(Roughly) Daily

“Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.”*…

 

special collections

The Special Collections Room, University of Pittsburgh Library [source]

I travel a lot for work, and sometimes I travel to cities where I don’t know a lot of people and there’s not a lot of tourist stuff I want to do.

When I’m traveling and am at a loss for how to spend my time, I look up as many libraries I can in the area I’ll be traveling to, and I check to see if they have special collections. Then I make an appointment with the library to visit those special collections, and usually it means I get to spend a day in a quiet, climate-controlled room with cool old documents. It’s like a museum but with no people, and where you have to do all the work, which is honestly my idea of a perfect vacation.

I will sometimes mention this to people and they respond saying “Okay that sounds great but I wouldn’t know where to even start.” So this post outlines the nuts and bolts of setting up this kind of thing for yourself.

Broadly, the steps go:

  • find some libraries
  • check out their special collections on their website
  • use a finding aid or whatever other information is there to figure out what you’d like to see
  • read the rules of the special collection
  • make an appointment and submit a request

Just in time for vacation planning, Darius Kazemi explains “How to be a library archive tourist.”

* Ray Bradbury

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As we unearth gems, we might recall that it was on this date in 1913 that cartoonist John Randolph (J.R.) Bray first exhibited his animated film, “The Artist’s Dream” (later reititled “The Dachshund and the Sausage” for reasons that will be obvious).  Bray was not the first animator; indeed, he was following purposefully in the steps of fellow cartoonist Windsor McCay, who had added animations of “Little Nemo” and “How a Mosquito Operates” to his stage presentations.  But Bray earned a place in the history of the art by being among the first– arguably the first– animator to organize his work and his studio according to the principles of industrial production (that’s to say, with division of labor)– an approach that has survived to this day.

 

Bray source

 

“Few things are more enjoyable than lingering over the atlas and plotting a trip”*…

 

atlas of outer space

 

I’m excited to finally share a new design project this week! Over the past year and a half I’ve been working on a collection of ten maps on planets, moons, and outer space. To name a few, I’ve made an animated map of the seasons on Earth, a map of Mars geology, and a map of everything in the solar system bigger than 10km…

Data visualizer extraordinaire Eleanor Lutz has announced “An Atlas of Space.”

Follow her progress on her blog Tabletop Whale, or on Twitter or Tumblr.

[TotH to Kottke]

* J. Maarten Troost

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As we see stars, we might spare a thought for Daniel Kirkwood; he died on this date in 1895. Kirkwood’s most significant contribution came from his study of asteroid orbits. When arranging the then-growing number of discovered asteroids by their distance from the Sun, he noted several gaps, now named Kirkwood gaps in his honor, and associated these gaps with orbital resonances with the orbit of Jupiter.  Further, Kirkwood also suggested a similar dynamic was responsible for Cassini Division in Saturn’s rings, as the result of a resonance with one of Saturn’s moons.  In the same paper, he was the first to correctly posit that the material in meteor showers is cometary debris.

Kirkwood also identified a pattern relating the distances of the planets to their rotation periods, which was called Kirkwood’s Law. This discovery earned Kirkwood an international reputation among astronomers; he was dubbed “the American Kepler” by Sears Cook Walker, who claimed that Kirkwood’s Law proved the widely held Solar Nebula Theory.  (In the event, the “Law” has since become discredited as new measurements of planetary rotation periods have shown that the pattern doesn’t hold.)

Daniel_Kirkwood source

 

“There is no business like show business. There is also no business like certified public accounting, but that doesn’t rhyme as well.”*…

 

Pacioli

Portrait of Luca Bartolomeo de Pacioli, attributed to Jacopo de’ Barbari

 

Modern capitalism began among the European merchant families of the early Renaissance—the Fuggers of Augsburg, Medicis of Florence and, in Venice, one Antonio de Rompiasi, who in 1464 hired a tutor in mathematics for his three sons. Like any sensible teacher, young Luca Pacioli aimed to make his lessons memorable and clear. Good humanist that he was, 30 years later he gathered all the world’s knowledge of the subject into a single massive volume.

His “Summa de Arithmetica, Geometria, Proportioni et Proportionalita” was the 615-page work of a mature professor who had spent decades working across northern Italy. The book was revolutionary on more than one count. It integrated computation using Hindu-Arabic numerals with the logic of classic Greek geometry; it was written in the Italian of the marketplace rather than Latin; and it was circulated in large numbers thanks to the new technology of printing. Yet its greatest significance lay in a slim ‘how to’ chapter that described the double-entry accounting system used by Venetian merchants.

