Technology & Culture Update 5/25/13

things come apartTechnology and culture embodied in art: Since we’ve still got a few days of Bike Month left, I thought I’d share some velo-centric goodness with y’all. To kick things off, get a load of photographer Todd McLellan’s wild photo of a dissected vintage road bike. This image, taken from the artist’s “Disassembly Series,” is just one of many quotidian items rendered as objets d’art that McLellan says, “have, are, or will be in our everyday lives.” The complete study is now available as a coffee table book called Things Come Apart.

Bike helmets work! Well, there’s a shock. I’ve addressed this issue before, and I’m gobsmacked that it takes a well-funded scientific study to conclude that you’ll protect your eggshell-like brain bucket by wearing a helmet. I’m equally appalled when I see a cyclist riding sans helmet—a transgression occasionally compounded by a helmet dangling from the handlebars. D’oh!

Some folks believe that commuting by bike is dangerous and are petrified of experiencing a Close Encounter of the Automobile Kind, but that seemingly rational fear has been proven fallacious. Still, when New York City announced its plan to launch a bike-share program, skeptics insisted that it would be unsafe, due to the automotive congestion (and the notorious recklessness of the cabbies of Gotham).

Mayor Bloomberg caved, so while it is apparently perfectly sensible to legislate the volume of sugary drinks New Yorkers can consume to protect them from diabetes, protecting his constituents’ heads from brain damage would be compromising their personal freedom. Go figure.

A recent piece on NPR reinforced the conclusion that cycle vs. automobile collisions are rare, but cycling crashes (with other bikes, pedestrians, or potholes) are in fact quite common. In any case, a helmet will protect your noggin. It’s just—sorry—a no-brainer. And counterintuitively, the report concludes, “the more people bike, the safer it may become.” Just wear yer dang helmet, people…

Silent spring of (18)62: You might think we’ve pretty much squeezed all the life out of the Civil War, but as Spielberg’s biopic Lincoln revealed, there are always new perspectives to be illuminated. As a Civil War historian myself, I was fascinated to learn that two academics have discovered another way to put old wine in new bottles. Timothy Silver and Judkin Browning, professors at Appalachian State University, received a $100,000 research fellowship to co-author an environmental history of the Late Unpleasantness.

The peripatetic migration of men and animals during the war years was largely contingent upon weather patterns, and the environmental impact of those movements on the local populace and the nation-at-large has yet to be the subject of academic scrutiny. For example, Silver believes that weather, rather than strategy or tactics, resulted in the termination of McClellan’s “On to Richmond” campaign. The environmental historian speculates, “If it hadn’t rained and the war had ended with McClellan taking Richmond in 1862, there would have been no Emancipation Proclamation,” and therefore, no fodder for another Spielberg epic. Interesting theory, but there are a couple of pretty big “ifs” in there.

HhHH cvrMetonymic magic: “me·ton·y·my (noun) : a figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated.” So says Merriam-Webster. While the media is all atwitter with the announcement of the billion-dollar deal involving the acquisition of Tumblr by Yahoo! (who concocts these silly names?), I was, perversely perhaps, more entertained by James Fallows’s treatise on this obscure linguistic construct.

Fallows shares his readers’ comments regarding the subtleties that escaped elucidation in the dictionary definition. There are some colorful examples given to illustrate the point, my favorite being, “Calling [Karl] Rove ‘Turd Blossom’ is metaphor – he’s not actually a flower. Calling him ‘the Brain’ or ‘Bush’s Brain’ is metonymy – he is famous for his use of his brain.” To put a finer point on it, I suspect this particular metonym was a play on the German epithet, Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich (abbreviated as “HHhH”), which translates to: “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.” (Incidentally, there’s a wonderful novel by the same name—check it out).

This may seem like so much pedantry to the average reader, but you’re not “average,” are you? Language matters. The proper use of our rather rich language is what separates the men from the boys in the world of intelligent, clear messaging (it’s just a figure of speech, so please don’t label me a “sexist pig”—that would be a metaphor, not a metonym).

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 5/20/13

Down Survey MapEthnic cleansing, ca. 1653: Last week we took a peek at the emerging discipline of GIS, and there’s more cool map-related news to report today. Following his conquest of Ireland, Oliver Cromwell doled out confiscated land to his soldiers in lieu of pay and transported the hapless Irish, either into slavery in distant lands or banishment to the barrens of Connacht (those who refused to go quietly were summarily executed). The story produces haunting echoes of Hitler’s landgrab and pogroms.

