Welcome to the Center of the Universe

Longreads

Shannon Stirone | LongreadsMarch 2018 | 22 minutes (5,546 words)

The power has just gone out in mission control. I look to Jim McClure, operations manager at the Space Flight Operations Facility, and he assures me that everything is fine. A power outage like this hasn’t happened at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in nearly eight years, and while it’s only been out for a few seconds, the Deep Space Network is disconnected and NASA has temporarily lost contact with Cassini, the nearly 20-year-old space probe in orbit around Saturn, as well as all spacecraft beyond the moon.

We’re standing in JPL’s mission control, known simply as the Dark Room to those who work here. Five men and women are glued to their screens, the artificial pink-and-white glow highlighting their faces. I’ve been here twice before, but I have never seen this many people running the consoles. The operators…

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Thomson Memorial Park

Hiking the GTA

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Thomson Memorial Park sits on one of the first plots of land to be deeded in Scarborough Township and the first one to be settled.  Arhibald Thomson emigrated from Dumfriesshire in the Scottish Lowlands during the late 18th century when the English were clearing out the poor and disenfranchised that the Uprising of 1743 had left behind.  After spending some time in New York State he moved to Upper Canada when the American Revolution was raging.  Achibald had been displaced by King George III but was still loyal to the crown and so he came to Upper Canada as a United Empire Loyalist.  Even so he wasn’t keen on living too close to the Family Compact that had taken firm control of York following the Battle of York.   In 1795 he managed to convince his two younger brothers, David and Andrew, to join him in…

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Putting the “crow” in necrophilia

Corvid Research

It’s early April 2015, and John Marzluff and I are standing with a film crew attempting to capture some footage of a crow funeral to compliment a story they are working on about Gabi Mann. I’ve already set the dead crow on the ground, it’s placed just out from a cherry tree resplendent in springtime blossoms. After only a few moments of waiting, the first crow arrives and alights on the tree, its head cocking around to get a better look at the lifeless black feathers beneath it. I hold my breath for the first alarm call, ready for the explosion of sound and the swarm of birds that will follow it. But it doesn’t come. Instead, the bird descends to the ground and approaches the dead body. My brow knits together in surprise but, ah well, I think, the shots of it getting so close and then alarm…

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The Giant 200-Foot Wave at Trinidad, California

Dr Abalone

Trinidad-WaveOne hundred years ago, on Dec. 31, 1914, the lighthouse at Trinidad Head was assaulted by a wave of monstrous proportions. Although the details are unclear, we know that the storm that produced the waves was unusual and that the wave was greater than 100 feet and perhaps much more. The only eyewitness was the keeper of the lighthouse at Trinidad Head at that time, Captain Fred Harrington, and here is his account of the notorious wave:

“The storm commenced on December 28, 1914, blowing a gale that night. The gale continued for a whole week and was accompanied by a very heavy sea from the southwest.  On the 30th and 31st, the sea increased and at 3 p.m. on the 31st seemed to have reached its height, when it washed a number of times over (93-foot-high) Pilot Rock, a half mile south of the head. At 4:40 p.m., I was in…

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Deep code search

the morning paper

Deep code search Gu et al., ICSE’18

The problem with searching for code is that the query, e.g. “read an object from xml,” doesn’t look very much like the source code snippets that are the intended results, e.g.:

*

That’s why we have Stack Overflow! Stack Overflow can help with ‘how to’ style queries, but it can’t help with searches inside codebases you care about. For example, “where in this codebase are events queued on a thread?”

…an effective code search engine should be able to understand the semantic meanings of natural language queries and source code in order to improve the accuracy of code search.

DeepCS is just such a search engine for code, based on the CODEnn (Code-Description Embedding Neural Network) network model. During training, it takes code snippets (methods) and corresponding natural language descriptions (from the method comments) and learns a joint-embedding. I.e., it learns embeddings…

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Interactivity – The Core of Video Game Aesthetics

Theory of Objective Video Game Aesthetics

If an artist wants tell a story, why would he do so through a video game? Paintings are more immediate. Books are better at providing details and allowing the reader to fill in the blanks with his own imagination. Movies give the creator more control over presentation. Television is better equipped to tackle sprawling or episodic stories.

But only video games are interactive. Video games are the only artistic medium designed to give the consumer control over content. This connection can exist in seemingly endless forms from controlling individuals within a linear narrative to steering civilizations throughout history.  Understanding how video game developers can create, manage, and even limit interactivity, is the key to the success of video games as an artistic medium.

I don’t have a complete understanding of all the ways in which interactivity can be used. For one thing, I am not personally a developer, but more…

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The Transistor, Part 3: Endless Reinvention

Creatures of Thought

For over a hundred years the analog dog wagged the digital tail. The effort to extend the reach of our senses – sight, hearing, even (after a manner of speaking) touch, drove engineers and scientists to search for better components for telegraph, telephone, radio and radar equipment. It was a happy accident that this also opened the door to new kinds of digital machines.1 I set out to tell the story of this repeated exaptation, whereby telecommunications engineers supplied the raw materials of the first digital computers, and sometimes even designed and built such computers themselves.

By the 1960s, however, this fruitful relationship came to a close, and so too does my story. The makers of digital equipment no longer had any need to look outward to the world of the telegraph, telephone, and radio for new and improved switches, because the transistor itself provided a seemingly inexhaustible vein of…

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