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Posts Tagged ‘Technology

“Technology made large populations possible; large populations now make technology indispensable”*…

 

 click here for enlargeable version of the full chart

For most of civilized history, life expectancy fluctuated in the 30 to 40 year range.

Child mortality was all too common, and even for those that made it to adulthood, a long and healthy life was anything but guaranteed. Sanitation was poor, disease was rampant, and many medical practices were based primarily on superstition or guesswork.

By the 20th century, an explosion in new technologies, treatments, and other science-backed practices helped to increase global life expectancy at an unprecedented rate.

From 1900 to 2015, global life expectancy more than doubled, shooting well past the 70 year mark.

What were the major innovations that made the last century so very fruitful in saving lives?…  Interestingly, while many of these innovations have some linkage to the medical realm, there are also breakthroughs in sectors like energy, sanitation, and agriculture that have helped us lead longer and healthier lives…

See the list in full, along with a nifty infographic, at “The 50 Most Important Life-Saving Breakthroughs in History.”

Readers will note that “history” for these folks seems to start in the 19th century… so that one doesn’t find, for instance, the development of domestication or the invention of the plow.  And even then, one could quibble: surely, for example, the understanding of contagious diseases, epidemiology, and medical statistics/cartography that flowed from Dr. John Snow’s mapping of the 1854 cholera outbreak in London belongs on the list.  Still, it’s provocative to ponder.

* Joesph Wood Krutch

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As we realize, with Krutch, that will the sweet comes the bitter, we might spare a thought for Rachel Carson; she died on this date in 1964.  A pioneering environmentalist, her book The Silent Spring— a study of the long-term dangers of pesticide use– challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government, and called for a change in the way humankind relates to the natural world.

The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.
– Rachel Carson

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Written by LW

April 14, 2018 at 1:01 am

“If you like overheads, you’ll love PowerPoint”*…

 

Military Industrial Powerpoint Complex is  collection created as a special project for the Internet Archive’s 20th Anniversary celebration in 2016, highlighting IA’s web archive.  It consists of all the Powerpoint files (57,489) from the .mil web domain, e,g,:

Plumb the depths at The Military Industrial Powerpoint Complex.

* Edward Tufte

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As we hold our heads in our hands, we might recall that it was on this date in 1989 that Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal to CERN for developing a new way of linking and sharing information over the Internet.  It was the first time Berners-Lee proposed the system that would ultimately become the World Wide Web, so this date is oft cited as the “Birthday of the Web.”  But his pitch was a bit vague, and got no traction.  He resubmitted a second, more detailed proposal on November 12, 1990– on which CERN acted…  so many consider this later date the Web’s inception.

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Written by LW

March 12, 2018 at 1:01 am

“There’s no such thing as an unabridged dictionary”*…

 

For OED’s editors, this world is both exhilarating and, one senses, mildly overwhelming. The digital era has enabled Oxford lexicographers to run dragnets deeper and deeper through the language, but it has also threatened to capsize the operation. When you’re making a historical dictionary and are required to check each and every resource, then recheck those resources when, say, a corpus of handwritten 17th-century letters comes on stream, the problem of keeping the dictionary up to date expands to even more nightmarish proportions. Adding to that dictionary to accommodate new words – themselves visible in greater numbers than ever before, mutating ever-faster – increases the nightmare exponentially. “In the early years of digital, we were a little out of control,” Peter Gilliver told me. “It’s never-ending,” one OED lexicographer agreed. “You can feel like you’re falling into the wormhole.”

Adding to the challenge is a story that has become wearily familiar: while more people are consulting dictionary-like resources than ever, almost no one wants to shell out. Sales of hard-copy dictionaries have collapsed, far more calamitously than in other sectors. (OUP refused to give me figures, citing “commercial sensitivities”. “I don’t think you’ll get any publisher to fess up about this,” Michael Rundell told me.) While reference publishers amalgamate or go to the wall, information giants such as Google and Apple get fat by using our own search terms to sell us stuff. If you can get a definition by holding your thumb over a word on your smartphone, why bother picking up a book?…

As Andrew Dickson explains, for centuries lexicographers have attempted to capture the entire English language. Technology might soon turn this dream into reality – but will it spell the end for dictionaries?  The fascinating story of the Oxford English Dictionary‘s ongoing attempt to outrun that fate: “Inside the OED: can the world’s biggest dictionary survive the internet?

