Steve Barnes' World of Happiness

The enduringly clumsy state of e-mail.

John Gruber, reminding us that e-mail tracking pixels are still common practice, and that, since the arrival of HTML support, e-mail clients have been much like web browsers, except without the modern and sophisticated security features.

I think this really is a reminder. While Apple, Google and Mozilla have all contributed to the effort to make web browsers feel more like sentinel guardians of the user, the only companies I've seen attempting to make e-mail similarly modern, secure and serene are lesser-known ones, like Hey and ProtonMail. Their goals aren't to change the entire e-mail industry, but to wrap individual in a protective barrier, so to speak.

Otherwise, e-mail feels pretty much the way it did 20 years ago. It works and I use it, but it remains pretty clunky and archaic-feeling, so I only use it when I have to. I disable image loading by default. I only type in plain text. I barely get any unwanted messages, mainly because I spend as much time as necessary to manually unsubscribe to everything I can.

And 20 years later, its oldest, simplest-to-exploit form of user tracking is apparently still the most popular.

Science Week 2021 – done and done.

Happy landing.

(Science Week, Day 7!)

It’s the last day of Science Week, fellow humans – thank you for joining me.

There can be only one topic for today.

Mario and the future of augmented reality.

(Science Week, Day 6!)

Today’s is a nod not to the process of science, but to the application of the knowledge it’s bestowed by hard-working and creative people, which has always fallen well within the scope of Science Week. (Even Oculus’ Michael Abrash has the title “chief scientist,” and I don’t suppose he’s making discoveries so much as helping apply them.)

I've mentioned before that I casually predicted the nature of the now relatively-imminent wave of augmented reality by running-up in a Nintendo Power contest in 1996. My notion: a head-worn headset would map the room using lasers, store the information as a model, and create the illusion before the wearer’s eyes that game elements were milling about the space. 25 years later, I’m not sure there’s any aspect of that I got wrong. As Apple’s first AR device becomes increasingly rumoured and evidenced, “LiDAR” is the abbreviated name for the sensors which can currently model rooms on the iPhone and iPad, using none other than laser light.

Meanwhile, Mario Kart: Home Circuit arrived last year from Nintendo: a more modest but clever and heartful application of sensing and tracking technology to remote control racers which broadcast to your console’s display. As you control Mario or Luigi’s kart with your thumbs and watch the race on the display as usual, their on-board cameras feed back their view of the room, superimposing obstacles and guard rails. It’s a gorgeous way to convey an imaginary experience which has only just become practical to render.

A number of companies have made serious advances in VR and AR last decade, and I think we have every reason to suppose these are the final years of a world without digitally enhanced windows on our own world, and other imaginary realms.

The path of BepiColombo.

(Science Week, Day 5!)

Speaking of astronomical frontiers in 2025, the BepiColombo probe remains on en route to Mercury – though, arguably, “en route” might imply it’s heading directly for the planet, and that’s far from true.

This is an incredible aspect of intraplanetary travel for probes: the deliberate use of planets’ gravity fields to steer and direct their course as desired. Memorable examples include Voyager 1 and 2, travelling outward from Earth toward deep space, using the gas giants as slingshots between each other by almost falling to their surface, but not quite; enough to veer and pick up significant speed while ultimately escaping their fields.

Apparently visiting our innermost planet comes with an immense challenge intrinsic to its inner-ness. The gravity of the giantest “gas giant” of all, the sun, is so immense that firing a probe straight at Mercury would be pointless: the speed at which the probe would be “falling” by the the time it reached the gray rock would doom its chances of entering orbit, to put it mildly. What’s needed is a gentle and synchronized convergence, like a car driving a guy smoothy up alongside a train who wants to shout an analogy at the engineer.

BepiColumbo’s solution is to make nine of these aforementioned fly-bys to cajole it into this gentler rendezvous. The first is, fascinatingly, with the Earth itself, and more than the last several are with Mercury itself; in fact, its first brush with Mercury this coming fall will occur several years before it’s softened into its ultimate approach.

The planning involved! And of course, the underpinning work stemming from Kepler, Newton and Einstein regarding gravity and planetary motion, to be crudely brief.

