We all know the feeling. You're sleepless in the sad hours of the night or stumbling around early on a hazy weekend morning in need of something to read, and that pile of unread books just isn't cutting it. Why not take a break from the fire hose of Twitter and RSS and check out our weekly roundup of essential writing from around the web about technology, culture, media, and the future? Sure, it's one more thing you can feel guilty about sitting in your Instapaper queue, but it's better than pulling in vain on your Twitter list again.
On writers' desktops
With computers as important to writers of today as typewriters were to Hemingway's generation, a new series from The Guardian finds writers showing off their digital desktops.
The Guardian: Tom McCarthy - Tom McCarthy: My desktop
I was a guest at Trinity College Dublin recently, and there was a talk, the night before my own, on Darwin's influence on Joyce, given by a "genetic critic". These guys look at progressive handwritten draft phases of literary texts, how they change from one stage to the next, and correlate these with correspondence and notebooks and so on. So you can see exactly when Joyce read Darwin, and then how phrases like "ouragan of spaces" find their way into the Wake manuscript. It's very interesting. Afterwards I was chatting with the speaker and cockily asked him: "So what are you going to do with me, then?" ie with my generation, given that there'll be little or no paper trail. He said: "Dude, we have software that can reconstruct every keystroke you made since the beginning of time – MacBook, floppy discs, the lot."
In case you missed it earlier today, Wired traces the history of the Bitcoin digital currency from its research paper-origins to its peak value this summer and present state.
Wired: Benjamin Wallace - The Rise and Fall of Bitcoin
The idea of digital money—convenient and untraceable, liberated from the oversight of governments and banks—had been a hot topic since the birth of the Internet. Cypherpunks, the 1990s movement of libertarian cryptographers, dedicated themselves to the project. Yet every effort to create virtual cash had foundered.
On smart cities
Urban interface designer and former Nokia head of design direction, Adam Greenfield gives a five part overview to current trends in urban development, connected devices, and the potential and dangers of our developing "smart cities."
Adam Greenfield's Speedbird: Adam Greenfield - Wired "Change Accelerator" posts, in convenient single-dose form
The interest in what happens at the intersection of the urban and the technological is natural — and possibly even inevitable, given the convergence of two seemingly ineluctable trends. The first is the ongoing urbanization of our planet. There’s an oft-quoted observation from the statisticians of the United Nations Population Division that the end of 2008 marked the first moment in human history at which more than half of us lived in cities. In the wake of this finding, it’s reasonable to argue that henceforth any consideration of the human is necessarily a consideration of the urban…and vice versa. We are apparently a citying species.
On Facebook games
MacMillan and Stone look at the economics behind Facebook "social" games like FarmVille and Mafia Wars and find that Zynga and other developers spend an extraordinary amount on buying new users.
BusinessWeek: Douglas MacMillan and Brad Stone - In Some Virtual Worlds, the Thrill Is Gone
Typically, software makers get about 40 percent to 70 percent of their players through ads, and spend between 25¢ to $1.50 for each of those users, according to Kontagent’s Williams. For a game like Sims Social, which has reached more than 10 million daily users, EA may have spent at least $10 million on marketing, he says.
Vance and Stone profile data mining software company Palantir — yes, named after the Lord of the Ring's seeing stones — which boasts a customer list including the FBI, CIA, US Defense Department, and much more.
Bloomberg BusinessWeek: Ashlee Vance and Brad Stone - Palantir, the War on Terror's Secret Weapon
Palantir has been used to find suspects in a case involving the murder of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent, and to uncover bombing networks in Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. "It’s like plugging into the Matrix," says a Special Forces member stationed in Afghanistan who requested anonymity out of security concerns. "The first time I saw it, I was like, ‘Holy crap. Holy crap. Holy crap.’ "
On the iPhone 4S camera
If you're still considering dropping your point-and-shoot for an iPhone 4S, ars technica offers a thorough shooting test with comparison shots from the Galaxy SII, Canon 20D, and Olympus XZ-1.
ars technica: Chris Foresman - Can the iPhone 4S replace a "real" digital camera? Ars investigates
Still, we here at Ars have received plenty of questions to the effect of, "can the iPhone 4S replace a 'real' camera?" That's actually a hard question to answer, because individual needs vary widely. Would a professional photographer replace her trusty DSLR with an iPhone 4S? No. But, might a casual snap shooter replace a pocket camera with an iPhone 4S? It's pretty likely.
Have any favorites that you'd like to see included in next week's edition? Send them along to @thomashouston or share in the comments below.