We Lost The North Pole!

December 2, 2019

The Magnetic North Pole is a moveable object; it travels around the globe.  In a previous post, I mentioned that millennia ago it was positioned far south of where we usually suppose it to be.  Now, it has emigrated away from Canada!

According to an article in Forbes magazine,

“What we’ve seen in the past hundred years is that the location of the magnetic North Pole has moved northward. That migration of the magnetic North Pole was switched into overdrive in the past few years, causing the pole to rapidly move … In the recent past, the magnetic North Pole has moved 34 miles a year toward Russia. Just a half-century ago, the magnetic North Pole was wandering about 7 miles each year.”

 

 

Apart from Canada losing this natural asset, the movement of the pole affects a lot in our technological world:

“The [North Pole] model update ensures the accuracy of work in governmental agencies around the world. Specifically, NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the U.S. Forest Service use the magnetic poles in their daily operations from mapping to air traffic control. On a more individual level, smartphones use the magnetic north for GPS location and compass apps.”

I’m sure if the Pole moves rapidly over to China, much of Canada’s media will blame Trudeau for it.


Living Without Electricity

November 29, 2019

I am sure that most people reading this blog hardly give a thought to electricity, excerpt perhaps when the utility bill arrive or a storm disables a few power lines for a day or two.  Having electricity seems as natural and normal as breathing.  But here we are, well into the 2000s, and more than one billion people still don’t have what the rest of us consider an essential necessity.

Here is a map from Virtual Capitalist showing where — mostly in Africa — the lack of power hits home.

Select the image for a larger view.

As the article notes:

“Between 2009 and 2015, solar PV module prices fell by 80%, ushering in a new era of affordability. Solar powered mini-grids don’t just have the potential to bring electricity to new markets, it can also replace the diesel-powered generators commonly used in Africa.”


You Can’t Hide

November 22, 2019

Over the years I have written quite a bit about government and corporate surveillance, and the ability of massive computing power to digest and process multitudes of data from that surveillance to produce individualized profiles of every single person on the planet — no matter how far off the grid you think you are.  Here is an article from this month’s New AtlantisAll Activities Monitored by Jon Askonas — that tracks the history of, and warns of the implications of, the modern wave of surveillance and processing technologies.

He cites the US military’s “Gorgon State” operation in Iraq:

Gorgon Stare and several other programs like it allowed American forces in Iraq to continuously surveil cities in their entirety, unblinkingly and without forgetting. After an IED attack, analysts could look back over the video to find the insurgents who had placed the bomb, and then further to find all of the places they had visited. Analysts could also cross-reference this data to other intelligence or surveillance, and build up lists of likely insurgent hideaways. Algorithms could trace individual cars or people over time, and even highlight suspicious driving activity for further investigation, like cars that did U-turns or followed other cars. Operators of the system could do this work in real time as well, coordinating with troops on the ground to pass on fresh intelligence or transmit the live images …

“Big data analytics, persistent surveillance, and massive increases in computing power enabled more sophisticated ways of … fusing intelligence from all kinds of sources. Social media, cell phone intercepts, captured documents, interrogations, and Gorgon Stare’s aerial surveillance could be used to build a nigh-inescapable net.”

Gorgon State was directly inspired by the 1998 movie Enemy Of The State, and its potential for use outside the military sphere was obvious.

“Programs like Gorgon Stare were, strikingly, inspired by a movie about government abuse of surveillance power. From the beginning, all involved understood exactly what they were trying to build, its power, and its potential for abuse. As a noted philosopher of science once warned: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should …

“Like so many other technologies created for war, this type of surveillance has come home, and early adopters have found many inventive uses.

Security companies have used it to protect events like NASCAR races — in one case, the surveillance system allowed a security team to quickly track back a hostile fan to his trailer to eject him from the event.

The Forest Service deploys wide-area surveillance to monitor potential forest fire zones.

And of course, a number of law enforcement agencies, ranging from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to local police departments, have experimented successfully, if controversially, with using the technology to fight crime …

Beginning in early 2016, … cameras were flying above crime-ridden Baltimore, with knowledge only of the police department — even the city government at first didn’t know about it…”

[I]nsurance companies will be, and in some cases already are, eager to use these systems to examine disaster areas and detect fraud, as aerial images can help them to compare claims against visible damage…

Other uses are still in the planning phase: Retail stores might want to track traffic around them to know where their customers come from and where they go; major utility companies might want to observe construction activities along underground pipelines.

These new abilities in the hands of the few have shifted

“the balance of power between citizen and state, between individual and corporation, and have eroded to the point of extinction what little remained of the natural rights of privacy, all around the world. For the masses, the feeling that technology develops along an inevitable path reflects their lack of agency — the fact that the crucial decisions about the technological conditions of society will be made by a largely self-regulating confraternity of elites. For engineers and scientists, technological development appears to be driven by a combination of what they can imagine, what is technically feasible, and what governments or markets demand.”

Well worth reading.


When Vending Machines Ruled

November 12, 2019

You probably have to be my age to recall the excitement caused by the spread of vending machines in the early 1960s.  This 4-minute Pathe newsreel from 1964 is evocative of the times.

 

It was hard to argue against the convenience such devices would bring us.  Harold Wilson’s 1963 speech about how the “white heat” of “scientific revolution” was to be Britain’s route to the future fed into the delusion — shared by almost everyone — that technology and automation were invincible.  I am concerned that many in my generation (and, worse, some much younger) are still enmeshed in the myths spun by Branson, Musk, and many other profiteers that technology is the key to the world’s problems.

I know I am not the only one who believes that mutual aid and cooperation will always outweigh technology; I hope that the eco-crisis movement will not be suckerewd into following mega-projects once again.


Modern Complexities

November 3, 2019

Way back in the Dark Ages of the 1950s, I was taught a simple lesson: people who talked to themselves out loud on the street were, as my mother explained clearly and explicitly, “a little touched” and were to be avoided or at least grumbled at.

Now, of course, they are just as likely to be talking to their broker on their hands-free mobile phone. It’s hard to tell sometimes.

I’m easily confused.


Birthday Memories: Me and the Internet

October 29, 2019

Fifty years ago today, the very first connection was made on Arpanet, the precursor to the internet:

arpanet

That was on my 20th birthday,  I was in Yugoslavia, working on a contract, oblivious to that particular history being made. I probably got drunk on bottled beer and slivovic that night but, luckily, there were no smart phones with cameras then to capture me at my worst.

I remember 1969 being a swell year, and I am glad to share it with the internet,


A Different View of Chopsticks

October 26, 2019

China is the world’s largest producer of disposable chopsticks:

“Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Daniel K. Gardner, a historian at Smith College who studies environmental issues in modern China, reported that some 100,000 laborers manufacture the implements at 300 factories … Annually, Chinese chopstick factories fashion 80 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks, according to the South China Morning Post, and many of them wind up in the hands of diners elsewhere. China exported 165,000 tons of disposable chopsticks between 2000 and 2006, according to the Japan Times.

Atlas Obscura has some wonderful photographs of the production:

 

Bamboo is the preferred material:

“Because it’s not particularly porous and doesn’t absorb much water, it’s less likely than other woods to be teeming with bacteria, and it can take a lot of abuse in the kitchen. In terms of tensile strength—the extent to which a material can withstand being stretched before it snaps—researchers have found that bamboo holds its own against steel and reinforced plastics. Many bamboo chopsticks can be reused again and again. And unlike trees, bamboo grows at a dizzying pace. “The main reason for bamboo being so useful is that it is basically a grass which grows very fast—you’re looking at 36 inches in a 24-hour period,” says Q. Edward Wang, [author of the book Chopsticks: A Cultural and Culinary History\ . “It can grow 1.6 inches in an hour. It’s crazy.”

I’ll treat them with more respect in the future.


London Lauderettes

October 22, 2019

The always interesting Creative Review has an article on a new photographic book about launderettes in London:

 

I adore the images, but I also had strong empathy with the author’s discussion about the research:

“When I started I was very haphazard. If I went to a friend’s house or dropped my son at football, I’d look for nearby launderettes to visit. Later, I became much more methodical. I used Google Maps and online telephone directories to create a map of London’s launderettes, then I would set aside time to focus on individual postcodes and boroughs. I won’t deny that halfway through the project I was starting to doubt my sanity. Driving from north west London to the outer reaches of Croydon, Enfield and Ealing to photograph launderettes isn’t normal, and by launderette number 350 it was definitely feeling like a marathon.”

 

 


The Modern Workplace (or Prison)

October 15, 2019

The modern workplace is becoming more like a prison every day, with total surveillance systems as thorough as anything in China.  Just a couple of examples. The first, from the Economist:

Run the short movie. It is worth it and no-one’s watching you do it — maybe.

The Guardian has a broader take, featuring a pizza checker from Domino’s that is, of course, only for training not punishment (right!).

Whatever happened to trust?  That goodness I am retired!

 


Fish In A Box

October 6, 2019

I don’t use a mobile phone, not even a dumb one. Never have. I grew up in a time when leaving the house or the office was a chance to get away from the phone, to escape from whatever pressures could come down the line. A chance to relax a bit. I liked that. Still do.

However, what that means is that I like the idea of phone booths on the street — and those are disappearing quicker than quick.  In fact, in most places they are already extinct.  Which is a major problem for people like me who chose not to have a smart phone or who simply cannot afford one.

Most phone kiosks get dumped in the landfill, I guess, although the traditional red British box can sometimes be seen as a tourist draw. In one place in Japan, however, someone decided to turn one of them into a public aquarium.

fish in booth

I would rather have a phone in there but this is a seriously creative idea.


Deep History

October 6, 2019

A quick review of  David W. Anthony’s extraordinarily fine 2007 volume:  The Horse, the Wheel and Language“.

It has a sub-title that I am sure came from the publisher’s marketing department rather than from the author — “How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World.”  However, this is not a text that is aimed at the popular market. It is a thoroughly documented 500-page academic essay on the development of culture and the birth of various language families within the period from about 9,000 years ago to roughly 4,000 years ago in the area stretching from south-east Europe through the central Asian steppes.

That probably doesn’t sound particularly exciting to most people. But for the minority of us who try to keep up with research on the period between the last glaciation (say, 20,000 years ago) and the birth of “modern” society (5,000 to 8,000 years ago), who are fascinated by the origin and development of languages, and who are interested in the beginnings of certain cultural forms (hierarchy, for example) and technologies, this is a work of seminal importance.

Anthony brings together his own archaeological work and the previously unavailable texts of the most recent generation of Russian and East European scholars and creates a highly refined synthesis that argues, convincingly to me, at least, that horses were first domesticated in the grasslands of the central Eurasian steppes, and that horse-riding played a significant role in the expansion of what would become the Indo-European languages (including, much later, the dominant English language).  Along the way, he examines the beginnings of Indo-European myths, the establishment of the guest-host relationship, leadership functions, funeral practices, the purpose of feasting, the origin of wagons and chariots, and a wide range of other topics that, in their modern manifestation, dominate our lives today.

Anthony writes very well but it cannot be denied that, for the general reader without some background in these subjects, there are some difficult sections.  They are well worth the effort, though, for the understanding that this research brings with it.  I cannot recommend this too highly to anyone interested in this stuff.


A History of Typography

October 6, 2019

This is a wonderful 5-minute animated history by Ben Barrett-Forrest that I was directed to on Twitter.


Beep Beep Beep

October 4, 2019

I was just a few weeks away from my 8th birthday when my father sat me on his knee specifically to listen to our old radio spit out some strange sounds — “Beep.  Beep.  Beep.”  Even through the static we knew we had never heard the like of it before.

On October 4th, 1957 — just sixty-two years ago — the space age began with the launch by the Soviet Union of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite.  I’m sure the surprise in the US was far greater than we felt in Europe.  We Europeans were already terrified of the power of the grey beasts just a few hundred miles to the east of our cozy nest in West London.  It seemed to many that Russian tanks could overrun Europe at any moment, and the technological genius of Sputnik simply confirmed our anxiety.

But again, there was always that secret spot inside that reveled in the fact that a European power had beaten the Americans into space.  And for my socialist grandfather and his cadre of friends, it was yet another sign that the Workers’ Paradise was superior in every respect to the Mickey Mouse- and Doris Day-loving capitalists.

In the end, I’m sure this had little to do with the ultimate end of the Cold War.  The costs of the space race were minuscule compared to the economy-shuddering trillions spent on the arms race by both sides.  But without Sputnik and all that followed, we would be a very different and more distanced world today.


Happy 111th Birthday To Tin Lizzie

October 1, 2019

On 1st October 1908, the Ford Motor Co. produced the first Model T, probably the most important automobile ever produced. Henry Ford said:

“I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”

It was a huge and immediate success, opening up enhanced mobility for Everyman.  From today’s perspective we can see that it was also the precursor to the dreadful congestion we have on the roads, along with all the other ills that automobiles have inflicted on us. However, for a time at least, the Model T was the great liberator of the working man and his family.


The Scythe, Modernity, & the Crash To Come

September 30, 2019

For those of you who are keen on fighting back against the tyranny of modern technology, you could do a lot worse than read Dark Ecology” by Paul Kingsnorth.  It is a fairly long piece (by internet standards) but worth every minute you spend with it.

Each summer, Kingsnorth teaches the use of scythes in England and Scotland and in this article he uses the scythe as a surrogate for other simple tools when compared to modern machinery.  He explains the delight one gets in using a scythe, but remarks that most people use brushcutters these days:

“Brushcutters are not used instead of scythes because they are better; they are used because their use is conditioned by our attitudes toward technology. Performance is not really the point, and neither is efficiency. Religion is the point: the religion of complexity. The myth of progress manifested in tool form. Plastic is better than wood. Moving parts are better than fixed parts. Noisy things are better than quiet things. Complicated things are better than simple things. New things are better than old things. We all believe this, whether we like it or not. It’s how we were brought up.”

He really hits the nail on the head when he confronts critics who claim that he and those like him are simple-minded back-to-the-earth idealist dreamers:

“Romanticizing the past” is a familiar accusation, made mostly by people who think it is more grown-up to romanticize the future. But it’s not necessary to convince yourself that Paleolithic hunter-gatherers lived in paradise in order to observe that progress is a ratchet, every turn forcing us more tightly into the gears of a machine we were forced to create to solve the problems created by progress…

Critics confuse “a desire for human-scale autonomy, and for the independent character, quirkiness, mess, and creativity that usually results from it, with a desire to retreat to some imagined ‘golden age.’ It’s a familiar criticism, and a lazy and boring one. Nowadays, when I’m faced with digs like this, I like to quote E. F. Schumacher, who replied to the accusation that he was a ‘crank’ by saying, ‘A crank is a very elegant device. It’s small, it’s strong, it’s lightweight, energy efficient, and it makes revolutions’.”

Kingsnorth looks closely at the “green movement” of the last century, noting how badly it failed:

“The green movement, which seemed to be carrying all before it in the early 1990s, has plunged into a full-on midlife crisis. Unable to significantly change either the system or the behavior of the public, assailed by a rising movement of “skeptics” and by public boredom with being hectored about carbon and consumption, colonized by a new breed of corporate spivs for whom “sustainability” is just another opportunity for selling things, the greens are seeing a nasty realization dawn: despite all their work, their passion, their commitment and the fact that most of what they have been saying has been broadly right—they are losing.”

Worse, he says, we now have neo-environmentalism, often described as simple “ecopragmatism” but which is “something rather different” as described by the PR blurb for Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, one of the movement’s canonical texts

For decades people have unquestioningly accepted the idea that our goal is to preserve nature in its pristine, pre-human state. But many scientists have come to see this as an outdated dream that thwarts bold new plans to save the environment and prevents us from having a fuller relationship with nature.

Or, as Peter Kareiva, says:

“Humans degrade and destroy and crucify the natural environment, and 80 percent of the time it recovers pretty well.” Trying to protect large functioning ecosystems from human development is mostly futile; humans like development, and you can’t stop them from having it. Nature is tough and will adapt to this: “Today, coyotes roam downtown Chicago, and peregrine falcons astonish San Franciscans as they sweep down skyscraper canyons. . . . As we destroy habitats, we create new ones.” Now that “science” has shown us that nothing is “pristine” and nature “adapts,” there’s no reason to worry about many traditional green goals such as, for example, protecting rainforest habitats. “Is halting deforestation in the Amazon . . . feasible?” he asks. “Is it even necessary?”

Kingsnorth responds:

“If this sounds like the kind of thing that a right-wing politician might come out with, that’s because it is. But Kareiva is not alone. Variations on this line have recently been pushed by the American thinker Stewart Brand, the British writer Mark Lynas, the Danish anti-green poster boy Bjørn Lomborg, and the American writers Emma Marris, Ted Nordhaus, and Michael Schellenberger. They in turn are building on work done in the past by other self-declared green “heretics” like Richard D. North, Brian Clegg, and Wilfred Beckerman.”

Kingsnorth argues that these neo-conservatives are misunderstanding the problem, probably deliberately:

“What do we value about the Amazon forest? Do people seek to protect it because they believe it is “pristine” and “pre-human”? Clearly not, since it’s inhabited and harvested by large numbers of tribal people, some of whom have been there for millennia. The Amazon is not important because it is “untouched”; it’s important because it is wild, in the sense that it is self-willed. It is lived in and off of by humans, but it is not created or controlled by them. It teems with a great, shifting, complex diversity of both human and nonhuman life, and no species dominates the mix. It is a complex, working ecosystem that is also a human-culture-system, because in any kind of worthwhile world, the two are linked.”

“The neo-environmentalists, needless to say, have no time for this kind of fluff. They have a great big straw man to build up and knock down, and once they’ve got that out of the way, they can move on to the really important part of their message. Here’s Kareiva, giving us the money shot in Breakthrough Journal with fellow authors Michelle Marvier and Robert Lalasz:

Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people. . . . Conservation will measure its achievement in large part by its relevance to people.

There it is, in black and white: the wild is dead, and what remains of nature is for people. We can effectively do what we like, and we should.”

He looks at the future through the eyes of the past:

“Look at the proposals of the neo-environmentalists in this light and you can see them as a series of attempts to dig us out of the progress traps that their predecessors knocked us into. Genetically modified crops, for example, are regularly sold to us as a means of “feeding the world.” But why is the world hungry? At least in part because of the previous wave of agricultural improvements—the so-called Green Revolution, which between the 1940s and 1970s promoted a new form of agriculture that depended upon high levels of pesticides and herbicides, new agricultural technologies, and high-yielding strains of crops. The Green Revolution is trumpeted by progressives as having supposedly “fed a billion people” who would otherwise have starved. And maybe it did; but then we had to keep feeding them—or should I say us?—and our children. In the meantime it had been discovered that the pesticides and herbicides were killing off vast swaths of wildlife, and the high-yield monoculture crops were wrecking both the health of the soil and the crop diversity, which in previous centuries had helped prevent the spread of disease and reduced the likelihood of crop failure.

It is in this context that we now have to listen to lectures from the neo-environmentalists and others insisting that GM crops are a moral obligation if we want to feed the world and save the planet: precisely the arguments that were made last time around.”

“What does the near future look like? I’d put my bets on a strange and unworldly combination of ongoing collapse, which will continue to fragment both nature and culture, and a new wave of techno-green “solutions” being unveiled in a doomed attempt to prevent it. I don’t believe now that anything can break this cycle, barring some kind of reset: the kind that we have seen many times before in human history. Some kind of fall back down to a lower level of civilizational complexity. Something like the storm that is now visibly brewing all around us.”

This is a sad pass we have come to.  Humanity has been too clever by half.


The Original Craig’s List?

September 22, 2019

In those distant days before the internet, fifty years before Craig’s List, and using just the telephone, a couple from East Vancouver set up a middle-man position for people trying to buy and sell things.

 

“People who want to buy or sell anything can phone Boyd’s List and will receive information where buyers and/or sellers can be contacted.  A very reasonable charge is made for this service.” — Highland Echo, 24 April 1952.

 

Craig’s List … Boyd’s List — even the name is not new!


An Extraordinary History: Prussian Blue

September 20, 2019

For anyone who paints today, it is hard to believe there was ever a time when the beautiful, versatile, and stable Prussian Blue pigment did not exist. But the fact is it is just a few hundred years old.

It was discovered, by accident, in the first decade of the 1700s in Berlin by a colour-maker called Diesbach.  Prior to that time, blue pigments had been sourced from “indigo, smalt, azurite and ultramarine, derived from lapis lazuli, which was expensive.”  The new process was cheap and easily manufactured. Its first verifiable use in an artwork was in “The Entombment of Christ” by Pieter vander Werff in 1709.

entombment

I didn’t know any of this until I read a fascinating article called “Prussian Blue and Its Partner In Crime” by Philip McCouat in Journal of Art In Society.  The article goes on to describe the pigment’s use in European art and, notably, in the creation of an entire genre of Japanese painting.

The second part of McCouat’s article (“…Partner in Crime”) takes the story into even more interesting ground once a Swedish chemist discovered that by mixing Prussian Blue with diluted sulphuric acid he could create the deadly poison hydrogen cyanide, a favourite of poisoners ever since.  This section of the essay details the first murderer caught by telegraph, and the use of cyanide and its derivatives both by US gas chambers and by Nazi mass executioners.

Who knew that such a beautiful colour could have such a blotchy history? Mix up your favourite beverage, settle back, and enjoy this fascinating long read.

 


Seventy Years On, Television Revealed As Evil

September 10, 2019

As we approach the start of the Fall season on North American TV, I am reminded of an editorial in the Highland Echo, Commercial Drive’s local paper, that took a prescient view of television.  They described it as:

just one more of the influences currently being brought to bear on the American people to render them incapable of independent thought and independent decisions.”

Not much to add to that really.

The date of the editorial?  30th November, 1950.


A Day of Anniversaries

August 26, 2019

Today is the 80th anniversary of the first televised MLB game.  The Brooklyn Dodgers played the Cincinnati Reds at Ebert Field, and a whole new class of couch potatoes was born.

 

 

 

Today is also the 60th anniversary of the introduction of the Mini car, which revolutionized transportation, especially in England.  The designer, Alex Issigones, was knighted for his efforts.

 

 


The Cholera Map in 3D

August 11, 2019

I am fairly sure I have mentioned before my great interest in the way that data can be graphically visualized to create new awareness, or simply to explain something more accurately.  I have even tried to create some myself when I thought they would add value.

One of the most famous early examples of a data visualization leading to political action was Dr. John Snow’s investigation into a cholera outbreak in London in 1854.  By tracking the deaths in one area of Soho, he traced the infection back to a single well that had been polluted.  The map he created to illustrate the specific spread of the disease was instrumental in launching the new science of epidemiology.

Snow’s map was, of course, a two-dimensional display, with all the limits imposed by that technology.  However, the famous map has now been digitized and turned into a 3D object that can be viewed from any angle using the tools on the right of the screen.

This very simple display shows off the potential of 3D mapping very well.

Thanks to the Spatial Awareness newsletter for the tip.