(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘communication

“The future belonged to the showy and the promiscuous”*…

Emily J. Orlando on the enduring relevance and the foresight of Edith Wharton

If ever there were a good time to read the American writer Edith Wharton, who published over forty books across four decades, it’s now. Those who think they don’t know Wharton might be surprised to learn they do. A reverence for Wharton’s fiction informs HBO’s Sex and the City, whose pilot features Carrie Bradshaw’s “welcome to the age of un-innocence.” The CW’s Gossip Girl opens, like Wharton’s The House of Mirth, with a bachelor spying an out-of-reach love interest at Grand Central Station while Season 2 reminds us that “Before Gossip Girl, there was Edith Wharton.”

But why Wharton? Why now? Perhaps it’s because for all its new technologies, conveniences, and modes of travel and communication, our own “Gilded Age” is a lot like hers [see here]. For the post-war and post-flu-epidemic climate that engendered her Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel The Age of Innocence is not far removed from our post-COVID-19 reality. In both historical moments, citizens of the world have witnessed a retreat into conservatism and a rise of white supremacy.

Fringe groups like the “Proud Boys” and “QAnon” and deniers of everything from the coronavirus to climate change are invited to the table in the name of free speech and here Wharton’s distrust of false narratives resonates particularly well. Post-9/11 calls for patriotism and the alignment of the American flag with one political party harken back to Wharton’s poignant questioning, in a 1919 letter, of the compulsion to profess national allegiance:

how much longer are we going to think it necessary to be “American” before (or in contradistinction to) being cultivated, being enlightened, being humane, & having the same intellectual discipline as other civilized countries?

Her cosmopolitan critique of nationalist fervor remains instructive to us today…

Eminently worth reading in full (then picking up one of Wharton’s wonderful novels): “How Edith Wharton Foresaw the 21st Century,” in @lithub.

See also: “These days, the bigger the company, the less you can figure out what it does.”

* Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country

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As we prize perspicacity, we might recall that it was on this date in 1884, in the midst of the Gilded Age, that Harper’s Bazaar proclaimed, “…it is not convenable, according to European ideas, to wear a loose flowing robe of the tea-gown pattern out of one’s bedroom or boudoir. It has been done by ignorant people at a watering-place, but it never looks well. It is really an undress, although lace and satin may be used in its composition. A plain, high, and tight-fitting garment is much the more elegant dress for the afternoon teas as we give them.”

Embraced by artists and reformers, the Aesthetic Dress Movement of the 1870s and 1880s was a non-mainstream movement within fashion that looked to the Renaissance and Rococo periods for inspiration. The movement began in response to reformers seeking to call attention to the unhealthy side effects of wearing a corset, thus, the main feature of this movement in women’s dress was the loose-fitting dress, which was worn without a corset. Artists and progressive social reformers embraced the Aesthetic Dress movement by appearing uncorseted and in loose-fitting dresses in public. For many that fell into these categories, Aesthetic Dress was an artistic statement. Appearing in public uncorseted was considered controversial for women, as it suggested intimacy. In fact, many women across the country were arrested for appearing in public wearing Aesthetic costumes, as authorities and more conservative citizens associated this type of dress with prostitution.

But for most wealthy women, the influence of the Aesthetic Dress movement on their wardrobes took the form of the Tea Gowns. Like most dresses that could be considered “Aesthetic,” Tea Gowns were loose and meant to be worn without a corset. However, they were less controversial than the Aesthetic ensembles of more artistic and progressive women. This is because they were not typically worn in public or in the company of the opposite sex. Tea Gowns were a common ensemble for hosts of all-female teas that were held in the wearer’s home. Thus, because no men were in attendance, Tea Gowns were socially acceptable in these scenarios. Mainstream magazines like Harper’s Bazar were not especially keen on the Tea Gown and cautioned their readers not to appear wearing one in public. 

“Gilded Age Fashion”

For a sense of what was at stake, see “The Corset X-Rays of Dr Ludovic O’Followell (1908)

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 26, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Oh, if I could talk to the animals, just imagine it”*…

Researchers are decoding the language of elephants

Digital technology is enabling scientists to detect and interpret the sounds of species as diverse as honey bees, peacocks, and elephants. Geographer Karen Bakker discusses the surprising and complex ways that animals and plants use sound to communicate…

Karen Bakker is a geographer who studies digital innovation and environmental governance. Her latest book, The Sounds of Life, trawls through more than a thousand scientific papers and Indigenous knowledge to explore our emerging understanding of the planet’s soundscape.

Microphones are now so cheap, tiny, portable, and wirelessly connected that they can be installed on animals as small as bees, and in areas as remote as underneath Arctic ice. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence software can now help decode the patterns and meaning of the recorded sounds. These technologies have opened the door to decoding non-human communication — in both animals and plants — and understanding the damage that humanity’s noise pollution can wreak.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Bakker, a professor of geography and environmental studies at the University of British Columbia, describes how researchers are constructing dictionaries of animal communication, focusing on elephants, honey bees, whales, and bats. “I think it’s quite likely,” she says, “that within 10 years, we will have the ability to do interactive conversations with these four species.”…

Interspecies understanding: “How Digital Technology Is Helping Decode the Sounds of Nature,” from @YaleE360.

* “Talk to the Animals,” by Leslie Bricusse (famously recorded by Rex Harrison and Sammy Davis, Jr.)

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As we translate, we might posit that most of the people alive at 11:11 11/11/1111 had no idea anything was interesting about that moment.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 11, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Right now I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before.”*…

Woodcut illustrations from Anianus’ Compotus cum commento (ca. 1492), an adaptation of Bede’s computus system — Source.

Before humans stored memories as zeroes and ones, we turned to digital devices of another kind — preserving knowledge on the surface of fingers and palms. Kensy Cooperrider leads us through a millennium of “hand mnemonics” and the variety of techniques practiced by Buddhist monks, Latin linguists, and Renaissance musicians for remembering what might otherwise elude the mind…

In the beginning, the hand was just a hand — or so we can imagine. It was a workaday organ, albeit a versatile one: a tool for grasping, holding, throwing, and hefting. Then, at some point, after millions of years, it took on other duties. It became an instrument of mental, not just menial, labor. As a species, our systems of understanding, belief, and myth had grown more elaborate, more cognitively overwhelming. And so we started to put those systems out into the world: to tally, track, and record by carving notches into bone, tying knots in string, spreading pigment on cave walls, and aligning rocks with celestial bodies. Hands abetted these early mental labors, of course, but they would later become more than mere accessories. Beginning roughly twelve hundred years ago, we started using the hand itself as a portable repository of knowledge, a place to store whatever tended to slip our mental grasp. The topography of the palm and fingers became invisibly inscribed with information of all kinds — tenets and dates, names and sounds. The hand proved versatile in a new way, as an all-purpose memory machine.

The arts of memory are well known, but the role of the hand in these arts is often overlooked. In the twentieth century, beginning with the pioneering work of Frances Yates, Western scholars started to piece together a rich tradition of mnemonic practices that originated in antiquity and later took hold in Europe. The most celebrated of these is the “memory palace” [see here]. Using this technique, skilled practitioners can memorize vast collections of facts by nesting them in familiar places (or “loci”): the chambers of a building or along a well-known route. (To make these places more memorable, a bizarre image is often added to each one, the more jarring the better.) It is an odd omission that hand mnemonics are rarely mentioned alongside memory palaces. Both techniques are powerful and broadly attested. Both are adaptable, able to accommodate whatever type of information one wants to remember. And both work by similar principles, pinning to-be-remembered items to familiar locations.

The two traditions do have important differences. Memory palaces exist solely in the imagination; hand mnemonics exist half in the mind and half in the flesh. Another difference lies in their intended use. Memory palaces are idiosyncratic in nature, tailored to the quirks of personal experience and association, and used for private purposes; they are very much the province of an individual. Hand mnemonics, by contrast, are the province of a community, a tool for collective understanding. They offer a way of fixing and transmitting a shared system of knowledge. They serve private purposes, certainly — such as contemplation, in the case of the Mogao mnemonic, or calculation, in the case of Bede’s computus. But they also have powerful social functions in teaching, ritual, and communication…

The five-fingered memory machine: “Handy Mnemonics,” from @kensycoop in @PublicDomainRev.

* Steven Wright

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As we give it (to) the finger, we might recall an occasion for counting that required no fingers at all: on this date in 2015, a baseball game between Chicago White Sox and the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards set the all-time low attendance mark for Major League Baseball. Zero (0) fans were in attendance, because the stadium was closed to the public due to the 2015 Baltimore protests (over the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody).

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“One of the chief obstacles to intelligence is credulity, and credulity could be enormously diminished by instructions as to the prevalent forms of mendacity”*…

But, as the tale of the disastrous diet demonstrates, that instruction needs to start early and go deep…

While on vacation, Marcial Conte, the Brazilian publisher of my first book, met a woman who asked about his work. Upon learning he was responsible for A Mentira do Glutén: E Outros Mitos Sobre O Que Voce Comê (The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths About What You Eat), she lit up.

Her husband, she said, had followed my revolutionary diet protocol and changed his life. Pounds melted away. Myriad health problems resolved themselves.“ She told me to thank you for saving her husband’s life with the ‘UNpacked Diet,’” Conte grinned at me. “Incredible, no? The only change they made was keeping aluminum foil.”

Incredible, indeed. The diet was satire, invented by me, and it came at the end of a book dedicated to exposing pseudoscientific nutrition claims. For the centerpiece of the faux diet, I used just such a claim: that the cause of all modern ailments was food packaging. By “unpacking” your food — that is, by refusing to eat food that had come in contact with plastic, styrofoam, or aluminum foil — I pretended to promise readers a magical panacea for everything from autism to Alzheimer’s, as well as effortless weight loss.

The satire should have been clear. Every chapter was packed with warnings about precisely the kinds of claims made in the diet, such as:

• Beware of panaceas… like a diet that promises miraculous weight loss and a solution to every chronic illness.

• Distrust the promise of secret knowledge hidden by conspiracies… like the diet that “they” don’t want you to know about.

• Don’t trust individual anecdotes… like the glowing testimonials I included at the end of the invented diet. (I took them from other pseudoscientific diet books.)

• Stay alert for myths and fallacies such as the “appeal to antiquity”… the idea that our ancestors lived in a dietary paradise and that modern technology is uniquely evil and dangerous.

• Watch out for grains of scientific truth turned into alarmist falsehoods… like the cherry-picked scientific studies that filled the UNpacked Diet’s footnotes.

Each deceptive tactic in the UNpacked Diet had been scrupulously debunked in the chapters that preceded it. Not only that, but after the diet there was another section called the “UNpacked Diet, UNpacked,” in which I went through each of the deceptive tactics and explained why I chose it. How could this couple have taken it seriously, much less followed it? Even if they had missed the final section, their reaction to the UNpacked Diet should have been skepticism and disbelief, not enthusiasm.

I would have been more shocked at Conte’s story if I hadn’t already heard from others who had likewise tried the diet. Readers have emailed asking where they can buy the “UNpacked Diet-approved unbleached coffee filters” that I dreamed up as part of the satire, or with follow-up questions about what’s permissible within the framework of the “diet.” In just a few pages, those powerful rhetorical techniques overcame chapter after chapter of carefully crafted guidance on how to resist them.

My current approach is to present my students with what you’ve just read: transparency about my own thought process. Misinformation exploits the (reasonable!) suspicion that authority figures are hiding something, coming up with secret ways to “nudge” us in certain directions or manipulating us with… well, with science communication techniques. Transparency about how we approach the communication of science — or the communication of a lot of things — creates trust, which is essential to effective persuasion. I’ve found that students report increased trust and a sense that I’m an honest broker of information when I take the transparency approach.

At the same time, knowing that some people believe in the healing power of my satirical diet immediately after reading almost 200 pages on why they shouldn’t has left me deeply shaken. Changing how we communicate science can help, but it’s a Band-Aid solution. A real solution means changing education so books like mine are obsolete.

By the time children finish high school, they should be intimately familiar with manipulative rhetorical techniques, common fallacies, and their own susceptibility to persuasive anecdotes. Alongside hours of studying the Krebs cycle and mitochondria, there should be hours allotted to how to distinguish scientific reasoning from pseudoscientific nonsense. From vaccines to climate change, misinformation poses an existential threat when it inhibits our collective decision-making ability. The time has come to start treating it that way.

How exposure to misinformation inoculation sometimes makes things worse– and how to do better: “They Swore by the Diet I Created — but I Completely Made It Up,” from Alan Levinovitz (@AlanLevinovitz), via the always-illuminating @DenseDiscovery.

