“The Asthma Quilt”, which uses scraps of industrial fabric to map out the incidence of asthma in NYC (via @auremoser). A programming language designed to function, and be read, like a comic strip. It seems the question “what is consciousness?” has become a hot subject in the field of consumer-psychology research. Veblen’s conspicuous consumption, updated for the humblebragging world of I’m sooo busy with work: “Conspicuous Consumption of Time”. The art-game Humanity: Think Lemmings, except with hundreds of thousands of faceless humans; and beatings; and guns. “Antipodal words” perform a semantic U-turn, and contain their opposite. Teaching robots not just to see, but to predict what they’re about to see.
A cab driver took photos of himself and his passengers in San Francisco in the 80s, long before Uber. Inspired by Edward Tufte’s “Sparklines”, here’s a font that can quickly generate a tiny chart for display inside a line of text. Analyzing game-controller movements to study what types of play happen inside a video game. Here’s my recounting of what it’s like to read War and Peace on your phone. A DIY open-source wheelchair.
How to paint an eclipse. (Pro tip: Work quickly!) How the military changed food science, with the MRE. Audio recordings from the 1930s and 40s of former slaves, reflecting on their lives during and post-slavery. A short anthropological history of human sleep arrangements. A short history of communist bookstores. Border collies can “fast-map” (infer the name of a new, unfamiliar object) with the acumen of a three-year-old human. A graveyard of software. Datacrunch of the lexical complexity and affective metrics of YA fiction. The problems of, in the digital age, having the last name “Null.“
“10 Bullets”, an addictively simple one-button browser game. First-person stories from religious protestors in Charlottesville. How the Internet has changed the work of being a private detective. Blockchain considered as foundational technology, like TCP/IP. (The analogy: TCP/IP -> blockchain as Early email -> bitcoin.) Typely, an online-proofreading tool, is very good at catching my consistent overuse of clichés in first drafts. (Man, if I had a nickel for every time I used a cliché!) What is technology? “How My Instagram Hacker Changed My Life.” Here’s some nifty browser-fu for sorting Chrome tabs. “Fuck”: That’s the title of this academic paper, on the legal implications of the word. So, Amazon’s new “2 minute” delivery system is basically just … an Automat?Turn old ASCII art into nicely-formatted HTML with Retrotext. Dataviz infoporn of Chicago’s tree canopy.
A lovely animated dataviz of all the Citibike rides in NYC in one day. And hey, more Citibike dataviz: Tracking the progress of a single bike, and comparing how different demographics use the cycles. Pictures of women weaving magnetic-core memory for computers in the 1950s. Follow @trumphop, which shows what Trump tweeted on this day, in years past. The guy who made the amazing web-story 17776 explains his inspiration. A good Twitter thread of tech folks talking about how they unplug after work. Electric cars are moving to one-pedal control, and changing the rhythms of driving. How the erosion of job security produced “the quitting economy”. “Why I’m learning Perl 6.”
A study looks at the Million Dollar Homepage, and finds that “link rot” has set in: Of the 2,816 links, only 1,780 are still reachable. In China’s economic view, “Iran is at the center of everything.” Why do people Google words? “Echo Chambers In Investment Discussion Boards.” A study finds that people like analog pens for “drafting”, and digital pens for “crafting”. Yikes: RealDolls with AI “personalities”. “Brotters Common, Normannegg, Twettle Row”: @hondanhon trains a neural net on UK placenames, then generates new ones. At Mozilla’s “Common Voice” project, you can record yourself saying things to contribute to open-source voice-recognition. A report from the procrastination conference. Nintendo’s designers for Mario Kart ponder, but decide against, removing the Blue Shell. A brief history of the closet.
A Beijing bathroom-paper-towel machine that scans your face before dispensing, to make sure you’re not trying to take paper towels too often. Some listener sent @jessebrown a spreadsheet detailing, with timecode, every time he said “um” during a radio interview. How “The Apprentice” made Donald Trump’s presidency possible. The advent of computational psychiatry. Is writing style predictive of scientific fraud?. Some giant deep-sea worms may be 1,000 years old. Homeless planets.
Animated charts showing how the age of marriage has changed in the US over the last century. The myth of drug expiration dates. The obituary for the inventor of the first — and only — “self-cleaning house”. (Her patent is here.) Data considered as a gift. From 1908: “School is largely concerned with the transformation of a playing child into a working man with some of the play still left in him.” The long history of mocking Thoreau. Experiments, some successful, to evoke emotions in psychopaths. A video showing the patient, lovely restoration of an old two-person saw.
In 1883, Emma Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus”, one of the most famous American poems ever. In it, she imagines the Statue of Liberty overlooking the New York harbor and welcoming immigrants who are fleeing oppression.
You have, without doubt, heard this part:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”
They’re genuinely stirring lines! American politicians and businesspeople love to quote them, because they beautifully evoke the image of America as a worldwide beacon of liberty. Listen to any speech about immigration, and you’ll hear this passage.
But the poem doesn’t end there. The Statue of Liberty goes on to describe, in more depth, the type of immigrants she’s talking about. Let’s extend the quote a bit further:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
“The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Now, that is a gut-punch of a line. (Purely as a matter of verse, the way those iambs land on the rhyming syllables of the first two words — the WRE-tched RE-fuse — is like a pneumatic naildriver. WHAM WHAM WHAM! I love it.)
But the point is, this additional line complicates the political picture a bit, doesn’t it?
