Using algorithms to map the history of ideas

Buried in what appears to be a leftist attack-article on the digital humanities, in the latest THES…

“Crane’s latest research project, with German federal funding, is as ambitious as they come: an attempt to use algorithms to map the history of ideas from antiquity to the present day, analysing millions of texts to chart the influence of thinkers on each other over the course of thousands of years.”

I can’t get more than a few snippets of the Times article, and a quick search turns up nothing via ‘last month’ Google Search or Google News. But it sounds like a fascinating project. Although the pathetic state of retail recommendation systems and taste matching (Amazon, eBay etc) suggests that the much-touted semantic revolution needed to do this sort of thing properly is still a long way in the future. You’re also still going to need a ninja historian to trace a chain of influence between things like Erasmus Darwin’s musing on Ancient Egyptian botanical symbolism, Blake’s Jerusalem, and the birth of the Victorian fairy.

Still, Crane’s work sounds like it may be an interesting start on an Asimov-style psychohistory of the past, and something which might one day also be applied to outlining the near-future. How might that work? Well, we might be able to formulate some hard ‘laws of ideas’ and attach probabilities to how well these will propagate if the conditions remain stable. If we can spot a similar idea and its native conditions in the present, we may then be able to project that idea’s development into the future with a greatly increased certainty about its trajectories and likely collision-points with other ideas.


Moisture Harvesters for all?

I’m not easily impressed by reports of some newly invented uber-box, but a new paper in Science reveals an amazing little device from MIT: “Water harvesting from air with metal-organic frameworks powered by natural sunlight”

“… an efficient process for capturing and delivering water from air, especially at low humidity levels (down to 20%), has not [yet] been developed. We report the design and demonstration of a device based on porous metal-organic framework-801 [Zr6O4(OH)4(fumarate)6] that captures water from the atmosphere at ambient conditions using low-grade heat from natural sunlight below one sun (1 kW per square meter). This device is capable of harvesting 2.8 liters of water [5 British pints] per kilogram of MOF daily at relative humidity levels as low as 20%, and requires no additional input of energy.”

Sadly the Science paper is behind a paywall. But ScienceDaily has a good write-up.

At present, the device…

* is still only a working prototype. The “proof of concept harvester leaves much room for improvement”. But… “Rooftop tests at MIT confirmed that the device works in real-world conditions.”

* needs a mesh pad made… “of zirconium metal and adipic acid”.

* might work best when there’s direct sunlight to warm it.

* it looks like it would need to work with a bug screen and anti-fungals in a real-world deployment. Flies and mites can come in very small sizes, and in a dry environment would be attracted by the moisture: would a fine-meshed bug-screen let enough moisture in overnight?

Apparently zirconium cost about $14 per pound in 2010, according to figures I found, so it is not some incredibly rare metal. It’s also durable in the presence of moisture, since it’s apparently used to cap dental fillings. “Adipic acid” is also common, annually produced in the billions of pounds as a precursor in making nylon. It doesn’t melt before 152 degrees centigrade. The working device used about two pounds of the mixture in a pad. How long the pad remains viable isn’t stated, but the materials sound durable. If the pad can be made to last six months in a desert summer before gumming up its latices with microscopic fungi or other similar blockages, and the starter box costs $95, then it’ll sell like hot cakes. Or, in this case, like hot boxes.

As with all such world-changing devices, we probably want to be alert to unintended consequences of mass deployment as early in the development process as possible. Especially in terms of drinking water with a trace of zirconium or aluminium. Think: the Ancient Romans and their lead water pipes, for instance. But some nano-mesh or other would presumably filter unwanted metal traces out of the water.

But it looks good, very good. And is also well-timed, in terms of offering a simple technology that could help nudge along measures such as a green wall along the southern edge of the Sahara, or even help to water the smallholdings of the coming billions in Africa. It’s also simple like-a-bicycle, which means there should be lots of opportunities for home-brew tinkerer iterations of the sort that took humanity from the ungainly old Penny Farthing and ‘boneshaker’ bicycles to the perfected modern Safety Bicycle form we know today. For instance, might it be possible to block fungi colonisation of the mesh by using light, since apparently “Blue light (470 nm) effectively inhibits bacterial and fungal growth”?

Bjorn Lomborg at The Long Now – .mp3 file now available

The .mp3 audio is now freely available for Bjorn Lomborg at The Long Now. The talk is called “From Feel-Good to High-Yield Good: How to Improve Philanthropy and Aid”. The “things to do” list starts at 17:00 minutes.

Bjorn Lomborg does cost/benefit analysis on global good. There are surprises when you examine what are the highest-yield targets in the domains of health, poverty, education, reduced violence, gender equality, climate change, biodiversity, and good governance. Reducing trade restrictions floats to the top: $1 spent yields $2,000 of good for everyone. Contraception for women is close behind, with a whole array of benefits. For health go after tuberculosis, malaria, and child malnutrition. For climate change, phase out fossil fuel subsidies and invest in energy research.

The vocal delivery is very very fast, and Bjorn’s microphone is also picking up distracting levels of sibilance. I found myself forced to load the file in Impulse Media Player to: i) reduce tempo (speed) to 80%; and ii) tweak down the sliders on the right-hand side of the graphic equaliser. Even then delivery is way too fast, given the type of content he’s trying to explain.

From the questions…

“We found one really good solution for corruption [in Bangladesh, via online eBay-like government e-procurement. After being tested for two years, we found] 12% less corruption…”.

Digital Kenya – new and free, a major academic book

A new Open Access book from Palgrave, just published: Digital Kenya : An Entrepreneurial Revolution in the Making.


Positive and optimistic, but what a gloomy front cover it has. I can only assume that the off-putting cover was chosen by some annoying ‘anti-capitalist’ intern at Palgrave who disapproved of the book’s fact-based message. Anyway here’s the book’s upbeat intro, to whet your appetite…

This is not your usual run-of-the-mill entrepreneurial business book. The authors are going after nothing short of a transformation in the African business environment, specifically in Kenya. There are scores of books on innovation and entrepreneurship, but this one is clearly focusing on what could make Kenya tick in an age of innovation and rapidly evolving technology.

Wired Australia

Good news for the Anglosphere, Australia is getting online. But isn’t it online already, you might ask? One would assume so, but from the news it appears ‘not so much’. Apparently Australia currently doesn’t even have Amazon, either.

The Australian National Broadband Network is aiming to fix the lack of fast Internet access and is finally starting to make headway, after becoming a political football and suffering the usual mis-selling and teething problems. The effort to wire this vast and mostly-desert country seems to have been punishing on the ground, and the struggle there is obviously still ongoing. But the reports this week say that 4.4 million premises (30%) either have broadband or are wired up for it, and…

“The NBN has sparked a mini-spending spree on internet-connected devices.”

It seems we can be optimistic that after another couple of years of work the whole country will be wired up, even the deep outback places. And that will mean a whole lot more educated English-speakers able to fully and freely interact with the rest of the Anglosphere.