Category: History

Graphics from the Washington Post calculating how many jobs goats will steal from humans
Forget robots: Goats are coming for our jobs — in landscaping! But how many jobs? The Washington Post tries to calculate this. The multimillion-dollar sound-engineering quest to produce the perfect golf-club “thwack”. Inside Winston Churchill’s quest to build an aircraft carrier out of ice. People like straightforward braggarts better than humblebraggers. Rooftop solar is under attack by utilities, who complain it’s reducing demand for coal/gas-fired power. How to make natural-language AI less sexist and racist. “Please buy some greenfish:” A 400-year-old shopping list is found under floorboards in a house.


Cover of fake O'Reilly book I generated, called "Incomprehensible Javascript"

Generate your own O’Reilly book cover. Picking up guys on Tinder using lines generated by a neural net. Palm cockatoos play the drums much like …. humans. (The study; video of a bird drumming right here!) The child of “Tay”: A new Microsoft chatbot says the Qur’an is “very violent”. A hidden underwater forest, 10,000 years old, is discovered! “Jaywalking while black.” Behold the booze requirements for 16th-century performers of mystery plays. What exactly is consciousness good for? Gorgeous library artwork made of bookends.


A man assembles his CV by using phrases autocompleted in Google search
@TechnicallyRon wrote a resume by using whatever Google-search autocomplete suggested. An HBR study finds that male and female founders are asked very different questions — his are aimed at “promotion” (what cool things will you be able to do?) and hers are focused on “prevention” (how will you keep from screwing up?) “Obituary Notices of Astronomers”, a comprehensive list of how 18th-century ones died. (M. Delaunay perished in “the upsetting of a pleasure-boat near Cherbourg”.) Volvo’s self-driving car is defeated by kangaroos. “How Maps Changed The World,” my latest column for Smithsonian.


Device on old car for catching jaywalkers
A device for old cars that tried to prevent jaywalking deaths by gently catching jaywalkers. How the CIA tracks the location of your phone. I loathe the phrase “thought leader”; here’s a book critiquing the entire trend and concept. A fun way to thwart face detection: Download and print up one of these masks based on the faces of 130 executives of major biometrics firms. An augmented-reality measuring tape. A new algorithm that will figure out how to fold any shape in origami. “I before E, except after C” is proven, by the data, to be wrong.


A map of the Internet from 1969

A map of the Internet from 1969. Some thoughts on the 10X coder. “Braitenberg’s Law” notes that it’s easy to understand a complex robot or piece of code if you wrote it; if someone else did, it’s insanely hard. “Taking turns is a primary expression of justice”: An essay on the moral dimensions of phys ed, from 1922. Meet the Girl Scouts who are earning cybersecurity badges. Why Grenfell Tower burned. My favorite piece of 19th-century punctuation is the “colash”, a colon followed by a m-dash, like this … “:—”. My New York Times Magazine feature on computational thinking and “The Minecraft Generation” from a year ago; and a podcast with me talking about it.


Alexander Graham Bell's tetrahedral kites
Behold Alexander Graham Bell’s gorgeous tetrahedral kites! Wait, wait — they just pushed out a software update for Google Glass? (Guess I should dust mine off: I wore them for three months back in 2013 for a story in the New York Times Magazine.) “Floating nests of fire ants” is the creepiest thing I’ve read about today. Parametric fonts, from Google. “What was your childhood pet?”: A fiendish and elegant way to steal the answers to someone’s security questions. Thomas Edison was one of the earliest engineers to refer to a “bug” when high-tech equipment was malfunctioning. (Earlier yet, Shakespeare seems to have used “bug” to mean a troublesome person.) Reading someone else’s code isn’t like reading literature; it’s like naturalism, observing a strange creature in the wild and trying to figure out its habits. Why Uber’s problems stem from the cult of the founder in Silicon Valley. A Inuit man tells you the proper way to build an igloo. omg someone please stop me from playing this game, I’m supposed to be writing a book.


Emma Lazarus data science

closeup of an ngram of the emma lazarus poem "the new colossus"

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?

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in the 19th century

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:

Screenshot of google ngram comparing two lines from Emma Lazarus' poem The New Colossus

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”).

statue of liberty

Picture by iquinhosilva, via Flickr and CC.

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!”


What can people do better than machines? The view from 1951

Image from Paul Fitts' paper on huma machine differences

What can humans do that machines can’t? The pessimistic view, in a world of advancing AI and robotics, would be “less and less every day”. While researching this today I ran into an interesting historical perspective — the view from 1951.

It’s a paper called “Human Engineering for an Effective Air Navigation and Traffic Control System,” written for the National Security Council by Paul Fitts, a psychologist known for studying human factors in technology. He was most famous for his work trying to figure out how to automate air travel to make it more safe, and that’s where this report comes in. It’s a long, elegantly-written attempt to tease out the distinctions: Which aspects of airflight could best be managed by machines, and what by humans?

The fun begins on page 6, where Fitts asks …

Callout from Paul Fitt's paper: what can man do better than machines

He argues that our “sensory functions” and “perceptual abilities” are more sensitive than machines — which is arguably less true today than it was back then, given innovations in everything from LIDAR and 3D imaging to olfaction. He also argues we meatfolk have the edge on “reasoning” — which, again, is certainly true but probably much less true than in 1951, when it was considered pretty rad to get a vacuum-tube computer to play a simple peg game.

But then Fitts points out a unique human cognitive advantage: “Flexibility”.Flexibility. Another special Capacity of the human is his extraordinary flexibility and ability to improvise. These abilities are still in completely understood by psychologists, but they represent important respects in which humans surpass machines. The amount of flexibility a machine has is fixed by the amount that was built into it. The machine will attempt as many different kinds of solutions as it's designer plan for and no more. Experiments on complex problem-solving and humans, on the other hand, show that humans may attempt many different solutions to the same problem – just think of the number of ways in which this paragraph could've been written to convey essentially the same point. Flexibility is especially important in the changing and evolving system, such as one in which new techniques are constantly coming into use. It also provides insurance against complete breakdown in emergencies. The conclusion here is that if flexibility in the system is important, it probably is a good plan to let human beings play an important role in the system.

Now, this distinction seems still very solid! AI and robotics are remarkably more advanced than in 1951, but even the most advanced machine is still pretty narrow in its function. “General” AI is still nowhere in sight, and robots are still simply terrible at navigating and manipulating the everyday human environment: Google’s Go-playing computer creamed the world’s champion at that game, but it couldn’t pick up the game pieces by itself. In any individual intellectual and physical skill, you could create (or soon create) a machine that would best us, probably. But human ability to adapt to new situations and tasks makes us the cognitive Swiss Army knife in this corner of the universe.

(We could extend Fitt’s list by adding a bunch of areas in which humans still trounce machines, by the way — like empathy and creativity. Fitts didn’t include these, possibly because he didn’t see them as related to airflight control, though I could make the case they’re necessary in that field.)

This point about flexibility reminds me of Robert Heinlein’s dictum:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

If I’d written that list I’d probably have included a bit less fighting and invasion-planning, but otherwise it’s a pretty solid CV. Of those twenty-one skills, though, I’m only confident of my ability in fifteen.

Go download that whole paper by Fitts — it’s a fun read! (That awesome image at the top of this post is from the paper, BTW.)


Today I read …

Image from the first page of "The Art of Computation" by David White Goorich, 1873

Opening illustration from “The Art of Computation”, David White Goodrich, 1873

The Art of Computation: This was an 1873 book by David White Goodrich, a “lightning calculator”, capable (by his own boast) of doing fantastic feats of mental arithmetic. In this book he details dozens of mental algorithms for adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing figures in your head. He bemoaned the fact that students were taught tons of mathematic theory, but weren’t taught practical, everyday techniques for doing everyday sums: “Pupils who can discourse learnedly upon permutations and combinations, make labored and lamentable blunders in adding a ledger column. They know arithmetic as a science; they have not mastered it as an art.” Since this was a period long before the common use of calculating machines, the ability to quickly rattle off mental math was crucial for everyone from bankers to carpenters to grocery-store owners. It’s a fascinating record of the world decades before mechanization began to take over routine calculation. The whole book is a free PDF here via Google Books.

“To Write Better Code, Read Virginia Woolf”: An interesting piece in today’s New York Times by a programmer who did a liberal-arts BA and only later became a coder. He argues that of the programmers he’s worked with, some of the most useful problem-solvers had liberal-arts degrees. For example, at one point his team was working on a project and had a problem with pointers. “In programming language, a pointer is an object that refers to some master value stored elsewhere. This might sound straightforward, but pointers are like ghosts in the system. A single misdirected one can crash a program. Our pointer wizard was a philosophy major who had no trouble at all with the idea of a named ‘thing’ being a transient stand-in for some other unseen Thing. For a Plato man, this was mother’s milk.” For my new book on “how programmers think”, I’ve been interviewing a lot of coders. One thing that’s struck me is how frequently the very-talented ones — the ones who launched difficult, new products that were pounded on by tons of users — came from a dual background: They studied computer-science and some liberal art. A lot of them double majored in CS and something like philosophy, art, literature, or drama.