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Reading List, December 2017

  1. Brian Merchant, How email open tracking quietly took over the world, in Wired, 11 December 2017. [Online]: https://www.wired.com/story/how-email-open-tracking-quietly-took-over-the-web/

    It is no longer a secret that every website you visit silently tracks you in an effort to maximise ad revenue. What is less known is that emails also track you, through the use of tracking pixels and redirect links. These techniques were used by spammers and legitimate companies alike when creating newsletters or other mass email, in order to figure out their reach. What’s happening now is that private people are also using these techniques in order to create invisible and intrusive read receipts for email, which is incredibly frustrating from a privacy point of view.

    My solution to the tracking woes? I only open the plain-text component of email, which gets rid of tracking pixels entirely. Redirect links are harder to beat, and I don’t have a good solution for this.

  2. Dan Luu, Computer latency 1977–2017. December 2017. [Online]: https://danluu.com/input-lag/

    I always used to joke that the layers of abstraction and indirection in modern computers means that they are slower than computers of the past. Every time we hardware people come up with faster machines, software people find ways to slow them down. In this post, Dan Luu presents quantitative data that shows that a modern computer has higher latencies than an Apple //e, released forty years ago. Luu also mentions a few reasons why this is the case, although the underlying factor here is that we have created increasing levels of abstraction and indirection that allow us to write better software and hardware that can be customised, but we lose in terms of performance. The Apple //e had a dedicated chip for processing keyboard inputs, a modern keyboard has a computer more powerful than the Apple //e just to process keyboard inputs. Luu also has some interesting discussions on why Android phones always seem to have higher latency with more powerful hardware than Apple phones, and why our computers are slower than a packet travelling around the world.

  3. Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, Want to win a Nobel prize? Retract a paper, in Slate, 21 December 2017. [Online]: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2017/12/win_a_nobel_prize_by_retracting_a_paper.html

    Once you go past the clickbaity headline, the article makes a point that a number of Nobel laureates have retracted their work when they lost confidence in the results. The primary argument in the article, according to me, is that honest science is rewarded.

  4. Royal Society Te Apārangi, Selecting a quality publisher. [Online]: https://royalsociety.org.nz/what-we-do/research-practice/publishing-guidance/selecting-a-quality-publisher/

    It is an open secret that the academic world is full of predatory publishers and bad science. Sometimes, legitimate researchers are tricked into publishing their work in these sub-par venues, and this is a loss, because such work is often lost as the journal folds up after charging the authors huge publishing fees. These guidelines from the Kiwis are useful in spotting and avoiding such predatory journals.

  5. Matthew Greene, The strange story of “Extended Random”, in A few thoughts on cryptographic engineering*, 19 December 2017. [Online]: https://blog.cryptographyengineering.com/2017/12/19/the-strange-story-of-extended-random/

    A fascinating story of how a backdoor suspected to be the handiwork of the American NSA ended up inside certain Canon printers. I must confess, as someone with only a passing interest in cryptography, I don’t understand all the nuances mentioned in this article. Nevertheless, it makes an interesting reading.

  6. Ian Parker, Killing animals at the zoo, in the New Yorker, 16 January 2017. [Online]: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/16/killing-animals-at-the-zoo

    I was unaware of the fact that animals are often euthanized at the zoo. This article is uncomfortable reading, but necessary as one of the many ethical issues that arise from keeping wild animals captive in a zoo. I’m still not sure how I feel about this issue, although I am inclined to believe that euthanasia is probably the most humane option of those presented.

  7. Deborah Bright, How to let go at the end of the workday, in Harvard Business Review, 23 November 2017. [Online]: https://hbr.org/2017/11/how-to-let-go-at-the-end-of-the-workday

    As a PhD student, I had trouble defining boundaries between my work and home lives. I often used to carry a stack of papers home to read after dinner, almost never read all that I intended to read, and this stressed me out, almost to my breaking point. It took me quite some time, and some effort to figure out that my problem was not letting go. This article is good reading for anyone else who may be in my position, as it has useful tips to help people snap out of work mode. Hopefully, this improves your lives this coming year.