With examples from dealers in butter to lemons to silk, Pacioli set out the method for tracking income and expenditure and the calculation of net profit or loss, which for the first time allowed an immediate snapshot of a firm’s financial position. This slim section would facilitate the birth of the modern corporation.

“Without order there is chaos,” Pacioli observed in a breezy style that is still in vogue in business books today. His manual is stuffed with quotes from scripture and Dante and pithy advice such as “Don’t learn from ignoramuses who have more leaves than grapes.” He wrote the accounting chapter to help would-be traders in Venice, then the capital of the financial world, “sleep easily at night”. Without double-entry book-keeping, “their minds would keep them awake with worry”. He could not suspect that what might be called “Book-keeping for Dummies” would become the backbone of business for centuries.

Like many monumental works of 15th-century printing, Pacioli’s treatise has survived in its original form. Some 120 copies still exist, from an initial run of about 1,000. Now today’s moguls have a chance to own this first folio of finance. Christie’s, the auction house, is offering a first edition in its original vellum binding for sale in New York on June 12th. The starting price is $1m for what it unabashedly calls “the most influential work in the history of capitalism.”

Pacioli’s later life augments the glamour of the first printed use of ‘plus’ and ‘minus’ signs. Impressed by the book, Leonardo da Vinci convinced his patron Lodovico Sforza to hire Pacioli to teach at the court of Milan. Pacioli and Leonardo collaborated on the treatise “Divina Proportione,” which married maths with art through the study of perspective. Not one, but two Renaissance masters were thus responsible for the exquisite harmony of “The Last Supper”…

The 15th-century guide to book-keeping enabled the rise of modern corporations: “A revolutionary treatise goes on the block.”

* Craig Shaw Gardner

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As we count carefully, we might recall that it was on this date in 1902 that a US patent (#701,839) was issued to Americus F. Callahan of Chicago, Ill., which he called the outlook envelope– what we call the window envelope.

300px-USPatent701839-CallahanAmericus-WindowedEnvelope source

 

“As my artist’s statement explains, my work is utterly incomprehensible and is therefore full of deep significance”*…

 

Klimt

 

The neuroscientist was in the art gallery and there were many things to learn. So Eric Kandel excitedly guided me through the bright lobby of the Neue Galerie New York, a museum of fin de siècle Austrian and German art, located in a Beaux-Art mansion, across from Central Park. The Nobel laureate was dressed in a dark blue suit with white pinstripes and red bowtie. I was dressed, well, less elegantly.

Since winning a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000, for uncovering the electrochemical mechanisms of memory, Kandel had been thinking about art. In 2012 and 2016, respectively, he published The Age of Insight and Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, both of which could be called This Is Your Brain on Art. The Age of Insight detailed the rise of neuroscience out of the medical culture that surrounded Sigmund Freud, and focused on Gustav Klimt and his artistic disciples Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, whose paintings mirrored the age’s brazen ideas about primal desires smoldering beneath conscious control.

I’d invited Kandel to meet me at the Neue Galerie because it was the premier American home of original works by Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele. It was 2014 when we met and I had long been reading about neuroaesthetics, a newish school in neuroscience, and a foundation of The Age of Insight, where brain computation was enlisted to explain why and what in art turned us on. I was anxious to hear Kandel expound on how neuroscience could enrich art, as he had written, though I also came with a handful of doubts…

Kevin Berger learns “what neuroscience is doing to art”: “Gustav Klimt in the Brain Lab.”

* Bill Watterson

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As we think about thinking about it, we might spare a thought for Jacob Lawrence; he died on this date in 2000.  One of the best-respected 20th century American painters, and one the most well-known African-American artists, Jacobs described his style as “Dynamic Cubism.”  His works are in the permanent collections of numerous museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Phillips Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and Reynolda House Museum of American Art.

He is perhaps best known for a 60-panel work, Migration Series (depicting the migration of rural southern African-Americans to the urban north), which he painted on cardboard.  The collection is now held by two museums: the odd-numbered paintings are on exhibit in the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the even-numbered are displayed at MOMA in New York.

Migration_Series_Panel_1

The first panel of Migration Series [source]

220px-Portrait_of_Jacob_Lawrence_LCCN2004663191 source

 

Written by LW

June 9, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The abundance of beards in periods of social unrest, times of revolt or upheaval, should be noted”*…

 

beard

 

You could consume more than half a century of American popular culture, from World War II to Korea to Vietnam to September 11, without encountering many bearded manly heroes; facial hair was generally reserved for wild enemies foreign and domestic, swarthy terrorists and libertine hippies. Even American westerns posited a surprising number of neatly trimmed frontier protagonists, reserving scruff for their foes. Italian-produced spaghetti westerns, which introduced Clint Eastwood’s perpetually unshaven man with no name, seem the exception that proves the rule, deploying beards as to emphasize that their protagonists are deeply flawed antiheroes, operating outside mainstream norms.

