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“A computer once beat me at chess, but it was no match for me at kick boxing”*…

 

J. Presper Eckert, foreground left, and John W. Mauchly, leaning against pole, are pictured with the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946. Mauchly and Eckert were the masterminds behind ENIAC, arguably the first modern computer. When it was fully operational, ENIAC filled up a room 30 x 50 feet and weighed 50 tons. Every second it was on, it used enough electricity to power a typical Philadelphia home for a week and a half.

 

The ENIAC– or least a good bit of it– has been saved…

Eccentric billionaires are tough to impress, so their minions must always think big when handed vague assignments. Ross Perot’s staffers did just that in 2006, when their boss declared that he wanted to decorate his Plano, Texas, headquarters with relics from computing history. Aware that a few measly Apple I’s and Altair 880’s wouldn’t be enough to satisfy a former presidential candidate, Perot’s people decided to acquire a more singular prize: a big chunk of ENIAC, the “Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer.” The ENIAC was a 27-ton, 1,800-square-foot bundle of vacuum tubes and diodes that was arguably the world’s first true computer. The hardware that Perot’s team diligently unearthed and lovingly refurbished is now accessible to the general public for the first time, back at the same Army base where it almost rotted into oblivion…

Read the whole story– and see more photos of computing, v1.0– at “How the World’s First Computer Was Rescued From the Scrap Heap.”

* Emo Philips

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As we praise the preservationists, we might recall that it was on this date in 1967 that Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Antony Hewish observed the first pulsar– “pulsating radio star.”  A highly-magnetized, rotating neutron star, a pulsar emits a beam of electromagnetic radiation that can only be detected on Earth when it is being beamed in our direction (so seems, from Earth’s vantage, to be pulsing).  Pulsars have short, regular rotational periods, so produce the pulses that we detect at very precise intervals.

Schematic view of a pulsar. The sphere in the middle represents the neutron star, the curves indicate the magnetic field lines, the protruding cones represent the emission beams and the green line represents the axis on which the star rotates.

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Written by LW

November 28, 2014 at 1:01 am

“Everything is relative except relatives, and they are absolute”*…

 

 click here for larger version

Thanksgiving is upon us, so many American readers will be gathering as clans.  Thankfully, our friends at Flowing Data have come up with a handy graphic reference to help us place and navigate those confusing familial ties.  As they note (quoting Wikipedia), there is an underlying mathematical logic to it all…

There is a mathematical way to identify the degree of cousinship shared by two individuals. In the description of each individual’s relationship to the most recent common ancestor, each “great” or “grand” has a numerical value of 1. The following examples demonstrate how this is applied.

Example: If person one’s great-great-great-grandfather is person two’s grandfather, then person one’s “number” is 4 (great + great + great + grand = 4) and person two’s “number” is 1 (grand = 1). The smaller of the two numbers is the degree of cousinship. The two people in this example are first cousins. The difference between the two people’s “numbers” is the degree of removal. In this case, the two people are thrice (4 — 1 = 3) removed, making them first cousins three times removed.

More at “Chart of Cousins.”

* Alfred Stieglitz

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As we pass the gravy, we might recall that it was on this date in 1912 that successful businessman Sherwood Anderson, then 36, left wife, family, and job in Elyria, Ohio, to become a writer.  A novelist and short story writer, he’s best-known for the short story sequence Winesburg, Ohio, which launched his career, and for the novel Dark Laughter, his only bestseller.  But his biggest impact was probably his formative influence on the next generation of American writers– William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Thomas Wolfe, among others– who cited Anderson as an important inspiration and model.  (Indeed, Anderson was instrumental in gaining publication for Faulkner and Hemingway.)

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“Now I know what a ghost is. Unfinished business, that’s what”*…

 

Pearl Curran

 

In early 20th-century, in  St. Louis, Pearl Curran claimed to have conjured a long-dead New England puritan named Patience Worth through a Ouija board.  Although mostly unknown today, the resulting books, poems, and plays that Worth “dictated” to Curran earned great praise in their day.  Ed Simon tells the story of the curious and nearly forgotten literary fruits of a “ghost” and her ghostwriter, and ponders their significance.

… there is much literary merit in Curran’s work – so why then this neglect? The bizarre origin of the writings shouldn’t be an impediment to a reasoned study of their structural qualities. After all, William Butler Yeats attributed several of his lyrics to a spirit named Leo Africanus whom he encountered through the use of a Ouija board while a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Without suggesting that the writings of Curran and Yeats are of similar artistic value, it would seem that dismissing them entirely on the grounds that there is a connection to the occult is unfair if a similar standard isn’t applied to Yeats. In both of these cases it might be helpful to think of the mediated personalities as being complex heteronyms of a type exemplified by the Portuguese modernist poet Fernando Pessoa (a contemporary of Curran and one also fascinated by automatic writing and the occult). A heteronym is a particularly complicated pen-name; in addition to a false name there is an entirely false identity, a fictional writer where literariness is extratextual to the poem or book itself. These concepts, of the heteronym and the muse, inspiration and authorship raise interesting questions about the epistemology and ontology of literature. Where does literature ultimately come from? What is legitimate as an object of reading and study? Can a literary hoax still be read as literature?

