(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘history

“In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt”*…



Bertrand Russell’s quip prefigured the scientific discovery of a cognitive bias—the Dunning–Kruger effect—that has been so resonant that it has penetrated popular culture.


Dismayed at the Nazification of Germany, the philosopher [Bertrand Russell] wrote “The Triumph of Stupidity,” attributing the rise of Adolf Hitler to the organized fervor of stupid and brutal people—two qualities, he noted, that “usually go together.” He went on to make one of his most famous observations, that the “fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”

Russell’s quip prefigured the scientific discovery of a cognitive bias—the Dunning–Kruger effect—that has been so resonant that it has penetrated popular culture, inspiring, for example, an opera song (from Harvard’s annual Ig Nobel Award Ceremony): “Some people’s own incompetence somehow gives them a stupid sense that anything they do is first rate. They think it’s great.” No surprise, then, that psychologist Joyce Ehrlinger prefaced a 2008 paper she wrote with David Dunning and Justin Kruger, among others, with Russell’s comment—the one he later made in his 1951 book, New Hopes for a Changing World: “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” “By now,” Ehrlinger noted in that paper, “this phenomenon has been demonstrated even for everyday tasks, about which individuals have likely received substantial feedback regarding their level of knowledge and skill.” Humans have shown a tendency, in other words, to be a bit thick about even the most mundane things, like how well they drive…

But what exactly is stupidity? David Krakauer, the President of the Santa Fe Institute, told interviewer Steve Paulson, for Nautilus, stupidity is not simply the opposite of intelligence. “Stupidity is using a rule where adding more data doesn’t improve your chances of getting [a problem] right,” Krakauer said. “In fact, it makes it more likely you’ll get it wrong.” Intelligence, on the other hand, is using a rule that allows you to solve complex problems with simple, elegant solutions. “Stupidity is a very interesting class of phenomena in human history, and it has to do with rule systems that have made it harder for us to arrive at the truth,” he said. “It’s an interesting fact that, whilst there are numerous individuals who study intelligence—there are whole departments that are interested in it—if you were to ask yourself what’s the greatest problem facing the world today, I would say it would be stupidity. So we should have professors of stupidity—it would just be embarrassing to be called the stupid professor.”

Stupidity, and what to do about it: “The Case for Professors of Stupidity.”

* Bertrand Russell, “The Triumph of Stupidity” (1933)


As we get smart, we might spare a thought for Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin; he died on this date in 1921.  A scientist and geographer, he combined biological and historical fact to arrive at his theory of Mutual Aid.  While an army officer in Siberia, he studied the native animals, made geographical surveys, and examined the effects of the Ice Age in Asia and Europe.  His investigation of the structural lines of mountain ranges revised the cartography of eastern Asia.

But Kropotkin is probably better remembered as a revolutionary.  He wrote a series of articles against social Darwinism and its tenet of the benefits of competition.  Kropotkin argued that sociability characterized animals; thus, he held, cooperation rather than struggle guided the evolution of man and human intelligence.  These beliefs led him to propose a decentralized, “communist” society– a form of anarcho-communism, his championing of which led to his 41 year exile from Russia.  He returned in 1917, but was disappointed in the Bolshevik form of state socialism (the centralization– and totalitarian quality– of which violently conflicted with his belief in decentralization, freedom, and voluntary cooperation).

220px-Peter_Kropotkin_circa_1900 source


“Not too big, not too small… just right”*…



Dimensions.Guide is a comprehensive [and free]reference database of [thousands of] dimensioned drawings documenting the standard measurements and sizes of the everyday objects and spaces that make up our world. We offer our resources to professional designers, students, and the public alike as a way to enhance our global collective awareness of the parameters and dimensions of the things around us…

For example…

Screen Shot 2019-02-02 at 3.24.06 PM

Browse at Dimensions.Guide.

* The Goldilocks Principle


As we size it up, we might recall that it was on this date in 1921 that Charlie Chaplin released the first feature-length film in which he both starred (as “The Tramp”) and directed, The Kid.  Chaplin also wrote and produced the film.

Widely considered one of the greatest films of the silent era, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.


Written by LW

February 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The years teach much the days never know”*…


Hoover Dam

On the western flank of the Hoover Dam stands a little-understood monument, commissioned by the US Bureau of Reclamation when construction of the dam began in 01931. The most noticeable parts of this corner of the dam, now known as Monument Plaza, are the massive winged bronze sculptures and central flagpole which are often photographed by visitors. The most amazing feature of this plaza, however, is under their feet as they take those pictures.

