Category Archives: geekery


Shubenacadie sediment post-processed

Big whorls have little whorls
Which feed on their velocity,
And little whorls have lesser whorls
And so on to viscosity.

–Lewis F Richardson, who “…studied fluid turbulence
by throwing a sack of white parsnips into the Cape Cod Canal.”
(quoted in James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science)

The day began with a by-chance glance at a short piece in the May-June Harvard Magazine, “Will Truth Prevail?” by Drew Pendergrass ’20, which takes off from the author’s reading of Edward Lorenz1963 article and included this:

How do we find the signal in the noise? Climate science is based on the observation that even though everyday weather is chaotic and can be predicted only a few days ahead of time, the weather in aggregate is much easier to handle… Climate, governed by the slow warming and cooling of the oceans with the seasons, follows different rules than weather does…

The article included a familiar image:

(By User:Wikimol, User:DschwenOwn work based on images Image:Lorenz system r28 s10 b2-6666.png by User:Wikimol and Image:Lorenz attractor.svg by User:Dschwen, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link)

Another bit of the unexpected came in this morning via one of the blogs I follow:

something truly special is happening in the Southern Hemisphere: The air high above the Southern Ocean and Antarctica, anywhere between 20–40 kilometres (12–25 miles) above the surface, is warming a lot in just a few weeks… a “vortex breakdown” or “Stratospheric Sudden Warming”, and in the Southern Hemisphere it only happens for the second time that we know of, and certainly since the era of satellite measurements began in the late 1970s. The first time was in 2002… during Sudden Warmings, as their name suggests, the stratosphere over the pole warms a lot — by about 50 degrees celsius over just a few days… After the one previous event in the Southern Hemisphere, the entire following summer saw drier and warmer weather than usual in Southeastern Australia. We expect something similar to happen this year. Southeastern Australia is already experiencing a drought, and yet another dry and hot spring and summer could be devastating. (Martin Jucker)

Remembering that James Gleick’s Chaos had a whole section (pp 121-153) on “Strange Attractors” and that I’d never quite wrapped my mind around what it was that Lorenz kicked off in the 1963 paper, I got Gleick from the shelf and decided to try again, but first made a quick stop in the Wikipedia ‘Attractor’ article:

an attractor is a set of numerical values toward which a system tends to evolve, for a wide variety of starting conditions of the system

…A dynamical system is generally described by one or more differential or difference equations. The equations of a given dynamical system specify its behavior over any given short period of time. To determine the system’s behavior for a longer period, it is often necessary to integrate the equations, either through analytical means or through iteration, often with the aid of computers… The subset of the phase space of the dynamical system corresponding to the typical behavior is the attractor…

An attractor is called strange if it has a fractal structure. This is often the case when the dynamics on it are chaotic, but strange nonchaotic attractors also exist. If a strange attractor is chaotic, exhibiting sensitive dependence on initial conditions, then any two arbitrarily close alternative initial points on the attractor, after any of various numbers of iterations, will lead to points that are arbitrarily far apart (subject to the confines of the attractor), and after any of various other numbers of iterations will lead to points that are arbitrarily close together. Thus a dynamic system with a chaotic attractor is locally unstable yet globally stable: once some sequences have entered the attractor, nearby points diverge from one another but never depart from the attractor.

OK, just barely holding on here. It’s helpful to recognize that a not-strange attractor is exemplified by the phase space of a pendulum, which swings across a point at which it finally stops when its energies are dissipated. A dynamical system with many variables (dimensions) in play (that is, changing and being changed by one another) has a vastly more complex phase space. Gleick:

Every piece of a dynamical system that can move independently is another variable, another degree of freedom. Every degree of freedom requires another dimension in phase space, to make sure that a single point contains enough information to determine the state of the system uniquely… Mathematicians had to accept the fact that systems with infinitely many degees of freedom — untrammeled nature expressing itself in a turbulent waterfall or an unpredictable bra (in — required a phase space of infinite dimensions. (pp 135-137)

Gleick’s Chaos came out in 1987, and my friend Ron Nigh photocopied it and sent it to me, saying that it was the most mind-bending book he’d encountered in years. I duly read what I could grasp of it and was suitably impressed but still somewhat nonplussed. Other books that belong to the same state of personal nonplusment [knowing that what one is reading is really important but not necessarily assimilating the contents…] are Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel Escher Bach, Ann Berthoff’s Mysterious Barricades: Language and Its Limits, and David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years.

And that was only part of the day…


I lost contact with the WordPress mother ship while trying to do an Update (back in March), and only just now managed to get things working again after far too long. Lots to catch up on, and several new ideas for what to do with the blog, so I’ll be thinking those things through a bit and posting again soon


I read a lot of books, pinballing amongst genres and across disciplinary declevities as I please, and investigating some very odd (or at least infrequently-visited) corners of the print world. Mostly I don’t try to inflict my idiosyncratic tastes on others, but sometimes a book comes along that’s just too good not to make a fuss about. Today’s case in point:

Alex Wright’s Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age.

Paul Otlet is probably not a person you’ve encountered before (and if he’s already familiar to you, I’d like to know how), but he belongs in the same visionary realm as Melvil Dewey (of library cataloging and 3×5 card fame), Ted Nelson (who instantiated hypertext), Tim Berners-Lee (pater of the World Wide Web), Doug Engelbart (of Mother of All Demos fame), Vannevar Bush (Memex and As We May Think), JCR Licklider (Man-Computer Symbiosis, ARPA), and a clutch of others (Watson Davis, Patrick Geddes, Emanuel Goldberg, Otto Neurath, John Wilkins) who will probably also be new to you. These people are arguably the primary architects/engineers/makers of the electronic world we all inhabit. The book is especially commended to

  • anyone interested in the history of Information, and the precursors of the Web in particular
  • anyone engaged with European intellectual history, and/or with the world of the first 50 years of the 20th century

Other books I’ve read that I’d put into the same heap, and reread in light of Wright’s book:

George Dyson Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence

James Gleick The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

John Markoff What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry

Ted Nelson Possiplex: Movies, Intellect, Creative Control, My Computer Life and the Fight for Civilization: An Autobiography

Fred Turner From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism

David Weinberger Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder

I’m just starting Wright’s Glut: Mastering Information through the Ages, and hoping for More Of Same.

tagging and filing

Just how to manage one’s own troves of Information is a perennial problem, and I’ve never managed to be consistent over time or systematic (let alone rigorous) with any organizing scheme. I have drawers full of manila folders, boxes of [essentially unreadable, so why the hell do I keep them?] floppy and semi-floppy disks, piles of data-packed CDs and DVDs sporting idiosyncratically named files and directories, a bunch of disk drives that are more or less current, a vast array of archived directories and files at, and vinyl records and CDs and MP3s and videotapes and DVDs galore. And negatives (partially digitized) and digital photography images (on drives and backed up on DVDs), and of course books (though they’re at least listed at LibraryThing). All of this stuff is more or less meaningful, some of it is in active use and a lot more might be… and some is simply dead storage. I pretty much know what’s where, but finding any particular remembered thing can take a while and there’s always the danger/joy of being diverted along the way by a shiny something else. And more keeps arriving.

Of course I like it this way.

A current problem: I’ve used Delicious and Zotero and Evernote to collect links to webstuff that I found interesting and thought I might want to get back to sometime. Each of those services offers organizing features –collections, folders, tagging– and I’ve used them with my usual idiosyncratic abandon. There’s an argybargy collection at Zotero, bibliomania tag at Delicious, and on and on. Just to extract a list of my collections or tags would be interesting/valuable/useful, but so far I haven’t been able to figure out any way to get Zotero or Delicious to spit out just those classifiers (some little voice in the back of my brain is muttering about grep and exporting xml files, but I’m ignoring it). Sure, I could do it by hand, and that’s probably the fastest way to find out just what I really have. Such a list would be a mapping of my kaleidoscopic interests, and might inspire some ringmastering that might result in better access.

