt had yelled, begging for Christopher to answer. He had given up conserving energy, had been swimming as hard as he could to try and find his son. "Who's my best boy?" Nothing. "Christopher, who's my buddy?" Only the fish beneath him, brushing against his back and legs.

All three seasons of Jem and The Holograms coming to DVD#

On October 11, 2011, Shout Factory… will release the long-awaited Jem and The Holograms: The Truly Outrageous Complete Series! 11-DVD box set, sparkling with all the episodes in the order they were intended and an exclusive extra DVD packed with bonus features, including archival material rarely seen by fans!

Of course, I've never purchased a DVD and won't buy these, but I do hope they come to Netflix Instant. (And no, I don't care what you think my nostalgic love for this show says about me! ;)

John Siracusa's review of Mac OS X Lion#

Like clockwork, John Siracusa has assembled yet another epic Mac OS X review. You likely have read it by now, but still I kind of feel obligated to link to it out of respect if nothing else.

To give you an idea of how involved this review really is, I'll just note that it weighs in at ~27,000 words, which is, depending on various settings, 100+ printed pages.

For what it's worth, the section I most enjoyed was The state of the file system, and more specifically, What's wrong with HFS+.

Though I've Instapaper'd 15+ reviews of Lion, John's is the only one I have read (or will read) cover to cover. I'll skim the others, if that.

Two astronauts discuss their experiences with the space shuttle#

Piers Sellers describing the seconds before takeoff:

At exactly 10 seconds before launch, all the navigation instruments go from a rest position to active, you can see that navigation is tracking, that it knows where it wants to take the shuttle. A few seconds after that, the main engines light. You can't really feel or hear much at that point. You see the power come up on the indicators in the cockpit, you see the thrust go up from zero to 100% on three engines and then you feel the whole stack sway forwards towards your feet, and that is because the thrust of the engines is so great that it bends the shuttle and stack on its hold-down bolts, and pushes it to one side. They call that the twang. The twang goes all the way, about 4ft, and then the whole stack bounces back. And at exactly the right moment, zero, the solid rocket boosters light and the hold-down bolts explode and off you go. It feels as if someone lit a bomb underneath your back. You just go flying up into the air, like a gigantic hand pushing you up into the sky. You see the launch tower fall by down one side and you are headed upwards into the sky.

Scott Altman on returning to Earth:

You're coming through the atmosphere and if it's night where you are, you look out of the overhead window and you start seeing this little green glow, which is the atmosphere heating up by the friction of the shuttle smashing through it. As you go further and lower, you start to notice it going a little bit darker, into the yellows. On my second entry, I was looking out at that and I started to see it get a little bit darker, so I floated up in my seat a little bit and looked towards the nose and I could see it transitioning from yellow to kind of pink and I floated up a little higher and it was starting to go red, and it was like - "I don't know if I want to look any more" - so I floated back down in my seat because it just looked too hot, too brutal out there.

The lonesome independence day of Kobayashi, eater in exile#

Luke O'Brien profiles the personality that put competitive eating on the map.

"Are you the Che Guevara of gurgitation or the Kenny Powers of power eating?" I asked him. He paused, then laughed: "I am both!" […]

Kobayashi focuses so completely during contests that he blocks out flavor. "If you taste something, you're not at the maximum of your ability," he says. "What I think about in competition is temperature and texture. It has nothing to do with taste or emotion."

The brain on trial#

This one's a must-read, and likely will make you think--and squirm--more than anything you've read in a while.

I've long struggled with where to come down punitively on certain crimes, especially those where the person clearly is not in his right mind. For example, do you think most serial killers want to be a person who kills other people for no reason? Very likely not. They are compelled to be. Do they maybe enjoy it? Does it give them some sort of rush? Sure. But what's the impetus for seeking out that rush? Why did it have to come to this?

The fact is, through genetics or circumstance, or a combination of both, their brains simply aren't wired correctly.

While the author's all-but-stated conclusion that "free will" likely is a fiction doesn't sit too well with me (in fact, I think it's just plain wrong), I concede openly that science eventually may force me--force all of us--to accept it, or at the very least, accept that there are very real socio-biological mitigators of guilt that need to be accounted for as we come to understand them. By no fault of their own, many people simply are not playing on the same field as the rest of society.

(Please forgive me for quoting so liberally, but the article is dense and I just couldn't pare it down any further and still retain the salient points.)

When your biology changes, so can your decision-making and your desires. The drives you take for granted ("I'm a heterosexual/homosexual," "I'm attracted to children/adults," "I'm aggressive/not aggressive," and so on) depend on the intricate details of your neural machinery. Although acting on such drives is popularly thought to be a free choice, the most cursory examination of the evidence demonstrates the limits of that assumption. […]

The lesson from all these stories is the same: human behavior cannot be separated from human biology. If we like to believe that people make free choices about their behavior (as in, "I don't gamble, because I'm strong-willed"), cases like Alex the pedophile, the frontotemporal shoplifters, and the gambling Parkinson's patients may encourage us to examine our views more carefully. Perhaps not everyone is equally "free" to make socially appropriate choices. […]

When modern brain science is laid out clearly, it is difficult to justify how our legal system can continue to function without taking what we've learned into account. […]

When it comes to nature and nurture, the important point is that we choose neither one. We are each constructed from a genetic blueprint, and then born into a world of circumstances that we cannot control in our most-formative years. The complex interactions of genes and environment mean that all citizens--equal before the law--possess different perspectives, dissimilar personalities, and varied capacities for decision-making. The unique patterns of neurobiology inside each of our heads cannot qualify as choices; these are the cards we're dealt. […]

Free will may exist (it may simply be beyond our current science), but one thing seems clear: if free will does exist, it has little room in which to operate. It can at best be a small factor riding on top of vast neural networks shaped by genes and environment. In fact, free will may end up being so small that we eventually think about bad decision-making in the same way we think about any physical process, such as diabetes or lung disease. […]

Today, neuroimaging is a crude technology, unable to explain the details of individual behavior. We can detect only large-scale problems, but within the coming decades, we will be able to detect patterns at unimaginably small levels of the microcircuitry that correlate with behavioral problems. Neuroscience will be better able to say why people are predisposed to act the way they do. As we become more skilled at specifying how behavior results from the microscopic details of the brain, more defense lawyers will point to biological mitigators of guilt, and more juries will place defendants on the not-blameworthy side of the line.

This puts us in a strange situation. After all, a just legal system cannot define culpability simply by the limitations of current technology. Expert medical testimony generally reflects only whether we yet have names and measurements for a problem, not whether a problem exists. A legal system that declares a person culpable at the beginning of a decade and not culpable at the end is one in which culpability carries no clear meaning.

The crux of the problem is that it no longer makes sense to ask, "To what extent was it his biology, and to what extent was it him?," because we now understand that there is no meaningful distinction between a person's biology and his decision-making. They are inseparable. […]

Those who break social contracts need to be confined, but in this framework, the future is more important than the past. Deeper biological insight into behavior will foster a better understanding of recidivism--and this offers a basis for empirically based sentencing. Some people will need to be taken off the streets for a longer time (even a lifetime), because their likelihood of reoffense is high; others, because of differences in neural constitution, are less likely to recidivate, and so can be released sooner. […]

Neuroscience is beginning to touch on questions that were once only in the domain of philosophers and psychologists, questions about how people make decisions and the degree to which those decisions are truly "free." These are not idle questions. Ultimately, they will shape the future of legal theory and create a more biologically informed jurisprudence.

Trailer for One Day on Earth#

One Day on Earth creates a picture of humanity by recording a 24-hour period throughout every country in the world. We explore a greater diversity of perspectives than ever seen before on screen. We follow characters and events that evolve throughout the day, interspersed with expansive global montages that explore the progression of life from birth, to death, to birth again. In the end, despite unprecedented challenges and tragedies throughout the world, we are reminded that every day we are alive there is hope and a choice to see a better future together.


I sincerely hope the employers of these assholes see these tweets. Disturbing and disgusting. America, 2011.

(Via Daniel Jalkut.)

Humans, version 3.0#

Mark Changizi argues that while we'll ‘soon' see radical changes to humanity, those changes will have more to do with "neuronal recycling"--i.e., the harnessing of the brain's innate capabilities for altogether novel functions--than with our preconceptions about how we'll interface with future technologies.

I generally disagree, if only because the current state of technology (and its mostly accelerating nature) is so far advanced that I think any "harnessing" that hasn't already completed (or at least hasn't been set in motion for millennia) likely won't be able to compete with whatever we--and ultimately the machines we create--come up with.

In any event, it's a good read.

