The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

Why Google Ngrams F—ing Sucks

It’s harder than you might think to use Google Ngrams to actually chart trends in cultural history — or do “culturomics,” as the Science article authors would have it — because of well-known problems with the data set.

Here, Matthew Battles tries (on more or less a lark) to see some history play out, Bethany Nowviskie spots a trend (maybe true, maybe false), and Sarah Werner flags the problem.

Aw, man — that fhit Seriously Pucks.

You know what would actually be pretty cool, though? If it were easier to go one level deeper and use Ngrams to do Google Instant Regression. You could graph trends against well-known noise (other s-words misread as f) AND other trends — or instantly find similar graphs.

Let’s say the curve of the graph for the f–word in the 1860s is similar to that for other words and phrases — like “ass”* or “confederacy”* — you could correlate language with other language, individual words with stock phrases, and even (using language as an index/proxy) extralinguistic cultural trends or historical events.

Single-variable analysis just doesn’t tell you very much, even on a data set as problematic as print/language. You need systematic data, and better comparison and control capacity between variables, before you can start to do real science.

(* Ignore for the purposes of this example ascribing contemporary historical meanings to these two ambiguous terms.)


The alien landscape you look at every day

Behold: the iPad and the Kindle under a microscope.

I find the Kindle’s startling resemblance to real ink on real paper really appealing, and it makes me want to get my Kindle out again. I’ve been all-iPad for awhile now, but under the microscope, it’s revealed for what it is: a very, very clever imposter.

To be clear: that’s totally okay. Sometimes imposters turn out to be an improvement on the real thing. (There’s a fable about that, right? If not: there should be.) (Oh, right.)

I’m also quite moved—no exaggeration—by the images of real ink at 400X magnification. Ah, right: it’s tree-parts down there. It’s a sticky black substance slathered across the fissures of a flattened web of fiber. It’s stuff. The words are the soul; the book is the body.

(Via Avi Bryant.)

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arXiv vs. snarXiv. There are some tough ones in there!


The whoah-dude moments

Love this post on photosynthesis and science fiction by Molly Young. Super short, super fun. Might be a big idea packed in there.


Quantum biology

Oh wow. Photosynthesis depends on quantum effects for its amazing efficiency:

The quantum wizardry appears to occur in each of a photosynthetic cell’s millions of antenna proteins. These route energy from electrons spinning in photon-sensitive molecules to nearby reaction-center proteins, which convert it to cell-driving charges.

Almost no energy is lost in between. That’s because it exists in multiple places at once, and always finds the shortest path.

Two things:

  • The lead researcher “predicts the emergence of an entire field of quantum biology.” YES.
  • The observations in this work were made with femtosecond lasers. Back in college, I worked in a femtosecond laser lab for a semester. These things are so insanely high-tech, and really one of the absolutely essential tools in modern chemistry. Think of a femtosecond laser as a camera with the fastest shutter speed ever. Events that would otherwise be bright smears are captured frame-by-frame, a quadrillionth of a second (!) at a time.

I find myself gazing at the vines on the cement wall outside the cafe here—now blowing in the wind and rain—with newfound awe. Quantum biology!


On women

You can have your Clay Shirky women-and-self-promotion rant. I get my gender commentary from Kate Beaton.

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Pretty awesome alien cyborg warrior here:


Oh hey guess what IT’S A WATER FLEA. (And winner of the Olympus BioScapes image competition in 2009. I would not know how to judge this contest; all of the entrants are so stunning.)

Twenty-ten, we are so ready for you.



I am a sucker for a sun-dappled sidewalk, and it occurs to me that dappling is actually a pretty specific effect. You’ve seen images like this before: here’s a good look (with bonus Impressionist rendition). Overlapping tree-branches become cameras; how weird and how cool.


Artificial ecologies

You say “artificial ecologies,” and it sounds like you’re talking about zoos or aquariums or biodomes or terraforming or something. But actually, every legal border on a map creates an artificial ecology. Nicola at Edible Geography (following a post from FP Passport) explains:

For example, the antlion surplus in Israel can be traced back to the fact that the Dorcas gazelle is a protected species there, while across the border in Jordan, it can legally be hunted. Jordanian antlions are thus disadvantaged, with fewer gazelles available to serve “as ‘environmental engineers’ of a sort” and to “break the earth’s dry surface,” enabling antlions to dig their funnels.

Meanwhile, the more industrial form of agriculture practised on the Israeli side has encouraged the growth of a red fox population, which makes local gerbils nervous; across the border, Jordan’s nomadic shepherding and traditional farming techniques mean that the red fox is far less common, “so that Jordanian gerbils can allow themselves to be more carefree.”

I’m fascinated by the fact that differing land-use practices, environmental legislation, and agricultural technology on either side of the political border have shaped two distinct and separate ecosystems of out what would otherwise be a shared desert environment.

(Note: sorry for the lack of posts this week. I’m still in hospital – with hopes of a Monday release! – and among its many other sins, the internet here blocks Google. Can’t even tell you the ridiculous workarounds I’ve had to do just to get the links for this post together. Suffice it to say, Yahoo sucks. As does having nearly all of your internet life hosted by a single company whose pages can get firewalled for no good reason.)


The blue crescent


A view of earth from the European Space Agency’s Rosetta comet-hunter.