Blue Boulders Problem 1: More rock climbing routes via neural network


The other day I discovered that neural networks can learn to name rock climbing routes, when I trained one to generate new names for routes in Boulder and Joshua Tree. This week, I learned that they can name rock climbing routes in several languages at once.

UK Climbing saw these results and, to help train an even more capable neural network, sent me their entire database - all 427,000 names. These were the names of climbing routes from all around the world, in dozens of languages, names from the traditional (Muscle Crack, The Gizzard, Problem 21) to the more fanciful (Gandalf’s Groove Direct, Owl and Primroses).

First, for the cleanest dataset possible, I extracted the countries that have mostly english-language route names (about 155k names once I removed duplicates and numbered routes), and the neural net quickly learned to produce one plausible route after another. You might be able to slip this into a casual account of your last climbing trip, and have others nod in vague recognition. “Ah, yes, the Folly Cloud. Climbed that one last week before breakfast.”


The Stuff
Rocket Sheep
Ramp of Lies
Candy Storm
The Dog Sand
Holy Mess
Left Hand Monster
The Scratching One
The Angel’s Crack
Suckstone Gully
The Folly Cloud
Burning Doll
Silver Milk
The Cat Bear
Block of Fred
The Limber
Element’s Chimney
The Space Special
Bear Box
The Peacher
The Sun Mouse
The Bobble Block
The Rib (Stinkley)
Cry Problem 15
Scary Boulder Start
Solo Gallow Wall (STEXXY
The Sole and Elephant
Crag and Be Bloody
Midge Face
Seven Belly
Wine for the Great Free Man

However, I’m happy to report that some of the names were indeed even weirder than your typical route name.

You’re Not Andrew
Master In Your Tea
Bean on the Pocket
Seven Dry Have Ship
Mantlet Butt’s Locket
No Rocks Egg
In Arms if the Lords
Parking Store Substance
Over a Wall No Mover
The Very Seven Steps
Robin Time and The Sheep
Captain Purple and Darkness
The Sun Tin’s Not Your Winds

Next, I trained the neural net on the entire database, just to see what it would make of the non-English names. It definitely struggled more this time - it reported much lower confidence in its results. But it did manage to become multilingual, generating names that were identifiably French, Spanish, or German (these were the most common languages other than English in the dataset, so these were mostly what it learned). Even if many of them didn’t make much sense.

La Grimper - French: The climb
Cascade de l'ange - French: Cascade of the angels
De l'angle de la surplomb - French: From the angle of the overhang
Steines Schwein - German: Stone’s pig
Sin Homble - Spanish: Without Homble
El Pollute - Spanish: The Pollute
Rapute de la vine - Romanian: Rapping of the coming
Danse ton de Barre - French: Dance tone of bar

Sometimes it did end up mixing up the languages, although not as often as I had expected. Maybe it was doing it much more with languages I was less familiar with, and I couldn’t tell.

El Pantes du Petit
La Desire del pierra
Le Chins de Constant (Standing Pub)
El Lope du Pante
Sans Inside Droit
Via de la finger
Les l'Appolena
Placa de Carpet
The Schlang

Its brainpower was spread a bit thin, trying to remember rules for generating multiple languages at once. Unlike human brains, it definitely wasn’t built for compartmentalizing multiple languages. This struggle had an effect on the quality of its English names, which actually I rather like.


Boulder 1, Problem the Gorge
Very Up
Fred birthday
Red 1
Blue Boulders Problem 1
No we and Cheese
The Spooning
Cat of the Shallow
Serpent Mars
End Cow
Escapes of the Beach Brother
The Corner Stand of The Little Heart

There’s a whole category of names that I ended up not including in this blog post, although if you’re familiar with climbing route names you’ll recognize these as totally in the spirit of the originals. You can read them at UK Climbing, whose audience does not include small children, or you can read them (plus a few more bonus names) by entering your email here.

The Pedipulator - Cover illustration by the great Walter Molino featured on the 2 January 1966 issue of Italy’s, La Domenica del…


The Pedipulator - Cover illustration by the great Walter Molino featured on the 2 January 1966 issue of Italy’s, La Domenica del Corriere.

