Saturday, December 29, 2012

Quote of the Day

“You remain invested in your inner child by exploding every day. You don’t worry about the future, you don’t worry about the past — you just explode.”

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

God's Own Prototypes

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes. Some kind of high powered mutant never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

Monday, December 17, 2012

Everything is delightful about Joshua Foer's profile of John Quijada, who invented a "precise" and "concise" language called Ithkuil. The language attracts the attention of some very strange Russians and a Ukranian right-wing terrorist, who initially think Foer is a spy from the Pentagon. The language is quite complex, requiring a very long time to formulate sentences, even for Quijada, making it challenging for daily use.
In the original version of Ithkuil, the word Ithkuil literally means “hypothetical representation of a language,” which reflects the fact that it was never meant to be casually spoken. It was an attempt to demonstrate what language could be, not what it should be. “The idea of Ithkuil is to convey deeper levels of human cognition than are usually conveyed in human language,” Quijada told me. For example, the phrase “characteristic of a single component among the synergistic amalgamation of things” is a single adjective: oicaštik’.

If that word looks as though it required extreme acts of tonsillar gymnastics to produce, it is because no sound or syllable is wasted in Ithkuil. Every language has its own phonemic inventory, or library of sounds, from which a speaker can string together words. Consonant-poor Hawaiian has just thirteen phonemes. English has around forty-two, depending on dialect. In order to pack as much meaning as possible into each word, Ithkuil has fifty-eight phonemes. The original version of the language included a repertoire of grunts, wheezes, and hacks that are borrowed from some of the world’s most obscure tongues. One particular hard-to-make clicklike sound, a voiceless uvular ejective affricate, has been found in only a few other languages, including the Caucasian language Ubykh, whose last native speaker died in 1992.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Links for Later 12-12-12

  1. Last triple date day for a while.
  2. Seeing the emerald foliot
  3. Post in which several fraught comments attempt to show us reasons why Misha Collins, who plays the angel Castiel on Supernatural should not "just die". I judge that "once arrested for reading a book atop a bank, because he was looking for better light" is sufficient reason for continued life
  4. How to get real startup ideas vs. "sitcom" startup ideas

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Brad DeLong Begs to Differ with Thomas Nagel

By the rising of the sun, DeLong refutes Nagel's proposition that the human mind has privileged access to objective reality, that consciousness is not the product of evolution in a physical context, and that Nagel knows what the hell he's trying to prove. The discussion continues here. DeLong, not content to disabuse false-thinking economists, has embarked on correcting false-thinking philosophers:
Thomas Nagel argued that his reason could not have been the result of blind Darwinian evolution. He said:
  • My reason tells me that I know the sun rises in the east.
  • My reason tells me that I know that if I am facing north then east is on my right.
  • Therefore my reason tells me that, if I see the sun rising on my right, I know I am facing north.
  • And my reason tells me that I know that if I see the sun rising on my right I know I am facing north.
  • Et cetera…
  • This kind of transcendent access to truths of objective reality is not something that a jumped-up monkey with Darwinian heuristics can have.
  • Therefore I am more than a jumped-up monkey with Darwinian heuristics: I am angelic reasoning being with direct unmediated access to objective reality.
I responded that he knew nothing of the kind:

His Darwinian heuristics had made a Humean guess that because the sun had risen in the east every single previous day and because facing north had placed east on his right every single previous day that the same held true today. I pointed out that this might be wrong--that he did not know that because the sun was on his right he was facing north, and did not know that he knew that he was facing north, and did not know that he knew that he knew he was facing north, but that he was just guessing.

And, to underscore this, I pointed out that I had once seen the sun rise due south, in which case if I had put the sun on my right I would have been facing not north but east. (I did not point out--but could have--that the claim that if you are facing north east is on your right fails at the South Pole: at the South Pole east is not on your right, north is on your right.)
While I am entirely sympathetic to and willing to entertain the position that consciousness is a fundamental entity, even without physical instantiation, and that we are indeed angelic beings inserted into the meat, I think that Nagel has failed to prove such a position, and has in fact tripped over his own feet in an attempt to do so. Point to DeLong.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Lest You Think Your Thanksgiving Feast Too Large

In the restaurant on the Rue Saint-Augustin, Parisian actor and gourmand Yves Mirande would dazzle his juniors, French and American, by dispatching a lunch of raw Bayonne ham and fresh figs, a hot sausage in crust, spindles of filleted pike in a rich rose sauce Nantua, a leg of lamb larded with anchovies, artichokes on a pedestal of foie gras, and four or five kinds of cheese, with a good bottle of Bordeaux and one of champagne, after which he would call for the Armagnac and remind Madame to have ready for dinner the larks and ortolans she had promised him, with a few langoustes and a turbot — and, of course, a fine civet made from the marcassin, or young wild boar, that the lover of the leading lady in his current production had sent up from his estate in the Sologne. "And while I think of it," I once heard him say, "we haven't had any woodcock for days, or truffles baked in the ashes, and the cellar is becoming a disgrace — no more '34s and hardly any '37s. Last week, I had to offer my publisher a bottle that was far too good for him, simply because there was nothing between the insulting and the superlative."
-AJ Liebling
Between Meals

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

I'm not a scientist, man. I don't know whether the Earth is a sphere revolving around the Sun, or if the world is flat, and the Sun is just some guy in a glowing chariot flying overhead. All I know is that one of his horses pooped on my lawn once, and that I flew from Florida to Iowa in the dead of winter for reasons having nothing to do with the scenery.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Links for Later 11-16-12

  1. Elle Luna: "User research doesn't produce user-centered design." Advice for designers in startups.
  2. William Langwiesche joins the French Foreign Legion (for a profile)
  3. Kelly Starrett, physical therapist and CrossFit coach
  4. "His works in number, bulk, and uselessness are not surpassed in the whole field of learning"

The Prague Astronomical Clock

The 600 Years from the macula on Vimeo.
The Prague Astronomical Clock, built 602 years ago into the walls of the old Town Hall, expanded and rebuilt multiple times, tracks the sun, moon, zodiac, standard time, the twelve hour variable day, the calendar, and other variables, and features moving figues of the twelve apostles, cardinal virtues and vices, and animals.

