(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Technology

“My ambition was to live like music”*…

 

synth

 

Mary Hallock Greenewalt always wanted to be known as an inventor. Born on September 8, 1871, in Syria Vilayet—present-day Beirut—to a Syrian mother, Sara Tabet, and an American father, she was sent at age 11 to live with relatives in Philadelphia. She began her professional life as a pianist in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh orchestras but around 1905, when Greenewalt was in her mid-30s, she began to experiment with a new kind of instrument. It would be a feast for the senses, combining color with sound. During performances, Greenewalt would use the various pedals, switches, and keyboards on her machine—essentially an early synthesizer—to play songs that were synchronized with projected light. She called her modified organ the “Sarabet.”

Tinkering with that creation—and then defending her claims on the inventions—became her life’s work. Between 1919 and 1926, Greenewalt filed 11 patents with the United States Patent Office for inventions related to the Sarabet. In 1932, she successfully sued General Electric for copyright infringement on the rheostat, a device she patented that varied the resistance of the electricity in the Sarabet.

Greenewalt and her inventions may not be widely known to most musicians today, but they were essential to the creation of many electric instruments, in particular the synthesizer, which would revolutionize the music industry in the 1960s…

Mary Hallock Greenewalt received 11 patents for her “color organ,” an early form of synthesizer. She would spend the rest of her life defending them: “Industrial Light and Magic.”

* Mary Gaitskill

###

As we celebrate synesthesia, we might recall that it was on this date in 548 that “Hank Morgan” found himself transported from late 19th century America to 6th century England… in Mark Twain’s marvelous A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

440px-Connecticut_Yankee4_new

Frontispiece of the 1889 first edition, by Daniel Carter Beard

source

 

“Life is a DNA software system”*…

 

stranger-visions-wellcome-collection-2305-1

 

DNA from discarded cigarette butts and chewed up gum has been used to create a series of life-sized 3D printed portraits for a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection.

American artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg walked the streets of New York picking up cigarettes and hair for her project called Stranger Visions.

She then analysed the DNA to work out the gender and ethnicity of the people involved as well as their likely eye colour and other traits including the size of their nose, before using face-generating software and a 3D printer to create a series of speculative portraits

More– and more photos– at “3D printed portraits made with DNA from cigarette butts to feature in new Wellcome Collection display.”

See also the analogically-related “Artificial Intelligence Generates Humans’ Faces Based on Their Voices.”

* Craig Venter

###

As we noodle on nature and nurture, we might recall that it was on this date in 1981 that the USDA announced the first genetically-engineered vaccine for any animal or human disease: an immunization against Hoof and Mouth Disease (also known as Foot and Mouth Disease, or FMD), created using gene splicing.

NHF-FMD-Keep-Out source

 

“One of the things I did not understand, was that these systems can be used to manipulate public opinion in ways that are quite inconsistent with what we think of as democracy”*…

 

bk_134_howard_rheingold

Nineteen years ago, in his third annual call for answers to an Annual Question, John Brockman asked members of the Edge community what they believed to be “today’s [2000’s] most important unreported story.” The remarkable Howard Rheingold (@hrheingold) answered in a way that has turned out to be painfully prophetic…

The way we learn to use the Internet in the next few years (or fail to learn) will influence the way our grandchildren govern themselves. Yet only a tiny fraction of the news stories about the impact of the Net focus attention on the ways many to-many communication technology might be changing democracy — and those few stories that are published center on how traditional political parties are using the Web, not on how grassroots movements might be finding a voice…

Every communication technology alters governance and political processes. Candidates and issues are packaged and sold on television by the very same professionals who package and sell other commodities. In the age of mass media, the amount of money a candidate can spend on television advertising is the single most important influence on the electoral success. Now that the Internet has transformed every desktop into a printing press, broadcasting station, and place of assembly, will enough people learn to make use of this potential? Or will our lack of news, information, and understanding of the Net as a political tool prove insufficient against the centralization of capital, power, and knowledge that modern media also make possible?…

The political power afforded to citizens by the Web is not a technology issue. Technology makes a great democratization of publishing, journalism, public discourse possible, but does not determine whether or not that potential will be realized. Every computer connected to the Net can publish a manifesto, broadcast audio and video eyewitness reports of events in real time, host a virtual community where people argue about those manifestos and broadcasts. Will only the cranks, the enthusiasts, the fringe groups take advantage of this communication platform? Or will many-to-many communication skills become a broader literacy, the way knowing and arguing about the issues of the day in print was the literacy necessary for the American revolution?…

The Scylla and Charybdis of which Howard warned– centralization-by-capital/political power and atomization-into-cacophony (whether via the pollution of manipulation/”fake news” or simple tribalism)– is now all too apparent… even if it’s not at all clear how we sail safely between them.  It’s almost 20 years later– but not too late to heed Howard’s call, which you can read in full at “How Will The Internet Influence Democracy?

* Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google [as Howard’s 2000 insight dawns on him in 2017, source]

###

As we try harder, we might recall that it was on this date in 1911 that financier and “Father of Trusts” Charles R. Flint incorporated The Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company as a holding company into which he rolled up manufacturers of record-keeping and measuring systems: Bundy Manufacturing Company, International Time Recording Company, The Tabulating Machine Company, and the Computing Scale Company of America.

Four years later Flint hired Thomas J. Watson, Sr. to run the company; nine years after that, in 1924, Watson organized the formerly disparate units into a single operating company, which he named “International Business Machines,” or as we now know it, IBM.

150px-CTR_Company_Logo source

 

 

“Any solution is all too likely to become the next problem”*…

 

Miami_traffic_jam2C_I-95_North_rush_hour

 

One of today’s defining paradoxes is the contrast between the massive abundance of everything digital and the relative stasis, or even decline, of so much else. Software hasn’t meaningfully improved the world’s physical infrastructure even as it builds increasingly refined interfaces, networks, and marketplaces on top of that infrastructure. I currently have a thousand lifetimes worth of (effectively free) entertainment at my fingertips, but getting to the airport still takes as long as it would have thirty years ago.

Information seems infinite relative to more tangible resources, but it’s not. Digital scarcity is less visible than the physical kind, but no less real. James Bridle observes in his book New Dark Age that while computation contributes to climate change, on one hand—data centers consume a growing percentage of the world’s energy—computation itself is also constrained by a warming planet: The strength of wireless transmission will actually decline as atmospheric temperatures rise, while much of the internet’s supporting hardware—subterranean fiberoptic tubes and undersea cable landing sites—is vulnerable to damage from rising sea levels. In a way, exponential information growth is threatening its own future.

A century ago, driving felt as boundless as computation does now. As a result, we built the whole world around cars, and have since struggled to unwind that effort now that we know better. It’s possible we’re making a similar mistake today, unable to imagine a less abundant future, with digital traffic jams just around the corner…

Drew Austin, editor of the urban transportation newsletter Kneeling Bus. in a edition of another wonderful newsletter, The Prepared.

[image above: source]

* your correspondent

###

As we rein in our enthusiasms, we might recall that it was on this date in 455 that the Vandals entered Rome, which they plundered for the next two weeks.  It was, as sackings went (this was Rome’s third, of four altogether), relatively “light”:  while the Vandals (who had destroyed all of Rome’s aqueducts on their approach) looted Roman treasure and sold many Romans into slavery, their leader Genseric acceded to Pope Leo’s plea that he refrain from the wholesale slaughter of Rome’s population and destruction of the Eternal City’s historic buildings.

300px-Genseric_sacking_rome_456

Genseric sacking Rome, by Karl Briullov

source

 

Written by LW

June 2, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The average scientist unequipped with the powerful lenses of philosophy, is a nearsighted creature, and cheerfully attacks each difficulty in the hope that it may prove to be the last”*…

 

philo_sci

 

There are decisive grounds for holding that we need to bring about a revolution in philosophy, a revolution in science, and then put the two together again to create a modern version of natural philosophy.

Once upon a time, it was not just that philosophy was a part of science; rather, science was a branch of philosophy. We need to remember that modern science began as natural philosophy – a development of philosophy, an admixture of philosophy and science. Today, we think of Galileo, Johannes Kepler, William Harvey, Robert Boyle, Christiaan Huygens, Robert Hooke, Edmond Halley and, of course, Isaac Newton as trailblazing scientists, while we think of Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz as philosophers. That division is, however, something we impose on the past. It is profoundly anachronistic…

Science broke away from metaphysics, from philosophy, as a result of natural philosophers adopting a profound misconception about the nature of science. As a result, natural philosophy died, the great divide between science and philosophy was born, and the decline of philosophy began.

It was Newton who inadvertently killed off natural philosophy with his claim, in the third edition of his Principia, to have derived his law of gravitation from the phenomena by induction…

Nicholas Maxwell argues that science and philosophy need to be re-joined, lest humanity seek knowledge at the expense of wisdom; only then, he suggests, can we hope to solve the urgent, fundamental problems that we face: “Natural philosophy redux.”

[Image above: source]

* Gilbert N. Lewis

###

As we seek ever-higher ground, we might that it was on this date in 1898 that the heirs of Alfred Nobel signed a “reconciliation agreement,” allowing his lawyers and accountants to execute his will.  The lion’s share of his estate was clearly marked for the establishment of the eponymous Prizes that are awarded each year.  But the residue, which was to be divided among descendants was the subject of much contention.

nobel_will_p1

The first page of Nobel’s will [source]

 

“Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America”*…

 

history-of-capital-ai

The evolution of capitalism (“the capital AI machine”) as a series of levels that were unlocked by new “learning” APIs to humans

 

Consider capitalism as a highly efficient objective function (or “AI”) with its parameters optimized for the satisfaction of our short term desires rather than our long term interests.

