The revered New York Times bestselling author traces the development of technology from the Industrial Age to the Digital Age to explore the single component crucial to advancement—precision—in a superb history that is both an homage and a warning for our future.
The rise of manufacturing could not have happened without an attention to precision. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in eighteenth-century England, standards of measurement were established, giving way to the development of machine tools—machines that make machines. Eventually, the application of precision tools and methods resulted in the creation and mass production of items from guns and glass to mirrors, lenses, and cameras—and eventually gave way to further breakthroughs, including gene splicing, microchips, and the Hadron Collider.
Simon Winchester takes us back to origins of the Industrial Age, to England where he introduces the scientific minds that helped usher in modern production: John Wilkinson, Henry Maudslay, Joseph Bramah, Jesse Ramsden, and Joseph Whitworth. It was Thomas Jefferson who later exported their discoveries to the fledgling United States, setting the nation on its course to become a manufacturing titan. Winchester moves forward through time, to today’s cutting-edge developments occurring around the world, from America to Western Europe to Asia.
As he introduces the minds and methods that have changed the modern world, Winchester explores fundamental questions. Why is precision important? What are the different tools we use to measure it? Who has invented and perfected it? Has the pursuit of the ultra-precise in so many facets of human life blinded us to other things of equal value, such as an appreciation for the age-old traditions of craftsmanship, art, and high culture? Are we missing something that reflects the world as it is, rather than the world as we think we would wish it to be? And can the precise and the natural co-exist in society?
One of my favorite all-time writers and somehow I had missed any news about its pending release and hadn’t seen it despite having just been to the bookstore. What a fantastic surprise!
Received as the most perfect gift. Originally purchased at Vroman’s.
This book considers a relatively new metric in complex systems, transfer entropy, derived from a series of measurements, usually a time series. After a qualitative introduction and a chapter that explains the key ideas from statistics required to understand the text, the authors then present information theory and transfer entropy in depth. A key feature of the approach is the authors' work to show the relationship between information flow and complexity. The later chapters demonstrate information transfer in canonical systems, and applications, for example in neuroscience and in finance.
The book will be of value to advanced undergraduate and graduate students and researchers in the areas of computer science, neuroscience, physics, and engineering.
ISBN: 978-3-319-43221-2 (Print), 978-3-319-43222-9 (Online)
Chris, as a kind of sidebar to this, we talk about hosting things on our own site. I’ve always kind of thought this should be 1 piece of software we use for everything. I think that way becau…
Scott, as someone who’s studied evolutionary biology, I know that specialists in particular areas are almost always exponentially better at what they do than non-specialists. This doesn’t mean that we don’t need alternate projects or new ideas which may result in new “Cambrian explosions,” and even better products.
I also feel that one needs the right tool for the right job. While I like WordPress for many things, it’s not always the best thing to solve the problem. In some cases Drupal or even lowly Wix may be the best solution. The key is to find the right balance of time, knowledge, capability and other variables to find the optimal solution for the moment, while maintaining the ability to change in the future if necessary. By a similar analogy there are hundreds of programming languages and all have their pros and cons. Often the one you know is better than nothing, but if you heard about one that did everything better and faster, it would be a shame not to check it out.
This said, I often prefer to go with specialist software, though I do usually have a few requirements which overlap or align with Indieweb principles, including, but not limited to:
It should be open, so I can modify/change/share it with others
I should be able to own all the related/resultant data
I should be able to self-host it (if I want)
It should fit into my workflow and solve a problem I have while not creating too many new problems
In this case, I suspect that Wallabag is far better than anything I might have time to build and maintain myself. If there are bits of functionality that are missing, I can potentially request them or build/add them myself and contribute back to the larger good.
Naturally I do also worry about usability and maintenance as well, so if the general workflow and overhead doesn’t dovetail in with my other use cases, all bets may be off. If large pieces of my data, functionality, and workflow are housed in WordPress, for example, and something like this isn’t easily integrateable or very difficult to keep updated and maintain, then I’ll pass and look for (or build) a different solution. (Not every tool is right for just any job.) On larger projects like this, there’s also the happy serendipity that they’re big enough that WordPress (Drupal, Jekyll, other) developers can better shoehorn the functionality in to a bigger project or create a simple API thereby making the whole more valuable than the sum of the parts.
In this particular situation, it appears to be a 1-1 replacement for a closed silo version of something I’ve been using regularly, but which provides more of the benefits above than the silo does, so it seems like a no-brainer to switch.
"Yipee-ki-yay Mother French Fry!" How a simple fast food staple can help save the American economy.
Fast Food in America
America is well known for its fast food culture. So well known, in fact, that it may only be second to its best-in-class health care, phenomenal education system, and overall can-do attitude. Rarely does a day go by without one seeing or hearing a few disparaging words from the mainstream media about what we choose to put into our mouths and whether those items become lodged permanently in some cases. A Google search begun with the first letters “ob…” immediately has Google guessing what we want and prompts a potential search not just for “obesity” but for the very specific phrase “obesity in America”§ and the resultant search displays just under 73 million results in about half a second.
Our obsession with fast food is legendary. Books are written about the subject, movies are made†, and we support a multi-billion dollar fast food industry. But how much time do we individually spend really thinking about what we’re doing? The answer hinges on one of our favorite pastimes and is one in which the root of our obesity problem sprouts: “laziness.” (For those incapable of doing the work of thinking for themselves and who just want the quick answer to the previous question given to them, it’s: “none”.)
