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Posts Tagged ‘sociology

“Francie, huddled with other children of her kind, learned more that first day than she realized. She learned of the class system of a great Democracy.”*…

 

yellow fever

Engraving from a series of images titled “The Great Yellow Fever Scourge — Incidents Of Its Horrors In The Most Fatal District Of The Southern States.”

 

Some people say New Orleans is haunted because of witches. Others say it’s haunted by vampires, or ghosts, or all those swamps. But if you were around between 1817 and 1905, you might say the city was haunted by death. And that death, in large part, was caused by yellow fever.

Yellow fever was fatal. It was gruesome. And in epidemic years, during the months between July and October, it could wipe out 10 percent of the city’s population. Eventually, it earned New Orleans the nickname “Necropolis” — city of the dead.

Yellow fever didn’t just kill. It created an entire social structure based on who had survived the virus, who was likely to survive it and who was not long for this world. And that structure had everything to do with immigration and slavery…

The insidious way in which illness can shape society: “How Yellow Fever Turned New Orleans Into The ‘City Of The Dead‘.”

* Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

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As we get our flu shots, we might send healing birthday greetings to Florence Rena Sabin; she was born on this date in 1871.  A pioneer for women in science; she was the first woman to hold a full professorship at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, the first woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and the first woman to head a department at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research.  Relevantly to today’s post, at Rockefeller she founded the cellular immunology section, where she researched the body’s white blood cells reaction to tuberculosis infection.

400px-Florence_Sabin_in_Rockefeller_lab source

 

Written by LW

November 9, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The information revolution came without an instruction manual”*…

 

Machines

In my graduate seminar we’ve recently been thinking a bit about machines. Given that our focus has been on the 19th Century, attention has been directed toward ergodic machines (from the root ergon meaning work). Ergodic machines are machines that run on heat and energy. Such machines are essentially mechanical in nature. They deal with basic physical mechanics like levers and pulleys, and questions of mass, weight, and counter-balance. Ergodic machines adhere to the laws of motion and inertia, the conservation of energy, and the laws of thermodynamics governing heat, pressure, and energy…

Still, ergodic machines do not account for all machines. Informatic machines, those devices dominating contemporary life, have in many ways taken over from their 19th-century counterparts. Informatic machines have physical bodies, of course, and they frequently require electricity or other forms of power to operate. However the essence of the informatic machine is not found in motion, unrest, heat, or energy. The essence of the informatic machine is found in form, not energy or presence. From the perspective of philosophy, computers are therefore quite classical, even conservative. They follow that most basic law of Western idealism, that the formal determines the physical

The anti-computer has yet to be invented. But traces of it are found everywhere. Even Bitcoin, that most miserable invention, relies on an anti-computational infrastructure. In order to mine coins, one must expend energy. Hence these twenty-first-century machines are yoked to a nineteenth-century mandate: burn fuel to release value. Bitcoin may run on a computer but it is anti-computational at heart. Bitcoin only works because it is grounded in an anti-computer (energy). It is thus a digital machine made subsidiary to an analog foundation, a twenty-first-century future tied to a nineteenth-century past.

The encryption algorithms at the heart of Bitcoin are anti-computational as well. Cryptography deploys form as a weapon against form. Such is the magic of encryption. Encryption is a kind of structure that makes life difficult for other competing structures. Encryption does not promote frictionlessness, on the contrary it produces full and complete friction at all levels. Not the quotidian friction of everyday life, but a radical friction frustrating all expression. What used to be a marginal activity practiced by hackers — cracking password hashes — is now the basis of an entire infrastructure. Earn a buck by cracking hashes using “brute force.” Turn your computer into an anti-computer.

A friend of Marshall McLuhan’s, Father John Culkin, SJ, a Professor of Communication at Fordham University, observed that “we shape our tools and then our tools shape us” (though the quote is often attributed to McLuhan, who may in fact have inspired it).   Alexander R. Galloway ponders the tools that dominate our lives these days: “Anti-Computer.”

* “The central paradox of the machines that have made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer and healthier is that they cannot teach us how to make the best use of them; the information revolution came without an instruction manual”  — Pico Iyer

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As we muse on machines, we might spare a thought for James Clerk Maxwell; he died on this date in 1879.  a mathematician and and physicist, his work in uniting electricity, magnetism, and light– that’s to say, formulating the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation— is considered the “second great unification in physics” (after the first, realized by Isaac Newton), and laid the foundation for modern physics, starting the search for radio waves and paving the way for such fields as special relativity and quantum mechanics.  In the millennium poll – a survey of the 100 most prominent physicists at the turn of the 21st century – Maxwell was voted the third greatest physicist of all time, behind only Newton and Einstein.