Left: A spirit photograph of Yeats taken, according to Stanford University, during a seance in Paris around 1914 – Source. Right: Pessoa in 1929 taking a drink at Abel Pereira da Fonseca, Lisbon –Source.
Astrological chart for Ricardo Reis, one of Pessoa’s heteronyms – Source.

The Patience Worth case complicates questions of authorship. While it seems clear that Curran is the literal author, the fictionality surrounding the very productions of authorship helps to complicate our conceptions of creation and interpretation. Since the French philosopher Roland Barthe’s 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” both formalists and historicists have become increasingly comfortable with the idea that authorship itself is a sort of fiction. Patience Worth/Pearl Curran makes this fictionality all the more obvious. As such, it seems that she is more than overdue for a critical rediscovery.

In the long view of cultural history, her place becomes even more interesting. Biography and history become compressed and the relationship between who is a real person and who is a fictional person becomes more ontologically uncertain. I’m going to break any sort of pose of objectivity and say emphatically that I do not believe that Patience Worth was anything more than a full-bodied creation of Pearl Curran. It’s worth pointing out that there are no records of any actual Patience Worth having lived either in New England, or Dorsetshire where Curran claimed the poet was born. Yet, imagine someone reading Curran a millennium from now. Would such distinctions as whether Worth is “real” or not matter to this imagined reader? For classicists there are arguments about the “reality” of an author named Homer, ones that scholars working on much later periods don’t have to consider in the same way. Philosophically, if a heteronym’s words seem as full and real as an actual person, why can’t they be treated as such? The fullness of the fictionality of Patience Worth is that it is a fictionality which imposes itself on the real world, and that in itself is a fascinating act of literary creation.

Read the whole story at “Ghostwriter and Ghost: The Strange Case of Pearl Curran & Patience Worth.”

* Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses

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As we agonize over authenticity, we might recall that this was the date, in 1864, that Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson– aka Lewis Carroll– delivered a handwritten and illustrated manuscript called “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground” to 10-year-old Alice Liddell.

source

“‘Paradise!’ he screamed. ‘The one and only indispensable Paradise'”*…

 

Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Phillip Whalen; Naropa, 1975.

 

The Naropa University Archive Project is preserving and providing access to over 5000 hours of recordings made at Naropa University since it’s founding in 1974 in Boulder, Colorado.  The archive was developed under the auspices of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics (the university’s Department of Writing and Poetics) started by poets Anne Waldman and Allen Ginsberg, and contains an extraordinary collection of material from members of the literary avant-garde, especially the Beats and their umbra.

From William S. Burroughs’ “Creative Reading” class, through Ginsberg performing William Blake, to presentations from visitors like Gregory Corso, Gregory Bateson, and Peter Warshall, it’s a treasure trove.

* Jack Kerouac, On the Road

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As we feel the Beat, we might warm the birthday tapas for Félix Lope de Vega Carpio (best known by his shortened pen name: Lope de Vega); the Spanish poet and dramatist was born on this date in 1562.  A rough contemporary of Shakespeare, Lope de Vega was much more prolific; indeed, he is reckoned to have written between 1,500 and 2,500 fully-fledged plays, of which 425 have survived.  One estimate puts his work at twenty million dramatic verses, earning him a position in the firmament of Spanish letters second only to that of Cervantes.

 source

 

Written by LW

November 25, 2014 at 1:01 am

“Intoxicated? The word did not express it by a mile. He was oiled, boiled, fried, plastered, whiffled, sozzled, and blotto”*…

 

The expanded fifth edition of Glaswegian surgeon Robert Macnish’s The Anatomy of Drunkenness (1834) examines inebriety from a wide range of angles.  Though alcohol is the main focus, he also explores the use of opium (popular at the time), tobacco, nitrous oxide, and of various (real or reputed) “poisons,” like hemlock, “bangue” (cannabis), foxglove, and nightshade.  Macnish’s examination includes wonderful descriptions of the different kinds of drunk according to alcohol type, methods for cutting drunkenness short, and an outlining of the seven different types of drunkard (Sanguineous, Melancholy, Surly, Phlegmatic, Nervous, Choleric and Periodical).

The seventh chapter of the book examines the phenomenon of “spontaneous combustion” which, Macnish reports, tends to strike drunkards in particular.

Page through at Public Domain Review.