“Americanizing” your Fast Food Experience with Some Simple Engineering
Given that we love our fast food so much that we can’t even be bothered with thinking about it for a few minutes (otherwise how does a book entitled Wheat Belly become a best seller and major fad?), I’m always surprised that the simple engineering concept which follows isn’t more widely known. If it were, it would be right at home in our gourmand, “have-it-your-way, right-away” culture.
The simple idea follows:
In some fast food restaurants (think Burger King and In-n-Out), instead of (or in addition to) the ubiquitous ketchup packet, they allow you to fill your own container with the condiment of your choice. But what container do they provide you with? Obviously, in keeping with the assembly line beauty and grace of our ultra-modern food manufacturing empire and our disposable home furnishings industry, it’s something simple, something very cheap, and something immediately disposable: the small paper cup! (Even legal departments could get behind this one – as long as the industry wasn’t putting any hot beverages into it, and, in part, because the patent protection had expired.)
But it’s no ordinary paper cup! It’s an honest-to-goodness feat of American ingenuity and engineering design! (At least from a time when America had those things – you remember… way back before we gave them up for the improved qualities like laziness and obesity. And everyone knows the American engineering motto: “Quality is Job #1!”)
This high quality paper cup has pleats! And with a small bit of pulling around the edges of the cup, it opens right up – or “blooms” if you will.
In this process, the top edge of the cup comes down just a tad, but in exchange, the sides expand out toward the horizon in glorious near-infinite beauty. This simple effect allows one to put a significantly larger quantity of ketchup into it–particularly because the ketchup has such a high viscosity! (While I’m thinking about it has anyone considered liquefying ketchup so we could just drink it out of our big gulp cups? Maybe a French fry shake with ketchup blended in to make things easier all around?)
The Benefits of our Engineering Trick
“But it takes so much time and energy to expand out the sides of my cheap paper cup! Why should I bother?”
I know many of you are asking yourself this question because in a rapidly evolving and improving society it’s often the dichotomy of American life to maintain the status quo. This simple expansion procedure allows you the following clear benefits:
You can put a lot more ketchup onto your plate and therefore ultimately into your gullet. Besides, everyone in America knows “Bigger is Better!” right? Why fill up two or three of these small cups, when one big expanded one will do? Or better yet, three big ones! (Let’s not forget our gourmand cultural heritage.)
It makes it easier to carry a lot more ketchup in fewer trips from the condiment bar to your table. American pride in concepts like capitalism and increased efficiency at all costs dictates that we take fewer trips. The reduced amount of exercise is also a positive side-benefit here.
It makes ketchup easier to share. (I know this sharing concept is antithetical to the current American ethos, but maybe someone from one of those poor countries outside of America might be reading this? Maybe it’s a strong enough idea to quell the strife in Ukraine right now?) No more approaching the cup at excessively steep angles to get your fries into it. Now you can approach from a lower angle with your fat fist-full-of-fries and still hit your target.
Not only can you now dunk your fries, but you can actually dunk your majestic hamburger! Why waste time trying to open up that ketchup packet and squeeze some on while you’re making the effort to balance your heavy burger in your other hand? Just smash it into the ketchup and then smash it into your face! “Yipee-ki-yay Mother French Fry!”
Those suffering from diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, and cataracts no longer have to worry about being able to get their French fry into such a tiny paper cup anymore, the size of the target is now bigger by almost an order of magnitude.
Use of these paper cups helps to support the American paper goods industry which churns out highly recyclable products which also have the benefit of being Green and therefore unquestioningly good for the environment. No one knows what those alternate ketchup packets are manufactured from or if they’re recyclable or not. Some fabricated laboratory studies indicate some of those packets may have heavy metals in them, which we all know are mined/sourced primarily in China.
And perhaps best of all, in the true spirit of America largess – there’s huge return for a very little effort! Everyone is looking for a get-rich-quick-scheme which doesn’t involve actual work, right? This is the closest you’re likely to come to it, and my friends who know a thing or two about the second law of thermodynamics agree. In fact, it might even qualify for the ethereal and long-fabled “free lunch” because, hey, most restaurants aren’t going to charge you for condiments are they?
Ketchup and the Economy
I have a deep, abiding suspicion that far too many Americans haven’t been taking advantage of these pleats in their condiment cups, and that, in fact, the marginal utility lost in manufacturing the extra unused paper when this isn’t done is very likely the root cause of the world economic crisis which began in 2008.♦ The plummeting American efficiency numbers just weighed too heavily on our economy, but that’s a longer and more analytical story than I have space or phony facts to back up with here. (If you’re a talking head political pundit on a major cable news network, call my publicist and let’s talk.) Needless to say, if we can work this simple trick into the second grade core curriculum, I think our long term efficiency numbers will perk up and the savings realized could mean saving the beleaguered Social Security program until at least 2079.‡
♦ Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan admits almost as much in his book The Map and the Territory: Risk, Human Nature, and the Future of Forecasting (Penguin Press, 2013) where he indicates real estate as a leading cause of the downturn. Each of these condiment cups has a square inch of space hiding in its pleats and when multiplied over tens of thousands of cups per fast food location multiplied by thousands of fast food locations in any given year it becomes a lot of real estate rapidly, and the effect can become crippling.
‡ This also reminds me of a treatise I was reading last week called a Modest Proposal written by a political hack/wannabe writer named Swift. It wasn’t the sharpest thing I’ve heard recently, but with a few tweaks, I think his idea could make a huge dent in third world hunger and poverty and speed us along towards the goal of realizing Soylent Green in the marketplace.