Day 118: What we learned from 5 million books

How do we maximise our broader knowledge of the world? Reading has always been a popular tool, however most people read some things slowly, getting to know their particular content well while missing out on the bigger picture outside. What if you could search for words and ideas across a broad spectrum of all the books ever written? In this talk, Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden show how this can be done using Google Ngram.
Google have recently digitised 15 million books, or 12% of the total books ever written. When Google digitise a book, they put it into a usable format providing data as well as metadata. There are obviously huge legal implications involved when a book is released in full format. For this reason, Michel and Aiden decided to release statistics. They can search for specific words and phrases across all of the books, giving a table of two billion lines which provides a picture of how culture has been changing.
Using the NGram program to look up a word such as influenza will produce a graph by which one can gauge the points at which there was an epidemic. Very strong signals, where a name is mentioned in rapidly increasing or decreasing frequency, lead us to the conclusion that the person in question has been the subject of propaganda or suppression.
This study is termed culturomics- the application of massive scale data analysis to the study of human culture.
So who wants to use the n-gram program? Well, it turns out over a million people did on the first day. It can be used for all kinds of projects, ultimately transforming our understanding of our past and present.


Day 117: Wade Davis; Dreams from endangered cultures.

In his role at the National Geographic, Wade Davis shares the belief that stories can change the world. In this moving and beautiful talk, he takes us on a series of journeys through the ethnosphere, merging tales and imagery of some of the world’s most endangered cultures.

When we were born, there were 6000 languages spoken throughout the world. Today, probably about half of those are no longer taught or uttered to babies. With the death of a tribal elder somewhere in the world every two weeks, one wonders how many languages are becoming extinct. Language is an important marker of loss of cultural habits, serving as a vehicle through which the soul of its people becomes intertwined with the material world.

Many still view the loss of indigenous people’s behaviours as a positive change in the development of the world. Davis challenges this notion. Looking back we will view the twenty first century as a time when people sat idly by and watched as people disappeared off the earth. Genocide is universally condemned, yet ethnicide; the death of a group’s way of life, is ignored or even celebrated. Our way of living is just one model of reality of life.

Davis’ stories remind us that there’s something different out there. The stunning mountains of Tibet serve as a crude face over the history of political domination in a land where 6000 sacred monuments were torn apart and it’s people were imprisoned for daring to question the status quo. A young kid from the Andes may view a mountain as an Apu spirit, ready to direct his destiny, giving him a profoundly different viewpoint on it from a child in Montana who sees a mountain as a place to be mined. The Kogi people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Northern Columbia are ruled by a ritual priesthood with an extraordinary training program; the acolytes are taken away from their families at the age of three or four and sequestered in completely dark stone huts at the base of a glacier for eighteen years. After this time, they witness their first sunrise rolling over the hills and everything they have learned in abstract is reaffirmed.

Davis’ talk is full of photographs and stories from other groups; the warriors in the Kaisut desert in Northern Kenya, the Penan in the forests of Borneo. He asks the question; do we want to live in a monochromatic, monotonous world? Or how about we look to these indigenous people, nurture their cultures, learn about them and embrace a world of polychromatic possibility.

Day 116: Time saving tech tips

David Pogue is the personal technology columnist for the New York Times and correspondent for CBS news. He also is a leading how- to author, with titles in the For Dummies series and a line of, ‘Missing Manual’ books. Here are his time saving tips which surprisingly, not everybody knows.

On a web page, rather than using the mouse, hit the space bar to scroll down, shift key to go back up again

When filling out an address, use the tab key to go between boxes.
You can also type the first letter of your state repeatedly when there’s a drop down menu.

To make text on a webpage bigger, press ++ while holding control key.

On a smartphone, press the space bar twice to end a sentence with a full stop.

On all phones if u want to redial somebody hit the call button and the number appears on screen.

Mobile phone carriers also have a key which will allow you to skip the voicemail instructions. This is usually a * or #.

Don’t click on a search result in google for a dictionary, flight or unit conversion. Type the word, flight number or units into the search box and the answer comes up at the start.

Double click a word to highlight it. Instead of deleting, just type over it.

On any camera, to eliminate shutter lag completely- half press the shutter button to pre focus.

If you’re giving a presentation and the audience are paying more attention to your slides, pressing the b key will blackout the slide, while W causes a whiteout.

Day 115: Jane Goodall- What separates us from chimpanzees?

Jane Goodall introduces her conversation about chimpanzees in the way she does most talks; with their greeting. The legendary conservationist began to study man’s closest relative in Gombe, Tanzania in 1960, learning more than anybody before about the apes.
Study of the chimps has evolved since Goodall began.Now we can look at deforestation using satellite imagery, study baby chimps’ DNA to work out their parentage and watch a 28 year old captive chimp work a computer.
Some of Goodall’s own most groundbreaking research included learning that chimps use tools. In Gombe alone, they have 9 different tools for various purposes. Like humans, they have a long childhood; five years of suckling with their mother, followed by a period of growth when they are allowed to make adolescent mistakes. They kiss, embrace and pat each other on the back.
But chimps are disappearing at a fast rate, mostly due to activities of man. This is yet another story resulting from our destructive actions on the planet. When she realised this, Goodall set up the program, ‘Roots and Shoots’ in Tanzania, with the aim of educating children that everyone can make a difference. We are the ones to do it. Buying ethical produce, leaving the lightest possible footprints and talking about the problems of the world can lead to positive change.

Day 114: More masterpieces by Poet Rives

After yesterday’s beautiful conspiracy theory about the 4am mystery, a TED talk search revealed Poet Rives has entertained TED crowds in bite size blocks on three other occasions. Here they are.
In, ‘Reinventing the Encyclopedia Game,’ Rives reacts to the discontinuation of the printed Encyclopeia Britannica line by trying to reinvent a childhood game using an Internet Encyclopedia, Wikipedia. The rule of the game is to read an article until you find something you don’t already know and preferably something your Dad also doesn’t. Over the course of 6 minutes, Rives recounts how he started on Earth, which led to him looking up the tropics, rainforests, beetles, aphrodisiacs, cave paintings, Yuri Gagarin and more en route back to his return to the ‘earth’ page.
In, ‘A story of mixed emotions,’ Rives tells a typographical fairytale using slides which feature commonly used icons from 🙂 to <3.
Finally, Rives manages to cram EBay, Amazon and Friendster into one three minute long poem that is, 'If I controlled the Internet.' Examples of his control fantasies include Map questing your lover's mood swings and emailing dead people. Maybe google will hire him one day to zip through servers and firewalls and take charge.

Day 113: Rives on 4 a.m.

What is it that makes 4 in the morning shorthand for the worst time to be awake? It’s a time when accidents happen, Bill Clinton’s inauguration speech came together and musicians such as Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon had their hearts broken in some manner. Homer Simpson has imagined 4 am on Jesus’ birthday as the most remote moment in the calendar. A google search of ‘four in the morning’ yields two songs and a 1965 film featuring Judi Dench on the first page.
According to Poet Rives, 4 in the morning became a mystical time when Alberto Giacometti created the first known surrealist sculpture, ‘Palace at four in the morning.’ The year was 1932 and Rives spins a story using music, imagery and some interesting facts to link Giacometti to the Nobel Prize, Judi Dench and Frank Sinatra, amongst others.
TED calls this, ‘lyrical origami.’ Rives storytelling needs more than a flat page; this talk is intelligent, funny and at times far fetched, but well worth watching.

Day 112: Txting is killing language. Jk!!

Do you think language has gone downhill since we started to text and email? What if you looked at this talk and saw that for centuries scholars have bemoaned the state of literacy and language in students and the general public? In this talk, linguist John McWhorter argues that texting is an advanced form of communication.
Look at some of history’s famous speeches. In the days of Lincoln, people spoke how they wrote. According to McWhorter, this is unlikely to be conducive to modern relationships. Instead of being viewed as writing, texting should be seen as casual speech. The ability to utilise this new form of communication could be viewed as almost bilingual, says McWhorter, bringing to mind all the researched cognitive benefits of holding two languages.
Texting has created many nuances of new language. One convention is ‘LOL’. Once thought to solely mean, ‘laugh out loud,’ it’s now used regularly as an empathetic tool. Similar phrases in spoken language include, ‘Yo.’ These are called pragmatic particles. The word or symbol for ‘slash’ is frequently used to change the topic in text, it being impossible in this medium to scratch one’s head and yawn. And don’t get McWhorter started on ‘Haha,’ apparently a thesis all on its own.
Texting is here to stay, and McWhorter is definitely on the side of the mobile phone. If he could time travel to 2030, it would be to see how the teens communicate with their thumbs.