The seven-league boots are going to enter into reality: with the so-called pedipulator which multiplies by six the length of a step, the astronauts or American soldiers will move as if they were motorized and on any terrain. The ‘pedipulator’ is one of many applications of those studies and those experiments which, under the pressure of the space race, are changing the face of civilization. This week our correspondent Giancarlo Masini will report what he saw studied at American laboratories where the future has already begun.

Pitch: seminar course on ‘failed’ technologies across time and space; OLPC, Free Basics, the Qinhuangdao straddling bus, the…

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Summer 2018


I’m currently reading Diane Ackerman’s Natural History of the Senses which, next to Mandy Aftel’s Fragrant may contain my favorite writings about scent to date. Both these authors talk about scent and perfumery with such passion and elucidation, one forgets smell is the one sense that can only be described by reference to the others. Also in rotation is Luca Turin’s Folio (2003-2014), a compilation of perfume reviews that first saw the light of day on the pages of Swiss magazine NZZ Folio. This compilation is a bit of a treasure trove for the traveling sensualist, as Turin is a polymath with the kaleidoscopic cultural subconscious that comes from living across multiple geographies for years and years, nose in everything good.

Having traveled plenty through 2017, and already having visited Japan this spring, it’s likely that my lofty dreams of revisiting Milos, Greece will be pushed off to another year. Visions of the sea, the rough outline of the landscape’s scents perch themselves on the edge of memory, demanding attention as the crispness of their image dulls with time. As such I’ve been thinking about how to represent my time there through scent. A rough accord could contain beeswax, frankincense, myrrh, tarragon, a rock dust note, some musk. There would need to be a feeling of soft luminosity and dry earth.

I’ve seen mention of rock and sand accords in a few perfumes, one of them being El Cosmico by D.S. & Durga, and am endlessly curious about how they are achieved. A rock, not having a smell of its own at room temperature, would only smell if it’s been saturated by something with an odor, and probably I could only rely on contextual notes to suggest a rock. Thoughtful traces of dirt notes (geosmin or vetiver), bird poop (seaweed absolute? ambergris? castoreum?), and starched wood (sandalwood, cedarwood), then, might conjure the image of an oceanic rock.

Also useful, I imagine, is the naive willingness to macerate just about any object in perfumer’s alcohol to see what smell comes off of it over time, as I did before I knew anything about aromachemicals and essential oils. In my stock is a two ounce Boston bottle labeled “Sea anemone on rock/grey rock, 8-9/2014″ which does exactly what it says on the tin. It smells exactly like crushed sea rock, with a diffusive mineral quality and a vague animal sweetness. With the consistency and longevity of water, this won’t do for an actual accord, but one of these days it might be the much needed wild card to add flourish and something a bit weird to a finished perfume.

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How markets plundered Free Software’s best stuff and used it to create freedom for companies, not people


Bejamin “Mako” Hill (previously) is a free software developer, activist and academic with a long history of shrewd critical insights into the ways that free software, free culture and the wider world interact with each other.

In his keynote address to the annual Libreplanet conference, Mako traces the history of software freedom and how it changed when it met the forces of relentless commercialization and extraction.

Early free software advocates assumed that working on free software would be centralized and would be a kind of voluntary ideological project that would result in pay-cuts to programmers who wanted to ensure that users of programs got as much freedom as possible, and were willing to sacrifice to achieve this.

But markets discovered free software and turned it into “open source,” figuring out how to create developer communities around software (“digital sharecropping”) that lowered their costs and increased their quality. Then the companies used patents and DRM and restrictive terms of service to prevent users from having any freedom.

Mako says that this is usually termed “strategic openness,” in which companies take a process that would, by default, be closed, and open the parts of it that make strategic sense for the firm. But really, this is “strategic closedness” – projects that are born open are strategically enclosed by companies to allow them to harvest the bulk of the value created by these once-free systems.

So Android (GNU/Linux) is everywhere and Apple was forced by its users insistence on jailbreaking their Iphones to create the App Store and allow programmers to participate in its ecosystem. But both mobile platforms have figured out how to use strategic closedness to lock up users and developers and capture the value and assert control over the system.

Mako suggests that the time in which free software and open source could be uneasy bedfellows is over. Companies’ perfection of digital sharecropping means that when they contribute to “free” projects, all the freedom will go to them, not the public.

This comes at the exact moment when the world is being devoured by software, and when software freedom is, more than ever, ineluctably bound up with human freedom – in other words, it’s a crisis of global and historic proportions.

