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Posts Tagged ‘Technology

“Today everything exists to end in a photograph”*…

 

Sadly, just not necessarily a good photograph…

uninteresting photographs

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D-3-FkiWkAUqldq

 

A few samples drawn from the stream of images you’ll find at Uninteresting Photographs.

* Susan Sontag

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As we search for meaning, we might recall that it was on this date in 1870 that John Wesley Hyatt received one of the patents that allowed him to win the $10,000 prize offered for a practical substitute for ivory in the manufacture of billiard balls.  The material he used– celluloid– was the first true plastic… and the basis of photographic film until it was replaced by acetate in the 1950s.

In his long career, Hyatt secured several hundred patents, among them: the first injection molding machine, processes for sugarcane milling and fruit/vegetable juice extraction, roller bearings, and a multiple-stitch sewing machine.  Hyatt founded the Hyatt Roller Bearing Company in 1892 in Harrison, New Jersey; then, in 1895, hired a young Alfred P. Sloan, son of a major investor in the company, as a draftsman.  By 1905, Sloan had become president; in 1916, the company was sold to General Motors… where Sloan went on to become its transformative president, and the architect of the auto industry as we know it.

John_Wesley_Hyatt,_Jr source

 

 

“With the sextant he made obeisance to the sun-god”*…

 

exam-final-Fig5_Boombaar_HSM

A practice exam in the navigation workbook of C. J. Boombaar (1727–32)

 

In 1673, in a North Sea skirmish that killed nearly 150 men, the French privateer Jean-François Doublet took a bullet that tossed him from the forecastle and broke his arm in two places. How did the precocious young second lieutenant choose to spend his convalescence? Doublet repaired to the French port city of Dieppe, where he signed up for three months of navigation lessons…

During the 16th to 18th centuries, Europeans embarked on thousands of long-distance sea voyages around the world. These expeditions in the name of trade and colonisation had irreversible, often deadly, impacts on peoples around the globe. Heedless of those consequences, Europeans focused primarily on devising new techniques to make their voyages safer and faster. They could no longer sail along the coasts, taking their directional cues from prominent landmarks (as had been common in the preceding centuries). Nor did they have sophisticated knowledge of waves and currents, as did their counterparts in the Pacific. They had no choice but to figure out new methods of navigating across the open water. Instead of memorising the shoreline, they looked to the heavens, calculating time and position from the sun and the stars.

Celestial navigation was certainly feasible, but it required real technical skills as well as fairly advanced mathematics. Sailors needed to calculate the angle of a star’s elevation using a cross-staff or quadrant. They needed to track the direction of their ship’s course relative to magnetic north. Trigonometry and logarithms offered the best way to make these essential measurements: for these, a sailor needed to be adept at using dense numerical tables. All of a sudden, a navigator’s main skill wasn’t his memory – it was his mathematical ability.

To help the average sailor with these technical computations, maritime administrators and entrepreneurs opened schools in capital cities and port towns across Europe. Some were less formal arrangements, where small groups of men gathered in the teacher’s home, paying for a series of classes over the course of a winter when they were on shore…

How did the sailors of early modern Europe learn to traverse the world’s seas? By going to school and doing maths problems: “When pirates studied Euclid.”

* “With the sextant he made obeisance to the sun-god, he consulted ancient tomes and tables of magic characters, muttered prayers in a strange tongue that sounded like Indexerrorparallaxrefraction, made cabalistic signs on paper, added and carried one, and then, on a piece of holy script called the Grail – I mean, the Chart – he placed his finger on a certain space conspicuous for its blankness and said, ‘Here we are.’ When we looked at the blank space and asked, “And where is that?” he answered in the cipher-code of the higher priesthood, “31 -15 – 47 north, 133 – 5 – 30 west.” And we said, ‘Oh,’ and felt mighty small.”                           – Jack London, The Cruise of the Snark

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As we find our way, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to John Locke; he died on this date in 1856.  A namesake of the famous philosopher, Locke trained as a doctor, but turned to geology– and to the invention of scientific, surveying, and navigational instruments, including a surveyor’s compass, a collimating level (Locke’s Hand Level), and a gravity escapement for regulator clocks.  The electro-chronograph he constructed (1844-48) for the United States Coast Survey was installed in the Naval Observatory, Washington, in 1848.  It improved determination of longitudes, as it was able to make a printed record on a time scale of an event to within one one-hundredth of a second.  When connected via the nation’s telegraph system, astronomers could record the time of events they observed from elsewhere in the country, by pressing a telegraph key.

