Quotes: Infohistory Is a Mess

Elizabeth Bear’s scifi novel Machine has a succinct sum-up of just some of the problems concerning information retrieval:

“Wait,” I said. “How can information decay?”

“They used to call it bit rot. Servers get taken down, data falls through the cracks and doesn’t get backed up. Physical substrates are destroyed or damaged, or degrade over time—especially the primitive ones. A holographic diamond is very durable but can’t be changed once it’s written to, and magnetic media only lasted a decan or so under ideal conditions.

“And even if the data is preserved somewhere, that somewhere might not be networked. If it’s networked, it might not be indexed. Even if it’s indexed, it might be half the galaxy away and take two or three ans for the file request to get there, be fulfilled, turn around, and come back. And then you might find out that you needed different files entirely.” He huffed with great satisfaction. “Infohistory is a mess.”

– from a discussion between Dr. Brookllyn Jens and the medical librarian AI Mercy in Machine by Elizabeth Bear [original emphasis]

Despite this being from a fictional work, it rings very true. My librarian heart was delighted to read an account that acknowledges not just the physical difficulties of dealing with old media—whatever shape that media might take, from cuneiform to CDs—but also the search-related problems. Metadata, or in case of libraries, the information about the items in the collection, doesn’t feature in stories very often. Also, it is why good reasearch librarians and archivists are worth their weight in gold.

Bear, Elizabeth. Machine. London: Saga Press, 2020, p. 203.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Living Vicariously Through Social Media: An Undersea Roundabout in the Faroe Islands

The Faroe Islands—an autonomous region of Denmark—has built bridges and tunnels before to connect the numerous islands or islets and its 50,000-some residents. Never before, however, have they dug an undersea tunnel as deep or as long as the brand-new Eysturoyartunnilin, nor built an undersea roundabout.

Eysturoyartunnil Interior Green

The roundabout is part of a tunnel measuring about 11 km (6.8 miles), the third sub-sea tunnel in the islands. It connects the islands of Streymoy and Eysturoy, and reaches at its deepest 187 meters (roughly 200 yards) below sea level. At this writing the tunnel’s been in use for about a month.

Eysturoyartunnil Map

The roundabout comes with art—sculptures and light effects—designed by the Faroese artist Tróndur Patursson. You can read more about the tunnel at BBC or the P/F Eysturoyar- og Sandoyartunnil project website.

Eysturoyartunnil Interior Blue

Oh, my goodness. It’s obviously not a solution that suits every location, and I assume the cost plus know-how involved can also be a deterrent, but what a feat of engineering and vision it is. This is yet another reason why it’s (pandemic aside) exciting to be living now!

Found via Kristina Háfoss on Twitter.

Images: Map by P/F Eysturoyar- og Sandoyartunnil. Interior images by Estunlar.fo via BBC.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Quotes: We Humans Need Cinema, as a Collective Experience

Director Denis Villeneuve (whom I know from Arrival and Blade Runner 2049) talks about the decision made by Warner Brothers to release their new movies concurrently in theaters plus their streaming platform in an interview with Variety:

“I strongly believe the future of cinema will be on the big screen, no matter what any Wall Street dilettante says. Since the dawn of time, humans have deeply needed communal storytelling experiences. Cinema on the big screen is more than a business, it is an art form that brings people together, celebrating humanity, enhancing our empathy for one another — it’s one of the very last artistic, in-person collective experiences we share as human beings.

“Once the pandemic is over, theaters will be filled again with film lovers.

“That is my strong belief. Not because the movie industry needs it, but because we humans need cinema, as a collective experience.”

This is a hairy situation. I fully agree with Villeneuve in that the theater experience—both movies and traditional plays, not to mention concerts of all varieties—was created with the physical presence of masses in mind, and, indeed, it benefits enormously from our physicality.

Technology has drastically changed how many things can be achieved digitally instead of physically. However, the fact has not changed that we are physical beings and crave physical experiences. There’s nothing quite like being drawn into a story and hearing the crowd around you reacting to it with you. (Think of sports events if you’re a sports fan.)

