☞ The Overedge Catalog

Finding the misfit research + tech organizations

I recently created something called the Overedge Catalog, which I’m really excited about. Here’s the description from the site:

Research organizations and institutions often are shoehorned into a set of well-established categories: universities, public companies, tech startups, and certain types of non-profits, such as think tanks. But there is the need for innovation here, particularly when it comes to encouraging the development of new ideas and the ability to operate on long timescales. We need new types of research organizations.

In cartography, most maps are bound by the straight lines at their borders. But occasionally, there are parts of the map that don’t quite fit. They bleed over the edge and yet still cry out for being included in a map. These are the overedges. The Overedge Catalog is devoted to collecting the intriguing new types of organizations and institutions that lie at the intersection of the worlds of research and academia, non-profits, and tech startups. This is a small but growing number of organizations, but hopefully by collecting and highlighting all of these here, it can spur further institutional innovation.

I currently have about forty organizations included, along with a simple taxonomy, from Dynamicland and the Santa Fe Institute to Stripe Press and the Recurse Center.

Since I first started publicizing the Overedge Catalog a couple weeks ago, many folks have reached out with further suggestions (thanks so much to all of you!) and I have begun making more additions, with hopefully even more to come. Please check out the current version, share it with your friends, and most importantly, please provide any further suggestions or other feedback.

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Related to my perennial love of exploring old computing magazines, Matt Webb pointed me to this incredible treasure trove: the junk mail of Ted Nelson. Amazing.

Also, I recently discovered a Palantir from the 1980’s in an issue of MacUser:

Never stop digging in the archives.


And here are a few quick links:

  • Wikipedia Speedruns: Finding the deep interconnectivity of Wikipedia as fast as you can.

  • GPT-3 tries pickup lines: These are bonkers and hilarious.

  • Radioactive data: tracing through training: “We want to detect whether a particular image dataset has been used to train a model. We propose a new technique, radioactive data, that makes imperceptible changes to this dataset such that any model trained on it will bear an identifiable mark.”

  • And Alan Jacobs explores what he finds most important: “The point, at this stage in my career, after fifteen published books, is not the publication, it’s the thinking. So let the thinking, in public, commence.”

Until next month.

☞ Timestamping Science and Magical Text

How do you demonstrate that you know something—or discovered something first—without giving away your secret? This was an issue that loomed large in the early years of modern science, as scholars wished to maintain priority without telling everyone what they had figured out, especially if it involved work that was still in progress.

So, when I was reading James Gleick’s biography of Isaac Newton recently (it’s fantastic, so please go check it out), I was intrigued by the following quotation:

5accdæ10effh11i4l3m9n6oqqr8s11t9y3x: 11ab3cdd10eæg10ill4m7n6o3p3q6r5s11t8vx, 3acæ4egh5i4l4m5n8oq4r3s6t4v, aaddæcecceiijmmnnooprrrsssssttuu

This odd string of letters and numbers was written by Newton in a letter, as a way of demonstrating via a sort of encryption that Newton had figured out various aspects of calculus.

How did this work? As explained here, “he used a simple procedure: he wrote a sentence (in Latin) and then just counted letters in it. And the anagram consisted of the list of letters and how many times each letter occurs in the message.”

And this is not the only example. In another of Newton’s letters, there’s also this string, “6accdae13eff7i3l9n4o4qrr4s8t12ux,” used to establish priority for another facet of calculus.

These long strings of letters and numbers remind me of the output of hash functions, like MD5 or SHA-2, which are often used as checksums, to ensure such things as a file having been transferred correctly. The problem with this anagram method though, is that it is much easier to reverse. While modern hash functions that are intended for cryptographic use are designed to be one-way—that is, you can’t figure out the original data from the function’s output—this needn’t be true for these anagram-based trusted timestamp approaches.

In fact, an attempt to reverse one of these actually led to an inadvertent discovery. Galileo had used an anagram to disguise his discovery of the bumpy shape of Saturn—which were its rings, though he wasn’t quite sure what it was and described it has having three parts—through the use of this string: SMAISMRMILMEPOETALEUMIBUNENUGTTAUIRAS

Fellow scientist Kepler, however, attempted to actually determine what the converted phrase said by reversing the anagram. And in a strange twist, he came up with an entirely different Latin phrase, but one that was actually correct: that Mars has two moons! These moons weren’t discovered though until more than two hundred years later (the entire story can be read about here).