* Jack Lynch, The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of “Proper” English, from Shakespeare to South Park

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As we look it up, we might send carefully-defined birthday greetings to Wilhelm Heinrich Immanuel Bleek; he was born on this date in 1827.  A linguist, he created  A Comparative Grammar of South African Languages.  But his great project (jointly executed with his sister-in-law, Lucy Lloyd) was “The Bleek and Lloyd Archive of ǀxam and !kun texts”– a shortened form of which eventually reached press as Specimens of Bushman Folklore (on which Laurens van der Post drew heavily for his book, The Heart of the Hunter and for his BBC series The Lost World of the Kalahari).

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Happy International Women’s Day!

Written by LW

March 8, 2018 at 1:01 am

“With a library it is easier to hope for serendipity than to look for a precise answer”*…

 

At first, the new website for the collection of MIT’s influential Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) seems like a straightforward web page. But as it scrolls down, through the introductory text and into randomly selected works from the archive, it becomes clear that the content is warping into three dimensional space, and branching into spiraling trees of related work, organized by creator and medium — an experience designed to evoke the sensation of wandering through the center’s physical archive.

“Someone might be coming in to do research on environmental sculpture, and then they see all these images on, I don’t know, holography, and then they’d say ‘oh, I really want to check that out,’” said Jeremy Grubman, an MIT archivist who spearheaded the project. “So I wanted to find a way to produce that in a digital space, to produce that concept of serendipitous browsing.”

50 years of art across three-dimensional space; as Jon Christian explains, “This MIT archive will be your trippiest scrolling experience today.”

Check it out.

* Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler), When Did You See Her Last?

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As we prepare for pleasant surprises, we might send cartographically-correct birthday greetings to Gerardus Mercator; he was born on this date in 1512.  The most renown cartographer of his time, he created a world map based on a new projection– the Mercator Projection— which represented sailing courses of constant bearing as straight lines, an approach still employed in nautical charts used for navigation.

While he was most esteemed as the foremost geographer of his day, Mercator was also an accomplished engraver, calligrapher and maker of globes and scientific instruments.  And he studied theology, philosophy, history, mathematics, and magnetism.

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Written by LW

March 5, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years”*…

 

Moore’s Law has held up almost astoundingly well…

 source (and larger version)

This seemingly inexorable march has enabled an extraordinary range of new products and services– from intercontinental ballistic missiles to global environmental monitoring systems and from smart phones to medical implants…  But researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are sounding an alarm…

The speed of our technology doubles every year, right? Not anymore. We’ve come to take for granted that as the years go on, computing technology gets faster, cheaper and more energy-efficient.

In their recent paper, “Science and research policy at the end of Moore’s law” published in Nature Electronics, however, Carnegie Mellon University researchers Hassan Khan, David Hounshell, and Erica Fuchs argue that future advancement in microprocessors faces new and unprecedented challenges…

In the seven decades following the invention of the transistor at Bell Labs, warnings about impending limits to miniaturization and the corresponding slow down of Moore’s Law have come regularly from industry observers and academic researchers. Despite these warnings, semiconductor technology continually progressed along the Moore’s Law trajectory. Khan, Hounshell, and Fuchs’ archival work and oral histories, however, make clear that times are changing.

“The current technological and structural challenges facing the industry are unprecedented and undermine the incentives for continued collective action in research and development,” the authors state in the paper, “which has underpinned the last 50 years of transformational worldwide economic growth and social advance.”

As the authors explain in their paper, progress in semiconductor technology is undergoing a seismic shift driven by changes in the underlying technology and product-end markets…

To continue advancing general purpose computing capabilities at reduced cost with economy-wide benefits will likely require entirely new semiconductor process and device technology.” explains Engineering and Public Policy graduate Hassan Khan. “The underlying science for this technology is as of yet unknown, and will require significant research funds – an order of magnitude more than is being invested today.”