For its 600th anniversary, the city of Prague put on this display.

(via The Long Now Foundation)

Zola Jesus at the Guggenheim

(via Pitchfork)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Deficit Math

I was recently asked the following question on Facebook by a high school classmate of mine:
In 2011 the fed gov collected $2.303 trillion in tax revenue. Interest on debt that year totaled $454.4 billion, mandatory spending (read entitlements required to be paid by law) totaled $2.025 trillion. So mandatory spending plus interest on debt exceeded total revenue by $176.4 billion, that is without one dollar being spent on discretionary gov (read military, DHS, FBI, CIA, education, energy, etc.). In 2012 the shortfall increased 43% to $251.8 billion. So what is BO going to do to fix this?
This is my answer:

Ok, so when we think about deficit reduction, I always like to start with a graph from the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities. ( Graph is here. and shows that there are, in 2012, three major factors driving the deficits: a war (mainly in AFPAK currently), the Bush tax cuts, and the economic downturn + economic recovery measures. So, the three things he should do is end the war(s) in AFPAK, end the Bush tax cuts (for everybody, or at least on the top earners), and do more stimulus in the form of infrastructure purchases (e.g., rebuilding after the hurricane). That last will push up the deficit in the close years, but shrinks the impact of the economic downturn overall. The remaining deficit is a rounding error.

Now, what has he done? He's moved toward an exit for most of the troops in AFPAK. He's pushing a jobs bill of some sort, which is a wait-and-see proposition. He could do nothing on the fiscal cliff and close a big chunk of the remaining deficit, but I suppose he & Congress will cut some sort of foolish deal on that. If we're lucky, they'll rearrange the defense cuts to fall on the programs the Pentagon has been trying to get rid of for a while now, and keep just the 3% tax hike above $250k, plus a similar bump on cap gains & dividends.

In the out years, past 2030, the biggest driver is expected to be healthcare costs, so the Obamacare health cost controls are a first try at reining those in--if healthcare keeps growing as it is, we're all in serious trouble. Social Security needs some rejiggering, ideally by adjusting the maximum payroll tax to whatever it would have been if they'd passed inflation-based increases like they were supposed to over the past 40 years.

Clement Briend

Clever combinations of photos projected onto trees from Clement Briend's Cambodian Trees project.

(via This Isn't Happiness)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Links for Later 11-13-12

  1. In which Snake Plisskin sends a postcard from Venice
  2. "Lumpers and hair-splitters"
  3. How Joshua Foer learned a language in 22 hours, and how you can too.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Do It With a Rock Star

You see, liberal America, what you have done to this country? ...and may I say, well done.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012


For those of you with a difficult-to-shop-for hunter of the undead on your Christmas list, here's a handy little gift guide. I'm a little surprised by how much of this is available on Amazon.

Also, flail!

Sunday, November 04, 2012

The Desert of the Real

Andrew Solomon's NYT article on the family life of prodigies has a lot of good material in it; it avoids a lot of the cliches about prodigies, while also avoiding the cliche about avoiding the cliches. This quote from pianist Ken Noda struck a particular chord, as it deals with the lifelong developmental challenges faced by anyone in their creative life:
“Young people like romance stories and war stories and good-and-evil stories and old movies because their emotional life mostly is and should be fantasy,” says Ken Noda, a great piano prodigy in his day who gave up public performance and now works at the Metropolitan Opera. “They put that fantasized emotion into their playing, and it is very convincing. I had an amazing capacity for imagining these feelings, and that’s part of what talent is. But it dries up, in everyone. That’s why so many prodigies have midlife crises in their late teens or early 20s. If our imagination is not replenished with experience, the ability to reproduce these feelings in one’s playing gradually diminishes.”
The difficulty faced by the families of prodigious children is how to balance feeding the talent against feeding the person who has the talent. I'm reminded of an article by Cynthia Gorney about Rafael Nadal (discussed elsewhere in BRS), which mentioned that his uncle trained him to be not just a great tennis player, but also a gentleman and decent human being, and that both of them were of the opinion that if you couldn't be the latter things, then being a great tennis player wouldn't be worth it. There has to be something that helps bridge across the desert.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Message from the Rosebud Nursing Home

"If you let the Republican voter suppression steal the election, we're gonna burn this motherf*cker down!"

Friday, October 26, 2012

Gorey's Miniature Manifesto

From a recent review of Edward Gorey's works in the LA Times:

In his letters to Peter Neumeyer, a university professor with whom he collaborated on three children's books, Gorey offered a mini-manifesto, "E. Gorey's Great Simple Theory About Art." Gorey being Gorey, his artistic credo could fit on the head of a pin. Simply put, it's "the theory ... that anything that is art ... is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else, and it's no good having one without the other, because if you just have the something it is boring and if you just have the something else it's irritating."

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Links for Later 10-23-12

  1. How to make xkcd-style graphs using R, javascript or python.
  2. How to save your kindle books from being deleted by Amazon.
  3. How Intrade manipulation provides a positive return to smart investors.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Letters from the Front

A grim letter published in the Washington Post from Afghanistan in the waning part of the war from all around good guy, 1st Lt. Adam Swartzbaugh:
“Whether we are winning a war is irrelevant in my platoon,” Swartzbaugh said in his letter to the editor that was posted in the newspaper’s full-page “Free For All” section on Saturday.

“What do my men and I consider a successful mission? It is when we have done something, anything, to further protect the lives of our soldiers, period,” Swartzbaugh said. “In so far as we are able to do this, my men will continue pushing themselves further and deeper in every dimension of the physical, psychological and spiritual -- to the very limits of war, and to the end of life.”