I would like to think that we have come far since these anagram-mad days, though I still think that scientific publication could use more than a few updates. That being said, seeing these scientific hash functions reminds me a bit of the writer Robin Sloan’s recent experiments with NFTs to create text-based amulets: short bursts of text that have a particularly rare cryptographic hash, giving them a special sort of value.

Are these mad alphanumeric strings from hundreds of years ago perhaps a bridge then between alchemy and magic and our modern understanding of our world?

Abracadabra, please meet 6accdae13eff7i3l9n4o4qrr4s8t12ux.


And as a bonus, I made the connection between magic and mathematics yet more explicit with this short snippet of code that hashes text into a string of alchemical symbols from Unicode:

Welcome to my laboratory

is transmogrified into

🜄🜎🜛🜝🝪🜀🜞🜏🜇🜾🝳🜁🜍🜋🜞🝪🜛🜄🜀🜾🜔🜔🜉🜂🜚🜋🜲🜝🝳🜝🜒🜹🜉🜲🜟🜁🝳🜑🜜🜅🜛🜒🜎🜉🜊🜈🜝🜆🜄🜟🜔🜀

Please feel free to play with the code for Base🜀.

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I recently had the pleasure of participating in a wide-ranging conversation that touched on the complexity of technology, the nature of knowledge, and much more. Watch it here.


A few links worth checking out:

Until next month.

☞ The Anomalies that Drive Science

There is a certain delight to finding facts and bits of information that don’t quite make sense. Whether it’s the discovery of a weird signal from Proxima Centauri or the fact that lightning can spur the growth of fungi, there’s a lot that we don’t fully understand yet. But the good news is that each of these pieces of knowledge are wedges that we can use to pry open our understanding of the world. These are the grist for scientific progress.

One source for some of these kinds of facts is the work of the physicist William R. Corliss, whose Sourcebook Project compiled these anomalies into a series of books:

The Sourcebooks, Handbooks and Catalogs are compiled from 40,000 articles from the scientific literature, the results of a 25-year search through more than 12,000 volumes of scientific journals, including the complete files of Nature, Science, Icarus, Weather, etc. The Sourcebook Project is compiling an objective, unsensationalized catalog of anomalous phenomena.

Of course, whenever this kind of thing is done there is the chance it can drift into cryptozoology and other kinds of crackpottery—I am reminded of the Time-Life series Mysteries of the Unknown—but hopefully, as long as anomalies are viewed as information for further study, rather than Mysteries for their Own Sake, this is how science moves forward.

Due to my interest in these kinds of collections, I was therefore delighted when my friend Mike Vitevitch, a cognitive scientist, passed along Wikenigma, “an Encyclopaedia of Unknowns.” While I’m not certain the quality of this collection, I am sold on its goal: “to inspire and promote interest in scientific and academic research by highlighting opportunities to investigate problems - ones which no-one has yet been able to solve. In other words a catalyst for curiosity.”

On Wikenigma you can explore different fields, from mathematics to earth science, and find examples of things that contributors have identified as not yet known or understood. And what a delightful phrase: “catalyst for curiosity.” Go forth and explore!


I recently published an article in Wired about how we need to be inspired by old technologies in order to build new ones. It involved reading a lot of old computer magazines:

…I love the nostalgia these magazines evoke, that sense of wonder and possibility that computers brought to us when they first entered our lives.

But there’s much more to it than mere delight. I’ve found that excavating old technology often points the way to something new.

That’s especially the case when you’re digging, as I like to do, in the strata from the early age of personal computers. These old magazines, in particular, describe a sort of Cambrian explosion of diversity in hardware and software designs; their pages show a spray of long-lost lineages in technology and strange precursor forms. You may come across a stand-alone software thesaurus (with a testimonial from William F. Buckley Jr.!), or a word search generator, or a magazine on floppy disks. And let’s not forget the MacTable, a beechwood desk made in Denmark to fit the Macintosh and its various peripherals.

Go check out the entire piece here.

And as a bonus for my Newsletter Readers, please enjoy the pace of technological change as exemplified by a November 1986 issue of MacUser that defines the terms uploading and downloading:


    A few links worth checking out:

    Until next month.

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    ☞ Reinventing Book Publishing in the Tech World

    In the first half of the Twentieth Century, Emanuel Haldeman-Julius began publishing Little Blue Books in a small town in southeastern Kansas. These books were on a wide variety of topics and reached a massive number of readers:

    …in just over thirty years, [he] had become one of the most prolific publishers in U.S. history, putting an estimated 300 million copies of inexpensive “Little Blue Books” into the hands of working-class and middle-class Americans. Selling for as little as five cents and small enough to fit in a trouser pocket, these books were meant to bring culture and self-education to working people, and covered topics ranging from classic literature to home-finance to sexually pleasuring one’s spouse. Distributed discreetly by mail order, Little Blue Books disseminated birth-control information not available in small-town libraries, advocated racial justice at a time when the Ku Klux Klan influenced politics, and introduced Euripides, Shakespeare, and Emerson to people without the means for higher education.

    I’ve been thinking about this “Henry Ford of Literature” as I’ve been watching an incipient trend in the tech world: attempts to reinvent book publishing. Some interesting experiments include Stripe Press, the publishing arm of a startup devoted to ideas broadly around progress, and Holloway, which publishes manuals in tech-related spaces. There’s also this Roam-native book about ergodicity, which allows for the nonlinear exploration of the text, something that seems well-suited to nonfiction in digital form (note: Lux is an investor in Roam Research). And there’s the Future of Text, or even this exploration of “Why books don’t work.”

    I am particularly intrigued with this intersection of book publishing and technology because of something I find fascinating: there are deep similarities between the worlds of venture capital and book publishing, from the upfront investments in future success (or failure) to the fact that these are both fundamentally hit-based businesses. Of course, you can only stretch this analogy so far, but I’d like to think that these are different ways of making bets on—and fostering the development of—ideas. Ultimately, both book publishing and venture capital are in the business of acting as midwives to new ideas and innovation.

    And that is why these attempts to constantly reexamine and reinvent the democratization, distribution, and furthering of knowledge should be watched closely (and please let me know of other examples you are aware of!). For ultimately, publishers are catalysts of world-changing ideas.

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    A few links worth checking out:

    Until next month.

    ☞ Progress Bars and Reticulating Splines

    Failure Modes and Technology

    Progress bars are fascinating: where they are used, what they look like, and sometimes even their tenuous connection to what might actually be happening inside the computer.

    For example, as per this discussion of progress bars, one advance in this realm incorporated “a loading bar that had nothing to do with how much work the computer had done…It would always start off slow, to set your expectations for a fairly long wait, and then speed up at the end, so that you end up feeling pleasantly surprised.” Here’s more on lying progress bars.

    Which reminds me of one of my favorite stories about misleading user interfaces:

    In the 1960s, the hardware that comprised the byzantine switching systems of the first electronic phone networks would occasionally cause a misdial. Instead of revealing the mistake by disconnecting or playing an error message, engineers decided the least obtrusive way to handle these glitches was to allow the system to go ahead and patch the call through to the wrong number. Adar says most people just assumed the error was theirs, hung up, and redialed. “The illusion of an infallible phone system was preserved,” he writes in the paper.

    Nevertheless, rather than leaning towards deception, others have tried to make progress bars more useful. From Why Is This Interesting, which explored progress bars:

    While it’s easy to think of the situations where we were thoughtlessly left to stare at some animated loader that left us with no indication of progress, there’s another kind of loader that we’ve almost certainly experienced without giving it much thought. In this scenario, rather than simply letting users know how much time is left in their task, the animation actually attempts to communicate what the server is doing while you’re waiting. This was made famous by the flight search sites who now seem to have mostly abandoned the practice. If you remember, they would attempt to show you the different airlines they were checking with and stops they calculated to help make your wait time feel a bit more manageable.

    And according to research, they noted that “users gave higher satisfaction scores to those services that attempted to show them what was happening in the background even when there was more wait time.”

    In the end, I think we need to be aware of what is happening in our machines, at least a bit. When we are unaware of failures, bad things can happen. As per John Gruber: “Everyone knows error messages are bad, but the reason they’re bad is the error part, not the message part. Not reporting errors just makes everything worse, by pretending that the errors aren’t even happening.”

    In the end, perhaps the best display is either a peek under the hood at what is truly happening or just simply providing delight: hello “reticulating splines.”


    A few things worth checking out:

    Until next month.

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