The authors conclude by arguing that the lack of private incentives creates a case for greatly increased public funding and the need for leadership beyond traditional stakeholders. They suggest that funding is needed of $600 million dollars per year with 90% of those funds from public research dollars, and the rest most likely from defense agencies…

Read the complete summary at “Moore’s law has ended. What comes next?“; read the complete Nature article here.

* a paraphrase of Gordon’s Moore’s assertion– known as “Moore’s law”– in the thirty-fifth anniversary issue of Electronics magazine, published on April 19, 1965

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As we pack ’em ever tighter, we might send carefully-computed birthday greetings to Thomas John Watson Sr.; he was born on this date in 1874.  A mentee of from John Henry Patterson’s at NCR, where Watson began his career, Watson became the chairman and CEO of the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR), which, in 1924, he renamed International Business Machines– IBM.  He began using his famous motto– THINK– while still at NCR, but carried it with him to IBM…  where it became that corporation’s first trademark (in 1935).  That motto was the inspiration for the naming of the Thinkpad– and Watson himself (along with Sherlock’s Holmes’ trusty companion), for the naming of IBM’s Artificial Intelligence product.

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“First we eat, then we do everything else”*…

 

Imagine the ideal food. One that contains all the nutrients necessary to meet, but not exceed, our daily nutrient demands. If such a food existed, consuming it, without eating any other, would provide the optimal nutritional balance for our body.

Such a food does not exist. But we can do the next best thing.

The key is to eat a balance of highly nutritional foods, that when consumed together, do not contain too much of any one nutrient, to avoid exceeding daily recommended amounts.

Scientists studied more than 1,000 foods, assigning each a nutritional score. The higher the score, the more likely each food would meet, but not exceed your daily nutritional needs, when eaten in combination with others…

See the top 100, ranked at “The world’s most nutritious foods.”

* M. F. K. Fisher

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As we help ourselves, we might send bounteous birthday greetings to Cyrus Hall McCormick; he was born on this date in 1809.  Widely credited as the inventor of the first mechanical reaper, he was in fact just one of several contributing to its development.  His more singular achievement as a creator was his success in the development of a modern company, with manufacturing, marketing, and a sales force to market his products.  His McCormick Harvesting Machine Company became part of the International Harvester Company in 1902.

Interestingly, the grains that McCormick’s reapers helped harvest appear nowhere on the list…

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Written by LW

February 15, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The house smelled musty and damp, and a little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies”*…

 

Girl Scout Cookies come in a dizzying variety. Between cool Thin Mints and decadent Peanut Butter Patties, there’s a flavor that appeals to everyone. Which is helpful to the girls in the American youth organization, who sell the cookies to learn business skills and raise funds.

It’s a big operation, so much so that seemingly similar cookies differ across the United States. Since two commercial bakers provide the cookies to different parts of the country, one scout’s Peanut Butter Patty is another’s Tagalong. Even the recipes are slightly different. But all Girl Scout cookies have a common ancestor. Surprisingly, it was kind of boring.

It was an innocuous beginning for a glorious, cookie-filled century. The recipe for the original cookie was provided by local Scouting director Florence E. Neil and printed in the July 1922 issue of The American Girl Magazine (now defunct and unrelated to the current, doll-related American Girl magazine). It was very simple: a cup of butter (or “substitute”) mixed with sugar, eggs, vanilla, milk, and flour. Baking the mix in a “quick” oven produced super simple sugar cookies.

But simplicity was likely necessary, as the scouts baked the cookies themselves. According to the Girl Scouts, this recipe was distributed to 2,000 scouts in the Chicago area who likely needed something quick, simple, and inexpensive to sell. The ingredients for a batch of six to seven dozen cookies clocked in at 26 to 36 cents, which in today’s money is less than six dollars. The scouts could sell a dozen cookies for about the same amount, making a tidy profit…

The tasty tale in its entirety at “The First Girl Scout Cookie Was Surprisingly Boring.”

* Neil Gaiman, American Gods

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As we take just one more, we might send almost, but not quite cloying birthday greeting to Ira Remsen; he was born on this date in 1846.  A physician and chemist who became the second President of Johns Hopkins University, he is perhaps best remembered as the discoverer (with Constantin Fahlberg) of the artificial sweetener saccharin.

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Written by LW

February 10, 2018 at 1:01 am

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