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Posts Tagged ‘history

“In the circus, all is possible”*…

 

2018_04-Fall_Circus_32_0

Think, for a moment, of how circuses used to be. Each summer, eye doctors and dentists, and the old farmers at church, would cheerfully distribute tickets to children as the circus drew near. And something in their enthusiasm was contagious. The air seemed charged, the entire town electric, as though set in a kind of time outside of time. Townsfolk would make unnecessary detours to drive by the fairgrounds, watching the circus trucks unload. We could see the tension being cranked into the guy wires, a worker testing the cable with a calloused thumb and sending out a metallic thrum, as though to say: The circus! The circus is here! The circus has come to town!

And then the tattered, patched tents, faded from years of hard sun. A diesel generator rattling behind the stands. A grim woman selling lipstick-red candy apples, her face like a half-remembered photo on a post office wall. A large fan by an open tent flap to fight the swelter, only adding noise without moving air. The lions panting in a cage near one of the side rings. A clown directing five dogs so old that the audience would wince each time a dog leapt through a hoop.

The familiar had not gone away, exactly. In the summer heat, people would fan themselves with anything handy: a paper popcorn tub torn open, a folded church bulletin scrounged from a purse, even ticket stubs splayed like playing cards. But the unfamiliar had also taken hold, like the ordinary-looking woman in the side ring who suddenly proved a contortionist, wrapping her legs behind her head. The high-wire act held us rapt as the performers risked their falls. A small protest would escape the crowd as the lion tamer put his head in the mouth of a beast. The clowns didn’t make us laugh, exactly, but they made us smile. A plumed woman posing on the back of a prancing horse. The ringmaster in his top hat and red coat, white jodhpurs and black boots, directing our eyes to each new act with a flick of his baton.

Through it all, the strange compound scent of a circus would waft, reminding us of something not quite present— superimposing on this circus all the circuses that have ever been…

More at “The American circus in all its glory.”  And see The Circus, an American Experience documentary on PBS.

* Fernando Botero

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As we watch in wonder, we might recall that it was on this date in 1941 that Walt Disney’s story of a young circus elephant who discovers that he can fly– Dumbo— premiered.  Produced simply and to a short (64 minute) length, it was a calculated effort by Disney to recoup losses he’d suffered on Fantasia; his gamble paid off: despite the advent of World War II, Dumbo was Disney’s highest-grossing film of the 1940s.

220px-Dumbo-1941-poster source

 

Written by LW

October 23, 2018 at 8:04 am

“There is only one perfect view — the view of the sky straight over our heads, and that all these views on earth are but bungled copies of it”*…

 

7 sq miles

(Clockwise, from upper left) Seven-square-mile views of Manhattan; Chaganbulage Administrative Village in Inner Mongolia; Venice, Italy; and farms in Plymouth, Washington

 

Spending time looking at the varying and beautiful images of our planet from above in Google Earth, zooming in and out at dizzying rates, I thought it would be interesting to compare all of these vistas at a fixed scale—to see what New York City, Venice, or the Grand Canyon would look like from the same virtual height. So, the following images are snapshots from Google Earth, all rectangles of the same size and scale, approximately three and a half miles (5.6 kilometers) wide by two miles (3.2 kilometers) tall—showing seven square miles (18.1 square kilometers, or 4,480 acres) of the surface of our planet in each view…

The Atlantic‘s Alan Taylor takes us a remarkable tour of the earth:  “Seven Square Miles.”

* E.M. Forster, A Room with a View

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As we gaze groundward, we might recall that it was on this date in 1797 that André-Jacques Garnerin accomplished the first successful parachute jump.  He ascended to 2,230 ft. above the Parc Monceau, Paris, with a balloon, then released it and unfurled a silk parachute.  Lacking any vent in the top of the parachute, Garnerin descended with violent oscillations– as a result of which, he suffered the first case of airsickness.

Garnerin releases the balloon and descends with the help of a parachute, 1797. (Illustration from the late 19th century.)

source

 

Written by LW

October 22, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The real novelty of our own time is not the prominence of the religious Right but the silence of the religious Left”*…

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“The Word of Life” mural, otherwise known as the “Touchdown Jesus,” at the Hesburgh Library, Notre Dame University

 

Catholics make up a disproportionate share of the intelligentsia of the religious Right in the United States. Although they constitute only a fifth of the US population (and white Catholics make up less than 12 per cent of the US population), they maintain a high profile among conservative think tanks, universities and professional organisations. On the US Supreme Court, four out of five Republican-appointed justices are Catholic, despite evangelicals making up a substantial portion of Republican Party support.

To understand Catholic overrepresentation on the US Supreme Court, and how Catholics in some sense became the brains of American conservatism, we must look to the history of Catholic education in the US…

When evangelicals mobilised politically in the 1970s and declared a ‘culture war’ against the menace of secularism, they put aside their longstanding anti-Catholicism and reached out to Catholic conservatives. Catholics proved to be perfect partners. Unlike evangelicals, conservative Catholics could draw on research universities, law schools, medical schools, business schools and other intellectual-producing institutions in the fight against secularism. Evangelicals’ suspicion of higher education since at least the days of the 1925 Scopes trial over teaching evolution meant that they had built few institutions of higher learning. Their bible colleges and seminaries were meant to create believers and converts, not intellectuals.  Evangelical law schools and PhD programmes remain extremely rare in the US. Ironically, a tradition so devoted to spreading literacy saw too much learning as a potential danger…

Catholic intellectual life in the US is not solely conservative, and Catholic conservatism sometimes cuts across the Left-Right divide in the US (on immigration and the death penalty, for example). But it remains the case that Catholic intellectuals are overrepresented in the US conservative movement. By virtue of their 19th-century separationist anxieties and their investment in institutions of higher learning, Catholics have become the brains of the religious Right in the US…

How the Catholic Church became the intellectual engine of the religious Right: “Evangelicals bring the votes, Catholics bring the brains.”

* Alec Ryrie, Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World

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As we ruminate on religion, we might recall that it was on this date 1512 that Martin Luther joined the theological faculty of the University of Wittenberg… where, five years later, he wrote his famous Ninety-five Thesesand launched the Protestant Reformation.

Portrait_of_Martin_Luther_as_an_Augustinian_Monk source

 

“I see by hearing”*…

 

Echolocation_1

Daniel Kish navigates the world like a bat does—and he does so without ever leaving the ground.

After losing his vision as an infant, Kish taught himself to move around with the help of echolocation. Like bats, Kish uses his mouth to produce a series of short, crisp clicking sounds, and then listens to how those sounds bounce off the surrounding landscape. (Our winged neighbors tend to emit these clicks at frequencies humans can’t hear, but Kish’s clicks are perfectly audible to human ears.) From there, Kish makes a mental map of his environment, considering everything from broad contours—like walls and doors—down to textural details.

Kish now teaches echolocation, mostly to students who are blind. For these students, Kish believes that an echolocation practice can buoy confidence and independence. Kish’s own experience is persuasive—he famously bikes along hilly, car-lined streets—and a growing body of scholarly research has begun to unpack exactly how expert echolocaters do their thing. This research has also backed up the idea that this skill is highly learnable. When researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, asked novice echolocators to use tongue clicks to determine which of the two objects in front of them was larger, the newbies were soon able to do so in a way that the scientists couldn’t attribute to chance.

Whatever your sightedness, there’s something to be said for learning to listen more attentively to sonic scenery. Kish believes that vision has a way of blunting the other senses unless people work to really flex them. Deft echolocators, he says, are able to perceive fine differences—distinguishing, say, between an oleander bush (“a million sharp returns”) and an evergreen (“wisps closely packed together, which sound like a bit like a sponge or a curtain”). They’re discovering sonic wonder wherever they go…

A beginner’s guide to navigating with sound: “Teach Yourself to Echolocate.”

* Darrin Lunde, Hello, Bumblebee Bat

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As we take sound advice, we might send closely-heard birthday greetings to Sir Frederic Charles Bartlett, FRS; he was born on this date in 1886.  A psychologist (and the first professor of experimental psychology at the University of Cambridge), he was one of the pioneers of both cognitive psychology and cultural psychology.  His 1932 book Remembering was hugely influential in its demonstration (via the experiments it reports) that memory is not a consultative process that retrieves facts from an immutable record, as most then believed; rather, it is reconstruction, open it a variety of influences that can shape what is recalled.

But relevantly here, he also studied sound and its impact on humans.  His 1934 book The Problem of Noise is a study of “sound that is a nuisance,” and its impact, both physiological and psychological, on hearers.  It was, though probably unintended, Bartlett’s contribution to “clearing the air” for echolation.

Bartlett source

 

Written by LW

October 20, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Technology is making gestures precise and brutal, and with them men”*…

 

NIST_Precision_engineering_research

 

Scientists and engineers recognize an elusive but profound difference between precision and accuracy. The two qualities often go hand in hand, of course, but precision involves an ideal of meticulousness and consistency, while accuracy implies real-world truth. When a sharpshooter fires at a target, if the bullets strike close together—clustered, rather than spread out—that is precise shooting. But the shots are only accurate if they hit the bull’s eye. A clock is precise when it marks the seconds exactly and unvaryingly but may still be inaccurate if it shows the wrong time. Perversely, we sometimes value precision at the expense of accuracy…

What makes precision a feature of the modern world is the transition from craftsmanship to mass production. The genius of machine tools—as opposed to mere machines—lies in their repeatability. Artisans of shoes or tables or even clocks can make things exquisite and precise, “but their precision was very much for the few… It was only when precision was created for the many that precision as a concept began to have the profound impact on society as a whole that it does today.” That was John Wilkinson’s achievement in 1776: “the first construction possessed of a degree of real and reproducible mechanical precision—precision that was measurable, recordable, repeatable.”…

Replication and standardization are so hard-wired into our world that we forget how the unstandardized world functioned. A Massachusetts inventor named Thomas Blanchard in 1817 created a lathe that made wooden lasts for shoes. Cobblers still made the shoes, but now the sizes could be systematized. “Prior to that,… shoes were offered up in barrels, at random. A customer shuffled through the barrel until finding a shoe that fit, more or less comfortably.”…

James Gleick reviews– and responds to– Simon Winchester‘s The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World:  “Masters of Tolerance.”

[Image above: precision engineering research at the National Institute for Standards and Technology]

* Theodor Adorno

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As we contemplate craft, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Lewis Mumford; he was born on this date in 1895.  A historian, sociologist, philosopher of technology, and cultural critic, Mumford is probably best remembered for his writings on cities, perhaps especially for his award-winning book The City in History.  (See also The City— the extraordinary film that Mumford made with Ralph Steiner and Wiilard Van Dyne, from an outline by the renowned documentarian Pare Lorentz, with a score by Aaron Copland.) 

Mumford’s approaches to technology, its history, and its roles in society were acknowledged influences on writers like Jacques Ellul, Witold Rybczynski, Amory Lovins, E. F. Schumacher, Herbert Marcuse, Thomas Merton, and Marshall McLuhan.  In a similar way, he was an inspiration for the organicist and environmentalist movements of today.

Unfortunately, once an economy is geared to expansion, the means rapidly turn into an end and “the going becomes the goal.” Even more unfortunately, the industries that are favored by such expansion must, to maintain their output, be devoted to goods that are readily consumable either by their nature, or because they are so shoddily fabricated that they must soon be replaced. By fashion and build-in obsolescence the economies of machine production, instead of producing leisure and durable wealth, are duly cancelled out by the mandatory consumption on an even larger scale.

– Lewis Mumford, The City in History

 source

 

Written by LW

October 19, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”*…

 

future

Security, transportation, energy, personal “stuff”– the 2018 staff of Popular Mechanics, asked leading engineers and futurists for their visions of future cities, and built a handbook to navigate this new world: “The World of 2045.”

* William Gibson (in The Economist, December 4, 2003)

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As we take the long view, we might spare a thought for Charles Babbage; he died on this date in 1871. A mathematician, philosopher, inventor, and mechanical engineer, Babbage is best remembered for originating the concept of a programmable computer. Anxious to eliminate inaccuracies in mathematical tables, he first built a small calculating machine able to compute squares.  He then produced prototypes of portions of a larger Difference Engine. (Georg and Edvard Schuetz later constructed the first working devices to the same design, and found them successful in limited applications.)  In 1833 he began his programmable Analytical Machine (AKA, the Analytical Engine), the forerunner of modern computers, with coding help from Ada Lovelace, who created an algorithm for the Analytical Machine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers— for which she is remembered as the first computer programmer.

Babbage’s other inventions include the cowcatcher, the dynamometer, the standard railroad gauge, uniform postal rates, occulting lights for lighthouses, Greenwich time signals, and the heliograph opthalmoscope.  A true hacker, he was also passionate about cyphers and lock-picking.

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“Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.”*…

 

shifting-death-preview-1

Cause of death has changed over the years. In 1999, the suicide rate among 25- to 34-year-olds was 12.7 per 100,000 people. By 2016, that rate was almost 30 percent higher at 16.5.

These shifts over time are common and vary across sex and age groups.

With the release of the annual health report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, I looked at the subcategories of mortality, as defined by the World Health Organization, focusing specifically on how the ten most common ways to die have changed over the years…

causes of death

See (a full-sized and working version of) Nathan Yau’s animation of the changing causes of death, by sex and age group, in the U.S. from 1999 to 2016: “Shifting Causes of Death.”

* Isaac Asimov

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As we memento mori, we might spare a thoughts for Gertrude Mary Cox; she died on this date in 1978.  A pioneering statistician best known for her important work on experimental design, she founded the department of Experimental Statistics at North Carolina State University and later served as director of both the Institute of Statistics of the Consolidated University of North Carolina and the Statistics Research Division of North Carolina State University.  In 1949 Cox became the first female elected into the International Statistical Institute and in 1956 was President of the American Statistical Association.

Siddell Studio source

 

Written by LW

October 17, 2018 at 1:01 am

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