* “One of the chief obstacles to intelligence is credulity, and credulity could be enormously diminished by instructions as to the prevalent forms of mendacity. Credulity is a greater evil in the present day than it ever was before, because, owing to the growth of education, it is much easier than it used to be to spread misinformation, and, owing to democracy, the spread of misinformation is more important than in former times to the holders of power.” – Bertrand Russell

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As we think critically, we might recall that it was on this date in 1789 that partisans of the Third Estate, impatient for social and legal reforms (and economic relief) in France, attacked and took control of the Bastille.  A fortress in Paris, the Bastille was a medieval armory and political prison; while it held only 8 inmates at the time, it resonated with the crowd as a symbol of the monarchy’s abuse of power.  Its fall ignited the French Revolution.  This date is now observed annually as France’s National Day.

See the estimable Robert Darnton’s “What Was Revolutionary about the French Revolution?

Happy Bastille Day!

300px-Prise_de_la_Bastille
Storming of The Bastile, Jean-Pierre Houël

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“We account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in individuality”*…

remarkable new study on how whales behaved when attacked by humans in the 19th century has implications for the way they react to changes wreaked by humans in the 21st century.

The paper, published by the Royal Society [in March], is authored by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, pre-eminent scientists working with cetaceans, and Tim D Smith, a data scientist, and their research addresses an age-old question: if whales are so smart, why did they hang around to be killed? The answer? They didn’t.

Using newly digitised logbooks detailing the hunting of sperm whales in the north Pacific, the authors discovered that within just a few years, the strike rate of the whalers’ harpoons fell by 58%. This simple fact leads to an astonishing conclusion: that information about what was happening to them was being collectively shared among the whales, who made vital changes to their behaviour. As their culture made fatal first contact with ours, they learned quickly from their mistakes.

“Sperm whales have a traditional way of reacting to attacks from orca,” notes Hal Whitehead… Before humans, orca were their only predators, against whom sperm whales form defensive circles, their powerful tails held outwards to keep their assailants at bay. But such techniques “just made it easier for the whalers to slaughter them”, says Whitehead.

It was a frighteningly rapid killing, and it accompanied other threats to the ironically named Pacific. From whaling and sealing stations to missionary bases, western culture was imported to an ocean that had remained largely untouched. As Herman Melville, himself a whaler in the Pacific in 1841, would write in Moby-Dick (1851): “The moot point is, whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc.”

Sperm whales are highly socialised animals, able to communicate over great distances. They associate in clans defined by the dialect pattern of their sonar clicks. Their culture is matrilinear, and information about the new dangers may have been passed on in the same way whale matriarchs share knowledge about feeding grounds. Sperm whales also possess the largest brain on the planet. It is not hard to imagine that they understood what was happening to them.

The hunters themselves realised the whales’ efforts to escape. They saw that the animals appeared to communicate the threat within their attacked groups. Abandoning their usual defensive formations, the whales swam upwind to escape the hunters’ ships, themselves wind-powered. ‘This was cultural evolution, much too fast for genetic evolution,’ says Whitehead.

And in turn, it evokes another irony. Now, just as whales are beginning to recover from the industrial destruction by 20th-century whaling fleets – whose steamships and grenade harpoons no whale could evade – they face new threats created by our technology. ‘They’re having to learn not to get hit by ships, cope with the depredations of longline fishing, the changing source of their food due to climate change,’ says Whitehead. Perhaps the greatest modern peril is noise pollution, one they can do nothing to evade.

Whitehead and Randall have written persuasively of whale culture, expressed in localised feeding techniques as whales adapt to shifting sources, or in subtle changes in humpback song whose meaning remains mysterious. The same sort of urgent social learning the animals experienced in the whale wars of two centuries ago is reflected in the way they negotiate today’s uncertain world and what we’ve done to it.

As Whitehead observes, whale culture is many millions of years older than ours. Perhaps we need to learn from them as they learned from us…

Learning from the ways that whales learn: “Sperm whales in 19th century shared ship attack information.”

* Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

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As we admire adaptation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1953 that Ernest Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for his short novel The Old Man and the Sea. It was cited by the Nobel Committee as contributing to their awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Hemingway the following year.

The Old Man and the Sea reinvigorated Hemingway’s literary reputation and prompted a reexamination of his entire body of work. The novel was initially received with much enthusiasm by critics and the public alike; many critics favorably compared it with Moby-Dick.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 4, 2021 at 1:01 am

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