The special status of computers

Banking is probably the most regulated activity in the modern state. The U.S. Constitution contains a “commerce clause” (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3) giving the federal government the right to “regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes”–arguably the closest the original U.S. Constitution comes to creating a federal agency or department. There is no official justification for the special regulatory status of banks, but the scrutiny they get can be traced to the idea that banks are the keepers of money, the facilitators of exchange, and one of the most basic intermediaries in public life overall.

Has the time come to grant computers–and the algorithms they instantiate–a similar special status? Computing is just as “everwhere” as money–arguably more ubiquitous. The substance of modern money is not gold, coin or printed bills, but entries in a computer ledger held on hard disks and electronic memory. Social media has shown us that computing is just as foundational to non-commercial activity. Like the financial system, computer logic is also incredibly obscure to outsiders without specialized knowledge and permissions. Indeed, one of the most shocking things revealed by recent technology whistleblowers is how little oversight there is over computing, and how often computers are used to achieve a goal exactly because, when you translate human action into computer action, it avoids understanding and legal scrutiny. The workings of computing power are easily as systemic (destabilizing) as money. Doesn’t it deserve a special regulatory status, too?


Tags system risk regulation money power


Look it up in the directory

Traffic on the internet is concentrated. I needn’t tediously spell out where. You’ve probably been to all of these places, maybe in the last 24 hours. Here the idea of the the internet as a directory is fading fast in memory, and faster in practice. The “web” structure of the internet, the internet that is an open-ended set of servers and landing spots that are conceptually and physically distinct from one another, and which are only linked through the deliberate efforts of individual people to make a connection between Point A and Point B–this notion of the web is endangered.

Let me explain by example. The directory aspiration is still alive on the more artisanal parts of the internet. A few that are not too hard to find:

The WWW Virtual Library


Jasmine Business Directory

When you enter these open-ended labyrinths, it becomes more obvious why they are out of sync with the internet’s modern cadence. These are unabashedly textual and qualitative documents; their lists are usually anti-hierarchical, making no attempt to describe which site is the best among all the others, or to put them in any kind of ranking. The directory is an aggressive reflection of one person’s opinion and efforts. What is conspicuous in its absence are metrics that shape or reorder these lists on the fly: no upvotes or feeds with hidden logic.

The directory also ignores the most mundane organizing principle of the modern web (this blog included): chronological ordering. The cruel reality of pushing “the new” into the default is that almost everything seem old (It’s been a month since you’ve posted something to Twitter? What’s wrong? A Wordpress blog without any activity for three months? Must have been abandoned!) Only the most labor-intensive, exhaustingly rational, grim commercial ventures have a real chance of meeting the daily demand for something new.

Sometimes I wonder if the directory will ever have its renaissance on the mainstream internet, and in what form, but then I think of a site like Wikipedia, and I think there’s hope. There the view is not “everything that’s new” but “everything that’s real,” a maze where you never have to reach the last door. Maybe it is only because Wikipedia claims to be so factual that it is allowed to bask in such generative disorganization.

Tags structure internet web chronology subjective link judgment


Geology with a human touch


There ought to be a word for geologic processes that happen on a human scale. Maybe the most ready-at-hand word for that right now is “climate change.”

When the Pacific Ocean volcano known as Hunga Tonga-Hunga-Haʻapai erupted in 2015, it created a new landmass by fusing two islands together. When it erupted a month ago, it mostly destroyed them.

Compare the instant generation and pulverization of land to the timescale that created the Grand Canyon: on the order of millions, if not tens of millions of years. Or the time it took the Appalachian Mountains to be raised and then lowered to their present height: over a billion years. When it comes to lengths of time, geology is second only to cosmology. But you can’t touch the stars, or dig them up.

Most of the coal that created modern industry came into being several hundred million years ago, during the “Carboniferous” Period, when carbon was being pulled out of the atmosphere on the scale of mountain ranges. Now–this is the “now” of the recent past–a good percentage of that coal has come out of the ground and back into the air.

There ought to be a term for this, because the main byproduct of a geologic event on human scale is energy release–unbelievable quantities of energy, over barely longer than a human lifetime: the razing of mountains, volcanic explosions, enough heat to raise the temperature of an entire planet.

Tags time speed slow fast nature


Aristotle's definition of meteorology

Thinking more about weather and meteorology, ancient and modern. Aristotle:

[Meteorology] is concerned with events that are natural, though their order is less perfect than that of the [stars and the heavens]. They take place in the region nearest to the motion of the stars. Such are the milky way, and comets, and the movements of meteors. It studies also all the affections we may call common to air and water, and the kinds and parts of the earth and the affections of its parts. These throw light on the causes of winds and earthquakes and all the consequences the motions of these kinds and parts involve. Of these things some puzzle us, while others admit of explanation in some degree. Further, the inquiry is concerned with the falling of thunderbolts and with whirlwinds and fire-winds, and further, the recurrent affections produced in these same bodies by concretion. When the inquiry into these matters is concluded let us consider what account we can give, in accordance with the method we have followed, of animals and plants, both generally and in detail.

(Book 1)


Aristotle, Meteorologica, translated by E. W. Webster. (~350 B.C.E.). Text at Internet Classics Archive.


Polar immortality

The archaeoastronomer E.C. Crupp:

For the ancient Egyptians, the circumpolar zone was the realm of immortality, the home of the Imperishable Stars. In following their circular paths around the north celestial pole, those that never rose and never set became synonymous with eternal life. (Echoes of the Ancient Skies, 104)

Pole stars
The north pole star Polaris (center, brightest), imaged through the trees on October 22, 2020. Even in this three-minute exposure, Polaris and the other stars at the pole barely show any blurring from movement. Compare with the stars in the upper right-hand corner of the picture, which are only a few degrees from the pole, yet show significant trailing.