Digital humanities scholars at Trinity College Dublin have now assembled and digitized an atlas of remarkably accurate survey maps drafted by Cromwell’s minions (called the “Down Survey”) and georeferenced them with 19th-century Ordnance Survey maps, Google Maps, and satellite imagery. Accurate down to the parish level, the maps enable historians to identify the original owners of the purloined lands (no reparations are anticipated…). Needless to say, this amazing digital repository has proven a boon to researchers, genealogists, and students of Irish history—and the maps are beautiful works of art in their own right.

Dangerous obsessions: In The Lost City of Z, journalist David Grann plumbs the depths of the Brazilian Amazon jungle following in the wake of Percy Fawcett’s final—and fatal—1925 expedition to locate the storied city of El Dorado, the “City of Gold” (also know as Ciudad Blanca, the White City). Grann concludes that there is indeed evidence of such an ancient citadel (many, actually, according to anthropologist Michael Heckenberger) but the tantalizing theory has yet to be validated. Armed with an innovative digital mapping technology called LiDAR, cinematographer Stephen Elkins believes he’s struck paydirt—but in Honduras rather than Brazil.

LiDAR uses laser pulses to map terrain, enabling it to “see” through the triple canopy jungle and construct a 3D digital image of the elusive topography. Working over a 60-square-mile patch of jungle, engineers of the National Science Foundation (contracted by Elkins to perform the aerial data collection) found evidence of man-made structures (one doesn’t normally see straight lines in nature). But the jungle may well have swallowed a good many ancient cities and towns—could this really be the famed Ciudad Blanca? Archeologists scoff while Elkins prepares to head into the bush on foot to find out…

Geo-economics lesson: Though perhaps not imbued with that Indiana Jones cachet, another GIS project worthy of your consideration is an interactive map of global trade published on the Smithsonian’s website. “Interactive: The 50 Largest Ports in the World” is a really interesting example of how the combination of maps and data can be combined to relate a compelling story. Factoid: Six of the 10 busiest ports in the world are located on China’s mainland coast.

Grammar on the brain: According to a study performed by neuroscientists at the University of Oregon, our brains are hardwired to detect—and correct—grammar errors without our conscious intervention. It’s kind of like having a spell-check chip embedded in your head. Pretty cool, huh? The study, which was conducted using electroencephalography, included native English-speaking subjects between the ages of 18 and 30. Sounds intriguing, but the article didn’t mention anything at all about the subjects—their socioeconomic status or educational level, for example. I’ve got to wonder whether the amount of prior education in language skills isn’t a very critical factor here. Further, even with substantial grounding in the fundamentals, I’ve seen some atrocious writing produced by folks with graduate-level educations, so how is it these scholars’ brains aren’t autocorrecting as this study indicates they should?

While this study may establish that your brain parses grammar and syntactic data so quickly that it appears to be unconscious or intuitive, I would think the capability to perform this process would be contingent on how well you know the grammar and syntax rules to begin with. Your brain has to have that database to draw on. As a paratrooper, I was drilled (and drilled, and drilled) on how to react in the event of a malfunction; so well-drilled, in fact, that the response seemed automatic. It wasn’t, of course. Without that prior training, I’d have been in a world of hurt.

Wikipedia editing in real time: And here’s one more installment of visualization coolness for you—if you’ve ever wondered who’s doing all that crowd-sourced editing for Wikipedia, now you can see it happening geographically in real time. The site developers explain, “When an unregistered user edits Wikipedia, he or she is identified by his or her IP address. These IP addresses are translated to users’ approximate geographic location.” Only 15 percent of the edits come from unregistered users, but it’s still an amazing process to watch unfolding before your very eyes.

Dan Brown, man of letters: This lampoon of incredibly wealthy, renowned fiction scribe Dan Brown’s latest sure-to-be-best-seller will have you rolling on your highly polished antique heartwood pine floor, with the lemony scent of the polish in your nostrils, and snorting like a coke fiend who just won the lottery…

Spaced out: Let’s wrap up this week’s installment with a tribute to that bona fide space cowboy, Canadian astronaut and cosmic troubadour, Chris Hadfield. In case you’re not one of the 14 million people who’ve viewed the self-produced video of Chris crooning “Space Oddity” in orbit, I’ve posted it here:

You’re welcome. That’s one small step for Ziggy…

It is truly a memorable milestone in the history of rock, but we must also recall that just last summer, Mark Kelly, commander of the International Space Station and husband of Gabrielle Giffords, was beamed (from space) onto the jumbotron at a U2 concert to introduce the song “Beautiful Day” quipping, “Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows.” Could this have possibly provided Chris with inspiration? I don’t think he should quit his day job, but it was pretty cool. Nicely done, Commander Hadfield!

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 5/10/13

coffee plantCoffee redux: As previously noted, NPR recently devoted an entire week to a special report on the many aspects of coffee culture. This week it’s Maria Popova’s turn to sing the praises (and dis the dark side) of that most social of beverages in her precocious Brain Pickings blog. In her wonderfully eclectic style, Popova profiles Mark Pendergrast’s sweeping history and anthropological study of coffee, Uncommon Grounds. As usual, her text is generously sprinkled with breadcrumb links that suck you down the rabbit hole and into related essays, all of which are equally compelling. Hopefully, once you’ve been enticed by this preview, you’ll be moved to seek out a copy of Uncommon Grounds, brew up some joe and enjoy…

Thanks to Google Earth, we’ve all become familiar with amazing imaging of our built environment from various altitudes and perspectives; now even men can find their way without asking for directions! A joint effort undertaken by TIME, Google, the U.S. Geological Survey, and NASA, Timelapse (as it is called) raises the bar exponentially. See for yourself:

The project employs still satellite photos taken from 1984 to 2012 in flip-book style animation sequences. The scenes dramatically document the effects of human activity on the Little Blue Marble. From the explosion of development in Las Vegas (and the concomitant draining of nearby Lake Mead) to the rape of the Amazon rainforest and the travesty that is mountaintop-removal mining, this empirical evidence of our stunning lack of stewardship will take your breath away. On the positive side of the ledger, it’s interesting to see the results of irrigation projects in Saudi Arabia. Bonus: use the “Explore the World” dialog box to view the time-lapse changes for any location!

Our geospatial relationship to the planet constitutes the very heart of the geographic information systems (GIS) discipline. GIS enables us to visualize, analyze, and interpret data to identify trends and patterns. It’s also very good at putting historical events in context. Evolving tools, such as Neatline (an app designed by the University of Virginia Scholars’ Lab), facilitate the use of GIS by non-programmers. Take a stroll through the Neatline demo and prepare yourself to be impressed!

Archeology News reported on this emerging technology as well, with specific reference to how it can be employed to make history more accessible, using Mapping the Jewish Communities of the Byzantine Empire as a case study.

If you’re interested in getting your feet wet, there’s plenty of material to work with, and more becoming available every day. For example, the British Library just announced the digital open-access debut of its collection of incredibly detailed Ordnance Surveryors’ Drawings (OSDs), executed between 1789 and 1840. Want more? Click through to Old Maps Online. This site serves as a portal and search engine for the online collections of various libraries and research institutions (of which there are nineteen currently participating). The David Rumsey Map Collection Database and Blog is another great resource. This leviathan sports 38,000 historical maps and related images, and will soon be partnering with the Digital Public Library of America (we’ve mentioned the wondrous DPLA here, here, and here).

And switching gears, I have to post this entertaining video, “Vigilante Copy Editor” (factoid: AP styles “copy editor” as two words, CMOS prefers closing it up). Lynne Truss (of Eat, Shoots & Leaves fame) would be proud…

Have a fantastic weekend!

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 5/3/13

nat'l bike month

The science of safety: May is National Bike month (loads of related activities here) and we should all be spending more time on our bikes. Cycling is good for your body, mind and spirit, it’s easier on your wallet than driving and it’s a blessing for the environment (the trees will thank you!). Really, there’s no down side. Some folks worry about getting hit by a car. Don’t. Believe it or not, you are 15 times more likely to die while riding in a car than you are while riding on your bike. This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s true. Our irrational fear is predicated on cognitive biasIn this brief presentation from Bike Summit 2013, Tom Bowden (chairman of Bike Virginia and vice president of the Virginia Bicycling Federation) cleverly explains this phenomenon.

To catch a thief: And while we’re on the subject of two-wheelin’, KALW radio (San Francisco NPR affiliate) produced a great story about using social media to track down stolen bikes. There’s also an engaging read in the February issue of Outside magazine profiling one man’s obsessive quest to craft the perfect sting operation to nail bike thieves. Interestingly, the level of law enforcement cooperation hinges on how many cyclists there are in the local precinct: “Departments that can muster a peloton, like those in San Francisco, Portland, and Houston, are generally more proactive.” The bottom line is that you should be proactive, too; you can increase the odds of seeing your lost bike again by keeping a file with your bike’s serial number and lots of photos, and blasting out info relating to your stolen bike all over the cycling forums. Cyclists are a tight community; use crowdsourcing to your advantage! It doesn’t hurt to put your name on a piece of paper, laminate it and stuff it into your seat tube. There will be no argument that this is your bike!

