(Roughly) Daily

“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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“The most perfect political community is one in which the middle class is in control, and outnumbers both of the other classes”*…

 

middle class

 

But is there a middle class?…

Every politician defends the middle class, but none of them knows quite what it is. In August, during a town hall, Joe Biden said, “We have to rebuild the middle class, and this time we bring everyone along.” In his telling, the middle class is part memory and part aspiration, less a demographic group than a morality tale of loss and redemption. It “isn’t a number,” Biden is fond of saying. “It’s a set of values.”

For many social scientists, though, the middle class is a matter of numbers. The Pew Research Center says that anyone who earns between a mere two-thirds of the median household income and twice that amount falls within it. By that definition, just under half of all American adults are middle class. Unlike in Britain, where the category is seen as more culturally refined, the American middle class includes blue-collar workers whose consumption patterns fit the bill; they can buy a home or put their kids through college. Biden defines the middle class even more expansively. To be middle class, he said in Iowa this summer, is to know “that your kid is safe going outside to play”—something most humans, if not most large primates, would agree they want. To be middle class is to be, well, normal.

Republicans, for their part, rarely promise to rebuild the middle class; they want, as President Trump has said, to make it “bigger and more prosperous than ever before.” But liberal politicians from Biden to Barack Obama to Elizabeth Warren often vow to restore the middle class to the former glory of the three decades after World War II—a time when, they say, prosperity was shared and class conflict neutralized.

Even then, however, there was a sense that the middle class was in crisis. In his 1956 best-seller, The Organization Man, William Whyte wrote of a middle class—an implicitly white middle class—trapped in suburbs and office jobs, shorn of the entrepreneurial individualism and wartime solidarity of earlier generations. In 1969, a New York Times reporter found in Italian-American Queens a community trapped between escalating grocery bills and the expanding “ghetto.” In 1977, the middle class was “struggling uphill,” the Chicago Tribune wrote. In 1992, it felt “betrayed” and “forgotten,” according to the Times. And since 2008, Times subscribers have read of a middle class that is “sagging,” “shrinking,” “sinking,” and “limping.” In short, the middle class, as our politicians imagine it, has never really existed [in a settled, continuous way]: It is always in decline, always on the brink of being rebuilt.

To imagine the middle class, then, is to invoke a myth. Politicians use it to bind Americans together in a shared hope that they can one day return to the lost idyll of the postwar period. In that sense, the concept is remarkably optimistic, if somewhat inconsistent. As Lawrence Samuel argues in The American Middle Class: A Cultural History, the term expresses two incompatible things: It suggests that the United States is a classless society in which most citizens belong to the same social sphere, even as it hints at a rarefied class above the middle that anyone can reach if they work hard enough to ascend the ladder of opportunity. These can’t both be true—if the United States were a classless society, there would be no need for upward mobility. The metaphor gives the lie to the myth. Every ladder, after all, has a top and a bottom—and it’s the bottom that bears all the weight…

Politicians– and business people and academics– are quick to reference “the middle class.”  John Patrick Leary (@johnpatleary) explores “What We Talk About When We Talk About the Middle Class.”

* Aristotle

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As we contemplate classification and its consequences, we might recall that it was on this date in 1792, during George Washington’s first term as president, that the first edition of The Farmers Almanac was published.  (It became The Old Farmers Almanac in 1832 to distinguish itself from similarly-titled competitors.)  Still going strong, it is the oldest continuously-published periodical in the U.S.

Almanac source

 

Written by LW

November 25, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Okay, so that was trolley problem version number seven. Chidi opted to run over five William Shakespeares instead of one Santa Claus.”*…

 

Trolley Problem

 

Imagine you are standing beside some tram tracks. In the distance, you spot a runaway trolley hurtling down the tracks towards five workers who cannot hear it coming. Even if they do spot it, they won’t be able to move out of the way in time.