So about an hour later here’s the Delicious tags and Zotero collection names I’m living with. What to do next?

addendum: …and it’s happening again with the new blog. I can tag each post with a category (or more than one –this one is geekery/media/rumination) and add new categories ad lib. The current set for the blog is

anthropology/ argybargy/ biblio/ cartography/ casting/ desiderata/ education/ entanglement/ ethno/ geekery/ geography/ H5N1/ images/ language/ libraries/ media/ metastuff/ musics/ photography/ pome/ quote/ rumination/ tempora/ Turkey/ uncategorized/ vernacular/ weather/ Zeitgeist/

but that will expand as I need new descriptors, and I can guarantee that they’ll be …erm… idiosyncratic.

another hero

I don’t (well, can’t) follow Bruce Sterling everywhere he goes, but he’s another source of unanticipated education. Case in point: this pair of postings on wire bending: DIWire in action (a 2-minute video that will surprise you) and a followup from the DIWire folks showing how to do it yourself (5:48 of inspiration). Bruce’s photostream is as good a way as any to simulate a funhouse ride…

Testing Stephen’s blog

The question of how and when a website is indexed by Google has arisen, and I need to do an experiment, so feel free to ignore… but I’m curious to see how quickly the phrase “tendentious fritillary” appears once instantiated here and in Stephen’s new and experimental blog (which is as yet unknown to Google). What do I have to do to get Stephen’s blog noticed and indexed?

(N.B. that it took less than 3 minutes for the phrase to show up in Google with a link to my blog)


Jim Stogdill chez O’Reilly Radar:

Here’s what you need to know: Your mind is advanced enough to experience a self, a self that you think has intrinsic value. But that’s just a construction in your head. Your actual extrinsic value, I’m sorry to say, is just the sum of your known behaviors and the predictive model they make possible. The stuff you think of as “your data” and the web thinks of as “our data about you — read the ToS,” is the grist for that mill. And Facebook’s shiny front room is just a place for you to behave promiscuously and observably.


Bruce Sterling’s Keynote at Augmented Reality Event 2010 (Santa Clara, June 2-3)

The Keynote is a risky gig. The audience thinks it knows all there is to know (after all, it’s a gathering of the ubergeeks of whatever the conference is about), and each individual in the audience is prepared to judge the speaker as not getting it if that individual’s own understanding isn’t foregrounded by the speaker’s remarks. But the speaker is an outsider to the specific geekdom, invited to offer a perspective that (ideally) will make the audience question and rethink something pretty basic about its individual and collective understanding. A tall order, and requiring of the Keynote Speaker a superhuman clarity of perspective and articulation. I’d argue that Bruce Sterling succeeds in this instance, and how he works the magic is worth study.
He’s introduced as “the Prophet of Augmented Reality” and begins with 10 minutes or so of pretty general observations on the AR scene, replete with in-jokes and throwaway lines that establish his cred as an observer of the current state of AR as an industry, and he notes that part of the significant context includes the fact that the Titans of 20th century media are fading fast:

…Newsweek can’t be sold, it’s worth basically nothing, newspapers drying up all over the landscape, TV doesn’t look like TV used to look, movies don’t look like movies used to look…

but around 12:00 his remarks take an analytical turn that suggests that he’s really got something to say:

What is it that you are really doing? You could argue that what you’re really doing is coding apps for early adopters of smartphones, and it’s true that’s where most of your money is, and where the press attention is, and it’s kind of a good way to make your numbers this quarter, but that’s not a very good mission statement for your very young industry.
I think it might be a good idea if you want to think of yourselves as the world’s first pure-play experience designers …and experience design as it currently stands is mostly futuristic hot air…

And then at 13:00 he kicks it into overdrive with an Aux Armes!, and THIS part is really worth your attention:

WHOSE reality really needs to be augmented? Is it really cutting-edge geeks who are eager to have the most advanced hand-held gadgets? You are those people, so of course you think of those people, but are they really the people who need you the most? Whose realtime sensory experience of the world really NEEDS to be redesigned?
I would suggest blind people, people who already have sensory problems. I would suggest foreigners, people who are bewildered in a reality they don’t understand, confused people, people who are mentally ill, handicapped in some way, people who can’t read, people who can’t speak, people who can’t hear…
…think of yourselves not as coders, not as a service business to add a little bit of sparkle to companies that are bigger than you. I think you need to cut yourself your own space, I think you need to consider yourself the torch that lights our steps…
without vision, the people perish, and we really need vision now. We could really seriously do with a good old-fashioned revolutionary Internet boom…
This meeting of yours is a precious opportunity to shape the language of your young industry… It’s your chance to bake a big pie before you start slicing it up and fighting over the crumbs.

You might want to watch the whole thing:

The Augmented Reality Event: Bruce Sterling’s keynote from Ori Inbar on Vimeo.