Betsy Devine: Funny ha-ha and/or funny peculiar

Making trouble today for a better tomorrow…

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Entries Tagged as 'everythingismiscellaneous'

“I don’t know where I’m going to be on July 11”

June 30th, 2015 · Comments Off on “I don’t know where I’m going to be on July 11”

When I was a little girl, a sentence like this would have made no sense to anyone in my family. We all knew exactly where we were going to be, just about every day–waking up in our own bedrooms in our own house with our own family all around us.

My sister and brothers and I also knew, just about any day in the future, what we would be doing. Each day moved through a series of stylized programs almost as predictable as (later on in my childhood) a TV schedule. Getting up. Getting clean. Getting dressed. Getting breakfast (mostly bacon plus eggs in various shapes.) A lot of this “getting” by children and my father was the result of “giving” and “doing” by my mother, something we never thought about then, when it was happening.

Today, Frank and I live in such a different world. We’re not little children, or parents of little children, so our lives are full of enormously varied choices, many quite appealing. Our friendship groups link us to time zones around the world, so Skype meetings get scheduled via with friends in China online at 11 p.m., friends in Boston online at 11 a.m., while here in Sweden we’re in the middle at 5 p.m.

We just spent a month living in a hotel in Sweden, where having a private meal by ourselves requires more work than just going out to a restaurant. Our summer is going to be similarly peculiar, because Frank has a new book coming out July 14 (A Beautiful Question, wonderful book if I say so myself.)

The quote that gave me a title from this blogpost is from a friend who is similarly location-challenged… but who DOES know where he will be on July 9, viz. “On July 9, I’ll be stuck in JFK airport for 5 hours, so that would be a good time for a Skype conversation.” How astounded my childhood self would have been by such dislocations!

Our grown-up rootlessness, our freedom to travel and adventure, is both sweet and bitter. It is sweet because our freedom comes not only from financial and personal privilege, but also from a sense that whenever Frank and I are somewhere together, we’re safe inside “family.” (This wouldn’t work, of course, if we weren’t confident that a few weeks will bring us back into connection with actual family back home.)

It is bitter because for us both, the “home” where we set our roots back in our childhoods… those homes are gone. The jolly family dinners that seemed so eternal as they repeated year after year… the houses of grandparents, aunts, uncles, multiple feisty cousins, almost as familiar as our own childhood bedrooms… if we could even find those houses now, strangers live there.

So, I also don’t know where I’ll be on July 11. Sometimes, I’m not even really sure where I am right this very moment.

Tags: everythingismiscellaneous · Go go go · Life, the universe, and everything · My Back Pages · Sweden · Travel · Wide wonderful world

Ox. docs shocks!

May 2nd, 2008 · 3 Comments

galaxyM101: Messier 101 spiral galaxy from Hubble telescope

Galaxy Zoo is the project of some Oxford astrophysicists trying to classify millions of never-before-seen-by-human-eyes stellar objects that big computers have photographed.* It turns out that human beings are much better at doing these classifications than computers are. It also turns out that people all over the world enjoy doing this via the internet. (Insert words like “Web 2.0” and “social networking.”)

Now learned Oxonians are trying to make it official that the name of one recently discovered object (maybe the first-ever echo from a long-dead quasar) should be “Hanny’s Voorwerp.” Why? Because this object was first seen and asked about by a young Dutch schoolteacher named Hanny, one of Galaxy Zoo’s many enthusiastic amateurs. “Voorwerp” means “object” in Dutch. After Hanny flagged this unusual blob, Oxford astrophysicists used their connections to get other astronomers around the world to start taking closer looks at this bit of the sky.

That’s just one of many surprises from the Galaxy Zoo collaboration, including an odd discovery in neurology aptly summed up as “People are screwed up, not the universe.”

Hanny will be visiting Oxford this weekend, and I’m guessing the Oxford guys show her a very good time.

* Everything in the universe is “Miscellaneous”–until somebody steps in to tag it with real information.

Tags: England · everythingismiscellaneous · Science

Good and bad of outsourcing to “miscellaneous”

July 18th, 2007 · 2 Comments

Crowdsourcing” is the brand-newest bizbuzzword–replacing its much unloved sibling “user-generated content.” Is it the best thing since build-your-own-sundaes–or a sinister cult that threatens civilization?

Well, any bizbuzzword is born to be treated in soundbites, and I’ve got one for you–thanks to Jay Rosen (whom I met at the 2003 (first) BloggerCon) just posted one that has real information content, quoting James Surowiecki:

…collective wisdom is a good way of coming up with an answer when there is a right or wrong answer (in a kind of Platonic sense)…
I’m not sure, though, that the same can be said about a question like: Which movie is better? There may be no Platonic truth of aesthetics…

So crowdsourcing might be good for some things, not so good for others? Bzzt–I don’t think that answer’s going to please either camp.

Bonus miscellanea–One of many favorite David Weinberger quotes, from Bloggercon 2003 years before Everything is Miscellaneous: “Is it the opinion of the panel that weblogging is a life skill, and everyone should learn it? Or is it like singing, that not everybody should do it in public?”

Tags: everythingismiscellaneous

“God created but Linnaeus organised”

May 20th, 2007 · Comments Off on “God created but Linnaeus organised”

Linnés Hammarby

Originally uploaded by pk01.

On May 23, Sweden says happy 300th birthday to the scientist just quoted–the not-very-modest Carolus Linnaeus.

The bright-red cabinet shown is Linnaeus’s “hard disk,” quips its photographer. Linnaeus’s claim to fame was his simple method for organizing the vast confusion of plant and animal species, using two-part scientific names. One giant step for Homo sapiens!

One could do the math (though I won’t) comparing the complexity of all those genomes to the number of infobits on the Internet. David Weinberger’s new book Everything is Miscellaneous makes a compelling case that we Web 2.0 folk are creating value as each of us mini-adds our own tags, playlists, and hyperlinks to that vast digital pileup of miscellanity.

David says that Linnaeus’s reliance on paper to organize his thoughts fell far short of the tricks computers can do with pixels and bits. Very true–and yet, no matter how smart computers become, there’s still an important role for human beings in finding some simple thread through the world’s vast labyrinth and putting that thread in the hand of a fellow seeker.

As Weinberger himself does — and as Linnaeus did.

Tags: everythingismiscellaneous · Metablogging · Science

Dirty old math books hold clue to dirty elections

May 13th, 2007 · Comments Off on Dirty old math books hold clue to dirty elections

Here’s a fun science mystery with surprising ways to catch bad guys and metadata flavor–which makes it hard to know where to begin this blogpost…

Bad guys are juicy–suppose that you’re a bad guy. Suppose you want to fake bookkeeping data or election results. Well, bwa-ha-ha, bad guy, you’re going to leave a mathematical “bad-guys-R-us” slimy trail–because fake random numbers like yours don’t obey Benford’s Law. Real ones do.

Benford’s Law describes–oddly, nobody understands why–many if not most huge collections of numbers.* Baseball statistics, lengths of rivers, areas of counties. Half-lives of radioactive isotopes. And vote counts, when those vote counts aren’t tampered with.

Big numbers have nine choices for their first digit–1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9. Right? So you’d expect that one-ninth of all big numbers would start with each of those digits.

Bzzzt, wrong! Almost 1/3 of Benford-law-following numbers start with 1–just for example. Graph--first digits in big collections of numbers--almost 1/3 have first digit 1Naive human fraudsters, on the other hand, create fake numbers that mostly start with 5 or 6–poking their inventions into what they imagine is anonymity’s forgiving middle.

Now for the dirty math books–I knew you were waiting–Benford’s Law was found, independently, in 1881 (Simon Newcomb) and 1938 (Frank Benford). Lisa Zyga at says:

Benford and Newcomb stumbled upon the law in the same way: while flipping through pages of a book of logarithmic tables, they noticed that the pages in the beginning of the book were dirtier than the pages at the end. This meant that their colleagues who shared the library preferred quantities beginning with the number one in their various disciplines…

Yes, dirty library-book pages! Important pre-Google metadata about what people before you found interesting.

Bad guys who created fake election data imagined that they were just creating new data–but Benford’s Law meant they left metadata behind. Forensic teams who want to find election fraud can use Benford’s Law to find out which sets of data have bad guys behind them.

Now, as for you good guys, for deeper insight into metadata, I recommend David Weinberger’s new book, Everything is Miscellanous. Meanwhile, for you bad guys, one message of both David Weinberger and Frank Benford is paraphrased clearly in Matthew 10:26:

…there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known.

Uh-oh. And I consider my own self a good guy.

* p.s. Not all data sets follow Benford’s Law. Both Wikipedia and Zyga give counter-examples, such as (to quote Zyga) “data sets that are arbitrary and contain restrictions..For example, lottery numbers, telephone numbers, gas prices, dates, and the weights or heights of a group of people.”

Tags: everythingismiscellaneous · funny · Good versus Evil · Science

Warning: this book review may be “miscellaneous”…

May 7th, 2007 · 1 Comment

David Weinberger's book in Betsy Devine's very messy kitchen tool drawer …though that’s a good thing, says David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous — the info-pop page-turner (think Blink or Freakonomics) seen here in my kitchen’s miscellaneous drawer.

What is miscellanous, when we mean that in a good way? Big heaps of information, spread out all over the Internet so that its different bits get tagged by many people for many different reasons. Anything that puts more information into that huge heap of (virtual) mess is good–hyperlinks! playlists! statistics! messy folksonomies! The book (much less miscellanous than this review of it) does a fine job of whacking a much-needed path for a human brain into the hugely intertwingled confusion of modern possiblities for organizing and understanding reality.

Now I must warn you about this book’s bad side-effect. It is full of “aha!” moments that you’ll start quoting to other people. And explaining to them. And since you will probably not explain these ideas with as much humor and clarity as David, their eyes may glaze over when you are just getting warmed up. But will you bear with me for just a few of my favorite bits, just some really short ones?

  • “Information is easy. Space, time, and atoms are hard.” p. 5
  • “Discovering what you want is at least as important as finding what you know you want.” p.9
  • “Metadata is what you already know and data is what you’re trying to find.” p. 104
  • “Printing requires documents to be declared to be finished at some point.” p. 145
  • “Humans have purposes because we have needs because we’re not gods.” p 170

But even if your friends will stand still for your explanation of David’s “Three orders of order,” they will probably run when you threaten to read to them out loud the quotes and anecdotes that make the book so lively. Really, just tell your friends to go buy their own copies.

Disclosure–I am a blogfriend of David Weinberger, and his publisher sent me a free review copy. But I’ve also blog-argued with David about some of his other writings, so I think you can consider my praise for this book as sincere. Especially since David is such a sweet guy that he even links to the only bad review that I think his book’s gotten.

Tags: everythingismiscellaneous · Wide wonderful world · wikipedia

Miscellanous is good–even more so delivered locally and in Powerpoint!

April 30th, 2007 · Comments Off on Miscellanous is good–even more so delivered locally and in Powerpoint!

David Weinberger about to wow crowds with his talk at Wikimania 2006

Originally uploaded by betsythedevine.

Get ready to give it up for recidivist author David Weinberger, about to start book-touring his latest brainstorm, Everything is Miscellaneous.

And tonight (Monday, April 30, 2007) at 6 p.m. in Harvard’s Pound Hall, he’ll no doubt be wowing a crowd that includes all the folks I could drag to go watch one of Planet Earth’s best talk presenters. And you should go too–even imagining (which I find hard to imagine) that your work or play has nothing to do with information or knowledge–if you think that you too might someday get behind a podium.

Disclosure–David Weinberger is a blogfriend and I got a free review copy of the book. Just finished the book last night–I have both good and bad things to say about it–watch this space–but the short news is that it’s full of both fun and clarity, taking apart and putting together the puzzle of how information and understanding intersect from the point of view of lots of fascinating people. A page-turner, one you’ll be yelling at all your friends about and reading quotes from.

Tags: everythingismiscellaneous