Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones are the surprisingly funny minds behind Black Mirror, the binge-watch of choice for dystopian techies. (Besides CSPAN.)
These days, their show veers very close to reality. They’ve done episodes on the performative stress of social media, on the lethal consequences of cyber-bullying, and a show from 2013 on a cartoon character running for prime minister. They seem to have an eerily accurate pulse on our imminent tech future. Brooker and Jones came to the Note to Self studios to explain themselves.
And it turns out we have a lot in common. They’re also wary of their webcams. They also sleep with their phones close to their heads, and they also feel bad about it. They also worry about information overload and the impact of constant surveillance. They’re our type of nerd.
Charlie, Anna and Manoush talked about where their ideas come from, why they haven’t quit TV to launch a startup, and why Twitter is the world’s top video game.
Cavity Mechanism #12 w/ Glass Dome. 2013. Mixed. 23″ x 13″ x 13″. All images via Dan Grayber.
Dan Grayber‘s works exist at the intersection of sculpture and physics, pieces carefully designed to solve the problems created by their own existence. The sculptures each include a rock suspended within a glass enclosure, the rock’s weight perfectly balanced by the mechanisms, systems, and pulleys that surround it.
Grayber relates this play of tension and balance to personal relationships, which serves as another influence to his work outside of visual interests in industrial design, construction machinery, and the children’s game Cat’s Cradle.
“Cavity Mechanism #6, from 2009, [seen below] is one of the most obvious pieces to speak about interpersonal relationships that I’ve made,” said Grayber to Venison Magazine. “There are two identical mechanisms inside of a glass display dome, and one small cable that runs between the two mechanisms. This cable holds all of the tension between the two mechanisms, and they both need to remain in place to maintain the tension. I was really thinking about co-dependence when I made the piece. If either mechanism were to slip, or the connection between them to break, it would cause both to fail.”
I love fun programming tutorials, and I love the Jupyter notebook for showing how to do cool Python stuff. So I was
really happy this morning when I saw Allison Parrish (who makes a lot of delightful
computer-generated language art) post these tutorials she’s written (which mostly use the Jupyter notebook) about how to parse and generate English text this morning!
First! Suppose you want to generate random text, like “I’m a banana, not a cucumber”. You could do this by writing like "I'm a %s, not a %s" % ("banana", "cucumber"), but you’ll run into problems fast because it’s “I’m an apple”, not “I’m a apple”.
It turns out that there’s a cool library called Tracery to help you with text generation. Allison has 2 cool tutorials about Tracery:
The next tutorial is NLP concepts with spaCy. Basically you can take a sentence or paragraph and parse it to figure out what it means! Some example of stuff she explains how to figure out:
Where the sentences are
Whether a word is a verb or a noun or what
Identify more complicated grammar constructs like the “prepositional phrases” (‘with reason and conscience’, ‘towards one another’)
She linked to some examples of how to use spacy. I ran the “what they’re doing” example on Pride and Prejudice and it wrote out:
Hurst is returning
Bingley is blaming
Collins is coming
Darcy is viewing
Bingley is providing
Wickham is caring
Darcy is viewing
Lady is remaining
Hill is coming
So it seems to have done a good job of identifying the characters in Pride and
Previously the NLP library I’d heard about was NLTK, and she has this very
useful note in the tutorial:
(Traditionally, most NLP work in Python was done with a library called NLTK.
NLTK is a fantastic library, but it’s also a writhing behemoth: large and
slippery and difficult to understand. Also, much of the code in NLTK is decades
out of date with contemporary practices in NLP.)
The cool thing I learned from this is that you can programmatically “average”
words like ‘day’ and ‘night’ to end up with ‘evening’! You can also figure out
which animals are similar and all kinds of really cool stuff. I didn’t know
that you could do this, if you want to know more you should read the excellent
Fun building blocks for doing text experiments!
I think these 3 things (tracery for generating sentences, spacy for parsing
text, and spacy (again) for seeing which words are similar to each other) seem
like a super awesome way to get started with playing with text!
Adding to the canon of these meditations is the celebrated English cosmologist and astrophysicist Sir Martin Rees — the last European court astronomer in his position as Astronomer Royal to the House of Windsor and science adviser to the Queen of England.
I was brought up as a member of the Church of England and simply follow the customs of my tribe. The church is part of my culture; I like the rituals and the music. If I had grown up in Iraq, I would go to a mosque… It seems to me that people who attack religion don’t really understand it. Science and religion can coexist peacefully — although I don’t think they have much to say to each other. What I would like best would be for scientists not even to use the word “God.” … Fundamental physics shows how hard it is for us to grasp even the simplest things in the world. That makes you quite skeptical whenever someone declares he has the key to some deeper reality… I know that we don’t yet even understand the hydrogen atom — so how could I believe in dogmas? I’m a practicing Christian, but not a believing one.
The central problem of religious dogma, of course, is that the mythology of “God” offers a single cohesive story that contends to explain all of “Creation” — a theory that claims its truthfulness not by empirical evidence but by insistent assertion. In a sentiment that calls to mind Sagan’s abiding wisdom on the vital balance between skepticism and openness, Rees illustrates how the scientist regards a theory:
I find it irrational to become attached to one theory. I prefer to let different ideas compete like horses in a race and watch which one wins.
When asked whether he believes that scientists make more intelligent decisions as citizens, Rees responds:
[Scientists] bring a special perspective to things. For example, as an astrophysicist, I’m used to thinking in terms of extremely long periods of time. For many people, the year 2050 is distant enough to seem unimaginably far away. I, however, am constantly aware that we’re the result of four billion years of evolution — and that the future of the earth will last at least as long. When you always have in mind how many generations might follow us, you take a different attitude toward many questions of the present. You realize how much is at stake.
With an eye to the progress and peril that human civilization has wrought, Rees considers the prospective evolutionary future of a post-human intelligence:
We humans of the present are certainly not the summit of Creation. Species more intelligent than us will inhabit the earth. They might even appear quite soon. These days evolution is no longer driven by slow natural development, as Darwin described it, but by human culture. So a post-human intelligence might be made by us ourselves. And I hope that our successors have a better understanding of the world.
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