And along the way, images of these encounters for everyone to see.

James Randi and the empirical test.

(Science Week, Day 4!)

I wrote a reflection on him earlier this year, but James Randi gets a place in Science Week as well. He wasn’t a scientist by technicality, but he was a reminder by example of the value of stoic, scientifically rigourous thought when evaluating claims and claimants we see every day, including ones taken for granted. The basic principle is – as Richard Feynman put it simply – that if a hypothesized idea doesn’t match up with experiment, then it’s wrong.

Randi’s expertise was in the way of illusionists and mentalists, which suited him to produce hypotheses about how the seemingly paranormally-endowed might be producing the effects they demonstrate, sometimes even believing in those powers themselves. That underpinned his organisation’s Million Dollar Challenge. It wasn’t just a casual debunking, but a carefully-planned experiment designed to control for non-paranormal factors, agreed upon both by the organisation and the claimant. Many examples survive on YouTube, such as placing a remote viewer in an isolated room or covering full and empty water bottles with boxes to test a dowser.

Here’s one: a man who claimed to be able to move the pages of a phone book with his mind. Even Bob Barker helps out.

Reconstructing the coronavirus.

(Science Week, Day 3!)

Today, a beautiful multimedia column by Carl Zimmer, originally published in The New York Times last fall. I had skimmed this, realized I hadn’t read it fully, and supposed doing so this morning might be a chore. Since then I’ve become not just fascinated, but suspicious something has finally stoked a clearer interest in molecular biology in me.

Since this was published, of course, a number of safe and effective vaccines have become available, and the world is finally on course to managing the pandemic. That alone is a testament to science, obviously, setting apart that the Moderna vaccine – thanks to techniques previously developed – was apparently developed in just two days. But the intimate detail in which this virus is knowable is what this piece illustrates.

This area of science has always seemed intriguingly complex enough to summon my typically wondering appreciation as astronomy and physics long have, yet somehow I’d never sought to master even its basics. If that’s you too, then this article is for you. The wording is layperson-like yet precise, conveying a handful of clear and practical concepts about what the famous SARS-CoV-2 is and how it works – and the wondrous animated diagrams allow you to cross-check your impressions. The content is a collection of findings from a international group of scientists working independently but sharing the goal of mapping, visualizing, and running simulations on the virus, coherently related by Zimmer. This is a piece to read leisurely and indulgently, with distractions off.

What differentiates molecular biology from physics and astronomy is that, even before figures like Galileo or Netwon, at least the latter would have been apparent since the dawn of humanity. But while cells, proteins, amino acids and so on have existed long before us, that world has been fully invisible – a few centuries ago, even experts must have felt as helpless to harmful viruses as natural disasters. Thanks to science and only to science, all of this lies before all of us.

The E-ELT.

(Science Week, Day 2!)

This is an easy one. I checked my records and couldn’t find that I’d used it for Science Week before, which baffles me. No more delays.

ESO’s astronomical facilities at Paranal, Chile have been a symbolic inspiration to me for over a decade. At this optimal location for sky study, this state-of-the-art array of instruments gathers data nightly, including the incredible and massive VLT (creatively known as the “Very Large Telescope” – actually a collection of four giant mirrors plus four smaller scopes which can combine their observational powers). The VLT has provided a history of images and contributed to tons of press releases about unusual celestial phenomena, like this recent one about an atypical solar system.

That would be enough, but I like to consider the more worldly aspects of the place: the remote and inhospitable desert is the home to astronomers and engineers from all over the world, who lodge at the facility’s main half-underground hotel; in this isolated way, they shape their personal and professional routines alone or with their colleagues. It must take a lot to work there – both the talent to be hired, and the will to assume such a dedicated lifestyle. And the facility provides free episodic video to explain and share its findings with the public. There’s something about the whole equation that feels honourable, focused, more representative of the way humanity should and can be than the broader range of quality and wisdom we find in the more ordinary world. It may be the closest reality has come to setting the tone of Star Trek (the classic few series, of course – not the newer ones).


Championing that air is the telescope currently under construction, equally creatively called the European “Extremely Large Telescope.” The name can’t be faulted for accuracy – its largeness will indeed be extreme, with a single main mirror spanning over 40 metres. Like the VLT’s main mirror, it’s made up of many hexagonal components which can physically move, dynamically compensating for the atmosphere’s distortion of faraway objects. Put simply, it’s expected to advance astronomy with some of the sharpest and most detailed images ever, including direct images of exoplanets. When humanity’s vastest knowledge feels stagnant, the ELT reminds me that of the ocean of unknown knowledge still remaining, significantly more will be known in our lifetimes. As a typical mental image of nature or the universe would have seemed different to those born 20 years after Galileo’s or Darwin’s work than before, our idea may be appreciably different between our own births and our deaths.

The ELT is currently planned to begin observing in 2025.

Evolutionary “concestry.”

(Science Week, Day 1!)

A couple of tweets from Richard Dawkins last year:

A certain individual in the time of dinosaurs had 2 children. Nobody knows which was elder, nor whether they were of same or opposite sex. Perhaps they played together in the dust. Then they went their separate ways. One gave rise to all wombats. The other gave rise to us.

No it’s not an oversimplification. It’s literally true. All you need assume is the truth of evolution: it then necessarily follows. Not just wombats and humans: a similar argument works for any two species. If you don’t see why, borrow a copy of The Ancestor’s Tale.

I love when authors read their own work, and The Ancestor’s Tale was before the age of audiobooks purchased online. It was only available abridged in North America, but I was fortunate enough to have family in England source a full-length copy on one billion CDs.

It’s a fascinating thought, striking in its simplicity amid such a complex and obscure history. If you happen to know your cousin, you can know your most recent common ancestors are your grandparents, even if you don’t know your grandparents. And you can know that only your grandparents merit that label.

It’s easy enough to see when it’s your grandparents, and it’s almost as easy to see when considering your first-degree cousin: a family member with whom your most recent common ancestors are your great-grandparents (even if you don’t know your great-grandparents). While the counting and digramming gets more complicated, the idea of common ancestry remains simple, and it’s that same idea which is applicable between you and any other life form.

Timbits, once of the goats I grew up with – and myself – share a most recent common ancestor, much further back into the fog of time: an animal that existed at whatever split would eventually give rise to both humans and goats; a much earlier mammal. With my sister’s conure, Tequila, I share a different common ancestor. Since all birds are believed to have survived and descended from dinosaurs, this ancestor would have to have existed before even the split between reptiles and mammals. I’m not expert, but I think that means it may well have been aquatic.

(To explain the title: The Ancestor’s Tale is framed as a backwards pilgrimage through time, starting from the tip of the branch of the evolutionary tree representing humans, heading downward through the larger branches toward the trunk, which represents the origin of all life. Along the way comes a series of meetings with similar “travellers” also heading toward the trunk from the tips of the branches that represent their own species. The earliest encounters are with the species most closely related to humans, the later ones the more distant, and the junctions represent the common ancestor been humans and each. Because going backwards sets these as conjunctions rather than evolutionary splits, Dawkins uses the term “concestor” to represent them.)

What I find the most stirring about this thought is the certainty – while they certainly can’t be known – that the common ancestors for any given pair of life forms on Earth were real. Each resided somewhere, with some way of life, with some survival strategy, with some personality and outlook on the world; all qualities which, going back in time, would seem increasingly alien to us. We’re lucky to have so much evidence for a general picture. But those specifics – those invididual lives – are left to our imaginations.

For day one of Science Week, I’ve sometimes posted this short visualization of known evolutionary history; it’s one link I’m never ashamed to repeat. This year I wanted to focus on that idea of concestry, but I realize the video complements it beautifully, so I hope you’ll watch if you haven’t done so.

Science Week 2021.

People choose what they celebrate. I think any communal holiday I celebrate should have significance to our prosperity and well-being, and few single words better express the path to those precious ends than science. Without science – if you and I existed at all – we may not have our health, our communications or travel, or these devices and networks by which we know and learn from each other. We might see the night sky, but never know what we were seeing. We might see each other, but never know what we’re made of.

My tradition is to share a post each day for seven days about any aspect of science I love: any idea, discovery, figure, et cetera. The first day is February 12 – the calendar birth of Charles Darwin, whose introduction of evolution, as do many other examples, typifies the spirit of science for me.

This is the first year I’ll have done this directly on my home site! That feels especially nice to me. But I’ll share everything on Twitter, and I invite you to do the same. “Science Week” is used in other senses, but I’ll use the hashtag “#ScienceWeek” in this case. If you post anything, let me know and I’ll link to you.

See you on February 12! And as always: here’s to finding things out.

What the heck is happening with The Price Is Right?

I've enjoyed watching the show from childhood visits to my grandmother's through my eventual morning in the audience during Bob Barker's final years. Eventually, I found myself deeply interested in the craftsmanship, asking what manner of timeless innovation has made it such a viable and steady tradition since its revitalization in 1972.

Games have come and gone, camera choreography has been reworked, prices have risen, and the studio's old "modern" look is now a new "modern" look. But so little has changed because it got so much right from the start. The famous theme music has never been replaced. The segment structure remains untouched – three games, one wheel spin, all times two, then a showcase. The playful-sounding "contestants of all sizes!" that once flashed on the screen is an understatement: all shapes, colours, nationalities, philosophies and hairstyles have appeared and been treated with distinguished entertainment and respect by both Barker and Carey.

But most importantly, audiences – and especially contestants – have seemed unmistakeably pleased to be there, every show, for 45 years. Some wore this on their sleeve, some just on their face. I doubt I've heard of someone watching The Price Is Right whose reasons lack some form of "I'd like to see people who are genuinely having a good time."

Then the pandemic – the first in its long history. The whole TV and movie industry had to deal with this somehow. Continuing production was a mere option, and a packed audience was no option. It looks like the folks at Price decided the show must go on, flattened the seats, spaced out the podiums, and produce it with only the host, the announcer, the models, and the nine needed contestants appearing on screen. Understandable and respectable.

Unfortunately, this is where it got weird. In lieu of a live audience, I suppose you could forgive a canned one, and the audience here is obviously canned. Try watching for a few minutes without imagining a person sitting in a booth pressing "long cheer" or "cluster of chuckles" – it can be done well, but this sounds too mixed-in and predictable to suffice even as an illusion.

If that was the strangeness' apex, perhaps I'd have forgotten. But watching the contestants – the real stars – now feels unsettling, unlike anything I've felt watching a TV show. When Gray calls their "come on down," they enter the room dancing or cheering as though imitating the exuberance of a traditional contestant reacting to the shock of the revelation. The contestants must be prearranged. We and they know it's a practically empty room, that there's no real audience, and that there's no real surprise. If they get the winning bid, they're invited (or instructed?) to move to a giant red flower on the floor and perform some sort of supplemental celebration before heading to the stage. Here's an example. They wear this neither on just their face nor their sleeve; typical contestants could envelop a trenchcoat, as though they were selected largely on the basis of their willingness to do it.

I suppose what feels so troubling is the sense of a sweeping production choice so firmly rooted in resistance to reality. An empty studio is inherently much more tranquil, casual, easygoing, potentially intimate. There's so much available good feeling in that, and there's at least as much available good feeling in what the pandemic hasn't touched: the famous and able regular cast, the unmuddled diversity among the players, and the prospect of winning rare and expensive prizes. You'd think an insightful director would have let those aspects blossom and shine rather than dousing them with artifice. It's as though they've relied so heavily on a live audience that they don't know what to do without one, and have scrambled to fill the gap with the first thing they could think of.

The strength of The Price Is Right has always been the optimization of a simple, repeatable formula to maximize genuine positivity. Instead, their choice has been to maximize artificial positivity. I'm assuming other longtime viewers feel this too, if only semi-consciously. I think it's the first wrong turn the show has ever taken, and I hope the team thinks it over.

Hmm.

I wonder whether what time has dubbed "spiritual teachings" were in actuality more like glimmers of mundane common sense amid ubiquitous waywardness – that is, about as far from a typical definition of "spiritual" as is conceivable.

Probably sometimes at most.