As this disaster looms, you glance down and see a lever connected to the tracks. You realise that if you pull the lever, the tram will be diverted down a second set of tracks away from the five unsuspecting workers.

However, down this side track is one lone worker, just as oblivious as his colleagues.

So, would you pull the lever, leading to one death but saving five?

This is the crux of the classic thought experiment known as the trolley dilemma, developed by philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967 and adapted by Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1985.

The trolley dilemma allows us to think through the consequences of an action and consider whether its moral value is determined solely by its outcome.

The trolley dilemma has since proven itself to be a remarkably flexible tool for probing our moral intuitions, and has been adapted to apply to various other scenarios, such as war, torture, drones, abortion and euthanasia.

The trolley dilemma explored: would you kill one person to save five?

See also your correspondent’s favorite examination of the issue, from The Good Place:

 

Indeed, Michael “resolves” the dilemma in a way that would make today’s Almanac honoree (below) proud:

 

For an earlier look at The Trolley Problem on (Roughly) Daily, see “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”*…

[Image at top from Devine Lu Linvega (or @neauoire@merveilles.town)]

* Michael, The Good Place, Season Two, Episode Five: “The Trolley Problem”

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As we muse on morality, we might spare a thought for John Bordley Rawls; he died on this date in 2002 (Spinoza’s birthday and the anniversary of Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of the Species).  A moral and political philosopher, Rawls argued for “justice as fairness,” recommending equal basic rights, equality of opportunity, and promoting the interests of the least advantaged members of society.  He made these social justice arguments using a thought experiment he called the “original position,” in which people select what kind of society they would choose to live under as if they did not know which social position they would personally occupy.

Rawls received both the Schock Prize for Logic and Philosophy and the National Humanities Medal in 1999, the latter presented by President Bill Clinton, in recognition of the way in which Rawls’ work “helped a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in democracy itself.”  He is widely considered the most important political philosopher of the 20th century– with the unusual distinction among contemporary political philosophers of being frequently cited by the courts of law in the United States and Canada and referenced by practicing politicians in the United States and the UK.

A concept central to the “original position” approach to moral dilemmas is Rawls’ notion of a “veil of ignorance“: we decide the outcome without knowing which character we “are” in the situation… an approach that leads to Michael to his conclusion in The Good Place.  The “Golden Rule” strikes again!  [see also “The Unselfish Trolley Problem“]

220px-john_rawls source

 

“To treat the founding documents as Scripture would be to become a slave to the past”*…

 

Constitution

 

As historians from James MacGregor Burns to Jill Lepore remind us, the United States was– and is– an experiment.  The Constitution was the collective best effort of the Framers to write the first draft of an operating manual for the society they hoped it to be– a society unique in its time in its commitment to political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people– what Jefferson called “these truths.”

But like any wise group of prototypers, they assumed that their design would be refined through experience, that their “manual” would be updated… though even then Benjamin Franklin shared Jefferson’s worry [see the full title quote below] that American’s might treat their Constitution as unchangeable…

Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.  -Benjamin Franklin, letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy (13 November 1789)

The Framers expected– indeed, they counted on– their work being revised…

Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.   -Thomas Jefferson, letter to H. Tompkinson (AKA Samuel Kercheval) (12 July 1816)

Jesse K. Phillips has found a beautifully-current– and equally beautifully-concrete– way to capture the commitment to learning and improving that animated the Framers: he has put the Constitution onto GitHub, the software development platform that hosts reams of (constantly revised) open source code (and that was featured in yesterday’s (Roughly) Daily.)

[Image above: source]

* “To treat the founding documents as Scripture would be to become a slave to the past. ‘Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched,’ Jefferson conceded. But when they do, ‘They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human [and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment].”‘

― From Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States

 

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As we hold those truths to be inalienable, we might recall that it was on this date (which is, by the way, Fibonacci Day) in 1644 that John Milton published Areopagitica; A speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England.  A prose polemic opposing licensing and censorship, it is among history’s most influential and impassioned philosophical defenses of the principle of a right to freedom of speech and expression.  The full text is here.