The Question Is

Can Mitt Romney close the deal tonight? This is his last chance to show the American people that he's going to be the best representative for America out in the world. We know Obama can do the job, but we don't have the answer to whether the Mittster can do any better; I think that he's another smirking plutocrat, but I'm prepared to be proved wrong. Let's see what happens tonight.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Contact Juggling

Akihiro Yanai does some wonderful contact work in this video.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Links for Later 10-16-12

  1. The Desert of the Real: when quantum finance shows up, things get weird
  2. Medical devices pipelined from academia to industry
  3. Why the tea party won't just die
  4. Vikram Pandit ousted at Citigroup. Citigroup stock still down 89% from peak.
  5. Art heist: Where was Thomas Crown at the time?
  6. William Carpenter interviewed by Days of Yore
  7. La Serrrata ("the closing"), the downfall of Venice, and the self-destructive impulses of the 1% by Chrystia Freeland

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

LP: The Mountain of Books

Those Dutch sure know how to build a library. Just look at it.

(via marginal revolution)

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Who Won the Debate?

If you believe that what is said is less important than how one looks when saying it, then clearly, Mitt Romney won the evening. It's a statement on the pundits that this was their nearly unanimous view. As far as it goes, Barack Obama needs to speak in short, concrete sentences, use periods at the end of sentences rather than dashes, and look like he's actually more interested in being reelected than the average voter is in reelecting him. It would also be helpful if Mr. Obama didn't betray Social Security in the course of the upcoming budget negotiations, as he did in the debate.

On the other hand, the candidate who is not Mr. Obama did the following:
  • Repudiated his own tax scheme;
  • Denied that Romneycare and Obamacare are virtually identical, which they are;
  • Claimed that his own healthcare plan has characteristics that it doesn't;
  • Developed amnesia over the past twelve months of his campaign;
  • Failed at basic arithmetic
And Mr. Obama got Mr. Romney to do all that by, as Paul Krugman puts it, "going for the capillaries."

If one looks at the content together with the optics, it is much less clear who won last night.

Friday, September 21, 2012

HP26: Devil Wears Prada Loft

Yes, I will take this loft featured in The Devil Wears Prada for only $5.2 million, thank you for asking. Everything a loft should be.
I am also willing to accept this fine house in Los Angeles. Whichever.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Register to Vote Here

Isn't that cool? You can register to vote via any blog, tumblr, or whatnot online. Like here. You can also get your own voter registration widget at the Obama for America website, even if you're voting for the other guy.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Zefiro Torna

Monteverdi's Zefiro Torna, as performed by L'Arpeggiata and Philip Jaroussky.

Friday, August 31, 2012


Can it be that I've forgotten to send you off to read Helen DeWitt's new short story excerpt? Well, wait no longer, and have a pound of seven year cheddar while you're reading. It is a lovely thing.


Photographer Joe Simon's timelapse of Rio De Janiero. Wish I was there.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

On the Shadows of Ideas

From a rough translation of Giordano Bruno's memory text, De Umbris Idearum. It's a big work in progress at this point. I'm sure someone with very good latin could make short work of it, but it's not easy to translate precisely. This is from the introductory dialog amongst Hermes Trismegistus, Philothimus (who represents Bruno), and Logifer (a pedant, representing Bruno's critics).

Continue freely; indeed, you know it is the same sun, the same art, that will both receive praise and also blame. That sorrowful night presents witches, toads, the basilisk, screech owls, and Plutonian rites, but [that day] activates the rooster, phoenix, swans, geese, eagles, rams and lions. When he’s in the East, creatures of darkness gather in their dens, while by his light, man and the creatures of the day come out to do their work. He invites them to this work, away from idleness. Heliotropes and lupines turn toward the sun, while the night flowers and herbs turn away. Rarefied vapors rise to form clouds, while more earthly vapors condense to form waters. Some shed a perpetual, continual light, others shine irregularly. The intellect teaches that they remain still, but the false sense tells us that they move. That which rises in this part of the rotating earth, sets in the Antipodes.  The same in the arctic: sometimes, things appear to circle from left to right will at other times appear to move vertically. In some hemicircles, they move quickly, while in the opposite, they move much more slowly. The land which appears nearby appears to be larger, while more distant lands (from our perspective) smaller than the others. The most southerly of the North lands is the most northerly of the South. For those who have the horizon at right angles, the left and the right will be of equal size, but they will be unequal for those who look obliquely. The same distributes the darkness and the light in equal measure in the region between two parallels, but differently at different times. In this, the divine house of Earth, we receive slanting sunbeams, instead of ones precisely vertical. The planets (which some believe to be lesser gods under a second prince) likewise receive varying light upon their bodies (which they call the light of conception), turning different faces to him from the apogee to the aux, by latitudes and intervals.  (Even so the Moon (which many among the philosophers think is a second Earth), turns a face to that light, while turning the other face into shadow, where the Earth interposes its sad shadow on a hemisphere of the Moon.
            The sun, therefore, while remaining the same forever, may also change its disposition, sometimes one way or another, depending on where one sits. Likewise this solar art, for ourselves, for other people, others yet to come, we believe that there may be differences in how it is received.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Long Run Income Redistribution

How American wealth was made, and unmade, over the past six deacdes, as shown by changing growth distributions in this graph by the Pew Research Center.

(via Brad DeLong)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Links for Later 8-22-12

  1. 10 useful command line tools.
  2. Tucker Max is in psychotherapy, takes yoga classes, has a steady girlfriend, and drinks kombucha. This is shocking, I guess.
  3. Noahpinion takes down Niall Ferguson's Newsweek cover story

"God's Little Shield", Witch Dunking and Todd Akin

Rachel Maddow connects the dots on the "legitimate rape" movement. Shorter version of Akin's argument: women get pregnant as a result of sinful desire, and are therefore complicit in their own rape. Disgusting. This is the official position of the Republican party as well.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy



Vi Hart talks about what do do in math class when you're not learning how to graph parabolas, why learning how to think is harder, yet more important than learning what to think, and why cardioids are cool.

(recommended to me by Carol Schumacher)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Links for Later 8-15-12

  1. Bruce Bartlett understands the Keynesian position: the correct medicine (stimulus) was delivered at half the proper dose.
  2. Paul Ryan is your annoying libertarian ex-boyfriend
  3. Barack Obama is a wizard
  4. Hungarian antisemitic rightwinger is actually Jewish
  5. Charlie Stross imagines future blackmail
  6. PSY dances Gangnam Style
  7. Joss Whedon is threatened by Mike Birbiglia. Who wouldn't be?
  8. Gore Vidal remembered
  9. Krugman: Ryan pick is about flattering our dumb media
  10. Jesse Jackson Jr. diagnosed with Bipolar II

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Mitch Was a Writer

Mitch Hedberg's advice for comedians: "Remember to write down any thoughts you have that are funny." (via Devour)

Wednesday, August 01, 2012


Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, also called "the tingles" and "head orgasm", has been getting a lot of attention over on Reddit. The phenomenon has also generated an entire genre of whispery videos that trigger the response in a subset of listeners. ASMR is described as an extremely pleasant sensation in response to certain stimuli. From Vice:
 Maria, aka GentleWhispering (she didn’t want me to use her last name), has been triggered by everything from accented whispers to scratching grainy surfaces to being tickled when she was in kindergarten. During a Skype conversation I had with her, she described ASMR as feeling like “bubbles in your head,” and compared it to getting a scalp massage, but the sensation is on the inside. She went on: “It’s like a little explosion, and then just little sparkles and little stars going down [your back]. Depending on the strength of the trigger, it might just go into the top of the spine of the shoulders, but sometimes it goes down to your arms and legs, and other parts. Mostly, if you get it in your leg, it’s really exciting!”
 When I watch the videos, they're very pleasant, but I don't quite get the full experience Maria and the Reddit group describe. Other people describe the triggering videos as "the most boring thing ever", which indicates that it's might be a hyperactive reward response to low intensity sensory input. Fascinating stuff--someone should do a study.

Monday, July 30, 2012

James McMurtry - We Can't Make It Here

Dr. Fadiman's Very Good Day

Dr. James Fadiman thinks that LSD is good for you, and he's got forty years of data to back him up. Tim Doody in The Morning News writes:
First things first: Fadiman defines a micro-dose as 10 micrograms of LSD (or one-fifth the usual dose of mushrooms). Because he cannot set up perfect lab conditions due to the likelihood of criminal prosecution, he has instead crafted a study in which volunteers self-administer and self-report. Which means that they must acquire their own supply of the Schedule 1 drug and separate a standard hit of 50 to 100 micrograms into micro-doses. (Hint: LSD is entirely water-soluble.)
...“Micro-dosing turns out to be a totally different world,” Fadiman extolled. “As someone said, the rocks don’t glow, even a little bit. But what many people are reporting is, at the end of the day, they say, ‘That was a really good day.’ You know, that kind of day when things kind of work. You’re doing a task you normally couldn’t stand for two hours, but you do it for three or four. You eat properly. Maybe you do one more set of reps. Just a good day. That seems to be what we’re discovering.”
...Word on the street is that Hofmann had also surmised that micro-doses of LSD would be a viable market alternative to Ritalin. It’s an intriguing claim. After all, if Fadiman had administered Ritalin to the scientists in his creativity study, they might have focused on their problems just as intently as they had on LSD, but they probably wouldn’t have had as many breakthroughs. Even as Ritalin boosts attention, it has a tendency to create tunnel vision, which, more often than not, stymies imagination.
“I just got a report from someone who did this for six weeks,” Fadiman said. “And his question to me was, ‘Is there any reason to stop?’” More laughter throughout the hall, another adjustment of bifocals.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Highest Jump

Felix Baumgartner completed a second ultrahigh skydive, this time from 18 miles up. For his next jump, he plans to break Joe Kittinger's 1960 record of 23 miles by jumping from a stratospheric baloon. On the way down, he expects to break the sound barrier.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Links for Later 7-25-12

  1. xkcd: a mole of moles
  2. Obama's abuse of secrecy
  3. Woz's rules of the road
  4. Little America discussed on NPR
  5. Do things at the last possible instant
  6. Hypnosis and the Stroop effect
  7. Using 3-D desktop printers for custom drugs, chemical reaction chambers
  8. Skull wallpaper
  9. McSweeney's parody Buzzfeed listicle recommendations, which Buzzfeed then actually produced
  10. The Warsaw Basilisk

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

How to Blog Anonymously

This is a repost of Brooke Magnanti's guide to blogging anonymously. It seems someone doesn't want her to post this (and has issued a takedown notice to that effect), so the best thing to do is distribute this all over the Internet. Take a copy for yourself.

How To Blog Anonymously (and how not to)

by Brooke Magnanti

Further to yesterday’s post, this is a list of thoughts prompted by a request from Linkmachinego on the topic of being an anonymous writer and blogger. Maybe not exactly a how- to (since the outcome is not guaranteed) as a post on things I did, things I should have done, and things I learned.

It’s not up to me to decide if you “deserve” to be anonymous. My feeling is, if you’re starting out as a writer and do not yet feel comfortable writing under your own name, that is your business and not mine. I also think sex workers should consider starting from a position of anonymity and decide later if they want to be out, please don’t be naive. Statistics I made up right now show 99 out of 100 people who claim ‘if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear’ are talking out of their arses.

The items in the list fall into three general categories: internet- based, legal and real-world tips, and interpersonal. Many straddle more than one of these categories. All three are important.

This is written for a general audience because most people who blog now do not have extensive technical knowledge, they just want to write and be read. That’s a good thing by the way. If you already know all of this, then great, but many people won’t. Don’t be sneery about their lack of prior knowledge. Bringing everyone up to speed on the technology is not the goal: clear steps you can use to help protect your identity from being discovered are.

Disclaimer: I’m no longer anonymous so these steps are clearly not airtight. Also there are other sources of information on the Web, some of which are more comprehensive and more current than my advice. I accept no responsibility for any outcome of following this advice. Please don’t use it to do illegal or highly sensitive things. Also please don’t use pseudonyms to be a dick.

This is also a work in progress. As I remember things or particular details, I’ll amend this post. If you have suggestions of things that should be added, let me know.

1. Don’t use Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail et al. for your mail.

You will need an email address to do things like register for blog accounts, Facebook, Twitter, and more. This email will have to be something entirely separate from your “real” email addresses. There are a lot of free options out there, but be aware that sending an email from many of them also sends information in the headers that could help identify you.

When I started blogging, I set up an email address for the blog with Hotmail. Don’t do this. Someone quickly pointed out the headers revealed where I worked (a very large place with lots of people and even more computers, but still more information than I was comfortable with). They suggested I use Hushmail instead, which I still use. Hushmail has a free option (though the inbox allocation is modest), strips out headers, and worked for me.

A caveat with this: if you are, say, a sex worker working in a place where that is not legal and using Hushmail, you could be vulnerable to them handing over your details to a third party investigating crimes. If you’re handling information some governments might consider embarrassing or sensitive, same. Google some alternatives: you’re looking for something secu re and encrypted.

There are a few common-sense tips you can follow to make it even safer. If you have to bring people you know in real life in on the secret, don’t use this email address for communicating with them even if only about matters related to your secret (and don’t use your existing addresses for that either). Example: I have one address for press and general interactions, one for things related to my accountant and money, and one for communicating with my agent, publisher, and solicitor. I’ve also closed and opened new accounts over the years when it seems “too many” people are getting hold of a particular address. Use different passwords for each, don’t make these passwords related to your personal information, and so on.

I unwisely left the Hotmail address going, and while I did not use it to send mail, I continued to read things that arrived there. That led to this failed attempt by the Sunday Times to out me. It was an easily dodged attempt but something I would have preferred to avoid.

Over the years I have had about two email account changes every year and have changed my mobile number five times (eventually, I just stopped having one). If you change email addresses it’s a good idea to send people you need to stay in contact with a mail from the old and the new address so they know it’s not someone else trying to impersonate you. And to have a password so you know the response is from the right person – a password you did not exchange via an email conversation, of course. Example: you might send an email to your editor from and from at the same time, and the one from new_address contains Codeword1. They respond with Codeword2, indicating they acknowledge the change.

It sounds silly, but people can and do scam personal info all the time. Often they do so by pretending to be in on a secret so someone reveals something they did not mean to say. Play it safe. It can feel a stupidly cloak-and-dagger at first, but you soon get over it.

You can register internet domains while staying anonymous but I never did. Some people registered domains for me (people I didn’t know in person). This led to a couple of instances of them receiving harassment when the press suspected they were me. In particular Ian Shircore got a bit of unwanted attention this way.

Because all I was ever doing was a straight-up blog, not having a registered domain that I had control over was fine. Your needs may be different. I am not a good source for advice on how to do that. But just in case you might be thinking “who would bother looking there?” read about how faux escort Alexa DiCarlo was unmasked. This is what happens when you don’t cover your tracks.

2. Don’t use a home internet connection, work internet connection, etc.

Email won’t be the only way you might want to communicate with people. You may also want to leave comments on other blogs and so forth. Doing this and other ways of using the Web potentially exposes your IP address, which could be unique and be used to locate you.

Even if you don’t leave comments just visiting a site can leave traces behind. Tim Ireland recently used a simple method to confirm his suspicion of who the “Tabloid Troll” twitter account belonged to. By comparing the IP address of someone who clicked on to a link going to the Bloggerheads site with the IP address of an email Dennis Rice sent, a link was made. If you go to the trouble of not using your own connection, also make sure you’re not using the same connection for different identities just minutes apart. Don’t mix the streams.

The timing of everything as it happened was key to why the papers did not immediately find out who I was. The old blog started in 2003, when most press still had to explain to their audience what a blog actually was. It took a while for people to notice the writing, so the mistakes I made early on (blogging from home and work, using Hotmail) had long been corrected by the time the press became interested.

Today, no writer who aims to stay anonymous should ever assume a grace period like that. It also helped that once the press did become interested, they were so convinced not only that Belle was not really a hooker but also that she was one of their own – a previously published author or even journalist – that they never looked in the right place. If they’d just gone to a London blogmeet and asked a few questions about who had pissed off a lot of people and was fairly promiscuous, they’d have had a plausible shortlist in minutes.

After I moved from Kilburn to Putney, I was no longer using a home internet connection – something I should have done right from the beginning. I started to use internet cafes for posting and other activities as Belle. This offers some security… but be wary of using these places too often if there is a reason to think someone is actively looking for you. It’s not perfect.

Also be wary if you are using a laptop or other machine provided by your workplace, or use your own laptop to log in to work servers (“work remotely”). I’ve not been in that situation and am not in any way an expert on VPNs , but you may want to start reading about it here and do some googling for starters. As a general principle, it’s probably wise not to do anything on a work laptop that could get you fired, and don’t do anything that could get you fired while also connected to work remotely on your own machine.

3. There is software available that can mask your IP address. There are helpful add-ons that can block tracking software.

I didn’t use this when I was anonymous, but if I was starting as an anonymous blogger now, I would download Tor and browse the Web and check email through their tools.

If you do use Tor or other software to mask your IP address, don’t then go on tweeting about where your IP address is coming from today! I’ve seen people do this. Discretion fail.

I also use Ghostery now to block certain tracking scripts from web pages. You will want to look into something similar. Also useful are Adblocker, pop-up blockers, things like that. They are simple to download and use and you might like to use them anyway even if you’re not an anonymous blogger. A lot of sites track your movements and you clearly don’t want that.

4. Take the usual at-home precautions.

Is your computer password-protected with a password only you know? Do you clear your browser history regularly? Use different passwords for different accounts? Threats to anonymity can come from people close to you. Log out of your blog and email accounts when you’re finished using them, every time. Have a secure and remote backup of your writing. Buy a shredder and use it. Standard stuff.

Sometimes the files you send can reveal things about yourself, your computer, and so on. When sending manuscripts to my agent and editor, they were usually sent chapter by chapter as flat text files – not Word documents – with identifying data stripped. The usual method I used to get things to them was to upload to a free service that didn’t require a login, such as Sendspace. When writing articles for magaznes and papers, the text was typically appended straight into the body of the email, again avoiding attachments with potentially identifying information. This can be a little irritating… having to archive your writing separately, not altogether convenient to work on. But for the way I worked, usually not sharing content with editors until it was close to the final draft, it was fine.

When exchanging emails with my agent and editor, we never talked about actual meeting times and locations and threw a few decoy statements in, just in case. Since it has been recently revealed that Times journalists were trying to hack bloggers’ email addresses after all, in retrospect, this seems to have been a good thing.

Another thing I would do is install a keystroke logger on your own machine. By doing this I found out in 2004 that someone close to me was spying on me when they were left alone with my computer. In retrospect what I did about it was not the right approach. See also item 7.

5. Be careful what you post.

Are you posting photos? Exif data can tell people, among other things, where and when a picture was taken, what it was taken with, and more. I never had call to use it because I never posted photos or sound, but am told there are loads of tools that can wipe this Exif data from your pictures (here’s one).

The content of what you post can be a giveaway as well. Are you linking to people you know in real life? Are you making in-jokes or references to things only a small group of people will know about? Don’t do that.

If possible, cover your tracks. Do you have a previous blog under a known name? Are you a contributor to forums where your preferred content and writing style are well-known? Can you edit or delete these things? Good, do that.

Personally, I did not delete everything. Partly this was because the world of British weblogging was so small at the time – a few hundred popular users, maybe a couple thousand people blogging tops? – that I thought the sudden disappearance of my old blog coinciding with the appearance of an unrelated new one might be too much of a coincidence. But I did let the old site go quiet for a bit before deleting it, and edited archived entries.

Keep in mind however that The Wayback Machine means everything you have written on the web that has been indexed still exists. And it’s searchable. Someone who already has half an idea where to start looking for you won’t have too much trouble finding your writing history. (UPDATE: someone alerted me that it’s possible to get your own sites off Wayback by altering the robots.txt file – and even prevent them appearing there in the first place – and to make a formal request for removal using reasons listed here. This does not seem to apply to sites you personally have no control over unless copyright issues are involved.) If you can put one more step between them and you… do it.

6. Resist temptation to let too many people in.

If your writing goes well, people may want to meet you. They could want to buy you drinks, give you free tickets to an opening. Don’t say yes. While most people are honest in their intentions, some are not. And even the ones who are may not have taken the security you have to keep your details safe. Remember, no one is as interested in protecting your anonymity as you will be.

Friends and family were almost all unaware of my secret – both the sex work and the writing. Even my best friend (A4 from the books) didn’t know. ;

I met very few people “as” Belle. There were some who had to meet me: agent, accountant, editor. I never went to the Orion offices until after my identity became known. I met Billie Piper, Lucy Prebble, and a couple of writers during the pre-production of Secret Diary at someone’s house, but met almost no one else involved with the show. Paul Duane and Avril MacRory met me and were absolutely discreet. I went to the agent’s office a few times but never made an appointment as Belle or in my real name. Most of the staff there had no idea who I was. Of these people who did meet me almost none knew my real name, where I lived, where I was from, my occupation. Only one (the accountant) knew all of that – explained below under point 9. And if I could have gotten away with him never seeing a copy of my passport, I damn well would have done.

The idea was that if people don’t know anything they can’t inadvertently give it away. I know that all of the people listed above were absolutely trustworthy. I still didn’t tell them anything a journalist would have considered useful.

When I started blogging someone once commented that my blog was a “missed opportunity” because it didn’t link to an agency website or any way of booking my services. Well, duh. I didn’t want clients to meet me through the blog! If you are a sex worker who wants to preserve a level of pseudonymity and link your public profile to your work, Amanda Brooks has the advice you need. Not me.

Other sources like JJ Luna write about how to do things like get and use credit cards not tied to your name and address. I’ve heard Entropay offer ‘virtual’ credit cards that are not tied to your credit history, although they can’t be used with any system that requires address verification. This could be useful even for people who are not involved in sex work.

Resisting temptation sometimes means turning down something you’d really like to do. The short-term gain of giving up details for a writing prize or some immediate work may not be worth the long-term loss of privacy. I heard about one formerly anonymous blogger who was outed after giving their full name and address to a journalist who asked for it when they entered a competition. File under: how not to stay anonymous.

7. Trust your intuition.

I have to be careful what I say here. In short, my identity became known to a tabloid paper and someone whom I had good reason not to trust (see item 4) gave them a lot of information about me.

When your intuition tells you not to trust someone, LISTEN TO IT. The best security in the world fails if someone props open a door, leaves a letter on the table, or mentally overrides the concern that someone who betrayed you before could do so again. People you don’t trust should be ejected from your life firmly and without compromise. A “let them down easy” approach only prolongs any revenge they might carry out and probably makes it worse. The irony is that as a call girl I relied on intuition and having strong personal boundaries all the time… but failed to carry that ability over into my private life. If there is one thing in my life I regret, the failure to act on my intuition is it.

As an aside if you have not read The Gift of Fear already, get it and read it.

See also point 9: if and when you need people to help you keep the secret don’t make it people already involved in your private life. Relationships can cloud good judgement in business decisions.

There is a very droll saying “Two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead.” It’s not wrong. I know, I know. Paranoid. Hard not to be when journos a few years later are digging through the rubbish of folks who met you exactly once when you were sixteen. Them’s the breaks.

8. Consider the consequences of success.

If you find yourself being offered book deals or similar, think it through. Simply by publishing anonymously you will become a target. Some people assume all anonymous writers “want” to be found, and the media in particular will jump through some very interesting hurdles to “prove” anything they write about you is in the public interest.

In particular, if you are a sex worker, and especially if you are a sex worker who is visible/bookable through your site, please give careful consideration to moving out of that sphere. Even where sex for money is legal it is still a very stigmatised activity. There are a number of people who do not seem to have realised this, and the loss of a career when they left the “sex-pos” bubble was probably something of a shock. I’m not saying don’t do it – but please think long and hard about the potential this has to change your life and whether you are fully prepared to be identified this way forever. For every Diablo Cody there are probably dozens of Melissa Petros. For every Melissa Petro there are probably hundreds more people with a sex industry past who get quietly fired and we don’t ever hear from them.

If I knew going in to the first book deal what would happen, I probably would have said no. I’m glad I didn’t by the way – but realistically, my life was stressful enough at that point and I did not fully understand what publishing would add to that. Not many bloggers had mainstream books at that point (arguably none in the UK) so I didn’t have anyone else’s experience to rely on. I really had no idea about what was going to happen. The things people wrote about me then were mainly untrue and usually horrendous. Not a lot has changed even now. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t have an emotional effect.

Writing anonymously and being outed has happened often enough that people going into it should consider the consequences. I’m not saying don’t do it if you risk something, but be honest with yourself about the worst possible outcome and whether you would be okay with that.

9. ; Enlist professional help to get paid and sign contracts.

Having decided to write a book, I needed an agent. The irony of being anonymous was that while I let as few people in on it as possible, at some point I was going to have to take a leap of faith and let in more. Mil Millington emailed me to recommend Patrick Walsh, saying he was one of the few people in London who can be trusted. Mil was right.

Patrick put me on to my accountant (who had experience of clients with, shall we say, unusual sources of income). From there we cooked up a plan so that contracts could be signed without my name ever gracing a piece of paper. Asking someone to keep a secret when there’s a paper trail sounds like it should be possible but rarely is. Don’t kid yourself, there is no such thing as a unbreakable confidentiality agreement. Asking journalists and reviewers to sign one about your book is like waving a red rag to a bull. What we needed was a few buffers between me and the press.

With Patrick and Michael acting as directors, a company was set up - Bizrealm. I was not on the paperwork as a director so my name never went on file with Companies House. Rather, with the others acting as directors, signing necessary paperwork, etc., Patrick held a share in trust for me off of which dividends were drawn and this is how I got paid. I may have got some of these details wrong, by the way – keep in mind, I don’t deal with Bizrealm’s day-to-day at all.

There are drawbacks to doing things this way: you pay for someone’s time, in this case the accountant, to create and administer the company. You can not avoid tax and lots of it. (Granted, drawing dividends is more tax-efficient, but still.) You have to trust a couple of people ABSOLUTELY. I’d underline this a thousand times if I could. Michael for instance is the one person who always knew, and continues to know, everything about my financial and personal affairs. Even Patrick doesn’t know everything.

There are benefits though, as well. Because the money stays mainly in the company and is not paid to me, it gets eked out over time, making tax bills manageable, investment more constant, and keeping me from the temptation to go mad and spend it.

I can’t stress enough that you might trust your friends and family to the ends of the earth, but they should not be the people who do this for you. Firstly, because they can be traced to you (they know you in a non-professional way). Secondly, because this is a very stressful setup and you need the people handling it to be on the ball. As great as friends and family are that is probably not the kind of stress you want to add to your relationship. I have heard far too many stories of sex workers and others being betrayed by ex- partners who knew the details of their business dealings to ever think that’s a good idea.

So how do you know you can trust these people? We’ve all heard stories of musicians and other artists getting ripped off by management, right? All I can say is instinct. It would not have been in Patrick’s interest to grass me, since as my agent he took a portion of my earnings anyway, and therefore had financial as well as personal interest in protecting that. If he betrayed me he would also have suffered a loss of reputation that potentially outweighed any gain. Also, as most people who know him will agree, he’s a really nice and sane human being. Same with Michael.

If this setup sounds weirdly paranoid, let me assure you that journalists absolutely did go to Michael’s office and ask to see the Bizrealm paperwork, and Patrick absolutely did have people going through his bins, trying to infiltrate his office as interns, and so on. Without the protection of being a silent partner in the company those attempts to uncover me might have worked.

I communicate with some writers and would-be writers who do not seem to have agents. If you are serious about writing, and if you are serious about staying anonymous, get an agent. Shop around, follow your instinct, and make sure it’s someone you can trust. Don’t be afraid to dump an agent, lawyer, or anyone else if you don’t trust them utterly. They’re professionals and shouldn’t take it personally.

10. Don’t break the (tax) law.

Journalists being interested in your identity is one thing. What you really don’t want is the police or worse, the tax man, after you. Pay your taxes and try not to break the law if it can be helped. If you’re a sex worker blogging about it, get an accountant who has worked with sex workers before – this is applicable even if you live somewhere sex work is not strictly legal. Remember, Al Capone went down for tax evasion. Don’t be like Al. If you are a non-sex-work blogger who is earning money from clickthroughs and affiliates on your site, declare this income.

In summer 2010 the HMRC started a serious fraud investigation of me. It has been almost two years and is only just wrapping up, with the Revenue finally satisfied that not only did I declare (and possibly overdeclare) my income as a call girl, but that there were no other sources of income hidden from them. They have turned my life and financial history upside down to discover next to nothing new about me. This has been an expensive and tedious process. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like had I not filed the relevant forms, paid the appropriate taxes, and most of all had an accountant to deal with them!

Bottom line, you may be smart – I’m pretty good with numbers myself - – but people whose job it is to know about tax law, negotiating contracts, and so on will be better at that than you are. Let them do it. They are worth every penny.

11. Do interviews with care.

Early interviews were all conducted one of two ways: over email (encrypted) or over an IRC chatroom from an anonymising server (I used xs4all). This was not ideal from their point of view, and I had to coach a lot of people in IRC which most of them had never heard of. But again, it’s worth it, since no one in the press will be as interested in protecting your identity as you are. I hope it goes without saying, don’t give out your phone number.

12. Know when les jeux sont faits.

In November 2009 – 6 years after I first started blogging anonymously – my identity was revealed.

As has been documented elsewhere, I had a few heads-ups that something was coming, that it was not going to be nice, and that it was not going to go away. We did what we could to put off the inevitable but it became clear I only had one of two choices: let the Mail on Sunday have first crack at running their sordid little tales, or pre-empt them.

While going to the Sunday Times – the same paper that had forcibly outed Zoe Margolis a few years earlier, tried to get my details through that old Hotmail address, and incorrectly fingered Sarah Champion as me – was perhaps not the most sensitive choice, it was for me the right move. Patrick recommended that we contact an interviewer who had not been a Belle-believer: if things were going to be hard, best get that out of the way up front.

So that is that. It’s a bit odd how quickly things have changed. When I started blogging I little imagined I would be writing books, much less something like this. Being a kind of elder statesman of blogging (or cantankerous old grump if you prefer) is not an entirely comfortable position and one that is still new to me. But it is also interesting to note how little has changed: things that worked in the early 2000s have value today. The field expanded rapidly but the technology has not yet changed all that much.

As before, these ideas do not constitute a foolproof way to protect your identity. All writers – whether writing under their own names or not – should be aware of the risks they may incur by hitting ‘publish’. I hope this post at least goes some way to making people think about how they might be identified, and starts them on a path of taking necessary (and in many cases straightforward) precautions, should they choose to be anonymous.

How To Blog Anonymously (and how not to) by Brooke Magnanti

Monday, July 23, 2012

What color is the sky?

What did Homer mean by "wine-dark sea" and why was that the same color as oxen? Why is blue the last color to enter a language, and when did a linguist's daughter change her term for the sky? Radiolab discusses these issues here.

Color perception is a weird, weird thing.

(via kottke)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Links for Later 7-16-12

  1. Tattoos by Xoil
  2. Joss Whedon interviewed at ComiCon
  3. Donald Sobol, who wrote Encyclopedia Brown mysteries, died today
  4. More on the Ingeborg Bachman prize

The Alchemists

John Cusack interviews Phil Stutz and Barry Michels about The Tools here, here and here.

The Ingeborg Bachman Prize

"Everyone is just waiting for someone to eat their manuscript again," said Doris Moser
German literary competitions are more lively than those of other countries. Discuss.

People cut themselves with razor blades, run from the stage, consume their books. Sounds like a fine old time.

 (via Bookslut)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Dark Galaxy

Scientists have directly observed starless dark galaxies for the first time, thanks to more powerful telescopes and one extremely bright quasar.

Links for Later 7-12-12

  1. To Fly: Steve McCurry's photo essay on reading

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Thought of the Day

James Altucher's resume may show a lot of wreckage, but it also shows that he gets out of bed every morning and gets in a fight. That's a good thing.

Steven Pressfield on overcoming Resistance

Overcome your Resistance (the inner distraction from the goal) by Turning Pro (do your work regardless). This applies to writer's block or any form of procraastination.

Eugene Gendlin on Focusing

Eugene Gendlin gives an introduction to focusing and the felt sense concept in 2000.

Shadow Work and the Writer's Block

"I can't write."
"I want you to write a page. Think you could do that for me?"
"Can it be bad?"
"I'd like it to be very bad."
-Ruby Sparks (2012)
You have a first world problem: you can't write.  People with anger management issues, who beat their family and kick their dog have bigger things to worry about. You, however, are a well-socialized person who plays well with others. This is why you have writer's block. Your internal editor has got the upper hand over your muse, the productive, creative part of yourself.

Alice Flaherty's research on creativity discusses this imbalance between the frontal lobe (executive functions and judgement) and temporal lobes (generation, association and creative impulses). In temporal lobe epilepsy and bipolar disorder cases, where the temporal lobe is unusually activated, there's a radical opening up of writing, resulting in endless pages of writing, sketches and other expression. In balance, writng happens in what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a flow state--naturally, pleasurably, continuously and without effort.

Under subclinical blocked conditions, the best advice seems to be Anne Lamotte's: write a shitty first draft, and turn down the volume on your inner critic. Write something intentionally bad, or lower your standards so that just writing is the success. Phil Stutz and Barry Michels take a similar approach with The Tools,  but with a Jungian angle; they recommend inviting your Shadow into the creative process with you.

In Jungian terms, the Shadow is that part of your self that has all the traits you'd like to do away with. It's the version of you that got picked last in dodgeball (everyone remembers being picked last, right up to the captain of the football team, the head cheerleader, the class president). This is the part of you that you try to hide, but it's also the part of you that generates the creativity--because it's the vulnerable part, and because it's the part that you yourself are criticizing. So, performing active visualization and personification on this part or version of yourself allows you to do several things: first, it makes this part more vividly real for you, drawing more attention and resources toward this aspect of yourself relative to the inner critic, producing stronger, better defined sensations and reactions around this inner component. Second, by seeing this part of you as a person, you are expanding the ways for you to relate to it--we have a lot of mental equipment for relating to other human beings, and for interpreting phenomena as if they were produced by a thinking being--so it is therefore easier to envision a broader variety of interactions with an inner component. Third, it allows us to recast our conscious mind as a Hero figure, protective of the Shadow, rather than critical of it. In myths and legends, when we make this shift to become an ally of the Shadow, it changes from being the ugly monster we're disgusted with, to being luminous and beautiful: the Shadow becomes the Muse, the creative spirit.

All of this may sound a bit woo-woo mystical, but as I said above, it's a personified version of dealing with the psychological structures that you, I and everyone else experience, however we experience them. If you'd rather deal with the situation as just inner sensations or biological processes, that works as well, but the language is more technical.

Below is a roundtable discussion about disorders of writing (hyper- and hypo-graphia) held at the Philoctetus Center with Alice Flaherty, Jonathan Lethem, Pedro Reyes, and others:


Flaherty, AW "Frontotemporal and Dopaminergic Control of Idea Generation and Creative Drive." Journal of Comparative Neurology. 2005 December 5; 493(1): 147–153.

Flaherty, AW The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain. 2004, Mariner Books.

Stutz, P and Michels B The Tools: Transform Your Problems into Courage, Confidence, and Creativity 2012, Spiegel & Grau.