Digital

When societies shift, they move real quick.

When I was a kid there was plenty of horse and cart traffic (er… mainly donkeys, to tell the truth) on the rural roads of Southern Europe; I’m typing (not writing) this on a laptop; it uses wifi to dial a hotline to the cloud (not sure which one, the sky’s pretty thick with them right now); I’ll review the text on my phone or on a tablet at some point today for a final (in)sanity check.

These four points all illustrate paradigm shifts in society. The donkey carts are all but gone, although if you travel east of Tavira, or al-Tabira, that most Moorish of Portuguese towns, headed for SW Andalucia on one of the smaller roads, you’ll see them still. In 1886, Benz kick-started (sorry) the motor car era, although I was amazed to find how far back the story goes—to al-Jazari, in 1206, in my opinion, since it’s the first documented conversion of rotary movement into linear reciprocating motion. Gosh, that’s a heavy start to the new year—basically it’s like converting taichi to boxing.

Okay, a car works the other way round, it’s the linear movement of the pistons that becomes rotary motion of the wheels, but what the hell, nice try for the XIIIth century.

By 1908, twenty-two years after Benz, the first Model T came out. Henry Ford famously announced ‘you can have any color as long as it’s black.’ He proceeded to sell fifteen million cars in almost as many years. The indirect employment multipliers, as economists describe them, were gigantic: roads, gas stations, motels, car radios, traffic cops, backseat drivers, drive-ins… Oh, and as positive externalities, making out at the drive-in, of course.

The Antikythera mechanism, a computer from two thousand years ago.

Computers have also been knocking around for a while. But the first laptops that didn’t require weight-training are only twenty years old. Wifi goes back a decade or so, and is now so prevalent in the developed world that new devices rarely have an ethernet port. Soon, LAN ports will go to the same digital graveyard as floppy disks, PCMCIA, and serial cables.

Clouds and tablets are the state-of-the-art. Software, described back in the 1980’s as ‘the magic inside the machine’ is also pulverized: some on your tablet, other bits up in the cloud servers—yes, your iPad does perform cumulonimbus on a regular basis. When it doesn’t it’s busy shafting your privacy with the NSA.

It’s a rare privilege to have lived all this, and I feel blessed. If you’re reading me, you’ve done it all too. Maybe you’re in the U.S. and you missed the donkey bit, or perhaps things are still a little sunnier round where you are and the lack of clouds means your machine is still a little more autistic.

Consider the everpresent trade-off between space and time, illustrated by the ban on child marriages in Europe and the flourishing early-teen sex trade in SE Asia.

Queres ser meu padrinho?‘ ‘Will you be my godfather?’ a (far too) young black girl asks a fat middle-aged white guy in Mozambique. They’re known as the ‘catorzinhas’, the fourteenies—that’s desperation.

Umpteen generations saw no change in lifestyle. We’re talking two or three hundred years straight. Or trade it for space. For generations in Africa and Asia, these paradigm shifts have gone unnoticed. Shots of Dacca this morning show rickshaws, animals, people desperate to make a living, violence instead of elections—not a smartphone in sight.

But heady change is afoot: books are becoming digital minotaurs: part class, part cloud. A book becomes a living thing when it can link the reader to content that streams live from the seventh heaven, or just plain embed the stream. From 2014 onward, I’ve decided to put content straight into the text; I’d resisted that because I know if the movie’s there, you’ll click.

I wanted you to perhaps read through, and maybe stroll back and click. My posts need time, and hopefully provoke thought—by Twitter standards, you’re reading War and Peace, but then I don’t write for twits. Now I figure it enriches the experience, and it’s on the same page, so I was just being a control freak.

Unless you’re on a TV channel site, you don’t get much with your embedded video by way of explanation. If you delve into the Kindle 2013 guidelines, since Kindle is the gold standard for digital literature, section 6.2 reads:

6.2 Streaming Video
Streaming video is not supported at this time. Use embedded video instead.

which means you can embed movie files you possess, but can’t stream from YouTube. The same applies to audio. This isn’t a tech issue, because Amazon’s tablet or Kindle software for Android or IOS are busy clacking (my new 2014 contraction for cloud-yacking), and I suspect that the revenue stream is the issue.

Someone needs to work out how Amazon and Google can make money out of streamed video stuck in a book. But blogs are doing a good job of becoming true e-books, and I want to be a part of that.

So let’s wrap up with some historical and digital fusion. If you read a comment to last week’s post, you’ll have seen a digital map of the world ocean, collated by a guy who specializes in wierd maps—he’s responsible for a map of the fifty states mirrored on the gdp of different nations—I found it interesting enough to include in a previous post.

This time, he maps the world using the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s COADS database. A collection of logged positions (latitude and longitude) from US shipping logbooks from the XVIIIth to the mid-XIXth centuries, i.e. in the age of sail, was plotted on a world map.

This is a precious database. Why? Because it’s the only period in world history where reliable measurements of longitude overlapped with global wind-driven maritime commerce. The denser the shipping traffic, the darker the colors on this grey-scale map. Continents are white, but the black lines that delimit them are drawn not by land, but by coastal navigation.

But far more interesting than that are the major maritime routes. Although the article is partly focused on the Pacific, the really cool part is the Atlantic, and particularly the South Atlantic, the stomping ground of Vasco da Gama himself.

Frank Jacobs writes in his text:

The centre of gravity for global maritime commerce clearly is the east coast of North America (3). Three thick bundles of traffic, each composed of countless individual ocean crossings, converge on the continent’s eastern seaboard. The northernmost one traverses the North Atlantic to reach the busy ports of Britain. The southernmost one aims straight for Brazil’s eastern cape (4). The middle one, an apparently somewhat less focused bundle, is directed at northwest Africa before changing its mind halfway across the ocean, and bending south.

But that’s not what’s going on here at all, not the southern part, anyhow. The ‘middle one,’ is not ‘changing it’s mind’, it’s following what the Portuguese discovered in the late XVth century. Before we go on, there’s two ways of measuring ocean currents: one tracks the water’s movement: it’s called the Lagrangian approach; the second—the Eulerian method—measures flow at a fixed point.

In this case, the logbooks record position, date, and time, so they’re tracking movement—not just of currents, but also wind. In fact, the vessel’s position results from a combination of wind, current, and seamanship.

U.S. shipping is  sailing the westerlies to the Azores, then the Canaries current to Guinea. Like Gama, they head west, and use the South Equatorial Current to set course for Brazil. Why? Because they don’t want to repeat the hardships of Bartolomeu Dias, hammered by the north-flowing Benguela current and the SE trades when sailing down Angola and Namibia to the Cape of Good Hope.

The Golfão, the circular route to India, animated from ships’ logs going back two hundred years.

This animation of sailing traffic takes the dates into account, so it represents what oceanographers call a Lagrangian tracer model. It’s (almost) as if we were throwing bottles into the sea and tracking their movement—and that sort of experiment goes on all the time these days, using gliders.

It becomes clear that the American vessels split midway down South America, some of them headed for the Magellan Straits, which just happen to be named after a Portuguese captain called Fernão de Magalhães—remember the Panama Canal was only completed in 1914. Those ships round Cape Horn and head for the Pacific.

The rest of the vessels are following the teaclipper route to the East. They use the Roaring Forties to get to the Cape, and then sail across the Indian Ocean.

The big diagonal line in the Atlantic? That’s the road home.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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