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Posts Tagged ‘knowledge

“Nearly all the grandest discoveries of science have been but the rewards of accurate measurement”*…

… and, as Christie Aschwanden explains in her consideration of James Vincent‘s new book, Beyond Measure, that progress has been hard won– and has had cultural consequence…

… [Swiss meteorologist Jean-André de Luc] set out to find the true boiling point of water, but instead of finding a single answer to the question, de Luc instead found “only a multitude of phenomena forced into homogeneity by this single, restrictive term,” Vincent writes. (Scientists eventually turned to the steam produced by boiling water as a more reliable measure of temperature.)

And so it has gone with many types of measurements, Vincent observes. “The quest for precision — the desire to burrow ever more closely into the weft of reality — unveils only irregularity on a far greater scale.” The same might be said of science writ large, and Vincent’s recounting of the development of some science’s most well-used measures are classic tales in the history of scientific discovery. The meter, for instance, was originally intended as a unit of distance based on the Earth’s meridian until careful surveys showed that these meridians weren’t as perfect and unchanging as previously believed.

“Beyond Measure”offers engrossing accounts of the role that measurement has played in scientific progress, including its roles in medicine, math, and quantum mechanics, but the book is about much more than science. Vincent also presents a deep history of measurement’s role in society. “Measurement is not an intrinsic feature of the world, but a practice invented and imposed by humanity,” he writes.

Throughout human history, measurement has often provided a means for exerting power. For instance, the Roman Empire created a method for measuring land called the centuriatio that divided territory into grids. The system “not only simplified property rights and tax collection,” but also provided a way to portion out farmland to veterans and make roads amenable for marching troops, Vincent writes: “The survey, in other words, helped fund, direct, and reward Rome’s imperial war machine.”…

How the quest to quantify has shaped scientific progress and human society: “The Surpisingly Imprecise History of Measurement“- @cragcrest on @jjvincent in @undarkmag.

[Image above: source]

* Lord Kelvin


As we contemplate quantification, we might send carefully-measured birthday greetings to Malcolm Purcell McLean; he was born on this date in 1914. A transportation entrepreneur, he parlayed his experience as a trucker into the development of the modern shipping container— which revolutionized transport and international trade in the second half of the twentieth century. Containerization led to a significant reduction in the cost of freight transportation by eliminating the need for repeated handling of individual pieces of cargo, and also improved reliability, reduced cargo theft, and cut inventory costs (thus, working capital needs) by shortening transit time.

When McLean died in 1987, then Secretary of Transportation Norm Minetta said:

Malcom revolutionized the maritime industry in the 20th century. His idea for modernizing the loading and unloading of ships, which was previously conducted in much the same way the ancient Phoenicians did 3,000 years ago, has resulted in much safer and less-expensive transport of goods, faster delivery, and better service. We owe so much to a man of vision, “the father of containerization,” Malcolm P. McLean.

In an editorial shortly after his death, the Baltimore Sun wrote that “he ranks next to Robert Fulton as the greatest revolutionary in the history of maritime trade,” and Forbes Magazine called McLean “one of the few men who changed the world.” On the morning of McLean’s funeral, container ships around the world blew their whistles in his honor.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 14, 2022 at 1:00 am

“The way in which the world is imagined determines at any particular moment what men will do”*…

André Forget with an appreciation of an all-too-timely classic…

One hundred years ago, a young American journalist named Walter Lippmann published a book called Public Opinion. Though it is one of the most important books of the twentieth century and still acknowledged as a foundational text in the study of social psychology, media, and propaganda, its centenary has passed, for the most part, unacknowledged. This is ironic, because its central question—put simply, “How can a truly self-governing society function under the conditions of ‘mass culture’?”—has rarely been more relevant. Our current debates about disinformation and the pernicious effects of social media could be rather more productive if the participants would bother to read Lippmann—not because Lippmann provides any workable solutions, but because his analysis of the extent of the problem is so clear-eyed.