In the twenty-first century, however, America’s man of the hour is a follicle farm. Hipsters affect the lumberjack’s hirsute machismo. Genteel movie stars like George Clooney and Paul Rudd tantalize paparazzi with full, bushy beards. Police departments in Michigan and Texas have relaxed their officers’ notoriously strict grooming standards to permit beards and goatees. Faux-folksy politicians like Texas Senator Ted Cruz and former House speaker Paul Ryan attempt to transform their brands with a macho hairy mug—just as John Kerry and Al Gore did a few years earlier, with limited success. Our Hollywood war heroes, armed men who go bump in the night, grow facial hair so voluminous that perhaps their beards are what do the heavy bumping. Even that most American of fictional G.I.s, the idealistic Steve Rogers, returns from a depressive self-exile in Avengers: Infinity War with a sexy beard that says “Captain America has seen some shit.”

The Guardian in 2013 hypothesized that human society had reached “peak beard”; though it may have appeared so, the ensuing six years have not dampened enthusiasm for facial hair. The razor industry nervously recorded a 5 percent decline in sales last year as men’s shaving frequency has continued to decline; producers of shaving accouterments have tried to cut prices and diversify into new grooming products, having apparently accepted that our beards are here to stay.

But why is ours such a hairy century? What began this trend, and what fuels it?…

How did facial hair win American men’s hearts and minds? Thank the war on terror: “The Sum of All Beards.”

* Mihail Sebastian

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As we hail the hirsute, we might spare a thought for Muhammad; he died on this date in 632.  The founder of Islam, he is considered by its adherents to have been a prophet, sent to present and confirm the monotheistic teachings preached previously by Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets– the final prophet.  He united Arabia into a single Muslim polity, with the Quran (the transcriptions of divine messages that he received) as well as his other teachings and practices forming the basis of Islamic religious belief.

220px-Mohammed_receiving_revelation_from_the_angel_Gabriel

Muhammad receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel. From the manuscript Jami’ al-tawarikh by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani, 1307

source

 

Written by LW

June 8, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else”*…

 

laffer-curve-napkin-470x426

 

President Trump [recently] announced that economist Arthur Laffer will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Laffer is most famous for his “Laffer curve,” a graph that suggested that lowering tax rates might increase tax revenue. This graph had major political consequences, but made him more notorious than celebrated in the field of economics…

Economists tend to roll their eyes when the Laffer curve is mentioned. A panel of elite academic economists across the political spectrum found in 2012 that none of its respondents agreed that the United States was on the wrong side of the curve. Even George Stigler, a leader of the Chicago School of Economics who disliked taxes at least as much as Laffer, described the Laffer curve as “more or less a tautology.”

Yet the idea has been influential for more than 40 years. The Laffer curve did not begin as a formal economic theory, but as a simple depiction of the relationship between tax rates and government revenue. Legendarily, perhaps apocryphally, it was scribbled onto a napkin after dinner. [A recreation of the legendary napkin, created by Laffer for Donald Rumsfeld, who was at the dinner (with Dick Cheney) where it was supposed first sketched.]

The concept is simple enough. As tax rates increase, people’s incentives to work and make investments decrease because they make less money from them. Above some rate, taxes become so onerous that total revenue goes down because people aren’t as economically active as they would be in a world with lower taxes. The big question is what that rate — the tipping point on the Laffer curve — actually is.

Laffer may have named the curve, but the idea was not original to him. As proponents in the late 1970s liked to point out, the general idea dates to the Arab social theorist Ibn Khaldun, who wrote in the 14th century, “At the beginning of a dynasty, taxation yields a large revenue from small assessments. At the end of the dynasty, taxation yields a small revenue from large assessments.”

In less remote history, Andrew Mellon, Republican treasury secretary to three presidents, articulated a similar idea in 1924. And when Democrats advocated for the Revenue Act of 1964, which cut the top marginal rate from 91 to 70 percent, their bill made exactly the same arguments. Even Wilbur Mills, the fiscally conservative Democratic chair of the Ways and Means Committee, found himself claiming that the tax cut would “eventually lead to higher levels of economic activity and thereby increase, rather than decrease, revenue.”

