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The Best Essay Ever - On Cable Laying??

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How did Neal Stephenson do it? Way back in 1996, he managed to make what's clearly the most boring subject on Earth -- transcontinental data cable installation -- into a clever, engaging 56-page article. Well, he probably did in the same way he made cryptography exciting in Cryptonomicon and a dystopian corporate future funny in Snow Crash: by being a super smart guy writing about stuff that's actually interesting, beneath its veneer of super-dorkitude.

In Mother Earth Mother Board, Stephenson declares himself the "hacker tourist," as he "ventures forth across the wide and wondrous meatspace of three continents, chronicling the laying of the longest wire on Earth." Discussed: the insane past, present, and future of data cables; mastery of slack; Supreme Ninja Hacker Mage Lords; more. Here are some selected bits from the article:

[On the laying of redundant "FLAG" cables to connect the same points.] This raises questions. The questions turn out to have interesting answers. I'll summarize them first and then go into detail.

Q: Why bother running two widely separated routes over the Malay Peninsula?

A: Because Thailand, like everywhere else in the world, is full of idiots with backhoes.

Q: Isn't that a pain in the ass?

A: You have no idea.

Q: Why not just go south around Singapore and keep the cable in the water, then?

A: Because Singapore is controlled by the enemy.

Q: Who is the enemy?

A: FLAG's enemies are legion. ...

Dr. Wildman Whitehouse and his 5-foot-long induction coils were the first hazard to destroy a submarine cable but hardly the last. It sometimes seems as though every force of nature, every flaw in the human character, and every biological organism on the planet is engaged in a competition to see which can sever the most cables. The Museum of Submarine Telegraphy in Porthcurno, England, has a display of wrecked cables bracketed to a slab of wood. Each is labeled with its cause of failure, some of which sound dramatic, some cryptic, some both: trawler maul, spewed core, intermittent disconnection, strained core, teredo worms, crab's nest, perished core, fish bite, even "spliced by Italians." The teredo worm is like a science fiction creature, a bivalve with a rasp-edged shell that it uses like a buzz saw to cut through wood - or through submarine cables. Cable companies learned the hard way, early on, that it likes to eat gutta-percha, and subsequent cables received a helical wrapping of copper tape to stop it. ...

In 1870, a new cable was laid between England and France, and Napoleon III used it to send a congratulatory message to Queen Victoria. Hours later, a French fisherman hauled the cable up into his boat, identified it as either the tail of a sea monster or a new species of gold-bearing seaweed, and cut off a chunk to take home. Thus was inaugurated an almost incredibly hostile relationship between the cable industry and fishermen. Almost anyone in the cable business will be glad, even eager, to tell you that since 1870 the intelligence and civic responsibility of fisherman have only degraded. Fishermen, for their part, tend to see everyone in the cable business as hard-hearted bluebloods out to screw the common man. ...

I encourage you -- no, I urge you -- to go read Stephenson's essay. Print it out, block out a few hours, and prepare for some wonderfully geeky edutainment. (Note: above I've linked to the printer-friendly version; there's also a standard version, but it requires clicking "next" 56 times.)

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IKEA
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IKEA’s New Augmented Reality App Lets You Test Out Virtual Furniture in Your Home
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IKEA

No matter how much measuring and research you do beforehand, buying a piece of furniture without knowing what it will look like in your home is always a gamble. With its new augmented reality app, IKEA hopes to take some of the guesswork out of the process. IKEA Place features more than 2000 items in the Swedish retailer's inventory, and visualizing them in the space where you live is as easy as tapping a button.

As WIRED reports, IKEA Place is among the first apps to take advantage of Apple's ARKit, an augmented reality platform that debuted as part of iOS 11. iPhone and iPad owners with the latest update can download IKEA's new app for free and start browsing through home goods right away.

To use the tool, you must first select the product you wish to test out, whether it's a loveseat, a kitchen table, or a dresser. Then, with the camera activated, you can point your device at whichever space you want the item to fill and watch it appear on the screen in front of you.

According to IKEA, the 3D models are scaled with 98 percent accuracy. Factors that are hard to analyze from photos online, like shadows, lighting, and textures, are also depicted as they would appear in real life. So if a sofa that looks great under the lights of a store looks drab in your living room, or if a desk that seems tiny online doesn't fit inside your office, the app will let you know. It's the closest you can get to seeing how a piece of furniture complements a room without lugging it through the doorway.

IKEA isn't the first company to improve interior design with computerized images. Several hardware stores and furniture outlets offer their own AR apps. Other services like Modsy let customers pay to create full virtual models of their homes before populating them with 3D furniture. Even IKEA had a basic AR app prior to this one, but it was glitchy and not always accurate. This newest iteration aims to provide a more seamless shopping experience. And with the latest iOS update placing a greater emphasis on AR, you can expect to see more apps using the technology in the near future.

[h/t WIRED]

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The Library of Congress Wants Your Help Identifying World War I-Era Political Cartoons
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Alex Wong/Getty Images

The U.S. government’s official library wants your help. And it involves cartoons.

The Library of Congress just debuted its new digital innovation lab, an initiative that aims to improve upon its massive archives and use them in creative ways. Its first project is Beyond Words, a digitization effort designed to make the research library’s historical newspaper collection more search-friendly. It aims to classify and tag historical images from World War I-era newspapers, identifying political cartoons, comics, illustrations, and photos within old news archives. The images come from newspapers included in Chronicling America, the library’s existing newspaper digitization project.

The tasks involved in Beyond Words are simple, even if you know nothing about the illustrations involved going into it. The Library of Congress just needs people to help mark all the illustrations and cartoons in the scanned newspaper pages, a task that only involves drawing boxes to differentiate the image from the articles around it.

Then there’s transcription, involving typing in the title of the image, the caption, the author, and whether it’s an editorial cartoon, an illustration, a photo, a map, or a comic. The library also needs people to verify the work of others, since it’s a crowd-sourced effort—you just need to make sure the images have been transcribed consistently and accurately.

A pop-up window below an early 20th century newspaper illustration prompts the user to pick the most accurate caption.

Screenshot via labs.loc.gov

The data will eventually be available for download by researchers, and you can explore the already-transcribed images on the Beyond Words site. Everything is in the public domain, so you can remix and use it however you want.

With the new labs.loc.gov, “we are inviting explorers to help crack open digital discoveries and share the collections in new and innovative ways,” Carla Hayden, the library’s head, said in a press release.

Other government archives regularly look to ordinary people to help with the monstrous task of digitizing and categorizing their collections. The National Archives and Records Administration, for instance, has recently crowd-sourced data entry and transcription for vintage photos of life on Native American reservations and declassified government documents to help make their collections more accessible online.

Want to contribute to the Library of Congress’s latest effort? Visit labs.loc.gov.

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