Big History

For the last few months, huge machines have been touring our neighborhood at a snail’s pace, replacing first sewage and now fresh water pipes. This massive and noisy monster worked its way down our street the other day, shaking the house, and emitting vibrations I could feel in my bones. Either that, or historian David Christian’s 2004 Maps of Time, about what he calls Big History, is more monumental than I thought!

For several excellent reasons, I recommend this volume over anything by that Diamond guy. Christian says his book is a modern creation myth (pg. 2), and I’d say it’s more, more scientific and fairly comprehensive, and lacking in the huge contradictions that often stud creation myths, although the Big History tag seems more commercial and like a marketing gimmick than I prefer….


Our fall rainy season had arrived even before the outer bands of the Ernesto storm (depression?), inducing many fungi spores to burgeon. Yea, ’shrooms!

Recommended reading

One of Atlanta’s many nicknames is Gate City, as in the gates to a better life (with Biblical overtones to many ears, I’m sure), and Rebecca chose to refer to that name in the title of—ta-dah!—her new book, Rage in the Gate City, available at your local independent bookseller, and, of course, from Amazon.

The book’s coming out party was tonight, at the Margaret Mitchell house (where she lived in an apartment when she authored GWTW—it’s rarely written out in these parts), in Midtown Atlanta. Rebecca’s book is about riots—lynchings and beatings and other violations of civil rights—committed against Blacks in Atlanta by Whites in late summer and fall 1906. R tells of the horrors with the deft hand of a seasoned journalist, and will be in the forefront, along with many others, in events scheduled to commemorate and remind us of the poison of divisiveness we humans can be so deft at generating (viz. current events in southwest Asia, southeast Asia, portions of Africa and South America, hrrumph).

Automotive miscellany

Fremont troll, Seattle.

How did I miss this story, out since Tuesday!

A car built by JCB has broken the diesel engine land speed record after reaching 328.767mph (529km/h).

And here I thought jcb was downstairs designing books and studying Python! Hrrrrrumph! Live and learn!

Ah, statistics…

Here’s another Michigan park, Fayette.

Here’re US home values, adjusted for inflation over time, in a graph from the NY Times meant to to indicate that since the late ’90s, they’ve risen precipitously. But, in Tufte-eque terms, this is misleading. While strictly speaking, the plot is probably correct, what it’s meant to convey—that we’re in a huge real estate bubble—would be attenuated if these data were plotted against household income or something similar. In other words, the cost of a home is one thing, but the dent it makes in the household income is something different. Also, if you took out one or a very few markets (e.g., NY itself), I suspect the average home cost over the last few years, and even previously in the century, might not have increased so dramatically….

BTW, can we consider these kinds of statistics just a window in time, for better or worse?

Ticketing details

Kitch-iti-kipi, the Big Spring, near Manistique, Michigan.

This could be subtitled: versions of a not-memorable ditty…or, ticketing in the old days….

A dog is a dog and a cat is a dog, and a squirrel in a cage is a parrot, but a tortoise, he’s a hinsect, so he rides free.

I heard this long ago, and vaguely remember it referred to ticket costs when riding? what, a train? a bus?, but nothing more.

Now, buried in the on-line correspondence in the New York Review of Books is this, attributed to Freeman Dyson:

When I was a boy in England long ago, people who traveled on trains with dogs had to pay for a dog ticket. The question arose whether I needed to buy a dog ticket when I was traveling with a tortoise. The conductor on the train gave me the answer: “Cats is dogs and rabbits is dogs but tortoises is insects and travel free according.�?

And this, from a 1869 Punch cartoon caption of a railway porter advising a woman traveling with her no-doubt beloved animals:


…both from Nicholas Humphrey, resident of Cambridge, England.

Well, this is as far as I can go; maybe someone knows more of the story, or how this came into folk memory (a quick Google turns up nothing)…. Certainly, classification has deep human roots….

Coffee fungi

I wish. This is from the archives….

It’s all in a word. Pluto is still as much or as little as it was yesterday, last week, and when it was identified decades ago. Science is evaluative and reevaluative. It also strives to be consistent. So, Pluto hasn’t changed; merely our terminology has. As a result, those of us who normally keep some distance from astronomical issues, have learned more about the complexity of way out there. This is perhaps the best poor Pluto can offer us layfolk at this point, and it’s not trivial….

Ok, if that doesn’t satisfy you, maybe this will: to make your coffee taste like you expect it to taste, although “the characteristics of the bean partly determine taste and aroma, naturally occurring fungi also put the zing in your favourite brew.�? (from Judy Skatssoon and ABC Science Online, via News in Science). Also, different places/regions have different fungi, helping give their beans distinctive flavors. (Many of you are aware that I must be tongue in cheek including this, as I “quit�? coffee years ago, much to my spouse’s dismay.)

So, Pluto is/is not whatever you want to believe (including “it’s a planet�?), and remember that fungus is your friend (sometimes).

Website graph

Today it is the rage to use this to make a graphic version of the links on your web page. Mine’s above and here’s ababsurdo’s.

I wonder if the recipes are the little grey bunch at the bottom…?

And don’t ask me what tag clouds are….

Current events

I encountered way too many big egos today when reading my current events. Bin Laden (as told by Christiane Amanpour and CNN). Bushie at that over-long, over-chatty press conference, then again with the Katrina-“trailer�? guy. Sumner Redstone and Tom Cruise.

The picture? New store coming to our neighborhood. Joe’s ego size: unknown….

Hierarchy, graphically

One thing I’m grappling with these days is how to graphically portray scale and time. It’s a gnarly problem. Here, Alain Pavé shows overlapping scales of interactions for entities ranging from teeny things smaller than genomes to ecosystems and biospheres, all wrapped up in a single package, that at least on first blush, looks accurate. (Just how small are the smallest organisms anyway?)

Obviously, using two axes is an obvious solution (time on y and scale on x). I’m pondering adding a z axis, with a third variable (e.g., another kind of scale, for example size in extent—hectares—vs population). Hurts my head to try and actually generate that figure, however.

Fortunately, my bright, wise hubby, the Genius Wizard, has just purchased the latest Edward Tufte, so a guide is at hand….

* Pavé, Alain. 2006. “Biological and Ecological Systems Hierarchical Organization,” in Hierarchy in Natural and Social Sciences. Edited by Denise Pumain, pp. 39–70. Dordrecht: Springer. Figure 2, page 48.