At 30,000 feet, again…

July 23, 2012

Last year, I posted about my trip to a work-related conference in San Diego, and my view of the Mississippi River system flooding I saw from the plane:  Well, I’m back.  I flew over the same terrain, and the damage of the flooding was apparent from the air.  You can see how the neat patchwork pattern of the agricultural areas has been smudged with the debris and sediment from last years flood.

Other themes of that post are recurring:  animation for one.  Then I was reading about Muybridge, friend of Leland Stanford, who did the first time-series images of a running horse.  I took a class on programming for Flex – fascinating, eh? – and sat next to a woman who works at Stanford.  Wow!  And at the museum of art, I bought a kit to make a zoetrope.  I just can’t escape myself.  The content for the toy was printed in the Sunday supplements of newspapers in the 1890s.

In my class, as I fiddle with code and talk of servers, map-services, instantiating queries, and so on, I think of the vast industry that has grown up to move large amounts of data, including the cartographic data with which I am concerned, over the Internet to consumers.  Yes, we are ‘consumers’ of map-services.  It’s as good a term as any, but does anyone wonder about how we all got to be consumers…of everything?  I get distracted by the sociology of the IT industry, and lose my place in the flow of the programming…

I took some time off to visit Balboa Park’s museums.  San Diego has something to offer other than sunshine and conventions, but it’s certainly not good coffee!  Next to the San Diego Museum of Art, where I saw a nice exhibit on German Expressionism, I visited the Timkin Museum, for free!  It’s a small collection, but there are a couple of knockout pieces of Sienese art of which I was unaware.  I particularly like the representation of the Trinity in the center of the second piece below, by Niccolo di Tomme. (Click to enlarge the images.)

Then there was this wonderful portrait by an artist I’d never see, clearly influenced by Leonardo, and newly discovered portrait by van Dyck.  The fabric and the hand seem pure Anthony van.

While shopping the museum store, I came upon a book about Yinka Shonibare, MBE, another new one for me.  He was born in London, raised in Nigeria, and now is back in the UK, producing installations, ‘paintings’, and sculpture that are filled with sly and not-so-subtle, but very exuberant, send-ups and skewerings of European culture, colonial and otherwise.  Turns out, his stuff is on exhibit there, so now I have to get back before I return to NJ.


Data Compression

January 16, 2012

The image above is of a late 15th century Spanish translation of Augustine’s The City of God that is exhibited in The Cloisters Museum in NY.  I was looking at it yesterday, my own copy of the book in hand.  The old edition is three massive volumes; the new one, a Penguin Classic, is a nice little brick of a volume, but still quite handy.  Data compression is not a new phenomenon.


Another “close, but no cigar.”

November 10, 2011

The New York Times Science section ran a piece on Tuesday about a project to build a working model of Babbage’s planned analytical engine.  It was a cog and gear driven ‘computer’ that read punch card data and instructions.  The article implies that it was the first such device, and so, the ancestor of all modern digital computers.

Close, but not quite.  Before the Victorian Babbage, there was  the 18th century Jacquard and his loom.

These huge machines read complex instructions on punch cards, made Lyons a dominant force in the silk weaving business, and were recognized by Babbage himself , as well as the future leader of IBM, the firm that put punch cards into the popular mind, as an important precursor and inspiration for the analytical engine.  Not to mention, that the looms actually worked, while the analytical engine never got off the drawing board.

The story is well and comprehensively told in this very fine book:  Jacquard’s Web.


Hot Type Eulogy

August 14, 2011

The leviathan at the top here is a linotype machine that produces a line of set type in hot lead.  Yes, the operators punch in the letters on the keyboard, and the type is cast as they go from molten metal.  This supplanted hand-set moveable type that had been around since Gutenberg, and it was the state-of-the-art in large printing operations for one hundred years.  On July 2, 1978, the last ‘hot type’ edition of the New York Times, which had the biggest ‘fleet’ of  linotypes in the newspaper world, was set in lead, and the paper went digital.  Farewell to etaoin shrdlu is a wonderful short film that captures that evening and takes us through the entire process of composing the pages of the newspaper as it was done then, and shows how, the morning after, it continued to be done, digitally.

I have always found linotypes fascinating:  they look for all the world like Rube Goldberg fantasies, but they work!  And the idea of casting lines of type from molten lead on the fly seems somehow bizarre – how could such a process survive in the modern world?  Well, it couldn’t.  As several people remark, the linotype took the automation of mechanical printing about as far as it could go, far enough to last 100 years, but it had to end.  Composing fourteen lines a minute can’t stack up in the Age of Information when computers can do it at 1000 lines per minute.

Of course, in 1978, the computer systems were used to produce printed columns of type which were still pasted up into complete pages.  Like much else in the film’s tour of the brave new world of digital printing, this is gone too, and now pages are composed completely digitally, the way so many of us lay out throwaway pamphlets in Pagemaker, or whatever software is cheapest today.

Here’s the opening view in the film:  the title refers to the first two columns of keys on the keyboard that an operator would hit to denote a line with an error, or something like that – I didn’t quite get it.

A close up of the lead set type of the front page of the New York Times.

Molten lead, ready to be cast into type at the press of a key.  That’s why they call it hot type!


Just sayin’ again…

June 2, 2010

In THX 1138 the movie he made before the Starwars bonanza, Lucas peoples the world with emotionless characters who constantly run electric razors over their hairless domes as a sort of nervous tic.  (I couldn’t find an image with the razors.)  Sitting on the train, looking at the scores of people plugged in and fiddling with their iPods, Blackberrys, Samsung super phones and other paraphernalia, scrolling with jaded eyes through their emails, web apps, or whatever…I couldn’t help thinking of THX.

The oil spill in the Gulf is bad, but it’s not the apocalypse.  The stuff is nasty, but it’s less heavy and black than what came out of the Valdez.  It’s less concentrated in area.  Of course, it’s still going strong.  Not to mention why it happened.  Personally, I’m more concerned about the anoxic dead zone in the Gulf that is a chronic condition caused by agricultural runoff.

Maybe something good will come of the leak.  Perhaps BP will fold, other companies will think twice about offshore drilling.  They’ll demand higher prices to cover their liabilities in case of disaster.  Higher fuel prices, less driving, more incentive for alternative energy sources.  Right now, oil gets a free ride on the externalities, but of course, we like it that way.  Although, I haven’t heard much from the Drill Baby, Drill! crowd lately.

from Book I, Chapter 30 of Augustine’s City of God:

 Some of you do  not know the facts; some of you pretend not to know, and you raise an outcry…Well, here are the facts.  The public games, those disgusting spectacles of frivolous immorality, were instituted at Rome not by the viciousness of men, but by the orders of those gods of yours [his pagan opponents].   … Listen to me, if your minds will allow you to think sensibly, after they have been drunk so long on the liquor of nonsense!…I wonder if posterity will be able to believe this when they hear of it!

Saint Augustine had the instincts of a flamer in the blogsphere!


Head trips

January 22, 2010

Stumbling away from my cubicle at lunch time, blurred with boredom and fatigue, I find myself in an elevator going down 31 floors.  On the way, my fellow passengers are all deeply involved with their phones – texting, scrolling, listening…  I look at people doing this a lot in NYC, on the sidewalk, the train, in the lobby, and I think, “What are they doing?  Calling their kids?  Checking Twitters?  Texting a girlfriend?  Looking at the stock quotes?  Reading a Shakespeare sonnet..?”

Personally, I am happy with my primitive cell phone that I rarely use.  I have no desire to be connected, not when I am away from my work/desk, anyway.  This is not a criticism – I just don’t fathom the attraction this activity has for all these people so much of the time.

I made my way down Broadway to my favored cold-weather lunch time nap location, Trinity Church.  Inside, a service is going on, and I find my way to a padded bench in the back corner and settle in.  My attention is caught by the wonderful voice of the minister giving his homily on theodicy, the existence of evil and strife in God’s world.  Why is there tragedy like the earthquake in Haiti?  Does God cause it, let it happen?  Very few people are at the service, but the minister speaks very well – I can accept everything he says by simply jettisoning the God-stuff.

Religion does offer something!  A quiet place, a haven from the idiotic swirling frenzy of talk, arrangements, markets, advertisements, gossip, bad news, celebrity…the stuff of workaday life.  Drills down to the essential, witnessing love, a larger mission to give meaning to life, compassion, the inevitable arc of living from birth to death, all that universal stuff.

He finishes, some organ music, and I dimly sense people going forward…to take communion?, shake his hand – no, the hand shaking happened a few minutes ago… I drift in and out of sleep for fifteen minutes and awake, somewhat refreshed.


Sugar tapping into the bit-stream

November 16, 2009

We are all connected!Sometimes in my job, I feel like I’m in a bad science fiction movie.  The one in which a technocrat is speaking to a well-heeled audience about some new computer gismo that is going to change all of our lives – for the better – while disaster looms outside…

I attended a conference today, in the grand interior rotunda of a university library, about the use of  “geospatial” technology – that’s my field, maps, GIS, location data,  etc. - and disaster preparedness planning.  One fellow, a doctor and a tireless worker in various international NGO’s, talked about all the great, whiz-bang Web locational stuff that is helping him and his peers “save some lives.”  I’ve no complaint with that!

He talked about a sugar tapper in the rainforest of Indonesia, a bona fide member of a head-hunting tribe, who has the right to tap twelve trees in this jungle, and how he was able to double his income once he received some global positioning (GPS) tools.  Since the same person spoke about how local people serve as guides to internationals because only they can find their way around the forest they have lived in all their lives, I wondered why GPS made a difference to this guy.  Born and raised to the area, wouldn’t he have all sorts of low-tech, traditional ways of keeping track of where his trees are and when it was time to visit them to collect sugar?  Isn’t that the sort of indigenous knowledge we techno-nerds of the West are always rhapsodizing about when we get bored with our toys?  I asked exactly that question, and the answer was simple.

The tapper had no problem finding his trees and organizing his work, but by selling his sugar as Certified Organic, he was able to abandon smuggling as a livelihood and enter the global market for “green” agriculture.  In order to gain access to this market, he had to produce lots of paperwork and keep detailed records, and for this, GPS, digital maps, spreadsheets, and various plug-ins and plug-outs are invaluable.

I am happy this man is able to support himself in this sustainable way, and glad that the local university is involved in helping his community overcome the technical hurdles to entering this market – it seems like a good local development effort on their part.  It is important to keep in mind, however, exactly what problem was being solved.  The farmer had no technical problem running his sugar operation.  The problem was in being accepted into the global network of selling.  How you feel about his success here depends on what you think about globalization, capitalism, organic agriculture, and a lot of other things.  I do get the feeling, though, that in these breathless presentations on the value of hi-tech spatial technology that we are often looking for ways to solve problems that the same technologies have created.

Another speaker, a professor who also runs this outfit, talked about how four or five infrastructure providers are collecting data each day on phone callers:  from where and when they place a call.  These corporations are looking for ways to use this data, “creative business opportunities, or societal-beneficial stuff ” he said.  Presented with this mass of data – the problem – they search for meaning, and create solutions to extract it.   At one point he said that using this data, we can tell who and what we are by virtue of our co-locating.  That is, you know something about people by knowing where they meet and with whom.  Except that this data just tells you where and when pretty much…

One such exercise involved graphing the volume of commuters to the financial district of San Francisco against the Dow Jones.  We see that people tend to go in to the office early when the market isn’t doing too well.  They come in later when the market seems to be trending upwards steadily.  Surprised?  Imagine, you could develop “smart advertising” targeting those people by changing digital ads in real-time on  trains, buses, and billboards! – my idea, BTW, but only in the particulars.  Unusually heavy early traffic going into the city?  Cue the bromo-seltzer and beer ads – it’s going to be a bruiser of a day on the trading floor!

I know that technology has wonderful and humane applications, but stuff like this is enough to make you a Luddite.  Part of the idolatry of the computer, and the relentless drive to draw us all into the web of the International Work (and buy) Machine.

Now, this leaves open only one question:  How do I get the four or five hundred people who visit this blog each day to pay me some money!!  How much would you pay for the privilege?




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