(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Technology

“Democracy is never a final achievement. It is a call to an untiring effort.”*…

 

770px-Diagram_of_the_Federal_Government_and_American_Union_edit

Diagram of U.S. governance, 1862 [source and larger version]

The Roman Empire, the Iroquois Confederacy, and the United States of America are human inventions as surely as airplanes, computers, and contraception are. Technology is how we do things, and political institutions are how we collaborate at scale. Government is an immensely powerful innovation through which we take collective action.

Just like any other technology, governments open up new realms of opportunity. These opportunities are morally neutral: humans have leveraged political institutions to provide public eduction and to murder ethnic minorities. Specific features like explicit protections for human rights and civil liberties are designed to help mitigate certain downside risks.

Like any tool, systems of governance require maintenance to keep working. We expect regular software updates, but forget that governance is also in constant flux, and begins to fail when it falls out of sync with the culture. Without preventative maintenance, pressure builds like tectonic forces along a fault line until a new order snaps into place, often violently…

Widespread adoption renders technology invisible, its ubiquity revealed only when it breaks. That’s why science fiction plots so often hinge on systems breaking, and explains Wired Senior Maverick Kevin Kelly’s approach to futurism: “I’m looking for the places where technology is abused, misused, or unsupervised in order to get a glimpse of its natural inherent leanings. Where the edges go, the center follows later.”

If you’re worried about the demise of democracy because you see how the system is being abused, congratulations! You have just discovered a way to make democracy stronger. Ask any programmer: Nothing clarifies software development like a major bug report. Follow that edge. Sharpen, blunt, or redirect it as necessary. The center will follow…

Critically-acclaimed novelist and essayist Eliot Peper (@eliotpeper) argues for regular maintenance and upgrades: “Government is a technology, so fix it like one.”

* John F. Kennedy

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As we undertake an upgrade, we might spare a thought for Marcus Tullius Cicero; he died on this date in 43 BCE.  A  Roman philosopher, politician, lawyer, political theorist, consul and constitutionalist, Cicero was one of Rome’s greatest orators and prose stylists.  His influence on the Latin language was immense: it has been said that subsequent prose was either a reaction against or a return to his style, not only in Latin but also (after Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s work) in European languages up to the 19th century.

A champion of Republican government in Rome, he spoke against the second Catilinarian conspiracy, against  Julius Caesar, then– even more eloquently– against Mark Antony.  He was executed in 43 BCE (his head and hands were amputated and displayed to the public) for his Philippics, a series of speeches attacking Antony and calling (again) for a restoration of the Republic.  Sic semper prōtestor?

https://i0.wp.com/farm9.staticflickr.com/8478/8243527748_ab6d5f6fa9_o.jpg source

 

Written by LW

December 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Progress is the attraction that moves humanity”*…

 

Steam Engine Crushing A Wall, 1770.

A 1770 engraving of a steam engine crushing a wall

 

How and why did the modern world and its unprecedented prosperity begin? Many bookshelves are full of learned tomes by historians, economists, political philosophers and other erudite scholars with endless explanations. One way of looking at the question is by examining something basic, and arguably essential: the emergence of a belief in the usefulness of progress.

Such a belief may seem self-evident today, but most people in the more-remote past believed that history moved in some kind of cycle or followed a path that was determined by higher powers. The idea that humans should and could work consciously to make the world a better place for themselves and for generations to come is by and large one that emerged in the two centuries between Christopher Columbus and Isaac Newton. Of course, just believing that progress could be brought about is not enough—one must bring it about. The modern world began when people resolved to do so…

Progress: humans invented it—and not that long ago.  Joel Mokyr unpacks its cultural history, and explains why “Progress Isn’t Natural.”

See also J.B. Bury’s The Idea of Progress- an Inquiry into its Origins and Growth and Robert Nisbet’s History of the Idea of Progress.

* Marcus Garvey

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As we deliberate on direction, we might recall that it was on this date in 1910 that French chemist, engineer, and inventor Georges Claude switched on the first public display of neon lights– two large (39 foot long), bright red neon tubes– at the Paris Motor Show.  Over the next decade, Claude lit much of Paris.  Neon came to America in 1923 when Earl Anthony purchased signage from Claude, then transported it to Los Angeles, where Anthony installed it at his Packard dealership… and (literally) stopped traffic.

Claude in his lab, 1913

 source

 

 

Written by LW

December 3, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The commonality between science and art is in trying to see profoundly – to develop strategies of seeing and showing”*…

 

science-philosopher

 

The Science Museum is always alive with children. School groups scribble on clipboards, five-year-olds drag parents and grandparents by the hand, push buttons, and make lights flash. Toddlers flag for ice-cream. The halls and galleries ring with noise. By contrast, in the softly lit exhibition space on the second floor, a sudden quiet descends. But almost at once, on entering the museum’s new show, “The Art of Innovation: From Enlightenment to Dark Matter,” here are the children again. In Joseph Wright of Derby’s A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on an Orrery in which a Lamp is put in the Place of the Sun (1766) [above], they lean over, faces lit up, as the girl, her eyes glowing, points over her brother’s shoulder at the tiny planets circling the sun.

That sense of excitement defines the exhibition, as visitors zig-zag from The Lecture on the Orrery through 250 years of art and science. In the book that accompanies the show, far more than a catalog, the curators, Ian Blatchford and Tilly Blyth, lay out their stall. “Throughout history,” they write, “artists and scientists alike have been driven by curiosity and the desire to explore worlds, inner and outer. They have wanted to make sense of what they see around them and feel within them: to observe, record and transform. Sometimes working closely together, they have taken inspiration from each other’s practice.” To illustrate this dual heritage and point to the leaps of imagination in both fields, they have placed twenty works—painting, sculpture, film, photographs, posters, and textiles—alongside the scientific objects that inspired them. Thus A Lecture on the Orrery hangs near James Ferguson’s wooden pulley-operated mechanical model of the solar system [below], an orrery from the Museum’s collection…

science-planetary-model

 

A glorious (and gloriously-illustrated) appreciation: “Beauty in Ingenuity: The Art of Science.”

* Edward Tufte

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As we bask in beauty, we might spare a cartographically-correct thought for, one of history’s most impactful scientific artists: Gerardus Mercator; he died on this date in 1594.  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.

 source

 

 

Written by LW

December 2, 2019 at 1:01 am

“All rising to great places is by a winding stair”*…

 

stairs

 

(Roughly) Daily will be on Thanksgiving hiatus until Monday the 2nd.  Meantime, with an eye to the massive meals that U.S. readers are likely to consume in the meantime…

George Schupp never expected to find himself in Robert De Niro’s apartment. Once the owner of a thriving a custom manufacturing company in Tulsa, Schupp’s business withered during the 1970s energy crisis.

Feeling aimless, Schupp and his business partner, Jim Walker, began wondering what else they could manufacture. Through creativity and fate, they ended up producing something so iconic that it transformed gyms around the world – and sculpted countless butts along the way.

Maybe that’s what De Niro was hoping for, when he invited Schupp into his home. It’s hard to know, all these years later. But the one thing the story shows is that even De Niro wasn’t immune to the allure of the StairMaster.

For a long time, gyms didn’t have machines, other than a stationery bike or two. The gym was a place for synchronized cardio classes, or free weights. The StairMaster, along with companies like Nautilus, transformed the gym into its current landscape, where rows of treadmills coexist with bikes, ellipticals and other contraptions.

stair_then

An early StairMaster

 

But how did the StairMaster climb from its humble Midwest origins to an Oscar-winning actor’s luxurious suite? It started with a chance encounter. In the midst of Schupp and Walker’s strategizing over how to transition into the fitness industry, they happened to meet a man named Lanny Potts.

When Walker showed up to buy Potts’ old car, the two fell into a meet cute so perfect it could have been scripted. Potts, it turned out, was an inventor. Soon, the trio met regularly to brainstorm. Walker and Schupp had the manufacturing know-how, and Potts brought promising ideas into the mix.

Seeking inspiration, Potts began reaching out to friends and associates. At one point, he made the fateful decision to approach his doctor, who proceeded to muse about the vexing problem of stair climbing. Did they know that climbing is excellent exercise, yet the descent can wreak havoc on shins and joints? They did not. But there it was, nearly perfect: A problem that needed a solution. And so they got to work.

In this way, the StairMaster’s history is almost the exact opposite of the treadmill’s. While the StairMaster is designed to minimize potential injury, the treadmill was specifically designed to inflict it. In 1818, a civil engineer named William Cubitt designed the treadmill as a ghoulish machine to punish prisoners…

Oprah

Oprah with the (newer model) StairMaster she called “my little friend”

 

A keystone of the modern gym: “The Story of the StairMaster.”

See also “From Oil to Oprah: An Oral History of the StairMaster.”

[image at top: source]

* Gautama Buddha

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As we work it off, we might recall that it was on this date in 1924 that the annual Thanksgiving Day parade started in Newark, New Jersey by Louis Bamberger at the Bamberger’s store was transferred to New York City by Macy’s.  Originally running from Harlem to the Macy’s store on Herald Square, The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is tied for second-oldest Thanksgiving parade in the United States with America’s Thanksgiving Parade in Detroit.  (Both parades are four years younger than Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.)

The balloons that have become the Macy’s Parade’s signature were introduced in 1927, when a Felix the Cat balloon took the place of the live animals that had previously been borrowed from the Central Park Zoo.

From the first Macy’s Parade:

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floa_01

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Written by LW

November 27, 2019 at 1:01 am

“…for no change comes calmly over the world”*…

 

Github-in-Arctic-vault-for-at-least-1000-years-696x392

 

The world is powered by open source software.

It is a hidden cornerstone of modern civilization, and the shared heritage of all humanity. The mission of the GitHub Archive Program is to preserve open source software for future generations.

GitHub is partnering with the Long Now Foundation, the Internet Archive, the Software Heritage Foundation, Arctic World Archive, Microsoft Research, the Bodleian Library, and Stanford Libraries to ensure the long-term preservation of the world’s open source software. We will protect this priceless knowledge by storing multiple copies, on an ongoing basis, across various data formats and locations, including a very-long-term archive designed to last at least 1,000 years.

The GitHub Arctic Code Vault is a data repository preserved in the Arctic World Archive (AWA), a very-long-term archival facility 250 meters deep in the permafrost of an Arctic mountain. The archive is located in a decommissioned coal mine in the Svalbard archipelago, closer to the North Pole than the Arctic Circle. GitHub will capture a snapshot of every active public repository on 02/02/2020 and preserve that data in the Arctic Code Vault.

Adjacent to the Global Seed Vault, Github’s Global Archive Program.

* Walter M. Miller Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz

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As we preserve for posterity, we might recall that it was on this date in 1810 that Baltimore jeweler Peregrine Williamson was issued the first patent for a metal writing pen.  (His patent, #1168, is among the “X Patents,” those lost in the Patent Office fire of 1836.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA source

 

Written by LW

November 22, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal”*…

 

Tesseract

Colored cubes — known as “Tesseracts” — as depicted in the frontispiece to Hinton’s The Fourth Dimension (1904)

 

During the period we now call the fin de siècle, worlds collided. Ideas were being killed off as much as being born. And in a sort of Hegelian logic of thesis/antithesis/synthesis, the most interesting ones arose as the offspring of wildly different parents. In particular, the last gasp of Victorian spirituality infused cutting-edge science with a certain sense of old-school mysticism. Theosophy was all the rage; Huysmans dragged Satan into modern Paris; and eccentric poets and scholars met in the British Museum Reading Room under the aegis of the Golden Dawn for a cup of tea and a spot of demonology. As a result of all this, certain commonly-accepted scientific terms we use today came out of quite weird and wonderful ideas being developed at the turn of the century. Such is the case with space, which fascinated mathematicians, philosophers, and artists with its unfathomable possibilities…

In April 1904, C. H. Hinton published The Fourth Dimension, a popular maths book based on concepts he had been developing since 1880 that sought to establish an additional spatial dimension to the three we know and love. This was not understood to be time as we’re so used to thinking of the fourth dimension nowadays; that idea came a bit later. Hinton was talking about an actual spatial dimension, a new geometry, physically existing, and even possible to see and experience; something that linked us all together and would result in a “New Era of Thought.”…

Hinton’s ideas gradually pervaded the cultural milieu over the next thirty years or so — prominently filtering down to the Cubists and Duchamp. The arts were affected by two distinct interpretations of higher dimensionality: on the one hand, the idea as a spatial, geometric concept is readily apparent in early Cubism’s attempts to visualise all sides of an object at once, while on the other hand, it becomes a kind of all-encompassing mystical codeword used to justify avant-garde experimentation. “This painting doesn’t make sense? Ah, well, it does in the fourth dimension…” It becomes part of a language for artists exploring new ideas and new spaces…

By the late 1920s, Einsteinian Space-Time had more or less replaced the spatial fourth dimension in the minds of the public. It was a cold yet elegant concept that ruthlessly killed off the more romantic idea of strange dimensions and impossible directions. What had once been the playground of spiritualists and artists was all too convincingly explained. As hard science continued to rise in the early decades of the twentieth century, the fin-de-siècle’s more outré ideas continued to decline. Only the Surrealists continued to make reference to it, as an act of rebellion and vindication of the absurd. The idea of a real higher dimension linking us together as One sounded all a bit too dreamy, a bit too old-fashioned for a new century that was picking up speed, especially when such vague and multifarious explanations were trumped by the special theory of relativity. Hinton was as much hyperspace philosopher as scientist and hoped humanity would create a more peaceful and selfless society if only we recognised the unifying implications of the fourth dimension. Instead, the idea was banished to the realms of New Age con-artists, reappearing these days updated and repackaged as the fifth dimension. Its shadow side, however, proved hopelessly alluring to fantasy writers who have seen beyond the veil, and bring back visions of horror from an eldritch land outside of time and space that will haunt our nightmares with its terrible geometry, where tentacles and abominations truly horrible sleep beneath the Pacific Ocean waiting to bring darkness to our world… But still we muddle on through.

Hyperspace, tesseracts, ghosts, and colorful cubesJon Crabb, Editor, British Library Publishing, on the work of Charles Howard Hinton and the cultural history of higher dimensions: “Notes on the Fourth Dimension.”

[TotH to MK]

* H.P. Lovecraft, The Tomb

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As we get high(er), we might recall that it was on this date in 1946 that Al Gross went public with his invention of the walkie talkie.  Gross had developed it as a top secret project during World War II; he went on to develop the circuitry that opened the way to personal pocket paging systems, CB radio, and patented precursors of the cell phone and the cordless phone.  Sadly for him, his patents expired before they became commercially viable.  ”Otherwise,” Gross said, after winning the M.I.T. lifetime achievement award, ”I’d be as rich as Bill Gates.”

While Gross himself is almost unknown to the general public, he did achieve one-step-removed notoriety in 1948 when he “gifted” his friend Chester Gould the concept of miniaturized radio transceivers, which Gross had just patented.  Gould put it to use as the two-way wrist radio in his comic strip Dick Tracy.

200px-ALGROS2 source

 

Written by LW

November 20, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot”*…

 

Keaton_1600x900

 

Before Edgar Wright and Wes Anderson, before Chuck Jones and Jackie Chan, there was Buster Keaton, one of the founding fathers of visual comedy. And nearly 100 years after he first appeared onscreen, we’re still learning from him…

 

 

Lessons from the best: “Buster Keaton- The Art of the Gag.”

* Charlie Chaplin

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As we mix marvel with mirth, we might recall that it was on this date in 1850 that photographer Frederick Langenheim was issued U.S. Patent #7,784 for “Improvement in photographic pictures on glass,” a process of rendering photographic images on glass plates– magic lantern slides.

Prior to 1850, most magic lantern slides were hand-painted on glass, or created using a transfer method to reproduce many copies of a single etching or print; the development of photographic slides created entirely new uses for the magic lantern, from university lectures to amateur family photo shows… to “Coming Attractions” advertisements in theaters in the silent film era.

Lang source

 

Written by LW

November 19, 2019 at 1:01 am

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