* P.G. Wodehouse, Meet Mr. Mulliner

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As we ask for a club soda, we might consider just how far we have– and haven’t– come, as it was on this date in 1859 that Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species.  Actually, on that day he published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life; the title was shortened to the one we know with the sixth edition in 1872.

 Title page of the 1859 edition

 

Written by LW

November 24, 2014 at 1:01 am

“The test of civilization is its estimate of women”*…

 

The makers of Barbie seem to apologize A LOT for underestimating young women. This time the Internet’s buzzing over a pretty cringe-worthy Barbie book, “I Can Be A Computer Engineer,” published out of Random House.

Barbie is featured in the book as a stylishly pink-clad computer engineer that somehow breaks everything and doesn’t know how to code. She does draw puppies though. This lady hacker needs the help of two dudes named Steve and Brian to do the real programming work cuz she’s just, “creating design ideas.” Ha ha ha…what?

In another section, a supposedly intelligent engineer Barbie (who should be familiar enough with technology not to do this) puts her flash drive into Skipper’s laptop and accidentally infects it with a virus. Skipper didn’t back up her homework and loses all her files and music, too. Silly Barbie. The two then get into a pillow fight. A pillow fight! Of course. Because women actually do that.

Don’t worry, Steve and Brian are here to save everything.

All the outrage over this book caught Mattel’s attention. It’s no longer available on Amazon.

A blogger who writes for Disney, Pamela Ribon first wrote about “I Can Be A Computer Engineer,” after picking it up at a friend’s house and reading horrific page after page. The traffic from her blog was so intense that she republished the piece on Gizmodo last night. The social blew up and people took to the Twitters to let Mattel know what a lady hacker can accomplish…

Mattel has since apologized for this completely sexist garbage on it’s Facebook page, promising it won’t do it again:

The portrayal of Barbie in this specific story doesn’t reflect the Brand’s vision for what Barbie stands for. We believe girls should be empowered to understand that anything is possible and believe they live in a world without limits. We apologize that this book didn’t reflect that belief. All Barbie titles moving forward will be written to inspire girl’s imaginations and portray an empowered Barbie character.

This is not the first time in Barbie’s more than half a century history something like this has happened. I clearly remember when Barbie held an aversion to math. Mattel released a Teen Talk Barbie back in 1992. The chattery doll would say things like, “Math class is tough,” and “I love shopping” right after, implying young girls would be better off skipping homework not suited for them…

More misogyny at “Mattel Pulls Sexist Barbie Book “I Can Be A Computer Engineer” Off Amazon.”  Then, as a corrective, check out:”Barbie, Remixed: I (really!) can be a computer engineer.”

 

* George William Curtis

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As we reaffirm our repugnance at Mattel, we might recall that it was on this date in 1654 that mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and philosopher.Blaise Pascal had a carriage accident that changed his life: his horses bolted and plunged off a bridge, throwing into the roadway. He had just experienced the trials of his father, who’d broken his hip (at a time when such an injury was desperately serious and often fatal): while Pascal was himself only bruised, he saw the episode as a warning directly from God. That night he experienced a Christian conversion– light flooded his room; he recognized Jesus,– and changed the course of his work, favoring Christian philosophy over the scientific work that had occupied him until then.  For the rest of his life Pascal carried around a piece of parchment sewn into his coat–a parchment inscribed with ecstatic phrases: “Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars…” and concluded by quoting Psalm 119:16: “I will not forget thy word. Amen.”

He went on to publish The Provincial Letters, and (posthumously) The Pensees.

 source

 

Written by LW

November 23, 2014 at 1:01 am

“Maybe the only significant difference between a really smart simulation and a human being was the noise they made when you punched them”*…

 

The nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) is tiny; it has only has 302 neurons. These connections have been completely mapped in the OpenWorm project, which is building a complete simulation of the worm in software. One of the founders of OpenWorm, Timothy Busbice, has embedded the connectome in an an object-oriented neuron program– which he has installed in the simple Lego robot pictured above…

And the result?

It is claimed that the robot behaved in ways that are similar to observed C. elegans. Stimulation of the nose stopped forward motion. Touching the anterior and posterior touch sensors made the robot move forward and back accordingly. Stimulating the food sensor made the robot move forward…

email readers click here for video

Are we just the sum of our neural networks? More at “A Worm’s Mind In A Lego Body.”

* Terry Pratchett, The Long Earth

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As we cram for the Turing Test, we might recall that it was on this date in 1967 that the BBC banned “I Am The Walrus” for play on their air.  The Beatles had grabbed and used a snippet of a BBC broadcast of King Lear (which has also influenced Lennon’s lyrics), but that wasn’t the problem.  Rather, the lines “pornographic priestess” and “let your knickers down” were deemed inappropriate.

 source

 

Written by LW

November 22, 2014 at 1:01 am

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