Recommendations for May 4, 2015

4 May

Video: “Terminal” by Jörg Wagner

I’ve written here before about my interest in shipping containers and standardization. I’m partly just fascinated by the idea that the whole world can agree on anything, but also by what such agreement makes possible— the astonishingly fast movement of colossal amounts of goods of all kinds across the world, at minimal cost. This video shows some of the technology that makes this possible at work, and it’s clear here how precisely choreographed all of this is, despite the immense size and weight of the equipment and the stuff that it’s moving around.


Article: “Congress’ Hare-Brained Scheme to Shoot Rain From The Skies” by Cynthia Barnett

For a short time in the 1890s, the U.S. federal government spent thousands of dollars (and that’s 1890s dollars) to fund attempts to produce rain through concussion— that is, by blowing stuff up in the sky. Hundreds of years of anecdotal evidence from various battles— including Waterloo and many of the largest in the Civil War, which were followed by significant rainfall— had led to an association between explosions and storms. The idea of deliberately producing rain this way had been suggested for decades, but finally a major drought in the Great Plains in the closing decade of the nineteenth century led somebody to actually try it out. Aided by a credulous (and mostly absentee) press, proponents portrayed their initial experiments as successful, leading to additional government support. That the method did not, in fact, produce the desired result was actually figured out fairly quickly, but, as Barnett points out, it’s a good example of how, very often, “Congress is more moved by the influential uninformed than the scientific consensus.”


Article: “The Mission To Save The Internet By Rewiring It From The Name Up” by Lucy Vernasco

Some aspects of the basic infrastructure of the internet are now decades old. Specifically, the TCP/IP protocols, which attach unique numbers to devices attached to the network, and use those numbers to route individual chunks, or packets, of data, from one place to another. The advantage of this system— which was originally developed as an attempt to create a communications network that could survive a nuclear attack— is that since each individual packet is “addressed” separately, each one can follow a different route to its destination, and the route can change along the way, as the packet passes through multiple “nodes,” each of which decides on the best route currently available. One downside of the system, though, is that it’s location-based; if you want a specific piece of data, you need to know where it is, and you get it by establishing a connection between your computer and a server that has what you want. Vernasco describes an ongoing project to completely transform the way information moves around the internet, by assigning unique names to pieces of data, rather than numbers/addresses to devices. The potential advantage of this is that it would allow you to get the data you want from any place that has it, rather than the one server whose address (or domain name, which amounts to the same thing) you happen to know. In other words, if you want to stream a video on YouTube, you could get that data from another user’s machine, directly, as long as it has been named properly. There are lots of problems to be solved— in particular, the sheer number of names that this system would involve— but it could, in principle, make the network both faster and more reliable, by making us less dependent on a few massive servers.

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