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“Big Data is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it”*…

 

a-day-in-data-1200

 

You’ve probably heard of kilobytes, megabytes, gigabytes, or even terabytes.

These data units are common everyday amounts that the average person may run into. Units this size may be big enough to quantify the amount of data sent in an email attachment, or the data stored on a hard drive, for example.

In the coming years, however, these common units will begin to seem more quaint – that’s because the entire digital universe is expected to reach 44 zettabytes by 2020.

If this number is correct, it will mean there are 40 times more bytes than there are stars in the observable universe…

The stuff of dreams, the stuff of nightmares: “How Much Data is Generated Each Day?

* Dan Ariely

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As we revel in really, really big numbers, we might spare a thought for Edgar Frank “Ted” Codd; he died on this date in 2003.  A distinguished computer scientist who did important work on cellular automata, he is best remembered as the father of computer databases– as the person who laid the foundation for for relational databases, for storing and retrieving information in computer records.

150px-Edgar_F_Coddsource

 

Written by LW

April 18, 2019 at 1:01 am

“We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary”*…

 

Terms of Sale

 

In the early history of international trade, when exotic goods traveled to new regions, their native names sometimes hitchhiked along with them.

Naturally, the Germans have a term – Wanderwörter – for these extraordinary loanwords that journey around the globe, mutating subtly along the way…

See the map above in larger format, and learn more about each of the examples it illustrates at: “Mapping the Spread of Words Along Trade Routes.” [sourced from Lapham’s Quarterly]

* James Nicoll

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As we ponder the provenance of our produce, we might recall that it was on this date 1397 that Geoffrey Chaucer “told” The Canterbury Tales for the first time at the court of Richard II.

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A woodcut from William Caxton‘s second edition of The Canterbury Tales, printed in 1483

source

 

Written by LW

April 17, 2019 at 1:01 am

“A public library is the most democratic thing in the world”*…

 

Bates Hall, the reading room at the Boston Public Library, 2017

 

[Sociologist Eric] Klinenberg is interested in the ways that common spaces can repair our fractious and polarized civic life. And though he argues in his new book, Palaces for the People, that playgrounds, sporting clubs, diners, parks, farmer’s markets, and churches—anything, really, that puts people in close contact with one another—have the capacity to strengthen what Tocqueville called the cross-cutting ties that bind us to those who in many ways are different from us, he suggests that libraries may be the most effective. “Libraries are the kinds of places where ordinary people with different backgrounds, passions, and interests can take part in a living democratic culture,” he writes. Yet as Susan Orlean observes in her loving encomium to libraries everywhere, aptly titled The Library Book, “The publicness of the public library is an increasingly rare commodity. It becomes harder all the time to think of places that welcome everyone and don’t charge any money for that warm embrace.”

As Klinenberg points out:

“Infrastructure” is not a term conventionally used to describe the underpinnings of social life…[but] if states and societies do not recognize social infrastructure and how it works, they will fail to see a powerful way to promote civic engagement and social interaction, both within communities and across group lines.

To glimpse what he means, one need only dip into Frederick Wiseman’s epic and inspirational three-hour-and-seventeen-minute documentary Ex Libris, a picaresque tour of the grandest people’s palace of all: the New York Public Library system, a collection of ninety-two branches with seventeen million annual patrons (and millions more online). Wiseman trains his lens on the quotidian (people lining up to get into the main branch or poring over books), the obscure (a voice actor recording a book for the blind), and the singular (Khalil Muhammad discussing the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), and without saying so explicitly (the film is unnarrated), he shows the NYPL to be an exemplar of what a library is and what it can do. Here we see librarians helping students with math homework, hosting job fairs, running literacy and citizenship classes, teaching braille, and sponsoring lectures. We see people using computers, Wi-Fi hotspots, and, of course, books. They are white, black, brown, Asian, young, homeless, not-so-young, deaf, hearing, blind; they are everyone, which is the point… 

Read this paean to that paragon of “Public Goods” in full: “In Praise of Public Libraries.”

* “A public library is the most democratic thing in the world. What can be found there has undone dictators and tyrants: demagogues can persecute writers and tell them what to write as much as they like, but they cannot vanish what has been written in the past, though they try often enough…People who love literature have at least part of their minds immune from indoctrination. If you read, you can learn to think for yourself.”         – Doris Lessing

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As we check it out, we might spare a thought for an author shelved in any good library: Aphra Behn; she died on this date in 1689.  A monarchist and a Tory, young Aphra was recruited to spy for King Charles II; she infiltrated Dutch and expatriate English cabals in Antwerp during the Second Anglo-Dutch War.  But on her return to London, George II turned out to be a stiff; despite her entreaties, the King never paid her for her services.  Penniless, Aphra turned to writing, working first as a scribe for the King’s Company (the leading acting company of the time), then as a dramatist in her own right (often using her spy code-name, Astrea, as a pen name).  She became one of the most prolific playwrights of the Restoration, one of the first people in England to earn a living writing– and the first woman to pay her way with her pen.  She was buried in Westminster Abbey, where the inscription on her tombstone reads, “Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be / Defence enough against Mortality.

 source

 

“In the long run we are all dead”*…

 

 

Here Is Today

 

Put it all in (temporal) perspective at “Here Is Today.”

* John Maynard Keynes

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As we ponder the perception of permanence, we might send polymathic birthday greetings to someone who has so far transcended time– the painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, physicist, chemist, anatomist, botanist, geologist, cartographer, and writer– the archetypical Renaissance Man– Leonardo da Vinci.  Quite possibly the greatest genius of the last Millennium, he was born on this date in 1452.

Self-portrait in red chalk, circa 1512-15 [source]

Written by LW

April 15, 2019 at 1:01 am

“What’s in a name?”*…

 

swamp

The occurrence of place names that contain the word “Swamp”

 

The concentrations of water toponyms in the United States: see similar visualizations of place names that contain “River,” Spring, “Lake,” and “Pond” at “Lake, River, Spring, Pond, Bay and Swamp.”

* Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

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As we call ’em as we see ’em, we might recall that it was on this date in 1939 that John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was published.   The story of the Joads, a poor family of tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, agricultural industry changes, and bank foreclosures forcing tenant farmers out of work.  Fleeing the Dust Bowl, the Joads set out, with thousands of other “Okies,” for California, seeking jobs, land, dignity, and a future.

200px-JohnSteinbeck_TheGrapesOfWrath source

 

Written by LW

April 14, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Dying is easy, comedy is hard”*…

 

neighbors-keaton

Neighbors. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Keaton. Metro Pictures, 1920.

 

As he migrated from vaudeville stage to movie set, [Buster] Keaton realised the comedy itself did not need changing, though the opportunities afforded by the camera could extend the world in which the spatial interplay he had developed since childhood took place.

“…the greatest thing to me about picturemaking was the way it automatically did away with the physical limitations of the theatre. On the stage, even one as immense as the New York Hippodrome stage, one could only show so much. The camera had no such limitations. The whole world was its stage. If you wanted cities, deserts, the Atlantic Ocean, Persia, or the Rocky Mountains for your scenery and background, you merely took your camera to them.”

Keaton’s comedy derives largely from the positioning —and constant, unexpected repositioning— of his body in space, and in architectural space particularly. Unlike other slapstick performers who relished in the close-up and detailed attention to the protagonist, Keaton frequently directed the camera to film with a wide far-shot that could contain the whole of a building’s facade or urban span within the frame. Proud of always carrying out his own (often extremely dangerous) stunts, this enabled him to show the audience that his actions were performed in real-time —and real-place— rather than simply being tricks of the camera or editing process. It also allowed him to visually explore the many ways in which his body could engage with the urban form…

An appreciation of that greatest of all silent comedians: “Buster Keaton: Anarchitect.”

* variously attributed to actors Edmund Keane, Edmund Gwynn, and Peter O’Toole

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As we take the fall, we might send delighted birthday greetings to Stanley Donen; he was born on this date in 1924.  A Broadway dancer (who befriended a young Gene Kelly), Donen followed Kelly to Hollywood as choreographer, then a director– of such classics as On the Town (1949) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952), both of which starred Kelly who co-directed.  Donen’s other films include Royal Wedding (1951), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954),  Funny Face (1957), Indiscreet (1958), and Charade (1963).  Credited (with his rival, Vincent Minelli) with having transitioned Hollywood musical films from realistic backstage dramas (a la Busby Berkeley) to a more integrated art form in which the songs were a natural continuation of the story, Donen is highly regarded by film historians.

One might note a kinship between Keeton’s astounding physical relationship to his surroundings and that of Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Fred Astaire in Donen’s films…

Stanley_Donen_(cropped) source

 

Written by LW

April 13, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.”*…

 

fossil record

In one fell swoop, Robert DePalma may have filled in the gap in the fossil record

 

On August 5, 2013, I received an e-mail from a graduate student named Robert DePalma. I had never met DePalma, but we had corresponded on paleontological matters for years, ever since he had read a novel I’d written that centered on the discovery of a fossilized Tyrannosaurus rex killed by the KT impact. “I have made an incredible and unprecedented discovery,” he wrote me, from a truck stop in Bowman, North Dakota. “It is extremely confidential and only three others know of it at the moment, all of them close colleagues.” He went on, “It is far more unique and far rarer than any simple dinosaur discovery. I would prefer not outlining the details via e-mail, if possible.” He gave me his cell-phone number and a time to call.

I called, and he told me that he had discovered a site like the one I’d imagined in my novel, which contained, among other things, direct victims of the catastrophe. At first, I was skeptical. DePalma was a scientific nobody, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Kansas, and he said that he had found the site with no institutional backing and no collaborators. I thought that he was likely exaggerating, or that he might even be crazy. (Paleontology has more than its share of unusual people.) But I was intrigued enough to get on a plane to North Dakota to see for myself…

Douglas Preston recounts what he found: the young paleontologist looks increasingly likely (as other scientists assess his work) to have discovered a record of the most significant event in the history of life on Earth, the missing fossil evidence that recounts the almost-instant extinction of most life on the planet: “The Day the Dinosaurs Died.”

See a second-by-second visualization of the event here.

And for more on the threat that asteroids still present, and how we can protect the Earth from a repeat of that mass extinction, visit the B-612 Foundation.

* Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience

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As we extricate heads from the sand, we might spare a thought for a scientific forebearer of DePalma’s, Edward Drinker Cope; he died on this date in 1897. A paleontologist and comparative anatomist (as well as a noted herpetologist and ichthyologist), Cope led many natural history surveys in the American West for the precursors of the U.S. Geological Survey, making important finds on his trips, including dinosaur discoveries.

220px-Cope_Edward_Drinker_1840-1897 source

 

 

Written by LW

April 12, 2019 at 1:01 am

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