Locke,_John source

 

Written by LW

July 10, 2019 at 1:01 am

“But if you’re gonna dine with them cannibals / Sooner or later, darling, you’re gonna get eaten”*…

 

hot dog

 

A select few athletes are so iconic, they’re known by a single name. Jordan. The Babe. Serena. Pelé. Tiger. Shaq.

And, of course, Kobayashi.

The godfather of competitive eating, Takeru Kobayashi burst onto the American scene at the 2001 Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, where the lithe 5-foot-8 Japanese 23-year-old, using a revolutionary water-dipping technique and a body-wiggling maneuver known as the “Kobayashi Shake,” ate an astounding 50 hot dogs—double the prior record. That feat thrust Kobayashi to instant superstardom, and his subsequent five wins at the famed July 4th competition only solidified his standing as the king of the eating world—a title he’d only officially relinquish in 2007, when American Joey Chestnut dethroned him at the Nathan’s extravaganza.

The tumultuous saga of Kobayashi and Chestnut is the subject of ESPN’s latest “30 for 30” documentary, The Good, The Bad, The Hungry, which details the stratospheric rise and controversial fall of Kobayashi, whose reign was cut short by losses to Chestnut (winner of 11 Nathan’s contests, and a multi-world record holder), a falling-out with Major League Eating (MLE) and its co-founder George Shea, and an eye-opening arrest at the 2010 Nathan’s event…

More on this epic rivaltry at “The Rise and Fall of Kobayashi, Godfather of Competitive Eating: ‘They Were Making a Joke of Me’.”  Find The Good, The Bad, The Hungry here.

* Nick Cave

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As we go for the gold, we might recall that it was on this date in 1928 that sliced bread was sold for the first time, by the Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, Missouri.

For more on this seminal development, see “What was the best thing before sliced bread?

source

 

 

Written by LW

July 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Although there is no progress without change, not all change is progress”*…

 

HG Wells

Schematic from Wells’ The Outline of History (1921), showing the rise of Europe, and the “mechanical revolution” leading to, writ in huge letters along the bottom, “The Great War” [source] (See bigger version here)

 

H. G. Wells worried constantly about the future of humanity. While he hoped for progress in human affairs, he was only too well aware that it was not inevitable and might not be sustained. Throughout his career he celebrated the technological developments that were revolutionizing life but feared they might lead to eventual degeneration or, as came to pass in 1914, a catastrophic war. He was also aware that there were disagreements over what would actually count as progress. Providing everyone with the benefits of modern industry might not be enough, especially as continued technological innovation would require the constant remodeling of society. Progressive steps introducing entirely new functions were episodic, open-ended and unpredictable, in both biological and social evolution. These uncertainties were compounded by a realization that, where technological innovation was concerned, it was virtually impossible to predict future inventions or what their long-term consequences might be. Even if progress continued, it would be much more open-ended than advocates of the traditional idea of progress had imagined…

In addition to the numerous pioneering works of science fiction by which he made his name, H. G. Wells also published a steady stream of non-fiction meditations, mainly focused on themes salient to his stories: the effects of technology, human folly, and the idea of progress. As Peter J. Bowler explains, for Wells the notion of a better future was riddled with complexities: “H. G. Wells and the Uncertainties of Progress.”

* John Wooden

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As we ponder posterity, we might recall that it was on this date in 1687 that (not yet Sir) Isaac Newton published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (AKA “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”, AKA the Principia).  In three volumes Newton laid out his laws of motion (the foundation of classical mechanics), his theory of universal gravitation, and a derivation of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion (which Kepler had obtained empirically).