Lippmann’s book stands as the first attempt to comprehensively explain how individual psychology, political and social movements, and the mass media both create and unravel shared experiences of reality. The argument he lays out is fairly straightforward: Most of what we think we know about the world has been filtered down to us through external sources, and this information creates a sort of mental map, a collection of simplified representations of the world that help us navigate it more effectively. Inevitably, the accuracy and detail of our maps is directly related to our individual needs and interests—my mental map, for example, contains a great deal of information about Canadian literature, and almost none about how my computer works—but even the things we think we know are mostly just agglomerations of facts we’ve taken on trust from people and institutions relaying them at second- or third-hand. My confidence in saying that reality as I understand it corresponds to the real environment around me is a barometer of my faith in the sources of my information.

The mental maps we carry in our heads determine how we will act in the world, though they will not determine the outcomes of our actions. If I believe that Alaska has white sand beaches, I might book a holiday in Anchorage, but I will probably be disappointed after I arrive. While personal experience can help us correct misconceptions, not everyone can have personal experience of everything that affects their life, so the more abstracted from our personal experience a problem becomes, the more we will need to rely on the guidance and expertise of others. But these guides and experts are also finite individuals who must rely, in turn, on guidance and expertise from other sources, and the information they provide is shaded by their own prejudices and interests, as well as the inevitable distortions and elisions involved in any process of simplification and transmission…

If Lippmann is basically right—and it seems difficult, then as now, to argue that he isn’t—then the implications for democracy are troubling. When we invoke the rule of “the people,” we are invoking an abstraction, because the public body is in fact made up of an endless array of sets and classes and interests, cultivated and then pandered to by opinion-mongers and press barons who inflame the worst impulses of their audiences in order to create a steady market for their content. This is the opposite of the sort of feverish conspiracy about how the press works that cranks of all kinds have stipulated. If there is a larger purpose at work, it is generally of the most venal sort, often directed by nothing more than the need to present an opinion opposite to that of one’s competitor. If you squint, something like consensus may emerge during one moment of crisis or another, but it is usually illusory, and always fleeting.

Arguments about the relationship between freedom and information are present in the founding of modern democracy. A decade before the thirteen colonies declared their independence from Britain, the rebel John Adams had argued that “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.” But the president John Adams sang a different tune when “general knowledge” became a threat to his administration. Seen from a certain angle, the Sedition Act of 1798 is the U.S. government’s first attempt to combat disinformation. The relationship between a truly free press and functional democratic government has been strained from the beginning, and if the tension between the two seemed particularly fraught in Lippmann’s age, it wasn’t for the first or the last time…

Walter Lippmann’s seminal work identified a fundamental problem for modern democratic society that remains as pressing—and intractable—as ever: “Public Opinion at 100,” from @ayforget in @BulwarkOnline. Eminently worth reading in full.

* Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion


As we contemplate civil discourse, we might recall that it was on this date in 1897 that The (New York) Sun ran an editorial entitled “Is There a Santa Claus?”  Written by Francis Pharcellus Church in response to a letter from 8 year-old Virginia O’Hanlon, it is now remembered best by one of its lines: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”



“How deluded we sometimes are by the clear notions we get out of books. They make us think that we really understand things of which we have no practical knowledge at all.”*…

“The Invention of Copper Engraving”; engraving by Jan Collaert after Stradanus, circa 1600

Anthony Grafton on Pamela H. Smith‘s new book, From Lived Experience to the Written Word: Reconstructing Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern World, and the challenges of understanding the origins of the practical arts, crafts, and sciences…

… The knowledge that goes into building a brick wall that is truly vertical or hanging a door that doesn’t stick, printing a book that doesn’t smudge or casting a bell that won’t split, is hard to trace to its origins. Historians of science specialize in theories and methods that they can tie to people and dates: for example, astronomy based on the heliocentric theory and human anatomy based on human dissection. Both of these, as it happens, were the subjects of long, technical books—by Copernicus and Vesalius, respectively—that appeared in 1543.

The knowledge that underpins our world of things, by contrast, has been discovered over centuries, through trial and error, two steps forward and one step back. It has been produced and improved by collaboration: the work of talented, largely anonymous groups, generation after generation, rather than identifiable individuals. And it is less verbal than embodied. Most of the experiments involved in forming a craft and the practices used to teach and further develop it go unrecorded, as do those who carried them out. French bakers often start their careers nowadays with formal training. But they master their craft at work, learning from those with experience and skills, hands in the dough and senses focused on what happens to it in the oven.

Teaching astronomy or anatomy happens in a lecture hall or anatomy theater—a place where some people pronounce and others take notes (or zone out). Teaching in the world of things goes on in places where people work. Teaching in the university is usually abstract and verbal. Teaching in the world of things is often physical: the teacher urges pupils to apply all of their senses and employs gestures as well as words to make clear how one wields a tool or decides if something has finished cooking.

As a history professor I have told stories and argued about interpretations before hundreds of students in lecture halls and seminar rooms. Long ago, as a theater technician, I taught apprentices—face-to-face and with our hands on tools and materials—how to swing a hammer or glue the cloth for scenery to a wooden frame. When teaching history I present an ever-changing body of material that I have read and thought and argued about with colleagues over the decades. When teaching theater crafts I transmitted physical skills that I had learned from others in shops and about which I had not read a word. No notes preserve those lessons. How can we hope to discover how a medieval blacksmith learned to forge tools or a Renaissance tailor learned to cut brocade?…

The knowledge that underpins our world of things has been discovered over centuries, produced as the result of collaboration, and generally unrecorded. How does a historian overcome these obstacles? “How to Cast a Metal Lizard,” @scaliger on @ps2270 in @nybooks.

Similarly, see “How a Bedouin Tracker Sees the Desert.” And for how a successful manager (and artist) incorporates “the art of craft” into his life, see “Leading with Slow Craft,” from @natenatenate.

* Thomas Merton


As we noodle on knowledge, we might recall that it was on this date in 1899 that Henry Hale Bliss, a 69-year-old New York City real estate dealer, was alighting from a south bound 8th Avenue trolley car when an electric-powered taxicab (Automobile No. 43) struck him. Bliss hit the pavement, crushing his head and chest. He was taken by ambulance to Roosevelt Hospital; but upon arrival the house surgeon, Dr. Marny, said his injuries were too severe to survive; Bliss died the next morning… becoming the first recorded instance of a person being killed in a motor vehicle collision in the U. S.

Bliss in 1873 [source]

Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 13, 2022 at 1:00 am

“It was orderly, like the universe. It had logic. It was dependable. Using it allowed a kind of moral uplift, as one’s own chaos was also brought under control.”*…

(Roughly) Daily has looked before at the history of the filing cabinet, rooted in the work of Craig Robertson (@craig2robertson). He has deepened his research and published a new book, The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information. An Xiao Mina offers an appreciation– and a consideration of one of the central questions it raises: can emergent knowledge coexist with an internet that privileges the kind “certainty” that’s implicit in the filing paradigm that was born with the filing cabinet and that informs our “knowledge systems” today…

… The 20th century saw an emergent information paradigm shaped by corporate capitalism, which emphasized maximizing profit and minimizing the time workers spent on tasks. Offices once kept their information in books—think Ebenezer Scrooge with his quill pen, updating his thick ledger on Christmas. The filing cabinet changed all that, encouraging what Robertson calls “granular certainty,” or “the drive to break more and more of life and its everyday routines into discrete, observable, and manageable parts.” This represented an important conceptualization: Information became a practical unit of knowledge that could be standardized, classified, and effortlessly stored and retrieved.

Take medical records, which require multiple layers of organization to support routine hospital business. “At the Bryn Mawr Hospital,” Robertson writes, “six different card files provided access to patient information: an alphabetical file of admission cards for discharged patients, an alphabetical file for the accident ward, a file to record all operations, a disease file, a diagnostic file, and a doctors’ file that recorded the number of patients each physician referred to the hospital.” The underlying logic of this system was that the storage of medical records didn’t just keep them safe; it made sure that those records could be accessed easily.

Robertson’s deep focus on the filing cabinet grounds the book in history and not historical analogy. He touches very little on Big Data and indexing and instead dives into the materiality of the filing cabinet and the principles of information management that guided its evolution. But students of technology and information studies will immediately see this history shaping our world today…

[And] if the filing cabinet, as a tool of business and capital, guides how we access digital information today, its legacy of certainty overshadows the messiness intrinsic to acquiring knowledge—the sort that requires reflection, contextualization, and good-faith debate. Ask the internet difficult questions with complex answers—questions of philosophy, political science, aesthetics, perception—and you’ll get responses using the same neat little index cards with summaries of findings. What makes for an ethical way of life? What is the best English-language translation of the poetry of Borges? What are the long-term effects of social inequalities, and how do we resolve them? Is it Yanny or Laurel?

Information collection and distribution today tends to follow the rigidity of cabinet logic to its natural extreme, but that bias leaves unattended more complex puzzles. The human condition inherently demands a degree of comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity, as we carefully balance incomplete and conflicting data points, competing value systems, and intricate frameworks to arrive at some form of knowing. In that sense, the filing cabinet, despite its deep roots in our contemporary information architecture, is just one step in our epistemological journey, not its end…

A captivating new history helps us see a humble appliance’s sweeping influence on modern life: “The Logic of the Filing Cabinet Is Everywhere.”

* Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?


As we store and retrieve, we might recall that it was on this date in 19955 that the term “artificial intelligence” was coined in a proposal for a “2 month, 10 man study of artificial intelligence” submitted by John McCarthy (Dartmouth College), Marvin Minsky (Harvard University), Nathaniel Rochester (IBM), and Claude Shannon (Bell Telephone Laboratories). The workshop, which took place at Dartmouth a year later, in July and August 1956, is generally recognized as the official birth date of the new field. 

Dartmouth Conference attendees: Marvin Minsky, Claude Shannon, Ray Solomonoff and other scientists at the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence (Photo: Margaret Minsky)


“The people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse.”*…

Tim O’Reilly with a (customarily) wise assessment of an emerging new technology…

The metaphors we use to describe new technology constrain how we think about it, and, like an out-of-date map, often lead us astray. So it is with the metaverse. Some people seem to think of it as a kind of real estate, complete with land grabs and the attempt to bring traffic to whatever bit of virtual property they’ve created.

Seen through the lens of the real estate metaphor, the metaverse becomes a natural successor not just to Second Life but to the World Wide Web and to social media feeds, which can be thought of as a set of places (sites) to visit. Virtual Reality headsets will make these places more immersive, we imagine.

But what if, instead of thinking of the metaverse as a set of interconnected virtual places, we think of it as a communications medium? Using this metaphor, we see the metaverse as a continuation of a line that passes through messaging and email to “rendezvous”-type social apps like Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and, for wide broadcast, Twitch + Discord. This is a progression from text to images to video, and from store-and-forward networks to real time (and, for broadcast, “stored time,” which is a useful way of thinking about recorded video), but in each case, the interactions are not place based but happening in the ether between two or more connected people. The occasion is more the point than the place…

Tim explains what he means– and what that could mean: “The Metaverse is not a place- it’s a communications medium,” @timoreilly in @radar.

* Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (the origination of the term “metaverse”)


As we jack in, we might send well-connected birthday greetings to Paul Otlet; he was born on this date in 1868. An author, entrepreneur, lawyer, and peace activist, he is considered the father of information science. He created Universal Decimal Classification (which would later become a faceted classification) and was responsible for the development of an early information retrieval tool, the “Repertoire Bibliographique Universel” (RBU) which utilized 3×5 inch index cards, used commonly in library catalogs around the world (though now largely displaced by the advent of the online public access catalog or OPAC). Indeed, Otlet predicted the advent of the internet (though over-optimisitically imagined that it would appear in the 1930s).

For more of his remarkable story, see “Knowledge, like air, is vital to life. Like air, no one should be denied it.”


Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 23, 2022 at 1:00 am

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