409px-Areopagitica_1644bw_gobeirne source

 

 

 

“…for no change comes calmly over the world”*…

 

Github-in-Arctic-vault-for-at-least-1000-years-696x392

 

The world is powered by open source software.

It is a hidden cornerstone of modern civilization, and the shared heritage of all humanity. The mission of the GitHub Archive Program is to preserve open source software for future generations.

GitHub is partnering with the Long Now Foundation, the Internet Archive, the Software Heritage Foundation, Arctic World Archive, Microsoft Research, the Bodleian Library, and Stanford Libraries to ensure the long-term preservation of the world’s open source software. We will protect this priceless knowledge by storing multiple copies, on an ongoing basis, across various data formats and locations, including a very-long-term archive designed to last at least 1,000 years.

The GitHub Arctic Code Vault is a data repository preserved in the Arctic World Archive (AWA), a very-long-term archival facility 250 meters deep in the permafrost of an Arctic mountain. The archive is located in a decommissioned coal mine in the Svalbard archipelago, closer to the North Pole than the Arctic Circle. GitHub will capture a snapshot of every active public repository on 02/02/2020 and preserve that data in the Arctic Code Vault.

Adjacent to the Global Seed Vault, Github’s Global Archive Program.

* Walter M. Miller Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz

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As we preserve for posterity, we might recall that it was on this date in 1810 that Baltimore jeweler Peregrine Williamson was issued the first patent for a metal writing pen.  (His patent, #1168, is among the “X Patents,” those lost in the Patent Office fire of 1836.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA source

 

Written by LW

November 22, 2019 at 1:01 am

“When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water”*…

 

Water

 

The dangers of environmental pollution receive a lot of attention nowadays, particularly in the developing world, and with good reason. Air quality indices are dismal and worsening in many places, with India, in particular, facing an acute public-health emergency. But as serious as the pollution problem is, it must not be allowed to obscure another incipient environmental catastrophe, and potential source of future conflict: lack of access to clean water.

We may live on a “blue planet,” but less than 3% of all of our water is fresh, and much of it is inaccessible (for example, because it is locked in glaciers). Since 1960, the amount of available fresh water per capita has declined by more than half, leaving over 40% of the world’s population facing water stress. By 2030, demand for fresh water will exceed supply by an estimated 40%.

With nearly two-thirds of fresh water coming from rivers and lakes that cross national borders, intensifying water stress fuels a vicious circle, in which countries compete for supplies, leading to greater stress and more competition. Today, hundreds of international water agreements are coming under pressure…

In 2015, United Nations member states adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, which include an imperative to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.”  Yet, in the last four years, matters have deteriorated significantly.  Jayati Ghosh explains “The Growing Threat of Water Wars.”

For a combination of historical and statistical perspective on water conflict, see “Whatever happened to the water wars? More of them have happened than most people think.

* Benjamin Franklin

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As we struggle to share, we might send rational birthday greetings to Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire; he was born on this date in 1694.  The Father of the Age of Reason, he produced works in almost every literary form: plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works– more than 2,000 books and pamphlets (and more than 20,000 letters).  He popularized Isaac Newton’s work in France by arranging a translation of Principia Mathematica to which he added his own commentary.

A social reformer, Voltaire used satire to criticize the intolerance, religious dogma, and oligopolistic privilege of his day, perhaps nowhere more sardonically than in Candide.

 source

 

“Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal”*…

 

Tesseract

Colored cubes — known as “Tesseracts” — as depicted in the frontispiece to Hinton’s The Fourth Dimension (1904)

 

