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Lifting the Weight of History

June 23, 2012

As you know, I was back in Ithaca the last couple days to help run the 2012 North American School of Information Theory.  It was definitely a good time.  I got to spend hours in Phillips 101, see the sundial, and hang out with some of the organizers, lecturers, and their families at places like Aladdin’s and Purity’s.  I also met up had a nice chat with the historian Ron Kline, and also took a few minutes to go into Olin library to smell the stacks.

I was also doing a bit of cleaning here: the age old problem with the weight of history.  As I was doing so, I came across the November/December 2002 issue of the magazine American Heritage.  In there is a review of the book The Myth of the Paperless Office by Sellen and Harper.  It has an interesting point about the advantages of paper in terms of prioritization.  As has become my custom, let me quote from it.

We’ve heard plenty about the advantage of computerized information handling, but we never hear about the virtues of paper.  Sellen and Harper have identified them.  Take how they describe the disposition of papers on a typical desk, perfectly capturing my own messy office and perhaps yours as well: A primary pile of papers, adjacent to the open workspace at the center of the desk and probably next to the phone, contains what they call hot files, documents to be acted on immediately.  Warm files, still active but of less urgency, occupy the periphery, teetering on a corner of the desk or stuck in a desk drawer.  Cold files, the great preponderance of documents that don’t need immediate attention, fill file drawers father away.

and perhaps my seeing this article ten years after first reading it is an example of the thing itself. I do do much of my technical reading on a computer screen, but there are indeed stacks of paper around my desk(s).  Regarding the shape of the typical computer screen (at the turn of the century), a column in the May/June 2000 issue by Frederick E. Allen, says:

Likewise the shape of your computer screen.  It came out of Thomas Edison’s laboratory, though Edison would surely be as surprised as anyone to learn that.  It was conceived by  a young laboratory assistant named William Kennedy Laurie Dickson during the invention of motion pictures…. By December 1891 he was experimenting with the latest celluloid film and settling on strips 1 3/8 inches wide and fifty feet long.  He then decided on an image one inch wide and three-quarters of an inch high—the proportions of your computer screen.  Why that ratio? “He never said why in his letters,” says Paul Spehr, a motion-picture historian who is writing a biography of Dickson.  “But he was first of all a photographer.  He had been Edison’s photographer for seven or eight years.  He had a strong sense of composition and was accustomed to photos where the bottom was always a little shorter or longer than the vertical. It was an aesthetic decision.”… (Movies changed to wide-screen in the 1950s only to be different from TV.)  And when people started building computer monitors, they naturally used TV screens, and Dickson’s format lived on yet again.

Of course, widescreen is now pretty common among computer screens due to the movies.  In general, the column that Allen wrote, Behind the Cutting Edge, is fairly interesting.  For example, the July/August 2001 issue discusses and pretty much debunks the book IBM and the Holocaust.

You’ve talked about this before, and in a related manner, John Steele Gordon in a column from July/August 1999 entitled “Lies, Damned Lies, and the Dow: Statistics help us comprehend the world—sometimes” writes :

Statistics are both ancient and astonishingly modern.  When the shepherds of Plato’s Attica counted their flocks, they were, of course, making a statistical analysis.  But the word itself entered the English language only in 1787.  It is no coincidence that that was also the decade that James Watt patented the rotary steam engine.  As the factory system, which had evolved in the middle of the eighteenth century, and the new power spread, enterprises could operate on a far larger scale.  This meant that seat-of-the-pants management became less efficient.  The owner of a business that employs hundreds or thousands of people needs statistics.  As the mathematics of statistics, and thus their power to illuminate an increasingly complex world, rapidly advanced in the nineteenth century, governments began to utilize them more and more as well.

Another interesting gem with some relevance to this blog is from the October 2004 issue, from an article “Franklin’s Forgotten Triumph: Scientific Testing”:

What is known as the blind protocol influences our lives in a thousand ways.  Its basic elements are simple to understand.  Take a group of people.  Randomly assign them to one of two groups.  One receives the real medicine; the other gets a placebo, and the researchers and the patients alike are blind to which is which…. Doing science this way is important because what researchers want or expect can influence what they observe, or how they interpret what their data says.  If no one know what he’s observing until the data collection and analysis are completed, then the potential for bias is eliminated.  That is why the blind protocol has become the gold standard of the life sciences.  But where did the idea come from?  Even scientists are surprised to learn that it was created by Benjamin Franklin.

Although randomized trials e.g. for judging human behavior is certainly a golden methodology, I think the most interesting of statistical questions actually arise when this is not possible.  What say you; I think you have some recent interest in selection bias, right?

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2 comments

  1. […] Ashvins The Ultimate Machinists « Lifting the Weight of History Causal Inference June 29, […]


  2. […] into the past to create meaningful things: the idea is to understand where things come from and why they exist to then create meaningful new […]



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