225px-James_Clerk_Maxwell source

 

Written by LW

November 5, 2018 at 2:01 am

“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

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

idea_sized-touchdown_jesus_at_notre_dame

“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

 

“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

“To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete”*…

 

science

There is remarkably little reflection taking place about the state of science today, despite significant challenges, rooted in globalization, the digitization of knowledge, and the growing number of scientists.

At first glance, all of these seem to be positive trends. Globalization connects scientists worldwide, enabling them to avoid duplication and facilitating the development of universal standards and best practices. The creation of digital databases allows for systematic mining of scientific output and offers a broader foundation for new investigations. And the rising number of scientists means that more science is being conducted, accelerating progress.

But these trends are Janus-faced…

Jeremy Baumberg argues that we live in an age of hyper-competitive, trend-driven, and herd-like approach to scientific research: “What Is Threatening Science?

* Buckminster Fuller

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As we rethink research, we might spare a thought for Paul Erdős; he died on this date in 1996.  One of the most prolific mathematicians of the 20th century (he published around 1,500 mathematical papers during his lifetime, a figure that remains unsurpassed), he is remembered both for his “social practice” of mathematics (he engaged more than 500 collaborators) and for his eccentric lifestyle (he spent his waking hours virtually entirely on math; he would typically show up at a colleague’s doorstep and announce “my brain is open”, staying long enough to collaborate on a few papers before moving on a few days later).

Erdős’s prolific output with co-authors prompted the creation of the Erdős number, the number of steps in the shortest path between a mathematician and Erdős in terms of co-authorships.  Low numbers are a badge of pride– and a usual marker of accomplishment: as of 2016, all Fields Medalists have a finite Erdős number, with values that range between 2 and 6, and a median of 3.  Physics Nobelists Einstein and Sheldon Glashow have an Erdős number of 2.   Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron can be considered to have an Erdős number of 1 because they both autographed the same baseball (for number theorist Carl Pomerance).  Natalie Portman’s undergraduate collaboration with a Harvard professor earned her an Erdős number of 5; Danica McKellar (“Winnie Cooper” in The Wonder Years) has an Erdős number of 4, for a mathematics paper coauthored while an undergraduate at UCLA.

 source

 

Written by LW

September 20, 2018 at 1:01 am

“I see black light”*…

 

Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi
da Caravaggio used ivory black to convey asceticism, piety, and inspiration in his 1605-6 painting, St Jerome Writing.

Suddenly, black was everywhere. It caked the flesh of miners and ironworkers; it streaked the walls and windows of industrial towns; it thickened the smoky air above. Proprietors donned black clothing to indicate their status and respectability. New black dyes and pigments created in factories and chemical laboratories entered painters’ studios, enabling a new expression for the new themes of the industrial age: factory work and revolt, technology and warfare, urbanity and pollution, and a rejection of the old status quo. A new class of citizen, later to be dubbed the “proletariat,” began to appear in illustrations under darkened smokestacks. The industrial revolution had found its color…

Black is technically an absence: the visual experience of a lack of light. A perfect black dye absorbs all of the light that impinges on it, leaving nothing behind. This ideal is remarkably difficult to manufacture. The industrialization of the 18th and 19th centuries made it easier, providing chemists and paint-makers with a growing palette of black—and altering the subjects that the color would come to represent. “These things are intimately connected,” says science writer Philip Ball, author of Bright Earth: The Invention of Color. The reinvention of black, in other words, went far beyond the color.

In the 20th century, a flood of new black paints would inspire a new set of artistic styles that took on modern subjects and themes. “Black was increasingly connected with industry, technology, and the urban environment,” says Erma Hermens, who leads the Technical Art History Group at the University of Glasgow. “Black becomes a statement.” Black also helped artists to delineate a new period in the history of art. “It was saying that the time of classical painting was past,” says Ball, “that we’re using modern materials in a modern way.”…

Black through the ages– as the means of creating the color black have changed, so have the subjects it represents: “The Reinvention of Black.”

(And looking forward, consider the implications of the newest technological revolution in creating black: vantablack.)

* Victor Hugo’s last words

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As we paint it black, we might send a finely-limned birthday card to Jacques-Louis David; he was born on this date in 1748.  A master of cerebral “history painting, he is considered the preeminent artist of the French Neoclassical period.   David had a great many pupils and followers, making him the strongest influence in French art of the early 19th century, especially on academic Salon painting.

 

Written by LW

August 30, 2018 at 1:01 am

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