The plaza’s terrazzo floor is actually a celestial map that marks the time of the dam’s creation based on the 25,772-year axial precession of the earth…

Hoover diagram

Alexander Rose, Executive director of The Long Now Foundation, on the star map of “Safety Island,” a Hoover Dam feature that has baffled visitors for decades: “The 26,000-Year Astronomical Monument Hidden in Plain Sight.”

See also “Coventry Doom,” the story of a 15th-century “doom mural” (depiction of the Last Judgement) that remained hidden in plain sight for centuries.

* Ralph Waldo Emerson


As we watch our step, we might send unearthed birthday greetings to Mary Douglas Leakey; she was born on this date in 1913.  An archaeologist and  paleoanthropologist, she made several of the most important fossil finds subsequently interpreted and publicized by her husband, the noted anthropologist Louis Leakey. For every vivid claim made by Louis about the origins of man, the supporting evidence tended to come from Mary’s scrupulous scientific approach.

220px-Mary_Leakey source


Written by LW

February 6, 2019 at 1:01 am

“A unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”*…



Is there any way to intervene usefully or meaningfully in public debate, in what the extremely online Twitter users are with gleeful irony calling the “discourse” of the present moment?

It has come to seem to me recently that this present moment must be to language something like what the Industrial Revolution was to textiles. A writer who works on the old system of production can spend days crafting a sentence, putting what feels like a worthy idea into language, only to find, once finished, that the internet has already produced countless sentences that are more or less just like it, even if these lack the same artisanal origin story that we imagine gives writing its soul. There is, it seems to me, no more place for writers and thinkers in our future than, since the nineteenth century, there has been for weavers.

This predicament is not confined to politics, and in fact engulfs all domains of human social existence…

Justin E. H. Smith rages against the machine.  Come for the righteous indictment of algorithmic culture; stay for the oddly redeeming conclusion: “It’s All Over.” [TotH @vgr]

But we might recall that Socrates (as reported in Plato’s Phaedrus) railed against the new technology of his time– writing– and its corrosive effect on memory.  Several readers of Smith’s essay have suggested that it is similarly “conservative.”  Smith engages those criticism here.

Pair with “The Age of Post-Authenticity and the Ironic Truths of Meme Culture.”

[image above: source]

definition of a “meme” in Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene (1976)


As we muse on meaning, we might send epistolary birthday greetings to Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné; she was born on this date in 1626.  A French aristocrat, she is the most celebrated letter writer in French literary history.  Those letters– over 1,100 survive– as celebrated for their vivid descriptiveness and their wit.  Mme de Sévigné’s letters play an important role in the novel In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, where they figure as the favorite reading of the narrator’s grandmother, and, following her death, his mother.

Check them out at the Internet Archive.

200px-Marquise_de_Sévigné source


Written by LW

February 5, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Climate change isn’t an “issue” to add to the list of things to worry about, next to health care and taxes. It is a civilizational wake-up call.”*…



“Whitening” the ocean (to reflect more solar radiation) by widely dispersing films, foams, floating chips, or other reflectors– or by towing icebergs from the Arctic down to lower latitudes, so the whiteness of the ice would reflect the sun.


The 1990s were a critical decade for action on climate change, as world governments prepared to finalize the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement by 37 countries to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. They were also a decade when oil companies poured millions of dollars into government lobbying and public relations, trying to persuade the world there was little to worry about. In 1997, with the Kyoto accord almost complete, Mobil, the major American oil company, published an advertisement in the New York Times and the Washington Post: “Let’s face it: The science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil,” it said. “Scientists cannot predict with certainty if temperatures will increase, by how much and where changes will occur.” Around the same time, Exxon CEO Lee Raymond argued in a speech to the World Petroleum Congress that “the case for so-called global warming is far from airtight.” (In 1998, Exxon and Mobil would join in a $73.7 billion deal, the largest corporate merger in the world at the time.)

Recent reporting by the Los Angeles Times and others revealed, however, that Exxon’s rhetoric ran counter to its own internal conclusions about the risks of climate change, as the company reengineered oil platforms and pipelines to account for the rising sea levels that both top executives and the publicity department claimed didn’t exist. Today, even as Exxon endorses the scientific consensus on climate change, supports emissions limits, and even backs some form of carbon taxation, the company exudes a vague optimism, regarding the climate problem as something they can build their way out of…

Perhaps our best guess at the kind of solutions Exxon may have in mind can be found in an obscure 1997 study on the topic of geoengineering. During the peak of Exxon’s obfuscation, the company’s top climate scientists, Brian Flannery and Haroon Kheshgi, along with two other scientists who didn’t work for Exxon, coauthored a chapter in a book called Engineering Response to Global Climate Change. Using dense, technical language, they outlined more than a dozen planetary-scale fixes to global warming. Not every idea was their own—some were borrowed, at least partially, from prior scientific literature—and the scientists also cautioned that the proposed solutions were not necessarily ready to be implemented. “Geoengineering may well have unintended and unforeseen consequences,” they wrote.

Indeed, geoengineering was considered fringe science in the 1990s, not least because there was still widespread hope that carbon emissions could be reduced through global agreements like Kyoto. (President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the accord in 2001.) It would take a decade before Scientific American declared that climate intervention had “gained respectability,” and almost 15 years until the United Nations’ climate-research body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, would begin publishing assessments on geoengineering options. That’s because while some of the ideas featured in the Exxon study were straightforward (planting trees, for example), a lot of them were quite insane…

Destroying the earth to save it?  Review several of the oil giant’s visionary “solutions”: “Giant Mirrors. Ocean Whitening. Here’s How Exxon Wanted to Save the Planet.”

* Naomi Klein


As we head for the hills, we might spare a thought for Robert McCorkle Netting; he died on this date in 1995.  A geographer and anthropologist, he pioneered the field of cultural ecology.  Among the many findings from his extensive field work, he argued that worldwide, small farms succeeded where large-scale agricultural enterprises tended to fail, the household being the most effective management unit.  His methodology has been widely adopted, and his textbook, Cultural Ecology, is widely used.

nettingrobertthm source


Written by LW

February 4, 2019 at 1:01 am

“I don’t like the ALPHAbet. I’m going to wait for the BETA version.”*…


alphabet zoomable version here


The chart shows how the letters used to write English (and many other languages) evolved from Proto-Sinaitic, through Phoenician, early Greek and early Latin, to their present forms. You can see how some letters were dropped and others ended up evolving into more than one letter…

From Matt Baker of UsefulCharts, this chart traces the evolution of our familiar alphabet from its Proto-Sinaitic roots circa 1850-1550 BC.  As Kottke observes, it’s tough to see how the pictographic forms of the original script evolved into our letters; aside from the T and maybe M & O, there’s little resemblance.  Helpfully, Baker also produced a video:

* Anthony T. Hincks


As we follow the thread, we might spare a thought for John Butler Yeats; he died on this date in 1922.  An artist many of whose works are displayed in the National Gallery of Ireland, he was the father of poet William Butler Yeats (and his accomplished siblings Lily YeatsElizabeth Corbett “Lolly” Yeats and Jack B. Yeats).


W. B. Yeats, by his father J. B. Yeats [source]


Self-portrait, J. B. Yeats [source]


Written by LW

February 3, 2019 at 1:01 am

“People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive”*…



A map characterizes the Republican trade policy platform in the 1888 election

When PJ Mode began to purchase old maps in the 1980s, he set out to amass a typical collection of world maps. But along the way, his attention turned to unusual maps that dealers weren’t sure how to categorize—those that attempted to persuade rather than convey geographic information.

“Most collectors looked down their noses at these maps because they didn’t technically consider them maps,” Mode says. “But they were fun and they were inexpensive, and over the years I became more interested in them than the old world maps.”

The interest has culminated in a collection of more than 800 “persuasive maps,” as they are now called, which can be found in digital form through Cornell University’s library…

Maps never succeed is depicting reality exactly, fully as it is.  But as a digital collection at Cornell University shows, many important maps from our past haven’t even tried.  How subjective maps can be used to manipulate opinion: “These ‘Persuasive Maps’ Want You to Believe.”

See also “Maps that Make a Point” and “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.”

* Blaise Pascal, De l’art de persuader


As we try to find our way, we might send birthday greetings to a “cartographer” of a different sort: James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was born on this date in 1882.  A poet and novelist best known for Ulysses, he was the preeminent figure in the Modernist avant-garde, and a formative influence on writers as various as (Joyce’s protege) Samuel Becket, Jorge Luis Borges, Salmon Rushdie, and Joesph Campbell.

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Ulysses No. 1, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man No. 3, and Finnegans Wake No. 77, on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.  The next year, Time Magazine named Joyce one of its 100 Most Important People of the 20th century, observing that “Joyce … revolutionized 20th century fiction.”  And illustrating that Joyce’s influence was not confined to the arts:  physicist Murray Gell-Mann used the sentence “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” (in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake) as source for the elementary particle he was naming– the quark.

Photo of Joyce included in a printed subscription order form for Ulysses, published Paris, 1921



Written by LW

February 2, 2019 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: