(Roughly) Daily

“So profound is our ignorance, and so high our presumption, that we marvel when we hear of the extinction of an organic being”*…

 

Human skull

A Neanderthal skull shows head trauma, evidence of ancient violence

 

Nine human species walked the Earth 300,000 years ago. Now there is just one. The Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, were stocky hunters adapted to Europe’s cold steppes. The related Denisovans inhabited Asia, while the more primitive Homo erectus lived in Indonesia, and Homo rhodesiensis in central Africa.

Several short, small-brained species survived alongside them: Homo naledi in South Africa, Homo luzonensis in the Philippines, Homo floresiensis (“hobbits”) in Indonesia, and the mysterious Red Deer Cave People in China. Given how quickly we’re discovering new species, more are likely waiting to be found.

By 10,000 years ago, they were all gone. The disappearance of these other species resembles a mass extinction. But there’s no obvious environmental catastrophe – volcanic eruptions, climate change, asteroid impact – driving it. Instead, the extinctions’ timing suggests they were caused by the spread of a new species, evolving 260,000-350,000 years ago in Southern Africa: Homo sapiens.

The spread of modern humans out of Africa has caused a sixth mass extinction, a greater than 40,000-year event extending from the disappearance of Ice Age mammals to the destruction of rainforests by civilisation today. But were other humans the first casualties?…

More at “Were other humans the first victims of the sixth mass extinction?

* “… so profound is our ignorance, and so high our presumption, that we marvel when we hear of the extinction of an organic being; and as we do not see the cause, we invoke cataclysms to desolate the world, or invent laws on the duration of the forms of life!”
Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

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As we wonder about our lost siblings, we might spare a thought for Marie Jean Pierre Flourens; he died on this date in 1867.  A physiologist, he was the founder of experimental brain science and a pioneer in anesthesia.  He was the first to demonstrate the general functions of the major portions of the vertebrate brain; more generally, through the study of ablations on vertebrate animals, he was the first to prove that the mind was located in the brain, not the heart (as was then believed).

Ironically, he was a Creationist– an opponent of Darwin and the theory of natural selection.

220px-Pierre_flourens source

 

“A good rule of thumb is to assume that everything matters”*…

 

Dayen-financial-climate 112019

 

Every few months, a news outlet will write a story heralding the next financial crisis, with an assumed assuredness that we should all view as suspect. Predicting the next crisis has become a sport, one that typically magnifies risks and displays an unreasonable degree of certainty. But if you had to choose a looming event that’s most likely to produce a negative shock to the financial system, it would almost certainly be the climate emergency.

That’s the takeaway from a fascinating issue brief… from the Center for American Progress’s Gregg Gelzinis and Graham Steele from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Both worked for the Senate Banking Committee for many years, and they make a compelling case, not only that headline risks to financial stability will flow from a warming planet and the efforts to mitigate that, but that federal banking regulators have gone almost completely AWOL in monitoring or even assessing this legitimate threat.

Worse, to the extent that any financial regulators in Washington are paying attention to the climate crisis, they’re seeking to dismiss it. A subcommittee formed at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) to look at climate-related market risk is stacked with fossil fuel industry representatives, including several executives from climate-polluting agribusiness, banks with significant carbon-intensive portfolios, and fossil fuel giants BP and ConocoPhillips.

The committee’s clear intent is to examine the climate risks to polluting companies’ core business, not from their polluting. As one critic—Paddy McCully, the climate and energy director at the Rainforest Action Network—notes, “We should recognize that there’s risk from the climate to the economy, and that the corporate sector needs to assess their contributions to climate change and then deal with it.”

The report explains that global economic losses from a rise in temperatures of 4 degrees Celsius have been estimated at $23 trillion per year. This would pose two kinds of risk to the financial system: physical risk from natural disasters, and a more indirect risks from transitioning away from fossil fuels…

A new paper makes the case that financial regulators are ignoring the significant risks from a warming planet and even from efforts to green the economy.  The fascinating– and chilling– analysis in full at “The Biggest Threat to Financial Stability Is the Climate.”

* Richard Thaler

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As we internalize externalities, we might recall that it was on this date in 1952 that the Great Smog of London began,  A period of cold weather, combined with an anticyclone and windless conditions, collected airborne pollutants—mostly arising from the use of coal—to form a thick layer of smog over the city.  It caused far more severe disruptions than “pea-soupers” of the past,  reducing visibility and even penetrating indoor areas.  While the Underground maintained service, bus service was virtually shut down (as visibility was so severely and reduced; and thus, the the roads, congested). Most flights into London Airport were diverted to Hurn, near Bournemouth and linked by train with Waterloo Station.

Government medical reports in the following weeks estimated that 4,000 people had died as a direct result of the smog; and 100,000 more, made ill by the smog’s effects on their respiratory tracts.  More recent research suggests that the total number of fatalities may have been considerably greater, one paper suggesting about 6,000 more died in the following months as a result of the event.

The disaster had huge effects on environmental research, government regulation, and public awareness of the relationship between air quality and health.  It led quickly to several changes in practices and regulations– perhaps most notably, the Clean Air Act 1956.

Nelson's_Column_during_the_Great_Smog_of_1952

Nelson’s Column during the Great Smog

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“A man is worked upon by what he works on”*…

 

Jobs

 

Further to last week’s “The most perfect political community is one in which the middle class is in control, and outnumbers both of the other classes”*

The numbers tell one story. Unemployment in the US is the lowest it’s been in 50 years. More Americans have jobs than ever before. Wage growth keeps climbing.

People tell a different story. Long job hunts. Trouble finding work with decent pay. A lack of predictable hours.

These accounts are hard to square with the record-long economic expansion and robust labor market described in headline statistics. Put another way, when you compare the lived reality with the data and it’s clear something big is getting lost in translation. But a team of researchers thinks they may have uncovered the Rosetta Stone of the US labor market.

They recently unveiled the US Private Sector Job Quality Index (or JQI for short), a new monthly indicator that aims to track the quality of jobs instead of just the quantity. The JQI measures the ratio of what the researchers call “high-quality” versus “low-quality” jobs, based on whether the work offer more or less than the average income.

A reading of 100 means that there are equal numbers of the two groups, while anything less implies relatively lower-quality jobs. Here’s what it looks like:

Job Quality

So, what is this newfangled thing telling us? Right now the JQI is just shy of 81, which implies that there are 81 high-quality jobs for every 100 low-quality ones. While that’s a slight improvement from early 2012—the JQI’s 30-year nadir—it’s still way down from 2006, the eve of the housing market crash, when the economy regularly supported about 90 good jobs per 100 lousy ones.

Or, in plainer English, the US labor market is nowhere near fully recovered from the Great Recession. In fact, the long-term trend in the balance of jobs paints a more ominous picture…

Quality vs. quantity: more at “The great American labor paradox: Plentiful jobs, most of them bad.”

Resonantly, see also: “Job loss predictions over rising minimum wages haven’t come true.”  The higher minimum wages in question are still below the average that separates high- and low-quality jobs; but they are a step in the direction of narrowing the gap.

* “A man is worked upon by what he works on. He may carve out his circumstances, but his circumstances will carve him out as well.”  – Frederick Douglass

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As we “Get a Job,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1956 that serendipity yielded one of the coolest collectibles ever: rockabilly legend Carl “Blue Suede Shoes” Perkins was recording at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in Memphis; Perkin’s buddy Johnny Cash, a Sun artist and a country star by virtue of his recent hits “I Walk The Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” was hanging out in the booth; and soon-to-be-famous Jerry Lee Lewis was playing piano (for a $15 dollar session fee– “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” was set for release a few weeks later).

A couple of years earlier, Phillips had launched Elvis Presley with “It’s Alright Mama”; but in 1955, as Elvis’ career exploded, Phillips had sold his contract to RCA, and Elvis moved on.  But The King was back in Memphis that fateful day; he stopped by Sun to say hello… and an impromptu jam ensued.  Phillips had the presence of mind to order his engineer, Jack Clement, to roll tape– a tape that was promptly shelved, forgotten, and unheard for 20 years.  The recordings of what was arguably the first “supergroup” were found in 1976 and finally released in 1981… since when, they’ve been treasured by fans– a new crop of which has emerged with the success of the Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet.

https://i1.wp.com/farm9.staticflickr.com/8200/8239430651_733906291d_o.jpg source

 

 

Written by LW

December 4, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Progress is the attraction that moves humanity”*…

 

Steam Engine Crushing A Wall, 1770.

A 1770 engraving of a steam engine crushing a wall

 

How and why did the modern world and its unprecedented prosperity begin? Many bookshelves are full of learned tomes by historians, economists, political philosophers and other erudite scholars with endless explanations. One way of looking at the question is by examining something basic, and arguably essential: the emergence of a belief in the usefulness of progress.

Such a belief may seem self-evident today, but most people in the more-remote past believed that history moved in some kind of cycle or followed a path that was determined by higher powers. The idea that humans should and could work consciously to make the world a better place for themselves and for generations to come is by and large one that emerged in the two centuries between Christopher Columbus and Isaac Newton. Of course, just believing that progress could be brought about is not enough—one must bring it about. The modern world began when people resolved to do so…

Progress: humans invented it—and not that long ago.  Joel Mokyr unpacks its cultural history, and explains why “Progress Isn’t Natural.”

See also J.B. Bury’s The Idea of Progress- an Inquiry into its Origins and Growth and Robert Nisbet’s History of the Idea of Progress.

* Marcus Garvey

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As we deliberate on direction, we might recall that it was on this date in 1910 that French chemist, engineer, and inventor Georges Claude switched on the first public display of neon lights– two large (39 foot long), bright red neon tubes– at the Paris Motor Show.  Over the next decade, Claude lit much of Paris.  Neon came to America in 1923 when Earl Anthony purchased signage from Claude, then transported it to Los Angeles, where Anthony installed it at his Packard dealership… and (literally) stopped traffic.

Claude in his lab, 1913

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Written by LW

December 3, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The commonality between science and art is in trying to see profoundly – to develop strategies of seeing and showing”*…

 

science-philosopher

 

The Science Museum is always alive with children. School groups scribble on clipboards, five-year-olds drag parents and grandparents by the hand, push buttons, and make lights flash. Toddlers flag for ice-cream. The halls and galleries ring with noise. By contrast, in the softly lit exhibition space on the second floor, a sudden quiet descends. But almost at once, on entering the museum’s new show, “The Art of Innovation: From Enlightenment to Dark Matter,” here are the children again. In Joseph Wright of Derby’s A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on an Orrery in which a Lamp is put in the Place of the Sun (1766) [above], they lean over, faces lit up, as the girl, her eyes glowing, points over her brother’s shoulder at the tiny planets circling the sun.

That sense of excitement defines the exhibition, as visitors zig-zag from The Lecture on the Orrery through 250 years of art and science. In the book that accompanies the show, far more than a catalog, the curators, Ian Blatchford and Tilly Blyth, lay out their stall. “Throughout history,” they write, “artists and scientists alike have been driven by curiosity and the desire to explore worlds, inner and outer. They have wanted to make sense of what they see around them and feel within them: to observe, record and transform. Sometimes working closely together, they have taken inspiration from each other’s practice.” To illustrate this dual heritage and point to the leaps of imagination in both fields, they have placed twenty works—painting, sculpture, film, photographs, posters, and textiles—alongside the scientific objects that inspired them. Thus A Lecture on the Orrery hangs near James Ferguson’s wooden pulley-operated mechanical model of the solar system [below], an orrery from the Museum’s collection…

science-planetary-model

 

A glorious (and gloriously-illustrated) appreciation: “Beauty in Ingenuity: The Art of Science.”

* Edward Tufte

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As we bask in beauty, we might spare a cartographically-correct thought for, one of history’s most impactful scientific artists: Gerardus Mercator; he died on this date in 1594.  The most renown cartographer of his time, he created a world map based on a new projection– the Mercator Projection— which represented sailing courses of constant bearing as straight lines, an approach still employed in nautical charts used for navigation.

While he was most esteemed as the foremost geographer of his day, Mercator was also an accomplished engraver, calligrapher and maker of globes and scientific instruments.  And he studied theology, philosophy, history, mathematics, and magnetism.

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Written by LW

December 2, 2019 at 1:01 am

“All rising to great places is by a winding stair”*…

 

stairs

 

(Roughly) Daily will be on Thanksgiving hiatus until Monday the 2nd.  Meantime, with an eye to the massive meals that U.S. readers are likely to consume in the meantime…

George Schupp never expected to find himself in Robert De Niro’s apartment. Once the owner of a thriving a custom manufacturing company in Tulsa, Schupp’s business withered during the 1970s energy crisis.

Feeling aimless, Schupp and his business partner, Jim Walker, began wondering what else they could manufacture. Through creativity and fate, they ended up producing something so iconic that it transformed gyms around the world – and sculpted countless butts along the way.

Maybe that’s what De Niro was hoping for, when he invited Schupp into his home. It’s hard to know, all these years later. But the one thing the story shows is that even De Niro wasn’t immune to the allure of the StairMaster.

For a long time, gyms didn’t have machines, other than a stationery bike or two. The gym was a place for synchronized cardio classes, or free weights. The StairMaster, along with companies like Nautilus, transformed the gym into its current landscape, where rows of treadmills coexist with bikes, ellipticals and other contraptions.

stair_then

An early StairMaster

 

But how did the StairMaster climb from its humble Midwest origins to an Oscar-winning actor’s luxurious suite? It started with a chance encounter. In the midst of Schupp and Walker’s strategizing over how to transition into the fitness industry, they happened to meet a man named Lanny Potts.

When Walker showed up to buy Potts’ old car, the two fell into a meet cute so perfect it could have been scripted. Potts, it turned out, was an inventor. Soon, the trio met regularly to brainstorm. Walker and Schupp had the manufacturing know-how, and Potts brought promising ideas into the mix.

Seeking inspiration, Potts began reaching out to friends and associates. At one point, he made the fateful decision to approach his doctor, who proceeded to muse about the vexing problem of stair climbing. Did they know that climbing is excellent exercise, yet the descent can wreak havoc on shins and joints? They did not. But there it was, nearly perfect: A problem that needed a solution. And so they got to work.

In this way, the StairMaster’s history is almost the exact opposite of the treadmill’s. While the StairMaster is designed to minimize potential injury, the treadmill was specifically designed to inflict it. In 1818, a civil engineer named William Cubitt designed the treadmill as a ghoulish machine to punish prisoners…

Oprah

Oprah with the (newer model) StairMaster she called “my little friend”

 

A keystone of the modern gym: “The Story of the StairMaster.”

See also “From Oil to Oprah: An Oral History of the StairMaster.”

[image at top: source]

* Gautama Buddha

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As we work it off, we might recall that it was on this date in 1924 that the annual Thanksgiving Day parade started in Newark, New Jersey by Louis Bamberger at the Bamberger’s store was transferred to New York City by Macy’s.  Originally running from Harlem to the Macy’s store on Herald Square, The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is tied for second-oldest Thanksgiving parade in the United States with America’s Thanksgiving Parade in Detroit.  (Both parades are four years younger than Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.)

The balloons that have become the Macy’s Parade’s signature were introduced in 1927, when a Felix the Cat balloon took the place of the live animals that had previously been borrowed from the Central Park Zoo.

From the first Macy’s Parade:

elephants_21904_1370_10881

floa_01

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Written by LW

November 27, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Knowledge is not simply another commodity. On the contrary. Knowledge is never used up. It increases by diffusion and grows by dispersion.”*…

 

Bacon

Six Degrees of Francis Bacon is a digital reconstruction of the early modern social network that scholars and students from all over the world can collaboratively expand, revise, curate, and critique. Unlike published prose, Six Degrees is extensible, collaborative, and interoperable: extensible in that people and associations can always be added, modified, developed, or, removed; collaborative in that it synthesizes the work of many scholars; interoperable in that new work on the network is put into immediate relation to previously studied relationships.

This website is hosted by Carnegie Mellon University Libraries, and data is available for download both on this site and as part of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s digital collections

While the new Six Degrees of Francis Bacon interface is designed specifically for researchers of early modern Britain, it also confronts many of the challenges that humanists in general now face in the contexts of data visualization, crowdsourcing, user experience, and graphic design…

The Six Degrees of Francis Bacon project is dedicated primarily to the social networks of early modern Britain, 1500-1700, but in order to support scholars and students of historical social networks more broadly, the project team, with critical support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, will soon release freely available website code on Github under an Open Source License for modification and reuse…

A dynamic, collaborative recreating of the connections through which knowledge was shared in early modern England, and a template for digital humanties scholars in other fields/eras– from Project Director Christopher Warren (@ChrisVVarren) and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon, “Six Degrees of Francis Bacon.”

* Daniel J. Boorstin

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As we channel E.M. Forster, we might recall that it was on this date in 1864 that Oxford mathematician and amateur photographer Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson– aka Lewis Carroll– delivered a handwritten and hand-illustrated manuscript called “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground” to 10-year-old Alice Liddell.  The original (on display at the British Library) was the basis of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland… which was published exactly one year later, on this date in 1865.

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