Category Archives: geography

a morning harvest

Much to chew upon in these three not-unrelated posts:

  • The neurons that hold our hidden thoughts (Harvard Gazette)

    scientists have identified the individual neurons critical to human social reasoning, a cognitive process that requires us to acknowledge and predict others’ hidden beliefs and thoughts … Now that scientists understand the basic cellular mechanism that underlies human theory of mind, they have an operational framework by which to begin investigating disorders in which social behavior is affected.

    There’s a hubristic flavor here, along with the journalistic handwaving, but the claim is at least interesting: certain mental processes seem to be locatable, and there’s an ‘operational framework’ to put to work on further problems. What can possibly go wrong?

  • jnana (Sesquiotica blog)

    What does a mirror look like when it reflects only itself, and no one is looking? … The essence of knowing is the mind perceiving external things and concepts and modelling them and assimilating those models into its schemes and structures and mental Minecrafts. Which means that knowing is an intrinsically separate and separating act; even knowing yourself takes parts of your self as objects, models them, and adds them to your miniature village of the mind. So what do you call the knowing that knows that the knower and the known are the same? The realization that all that is realized is all that realizes, and that at root the watcher is watching the watcher, and any plurality is just the reflector reflecting?

    this idea of knowing that one is not separate from the ultimate unity of the universe (specifics depend on religion—Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh—and particular sect or school within the religion), well, that’s something that we particularly wanted to see as an exotic thing we could borrow from them, like a jewel from the East, the prize of a secret journey to find a holy man.

    More familiar territory for some of us, awash in knotty paradox and the inventive genius of language.

  • Bronze, iron, gold, silver (Language Log blog)

    the Iranian-speaking peoples were among the first to ride in chariots and to mount on horses, so we can think of them as being highly mobile. They were also responsible for the spread of key instruments and modes from the Middle East to Central Asia and thence to East Asia. So we can call the Iranian-speaking peoples masters of metallurgy, mobility, and music, but much more as well.

    Words and concepts are substantial parts of that “much more as well”: see the ‘Selected readings’ links at the end of the post, and especially enjoy Faces of ‘Siberian Tutankhamun’ and his ‘Queen’ buried 2,600 years ago reconstructed by science.

And then add Andy’s post from yesterday. Whew.

The morning’s harvest

…of provocative bits:

Meet your new landlord, the Big Tech “data rentier”:


By discoversociety January 08, 2020

Kean D Birch

…the increasing trend amongst tech companies towards innovation goals and strategies framed by the pursuit and creation of monopolies, market power, or regulatory capture – that is, of economic rents – as opposed to the creation of new goods, services, and markets… a key characteristic of Silicon Valley is the pursuit and entrenchment of a strong intellectual property (IP) regime.


Living the Stories of Astounding Futures

What science fiction makes you think about is the interaction between the relentless advance of technology and the equally relentless commitment to the status quo of groups and organizations. People are gonna people whether they travel by covered wagon or starship.

What science fiction encourages you to do is to think about how people will react in any kind of scenario. And, it gives you permission to imagine a much richer variety of possible scenarios beyond what history or contemporary society serve up.


Mapping how railroads built America: a superb 15-minute Financial Times MAPTASTIC video, with transcript of audio

A new look at antique US railroad maps reveals how cities grew over the past 200 years. The FT’s Alan Smith and Steven Bernard trace how cities, people and the economy spread from coast to coast

and see QGIS Uncovered, Steven Bernard’s video tutorials

and see Dataverse.Harvard.Edu, “a repository for research data”


Some of my most off-the-wall thinking happens as I’m waking up. A few days ago Therianthropes guard the bridge between the risible and the numinous bubbled to the surface and I managed to write it down before it went off into the stratosphere. This morning it occurred to me that there was a map to be drawn of the territory of the Risible and the Numinous, on either side of the Ot River (think: Buda and Pest…), having squares and streets and buildings associated with people and movements. The Surrealists surely inhabit the land of the Risible; William Blake and Emanuel Swedenborg and Charles Peirce hang out in Numinous territory, along with Leonardo and Michelangelo (despite the questionable proclivities of the latter pair). Most Cubists are denizens of Risible (though Picasso has moved back and forth), and cartoonists like Robert Crumb and Kliban and Gahan Wilson are to be found in especially disreputable parts of Risible territory, where the tattoo parlors are and punk musicians hang. Some of my photographs definitely belong in one or the other:

3ii1812crop 1i1872adj
are obviously Risible, and

6xi1812 Wass066trac
might make it to Numinous. And what of
(the lattermost from Roger Caillois’ collection)?

I think these might be guardian therianthropes on the bridge:

Saltus beach hands up

So I’m starting to gather up waypoints and toponyms for this possible map, along the lines of (but of course less glorious than) maps of Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork:

Look on the works, ye mighty

My recent trip to the west coast and back (see my photostream) didn’t disclose anything so glorious as what Doc Searls seems to capture effortlessly (well, probably not without considerable effort, in fact…) with his crisscrossings of the continent. Here’s one from his latest:


and you can read some exegesis here. This comes along, providentially, as I’m enjoying Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter The Long Earth . Doc is one of my Heroes, for sure. Wish I could be half so clear and consistent in my use of this medium, and he just has it right about photography and Ideas and, obviously, Cluetrain. Over the years his blog has educated me gently and surprisingly.

meteorological drama

It’s been like this for several hours: howling snowstorm outside, band of sleet just off shore, rain out to sea. Hard to say how much is on the ground, what with the drifting.
weather now

Nice big heaps of logs by the stoves, and the plow will arrive sometime in the morning. No worries.

Mapping Afghan Ethnicities

I have a long-running fascination with spatial distribution of, well, pretty much anything and everything. One of the slipperiest things to map is ethnic identity, but that hasn’t deterred legions of cartographers (though in fact the cartographers are mostly hired help, assisting anthropologists, demographers, census-takers, colonial masters, the military…). One of my favorite examples of the pitfalls of ethnic mapping is George Peter Murdock’s effort to define the territories of peoples in Africa:

[adapted from Africa: Its Peoples and Their Culture History (1959)]
Pretty much everything is wrong with this map, starting with the very notion of a clear boundary (a line) to define where a “tribe” (ooooh, hateful word…) starts and stops (ethnic plurality and complex interdigitation is much more common than ethnic homogeneity, for all sorts of very good and highly location-specific reasons). At best, one might say that ethnicities have foci (perhaps hearths would be a better characterization) and force-fields that (seem to) emanate from a sort-of cultural identity centroid… but then there’s the problem of defining an ethnicity (does a person get only ONE?) and comprehending what its earmarks and contents might be (just what is “culture” anyway? –a problem that vexes anthropologists permanently). Sort of a long runup to a pointer to Ghost of Alexander’s “Fun with Ethnic Maps”, which showcases 7 versions of the ethnic territories of Afghanistan. The message here isn’t that one shouldn’t attempt to map slippery concepts, but rather that any map is a starting point for discussion and elaboration, and not an authority, and especially not a permanent authority. Pretty much any phenomenon worth mapping is likely to squirm around over time, and we’re just beginning to have the wherewithal to construct and distribute dynamic maps. Fascinating times, these.