In [the view that our brains and bodies are sub-optimal kluges], natural selection is so riddled by accidents and saddled with developmental constraints that the resultant biological hardware and software should be described as a "just good enough" solution rather than as a "fine-tuned machine." […]

So it is no wonder that, when many envisage the future, they posit that human invention--whether via genetic engineering or cybernetic AI-related enhancement--will be able to out-do what evolution gave us, and so bootstrap our species to a new level. This rampant overoptimism about the power of human invention is also found among many of those expecting salvation through a technological singularity. […]

In this transition from Human 1.0 to 2.0, we didn't directly do the harnessing. Rather, it was an emergent, evolutionary property of our behavior, our nascent culture, that bent and shaped writing to be right for our visual system, speech just so for our auditory system, and music a match for our auditory and evocative mechanisms. […]

Culture's trick… was to harness by mimicking nature. This "nature-harnessing" was the route by which these three kernels of Human 2.0 made their way into Human 1.0 brains never designed for them.

The road to Human 3.0 and beyond will, I believe, be largely due to ever more instances of this kind of harnessing. […]


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How digital detectives deciphered Stuxnet, the most menacing malware in history#

(If you read just one thing this weekend, let this be it.)

If you guys haven't been following this story, then you've been missing out on what no doubt is the wildest and scariest better-than-fiction cyber-drama ever to be set in motion. I just can't get enough of it, and I feel like new information keeps emerging.

Let's see if these choice bits can entice you into spending an hour with this 10,000-word(!) article, which is by far the most informative and engaging I've seen on the subject. (Be warned: Once you start reading it you won't be able to stop.)

What most stood out, though, was the way the malware hid those functions. Normally, Windows functions are loaded as needed from a DLL file stored on the hard drive. Doing the same with malicious files, however, would be a giveaway to antivirus software. Instead, Stuxnet stored its decrypted malicious DLL file only in memory as a kind of virtual file with a specially crafted name.

It then reprogrammed the Windows API -- the interface between the operating system and the programs that run on top of it -- so that every time a program tried to load a function from a library with that specially crafted name, it would pull it from memory instead of the hard drive. Stuxnet was essentially creating an entirely new breed of ghost file that would not be stored on the hard drive at all, and hence would be almost impossible to find. […]

The sophistication of the code, plus the fraudulent certificates, and now Iran at the center of the fallout made it look like Stuxnet could be the work of a government cyberarmy -- maybe even a United States cyberarmy. […]

Whether the "bad guy" was the United States or one of its allies, the attack was causing collateral damage to thousands of systems, and Symantec felt no patriotic duty to preserve its activity. "We're not beholden to a nation," Chien said. "We're a multinational, private company protecting customers." […]

It appeared the attackers were targeting systems they knew were not connected to the internet. And given that they were using four zero-days to do it, the targets had to be high-value. […]

Falliere determined that Stuxnet had three main parts and 15 components, all wrapped together in layers of encryption like Russian nesting dolls. Stuxnet decrypted and extracted each component as needed, depending on the conditions it found on an infected machine. […]

The fact that Stuxnet was injecting commands into the PLC and masking that it was doing so was evidence that it was designed, not for espionage as everyone had believed, but for physical sabotage. The researchers were stunned. It was the first time anyone had seen digital code in the wild being used to physically destroy something in the real world. […]

Murchu began noticing weird clicking noises on his phone, and one Friday told Chien and Falliere, "If I turn up dead and I committed suicide on Monday, I just want to tell you guys, I'm not suicidal."

Sparrow 1.3 is getting "send and archive"#

Looks like my favorite mail app is getting a "send and archive" button (and some other great features, including "view source"), which is something I've been asking for since jump.

The release should be approved within the next few days. I can't wait!

Enable TDA's "Trade Architect" platform in Chrome

July 13, 2011

Just a quick tip for the very select few of you who 1) whitelist cookies in Chrome and 2) want to use TD Ameritrade's new Trade Architect platform.

Adding just to your whitelist won't do the trick; you'll get kicked out with an "Invalid Session" message. You need to add the following three URIs:


Happy trading!

The size of our galaxy with respect to the largest known galaxy#

This makes me think of a great quote from Peter Walker:

The supreme arrogance of religious thinking: that a carbon-based bag of mostly water on a speck of iron-silicate dust around a boring dwarf star in a minor galaxy in an underpopulated local group of galaxies in an unfashionable suburb of a super-cluster would look up at the sky and declare, "It was all made so I could exist!"