Reasonable Words: Maps and Models

Interesting example about maps as models from a NYker profile of Paul Krugman. Larger point concerns the making of models in economics. Despite the potential gain in explanatory or predictive power of a more formal model, there is a potential loss as well. Greater rigor can mean that useful–and correct–information that doesn’t meet the criteria for rigor is banished, for a couple of centuries in the cases of maps of Africa. Models giveth, and taketh away.

Again, as in his trade theory, it was not so much his idea that was significant as the translation of the idea into mathematical language. “I explained this basic idea”—of economic geography—“to a non-economist friend,” Krugman wrote, “who replied in some dismay, ‘Isn’t that pretty obvious?’ And of course it is.” Yet, because it had not been well modelled, the idea had been disregarded by economists for years. Krugman began to realize that in the previous few decades economic knowledge that had not been translated into models had been effectively lost, because economists didn’t know what to do with it. His friend Craig Murphy, a political scientist at Wellesley, had a collection of antique maps of Africa, and he told Krugman that a similar thing had happened in cartography. Sixteenth-century maps of Africa were misleading in all kinds of ways, but they contained quite a bit of information about the continent’s interior—the River Niger, Timbuktu. Two centuries later, mapmaking had become much more accurate, but the interior of Africa had become a blank. As standards for what counted as a mappable fact rose, knowledge that didn’t meet those standards—secondhand travellers’ reports, guesses hazarded without compasses or sextants—was discarded and lost. Eventually, the higher standards paid off—by the nineteenth century the maps were filled in again—but for a while the sharpening of technique caused loss as well as gain.


A Blog as a Daily Neighborhood Snapshot

The Sartorialist–through the usual web tunnel of distraction–led me to Spitalfields Life, a daily chronicle of life in that part of London’s East End.

From the site:

My Promise

Over the coming days, weeks, months and years, I am going to write every single day and tell you about life here in Spitalfields at the heart of London. How can I ever describe the exuberant richness and multiplicity of culture in this place to you? This is both my task and my delight.

Let me disclose to you the hare-brained ambition I am pursuing, which is to write at least ten thousand stories about Spitalfields life. At the rate of one a day, this will take approximately twenty-seven years and four months. Who knows what kind of life we shall be living in 2037 when I write my ten thousandth post?

I do not think there will be any shortage of material, though it may be difficult to choose what to write of because the possibilities are infinite. Truly all of human life is here in Spitalfields.

As promised, it’s varied and engrossing, and the kind of thing blogging was made for. I will not be doing Takoma Park Life, although I like the idea of Winter Hill life, which I now would have to make up…

From a recent Spitalfields Life post about Libby Hall, a collector of dog photography.

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There’s also a sweet “dogs of spring” post.

For me, at least, the whole project is an echo of a great anthropological book, The Comfort of Things, about a single block in London. The researchers lived on the street for a year and wrote profiles of the inhabitants and the possessions in their life.

Jenny Diski: Of Youth & Age

Still reading her book on The Sixties, cleared-eyed about her hippie youth (and youth in general):

“Our youthful cruelty was boundless. Youth does cruelty quite easily, not having the accretions of time to deal with, but I remember a glaring clarity as I looked at the bourgeois life and its compromises, the working life and its compliance, and what seemed the direct consequences of both, that may have demanded cruelty to reassure ourselves that we could stay clear of it. Some of the generation that had come to their young adulthood in the Fifties had seen it too and hit the road. It’s kind of a laser-guided vision, a pure beam of light in a crepuscular landscape, that is available to the young when they look at the world that has been made ready for them, which they are about to step out into. You see it in your children when they get that pitying, disdainful smile on their face and don’t bother to argue with you because you can’t possibly grasp what they know. Which is, simply, that they are new and you are old, and that what they see is being seen accurately for the first time ever. And they are right. The compromises that adults make cause much of the suffering in the world, or, at best, fail to deal with suffering. Acceptance of one’s lot–maintaining a silence about what can’t be said, lowering your expectations for your own life and for others, and understanding that nothing about the way the world works will ever change–is the very marrow of maturity, and no wonder the newly fledged children look at it with horror and know that it won’t happen to them–or turn their backs on it for fear it will. They know it’s too late for you to “get it,” so they smile and leave the room, away from your reasoning, well, actually, increasingly shrill voice. It’s unnerving–especially if you remember that same smile on your own face when you were young. Not everyone, of course not everyone, but that terrible clarity of vision is available to the young of every generation, and those who look become the trouble-makers, the difficult ones, that the elders complain about eternally.”

It is the eternal face off, but at least in The Sixties, the youth did hold on to the idea of change far longer and more tenaciously. (Although, I think when I get to the “Changing Our Minds” chapter that closes the book, I’ll see that Diski sees that same tenacity being the engine of the Thatcher/Reagan era.)

Droll Words: Amazon Reviews as a Prose Form

Tipped by a friend (who shares my insomnia), here’s a droll Amazon review of a sleep mask. A little random, but fun:

“The velcro allows you to really get the mask nice and tight so it won’t slip while you’re tossing and turning at night. You may remember the movie Aliens, and the little face sucker that attached itself to your face and injected you with its alien eggs? The mask is like that, but instead of covering your mouth and nose and using you for breeding purposes, this friendly little mask covers only your eyes and ears and quite possibly whispers sweet nothings directly into your brain. The first night I wore the mask I slept wonderfully, but I did have a dream that I was trying to drive my car with the mask on, and then I had another dream that I was blind and wondering around a local shopping center. I am fairly certain these were just dreams, but in case it wasn’t a dream, my experiences would have to force me not to recommend driving or wondering around the mall looking for neon hotpants while wearing this mask. Comfortable fit and really keeps out the light and noise of the world, but may cause wacky blindness dreams. Since I enjoy both sleeping soundly and wacky dreams, this mask gets a well deserved 5 stars. ”

This reviewer’s other contributions are also fun: who knew that the George R.R. Martin series has its own cookbook? And, in the weird way of the Web, you get to know this reviewer and his sensibility:

Provocative Words: Pianomania

Just finished watching the documentary, Pianomania, which does for Steinway piano technician Stefan Knüpfe, what Jiro Dreams of Sushi does for Jiro Ono, namely meticulous documentation of a nearly insane level of perfectionism in highly specialized work. I know more and care more about the world of pianos than I do about sushi, so found it more compelling, and also weirder.

At one point, the amiably, but ultra-demanding pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, asks Knüpfe to prepare a piano for a Bach recording in a way that can bring to life four different musical personalities, organ-like, chamber-like, harpsichord-like and clavichord-like. Stefan goes to see examples of a clavichord in action, and the expert he consults has these intriguing comments. (Helpful context: the clavichord is a small pre-19th century keyboard instrument often thought of as a precursor to the piano. It was personal–you could just carry it around–soft in volume, so quiet that only the player and perhaps one other person could hear it, and thus much more direct. Unlike a modern piano, there wasn’t much between your finger and the mechanism that made the string sound. It is pre-industrial, in its ambitions, and its effect.)

Alfons Huber: “The modern concert piano is a fascinating music machine. There is no alternative for a large hall with 4000 people. But volume is always combined with a loss of color. On this point we totally agree. And a machine that is so agressive that I can’t even draw the string that makes it sing without bloodying myself, a thing that requires three people to be transported, it has developed a certain inhuman dimension for me.”

It is true that the concert grand (and its milieu) is a product of the industrial age. The art lies in making it sound like something other than a machine. The pianist Alfred Brendel (featured in the film) used to teach that the first thing in playing the piano well is not to make it sound (merely) like a piano, which has, after all, a basic sound that is not all that intrinsically interesting.

One pianist for whom the piano sings with an extraordinary, and to me, a nearly human beauty is Krystian Zimerman, the great and elusive Polish pianist. Perhaps not incidentally, he is an obsessive about the mechanics of the piano and recording. Check out this YouTube find of his playing an arrangement of the Bach Chaconne for 15 minutes of something cosmic for lack of a better word.

See A Beautiful Picture: Two Remarkable Photos

Item 1: (tipped by Nerd Republic) Henry Stuart’s astonishing and tagable) giga-pixel photo of the end of the men’s 100 meter race.


Other of his gigipixel photos, as well as 3D, 360, and cut outs are on the Getty Global Assignment site and some general information on these massive pictures, and many links, can be found at

Item 2: the news that a team in Singapore has used nanotechnology to create a photo with a resolution of about 100,000 dots per inch, an order of magnitude past the best ink-jet technology. Think about that…it approaches the limit possible because of the nature of the diffraction of light, well past the ability of somebody with 20-20 version to discern, as the article notes, “[photos] look higher than high definition.”

The technology looks to have possibilities in archival work and security.

I would speculate about item 1 x item 2, (gigapixel combined with nanotechnology photography), but I think I need to take a nap.)

Reasonable Words: ‘Lick it into Shape’

Rambling around in Natalie Haynes’ The Ancient Guide to Modern Life, a great browse, came across this in a chapter on the eternal debate between city and country life. As things will, the story meanders on to thoughts on writing and the surprising origins of the phrase “lick something into shape.”

From Chapter 6, “There’s No Place Like Rome”

“But the Roman countryside had a greater cheerleader than Horace or Cicero. It had Virgil, the man who would spend the last ten years of his life carving out The Aeneid, leaving it unfinished at his death (and had his wishes been followed, it would have been destroyed then.) But before he embarked on his epic, he wrote The Georgics, a poem about farming and Italy.

“The poem is divided into four books, on field crops, trees, animals and bees. Although ostensibly a didactic poem, this is no farmer’s manual. Virgil writes extensively on vines, in the second book, but he has less interest in olives, for example, which he mentions only briefly. Poetry is more important to him than accuracy. He certainly took care writing it, according to Suetonius, who claimed that every day Virgil would dictate a large number of verses, which he had thought of that morning: ‘Then he spent the whole day reducing them to a tiny number, wryly saying that he wrote his poem like a she-bear, finally licking it into shape,’ If you’ve ever wondered where the phrase ‘lick into shape’ comes from, wonder no more. The Romans believed that a newborn bear wasn’t yet bear-shaped, but a furry blob which needed some work. The mother bear licked her cub, not to clean it, but to turn it from protean bear-matter into the shape of a small bear. This may seem like a foolish thesis, but the Romans had the good sense not to get too near a mother bear with a new cub. And the phase has stayed with us to this day.”

Do my blog posts go from “protean blog-matter into the shape of actual writing.” Might I get a “aliquando” from Virgil? (Latin for sometimes.)

Data Visualization

An engrossing, and disturbing, data visualization of arms imports and exports, done by a research lab at Google. Use Chrome.

From the FAQ:

The mapping arms data (MAD) visualization of small arms, light weapons and ammunition transfers was produced by Google as part of the Google Ideas INFO (Illicit Networks, Forces in Opposition) Summit with support from the Igarape Institute and data provided by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) small arms database.

It seems like the year-over-year data is normalized as relative percentage change.

This presentation, I assume unintentionally, recalls the way “Star Wars,” the space-based “Strategic Defense Initiative” proposed during the Reagan years, was depicted.

Tipped form Nerd Republic‘s weekly email.