At the same time, however, I cannot but applaud the decision from an accessibility point of view. Personally, I literally understand and enjoy movies much, much better when I can access subtitling or captioning (and this is before the reduced hearing that’s in my family’s genes has really affected me; subtitles will only get more important for me in the future). And despite the theaters Erik and I usually visited in the Before Times being physically accessible, I have also visited theaters that aren’t, or theaters that have inaccessible bathrooms, or theaters that have bad seating.

Of course, one doesn’t have to have a disability or chronic conditions to enjoy streaming brand new movies. Coming from a large family I know herding kids in and out of theaters isn’t always easy. And there have been times I might have wanted to see a movie, but it would’ve meant slogging back out after a long day, waiting for a bus to take me downtown (or riding my bike in the wind and the rain) and all of it back again afterwards, so instead I stayed comfortably home.

There are a number of ways in which streaming content immediately on release day will benefit ordinary folks of all kind. At the same time, I do hope, most fervently, that movies made for the big screen do not disappear. For me, like for Villeneuve, they’re one of the major cultural features of 20th and 21st centuries.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Video of 14th-Century Techniques of Bridge Building

Here is an interesting animation of how the Charles Bridge in Prague, Czech Republic, was built with 14th century techniques:

Karlův most – Stavba pilíře a klenebního pole ve 14. století by praha-archeologicka.cz on YouTube

3D graphics and postproduction is by Tomáš Musílek, with assists from Ondřej Šefců and Zdeněk Mazač. More information about Charles Bridge can be found at the portal Prague – the City of Archaeology. (Note: most of the site’s content and functionality seems to be in Polish, or link from the English summary to the equivalent full page in Polish.)

I love it how we’re now able to not just model but animate many old or even ancient building projects. It really reveals how far we’ve come and the skills and persistence we have as a species.

Found via File 770.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Glimpse of a Huge Library Offsite Facility

Ever wondered where the really big libraries store their collections? The answer is, increasingly, somewhere else.

Offsite storage sounds cumbersome—after all, you’d have to build, buy, or rent the building, possibly convert the structure, and bring in shelving or other storage containers before you can even think about moving the physical items themselves—but it might actually be the most practical solution, especially in case of old institutions built in high-density urban areas. Also, apart from library science, collections care, digitizing, and preservation, setting up a remote storage facility requires knowledge of logistics and warehousing.

Here’s a chance to peek into the Bodleian Book Storage Facility near Swindon, UK. The BSF holds over 12 million items (books, maps, manuscripts, microfilms, periodicals and newspapers) in a warehouse constructed specifically for the library, and at this writing has been in operation for ten years.

Bodleian describes the facility capacity on their website for completed projects thus:

“The Book Storage Facility consists of an eleven-metre tall solid shelving system comprising 31 Very Narrow Aisles (VNA), with seven different bay type configurations to accommodate the different sizes of books and other materials. It also has a capacity equivalent to 153 miles (230 kilometres) of shelf space and a five level multi-tier structure for map storage. To guarantee the books’ preservation for the long-term, volumes are stored in 745,000 bar-coded and specially designed storage trays and boxes that are of archival standard. Floor area of the warehouse equates to 1.6 football pitches, although the high-density shelving provides shelf surface area equivalent to 16.5 football pitches.”

 

Bodleian BSF Shelving

Below is an excerpt from the post written by Daniel Haynes (haynesd) for the Oxford Libraries Graduate Trainees blog:

“The BSF is huge. Its shelves are 11 metres high and over 70 metres long. Before the automatic lights kick in, the narrow aisles seem to converge into darkness. We wore high-visibility jackets to alert staff driving the book-retrieval vehicles to our presence. A cross between a cherry-picker and a forklift, these vehicles are configured to fit exactly between the shelves, allowing staff to retrieve an impressive average of one book per minute.”

Haynes also lists some of the challenges involved:

“Low-use books kept in storage might suddenly become grow in demand and require relocation ‘on-site’, or vice-versa;

Renovation or building work might require temporary storage (in fact, the BSF currently holds several thousand volumes from Cambridge), so could your facility accommodate for that?

Existing space can always be reconfigured to meet new challenges and needs;

Since an off-site facility means books always moving around, could it also offer research facilities? Some libraries are considering specialised reading rooms to avoid transit for fragile or valuable material.”