During the period we now call the fin de siècle, worlds collided. Ideas were being killed off as much as being born. And in a sort of Hegelian logic of thesis/antithesis/synthesis, the most interesting ones arose as the offspring of wildly different parents. In particular, the last gasp of Victorian spirituality infused cutting-edge science with a certain sense of old-school mysticism. Theosophy was all the rage; Huysmans dragged Satan into modern Paris; and eccentric poets and scholars met in the British Museum Reading Room under the aegis of the Golden Dawn for a cup of tea and a spot of demonology. As a result of all this, certain commonly-accepted scientific terms we use today came out of quite weird and wonderful ideas being developed at the turn of the century. Such is the case with space, which fascinated mathematicians, philosophers, and artists with its unfathomable possibilities…

In April 1904, C. H. Hinton published The Fourth Dimension, a popular maths book based on concepts he had been developing since 1880 that sought to establish an additional spatial dimension to the three we know and love. This was not understood to be time as we’re so used to thinking of the fourth dimension nowadays; that idea came a bit later. Hinton was talking about an actual spatial dimension, a new geometry, physically existing, and even possible to see and experience; something that linked us all together and would result in a “New Era of Thought.”…

Hinton’s ideas gradually pervaded the cultural milieu over the next thirty years or so — prominently filtering down to the Cubists and Duchamp. The arts were affected by two distinct interpretations of higher dimensionality: on the one hand, the idea as a spatial, geometric concept is readily apparent in early Cubism’s attempts to visualise all sides of an object at once, while on the other hand, it becomes a kind of all-encompassing mystical codeword used to justify avant-garde experimentation. “This painting doesn’t make sense? Ah, well, it does in the fourth dimension…” It becomes part of a language for artists exploring new ideas and new spaces…

By the late 1920s, Einsteinian Space-Time had more or less replaced the spatial fourth dimension in the minds of the public. It was a cold yet elegant concept that ruthlessly killed off the more romantic idea of strange dimensions and impossible directions. What had once been the playground of spiritualists and artists was all too convincingly explained. As hard science continued to rise in the early decades of the twentieth century, the fin-de-siècle’s more outré ideas continued to decline. Only the Surrealists continued to make reference to it, as an act of rebellion and vindication of the absurd. The idea of a real higher dimension linking us together as One sounded all a bit too dreamy, a bit too old-fashioned for a new century that was picking up speed, especially when such vague and multifarious explanations were trumped by the special theory of relativity. Hinton was as much hyperspace philosopher as scientist and hoped humanity would create a more peaceful and selfless society if only we recognised the unifying implications of the fourth dimension. Instead, the idea was banished to the realms of New Age con-artists, reappearing these days updated and repackaged as the fifth dimension. Its shadow side, however, proved hopelessly alluring to fantasy writers who have seen beyond the veil, and bring back visions of horror from an eldritch land outside of time and space that will haunt our nightmares with its terrible geometry, where tentacles and abominations truly horrible sleep beneath the Pacific Ocean waiting to bring darkness to our world… But still we muddle on through.

Hyperspace, tesseracts, ghosts, and colorful cubesJon Crabb, Editor, British Library Publishing, on the work of Charles Howard Hinton and the cultural history of higher dimensions: “Notes on the Fourth Dimension.”

[TotH to MK]

* H.P. Lovecraft, The Tomb

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As we get high(er), we might recall that it was on this date in 1946 that Al Gross went public with his invention of the walkie talkie.  Gross had developed it as a top secret project during World War II; he went on to develop the circuitry that opened the way to personal pocket paging systems, CB radio, and patented precursors of the cell phone and the cordless phone.  Sadly for him, his patents expired before they became commercially viable.  ”Otherwise,” Gross said, after winning the M.I.T. lifetime achievement award, ”I’d be as rich as Bill Gates.”

While Gross himself is almost unknown to the general public, he did achieve one-step-removed notoriety in 1948 when he “gifted” his friend Chester Gould the concept of miniaturized radio transceivers, which Gross had just patented.  Gould put it to use as the two-way wrist radio in his comic strip Dick Tracy.

200px-ALGROS2 source

 

Written by LW

November 20, 2019 at 1:01 am

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