Mako is calling on people to choose sides: to understand the moral dimension of software freedom, rather than its mere utilitarian benefits, and to commit themselves to human freedom.

China has perfected the internet control playbook and now it’s exporting it to the world


After decades of back-and-forth over internet freedom, China has figured out a method for allowing people to use the internet for social and business purposes, but not for political reform – a combination of huge boiler-rooms full of censors, centralization of internet services under tight government control, and control over standards to ensure that surveillance and censorship are always possible.

At the same time, China’s increasing wealth, combined with other large powers’ increased austerity and withdrawal from foreign aid, has enabled it to create large and growing spheres of influence over other states in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas, and these trading partners look to China for examples of how to create their own internet policies.

That’s how Tanzania and Vietnam became the vanguard of Chinese-style internet control, creating rules and institutions that closely mirror the Chinese internet ministries and laws, exerting the same surveillance and control over their citizens. They’re the first, but won’t be the last.

Samm Sacks of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (a key player in the creation and maintenance of American commercial-political foreign policy) documents all of this in an editorial in The Atlantic, but misses out on one key aspect: as the internet’s center of power moves towards China, so does China’s ability to effect state espionage on the rest of the world.

Think of how the US suborned its telcoms giants to route global traffic through data-centers that it could plant wiretaps in, or how it practiced “third-party collection,” “fourth-party collection” and “fifth-party collection” – where it placed foreign governments’ surveillance agencies under surveillance (or placed agencies that were surveilling other agencies under surveillance, etc, etc).

The pivot towards balkanized internets with national firewalls and centralized surveillance points are ripe for Chinese state intervention: once a country opts into being a turnkey surveillance state with a couple of chokepoints for government censorship and surveillance, then any other power that subverts those chokepoints will enjoy total control.

1) Religious statements are not epistemic (scientific, literal) claims, but risk-survival heuristics under incomplete…

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China announces crackdown on ASMR videos as pornographic


In the five years since I first wrote about “Autonomous sensory meridian response” (ASMR) a folk-neurological condition that describes the pleasant shivers some people experience when hearing certain soft noises, ASMR has gone mainstream – my ten year old daughter describes the texture of the slime she makes as “really ASMR.”

The Chinese internet, like all the internets, is full of ASMR videos of people chewing ice, clicking lego bricks, whispering, and the like, and China’s internet censors have decided that this is a form of stealth smut.

The Chinese anti-pornography office has announced that some ASMR content should be put into adults-only areas of online services, and has ordered popular video-sharing services to “vigorously clean up ASMR content related to pornography and vulgarity.”

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In two days, an EU committee will vote to crown Google and Facebook permanent lords of internet censorship [[SHARE THIS!!]]



On June 20, the EU’s legislative committee will vote on the new Copyright directive, and decide whether it will include the controversial “Article 13” (automated censorship of anything an algorithm identifies as a copyright violation) and “Article 11” (no linking to news stories without paid permission from the site).

These proposals will make starting new internet companies effectively impossible – Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and the other US giants will be able to negotiate favourable rates and build out the infrastructure to comply with these proposals, but no one else will. The EU’s regional tech success stories – say, a successful Czech search competitor to Google – don’t have $60-100,000,000 lying around to build out their filters, and lack the leverage to extract favorable linking licenses from news sites.

If Articles 11 and 13 pass, American companies will be in charge of Europe’s conversations, deciding which photos and tweets and videos can be seen by the public, and who may speak.

The MEP Julia Reda has written up the state of play on the vote, and it’s very bad. Both left- and right-wing parties have backed this proposal, including (incredibly) the French Front National, whose Youtube channel was just deleted by a copyright filter of the sort they’re about to vote to universalise.

So far, the focus in the debate has been on the intended consequences of the proposals: the idea that a certain amount of free expression and competition must be sacrificed to enable rightsholders to force Google and Facebook to share their profits.


But the unintended – and utterly foreseeable – consequences are even more important. Article 11’s link tax allows news sites to decide who gets to link to them, meaning that they can exclude their critics. With election cycles dominated by hoaxes and fake news, the right of a news publisher to decide who gets to criticise it is carte blanche to lie and spin.

Article 13’s copyright filters are even more vulnerable to attack: the proposals contain no penalties for false claims of copyright ownership, but they do mandate that the filters must accept copyright claims in bulk, allowing rightsholders to upload millions of works at once in order to claim their copyright and prevent anyone from posting them.

That opens the doors to all kinds of attacks. The obvious one is that trolls might sow mischief by uploading millions of works they don’t hold the copyright to, in order to prevent others from quoting them: the works of Shakespeare, say, or everything ever posted to Wikipedia, or my novels, or your family photos.

More insidious is the possibility of targeted strikes during crisis: stock-market manipulators could use bots to claim copyright over news about a company, suppressing its sharing on social media; political actors could suppress key articles during referendums or elections; corrupt governments could use arms-length trolls to falsely claim ownership of footage of human rights abuses.

It’s asymmetric warfare: falsely claiming a copyright will be easy (because the rightsholders who want this system will not tolerate jumping through hoops to make their claims) and instant (because rightsholders won’t tolerate delays when their new releases are being shared online at their moment of peak popularity). Removing a false claim of copyright will require that a human at an internet giant looks at it, sleuths out the truth of the ownership of the work, and adjusts the database – for millions of works at once. Bots will be able to pollute the copyright databases much faster than humans could possibly clear it.

I spoke with Wired UK’s KG Orphanides about this, and their excellent article on the proposal is the best explanation I’ve seen of the uses of these copyright filters to create unstoppable disinformation campaigns.

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If Earth had Saturn’s Rings



From an excellent post by Jason Davis

From Washington, D.C., the rings would only fill a portion of the sky, but appear striking nonetheless. Here, we see them at sunrise.

From Guatemala, only 14 degrees above the equator, the rings would begin to stretch across the horizon. Their reflected light would make the moon much brighter.

From Earth’s equator, Saturn’s rings would be viewed edge-on, appearing as a thin, bright line bisecting the sky.

At the March and September equinoxes, the Sun would be positioned directly over the rings, casting a dramatic shadow at the equator.

At midnight at the Tropic of Capricorn, which sits at 23 degrees south latitude, the Earth casts a shadow over the middle of the rings, while the outer portions remain lit.

via x

I didn’t know I wanted earth to have rings but now I know and am sad

First helicopter drops of cane toad sausages prompt design tweakStinky sausages made of cane toad flesh have been scattered from…

cane-toad, sausages, Australia, environment, management, invasive-species, 2018, taste-aversion

First helicopter drops of cane toad sausages prompt design tweak

Stinky sausages made of cane toad flesh have been scattered from helicopters in a wide-scale trial that researchers hope will give native animals a fighting chance. The sausages were air-dropped across a remote Kimberley cattle station just ahead of the cane toad frontline. They were developed as part of a taste aversion program to try to prevent native species like quolls from being killed by the toxic toads.


Spectacular, terraced rice paddies cover the mountainsides of Yuanyang County, China. Cultivated by the Hani people for the last…


Spectacular, terraced rice paddies cover the mountainsides of Yuanyang County, China. Cultivated by the Hani people for the last 1300 years, the slope of the terraces varies from 15 to 75 degrees with some having as many as 3,000 steps. Approximately 1.5 square miles of paddies are seen here surrounding the small village of Tuguozhai.


23°05'55.3"N, 103°01'22.6"E

Source imagery: DigitalGlobe

Antarctica loses three trillion tonnes of ice in 25 years

ocean, Anthropocene, Antarctica, ice, sea-level-rise, climate, climate-change, 2018, 1992

Glaciologists usually talk of three distinct regions because they behave slightly differently from each other. In West Antarctica, which is dominated by those marine-terminating glaciers, the assessed losses have climbed from 53 billion to 159 billion tonnes per year over the full period from 1992 to 2017. On the Antarctic Peninsula, the finger of land that points up to South America, the losses have risen from seven billion to 33 billion tonnes annually. This is largely, say scientists, because the floating ice platforms sitting in front of some glaciers have collapsed, allowing the ice behind to flow faster. East Antarctica, the greater part of the continent, is the only region to have shown some growth. Much of this region essentially sits out of the ocean and collects its snows over time and is not subject to the same melting forces seen elsewhere. But the gains are likely quite small, running at about five billion tonnes per year. And the Imbie team stresses that the growth cannot counterbalance what is happening in the West and on the Peninsula. Indeed, it is probable that an unusually big dump of snow in the East just before the last assessment in 2012 made Antarctica as a whole look less negative than the reality. Globally, sea levels are rising by about 3mm a year. This figure is driven by several factors, including the expansion of the oceans as they warm. But what is clear from the latest Imbie assessment is that Antarctica is becoming a significant player. “A three-fold increase now puts Antarctica in the frame as one of the largest contributors to sea-level rise,” said Prof Shepherd, who is affiliated to Leeds University, UK. “The last time we looked at the polar ice sheets, Greenland was the dominant contributor. That’s no longer the case.” In total, Antarctica has shed some 2.7 trillion tonnes of ice since 1992, corresponding to an increase in global sea level of more than 7.5mm.


BLACK LIGHT - Artforum International EXALTED AND EXCORIATED, praised as universalist and damned as Eurocentric, the…


BLACK LIGHT - Artforum International

EXALTED AND EXCORIATED, praised as universalist and damned as Eurocentric, the Enlightenment has for decades now been central to scholarly debate and even, to a significant extent, to discussion beyond the academy. If these arguments originally pivoted on the contrast between the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the nineteenth-century backlash or counter-Enlightenment, the opposition that has structured the conversation since the turn of the millennium has been between the Enlightenment and the post-Enlightenment (whether post-structuralist or postcolonial, or sometimes both).

Yet even as we speak (write), it could be contended that these debates are about to be blotted out, rendered irrelevant, by the oncoming darkness of an aggressively resurgent anti-Enlightenment, which bears some affinities to traditional conservatism and the nineteenth-century counter-Enlightenment but is now more explicitly racialized than before. So this is no longer a time when self-styled post-Enlightenment critics—taking for granted liberal-democratic guarantees—can afford to be sneering at Enlightenment norms. The protections of those rights and freedoms can no longer be assumed.

Of course, for blacks and other people of color, those assumptions were never operative in the first place. The misleading definite article (“the”) actually subsumes multiple Enlightenments, diverse both geographically (whether intra-European, e.g., Scottish, Dutch, or German, or extra-European, e.g., Islamic or Asian) and politically (“conservative” or “moderate” versus “radical,” in Jonathan Israel’s dichotomy). But I suggest we need to formally recognize a variant not usually listed in these taxonomies: what could be termed the Black Enlightenment.

The Black Enlightenment develops in modernity out of the experience of Atlantic slavery, which created a stigmatized, diasporic Afro-descendant population not merely in the Americas but also in Europe. And this global experience of racial subordination, lasting for over a century after the nominal emancipation of slaves in various countries (1865 in the United States; as late as 1888 in Brazil), generates what could be metaphorically seen as a “black light.” Think of it as a kind of X-ray vision into the actual workings of polities committed on paper to inclusive liberal-democratic norms but in truth still racially structured, as exemplified even today by the racial realities of the US and other nations. The very invisibility of blacks as human equals—recall here Ralph Ellison’s classic 1952 novel, Invisible Man—has given them (us) an insight into white cognition (W. E. B. Du Bois’s “second sight”), a metaperspective that can be analogized to frequencies beyond the visible spectrum.

So if the “whiteness” of Enlightenment vision has too often been self-blinding rather than illuminating, a black correction has been required to see clearly. And from this perspective, this angle of vision, the problem has never been a genuinely universalist White Enlightenment but a consistently racially particularist White Enlightenment, from the American founding father Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, proclaiming the self-evident truth of human equality to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, simultaneously the father of modern Western ethics and the inventor of modern “scientific” (biological) racism. As the anti-Enlightenment bears down on us, threatening a new Dark Age, just remember: We told you so (and long ago, too).

- Charles W. Mills

Why did I not invent this acronym first? ‘Collaborative Technology Hardened for Underwater and Littoral Hazardous Environment’,…

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Hverfjall is a tephra cone, or tuff ring, volcano located near the eastern shore of Lake Myvatn in northern Iceland. It erupted…


Hverfjall is a tephra cone, or tuff ring, volcano located near the eastern shore of Lake Myvatn in northern Iceland. It erupted in 2500 BP, leaving behind a massive crater more than half a mile (1 km) in diameter. Hverfjall is just 1,300 feet (396 m) high, allowing tourists and hikers to scale its slopes and walk along the crater’s rim.


65°36'19.3"N, 16°52'21.1"W

Source imagery: DigitalGlobe

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