As I’ve has to wait for a book to arrive from offsite storage to a library for me, I appreciated this glimpse into the backend operations of large library warehouses.

Image via Oxford Libraries Graduate Trainees blog

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Virtual 3D Tour of the Tomb of Pharaoh Ramesses VI

The Egyptian Tourism Authority has released an amazing virtual 3D tour of the tomb of Pharaoh Ramesses VI. Known as Tomb KV9 or Tomb of Memnon, it’s located in the east Valley of the Kings. Ramesses VI ruled during the 20th dynasty (mid to late 12th century BCE).

Matterport Ramesses VI Tomb KV9 Corridor

There are a couple of different views to play with, plus a highlights tour.

Matterport Ramesses VI Tomb KV9 Dollhouse View

Some modern amenities like wooden walkboards, handrails, and electric lights are visible, but the additions are reasonably unintrusive. You start on floor 3 and make your way down the long ramp to floor 1.

Matterport Ramesses VI Tomb KV9 Burial Chamber

It really is quite breathtaking! The screencaps above can’t really adequately capture the ambience.

Visit the tour for the full experience!

Found via Colossal.

Images: screencaps of the virtual 3D tour via Matterport

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Aiming for Alpha Centauri with Light-driven Nanocraft

Some people say we’re living through a golden age of science fiction and fantasy, and I for one agree. I’d also argue that we’re living through a golden age of science and exploration, especially of space.

Breakthrough Starshot is a new-to-me initiative whose aim is to “demonstrate proof of concept for ultra-fast light-driven nanocrafts, and lay the foundations for a first launch to Alpha Centauri within the next generation.”

Breakthrough Starshot Light-driven Art image3

Alpha Centauri would be reachable within a reasonable timeframe if unmanned space flight could reach 20 % of the speed of light. Ultra-light craft with solar sails could, they calculate, reach and fly by the system in just over 20 years.

The Breakthrough Initiatives were founded in 2015 by Yuri and Julia Milner to “explore the Universe, seek scientific evidence of life beyond Earth, and encourage public debate from a planetary perspective.”

Judging by their News section, however, Breakthrough Listen—which is “a $100 million program of astronomical observations in search of evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth” directed from UC Berkeley—is currently producing the most interesting results.

The board of Breakthrough Initiatives consists of three people as of this writing: Stephen Hawking, Mark Zuckerberg (yes, of the Facebook reputation), and Yuri Milner (an Israeli-Russian physicist, entrepreneur, and capitalist).

I must say that the initiative sounded more exciting to me prior to checking who the board are. Then again, who knows—after all, SpaceX has had its share of successes despite having essentially started as a millionnaire pet project. At least the Breakthrough Listen data is supposed to be open to the public.

Found via Helsingin Sanomat (NB. Finnish only).

This post has been edited for clarity.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Video Compilation of Roving on Mars

A new Mars video is out, and it’s incredibly beautiful. The compilation was created on the basis of images captured by three Mars rovers. The imagery was turned into a 10-minute video with amazing detail.

Yoinked from the description by ElderFox Documentaries on YouTube:

“A world first. New footage from Mars rendered in stunning 4K resolution. We also talk about the cameras on board the Martian rovers and how we made the video.

“The cameras on board the rovers were the height of technology when the respective missions launched.”

New: Mars in 4K by ElderFox Documentaries on YouTube

It’s amazing enough to think that we, ugly bags of mostly water, have sent probes into the far reaches of our solar system to capture high-definition photos and send them back. Now we also have rovers on multiple planetary bodies. (Two counts as multiple in my book, LOL!)

Found via Colossal.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Mars City Test Build Outside Dubai Is in the Plans

At CNN, an article by Poppy Koronka returns to the project launched in 2017 by the United Arab Emirates to colonize Mars within the next 100 years.

To me, though, the real point of interest is that there are now architectural plans for a potential Martian city—and plans to build a test version in the desert outside Dubai.

Bjarke Ingels Group Dubai Exterior Air

Bjarke Ingels Group Dubai Rooftops

Quoting from Koronka’s article:

“Mars Science City was originally earmarked to cover 176,000 square meters of desert — the size of more than 30 football fields — and cost approximately $135 million.