From the Velolinguistics Dept.: In a recent tweet, noted lexicographer Peter Sokolowski revealed that he is not a devoted cyclist:

“How unhip am I? I used to think that ‘fixie’ meant a fixer-upper. A junk bike you won’t care if stolen.”

Personally, I think the beauty of the ‘net is that you can so easily discover how little you know about so many things—and broadcast this revelation to the entire planet with the push of a button.

Alexis Madgrigal knows what a fixie is; in fact, he employs it as a metaphor in his current blog post in The Atlantic: “Online Media is a Fixie: Simple, Low-Maintenance, Fun, and Dangerous.” He offers a pretty technical profile of just what a fixie is, and suggests an analogy with online reportage. Read the comments following Madrigal’s testimonial to his own hipness; they are much more on-point (and entertaining!).

E-book sales are on the rise and the e-publishing titans are duking it out in an attempt to establish proprietary models designed to lock authors and readers into a lucrative (for the publisher) gated community. But standards are elusive, and one developer is determined to wrest the self-publishing arena from the clutches of Apple and Amazon. Called “FuturePress” (squeezed into one word, cute), the open-source project is the brainchild of the UC Berkeley School of Information (where else?). According to the website, “FuturePress aims to free books from the prisons of current proprietary formats.” The idea is to build an API based on HTML5, enabling an e-book to be read on any device. “I should be able to read a book regardless of what type of device or application I want to use,” defiantly asserted Jake Hartnell, product manager for FuturePress. “It’s like that for things like music and video! But not ebooks. 🙁 ” It’s a kick-ass concept, but an unfortunate choice of moniker (and they have no logo—has no one told them about “branding”?). It should come as no surprise that the name “Future Press” has long since been nabbed by any number of commercial outfits. So type “futurepress” into a search engine and see what comes up. Just sayin’…

Pet peeves of the word-nerd crowd: According to The Atlantic, “definitely” is the latest overused buzzword. Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Ben Yagoda casts his vote for “literally.” Yes, some of the greats of belles-lettres have fallen prey to this tick, but that doesn’t make it correct, or even acceptable (it just makes them human). I doubt that I’ll be giving too much away to admit that both of these linguistic abuses are like fingernails on a blackboard to me. I failed high school biology because my teacher, Mr. Shelsky, had a habit of prefacing every statement with, “Strangely enough …” and concluding his diatribes with a (no doubt) trenchant observation beginning, “Irregardless, ….” It got to the point that everything else he said was just white noise punctuated by those annoying exclamations. Entranced, I was reduced to a drooling zombie state in which I mindlessly counted how many times he uttered these expressions and recorded the totals on my Pee-Chee notebook. Little wonder that I couldn’t recall much about the Periodic Table of Elements.

Publishing and paywalls: The revered publication, American Heritage, is the latest in a long line of periodicals struggling with the digital revolution. Having suspended publication last fall, the publishers claim to be restructuring the book as an education-oriented digital history offering (behind a paywall); they’re hoping the “educational” cachet will prove to be a viable sales strategy. In its new incarnation, the publication will be available in print and digital formats designed to complement the company’s nonprofit project, “Education, A Transformative System for Teaching American History and English Language Arts.” With so many innovative open-source alternatives already available or coming online now (the DPLA, which I discussed a couple of weeks ago, the University of Houston’s impressive Digital History website and the various educational initiatives produced by George Mason University’s Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, to name a few), it’s difficult to see how a for-profit venture is going to keep its head above water.

Digital Humanities 101: The aforementioned efforts all fall under the umbrella of the “digital humanities.” If you’re even the slightest bit curious about this fascinating movement, there are many resources available to acquaint you with the basics. Defining the Digital Humanities: A Bibliography is a great place to begin your journey. A Companion to Digital Humanities is an open-access textbook on the subject (and a very accessible read), while “A Guide to Digital Humanities” (by Northwestern University) is another well thought-out introduction to the field. This should be more than enough to whet your appetite; I’ll revisit this subject frequently.

CERNHappy birthday, Web! It’s hard to believe, but the World Wide Web is only 20 years old. British physicist Tim Berners-Lee developed the idea of creating an information network, and the technology that made it possible was made freely available to all on April 30, 1993. The first website (for CERN, a nuclear research organization) wasn’t much to look at, but Gutenberg’s initial efforts were pretty crude, too. In celebration of two decades of open-access information exchange, CERN has resurrected its original website. This technology has profoundly changed information sharing—how we interact, how we tell our story—in fundamental ways. What will the third decade bring?

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.