Yet it was Laffer’s variant that caught the ear of Republicans in the late 1970s, just as they were shifting from a position as the party of balanced budgets to the party of tax cuts. Indeed, the Laffer curve was a way to say, “Why not both?” One influential ear Laffer caught was that of Wall Street Journal associate editor Jude Wanniski, who made the curve a centerpiece of his 1978 book, “The Way the World Works.”

wanniskicurve1978

Laffer and Wanniski had a champion in Congress as well, in former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jack Kemp. In April 1977, Kemp introduced a bill to cut income tax rates by 30 percent across the board. He started talking about the Laffer curve in October and over the next year mentioned it several more times in Congress.

But it was only with the June 1978 passage of California’s Proposition 13, which slashed property taxes, that the Laffer curve argument exploded into the mainstream. In this new atmosphere of “tax revolt,” the Laffer curve came up 128 times in the Congressional Record in less than four months…

The man who gave (what Will Rogers first called) trickle-down economics its own “curve,” who gave supply-side economics its graphic icon: “Trump is giving Arthur Laffer the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Economists aren’t smiling.”

For more on the “tyranny of curves,” see “Phillips, Laffer and Gatsby: on economists obsessing about curves.” And for more on the out-sized political, economic, and social impact of Laffer’s ideas, see “Starving the Beast- Ronald Reagan and the Tax Cut Revolution.”

* “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”          -John Maynard Keynes

###

As we grapple with graphs, we might spare a thought for a different kind of economist (and one whose impact was much more indisputably positive), Elizabeth Josephine Craig; she died on this date in 1980.  A home economist and journalist, she published dozens of books, mostly cookbooks and volumes of home management advice.  Craig started to cook when she was 6 and began collecting recipes at 12; she began publishing cookbooks after World War I and continued to publish until her death.  Her contribution to English culinary literature comprises a very large collection of traditional British recipes, but also included a considerable number of dishes from other countries, which she gathered during visits abroad (often with her war correspondent husband).

220px-Craig,_E_Cakes_and_Candies_cover source

 

Written by LW

June 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The danger is that in this move toward new horizons and far directions, that I may lose what I have now, and not find anything except loneliness”*…

 

Moving trucks line a streets as residents evacuate from an apartment complex which in danger of collapsing due to El Nino storm erosion in Pacifica

 

Mobility in the United States has fallen to record lows. In 1985, nearly 20 percent of Americans had changed their residence within the preceding 12 months, but by 2018, fewer than ten percent had. That’s the lowest level since 1948, when the Census Bureau first started tracking mobility.

The decline in Americans’ mobility has been staggering… Mobility rates have fallen for nearly every group, across age, gender, income, homeownership status, and marital status.

Declining mobility contributes to a host of economic and social issues: less economic dynamism, lower rates of innovation, and lower productivity. By locking people into place, it exacerbates inequality by limiting the economic opportunities for workers.

A wide range of explanations have been offered to account for these substantial declines in mobility. Many consider the culprit to be the economic crisis, which locked people into declining-value homes; others attribute it to the huge differential in the housing prices in expensive cities. Some economists contend that job opportunities have become similar across places, meaning people are less likely to move for work; others see rising student debt as a key factor that has kept young Americans in their parents’ basements.

Now, a new study from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York suggests that other, more emotional and psychological factors may be at work…

Powerful psychological factors connect people to places, and often mean more to them than money: “Why Some Americans Won’t Move, Even for a Higher Salary.”

[This is an issue that is likely to become more acute as climate change forces millions of Americans to “retreat” to safer and/or more arable ground.]

* Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

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As we contemplate change, we might recall that it was on this date in 1939 that a German the St. Louis, a German transatlantic liner, was forced to sail back to Europe after more than 900 of its passengers (primarily German-Jewish refugees) were refused entry by Cuba; over 200 of these refugees would later die in the Holocaust.

The St. Louis departed Germany for Cuba on May 13. The majority of the 937 passengers were German Jews fleeing the increasing discrimination and violence against Jews under Hitler, and many planned to stay in Cuba only until they received U.S. visas. However, unbeknownst to most of the passengers, a week before the ship sailed, the Cuban government invalidated one of the types of travel documents held by the refugees.

When the ship arrived in Cuba on May 27, fewer than 30 passengers—those who had the proper papers—were allowed to disembark. Despite days of negotiations, the Cuban government could not be persuaded to allow the refugees to enter. Leaving Cuban waters on June 2, the ship sailed near the Florida coast. Passengers petitioned President Roosevelt for refuge but received no answer. The St. Louis was finally forced to return to Europe on June 6.

refugees source

 

Written by LW

June 6, 2019 at 1:01 am

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