  8. Alex Knapp, How Garmin responded to a hate crime with humanity, in Forbes, 12 December 2017. [Online]: https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexknapp/2017/12/12/how-garmin-responded-to-a-hate-crime-with-humanity/

    Knapp chronicles the horrific shooting of two Garmin employees, and how the company chose to respond. I don’t want to present a watered down summary of this article, as it won’t do justice. Garmin’s response is one I would expect of all employers, to treat their employees and their loved ones as family, and to allow people space to grieve.

  9. Eric S. Raymond, The blues killed rock and roll, in Armed and Dangerous, 28 December 2017. [Online]: http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=7811

    ESR tackles the question, why doesn’t modern rock music sound like the Beatles or Chuck Berry. His answer, British invasion blues bands like Led Zepplin, Rolling Stones, and The Who hijacked the genre.

    Honestly, I like the new style of rock just as much as the old one, if not more. So I don’t quite like the tone of loss that ESR takes w.r.t. rock and roll.

  10. Liliana Segura, Can the Supreme Court continue to live with our arbitrary and capricious death penalty?, in The Intercept, 24 December 2017. [Online]: https://theintercept.com/2017/12/24/arizona-death-penalty-supreme-court/

    Hidalgo v. Arizona is a case that will be considered by the US Supreme Court. This case challenges the death penalty as being arbitrary. This is a fascinating story of how the Supreme Court once abolished the death penalty in Arizona, how it was brought back in a structured fashion, and how it regressed into arbitrariness. This is a case to watch, as lawyers argue that Hidalgo may be the ideal vehicle to abolish the death penalty across the United States, although its chances are slim at best.

  11. Jeff Atwood, To serve man, with software, in Coding Horror, 31 December 2017. [Online]: https://blog.codinghorror.com/to-serve-man-with-software/

    Atwood looks back at what makes software great, and his answer is that it makes our lives better.

  12. Joanna Williams, Feminism is holding women back, in Spectator, 30 December 2017. [Online]: https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2017/12/feminism-is-holding-women-back/

    This article only partially addresses one of my pet peeves with social justice movements in the developed world. These movements tend to make mountains out of micro aggressions and create a culture of micro victimhood, at a time when real people elsewhere in the world have real issues. Just as Time magazine awarded person of the year to the #MeToo movement, there’s a movement going on in Iran where women are being arrested for not dressing according to an old, dogmatic dress code.

    I’m not sharing this article to be critical, but because it ends with a message of hope. As we end this year, I think we should celebrate our successes. To that end:

    The breakthroughs made by female scientists, engineers and academics in 2017 have been overlooked in favour of celebrating women as victims. But the truth is that women today are better qualified than men; they are working and earning more than ever before.

  13. Francine Prose, The problem with problematic, in The New York Review of Books, 1 November 2017. [Online]: http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2017/11/01/the-problem-with-problematic/

    A critical look at the modern equivalent of book burning and censorship, i.e. the abusive takedown of authors and their works on social media. This article talks about the cottage industry of ‘sensitivity readings’, and of the illogical absurdity that authors have a ‘lived experience’ of what they write about, for this immediately disqualifies both historical and science fiction, as no one yet has the ability to travel to either the past or the future to gain the necessary ‘lived experience’. Prose also makes a passionate case for imagination, that we human beings are capable of imagining ourselves in different circumstances and writing about it, without necessarily having to live those circumstances.

    What’s distressing is the frequency—and the unexamined authority—with which the words “experience” and “lived experience” define who is qualified to write or even to weigh in on a book.

    Isn’t reading an experience that the writer allows us to “live”? Doesn’t fiction let the reader imagine what it might be like to be someone else? Or to enable us to consider what it means to be a human being—of another race, ethnicity, or gender?

    The article also makes a passionate case for reading literature in a way that is not governed solely by sensitivity readings.

    It’s painful to imagine someone reading Huckleberry Finn and having only one thought: fuck your white savior narrative.

    This sort of criticism on social media is akin to bullying, finding easy targets in order to feel morally superior instead of tackling real, difficult issues. This manifests itself, not just in literature, but in almost all aspects of our lives, where people are fired because of outrage on social media, without any chance to defend themselves, or any chance to confront their million accusers. It is easy to jump onto a lynching bandwagon, harder to appreciate that everyone may have something useful to offer.

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