As G.E. Smith wrote in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Viewed retrospectively, no work was more seminal in the development of modern physics and astronomy than Newton’s Principia… no one could deny that [out of the Principia] a science had emerged that, at least in certain respects, so far exceeded anything that had ever gone before that it stood alone as the ultimate exemplar of science generally.

Title page of Principia, first edition

source

 

Written by LW

July 5, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”*…

 

mayan collapse

Mayan society experienced a gradual decline over three centuries

 

Is the collapse of a civilisation necessarily calamitous? The failure of the Egyptian Old Kingdom towards the end of the 2nd millennium BCE was accompanied by riots, tomb-raids and even cannibalism. ‘The whole of Upper Egypt died of hunger and each individual had reached such a state of hunger that he ate his own children,’ runs an account from 2120 BCE about the life of Ankhtifi, a southern provincial governor of Ancient Egypt.

Many of us are familiar with this historical narrative of how cultures can rapidly – and violently – decline and fall. Recent history appears to bear it out, too. Post-invasion Iraq witnessed 100,000 deaths in the first year and a half, followed by the emergence of ISIS. And the overthrow of the Libyan government in 2011 produced a power vacuum, leading to the re-emergence of the slave trade.

However, there’s a more complicated reality behind this view of collapse. In fact, the end of civilisations rarely involved a sudden cataclysm or apocalypse. Often the process is protracted, mild, and leaves people and culture continuing for many years…

Civilisational demise can also provide space for renewal. The emergence of the nation-state in Europe wouldn’t have happened without the end of the Western Roman Empire many centuries before. This has led some scholars to speculate that collapse is part of the ‘adaptive cycle’ of growth and decline of systems. Like a forest fire, the creative destruction of collapse provides resources and space for evolution and reorganisation.

One reason we rarely appreciate these nuances is that archaeology mainly depicts what happened to the lives of the elites – a view of history through the eyes of the 1 per cent. Until the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, writing and other forms of documentation were largely the preserve of government bureaucrats and aristocrats. Meanwhile, the footprint of the masses – such as non-state hunter-gatherers, foragers and pastoralists – was biodegradable…

But none of this means that we should be complacent about the prospects for a future fall…

The four big reasons why the next civilizational collapse might be both faster and harsher than many in the past: “Civilisational collapse has a bright past – but a dark future.”

* Eric Idle, for Monty Python’s Life of Brian

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As we contemplate change, we might recall that it was on this date in 1908 that “SOS”– “. . . _ _ _ . . .”– became the global standard radio distress signal.  While it was officially replaced in 1999 by the Global Maritime Distress Safety System, SOS is still recognized as a visual distress signal.

SOS has traditionally be “translated” (expanded) to mean “save our ship,” “save our souls,” “send out succor,” or other such pleas.  But while these may be helpful mnemonics, SOS is not an abbreviation or acronym.  Rather, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the letters were chosen simply because they are easily transmitted in Morse code.

click image above, or here

 

“We never live; we are always in the expectation of living”*…

 

0618_phone

 

Sure that hold music was annoying, grating, a punishment to brain cells, especially if it loops tightly or is particularly in-your-face, but you know what’d be worse? If there was no sound at all.

That was the point that a man named Alfred Levy made when he filed a patent application in 1962 for the “Telephone hold program system,” which is the very patent that led to the creation of hold music.

A 2014 Slate piece helpfully filled in the gaps on this story: Levy, a factory employee, stumbled upon the basic idea for hold music after a freak incident involving a wire and a steel girder. Oddly enough, when the wire touched the steel, it effectively turned the building into a giant radio, leading people on hold waiting for phone calls to actually hear music on the line, rather than waiting in silence.

It might sound far-fetched, but that’s the tale, apparently. Nonetheless, his patent filing, granted in 1966, does a great job of explaining why such a tool is necessary. He noted that switchboards and telephone operators increasingly were using hold buttons, which allow time to properly route calls through a switchboard. However, little consideration was being given to the person on the other end of the line, who understandably might get frustrated or concerned the call dropped if they don’t hear back after a while.

“Courteous telephone practice requires that a held caller be assured at reasonable intervals that the party to whom he wishes to speak still is busy but the pressure of her duties may prevent the operator from so advising the incoming caller so that he may be bereft of even this small consolation,” the patent filing stated. “In any event, listening to a completely unresponsive instrument is tedious and calls often are abandoned altogether or remade which leads to annoyance and a waste of time and money.”

A telephone hold system, he continues, is basically a way to pacify the person waiting for assistance, as it “assures the incoming caller that his call is being held and that he is not disconnected or forgotten.”

The timing of his invention was basically perfect, coming along right as the call center was making its first appearance

Via @ShortFormErnie and his always-illuminating Tedium, the unusual state of hold music, which works pretty much the opposite way that every other kind of music does, for reasons both technical and psychological: “Holding Patterns.”

* Voltaire

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As we wait, we might recall that it was on this date in 1976 that the CN Tower in Toronto opened.  At 1,815.3 ft it held the record for the world’s tallest free-standing structure for 32 years until 2007, when it was surpassed by the Burj Khalifa and was the world’s tallest tower until 2009 when it was surpassed by the Canton Tower.  In 1995, the CN Tower was declared one of the modern Seven Wonders of the World by the American Society of Civil Engineers. (It also belongs to the World Federation of Great Towers.)  It serves as a communications tower, the site of numerous broadcast (and reception) antennae for TV, radio, cell phone and microwave providers… and, of course, it is a signature icon of Toronto’s skyline.

480px-Toronto_-_ON_-_Toronto_Harbourfront7 source

 

Written by LW

June 26, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Doubt thou the stars are fire”*…

 

solar-flare_resize_md

 

Solar storms are a relatively regular occurrence.  But in 1859, a massive solar storm occurred; solar flares created the one of the largest geomagnetic storms on record.  Telegraph service failed… but otherwise the event was largely a curiosity.

A new study calculates that our sun may produce another ‘superflare’ in the next 100 years… and suggests that the resulting damage to electronic systems on which we’ve come to depend could be devastating.

How much more disruptive would a superflare be? It’s hard to say because the damage would seem to be incalculable. A superflare even a hundred times more powerful than what we normally experience would almost certainly hit every unprotected electronic system on Earth in some fashion, disrupting or outright crippling powergrids around the world, disabling machinery and manufacturing, blowing out cell phones, satellites, and all the rest. Transportation systems depend on electronics, as do utility systems, communications systems, in short: everything could just stop working overnight, even though we probably wouldn’t feel a thing.

If the superflare was thousands of times more powerful than normal? For all we know, it could send humanity back to the Age of Sail practically overnight–at least until we can repair or replace the entire planet’s electronic infrastructure, a tall order when you have no power transmission to manufacture replacement electronic components and we’re all reduced to communicating using carrier pigeons and old fashioned letters…

The solar storm of 2012 was of similar magnitude to the 1859 flare, but it passed Earth’s orbit without striking the planet, missing by nine days.  For more on what we might expect of we’re not so lucky next time, see “Massive Superflare Eruption from Sun within 100 Years Possible, New Study Says.”

And for more background see: “Solar Flare: What If Biggest Known Sun Storm Hit Today?

* Shakespeare

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As we slip on our shades, we might spare a thought for Giovanni Battista Riccioli; he died on this date in 1671.  He is known, among other things, for his experiments with pendulums and with falling bodies, for his discussion of 126 arguments concerning the motion of the Earth, and for discovering the first double star.  But he is perhaps most remembered for introducing (in in Almagestum Novum in1651) the current scheme of lunar nomenclature: he named the more prominent features after famous astronomers, scientists and philosophers, while the large dark and smooth areas he called “seas” or “maria”.  The lunar seas were named after moods (Seas of Tranquillity, Serenity) or terrestrial phenomena (Sea of Rains, Ocean or Storms).

440px-Giovanni_Battista_Riccioli source

 

Written by LW

June 25, 2019 at 1:01 am

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