Lazarus is talking about people who have been immiserated, mistreated and impoverished. She’s talking about those who’ve been through so much suffering it that can make them hard for comfortable folks to behold: Refuse. And Lazarus isn’t using that word with contempt. She knew many refugees personally. But she understood how serious misery can render a migrant paradoxically unsympathetic to others. And she wrote the poem to turn that psychology on its head: Lady Liberty is specifically urging the despots of other countries to keep their fancy, gilded palaces — and instead, to send the absolutely desperate.
Now, US politicians and business leaders often ululate over the benefits of immigration. But often it feels like they focus on the immigrants who self-evidently would “benefit” the country: The scrappy entrepreneurs who’ll come and start firms! The doctors and architects! The best and the brightest, the ones who understandably crave greater liberties! These politicians and businessfolk seldom seem as eager to embrace the truly desperate — the terrified, beaten-down ones that Lazarus wrote about in her poem: Those who today are fleeing the horrors of Syria, South Sudan, or the conflicts of sub-Saharan Africa.
And you can hear it, I think, in how politicians quote that poem. They’ll very often piously cite the first part of that passage — but only rarely utter the second.
At least, that’s how it seemed to me, as I read the daily news. Then I realized I could test my hypothesis … using Google’s ngram. That’s the tool that lets you input short strings of text and see how their usage has risen or fallen in books over the last hundred-odd years.
Now, you’re only allowed to use phrases up to five words. So I took representative chunks of those lines — “masses yearning to breathe” vs. “wretched refuse of your” — and compared them. Voila:
Sure enough, you can see that the lines are quoted at nearly the same rate — until just after WWII, when they begin to diverge. The “huddled masses” become more and more memorable and quoted; the “wretched refuse” fall back. In this divergence we can spy a subtle shift in how America talks to itself about immigration. (You can see and tweak the actual chart itself.)
Granted, there are tons of caveats here, including: i) Google ngram itself. Word-incidence in books isn’t necessarily a super meaningful metric of cultural change. (The books in ngram are global, not just American, of course.) Plus, ii) there might be other ways to chunk the lines that disproves or inverts these results. And more fatally yet, iii) some of the divergence may be a feedback loop. Once the “yearning to breathe free” line got a small early advantage in being-quoted-more-often, it could easily produce a cascade of success, because it would quickly become the only line anyone has ever heard from the poem at all. Latter-day quoters will thus be not so much ignoring the second line as simply unaware it even exists.
Still, I think it’s a fun way to think about the changing meaning of this quintessentially American poem.
Oh, and: Other trivia about “The New Colossus”! One fun fact is that Lazarus wrote it to help raise money for building the base for the Statue of Liberty. And, man, did it need fundraising. People love the statue now, but back then it wasn’t very popular; Congress was unhappy at having to pay for the upkeep of the this gift from France, and many thought it was super ugly. (When the raised hand of liberty, holding the torch, was put on display in Madison Square Park — months before the full statue was complete — it was widely mocked. Montague Marks, an art-magazine editor, wrote that “The torch in the hand of the absent goddess suggests the idea of an immense double tooth which has just been extracted from some unfortunate mastodon, and is held aloft in triumph by the successful operator”).
Some people thought the poem was better than the statue. As Esther Schor notes in her biography Emma Lazarus:
In “The New Colossus,” as James Russell Lowell wrote, she had invented her own “noble” pedestal for the statue, “saying admirably just the right word to be said, an achievement more arduous than that of the sculptor.” Her sonnet, he noted, provided the statue at last with a “raison d’être”; in fact, he liked it “much better than I like the Statue itself.”
Or to put it another way — the poem was the first thing to explain what the heck the statue meant.
It gave the Statue of Liberty a particular purpose: To be a totem not merely of freedom, but of immigration. Lazarus knew a fair bit about immigration, because she’d been spending time visiting Russian-Jewish refugees who were housed in shelters on Ward’s Island. That’s where her line about “wretched refuse” comes from. She’d seen it firsthand, and could imagine the coming day when the Statue, installed at last, would be the first thing those wretches would see as their boat approached New York’s shore.
So the poem was microfamous when the Statue first went up, but pretty soon people forgot about it. It didn’t come back into the public consciousness until the horrors of WWII loomed. As Schor writes:
In 1935, as the Statue of Liberty approached her fiftieth birthday, a writer for the New York Times Magazine wrote: “If she had a tongue what she could tell!” That Liberty had been given a tongue by Emma Lazarus was noted in a letter to the editor, which quoted all fourteen lines of an obscure sonnet, “The New Colossus.” By the end of the decade, a Slovenian-American immigrant named Louis Adamic had seized upon the sonnet to celebrate the nation’s immigrants and their ethnicities. In Adamic’s hands, the sonnet’s fortunes were transformed and the Statue of Liberty became, for a generation poised to receive thousands of refugees from Hitler’s Europe, once again a “Mother of Exiles.” [snip]
Alfred Hitchcock ended his wartime Saboteur (1942) the crown of the statue, with his heroine quoting the sonnet to an enemy agent. By the end of the war, the plaque bearing the poem had been given a more prominent place at the entrance. With the 1949 Broadway debut of Miss Liberty, composed by the Russian-Jewish immigrant Israel Baline, who went by the name of Irving Berlin, the famous final lines of “The New Colossus” acquired a schmaltzy musical setting, by no means their only one.
Check the ngram chart again: You can see how the poem’s promotion by Adamic — a translator and author himself — helped. It’s precisely around the late 1930s that those famous lines shoot upward together, before diverging.
And by the way, if you haven’t read the poem in its entirety, here you go:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”