E.C. Crupp, Echoes of the Ancient Skies. Dover, 2003.

Tags north star ancients astronomy life


Above eye level





Leaving for the fall

Seen from my neighborhood on a clear day, near dusk:

The birds were headed south, roughly parallel to the lake. Given the time of year, the size of the flock, and their great height (at least several hundred feet off the ground), I took it they might be leaving Chicago for the year. I don’t know what kind of birds I saw, but there is something about their situation–this was such a distinctive day in their lives, they were in for a dangerous trip filled with unknowns–that made me want to get just a few seconds on video.

In his comprehensive Bird Migration, Ian Newton writes about the advantages of the V-formation:

This is usual among geese, swans, gulls, cranes, pelicans, cormorants and others. Each individual flies behind and to the side of the one in front, benefiting from its slipstream, gaining lift and reduced drag. This is possible because each bird sheds vortices from its wing-tips which gives lift to the one behind. Individuals flying in V-formation have been estimated to save 12–20 per cent on energy costs compared with birds flying alone. The lead bird has no such advantage in power saving, and frequently relinquishes its position, pulling out and joining the line further back.

(Chapter 4, Migratory Flight)


Ian Newton, Bird Migration. Collins New Naturalist Library (Volume 113), 2010.

Tags migration bird travel journey risk uncertainty


The distinctiveness of amateurs

In each successive year of my life, I pay less attention to sports than the one before it. But still, sport–especially professional sports–has to be one of those foundational categories of “content” on the web, accounting for a sizable percentage of all information stored and exchanged. There must be some internet law to the effect that the more there is written about some topic, the more likely that content is to be automatically generated in the future–or to read like it is. In the case of sports the problem is overdetermined; it was plagued by clichés long before the internet. And so it’s exciting to come across an article on sport that doesn’t look like it was written by a bot or a human working from a template–even better if it’s about a “sport” that is near-impossible to professionalize.

I loved this article about a long-distance hiker, Will ‘Akuna’ Robinson, who has dedicated the current phase of his life to hiking–in part because of what he experienced as a veteran in the most recent Iraq War–and who stands out because he is one of a few Black “thru-hikers” on any American trail.

To my knowledge there is no niche on the internet, no website or forum, dedicated exclusively to true amateur sports. And no, I don’t mean “amateur” as in “you haven’t gotten paid yet,” or “if you were good enough you could get paid.” I mean a site dedicated to people who pursue sport for some other reason. I could imagine it drawing in a completely different type of audience, one that had little in common with that for professional sports. Maybe the pressure to cross-subsidize articles like this one, on hiking, with pro sports journalism that makes $$$, is too great. Then again, it’s not like that business model is doing all that well, either.


Tags sports hiking cliche business models

Permalink - about

I created this site because I wanted a place for quick impressions: what I’d seen, read and heard.

The idea goes back a few years, when I pulled together a simple website to draft new ideas. That became my “long” site,, a place for informal, but complete, essayistic and blog-type writing. What gets written on the long site takes from a few days to weeks to complete, and I can develop only a fraction of what interests me. I wanted the option to produce quick posts more often, if only to see in a single sentence or two whether I was onto something, or to get something out there–a passage, an image, a sound–that was worth noting in granular form, for its own sake.

Social media is always an option for this type of need, but I dislike the default “push” model of most big social networks. I can think of no friend, acquaintance or passerby who needs to get every last update on this site ;). If you want that, there is always the RSS feed.

tl;dr: this is an at attempt at a personal feed: a little like Twitter, with more flexibility in format, greater independence from the everyday, just as much spontaneity–and a lot more fun. Let me know what you think.


Transition season clouds

A cloudscape, including altostratus clouds in the middle layer, from Chicago, October 2021
“Altostratus may look more extensive toward the horizon than overhead, but the apparent compression of cloud cover toward the horizon may be more a function of perspective than of a real increase in clouds” (David Ludlum, Field Guide to North American Weather, 456). Chicago, mid-October 2021.

Winter isn’t here yet, but the weather in Chicago is showing real signs of its existence. Nights below freezing; unforeseen bursts of snow; and the most characteristic of all: dull, uniform overcast skies, which appear featureless from the ground.

Looking at clouds is usually associated with boredom, but I would argue that one’s boredom is better assessed by what kind of clouds you are looking at.

One of the things I miss during the colder months are the complex cloudscapes. Not that these can’t appear in winter; if you see something like the picture above in January, you should pay attention and savor it, for it’s less likely to happen the next day. This is because there is simply less heat thrown into the atmosphere in winter, and heat is the scarce ingredient that churns with the more plentiful cool air. These thermal fault lines in the sky are the cause of the most interesting clouds.

And clouds, in keeping with their reputation for the ephemeral, are at their most interesting when the air is moving, and when their formations are short-lived, a transitional state.

Mixed clouds in early November 2021, Chicago
“Altocumulus clouds produce the most dramatic and beautiful cloudscapes, especially in the rays of a low sun.” (Gavin Pretor-Pinney, The Cloud Collector’s Handbook, 18). Chicago, early November 2021.


David Ludlum, The National Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Weather. Knopf, 1991.

Gavin Pretor-Pinney, The Cloud Collector’s Handbook. Chronicle Books, 2011.

Tags meteorology weather fall winter