(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Technology

“What might once have been called advertising must now be understood as continuous behavior modification on a titanic scale, but without informed consent”*…

Illustration by Anders Nilsen

“Which category have they put you in?”

This sinister question—at least, it was meant to sound sinister—headlined the advertising copy for The 480, a 1964 novel by Eugene Burdick. His previous best sellers, The Ugly American and Fail-Safe, had caused sensations in political circles, and the new one promised to do the same. Its jacket featured the image of a punched card. The title referred to 480 categories of voter, defined by region, religion, age, and other demographic characteristics, such as “Midwestern, rural, Protestant, lower income, female.” Many readers recoiled from the notion of being sorted into one of these boxes. The New York Times’s reviewer called The 480 a “shock novel” and found it implausible.

What was so shocking? What was implausible? The idea that a company might use computer technology and behavioral science to gather and crunch data on American citizens, with the nefarious goal of influencing a presidential election.

In the 1950s and 1960s this seemed like science fiction. Actually, The 480 was a thinly disguised roman à clef, based on a real-life company called Simulmatics, which had secretly worked for the 1960 campaign of John F. Kennedy. Burdick had been a political operative himself and knew the Simulmatics founders well. The company’s confidential reports and memoranda went straight into his prose. And the 480 categories—listed in an appendix to the novel—were the real Simulmatics voter types, the creation of what one of its founders called “a kind of Manhattan Project gamble in politics.”

Simulmatics was founded in 1959 and lasted eleven years. Jill Lepore mentioned its involvement in the Kennedy campaign in These Truths (2018), her monumental history of the United States; she was already on the trail of the story she tells in her new book, If Then. Lepore is a brilliant and prolific historian with an eye for unusual and revealing stories, and this one is a remarkable saga, sometimes comical, sometimes ominous: a “shadow history of the 1960s,” as she writes, because Simulmatics stumbled through the decade as a bit player, onstage for the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the Great Society, the riots and protests. It began with grand ambitions to invent a new kind of predictive behavioral science, in a research environment increasingly tied to a rising defense establishment amid the anxiety of the cold war. It ended ignominiously, in embarrassment and bankruptcy.

Irving Kristol, the future architect of neoconservativism, dismissed Simulmatics in 1964 as “a struggling little company which, despite the fact that it worked on a few problems for the Kennedy organization in 1960, has since had a difficult time making ends meet,” and he wasn’t wrong. Today it is almost completely forgotten. Yet Lepore finds in it a plausible untold origin story for our current panopticon: a world of constant surveillance, if not by the state then by megacorporations that make vast fortunes by predicting and manipulating our behavior—including, most insidiously, our behavior as voters…

The ever-illuminating James Gleick (@JamesGleick) unpacks the remarkable Jill Lepore‘s new history, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future: “Simulating Democracy.”

See also: this week’s Bloomberg Businessweek, and for historical perspective, “Age of Invention: The Tools of Absolutism.”

* Jaron Lanier (see, e.g., here and here)


As we think about the targets painted on our chests, we might recall that it was on this date in 2011 that Facebook introduced the Timeline as the design of a user’s main Facebook page.


Written by LW

September 22, 2020 at 1:01 am

“The greatest value of a picture is when it forces us to notice what we never expected to see”*…

Detail from Richard Waller’s “Tabula colorum physiologica …” [Table of physiological colours], from Philosophical Transactions, 1686 — Source.

One of the most demanding challenges for early modern scientists was devising how best to visually portray their discoveries to the public. In the absence of any sort of technology for automatic visualisation, like cameras or scanners, the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century natural philosopher had to rely on drawings and subsequently woodcuts, etchings, or engravings to turn an experimental finding into a reproducible and publicly accessible demonstration. This was a laborious, expensive, time-consuming, and often problematic operation. Negotiated between several parties involved in the world of image-making, such as draughtsmen, engravers, and printers, the results were inevitably compromises between the intentions of the researcher and the possibilities of the printing press. For example, what a drawing could express with shading, washing, and chromatic nuances, printed illustrations could only approximate through a binary system of black and white, resulting from the pressure of an inked copper plate against a page.

The problem of efficient imaging was particularly felt during the early years of the Royal Society, a scientific institution founded in London in the early 1660s and today still regarded as one of the most prestigious institutions of scientific research in the world. In its early decades of activity, the Royal Society established itself as one of the central forces of the Scientific Revolution, with renowned members such as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. Members of the Society used to meet on a weekly basis to discuss ongoing research on a variety of subjects, such as physics, mathematics, biology, astronomy, mechanics, geography, and antiquarianism.

Soon after its foundation, the Royal Society sought new ways to increase visibility and maximise its public reach. From this emerged the Philosophical Transactions, a monthly peer-reviewed journal, the first of its kind, featuring extracts from the Royal Society’s weekly research meetings. Founded in 1665 by the Society’s Secretary Henry Oldenburg and still published to this day, the Transactions are regarded as the first and longest-running scientific journal in history, as contributions were the result of original explorative studies into natural and mechanical matters informed by the Society’s culture of experiment — part of what today we generally call science.

The Transactions were printed in small quarto format (about 17x22cm) with up to about a dozen articles per issue and could be purchased for the price of one shilling, about £5 today. The journal was a pioneering learned publication, with exceptional frequency and aimed at a diverse public of curious researchers. As such, especially in the early years, its contributors were often preoccupied with how best to communicate their ideas and discoveries through the immediacy of mass-producible visual media. A closer look into a selection of these articles demonstrates the extent to which natural philosophers were prepared to re-invent the production and consumption of images with new and often odd strategies for representing the world. This was a process of endless hands-on experimentation, often pushing beyond the traditional confines of the printing house…

From infographics to digital renders, today’s scientists have ready access to a wide array of techniques to help visually communicate their research. It wasn’t always so: “‘More Lively Counterfaits’– Experimental Imaging at the Birth of Modern Science.”

* John Tukey


As we “show don’t tell,” we might spare a thought for Earle Dickson; he died on this date in 1961.  Dickson, concerned that his wife, Josephine Knight, often cut herself while doing housework and cooking, devised a way that she could easily apply her own dressings.  He prepared ready-made bandages by placing squares of cotton gauze at intervals along an adhesive strip and covering them with crinoline.  In the event, all his wife had to do was cut off a length of the strip and wrap it over her cut.  Dickson, who worked as a cotton buyer at Johnson & Johnson, took his idea to his employer… and the Band-Aid was born.


“Corn is a greedy crop, as farmers will tell you”*…

With harvest season nigh, the corn should be “as high as an elephant’s eye,” as the old Rodgers and Hammerstein song has it. Time to get that water boiling for the corn on the cob?

Sure. But most of the corn we consume isn’t on the cob, in a can, or frozen. Sweet corn is actually less than 1 percent of the corn grown in the United States. Popcorn, our third standard type of corn, is also less than 1 percent of the American corn crop.

Educators Renee Clary and James Wandersee have explored the history of corn, from the first domestication of maize about 10,000 years ago to today’s ubiquitous “commodity corn.”

According to Clary and Wandersee, we should be flush with the hundreds of varieties of corn crafted by human selection over the centuries. But the United States, the world’s largest corn producer, almost exclusively grows field corn, which is also known as dent corn, or, in the futures markets, “commodity corn.” It is not delicious with butter and salt.

Commodity corn is a bit magical, however, because it can be transformed into a plethora of products. Food is still a big part of the corn equation, but indirectly. Meat, for example, is actually transmuted corn: Four-tenths of the U.S. corn crop goes to feed chicken, pigs, and cattle. And since cattle evolved as grass eaters, they have to be dosed with antibiotics because corn isn’t healthy for them.

Many processed foods are built on the back of corn. High-fructose corn syrup, much cheaper than sugar, is the most obvious of these corn-based ingredients in our food system…

Clary and Wandersee have their students survey what’s in their home pantries. There’s a lot of corn hidden in food labels. Caramel color, lecithin, citric acid, modified and unmodified starch? Corn. The same with ascorbic acid, lysine, dextrose, monoglycerides, diglycerides, maltose, maltodextrin, and MSG. Xanthan gum? Well, there’s no such thing as a xanthan gum tree.

But the corn story is even more complicated. Corn can be chemically manipulated into all sorts of unexpected uses. There’s ethanol, for instance, which is basically alcohol used as a fuel supplement.

You’ll also find corn used in the production of antibiotics; aspirin; books; charcoal briquettes; cosmetics; crayons; disposable diapers; drywall; dyes and inks; fireworks; glues; paper, and plastics. The spray cleaner Windex has at least five corn-derived components. Spark plugs, toothpaste, batteries, and running shoes can all be made with things that started out as corn, in a field, under the sun. In 2001, Goodyear introduced tires made with a starch-based filler made from corn. DuPont naturally has a corn-based synthetic fiber.

While we’re at it, Stephen King’s 1977 story “Children of the Corn” gave rise to a movie franchise starting in 1984, and there’s a new Children of the Corn movie scheduled for release next year. Corny as horror movies can be, we apparently can’t get enough of them—or of corn itself.

… all of which goes to show why, as Michael Pollan says “farmers facing lower prices have only one option if they want to be able to maintain their standard of living, pay their bills, and service their debt, and that is to produce more [corn].” Indeed, corn is the most widely grown grain crop throughout the Americas; 13 billion bushels of corn are grown in the United States alone each year (on 91.7 million acres, the largest crop in the U.S.).