Paranoia about runaway feedback loops – in consumer capitalism, artificial intelligence, mass media, ‘Wrestlemania politics,’ etc – ultimately stems from the inscrutability of the emergent behavior of these complex systems to the individual actors and observers operating within them.

Rather than responding with Luddite / anarchist nihilism, we should remember that technological and social systems like these have dramatically reduced our exposure to the unpredictability of the natural world and greatly improved living conditions on a number of dimensions over the past few centuries.

At the same time, we should not ignore warning signs of a dystopian future, nor should we hope that a ‘personnel change’ of institutional leaders will solve our problems.

Because the problems at hand are complex systems problems – where the root causes are not the actors themselves, but the ill-designed structures and incentives that dictate their actions – we should think about redesigning the rules and incentives of social, political, and economic systems as the path forward…

Andrew Kortina explains modern capitalism as a system– one that, for all of its all-too-manifest faults, should be saved; then he starts the conversation about how to do that salvaging: “History of the Capital AI & Market Failures in the Attention Economy.”  Mildly geeky, but richly provocative– which is to say, useful, whether one buys his suggested solutions or not– it’s eminently worthy of a read.

* “Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. Thus was the savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate and unnecessary and humorless American class system created. Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers, if they asked to be paid a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed. Thus the American dream turned belly up, turned green, bobbed to the scummy surface of cupidity unlimited, filled with gas, went bang in the noonday sun.  – Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

###

As we wonder about the water in which we swim, we might recall that it  was on this date in 1933 that the Agricultural Adjustment Act came into force.  A central piece of New Deal legislation, the AAA aimed to aid farmers devastated by reduced demand for their crops by creating price supports via a series of government purchases (of crops and livestock) and subsidies (essentially payments not to plant/grow).

The program was controversial in its time– it made previously independent farmers dependent on the government– but it worked; average farm income rose 50% from 1932 to 1935.  It’s elements– government purchase and subsidy– survive to this day, evolved into (many of) the provisions of the Farm Bill, passed by Congress every five years or so… even though the constituency of small farmers the Act was intended to serve has largely given way to an agricultural landscape dominated by a handful of gigantic corporate players.

farmer

A Roosevelt County New Mexico farmer and a County Agricultural Conservation Committee representative review the provisions of the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) farm program to determine how it can best be applied on that particular acreage

source

 

“Information is a difference that makes a difference”*…

 

Shannon information

 

Information was something guessed at rather than spoken of, something implied in a dozen ways before it was finally tied down. Information was a presence offstage. It was there in the studies of the physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz, who, electrifying frog muscles, first timed the speed of messages in animal nerves just as Thomson was timing the speed of messages in wires. It was there in the work of physicists like Rudolf Clausius and Ludwig Boltzmann, who were pioneering ways to quantify disorder—entropy—little suspecting that information might one day be quantified in the same way. Above all, information was in the networks that descended in part from the first attempt to bridge the Atlantic with underwater cables. In the attack on the practical engineering problems of connecting Points A and B—what is the smallest number of wires we need to string up to handle a day’s load of messages? how do we encrypt a top-secret telephone call?—the properties of information itself, in general, were gradually uncovered.

By the time of Claude Shannon’s childhood, the world’s communications networks were no longer passive wires acting as conduits for electricity, a kind of electron plumbing. They were continent-spanning machines, arguably the most complex machines in existence. Vacuum-tube amplifiers strung along the telephone lines added power to voice signals that would have otherwise attenuated and died out on their thousand-mile journeys. A year before Shannon was born, in fact, Bell and Watson inaugurated the transcontinental phone line by reenacting their first call, this time with Bell in New York and Watson in San Francisco. By the time Shannon was in elementary school, feedback systems managed the phone network’s amplifiers automatically, holding the voice signals stable and silencing the “howling” or “singing” noises that plagued early phone calls, even as the seasons turned and the weather changed around the sensitive wires that carried them. Each year that Shannon placed a call, he was less likely to speak to a human operator and more likely to have his call placed by machine, by one of the automated switchboards that Bell Labs grandly called a “mechanical brain.” In the process of assembling and refining these sprawling machines, Shannon’s generation of scientists came to understand information in much the same way that an earlier generation of scientists came to understand heat in the process of building steam engines.

It was Shannon who made the final synthesis, who defined the concept of information and effectively solved the problem of noise. It was Shannon who was credited with gathering the threads into a new science…

The story of Claude Shannon, his colorful life–  and the birth of the Information Age: “How Information Got Re-Invented.”

* Gregory Bateson

###

As we separate the signal from the noise, we might send communicative birthday greetings to the subject of today’s main post, Claude Elwood Shannon; he was born on this date in 1916.  A mathematician, electrical engineer, and cryptographer, he is, for reasons explained in the article featured above, known as “the father of information theory.”  But he is also remembered for his contributions to digital circuit design theory and for his cryptanalysis work during World War II, both as a codebreaker and as a designer of secure communications systems.

220px-ClaudeShannon_MFO3807 source

 

%d bloggers like this: