Wednesday 10 February, 2021

Vive la France!

No wonder the food tastes different there.

Quote of the Day

”Politics is the skilled use of blunt objects.”

  • Lester Pearson

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Altan | The Jug Of Punch


Altan is one of the great Irish folk groups. They were formed in Gweedore, County Donegal in 1987 by Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and her late husband Frankie Kennedy. They brought Donegal’s rich collection of Irish language songs and instrumental styles to audiences around the world, and they remain as the world’s foremost Irish traditional group with over a million records sold. They were the first traditional group to be signed to a major label when they signed with Virgin Records in 1996. They’ve worked with a wide variety of world-famous musicians including Dolly Parton, Enya, The Chieftains, Bonnie Raitt and Alison Krauss.

Martin Luther Rewired Your Brain

Lovely little essay on how learning to read rewired our brains.

Your brain has been altered, neurologically re-wired as you acquired a particular skill. This renovation has left you with a specialized area in your left ventral occipital temporal region, shifted facial recognition into your right hemisphere, reduced your inclination toward holistic visual processing, increased your verbal memory, and thickened your corpus callosum, which is the information highway that connects the left and right hemispheres of your brain. What accounts for these neurological and psychological changes? You are likely highly literate. As you learned to read, probably as a child, your brain reorganized itself to better accommodate your efforts, which had both functional and inadvertent consequences for your mind. So, to account for these changes to your brain—e.g, your thicker corpus callosum and poorer facial recognition—we need to ask when and why did parents, communities, and governments come to see it as necessary for everyone to learn to read. Here, a puzzle about neuroscience and cognition turns into a historical question.

For most of human history only a tiny minority could read. So, when did people decide that everyone should learn to read? Maybe it came with the rapid economic growth of the Nineteenth Century? Or, surely, the intelligentsia of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, imbued with reason and rationality, figured it out?

No, it was a religious mutation in the Sixteenth Century. After bubbling up periodically in prior centuries, the belief that every person should read and interpret the Bible for themselves began to rapidly diffuse across Europe with the eruption of the Protestant Reformation, marked in 1517 by Martin Luther’s delivery of his famous ninety-five theses. Protestants came to believe that both boys and girls had to study the Bible for themselves to better know their God. In the wake of the spread of Protestantism, the literacy rates in the newly reforming populations in Britain, Sweden, and the Netherlands surged past more cosmopolitan places like Italy and France. Motivated by eternal salvation, parents and leaders made sure the children learned to read.

Fascinating piece, drawn from the Prelude of Joseph Henrich’s latest book, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous.

Reminds me of Maryanne Wolf’s lovely book on the influence of literacy on our brains —  Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

A tag-team reading of In Search of Lost Time

A gargantuan project that mimics the mood of Proust’s masterpiece.

This is such a nice idea. I came on it in the Economist.

From Bali to Paris, the readers in Véronique Aubouy’s huge project, “Proust Lu” (“Proust Read”), have been captured in bedrooms, offices, supermarkets, factories and beauty spots. Farmers, schoolchildren, businessmen, even the French director’s doctor have participated. “It’s a slice of life,” Ms Aubouy says; “a reading about time, in time.” The cast is as diverse as the novel’s, brought together by their own web of connections and coincidences.

Proust’s seven-volume masterpiece runs to more than 4,000 pages. Each participant reads just two of them, so at the current rate the project will not be completed until 2050—57 years after filming began. It is already 150 hours long (much of the footage is available to watch on YouTube). By contrast, Proust took a mere 14 years to write the book, finishing it in 1922, shortly before his death. Tracing the narrator’s life from childhood to old age, “it offers a singularly accurate depiction in fiction of how consciousness works,” says Patrick McGuinness of the University of Oxford. “His writing forces you to inhabit time. It doesn’t do the normal thing of compressing narrative into chunks—it makes the narrative more like life.”

Ms Aubouy set out to make a screen equivalent. Instead of condensing the text into a conventional plot, thereby losing its rich detail, she divided it into filmable snapshots. Trusting in happenstance, she finds and recruits interesting people. Readers then recommend friends. She likens the project to a locomotive, “each new person adding a wagon”.

Long Read of the Day

The Data Void problem

The idea of a data void was new to me and sounded intriguing.

It is — as this paper by Michael Golebiewski and danah boyd explains.

Search plays a unique role in modern online information systems. Unlike people’s use of social media, where they primarily consume algorithmically curated feeds of information, people’s ap- proaches to search engines typically begin with a query or question in an effort to seek new information. However, not all search queries are equal. Many more people search for “basket- ball” than “underwater basket weaving.” Likewise, a lot more content is created about the sport than the absurdist activity (although the latter’s pictures are pretty great!) As a result, when search engines like Bing and Google try to provide users with information about basketball, they have a lot more data to work with.

There are many search terms for which the available relevant data is limited, non-existent, or deeply problematic. We call these “data voids.” Most of these searches are rare, but in the cases where people do search for these terms, search engines tend to return results that may not give the user what they want because of limited data and/or limited lessons learned through previous searches. If you type a random set of characters into a search engine – e.g., “aslkfja- stowerk;asndf” – you will probably return no results—simply because no pages contain that random set of letters. But there is a long tail between a term like “basketball,” which promises a seemingly infinite number of results, and one with zero results. In that long tail, there are plenty of search queries that can drop people into a data void rife with problematic results.

Why is this interesting? Because data voids create vulnerabilities in our information ecosystem — weaknesses that can be exploited by bad actors.

When search engines have little natural content to return for a particular query, they are more likely to return low quality and problematic content. This is because there is little high-quality content for the search engine to return. And it’s the “low quality and problematic content” that you have to look out for.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  •  Mount Sinai study finds Apple Watch can predict COVID-19 diagnosis up to a week before testing Link]7
  • ATM use in UK fell precipitously during lockdown. Surprise, surprise. I haven’t used a banknote or a coin since last March. Link

100 Not Out! — my lockdown diary, is out as a Kindle book. You can get it here

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