The history of corn, from the domestication of maize 10,000 years ago to today’s ubiquitous “commodity corn,” to teach about biodiversity… and its lack: “Corn is everywhere!

* Michael Pollan


As we give a shuck, we might send artificially-sweetened birthday greetings to Oliver Evans; he was born on this date in 1755. An engineer and one of the most prolific and influential inventors in the early years of the United States, he was a pioneer in the fields of automation, materials handling, and steam power. He created the first continuous production line (the first fully automated industrial process), the first high-pressure steam engine, and the first (albeit crude) amphibious vehicle and American automobile.

But given the subject of today’s post, we might note that he also created the automatic corn mill.


Written by LW

September 13, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Typography is the craft of endowing human language with a durable visual form”*…

Although the modern design world continues its well-documented love affair with the look and feel of letterpress, the once highly regarded trade of printing press operation has largely faded out as a career path, giving way to the relentless growth of digital printing methods.

Ireland’s National Print Museum in Dublin was founded in 1996 by retired printers who couldn’t bear to watch their trades disappear without trace or fanfare. “The Chapel”, a core group of volunteers (mostly retirees), are dedicated to keeping the museum’s collection of historical printing machines — and the skills required to operate them — from fading away as well…

In Great Britain, a collective of union printers is known as a “chapel.” While the exact origins are unknown, the term can be traced back to William Caxton, credited with bringing the first printing press to England in 1476…

A glorious photographic tour of “The Chapel: Inside Ireland’s National Print Museum.”

* Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style


As we love the lead, we might recall that it was on this date in 1947 that fabled computer scientist Grace Hopper (see here and here), then a programmer at Harvard’s Harvard’s Mark II Aiken Relay computer, found and documented the first computer “bug”– an insect that had lodged in the works.  The incident is recorded in Hopper’s logbook alongside the offending moth, taped to the logbook page: “15:45 Relay #70 Panel F (moth) in relay. First actual case of bug being found.”

This anecdote has led to Hopper being pretty widely credited with coining the term “bug” (and ultimately “de-bug”) in its technological usage… but the term actually dates back at least to Thomas Edison…

Grace Hoppers log entry (source)

Written by LW

September 9, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Imperial is lit, but Metric is liter”…*




The English-speaking world has been famously (and, many argue, problematically) slow to switch to the metric system of measurement.  One of the reasons is the way in which traditional “imperial” measures are baked into our understanding of products and services we use every day.

Consider the barleycorn, which is still used as the basis of shoe sizes in English-speaking countries.

In ancient Rome, the inch (which was one twelfth of a foot) measured the width across the (interphalangeal) joint of the thumb. By the 7th century in England, the barleycorn became a standard measurement with three ears of corn, laid end to end, equalling one inch. It took until the thirteenth century before the inch was officially sanctioned. Under pressure, Edward II (r. 1307-27) eventually succumbed to appeals from scholars and tradesmen to issue a decree to standardise measurement (Ledger, 1985).

Henceforth an English inch was the distance measured across three barleycorns. Thirty nine (39) barleycorns laid end to end became a foot, and 117 laid end to end became a yard. Whilst the barleycorn decree of Edward II had nothing to do with shoe sizes per se, many shoemakers began to use shoe sticks. Tradesmen had traditionally used the hand span method of measurement, which preferred the quarter of an inch unit, but after the introduction of the barleycorn measure, many began to adopt the third of an inch unit. With 39 barley corns approximating the length of a normal foot this was graded Size 13 and became the largest shoe size. Other sizes were graded down by 1/3 rd of an inch or one barleycorn…  [source]

The barleycorn is but one of the old English measures that. more or less obviously, still shape our encounters with and experience of the world:


Forgotten, but not gone: the barleycorn.

* bad joke


As we muse on measurement, we might send inventive birthday greetings to Charles Franklin Kettering; he was born on this date in 1876.  An engineer, businessman, and inventor (the holder of 186 patents), he worked at National Cash Register (where he created the first electric cash register with an electric motor that opened the drawer), co-founded DELCO, and was head of research at General Motors from 1920 to 1947.  He invented the key-operated self-starting motor and developed several new engine types, quick-drying lacquer finishes, anti-knock fuels, and variable-speed transmissions.  In association with the DuPont Chemical Company, he was also responsible for the invention of Freon refrigerant for refrigeration and air conditioning systems.  While working with the Dayton-Wright Company he developed the “Bug” aerial torpedo, considered the world’s first aerial missile.  In 1927, he founded the Kettering Foundation, a non-partisan research foundation devoted to answering the question: “what does it take for democracy to work as it should?”

220px-Time-magazine-cover-charles-kettering source


%d bloggers like this: