I have never attended a computing convention, but thanks to YouTube I have watched a lot of the talks which take place at them. Sometimes I watch them because I’ve required precise technical information about a subject for my day job and sometimes I watch them out of curiosity. !!Con (Bang Bang Con) is a curiosity. Very little of what is discussed has any immediate relevance to my profession, which is great.
I’m going to preface the three talks I’m sharing as talks which I learned a lot *and* enjoyed the hell out of the weird enthusiasm for fringe topics. !!Con is literally the best at combining an energetic sense of wonder at finding the cool shit computers can and also give you a sense of understanding at the reveal mystery.
There are thirty-one videos to choose from. I haven’t watched them all, yet, but here are three of my favourites so far.
(And I’m not sure what the selection criteria for favourite is.)
“What Alien Invaders, Birds, and Computer Simulations have in Common: Flocking!!
Real flocks aren’t what they’re like in the movies. You’ve probably seen flocking behavior in The Avengers, the latest Star Trek movie, or even in the Ender’s Game books. Flocks are groups of individuals, usually birds (or invading aliens when it comes to Sci-Fi), that are collectively moving together. The flocks in movies show individuals forming complex patterns, but they’re all easily taken down by targeting a centralized point of command. In reality, flocking behavior is a lot simpler and there doesn’t need to be any coordination between individuals–that means your favorite protagonists probably wouldn’t have won when they came up against flocks!”
So this is a great talk because there’s an interesting behavior being explored here. It’s also a lovely demonstration of a person exploring a question with a tool they know well, but I have literally no concept of using. Jan takes the flocking behavior we’ve seen in films and peels back the underlying processes behind shoals of fish and flocks of birds in a neat way which allows for exploration.
DHCP: IT’S MOSTLY YELLING!! by Mindy Preston
“The Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP to its friends) is the magic by which your laptop knows how to get to Twitter on a brand new network about which it knows nothing. DHCP can tell your computer what its address should be, and where it should go to connect out to other networks. It can also tell your laptop weird stuff, like that it should run all the traffic through a proxy you’ve never heard of!! IT ALSO WORKS MOSTLY BY YELLING!”
One facet of !!Con which I love is the short topics on the hidden things which are everywhere. DHCP is one of those ubiquitous things that having an understanding of (however limited in my case) makes living in the contemporary world a little bit less scary. Are you having problems with a WiFi router in a crowded place? Well there’s a chance that it has ran out of IP addresses to assign you via DHCP. This talk involves performative yelling and a little bit of malicious activity.
HDR Photography in Microsoft Excel?! by Kevin Chen
“Have you ever taken a photo with areas that are too bright or too dark? As any photographer will tell you, high dynamic range photography is the right way to solve your problem. And, as any businessperson will tell you, Microsoft Excel is the right platform to implement your solution.
“In this talk, I’ll explain the algorithm from one of the foundational papers about HDR imaging ― no prior image processing knowledge required. Turns out, it’s just a system of linear equations! So, obviously, the next step is to implement HDR in a spreadsheet. Because we can. The end result reveals how this complicated-sounding algorithm boils down to a few simple ideas.”
At seven minutes fifty seconds when Kevin says, “So that’s the first step to turning Excel into an image editor,” your head will probably explode.
When I first saw the title for this I was initially dismissive of how interesting I’d find it. I don’t really do Excel or spreadsheets. However, I watched the talk this morning with my coffee and am very much prepared to admit I was wrong. This is both a very clever and super cool way of demonstrating how high dynamic range imaging. 10/10 would recommend.
I’d like to make a small observation regarding the reactions to the Shadow Clarke
Award that I’ve seen on social media. More time on Reddit and Twitter has been
spent voicing opposition to the shadow jury for viewing some of the Clarke Award
novels through the lens of commercial vs non-commercial. Many bytes have been
expended telling the shadow jury that this is a bad distinction to draw, with the
possible subtext that they shouldn’t think this way.
My opinion on if commercial vs non-commercial is a good (read: interesting) lens
to review the shortlist with is that it’s simply a device to filter preconceived
notions. I don’t presume that any of the jury take it to be the only critical
sieve available to them. There are surely other dialectic opposites they will
have considered using or will use in future reviews. As critical knives go, it’s
sharp, but also clumsy. A meat clever rather than a scalpel. Good for getting
the joints off the beast and dividing the parts into neat piles before proper
But I haven’t read all of the shadow panel’s reviews yet and they haven’t yet
published anything apart from a heavily edited conversation, so I may be proved
to be wrong.
And of course, audience participation is to be encouraged, but we should let
the project run its course before starting our dissections, least we vivisect
the subject to death.
I will end by saying that it is right that we consider it crass to send author’s
unsolicited negative reviews of their work. It should also be considered equally
crass to tell a critic what to write, to think, in their reviews while they are
still writing them. I say this not to close down conversation or opinion.
Everyone is free to disagree with everyone else. However, the words we write can
change the reader of those words. If we accept that, then it’s worth considering
in these discussions why we are attempting to drive that change. Is it to add
another opinion or is it an attempt to make someone else think the same as you?