“Intended as a space for Dubai’s Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) to develop the technology needed to colonize Mars, architects Bjarke Ingels Group were asked to design a prototype of a city suitable for sustaining life on Mars — and then adapt it for use in the Emirati desert.”

 

Bjarke Ingels Group Mars Features

Bjarke Ingels Group Hybrid Building Method

The materials available online are surprisingly extensive; if interested, I definitely encourage you visit the Bjarke Ingels Group website to read further.

Bjarke Ingels Group Dubai Outdoors

I can’t say I routinely follow the Mars research; mostly I just read whatever happens to come my way, so plans this advanced were a surprise to me. Very impressive!

Found via File 770.

Images by Bjarke Ingels Group

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Disruptive Technology: Iron

These days, every new decade seems to bring a new technology that totally upends the way we live our lives, but the ability of new technologies to disrupt societal structures is not new. Many times in history, the development or introduction of a new technology had far-reaching effects on how people lived their lives. One such technology is iron. The development of iron for military purposes—to make stronger weapons and tougher armor—led to plenty of disruption, but iron could have powerful effects even when used for peaceful and mundane purposes.

One place we can see an example of iron’s effect on society is in southern Scandinavia. The Iron Age began in Denmark around 500 BCE. The changes that came as a result can be seen throughout much of northern Europe, but they have been particularly well studied in Denmark.

Southwestern Denmark is rich in deposits of bog iron, a form of iron ore that is comparatively easy to extract and process. Iron was soon put to use to produce stronger swords, axes, and spearheads, but it was also used to make sturdy blades for agricultural tools such as sickles, scythes, and pruning knives.

The introduction of iron-bladed tools made possible a dramatic change in the agrarian economy. Earlier flint or bronze tools could not hold a cutting edge well enough to effectively cut large quantities of hay or twigs to be stored as fodder for cattle. Accordingly, cattle could only be kept in relatively small numbers to avoid overgrazing the sparse vegetation available through the winter. With iron tools, winter fodder could be cut, dried, and stored in quantity for the winter, allowing large herds of cattle to be kept in denser concentrations. These cattle provided meat and milk as a food source in addition to the grain people were already growing.

Cattle also produce something else: manure. Manure is a rich source of nitrogen for fertilizing fields. With larger herds of cattle producing more manure, exhausted fields could be refertilized without a long period of lying fallow, which increased grain production.

Keeping larger herds of cattle significantly increased the available supply of food, which allowed for population growth. It also, however, changed social relations. Before iron, individual families largely tended their own fields and kept small herds of cattle, producing only enough for their own subsistence. There was little social differentiation between one family and the next because everyone did essentially the same work and there weren’t many opportunities to get richer than your neighbors. With iron came larger cattle herds, which meant that some people had to do the dirty scut work of cutting hay and mucking out stalls, while those who owned the cattle enjoyed extra food to use for trade or creating new social connections through the giving of expensive gifts. The archaeological evidence from Iron Age settlements in Denmark shows a process of social differentiation, as some families consolidated their economic power and rose to the top while others became dependent workers supporting the new elite.

The availability of economic surplus in the form of grain, cattle, and trade goods also meant that raiding nearby settlements could now be a profitable way of life for those strong enough to get away with it, and so the new cattle-owning elite soon also put iron to work to equip themselves for defense or to launch raids of their own. The agricultural elite became in time a military elite, with farming duties largely handed off to dependent workers. In time, this military elite consolidated its power enough to found royal dynasties commanding wide swaths of land and conducting raiding activities far from home.

These changes did not happen quickly. Unlike the effects of electricity, automobiles, and the Internet in the modern world, the effects of iron in ancient Denmark played out over centuries. The changes came slowly enough that, in lived experience, they probably did not seem all that disruptive. Looking back with the perspective of archaeology and history, though, we can see what enormous social transformations can be traced back to the introduction of stronger tools made of iron.

The most disruptive technologies don’t always come from the sources you expect, nor can we always predict the long-term effects of what seem like simple changes. These observations may seem very modern to us, but they were as true in the past as they are today.

Image: Raw bog iron, photograph by Tomasz Kruan via Wikimedia

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.